The Return of the Pentagon’s “Wish Lists”

Now that list-killer Bob Gates has left the building, lawmakers are eager to resume padding the military budget

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They’re called “unfunded priority lists” inside the Pentagon, which is an oxymoron when you think about it: if something is unfunded, ipso facto, it’s not a priority.

But that would make you a very poor lawmaker.

Such “wish lists” all but died under defense secretary Robert Gates. But if lawmakers have their way, they’ll be back.

For a decade, Congress stuffed the Pentagon budget with tens of billions of extra dollars the U.S. military’s civilian leaders didn’t want. Much of it went for hardware produced in members’ districts or states. “It’s not a wish list,” General Michael Moseley, the then-Air Force chief of staff, protested at the time. “It’s an unfunded requirements list.”

Gates, who served as defense chief from 2006 to 2011, succeeded in sharply cutting such lists by insisting the uniformed military run them by him before sending them on to their Capitol Hill requesters. The Air Force was Gates’ primary target. In 2008, its list totaled more than those of the three other services combined. That year, the Air Force’s wish list topped out at $19 billion—in addition to its White House-approved $144 billion budget request—and included dozens of extra airplanes. By two years ago, the practice had all but stopped.

John Hamre, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian during the Clinton Administration, said that the lists let the services “beg Congress” for weapons the Pentagon’s civilian leaders wouldn’t buy. “This broadly corrosive climate of indiscipline was created inside the department, enabled, and in many instances encouraged, by the Congress,” he said in 2009. Gates’ crackdown, Hamre added, showed “real leadership” and was “hugely important” to restoring integrity to the way the nation funds it fighting forces.

But, like a leaky basement that inevitably surrenders to the unrelenting pressure of water building up outside its walls, Congress is renewing its requests for such lists now that Gates is gone.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a Feb. 6 letter to let those in uniform resume the practice as Congress weighs the Pentagon’s soon-to-be-released 2015 proposed budget. “Until recently, Congress has had the benefit of being provided with an ‘unfunded priorities list’ from each of the service components to assist with our constitutional responsibility to authorize and appropriate funds for the defense of our nation,” wrote Hunter, a member of the armed services committee and a Marine veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. “The information derived from the list offers important details about which programs can be accelerated or receive reprogrammed funding in order to provide added value to commanders in the field.”

On Monday, the House Armed Services Committee released copies of the letter its chairman sent, on Valentine’s Day, to the nation’s top 14 uniformed military leaders. “Unfortunately, this well-established tradition of providing unfunded priority lists has waned in recent years, as defense leadership restricted the services and commands from providing this information,” Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., wrote. “Please identify the programs and requirements that have not been selected for funding in the President’s budget request but are necessary to fulfill a validated requirement or combatant commander priority and that you would have recommended for inclusion in the President’s budget request had additional resources been available or had the requirement emerged before the budget was submitted.”

The only trouble with McKeon’s request is that a “validated requirement” is kind of like pornography—you’ll know it when you see it, but your fellow viewer will likely disagree. Gates, a bureaucratic knife-fighter after more than a quarter-century at the CIA and the White House’s National Security Council, spelled out how slippery such a “requirement” could be in 2010:

The problem is, “requirement” has a particular military definition in terms of something that is required to accomplish a certain mission. And it’s a little bit like one of the things I go back and forth with on the services is their assessment of risk. The risk isn’t in terms of whether you can accomplish the mission; the risk is in terms of whether you can accomplish the mission in the timeline that the plan calls for. So the risk is to the plan, not getting the job done.

Such lists will allow lawmakers to come to the aid of a Pentagon that has been grumbling in recent years that budget trims have left it unprepared. But as defense-budget whiz Gordon Adams notes, U.S. military spending—even after last year’s sequester-mandated cuts—tops that spent every year between 1945 and 2006. That five-decade timepsan includes the entire Cold War, when the superpower standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened civilization with atomic annihilation.

