President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, was refreshingly candid during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday when he said the American people were justified in being -fed up with wasteful Pentagon spending.
Carter strongly endorses Obama’s proposal to lift the cap on the Defense Department’s annual operating budget, but also said, “I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without at the same time frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be.”
“The taxpayer cannot comprehend it, let alone support the defense budget [given] cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like,” he said. “This must stop.”
Carter’s comments were unusual for a department that has wasted or squandered untold billions and not once provided a complete independent accounting of where its money has gone. Distant controversies over $600 toilet seats and multi-million-dollar cost overruns on weaponry seem quaint by today’s standards, in light of cost overruns of $100 billion or more to develop the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and tens of billions more for the highly flawed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The ship was meant to be a next-generation asset for the Navy but has suffered from structural cracks, propulsion problems, and computer and communications issues.
The Pentagon has also had a penchant for wretched excess in ordering equipment and weaponry for new conflicts. As former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual government waste report found, the DOD wound up destroying 170 million pounds worth of usable vehicles and other military equipment in Afghanistan. Overall, 20 percent of all military equipment in Afghanistan, valued at $7 billion, was scrapped rather than returned to the U.S. or sold to the Afghans.
The Pentagon said it would have been too costly to ship home the equipment. Moreover, they might have hurt defense contractors domestically by driving down prices of equipment overseas.
Carter, an expert on military financial issues, said in his testimony, “Every company, state and city in the country has had to lean itself out in recent years, and it should be no different for the Pentagon.” But the DOD and its allies in Congress have little interest in slimming down the defense establishment given the growing threat from ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria and Russian aggression against government forces in Ukraine.
The budget that Obama submitted to Congress would breach the Pentagon’s legal spending caps by $35 billion and provide for a total of $585 billion of defense spending in the new fiscal year. Those funds would cover a base budget of about $534 billion for general military operations and salaries and $50.9 billion more for the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s logical that the proposed spending surge, after several years of enforced belt tightening, will produce its share of waste and excess. As the GAO noted in a report several years back, it has been impossible to accurately audit the Pentagon for two decades.
One wasteful practice that may be ending is the military’s billion dollar “wish lists” that officials of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force annually and informally submit to friendly lawmakers, as Defense One has reported. The lists, closely watched by defense firms and lobbyists, are brimming with expensive programs that fell just below the cut line – or that were unwanted by the administration.
If a defense contractor’s project turns up on one of these lists, it gives their lobbying effort a big boost or greater standing. Company officials can argue it reflects the desire of military officials – albeit not their superiors. Congress has often found ways to squeeze these projects into the budget at reduced spending levels.
This year, it happened with the Navy’s EA-18G Growler, an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet that carries special wing pods that jam enemy radio signals, Defense One said. The Navy did not request Growlers in its fiscal 2015 budget proposal but included 22 in its unfunded wish list. Lawmakers ended up adding $1.46 billion for 15 jets to the DOD budget.
Carter said yesterday he would allow the wish lists to continue but said it was up to Congress to request them. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain said, “Actually I’m not really big on unfunded priority lists,” calling them a back door way of operating. House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX), hasn’t decided yet if he will request lists from the services, according to a committee spokesman.
Overall, Carter said there was “a lot of work to do” in reforming Pentagon spending practices. “The issues and solutions for acquisition reform change over time as technology and industry change, as I noted. They extend from acquisition, and this is important, to all other parts of the defense budget. Force size, compensation and training as well as equipment. If confirmed as secretary of defense, I pledge to make needed change in the Pentagon.”
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