To Help the U.S. Military, Slash the Pentagon Budget

Isn’t it reassuring to know your taxpayer dollars are buying lots of “Ferraris” for the U.S. military?

W.J. Astore

If you truly want to help the U.S. military, slash its yearly budget.

It’s counterintuitive, right? We think more money will help the Pentagon field effective forces and to be better prepared to defend America. But that hasn’t proven to be the case. The more money the Pentagon gets, the more money gets spent on unnecessary and often poorly performing weapons systems. Take my old service, the U.S. Air Force. It doesn’t need the B-21 bomber. It doesn’t need new ICBMs. The F-35 fighter is a major disappointment, a “Ferrari” according to the Air Force Chief of Staff, i.e. an exotic and temperamental plane you fly only on occasion, which isn’t what the Air Force wanted or needed. Similarly, the Navy is building aircraft carriers that can’t launch planes effectively and “little crappy ships” that have no role at all. And the Army has thousands of M-1 Abrams tanks parked in storage that it’ll probably never use.

Do you have a friend with too much money? Maybe he got an inheritance or some other windfall. And the money makes him stupid. It’s stipulated in the inheritance that he must spend all of it within a year or two (the way Pentagon appropriations work), and if he fails to spend it, he’ll get less in the future. So he spends wildly, without giving it much thought, because he’s got the money and because he has to. And spending money on expensive “Ferraris” is fun. He’s not encouraged to think about how to use the money wisely, rather the reverse. So he just buys big ticket items willy-nilly.

Congress, of course, is the Pentagon’s enabler. Whatever the military wants nowadays, Congress is determined to give the brass more, in the false name of supporting the troops. It’s not the troops that see the money, it’s the industrial side of Ike’s military-industrial complex that profits the most. There’s something truly unseemly about Congress throwing money at the Pentagon while camp-following weapons contractors siphon it up.

Technically, incredibly, the U.S. military is no longer at war, i.e. “large-scale combat operations,” according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Perhaps you missed the announcement that new U.S. troops coming on active duty wouldn’t automatically receive the National Defense Service Medal, as they have since 9/11 and the subsequent global war on terror. With those “large-scale” wars finally ended, shouldn’t the Pentagon’s budget decrease in a big way? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were costing the U.S. over $100 billion a year, yet as they have ended, the Pentagon’s budget has increased by more than $100 billion. Talk about counterintuitive! Wars end as war budgets increase. Only in America.

There is no logic here. I’m reminded of a scene from the original Star Trek in which Spock is befuddled by an attack on Captain Kirk because there’s apparently no logic to it. As an alien patiently explains to Spock, “Perhaps you should forget logic and devote yourself to motivations of passion or gain.” It’s a telling lesson for anyone looking to explain the illogic of America’s defense budget.

Get rid of the passion and gain in the Pentagon’s budget, America. It’s time to use logic and make major cuts. Force the military to think rather than to spend. Who knows … we may end up with a leaner, even a smarter, military, one committed less to war and more to supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution.

A Modest Plea for a Sane Defense Budget

The Pentagon will never be forced to make choices if Congress keeps shoveling money its way

W.J. Astore

In the tradition of the U.S. Army, which talks about BLUF, or bottom line up front, here’s what I consider to be a sane defense budget for the United States: $333 billion.

I arrived at this figure by complex math. The U.S. population currently sits at just under 333 million. A reasonable figure to spend per person on national defense is $1000. Hence my figure for a sane defense budget.

How does this immense sum compare to other countries’ budgets? Russia’s defense budget (before its war with Ukraine) hovered around $70 billion a year. China’s defense budget hovered around $245 billion. So my “sane” defense budget easily surpasses the combined budgets of Russia and China, America’s main rivals, or so our military experts say.

Other countries that spend impressively on defense include Germany, France, and the U.K. But note that these are American allies; their spending should serve to lessen the need for our own.

Now, I wish to stress my budget is about defense, as in defending the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. My budget is not about projecting imperial power around the globe; it’s not about full-spectrum dominance; it’s not about spending more than a trillion dollars over the next thirty years on unneeded nuclear weapons, or more than a trillion to buy and maintain more underperforming F-35 jet fighters.

