Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Obama gave a pass to out-of-control military spending

COMMENTARY | February 02, 2010

The GAO showed that contractors’ estimates have nothing to do with reality, and economic hard times may eventually force the President and Congress to rein in outrageously costly warships, planes and missile systems that don’t work. But that time isn’t here yet.

By George C. Wilson

In declaring in his State of the Union address that he won’t cut the Pentagon budget, President Obama is like a trainer telling the fattest lady in his class that she need not do her exercises. Why didn’t Obama order the fat Defense Department to join the government-wide effort to reduce the deficit by kill­ing off weapons that no longer make sense?
Two-thirds of our casualties in the Iraq War were inflicted by hidden bombs that the bad guys set off by cell phones or other simple devices available at Radio Shack. Neither our new air­craft carriers costing $12 billion apiece nor our new F-22 fighter aircraft costing $350 million a plane can keep our troops from being killed or wounded by cheap improvised explosive devices.
This doesn’t mean that deficit cutters should cancel such su­per weapons willy nilly. More conventional wars than the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan may well be in America’s future. But Obama and Congress should at least order Defense Secretary Gates and his deputies to justify every major weapon by ex­plaining what red-hot threat out there justifies spending fresh billions on it.
The GAO drew a good road map for conducting such a re­view last year in its devastating report on Pentagon cost over­runs. Entitled “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs,” the GAO studied 96 major weapons in 2008 and discovered that the contractors’ original price tag had noth­ing to do with reality.
The cost overruns on the weapons studied totaled $296.4 bil­lion. Just making the contractors, not the taxpayers, eat their own cost overruns would reduce the deficit by almost $300 billion.
Instead of making such a demand, Obama last Wednesday gave defense contractors, their overseers in the Pentagon and Con­gress a pass: “Starting in 2011 we are prepared to freeze govern­ment spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will not be af­fected. But all other discretionary government programs will.”
Where is Congress in this supposed war against the deficit that Obama just declared? The Founding Fathers in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the power to “provide for the common defense,” not the president.
When are the lawmakers going to start cutting Pentagon pro­grams like outrageously expensive war­ships, planes that soar over the price tags contractors originally put on them and missile defenses that have a lot bigger flaws than Toyota’s stuck gas pedals?
“Never,” is the answer I get from some of the walking wounded who fought in past battles of the Pentagon budget. They say any weapons, whether justified by today’s threats or not, get protected by law­makers as long as they provide jobs back home.
Congress, these vets contend, to reassert its constitutional right to provide for the common defense, should deny money to produce any weapon before it is thoroughly tested; forbid congressional add-ons to the Pentagon budget unless CBO and GAO have determined what the pet project would cost and, if deemed worthy, conduct an open competition to build it; forbid any congressional staffer from vaulting to a job in the Pentagon or defense industry.
Obama did take one step toward making congressional wheel­ing and dealing on add-ons more transparent by declaring in his address that “I’m calling on Congress to publish all earmark requests on a single Web site before there’s a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent.” That might help some but not much. Voters in the lawmaker’s district or state might not object to getting earmarked for goodies.
As one who has studied the military-industrial-political-in­telligence complex for almost 50 years now from the front row seat a defense reporter gets, I think the deficit, unemployment, cost overruns on weapons that don’t work and/or have noth­ing to do with winning the war against terrorists — along with voter disgust with Washington’s spending binge — will eventu­ally force the president and Congress to rein in their spending on dubious weapons.
The overseers will realize that real national security means fixing the national economy, not letting the Defense secretary and Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps continue to drive the taxpayers to the poor house in Cadillacs.

As one who spent seven and a half months on an aircraft car­rier, let me fuel the eventual battle of the Pentagon budget by asking right here and now whether it makes sense in these eco­nomic times to build all three of the new carriers of the class named after the late President Gerald R. Ford.
In its latest Selected Acquisition Report, the Pentagon projects that three of these Ford class carriers will cost a total of $35 bil­lion, or almost $12 billion each. A pilot who really knows carri­ers from taking off and landing on them thousands of times told me that the bad guys could disable the carrier flight deck with comparatively cheap missiles or do what our own Navy frogmen have already done: Sneak aboard a carrier at night undetected by climbing up its steel sides on magnetic shoes. “They can make it rain longer than we can swim,” the pilot said of those bent on dethroning the queen of the Navy fleet.
This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDaily.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.