The Defense Reform Trap
Philip Taubman’s June 24 article the New York Times and International Herald Tribune is another stellar example of uncritical reportage on national defense. Such stories help sustain a failing status quo by appealing to authority of establishment apparatchiks from an earlier era who are probably trying to worm their way back into the game, perhaps in an Obama Administration.
Cries about a defense brain drain and calls for better systems management have been heard from time to time since at least the 1960s, yet Paul Kaminiski and others interviewed by Taubman talk about loss of expertise and the Pentagon’s grotesque acquisition management problems as if they are recent developments. Looking back, did not the F-111 and C-5 cost overrun scandals occur in the 1960s, even though both programs were sold at that time as examples of better systems management in just the same way that the problem plagued, cost overrun infected $200+ billion Joint Strike Fighter program was sold by Mr. Kaminski and his cohorts to the President and Congress in the early 1990s?
All that is new in 2008 is that Pentagon’s excesses are occurring without a superpower adversary that would justify bloated budgets, an adversary comparable to the Soviet Union… yet the Pentagon still spends more than the rest of the world’s military spending combined. To be sure, the scale of the current excesses is due in part to the monumental incompetence of the Bush Administration, but there is nothing really new going on as Taubman seems to suggest.
The truth is, as I and others have repeatedly documented over the last thrity years, the management/technology/economic pathologies that brought the Pentagon, and by extension the United States, to the current catastrophic state of affairs have been in the works at least since the mid 1950s.
It is also true that management and technical skills have declined as the weapons procurement game became more politicized over time, but as political skills — which are what count in the budget game — have increased, so has the wealth of the apparatchiks who move back and forth through the well-greased revolving door between the defense industry and the Pentagon. Indeed, the decline in technical and management skills was apparent to me as a young Air Force engineer in the early 1970s, though it took a little longer for me to understand the underlying but more crucial evolution of politicization, which shapes the hidden DNA of the emergent Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex or MICC.
The Pentagon’s problems ought to be well known to reporters like Philip Taubman. These pathological trends are documented in study after study reaching back to the 1970s. Many of my own writings are available at the Defense and the National Interest website, including particularly my last statement to Congress, my pamphlet Defense Power Games, my report, Defense Spending Time Bomb, and my briefing Defense Death Spiral. See also a March 7, 1983 Time cover story, my book, Defense Facts of Life, Robert Coram’s book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, James Fallows’ 1981 book National Defense (runner up for the prestigious Book Critics Circle Award), and even earlier material (for example, Ernie Fitzgerald’s best seller, High Priest of Waste).
For people who don’t like to read, analyses of these problems have been available in visual media, including an Emmy Award winning Now TV interview with Bill Moyers and Eugene Jarecki’s award winning (Sundance) movie Why We Fight. And of course, they have been documented in hundreds of GAO reports written for Congress and even occasionally in the Pentagon’s own Inspector General’s reports.
What we are seeing today is the logical development of a well-known, long-term cultural evolutionary process — one that has been extensively documented in easily accessible sources of information — that the New York Times and the IHT are helping perpetuate with superficial, a-historical, one-dimensional analyses like Taubman’s.
It’s not like Kaminski did not have a chance to fix things. When he was acquisition czar he had a golden opportunity to attempt reform but did nothing to change these well-documented pathologies and, in fact, by his excessive technological zeal he (perhaps unknowingly) reinforced them, the Joint Strike Fighter being a case in point. When he held mid and high level jobs in the Pentagon in the 1980s and 1990s he never showed the slightest interest in the highly-visible military reform movement which was trying to do something about deeper structural problems.
The implicit suggestion in Taubman’s article that today’s Pentagon’s acquisition problems are the product of more recent declines in human skills is quite simply preposterous. Kaminski’s concerns about new engineers and scientists shunning the corrupting influences of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex say something about the wisdom of young engineers and scientists not wanting to be sucked into a corrupt process but, more to the point, the Pentagon has been making a deliberate and sustained attempt to remove skilled insiders and replace them with contractors in contract writing efforts as well as systems management.
Contractors who produce nothing but cost! To be precise, contractors who funnel Pentagon dollars through a corrupt procurement process that kicks back a significant percentage to politicians who sign off on the spending and reward insiders with lucrative jobs in the defense industry the insiders are supposed to oversee.
This weapon acquistion process has been co-opted by the domestic political economy of the MICC and must be reformed in a fundamental way. The sheer scale of the looting should be a clear warning Senator Obama who says he wants to change things but, since he clinched the nomination, is allowing himself to be surrounded by some of the defense and foreign policy apparachiks who helped so much to create these pathologies and now want to preserve the status quo.
Chuck Spinney is a former Pentagon analyst.