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Military Waste: An Anecdote

Two weeks ago, Secretary Gates proposed several bold, but necessary, cuts in the Pentagon budget: eliminating the Joint Forces Command, reducing the number of flag officers, and cutting 100 billion dollars form the overall budget. As politicians and politicos stepped in to opine, the big issue became one of our strategic capabilities, would this make us safer? I think it would--we need to cut our budget, as I wrote here--but instead of just saying so, I am going to provide an anecdote that perfectly demonstrates the Army-cum-military way of thinking when it comes to preserving budgets.

My unit was at a training rotation. [Names have been omitted to avoid implication of specific people and units with fraud, waste and abuse.] We had spent the rotation doing basic army training: zeroing rifles, qualifying on M4s, completing squad Situation Training Exercises, and conducting patrols.

At the end of our training window, we had a huge surplus of ammunition--several thousand rounds of live and blank ammunition. What to do?

Even though training was complete, even though every person had qualified with their weapons, and all situational training was complete, we had thousands of rounds. What to do?

We literally could not have spent more time at the range. Some of us qualified several times to improve our scores. We even conducted firing from different positions for variety. Yet we still had tons of excess ammo. What to do?

Anyone in the military--nee everyone in or who was in the military during the 80s, 90s or 00s--knows exactly what we did. We fired every round we had left. In the Army, you fire every single round. You put people on the live-fire range, put their weapons on full-auto, and have them blast away. You expend every round, or as close as you can.

The reasoning is simple. Almost every leader in the Army believes a simple truism: if you don’t spend all your ammunition then you will lose it in the next fiscal year. In fact, by expending all your rounds, you show a need to get more ammo in the next year, even if you have no hope of using it all.

This logic applies to budgets. If you don’t spend your budget during the entire fiscal year, then people assume you won’t get it the next year. This causes most Army units to spend money like drunken sailors in the last two to three months to avoid losing budget dollars in the coming fiscal year.

(I have actually wondered if this logic is more lore than fact. I wrote the Stars and Stripes Rumor Doctor, hopefully he can check it out.)

That personal anecdote--one that no doubt countless veterans can attest to but countless Generals would vehemently deny--sums up the problems with the DoD budget. More than anything, it shows that units only cares about themselves; leaders only care about their personal budgets. In the long run, this leads to gross inefficiencies.

These inefficiencies add up so that when a superpower does deploy its military, the outcome is something verging on gross negligence. Military contractors who over bill the government by gross percentages, the creation of super-FOBs, weapon systems that don’t work--all are products of an inefficient military.

On Wednesday, I am going to relate this anecdote to Secretary Gates’ cuts specifically.

two comments

I just got to put this out there, but for a military that studies show to be 80% conservative, they sure know how to run, and keep running, the world’s most inefficient bureaucracy.

What would CS Lewis think?


Great anecdote. While I can understand the reasoning and desire to always have as much as your unit needs, it is a wasteful way to run. It would be funny if it wasn’t such a waste.