The Mad Logic of Pentagon Spending

In 1983, Pentagon “maverick analyst” Franklin (“Chuck”) Spinney testified to a joint session of the Senate Armed Services and Budget Committees about what he called “The Plans/Reality Mismatch.” The term referred to the failure of the Pentagon to accurately project the real cost of the defense program it sought in its multiyear plans. The Pentagon underestimated the actual costs of its own program each year by an order of magnitude of billions of dollars. The behavior became known as “underfunding.”

That was almost 25 years ago. Spinney’s ground breaking study started a cottage industry in Washington. Since then, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, and several Washington think tanks have duplicated Spinney’s research, but with one change: each year, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, in war and in peace, the “underfunding” problem gets worse.

At the turn of the millennium CBO measured the gap between projected and likely actual funding needs in the Pentagon’s multiyear plan to be $50 billion–per year. The only element Donald Rumsfeld has added to the problem as the longest serving secretary of defense in recent memory is to accelerate the problem.

In its new study, (“Long term Implications of Current Defense Plans: Summary Update for Fiscal year 2007″), just released on the internet on Oct. 18, CBO finds the problem to have grown to over $100 billion–per year. Up to 27 percent more money than the Pentagon has been requesting may be needed to actually implement its plans.

There are many causes and elements to the problems that the Pentagon and Congress jointly refuse to address. In one of its more interesting passages on page eight, CBO identifies three critical elements:

1) the per capita costs to operate and maintain our ground forces–even without the expenses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–have been rising;

2) as our weapons inventory continues to age, it also is more expensive to operate, and

3) new weapons, being more complex, are habitually more expensive to operate than the systems they replace.

In each case, despite increases for these issues, their budgets turn out to be inadequate. As Spinney warned us for years, as the costs go up, the readiness goes down.

The same thing is happening in the Pentagon’s hardware budget. As the costs to buy new systems skyrockets (as it has for the Air Force’s F-22 and F-35 fighters, the Army’s Future Combat System, and the Navy’s new overweight destroyer), we tend to buy fewer items than planned and the programs are delivered late (as for example by several years for the F-22). Thus, as Spinney also told us, the larger, older existing inventory is not replaced, either in total or on time. Given the added expense of the new systems, they literally translate to an inventory that is simultaneously shrinking and aging–at increased cost.

Some argue that the solution can only be more spending, such as that advocated by the chief of staff of the Army, General Schoomaker. While past increases have not been as dramatic as those he seeks for the Army, Congress and the Pentagon have indeed been increasing peacetime spending for years. The result? The problem gets worse.

Others argue that more realistic cost estimates and less unrealistic program ambitions are the only way out. The problem is not “underfunding,” it is “overprogramming.” That route to a solution has never been attempted, certainly not seriously, clearly not recently. Is it time?

Is the study really a yawner? Of course not, but that would seem to be all it is likely to provoke in Washington.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at:




Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.