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General News    H3'ed 5/20/10

Tomgram: Christopher Hellman, Is the Pentagon Finally Overmatched?

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When it comes to the Pentagon and the U.S. military, wherever you look, there's money being handed out. Wildly and in staggering amounts. Early this month, for instance, the U.S. Army announced that it had awarded KBR, the private contractor which was once part of Halliburton, a contract worth up to $568 million through 2011 "for military support service in Iraq."

This is the same KBR that has regularly been accused of improprieties of all sorts. As it happened, the Army made its announcement,noted Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News, "only hours after the Justice Department said it will pursue a lawsuit accusing the Houston-based company of taking kickbacks from two subcontractors on Iraq-related work." Even though the company has been the object of numerous investigations and law suits, and is the Blackwater (now Xe) of construction firms, as well as a prime victor in the Bush administration's military privatization sweepstakes, this was a no-bid contract. Given the Pentagon's spending track record, none of this should surprise you.

Or consider Mission Essential Personnel, a firm that, unlike KBR or Halliburton, you've undoubtedly never heard of. No wonder: only three years ago, it was a tiny military contractor taking in $6 million a year. Recently, however, it garnered a one-year $679 million contract to "field a small city's worth of translators to help out American forces in Afghanistan." (And again -- surprise, surprise! -- a no-bid contract.) "Not bad,"writes the invaluable Noah Shachtman at his Danger Room website, "for a company that's been accused of everything fromabandoning wounded employees to sending out-of-shape interpreters to the front lines."

Or here's another Shachtman find: defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton managed to corner a bevy of contracts worth $400 million in recent weeks to help fight future cyberwars, despite a stated Pentagon policy of relying less on outside contractors. In fact, the Pentagon is only now -- and only modestly -- reining in its long-running "senior mentors" program in which retired generals and admirals on the payroll of defense contractors (and on military pensions ranging up to $220,000 a year) are brought back as consultants at prices that run to $440 per hour. "In some cases,"reportsUSA Today, "mentors were paid by the military to run war games involving weapons systems made by their consulting clients."

Theoretically, the military is known for discipline -- but not, it seems, when what's at stake is either spending our money or keeping track of it. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Pentagon budget, few in this country have cared to pay much attention. Fortunately, the National Priorities Project has. It has been trying to put the realities of that ever more bloated budget on the national agenda for a while. Now, NPP's Christopher Hellman suggests that a window of opportunity is opening, even if only a crack at the moment, for doing just that. The question is: Will we pry it open further or slam it shut?Tom

Putting the Pentagon on a Diet
Will Bad Times and a Bad Economy Finally Discipline the Pentagon?

By Christopher Hellman

Is that the wake-up smell of coffee wafting through the halls of the Pentagon? After a decade and a half of unparalleled budget growth, top Defense Department officials are finally talking about the possible end of their spending spree. And they're not alone.

In recent years, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and successive administrations have not only repeatedly resisted efforts to control Pentagon spending, but regularly pushed for more dollars to go into the defense and national security budgets. And many of them still are.

Nonetheless, with the current economic situation bringing suffering, foreclosure, and unemployment to millions, and concerns about spiraling deficits as well as a staggering national debt, the first faint signs of a possible mood change in Washington on the issue of the Pentagon budget are appearing. Military spending may, in fact, finally be edging its way into an increasingly fierce budget debate. This could prove a rare window of opportunity, unmatched since the moment the discussion of a "peace dividend" faded into the woodwork bare years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Overmatching the World

Last February, President Obama announced the formation of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to advise his new administration on options for addressing the national debt. The commission has just begun its deliberations and already some of its members are stating publicly that, as they consider their options for cutting government spending, "everything is on the table," including the military budget. In the Washington we've known since talk of that "peace dividend" disappeared, this simple fact qualifies as eye-opening.

In response to the formation of the commission, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), long an outspoken opponent of unnecessary military spending, has convened a panel of national security experts, the Sustainable Defense Task Force. Its job is to generate a series of recommendations on how to cut the defense budget while preserving national security. Frank plans to submit these recommendations to the Commission in June.

If you need a signal that something is changing, then check out the Pentagon itself. Its top officials are beginning to recognize the necessity of carefully reexamining the way the Department of Defense conducts its business. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates clearly sees the handwriting on the wall. In a series of early-May speeches during what Washington analysts dubbed "Austerity Week," he and other Pentagon officials began warning the military that the military's carefree spending days were over. As Secretary Gates put it in a May 8th speech at the Eisenhower Presidential Library (a venue clearly chosen to bring to mind the president who first warned Americans of the "military-industrial complex"): "The attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade... The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time."

Earlier in the week, in remarks at the Navy League's annual convention, Gates also spoke of the need for a more austere Pentagon budget (though his is clearly a vision of holding the line in tough times at that budget's present inflated size). He warned, among other things, that major weapons systems would be subjected to better scrutiny to ensure that they worked, met actual mission requirements, and did so at a reasonable price. This was hardly surprising, given that virtually every major weapons program currently under development or in production -- including the Navy's centerpiece for the next three decades, the Littoral Combat Ship, and the Air Force's $325 billon Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the largest Pentagon weapons program ever -- is significantly over budget and behind schedule.

A March 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that total acquisition costs for the Pentagon's 96 major weapons programs had grown by 25% over their lifetime. In addition, 42% of them had experienced cost growth of more than 25%. The GAO also found that such programs were increasingly behind schedule delivering weapons that were ready for use in combat. On average, the program delay for a major weapons system was 22 months in 2008, up from 18 months in 2003.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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