Dumb weapons, rape-preventing lip balm and NASCAR
by MATTHEW GAULT
The Pentagon spends a lot of money every year on junk it doesn’t need. Add to that the bookkeeping errors, bloated bureaucracy and just plain old mismanagement and you’ve got a budget pushing $600 billion leaking waste at unprecedented levels.
“We are spending a lot more money than we thought,” read the opening line of a Pentagon report The Washington Post dug up. According to the Post, the Military had commissioned a study on cost saving then buried it when the results turned up $125 billion in potential savings.
“[Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work] explained he was worried Congress might see it as an invitation to strip $125 billion from the defense budget and spend it somewhere else,” The Washington Post explained.
But here’s the thing. Anyone who’s been paying attention has known about defense waste in the American military budget for years. Worse, we know it’s bad, but now how bad. Anyone who tells you otherwise, or tries to pin down an exact number, is selling something.
“So called experts who claim they know ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ amounts to 5, 10 or 20 percent of [Pentagon spending] literally do not know what they are talking about and should be ignored,” Winslow Wheeler, the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Project On Government Oversight told War Is Boring.
“The amounts have been unknown for decades and at the rate of the progress of auditing of national security agencies will remain unknown for further decades.”
That doesn’t mean we don’t have some idea of how the military wastes taxpayer cash. Here at War Is Boring, we’ve been watching the Pentagon budget for years and, with the help of some friends and experts, we’ve collected a list of the worst military budget abuses in 2016.
The old favorites
“A lot of the waste is coming from mismanagement and concurrency in major acquisition programs like the F-35 and the LCS,” Mandy Smithberger of the Straus Military Reform Project told War Is Boring. LCS stands for “Littoral Combat Ship,” a pair of designs for a small corvette or frigate — or something.
That’s more than $30 million dollars every day spent on the Joint Strike Fighter. And that’s just in 2016, according to budget hawk’s best estimates, the jet will cost around $1 trillion to build and maintain over it’s lifetime.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, the F-35 is the jet behind schedule, over budget and plagued by problems. Despite the Air Force’s recent claims to the contrary, some experts believe that much vaunted Joint Strike Fighter will never be ready for combat.
LCS is another controversial weapon system. They were pitched as cheap, lightweight and speedy ships but the costs have gotten crazy. According to a March GAO report, the first 32 ships will cost a total of almost $21 billion or $655 million per ship.
American taxpayers spent almost $2 billion on new LCS’ in 2016. That number doesn’t account for upgrades, repairs and other assorted issues.
And there were a lot of issues in 2016. The LCS tends to crack its hull.
The Navy commissioned the USS Montgomery on Sept. 10, 2016. The next month, it collided with a tugboat off the coast of Florida and sustained a crack in the hull. Weeks later it cracked the hull again when passing through the Panama Canal.
The USS Montgomery isn’t alone. The USS Coronado, USS Fort Worth and USS Freedom all suffered mechanical and engineering failures while out at sea. It’s almost like the lightweight hull experts worried would holding back the ship turned out to be a problem.
Wheeler name-checked the F-35, the LCS, the USS Zumwalt and the USS Gerald Ford. “Each of which is yet to even begin operational testing,” the watchdog said. “In a world that took ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ seriously, there would be no production before initial Operational Test and Evaluation is completed by an honest broker.”
“Moreover, there would also be no such program entering OT&E until there had been a real competition between combat-realistic prototypes. But I dream on.”
The Zumwalt is the Navy’s fancy new stealth destroyer. As with the LCS and F-35, the ship keeps breaking under pressure. Worse, the fancy new vessel has an equally fancy new weapon — the Long Range Land-Attack Projectile — but the bullets cost $800,000 per shot. The Navy can’t afford them and they expect the cost to rise.
The cost is so out of control that the Navy is set to replace the ammo with the U.S. Army’s GPS-guided Excalibur round. The bullets go half as far, but cost a quarter the price. Taxpayers spent more than $12 billion on these destroyers in 2016.
