Why the Pentagon Gets So Much Money So Easily

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The five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac is about to be flooded with new money

W.J. Astore

Over at Foreign Policy, there’s a good article on how the Pentagon gets so much money so easily.  Basically, the Pentagon complains about lack of “readiness” for war, and Congress caves.  But as the article’s author, Gordon Adams, notes, most of the boost in spending goes not to training and maintenance and other readiness issues but to expensive new weaponry:

But the big bucks, according to the Pentagon’s own briefing, will go into conventional military equipment. That means more F-35s and F-18s than planned, a new presidential helicopter, Navy surveillance planes and destroyers, Marine helicopters, space launch rockets, tank modifications, another Army multipurpose vehicle, and a joint tactical vehicle the Army, Marines, and Air Force can all use. Basically, the services will soon have shiny new hardware.

With its $160+ billion budgetary boost over the next two years, the U.S. military will soon have many more shiny toys, which pleases Congress (jobs) and of course the military-industrial complex (higher and higher profits).

All of this is par for the Pentagon course, yet there are other, cultural and societal, reasons why the Pentagon is winning all the budgetary battles at home.  Here are seven key reasons:

  1. The heroes narrative. Collectively and individually, U.S. troops have been branded as heroes. And who is churlish and ungenerous enough to underfund America’s heroes?
  2. Military weaponry has been rebranded as being all about our “safety” and “security.” With spillover into the Homeland, and even America’s classrooms (think about how guns for teachers are now being equated with safety for America’s children).
  3. Defense contractors increasingly influence (and even own) the media, ensuring “journalists” like Brian Williams will wax poetically about the inspiring beauty of weapons. Rarely do you hear sustained criticism from the mainstream media about wasteful spending at the Pentagon.
  4. At the same time, the mainstream media relies on “retired” senior military officers for analysis and commentary. Some of these men have links to defense contractors, and all of them are loath to criticize the military.  They are, in a word, conflicted.
  5. Throughout U.S. popular culture, military hardware is portrayed as desirable and “cool.” Think of all the superhero movies featuring jet fighters and other military hardware, or all the jets and helicopters flying over sports stadiums across the USA.  For that matter, think of all the video games that focus on war and weaponry.
  6. Related to (5) is a collective fantasy of power based on violence in war. Most Americans are powerless when it comes to politics and decision-making.  Here is where our “beautiful” weapons can serve as potent symbols for a largely impotent people.
  7. Finally, the ever-present climate of fear: fear of terrorists, immigrants, missiles from North Korea, Russian nukes, and so forth, even as the real killers in the USA (opioid abuse, vehicle accidents, shootings, bad or no healthcare, poor diets, climate-change-driven catastrophes, and of course diseases, some of which are preventable) are downplayed.

Defense spending used to be examined closely, with many programs exposed as wasteful.  This was common in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and early 1980s – remember Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards?  Now, it seems there’s no such thing as wasteful spending.  It’s a remarkable change of narrative representing an amazing success story for the military-industrial complex.

It will take more than cutting the Pentagon’s budget to effect change.  America needs to change its mindset, an ethos in which weapons, even wars, are equated with safety and security and potency, and even occasionally with entertainment and fun.

In sum, the Pentagon is doing what it’s always done: issuing demands for more and more money.  It’s up to us (and Congress) to say “no.”

Ike’s Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Is Alive and Very Well

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Look, Ma: More Money!  Don’t Worry: We’ll Spend It Wisely

W.J. Astore

The new Congressional budget boosts military spending in a big way.  Last night’s PBS News report documented how military spending is projected to increase by $160 billion over two years, but that doesn’t include “overseas contingency funding” for wars, which is another $160 billion over two years.  Meanwhile, spending for the opioid crisis, which is killing roughly 60,000 Americans a year (more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War), is set at a paltry $6 billion ($25 billion was requested).

One thing is certain: Ike was right about the undue influence of the military-industrial-Congressional complex.

The military talks about needing all these scores of billions to “rebuild.”  And, sure, there are ships that need to be refitted, planes in need of repairs, equipment that needs to be restocked, and veterans who need to be cared for.  But a massive increase in military and war spending, perhaps as high as $320 billion over two years, is a recipe for excessive waste and even more disastrous military adventurism.

Even if you’re a supporter of big military budgets, this massive boost in military spending is bad news.  Why?  It doesn’t force the military to think.  To set priorities.  To define limits.  To be creative.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the expression, “Spending money like drunken sailors on shore leave.”  Our military has been drunk with money since 9/11.  Is it really wise to give those “sailors” an enormous boost in the loose change they’re carrying, trusting them to spend it wisely?

The Biggest National Security Threats

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Trump, surrounded by the military, vows to give it more (and more!) money

W.J. Astore

Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy.  It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat.  Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).

I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy.  These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related.  The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.

Threat inflation is a huge problem in America.  The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea.  If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents.  Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings.  How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?

North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power.  Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country.  He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally.  Does he need to be deterred?  Yes.  Should Americans cower in fear?  Of course not.

Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election.  China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies.  Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies.  We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years.  Why haven’t we?

Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Ike warned us about it in 1961.  He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature.  Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke.  He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more.  He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.

Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today.  Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget).  Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?

Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

What Ike said.  The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.

And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war.  Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.

So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:

  1. Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
  2. The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
  3. Trump.

And add back one more: climate change/global warming.  Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century.  Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,

National Defense versus Global (In)Security

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Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.

The F-35 Fighter: Not Invisible to Trump’s Radar

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You can hang a lot more weaponry from an A-10 Warthog (vintage 1970s) than you can from a modern F-35

W.J. Astore

Is Donald Trump putting coal in Lockheed Martin’s Christmas stocking?

Trump has sent another tweet about the F-35 jet fighter (Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor), this time asking Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet as a possible replacement for that jet.  Trump’s tweet caused Lockheed Martin shares to dive even as Boeing shares climbed.

Trump is right to pressure Lockheed Martin on the F-35, though I’m not sure tweets are the best way to do this.  I remember planning for the F-35 twenty years ago when I was on active duty in the Air Force.  The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be a relatively low cost fighter/attack aircraft that would meet Air Force, Navy, and Marine needs.  Back then, the flyaway cost was estimated at $40 million per plane, more expensive than the F-16 but roughly equivalent to the F-15E “Strike Eagle.”  The current flyaway cost is roughly $200 million per plane,* and even higher for the Marine Corps version with its vertical landing/short takeoff capacity.

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The F-35: Stealthy but expensive, with a long history of cost overruns

What happened?  Everything went wrong as each service piled requirements onto the F-35 and all kinds of exotic features were added to it.  Stealth capability.  Loads of special software featuring millions of lines of code.  Unique (and expensive) helmets for its pilots. Vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which drove an airframe configuration that made it less maneuverable for the Air Force.  In short, the F-35 became like a Swiss army knife, featuring lots of tools and moving parts.  Sure, in a pinch a Swiss army knife can be used as a screwdriver or what have you, but most of the time what you really need is the best screwdriver for the job.

The F-35 is reminiscent of another ill-fated effort to build a jet acceptable to all the services: the F-111 “swing-wing” program of the 1960s.

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Big and ungainly, the F-111 was mainly used as a bomber and electronics warfare plane

The Navy never deployed it, and the Air Force was never that happy with it, converting it to a fighter/bomber and an electronics warfare plane.  The Navy went on to build its own fighter jet, the F-14, even as the Air Force built its fighter jet, the F-15.  Then the Air Force and Navy got two decent fighter/attack jets, the F-16 and F-18, out of the lightweight fighter competition.**

Here’s the thing: Although jets like the F-15 and F-18 are not stealthy, they are very effective, especially when updated with the latest weaponry and avionics and flown by skilled pilots.  Meanwhile, highly effective UAVs (drones) have emerged, e.g. Predators and Reapers, with long loiter times and no risk of U.S. casualties.  To put it bluntly, does the U.S. really need the F-35, especially given its high cost and underwhelming performance?

Back to Donald Trump.  Is he bluffing when he threatens to buy Boeing-made F-18s instead of the F-35?  Is he posturing to get Lockheed Martin to cut the price of the F-35 (which, at this late stage of its development, may not even be possible)?  One thing is certain: A lot of good American jobs are riding on Trump’s tweets.  Expect Lockheed Martin to rally its Congressional allies to defend the program.  The plane’s multitude of contracts were deliberately spread throughout the 50 states to gain as much Congressional support as possible.

For a little fun, go to the Lockheed Martin website at the following link:

https://www.f35.com/about/economic-impact-map

Let’s put in Pennsylvania.  Here’s what you get: 41 supplier locations, 2100 jobs, $172.5M in economic impact.  How about New York?  77 suppliers, 8160 jobs, $695.2M in economic impact.  How about Bernie Sanders’s state of Vermont?  3 suppliers, 1410 jobs, $124.5 million in economic impact.  Small wonder that even Bernie Sanders during the campaign was an F-35 supporter.

One thing is certain: the stealthy F-35 has not evaded Trump’s radar.  Whether Trump will shoot it down or simply watch it as it soars on by while burning through piles of money remains to be seen.

Note: For a more detailed report on the F-35’s performance issues, see “The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat: Testing report contradicts the U.S. Air Force’s rosy pronouncements,” by DAN GRAZIER & MANDY SMITHBERGER, available at this link. In short, the plane’s “requirement” to be stealthy is driving higher costs and lower performance. The plane gobbles gas so it has limited combat endurance. It’s a step backwards in effectiveness, at a much higher cost to the American taxpayer than previous planes such as the F-15, F-16, and A-10.  Meanwhile, many of its missions are now filled by drones.

For a counterpoint in favor of the F-35, see this link.  The F-35 has unique capabilities; it should, given its price tag.  Leaving aside high cost and questionable performance, it’s vital to remember the mission.  Are there really missions that only the F-35 can do, or that no plane can do as effectively?  But the real case for the F-35 seems to come down to the fact that the program is simply too big to fail; the “sunk costs” are too high; its rivals are too old; and too many American jobs are dependent on it.  In short, the U.S. military is stuck with the plane — and the American taxpayer is stuck with the bill.

