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How the Military-Industrial Complex Hurts Service Member Safety

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in formation with two F-16s. | Official U.S. Air Force / Flickr

While funding the federal government on the fly with short-term continuing resolutions, lawmakers have doubled down on dubious Pentagon spending. Right before the Christmas break, Congress approved a measure pouring nearly $5 billion into missile defense, and more than $600 million into the Navy’s ship maintenance account.

It’s easy to think of these appropriations as reflecting the “pro-defense” agendas of hawkish lawmakers who in turn are only representing their constituents. But members of Congress directing money towards more hardware are actually perpetuating a major problem: the lopsided spending priorities of the Pentagon.

As lawmakers tie ribbons around shiny new ships and weapons systems (like the overpriced and problem-plagued F-35), reports continue to expose the poor safety standards plaguing hundreds of military bases around the world. Despite shelling out $600 billion a year to fund the Pentagon, taxpayers have little assurance that service-members themselves are being kept safe.

According to a report released by the Pentagon’s Inspector General (IG) in December, U.S. military bases in foreign countries continue to suffer from lackluster safety standards. A comprehensive health and safety inspection at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar unearthed countless examples of poor safety practices and nonexistent oversight on contractor projects. Even simple checks on fire sprinkler installations were lacking in areas frequented by armed services personnel.

While such criticism might be seen as nitpicking by an office whose job is identify Pentagon flaws, even the smallest oversights can have devastating implications. For example, in 1995, a car bombing targeting a U.S. military housing compound in Saudi Arabia claimed the lives of five Americans. Like Qatar today, Saudi Arabia was at the time considered a secure country for American armed services personnel. Complacency about the security situation resulted in lax safety standards prior to the attack, such as the use of combustible building materials and a lack of fire alarms in dormitories.

Despite these and other tragic cases, lawmakers have kept their heads in the sand over how even small vulnerabilities can magnify casualties in “friendly” countries. The IG report finds that basic construction standards were not followed in the base’s Combined Air and Space Operations Center and Wing Operations Center should be especially alarming to members of the defense appropriations committees—yet thus far it’s attracted little attention.

The 253 deficiencies that inspectors deemed threatening to the lives of service-members could have been prevented with basic maintenance and monitoring on bases in tumultuous regions. A report released earlier this year found that, just in the Army, the backlog of deferred maintenance expenses stands at more than $10 billion. Army officials told Congress it will take decades of sustained funding to reverse the deteriorating states of the 20 percent of Army buildings deemed to be in “failing” or “poor” condition.

If some of that additional pre-Christmas missile defense money had instead been devoted to upkeep, the Army could tackle up to half of its maintenance backlog. As the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly pointed out, missile defense programs fail to provide a “robust defense” and are prone to significant schedule and cost overruns. Even if appropriators are unwilling to scale back wasteful acquisitions, just switching to a multi-year procurement system would save billions over the coming decades.

Finally, savings from unneeded bases can bolster the safety and security profile of bases in mission-critical areas. Yet amidst repeated requests from the Department of Defense to initiate another round of Base Realignment and Closure, Congress refuses to take action.

Continuing to prioritize unneeded weapons purchases and dinosaur bases over essential upkeep leads to untold waste and unacceptable safety standards for military personnel. The upcoming Pentagon audit will surely unearth countless more examples of wasted money that can be diverted towards urgent needs or returned to the American people. In exchange for a gargantuan defense bill, taxpayers deserve a military with minimal waste that prioritizes the safety of its service-members.

Ross Marchand is an economics writer based out of Washington D.C., and is an alum of the Mercatus MA Program at George Mason University.

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