Funny Numbers at the Pentagon
As the defense budget creeps toward the table in budget discussions on the Hill, we are likely to be treated to more and more of a contest over cuts, savings, baselines, budget projections, and the like. There is no more fun, or frustrating game, than trying to peel away the numbers we get from DOD and get to a transparent reality of what is really going on.
The latest fun was provided by the President's announcement last month that he was seeking another $400 billion out of the defense budget over the next 12 years. In that speech he said: "Over the last two years, Secretary Bob Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending." This was quite a claim, one the Pentagon has not provided any basis for making. But it would seem to reflect the combination of the $330 billion Gates has repeatedly said he has saved by cancelling such weapons programs as the C-17 cargo plane, the F-22 fighter, the Marine's amphibious vehicle (EFV), and the Army's Future Combat System vehicle (FCS), and the $78 billion in other budget cuts he announced with the release of the FY 2012 budget.
Secretary Gates (and now the President) continue to trot out these numbers, as if they had talismanic reality. I critiqued the first one - $330 billion - in a CG&G posting last November. And my colleague, Matt Leatherman, did a job on the second - $78 billion - at The Will and the Wallet last February. But they keep popping up.
On Monday this week yet another analyst took on the first question: are the $330 billion in savings real. In a piece for Defense News Marcus Weisgerber pushed hard for documentation of the savings and came up with not much. The Pentagon punted: "We do not have an estimate of what the breakdown would be today." Some of the savings - like the F-22 and the C-17 - don't count because the Pentagon didn't want them, had no out-year budget estimates for them, and had them forced down their throat, year-by-year, by the Congress.
Weisgerber's research turned up $130 billion in new programs, - like an Air Force helicopter, a next-generation bomber, a new Army vehicle, and a new presidential helicopter - which were started to replace the cancelled ones, since the services still felt they had a need for some kind of program.
It will be hard enough to manage the defense build down, as it is, as was pointed out by Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn in New York on May 11. But if the numbers we are using to measure progress are soft, or wrong, it will be almost impossible to tell truth from fiction as the build down progresses.