Pentagon waste machine is still well-fueled

The recent revelation that the Pentagon paid $43 million for a gas station in Afghanistan that was never used has placed the issue of Pentagon waste on the agenda once again.  The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction estimates that the gas station should have cost about $500,000, but somehow it ended up costing 86 times that amount.

The gas station fiasco is just one of many examples of how the Pentagon budget is out of control.  Another is the embarrassing case of the surveillance balloon that got free of its moorings in Maryland and drifted into southern Pennsylvania, cutting power lines along the way even as two F-16s were scrambled to shoot it down if necessary.  The cost of the program, which is now under review: $2.7 billion.

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These are just the most prominent of scores of examples of waste, fraud and abuse, large and small, which have been identified over the past several years.  These misguided expenditures pump up the Pentagon’s budget while contributing nothing to the defense of the nation.

Examples of inexcusable waste abound:  

  • The Pentagon paid $720 million in late fees on shipping containers that it leased to get material back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is in addition to the cost of the leases themselves.
  • The Department of Defense’s Inspector General identified over $1 million in personal expenditures on casinos and adult entertainment establishments that were charged to government-issued credit cards in an 11-month period during 2013 and 2014. 
  • A report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Pentagon had stockpiled $9.2 billion in excess parts and supplies, with another half billion on order. 
  • According to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, the Air Force failed to justify the need for an order of 401 MQ-9 aircraft, leading to the expenditure of $8.8 billion on aircraft that it may not need. 
  • A GAO report released in July of this year found that since 2007, 200 parcels of military aid to Yemen sat unused in a warehouse in Virginia.  The Pentagon was unable to give an estimate for the cost of the items, but it included night vision goggles worth over $600,000. 

The Pentagon employs at least 600,000 service contractors. But because it does such a poor job of tracking them, it can’t give an accurate figure of exactly how many of these contractors it employs, how much they cost relative to their civilian counterparts, or how much overlap there is in the tasks performed by contractors and civilian personnel.  Better management of this work force could save untold billions that could be put to better use.

Add to examples cited thus far the scores of other cases of overcharges, duplicate purchases, and just plain mismanagement that characterize Pentagon spending practices and the amounts wasted mount into the tens of billions of dollars.  Unfortunately, these are not just “mistakes.”  They are the predictable outcome of the way the Pentagon does business.

The overarching problem with Pentagon procurement is that the department cannot pass an audit, despite being required to do so by legislation passed nearly twenty years ago.  As a result, as indicated above, the department simply cannot keep track of how much equipment it has, how many contractors it employs, or whether it is paying a fair price for the goods and services it is purchasing.  There are bipartisan bills in both houses of Congress that would exact financial penalties from the Pentagon if it can't pass an audit. The House version has been proposed by Reps. Michael BurgessMichael BurgessGOP rebuffs doctors on gun research Overnight Healthcare: Congress kicks off opioid talks | GOP rebuffs doctors on gun research | Philly passes first soda tax Senior Trump aide assures conservatives on court picks MORE (R-Texas) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA 14 dead in West Virginia flooding Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote MORE (D-W.Va.), and co-sponsors include Sens. Ron WydenRon WydenRepublican chairman: Our tax reform plan fits with Trump's vision Post Orlando, hawks make a power play Democrats seize spotlight with sit-in on guns MORE (D-Ore.), Rand PaulRand PaulRepublicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Hate TV customer service? So does your senator Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted CruzTed CruzO'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' Va. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick MORE (R-Texas). So far neither bill has been passed into law.

Recent actions by the Pentagon and the Congress indicate that they have yet to take the idea of disciplined budgeting seriously.  The recent budget deal places $58 billion of Pentagon budget in the war budget, tens of billions of which have nothing to do with fighting wars.  As a result, these expenditures will not get the same scrutiny as spending included in the Pentagon’s base budget, and the irresponsible use of the war account as an unaccountable slush fund will continue.  In addition, the Air Force’s decision to keep significant cost details about its new bomber secret will make it extremely difficult  to prevent multi-billion dollar cost overruns in that program.

It’s long past time for the Pentagon, the Congress, and the candidates for the presidency to get serious about rooting out waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon.  If they do so, we will find that not only can the department defend the nation with a $600 billion-plus budget, but that it can do so for considerably less. 

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

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