What Do You Mean “We Don’t Know What We Did With The Money?!?!?”

As we charge forward to the quadrennial “Changing Of The Oligarchy” ritual, one topic that remains off the talking points is: ‘defense’ spending. Some candidates favor spending vastly more, others slightly less, but none of them appear to be serious about adjusting the money-valve from the ‘full on, locked’ position.

USAF Advanced Strike Boondoggle

USAF Advanced Strike Boondoggle

Defense spending is a zero-sum game: money funnelled to defense contractors is money not spent on education, social programs, or infrastructure. Congress enacts a bizzare form of butoh dance in which it wrings its hands about how there isn’t enough money for – well, for pretty much anything, while simultaneously purchasing under-performing, unreliable, overpriced, behind schedule advanced high-tech boondoggles.

Take, for example, one of the government’s great defense boondoggles: $65 billion dollars, annually, spent with extreme care and under intense scrutiny. Oh, oops – that was the Department of Education’s Budget. My mistake. Take, instead, the B-2 strike bomber, which absorbed at least $44 billion dollars and was pretty much un-needed: most of the bombing the US has done in the last decade has been using Vietnam-era B-52s. But, as Congress would tell you, the Department Of Education can Kiss Their Ass because the Air Force needs a bigger better boondoggle than the B-2, the B-21. The B-21  will  certainly cost the taxpayers much more than the Department of Education, because: reasons. Most of those reasons being: the B-2 isn’t really very good.

During the remainder of this change of oligarchs cycle, listen carefully and see if you hear anyone saying anything about telling the Air Force to have a bake sale because there really isn’t a purpose for the B-2, let alone the B-21.

It’s not a straight up comparison between the Department of Education and a total program cost for a weapons system that will take decades to develop because the cost is annualized (therefore hidden) and will have overruns, classified components, and schedule adjustments that the Department of Education certainly isn’t allowed to have.

Audit Me

That’s the crazy part about the whole thing: the Department of Education spends its money and has an open budget; it’s not really possible to lift a billion from the faculty coffee machine budget* and spend it on books, instead. That’d be illegal.  But not if it’s the Pentagon. The Pentagon does that kind of maneuver all the time – except they’re not lifting a billion from the air conditioning budget for Afghanistan ** – they’re lifting many times that, euphemizing it as “reprogramming of dod appropriations.” What that means is: “we told Congress we were buying a this but instead we bought a that but it’s classified.” In Department of Education terms this would be as if the DOE was able to appropriate $50 billion for the faculty coffee machine budget, then used that money to buy schoolbooks and pencils and A/V systems and computers with the money. If the DOE did that, there would be hell to pay. When the Pentagon does it, it’s just how things are done.

So, someone had an idea of getting the Pentagon to account for how it spent the couple trillion dollars it blew through during the Iraq war, Afghanistan war, Libya war, wars in Africa, and other wars we don’t know about.***

The “Audit The Pentagon” bill of 2015 requires that the Pentagon present audit results of how it spent the taxpayers’ money, and ties future reallocation to completing the audit. Read that back: you guys can’t shuffle around more money until you tell us how you shuffled around the money we already gave you. Sounds good, except that under legislation passed in 1990 the Pentagon is already required to be able to audit its books by 2017. The Pentagon’s response: “it can’t be done.”

I’m joking. The Pentagon didn’t say “it can’t be done.” They said “kiss my ass.” I’m not joking about that; that is basically what the Pentagon said.

When you encounter someone who claims to be “liberal but fiscally conservative” you can ask them why their conservatism doesn’t appear to extend to fraud, waste, and abuse in the Pentagon budget, or funds reprogramming, or the fact that the Pentagon apparently just can’t handle money.

Never one to miss a perfectly good boondoggle, the Pentagon did spend $6 billion trying to look like it was trying to audit itself, then failing to look like it was trying to audit itself and announcing “it can’t be done.” The Marine Corps announced it had completed an audit but there was an accounting gap of $800 million. I guess it’s a rounding error.

Let’s not even talk about the “black budgets” – the classified ones. How do you audit a classified budget? Think there’s any fraud, waste, and abuse going on in those?

It’s a National Security Threat

The US spends more on its military than the rest of the world, combined. When you factor out NATO countries, it works out to the US spending 10 times more on its military than any of the countries that we are remotely likely to go to war with. Germany, for example, spends a goodly sum, but we’re not likely to go to war with them again any time soon.

Let me put that in some perspective for you: during the Gulf War, the $500 billion/year US military managed to defeat the Iraqi $4 billion/year military.

Well, kinda.

Think about the strategic dynamics of the Iraq war: the US had uncontested control of the air, and wisely spent months bombing every formed unit of Iraqi military, then semi-competently invaded and swept up what was left.

The US has the world’s most expensive military. Is it the world’s best?

Roman seige-works at Masada

Roman seige-works at Masada

When the Roman Tenth Legion besieged Masada in 73AD, they used all the labor in the surrounding area to build a massive dirt ramp that could support siege machines that overtopped the wall. The way the US Pentagon does things, they would have used bags of money.

