If it’s “change” with a capital “C” that President-elect Barack Obama is carting to the nation’s capital, he shouldn’t forget the Pentagon, advises a military expert who says he has been waiting decades for a bold leader “with the strength of character to acknowledge the depth” of problems at the Department of Defense.
“Mr. president-elect, you have a real mess on your hands in the Pentagon,” warns Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information. “You have addressed the other crises in your election campaign, but you have completely ignored the meltdown in the Pentagon.”
Wheeler, who has worked on national security issues for 31 years for U.S. senators and the General Accounting Office (GAO) lists the elements of a crisis in the military establishment that he believes the new commander in chief must address.
The defense budget is now larger in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any point since the end of World War II. However, the Army has fewer combat divisions than at any point in that period, our Navy has fewer combat ships and the Air Force has fewer combat aircraft. Major categories of military hardware are aging dramatically, according to data collected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and many others. In some cases, our equipment is older than it has ever been. The officially approved plans for each of the military services would allow the problem to worsen, the CBO says. Air Force and Navy combat pilots get one-half to one-third of the in-air training time they had, for example, in the early 1970s. Army units are sent into Iraq and Afghanistan without the months of training and retraining they need with the equipment and people they will take with them into combat. Technological failures at extraordinary cost hamper the ability to wage conventional war. The Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-35, can be regarded as only a technical failure, and it will cost multiples of the aircraft it replaces: the aging, overweight F-16.
The Navy’s newest, ultra-expensive, destroyer cannot protect itself effectively against aircraft and missiles, and the Army’s newest armored vehicles, which cost several million each, can be and have been destroyed by a simple anti-armor rocket that was designed in the 1940s. Despite decades of acquisition reform from the best minds in Congress, the Pentagon, and Washington think tanks, the GAO says cost overruns in weapon systems are higher today than any time since they have been measured. Not a single major weapon has been delivered on time, on cost, and as promised for performance. The Pentagon refuses to tell Congress and the public exactly how it spends the hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated to it each year. The reason is simple: It doesn’t know. In a strict financial accountability sense, it doesn’t even know whether the money is spent. Today’s defense budget is more than three times the combined size of every nation currently or potentially hostile to the United States, including China and Russia.
Throw More Money?
“We must stop throwing dollars at the Pentagon,” Wheeler says. “The evidence, while counterintuitive, is irrefutable that more money makes our problems worse. As the Army, Navy and Air Force budgets have climbed, their forces have grown smaller, older and less ready.”
The expert also takes to task those who argue for acquisition reform.
“Their proposals are riddled with loopholes, and they consistently refuse to cede control of decisions to any but those who have a track record of failure piled upon failure,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, who directs the Straus Military Reform Project, suggested some guiding principles for the new commander in chief: Start a crash program to make Pentagon spending accountable, and insist that Defense predict much more accurately the cost, performance, and schedule of its programs and policies. The current bias, based on advocacy, is the heart and core of business as usual. Acknowledge that competence goes beyond intelligence and hard work to include objectivity and independence. The latter are impossible without ending a fundamentally corrupt incentive system. The ironclad control of the Pentagon decision-making process by people (in and out of uniform) who are free to then collect salaries and other perks from defense contractors and their support structure in Washington must end. End the similar sham of members of Congress and their staffs pretending to perform oversight and then accepting jobs from those they “oversee,” including the Pentagon. Economize in major ways to because of the global economic meltdown, and end the days when big Pentagon spenders can dream up new tricks to balloon the Defense budget.
Wheeler challenged the new president “to acknowledge the depth of our problems, to embrace principles such as those stated here, and to withstand the typhoon of acrimony that will ensue from those who seek to keep us fat and fading.”
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