New report is just the tip of the bloated budget iceberg
by MATTHEW GAULT
Turns out you can audit the Pentagon’s budget. It’s just that the results are so ugly, the suits will bury the results.
At least, that’s the popular story right now.
In a bombshell article, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon hired an outside consulting firm to identify ways to streamline its bureaucracy. It turns out the American military needs a lot of back-office support to keep running and that’s where most of the waste, fraud and abuse piles up.
The consultants did their job and identified $125 billion worth of unnecessary spending. The recommended plan called for some simple, common-sense changes such as making early retirement more attractive, streamlined information technology departments and cutting back on civilian contractors.
If the U.S. military made these changes, it could save more than a hundred billion in taxpayer dollars over five years, the report claimed. So, according to The Washington Post, the suits at the Pentagon buried the report out of fear Congress would use it to cut the defense budget.
“We’re spending a lot more money than we thought,” reads the first line of the report.
No shit. But here’s the thing, for the people who spend their days watching the Pentagon for waste, fraud and abuse neither the report nor its suppression came as a surprise.
“This report confirms what anyone who’s paying attention already knows: there are a lot of opportunities to increase efficiency and effectiveness without increasing spending,” Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight told War Is Boring.
She’s right. Budget hawks have long known that the Pentagon’s $600 billion plus annual budget is rotten to the core.
The report points to property management and logistics as specific problem areas. Again, we’ve known those areas are inefficient black holes of cash for years.
The Pentagon’s property management division employs 192 thousand people, yet has no idea how much property it owns nor how much it’s worth. Existing best estimates say the U.S. military owns half a million properties on 30 million acres across the globe.
It’s worth — the Pentagon accountants think — around $800 billion total. Worse, as of a 2014 according to the Government Accountability Office, the property managers have literally no idea what’s going on in half those buildings.
The Defense Logistics Agency — or DLA — is even worse. “Almost half of the Pentagon’s back-office personnel — 457,000 full-time employees — were assigned to logistics or supply-chain jobs,” according to The Washington Post.
“That alone exceeded the size of United Parcel Service’s global workforce.”
Again, we’ve known the DLA sucks for years. Reuters ran an incredible expose on the broken department in 2013. The next year, War Is Boring exposed more waste and fraud at the DLA.
When the department received defective pieces for armored vehicles from a supplier, it simply destroyed the broken bits and reordered them instead of asking for a refund. A year later, Vice’s tech website Motherboard reported on the DLA’s propensity for sending American soldiers defective weapons.
Still, The Washington Post more importantly alleged that U.S. government officials had done their best to suppress the report.
Since sequestration cut into the defense budget in 2013, the Pentagon has repeatedly cried poor-mouth and begged Congress for more cash. Some officials at the top apparently felt the report would make it easy for Congress to pull money away from spending on weapons and other projects.
“So the plan was killed,” The Washington Post reported. “The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.”
The Pentagon’s stifling of the report was less a grand cover up and more an embarrassed disavowal. Worse, the report doesn’t take into account some of the biggest sources of budget waste, namely costly prestige weapons systems dogged by cost overruns and delays.
“Not a penny of this $125 billion in misspent money was directed at poorly performing, incompletely tested hardware that is today billions above promised cost and years behind planned schedules,” Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, told War Is Boring in an email.
“Those, as you probably know, include but are not limited to the F-35 Joint Strike ‘fighter,’ the Littoral ‘Combat’ Ship, the Ford class ‘aircraft carrier,’ and the Zumwalt ‘destroyer’ — the irony of the monikers is intentionally noted.” he added. “Thus, the $125 billion is just the start of ongoing waste.”
On top of the basic issues of waste, fraud and abuse, we have no idea really how president-elect Donald Trump will handle the bloated Pentagon budget. On this issue, as with so many, he talks out both sides of his mouth.
“If Donald Trump is the business man he says he is,” Wheeler continued. “He will understand that more money for a system this sick is a step in the wrong direction and that a take-no-prisoners manager — with a proven record for same — as the [Deputy Secretary] in the Pentagon is a must.”
Both on the campaign trail and after the election, the president-elect has gone after costly military projects such as the F-35. The morning after The Washington Post published its report on Pentagon waste, he told reporters that Boeing was ripping off the American public.
By the end of September 2016, the U.S. Air Force had handed the Chicago-based plane-maker nearly $170 million in contracts for new aircraft to haul around the president and his staff. These planes are commonly known as “Air Force One.”
“The plane is totally out of control,” Trump told reporters. “It’s going to be over $4 billion for Air Force One program, and I think it’s ridiculous.
“I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number,” Trump, who had publicly sparred with the defense contractor during the 2016 election campaign, added. “We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money.”
Trump provided no evidence to support this figure, instead citing the potential for cost overruns. The statements drew an almost unheard of rebuke of a sitting or future U.S. commander-in-chief from the Air Force itself.
But The Washington Post’s expose might bolster the incoming president’s position and inflame his supporters. During the campaign, Trump consistently called out Pentagon cost overruns while — at the same time — claiming the American military was weak and needed to be rebuilt.
“I’m gonna build a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now,” Trump said on Meet the Press in October 2015. “It’s gonna be so strong, nobody’s gonna mess with us.”
“But you know what? We can do it for a lot less.”
At one rally, he agreed with a man who claimed sequestration was killing the Pentagon. In a radio interview he complained about the F-35. But as with all things Trump, it’s best to analyze what he does rather than what he says.
Trump’s pick of retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as possible defense secretary bodes well for budget hawks. “A country that loses control of its budget loses its ability to govern,” the wildly popular officer once said.
Mattis also called out Congress for slashing the State Department’s budget. The general said legislators would need to send him more bullets to deal with the fallout from an underfunded diplomatic corps.
These are good signs, but the truth is we won’t know how Mattis or Trump will act until they do. Mattis still needs to make it through confirmation — no simple feat given his possible conflicts of interest and laws governing civilian control of the military.
Even larger-than-life personalities like Trump or Mattis might not be enough to take on the Pentagon. A separate confidential memorandum The Washington Post uncovered in its investigation lamented the institution’s ability to resist any change — for better or worse.
“This is a sensitive exercise conducted with audiences both ‘weary’ and ‘wary’ of efficiency, cost, sequestration and budget drills,” the letter explained. “Elements of the culture are masterful at ‘waiting out studies and sponsors,’ with a ‘this too shall pass’ mindset.”
Only time will tell how Trump and his cabinet ultimately try to steer the U.S. military. Unfortunately, the Pentagon bureaucracy is entrenched, combative and used to waiting out the storm.