One of the most often repeated phrases from President Eisenhower’s farewell address was the statement, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
In an original draft of the speech, but later removed, Eisenhower penned the phrase, "military–industrial–congressional complex," with the implication of the role Congress plays in the vast Pentagon budget.
Far too often, the Pentagon budget debate involves Republicans arguing for more spending and Democrats calling for reductions. Sadly, no one ever speaks of reforming the way the Pentagon allocates its resources.
If the Pentagon were a company, it would have faced bankruptcy decades ago, as the procurement and acquisition aspect badly needs major reform. Far too often, cost overruns on various weapon systems reach into the billions. Often expensive projects are cancelled before they are ever completed.
In February, President Obama sent a $534.3 billion baseline budget to Congress, breaching the defense spending caps set forth in the 2011 Budget Control Act by close to $25 billion. Republicans want to raise the cap in spending or pass a more comprehensive spending plan that eliminates the cap entirely.
Neither the president nor Congress has articulated any sort of comprehensive overhaul on the way the Department of Defense spends taxpayers’ money. We all want a strong national defense, but after spending 30 years in the armed forces, the amount of waste that permeates the Pentagon is appalling to me. A better allocation of resources would make the military more effective and place resources where they are badly needed.
Examples of poor use of resources are not hard to find. In an article in Armed Forces Journal, Daniel Davis wrote a short, and by no means exhaustive list, of such failures might include the RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter launched in 1991, canceled after $6.9 billion; the XM2001 Crusader mobile cannon launched in 1995, canceled after $7 billion; and the Future Combat Systems (FCS) launched in 2003, canceled after $20 billion. FCS in particular was notable for senior Army leaders’ efforts to ignore or suppress the results of simulations, tests and analyses that highlighted problems and predicted failure.
This is not only confined to Army, but across all military branches. In this year’s Pentagon budget, $8 billion is set aside for one aircraft program — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — with various variants of the aircraft to be used by the Air force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Last year, Business Insider reported the program’s costs have risen an estimated 68 percent over its initial price tag. The Pentagon now plans to spend $391.2 billion on 2,443 aircraft, with each plane costing a staggering $160 million.
When taking into account the cost of flying and maintaining the F-35, the program could surpass a trillion dollars, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Far too often the military defines a need for new weapon system without any strategic concept how it impacts the budget process or without conceptualizing the current or future threat environment.
Congress is not exempt from the lack of budget controls. In 2015, during congressional hearings, the Army pushed back on additional tank increases and upgrades. However, in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, $120 million was set aside for tank upgrades.
Both political parties have allowed wasteful spending, as politicians routinely champion Pentagon spending when a weapon system happens to be in their state or district. This was the case with Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), fighting to keep alive the over $2 billion C-17 cargo planes the Air force did not want or need because it would impact jobs in their state.
Congress routinely uses the Department of Defense as a patronage system to bring pork barrel projects to their states or districts. This practice infuriated former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and was mentioned in his controversial book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.
Early last year, an influential Pentagon advisory board reported the defense department could save $27-37 billion annually if it implemented private sector businesses practices. Spending at the Pentagon can be reformed and reduced, but will Washington make the right decisions or will short-sided partisan politics be the way forward?
Reform must come in a systematic and strategic way, not through the lens of politics. A real comprehensive strategic threat analysis needs to be done, so that the nation gets the right kind of military to defend this country without politics playing into what Congress thinks the Pentagon needs.
I am reminded of a quote by Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” One only has to look at history; how the sharp demobilization after World War II and the emphasis on air power left the United States unprepared for the conventional war it found itself in Korea.
It’s time we had a true strategy at the Department of Defense, including effective practices for procurement and acquisition. Our nation deserves it and so do those defending our country.
John Ubaldi is President of Ubaldi Reports which provides credible, political content, addressing domestic and global issues written by military veterans with expertise on domestic and international issues. He has a Master’s in National Security Studies from American Military University with a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies and a Bachelor’s in Government from California State University, Sacramento. He authored the book, The New Business Brigade: Veterans Dynamic Impact on US Business, currently available on Amazon.