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Blimps, elephants, and 8 other ridiculous and expensive military programs

At some point in their military careers, all servicemembers have said: "I can't believe we're paying for this."


Full Disclosure: The author was once sent TDY to Disneyland. That's not a joke.

From 1975 to 1984, a division of government contractor Litton Industries and two of its executives were accused of defrauding the government of $15 million through grossly inflated prices in its contracts. A 1986 book titled "The Pentagon Catalog" documented some of the Pentagon's worst buys and the contractor who charged the government for them. It included a claw hammer sold by Gould Simulation Systems to the Navy for $435, McDonnell Douglas' $2,043 nut, and the same McDonnell Douglas' $37 screw.

Insert double entendre here.

Other items offered in the catalog include a $285 screwdriver, a $7,622 coffee maker, a $214 flashlight, a $437 tape measure, a $2,228 monkey wrench, a $748 pair of duckbill pliers, a $74,165 aluminum ladder, and a $659 ashtray. And those examples listed above aren't the only expensive military programs. Those aren't even the most ridiculous programs the U.S. military implemented lately. Here are a few more things the Pentagon saw fit to buy without shopping around.

 

1. Giant, unmanned surveillance blimps

A live symbol of military spending run amok, in October 2015, a surveillance blimp escaped from its mooring in Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground. The balloon took out power lines as it floated 100 miles over Pennsylvania.

"You know, I've always wanted to see Gettysburg." (DoD Photo)

Its technical name is the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (or JLENS). It's part of a $2.7 billion test to see if it can detect all the cruise missiles and aircraft that are constantly bombarding Maryland.

2. Luxury villas in Afghanistan

Complete with private security, the Defense Department spent $150 million on these Afghan McMansions between 2010 and 2014. The villas were built for 5-10 Pentagon employees from the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a group whose mission includes rebuilding Afghanistan.

Or at least a very small part of Afghanistan. These are the actual Afghan villas built by the TFBSO. (SIGAR Photo)

The $150 million they spent was approximately one-fifth of their operating budget. The villas included queen-size beds, mini refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs with DVD players. All meals had to come with at least two entree options and three side order options. The TFBSO spent $800 million before it was disbanded in March 2015.

3. What should have been the world's most amazing gas station

The same IG who uncovered the lush Afghan villas, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), found the same task force – the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) – awarded a $3 million contract for a gas station in Afghanistan. The final price tag ballooned to $42.7 million.

The actual $43 million gas station... At least it's clean natural gas. (SIGAR photo)

While War on the Rocks disputes the idea that the funds were a waste or overspend, no one in the Pentagon seemed to know about what the Fiscal Times dubbed the Pentagon's "slush fund." The discovery of the TFBSO prompted Congress to mandate DoD to be ready for a full audit of its budget by 2017.

4. Hospitals we can't find

While not part of a DoD program, the locations of hospitals and health centers funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan is very important. In October 2105, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan.

Hospital corpsman assigned to Company B, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, cleans a local Afghan elder's foot to check for infection at a patrol base near Sangin, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. William J. Faffler)

USAID's $259.6 million program is a dangerous one, considering all the harm that could come to the health facilities. The SIGAR report that documented the missing hospitals noted the attack on the Kunduz hospital highlighted the need for the military to have GPS coordinates of hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

5. An 80-year supply of V-22 Osprey parts

The Defense Logistics Agency recently purchased spare parts for the V-22 from Bell Helicopter and Boeing at a total cost of $9.7 million. The U.S. military goes through roughly two aircraft frames per year. The DLA purchased 166.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jerry Lowe directs an MV-22 Osprey in for landing on the flight deck of the USS Essex (LHD 2) off the coast of Southern California on Feb. 26, 2000. (DoD photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason A. Pylarinos, U.S. Navy)

This probably means that when the rest of the military is flying hovercraft and Iron Man suits in 2097, the Marine Corps will still be running off of Ospreys. To make matters worse, the IG reports the markup on some of those parts was a whopping $8,123.50, up from $445.60 – as much as eighteen times what the military should have paid.

6. Bomb-sniffing elephants

This one may sound like a crazy Cold-War era scheme that was somehow going to bring down the Iron Curtain, but no. In 2015, Sen. John McCain slammed the DoD for a study trying to find if elephants were more useful than dogs in sniffing bombs. The surprise is that they are but – to no one's astonishment – they are not as practical.

At least Hannibal crossed the Alps. What did YOU do, elephant? (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Army Research Office paid an untold sum of money for this program, even though it's been well documented that giant rats are more effective and efficient.

7. The Road to Nowhere

Another Afghan boondoggle, Afghanistan's Highway 1 was funded jointly with American and Saudi money. The 1677-mile stretch of road whose shoddy construction means high maintenance costs on top of construction costs. The $4 billion project also costs $5 million per mile to rebuild or maintain.

Trucks wait to cross the Afghanistan-Iran border in Zaranj, Afghanistan, May 10, 2011. The crossing is part of a busy trade route between Central Asia and the Middle East. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans)

Designed to link Afghanistan's major cities, the highway was of no real use to Afghan civilians and is primarily used by foreign militaries. This last fact means it's also a bomb magnet, only adding to its deterioration. On top of that, billions of dollars tagged for the project just disappeared.

8. The HQ no one needed...

... to the tune of $25 million, no less. This headquarters office is 64,000 square feet of prime Afghan real estate that three generals tried to kill before it could be built. No dice, though. The new HQ features a 125-person auditorium, special entrance for VIPs, and $2 million worth of furniture.

(ProPublica photo)

The HQ is in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, with an additional $20 million of infrastructure built around the base to support it, even though U.S. troops left Helmand after the temporary surge in 2010.

9. Warlord Truckers

This should be a reality show, except it's not a show; it was a program that hired local truckers in Afghanistan to move material with their own trucks.

Afghan truckers make their way towards Friendship Gate, the border crossing in Wesh, Afghanistan, on their way to Pakistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Juan Valdes)

Except twenty percent of that money went to local warlords for protection, which fueled unrest, corruption, and warlordism. It's kinda like that $37 million bridge from Afghanistan to Tajikistan built by the Army Corps of Engineers, which really just helped drug runners run drugs. Unfortunately, that's not the first time the military helped spur on an illegal trade.

10. Paying stoners from Florida to be their arms traffickers

It must have been a huge surprise to everyone involved when the Pentagon awarded an actual lowest-bid contract to a few unknown stoners from Miami Beach. These guys were awarded a $300 million contract to deliver arms to U.S. allies in Afghanistan. Instead of shiny new weapons, the guys run old Communist guns from the Balkans and repackage Chinese ammo. It's the subject of the new Jonah Hill-Miles Teller movie "War Dogs."

 

"War Dogs" is in theaters August 19th. The U.S. military will be throwing money around like an Afghan warlord long after that.