The USS Gerald Ford cost $13 billion to produce, is two years behind schedule and — according to the Pentagon’s top weapon tester — can’t fight. It has trouble with air traffic control, moving munitions, ship defense and launching and landing aircraft.
You know, all the things you want an aircraft carrier to do. The Ford-class carrier is the most expensive warship and history and the Pentagon is building more. Taxpayers funneled $2.5 billion into the program in 2016.
Death by a million cuts
Along with the big, entrenched weapons systems. the Pentagon blew a lot of cash in little ways. Some of the stuff here didn’t happen exclusively in 2016, but we learned about it this year so we’re tossing it on the waste, fraud and abuse pile.
What’s horrible about this stuff is that, while small, there’s so much of it and it speaks to a military financial culture of spend it and forget it.
Budget negotiations are a great time to sneak in awful pet projects. That’s what happened at the end of 2015 as Congress discussed passing the $1.1 trillion spending plan needed to keep the government running. That’s when Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, snuck in a provision to build the Coast Guard a new cutter ship … over the objections of the National Guard.
Total cost — $640 million.
A similar scheme happened during the same negotiation. Senator Susan Collins, another Republican representing Maine, got Congress to set aside $1 billion to build a new destroyer in her state.
The Navy did not need nor request a new destroyer.
Guantanamo bay remains open and keeps Americans — or at least Congress — feeling safe. It costs just shy of half a billion dollars to keep the black-site prison running every year. With only 60 inmates left in the prison, taxpayers are spending more than $5 million per alleged terrorist to keep that sense of security.
In late 2015, Joint Base Elemendorf Richardson in Alaska forked over $1,580 for 1,600 tubes of lip balm with an anti-rape message plastered on the side. The tube of balm asks the users to “consent, ask and communicate.”
The balm was a simple give away as part of the Military’s ongoing sexual assault prevention programs. One problem, someone on base “discovered” some of the tubes contained hemp oil.
U.S. Air Force policy bans distributing or selling anything with hemp oil for fear that it may contain THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — despite scientists disputing this conclusion. Regardless, the brass ordered anyone with the offending anti-rape lip balm to destroy the tubes.
On top of that, U.S. Special Operations Command spent millions on tiny drones it knew didn’t work, the Department of Veterans Affairs misspent $6 billion using purchase cards meant for small transactions and the Army is desperately trying to hire someone to install, repair and inspect playground equipment at Pentagon schools across Europe.
And don’t forget that the Air Force keeps blowing millions sponsoring NASCAR.
The Military does not understand budgets and has no idea how to spend money. It’s a systemic problem.
The Pentagon has no financial culture and no sense of fiduciary duty. It asks for money, Congress forks it over and the American taxpayer foots the bill.
The stories above are just the tip of the iceberg and we’ll probably never know the true amount of cash the U.S. could save with audits, efficiency and common sense financial changes.
“If ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ is defined as money lost to violations of law or regulation in national security spending, that amount is unknown and will remain so until audits are performed,” Wheeler said. “Especially on corporate spending, such as on headquarters spending by all prime contractors for Major Defense Acquisition Programs and major intelligence contractors.”
“Studies such as the recently ‘revealed’ Defense Business Board ‘study’ finding $125 billion in overhead waste over five years are so full of useless … babble, and an absence of meaningful facts and analysis, as to be useless — except for prompting real studies and analysis of overhead and headquarters bloat should that ever occur.”
He’s right. By congressional mandate, America’s military must be ready to audit its finances by Sept. 30, 2017. As the various branches attempt to clean up their books, little leaks and unpleasant stories come to the fore.
Like the Army’s $6.5 trillion accounting error. That’s right, the Army has screwed up its finances so badly it can’t account for $6.5 trillion in taxpayer cash.
To be clear, that money probably isn’t misspent, missing or wasted. There’s a good chance it never existed in the first place.
It’s an accounting error on the Army’s part, a massive one it’s still trying to clean up. But that accounting error is a massive red flag, one that shows just how little the Pentagon cares about tracking what and how it spends money.
Come the Sept. deadline in 2017, there’s likely to be more red flags, more waste and more screwed up balance sheets.