Trump Tweet Tip of Wasteful Pentagon Iceberg

The recent kerfuffle over President-elect Donald Trump’s tweet urging the cancellation of the plan to build two new Air Force One airplanes highlights a broader problem with the Pentagon’s organization and accounting.

It started on December 6 with a typical Trump tweet:

Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!

Trump later told reporters, “The plane is totally out of control.”

Boeing responded by downplaying the cost, releasing a statement claiming that it had a $170 million contract for the planes.

This is a true statement, but it only reveals Boeing’s current contract and not the costs associated with actually building the airplanes (which will almost certainly be the job of Boeing).

The debate continued when later in the day the Air Force put out a statement which used still another number, saying it has budgeted $2.7 billion in the Fiscal Year 2017 future years budget for the program. Even then, the Air Force conceded that estimate was only for research and development, not production, and that the costs are likely to change (read: increase) as the program matures.

Finally, John Donnelly, writing in CQ News (behind paywall), highlighted an Air Force document showing that the cost for two new planes — not the one claimed by Trump — would be at least $3.9 billion just through 2021. Even that estimate does not include the costs of operating the aircraft.

A totally separate question is how much needs to be spent to create what is essentially a mobile White House complete with anti-jamming equipment, anti-missile capacity, top of the line communications equipment, medical facilities and refueling capacity. Still another question is Trump’s motive for the tweet.

President-elect Trump’s tweet does highlight the tip of a more widespread problem: a consistent pattern of defense contractors low-balling estimates of a program, the Pentagon obfuscating the costs, and the program total mushrooming far beyond earlier estimates.

Examples are abundant, just google the F-35 or the Littoral Combat Ship. Or look to the Air Force’s plan to build new nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Estimates for the program have steadily increased from the $62.3 billion claimed by the Air Force in 2015 to $85 billion set by the Pentagon’s chief acquisition official. The Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) is reported to have produced an independent study estimating the cost of the project between $85- $100+ billion. History shows us that the higher estimate is usually the safest one when it comes to large Pentagon acquisition programs.

In other instances, no official cost estimates are available, as is the case with the new B-21 long range bomber to be built by Northup Grumman. The Air Force has refused to make the cost public. Earlier this year, Reuters reported an estimated cost of $80 billion for the total program cost.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain offered an amendment in his committee to require the Air Force to disclose the total program cost. He argued, “At a time of growing threats and fiscal constraints, American taxpayers want to know if the Pentagon is spending their hard-earned money effectively and efficiently.” He was slapped down by a vote of 19–7.

It was a bipartisan vote for concealment: Republicans James Inhofe, Jeff Sessions, Roger Wicker, Deb Fischer, Mike Rounds, Thom Tillis, and Mike Lee and Democrats Jack Reed, Bill Nelson, Richard Blumenthal, Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Kirsten Gillibrand, Joe Donnelly, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Martin Heinrich.

In their annual defense authorization bills, both the House and Senate Armed Services committees approved milder provisions to make public partial cost information, but the conference committee reconciling both bills ditched even those provisions.

Ironically, the Air Force One story came out the same day that the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon buried — or at the very least ignored — an internal study that found $125 billion of bureaucratic waste in the Pentagon budget. Why? According to the article, because the Pentagon feared the news would cause Congress to slash the Pentagon’s finances.

Defense hawks want to add billions of dollars to the Pentagon budget. But neither the congressional hawks nor the Pentagon have any real concept about how much the Pentagon spends, how wisely it makes decisions and how much it needs.

The Pentagon has become a logistical and administrative nightmare. It has never passed a full-fledged audit. At the very minimum, no program should proceed without annual and accurate estimates of total program costs, estimates checked by the internal Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office and by either the General Accounting Office or the Congressional Budget Office. Instead of expanding the budget, Congress should compel the Pentagon to focus on completing an audit and identifying resources already being wasted.

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