The Pentagon Gets More Money

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re a parent with a difficult son. You send him to the most expensive schools, you give him prodigious sums of money, but when Johnny comes home from school with his report card, you see he got an “F” in Afghanistan, an “F” in Iraq, and an “F” in Libya, among other “classes.” Projects he’s working on, like the F-35 jet fighter or Ford-class carriers, are also proving to be expensive failures. Even in deportment he’s receiving an “F,” with the teachers telling you he’s prone to bullying his fellow students as he boasts of being the most exceptional student in the world.

How would you handle Johnny? Well, our collective Johnny is the Pentagon and the National Security State, and our government’s way of handling him is to shove more money his way, another $24 billion or so, with more promised in the future.

Is it any wonder why Johnny Pentagon never changes its behavior?

That’s the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. Here’s the first half of the article; please go to TomDispatch.com to read the rest. Many thanks!

William Astore, A Bright Future for Weapons and War

Yoda, the Jedi Master in the Star Wars films, once pointed out that the future is all too difficult to see and it’s hard to deny his insight. Yet I’d argue that, when it comes to the U.S. military and its wars, Yoda was just plain wrong. That part of the future is all too easy to imagine. It involves, you won’t be shocked to know, more budget-busting weaponry for the Pentagon and more military meddling across the globe, perhaps this time against “near-peer” rivals China and Russia, and a global war on terror that will never end. What’s even easier to see is that peace will be given no chance at all. Why? Because it’s just not in the interests of America’s deeply influential military-congressional-industrial complex.

When that vast complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about six decades ago, comes to my mind, I can’t help thinking of a song from the last years of the then seemingly endless Cold War. (How typical, by the way, that when the Soviet Union finally imploded in 1991, it barely affected Pentagon funding.)

“The future’s so bright (I gotta wear shades)” was that 1986 song’s title. And I always wonder whether that future could indeed be nuclear-war bright, given our military’s affection for such weaponry. I once heard the saying, “The [nuclear] triad is not the Trinity,” which resonated with me given my Catholic upbringing. Still, it’s apparently holy enough at the Pentagon or why would the high command there already be planning to fund the so-called modernization of the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years? Given this nation’s actual needs, that figure blows me away (though not literally, I hope).

What is that “triad” the complex treats as a holy trinity? It consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs; nuclear-weapons-capable bombers like the B-1, B-2, and the venerable B-52; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. Given our present vast nuclear arsenal, there’s no strategic need for building new ICBMs at a price beyond compare. In fact, as the most vulnerable “leg” of the triad, the ones the Air Force currently has should be decommissioned.

Nor is there a strategic need for an ultra-expensive new bomber like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider (basically, an updated version of the B-2 Spirit “stealth” bomber that’s most frequently used these days for flyovers at big college and Super Bowl football games). America’s Ohio-class nuclear submarines that still wander the world’s oceans armed with Trident missiles are more than capable of “deterring” any conceivable opponent into the distant future, even if they also offer humanity a solid shot at wholesale suicide via a future nuclear winter. But reason not the need, as Shakespeare once had King Lear say. Focus instead on the profits to be made (he might have added, had he lived in our time and our land) by building “modernized” nukes.

As my old service, the Air Force, clamors for new nuclear missiles and bombers, there’s also the persistent quest for yet more fighter jets, including overpriced, distinctly underperforming ones like the F-35, the “Ferrari” of fighter planes according to the Air Force chief of staff. If the military gets all the F-35s it wants, add another $1.7 trillion to the cost of national “defense.” At the same time, that service is seeking a new, “lower-cost” (but don’t count on it) multirole fighter — what the F-35 was supposed to be once upon a time — even as it pursues the idea of a “6th-generation” fighter even more advanced (read: pricier) than 5th-generation models like the F-22 and F-35.

I could go on similarly about the Navy (more Ford-class aircraft carriers and new nuclear-armed submarines) or the Army (modernized Abrams tanks; a new infantry fighting vehicle), but you get the idea. If Congress and the president keep shoveling trillions of dollars down the military’s gullet and those of its camp followers (otherwise known as “defense” contractors), count on one thing: they’ll find ever newer ways of spending that dough on anything from space weaponry to robot “companions.”

