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$130 -Billion Defense Inventory Is, Well, Somewhere

<i> Pete Wilson, a Republican, is U.S. senator from California. </i>

There is no hotter topic in Washington these days than defense reform. Both the public and the politicians, outraged by media reports of $600 toilet seats and coffee pots worth their weight in gold, have demanded changes in the way we purchase military supplies.

Yet another problem, potentially even larger, has all but been ignored. Due to a combination of sloppy bookkeeping and lax security, neither the Pentagon nor the General Accounting Office can provide an adequate accounting of an estimated $130-billion inventory of ammunition, explosives and other equipment.

We’re not talking about a few missing hand grenades or walkie-talkies. The combination of waste, theft and plain mismanagement could well be costing the taxpayers billions of dollars. I say could be because the uncertainly arising from widespread serious inaccuracies in military inventory record-keeping is so great as to make a precise estimate impossible.

Last September, after the reports of theft and resale of items from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, I asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the entire defense-supply system, including each service and the Defense Logistics Agency. Not that I was unique in expressing concern. Over the last five years--a period during which our military stockpile has quadrupled--there have been more than 300 such studies, audits and internal reviews, most conducted by the armed forces themselves.

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The problem now has taken on a special urgency, given the mounting complaints against Pentagon spending practices and a concerned effort by some in Congress and elsewhere to generate bad publicity over specific abuses in hopes of reducing overall funding for defense.

I prefer to cure the problem rather than sensationalize it. But the problems are so serious and obvious that they cannot responsibly be ignored. It is simply unacceptable that forces entrusted with our security do such a poor job of guarding their supplies against theft or sabotage. Yet this is exactly what GAO investigators discovered last December when they paid an unannounced late-night visit to the U.S. air base at Hahn, West Germany.

Finding the base gates unlocked and unguarded, the GAO team encountered no resistance in entering military warehouses filled with vital supply items. Only later was it revealed that Air Force security police make nightly inspections of the local bowling alley and chaplain’s office but routinely ignore the warehouses.

Then there’s the confusion surrounding parts requisitioned for Army units in Europe. When a private firm overestimates inventory needs, it pays a price. When our armed forces do so, it is the taxpayer who pays--and without receiving value or adding to our military muscle. In fact, millions of dollars of excess parts have been sent to support new weapon systems, only to sit in warehouses or come back to the United States marked “Return to Sender.”

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During the last six years the Army has reported losing more than 2 million rounds of small-arms ammunition and assorted explosives. In that same period it reported finding almost 4 million more for which its record did not accurately account. How can Army figures show that much disparity?

Too often the military has failed even to notice any problem at all. The Navy recently wrote off several million dollars in supplies as lost because it couldn’t tell for sure whether it had ever received them.

The issue is one of accountability. At a time when congressional supporters of a strong defense--myself included--are struggling to maintain this country’s military posture, our greatest obstacle is public hostility generated by a few horror stories that together give a false and exaggerated impression of waste, fraud and abuse in the procurement process.

The armed forces must reform their inventory systems. A far higher priority must be given to inventory control in all services and at every level. It is a critically important command responsibility. The alternative is to permit further erosion of public support for American rearmament. And that would be a crime far worse than pilfered ammunition or inaccurate records.

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