Wasting and Wanting at the Pentagon
If ever there was an indictment of the wanton ways that the Pentagon wastes money, a new report by government auditors is it. Dozens of the Pentagon’s most costly weapons programs are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
President Bush and a far-too-compliant Congress have already wasted more than $600 billion on the disastrous Iraq war. Since Mr. Bush took office, the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition budget has doubled from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion last year.
Now, in stark terms, we see that an unseemly percentage of that money has gone to wasteful cost overruns and delays. Even when weapons systems are finally delivered, investigators say, far too many fail to deliver the capabilities promised. One example: the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile recorded four failures in four flight tests in 2007.
Figures compiled by the Government Accountability Office showed that 95 major weapons systems — including ballistic missile defense, the Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship — have exceeded their original budgets by a mind-numbing total of $295 billion in the past seven years. In 2000, new weapons were running 6 percent over initial cost estimates; by 2007, that figure had skyrocketed to 26 percent.
Not only did Mr. Bush and his former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, allow contractors to run amok in Iraq, they let them run amok in the halls of the Pentagon. The G.A.O. cites the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on contractors as one reason for the gross mismanagement of acquisition programs. The Pentagon also let contractors submit unrealistically low cost estimates, rushed development of new systems — causing costly mistakes that had to be fixed — and made too many changes after projects were under way, according to the G.A.O. and other experts.
Soldiers on the battlefield pay a huge price for this incompetence when needed weapons don’t arrive on time or malfunction, or when vital purchases must be delayed because cost overruns devoured available funds. So, too, do financially imperiled domestic programs, which have been shortchanged again and again by this White House.
The current defense secretary, Robert Gates, and his team have made a start on fixing acquisition policies, mulling such ideas as establishing review boards to monitor changes in weapons system programs. The problem will far outlast this administration. We would like to hear what the presidential candidates will do. Ending the war in Iraq is a start, but it won’t be enough.
Whoever wins the election will have to keep asking for large budgets to repair the damage from this disastrous war and to ensure that the country is ready to face new dangers. That would require a lot more vigilance about cost overruns on big-ticket weapons systems. It would also require the courage to scale back or cancel expensive — and heavily lobbied — acquisition programs that don’t meet today’s threats or tomorrow’s.