Indeed, I asked a friend who’s still intimate with the military-industrial complex what’s up with its dreams and schemes. The military’s latest Joint Warfighting Concept, he told me, “is all about building Systems of Systems based in AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing.” Then he added: “All it will do is give us more sophisticated ways to lose wars.” (You can see why he’s my friend.) The point is that AI and quantum computing sound futuristically super-sexy, which is why they’ll doubtless be used to justify super-expensive future budgetary requests by the Pentagon.

In that context, don’t you find it staggering how much the military spent in Afghanistan fighting and losing all too modernistically to small, under-armed units of the Taliban? Two trillion-plus dollars to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that failed dismally. Imagine if, in the next decade or two, the U.S. truly had to fight a near-peer rival like China. Even if the U.S. military somehow won the battles, this nation would undoubtedly collapse into bankruptcy and financial ruin (and it would be a catastrophe for the whole endangered planet of ours). It could get so bad that even Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might have to pay higher taxes, if, that is, they haven’t already slipped the surly bonds of Earth to mingle with the twinkling stars.

If America’s post-9/11 war-on-terror military spending, including for the Afghan and Iraq wars, has indeed reached the unimaginable sum of $8 trillion, as Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates, imagine how much a real war, a “conventional” war, featuring the air force, the fleet, big battalions, and major battles, would cost this country. Again, the mind (mine at least) boggles at the prospect. Which is not to say that the U.S. military won’t fight for every penny so that it’s over-prepared to wage just such a war (and worse).

The idea that this country faces a perilous new cold war that could grow hot at any moment, this time with China, crops up in unusual places. Consider this passage by Dexter Filkins, a well-known war reporter, that appeared recently in the New Yorker:

“We’ve spent decades fighting asymmetrical wars, but now there’s a symmetrical one looming. The United States has never faced an adversary of China’s power: China’s G.D.P. is, by some measures, greater than ours, its active-duty military is larger than ours, and its weapon systems are rapidly expanding. China appears determined to challenge the status quo, not just the territorial one but the scaffolding of international laws that govern much of the world’s diplomatic and economic relations. If two forever wars are finally coming to an end, a new Cold War may await.”

A new war is “looming.” Our adversary has more money and more troops than us and is seeking better weaponry. Its leadership wants to challenge a “status quo” (that favors America) and international laws (which this country already routinely breaks when our leaders feel in the mood).

Why are so many otherwise sane people, including Joe Biden’s foreign policy team, already rattling sabers in preparation for a new faceoff with China, one that would be eminently avoidable with judicious diplomacy and an urge to cooperate on this embattled planet of ours?

Why indeed? Please read the rest of my article at TomDispatch.com.

The Cold War, Rebooted and Rebranded

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the Pentagon’s latest proclivity for “near-peer” conflicts, the near-peers being China and Russia, which conveniently serves to justify huge war budgets in perpetuity. It’s the Cold War, rebooted and rebranded, with a new generation of nuclear weapons thrown into the mix to make things even more interesting. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

What follows is an excerpt that focuses on a “Star Trek” episode that has much to teach us:

In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as “dead” had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn’t imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.

So many years later, I can’t help thinking that our country’s military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There’s so much repetition when it comes to America’s wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it’s largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just “disintegrated,” whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.

What gives? Right now, America’s military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they’d prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It’s also a form of “war” that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.

Near-peer “war” remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century’s terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one’s chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It’s a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one’s sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).

Please read the article in its entirety here at TomDispatch.

On Eminiar VII, “casualties” of computer war willingly enter disintegration chambers to die as a way of keeping “peace”

Monday Musings: On Russia, Helplessness, and Polls

W.J. Astore

A few items for this Monday:

1. A strategic analyst wrote to me about how America can improve relations with Russia. The gist of my response was this:

I totally agree on ending the “new” cold war. But the military-industrial complex (MIC) seems determined to use threat inflation to justify high Pentagon budgets. Meanwhile, establishment Democrats think they can use Trump’s alleged softness toward Russia against him. Hardline policies rule the day.

What is to be done? First, I suppose, is recognizing the vital importance of domestic politics — and profit and power — vis-a-vis our foreign relations with Russia. As long as the MIC keeps exaggerating the Russian threat, and as long as the Democrats keep exaggerating the Russian threat to the election while alleging Trump is a Putin-puppet, there’s little we can do. We simply need to work to change the narrative.

