Thursday, September 1, 2011

Military Waste

A recent report showed that the U.S. military paid nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in late fees because it didn't return leased shipping containers on time. Anyone who has scolded themselves for not getting a book back to the library in time to avoid paying a dime should be able to relate to this story, but very few people will sympathize. Three-quarters of a billion dollars is a lot of money to pay for being careless.

Another report made the shipping container waste look like small potatoes. The Commission on Wartime Contracting, which was created by Congress, just reported that in just the past ten years, in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, the military has wasted between thirty and sixty billion dollars. The commission couldn't be sure of the figure, because the military does such a sloppy job of keeping track of the money it spends. Which in itself is remarkable, since the military spends more tax money than any other part of government.

As upsetting as these reports may be, they missed the mark. In fact, military waste is much larger. The truth is that almost all U.S. military spending is a waste. In the past ten years or so, military spending has approximately doubled. The increases were mostly for weapons we didn't need and for a couple of wars we shouldn't have started. So, about half of what we are now spending on the military is a waste. We could have kept military spending at the level it was at ten years ago.

Looking back just a few more years, the biggest increases in military spending were for the Viet Nam war, which we didn't need to fight, and for more weapons we never needed. Take out those increases, and our military spending would be a small fraction of what it is now. Remove our nuclear arsenal, which is useless, and we see that military spending could be even less.

So, we could drastically reduce our military expenditures simply by getting rid of these unnecessary items. But wait, there's more. Our entire military structure is built around the assumption that we should always be prepared to start, fight, and win at least two major wars at once. We should have realized by now the foolishness of such a goal. We are in two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several smaller skirmishes, and it is pretty obvious we would be better off if we weren't. The simple truth is that if we hadn't been so prepared to fight, we wouldn't have been so quick to start the fights. Being less prepared is a better policy than being prepared.

Even being prepared to fight one major war is a foolhardy policy. Not so many years ago, that wasn't the central assumption of our military. We used to keep a relatively small standing military, and gear up in case of conflict. It worked fine. We won World War II that way.

Unless we look at the big picture, we will never make any progress in curtailing waste in the military. Every part of government and every private business has some waste. Waste is unavoidable, and although it can be managed, it can't be entirely eliminated. Estimates are that military waste is somewhere less than ten percent of the whole military budget. When you are looking at the trillions the military spends, even a percent or two is a lot of money, but it is still just a percent or two. Real savings can only be obtained by looking at the ninety-plus percent of the budget that isn't usually thought of as waste, but that should be. That's where the money is, and cutting there is the only way to really make a difference.

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