The 8 biggest military boondoggles of 2015
(CNN) — Pilot error? $115 million. An unfinished gas station in Afghanistan? $43 million. The public relations hit accompanying a rogue blimp’s unsanctioned tour of Maryland and Pennsylvania? Absolutely priceless.
The U.S. military budget for fiscal year 2015 was set at about $610 billion, more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the U.K. combined — and that’s after another round of congressionally mandated spending cuts.
But whether it concerns new outlays or older, more costly projects gone awry, the past 12 months have seen a remarkable assortment of busts and boondoggles.
Here are eight memorable meltdowns that military brass will be hoping you forget.
While no one (apart from Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton) is questioning NORAD’s ability to track Santa, there has been some understandable grumbling about the aerospace defense agency’s capacity to manage its own surveillance blimps.
The now infamous unmanned runaway blimp made an unscheduled departure from its home at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland on Oct. 28, flying north into eastern Pennsylvania — attracting gawkers all along its path and live TV coverage — before crash-landing in what NORAD described only as “a rugged, wooded area.”
A day later, state police deflated the blimp’s nose with a shotgun after determining that it still carried a potentially dangerous helium haul.
Belly-up aircraft goes belly-up
Not all Air Force flying machines are built for barrel rolls and dogfights. Pilots aboard the bulky, four-engine AC-130J Ghostrider knew this, but couldn’t avoid flipping the gunship onto its back during a test flight in April.
The humans emerged unscathed, but the $115 million aircraft would never soar again. The stress on the plane’s frame, incurred during the unintended spin, weakened its structure — and rendered it unfit for future use. It cannot be repaired and will never be flown again.
Explosive error almost kills 27
“Failure by L-3 Communications depot maintenance personnel to tighten a retaining nut connecting a metal oxygen tube to a junction fitting above the galley properly caused an oxygen leak,” U.S. Air Force investigators wrote in their August report. “This leak created a highly flammable oxygen-rich environment that ignited.”
Translation: A private defense contractor forgot to turn a bolt, so 27 people aboard a reconnaissance plane were nearly immolated in mid-air. Luckily, the pilot pulled up on take off and the subsequent fire resulted in more than $62 million in damage but no injuries to anyone on board.
Half-billion-dollar men in Syria
The Obama administration’s $500 million project to organize and train moderate Syrian rebel force yielded just “about 4 or 5” dedicated fighters, according to the head of U.S. Central Command.
Testifying on Capitol Hill in September, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in the war on ISIS, described the since scrapped program’s graduating class as “smaller than expected.” The plan had called for the recruitment and training of more than 5,000 fighters.
Sore about spores
What do the U.K., Australia, Canada, South Korea, and five other countries, along with all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, have in common?
Well, to start, a Defense Department laboratory in Utah sent them all live anthrax spores as part of a program intended to provide “inactivated samples” to researchers seeking out “countermeasures to protect U.S. troops, allies, partners and the American public from biological attack,” according to the Pentagon.
Despite dozens of reported exposures, no one fell ill. The lone casualty was a professional one — on Nov. 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention replaced the director of its Division of Select Agents and Toxins, the agency in charge of preventing these kinds of screw-ups.
The $43 million gas-less gas station
For sure, building a compressed natural gas refueling station in a war zone can be a remarkably pricey enterprise. But even by military standards, the $43 million spent here — a similar project in Pakistan cost only $500,000 — was unacceptable and just downright odd.
If you are interested in finding out what happened, don’t bother asking the Pentagon.
In a report compiled by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, the Defense Department is described as being “unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation, or outcome.”
ISIS hack attack
In mid-October, authorities in Malaysia detained a Kosovo native with reported ties to a top ISIS propagandist. But not before the suspect, Ardit Ferizi, is alleged to have hacked into a U.S. government software system designed for the safe storage of personal information belonging to American service members and federal workers.
A federal criminal complaint against Ferizi said he stole data from more than 1,300 people and delivered it to ISIS members, including Junaid Hussein, a British ex-pat since killed in a coalition airstrike. In August, the information was posted online by a group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division. The individuals listed, many of them civilian workers, were described as “targets.”
A floating lemon
It floats, but that’s about it. The $360 million USS Milwaukee was only a month into its long journey from the Great Lakes to San Diego when it broke down en route to a pit stop in Florida and needed a tow.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, described the vessel’s “complete loss of propulsion” as “deeply alarming, particularly given this ship was commissioned just 20 days ago.”
A Navy Times report said the Milwaukee was still undergoing diagnostic tests and would not sail again for, at the least, another few weeks.