Public domain image: An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, marked AA-1, lands Oct. 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35 Integrated Test Force staff concluded an air-start test. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)
It was mostly a huge waste of time and money. This is my overall assessment of my 20 years of military service.
I was just a low level “grunt,” but I saw and participated in a lot of waste. So when I write about waste in the military budget it is not based on political opinion or cherry picking the numbers. What I saw wasn’t the big dollar waste found higher up the chain nor did it directly involve the serious graft of military contracting and procurement. But it was there – endemic, unnecessary, and immune to any suggestions for improvement.
There is no doubt, in my mind, that large amounts of spending could be cut from the Pentagon without hurting “national security” or failing to “support the troops.” Some examples are too small to have serious impact on the $741 billion budget (FY 2021), but some expend hundreds of billions of dollars, and over time, all the waste adds up to trillions of dollars. Examples of unnecessary, wasteful spending are everywhere.
Take the small item of military uniforms. The military has many different uniforms. Uniforms for everyday work, for combat, and “dress” for ceremonial wear. All 5 military services have different uniforms. They are constantly changing the designs, especially the camouflage patterns. Camo is important in some battlefield situations and worthless in many others. Camo is now worn everyday by many service members who will never see combat. The General Accounting Office (GAO) says all this eats billions of dollars.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has about 150 military bands employing about 6,500 full and part time military personnel as professional musicians. The estimated annual cost is $500 million. Wisconsin and Minnesota have military bands.
The number of unnecessary military bases is another opportunity to reduce military spending. There are an estimated 800 bases worldwide. Many are not needed for defense of the “homeland.” They are there to facilitate the offensive worldwide “projecting of power.”
Better management and accounting would easily save many billions. Back in 2015, the Pentagon’s own investigation said $125 billion could be saved over five years by streamlining the bureaucracy. No action was taken and the report was buried. Another GAO report said the Pentagon made $11.4 billion in payment errors in 2020. The pentagon has never performed audits required of all other federal agencies since 1990.
Speaking about the Pentagon’s financial mismanagement, an article in Scientific American says, “If the Pentagon were a private corporation, gross mismanagement would have forced it into bankruptcy years ago.” But the sacred cow of military spending is protected from its own malfeasance by both political parties. The only time Congress came together to oppose President Trump’s many destructive actions was to override his veto of the $741 billion DOD appropriation for FY 2021.
This brings us to the serious waste. The Scientific American article listed “a parade of overpriced, botched, and bungled projects” over the last 20 years. From 2000 to 2010 the Pentagon was forced to cancel 12 failed weapons programs that cost $46 billion and produced nothing – 7 times the 2020 Center for Disease Control total annual budget.
At least this waste came to an end. Over the last 17 years, the Army spent $22.9 billion on three failed prototypes to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. After rejecting the third prototype, the Pentagon promptly released another request-for-proposals. The Bradley entered service in 1981, and despite early problems, is still being built and used. Internet sources indicate the Bradley is performing its mission just fine. It doesn’t need replacing.
Since the 1990s, the Pentagon has spent over $67 billion on a ballistic missile defense system which had never been successful in shooting down incoming missiles in real world tests. After 20 years of development and production, the F-35 fighter plane still has many problems and is not meeting expectations. It has cost $400 billion to date. The Navy spent $22 billion on on the new Zumwalt class of destroyers that don’t work well. The new $30-billion littoral combat ship is being mothballed because “it is virtually unusable.” The Air Force spent $43-billion on the KC-46 refueling tanker aircraft which doesn’t do anything different from the older KC-135 aircraft.
Nuclear weapons are a good place to cut waste. During the Obama administration an internal DOD review said the nuclear arsenal could be cut by one third without affecting deterrence or national security. Land based ICBM missiles (one of the three “legs” of the nuclear arsenal) are vulnerable to attack and their “hair trigger” alert status makes accidental nuclear launch more possible. Submarine based missiles provide more than enough “deterrence.” ICBMs are obsolete. But the FY 2021 budget has $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons and we plan to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years, totally rebuilding all of the nuclear arsenal including new ICBMs.
There are many more examples of waste. The military constantly wants new, fancier, more high tech stuff. It doesn’t matter if the old stuff is doing the job (or if the job really needs doing). The waste may be hard for the public to see with complicated weapon systems like nukes and jet fighters. It is not hard with basic stuff like uniforms, vehicles, or rifles. I will end with the story of sniper rifles as a quintessential example of pure waste.
The military has quite functional sniper rifles. They can shoot people at distances of half a mile or more. Since 1988 the military has used a civilian rifle (Remington 700 bolt action) upgraded to fire bullets that carried longer distances. The M-24 has a 1500 meter range. They also have the M107 semi-automatic 50 caliber (1800 meter range) and the M2010 30 caliber (1200 meter range) sniper rifles. But you can never have enough. Last March, the DOD awarded a $50 million contract for the new “MK22 Multi-role Adaptive Design (MRAD) sniper rifle.” It is bolt action, 1500 meter range, and can quickly change barrels to use three different calibers of bullets (Wow! Is that cool!). They are only $17,800 each. But they don’t do anything significantly different, or better, than the other rifles – the essence of waste.
Last summer, the House Progressive Caucus proposed cutting $74 billion (10%) from the Pentagon’s budget to help with the pandemic. This very modest proposal passed the House but was defeated in the Senate 77 to 23.
Waste not, want not. Cutting the huge, clearly wasteful military spending would be easy. But it won’t happen until people demand serious change.