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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Pentagon's $1 Trillion Problem

The defense department has spent billions to fix its antiquated financial systems. So why does the Pentagon still have no idea where its money goes?

Since 2004, the Pentagon has spent roughly $16 billion annually to maintain and modernize the military's business systems, but most are as unreliable as ever—even as the surge in defense spending is creating more room for error. The basic defense budget for 2007 was $439.3 billion, up 48 percent from 2001, excluding the vast additional sums appropriated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to federal regulators and current and former Pentagon officials, the accounting process is so obsolete and error prone that it's virtually impossible to tell where much of this money ends up. While the department's brass has made a few patchwork improvements, billions are still unaccounted for. The problem is so deeply rooted that, 18 years after Congress required major federal agencies to be audited, the Pentagon still can't be. (Read a chronology of efforts to modernize the military's financial systems.)

"In the Defense Department, what you have now are material weaknesses that are in every single area, in every part of the department, so deep and so wide you do not really have any way of figuring out where money is being spent," says Linda Bilmes, a federal budget expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

According to David Walker, who recently left his post as head of the Government Accountability Office, the failure of the Pentagon's outdated and incompatible systems to keep tabs on expenditures—even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eat up an ever-bigger chunk of the federal budget—puts several Defense Department agencies high on the G.A.O.'s list of federal programs that are mismanaged and prone to fraud, waste, and abuse.

Since the scandal in 1985, which revealed that the Navy paid Lockheed $640 each for airplane toilet seats, Congress, military leaders, and regulators have agreed that the Defense Department's internal accounting system is in shambles. What's startling is the scope of the problem and the government's seeming inability to fix it. Over the past two decades, the Pentagon has repeatedly tried to design new computer systems to replace the antiquated ones. Even today, new incompatible financial systems continue to proliferate within the services, contrary to directives from the secretary of Defense's office.

The dysfunction stems in part from the traditional independence of the military branches. Over several decades, they have cobbled together separate processes for identical functions, resulting in the uncontrolled growth of more than 4,000 accounting, financial, and inventory systems. Their names form an acronym soup: CAPS, Stanfins, IAPS, Somards, Samms, Mocas, HQARS, Stars. The department's primary system for handling weapons contracts and payments dates from 1958; a costly attempt to replace it was abandoned in 2002 as a failure. The Army's notoriously inaccurate main accounting system was created in 1966.

Since 2005, the Pentagon has been carrying out what it says is the most comprehensive reform ever. Undersecretary of Defense Tina Jonas, who is now the comptroller and chief financial officer, is heading up an elaborate effort—once again—to develop compatible systems to share information seamlessly. A 2007 department report foresees the Pentagon becoming "as nimble, adaptive, flexible, and accountable as any organization in the world."

Overburdened by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the individual services remain reluctant to commit staff members and money to Jonas' financial-reform effort.

Jonas says that her approach is working and that eight small Pentagon branches, like the Army Corps of Engineers, have now passed audits. "I think we're making good progress," she says.

Nevertheless, the four military services still can't be audited, and Jonas declines to predict when the entire Defense Department will finally pass an audit. "We don't know what we don't know," she says.

-Scot Paltrow, CondeNast Portfolio
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