As the Department of Defense (DoD) prepared for sharp budget reductions under sequestration, many military commentators -- including me -- warned repeatedly that the nature of the cuts (deep and indiscriminate) were bound to have a negative impact on national security.
A month after those cuts began taking effect, many Americans might look at the aftermath and think, "Well, it doesn't seem so bad." And to judge by the initial headlines, which suggest the most visible impact thus far is furloughs for a relatively small number of DoD civilians, I can understand where people might reach that conclusion.
But that's the wrong conclusion. The problem with the defense sequester cuts isn't something that will be felt immediately. The real problem arises from what will be a long-term, slow motion hollowing out of our nation's defense investment over the next decade.
That's why President Obama's scaremongering about spending cuts in the weeks leading up to March 1 was so counter-productive. When the cuts started to take effect and the sky didn't fall, Americans probably assumed the dangers of sequestration on our defense posture had been overstated.
Virtually no one contests the fact that, with U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, defense budgets will also contract. But the across-the-board cuts under sequestration don't address the need for smart, targeted spending reform at the Pentagon. Instead, we're getting haphazard slashing without a real plan for 21st century defense transformation.
Which is why we will keep seeing stories like this: The Tacoma, Washington newspaper highlights (via Stars and Stripes) a 2012 DoD Inspector General report that revealed rampant procurement waste in the program that manages the U.S. Army's Stryker infantry vehicles.
According to the IG report, some $900 million (that's nearly twice the size of Solyndra!) in unneeded replacement Stryker parts were stockpiled at a Washington warehouse due to a lack of oversight and unclear communication between federal employees and contractors. The News Tribune in Tacoma reports:
[The Army] accumulated nearly $900 million worth of Stryker replacement parts -- most of them in an Auburn, Wash., warehouse -- with much of the gear becoming outdated even as the military continued to order more equipment, according to a Defense Department Inspector General report released late last year.
Take, for instance, the $57 million worth of obsolete infrared equipment the Army has not installed in Strykers since 2007. It lingered at the Stryker warehouse until the Inspector General called attention to it last year.
Or, the 9,179 small replacement gears called pinions the Army bought as a temporary fix for a Stryker suspension problem that surfaced between 2007 and 2009. The Army took care of the root malfunction in 2010, but kept buying pinions.
It needed only 15 of the gears. The 9,164 extra pinions are worth $572,000, the Inspector General reported.
The off-the-books equipment piled up in a sort of Army accounting netherworld.
It's particularly galling to read stories like this when DoD officials are threatening additional reductions in the uniformed forces next year if the sequester continues. If the Pentagon were to get a handle on basic financial management, we could soften the blow of furloughs and force reductions, ensuring that we don't harm our force readiness.
If this were just one such story of Pentagon waste, we might be able to excuse it as a mistake made in "the fog of war." But these reports arrive with too great a regularity to be easily dismissed. How many billions of dollars are being wasted through outright mismanagement like we see in the Stryker program? And if we added up all those wasted dollars, how many useful programs could be preserved or expanded? How many brigade combat teams could we keep?
Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) has called for an audit of the Pentagon, so that we finally have some transparency and accountability in how DoD spends taxpayer dollars. It's an idea with high-level, bipartisan support: former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta endorsed the need for an audit, and members of Congress from both parties have been pushing for the "Audit the Pentagon Act" for several years, but so far with little progress. That's unfortunate, because without a full audit we can't enact the targeted spending reforms that the DoD desperately needs.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office audit found $70 billion in Pentagon cost overruns over two years. That wasn't an audit of the whole department -- only an examination of several large DoD weapons programs. Remarkably, the defense budget has never undergone a full audit, although Congress passed a law in 1990 to require the Pentagon to submit to such a process. That probably explains a lot about the wasteful nature of so much defense spending. This latest story indicates why a Pentagon audit is sorely needed.
Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.