Donald Trump recently tweeted about canceling Boeing’s contract to build a new Air Force One, citing massive cost overruns. Kudos to him, inaccuracies notwithstanding. At a time of record deficits and debt, the federal government doesn’t need to spend more money on the president’s regal enough jet-setting.
There’s another mired airline project out there, one with a lifetime cost to taxpayers of $1.5 trillion, one that Trump might scrutinize next. It is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, stranded in the Pentagon’s perpetual development hell. By now, nearly everyone concedes that the F-35 has gone horribly awry, with the more sober headlines calling it a “mistake” and the harsher ones claiming it “broke the Air Force.” But it would be wrong to view the F-35 as an unprecedented aberration; it’s symptomatic of a Defense Department that’s grown fat on exorbitant and cumbersome bureaucracy.
These problems were underscored by a recent piece in the Washington Post, which details a report commissioned by the military and assembled by the Defense Business Board. It reveals that over the next five years, the Pentagon will rack up $125 billion in bureaucratic waste. Much of that will go to the endless contractors and bureaucrats in Arlington, of whom there are now three for every four active-duty soldiers. But good news, the report says: the waste can be excised without a single layoff, through “attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and…better use of information technology,” according to the Post.
There’s just one problem. The Defense Department wants more money, not less, and to that end has spent years howling that sequestration has left it strapped for cash. The release of this report would have undermined that narrative by revealing that at the same time the Pentagon was bemoaning its supposed poverty, it was also aware of its own massive internal waste. And so they buried it, until sleuths at the Post dug it up.
This is how the Pentagon responds to requests for fiscal sanity: just like every other government agency.
The report, which dates back to 2015, wasn’t even the first time the Defense Department was warned about its wasteful ways. Another set of findings from 2010, also compiled by the Defense Business Board, warned that the Pentagon was choking to death on overhead costs, which constituted at least $200 billion of that fiscal year’s $530.7 billion base defense budget. If DOD overhead was a sovereign nation, it would have ranked as the world’s 49th largest economy. Talk about a need for streamlining—yet the recommendations went largely ignored.
This is standard operating procedure in the federal government, and yes, even at the Pentagon, which for decades has gobbled up more and more taxpayer funds while simultaneously keeping its accounting processes as opaque as possible. In fairness, there are real logistical impediments to fiscal transparency at the DOD, but still, a law passed by Congress in 1990 that requires an annual audit of the military has never even come close to being implemented, leaving the Pentagon as the only federal agency that’s never had to fully open its books.
Meanwhile, more and more money for the bureaucracy is being stuffed in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, which is shielded from both budget caps and public transparency. The Pentagon’s accounting department is a notorious disaster—one inspector general investigation found that the U.S. Army in 2015 alone made $6.5 trillion in fudgy fiscal adjustments so its books would appear balanced. That’s a signal for how dysfunctional the accounting is more than wasted money, but that’s even more reason to get this financial house in order.
Some of what the DOD spends its money on is outright ludicrous. A 2012 report compiled by then-Senator Tom Coburn found funds going to everything from a Star Trek workshop to beef jerky development to microbreweries.
Allowing such an expansive civilian role for the Pentagon—Coburn called it the “Department of Everything”—doesn’t just rob the public purse; it also impacts operational readiness by diverting money that could otherwise be spent on real priorities, like our expiring fleet of Ohio-class submarines or increased pay for our active-duty personnel. Yet rather than turn its gaze inwards, the Defense Department’s civilian leadership contents itself with griping about responsible budget caps and the penalty of sequestration for overruns, a blunt instrument, to be sure, but also the only serious deficit reduction we’ve had in the age of Obama.
The DOD doesn’t need a budget hike—it needs accountability, efficiency, and responsible spending to fully fund our military. Once the Air Force One boondoggle is resolved, Trump should next turn his attention across the Potomac, to the world’s largest office building, with five sides and five million levels of bureaucracy. American security depends upon it.