Newsletter

The Bunker: Congressional Ineptitude Continues

This week in The Bunker: Lawmakers keep bollixing up Pentagon funding; Marines become the first branch of the U.S. military to pass an audit; congressional watchdog highlights Defense Department sloth in four brief passages; and more. 

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: Lawmakers keep bollixing up Pentagon funding; Marines become the first branch of the U.S. military to pass an audit; congressional watchdog highlights Defense Department sloth in four brief passages; and more.

I. BAD DEFENSE BUDGET NEWS

Congress punts again on 2024 military funding

Sure, the Pentagon moves as slow as molasses in January – even in March. But its overseers in Congress are giving it a run for its money, literally, lately. Amid festering wars in the Middle East and Europe, in which the U.S. has deep interests, lawmakers remain incapable of coming up with a 2024 defense budget that could help influence their outcomes. On March 1, Congress passed its fourth short-term spending bill for the current fiscal year, which will let the Defense Department spend money … at 2023 levels … until March 22. The Biden Administration plans to drop its proposed fiscal year 2025 Pentagon budget on March 11. But it’s hard to build next year’s budget when this year’s remains MIA.

Beyond the merits of military spending, we all should agree that the folks running the U.S. armed forces deserve to know how much money they’re going to get to spend in the coming year, and actually have it before that year begins. But that is soRobert’s Rules of Order (Henry Martyn Robert was a 19th Century U.S. Army officer who sat on the boards of two organizations that, according to the Army itself, were crammed with “rancor” and “bickering.” These and other experiences inspired him to write a book on how such outfits should be run. He based his work, if you can believe it, on the rules governing the U.S. House of Representatives).

Almost halfway through fiscal year 2024, which began October 1, 2023, the Pentagon remains locked into last year’s spending priorities and amounts. If the logjam persists until April 30, the entire government — including the Pentagon — will have its budget slashed… by 1% (shades of Dr. Evil’s “$1 million”). But because some budget categories, like troop pay, almost surely will be protected from reductions, hardware programs will have to take, um, deeper cuts, perhaps like a catastrophic-slash-and-burn-scorched-earth-cataclysmic 2%.

Defense Department leaders recently warned that the potential 1% sequester would bar new production starts and lead to billions in funding “misalignments” that don’t mesh with the Pentagon’s latest needs. Under Secretary of the Navy Erik Raven said the planned overhaul of the USS Boise, an attack submarine, would be delayed. Of course, the Boise last deployed in 2015, and had its dive permit yanked in 2017. The Navy hasn’t been able to fix it because of prolonged delays at the Navy’s publicly owned shipyards. The service finally awarded a $1.2 billion contract to a private shipyard on February 23 to get the sub shipshape, nearly a decade since its last deployment.

Okay. So maybe the Pentagon and Congress deserve each other. But taxpayers sure don’t.

II. GOOD DEFENSE BUDGET NEWS

The Marines become the first branch to pass an audit

In a bit of good news for beleaguered Pentagon bean-counters, the Marine Corps has become the first branch of the U.S. military to pass a financial audit(PDF). Sure, the Marines are a rinky-dink military branch. Their 177,000 jarheads(PDF) represent only about 13% of the U.S. military’s 1.3 million active-duty troops. But it marks a significant milestone nonetheless.

Common sense suggests that if the Corps can account for its $46.3 billion in assets, the rest of the Pentagon — we’re looking at you, Army, Air Force, and Navy — should be able to do the same. Last fall, the Pentagon failed its sixth consecutive annual audit.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks congratulated the Corps on its accomplishment. “We owe the American people a clean financial bill of health,” she said. “DOD still has work to do, including continuing the modernization of our financial system and enhancing accountability of government furnished property, particularly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.” That last bit kind of rained on the Marines’ parade — they’re buying the F-35B, the most costly version — but it highlights the depth of the jet’s woes.

Navy veteran Luther Ray Abel dismissed the jokes that might naturally arise when pondering Marine math skills: “The audit requirement was to return all 64 crayon flavors to their box in order, or the devil dogs offered the auditors a lifetime supply of MRE jalapeño cheese spread to say things were square.” Instead, in a post on National Review’s website, he called the Marines’ clean audit “a win for unsuspected numeracy” and declared “the Marines are leading in accountability and dependability.”

Actually, this is the end of a long nightmare for the Corps. Ten years ago, the Pentagon proclaimed (for the first time) that the Marines had become the first branch to ever pass an audit. But the Defense Department stripped them of that achievement a year later when it concluded the Marines’ accounting was too sloppy to justify the claim.

III. BUSINESS AS USUAL

Perpetual Pentagon problems persist

Bully for the Marines, but one of the reasons the Defense Department regularly gets bamboozled is that critical faults go unaddressed for decades. The Government Accountability Office, which probes malfeasance across the government with admirable intrepidity, issued a report February 27 highlighting the Pentagon’s inability to reduce the risk of fraud.

“We have identified long-standing issues associated with DOD procurement,” the congressional watchdog agency said in its whopping 143-page inquiry(PDF). “Fraud poses a significant risk to program integrity and erodes public trust in the government.” It summed up, in these four brief excerpts, a major reason the Pentagon can’t get a grip on contractors fleecing it:

  • In 1990, we placed DOD acquisitions on our inaugural High Risk List due in part to DOD continually buying higher-cost systems that substantially exceed original estimates and do not meet the intended capabilities.
  • In 1992, we added DOD’s contract management to the High Risk List due to challenges in its operational contract support and a fragmented approach to acquiring service contracts.
  • In 2005, we placed DOD’s approach to business transformation on the High Risk List because of weaknesses in operations intended to support the warfighter, including processes related to managing contracts and weapon systems acquisitions.
  • These three areas remain on our High Risk List, which was most recently updated in April 2023.

Molasses forever.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Grim retirement

The Air Force’s decision to mothball A-10 close air support warplanes isn’t so much about the aircraft. Rather, it’s about their highly trained pilots whose skills will evaporate, jeopardizing the lives of grunts on the ground, POGO’s Dan Grazier argued March 3 in the National Interest.

Droning on…

The Air Force is seeking a flock of at least 1,000 pilotless aircraft “to help deter China,” the Wall Street Journal reported March 3.

Concrete results

The service is also studying the use of “biocement,” made by mixing bacteria with road salt and urea, to speedily build runways and roads on isolated Pacific islands for…well, you know, David Roza reported February 29 in Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Thanks for climbing into The Bunker this week. Kindly send this along to colleagues and comrades and encourage them to sign up here.