From spending $150 million on private villas for a handful of personnel in Afghanistan to blowing $2.7 billion on an air surveillance balloon that doesn’t work, the latest revelations of waste at the Pentagon are just the most recent howlers in a long line of similar stories stretching back at least five decades. Other hot-off-the-presses examples would include the Army’s purchase of helicopter gears worth $500 each for $8,000 each and the accumulation of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons components that will never be used. And then there’s the one that would have to be everyone’s favorite Pentagon waste story: the spending of $50,000 to investigate the bomb-detecting capabilities of African elephants. (And here’s a shock: They didn’t turn out to be that great!) The elephant research, of course, represents chump change in the Pentagon’s wastage sweepstakes and in the context of its $600-billion-plus budget, but think of it as indicative of the absurd lengths the Department of Defense will go to when what’s at stake is throwing away taxpayer dollars.
Keep in mind that the above examples are just the tip of the tip of a titanic iceberg of military waste. In a recent report I did for the Center for International Policy, I identified 27 recent examples of such wasteful spending totaling over $33 billion. And that was no more than a sampling of everyday life in the 21st-century world of the Pentagon.
The staggering persistence and profusion of such cases suggests that it’s time to rethink what exactly they represent. Far from being aberrations in need of correction to make the Pentagon run more efficiently, wasting vast sums of taxpayer dollars should be seen as a way of life for the Department of Defense. And with that in mind, let’s take a little tour through the highlights of Pentagon waste from the 1960s to the present.
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The first person to bring widespread public attention to the size and scope of the problem of Pentagon waste was Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force deputy for management systems. In the late 1960s, he battled that service to bring to light massive cost overruns on Lockheed’s C-5A transport plane. He risked his job, and was ultimately fired, for uncovering $2 billion in excess expenditures on a plane that was supposed to make the rapid deployment of large quantities of military equipment to Vietnam and other distant conflicts a reality.
The cost increase on the C-5A was twice the price Lockheed had initially promised, and at the time one of the largest cost overruns ever exposed. It was also an episode of special interest then, because Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been pledging to bring the efficient business methods he had learned as Ford Motors president to bear on the Pentagon’s budgeting process.
No such luck, as it turned out, but Fitzgerald’s revelations did, at least, spark a decade of media and congressional scrutiny of the business practices of the weapons industry. The C-5A fiasco, combined with Lockheed’s financial troubles with its L-1011 airliner project, led the company to approach Congress, hat in hand, for a $250 million government bailout. Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, who had helped bring attention to the C-5A overruns, vigorously opposed the measure, and came within one vote of defeating it in the Senate.