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Lawmakers force Pentagon to buy tanks, keep ships and planes it doesn't need

By Phillip Swarts

Thursday - 5/9/2013, 5:00pm  ET

The U.S. spends more money on defense than any other nation in the world. So in an era of fiscal challenge, the Pentagon looked for ways to reduce costs.

Too bad Congress wasn't listening.

Lawmakers have nixed several of the money-saving ideas, instead forcing the Defense Department to purchase or maintain equipment it says it doesn't need.

Take for instance the half-billion dollars in Abrams tanks that Congress ordered up for the next two years, or the seven obsolete ships the Navy is being forced to keep.

The Pentagon says it doesn't want them, or need them. But taxpayers will keep paying the price.

For not listening to military leaders and instead forcing unneeded spending, Congress wins this week's Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction given by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of government waste.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that Congress has authorized almost half-a-billion dollars over two years to build Abrams tanks for the Army.  But the Army has said it currently doesn't need any tanks, and the money would be better used elsewhere.

"If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said.

Lawmakers, however, are insisting on keeping the program going, usually in the name of national defense.  Behind that, however, is usually an economic concern.  The Abrams tanks - and most other equipment used by the military - are built within the U.S.  Stopping production means losing jobs in home congressional districts.

"My job is to represent the 4th Congressional District," said Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, whose Ohio district includes the territory where the tanks are constructed. "But the fact remains, if it was not in the best interests of the national defense for the United States of America, then you would not see me supporting it like we do."

Fiscal watchdogs said lawmakers should pay attention when military leaders are not only trying to cut spending, but advising what they need and don't need to keep the U.S. safe.

"When an institution as risk averse as the Defense Department says they have enough tanks, we can probably believe them," said Sean Kennedy, the research director for Citizens Against Government Waste.

The Abrams tanks aren't alone.  Billions of dollars are being spent on equipment the Pentagon says it just doesn't need.

The Washington Guardian reported in January that the Navy planned to retire seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers over the next two years.  The multi-purpose ships often used to fire cruise missiles were constructed in the 1990s.  Rather than face expensive overhauls, the Navy decided to retire them.

But Congress shut down that idea with the latest National Defense Authorization Act, which gives the Pentagon its funding.  The law expressly states that "none of the funds authorized" can be used "to retire, inactivate, or place in storage a cruiser or dock landingship."

Lawmakers argued the ships are needed as the Pacific Rim continues to grow in strategic importance.  But Navy officials said security wouldn't be compromised by retiring the ships.

The Pentagon has been trying to find ways to trim roughly $46 billion from its budget this year due to mandatory cuts brought about by sequestration.  The deal was designed to make across-the-board cuts to all government agencies in the event Congress failed to pass a deficit reduction compromise.  It was intended as a last resort, but took effect anyway in March.

Members of Congress are often fighting the Pentagon's plans in order to save jobs in their home districts.  But often the military is making cuts in an attempt to save jobs as well and avoid furloughs - unpaid leaves of absence - for Defense Department personnel.

The Air Force has also been butting heads with Congress, as it wants to retire several C-130 and C-5A cargo aircraft, B-1 bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles.  Air Force officials estimated they could save $600 million by retiring the aircraft.