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Tomgram: Mandy Smithberger, Letting the Pentagon Loose With Your Tax Dollars

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Who doesn't remember, as a child, making that Christmas wish list for Santa and his elves? As it happens, in this century -- and in the post-Christmas season, no less -- a Pentagon already sporting the highest budget ever is still making such wish lists, officially known as "unfunded requirements lists," for the orange-haired Santa in the White House and especially his Mitch McConnellized elves in Congress. (The hope: to up the already sky-high presidentially recommended national security budget by an additional $18 billion).

The U.S. Navy, for instance, has a modest $6 billion wish list that includes yet more of the most expensive weapons system in history, the F-35 jet fighter (who cares if it actually works or not!), more Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye surveillance aircraft, as well as more Boeing-Textron V-22 Ospreys. And don't forget that extra little under-the-tree favorite, a $2.7 billion Virginia-class submarine from General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls!

Who could resist that Army wish list coming in at $7 billion, a mere bagatelle (or, as Jackie Gleason used to say on The Honeymooners, "a mere bag of shells"). It includes "an additional 60 upgraded Stryker double V-hull combat vehicles" for only $375 million, eight new AH-64 Apache attack helicopters for just $283 million, and so on. The Air Force (knowing its president) asked for a modest extra billion dollars for his new Space Force -- and then there was the request (pretty please!) from the Missile Defense Agency (who knew we even had one?) for more missile interceptors and a new missile defense battery for a little more than a billion extra dollars.

I mean, what a deal! Anyway, who could resist the cute little guys who just want another seasonal gift or two (or three or four or five or more) and another surprise visit from Santa? And is it really too much to request when, as director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight and TomDispatch regular Mandy Smithberger points out today, the full "defense" budget is a modest trillion-dollar-plus affair. No wonder the kids are just so damn eager to add a few extra bucks and gifts to it. Tom

Creating a National Insecurity State
Spending More, Seeing Less
By Mandy Smithberger

Hold on to your helmets! It's true the White House is reporting that its proposed new Pentagon budget is only $740.5 billion, a relatively small increase from the previous year's staggering number. In reality, however, when you also include war and security costs buried in the budgets of other agencies, the actual national security figure comes in at more than $1.2 trillion, as the Trump administration continues to give the Pentagon free reign over taxpayer dollars.

You would think that the country's congressional representatives might want to take control of this process and roll back that budget -- especially given the way the White House has repeatedly violated its constitutional authority by essentially stealing billions of dollars from the Defense Department for the president's "Great Wall" (that Congress refused to fund). Recently, even some of the usual congressional Pentagon budget boosters have begun to lament how difficult it is to take the Department's requests for more money seriously, given the way the military continues to demand yet more (ever more expensive) weaponry and advanced technologies on the (largely bogus) grounds that Uncle Sam is losing an innovation war with Russia and China.

And if this wasn't bad enough, keep in mind that the Defense Department remains the only major federal agency that has proven itself incapable of even passing an audit. An investigation by my colleague Jason Paladino at the Project On Government Oversight found that increased secrecy around the operations of the Pentagon is making it ever more difficult to assess whether any of its money is well spent, which is why it's important to track where all the money in this country's national security budget actually goes.

The Pentagon's "Base" Budget

This year's Pentagon request includes $636.4 billion for what's called its "base" budget -- for the routine expenses of the Defense Department. However, claiming that those funds were insufficient, Congress and the Pentagon created a separate slush fund to cover both actual war expenses and other items on their wish lists (on which more to come). Add in mandatory spending, which includes payments to veterans' retirement and illness compensation funds and that base budget comes to $647.2 billion.

Ahead of the recent budget roll out, the Pentagon issued a review of potential "reforms" to supposedly cut or control soaring costs. While a few of them deserve serious consideration and debate, the majority reveal just how focused the Pentagon is on protecting its own interests. Ironically, one major area of investment it wants to slash involves oversight of the billions of dollars to be spent. Perhaps least surprising was a proposal to slash programs for operational testing and evaluation -- otherwise known as the process of determining whether the billions Americans spend on shiny new weaponry will result in products that actually work. The Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation has found itself repeatedly under attack from arms manufacturers and their boosters who would prefer to be in charge of grading their own performances.

Reduced oversight becomes even more troubling when you look at where Pentagon policymakers want to move that money -- to missile defense based on staggeringly expensive futuristic hypersonic weaponry. As my Project On Government Oversight colleague Mark Thompson has written, the idea that such weapons will offer a successful way of defending against enemy missiles "is a recipe for military futility and fiscal insanity."

Another proposal -- to cut A-10 "Warthogs" in the Pentagon's arsenal in pursuit of a new generation of fighter planes -- suggests just how cavalier a department eager for flashy new toys that mean large paydays for the giant defense contractors can be with service members' lives. After all, no weapons platform more effectively protects ground troops at a relatively low cost than the A-10, yet that plane regularly ends up on the cut list, thanks to those eager to make money on a predictably less effective and vastly more expensive replacement.

Many other proposed "cuts" are actually gambits to get Congress to pump yet more money into the Pentagon. For instance, a memo of supposed cuts to shipbuilding programs, leaked at the end of last year, drew predictable ire from members of Congress trying to protect jobs in their states. Similarly, don't imagine for a second that purchases of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the most expensive weapons system in history, could possibly be slowed even though the latest testing report suggests that, among other things, it has a gun that still can't shoot straight. That program is, however, a pork paradise for the military-industrial complex, claiming jobs spread across 45 states.

Many such proposals for cuts are nothing but deft deployments of the "Washington Monument strategy," a classic tactic in which bureaucrats suggest slashing popular programs to avoid facing any cuts at all. The bureaucratic game is fairly simple: Never offer up anything that would actually appeal to Congress when it comes to reducing the bottom line. Recently, the Pentagon did exactly that in proposing cuts to popular weapons programs to pay for the president's wall, knowing that no such thing would happen.

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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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