By Greg Terryn and Sarah Tully
The United States spent over $600 billion on the Pentagon last year. That’s more money than the next seven countries combined.
Despite this extravagant budget, the Pentagon is the only agency that has never passed an audit, as required by law. What does that mean? That the Defense Department can’t account for how it is spending all of its money.
The Pentagon’s lack of accountability feeds programmatic waste. Without a transparent record of where defense dollars are coming and going, the cycle of wasteful spending will continue. This erodes our security by allowing ineffective programs to syphon funds necessary to keep our troops equipped and trained.
Here are five examples of wasted taxpayer dollars in the Pentagon:
A Runaway Blimp
A surveillance blimp, known as the JLENS, received a lot of attention last month when it slipped its tether and led the police and two F-16 fighter jets on a 160-mile chase from Maryland to Pennsylvania. The fiasco resulted in damages across both states, leaving 20,000 residents without power and the runaway blimp in tatters.
The JLENS, which cost over $2.7 billion to develop and build, has been controversial throughout its 17-year history. The blimp was designed as an aerial threat detection system that could identify missiles and other dangers before they entered restricted airspace. Unfortunately, the blimp is susceptible to bad weather and software glitches, suffers from “low system reliability,” struggles to identify threats, and is expensive to install and operate. In 2010, the prototype blimp was destroyed when it collided with a commercial blimp. The Army tried to kill the program after the crash, but thanks to an intense lobbying effort by a few Pentagon officials, the JLENS program was saved. Instead of killing the program, an operational exercise was designed to demonstrate the JLENS’s utility by installing two blimps in Maryland to watch over Washington, DC.
The October 2015 incident, which destroyed one of only two blimps in the program, was not the program’s only high profile gaffe this year. In April, the Maryland JLENS site failed to detect a gyrocopter as it flew through 30 miles of restricted airspace, before landing on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
As of November 2015, the program has been suspended and is pending further review after an investigation into the runaway blimp. Even with its failures, North American Aerospace Defense Command has confirmed that it hopes the JLENS will continue to be tested and potentially implemented on a broader scale.
If a veteran sang “God Bless America” at the last football game you attended, chances are, that was paid for by the Pentagon.
A report recently released by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) revealed that the Pentagon has spent $6.8 million on color guards, “Hometown Hero” features, salutes to troops, and more in contracts with professional sports teams over the last four years.
Most of that $6.8 million was spent at National Football League games, but there were contracts discovered from all major professional sports leagues, including Major League Soccer and college football. The Atlanta Falcons, for instance, were paid $879,000 for everything from recognizing the Army National Guard’s birthday, to honoring wounded warriors, and social media mentions.
Exploiting U.S. military personnel as a marketing gimmick is disrespectful. As stated in the report, “Americans deserve the ability to assume that tributes for our men and women in military uniform are genuine displays of national pride.”
A REALLY Costly Gas Station
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report in early November 2015 about a gas station constructed by the U.S. in Afghanistan that cost 86 to 215 times more than it should have. The natural gas filling station, which had an estimated price tag of $200,000-$500,000, cost a whopping $42.7 million.
Disturbingly, no one at the Department of Defense, including the task force responsible for the project, can account for why the project was so expensive or where that money went.
As Senator Clair McCaskill (D-Mo.) put it in a November press release, “It’s hard to imagine a more outrageous waste of money than building an alternative fuel station in a war-torn country that costs 8,000 percent more than it should.”
Five trainees for $500,000,000
During a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing in September 2015, General Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, let slip that only four or five U.S.-trained so-called moderate Syrian rebels were left on the battlefield fighting ISIL, of the 54 that were on the ground as of mid-August 2015. That’s all that’s left from a $500 million program that officials hoped would train roughly 5,400 Syrians.
That’s $100 million per soldier.
Even with this revelation, Congress still authorized $406.5 million for the Syria Train and Equip program as part of the revised FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
Recent reports that the U.S. is abandoning the program altogether are misleading – According to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, the U.S. will still train and equip local forces, and “provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units [who are] motivated to take back Syrian territory from ISIL.”
A Video Game
The Army has spent the last 15 years developing and promoting a free online video game series, America’s Army, which allows players to attend virtual basic training and experience the Army’s tactics and weaponry through simulated missions and tactical game modes like ‘Capture the Flag.’ The game was intended as a recruitment tool, and was originally budgeted to cost $7 million. While the total cost of the game is undisclosed, the Army spent nearly $33 million on the project from 2000-2009.
The game is designed to be realistic and has undergone many revisions and updates. But according to some members of the intelligence community, it may be too realistic. According to a National Security Agency report, the game could serve as a combat simulation tool for terrorists because of the realistic weapons training and interwoven military operations and tactics that the game promotes. The game was also featured in Sen. Coburn’s 2014 Wastebook.
These five programs are relatively small examples of how the Pentagon’s “all of the above” strategy to national defense is wasting taxpayer dollars; but there are even bigger DoD money guzzler programs, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or the Littoral Combat Ship, both of which have serious cost-overruns and technological issues. More spending doesn’t necessarily mean more security, and the fact that the Pentagon has never been audited only feeds this problem.
The Pentagon has promised to be audit-ready for years, but has yet to follow through. Both chambers have a version of the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2015, which would incentivize the Pentagon to actually be audit ready by 2017, as required by law, or face penalties; but GovTrack gives the House and Senate versions of the bill a respective prognosis of 0 and 2 percent likelihood of being enacted.
The recent terror attacks across the world have emphasized the importance of an effective and cost-efficient national defense strategy. It’s time to remove ineffective programs from the Pentagon’s budget to match our spending to a military strategy that is appropriate for today’s threat environment.