The Pentagon’s waste and why we should do something about it

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From spending $150 million on private villas for a handful of personnel in Afghanistan to blowing $2.7 billion on an air surveillance balloon that doesn’t work, the latest revelations of waste at the Pentagon are just the most recent howlers in a long line of similar stories stretching back at least five decades. Other hot-off-the-presses examples would include the Army’s purchase of helicopter gears worth $500 each for $8,000 each and the accumulation of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons components that will never be used. And then there’s the one that would have to be everyone’s favorite Pentagon waste story: the spending of $50,000 to investigate the bomb-detecting capabilities of African elephants. (And here’s a shock: they didn’t turn out to be that great!) The elephant research, of course, represents chump change in the Pentagon’s wastage sweepstakes and in the context of its $600-billion-plus budget, but think of it as indicative of the absurd lengths the Department of Defense will go to when what’s at stake is throwing away taxpayer dollars.

The first person to bring widespread public attention to the size and scope of the problem of Pentagon waste was Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force deputy for management systems.  In the late 1960s, he battled that service to bring to light massive cost overruns on Lockheed’s C-5A transport plane.  He risked his job, and was ultimately fired, for uncovering $2 billion in excess expenditures on a plane that was supposed to make the rapid deployment of large quantities of military equipment to Vietnam and other distant conflicts a reality. …

By rewarding Lockheed Martin for its wasteful practices, Congress set a precedent that has never been superseded.  A present-day case in point is—speak of the devil—Lockheed Martin’s F-35 combat aircraft.  At $1.4 trillion in procurement and operating costs over its lifetime, it will be the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon (or anyone else on Planet Earth), and the warning signs are already in: tens of billions of dollars in projected cost overruns and myriad performance problems before the F-35 is even out of its testing phase.  Now the Pentagon wants to rush the plane into production by making a “block buy” of more than 400 planes that will involve little or noaccountability regarding the quality and cost of the final product. Predictably, almost five decades after the C-5A contretemps, Lockheed Martin has deployed an inflationary version of the jobs argument in defense of the F-35, making the wildly exaggerated claim that the plane will produce 125,000 jobs in 46 states.  The company has even created a handy interactive map to show how many jobs the program will allegedly create state by state.  Never mind the fact that weapons spending is the least efficient way to create jobs, lagging far behind investment in housing, education, or infrastructure. …

The most outrageous spending choice of the 1990s was undoubtedly the Clinton administration’s decision to subsidize the mergers of major defense firms.  As Lockheed (yet again!) and Martin Marietta merged, Northrop teamed with Grumman, and Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, the Pentagon provided funding to pay for everything from closing down factories to subsidizing golden parachutes for displaced executives and board members.  At the time, Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders aptly dubbed the process “payoffs for layoffs,” as executives of defense firms received healthy payouts while laid-off workers were largely left to fend for themselves. …

The poster child for waste in the first decade of the twenty-first century was certainly the billions of dollars a privatizing Pentagon handed out to up-armored companies like Halliburton that accompanied the U.S. military into its war zones and engaged in Pentagon-funded base-building and “reconstruction” (aka “nation building”) projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) alone seems to come out with new examples of waste, fraud, and abuse on practically a weekly basisAmong Afghan projects that stood out over the years was a multimillion-dollar “highway to nowhere,” a $43 million gas station in nowhere, a $25 million “state of the art” headquarters for the U.S. military in Helmand Province, with all the usual cost overruns, that no one ever used, and the payment of actual salaries to countless thousands of no ones aptly labeled “ghost soldiers.” And that’s just to begin enumerating along, long list. Last year, Pro Publica created an invaluable interactive graphic detailing $17 billion in wasteful spending uncovered by SIGAR, complete with information on what that money could have purchased if it had been used productively. …

Call it irony or call it symptomatic of a successful way of life, but a recent analysis by the Project on Government Oversight notes that the Pentagon has so far spent roughly $6 billion on “fixing” the audit problem—with no solution in sight.

If anything, in recent years the Pentagon’s accounting practices have been getting worse.  Among the many offenses to any reasonable accounting sensibility, perhaps the most striking has been the way the war budget—known in Pentagonese as the Overseas Contingency Operations account—has been used as a slush fund to pay for tens of billions of dollars of items that have nothing to do with fighting wars. …

If the Pentagon has its way, nuclear weapons will get their very own slush fund as well. For years, the submarine lobby floated the idea of a separate Sea-Based Deterrence Fund (outside of the Navy’s regular shipbuilding budget) to pay for ballistic missile-firing submarines. Congress has signed off on this idea, and now there are calls for a nuclear deterrent fund that would give special budgetary treatment to bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles as well. …

Undoubtedly, from time to time, you’ll continue to hear outrageous media stories about waste at the Pentagon and bomb-detecting elephants gone astray. Without a concerted campaign of public pressure of a sort we haven’t seen in recent years, however, the Pentagon’s runaway budget will never be reined in, that audit will never happen, and the weapons makers will whistle a happy tune on their way to the bank with our cash.

Only the Pentagon Could Spend $640 on a Toilet Seat
http://www.thenation.com/article/only-the-pentagon-could-spend-640-on-a-toilet-seat/