*Estimates vary about the final flyaway cost since it’s ultimately dependent on how many F-35s are produced.  Current estimates for the entire U.S. purchase are $400 billion, with another trillion dollars for maintenance and spares and related costs over the program’s lifetime.

**The most rugged and effective attack jet in the Air Force’s inventory, the A-10, was never much liked by the Air Force; generals have fought to eliminate it in favor of the much less effective F-35, but Congress has actually fought back to keep the A-10, affectionately known as the Warthog, a name and image contrary to the AF fighter pilot mystique of “eagles” and “fighting falcons.”

Plenty of Money for the Pentagon

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Should we enlarge the military, buy more weapons, or fight more wars?  Heck, let’s do all three!

W.J. Astore

Inside the Washington beltway, the debate is never focused on making major cuts to the defense budget, then using that money to improve infrastructure, health care, education, and other projects that benefit all of us domestically. No: the debate is whether we should fight more wars overseas or buy more weapons and enlarge the military for those wars.

That is the lesson from the following summary at FP: Foreign Policy that I’m pasting below:

There’s a fight brewing over the 2017 Defense Department budget, and right in the middle of the scrum is how to use the $58 billion the White House has set aside to pay for military operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives votes this week on its version of the bill, which yanks $18 billion from that account and uses it to buy more ships, dozens of fighter jets, and adding about 50,000 more troops to the rolls.

The White House and Pentagon aren’t happy about the whole thing.

On Monday, the Office of Management and Budget released a memo threatening a presidential  veto of the bill, calling the move a “gimmick.” The memo added, “shortchanging wartime operations by $18 billion and cutting off funding in the middle of the year introduces a dangerous level of uncertainty for our men and women in uniform carrying out missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. ”

And there are lots of elsewheres. Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, just to name a few. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own version of the 2017 defense policy bill, which rejects the House funding plan. The entire defense bill is $610 billion.

Indeed, there are lots of “elsewheres.”  And how are those “elsewhere” wars going for the United States?  As Peter Van Buren wrote on Sunday at TomDispatch.com, those wars have been repetitive disasters.

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Peter Van Buren

Van Buren, who learned firsthand about the folly and fruitlessness of US reconstruction efforts in Iraq while working for the State Department, writes that:

Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate…

Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.

The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.

The baseball-philosopher Yogi Berra coined the motto for recent US military efforts in the Greater Middle East: It’s like deja-vu, all over again.  The same saying applies to Pentagon budget “debates.” It’s never about how to save money, or what “defense” truly means to America. It’s always about how to get more money, and whether it should be spent on enlarging the military, buying more weapons, or fighting more wars.  The perfect trifecta is doing all three. Perhaps that’s the true “triad” of US defense policy.

The Pentagon as Business and Church

Ike
Ike had it right

W.J. Astore

Military spending is supposed to be about keeping America safe.  It’s supposed to be tied to vital national interests.  And at roughly $750 billion a year (for defense, homeland security, wars overseas, the VA, and nuclear weapons), it’s a colossal chunk of money, representing nearly two-thirds of federal discretionary spending.

There’s also a colossal amount of waste in defense spending, and nearly all of the major candidates currently running for commander-in-chief want more.  Only Bernie Sanders has suggested, tepidly, that defense spending might be cut.

Why is this?  It’s because much of Pentagon spending is not about “keeping us safe.” Listen to the social critic and essayist Lewis Lapham.  For him, the U.S. military establishment is both “successful business enterprise and reformed church.”  In his words, “How well or how poorly the combined services perform their combat missions matters less than their capacity to generate cash and to sustain the images of omnipotence.  Wars, whether won or lost, and the rumors of war, whether true or false, increase the [defense] budget allocations, stimulate the economy, and add to the stockpile of fear that guarantees a steady demand for security and promotes a decent respect for authority.”

Is Lapham too cynical?

It’s true that the more ISIS or China or Russia are hyped as threats, the more money and authority the Pentagon gains.  Not much incentive – if any – exists within the Pentagon to play down the threats it perceives itself as facing.  Minimizing danger is not what the military is about.  Nor does it seek to minimize its funding or its authoritative position within the government or across American society.  Like a business, the Pentagon wants to enlarge its market share and power.  Like a church, it’s jealous of its authority and stocked with true believers.

There was a time when Americans, as well as their commander-in-chief, recognized the onerous burden of defense spending as a regressive tax on society and humanity.  That time was 1953, and that commander was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general who’d led the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

This is what Ike had to say about “defense” spending:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost,” and certainly massive spending on weapons and warfare is an opportunity lost for greater spending in needed areas such as education, infrastructure, environmental preservation, and alternative energies.

Keeping Ike’s words in mind, Americans may yet come to recognize that major cuts in the Pentagon “tax” are in the best interests of all.  Even, I daresay, the Pentagon.