At a lunchtime discussion of the impending election, I mentioned that while of course I was excited by the prospect of a Democratic administration, and thrilled by the idea of a black president, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the candidate himself. I’ll try to write more about that this weekend.
I’m also concerned by the prospect of the Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress. (Wow, as he dizzily floats through a sea of red herrings, McCain stumbled into a real issue.) What are they going to do about the military budget, for example?
A special report in the new issue of my magazine, “What’s Wrong With Weapons Acquisitions?”, by Bob Charette, couldn’t present the scary question of military procurement more starkly.
The report’s thesis is that while the acquisitions process has been troubled for decades, it is now reaching a crisis point. The amount of money being wasted is staggering: the Pentagon spends $21 million every hour to develop and procure new weapons. The U.S. defense budget for fiscal 2009 is $488 billion, the largest in real terms since World War II and 6% higher than this year’s. And that doesn’t cover combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are presented separately in the federal budge.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of major acquisition programs in the pipeline are either enormously over-budget or well behind schedule — or both. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a global economic meltdown, throwing away many billions of taxpayers’ dollars would be unacceptable, stupid, and now, completely unsustainable.
As the report notes, with a new administration coming to office in January, we may finally have the chance to make much-needed changes. “Reform will have to come,” Charette writes. “Each day that the acquisition process continues to operate ineffectively and inefficiently is another day that the troops are not getting what they need, the country is less secure, and much-needed programs, both civilian and military, don’t get funded.”
Bob Charette spent two years putting this report together. He interviewed dozens of current and former acquisitions experts at the Pentagon as well as defense analysts, historians, and academics. He read scores of books, hundreds of reports, and countless newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. His extensive research and depth of understanding really show in his writing. Bob’s report is comprehensive, compelling, and a good read.
The question is, will the new Obama administration read it? And will they act on it? We’ve seen the Democrats in Congress feast off the fat underbelly of the budgetary hog with the same gusto as the Republicans. They all have military contractors in their districts, other companies whose projects can be funded through the trading of porkbarrel chits, and hungry reelection mouths to feed.
We’ve already been given a taste of Obama the Realist, whose not-nearly-universal medical care proposal doesn’t redesign the healthcare system but rather shores up a few of its most obvious weaknesses. One is reminded of the Army Corps of Engineers doing touch-up work on the New Orleans levee system in the early 2000s. If Obama can’t really take on Aetna and Cigna, how will he he fare against the combined forces of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, BAE, SAIC, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the entire VFW?
We’ve seen, for better and for worse, presidents pulled across the political divide, their very weaknesses turning into strengths, their strengths needing to be shored up as if they were weaknesses. A Texan integrated the South, red-baiter Nixon went to China, Carter sent out helicopters on fool’s errands in Iran, Clinton yielded to the DMCA. And it was a five-star general who warned us about the military-industrial complex. Can Obama, already afraid to appear weak on defense, be strong on the question of procurement? The need, as Charette eloquently shows, is dire.