In the end, the wartime procurement budget was used for wartime stuff, and not as a back door allowing appropriators to spend a few billion more while still keeping the fiscal 2012 base budget compliant with congressional mandate.

Next up is the 2013 budget, to be sent to Congress next month, which has to make the Pentagon’s first of 10 $45 billion steps to achieve cuts totaling nearly $490 billion over a decade.

The Budget Control Act (BCA), passed in August, let stand the well-used budget loophole offered by the wartime budget, formerly known as the supplemental defense spending bill and now called “overseas contingency operations” (OCO). (See chart p. 4.)

Line items and amounts in the 2013 base and OCO procurement request will reveal whether the restraint shown by House-Senate conferees for fiscal 2012 will continue in the face of enforced budget cutting, the specter of sequestration possibly doubling the demanded cuts and the certain protests from industry and members of Congress about this or that program cut.

In the 2012 request, the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper and the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle were in the base budget. In an overt and transparently documented shift, the Senate bill used the OCO budget to free $3 billion from the procurement base, but still buy some big UAVs and ammo. OCO spending is still spending, but doesn’t count against BCA limits.

The Sept. 15 bill did the same with other defense budget toplines, for a total of nearly $10 billion (Aerospace DAILY, Sept. 19, 2011).

House-Senate conferees let $1.5 billion for UAVs remain in OCO, and reversed another $1.5 billion shifted by the Senate, deciding those lines belonged in the base budget.

The benefits are obvious: Allowing the UAV funding to stay in OCO made $1.5 billion available for other base procurement items.

It’s little more than 1%, but it helps. On the OCO end, the move works out to a 15% boost to OCO procurement, and its share of the total procurement pie increases 1.2 percentage points from the request.

At the time of the Senate bill, however, the Stimson Center’s Russell Rumbaugh observed: “Still, the precedent is now set that base costs can seep into war funding.”