2. So many Americans have a sense of learned powerlessness. We simply think there’s nothing we can do to effect change. As I wrote to a friend this weekend: Lots of people have lost faith in government. But they’ve lost faith in collective action as well. They just don’t think they can do anything to fight corruption and a rigged system.

They feel powerless — then a Messiah-like candidate comes along offering hope and change. (In a strange way, Trump is the yang to Obama’s yin.) Trump said he’d drain the swamp — but it proved fetid and fertile land for his long con. His supporters just love the guy even as he hurts them — but at least he makes them feel good, empowered, liberated from the libtards …

A true confidence man, Trump poses as a helper. He’s going to drain the swamp, make things better, make us (you) great again. Turn back the clock — when America was America, men were men, women were women.

Interestingly, Trump has no vision for the future. His vision is relentlessly retrograde. The only way we can be great “again” is by rejecting change and today’s “kids” who support BLM, LGBTQ, and so on.

A new wrinkle is the reactionary and authoritarian “blue lives matter” narrative. Who could have guessed that American activism would culminate in societal militarization and the glorification of police forces?

I’ve seen a few of these on cars and trucks — and I live in an allegedly strong Democratic state

3. Recent polling suggests Joe Biden has a lead of up to 14%. Don’t believe it. As I wrote to a friend: My sense is that this election will be very close. Many people support Trump but they keep that support quiet. And his people show up to vote. Maybe twice if they follow Trump’s advice. Plus, of course, it’s the electoral college that matters, not the popular vote. And there’s still a lot that can happen in the next month.

Readers, what are your musings for this Monday?

“Great-Power Rivalry” Is Back

160601-N-RT381-1001
A carrier strike group is an enormous investment in ships, money, and manpower.  Its chief aim is sea control and power projection.  As its name suggests, it’s primarily an offensive force. (US Navy illustration)

W.J. Astore

Should we have a Department of Offense in place of a Department of Defense (DoD)?  Wouldn’t “Offense” be more accurate?  Perhaps in more ways than one?

Consider the revival of “great-power rivalry,” meaning China and Russia as America’s main rivals.  (Terrorists may be trouble, but you don’t necessarily need nuclear-powered carriers and stealth bombers to neutralize them.)  The new “cold war” is all the rage within the DoD, even though China and Russia are regional land powers, having little of the arsenal of global power projection in which the U.S. takes so much pride.

On this subject, the following snippet on Russia’s navy, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy, is eye-opening:

The Russian military is considering decommissioning its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet era ship that has been beset by maintenance problems and whose reliability is so questionable that a tug boat follows it around on deployments.”

A sputtering and antiquated aircraft carrier that needs tugboats to get around: not much to fear there, America.

Like Russia, China has a single aircraft carrier, though there are plans to build one or two more.  Even if China does, the U.S. will still maintain an enormous lead on its “great-power” rivals.  Some rivalry!

The U.S. Navy currently has eleven fleet aircraft carriers, with two new ones under construction and a further two on order.  Indeed, to make space for all these new carriers, the Navy has plans to retire CVN-75, Harry S Truman, 20 years early, an idea even Congress finds silly.

But give the Navy credit.  They knew Congress would balk at early retirement for the Truman, which doesn’t mean they’re backing off on new carrier orders.  Instead, the Navy wants it all: two new carriers and a refurbished and refueled Truman.

Consider the following exchange between a senator and an admiral:

“If we were to give you more money, you’d keep the Truman in place, wouldn’t you? Would that be your druthers?” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked.

“Our druthers would be to not surrender a carrier that has 50-percent of its life remaining, but we would like to not do that at the expense of moving out on these other technologies that every assessment has told us” the Navy will need in the future, [said] Vice Adm. Bill Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

“So basically we should consider giving you more money, right?” Hirono asked.

Replied Merz, “yes, ma’am.”

You just have to love these admirals and generals.  The answer is always more money!

U.S. “defense” experts have always been most expert at getting the biggest slice of the federal budgetary pie.  That, and threat inflation.  Hence the appeal to a new cold war with China (primarily an economic juggernaut) and Russia (an energy giant with lots of nukes), even though the U.S. military clearly outclasses both countries in global dominance and “defense” spending.

The world of “defense” is just getting too absurd for me.  What next?  A U.S. carrier strike group deployed off the coast to defend our border with Mexico?  Our president did say we’re being invaded.  You heard it here first.