Again, my sane budget is not a war budget, an imperial budget, or a budget to enrich U.S. weapons makers. It’s a budget intended to DEFEND our country.

So, let’s now compare my sane budget to the actual “defense” budget planned for FY2023. It appears that budget will likely exceed $833 billion, more than half a trillion higher than mine!

What could America do with half a trillion dollars? Think of how many good-paying jobs we could create, how much better our country could be, with safer roads and bridges, more alternative sources of energy, improved schools and hospitals, a cleaner environment. How about drinking water without lead in it? The list is long because we have so many needs as a country.

It wasn’t that long ago that $300 billion was considered more than enough for national defense. But since 9/11 the budget has spiraled upwards as the U.S. government pursued forever wars like Iraq and Afghanistan that ended disastrously. Things are now so bad that the Pentagon can’t even begin to pass a basic audit. Send a small army of accountants to the Pentagon and the brass surrenders instantly.

$333 billion is still an enormous sum of money, yet there will be many who’ll suggest this figure isn’t close to being enough for the brass, all those wearing stars who call the shots. My response: try it. If it doesn’t work, you can always boost the budget. But if you really want the Pentagon to think creatively, cut the budget to $333 billion and watch the real wars begin within the five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac.

Higher Military Spending Leads to Less Security

W.J. Astore

What does “security” mean to you?  My dad had a utilitarian definition.  Born in 1917, he found himself in a fatherless immigrant family with four siblings during the height of the Great Depression.  To help his family survive, he enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and served for two years, earning a dollar a day, most of it sent home to his mother.  For my dad, security meant a roof over one’s head, three square meals a day, and warm clothes on one’s back.  Food, shelter, clothing: it really was that simple.

Of course, you needed to pay for those bare necessities, meaning you needed a job with decent pay and benefits.  Personal security, therefore, hinges on good pay and affordable health care, which many U.S. workers today – in the richest country in the world – continue to scratch and claw for.  Another aspect of personal security is education because pay and career advancement within U.S. society often depend on one’s educational level.  A college education is proven to lead to higher pay and better career prospects throughout one’s life.

Personal security is in many ways related to national security.  Certainly, a nation as large as the U.S. needs a coast guard, border controls, an air force, a national guard, and similar structures for defensive purposes.  What it doesn’t need is a colossal, power-projecting juggernaut of a military at $800+ billion a year that focuses on imperial domination facilitated by 750 overseas bases that annually cost more than $100 billion just to maintain.  True security, whether personal or national, shouldn’t be about domination.  It should be focused on providing a collective standard of living that ensures all Americans can afford nutritious food, a decent place to live, adequate clothing, a life-enriching education, and health care.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this.  In his farewell address as president in 1961, he warned us about the military-industrial complex and its anti-democratic nature.  Even more importantly, he called for military disarmament as a “continuing imperative,” and he talked of peace, which he tied to human betterment, and which he said could be “guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”  Ike knew that huge, offensive-minded military budgets constituted a theft from the people; even worse, he knew they constituted a betrayal of our national ideals.  A hugely powerful military establishment had “grave implications” to the “very structure of our society,” Ike presciently warned.  We have failed to heed his warning.

Ike, a former five-star U.S. general who led the D-Day invasion in 1944, knew the dangers of funding an immense military establishment

For Ike, true national security was about fostering human betterment and working toward world peace.  It was about securing the necessities of life for everyone.  It entailed the pursuit of military disarmament, a pursuit far preferable to allowing the world to be crucified on a cross of iron erected by wars and weapons manufacturers.

Tragically, America’s “councils of government” no longer guard against militarism; rather, they have been captured, often willingly, by the military-industrial complex.  The “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that Ike was counting on to hold the line against incessant warfare and wasteful weaponry is largely uninterested, or uninformed, or uneducated in matters of civics and public policy.  Meanwhile, military spending keeps soaring, and the result is greater national insecurity.

