Filling up the pork barrel with $54 billion for the military
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
By Dan Possumato
This month President Donald Trump said his forthcoming budget proposal will include “a historic increase in defense spending,” which will seek an additional $54 billion for the military. This equates to a 10 percent increase to the defense budget. But even if passed by Congress, it won’t be historic. It isn’t even among the top 10 percentage increases since 1977, according to PolitiFact.
Still, $54 billion would buy a lot for the military, including many things our forces need but also things they do not need or even want. I observed this reality firsthand when for eight years I was the deputy garrison commander for the Army in Alaska (1997-2005). Every Army garrison, the soldiers and civilians who operate and maintain Army bases, must submit projects that compete for funding from different pots of money within the overall Army budget. Major projects are planned out over a five- to seven-year timeline, depending upon the project classification, and submitted to the Army leadership for approval. The main criteria of approval of any project is how it will contribute to the Army’s stated No. 1 priority — readiness for ground combat.
Let me give you a few examples of how many members of Congress essentially nullify this noble priority.
Our headquarters got a call one day from the office of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, at the time the powerful head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He once held up the entire U.S. Air Force budget for two weeks because the Air Force was flying in eggs from Washington state for its bases in Alaska. Once the Air Force agreed to buy eggs from Alaskan farmers, he moved their budget forward.
There used to be a large unit in Alaska called the 6th Infantry Division, a force of 10,000 soldiers commanded by a two-star general. The Army inactivated the division in 1994, but there were still many smaller units that remained in Alaska. The Army contemplated sending a one-star up north after the division was gone, or possibly even assigning a senior colonel there instead. When Mr. Stevens was notified about it, he contacted the chief of staff of the Army and insisted a two-star general remain in Alaska in some capacity, because the higher-ranking officer would bring more resources to his state.
So the U.S. Army Alaska was formed as a two-star command to succeed the infantry division. Was it militarily necessary? Most people I worked with, except I suppose the general, didn’t think so. Have you ever heard of U.S. Army Pennsylvania, or U.S. Army Texas?
Bassett Community Army Hospital is a state-of-the-art military facility on Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. When the Army Corps of Engineers District received bids from contractors to build the facility, they all were much higher than the Army’s own independent government estimate, so it did not award the contract. Before the Corps could put out another bid solicitation, the other senator from Alaska, Frank Murkowski, met with the district commander and strongly urged — some say demanded — that he select one of the failed bids. After conferring with the corps headquarters in Washington, one of the original bids was selected.
Another example is the time my office got a call from a staff member of Mr. Stevens, who said the senator wanted to see the list for our planned major construction projects. Straightforward enough, and of course we always complied with requests from his office.
On the list were two barracks that housed hundreds of single soldiers, who are traditionally pretty hard on furniture, building fixtures, etc. As these barracks were in fairly good shape, we had projected that in five years they would need refurbishment requiring $6 million. One day my boss walked in and told me he had just had his butt chewed by someone from the Pentagon who told him our senator had inserted the barracks renovation work into the current year’s budget. We had to do the work now, which meant disposing of perfectly good furniture, painting walls that didn’t need to be painted, replacing carpet that was adequate, and so on.
The Pentagon staffer said that no additional funds came with the earmark, only that the money was to come out of the already programmed Army budget. “Now we might have to take the money away from a project at Fort Stewart, where some of the barracks are years overdue for renovation,” he said, according to my boss.
It was clear that we were suspected of going to the senator “backchannel” and suggesting he put in the earmark.
I was shocked, as nothing like this had ever happened when I was the deputy commander for a base in Germany in the mid-1990s, one that was much larger than ours in Alaska. When I next spoke to the senator’s staffer, I politely mentioned that the barracks renovation this year was unnecessary, and that we were jumping through numerous hoops to make it happen. I was told, in a straightforward and almost casual manner, that these kinds of things happen all the time. He said the work would be done by Alaskan companies, and similar inserts were made by senators from other states for their bases. “This is how it works,” he said.
I will confess it also works the other way around. On one occasion, after the Army had denied our command’s request for a new rifle range complex, an officer above my pay grade whispered this fact to someone in the senator’s office. We eventually got the range, again due to the senator’s intervention, and we never fessed up to what we had done. Did we really need the firing range? Yes, but the Army had already determined we didn’t need it as much as higher priority projects elsewhere.
I finally realized the reason I never encountered these sorts of situations in Germany. There are no U.S. congressional districts there, no competing politicians vying to bring a slice of the defense budget pie home to their states.
My last example is from a friend of mine who was the colonel commanding a large Army garrison in a Southern state. He told me that one day he got a call informing him that one of the state’s U.S. senators was holding a meeting that evening at a nearby hotel suite, and that he should attend but tell no one.
When he entered the suite, he witnessed what looked like a scene out of a movie. The senator, members of his staff, a few mayors of surrounding towns, a county official and others were sitting around drinking whiskey and smoking cigars. The senator asked the invitees, one by one, to give him one thing their organizations wanted. Before he left my friend was sworn to secrecy, instructed not even to tell the commanding general about the meeting.
Just how much of the president’s $54 billion boost to defense will end up being spent in the manner of the examples I’ve described is anybody’s guess. Mr. Trump has stated that he will also request that the additional funds be taken dollar for dollar from nonmilitary government programs. With this shifting of funds, the Department of Defense will account for fully 51 percent of all federal discretionary government spending, leaving 49 percent for everything else, except for the mandatory programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
If readiness is the true No. 1 priority for our national defense, the decisions on where the added billions will be spent should be made according to demonstrable military necessity, and not as a result of parochial politics, or backchannel messages from the military to their senators.
Dan Possumato, an Aspinwall resident and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College, held a variety of senior leadership positions during a 25-year career as a Department of the Army civilian.
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