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


|||Ivan Cholakov/
Ivan Cholakov/

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.