When Will We Ever Learn?

Ronald Enzweiler (Guest Author)

What America’s National Security State Got Wrong in Its Wars of Choice and How to Deconstruct the War State

I’m a Washington outsider/non-careerist who worked seven years as a civilian advisor in our country’s Wars of Choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Earlier in my life, I served in and worked for the military-industrial complex.  I have lived, worked and traveled throughout Europe and the Greater Middle East.  Given this background, I’ve written a book (Will We Ever Learn?) recounting from personal knowledge how our nation’s interventionist foreign policy and military adventurism has transformed the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 into today’s unimaginable $1.25 trillion/year national security establishment.  This enterprise operates as a de facto shadow government apart from our representative democracy.  It perpetuates a bipartisan war culture driven by defense industry lobbyists and special interests.  Our burgeoning multi-agency “War State” is the primary reason for Congress’ $1-trillion-plus/year budget deficits and our country’s $22 trillion in national debt.

As I document in my book, $7.5 trillion of the $12 trillion increase in our national debt since 9/11 is attributable to increases in defense spending mainly related to the War on Terror.  I can attest that the trillions spent on these idiotic wars was a waste of taxpayers’ money.  Much worse, they created over 6,000 Gold Star parents and tens of thousands of maimed and PTSD-stricken brave patriots.  Yet, overspending on our military goes on – even as War on Terror proponents admit Americans are less safe today.  Most political leaders responsible for our recent wars and their funding – and the pundits who advocated for them – are still around as esteemed figures in Washington.   No four-star generals – company men one and all — were held accountable for the DoD’s egregious mistakes in warfighting strategy and tactics that I document in my book.

The swamp creatures who rule over Washington’s war culture know they must maintain our War State as an expanding $1.25 trillion/year enterprise (including what I estimate to be $250 billion/year for nuclear-war deterrence) to stay in power – regardless of how much national debt they run up and how many Gold Star parents, maimed soldiers, and PTSD cases result from their military adventurism.  Congressional leadership supports the War State because both parties receive massive campaign funding to maintain the status quo from corporate lobbyists and big donors. This insiders’ money game is not the America my Uncle Norb – who I never knew because he was killed storming the beach at Eniwetok Atoll as a 19-year-old Marine in 1944 – died fighting to preserve as member of our nation’s greatest generation.

In my book (and this essay), I identify specific changes in  foreign and military policy and $500 billion/year in defense spending cuts which, if made, would make America and the world safer.  These sensible and practical actions recognize the instability and trepidation that Washington’s bullying and war culture are causing around the world.

My remedies include restricting the development and proliferation of conventional weapons and eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world under a United Nations Treaty ratified in 2017 by 123 countries.  This U.N. initiative followed a 2007 Wall Street Journal commentary titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — hardly naïve isolationists.  President Obama also persuasively advocated for a no-nuke world in a speech he gave in Prague in 2009.  Under my plan to scale-back U.S. militarism, our country would still spend twice as much on national security as our two presumed military adversaries combined: Russia with its crumbling economy and China with its growing dissident problems.  If our national security state officials can’t keep America safe with a 2:1 spending advantage over these two troubled countries, they all should be fired.

Senator Bernie Sanders is the only 2020 presidential candidate who has pledged to take on the military-industry complex and cut defense spending.  But in a Vox interview, Sanders admitted that, given the power the national security state’s shadow government exerts over Congress, defense spending cuts are a nonstarter the way Congress now works — no matter who is president.

What’s a solution to this predicament that engenders our idiotic wars and is driving our country off a fiscal cliff?  Simple: Empower — and require – all members of Congress, as our directly elected representatives, to make up-or-down floor votes on specific spending “tradeoffs” as a follow-on step to the current Congressional appropriations process.  For example, the Democratic caucus in the House could require a tradeoff vote on cancelling funding in the DoD’s approved appropriations bill for the $1.5-trillion life-time-costs F-35 fighter program (the late Senator John McCain – hardly an anti-military pacifist — called the F-35 program “a scandal and a tragedy” at a 2016 Senate hearing ); or spending the same amount over the same timeframe for better health care, free college tuition, student debt forgiveness, and similar programs.

If a specific tradeoff challenge vote passes both Houses of Congress, it would go the President to accept or reject.  A challenge could fail.  But each member of Congress who voted “no” in this example would have to explain at reelection time why he or she thinks our military needs over 2,000 F-35s when Russia has zero Su-57s in service; and why he or she believes the money spent on unneeded F-35’s could not be better used to reduce the federal budget deficit (also an option in my plan) — or make college affordable for all our citizens as the tradeoff vote in this example.

These changes can all happen if voters bring up these reform initiatives at candidate forums and obtain pledges from candidates for federal office to commit to fixing Congress so it serves the interests of individual citizens — not corporate lobbyists and special interests.  Getting these changes adopted may yet prevent our democracy from going down the low road to perdition.

