When Carly Fiorina told a Republican debate audience what the country needs to have “the strongest military on the face of the planet”—50 Army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, at least 300 naval ships, a rebuild of the Sixth Fleet and an upgrade of “every leg of the nuclear triad”—it sounded a bit familiar.

“These numbers seem to be pulled straight from a report released by the conservative Heritage Foundation this year,” noted The Daily Beast’s Kate Brannen, and many of them were. While analysts like Brannen were able to discount the numbers as nothing more than a wish list with a likely $500 billion price tag, Fiorina had already appeared steely and well-informed. The September 16 debate helped propel her forward, both in the polls and the eyes of the fickle media.

Republican candidates use the “super size me” rhetoric to burnish their national security credentials because it works, at least in the short term. It’s a perennial sideshow that has become more gratuitous—and less convincing—as the 9/11 attacks have receded further in the rear view. But the “more is better” argument, even in a drawdown period after two enormously expensive wars, staggers on like a zombie, reanimated by hawks like Fiorina, who often consult with think tanks funded in part by the defense industry and ex-military officers who serve on the boards of Beltway government contractors.

“And they [advisors] tell them the military is great, and that it just needs more money and people. They tell candidates what they want to hear, and you know what, it’s just going to keep producing these hollow victories at best,” said (Ret.) Army Maj. Don Vandergriff, who is now teaching leadership courses at Fort Benning, Ga., and serving on the new military advisory board at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

“I tell you, if you put more money, more people into the current system, it is going to break our economy and will force us to suffer defeats all over the world.”

Vandergriff’s assessment may sound extreme, but consider how the military has poured $400 billion into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an overly designed, technological fantasy machine that is politically insulated from annual budget cuts. Despite being the costliest weapons system in U.S. history, the plane has flight issues, can’t dogfight (according to one test pilot), and after 12 years in the making, won’t see service until 2017 at the earliest. Could that money have gone to more critical functions in U.S. counter-terrorism operations abroad? Anything seems better than a plane that won’t fly.

“Debates around the F-35 illuminate how Congress falls short in its fundamental defense role,” said (Ret.) Lt. Col. Anthony B. Carr, a former combat pilot for the U.S. Air Force, and now a law student and senior editor at Harvard University’s National Security Journal. He is also serving on POGO’s new reform team, which hopes to publicly counter the budget myths propagated by the defense establishment.

“The Air Force and Marine Corps can’t be put in a position where they see no choice but to pay for and field a program—even if it means ditching people and weapons still relevant to our defense—for lack of a suitable alternative,” he said, noting the steep personnel cuts—about 19,000 active duty Airmen—after belt-tightening measures in 2014.

If the F-35 represents everything wrong with the state of military budget and procurement, candidates like Fiorina are the perfect emissaries for this topsy-turvy world on the public stage. As she ladles billions in fictional gravy onto the budget, the Pentagon chiefs are trying to do it for real in their annual food fight on Capitol Hill. Each applause line by Fiorina or any other GOP hawk—like Rubio insisting the administration’s policies are “eviscerating” the military—is one point for the team lobbying Congress. And every rhetorical flourish counts double today as the Pentagon chiefs seek to stop congressional measures that would keep FY 2016 spending under the $499 billion sequestration caps put in place in 2010.

That dramaturgy has been on display all week, as top brass tell the press and lawmakers that the sky will indeed fall down if the military is forced to stay within this limit. The first question is whether Congress can avoid a shutdown by passing a continuing resolution by September 30. A CR could fund the defense budget at FY 2015 levels until December, paving the way for a real FY 2016 agreement. Critics are worried Congress will continue to pass CRs through the rest of the fiscal year, forcing the Pentagon to live under the $499 billion cap and the administration’s request of $535 billion.

Watch for the words “disaster” and “unacceptable,” along with “danger” and “harm” in regards to this budget scenario. Or worse. We know, according to military leaders who have been unusually accessible to press lately, that “readiness,” “modernization,” and even the nation are already at risk.

