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Skullduggery in the Pentagon's Budget

Rumsfeld’s AutoCarterization

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

A recent report in "Aviation Week" (Sept 25, 2006) leads by saying,

"The U.S. Air Force is planning to reduce funding for pilot training and construction around the globe, although Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley says he hopes to keep procurement and research accounts intact as the Pentagon builds its Fiscal 2008 budget".

This is one of the recent spate of reports documenting shortfalls in the Department of Defense’s $500+ billion budget. Predictably, the courtiers of Versailles on the Potomac are preparing for the silly season as they form their battle lines with Congress.

Assuming the Aviation Week report is correct (as it usually is on matters relating to future cash flows to the defense industry), Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley is either stupid or incredibly ignorant … or, more likely, supremely cynical, because he is making exactly the same dysfunctional decision his predecessors made in the early to mid 1970s, which inevitably created the readiness horrors of the "hollow military" that hosed President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.


Back to the Future.

The milcrats in the Pentagon are busily preparing to Carterize Bush and Rumsfeld by blaming them for the Pentagon’s budgetary mess (partly justified of course). At the same time, Moseley’s priorities show how they are moving resolutely to insure the current budget crunch worsens over time. This will set the stage for a crisis, the resolution of which, will require an increase in future budgets. In the simplest terms, they will do this by robbing the readiness accounts to protect the high cost cold-war turkeys in the modernization pipeline. The fact that the Pentagon’s accounting system can not pass the simple annual audits required by law (Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 as amended) will make it easier to hide the details of the flim flam operation.

What is truly amazing is that this kind of budgetary skullduggery is happening once again:

(1) after so much documentation describing its disastrous effects to the soldiers and to the American taxpayer … and

(2) that it is happening when much higher budgets funding are paying for much smaller military forces.

One thing is certain, however, Moseley’s gambit illustrates the post-cold-war staying power of the Military–Industrial–Congressional Complex (MICC) in the hall of mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.

Carterization of an incumbent Administration is a recurring theme in the political-economy of Versailles. One could argue that Kennedy pioneered it when he accused Eisenhower underfunding defense and thereby permitting the emergence the (phoney) missile gap as well as the evisceration of our conventional forces. But the post-Vietnam era to the present is by far the easiest to document.

Many readers will recall the political furor over the emergence of the "hollow military" in the late 1970s. At that time I had just taken a job in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where my boss, Thomas Christie, hired me to figure out the underlying causes of the readiness problems that were creating a budgetary crisis in the Pentagon. With the help of others, including two especially talented patriots, Frank McDonald (of my office) and Charlie Murphy (who worked on Capital Hill for Congressman Jack Edwards R-Ala) we worked on this problem for three years and determined the fundamental cause of the problem was the self inflicted wound of robbing the readiness accounts to "modernize" with ever more expensive and complex weapons. This decision making bias toward overly complex, often unworkable technology resulted in a phenomenon that I called the "rising costs of low readiness." These costs included:

(1) constantly shrinking inventories of weapons and combat units over the long term, despite policies which said we were trying to increase force size,

(2) aging inventories of increasingly complex and unreliable weapons despite budget priorities that emphasized modernization, and

(3) continuing pressures to reduce readiness accounts (training and purchases of spare parts and ammunition, etc), despite policies that said readiness was our top priority, in order to free up money to pay for the higher cost weapons that were creating the first two problems.

As we learned later, all this was lubricated by a corrupt accounting/information system that made understanding the pattern of decision making almost impossible. The self-inflicted nature of the causes and evolution of these decision making pathologies were first described in my report Defense Facts of Life, a secret report written in the late 1970s, which was declassified by the Pentagon and released to the public in 1980 after Senator Sam Nunn, the former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made an issue of it at Casper Weinberger’s confirmation hearing to be Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. It was eventually published together with its follow-on report, The Plans Reality Mismatch, by Westview Press in 1986. Both reports were subjects of many congressional hearings. The Pentagon never rebutted either report in a formal written rebuttal.

Milcrats in today’s Pentagon, like General Moseley, can not claim ignorance because, as junior officers they did not have access to this information. The Pentagon’s leadership was warned repeatedly over the next two decades about the problem of uncontrolled cost growth creating a programmatic meltdown: Now the chickens are coming home to roost again. What we are seeing today is the rising cost of low readiness writ large, even worse than I predicted repeatedly in a host of reports and op-eds throughout the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the Defense Budget Time Bomb and my last testimony to Congress in 2002. Most of these writings are still readily available to anyone who wants to read to them at the Defense and the National Interest website. Finally, these decison-making pathologies were widely covered by the press over the years, including being the subject of a Time cover story (Mar 7, 1983) and an hour long special edition of Bill Moyers Now (August 2003, which won an Emmy for being the best news magazine TV show in 2003).

Some apologists for the collective behavior of Versailles on the Potomac might be tempted to argue that the current meltdown of the Pentagon’s budget is the inevitable consequence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This would be tantamount to calling the President a liar. Mr. Bush has been paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with supplemental budget appropriations (money added to the core Pentagon budget each year). He has said repeatedly that he will give the military whatever it needs to accomplish its mission. Therefore, milcrats like Moseley in the Pentagon can not say now that these wars are the primary cause of the current budget crunch, unless they are willing to say they went along with a Bush strategy to deliberately underfund the supplemental budgets paying for the war. This is especially true in the case of the Air Force, which always goes to war in relative comfort when compared to the Army and Marines.

