For all their talk of limited government and fiscal restraint, conservatives have a tremendous blind spot for their beloved military. Generally speaking, conservatives perceive the government as wasteful and incompetent, but, you see, the armed forces are different. They are disciplined, too disciplined to fall victim to the usual snares of government malfeasance and buffoonish ineptitude.
If only that canard were true. The Department of Defense not only wastes money with the best of our nation’s bureaucrats, but their accounting records are so poorly managed that a proper audit has not been done in twenty years.
Leon Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, said that, during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, it was “nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as ‘how much did you spend’ and ‘how many people do you have.’”
David Francis of the Fiscal Times writes,
According to a recent GAO report, the Pentagon’s $800 billion budget is simply unable to be accurately audited. What’s worse, the Pentagon has not been accurately audited in nearly two decades.
‘DOD has been unable to pass audits since 1996, the first year agencies were required to prepare audited financial statements,’ said Gary Engel, director at the Financial Management and Assurance Team at GAO. ‘They’ve been getting a disclaimer.’
The lack of spending oversight and management could account for an eye-opening report by NBC News on February 8, which accused the Air Force of wasting $1 billion on a computer program that was supposed to combine hundreds of existing programs into one massive system. It took seven years for the geniuses in charge of overseeing the contractor to determine that it was a failure[...]
It will be forced to take dramatic steps if it’s going to meet a 2017 deadline to pass an audit. But the problems are so complex and so ingrained in the Pentagon’s culture that meeting this deadline is likely to be a steep challenge.
So, what are the two biggest challenges to auditing the Department of Defense? First, Francis writes that “the Pentagon’s primary problem is simple: It cannot accurately match up transactions with records.” In other words, according to Francis’s example, something like a tank can be “ordered, built, and shipped off to war” without any reliable records indicating that such transactions even took place. Secondly, the various computer systems that fall under the Defense Department penumbra are incapable of communicating with one another. Therefore, the Navy holds different accounting standards from the Army, whose standards vary from the Air Force, etc. Everyone manages their accounts just a little differently, leaving auditors with the task of untying a gordian knot of transaction records.
What’s worse is that the remedy for these rudimentary problems has taken eight years thus far to implement and experts like American University Professor Gordon Adams are incredulous to the Pentagon’s ability to pass an audit even by 2017.
‘You have a very complicated ball of wax over there moving a lot of money all the time,’ he said. ‘Even in the days of computerization, you can’t assure every dollar is going down the right chute.’
‘It’s just too hard and … it’s extraordinarily complicated,’ Adams added. ‘Once they wade into the big muddy, they find out how complicated it is and how resistant DOD is to change.’
Not only is a lot of money likely going down the wrong chute, but a lot of money is being spent to correct an inadequacy that never should have been a problem in the first place. The Center of Public Integrity wrote in 2011 that the 2017 deadline “will also increase expenditures, sources say. Above the $6 billion already committed, Pentagon officials say they were already budgeting $300 million a year for new accounting systems and other preparations for 2017, or a total of $1.5 billion in additional expenses.”
Even with this costly improvement aside, the Department of Defense is surely just as profligate as any other governmental entity. Even Republican Senator Tom Coburn found that $67.9 billion could be cut from the DOD without reducing “any Army brigade combat teams, Navy combat ships, or Air Force fighter squadrons.” But let’s assume that Coburn’s suggestions are implemented: the United States would still be spending astronomically more than any other nation when it comes to national defense. Currently, the United States accounts for 58 percent of total defense spending by the world’s ten largest superpowers. We outspend China, our closest competitor, by a 6 to 1 margin. Now, ask yourself this question: Is that degree of spending necessary for our protection, or might it be overkill? Currently, we could annihilate all comers a hundred times over, if need be, and yet our nation’s defense always seems to be in jeopardy according to the likes of Leon Panetta and the neoconservative hawks. How wide does the margin have to become before we can admit to wasting money not just on superfluous matters but on the military itself? How potent must our military become before it is labelled as excessively potent?
In sum, while our impressively armed military may be able to pull off tactical maneuvers with surgical precision, they can’t do it affordably. In fact, neither can they assess what kind of money is being spent, nor do they seem too interested in taking orders from anyone, unbalanced checkbooks and wasted billions be damned. Wasteful incompetence dressed up in epaulets and medals is wasteful incompetence just the same.