Scolding fellow Republicans for casting a blind eye on Defense Department waste, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Thursday released a scathing report proposing elimination of long-standing benefits and services that he considers peripheral to the Pentagon’s mission.
Defense spending could be trimmed by $68 billion in 10 years if the services did away with their own grocery stores, K-12 schools, nonbattle-related medical research, alternative energy pursuits and other, mostly research- and education-related programs sometimes duplicated by other agencies, according to the report titled “The Department of Everything.”
“The problem with the Republican conference is that it has a blind eye on defense spending,” said Coburn at a news conference, adding that others turn a blind eye on waste in entitlements and health care spending. “To be legitimate and to have integrity on the issue, everything has to be on the table.”
Calling his proposed savings of $68 billion a “conservative estimate,” Coburn called for reductions in the military officer corps, noting that in World War II, there were 12 million Americans in uniform with a mere 2,000 flag officers, while today there is only one-fifth the number of troops but more than 1,000 top officers. “The ratio is one admiral for every ship in the Navy,” said Coburn, a longtime critic of waste who serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The report highlights Pentagon projects the senator considers trivial: the Air Force spent $300,000 studying a prehistoric flying dinosaur; the Navy spent $450,000 to learn that an infant responds to interactive robots better than it does to a noninteractive robot; the Army diverted funds from a program to improve rifles and ammunition to study how to improve the taste of beef jerky.
Other projects included a smartphone app to alert the user when to take a coffee break and Pentagon-run microbreweries and liquor stores.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency “paid nearly $100,000 for a strategy planning workshop on the 100-Year Starship project last year [that] included an interesting discussion involving the Klingons, a fictional alien species who were villains and then later allies of humanity in the Star Trek series,” the report says. The event included a session called “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?”
But the most savings would come from trimming brass and abolishing the Pentagon’s independent efforts in commercial retail, public education and research.
An estimated $37 billion for support and supply services could be saved by reclassifying one-fourth of military members performing civilian-type job functions and reducing general and flag officers to Cold War levels, the report said. The services could stop spending $9 billion to run their own grocery stores and shopping centers and simply give every family in the military $400-$500 for groceries, Coburn said.
More than $10 billion could be saved by eliminating the Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools along with the Pentagon’s own version of the Education Department’s math and science education initiative. “There are 16 or 17 bases that have schools, all domestic, not overseas,” Coburn said, “and they cost an average of $50,000 per child, or almost four times what it costs in the rest of public education.” Such steps would not harm recruiting for the volunteer army, Coburn said. “People don’t join the military because there’s a school on base.”
Somewhere between $4 billion and $6 billion could be saved by killing the Defense Department’s research into cures for breast and prostate cancer. With world-class programs going on at the National Institutes of Health, Coburn said, “why run it out of the Pentagon with an extra layer of bureaucracy on top? Pentagon research ought to be about things that affect the troops, like post- traumatic stress disorder and other battlefield ailments.”
Coburn said he hopes to influence his party and perhaps introduce amendments during this week’s debate on the defense authorization bill to “undermine the BS that the defense budget has already been cut,” when it has simply seen its growth slowed, he said. “Everyone I talk to on bases, even in my home state, agrees that `smart thinking’ could shave 5 percent or 7 percent or 8 percent” off the $600 billion defense budget.
“I am a budget hawk who wants the best-equipped military in the world,” said Coburn, who has introduced the Audit the Pentagon Act to shake up the department’s accounting and management. “But the weapons, development and contracting systems are broken. And the country is in an economic crisis that will depend on who will continue to lend us money.”
Asked about the fiscal cliff negotiations and his work with the so-called Gang of Eight, Coburn said the eight senators are “well-intentioned individuals who want a deal, but it has gotten harder since the election, since positions have firmed up.”
Regardless of who won the election, he said, he hopes the sides can think in the long-term rather than in the short-term interest of political parties. “President Obama won the election, so he must tell us what he wants in taxes and entitlements,” Coburn said, adding, “the size of the federal government is twice what it was 11 years ago.”