WASHINGTON — It was Christmas in August for the Pentagon this year. Another big budget gift, passed and approved — and ahead of time for the first time in a decade.
No budget Grinch this year, even as other departments shuddered at the thought of shuttering — ensuring the Pentagon continued to function during a government shutdown, with all the dollars permitted and then some.
Yet as the political landscape in Washington shifts, the questions expand from how much will the Pentagon receive to how wisely did defense officials spend the two big budgets they received for the last two fiscal years.
Many independent analysts scoff at the idea the money has been spent with careful thought and more careful application. They suggest current discussions on how much to give the Pentagon give little incentive for defense officials to prioritize need compared to desire.
“There is no way to spend $700 billion wisely in the Pentagon, let alone $750 million,” Benjamin Friedman, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, told Talk Media News. The $750 billion he refers to is one number being proffered for the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget.
“This is a reflection of a U.S. defense strategy that fails to prioritize and fails to make a choice between important threats and secondary ones,” he said.
In November, the Pentagon announced it failed its first-ever audit — a fact skeptics said shows the big budgets given to the Defense Department will always have huge wastes and excess.
“We never thought we were going to pass an audit, right? Everyone was betting against us that we wouldn’t even do the audit,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Pentagon reporters then.
Shanahan and others have earlier argued that the last two big budgets were only placeholders, to gear up for fiscal 2020. It was in that budget that the Pentagon would seek funding for strongly fulfilling goals needed to implement the National Defense Strategy.
(On Jan. 1, Shanahan is to become acting defense secretary, replacing Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned on Dec. 20.)
The Pentagon has a $716 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019. It received $700 billion for fiscal 2018.
After first telling the Pentagon to reduce its $716 billion budget request for fiscal 2020 to around $700 billion, President Donald Trump reportedly reversed course and now insists the Pentagon seek a $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2020.
“Will DoD spend its money wisely? If there is more of it than they expect to get, probably not,” Earl Tilford, a military historian, author and former director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, told TMN in an interview.
Tilford has been a long proponent of Pentagon budget reform. He says that instead of adding components such as a Space Force, the Defense Department should consolidate everything from service academies to air operations to personnel.
“The high number of aircraft accidents (especially rotary wing) usually reflects issues with maintenance and training. Second priority is force modernization,” Tilford said.
That takes focus and clarity of needs, Tilford said, not just money.
“Large and plentiful budgets tend to keep the focus on the inbox and spending the money in ways with which we are familiar,” Tilford said. “In the past the tendency has been to prioritize when budgets are tight and to spend more lavishly on established programs when the faucet is open. There also has been the tendency to spend all you are allocated because if you don’t your budget will be cut next time around.”
The concern about Pentagon spending comes as the Congressional Budget Office announced that its preliminary study for the next-generation fighter jet — known as the Penetrating Counter Air — shows that each plane could cost about $300 million.
That is more than three times the cost of the average model of the F-35, the current newest jet not yet in full use. Each F-35 has a price tag of about $94 million.