Moreover, when considering the nature of the current meltdown, one must also remember the scale of the Pentagon’s operations is tiny when compared to earlier wars, like Vietnam or Korea. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, taken together, are very small operations in terms of numbers troops and equipment deployed and activity tempos. A comparison with Vietnam is very telling: if one removes the effects of inflation, the current Defense budget level exceeds that of Vietnam at its peak in 1969, when we had 550,000 troops deployed in the combat theater. And remember, the United States was also engaged in a Cold War, which included preparations for a major conventional war against the Warsaw Pact in Western Europe, as well as all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Those preparations required about a million additional troops forward deployed in West Europe and non-Vietnam East Asia, several million in the states to provide the supporting training and rotation base, and tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in a high-cost hair-trigger alert status, and a very large navy to combat the Soviet Navy while protecting our long sea-based lines of communication. Nothing today compares with that effort. Today, the US is spending more money on defense, yet milcrats like Moseley tell us they must rob the readiness accounts of a much smaller force in time of war to preserve a high-cost modernization program which is a legacy of the last war. Moreover, these decisions to rob the readiness accounts are occurring at a time when some soldiers and Marines are on their third or fourth tours in Iraq/Afghanistan (which was almost unheard of in Vietnam) and the Pentagon is mobilizing reserves, extending combat rotations, and issuing stop loss orders to prevent soldiers from punching out of the not-so-all-volunteer military.

Nor can Mr. Rumsfeld claim to be surprised by the current budget meltdown. He is … or should be … the best prepared SecDef in history to deal with the Pentagon’s shenanigans. This is, after all, the second time he held the job. Moreover, he was present at the creation of the original "hollow military," so to speak. The Nixon and Ford Administrations, of which he was a member, made most of the programmatic decisions that planted the seed money for the R&D and procurement programs that led to the inevitable emergence of the cost growth which caused the military to rob the readiness accounts to fund the modernization budgets in the mid to late 1970s. In DoD parlance, Rumsfeld et al presided over a deliberate "front loading" and "political engineering" of the future budgets which created the meltdown Jimmy Carter inherited. (see <http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/def_power_games_98.htm>Defense Power Games for an explanation of how front loading and political engineering work to paralyze the decision making process, using a case study of the Reagan spend up). In short, the "hollow military" of the late 1970s was the result of self-inflicted wounds made earlier when Rummy was in power. Then, Ronald Reagon and the Republican right wingers used the "hollow military" (with help of politically motivated leakers from the Pentagon) to Carterize Carter in 1980 and set the stage for another round of the Defense Power Games, albeit at even higher budgets.

Still think it is old news? Why don’t we fast forward to George the First in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When the end of the Cold War forced George the First to reduce the projections of future defense budgets, the Pentagon responded by front loading and politically engineering a new generation of high cost cold-war inspired programs (e.g., the F-22, the F-18E/F, a new missile destroyer, a new attack submarine, etc.) into the current budget while reducing it (via force and readiness reductions). Bill Clinton happily continued and accelerated this process under the guidance of his democratic secretaries of defense, Les Aspin and William Perry. And in so doing, George the First and Bill Clinton let the Pentagon create a future budgetary crisis ( the creation of these problems is described in my 1997 report on What Went Wrong With the Quadrennial Defense Review). Naturally,the problems they created leaked to the press during the build up to the 2000 election. This set up Gore — who, it must be said, was a most willing victim — for a Carterization by George the Second. What makes this operation particularly interesting is that Rumsfeld was again present at the creation, as part of the team that Carterized Gore.

So, one thing should now be clear: Rummy ought to know about Carterizing his opponents. But once again we see is the familiar spate of leaks about budget shortfalls and and smell the stench of a looming crisis. But this time it is occurring on Rummy’s watch. In other words, it is beginning to look like Rummy has Carterized both himself as well as his boss, the hapless George the Second. This is something new and old at the same time. One this is clear, however, the Pentagon needs a new term of art to explain what is happening. I submit that "Autocarterization" fits the ticket as a prescription for this new variant of the old inwardly focused process which creates the crises to fuel the political lust for ever increasing defense budgets.

Now some of Alex Cockburn’s critics will think that Autocarterization is a conspiracy being run by Rumsfeld, an evil genius, but these readers might want to consider the fact that the man is simply an incompetent tool of the Military–Industrial–Congressional Complex or MICC. His "Autocarterization" may simply be reflection of his own arrogance and ignorance catching up with him at last. What we are seeing is not really a new phenomenon — it is the conditioned behavior of a living social system that has evolved methods of survival by a process of trial and error over time. In any case, the Pentagon’s milcrats, like General Moseley, are primed to to take advantage of it automatically. With the cooperation of triangulating democratic apparachiks, who will throw money at the Pentagon to prove they are not do not "weak" on defense, the courtiers of Versailles will duck the blame again for their self inflicted wounds as they ratchet up the power games to set the stage for yet another round of increases in the volume of the dollar flow out the defense money spigot. Of course their front loading and political engineering operations will make future problems worse; of course the soldiers at the pointy end of the spear and taxpayer will get hosed again, but one must remember that these games serve a larger purpose, for they are necessary insure the survival and growth of the Military–Industrial–Congressional Complex over the long term. Or as one officer once told me: "Welcome to the Pentagon’s Gelateria, where we never run out of self-licking ice cream cones."

The seamlessness of this well-structured way of life is not only a good for the courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac, the contractors, the supporting cast of thinktank "intellectuals," and an enervated mainstream media which recycles old news as new news, its orderliness will keep Alex Cockburn’s anti-conspiracy crusade in business for years.

FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY is a former Pentagon analyst and whistleblower. His writing on defense issues can be found on the invaluable Defense in the National Interest website.