Since Sept. 11, 2001, Congress and the Defense Department have added more than $2 trillion to the Pentagon budget. About half of that increase covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the rest covered the base (non-war) parts of the Defense Department. Against all logic, the extra money made our military forces mostly smaller and older.
The Air Force, for example, got a budget increase of 43 percent, but the combat air fleet shrank by 51 percent. If the plans for the next few years go perfectly, the Congressional Budget Office tells us, the major equipment inventories will get even more outdated, as they shrink further.
It has likely been the most relentless squandering of resources the federal government has perpetrated since the end of World War II.
Dont blame just Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Hes had lots of help. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld before him had accelerated the decay. Almost no one in Congress opposed this hyper-spending: The military services welcomed it, and the defense contractors were not exactly complaining.
Gates started in April 2009 a series of weapon program terminations and so-called Pentagon reforms. He announced the defense budget gusher had been turned off. Yet the number of major defense acquisition programs he has eliminated is only down to 87 programs, costing $1.6 trillion, from 91 programscosting $1.6 trillion.
His gusher-off budget for the next 10 years would grow 1 percent each year, plus inflation, to $735 billion in 2020 from $554 billion in 2010a 33 percent compounded increase adding another trillion dollars.
Gates efficiency reforms have been all too modest. His plan to save $102 billion would be over 5 years. The money is not being saved: It is being transferred inside the Pentagon budget. Even if the $102 billion were real savings, it is only 3 percent of the planned five-year total, or $3.1 trillion.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have added their own eyewash by recommending cuts of $7 billion and $8 billion, respectively, in the 2011 DOD budget. But looking at the details, it is clear that much of these savings are just shifts from one year to the next.
There are also some delays in programswhich actually make them more expensive laterand there are cancelled unobligated expenditureswhich merely moves money from past years to future years. After these cuts, 2011 is an $11 billion increase over 2010.
Real reform must start with fundamentals.
Right now, the Pentagon does not know how it spends its money, as the Government Accountability Office has reported for decades. It is literally unauditable.
Routinely, DOD does not know if it has paid contactors once, twice or not at all. We recently learned it does not even know how many contractors it has, whom they employ and what they are doing. Google audit and Pentagon and read the horror stories.
Just look at a recent report from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). It is long, hard reading, but it details how deep the accountability problems go. Not only are the Pentagons books a gigantic mess, it reports, but the office charged with fixing it is broken.
Since the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 demanded that the Pentagon learn to track its money, DODs managers have made promise after promise to reform. Each has been broken.
It is clear that if you ask what a weapon program has cost, or might cost in future, the DOD system seems likely to provide you any dollar amount it wants you to hear.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a classic case; for the last two years, the acquisition bureaucracy had to re-cook the cost numbersupward, of courseto chase new revelations, and we are about to get yet another update, which will only be another way station on the cost escalator. Ask for an audit of those or any other numbers, and listen to the excuses.
The only jolt that could shock this broken system into reform is less money. That is the approach taken by a member of President Barack Obamas Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has written each commission member recommending that the DOD budget be frozen until it can pass comprehensive audits of all programs, agencies and contractors. (Find a copy of Coburns letter here.)
You cant reform spending if you dont know what you spend.
Freezing the DOD budget at the 2010 level would mean spending $5.5 trillion for defense in the next 10 years$1 trillion less than the $6.5 trillion that Gates wants. It would impose the strong discipline on the Pentagon missing for a long time.
The advocates of big DOD spending are likely to howl. But holding the DOD budget at the 2010 level for 10 years is a $900 billion increase over the pre-war, 2000 spending level (adjusted for inflation). And it still remains a multiple of the defense budgets of China, Russia, North Korea and Iran combined.
Those making todays defense budget decisions are locked in a mindset where more empty spending is never enough. That, more than anything, needs to change.