Pentagon Waste

The Senate turned Tuesday to the defense authorization bill as its first order of business since returning from an August break. Senate leaders hoped to begin debate on amendments. One proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders would address one of the most egregious examples of wasteful spending in the federal government: the billions of dollars worth of unneeded spare parts in Army, Navy, and Air Force warehouses.

The Senate turned Tuesday to the defense authorization bill as its first order of business since returning from an August break. Senate leaders hoped to begin debate on amendments. One proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders would address one of the most egregious examples of wasteful spending in the federal government: the billions of dollars worth of unneeded spare parts in Army, Navy, and Air Force warehouses.

The Government Accountability Office for years has flagged the Department of Defense inventory system on its "high risk" list. The unneeded spare-parts inventory and the inefficient inventory management systems and procedures are literally costing the taxpayer millions and millions of dollars each year. Worse, these unnecessary spare parts are clogging up the supply system, costing millions of dollars just for storage, and are not providing the support needed by the men and women in uniform who are serving our country.

In its latest report, the GAO calculated that more than half of the Air Force's secondary inventory, with a total average value of $31.4 billion, was not needed to support service requirements. While the billions of dollars in parts and other supplies now in warehouses have been bought and paid for, truckloads of supplies and parts continue to be purchased. Many of the orders are generated automatically. Altogether, $1.3 billion in unnecessary spare parts are on order, just for the Air Force. More incredibly, the Air Force has ordered $235 million in inventory already identified as ready for disposal. That amounts to almost 20 percent of the total on-order inventory.

It's not just an Air Force problem. The numbers for the Navy and Army also are troubling. The GAO found that about $8.9 billion, or 50 percent, of the Navy's average on-hand inventory was not needed to meet operating requirements. In addition, an average of about $137 million, or 9 percent, of the Navy's on-order inventory was unnecessary. Army figures show that at least $3.3 billion, or 32 percent, of its on-hand inventory was not needed to meet operating requirements. This unneeded spare parts inventory almost doubled between 2004 and 2007. There was also an average of $42 million of on-order inventory identified as potential excess for disposal.

Year after year, GAO has exhorted the Pentagon to: 1) provide incentives to reduce purchases of unneeded on-order inventory, 2) conduct a comprehensive assessment of unneeded inventory items on hand, 3) take measures to address fluctuations in demand that produce these huge inventories.

The Sanders amendment was inspired by the example set by former Senator Harry S. Truman. In 1940, the future president became chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. In the course of World War II, more than $15 billion in unnecessary and fraudulent defense spending was identified.

The amendment, cosponsored by Senators Russ Feingold and Sheldon Whitehouse, would require the Secretary of Defense to develop a plan for improving the inventory system.