July was a tough month for the Pentagon. The Washington Post revealed that three U.S. special operations soldiers died in Mali when their vehicle plunged off a bridge with three Moroccan prostitutes in the vehicle at the time. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction issued one of his final reports on U.S. reconstruction efforts in that country and estimated that $6 billion to $8 billion of the $51 billion spent on reconstruction was likely wasted, embezzled, or misplaced. The inspector general's investigations have produced 90 indictments, 72 convictions, and $177 million in fines and other penalties, with the highest percentage of convictions coming against military officers and defense contractors. Worse still, this came not long after the bean counters at the Government Accountability Office had issued yet another damning report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, finding that the cost estimate for developing the F-35 had jumped an additional $15 billion since 2010.
The reaction from the political class was swift and decisive, but not in the way you would think. Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney called for an additional $2.1 trillion in defense spending over the next decade and called for adding 100,000 additional active-duty military personnel -- even as the United States winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, made an impassioned plea supporting the Defense Department's foreign assistance programs. And much of Congress continues to react as if sequestration budget cuts -- a sword of Damocles that they themselves voted for -- would prove apocalyptic even though they only reduce Pentagon spending to 2006 levels.
The Pentagon has become the federal bureaucracy's version of a perpetual motion machine. Despite the fact that the military budget has roughly doubled over the last decade and the United States spends more on defense than China, Britain, France, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, and Brazil combined, most members of Congress continue to see a vote for more defense spending as the safest vote in town.
And for good reason. But because voting for defense spending is a painless vote for members of Congress, more and more lobbyists and interest groups have pushed their activities under the broad umbrella of the Pentagon in order to find safe harbor. This has led to the Pentagon to take on more and more activities that have very little to do with traditional definitions of national security.
Take breast cancer, for example. As the Post notes, the Pentagon has received more than $3.6 billion for cancer research over the last 20 years, despite the fact that no president has ever requested this funding and that breast cancer research has nothing to do with the Pentagon's traditional limited purview in health -- battlefield medicine. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin once bragged to his constituents that he had been able to double spending on breast cancer research by putting the additional funds in the Pentagon's budget. Of course, since the Defense Department doesn't have much expertise in breast cancer research, it turns around and relies on agencies like the National Institutes of Health, where the money should have been put in the first place, to oversee its grants under these programs.
But Congress is not solely to blame for the Pentagon's ever growing mandate. The Defense Department itself has become increasingly fixated on the idea of "expeditionary economics." In a nutshell, the concept is that small teams of military professionals well versed in economics will be deployed to assist in the reconstruction of war-torn and disaster-prone countries.