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The Cockburn Report

Defense Spending: Putting Toys Before Boys

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

Being pro-defense in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles on the Potomac means, in the salty words of my late friend Col. David Hackworth, one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated combat soldiers, putting “the toys before boys.”

Hackworth meant the number one budget priority in the Pentagon and the Halls of Congress is to reward the domestic political faction that benefits from buying and operating high cost, high complexity weapons at the expense of (1) weapons that work for the the men and women at the pointy end of the spear and (2) providing an affordable defense program that does not rob taxpayers of money needed for other national needs — like roads and sewers, schools, social security, etc.

The faction that benefits from a policy to spend on “toys” is the coalition of (1) weapons contractors, (2) military officers and civilians who promote those weapons to enhance their careers and post retirement employment opportunities, and (3) legislators who benefit from the increasing flows of dollars, jobs, and profits to their districts.  This trinity is the primary faction that benefits from the development, procurement, and contracted support dollars associated with buying hyper-expensive programs like the F-35, the B-2 bomber, the new aircraft carrier, etc.  But but it is not the only grouping that benefits.  There are other less obvious players in the Military – Industrial – Congessional Complex (MICC) — including, inter alia: influence peddlers and wannabees in lobbying firms, so-called intellectuals in think tanks who derive their funding and influence by rationalizing the party line for the programs and money flowing to MICC. Their collective behaviour is lubricated by the network — really an intricately woven tapestry — of revolving doors leading into and out of jobs in the Pentagon, Congress and industry. Other beneficiaries of this promotional network include those who make money or gain access to power by hyping the benefits of the ‘toys,’ including members of the press, particularly the broadcast media, movie makers (e.g., Top Gun), novelists (e.g., the late Tom Clancy).  There is slew of lesser important fringe players as well, including professors in universities, and all sorts of enthusiasts and groupies, feeding off the tributaries of the golden flow to the main players.

President Eisenhower presciently warned us about this web of interests in his farewell address in 1961.  Today, its distorting influence on the popular imagination pervades American culture, from to bottom to top; from our school rooms, to the hobby shops selling video games, to movies, to the thinly disguised advertisements on content generators, like PBS’s so-called advertisement-free Newshour, to the faux patriotism of flag pins on the lapels of politicians and yellow ribbon bumper stickers.

Yet notwithstanding all the technical hype about revolutionary military capabilities embodied in our vaunted technological supremacy (i.e. in Hackworth’s ‘toys’), America’s success in real war has been dismal since the end of WWII, even while the resources devoted to these wars have gone thru the roof.

The accumulating strategic and economic disaster has now metastasized in the ongoing global war on terror (GWOT) that began on 9-11.  The figure below is the proof.

Def Budget Deal

Based on official DoD data, this chart plots the defense budget in inflation-adjusted dollars over time.  It also places the historical budgets in the context of  in the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress and signed by the President, as denoted by the red markers. The red “ball” depicts the base budget and the the red “star” adds the supplemental war budget to the base budget, making it logically equivalent to past budgets.

The recent budget deal, in effect, says the the United States will be spending more defense in FY 2014 to pay for 30,000 troops disengaging from a low-tempo war in Afghanistan than we payed in 1969 to keep 550,000 fighting a high-tempo war in Vietnam.  Moreover, in 1969, the defense budget also paid for much the larger forces needed to support a full-blown Cold War against the Soviet Union; whereas today, there is no funding requirement even close to that of the cold war.

But there is more: the box plot shows the total 2014 budget will be higher than three-quarters of all the budgets between 1948 and 2013  (including several of the  GWOT budgets).  Even the so-called “base budget” will be a high budget by historical standards, as would have been the dreaded levels of the sequester, had they been adhered to. If you have any doubt about the MICC’s grip on the popular imagination, the 2014 budget level is what the courtiers of Versailles, including the mass media, commonly refer to as an “era of austerity” or an era of “fiscal constraints.”

In a normal world, it would be reasonable to ask what has all this money bought for the American taxpayer?

