On the same day that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) berated Defense Secretary James Mattis for lacking a strategy for winning the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Tuesday presented the Defense Department with its own list of grievances with the military.
The Trump administration is pressing for a major spending buildup of the military, beginning with a $54 billion increase in the DOD budget in fiscal 2018 and plans for the purchase of costly new weapons systems, battleships, and aircraft. With support from both parties, Trump wants to override the budget restrictions imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act to bring the Pentagon’s total spending power to $639 billion, including funding for U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, however, the pressure is beginning to mount on Capitol Hill for President Trump to make good on this campaign pledge to quickly eviscerate ISIS and other terrorist threats and to transform the Defense Department into an unparalleled fighting machine. There is also concern that despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the Pentagon spends on personnel, weaponry and other contracting, the U.S. military is still alarmingly behind in readiness, defense against cyber-warfare and controlling escalating costs of programs.
In a double-barreled attack on the Defense Department, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) blistered Mattis during a budget hearing on his failure to develop a winning strategy in Afghanistan, while the GAO outlined five major shortcomings in the military that the watchdog agency says require close attention.
McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, voiced frustration with Mattis over the lack of a plan to finally turn the tide in the 16-year-long war in Afghanistan, where militant Taliban forces in recent weeks have overrun Afghan government forces in some parts of the war-torn country, and where al-Qaeda and ISIS have made inroads.
“We want a strategy, and I don’t think that’s a hell of a lot to ask,” McCain bellowed. “We’re now six months into this administration. We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy.”
Mattis, a highly regarded retired United States Marine Corps general, acknowledged, “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” while vowing to “correct this as soon as possible.” He suggested he would have a detailed strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan by mid-July.
At the same time, the GAO, the chief government watchdog, said the Defense Department faces five key challenges “that significantly affect the department’s ability to accomplish its mission.” Those include the need to “rebalance forces and rebuild readiness;” mitigate the threats of cyber attacks and security breaches; control the escalating costs of weapon systems acquisitions and military health care; better manage personnel and achieve greater efficiencies in defense business operations.
“DOD has demonstrated progress addressing challenges, but significant work remains,” the GAO said.
The report quoted Defense Department officials complaining that the military services today “are generally smaller and less combat ready than they have been in many years. All five of the military services have had to cut critical needs in areas such as training, maintenance, and modernization due to budgetary constraints.
“Officials said that the result of the current state of readiness is that military forces are not strong enough to protect vital U.S. national security interests from worldwide threats,” the report stated. “DOD has pursued plans to strengthen military capabilities, but must take key actions to rebalance, rebuild, and modernize the capabilities of U.S. military forces.”
The report also said the Pentagon needs to provide decision makers with more complete and accurate budget and cost information to make smarter decisions in the future and avoid major cost overruns, like those incurred by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project. The DOD also needed to examine whether there are opportunities to reduce the use of special operations forces throughout the world. Here are some of the other highlights of the GAO findings:
Readiness problems – The quality of Air Force readiness has steadily declined because of continuous operations and declining inventory of aircraft. The Navy fleet has experienced increased maintenance problems in the face of a high pace of military operations. Marine Corps ground force readiness has improved in recent years but acute readiness problems exist in the aviation units.
Threats to cyberspace and cyber capabilities -- More than 30,000 data security incidents compromised federal information systems during fiscal 2015, including 16 that were categorized as “major incidents” in a 2016 Federal Information Security Management Act report.
While DOD has made progress in developing a cyber strategy to defend its networks and protect the nation from cyber attacks, “it needs to take additional actions to improve its planning for the continuity of operations in a degraded cyber environment.”
Escalating costs – The Defense Department’s $580 billion fiscal-year 2016 budget accounted for nearly half of the federal government's discretionary spending, and those costs have been rapidly rising ever since. DOD plans to invest $574 billion in developing and acquiring 78 major acquisition programs, such as the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, while annual military health care costs are expected to increase from about $60 billion in fiscal year 2017 to about $70 billion by fiscal year 2028.
Despite all that spending, DOD remains the only major federal agency incapable of accurately accounting for and reliably reporting its spending or its trillions of dollars of assets. “DOD also needs to better address improper payments to control rising costs in the military health system, which has experienced a 217 percent increase in costs since 2001,” the report states.