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Holding the Government Accountable

They’re Baaack! The Military Resurrects Its Wish Lists

Gates’ defeat of them was short-lived
A Marine F-35, the most-wished-for item on the Pentagon’s unfunded priorities list, practices a night-time landing. photo

The good-government types in the Pentagon and elsewhere who don’t like the military services sending budgetary “wish lists” seeking more weapons to Congress thought they had killed this kleptomaniac kudzu on then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s watch. But the wish lists are kind of like the Taliban in Afghanistan: you keep killing them, but they keep coming back.

Skeptics call them “wish lists,” but the military prefers to call them “unfunded priorities (or requirements, or needs…take your pick) lists.” And, in the years following 9/11, the military increasingly acted like kids who appeal to Mom after Dad has already spurned their requests for bigger allowances. Not surprisingly, lawmakers—in whose districts many of those arms are built—have been only too happy to oblige, saying the Pentagon pooh-bahs are skimping on vital defense needs.

The wish-list fight reveals just how malleable gold-braided generals and admirals are to strong civilian control, and just how flimsy supposed ironclad national-security requirements actually are.

Gates began reining in the practice in 2009. Not only did such haphazard add-ons represent tens of billions in unneeded spending, but funding such weapons outside normal channels was leading to an unbalanced military force, jeopardizing the never-ending quest for the military services to fight wars jointly instead of engaging in internal budgetary guerrilla warfare with one another.

His success at doing away with the lists highlighted a couple of rarely-acknowledged truths: just how malleable gold-braided generals and admirals are to strong civilian control, and just how flimsy supposed ironclad national-security requirements actually are.

But with Gates gone, the insidious practice has returned with a vengeance. The services say they need $32 billion more than the $650 billion that the civilian running the Pentagon (that would be Defense Secretary Jim “Home Alone” Mattis), the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House (whose current occupant has pledged to rebuild the U.S. military), have seen fit to give them. The Army wants $12.7 billion more (that works out to about $27,000 per soldier); the Air Force $10.7 billion ($33,000 per airman); the Navy $5.5 billion ($17,000 per sailor); and the Marines $3.1 billion ($17,000 per jarhead).

If you were like me as a kid, “Santa” would give you one big wish, which you might get if you’d been good enough. The F-35 fighter, the most costly weapon system in world history, top the lists of the Air Force (it wants 14 more planes for $1.76 billion), the Marines (seeking $617 million for four more F-35s), and the Navy (asking for four more aircraft for $540 million). The prices differ by service because, while they’re all F-35s, at least in name, their capabilities vary. (And the Army, the only service lacking the F-35, doesn’t want to be left out: it is seeking $1 billion for 21 additional helicopters).

Surprisingly, the Navy’s wish list doesn’t include a single ship. But that seeming omission doesn’t faze the sea service’s private boosters at the Annapolis-based U.S. Naval Institute. “The official FY 2018 budget request sent to lawmakers on May 23 was filtered through the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget,” it said June 2, “and therefore doesn’t necessarily wholly reflect the Navy’s needs.” That’s a breath-taking statement. No military budget in the 40 years I have been covering the trade has ever got “wholly” what it wanted. Beyond that, the attitude reflects an amazing dismissal of civilian control of the military and a wholly elastic definition of “needs.”

Gates, a bureaucratic knife-fighter after more than a quarter-century at the CIA and the White House’s National Security Council, spelled out how slippery the military’s requirements can be in 2010:

“The problem is, `requirement’ has a particular military definition in terms of something that is required to accomplish a certain mission. And it’s a little bit like one of the things I go back and forth with on the services is their assessment of risk,” he said. “The risk isn’t in terms of whether you can accomplish the mission; the risk is in terms of whether you can accomplish the mission in the timeline that the plan calls for. So the risk is to the plan, not getting the job done.”

The military—whose first rule in war-fighting is “to git there fustest with the mostest”—always wants more of pretty much everything. That leaves it up to the civilians running the Defense Department, backed by the White House, to balance risks and requirements.

John Hamre, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian during the Clinton administration, hailed Gates’ gutsy stance. It’s “hugely important,” he told me at the time. “Gates said `I want to see your list and you better not have on it something you didn't ask me to fund,’” Hamre said. “This was real leadership.”

The military disagreed. "It's not a wish list," General Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, said back then. "It's an unfunded requirements list.”

Gates wasn’t buying it: “If you can point out a gap, or an unfulfilled requirement, then you've got the justification for however-many-billion dollars you want.”

John Donnelly of Congressional Quarterly called the wish lists “the institutionalization of pork” in 2012. Two years later, POGO’s own Winslow Wheeler, a bloodied veteran of defense-budget battles following 30 years as an aide on Capitol Hill, declared that Gates had prevailed. “An astute politician and skilled bureaucratic infighter, the Bush holdover began in 2009 to require the Joint Chiefs to show him the lists before they went anywhere,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. “Then he simply told the chiefs to take almost everything—and then everything—off the lists. The duplicity stopped—and everyone knew who was in charge in the Pentagon.”

But his victory didn’t stick. After Gates left the Pentagon in 2011, his successors lacked the stomach for the fight. And they weren’t just fighting the military services, but Congress as well.

Lawmakers—who ultimately hold the purse strings—like the ability to hand out carbon-fiber bonbons to their favorite campaign contributors. “Until recently, Congress has had the benefit of being provided with an ‘unfunded priorities list’ from each of the service components to assist with our constitutional responsibility to authorize and appropriate funds for the defense of our nation,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., wrote then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014. “The information derived from the list offers important details about which programs can be accelerated or receive reprogrammed funding in order to provide added value to commanders in the field.”

About the same time, the then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee sent letters to the nation’s top 14 military officers. “Unfortunately, this well-established tradition of providing unfunded priority lists has waned in recent years, as defense leadership restricted the services and commands from providing this information,” since-retired Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., wrote. “Please identify the programs and requirements that have not been selected for funding in the President’s budget request but are necessary to fulfill a validated requirement or combatant commander priority and that you would have recommended for inclusion in the President’s budget request had additional resources been available or had the requirement emerged before the budget was submitted.”

It was like tossing chum into a shark tank. “The re-emergence of Pentagon `wish lists’ to Congress has ignited a fierce lobbying battle among some of the world’s largest contractors, who are now vying to supply the yet unfunded equipment, weaponry and services,” The Hill newspaper reported as the practice resumed.

Back in 2009, I hailed Gates for going after the wish lists. “And in going after them so directly, Gates is continuing his campaign to bring fundamental change to the Pentagon,” I declared.

Change, I added, “that will last beyond his tenure.”

Gates indeed may have been a hero. But this reporter, obviously, was a fool.