Pentagon

The Pentagon's Serial Waste and Shoddy Accounting Don't Preclude It From Getting More Money, Apparently

Defense budgeting should be a strategy debate, not a rubber stamp for higher spending

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|||Ivan Cholakov/Dreamstime.com
Ivan Cholakov/Dreamstime.com

At the beginning of December, President Donald Trump was very unhappy with the high price of militarism. "I am certain that, at some time in the future, [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] and I, together with President [Vladimir] Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race," he tweeted. "The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars [on the military] this year. Crazy!"

His outrage apparently was not to last. Within the week, Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis settled on $750 billion as the target for Pentagon spending in 2020, a $50 billion bump from the $700 billion the president previously promised for that year. It's also $17 billion higher than the $733 billion figure a number of top generals are said to prefer.

It could be that asking for $750 billion is just a negotiating tactic: Start high so you have room to be bargained down a little. But even if that is the case, consider: First, the Pentagon's wastefulness, shoddy accounting, and nasty habit of simply losing enormous sums of money are well-established and will not be fixed by the application of ever more cash. Second, defense appropriations should reflect strategy, not stasis. And third, the long-term trend in Pentagon spending points in a markedly upward direction. Even with a blue Congress, asking for $750 billion for the Pentagon may actually result in $750 billion for the Pentagon.

Washington's record of fiscal irresponsibility where the military is concerned is vast—the difficulty is not so much finding examples to present as sorting through the teetering pile to decide what to exclude. The Pentagon failed its first-ever audit last month, then promptly announced it had dropped another $500 million trying to fix that failure. What's $500 million to an agency whose annual budget exceeds the GDP of all but 18 countries on the planet?

Perhaps the most recent case of egregious defense spending mismanagement is a Saturday story from The Atlantic, citing Department of Defense (DoD) documents, which reports that "errors in accounting" have led to American taxpayers paying for significant portions of the enormously unpopular Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Just how much have we paid? The Pentagon doesn't know just yet, but it could be as high as tens of millions of dollars.

This is the sort of error that ought to occasion a broader reassessment. By all means, calculate what we should have been charging the Saudi coalition to refuel their bombers and send them an updated bill. But don't stop there.

When a project is so grossly mismanaged, that alone should raise strategic questions: Is this something we need to do? Is it crucial to U.S. security? Is it protecting vital U.S. interests and keeping Americans safe? Do the American people even want this done on their behalf? Don't only ask whether the price for U.S. support of the Saudi war in Yemen was right; ask if it was right for the United States to be involved at all. Should we have refueled those bombers in the first place? Polling indicates most Americans say "no," and with good reason.

The conflict in Yemen is far from alone among present endeavors of the U.S. military whose value and necessity ought to be reevaluated as part of the budgeting process. The congressional power of the purse should be a powerful tool for lawmakers to guide foreign policy. When faced with a project, like helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen, which is literally worse than useless for U.S. security—not to mention stability in the Middle East and the most basic humanitarian needs of suffering Yemeni civilians—it is our representatives' right and responsibility to cut off funds.

The fact that funding has been appropriated for something in the past is no argument for its future appropriation. Stasis is not inherently strategic. Each year's Pentagon spending, like any other mammoth government expenditure, should be subject to strict scrutiny without exemption.

Asking for $750 billion for the Pentagon (and very possibly getting it) helps ensure such overdue scrutiny won't happen. A budget that rises every year by default is a budget prime for further waste, loss, and fiscal misconduct big and small. It is also a budget which demands no thought about the gap between what our military should be doing and what it is doing. It's a dangerous missed opportunity and serves no one but politicians unwilling or unable to give our foreign policy the rethink it so desperately needs.

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31 responses to “The Pentagon's Serial Waste and Shoddy Accounting Don't Preclude It From Getting More Money, Apparently

  1. The Pentagon’s Serial Waste and Shoddy Accounting Don’t Preclude It From Getting More Money, Apparently

    Or any other government program or department, really.

    1. Exactly my thought. When has wasteful spending and shoddy accounting ever stopped Congress from throwing more money at any agency?

      1. At least providing for the military is an actual federal power defined by the constitution. Can name many departments much more wasteful, HUD for example.

    2. Bingo. If we are going to start holding government agencies to minimal accounting practices, I wouldn’t START with the War Department (screw Defense). For one thing, an awful lot of the ‘waste’ that the military is accused of turns out, on examination, to be a direct consequence of actions by Congress. Sure it’s “wasteful” to spend $20 (or $200, or whatever the figure is) a piece on bolts. But if the bolts are parts of a system that Congress has suddenly decided to keep operational beyond its expected life, then the alternatives are even MORE expensive. The system was originally slated for an operational life of (say) 20 years, and parts were ordered for that span. Then the manufacturer repurposed the fabrication machinery. So you have to pay for tooling up again. $200 bolts are expensive, but they are cheaper than the new system that the military wanted, and was told it would have before Congress welched.