In a paradox Ike warned us about, the more money the government devotes to its military, the less secure the nation becomes.  Because security isn’t measured in guns and bullets and warheads.  It’s measured in a healthy life, a life of meaning, a life of liberty. The pursuit of happiness, not eternal belligerence, should be the goal.

Consider the following fable.  A man lives in a castle.  He says he seeks security.  So he digs moats and erects walls and piles cannon ball upon cannon ball.  He posts armed guards and launches raids into the surrounding countryside to intimidate “near-peer” rivals.  He builds outlying fortifications and garrisons them, thinking these will secure his castle from attack.  Meanwhile, his family and relations in the castle are starving; the roof leaks and internal walls are covered in mold; the people, shivering and in rags, are uneducated and in poor health.  Has this man truly provided security for his people?  Would we call this man wise?

Grossly overspending on the military and weaponry — on castles and cannons everywhere — produces insecurity. It’s the very opposite of wisdom. Let’s end this folly, America, and seek human betterment and world peace as Ike advised us to do.

Addendum: these are the words Ike spoke in 1953

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 plane 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, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. 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.

As Russia Weakens, Why Is Pentagon Spending Set to Soar?

W.J. Astore

Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t going well for Russia. If reports are correct, the Russian military hasn’t distinguished itself. Poor logistics, bad intelligence, lack of effective air support, and an increasing reliance on brute strength appear to be features of this campaign. Meanwhile, Russia is suffering from debilitating economic sanctions imposed by the West. In sum, Russia is weaker today than it was three weeks ago before the invasion. So why is Pentagon spending set to soar in the coming fiscal years?

A friend sent an article along from the New York Times that sums up this insane moment in Washington. He suggested that I re-post it here and make some comments on it. Here goes (my comments in italics):

War in Ukraine rallies support in Congress for more military spending

Catie Edmondson

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — From his perch as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has long lamented what he sees as a Pentagon budget bloated by inefficient spending. When hawkish lawmakers led a successful charge last year to pour nearly $24 billion more into the military’s coffers, he opposed the move.

But last week, as Russian forces continued their assault on Ukraine and he pondered the size of the coming year’s military budget, Mr. Smith sounded a different tone.

“I haven’t picked a number yet,” he said, “but without question, it’s going to have to be bigger than we thought.”

Yes, the Pentagon budget is “bloated” and “inefficient.” You don’t solve that by giving the Pentagon yet more billions!

He added: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally altered what our national security posture and what our defense posture needs to be. It made it more complicated, and it made it more expensive.”

No, the invasion hasn’t “fundamentally altered” America’s “defense posture.” If anything, a weakening Russia means we can spend less money on defense, not more.

His shift signals a stark new reality facing President Joe Biden on Capitol Hill, where Democrats had already shown they had little appetite for controlling the defense budget, even as Mr. Biden declared an end to the era of ground wars and indicated he wanted to reimagine the use of American power abroad.

How interesting. I thought “American power” was about “defense.” Why does this have to be “reimagined”?

Now, facing a military onslaught by President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, and rising fears of a protracted war in Europe and an emboldened China, lawmakers in both parties — including some who had resisted in the past — are pressing for vast increases in military spending to address a changed security landscape.

Why are more weapons and more wars always the answer to a “changed security landscape”? What is the sense of “vast increases”?

As images pour out of Ukrainian cities devastated by a relentless and indiscriminate volley of Russian missiles, Democrats and Republicans who have struggled to coalesce behind meaningful legislation to aid the Ukrainian cause are rallying around one of the few substantive tools available to them: sending money and weapons.

The House this week is poised to approve $10 billion in emergency funds to Ukraine, including $4.8 billion to cover the costs of weapons already sent to Ukraine and eastern flank allies, as well as the deployment of U.S. troops. But already on Monday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader, suggested lawmakers could approve a $12 billion package, in a sign of how eager lawmakers were to send more aid to Kyiv. The United States alone has deployed more than 15,000 troops to Europe, while committing an additional 12,000 to NATO’s response force if necessary.

$10 billion in “emergency funds” is now more than $13 billion for Ukraine. How come America’s poor and neediest can’t get that level of aid, and that quickly?