It’s a Social Justice Issue

US society is increasingly unequal: fewer people have more of the wealth than ever before, and the greatest economy in the world is spending a ridiculous percentage of its GDP on its military.


Meanwhile, social programs, which equate to social mobility, are being cut back.

One consequence – a particularly dire consequence – is that serving in the military has become one of the few remaining solid vectors of social mobility: It’s a trap. The military dangles education, on-the-job training (if you figure out what civilian job being a sniper qualifies you for, please tell me!) medical care – all the social services that many a more reasonable nation provides to its citizens as a matter of course. The wealthy’s kids continue to go to Princeton and Harvard because their parents’ names are on the endowment, while everyone else gets to hock their immortal souls with student debt.

If you’re poor, American society dangles the opportunity before you of becoming a janissary for the empire: if you survive the training accidents, IEDs, equipment malfunctions, boredom, PTSD and drugs – you may limp into the middle class.

But – daaaaaaamn – that new Air Force bomber looks cool, doesn’t it?

Here’s What I Don’t Understand:

If the Pentagon doesn’t know how it’s spending our money, why is it always sure it needs more?


World Bank: Expenditures on military by GDP

(* Because there isn’t one)

(** In 2011, the Pentagon appears to have spent $20 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan I have trouble believing that, to be honest: that’s 1/3 of the budget of the Department of Education…)

(*** The Libya war was no “boots on the ground” but they dropped $1b worth of munitions on people. The non-war against ISIS is costing at least $15b so far)


  1. Siobhan says

    #ISISClaims: The $800 million mysteriously unaccounted for.

    Sounds very similar to Alberta’s last election cycle. Shortly after a government audit finds a 2 billion dollar hole where oil royalties were supposed to be, the Conservatives lose the election, and all the workers are ordered to shred everything.


    And if you’re a dickhead, you get to blame Notley for not being able to plug the coincidentally 2 billion dollar sized hole in the budget. Funny how that works.

  2. says

    $2 billion? The Pentagon uses $1b bills to snort coke off platinum hookers. Your crooks are pikers! We have the best crooks money can buy! And the Pentagon is after Congress for $1t to fund research into newer better high tech crooks because there’s a “crook gap” forming between the US and Canada. Oh, wait, did I say that our crooks are the best, but we need more of them to keep up with Canada? Hey, that was exactly the reasoning of the “bomber gap” and “missile gap” – that’s the trick that worked before…

  3. Siobhan says

    Hey now, you’re comparing a provincial deficit to a national deficit. You can fit the population of Alberta in New York City, I’m pretty sure.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    “You can fit the population of Alberta in New York City, I’m pretty sure.”
    No way!
    I’m not going!

  5. Lofty says

    When the sole purpose of the US military is to aid the movement of money into the pockets of the ruling super rich, I’d say it is functioning perfectly.

  6. says

    Yeah, except it’s occasionally expected to do other stuff, and doing that stuff wrong gets people killed. It’s OK if rich people want to break their necks skiing or whatever, but when they take some poor sap and ideologize them with some notion of serving national glory, then send them to a shithole in an unarmored humvee… There’s a point where money shouldn’t be in the equation anymore.

    (I know you know that. This boils my blood.)

  7. lorn says

    I’m coming late to this because I like to let ideas stew a bit. It doesn’t necessarily make them any better.

    First, the zero-sum aspect is a consequence of the self-imposed and arbitrary budget. We print that money and only the inordinate fear of the mythical confidence fairy and inflation impose any real limits. Even the concept of national debt is largely meaningless. We don’t need to issue debt to increase the money supply. The key concepts are that to keep things simple we shouldn’t go overboard buying crap we don’t need, want, and can’t use and that we can essentially buy anything we really need.

    Second, weapons are special:
    a) Weapons, particularly strategic weapons, have value as symbols, placeholder, and tokens. Actual functionality is sometimes secondary. When the Redstone rockets were decommissioned as a nuclear deterrent they tested the explosive casings without the nuclear materials inside. The majority ‘fizzled like a wet firecracker’. The initiators, sort of like blasting caps, were defective and the result was the explosives burned instead of detonating. The nuclear warheads wouldn’t have gone off. And yet, the old Redstones were an effective deterrent.

    b) Effectiveness is always a matter of comparison and it is very susceptible to sampling bias. We hear about US equipment failures but seldom get to hear about the foibles and failures of the weapons from other nations. The Russians lost a sub because they failed to standardize hatch design. A seaman was told to close the hatch as the sub crash-dived. It is a simple job. Foolproof. A simple and highly reliable mechanism a child could work. So it can be delayed until the last second to speed things up. No need to stop, wait to make sure it is closed, and then dive. They dive and close the hatch. What could go wrong?

    Russian sailors are well trained, drilled in the proper way to do things and dedicated to doing things that way. The sailor sent to to close the hatch had trained on a sub with a hatch that closed by turning the wheel one way. The sub he was now on, because nobody bothered to standardize the mechanism, closed by turning the other way. He was sent up to close the hatch and it wouldn’t budge. He assumed that like so much else it was just stiff. So he leaned into it. It still didn’t move. The sub is submerging. He calls for help and another seaman leans into the wheel with all their might, they bent the wheel quite badly, but it still wouldn’t move. At the last second the captain tries to cancel the dive but it is too late. Tons of icy water are flowing down the hatch. With the control room flooded they lose propulsion and the boat is lost with all hands.

