The United States has so thoroughly industrialized war that we rarely think about the clothes, food, oil, and weapons necessary to fight a modern war. But, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 bases in 80 countries, logistics and supply chains are more important as they've ever been.
So why don't we ever hear about the Defense Logistics Agency? The very large but rarely talked about agency has more than 26,000 employees and spends roughly $40 billion every year, working with 24,000 suppliers to procure guns, uniforms, clothing, bullets, oil, food, medical supplies, and construction equipment, among other necessary items.
Despite its massive importance, the agency is largely ignored politically and by the layperson. Operating without strict oversight may have led to an environment in which tens of thousands of critical but defective gun parts were shipped to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an extensive, year-long investigation for Motherboard by reporter Damien Spleeters.
Read more: When Big Guns Go Down
Thirty percent of soldiers who used the M249 machine gun have experienced jamming or stoppage of the weapon while engaging in combat; at least 60 guns literally exploded in the hands of American soldiers between 2008 and 2009, according to safety center records obtained by Motherboard.
"Logistics are kind of boring, which is sad because it's one of the most important aspects of the American military machine," Matthew Gault, a contributing editor to War Is Boring and one of the few reporters to conduct deep investigations into the agency told me. "Generally catching waste or oversights has to do with bureaucracy and middle managers and lack of good tagging or computer systems. It's so large that any meaningful investigation means looking at hundreds or thousands of pages of spreadsheets."
That means the DLA, which did not respond to an interview request for this story, has spent much of its history making sure the various branches of the military get what they ask for, when they ask for them. Whether those items work as they're supposed to, cost what they're supposed to, or are even ordered in the correct quantities are different questions altogether.
"The organizational imperative is to have what you need when you need it," Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me. "It's not all that infrequent that you wind up with more than what you need—sometimes it's a snafu, but to an extent, they're involved in an inherently unpredictable business."
Earlier this month, documents published by Motherboard showed that the agency spent nearly $1 million on drones that were essentially toys; a 2014 report by Gault found that, rather than return defective repair parts for mine resistant vehicles for a refund, the DLA simply destroyed them. A Reuters report from 2013 found that DLA kept buying parts it didn't need, and just destroyed whatever it didn't need or use.
These are not just media reports. Mark Harnitchek, director of the DLA, told aviation administration executives in 2013 that it keeps $14 billion worth of inventory in its warehouses at any given time, "probably half of that is excess to what we need," he said.
"It does cost money," he said. "It costs the money to buy it, and it costs a lot of money to hold it."
Harnitchek has said the agency will try to cut at least $13.1 billion from its operating costs over the next several years.
Gault told me that while diving through hundreds of pages of DLA documents, he's noticed a pattern of lower-level employees raising concerns about waste, oversight, or and incompetence with their superiors.
"They're shot down," he said.
The Department of Defense Inspector General and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have done several inquiries into the agency's activities, but overall it appears to be little studied. One investigation released in July found that the agency had a contractor build a $14.7 million, 173,428 square foot warehouse in Kandahar, then never used the facility.
Spleeters's story shows the DLA's missteps are not just wasteful, they're often a matter of life or death. The DLA does not dispute its important role in the war effort; a presentation to potential suppliers makes clear that "lives of our service men and women depend on [good logistics]."
With relatively few oversight investigations and little media coverage outside of a few blockbuster reports here and there, it's difficult to say whether the agency is doing any better or worse than it used to. As hard as it is to overlook exploding guns that are harming American soldiers and millions upon millions of dollars being wasted, it's worth noting that DLA is tasked with one of the most complex tasks of any government agency. And it appears to be much less wasteful than what it replaced.
The DLA grew out of several post-World War II logistics groups, including the Army-Navy-Air Force Support Center, Defense Supply Agency, and each individual branch of the military's logistics centers. In 1977, the Defense Supply Agency was renamed to the DLA, and both Gault and Hunter say that DLA is much better than what it replaced.
"America's military infrastructure is a large part of what makes it dominant," Gault said. "During and before World War II, every military branch had its own way of dealing with logistics, and now it's been consolidated and turned into one overarching middleman."
That middleman does manage to keep our troops fed and clothed and fueled and armed, all around the world, essentially all the time. It has also provided logistical support and fuel reserves in cases of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
"It's not one of the better known agencies and they only get in the news when something is not what it should be," Hunter said.