Plenty of Money for Warplanes

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What golden idols are we making and worshiping today?

W.J. Astore

Even as Congress fights over a few billion dollars for the 9/11 first responders, there’s no shortage of money for warplanes.  This week the Pentagon announced the largest military procurement deal in history: $34 billion for 478 F-35 warplanes.  This decision comes despite the less-than-stellar performance of the F-35.

How can we forget the suffering of 9/11 first responders yet continue to buy overpriced jets at mind-boggling prices?  Sometimes I think we worship weapons as a golden idol.  People get so excited about them – almost as if they “own” their own personal F-35.  What can these warplanes do for us except blow things up?  Who’s going to attack the U.S. with a vast air fleet such that we need all these planes for “defense”?

The other day, I was reading old reporting from World War II (in the Library of America series).  There was an article on war rationing and how Americans were fighting for more gasoline for their personal cars.  And a war ration board member referenced the amount of gas a bomber needed just to warm up its engines as the reason why ordinary Americans had to ration gas.

Imagine if Americans today had to ration gas so that our F-35s and stealth bombers could fly.  Imagine if you couldn’t go on your summer vacation because you couldn’t get the gas due to the war on terror or the gas-guzzling appetites of B-52s and Navy jets operating near Iran.

Americans might actually pay attention to our foreign wars!  They might begin to question why they couldn’t get gas for their cars, trucks, boats, and campers because of Iran deployments or Afghan operations or what-have-you.

But unlike in World War II, today we are asked to make no sacrifices.  None.  Only our tax dollars — and our collective futures.

The Pentagon Budget: Aim High!

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Those old Dreadnought battleships were expensive.  Let’s build more!

W.J. Astore

As a candidate, Donald Trump occasionally tossed a few rhetorical grenades in the Pentagon’s general direction.  He said America’s wars wasted trillions of dollars.  He said he was smarter than the generals on ISIS (“Believe me!”).  He said the F-35 jet fighter cost way too much, along with a planned replacement for Air Force One.  He said he’d be much tougher on companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other major defense contractors.

Instead of toughness, Trump as president has proven to be the Pentagon’s lackey.  Recently, he opined the Pentagon’s budget was out of control (“crazy”), and he suggested a 5% cut in fiscal year (FY) 2020.  That trial balloon was shot down quickly as Trump directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to submit a record-setting $750 billion budget for FY 2020.  This is roughly $50 billion more than the FY 2018 budget for “defense.”

Trump’s big boost in spending put me to mind of a famous quip by Winston Churchill in the days of “Dreadnought” battleships.  Prior to World War I, Britain was squabbling over how many of these very expensive battleships needed to be built to deter Germany and to keep command of the seas.  Churchill’s famous quip:

“The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

In this case, the Pentagon had postured they needed roughly $733 billion in FY 2020, Trump had suggested $700 billion, and they compromised on $750 billion.

Once again, Trump proves his mastery of “the art of the deal.”  Not.

A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money

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Painting of Everett Dirksen, a thrifty Republican.  Remember those?

W.J. Astore

Though it’s unconfirmed that Congressman Everett M. Dirksen ever uttered perhaps the most famous words attributed to him: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” the sentiment surely needs to be updated for America’s profligate military moment.  Replace “billion” with “trillion” and you have the perfect catchphrase for today’s Pentagon.

Consider the following facts:

  1. The F-35 jet fighter is projected to cost $1.45 trillion over the life of the program.
  2. Modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is projected to cost $1.2 trillion, though some estimates suggest $1.7 trillion as the more likely sum.
  3. America’s Afghan War has already cost $1 trillion.  Add to that another $45+ billion to support war ops for this year, and perhaps the same amount of spending each year for the next decade.
  4. A low-ball estimate for America’s Iraq War is $1 trillion, but when one adds in veterans health care and similar long-term issues, the cost rises into the $2-3 trillion range.
  5.  Each year, spending on the Pentagon, Homeland Security, wars, nuclear weapons, the VA, and interest on the national debt associated with previous military spending approaches $1 trillion.

We’re talking about real money, right?

Yet all this spending is scarcely debated within Congress.  Together with the Trump administration, Congress is a rubber stamp for the Pentagon.  Meanwhile, Congress will fight tooth and nail over a few million dollars to support the arts, humanities, and similar “wasteful” programs.  Planned Parenthood is always under attack, despite the paltry sum they receive (roughly half a billion) to provide vital functions for women’s health.  Even the $200 billion promised by Trump to support infrastructure improvements is a trickle of money compared to the gusher of funds dedicated to the Pentagon and all of its exotic WMD.

