A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and soon you're talking real money. But when it comes to reporting on what the Bush war legacy has cost American taxpayers, the media have been shockingly indifferent to the highest run-up in military spending since World War II. Even the devastating defense spending audit released Monday by the Government Accountability Office documenting the enormous waste in every single U.S. advanced weapons system failed to provoke the outrage it, and five equally scathing previous annual audits, deserved.
This is not about the waste of taxpayer dollars-already pushing a trillion-in funding the Iraq war, which, while reprehensible enough, pales in comparison to the big-ticket military systems purchased in the wake of 9/11. In the horror of that moment, the floodgates were lifted and the peace dividend promised with the end of the Cold War was washed away by a doubling of spending on ultra-complex military equipment originally designed to defeat a Soviet enemy that no longer exists, equipment that has no plausible connection with fighting stateless terrorists. Example: the $81-billion submarine pushed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, presumably to fight al-Qaida's navy.
That's the huge scandal the media and politicians from both parties have studiously avoided. But as the GAO's authoritative audit details, the costs are astronomical. The explosion of spending on expensive weaponry after 9/11 had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks of that day. The high-tech planes and ships commissioned for trillions of dollars to defeat an enemy with no navy, air force or army, and using $3 knives as its weapons arsenal, were gifts to the military-industrial complex that will go on giving for decades to come.
The Iraq war may end someday, but rest assured that major weapons systems, once commissioned, have a life-support system unmatched in any other sector of public spending. Rarely does the plug get pulled on even the most irrelevant and expensive war toy. Not while both Democratic and Republican politicians feed at the same trough, and when so much is at stake in the way of jobs and profit.
Just how expensive and wasteful this is was marked in the GAO's audit: "Since 2000, the Department of Defense (DOD) has roughly doubled its planned investment in new systems from $790 billion to $1.6 trillion in 2007, but acquisition outcomes in terms of cost and schedule have not improved." Pentagon cost overruns, always a huge problem, have mushroomed. As the GAO reported, "Total acquisition costs for major defense programs in the fiscal year 2007 portfolio have increased 26 percent from first estimates, compared with 6 percent in 2000."
I know eyes glaze when government budgets are discussed, but keep in mind that defense spending accounts for more than half of all the federal government's discretionary spending. In short, funding for all the other stuff we argue about-science research, education, Arabic translators, insuring uninsured children-is minor compared to the waste on these military boondoggles that go unexamined.
Yet nothing else the federal government does involves such waste because we are talking about weapons systems shrouded in secrecy and protected from unwelcome scrutiny by the Teflon coating of "national defense." Credit the GAO for providing a rare glimpse into the most egregious waste of taxpayer dollars, concluding in its exhaustive, 205-page report:
"Of the 72 programs GAO assessed this year, none of them had proceeded through system development meeting the best-practice standards for mature technologies, stable design, or mature production processes by critical junctures of the program, each of which are essential for achieving planned cost, schedule, and performance outcomes."
That's a grade of zero for every major weapons system. Let's take just one, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program estimated to be worth $300 billion in sales to its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, the nation's biggest defense contractor and most generous donor to lobbyists and politicians' campaigns. The program to build what Lockheed boasts is "the most complex fighter ever built" is also the most expensive, with estimated acquisition costs having increased a whopping $55 billion in just the last three years.
Lockheed need not worry about future profits, because the procurement schedule on this troubled plane has been stretched out to the year 2034. As the GAO says, "currently unproven processes and a lack of flight testing could mean future changes to design and manufacturing processes." Hey, no problem, Lockheed will just add that to the taxpayer tab. Maybe by 2034, the plane will be ready to go take out Osama bin Laden. Or not.
Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.
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