DoD Needs a Diet: $125 Billion Less Fat, More Muscle

The Defense Department conducted an internal study in 2015 which revealed $125 billion in wasteful spending, so they buried it, according to a Washington Post report.

This should be no surprise to anyone.

The Pentagon is 6.6 million square feet (5.1 million is office space). It’s called the Puzzle Palace, among other things, and from day one it was filled with wasteful spending. For the 26,000-odd people who work there, there are 284 bathrooms, or roughly one per 92 people. The people who work there are accustomed to spending the Treasury’s money. It’s what they do.

When I was a government contractor, our main goal was to spend every red cent of our program’s annual allocation, lest someone at the Puzzle Palace realize we don’t need it all, and cut our numbers for the next budget cycle. (It goes without question that the money would be given to another program, not back to the Treasury.) Multiply that by thousands of contracts, thousands of programs, thousands of weapons systems, and 268,000 contractors.

To support approximately 1 million active-duty warfighters, the military itself has 298,000 back-office personnel in uniform, just under one third. That’s normal for a military. But adjacent to those military bureaucrats are another 448,000 DoD civilians–civil service employees who do everything from contract negotiations, to legal, to program management, engineering, logistics, and protocol (and planning, budget, finance; you get the idea).

Then there are 268,000 contractors who support the quarter of a million government employees in and out of uniform. This totals just over 1 million, roughly equal to the number of warfighters. In other words, for each warfighter, there’s a back-office person standing beside them in a 1:1 ratio.

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For all the complaints of an aging, non-combat-ready military stretched to the limit by multiple engagements and theaters around the world, there’s plenty of cash tossed around–more than enough to pay for large projects.

For the military, the major allure of the study was that it called for reallocating the $125 billion for troops and weapons. Among other options, the savings could have paid a large portion of the bill to rebuild the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal, or the operating expenses for 50 Army brigades.

So what happened? The brass buried it.

But some Pentagon leaders said they fretted that by spotlighting so much waste, the study would undermine their repeated public assertions that years of budget austerity had left the armed forces starved of funds. Instead of providing more money, they said, they worried Congress and the White House might decide to cut deeper.

So the plan was killed. The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.

You may ask: Why?

The answer is simple: embedded self-interest. Those million back-office workers who spend $134 billion of the DoD’s $580 billion budget like having their jobs, and to justify their jobs, they have to spend the money–whether that money should be spent or not. So you end up with duplicative functions, contractors who set their own program goals, sole-source contracts for maintenance and logistics on programs which could be eliminated, and all manner of fraud, waste and abuse.

The Defense Business Board’s study shocked Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work so much that he reversed his own position on ordering it.

In an interview with The Post, he did not dispute the board’s findings about the size or scope of the bureaucracy. But he dismissed the $125 billion savings proposal as “unrealistic” and said the business executives had failed to grasp basic obstacles to restructuring the public sector.

“There is this meme that we’re some bloated, giant organization,” he said. “Although there is a little bit of truth in that . . . I think it vastly overstates what’s really going on.”

A little bit of truth? It’s the big honking brownie tray of truth. “Bloated” and “giant” about cover it. There is more than a little truth, however, to the realities of cutting civil service jobs. And those civil service jobs are frequently linked to contractor jobs and contracts.

If your civil service job is to manage a contract or the items and programs provided by a contractor, then your job is to promote that particular contract and ensure the Inspector General, the finance people and the program people at the Puzzle Palace believe in the contract. What we have is a half-million government employees acting as a cheering section for contractors.

They are all embedded self-interests, and they are loud when they talk to their elected representatives.

Work said the board fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it is to eliminate federal civil service jobs — members of Congress, he added, love having them in their districts — or to renegotiate defense contracts.

The board didn’t misunderstand. They understood that Congress must have the collective will to make cuts, and that people’s jobs and livelihoods may be affected. In effect, the Pentagon has to go on a $125 billion diet, to lose fat and gain muscle. That takes Congressional support on both sides of the aisle.

I asked my own Rep. Austin Scott for a comment given that his district is home to the largest military industrial center in Georgia. At this time, I have not received a response.

We can’t expect the DoD to police itself from the top, because the SecDef position turns over too frequently. Congress must do it–but typically that’s an election year death sentence, and representatives of military-heavy district (like the one I live in) can’t afford to cost jobs when they face voters every two years.

“Because we turn over our secretaries and deputy secretaries so often, the bureaucracy just waits things out,” said Dov Zakheim, who served as Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush. “You can’t do it at the tail end of an administration. It’s not going to work. Either you leave the starting block with a very clear program, or you’re not going to get it done.”

Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers block even modest attempts to downsize the Pentagon’s workforce because they do not want to lose jobs in their districts.

Without backing from Congress, “you can’t even get rid of the guy serving butter in the chow hall in a local district, much less tens of thousands of jobs,” he said.

$134 billion is spent on “business operations.” According to the Post’s disclosure of the report, more than 192,000 people worked in property management and 84,000 in human resources. That’s fully a quarter the number of warfighters sitting at desks dealing with leases, property issues, hiring, and red tape. No company could afford to be that inefficient.

Unsurprisingly, the Puzzle Palace money-spenders fought back.

[Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall III] put up a stiff fight. He challenged the board’s data and strenuously objected to the conclusion that his offices were overstaffed.

“Are you trying to tell me we don’t know how to do our job?” he said, according to two participants in the meeting. He said he needed to hire 1,000 more people to work directly under him, not fewer.

It’s not that Kendall and his acquisition and logistics people don’t know how to do their jobs. It’s that they know how to do it only too well. They know how to spend every red cent and make it look good. They’ve been doing it for many years. As I wrote above, it’s their job to do this.

Getting the DoD to cut its own fat is like putting Marine recruits in charge of their own training and menu. Why run until you puke when you can just run a mile and call it quits? Why not have that piece of cake? The recruits will still graduate and wear the uniform, but they won’t be trim and fit Marines without the drill instructors hounding their behinds, slapping that cake to the floor, and running them until they drop.

The DoD needs that kind of diet, and it is institutionally incapable of the discipline required to get there. The worst part is that Congress is cosmically undisciplined and unable to supervise even the smallest efforts to reduce costs.

This is the conundrum facing an incoming Trump administration. Maybe having a no-nonsense warrior at the helm of the biggest hive of bureaucrats inside the beltway will be for the Pentagon what The Biggest Loser is to overweight and out of shape contestants. Donald Trump, after all, loves a good reality show.

About the author

Steve Berman

The old Steve cared about money, prestige, and power. Then Christ found me. All at once things changed. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I spent 30 years in business. Now I write and edit. But mostly I love. I have a wife and 2 kids and a dog and we live in a little house in central Georgia.

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