The $68 Billion Question

Sen. Coburn’s plan to save the Pentagon.

We spend a lot in the Defense Department that doesn't have much to do with defense, and it costs us a lot of money. The latest documentation of this reality is in the report Sen. Tom Coburn released Thursday: Department of Everything. Coburn supported the draft Simpson-Bowles report a couple of years ago that proposed budget reductions and revenue increases, and he has been a consistent gadfly against wasteful federal spending, including defense.

In his new, well-researched and very detailed report, he concludes that we could save nearly $68 billion over ten years if we just got DOD out of doing things that have little or nothing to do with the basic mission of the forces -- in his words "fighting and winning the nation's wars." Things like breast cancer research, electric cars, wind power, running a U.S. school system for children of troops, searching for evidence of extra-terrestrials, tuition assistance programs, and one of the ten largest grocery store chains in the United States (the military commissaries).

Coburn's report is a worthy inheritor of the tradition of "Golden Fleece" awards handed out annually by another gadfly senator, William Proxmire, three decades ago to "recognize" wasteful federal spending.  But he could have gone a lot further.

For one thing, Coburn does not say he would eliminate all these activities and save the dollars. He says he would transfer things like non-core health and energy research programs to other agencies. But he also suggests that doing so would "free up" funding for priorities at DOD. Of course, that would not save any money. Congress might or might not fund these programs in other agencies, but if the Pentagon kept the funds and shed the programs, there would be no savings at all. So there is a limit to his argument about savings from the reforms he proposes.

What's more, less than half of the potential "savings" Coburn cites come from unnecessary and non-core activities like the ones described above. The remainder comes from a broader area of activity: DOD overhead, or the "back office." As I wrote last summer, overhead is one of the three reasons we spend too much on defense. As Coburn notes, citing the Defense Business Board, there are 340,000 military personnel in the Pentagon performing commercial functions; roughly 560,000 active duty personnel are never deployed. That's a huge back office.

But Coburn offers no specific, concrete proposals here, just a blunt suggestion to trim a quarter of the funding and convert the jobs to civilian positions. He does not say what work would not be done; and, of course, transferring the work to civilians won't save funds.

The defense budget is going down, and the really hard question is how to bring it down sensibly. Coburn's "waste" proposals do not get us there because they do not actually save money -- they just spend it on more combat-related things. That's good, but it won't help manage a defense draw-down.

And Coburn's report missed some of the most significant mission creep afflicting the military: the billions of Pentagon dollars going to training security forces in other countries (more than $80 billion over the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere); DOD's support for the budgets of other countries (Coalition Support Funds for Jordan and Pakistan, over $15 billion); the DOD-funded development assistance programs that started in Iraq and Afghanistan (with at least $10 billion on Commander's Emergency Response Program funding); military advice on how other nations should govern themselves (Provincial Reconstruction Teams, funded through the CERP program); and the growing DOD investment in public diplomacy (with some $10-20 billion over the past decade for "strategic communications"). (For more on some of these programs, see the report Becky Williams and I wrote in 2011.)

The Department of Defense would like very much to expand these programs globally and make them permanent; today it calls them "Building Partner Capacity." Some want our military to become administrators, developers, "stabilizers," and global providers of internal stability. These are all mission creep, they are all expensive, and they all require close scrutiny. They are not particularly core to the "fight and win the nation's wars" mission Sen. Coburn is focused on. But taking a good hard look at these missions could help reshape our military for the real challenges we face and save resources in the bargain.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Squeal Team Six

Why punish seven SEALs for the Pentagon's love affair with Hollywood?

It's hard to believe that a video game is as big a threat to national security as the CIA director cavorting with a mistress. Yet just like David Petraeus, seven members of SEAL Team Six have had their careers ended. Their crime? The Navy accused them of divulging classified information to the game designers, and slapped them with letters of reprimand that torpedo their prospects for promotion and their future prospects as SEALs.

Did the punishment fit the crime? One would not expect a game with the highbrow title "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" to contain a nation's deepest secrets. Perhaps one day we'll discover that the Super Mario Brothers were smuggling nuclear blueprints to Iran under their hats. But where spies mostly deal with data points that they try to assemble into a meaningful picture of the enemy's mindset, video games aren't looking for carefully considered, fact-checked realism. What is included in the game has to make the game fun.

The harsh punishments raise questions about why the Pentagon took such a hard line. For example, it's not clear whether the Navy authorized the SEALs to act as game consultants. Presumably it didn't, but if that's the case, then we have to believe that these men belonged a unit that could be trusted to kill Bin Laden, yet couldn't be trusted not to blab to game designers? One intriguing angle is that Mark Bissonnette, the former SEAL Team 6 member who is under investigation by the Pentagon in his book on the Bin Laden raid, No Easy Day, was also involved with the "Medal of Honor" game. Perhaps disciplining the SEALs was a message that after Bissonnette's tell-all, special operators who want to keep their jobs had best keep their mouths shut.

But where could these SEALs have possibly got the idea that it was all right to consult on a video game? Perhaps from the Oregon National Guardsman who won a Silver Star in Iraq in 2004 and became both a video game avatar and a plastic action figure. Or maybe it was this year's action film Act of Valor, for which the Pentagon helpfully provided real SEALs. Congressional staffers raised concerns that having SEALs displaying their combat skills and tactics in a Hollywood film meant that classified capabilities had been exposed on the big screen for the world to see. Then there's the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, an action film about the Bin Laden hit scheduled for release next month, for which conservatives accuse the Obama administration of leaking classified information on the raid to the filmmakers.

The Pentagon loans equipment and personnel to these films because it's good press. For example, the Department of Defense's liaison with Hollywood -- yes, there is a Pentagon liaison with Hollywood -- told NPR that there is anecdotal evidence that 1986's Top Gun produced a spike in recruiting. When asked how the Pentagon selected films for military cooperation, he replied, "Our criteria is very broad. Basically, we are looking for an opportunity to better inform the public about the U.S. military and also, as a byproduct, perhaps help military recruiting and retention. But obviously these are very broad criteria so there's a lot of subjectivity in determining just how those are met."

The irony here is that SEALs who consulted on the video game certainly would have highlighted the positive attributes of their unit, because a video game designer doesn't want to hear that SEALs think Obama's Afghanistan policy is a shambles. They just want to learn what will enhance the coolness of their game.

So just what secrets could a Chinese or Russian spy hope to obtain from a video game? Not very much, because video games are meant to entertain, and any resemblance with real combat tends to be coincidental. I haven't played "Medal of Honor: Warfighter," but judging by the reviews, it's not exactly a high-fidelity combat simulation. Nor should we expect it to be. War -- even special operations -- is mostly dull and dirty, two attributes that don't sell video games. If the SEALs did discuss classified equipment or tactics, they would only have been included in the game if they contributed to the game's fun factor. Considering the tactics encouraged by many shooter games ("Let's charge the enemy. If we get hit, we'll just respawn!"), I wouldn't count on a sneak peek into real SEAL tactics.

If in fact the seven SEALs were paid to act as game consultants without authorization, and divulged classified information in the process, I don't have a problem with them being disciplined. The problem I have is with contradictory message sent by punishing a few low-level commandos while the Pentagon embraces the military-Hollywood complex and senior officers leave the service and become highly paid defense industry consultants. My guess is that those SEALs saw all this and decided there was nothing wrong in using their expertise and reputation to pick up a little cash, perhaps as recompense for years of grueling special operations. It may have been wrong, but not so wrong that they should have their careers quashed. It's a painful lesson in how an ugly game is played.