In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter raised the specter of Russia and China, which he claimed “have advanced their capabilities.” He continued: “What we have under sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution is a straitjacket. We would be forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work went further, telling Congressional Quarterly that a year-long continuing resolution would be “disastrous,” damaging new start weapons like the next-gen Air Force bomber, planned construction, and multi-year procurement programs.

“There is no organization on earth that would be able to operate under these conditions. Now the reason we do is we make compromises, and the compromises we make are not good for national security,” complained Work.

The threats that we face are increasing,” said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “So this budget uncertainty exacerbates what is already a pretty challenging circumstance.”

Then there are the military associations defending the DOD’s spending interests on the outside. They include the National Defense Industries Association, led by two retired generals, which serves as a giant megaphone for defense contractors and beltway bandits whose very life depends on a steady diet of U.S. tax dollars (75 percent or more of total revenues in some cases).

“An extended CR would harm our national security and our economy,” the group said in a letter to the House and Senate leadership on September 14, asserting that “a CR makes it difficult to meet ongoing operational needs, which have only become more frequent, dangerous, and pressing since the last budget deal.”

As expected, the rending of clothes and gnashing of the teeth are well underway. While no one—even the reformers—thinks continuing resolutions and keeping to caps through indiscriminate cuts (which are really just slowing growth) are the way to go, groups like POGO continue to insist the basic priorities are all wrong. They see several issues—the military’s love affair with technology, an antiquated personnel system fraught with unaccountability and too many generals, a lack of oversight, and a global mission—all combining to form a system that runs like an all-you-can-eat buffet engineered by politics and corporate meddling. As for cuts, the Pentagon usually gets what it wants anyway, in the form of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.

Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO, says the establishment of a military advisory board stacked with veterans with reform experience is just one more way the nonprofit watchdog group is trying to fight hawkish politicians and ubiquitous think tank cheerleaders on their own turf.

“POGO is reviving the legacy of reform-minded military officers working alongside the Center for Defense Information to counter the fact-free rhetoric spewing from the mouths of politicians with real world experience,” she told TAC this week.

The board will be joined by Marine Capt. Dan Grazier, 37, who retired from active duty just four months ago. (Grazier is POGO’s new Jack Shanahan fellow, a position reserved for those with recent combat experience.) While many of his fellow service members might have chosen a more lucrative path in the military-industrial-congressional complex, he’s jumped right into trying to reform it.

“I was a true believer,” he told TAC about his time in Marines. “Then I learned about John Boyd.”

Boyd—a military theorist and strategist who died in 1997—remains a rock star among the close knit group of military reformers who not only founded POGO in 1981, but continue to honor Boyd’s legacy by serving as persistent critics of Pentagon programs. Boyd’s teachings emphasized decentralized, objective-driven commands over centralized, method-driven ones; the military’s over-reliance on technology; and of course, the decision cycle theory known as the OODA Loop. Grazier’s dramatic move is just one example of the way Boyd’s approach has touched and made new acolytes out of young service members.

Of course it is no coincidence that the other military advisors—Vandergriff, Carr, Gary “G.I.” Wilson, Mike Wyly, and Danny Davis—share Grazier’s enthusiasm for Boyd’s theories. They too, come up from the “Mafia Fighter” tradition that is the bedrock of POGO.

“I just hope the reform movement can get back on track,” said Wilson, a former Marine infantry officer whose military experience spans the Vietnam War area through Iraq in 2005.  

“John Boyd once told me that [military] technology is supposed to be bigger, heavier and more complex because it means more money, more cost overruns and contracts in 38 different states,” said Wilson, who is teaching in California. “It’s not about winning wars, it’s about awarding contracts.”

Grazier said he is slowly encountering the entrenched corporate, political, and military relationships that bloat the budget and dictate the defense establishment orthodoxy in Washington. It’s not so hard now, he tells TAC, to see why Fiorina and others choose to bang the drum and call in the airstrikes on the debate stage.

“Political engineering—I had no idea how bad it was until I got to Washington,” he said. “The tendrils, how far they go, that’s what really surprised me.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.