Beyond funding immediate needs, the consensus around more generous Pentagon spending previews a dynamic that is likely to drive negotiations around next year’s defense budget, potentially locking in the kind of large increases that Mr. Biden and many Democrats had hoped to end.

This is false. Biden ran for president promising increases in Pentagon spending over and above what Trump had proposed.

“I think people are sort of waking up out of this haze that we were living somehow in a secure world,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., who sits on the Armed Services Committee.

WTF? We live in an insecure world because of wanton spending by the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Ms. Luria added: “I was not satisfied with the budget that came over last year from the White House, especially in regards to China, especially in regards to the Navy or shipbuilding, and I’ll be very disappointed, in light of the new world situation, if they come up with a budget like that again.”

The rapid shift in thinking is a setback for progressives who had hoped that unified Democratic control of the House, the Senate and the White House would translate into a smaller Pentagon budget and a reduced footprint of American troops around the world.

Democrats, as a party, never wanted a smaller Pentagon budget.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said in a brief interview that she believed it was crucial that the United States provide Ukrainians with some defensive weapons, but added: “Do I think that there is a point where it becomes too much? Yes.”

Ms. Omar said she was particularly worried about the prospect of arming an insurgency, especially as civilians from around the world have flocked to Ukraine to help push back against the Russian army.

“We’ve seen what the result of that was in Afghanistan, when we armed so many people to fight against the Russians,” said Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia. “Many of those people went back to their own countries and caused a lot of havoc, including the one I come from.”

A little bit of sense by Rep. Omar, but she has no support here.

Mr. Biden last weekend authorized a $350 million package of weapons that included Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles as well as small arms and munitions, a shipment that represented the largest single authorized transfer of arms from U.S. military warehouses to another country.

Weapons bought for U.S. troops are being sent for free to Ukraine to be used (in some cases) by neo-Nazi forces. I’m sure nothing bad will come from this.

Many lawmakers want to go further. Several Republican senators have endorsed setting up a separate fund to support the Ukrainian resistance, signaling an appetite to continue arming those in Ukraine willing to fight for an extended period of time, even in the event their government falls.

“I want to see more Javelins,” said Sen. Jim Risch, of Idaho, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “I want to see more Stingers.”

Missiles are the answer! More Russian and Ukrainian dead! Hooah!

An emotional virtual meeting on Saturday in which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, of Ukraine, who has been defiant in the face of continuing Russian attacks, pleaded with senators for additional weapons rallied more support for his cause.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for Congress to pass an additional military aid emergency spending bill. And Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., suggested that Congress quickly approve funding to reimburse Eastern European allies if they provide Ukraine with planes or surface-to-air missiles.

“We should be signaling to the Poles and Romanians and others that this is something we would want to help them do,” Mr. Malinowski said.

Lawmakers are eyeing long-term solutions, too, in Europe and beyond. At an Armed Services Committee hearing last week, both Republicans and Democrats endorsed increasing the U.S. military presence in the Baltics.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who is a former Pentagon official, called Mr. Putin’s invasion “a sea change” for “how both the Defense Department and the State Department should think about our presence in Europe.”

“I couldn’t agree more with my colleagues who have talked about putting more force in right now,” Ms. Slotkin said, adding later, “We have to completely re-evaluate deterrence and how we re-establish it.”

What we’re witnessing is the U.S. Congress foaming at the mouth to send more weapons to Ukraine to kill more Russians (and doubtless Ukrainians too), while boosting Pentagon spending against a Russian threat that will be considerably lower, assuming this war doesn’t spiral out of control because of ill-judged and incendiary responses by the U.S.

Readers, what do you think of all this?

Cancel the F-35, Fund Infrastructure Instead

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re President Joe Biden. You’re looking for nearly $2 trillion to fund vital repairs and improvements to America’s infrastructure. You learn of a warplane, the F-35 Lightning II, that may cost as much as $1.7 trillion to buy, field and maintain through the next half century. Also, you learn it’s roughly $200 billion over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. You learn it was supposed to be a low-cost, high-availability jet but that through time, it’s become a high-cost, low-availability one. Your senior Air Force general compares it to a Ferrari sports car and says we’ll “drive” it only on Sundays. What do you do?

