Up in Arms

Published — May 3, 2016

Auditors criticize Pentagon for wasting property and ammunition

Defense Secretary Ash Carter listens to a reporter's question during a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, where he announced the latest in his Force of the Future reforms. Cliff Owen/AP

The Defense Department is a star in the GAO’s annual report on misspent federal funds


At eleven o’clock most mornings in the city of McAlester, Oklahoma, residents feel the ground shake as bombs go off at an army ammunition depot nearby. Smoke sometimes billows from the depot’s 52 detonation pits as the army destroys unused ammunition daily, part of a regular practice that in 2015 cost the Pentagon roughly $118 million.

The problem is: Some of the ammunition may be usable by other federal agencies, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has criticized the Pentagon for not trying hard enough to assess who else wanted it.

The wanton ammo destruction is one of seven instances of alleged Defense Department mismanagement cited in the GAO’s annual summary of wasteful and duplicate programs across the federal government, released on April 13, 2016. Examples at the Pentagon include overpaying for satellite communications, giving away property that could be used by other agencies, and mishandling vital pollution information.

Although some reforms have been undertaken in response to the GAO’s suggestions, “there are tens of billions of dollars in additional savings to be had,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at a hearing on April 13.

For example, if the Pentagon gave some of its usable bullets and explosives to other federal agencies, the 298-page GAO report said, it would save the cost of blowing it up and help other agencies meet their needs on the cheap. While the Defense Department has successfully transferred some of this ammunition to other agencies, Pentagon officials told the GAO that at least 3,533 tons of serviceable ammo sits in the army’s stockpile of excess ammunition at plants like the one in McAlester, waiting for disposal.

The federal government could save millions of dollars if the Defense Department transferred its extra property and ammunition to other agencies so “we, ya know, don’t have to buy it twice,” Dodaro told the committee.

Ammo is not the only Pentagon commodity that winds up getting wasted or misused, Dodaro noted. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has repeatedly purchased new excavation equipment it could have gotten from the Pentagon, according to a January 2016 GAO report summarized in Dodaro’s presentation. DHS was one of nine federal agencies that collectively spent $28 million on such machines in 2013 and 2014, even though the Defense Department had them on hand and didn’t need them, the report said. The Pentagon instead sent $25 million worth of excavation machines to 150 different local law enforcement groups across the country, because the Defense Department favored local entities that promised to work on counterdrug and counterterrorism missions.

The GAO also said the military has wasted funds by failing to coordinate its purchases of commercial satellite time, needed for controlling drone aircraft, urgent military or humanitarian relief operations, and new weapons or intelligence systems. The Defense Department spent more than $1 billion to lease commercial satellite time in 2011, but its needs have increased since then. All purchases were supposed to go through a central Pentagon agency set up to save money through bulk purchasing, but the military services frequently flouted the requirement and used their own funds – provided under “supplemental” portions of the annual defense spending bills – to buy the time on their own, at costs that were 16 percent higher, on average, the GAO said.

The Defense Department has had difficulty getting its arms around the problem, the GAO said, and lacks a good tally of all the commercial satellite time its components are buying now. But the Pentagon has roughly estimated that better leasing could save well over a billion dollars during the next 15 years in its Middle East operations alone.

The GAO also asserted that the Pentagon mismanages environmental data collected to help protect soldiers when they are deployed overseas. Since the late 1990s, the Pentagon has gathered air, soil, and water samples, but stored the resulting information haphazardly in two incompatible databases. This means the Pentagon can’t effectively determine if pollution on or near military army bases is causing ill health, a gap that makes it hard for soldiers to get needed compensation, the GAO said.

Moreover, the Pentagon doesn’t know if all the data is correct because the military services don’t have rigorous sampling standards, the GAO said.

The Army Public Health Command, which manages one of the databases, told the GAO it would be too time-consuming and costly to move all the data to a single database. At the April 13 hearing, Defense Department Assistant Deputy Chief Management Officer David Tillotson said he was unsure why it was taking so long to fix the problem. “I can tell you we are working on it, and we are looking to resolve the issue,” Mr. Tillotson said.

The report notes that over the past six years, the GAO has made 152 major proposals for policy changes and improvements at the Pentagon to avoid waste from duplication. The Defense Department so far has implemented only 37.5 percent of these, the GAO said.

But Congress is not exactly setting a good example, having only implemented 32 percent of GAO suggestions, according to the GAO report. Representative Elijah Cummings (MD), the committee’s senior Democrat, noted at the April 13 hearing that Congress itself “could be doing much more to foster a more efficient, effective and accountable government.”

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