'Wastebook' spending not as simple as Coburn makes it out to be

Sen. Tom Coburn unveiled this week his 2013 “Wastebook,” an annual list of what he calls the most egregious uses of government spending. He saved his most pointed criticism for what he called the military’s wasted purchase of equipment that went unused or was under-utilized.

In a press conference Tuesday, the Oklahoma Republican said his “favorite” programs in the 177-page report were the Air Force’s purchase of cargo planes, which he said were immediately retired, as well as the military’s plans to leave $7 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan “rather than sell it or ship it back home.”

But while there was undoubtedly some unnecessary spending in the projects Coburn mentioned, the details behind them are more complicated than he made them out to be.

The first program Coburn mentioned is the Air Force’s 2007 purchase of 21 C-27J Spartan cargo planes from Italian manufacturer Alenia for $631.4 million. In 2012, the Air Force requested that Congress halt funding for the C-27J program (further production and maintenance) as part of its sequestration cuts. The reasoning was, the Air Force already had a fully functioning fleet of C-130s, and it was too expensive to fund two separate maintenance programs.

But Congress rebuffed that request. A short time later, the Dayton Daily News reported that the senators from Ohio, where most of the C-27s are based, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, “both pushed hard to save funding for the Abrams tank and C-27J.” 

But Coburn’s report still criticizes the Air Force for deciding to “mothball” the fleet – halting its use of them to avoid further maintenance costs.

“After taking its existing C-27Js out of service, the Air Force was then allowed to mothball its brand new C-27Js… before these aircraft took a single flight in support of our service members,” Coburn’s report charged.

In his press conference Tuesday, Coburn criticized the Defense Department for “screaming about ‘the cupboard is bare; there’s nothing else to cut.’ And the fact is, that just isn’t true.”

Ethan Rosenkranz, a national-security policy analyst at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), said it was “obstructionist” for Congress to tell the Air Force, “You have to cut half-a-trillion dollars’… and then the Pentagon says, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to cut that funding,’ and Congress says, ‘No, don’t do that.’”

It didn’t help, Rosenkranz added, that because Congress ignored the Pentagon’s specific suggestions, “OMB issues sequestration guidance and cuts everything across the board like a salami slice.”

The C-27Js may have not flown for the Air Force, but that doesn’t mean they were all grounded.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said that since the force already owns the planes, they plan to give them to other agencies that want them. In addition to the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the Forest Service and the Coast Guard will also take some. Those non-military departments, Stefanek said, “are in dire need of that type of aircraft, but they cannot afford to procure them from scratch.”

Rosenkranz said he was “dismayed” that Coburn did not mention the transfer of some of the C-27Js in the Wastebook. In his press conference Tuesday, Coburn did say he’d been “raising Cain” about transferring the planes but that “they're going to get used eventually, but probably not in the way they're most efficient.” 

Coburn also claimed during his press conference that the military scrapped the C-27J program, because “the Afghan military wanted C-130s instead of these.”

But the Air Force says that’s not true. According to the Air Force, the C-27Js were never intended to go to the Afghan military, and that Coburn was conflating them with a separate aircraft -- the C-27A. There actually was a spending debacle that is currently the subject of an inspector general investigation, being looked into by the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction (SIGAR).

Coburn's office did not immediately return emails and phone calls from NBC News seeking clarification.

In 2008, the U.S. Air Force spent $486.1 million on a total of 20 C-27As, all older models which Alenia refurbished, to be delivered to the Afghan Air Force (then the Afghan National Army Air Corps). But, by May 2012, all of the planes had been grounded, and by the end of the year, the Air Force announced it would not renew the maintenance contract for the C-27As.

Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick said the contract was scrapped because Alenia “struggled to consistently meet contractual obligations… Alenia did take action to improve their performance in some areas, but the Air Force was not convinced Alenia could meet and sustain all contractual obligations.”

The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction John F. Sopko said in an email to NBC News his investigation will determine why the C-27As were purchased in the first place.

“We are just starting to gather the facts, so I cannot tell you whether it was criminal fraud or just plain mismanagement,” he said. “But what I can say for sure, it is that this wastefulness is not an isolated incident in Afghanistan.”

The C-27As will be replaced by C-130s from Lockheed Martin, the planes Coburn mentioned. Sixteen of the C-27As, which are still at Kabul International Airport, could be sold or transferred to other federal agencies if the Department of Defense is permitted through the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to give the equipment to entities other than the Afghan National Security Forces. 

Coburn did not mention the C-27As in his Wastebook report. 

The Oklahoma senator also criticized the military for “destroy[ing] more than $7 billion worth of equipment rather than sell it or ship it back home,” referring to vehicles and other items like computer equipment and furniture in war zones which the U.S. is leaving.

The most “controversial” aspect, Coburn added, was the military’s disposal of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, of which there are about 24,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coburn’s report estimates “thousands” of MRAPs “will simply be shredded.”

A Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon is bringing 9,000 of the MRAPs in Afghanistan back to U.S. facilities to be reused. That figure represents the viable MRAPs that the military has determined it needs for future projects and missions.

The spokesman added that about 16,000 older (but still usable) MRAPS in Afghanistan will be left behind – not “shredded” – and offered to allied and partner nations in the region to use, which costs taxpayers millions less than getting all the vehicles back to the U.S. – something that involves contractors traveling hazardous roads with the threat of IEDs and enemy combatants, and the use of extra cargo ships.

"It's not the same as hiring a guy to take a load of turnips from one Wal-Mart to another in Nebraska," one U.S. official said.

Scott Amey, a contracting expert at POGO, said that while the military should make sure it’s taking back as many vehicles as it thinks it could use, it is sometimes more cost-effective to try to sell the equipment at a loss elsewhere, especially if the vehicle has sustained war-zone damage that has shortened its life span.

“If we can sell it for a few-thousand dollars,” he said, “maybe that’s a better investment than paying for the shipping-and-handling cost, and then the maintenance on top of that [for a vehicle] that may only operate for the short term.

He added, “It’s not just as simple to say, ‘Boy, this is really bad, and this is the Defense Industrial Complex.”