By Libby Lewis (Listen to an audio version of the story here
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hasn't revealed much so far about his department's budget proposal for the next fiscal year. But he has offered a peek at some numbers, like this one: $88.4 billion for war funding.
When he shared that figure last month, a reporter asked: "Given that, a year ago, we had sizable numbers of troops in Iraq, and the numbers are coming down in Afghanistan ... why is it still so high?"
Panetta responded that it's partly due to the high cost of the war in Afghanistan.
The war is expensive, true, but some defense budget experts say there may be also be some defense budget magic going on. It's a magic made possible by two things.
The first is the fact that ever since the United States went to war with Iraq, it has kept separate defense budgets - one for war and one for the rest of defense spending.
And the second is that only one of those budgets is subject to the Budget Control Act, the law that laid out spending cuts to reduce the deficit.
"The military will tell you wars are unpredictable things," said Russell Rumbaugh, a former Army captain and a defense budget expert at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan public policy group that works for international peace and security.
"So to deal with that, Congress exempted war costs from the Budget Control Act. So war costs are basically free money - they're not subject to the (budget) caps."
They're not free, of course - taxpayers still pay for war funding. But there are no limits to what the Pentagon can ask for and receive, if Congress considers those requests separate from regular defense spending.
The budget magic comes from shifting costs from the regular budget, known as the base budget, to the war budget. Poof. Like the magician's coin, it seems to disappear.
When that happens, it's counted as a cut when it's really not.
That budget magic happened last year, the first year of the Budget Control Act.
In the final defense funding bill, a cool $7 billion in spending had moved from the base budget to the war budget.
That move helped the Pentagon meet the limit on its base budget with much less pain.
Some of those billions paid for unmanned drones, including ones not for the wars. Some paid for heavy equipment maintenance, also including non-war items.
Why does it matter? It's all defense spending, after all.
"Well, first of all, it's wrong," said Lawrence Korb, a top Pentagon official during the Reagan administration.
"These are the first wars we've funded through supplementals," he said. "And supplementals - or the war funding - don't get the same scrutiny as the regular budget. And it's supposed to be only for those things that have to be funded for the war."
Things like bullets, vests, armed vehicles and rifles.
But over the past decade, since the United States went to war with Iraq, the war budget has helped to modernize the U.S. military, Rumbaugh said.
He found that almost one out of every four dollars that went to buy new weapons and systems and equipment for the Defense Department came from war funding.
On one hand, Rumbaugh said, it could be argued that any defense dollar is a war dollar, in theory. But he's not sure the public would see it that way. He says Americans have made clear they want to support the troops overseas, but now that support, in the form of the war budget, has gotten muddled with big-ticket items that don't have to do with the war.
"And that opaqueness, that confusion, means sometimes you have Americans supporting that war budget when it's not clear they would support buying the fighter jet that went with that war budget," Rumbaugh said. And, he reiterated, because it's designed as emergency funding for the war, it doesn't get the same oversight.
Korb said the Pentagon has used the war budget to buy tens of billions of dollars in weapons and systems that had nothing to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If I had to guess, I'd guess it's $75 billion worth," he said.
A Pentagon representative said the department won't comment on the budget issue until it releases its proposed budget Monday.
With the threat of automatic cuts hanging over the Pentagon, Korb and Rumbaugh and other budget experts say the temptation will be great to shift more costs into the war budget.
Korb likens it to a shell game. "We're claiming we're cutting," he said, "when we're not."