We Could Always Use More Office Furniture: An Insider’s Take on Pentagon Waste

pentagon waste
"DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force.", Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I spent a little over 20 years in the United States Air Force. Joining shortly before the attacks of September 11th, I had high hopes to become some mix between Jack Ryan and Ethan Hunt, fighting bad guys using my advanced military intelligence skills.

In reality, I spent the bulk of my career as a number cruncher, staring blindly at Excel spreadsheets, managing reports that generally went nowhere, and purchasing various items for the “warfighter,” all in the noble trade of Resource Management. I was what was jokingly referred to as a “Combat Comptroller.”

While much of my work was beneficial to the units I was assigned to, I bore witness to my fair share of military waste. Every year around the same time, the expectation to spend! spend! spend! regardless of the need or validity was echoed down from the highest rung to the lowest of the chain of command.

We’ve all heard the usual reports on government waste from billion-dollar weapons systems that don’t work and “creative” accounting meant to hide the actual purchase behind the $30,000 toilet seats. But it’s the everyday waste that chips away at our national security, and not just because of the fiscal implications.

Wake me up when September ends

For the federal government, September is viewed as Christmas or Crunch Time, depending on your perspective. The Fiscal Year is coming to a close.

Federal agencies begin the mad dash to spend all their money before the clock strikes midnight on the 30th for fear Congress won’t bless them with the same, if not more, funding the following year. Starting around June, commanders send their “unfunded requirements” to their servicing financial management office in hopes that their higher command leadership rates their requirements at the top of the list for the spending spree that will soon occur in a few months.

The goal levied on resource managers and Commanders is to “get to zero,” meaning spend all the money they got that year and any money that comes trickling down from higher command. Commanders and military leaders of all flavors receive accolades for spending as much as possible.

Read that again.

They often get the dollar figures and statistics emblazoned on their promotion reports and military decorations. It didn’t matter if the items purchased were needed, let alone used.

Year after year, I facilitated the purchase of copious amounts of office furniture to “replace” non-existent office furniture. The furniture would often be stored next to the previous year’s unopened new office furniture in a forgotten storage room on base.

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Worse yet was establishing what was known in the day as the End of Year MORD. A MORD is a miscellaneous obligation/reimbursement document, an accounting tool used to officially set aside funds in an obligation status to fulfill a future billing submission.

However, in many cases, the document was used solely to creatively take the base’s funds down to an even $0 by midnight, letting a future Commander deal with the explanation as to why those funds were set aside for seemingly no reason. But no explanation would matter because any checks and balances on military resources is an exercise in futility.

Same song and dance

This year, the Department of Defense failed its sixth consecutive audit. Not only did the DOD fail, they got almost identical results to the year prior.

After last year’s audit failure, the Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs, in conjunction with the Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, held a joint hearing titled Beyond the Budget: Addressing Financial Accountability in the Department of Defense. At the hearing, it was discovered that over 300 legacy control systems are failing in their intended mission.

That mission is to track and execute the resources of the United States military. Director of Financial Management and Assurance at the Government Accountability Office Asif Khan told members of Congress that he was:

“…unable to find any system within DOD that works as intended.”

Make no mistake, these systems aren’t cheap; they cost millions and, at times, billions of dollars to maintain and operate. Millions and billions of dollars to continue to exist while simultaneously failing at their advertised purpose.

Who benefits from all of this waste? There are the usual suspects, of course, such as the Eisenhower dubbed military-industrial complex.

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A CBS investigative report this year uncovered massive price gouging by defense contractors, undoubtedly made easier thanks to the inept accounting processes within the DOD. The investigation found that while the DOD sets a general fixed price of 12% to 15% for private profits – overcharges from companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and TransDigm allowed for profits ranging from 40% to a staggering 4,000%.

Focusing solely on the defense corporations as the winners is just as short-sighted as placing blame on old accounting systems desperately needing updating.

It’s the culture stupid

At the joint Congressional hearing, Congresswoman Nancy Mace exclaimed after receiving unclear answers from DOD personnel:

“Nobody has any answers, that’s the thing. When we have these hearings, you guys come to our committee, we have specific questions and we want specific answers, we’re wasting billions of dollars every single year and no one that comes before the committee has any answers, any solutions so what are you guys doing?”

They are doing nothing and have been for decades. The culture in the DOD isn’t to solve problems but to hide them, particularly if the problem can be morphed into a benefit, as it does for Commanders across the globe.

Remember, the more you spend, the better your performance report, regardless of the actual utility of that spending. This culture has been carefully nurtured by none other than Congress down through the Pentagon to each and every General and Admiral down to the lowest ranking officers leading the smallest organizations.

Spend down to zero, or you’ll have to answer for why you failed to do so! That is the fear put into every Commander and every Resource Manager.

The same can be said for equipment reports and readiness reports. If you can’t find a way to square those equipment books or make those combat readiness reports read “Green Good to Go,” you will answer for it!

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And this is the cycle of perpetual “creative” accounting. Whether accounting for taxpayer dollars, quality readiness measures, or any sort of check and or balance, the Department of Defense continually fudges and fails.

Who suffers for it? The American people do, but at least America’s warfighters have copious amounts of desk chairs to sit in.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson