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.