The old military truism to “git thar fustest with the mostest” when it comes to waging war is why the military brass generally wants more of pretty much everything. It’s up to the civilians running the Pentagon, and the commander-in-chief in the Oval Office, to decide how much risk to take. And while Congress has a legitimate role, spelled out in the Constitution, to “provide for the common Defence” and “provide and maintain a Navy,” letting lawmakers add warships here and warplanes there is like having an orchestra with a battalion of conductors and expecting sweet music.

Hagel is insisting any responses go through his office before they’re sent on to Capitol Hill. “He just wants to be informed about what they’re submitting,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. That’s the choke point that Gates used to throttle earlier lists. Just how lengthy any new wish lists are will be a key test of Hagel’s clout inside the Pentagon.

13 comments
ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

What are the legislators willing to give up for their pet projects.  Suddenly, Republicans can't remember that "national debt" and "deficits" issue?  very selective memory.  You want something new, get rid of something.  The Republicans had to have the damn sequester and budget cut.  Can't understand that an "exceptional" country taxes enough to pay to look "exceptional" and not like a 3rd world country, allowing infrastructure to decay and the poor to starve so some rich cat can sit on his cash in a foreign bank. Stay within your money.  People are still far more important than the Pentagon's latest whiz-bang toy.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Military ear marks. This country has become irresistibly militaristic at all levels. 

RobertNguyen
RobertNguyen

In view of the new and real threat from Chi-com, the US can no longer waste its precious budget on waste. Keep in mind every 1 dollar the Chinese spent on defense equals to 6 of that in the DoD budget...


Congress should cease and desist of their corrupted practice to bring pork to their home district. National defense and foreign policies are better left to the President and not to the 535 fiefdoms.

e.a.bates3
e.a.bates3

Congress is rightfully exercising its due diligence associated with its oversight responsibilities when it asks DOD for a list of prioritized unfunded requirements.  On the one hand there is always the potential for Congress to be attracted to large shiny objects especially if they are being produced in a Member's district, on the other hand it would be irresponsible to rubber stamp the DOD budget.  The unfunded list provides insight into DOD decision making and indeed what biases may have been at work- biases  which may or may not be consistent with the will of the people and their duly elected representatives.  DOD officials are not immune to the attraction of expensive shiny objects, like the F-35.

Jbkulp
Jbkulp

When I was in the army, one wag asserted that there had to be another war.  Why, I asked.  Because, he said, can you imagine 5 years from now all the members of the Joint Chiefs sitting around the table with nothing but good conduct metals to wear?  We all laughed.  6 months later, I was on my way to Vietnam.

FuzzyPotato
FuzzyPotato

You know, maybe we could work on bringing the costs of the F-35 down before we start throwing away more money?

Roger3
Roger3

More money for defense means more seduction for wars - toys wannabe used.

Happy new wars?

DalVI
DalVI

No less than President and General Dwight Eisenhower cautioned  "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex." 

tom.litton
tom.litton

@e.a.bates3 It makes sense for the list to come from the head of the DOD, after considering the over all military strategy and associated risks.  


If congress wants to ensure the will of the people is being done, then they can always call each head to testify before congress about such matters. 

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

@e.a.bates3  This is how we got the F-35, 7 years late, a bunch of billions late, can't fly in the rain, and pilots can black out from its new "latest" heads-up display.  If this was a business-the plane would have been replaced,  the corporations told to eat their loss, and heads would have rolled.  That is how a "real business" operates.  You make your targets or get to explore "other business opportunities".

jmac
jmac

@Jbkulp  Bush Jr was quoted as saying that wars bring revenue.  Conservatives believe that because they believe World War II pulled us out of the Great Depression.   They also don't believe that Coolidge and Harding had anything to do with the Great Depression as they've made Coolidge their hero.  



Jbkulp
Jbkulp

@jmac @Jbkulp  They probably think the earth's flat too, but that doesn't make it so.  And Dubya doubled the national debt in his 8 years, so just where was the revenue except for the military contractors?