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To Push for Meaningful Defense Cuts, We Need Unusual Partnerships
Senator Tom Coburn. (Photo: Talk Radio News Service / Flickr)

To Push for Meaningful Defense Cuts, We Need Unusual Partnerships

Senator Tom Coburn. (Photo: Talk Radio News Service / Flickr)

Part of the Series

If you want to know more about Dina Rasor’s solutions on Pentagon spending, check out her Truthout Reader eBook, Pentagon Solutions: How to Actually Get Control of Defense Spending.

The investigative journalist Andrew Cockburn and the Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are from two very different worlds, even though their last names have the same pronunciation. Cockburn, a journalist with whom I have worked for years, came from Great Britain to investigate the Pentagon and other aspects of national security. His recent book on former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld is evidence of his in-depth reporting. However, one of his most amazing works was in the 1980s at the height of cold war to debunk the Pentagon’s scary predictions of a strong and dangerous Soviet Union army. Among his investigation techniques was to go out and interview former Soviet solders to find out that much of the highly vaulted Soviet army was a paper tiger. Interestingly, the Soviet defense agency and the KGB, as well as the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA, denounced his book, The Threat, as inaccurate, mainly, I believe, because it threatened the need for both sides’ enormous cold war military budgets. Cockburn has spent a lifetime looking at the DoD bureaucracy and the failure of many of its weapon systems.

Senator Coburn is a doctor who holds very conservative views of how the world works. Having served in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate, he is considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, especially on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. He has supported Alan Keyes for president. However, he is also sometimes seen as a cantankerous maverick, infuriating his Republican colleagues by voting against funding for the Iraq war and calling for a defense budget freeze in 2010. He also has defied Grover Norquist and his no-taxes pledge, saying that taxes were needed as part of the solution to the deficit problem. His other surprising defiance of his party’s doctrine was his befriending of President Obama when he served in the Senate. Coburn told Bloomberg News in 2011 about his friendship with the president: “I love the man. I think he’s a neat man. I don’t want him to be president, but I still love him. He is our president. He’s my president. And I disagree with him adamantly on 95 percent of the issues, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a great relationship. And that’s a model people ought to follow.” This statement surely sent the Obama-is-a-Muslim crowd into fits. But Coburn is clearly a true “severe” conservative who serves as a Southern Baptist deacon at his church in Oklahoma.

Solutions - Making Government Work

However, both of these men recently have been saying that there is a desperate need to get control of the Pentagon and cut the defense budget as part of the solution to our country’s budget and deficit problems. They both understand how hard it will be to change the culture in the Congress and the DoD to really reform the military, and they realize the government must cut some of the huge deluge of money that is going to the DoD.

Both of them realize that part of the problem is military brass who are too pampered and too great in number. In his December 5 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Senator Coburn addressed this issue with his remark that we have about one admiral for every ship, showing that we are getting fewer weapons but at greater cost, and that we have too many admirals and generals for the size of our force.

Cockburn similarly has written about the problems with our military brass, recently highlighted by the General Petraeus mess, which leads to a bigger problem. Here is what he wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial this week:

Lavish four-star lifestyles, complete with beribboned uniforms, private jets, police motorcycle escorts, cooks and valets, sound very much like militarism, defined by its historian, Alfred Vagts, as “transcending true military purposes … displaying the qualities of caste and cult.” In contrast, Vagts defined the “military way” as fighting and winning efficiently “with the least expenditure of blood and treasure.”

Taxpayers can easily understand that cooks and valets don’t have much to do with fighting, and would be happy to see them tossed off the cliff. But what’s the big difference between a military servant raking the leaves on an admiral’s lawn and a fighter plane that can’t fight or an impressive-looking warship that leaks? They don’t pose much of a threat to the enemy, but they do make admirals, generals and associated defense corporations happy (somebody has to supply the leaf rake).

So it’s really not surprising that defense officials in and out of uniform are issuing ever more fervent jeremiads in the face of threatened military budget cuts of $500 billion over the next 10 years if we go over the fiscal cliff. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compares the cuts (which would bring spending back to the 2007 level) to “shooting ourselves in the head” while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaks gloomily of a “hollow force.”

This sounds pretty bad, except that much of that $500 billion they are fighting to save is earmarked for items such as the F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter, which currently consumes no less that 38% of the entire defense procurement budget.

Credible estimates by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight put the overall lifetime cost of the plane at $1.5 trillion, more than the annual gross domestic product of Spain.

Even were the aircraft a miracle of combat efficiency, such staggering expense would be unpalatable. But 20 years of development has produced a fighter that is more sluggish, with a shorter range and 50% less payload, than the F-16 it is slated to replace. Potential foes fearful of its advertised radar-evading stealth features will find Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms export agency, happy to sell them a mobile, low-frequency stealth-defeating radar for $10 million each.

When I interviewed Cockburn this week about the need to cut the military budget and how the military brass and their frightened civilian leaders are nearly hysterical over cuts that would send us back to the 2007 DoD budget levels, he recalled what the Duke of Wellington said when he reviewed his own troops: “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.” Cockburn knows that reform is a necessary but hard road to travel. (He has admitted to me with great humor that his direct ancestor, British Rear Adm. George Cockburn, gave the orders to burn down Washington in the War of 1812, but he just would like to reform it.)

One would not expect that Senator Coburn, with his conservative background, would have the same concerns and convictions to reform the Pentagon. However, on the December 5 “Morning Joe,” he said that at least $50-60 billion could be cut each year from the DoD budget without hurting the defense of the country. His statement startled Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, but neither questioned his assertions. But Senator Coburn has done much more than just throw out budget numbers, as many politicians do these days; he has actually produced several reports outlining how he would carve out billions of defense dollars. His reports, “Back in Black: A Deficit Reduction Plan,” published in July 2011, has a large section on reducing defense spending by $1 trillion in ten years, and his more recent November report, “Department of Everything” looks at all the non-military costs that the DoD has in its budget.

