THE BLOG
12/16/2015 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2016

When Will Republican Candidates Speak Out About Pentagon Waste?

Ethan Miller via Getty Images

The dominant theme of last night's Republican debate was that only a "tough" Republican president who radically increases Pentagon spending can make America safe again.

But throwing more money at the Pentagon will not make us safer. The Pentagon's $600 billion-plus budget wastes tens of billions of dollars that could be put to better use. We need more spending discipline at the Pentagon, not more spending.

Pentagon waste comes in many forms. From overspending on spare parts to investing $1 trillion in a three-decade, across-the-board nuclear weapons buildup, the Pentagon budget is chock full of unnecessary expenditures that have nothing to do with fighting terrorism.

A few examples will give a sense of the scope of the problem. In the past month alone, the Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has documented the expenditure of $43 million on a gas station that was never used and the waste of $150 million on private villas for a "handful" of personnel and visitors in Afghanistan. These are just the latest in a long line of SIGAR investigations that have exposed routine cost overruns, unfinished projects, and duplicative spending in Afghanistan that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Pentagon spending practices on the domestic front are no better. From spending $50,000 to study the bomb detecting capabilities of African elephants to destroying over $1 billion worth of ammunition, the department has a talent for misspending that is as impressive as it is outrageous. And these examples don't account for the prevalence of outright fraud, like the use of department credit cards to pay for visits to casinos and strip clubs.

But the cases recounted so far are just the beginning of a distorted spending pattern that encompasses big-ticket items as well. For example, the United States possesses thousands of nuclear warheads. Yet studies by experts within and outside of the U.S. government have indicated that a few hundred deployed nuclear warheads would be enough to deter any country from attacking the United States. Yet the Obama administration has embarked upon a 30-year, one trillion dollar buildup that would replace the current nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and land-based ballistic missiles with even costlier versions.

The issue of the triad actually came up at last night's debate, when panelist Hugh Hewitt asked Donald Trump "what's your priority among our nuclear triad?" Trump dodged the question, suggesting that he didn't know what the nuclear triad is; but whatever it is, Trump wants us to know that "for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important." At that point Marco Rubio jumped in like an eager school boy who had done his homework to explain what the nuclear triad is composed of Ohio Class submarines, nuclear bombers, and "silo-launched missiles." He then asserted that "all three are critical for the defense of our country."

Rubio and Trump ignored the underlying thrust of Hewitt's question, which was to set priorities within the triad. The reason priorities must be set is that the the plan to build new submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles - not to mention "modernizing" the nuclear warhead complex -- is unaffordable under any reasonable budget scenario. As the Arms Control Association has noted in a report on the issue, aptly titled "Unaffordable Arsenal," under current plans rebuilding and operating U.S. nuclear forces is scheduled to cost $355 billion in the next decade alone. And given the history of secrecy and cost overruns on major nuclear weapons systems, this figure could easily increase.

In addition to making better decisions on what military resources are actually needed to defend the country, the key to rooting out Pentagon waste is to force the department to get its fiscal house in order. The Pentagon is the only major federal agency that cannot pass a simple audit, which means it doesn't know for sure how much it spends each year, and what it gets in return. Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union put it well in an essay for the Hill:

"Spending money inefficiently on weapons systems and programs that aren't needed or that don't work only makes us less safe, by diverting taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be spent on useful programs. As it stands, right now the Pentagon might be buying power drills to mix cake batter and we wouldn't know it."

So before we give in to calls by presidential candidates for more Pentagon spending, we should ask them what specific plans they have to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse at the department. If they can't answer that question, they're not fit to govern.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.