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Pentagon’s budget fears fall on media’s deaf ears
The Pentagon's intense public relations campaign is designed to sell Congress and the public on how the first year of "sequester" budget cuts is leaving the U.S. military unable to train or deploy overseas.
Public warnings from the top brass generally have garnered media sympathy as air shows, ship cruises and college tuition fall victim to $46 billion in cuts targeted at day-to-day operations and maintenance.
But there have been signs in recent weeks of a backlash from the Washington press corps. It is not the kind of saturation coverage like that of the Reagan administration's $2.5 trillion military buildup of the 1980s, when an overpriced toilet seat made the front page.
Still, Pentagon overspending has become a hot topic for reporters, analysts say.
"The press corps finally realized that the 'back office' is the problem," said Gordon Adams, a White House budget official in the Clinton administration.
The "back office" consists of the myriad infrastructures that make up the military's "tail" to support war fighters, or the "tooth."
"The way they're going to have to deal with sequester is by becoming a lot more efficient than they've been. They've got to beat the bloat now," Mr. Adams told The Washington Times. "You can't pay for it anymore by getting our budget increased. You've got to pay for it now by becoming a lot more managerial agile. You're going to have to cut back on the size of the back office."
Said Winslow Wheeler, a Center for Defense Information analyst who has long accused the Pentagon of wasteful spending: "Nothing has changed except the press becoming aware of it. Department of Defense excess parading as military capability is certainly nothing new."
The press focusing anew on Pentagon spending habits "would not surprise me," said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. "This assuages people's guilt about gutting the military."
While the Pentagon ramped up the public relations campaign in January and February to warn of "devastating cuts," Bloomberg News service produced a series of stories about the Pentagon's most expensive weapons systems — their flaws and growing costs.
DoD Buzz focused on the missile defense system that the Pentagon does not want but that Congress keeps funding, and on a botched contract to buy aircraft for the Afghan National Security Forces.
Once spending cuts began March 1 and the military services announced a series of cancellations, news organizations stepped up stories about Defense Department mismanagement.
"Defense Cut Damage Viewed as Overblown," said the Boston Globe.
"Pentagon Spends Nearly $1 Billion a Year on Unemployment," said the Associated Press.
"Pentagon Urged to Stop Stalling, Start Planning Defense Cuts," blared Reuters.com.
The Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune reported that the Army stockpiled nearly $1 billion in spare parts for Stryker armored vehicles, with "much of the gear becoming outdated even as the military continued to order more equipment."
The New York Times spun a front-page story saying the automatic budget reductions were good for the Pentagon. "Cuts Give Obama Path to Create Leaner Military," it said.
The debt crisis and the Pentagon's alarm bells also have spurred the press to refocus coverage on the nearly $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an iconic symbol of cost overruns and technical glitches.
The Washington Times reported that the top brass are second-guessing the entire procurement plan. A former chief of naval operations believes the Air Force's F-35 model should be scuttled in favor of the Navy's variant. Retired Air Force generals say the Pentagon should cancel the Marine Corps' version, saying it is too expensive and not operationally practical.
Several studies over the years have urged the Defense Department to cut duplication and waste in its "tail" infrastructure and personnel.
For example, the Pentagon's Defense Business Board has called on the military to reduce the civilian workforce as well as the "tail," which private industry refers to as overhead.
"Given the Department's inability to reduce its overhead over the very periods in which U.S. and global businesses have made such great strides in efficiency, it became apparent to the [business board] that the current management tools applied by DoD are increasingly ineffective in managing the 'tail,'" the report said.
Mr. Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting at the Clinton White House, said part of the reason the press is losing sympathy for the military's plight is that the Pentagon refused to let military units prepare for sequestration until late 2012, even though it knew for more than a year that such cuts might come.
"So all the services merrily went along at the burn rate on operational accounts," he said.
Waste is not highlighted only by the liberal press, or "mainstream media"; some conservative groups argue that the debt crisis demands a more efficient Defense Department.
In a Feb. 26 open letter to President Obama and Congress, such conservative groups as Americans for Tax Reform and the National Taxpayers Union joined left-leaning groups such as the Project on Government Oversight in making that case.
"The time has come to reduce wasteful and ineffective Pentagon spending to make us safer," the groups said. "There has been a great deal of doomsday rhetoric about the effects of sequestration. Our organizations believe that sequester might not be the best way to reshape Pentagon spending, but that should not serve as an excuse to avoid fundamental reforms."
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