      Let’s start on Congress. See if they can account for their operational expenses to the nearest, say, $10,000.

  2. Yep, the Pentagon wastes tons of money. Try to cut the several orders of magnitude of spending on entitlements though and you’re killing kids. Which is weird because I’m pretty sure the Pentagon kills kids, only literally, so maybe that’s why the only contentious spending is the tiny amount (comparatively) that we spend on defense instead of social spending.

  3. The federal government wastes $125 billion every year on improper payouts on welfare/entitlement payments.

    And yet the spending on all those programs (that combined are far larger than military spending) automatically increases every year as they are considered to be in the phony category of “non-discretionary” spending – unlike military spending.

    But somehow military spending is supposed to be first in line for scrutiny

    1. But somehow military spending is supposed to be first in line for scrutiny

      Not first in line, but certainly in line. What specific part of this article makes you think the author is suggesting that military spending is the only part of the budget that needs to be reduced, or even the first?

      1. Well, there’s an entire political party that runs on ‘cut military spending, all other spending you can’t touch’ which is a bit concerning since it’s not our military that’s making us go broke.

        It’s not that military spending is kosher as is, it’s that this is nibbling around the edges of what the real problem is. In other words, it’s a bullshit solution to none of the things that are actually wrong.

        1. Well, there’s an entire political party that runs on ‘cut military spending

          The Libertarian Party is the only one that I know of.

          1. Democrats run on it pretty much all over the country. It’s just that once they’re in office they do the exact opposite with no consequences. Sort of like Republicans on the ACA.

    2. That and national defense authority is mentioned in multiple clauses of the US Constitution.

      Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and welfare are not.

  4. “I am certain that, at some time in the future, [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] and I, together with President [Vladimir] Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race,” he tweeted. “The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars [on the military] this year. Crazy!”

    We need more of this Trump. Too bad he doesn’t stick around for long.

    1. I know that I, for one, absolutely trust the numbers that Russia and China cite on their military spending. Speaking of which, I absolutely trust our numbers that we spend on military.

      Because rule #1 of war is be entirely transparent and truthful about exactly what your capabilities and willingness to fight are.

      I read that in the cliff notes version of ‘The Art of War’ I believe.

      1. I have no doubt their numbers are higher, but it’s cheaper to build a T-72 than an M-1,not only from the technology/material cost, but also the labor costs.

        1. Well, in terms of labor costs one saying I clearly recall from the Soviet’s is that they pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them so, yeah, you’re probably right. Labor will be cheaper because if they don’t hit their production target a single bullet can improve production for a short period of time.

          But when looking at, say, the F-22 I wonder how much of it’s R&D has ended up in the Chinese R&D budget. That’s a lot of savings for them, and a ton of mismanagement by us.

          1. Quite a bit, I’m sure. They also aren’t paying for bases strewn all over the planet.

        2. We also know that T-72’s are no match for M-1 Abrams.

      2. No, I’m pretty sure that strategic insight is from ‘Dreams from my Father’

  5. loveconstitution1789|12.10.18 @ 1:41PM|#

    Reason still hates that despite what they say, Trump has accomplished one of the most Libertarian-ish administrations in 100 years

    1. [citation needed]
      loveconstitution1789|12.3.18 @ 10:20AM|#

      Do you need me to link the rules of NAFTA and USCMA so you can compare and contrast the “worseness” for us?

    2. Which administrations have been more libertarianish in the last 100 years?

    3. The trolls really hate me these last two weeks.

      1. Because you are a fucking collectivist, bitch!

        I’m proud to have made your Nixonian “enemies” list, BTW.

  6. the “apparently” is so 7th grade chick. learn to skip it. oh wait, Bonnie.

  7. Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

    For she’s a jolly good fellow
    For she’s a jolly good fellow
    For she’s a jolly good fellow
    And so say all of usme

    Wonder if she’d rock a beard?

  8. I think it’s pretty transparently obvious that the increase in military spending is going to building the wall as a defense expenditure.

    Which it actually is, so it’s not even an illegitimate diversion of funds.

  9. compel Congress to pass the following laws to fix every governmental budget issue…

    4. Ask the public to demand immediate passage of a standard : fixed bookkeeping practices budget process backed up with a fixed penalty for failure to bring in a budget on time? no extensions.

    wait ! that’s to easy and would work !!!! sorry, sometimes i get carried away with positive thoughts that would solve problems.

  10. “The Pentagon’s Serial Waste and Shoddy Accounting Don’t Preclude It From Getting More Money, Apparently”

    It makes perfect sense to the politicians. I mean if you have serial waste, you will need more money to get the job done.
    Right?

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