In today's piece, TomDispatch regulars William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger consider ways in which the Pentagon is essentially a family business (if, that is, you think of the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex as a "family"). It's also a kind of scam (as they explain), a comfortable stop for past and future officials of that very complex. And the results of such a business model are striking, to say the least. Hey, where else could an industrial enterprise get a snazzy $2.43 billion just for spare parts? (I'm thinking about Lockheed Martin for its F-35 jet fighter, already the most expensive weapons system in history and, if Hartung and Smithberger are right, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.)
Given this, you might wonder why the media continues to make such a fuss when one relatively modest-sized family enterprise pulls in a mere $184,000 from the Pentagon -- and not even for spare parts for weapons, but merely for housing and feeding military personnel at an upscale hotel in a picturesque foreign land. (I'm thinking, of course, about the ever-increasing numbers of aircrews that have been housed at the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland since one Donald Trump entered the Oval Office.) And yet it gets all the media attention and the "family business" that Hartung and Smithberger deal with is largely left to its own devices -- and what devices they are! Tom
For the Pentagon, happy days are here again (if they ever left). With a budget totaling more than $1.4 trillion for the next two years, the department is riding high, even as it attempts to set the stage for yet more spending increases in the years to come.
With such enormous sums now locked in, Secretary of Defense (and former Raytheon lobbyist) Mark Esper is already going through a ritual that couldn't be more familiar to Pentagon watchers. He's pledged to "reform" the bureaucracy and the spending priorities of the Department of Defense to better address the latest proposed threats du jour, Russia and China. His main focus: paring back the Pentagon's "Fourth Estate" -- an alphabet soup of bureaucracies not under the control of any of the military services that sucks up about 20% of the $700 billion-plus annual budget.
Esper's promises to streamline the spending machine should be taken with more than the usual grain of salt. Virtually every secretary of defense in living memory has made similar commitments, with little or nothing to show for them in terms of documented savings. Far from eliminating wasteful programs, efforts pursued by those past secretaries and by Congress under similar banners have been effective in only one obvious way: further reducing oversight and civilian control of the Pentagon rather than waste and inefficiency in it.
Examples of gutting oversight under the guise of reform abound, including attempting to eliminate offices focused on closing excess military bases and sidelining officials responsible for testing the safety and effectiveness of weapon systems before their deployment. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, for instance, the slogan of the day -- "reinventing government" -- ended up, in Pentagon terms, meaning the gutting of contract oversight. In fact, just to repair the damage from that so-called reform and rebuild that workforce took another $3.5 billion. Gordon Adams, former associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Management and Budget, noted accurately that such efforts often prove little more than a "phony management savings waltz."
Secretary of Defense Esper has also pledged to eliminate older weapons programs to make way for systems more suited to great power conflict. Past efforts along these lines have meant attempts to retire proven, less expensive systems like the A-10 "Warthog" -- the close-air-support aircraft that protects troops in combat -- to make way for the over-priced, underperforming F-35 jet fighter and similar projects.
Never mind that a war with either Russia or China -- both nuclear-armed states -- would be catastrophic. Never mind that more effort should be spent figuring out how to avoid conflict with both of them, rather than spinning out scenarios for fighting them more effectively (or at least more expensively). Prioritizing unlikely scenarios makes for a great payday for contractors, but often sacrifices the ability of the military to actually address current challenges. It takes the focus away from effectively fighting the real asymmetric wars the U.S. has been fighting since World War II. It leaves taxpayers with massive bills for systems that almost invariably turn out to be over cost and behind schedule. Just as an infamous (and nonexistent) "bomber gap" with the Soviet Union was used by the Pentagon and its boosters to increase military spending in the 1950s, the current hype around ultra-high-speed, hypersonic weapons will only lead to sky's-the-limit expenditures and a new global arms race.
Esper's efforts may end up failing even on their own narrow terms. Reforming the Pentagon is hard work, not only because it's one of the world's largest bureaucracies, but because there are far too many parochial interests that profit from the status quo. Under the circumstances, it matters little if current spending patterns aren't aligned with any rational notion of what it would take to defend the United States and its allies.
A Revolving-Door World
The Department of Defense regularly claims that it has implemented "efficiencies" to ensure that every penny of your tax dollars is being wisely spent. Such efforts, however, are little more than marketing ploys designed to fend off future calls for cuts in the Pentagon's still-ballooning budget. Here are just two recent examples of this sadly familiar story.
In September 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report stating that the Department of Defense had provided insufficient evidence that $154 billion in alleged "efficiency savings" from fiscal years 2012 to 2016 had been realized; the department claimed credit for them anyway.
Just this month, the GAO came to a similar conclusion regarding a proposed Pentagon reform plan that was to save $18.4 billion between fiscal years 2017 and 2020. Its report stated that the Pentagon had "provided limited documentation of... progress," which meant the GAO "could not independently assess and verify" it. Consider that a charitable way of suggesting that the Department of Defense was once again projecting a false image of fiscal discipline, even as it was drowning in hundreds of billions of your tax dollars. The GAO, however, failed to mention one crucial thing: even if those alleged savings had been realized, they would simply have been plowed into other Pentagon programs, not used to reduce the department's bloated budget.
Esper and his colleagues have argued that it will be different this time. In an August 2nd memo, his principal deputy, David Norquist, stated that "we will begin immediately and move forward aggressively... The review will consider all ideas -- no reform is too small, too bold, or too controversial to be considered."