Pentagon officials have been warning that budget cuts will provoke a “hollowing out” of warfighting capabilities in coming years, with tens of billions of dollars on the table under so-called “sequestration” cuts.
Somehow, however, there is still enough money to pay for the construction of some new sun rooms for military housing used by senior officers in Stuttgart, Germany, a country the U.S. military has begun to flee. There also is enough — amid persistent military threats by North Korea — to pay for a new $10 million museum in South Korea lauding the U.S. Army’s years of work there. And there is also sufficient cash to finance millions of dollars worth of netting around an Army golf course at Camp Zama in Japan, helpfully listed as “safety countermeasure” netting.
The Senate Armed Services committee, in a new report, called these “questionable projects” in the military’s overseas military construction spending, which totals $10 billion a year. Three-quarters of that sum is disbursed in three countries with a large U.S. troop presence — Japan, Korea and Germany. But the spending occurs without much oversight and in some cases has violated military regulations and Pentagon promises to Congress, according to the committee.
The sun rooms and museum shared a common feature, the Senate investigators learned. They were approved under an obscure rule that lets the military benefit from host country work undertaken in lieu of cash payments to the Pentagon for military facilities that are being relinquished. Here’s how it worked in the case of the sun rooms, which were constructed at the request of the Pentagon’s regional Africa Command:
Africom, as it is commonly known, is hosted in relatively cloudy Stuttgart by the Army’s European command because no African country wanted it on their soil. According to the report, the push for new sun rooms came from the Africom chief of staff at the time, who officials have described as Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Snodgrass; he retired as the assistant Air Force deputy undersecretary for international affairs in Dec. 2011.
Snodgrass worked at the time under the now-retired Africom commander, Army Gen. William Ward, who was demoted last November after a Pentagon probe concluded he had misused military cars and planes for personal reasons.
Snodgrass complained that housing for senior officers was too small and sent blueprints to the folks responsible for logistics there, who approved the new construction, according to the report and a Pentagon official. The German government then did the work, which it valued at $200,000, instead of paying the Pentagon in cash for some of the U.S. military buildings being vacated as a quarter of the U.S. forces in Germany depart.
Senate investigators said the work was justified with false claims that the existing housing did not meet Pentagon standards. They said the former chief of staff had confirmed making the complaints but had denied requesting the additions, saying it lay outside his responsibility.
A lot of money is at stake in that drawdown from Germany, with $1.7 billion worth of U.S. assets no longer needed, according to the Senate committee’s report. But it complained that the Pentagon has been trading away the cash compensation it could get for this sort of dubious “in-kind” work, without telling Congress about it.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in South Korea. The movement of U.S. forces out of a garrison in Seoul to a military base 40 miles south, known as Camp Humphreys, has sparked the Pentagon to undertake the largest construction project in its history, according to the report. As a small part of that, ground is to be broken for the new museum next year, using South Korean work in lieu of cash payments for relinquished U.S. assets. The Senate report suggested South Korean funds could be spent instead on “more mission critical requirements.”
The golf course netting, which the report said cost $2.9 million, was financed by the Japanese government under an agreement meant to help defray the cost of the U.S. military’s contribution to Japanese security. But the Senate investigators questioned the U.S. military’s approval for that work, noting that erecting a fire station needed at another U.S. military base would have been a better choice.
“When the Pentagon and the entire federal government face enormous fiscal challenges, the questionable projects and lack of oversight identified in this review are simply unacceptable,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D‐Mich., the committee chairman.
“We are aware of the report, and we take it very seriously,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington. “The DOD strives to be a good steward of taxpayer resources and we look forward to discussing it with Congress in the near future.”