National Defense versus Global (In)Security

armada
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.

f-35
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.

f111
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.

 

The Pentagon Wins Wars! Budgetary Wars, That Is

The Pentagon of Power
The Pentagon of Power

W.J. Astore

The Pentagon brass and bureaucrats can’t win foreign wars, but they sure as hell kick ass in domestic budgetary wars. That point is clear from Mattea Kramer’s new article at TomDispatch.com. Allowing the Pentagon a largely untouchable second budget to fund the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan is an invitation both to prolong that war and for exercises in money-changing. Masters at budgetary sleight of hand, the military spins any reduction, no matter how small, in apocalyptic terms, as we saw with claims that cuts in the end strength of the US Army would reduce it to 1940 levels, i.e. the somnolent peacetime days just before Pearl Harbor.

Any cut to military spending is spun as “appeasement,” as recklessly endangering our security vis-a-vis the exaggerated threats of the day, usually China or Russia or both. Yet the true “threat” that the Pentagon sees is not so much China or Russia (they can be handled) but cuts to their privileges and power. The Pentagon still maintains an unimaginably top-heavy bureaucracy that continues to throw pallets of money into the afterburners of costly weapons programs like the F-35 jet fighter.

Here is Kramer’s full text, courtesy of TomDispatch. Isn’t it nice to know that in lean times the Pentagon continues to live off the fat of the land?

The Pentagon’s Phony Budget War: Or How the U.S. Military Avoided Budget Cuts, Lied About Doing So, Then Asked for Billions More

By Mattea Kramer

Washington is pushing the panic button, claiming austerity is hollowing out our armed forces and our national security is at risk. That was the message Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered last week when he announced that the Army would shrink to levels not seen since before World War II. Headlines about this crisis followed in papers like the New York Times and members of Congress issued statements swearing that they would never allow our security to be held hostage to the budget-cutting process.

Yet a careful look at budget figures for the U.S. military — a bureaucratic juggernaut accounting for 57% of the federal discretionary budget and nearly 40% of all military spending on this planet — shows that such claims have been largely fictional. Despite cries of doom since the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration surfaced in Washington in 2011, the Pentagon has seen few actual reductions, and there is no indication that will change any time soon.

This piece of potentially explosive news has, however, gone missing in action — and the “news” that replaced it could prove to be one of the great bait-and-switch stories of our time.

The Pentagon Cries Wolf, Round One

As sequestration first approached, the Pentagon issued deafening cries of despair. Looming cuts would “inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country,” said Secretary Hagel in December 2012.

Sequestration went into effect in March 2013 and was slated to slice $54.6 billion from the Pentagon’s $550 billion larger-than-the-economy-of-Sweden budget. But Congress didn’t have the stomach for it, so lawmakers knocked the cuts down to $37 billion. (Domestic programs like Head Start and cancer research received no such special dispensation.)

By law, the cuts were to be applied across the board. But that, too, didn’t go as planned. The Pentagon was able to do something hardly recognizable as a cut at all. Having the luxury of unspent funds from previous budgets — known obscurely as “prior year unobligated balances” — officials reallocated some of the cuts to those funds instead.

In the end, the Pentagon shaved about 5.7%, or $31 billion, from its 2013 budget. And just how painful did that turn out to be? Frank Kendall, who serves as the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, has acknowledged that the Pentagon “cried wolf.” Those cuts caused no substantial damage, he admitted.

And that’s not where the story ends — it’s where it begins.

Sequestration, the Phony Budget War, Round Two

A $54.6 billion slice was supposed to come out of the Pentagon budget in 2014. If that had actually happened, it would have amounted to around 10% of its budget. But after the hubbub over the supposedly devastating cuts of 2013, lawmakers set about softening the blow.

And this time they did a much better job.

In December 2013, a budget deal was brokered by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray. In it they agreed to reduce sequestration. Cuts for the Pentagon soon shrank to $34 billion for 2014.

And that was just a start.

All the cuts discussed so far pertain to what’s called the Pentagon’s “base” budget — its regular peacetime budget. That, however, doesn’t represent all of its funding. It gets a whole different budget for making war, and for the 13th year, the U.S. is making war in Afghanistan. For that part of the budget, which falls into the Washington category of “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO), the Pentagon is getting an additional $85 billion in 2014.

And this is where something funny happens.

That war funding isn’t subject to caps or cuts or any restrictions at all. So imagine for a moment that you’re an official at the Pentagon — or the White House — and you’re committed to sparing the military from downsizing. Your budget has two parts: one that’s subject to caps and cuts, and one that isn’t. What do you do? When you hit a ceiling in the former, you stuff extra cash into the latter.

It takes a fine-toothed comb to discover how this is done. Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, found that the Pentagon was stashing an estimated extra $20 billion worth of non-war funding in the “operation and maintenance” accounts of its proposed 2014 war budget. And since all federal agencies work in concert with the White House to craft their budget proposals, it’s safe to say that the Obama administration was in on the game.

Add the December budget deal to this $20 billion switcheroo and the sequester cuts for 2014 were now down to $14 billion, hardly a devastating sum given the roughly $550 billion in previously projected funding.

And the story’s still not over.

When it was time to write the Pentagon budget into law, appropriators in Congress wanted in on the fun. As Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight discovered, lawmakers added a $10.8 billion slush fund to the war budget.

All told, that leaves $3.4 billion — a cut of less than 1% from Pentagon funding this year. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the sprawling bureaucracy of the Defense Department will even notice. Nonetheless, last week Secretary Hagel insisted that “[s]equestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that… the only way to implement [them] is to sharply reduce spending on our readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a hollow force.”

Yet this less than 1% cut comes from a budget that, at last count, was the size of the next 10 largest military budgets on the planet combined. If you can find a threat to our national security in this story, your sleuthing powers are greater than mine. Meanwhile, in the non-military part of the budget, sequestration has brought cuts that actually matter to everything from public education to the justice system.

Cashing in on the “Cuts,” Round Three and Beyond

After two years of uproar over mostly phantom cuts, 2015 isn’t likely to bring austerity to the Pentagon either. Last December’s budget deal already reduced the cuts projected for 2015, and President Obama is now asking for something he’s calling the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” It would deliver an extra $26 billion to the Pentagon next year. And that still leaves the war budget for officials to use as a cash cow.

And the president is proposing significant growth in military spending further down the road. In his 2015 budget plan, he’s asking Congress to approve an additional $115 billion in extra Pentagon funds for the years 2016-2019.

My guess is he’ll claim that our national security requires it after the years of austerity.

Mattea Kramer is a TomDispatch regular and Research Director at National Priorities Project, which is a 2014 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the lead author of the book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

Copyright 2014 Mattea Kramer