Pentagon blows big bucks on late fees

Yes, yes, $722 million is a pittance compared to the Pentagon's $533 billion annual budget.

But there are other ways to look at that number. Not only you, but every neighbor on your block could pay taxes for a lifetime and probably not get close to handing Uncle Sam $722 million. Does it feel good to know someone flushed that much down the toilet?

Or, there's the damaged warplane limping home from a mission. What if their share of that $722 million left the maintenance crews just a few gallons short of fuel this morning?

Americans don't begrudge the military all it needs to make sure our fighters have the ammo and equipment they need. And no, wars can't be choreographed like some ballet. But in return, taxpayers do expect the Pentagon to make reasonable efforts to limit the waste, when they can, where they can.

But USA Today on Monday revealed the Pentagon has spent more than $720 million since 2001 on delinquent fees for other people's big metal shipping containers that it off-loaded and just, well, neglected to return.

Returned late, each 20-foot container can rack up $2,200 in late fees from outfits such as Maersk Line Limited, which includes the late fees in its contracts, because each container not returned leaves another potential paying customer twiddling his thumbs.

"The cost stems from the mistaken belief that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be brief and late fees would be minimal," the newspaper was told by John Pike, director of, a defense policy group.

Really? Politicians who have never been in combat tend to make such assumptions. But what career military officer believes "it'll all go according to plan"?

"This is real money," Mr. Pike said. "And we've spent a lot of it on what mounts to fines for overdue library books."

Yes, contracts have been modified in recent years. Now the military pays a maximum of $7,400 in fines if it fails to return a container it could have bought for $3,200 in the first place. Great.

Still, "these are the kinds of things that happen when people are asleep at the wheel," comments Winslow Wheeler, a defense analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

Who? Who was asleep at the wheel? No, we're not looking for some sergeant or lieutenant to be turned into a sacrificial lamb -- particularly not some sergeant or lieutenant who's been in harm's way.

And there are exceptions, of course. If a combat unit needed to use one of those containers for shelter, God bless 'em.

But atop that supply chain sit some colonels -- and a general. And someone in an air-conditioned office should be cashiered for this.

Most of that money was needed elsewhere.