The “Department of Everything” report is important because it demonstrates the waste in the DoD in a way that the general public can understand, just like my past exposés of $435 hammers and $7,622 coffee brewers. I don’t agree with everything in his reports because I am very wary of outsourcing defense to contractors, which can cost three times the amount of using government workers and doesn’t work in a war scenario. However, many of his examples shows a DoD bureaucracy with way too much money to spend.

Senator Coburn has drilled down to many of the problems that plague attempts to not only reform the DoD, but also to cut the enormous budget, which is, ironically, corrupting and eroding national security and military effectiveness. While he doesn’t go as far as saying that we should cancel the F-35 fighter plane that is sucking the life out of the DoD procurement budget, he does suggest that the Navy and Marine versions of the plane should be eliminated. Many of Coburn’s Republican military counterparts would not expect a senator with his voting record to write about the DoD in this way:

Despite the sacrifice, heroism, and professionalism our military personnel show in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s defenses are decaying, despite increasing budgets. The ongoing corrosion and growing expense have been with us for decades, and span numerous presidents and political parties.

Over the last thirty years, Congress increased annual appropriations to the Department of Defense by about 44 percent in constant, inflation adjusted dollars. Today’s non-war defense budget is larger than the total defense budget during the Vietnam War when we had over 500,000 troops fighting overseas.

However, this significant increase has not increased the size and strength of our military as traditionally measured. Despite higher levels of funding, active duty troop levels have decreased by 30 percent, the number of Navy ships is down 45 percent, and the Air Force’s fighter and attack aircraft are down more than 50 percent. Former Secretary Robert Gates noted in a speech last year that current submarines and amphibious ships are three times as expensive as their equivalents during the 1980s and we have fewer of them.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases an annual report of cost overruns of major weapon systems. Between 2001 and 2008, they found nearly $300 billion in cost overruns and schedule delays for major defense acquisition programs.

Unlike the recent public relations campaign of some defense contractor CEOs who claim they are willing to make the sacrifice to cut a tiny slice of the DoD budget, Senator Coburn is willing to continue to buck his party and work with others on this narrow area of agreement to promote significant cuts to the defense budget and attempts to reform the system. If you don’t cut the money that is corrupting the institution, those within the institution won’t think you are serious about reform – the money is the fuel for the waste and fraud.

Cockburn and Coburn get this, and based on years of my work to reform defense, I know that you need journalists like Cockburn to drill down to get the hidden facts on DoD spending, and you need politicians like Senator Coburn to work with anyone – progressive, moderate or conservative – in a coalition to try to not only reform the DoD but also to cut the grossly bloated money supply that corrupts its mission.

Senator Coburn and other senators, including Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, just passed language (see below*) on the evening of December 4 trying to get the DoD to pass an audit by 2017 with remedies if the DoD fails. I can already think of many ways this amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act can be thwarted by the wily DoD bureaucracy, especially by the type of fiscal audit that they are using. However, it is a start to try to tighten the vice on DoD oversight of its money (or total lack thereof), but such measure may need to be stricter and more canny to really get at the DoD’s money mess.

If Senator Coburn really wants to get some traction on cutting defense money and forcing reform, he and other senators should invite Cockburn to sit down with them for lunch in the Senate dining room to hear about what he has learned from his years of digging in the national security arena. They will learn a lot, and they will also enjoy Cockburn’s unique knowledge and humorous wit.

As I use to tell my staff at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) during our combat against DoD waste and overspending during the Reagan years, the DoD and its protectors in Congress are a large and powerful force that requires people of very different backgrounds to set aside any of their political differences and bind together in a pact to beat back years of DoD spending and mismanagement through generations of presidents and Congresses.

Armed with Cockburn’s knowledge, Senator Coburn may be just the person to build this coalition in the Senate and the House of Representatives. He doesn’t plan to run for reelection in 2016, which frees him up to do the right thing and encourage other members from both sides of the aisle to think about finally getting control of the DoD budget and find the money that has been lost for years.

Here is the summary of the amendment to the NDAA that the Senate passed on the evening of December 4:

Consequences for failure to obtain a clean audit opinion in 2017

If the Department of Defense fails to obtain a clean audit opinion in 2017 it will result in the creation of a separate Chief Management Officer (CMO) of the Department of Defense. Currently the Deputy Secretary of Defense is ‘dual-hatted’ as the Chief Management Officer. This role would be split and the new, separate Senate-confirmed CMO would report directly to the Secretary of Defense on the areas of financial management, business transformation, and other areas where the GAO has identified the Pentagon as “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.

In 2007 when the Government Accountability Office proposed the creation of a separate CMO, the Department of Defense opposed and said that the Deputy Secretary of Defense could handle both jobs. Five years later and with the Department of Defense still on GAO’s High Risk list for financial management and business transformation, the Deputy Secretary of Defense has not fixed these issues. If this provision is enacted, one of the CMO’s jobs will be to get the Department of Defense auditable. This section also mandates that Chief Financial Officers of the Departments of Defense, Army, Navy, and Air Force shall be required to have supervised a federal agency or public company that received a clean audit opinion at least once.

Finally, this section mandates that if the Department of Defense fails to obtain a clean audit opinion that the Defense Finance and Accounting Service will be moved from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Treasury. The Treasury already disburses funding on behalf of all other federal agencies and ought to do so for the entire federal government. This provision will also allow the Department of the Treasury five years to plan for this transfer which would not occur until 2018 at the earliest. Additionally the Defense Contract Audit Agency will move from under the Chief Financial Officer to the Chief Management Officer.

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