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Is the Pentagon padding its budget with funds reserved for fighting overseas?

One particular part of the Defense Department’s massive budget request for fiscal year 2016 is drawing fire this week. The Overseas Contingency Operations section of the budget, which nominally is supposed to cover the costs of fighting overseas wars and counter terrorism operations, calls for spending $7.9 billion on what the Pentagon labels “Investment, Equipment Reset and Readiness.” The money is to be spent on the replacement and repair of equipment and munitions, such as helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, trucks, Hellfire and laser Maverick missiles, according to budget documents released on Monday.

But defense budget watcher Gordon Adams warns that this money is “highly suspect.” Adams was Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. In an email to reporters before the military budget was released, Adams sounded the alarm, writing that the $7.9 billion “looks, smells, and sounds like padding for other stuff. Not Afghanistan.”

In a follow up email to the PBS NewsHour, Gordon wrote that “the base budget is capped by the budget control act. Rather than find offsets in the base budget to pay for the things they want in the base budget, they have moved these things into the OCO budget, even though they are not programs and activities that are a direct result of combat operations in the Middle East, which is what OCO is supposed to be for. In other words, they are increasingly treating OCO as just extra money above the caps.”

When asked at Monday’s defense budget briefing about how this $7.9 billion would be spent, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work acknowledged that it would fund items that one would normally expect to be funded in the base budget. “We’d be the first to say that over the course of the decade or so that we’ve had overseas contingency operations, funding, that too much has crept in to that account on the investment side and the like. And we’re determined to fix that,” Work told reporters.

The Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense Mike McCord defended the practice of using the OCO account to fund investment in new equipment, saying the accounting rules that have been in place since 2009 were being followed and that “there is nothing new here.”

The Obama administration is requesting $585.2 billion in military spending in 2016. This includes $534.3 billion for the base budget plus an additional $50.9 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations. This represents an increase of $24.9 billion or 4 percent over the enacted level of $560.3 billion for fiscal year 2015.