What the Public Doesn’t Know

Oct. 1, 1986

The public believes waste and fraud to be rampant in the defense budget. That is the primary conclusion of an opinion survey conducted earlier this year for the Packard Commission on defense management. Closer analysis of the survey report, however, yields two other conclusions that should be of particular interest to the readers of this magazine.

The first is that the American people are seriously misinformed about how their tax dollars are spent and managed. The second is that despite these negative misconceptions, there is still strong latent support for the armed forces and national defense.

Here’s part of what the average American believes, according to the survey: that forty-six percent of the federal budget goes to defense; That almost half of the defense budget is lost to waste and fraud; that fraud – or other illegal activity – drains away as much of the defense budget as waste does; and that the Defense Department cannot or will not take effective action to reduce waste and fraud.

There is good news for these average Americans. Defense consumes only twenty-six percent of the federal budget, not forty-six percent. Since 1981, there have been 74,000 vigorous audits of defense procurements. They turned up findings that represent, in Pentagones, “potential savings of $9 billion.” That level of “savings” works out to six-tenths of one percent of total DoD budget authority from FY ’81 through FY ’86. When an audit finds anything wrong at all, it tends to be inefficiency, not fraud. As for spare parts – the aspect of defense procurement that has most enraged the public – the data consistently confirms that overpricing is confined to a fraction of one percent of the defense budget and that fraud is even rarer.

Far and away, most of the procurement abuses that have come to light were discovered by – and corrected by – the Defense Department and the services themselves. Most knowledgeable analysts agree that defense management is better than the average found in large-scale enterprises in either the private or public sectors.

No amount of waste or fraud is acceptable. The public will not tolerate it, and every dollar squandered is one fewer that can be applied to the crying needs of national defense. On the other hand, anyone who believes that the Pentagon hogs forty-six percent of the federal budget and loses nearly half of hat to waste and fraud simply is not in possession of the facts.

The amazing thing is that the public, believing these preposterous things to be true, still is supportive of the armed forces! Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed expressed positive or very positive general attitudes to ward the military. Sixty-seven percent felt the US should take an active role in world affairs, and seventy-three percent said that strong, effective American forces are essential to the preservation of freedom.

Fifty-two percent of the public wanted to hold the defense budget where it was. (The survey was taken in January and February 1986, before Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bloodletting began in earnest.) Twenty-one percent were in favor of increasing the defense budget, and only twenty-five percent wanted to see it cut. These figures might have been even more supportive had the respondents realized they were overestimating the defense share of the federal budget by seventy-five percent and the extent of waste and fraud by several great leaps of the imagination.

Further, sixty-three percent of the public agrees with the statement that “military defense is one area of the budget that we must spend whatever is needed rather than only what we can afford.” Some of that majority however, falls away when it comes to perception of requirements. Forty-two percent of the respondents said the US already has a military capability that is much greater than it needs to protect its interests in the world. Fifty-four percent disagreed. The survey did not explore how much the respondents knew about actual force levels and operation taskings, but it’s a safe guess that few of them were aware of how thinly the US military is stretched against its worldwide missions.

It is legitimate to wonder where the public – which is inclined basically to support a strong program of national defense – got the notion that the military budget is running wild. The answer reflects no credit on the popular press or self-seeking politicians. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the public, given a better understanding of the situation, might wish to see an even higher priority for national defense. Judging from their legislative and speechmaking behavior, this seems to have escaped the attention of some members of Congress.

It will be a better investment of our time, though, to think along other lines. Twice in recent months, editorials in this magazine have pointed to the fundamental purpose of the Air Force Association: to promote public understanding of airpower and national security issues. The findings of the Packard Commission survey are a compelling reminder of how urgent and vital that purpose is.

The greatest contribution that we in the Air Force Association – and others of like mind and sincere interest – can make is to be sure that we are well informed ourselves and then to share that information aggressively. In this case, what the public doesn’t know can hurt us all.