Holding the Government Accountable

What If Santa Swooshed Down the Pentagon’s Chimney?

How to make the holidays happier and the U.S. military better
Santa drops in on the Pentagon with gifts to make the U.S. military smarter and slimmer. (Photo: U.S. Air Force / Lakisha Croley)

Ho! Ho! Ho! The tradition of having the U.S. Air Force track Santa’s Christmas Eve circumnavigation of the globe dates back to 1955, amid the chilliest days of the Cold War. But it’s firmly up-to-date in the 21st Century. These good-hearted volunteers (other costs of the program are paid for by corporations, not taxpayers)—created to detect a Soviet attack on the U.S.—have their own Twitter handle (@NoradSanta), and smartphone apps to trace St. Nicholas across the sky. And they also have a line of merchandise that’ll warm the cockles of your heart (including a nifty personalized note from Santa for only $3.95).

Best of all, they show you all the goods without saying how much they cost—just like the real Pentagon!

But why should kids have all the fun? Given that it’s that gift-giving time of year, let’s yank on the reins and turn Santa’s sleigh toward the nation’s capital—and have him rappel straight down into the Pentagon chimney (pay no attention to that recent Air Force unpleasantness declaring—via Twitter, no less—that Santa isn’t real).

Little children—most of them nice, but a few (you know who you are) naughty—have been adding to the list for awhile now. No, this isn’t the traditional and infamous Pentagon wish list, where the brass tells Congress what it wants with every extra billion lawmakers are willing to stuff into its stocking beyond the White House’s request. Rather, this is a list of some of the things Santa-believers think would make for a smarter and slimmer U.S. military. (You’d be surprised, when it comes to defense matters, how often those two travel together):

The Marines need to get back to being the cheap and robust outfit they’ve always been. When the Navy ordered souped-up versions of its F-18 fighter, the corps kept flying the older model. When the Army grounded its UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopters for flashier UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apaches, the corps stuck with the tried and true Vietnam-era choppers. We can recall talk of the Marines as the only service retreading tires for the motor pool. But for the last generation, they’ve become enamored of the high-tech toys (sorry!) more typical of the Air Force and Navy. That explains their costly vertical-lift sugar plums (the V-22 tilt-rotor and F-35 fighter), as well as the ill-fated Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle—a $16 billion fleet of swimming tanks—that sank in 2011.

The Navy needs to find more ships under its Christmas tree. They just need to be smaller. The notion of sending an aircraft carrier and its warplanes, costing close to $20 billion (and at least 5,000 sailors) into harm’s way in a world increasing crammed with lethal drones and long-range armor-piercing missiles is crazy. It will only become more so with every passing holiday season. Make the ships smaller and outfit them with drones and missiles that don’t risk pilots’ lives. Shrinking huge flattops also would allow the sea service to scale back on the armadas of surface warships and submarines that now accompany such behemoths on their travels worldwide.

Let’s give the same gift to the Air Force. Face it: big bureaucracies move at the speed of molasses in December. The fact that the Air Force is even weighing the wisdom of making its new B-21 bomber pilotless tells you all you need to know. It means, first of all, that it will be manned, and, second of all, that it shouldn’t be. Pilots are increasingly unnecessary and costly—both keeping them alive in the cockpit and having the rescue resources in the on-deck circle to come to their aid if they’re shot down. One exception: the A-10 Warthog, which grunts on the ground rely on if they find themselves in extremis.

Congress also needs to be the Pentagon’s non-secret Santa by giving it a predictable, on-time budget that allows taxpayer dollars to be spent more efficiently. Maybe two years at a time.

Speaking of ground-pounders, let’s face it: the Army could use a gift of respect. As the biggest of the military services, and the one with the most burdensome bureaucracy, it reflects the best and worst of the nation from which it is drawn. But it is nothing if not steadfast. Every once in awhile it even surprises, like the time it pulled out of the V-22 program in 1983 (when it was still called the JVX, for “joint advanced vertical lift aircraft, experimental”). Granted, that was nearly 35 years ago, but it was such a startling decision some of us remember it like it was yesterday.

And speaking of platforms, the nuclear triad needs a beribboned gift taking away two of its three legs. All we need are the Navy’s boomer submarines safely hidden beneath the waves.

Congress needs the gift of guts so it can declare war, which it hasn’t done since June 4, 1942—more than 75 years ago (that was against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, following up on 1941’s declarations against Japan, Germany and Italy). How a supposedly democratic nation can fight for 16+ years in a far-away land without a formal declaration of war boggles the mind. And Congress also needs to be the Pentagon’s non-secret Santa by giving it a predictable, on-time budget that allows taxpayer dollars to be spend more efficiently. Maybe two years at a time.

Advocates of more defense spending should get the gift of better arguments. The old saw that we’re “only” spending 3 percent of the gross national product on the military makes no sense: we spend what we need to spend. Our current path has us spending more than the Cold War average, and more than the world’s next seven most expensive militaries combined. Those two facts require a political, and fiscal, reckoning. Especially when we’re not winning the wars we choose to fight.

John Sokpo, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for the past five years, deserves a sackful of good news from that forlorn nation so he can share it with the American people. After all—speaking of overspending for the holidays—the American people have spent nearly $1 trillion on Afghanistan since 2001. Sopko is no slouch when it comes to playing the press, but he also is working in a target-rich environment. He has revealed a $486 million investment in cargo planes that rarely flew—most ended up being sold for scrap for $32,000—and a $36 million military outpost that was never used. He has reported on hospitals that never should have been built and $3 million spent on eight patrol boats that never even made it to Afghanistan.

It sure would be nice if the Pentagon could find more allies under its tree come Christmas morn. And a president who led in that effort. President Trump deserves presents of unilateral coal and his reliance on military might over diplomacy do the men and women wearing U.S. military uniforms no favors. They ultimately cost the nation in both financial and geo-strategic spheres. At the end of the day, the good guys have to team up to beat the bad guys. And, in the final analysis, we all fall in to one of those two camps. You may not care for crotchety Uncle Donald at your holiday gathering, but you still need him, and other relations both favored and feared, to pass the gravy when the roasted goose is too dry.

NORAD Santa Tracker
The North American Aerospace Defense Command and its predecessor agencies have been tracking Santa’s travels for more than 60 Christmas Eves. (Illustration: U.S. Air Force)

The nation needs a gift of a genuine national-security debate, and not the regularly-issued reports rubber-stamped by the National-Security Establishment. Since prevailing in the Cold War nearly 30 years ago (without a shot being fired, nasty proxy wars excepted), we’ve repeatedly been served up ossified National Security Strategies, Quadrennial Defense Reviews and Nuclear Posture Reviews, all frozen in amber. Yet despite these dreary docs, we should buy thank-you gifts for the Three Wise Marines—retired general and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and retired general John Kelly, White House chief of staff—for their steady hand on the tiller. And, even though it goes without saying, we’ll say it: lots of gifts to U.S. troops, vets and their families!

As we settle our brains for a long winter’s nap, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to read the Military Industrial Circus during our inaugural year. We’ll be back in mid-January.