Your first thought would probably be to cancel it, save more than a trillion dollars, and fund America’s infrastructure needs. Yet instead, the U.S. military is turning on the afterburners and going into full production. What gives?

When 60 Minutes reported on the F-35 in 2014, the plane was already seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Since then, it has weathered a series of setbacks and complications: Engines that are unreliable and in short supply. An ultra-expensive software system to maintain and repair the plane that doesn’t work. Higher operating costs — as much as 300% higher — compared to previous planes like the F-16 or the A-10. An overly loud engine that creates a noise nuisance to nearby population centers. The list goes on, yet so, too, does the F-35 program.

Why? Because of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The F-35’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, used a tried-and-true formula to insulate the plane from political pressure, spreading jobs across 45 states and 307 congressional districts. In essence, the F-35 program has become “too big to fail.” At the Pentagon level, the plane is supposed to fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps for a “fifth generation” stealthy fighter. There is no alternative, or so you’re told.

Yet, as America’s commander-in-chief, you must always remember there are alternatives. Think about it. Why buy a deeply troubled weapon system at inflated prices? Why reward a military contractor for woeful failures to deliver on time and within budget?

Congress rarely asks such questions because of the corrosive power of corporate lobbyists, the military’s insatiable demands for tech-heavy wonder weapons, and thinly-veiled threats that program cuts will cost jobs — meaning members of Congress might face electoral defeat if they fail to safeguard the F-35 pork apportioned to their districts.

But you’re the president — you should be above all that. You take a wider view like the one President Dwight D. Eisenhower took in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech. Here Ike, a former five-star Army general, challenged Americans to prioritize instruments of peace over tools of war. Schools and hospitals, Ike wrote, were more vital to a democracy than destroyers and fighter jets. Ike was right then — and even more right today. He famously invested in an interstate highway system that served as an accelerant to the U.S. economy. He knew that warplanes, especially overly pricey and operationally dicey ones, were much less vital to the common good.

The Pentagon tells you it’s the F-35 or bust. But for you as president, it’s the F-35 and bust. You begin to realize that so many of the experts advising you to stay the course on the F-35 stand to profit if you do so.

And then you realize as America’s commander-in-chief that no weapon system should be too big to fail. You take heart from Sen. John McCain. In 2016, that ex-naval aviator declared the F-35 program was “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”

Why continue that scandal? Why not end that tragedy? You can decide to send the strongest and clearest message to the military-industrial-congressional complex by cancelling the F-35. You can vow to reform the flawed system that produced it. And you can fund your vital infrastructure programs with the savings.

William J. Astore is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.

Up, up, and away, especially the costs

“Nothing Would Fundamentally Change”

W.J. Astore

“Nothing would fundamentally change” when he’s elected. Promise kept.

Joe Biden is keeping one campaign promise: that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. So, for example, Americans are not getting single-payer (and much more affordable) health care for all. (Biden, one must admit, promised nothing more than Obamacare with perhaps more funding for those struggling to afford it.) American workers are not getting a $15 minimum wage, despite Biden’s (broken) promise of supporting the same. And Biden is not cutting defense spending — at all. Instead, the Pentagon budget is to be “flatlined” at the near-record high levels reached under the Trump administration. So much for forcing the military to cut wonky wasteful weapons. It’s business as usual at the Pentagon, with an emphasis on business and profit at the expense of the American taxpayer.

What is to be done? Many Democrats argue that Joe Biden has to be the sensible centrist, constrained as he allegedly is by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. But of course Joe Biden himself is a conservative pro-business president who sees Manchin as a sympathetic senator and supporter. Meanwhile, Republicans, still in thrall to Trump, refuse to play along with bipartisan malarkey, except when it comes to maintaining massive military budgets. Again, under these conditions, nothing will fundamentally change.