Consider first the GWOT: Iraq is a bloody disintegrating shambles; we are leaving Afghanistan with our tail between our legs; Libya became a fountainhead for weapons flowing to Jihadi factions throughout Africa and the Middle East; the drone war is creating enemies faster than we can kill them.

Now, think about the rest of the military: The service chiefs are complaining to Congress about readiness problems, aging weapons, and the need to cut personnel costs and shrink forces further (a trend that began in 1957), because we have a modernization (toys) crisis. The buzz words du jour are “recapitalize” and “re-set.”

And yet …  no one in the MICC is being asked to explain how spending so much money could be correlated with the rise of such horrific problems.  In fact, the Pentagon cannot even (and does not want to) audit its books, and Congress says it does have to pass one until 2017, even though it passed the law requiring the audits in 1990 — see this link for a recent in-depth series of Reuters reports describing this problem.

So, what is driving the budget train?  How can a citizen come to grips such a huge disaster, without being overwhelmed by the variety of its ever-changing complexity?

Occasionally a sharp ray of sunlight shines thru the narrative fog of techno-hype that is blanketing this mess to expose the truly sordid nature of the MICC’s game, so pithily summed up by Colonel Hackworth.  My good friend Andrew Cockburn brilliantly exposes the real nature of the Air Force’s efforts to trash its most effective and cheapest weapon system — the A-10 Warthog, one of the few “toys” that works for the “boys” and the “taxpayers” alike).  And in so doing, Andrew provides an excellent case study of how the dirty game is played.

The Air Force admits the A-10 is very effective and is low cost, but claims it is being forced to send the A-10 to bone yard as a budget ‘austerity’ measure in order to save more expensive, multi-use programs, like the problem-plagued  horror of horrors: the wildly expensive stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Cockburn’s report, Tunnel Vision: Will the Air Force kill its most effective weapon?, is in the forthcoming February 2014 issue of Harpers.

While Andrew does not address the bomber question, I believe the A-10 caper is a cog in a larger gaming strategy to open a financial window for developing and buying a new long range stealth bomber.  This monster could make the F-35 look like an exercise in prudence.  Even though it is still only a paper airplane, bordering on a fantasy at this point, the Air Force wants to spend $379 million on it this year.  And its cost has already begun to grow: the long-term procurement cost of a program for only 100 bombers recently rose from $55 billion to $81 billion, or by 47% — and the serious design work has not even begun!

Moreover, this new strategic bomber can only be justified by a ‘strategic’ need to destroy so-called critical economic nodes of a rising superpower threat.  The only possible candidate is China, the world’s largest exporter and second largest importer.  China is crucially dependent on shipping routes thru a few narrow, vulnerable choke points leading to and from its huge, easily bombed container ports on the coasts of the South and East China Seas, like Shanghai.  Nothing would enrich the future fortunes of MICC, and especially the Douhetian strategic bombing faction that controls the Air Force mentality, than a new Cold War  aimed at ‘deterring’ China, whatever that means.  This deterrence would be achieved by having a U.S  capability to deny China access to world markets. This is the real intent behind the vacuously-stated anti-access/area denial (A2AD) gibberish so popular in the AF and its wholly owned subsidiaries in the defense press and thinktanks.  To pulse its popularity — ask the Google.

To be sure, getting rid of the highly effective A-10 is only part of the Air Force’s larger agenda to start an unnecessary, but financially lucrative New Cold War.  And Cold Wars are better than hot wars for the MICC; not having to divert money into combat operations means even more money can be siphoned into the R&D and procurement accounts for buying the “toys.”

It is the low cost of the A-10 that is the central to understanding the salience of Andrew’s brilliantly written exposé in this larger game.

Sending the A-10 to the bone yard won’t save much money in the grand scheme of things, but the A-10s effectiveness has become an embarrassment — a blemish in the AF’s patina of strategic bombing and techno-war.  That blemish must be removed from view.  Cockburn’s essay is important because it gives the reader a sharp insight into the outrageous lengths the AF is willing to go to promote its budget-busting vision of hi-tech perpetual war based on strategic bombing and victory thru airpower alone.

I urge you to read Andrew’s essay carefully … and pay particular attention to the explosive implications of the coverup implied by his closing line.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com