WASHINGTON: Why in the world is the Pentagon trying to develop a better beef jerky, run grocery stores, microbreweries, study flying dinosaurs and build (not tilt at) windmills?
That is the question a conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, asks in a new report — “Department of Everything” — issued today. The subtitle of Coburn’s highly readable effort is: “Department of Defense Spending That Has Little to Do With National Security.” And that’s his real point. In an era of coming austerity, the Southern Baptist preacher and medical doctor argues that the Pentagon should be focused on executing its core mission, namely defending the nation.
Of course, as anyone involved with the military for very long can tell you, protecting the country involves an awfully broad array of goods and services, everything from food to gas to medicine to schools to nuclear weapons. Coburn is clearly not ready to accept some of the outlier spending of the Pentagon, and is ready to beat his colleagues and the Pentagon brass over the head a bit for their willingness to fund such things.
“This report examines five areas of the Pentagon budget that have little to do with national security where taxpayer dollars could be saved and deficits reduced without impacting our national security,” Coburn declares, toting up some $67.9 billion over 10 years. Slicing that could be done, he says, “without cutting any Army brigade combat teams, Navy combat ships, or Air Force fighter squadrons.” But could it be done without angering constituents, senatorial colleagues and Pentagon bureaucrats, one is inclined to ask.
Regardless of the answer to our question, Coburn has produced a witty and detailed look at Pentagon spending that will doubtless be used by many as the military budget dwindles over the next five years (barring war with Iran, North Korea or someone else).
Coburn says he and his staff asked three questions when reviewing a program:
“Does the mission of this program or agency directly relate to the mission of the Department of Defense?
“Does another federal agency or government or private entity already provide the services provided by this program or agency?
“Could these resources be better targeted towards higher priority defense needs, such as taking care of troops on the front lines or reducing our $16 trillion national debt?”
One area he targets is likely to elect howls of protest from some: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, fondly known as DARPA. The older among us will remember that they invented the Internet, among other things. But Coburn says close oversight and cuts to the agency’s $3 billion budget is needed because, “DARPA gets wide latitude from the rest of the Pentagon- and from Congress- in how it hands out its contracts.” The report argues that “DARPA has abused this latitude and flexibility and used its resources to pursue research that has little to no connection to defending the country or increasing military.”
Here are a few gems from the report.
Beef Jerky: “And while our men and women in uniform certainly would welcome new menu options, these dollars could be better spent at this time when sequestration imposed by the Budget Control Act is set to cut billions of dollars from our national defense budget.” The senator may not be very familiar with MREs. A long-lasting form of protein that tastes good sounds like something many soldiers would love.
The First Bird: “Archaeopteryx, which existed 150 million years ago and long considered to be the first bird, probably had black feathers which may have helped it fly, according to research funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR)… AFOSR spent nearly $300,000 on this study and, according to the Pentagon, the ‘research goal was to identify structures and mechanisms of color production in bio-optical tissue materials useful for military applications including new surface coatings and photonic crystal fibers.’” This one may pass the smell test.
Fish and Democracy: “For example, the Navy recently funded research examining what the behavior of fish can teach us about democracy while also developing an app to alert iPhone users when the best time is to take a coffee break.” Hmm.
Grill Sergeants: “The Pentagon recently joined the cooking show craze by partnering with the
Department of Agriculture to produce a reality cooking show called Grill It Safe featuring two Grill Sergeants showing off their own ‘delicious recipes suitable for cooking outdoors.’ in a 46-minute video.” Umm.
Klingons: “Further, DARPA paid nearly $100,000 for a strategy planning workshop on the 100 Year Starship project last year 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 session entitled “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?” featured philosophy professor Christian Weidemann of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum who pondered the theological conflict to Christianity if intelligent life was found on other planets.” Ouch.
Coo Twitter Tweets: “Tweets often contain regional slang and dialects that reveal the region of the country in which the writer is located, according to research funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research… While this may be interesting to linguists or even potentially federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, it is difficult to see how spending limited resources to study the use of the slang and dialect by Twitters users in the United States advances the mission of either the Air Force or the Navy.” There may be a legitimate intelligence angle here.
Regardless of whether the above are actually wastes of money or not, there are many more interesting examples in Coburn’s report. Let’s see what kind of traction it gets. Bear in mind that Coburn is not a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee or of the Senate Appropriations Committee.