The American people want affordable health care and support a single-payer system run by the federal government. They also support a $15 minimum wage for full-time workers. They’re getting neither. And this is by design. Not to rehash the 2020 Democratic primaries, but Joe Biden didn’t win by appealing to voters; he won because party heavyweights like Obama threw their support to him. Biden didn’t win the nomination; it was handed to him. Because the owners and donors know Joe, and they know Joe hasn’t a liberal bone in his body, let alone a progressive one. The same is true of Kamala Harris, his vice president, a thoroughly conventional and predictable conservative.

As my Uncle Gino would have said, Biden and Harris are spineless jellyfish. (No offense to jellyfish.) They float around in the swamp of DC assuming any shape and form they need to take to conform to the pressures and interests around them. And their lack of spine leaves open the possibility of Trump or some other wannabe demagogue emerging in 2024. Because more than a few people prefer an incompetent ass like Trump to insincere hacks like Biden and Harris, if only because Trump shows some spine, even if his policies are often even worse for America than those of the spineless Democrats.

Democracy, real democracy, isn’t about a “choice” between two parties, each of which refuses to listen to workers or to serve the interests of sanity and peace. Americans need real choice, including a party that would truly fight for health care for all, truly fight for a $15 minimum wage, and truly fight for peace and against colossal military spending. Only then will America have a semblance of real democracy. Right now, we have a sham democracy, a sham that is well on its way to leaving most of America in shambles.

The Pentagon’s Wasteful Weapons

Now the “lemon” is up to $1.7 trillion. Even more lemonade?

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re a soldier in combat. What’s the most important feature of any weapon system? That it works. That it’s reliable. Nobody wants a weapon that jams in a firefight. Reliability, simplicity, ruggedness are key features of weaponry.  Yet the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex seem to specialize in unreliable, complex, fragile ones. Ones that don’t work, or that don’t work very well, and at inflated prices as well. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch, and here’s an excerpt from it:

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve written extensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?

Be sure to read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

The Pentagon Budget: Aim High!

HMS_Dreadnought
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.

The Pentagon’s $733 Billion “Floor”

$1.6 trillion to “modernize” this triad?  Doesn’t sound like a “peace dividend” or “new world order” to me

W.J. Astore

In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Admiral Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was ‘a baseline’ or a ‘floor’ – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces,” reported USNI News.

Which leads to a question: How much money will satisfy America’s military-industrial complex? If $733 billion is a “floor,” or a bare minimum for national defense spending each year, how high is the ceiling?

Part of this huge sum of money is driven by plans to “modernize” America’s nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion over 30 years.  America’s defense experts seek to modernize the triad when we should be working to get rid of it.  Perhaps they think that in the future nuclear winter will cancel out global warming?

Also last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech that  addressed military spending in critical terms.  Here’s an excerpt:

The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid-everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.

How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors-and taxpayers are picking up the bill.

If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.

The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table-but they shouldn’t get to own the table.

These are sensible words from the senator, yet her speech was short on specifics when it came to cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget.  It’s likely the senator’s cuts would be minor ones, since she embraces the conventional view that China and Russia are “peer” threats that must be deterred and contained by massive military force.

Which brings me to this week and the plaudits being awarded to President George H.W. Bush before his funeral and burial.  I respect Bush’s service in the Navy in World War II, during which he was shot down and nearly killed, and as president his rhetoric was more inclusive and less inflammatory than that used by President Trump.

But let’s remember a crucial point about President Bush’s foreign and defense policies: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush could have charted a far more pacific course forward for America.  Under Bush, there could have been a true “peace dividend,” a truly “new world order.” Instead, Bush oversaw Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 and boasted America had kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all (meaning the U.S. military could be unleashed yet again for more global military “interventions”).

Bush’s “new world order” was simply an expansion of the American empire to replace the Soviet one.  He threw away a unique opportunity to redefine American foreign policy as less bellicose, less expansionist, less interventionist, choosing instead to empower America’s military-industrial complex.  Once again, military action became America’s go-to methodology for reshaping the world, a method his son George W. Bush would disastrously embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars that proved a “Vietnam syndrome” remained very much alive.

