Anyone who’s been in the military knows what happens as the end of a fiscal year approaches: wild spending. Any money that’s left in your budget must be spent, if only to justify next year’s budgetary appropriation. Woe to any unit with leftover money! Not only is there no incentive to economize at the Pentagon: there’s a negative incentive to save money, and a positive one to spend as much as possible within your yearly allotment, while complaining to anyone within earshot that you never have enough.
Trump has already promised to enlarge Pentagon funding by 10% next year, or roughly $54 billion. According to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump’s budget is all about “hard-power,” a signal to “our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.” At $54 billion, that is indeed a very expensive signal.
Forget about the global fight against ISIS: The big focus at the Pentagon is now going to be on spending that windfall of taxpayers’ dollars. And, unlike the ISIS fight, which is expected to last for at least another generation, the “fight” to spend lots of money quickly is one that the Pentagon will surely win. Believe me, the military-industrial-Congressional complex knows how to spend.
Want to make the Pentagon a better, more effective, place? Cut its budget by 10%. And keep cutting, year by year, while downsizing its mission. Force it to economize – force it to think.
Let me give you a few examples. How does the stealthy, super-expensive, F-35 jet fighter contribute to the war on terror? It doesn’t. Does the U.S. Navy really need more super-expensive aircraft carriers? No, it doesn’t. Do U.S. nuclear forces really need to be modernized and expanded at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars over the next few decades? No, they don’t. More F-35s, more carriers, and more nukes are not going “to make America great again.” What they will do is consume enormous amounts of money for little real gain.
Throwing cash at the Pentagon is not the way to greater security: it’s a guarantee of frivolous military wish lists and “more of the same, only more” thinking. In case you haven’t noticed, the Pentagon’s record since 9/11/2001 is more than a little mixed; some would say it’s been piss-poor. Why is this? One thing is certain: shortage of money hasn’t been the problem.
Want to send a signal about “hard-power,” President Trump? Go hard on the Pentagon by cutting its budget. Spend the savings on alternative energy development and similar investments in American infrastructure. That’s the best way to put America first.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I compare the Pentagon and the Department of Defense to Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager said to be suffering from “affluenza.” Like Couch, the Pentagon has been showered with money and praise, yet despite all the preferential treatment, the Pentagon is never called to account for its mistakes and its crimes. You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt.
A Spoiled Pentagon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
To complete our affluenza diagnosis, let’s add one more factor to boundless praise and a bountiful allowance: a total inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. This is, of course, the most repellent part of the Ethan Couch affluenza defense: the idea that he shouldn’t be held responsible precisely because he was so favored.
Think, then, of the Pentagon and the military as Couch writ large. No matter their mistakes, profligate expenditures, even crimes, neither institution is held accountable for anything.
After lengthy investigations, the Pentagon will occasionally hold accountable a few individuals who pulled the triggers or dropped the bombs or abused the prisoners. Meanwhile, the generals and the top civilians in the Pentagon who made it all possible are immunized from either responsibility or penalty of any sort. This is precisely why Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling memorably wrote in 2007 that, in the U.S. military, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” In fact, no matter what that military doesn’t accomplish, no matter how lacking its ultimate performance in the field, it keeps getting more money, resources, praise.
When it comes to such subjects, consider the Republican presidential debate in Iowa on January 28th. Jeb Bush led the rhetorical charge by claiming that President Obama was “gutting” the military. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio eagerly agreed, insisting that a “dramatically degraded” military had to be rebuilt. All the Republican candidates (Rand Paul excepted) piled on, calling for major increases in defense spending as well as looser “rules of engagement” in the field to empower local commanders to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warfighters,” more than one candidate claimed, are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, thanks to knots tightened by government lawyers. The final twist that supposedly tied the military up in a giant knot was, so they claim, applied by that lawyer-in-chief, Barack Obama himself.
Interestingly, there has been no talk of our burgeoning national debt, which former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen once identified as the biggest threat facing America. When asked during the debate which specific federal programs he would cut to reduce the deficit, Chris Christie came up with only one, Planned Parenthood, which at $500 million a year is the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters. (The military wants to buy more than 2,000 of them.)
Throwing yet more money at a spoiled military is precisely the worst thing we as “parents” can do. In this, we should resort to the fiscal wisdom of Army Major General Gerald Sajer, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner killed in the mines, a Korean War veteran and former Adjutant General of Pennsylvania. When his senior commanders pleaded for more money (during the leaner budget years before 9/11) to accomplish the tasks he had assigned them, General Sajer’s retort was simple: “We’re out of money; now we have to think.”
Accountability Is Everything
It’s high time to force the Pentagon to think. Yet when it comes to our relationship with the military, too many of us have acted like Ethan Couch’s mother. Out of a twisted sense of love or loyalty, she sought to shelter her son from his day of reckoning. But we know better. We know her son has to face the music.
Something similar is true of our relationship to the U.S. military. An institutional report card with so many deficits and failures, a record of deportment that has led to death and mayhem, should not be ignored. The military must be called to account.
How? By cutting its allowance. (That should make the brass sit up and take notice, perhaps even think.) By holding senior leaders accountable for mistakes. And by cutting the easy praise. Our military commanders know that they are not leading the finest fighting force since the dawn of history and it’s time our political leaders and the rest of us acknowledged that as well.