U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, speaks to a town hall meeting in Oklahoma City. Sue Ogrocki/AP
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What do scientific experiments involving babies and robots have to do with excessively costly elementary schools and low-priced grocery stores for the elderly?

The answer is, these endeavors are all financed by the Department of Defense’s $629 billion annual budget, in what one Senator depicts as a spending free-for-all that adds to the federal deficit while diverting resources from genuine military needs.

The examples are cited in a 73-page report issued last week by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that describes how cash-rich the Pentagon is and how distorted some of its spending priorities have become. “We highlight, as in every other agency, a lot of the stupid things that are happening,” said Coburn, a blunt-spoken family physician, at a press conference last week.

Coburn’s report suggests that the massive infusion of funds into the military budget over the past decade — it grew by two-thirds from 2000 to 2009 — has prompted some scientific researchers to treat the Defense Department’s budget like a piggybank for questionable projects.

He mentions the Office of Naval Research’s recent effort to track how babies interact with robots, which concluded after much observation that “if you want to build a companion robot, it is not sufficient to make it look human … the robot must be able to interact socially.” The Pentagon defended the study, funded under a $450,000 grant, as necessary to “enhance and improve warfighter ability” to work with robots. But Coburn’s report called it a useless confirmation of “common sense,” with no connection to national security.

Coburn also noted that disease victims and medical specialists have pressured the Pentagon into spending more than a billion dollars annually for research that is often not related to injuries experienced on the battlefield, such as breast and prostate cancer. The Government Accountability Office concluded last February that these programs are often poorly coordinated with civilian health agencies, and their administration by the Pentagon eats up around $45 million in overhead and management.

Overall Pentagon spending for research and development now totals $73 billion, Coburn’s report states, an amount that exceeds the total spent for that purpose by all other federal agencies and includes much research that does not “enhance the technological superiority of our soldiers or improve the defense of our nation.”

His report also highlighted the fact that military ranks are now top-heavy with generals and admirals, pushing up defense costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars because each has a large retinue of aides. The current proportion is seven general officers for every 10,000 troops, two more than during the Cold War. “We almost now have an admiral for every ship in the Navy,” Coburn said.

Coburn also said the military is needlessly operating 64 schools on 16 military installations around the country, at a cost averaging $50,000 per student. The national average for other schools is $11,000 per student. According to the report, the Pentagon picks up the tab mostly out of inertia, continuing a practice begun when public schools were not as integrated as military families were.

“People don’t join the Army because there’s a school on base,” Coburn noted, suggesting the schools be closed.

Similarly, he urged the department to stop running a chain of 254 cut-rate grocery stores, known as commissaries, that mostly benefit military retirees and are often only a few blocks away from Safeway, Costco, or other stores. He said the Pentagon can save $9.1 billion over ten years by shutting them down.

The Pentagon should also keep its nose out of product development efforts being pursued by private industry or by other federal departments, Coburn’s report said, citing $1.5 million the military is spending to create more palatable beef jerky – on top of more than $600,000 being spent by others in the government.

Asked for comment, Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon press officer, said “the DoD budget is aligned to strategic priorities we have identified to keep America safe and maintain the strongest military in the world. Over the past several years we have redoubled our efforts to make better use of the taxpayer’s defense dollar and meet our fiscal responsibilities.”

Coburn was frank in stating that his advocacy for spending military funds only on military functions may put him out of synch with his own party. “There is,” he said at a press conference, “a little problem in terms of the Republican Conference … having a blind eye on spending: ‘It’s OK to cut spending anywhere except the Defense Department.’”

Apparently referring to claims by House Republicans and Mitt Romney this year that the defense budget had been grievously cut by the Obama administration, Coburn said it is time to “undermine a little bit of the BS. There has been no real cuts yet to the Pentagon. There just hasn’t been the hoped-for, desired increases in spending, so therefore if we didn’t get the increase in spending, we call that a cut in Washington.”

Coburn, interestingly, does not sit on the Senate Armed Services committee, whose members generally depend on defense contractors to finance their political campaigns — a circumstance that may actually have given him clearer insights. But his report was mostly based on a dive into the defense budget by a legislative assistant named Jeremy Hayes, a former Army captain who colleagues say deeply understands the Pentagon’s proclivity for strange spending.

Waste and inefficiency in Pentagon spending was also targeted last week by a panel of four retired generals, a retired admiral, and ten other former officials and experts organized by the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington. It concluded that the Pentagon could readily absorb as much as $550 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years — the amount that would be required under a so-called “sequestration” law — “with acceptable levels of risk.”

Those cuts would include trims in the size of the Army, fewer air squadrons, and a smaller missile defense effort. But most of the reductions advocated by the panel could come from more efficient uses of manpower — including cutting the number of military officers doing civilian work, implementing new pay practices, and improving weapons contracting.

Our hands-down favorite, so to speak, among the Pentagon-funded work targeted by Coburn for downright foolishness was a UCLA anthropologist’s examination of whether men holding pistols are considered taller, stronger, and more masculine than those holding a range of other objects, such as caulking guns, drills, saws and paintbrushes. He found they were.

The study was financed by the Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research under a $681,387 grant, according to Coburn’s report. It’s hard to figure out the relevance to flying, unless someone in the service’s acquisition office is now planning to order images of pistol-packing men spray-painted onto the noses of fighter jets, perhaps on the theory that dogfight opponents might be scared off and costly air-to-air missiles conserved.

Protests can be expected soon from the home improvement industry’s Washington trade association, speaking up for caulk-wielding contractors.

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R. Jeffrey Smith

R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...