Coming soon: a Pentagon audit
After years of waiting, the Pentagon is finally going to produce an audit of its operations. While this might not seem like a big deal to some -- what could an audit possibly tell us that hasn't already made headlines -- this item tells us why an audit may be a very good thing:
Beyond the obvious accounting of assets—an estimated $2.4 trillion worth, including everything from infrastructure to personnel to weapon systems—an audit will create opportunities for careful consideration about the best use of military dollars. Even if the accounts show that every single penny that goes into the DOD is spent mindfully, wisely, and efficiently, there’s still cause to debate the ends that those pennies enable. The audit doesn’t obviate the need to have these discussions—it should spark them.
Hopefully its findings will also expose some of the waste, fraud, and abuse that Congress cites as problematic. The Department of Defense is a government agency and bureaucracy—a highly respected and exalted institution—but prone to the same inefficiencies that plague the EPA and Department of Interior, for example. Until now, the DOD successfully evaded opening its books, with critics citing concerns that such scrutiny could expose national-security secrets. Others warn that an audit could undermine our troops by compelling them to divert attention away from core missions.
We strongly doubt national secrets will appear in any sort of publicly-available audit. The information will be there...for certain eyes only. But what might the public learn?
An important and novel contribution will be the counting and consideration of assets like infrastructure, basing, and force structure. Consumables like salaries will change year to year with the ebb and flow of service personnel. Funding for operational tempo and readiness may also be policy-relevant, but on a yearly basis. A careful examination of U.S. basing and infrastructure could be useful in supporting another round of Base Realignment and Closure. Five successive Secretaries of Defense have requested authority to eliminate excess overhead, and realign unneeded facilities, but Congress has repeatedly deferred. An audit could help break the logjam.
Any effort that puts the Pentagon's operations into broader context, and identifies areas where efficiencies and savings can be had, is worthwhile. Will it be a big job putting all that information together? Of course. But when the document is published -- sometime in November -- it will serve as our first, clear look at what's on the Defense Department's books. This will allow us to see where all those hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent each year...and why.
That's old-fashioned transparency. And it is long overdue.