The Biden administration has the opportunity to launch a serious review of the US military’s foreign operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Reports of foreign deployments should be eliminated, and a Biden administration should focus heavily on launching a full investigation of the United States “interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The continued justification for OCO has reached the stage of parody, and the non-emergency items, which accounted for about 50 percent of the appropriations for O COO in fiscal 2015, have been converted, as originally intended, into appropriations that have pushed development cooperation spending far beyond the base budget. The “baseline budget” for “permanent activities” – which funds all US military operations in the Middle East and North Africa that continue regardless of troop strength – has been overrun by more than $1.5 billion, or nearly three times the base’s budget.
Spending on the OC has long outstripped the military presence in combat zones, and since FY08 the US has sent an average of 187,000 troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although President Joe Biden has significantly increased the military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, excessive spending on OCO has continued to rise despite the reforms. This year, the MoD has acted like about 5,000 soldiers, meaning Fy20’s is equivalent to about 1.5 million service members in combat zones. Spending on the OOC has topped $187 billion this year, and more than $1 million per service member.
DoD has received more than $2 trillion from OCO since 2001, and if all federal agencies are included, it would be the fourth largest FY20 OOC financing, dwarfing the $1.2 trillion in FY15 and $3.5 trillion in FY16.
The new government must also step up its efforts to make development cooperation funding more transparent and accountable. On November 16, 2020, the Pentagon announced that it had failed a third consecutive financial audit. Nowhere is the black hole in the financial system more obvious than in the MoD, which has yet to deliver a properly functioning defence review. Accounting is one of the areas of digital development that has been under intense scrutiny since 1995 by the Office of Administration and Budget (OMB) and the Inspector General.
Progress is gradual, with seven of the 24 MoD agencies having clean audits so far, but also slow. With $22.3 billion in savings identified between the ages of 18 and 21, lawmakers bowed to Pentagon pressure and divided roles and responsibilities among existing positions. The Department of Defense must also determine a replacement for the position of Chief Management Officer, which was civilian position number 3 until its abolition in the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act. DoD estimates that only 1.5% of its employees have passed the test, even though it is required by law.
The acquisition side is also in a mess, including several infamous procurement disasters that embody the Pentagon’s systemic problems. A good example is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has been continuously developed since the contract was awarded in 2001, but has faced countless delays and cost overruns.
The total cost of the F-35 is estimated at $1.727 trillion over the life of the program, and the total cost of the acquisition is now more than $2.5 trillion, or nearly $4.1 trillion per year.
On January 14, 2021, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller called the Joint Strike Fighter “a piece of the pie. Many of the problems with the F-35 program stem from the fact that it was developed and acquired simultaneously. Whenever problems were identified, contractors had to go back and make changes to aircraft already assembled, pushing up the overall cost.
Of course, none of this has stopped the Pentagon from seeking financial support for the Joint Strike Fighters or members of Congress, who have often provided funds at the request of the Department of Defense. That trend continued in fiscal 2019, when lawmakers allocated an additional $2.1 billion to purchase 22 Joint Strike Fighters – exceeding the Pentagon’s demands and bringing the total budget earmarked for the program to $8.9 billion in the first quarter of the year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Finally, a Biden administration would do well to bring stability to the Pentagon’s leadership. Each defense secretary has brought a number of new ministers, led by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. President Donald Trump has fired two of the four current secretaries – most of them in the administration – and President Biden should try to reverse that trend.
Sean Kennedy is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, DC think tank.