Lockheed, Stock, and Barrel

AP Photo/Eric Talmadge

This is the third in a three-part Prospect series on what an ideal military budget might look like. Read Part One on the military's current responsibilities here. Read Part Two on the real threats that our military should be protecting our country from here.

What stops the United States from crafting a military budget that makes sense? As this series has shown, to defend Americans and to protect American economic interests—even if broadly defined—the military would need vastly less resources than it currently enjoys. Sure, people in our defense establishment will complain about "bloat" and "waste" and "inefficiency," but when it comes to actual cuts, they just aren't done. "Now's not the time," they say, and considering the harm that sequestration cuts will likely do to many people's jobs and possibly to our economic recovery, there might be something to it—but they always say that.  So, why do conversations about possible—and advisable—cuts always end up a dead end?

We might start with the cultural and strategic assumptions that plague the military. Put simply, our military is constructed to fight wars it will never have to fight. For decades, it has maintained a core goal—rooted in the memory of WWII and bureaucratic infighting—of being able to fight two large conventional "major theater" wars in two different places at the same time. The Pentagon's grand new strategy in the 2010 Quadrennial Force Review (QDR) is to be able to fight those two consecutive conventional wars with the added bonus of being able to squash every possible exaggerated threat that comes along at the same time. (Afghanistan and even Iraq, at least after the end of what the military liked to call "Kinetic Operations" were over, fall into the latter category.) This is historical mythology posing as strategy. Similarly, our massive nuclear stockpile and the endless pursuit of a Star Wars missile defense system are staid Cold War remnants. Cuts aimed at these might indeed "hollow out" our ability to fight those two consecutive wars while raining thousands of nuclear warheads on foreign populations—and that would be just fine.

The meme that we can never provide our troops with enough new top-of-the-line gear is also ripe for lambasting. It is never good enough to just replace the old model with this year's model. No, instead we create entirely new procurement programs with all the dreamiest bells and whistles—whether they are truly necessary or not (and sometimes whether they work or not).

We don't do dog fights, but we've ordered 2,456 of the fancy new "fifth-generation" F-35 Lightning II fighter planes in the most expensive procurement program in history (they are currently grounded). We're building yet another class of aircraft carriers (even though we already have ten carriers plus hundreds of airbases or access to others within flight-range of almost everywhere we might want to fly), a new class of attack submarines, and a new class of littoral combat ships (that can't do combat)—each of which costs almost as much as a year's worth of sequestration cuts. And the Navy is funding development of both a laser gun and a rail gun that can shoot projectiles at Mach 7 (both of which the Senate tried ineffectually to cancel), and the Marines want a new "Amphibious Combat Vehicle" to storm beaches even though it hasn't done that since the Korean War and parachutes work just fine.

It goes without saying that leaders of bureaucratic organizations want to protect and grow their budgets. In the world of defense, these leaders tend to conflate their own interests and their organization's interests with the wellbeing of the nation, which, as you can see above, has proved to be a rewarding formula. Add in some bureaucratic competition, Pentagon-style, and the budget balloons even more.

A perfect example is our so-called nuclear triad: land-, air-, and sea-based weapons "platforms." Sure, there was a logic to it—to prevent a Soviet first-strike from wiping out our ability to strike back—but that logic was largely fictional and certainly secondary to the motivation for creating the triad: The newly-created Air Force got the nation's nukes after WWII. It put them on planes and in silos. But the Navy wanted some, too.

The DoD also sees itself as having a responsibility to protect and nurture what is known as the "Defense Industrial Base" (DIB), which is comprised of an extraordinary array of private companies and corporations in the business of getting the Pentagon to buy their wares or services. Its members come in various shapes and sizes. There are the corporate behemoths at the top of the food chain that do almost no private-sector work, like top-dog Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon. There are the civilian companies with big defense operations like Boeing and General Electric. There are the "normal" corporations that sell civilian or modified-civilian goods to the military (like General Mills, Microsoft and Exxon-Mobil) or to the troops (like Oakley and Under Armour). There are the companies that thrive in the thrust toward privatization, doing what people in uniform used to do (like SAIC, CACI, L-3 Communications, and almost 2,000 others). And don't forget the subcontractors. Together they receive hundreds of billions of dollars—and therefore billions of dollars in profits—from Pentagon contracts every single year.

The Pentagon is serious about protecting the DIB, which isn't surprising, considering the DIB employs an awful lot of them in a robust revolving-door system (the top Pentagon acquisitions official was a Raytheon vice president). The Pentagon isn't just full of leaders bravely asking for more or fighting against sequestration (or any other cuts); it has offices that have as a main mission helping contractors get contracts with the Pentagon or with foreign countries—the office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, to name a few.

Not that the DIB needs the Pentagon's help; Congress is also on Team Contractor. Politicians are uniformly afraid of looking "soft" on anything, so Republicans and Democrats alike are quick to vote for each year's Pentagon appropriation bills, squabbling only over details (which often has to do with political horse-trading). Indeed, Democrats have the reputation of trying to look hawkish lest the GOP slings the "soft" slur at them; the party got us into many of the wars and bombing campaigns of recent memory (Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, and today's Drone Wars). Only Tea Party libertarian Republicans like Ron and Rand Paul feel politically safe continually coming out against the Pentagon goliath.

The money contractors spend lobbying Congress ($133,969,307 in 2011) or donating to political candidates come election season ($27,000,647 in 2012) doesn’t hurt either.

The DIB and the Pentagon get a considerable public relations assist from the validation given by the Very Serious Men (and occasionally women) known as defense intellectuals, whose opinions are often sought out by a friendly media. Money matters here, of course.  The Pentagon and the defense industry are the prime funders of defense-related think-tanks ranging from the prestigious RAND Corporation (where I used to work) to the ideological ones that have banded together to fight sequestration cuts under the title "Defending Defense." But even if they could bite the hands that feed them, defense intellectuals usually don't. They all are partisans of the Pentagon. Even in academia, the folks who self-select into national security studies tend that way (and the DoD pumps a lot of money into universities).  Defense thinkers who buck the trend and criticize the Pentagon's gargantuan budget and our imperialist "defense" policies have a hard time finding paying work.


And so for these and other reasons, America never has a real conversation about what an ideal military budget would look like. There are occasional brave attempts to bring serious change to DoD budgeting, such as that of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, but they are largely ignored by the "Iron Triangle" of the Pentagon, the MIB, and Congress. Even when cuts are attempted, they usually get smacked down by the MIB.

It’s fairly likely that the sequestration's cuts will harm the bottom line for many companies in the DIB as well as for many individual people who work for DoD and the DIB. The cuts may well prove once again that Keynes was onto something. Rather than spring to the DIB's defense to protect the economic recovery from the malevolence of austerity (its arguments are largely bogus), the sensible thing to do would be make cuts at least as deep as sequestration's, cutting the Pentagon down to a size where all it does is protect the American people and a limited, democratically-agreed-upon degree of economic interests—not the profiteering interests of the DIB or the careerism or myths of the Pentagon. To offset the economic and human harm of the cuts, Uncle Sam could use some of those savings to provide jobs and job training to the folks who lose their jobs. Some wouldn't need much new job training, just new jobs—and it is time for new investment in America.

Many studies have shown that military spending is an inefficient way to create jobs. Put ship welders to work welding bridges. The savings from defense could be applied to things that would actually benefit the public at large and the economy, too, such as infrastructure, education, public transportation, and universal healthcare.

These are the sorts of things that poll after poll show the American public wants. But they run against the grain of the way military politics work in America. If these really are desperate times, then the time is now to talk about these quite reasonable measures.

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