Pentagon Bureaucracy: $125 Billion in Waste

The Washington Post has a blockbuster story today documenting vast overhead costs in the Department of Defense (DoD). Experts often lambast the DoD’s excessive bureaucracy, and I have charted the growth in the number of civilian DoD workers.

But the Post reveals remarkable new measures of the department’s bloat, based on a leaked study it obtained:

The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.

Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.

The study was produced last year by the Defense Business Board, a federal advisory panel of corporate executives, and consultants from McKinsey and Company. Based on reams of personnel and cost data, their report revealed for the first time that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management.

The data showed that the Defense Department was paying a staggering number of people — 1,014,000 contractors, civilians and uniformed personnel — to fill back-office jobs far from the front lines. That workforce supports 1.3 million troops on active duty, the fewest since 1940.

The DoD’s effort to bury the study is appalling, but Pentagon waste is a complex problem. You can’t just chop $125 billion worth of “back office” jobs overnight. However, it is also true that the 1,014,000 such jobs—in logistics, procurement, and other activities—are the exact types of functions that have become vastly more efficient in the private sector.

One of the core problems in the DoD and other federal departments is the excessive layering that has accumulated over time. American businesses have become much leaner in recent decades, with flatter management structures. But the federal workforce has become top-heavy with excessive layers of management, and the DoD is no exception.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained that the Pentagon is a “gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy” with 30 layers of staff under the secretary. And John Lehman explained: “With so many layers and offices needed to concur on every decision, it now takes an average of 22½ years from the start of a weapons program to first deployment, instead of the four years it took to deploy the Minuteman ICBM and Polaris submarine missile system in the Cold War era.”

The Post says that the DoD’s “cost-cutting study could find a receptive audience with President-elect Donald Trump.” The real estate developer may be particularly struck by the size of one overhead activity: 192,000 workers just to handle the department’s “real property management.”

For more on the root causes of federal bureaucratic inefficiency, see this essay.