In sum, defense experts now argue with straight faces that Trump’s major increases in defense spending constitute a new minimum, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are content with tinkering around the edges of these massive budgets, and the mainstream media embraces George H.W. Bush as a visionary for peace who brought the Cold War to a soft landing.  And so it goes.

Note: for truly innovatory ideas to change America’s “defense” policies, consider these words of Daniel Ellsberg.  As he puts it:

“neither [political] party has promised any departure from our reliance on the military-industrial complex. Since [George] McGovern [in 1972], in effect. And he was the only one, I think, who—and his defeat taught many Democratic politicians they could not run for office with that kind of burden of dispossessing, even temporarily, the workers of Grumman, Northrup and General Dynamics and Lockheed, and the shipbuilders in Connecticut, and so forth.”

Monday Military Musings

W.J. Astore

A few items I’ve been saving up for quick comments:

Remember when civilians were supposed to control the military?  Not in Trump’s White House.  Besides putting retired generals in charge (e.g. Defense Secretary James Mattis), Trump is throwing money at the Pentagon while empowering “his” generals to do what they wish.  As FP:Foreign Policy put it today:  

Frustrated by lack of influence and disheartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door, leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman writes.

Described in interviews with a dozen former and current DOD officials, the exodus has insiders and observers worried that civilian control of the military is being undercut.

“The Joint Staff and the [combatant commanders] are having a field day,” said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t answer any requests, they feel emboldened, and Policy is really struggling.”

As commander-in-chief, Trump has largely been AWOL.  When things go bad (like the Yemen raid early in 2017), he blames his generals.  Instead of “The buck stops here,” the motto of Harry S Truman, who knew how to serve as commander-in-chief, Trump’s motto is “The buck never stops here — unless it’s a literal buck I can add to the Trump empire’s balance sheet.”  

The U.S. military’s commander-in-chief has deserted his post, but the Pentagon doesn’t seem to mind.

Meanwhile, even with roughly $700 billion in yearly budgetary authority, with more billions on the way, the Pentagon is warning it may not be able to win a war against China or Russia unless it gets even more money!  Here’s a quick report from CNN:

Could the US lose a war against China or Russia? It might, according to a new report from a bipartisan panel of military experts. The report warns that the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy doesn’t have enough resources, which puts the country at greater risk of losing a military conflict with the Chinese or the Russians.  

I’m shocked, shocked, the U.S. might lose a war against China or Russia!  When the U.S. can’t even win a war against the lowly Taliban in Afghanistan after 17+ years. 

The “solution” is always more money and resources for the Pentagon. How about this instead: Don’t fight a war against China or Russia … period.  Or for that matter against any other country that doesn’t pose a real and pressing threat to the United States.

You have to hand it to the Pentagon: the generals know how to launch preemptive attacks.  Not against foreign armies, mind you, but against what is perceived as “the enemy within.”  The military-industrial complex knows the Pentagon budget could conceivably shrink in 2020, so they’re already claiming “the world’s finest military” is in danger of slipping a notch … unless it gets more money.

The only “war” the Pentagon is clearly winning is the war for money and influence in the American “Homeland.”

Finally, there’s the grim news the Trump administration is pulling out of the INF Treaty with Russia that eliminated intermediate range nuclear weapons in 1987.  That treaty was a remarkable achievement by the Reagan administration: it got rid of nuclear weapons such as the SS-20 on the Soviet side and the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) on the American side, weapons which were considered “first-strike” and therefore destabilizing to nuclear deterrence.  The Trump administration wants to “invest” in more nukes, including intermediate-range ones, supposedly to deter the Russians, who can already be destroyed dozens of times over by America’s current crop of nuclear weapons.

Cost of nuclear modernization to the U.S.?  At least $1.2 trillion (yes–trillion) over the next thirty years.  Weapons that, if they’re used, will only make the radioactive rubble bounce a little bit higher.  More MADness indeed.

An unchecked Pentagon promises ill not just for America but for the world.  Ike knew this.  So did many other U.S. presidents.  Trump is too busy tweeting and making a buck to care.