Money Pit on the Potomac

Why is the Pentagon spending billions on breast cancer research?


July was a tough month for the Pentagon. The Washington Post revealed that three U.S. special operations soldiers died in Mali when their vehicle plunged off a bridge with three Moroccan prostitutes in the vehicle at the time. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction issued one of his final reports on U.S. reconstruction efforts in that country and estimated that $6 billion to $8 billion of the $51 billion spent on reconstruction was likely wasted, embezzled, or misplaced. The inspector general’s investigations have produced 90 indictments, 72 convictions, and $177 million in fines and other penalties, with the highest percentage of convictions coming against military officers and defense contractors. Worse still, this came not long after the bean counters at the Government Accountability Office had issued yet another damning report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, finding that the cost estimate for developing the F-35 had jumped an additional $15 billion since 2010.

The reaction from the political class was swift and decisive, but not in the way you would think. Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney called for an additional $2.1 trillion in defense spending over the next decade and called for adding 100,000 additional active-duty military personnel — even as the United States winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, made an impassioned plea supporting the Defense Department’s foreign assistance programs. And much of Congress continues to react as if sequestration budget cuts — a sword of Damocles that they themselves voted for — would prove apocalyptic even though they only reduce Pentagon spending to 2006 levels.

The Pentagon has become the federal bureaucracy’s version of a perpetual motion machine. Despite the fact that the military budget has roughly doubled over the last decade and the United States spends more on defense than China, Britain, France, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, and Brazil combined, most members of Congress continue to see a vote for more defense spending as the safest vote in town.

And for good reason. But because voting for defense spending is a painless vote for members of Congress, more and more lobbyists and interest groups have pushed their activities under the broad umbrella of the Pentagon in order to find safe harbor. This has led to the Pentagon to take on more and more activities that have very little to do with traditional definitions of national security.

Take breast cancer, for example. As the Post notes, the Pentagon has received more than $3.6 billion for cancer research over the last 20 years, despite the fact that no president has ever requested this funding and that breast cancer research has nothing to do with the Pentagon’s traditional limited purview in health — battlefield medicine. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin once bragged to his constituents that he had been able to double spending on breast cancer research by putting the additional funds in the Pentagon’s budget. Of course, since the Defense Department doesn’t have much expertise in breast cancer research, it turns around and relies on agencies like the National Institutes of Health, where the money should have been put in the first place, to oversee its grants under these programs.

But Congress is not solely to blame for the Pentagon’s ever growing mandate. The Defense Department itself has become increasingly fixated on the idea of "expeditionary economics." In a nutshell, the concept is that small teams of military professionals well versed in economics will be deployed to assist in the reconstruction of war-torn and disaster-prone countries.

Any post-conflict expert worth his or her salt agrees that getting economic life restarted after a conflict is vital. However, the idea of putting an institution that has become synonymous with billion-dollar cost overruns in charge of setting economic policy in postwar settings seems risible. Indeed, there is probably no agency in the world that has been more insulated from basic economic realities over the last decade than the Pentagon. But still, no other federal agency is willing to say that the emperor across the Potomac has no clothes.

Let us remember that Pentagon-led projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have been flush with cash but rife with problems. Just this week, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction reported that about $400 million in large infrastructure projects in Afghanistan are badly behind schedule and unlikely to make a dent in the Taliban insurgency. And this only underscores the Pentagon’s power to get what it wants. When every other agency fails, Congress threatens to reduce its budget. When the Defense Department fails or makes grievous mistakes, it is automatically assumed that it went astray because it did not have enough money.

But both Congress and the Pentagon itself should recognize the fundamental long-term risk of turning America’s military budget into a catchall for everything from breast cancer research to roving teams of economists in combat boots. Military officers are great at fighting and winning wars because that is what they are trained to do. It’s bad enough that there are already more people in U.S. military bands than in the entire Foreign Service, but does the country really want to train fighting men and women to build swimming pools in Iraq?

The more amorphous America makes the U.S. military’s purpose as an institution, the more likely the Pentagon will turn into a giant, muddled marshmallow of bureaucratic excess. Back in the 1990s, Republicans routinely wrung their hands over the idea that "mission creep" was undermining the military. Those concerns seem to have been quietly set aside as both parties acquiesce in building a military that can’t say no. With major budget battles brewing, don’t be surprised when people try to slip everything from domestic road building to arts funding into the behemoth defense budget.

Oh, wait, those have already happened.

John Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.