There's controversy already in America regarding the first Obama administration detailed Defense budget plans, announced yesterday. Some are painting the plans as a cuts package, others disagree. What's clear is that the US military's top-secret (or "black") budget is now on the same level as the whole of UK defence spending - and the UK has the second biggest defence budget in the world.
According to veteran black-budget watcher and secret-plane journalist Bill Sweetman, editor of Defense Technology International, the planned black budget for fiscal year 2010 is just over $50bn. That's about £33bn at current rates, a bit less than the total UK defence budget - but only a bit. It wouldn't be inaccurate in money terms to say that one could rank the top few armed forces in the world thus:
1) Mainstream US armed forces $490bn-odd
2) UK armed forces $60bn
3) Chinese armed forces $58bn
4) French armed forces $54bn
5) "Black" US forces $50bn+
6) Japanese Self-Defence forces $44bn
And indeed there's probably more secret US military funding than this. The US government declines to disclose exactly what the CIA's budget is, but both the Agency and other non-military spooks do get money of their own. Some of this is spent on military or quasi-military activities: for example the CIA were heavily involved in development of the famous SR-71 "Blackbird" turbo-ramjet spy plane back in the Cold War, and it was sometimes flown by CIA pilots.
Likewise the CIA is known to have deployed significant numbers of armed "paramilitary" operatives on foreign soil from time to time - sometimes local mercenaries, sometimes US personnel. It's an open secret that the agency has a significant fleet of armed Predator drones which it uses to eliminate people in places like Yemen and Pakistan.
So one could probably add at least a few CIA paramilitary billions to the Defense black budget, putting the US secret forces up in the number three or even two spot. To be sure, much of the secret cash - probably a majority - is nowadays spent building and operating spy satellites, which aren't weapons in a conventional sense.
Even so, that in itself is fairly jaw-dropping. Say $20bn or $30bn for the black space programme, then - and compare that to the entire NASA budget for 2008, at just over $17bn.
However you slice it, America's secret services alone are a fairly high-ranking world power in their own right - and nobody except them (and perhaps a few politicians in Washington) has a good handle on what they're doing. ®