People laughed at Bernie Sanders when he proposed health care for all and free education in state colleges.  That socialist fool!  America can’t afford that!  Indeed, much better for people to go into debt as they struggle to pay for health care or college.  That’s private enterprise and “freedom” for you.  Own the debt and you can own the world.

No — Bernie Sanders wasn’t crazy.  America could easily afford universal health care and virtually free education at state colleges and universities.  Our elites simply choose not to consider these proposals, let alone fund them.  But more nukes?  More wars?  More jets and subs and tanks?  Right this way, my boy!

All these trillions for weapons and wars — one thing is certain: “freedom,” as they say, sure isn’t free.

Update (2/27/18): At TomDispatch.com, Bill Hartung goes into greater detail on the Pentagon’s massive budget for 2018 and 2019.  As he notes: “The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon’s own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted’ — a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.”

The title of Hartung’s article sums it up: The Pentagon Budget as Corporate Welfare for Weapons Makers.

Put succinctly, it’s warfare as welfare — and wealth-care — for the military-industrial complex.

With the Pentagon, Trump Has Morphed Into Hillary Clinton

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More alike than we knew?

W.J. Astore

Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars.  He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target.  He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way.  He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration.  Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously.  Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.

President Trump is a different man.  “His” generals have brought him under control.  Criticism of the F-35 has gone away.  Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it.  Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia).  More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does.  Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State.  Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump.  McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.

In short, the generals have won.  Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton.  Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”

I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.

Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence.  His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission.  Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.

Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light.  We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity.  There may even be some truth to this.  But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton.  He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.

As Trump himself might tweet, “Sad.”

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.”

At the Pentagon, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

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In the puzzle palace on the Potomac, nothing succeeds like failure

W.J. Astore

When it comes to the Pentagon, nothing succeeds like failure. That is the message of William Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. The Pentagon, Hartung notes, continues to receive massive funding from the American taxpayer, even as its various wars drag on, seemingly without end. Hartung, who wrote a book on Lockheed Martin and the military-industrial complex, has a knack for revealing the latest Pentagon follies. Even as you read his latest at TomDispatch.com, I’d like to add two more items to his list:

1. Washington Think Tanks: Perhaps you’ve heard of them, centers for thinking about national defense, hiring the best and the brightest to come up with disinterested recommendations to safeguard America. Ha!  A few days ago, The National Interest ran an article on what these think tanks were proposing, the “latest fashions in warfighting,” as the article’s title put it.  Please note there’s no “fashion” in peacemaking or war-ending.

Four out of the five think tanks featured in the article were in basic agreement. “Deterrence” had to be based on massive investments in offensive weaponry. There was much agreement as well on modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal, on the need to feature more drones and other unmanned platforms, on air power and power projection, as well as support for the wildly expensive F-35 jet fighter. In sum, more of the same at the Pentagon, only more.

One think tank, the Cato Institute, a Libertarian outfit, dared to depart from Pentagon orthodoxy. Cato called into question the Pentagon’s need for better nukes, prodigal jet fighters, and similar “sticker shock” items on the Pentagon’s wish list. This dissent drew a stinging rebuke from The National Interest, which suggested Cato had developed a defense plan for Canada rather than the great and powerful USA.

To that I say, tell me again what is wrong with Canada?

A question: If four out of five think tanks essentially agree with each other, are not at least three of them redundant?

2.  Forcing Soldiers to Pay Back Bonuses: Yes, you read that right. Even as the Pentagon spends nearly $750 billion a year, even as it avoids any semblance of an audit, U.S. troops who fought overseas are being forced to pay back bonuses that the Pentagon gave them, apparently by mistake (but also with some fraud involved on behalf of recruiters), at a time when the U.S. military was under duress to improve retention rates.

Let’s be clear: In accepting the bonuses, the individual troops were not at fault. They took the money in good faith from a military that patted them on the back for staying in. But now the military says, whoops, we were wrong, we want the money back.

In Pentagon terms, we’re not talking big money. We’re talking chump change.  It’s $15,000 here, $30,000 there. But of course it is big money to the troops and their families. Consider the stress of having government-sanctioned collection agencies on your tail. One soldier had to refinance his house to raise the money to repay an incentive bonus he’d accepted in good faith.

Here’s the kicker. In California, where these abuses and mistakes happened, the military “assigned 42 auditors to comb through paperwork for bonuses and other incentive payments given to 14,000 soldiers.”

Imagine that. The Pentagon can’t even hold an audit, let alone pass one, but it’s willing to hire a platoon of auditors to go after troops and their bonuses.

Here’s my recommendation: Let’s deploy an army of 42,000 auditors to comb through Pentagon paperwork for waste, fraud, and abuse. Let’s get our money back, America. And let’s stop thinking about “fashions” in “warfighting,” and instead dedicate ourselves to ending our wars — before they end us.