    The fact is that nobody knows the best design for a submarine. Nobody can even describe the criteria. A whole lot of this comes from the nature of the job. Ancient warriors would even contemplate going under the sea. It is only the fear of airplanes and ships that makes you want to submerge. But, as always, as soon as one nation does it all of them need to. And the standards get tougher every year. Deeper, faster, air-independent, unlimited duration, and the beat goes on. Always pushing the envelope with new materials and technologies, like methods of production. The Russians prior to the accident had largely hand-made their subs with individual shipyards and groups deciding on how thing should be. In a command-control environment the details were left up to the craftsmen. Irony being that procedural rigidity kept the sailor from trying to turn the wheel the other way.

    The US is seen from within the US as a bumbling and bungling military structure, and yet our arms are highly valued and feared and our forces are, by all measures, some of the most capable on the planet.

    c) Military designers are always doing things that have never been done before. Usually using exotic materials and assembling things using techniques nobody has ever used outside a laboratory. There are going to be a whole lot of failures. Even when a weapons system fails so badly that it is discontinued it often advances the state of the art and it is those advances that makes the next weapons system, or commercial product a success.

    Integrated circuits are a direct descendant of the WW2 VT fuse. Without that there would have been no Apollo program, no PCs, no cell phones. The XB-70 Valkyrie was an objective failure but what we learned from it ended up as titanium eyeglass frames and exotic-metal-ceramic turbine blades that last long enough in high heat to allow efficient power generation. The internet was the product of scientists and engineers working at defense research facilities scattered across the country wanting to exchange information more rapidly. Damn near everything we consider to be modern has its roots in military technology. A whole lot of the suppose waste in research and development shows up later in commercial products that earn the US billions.

    The problems I see are simple but very hard to deal with:
    1) We get design goals backward. Instead of the military deciding what it needs the weapons to do and asking the manufacturers to meet that requirement the manufacturers troll around with conceptual bait for a product they don’t have any idea of how to build.

    2) Almost all of the basic and applied research is done on the US government dime but given away for free and credited to the arms manufacturers.

    3) Officers in charge of supervising weapons research and development are slow to raise objections because the best jobs you can get after leaving the service is to work for a defense contractor. If you don’t play nice you don’t get the job offers.

    4) Adding featured by adding electronics is cheap. You can buy a toaster with internet capability because that takes a five dollar chip set and a ten cents worth of wire to add that feature. It won’t make decent toast because that takes a nuanced understanding of bread, physics, and function.

    5) The thinking is about hegemony, not a mix of effectiveness and managed vulnerability. The military, particularly the Air Force, wants to play God. They want to strike devastating blows from a position of complete invulnerability. These desires conflict. Trying to get it all we get none of it. Our ground forces are heavily armored and burdened because of it, but they, in the words of Taliban fighters, “move like cows”.

    6) The US has a distorted view of death and sacrifice, commitment and friendship. US troops come and go home. Our opponents come and stay. We maim and kill them by the score and they still come, and stay. They kill or main a half-dozen and we leave. Who do you want as a friend? Who do you fear upsetting?

    7) We are fascinated by shiny trinkets. The new and improved gets all the attention, and funding. Which bomber is most effective in total bombs dropped and availability in Iraq and Afghanistan? If you say B-2, because it is the newest perhaps, you are wrong. If you say B-52, because it is old and reliable, you are also wrong. The answer is the B-1b. It was defunded and never developed because everyone wanted the shiny new B-2 with stealth technology. They never even gave it its titanium landing gear. So it struggles along with heavier steel substitutes. But even held back by that it excels because it was well designed and allowed to mature. The swing-wings mean it can dash to where it is needed and then slow down and loiter for hours. Ground troops describe having a B-1 coming as like having an avenging angel on its way. A huge bomb load, accurately delivered and then, it circles overhead for hours, waiting. Nothing like waiting for the second shoe to drop for opposition ground forces. B-52s are good if you can stand to wait for one to arrive.

    As typical with development the sweet spot for performance and reliability comes from finding the bleeding edge, and stepping back a bit.

    8) Accountability. It’s hard. A recent article pointed out we don’t know how much Olympic games cost, how big are the overruns, and who benefits. Multiple dependent pricing systems with COL adjustments, overruns, delay pricing, and early delivery bonuses complicate things. And we are just talking about building technologies. Mature technologies. Pick, shovel, and pour concrete projects.

    Nobody really wants transparency. The contractors want excuses and fat. The military wants a way of getting the job done but mostly wants a way of saving face. Strategists want the means and capabilities obscured to make opponents guess as to what we can do and what we are focused on. Spooks want bloated budgets so they can divert funds to black projects. Officers in charge want to build their kingdoms and have a job after leaving service. Congress wants jobs and to look patriotic. The public wants they jobs taken care of but can’t decide of what the job is.