How Taxpayers Finance Fantasy Wars
by Chalmers Johnson
Like much of the rest of the world, Americans know that the U.S. automotive industry is in the grips of what may be a fatal decline. Unless it receives emergency financing and undergoes significant reform, it is undoubtedly headed for the graveyard in which many American industries are already buried, including those that made televisions and other consumer electronics, many types of scientific and medical equipment, machine tools, textiles, and much earth-moving equipment — and that’s to name only the most obvious candidates. They all lost their competitiveness to newly emerging economies that were able to outpace them in innovative design, price, quality, service, and fuel economy, among other things.
A similar, if far less well known, crisis exists when it comes to the military-industrial complex. That crisis has its roots in the corrupt and deceitful practices that have long characterized the high command of the Armed Forces, civilian executives of the armaments industries, and Congressional opportunists and criminals looking for pork-barrel projects, defense installations for their districts, or even bribes for votes.
Given our economic crisis, the estimated trillion dollars we spend each year on the military and its weaponry is simply unsustainable. Even if present fiscal constraints no longer existed, we would still have misspent too much of our tax revenues on too few, overly expensive, overly complex weapons systems that leave us ill-prepared to defend the country in a real military emergency. We face a double crisis at the Pentagon: we can no longer afford the pretense of being the Earth’s sole superpower, and we cannot afford to perpetuate a system in which the military-industrial complex makes its fortune off inferior, poorly designed weapons.
Double Crisis at the Pentagon
This self-destructive system of bloated budgets and purchases of the wrong weapons has persisted for so long thanks to the aura of invincibility surrounding the Armed Forces and a mistaken belief that jobs in the arms industry are as valuable to the economy as jobs in the civilian sector.
Recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen began to advocate nothing less than protecting the Pentagon budget by pegging defense spending to a fixed percentage of gross domestic product (GDP, the total value of goods and services produced by the economy). This would, of course, mean simply throwing out serious strategic analysis of what is actually needed for national defense. Mullen wants, instead, to raise the annual defense budget in the worst of times to at least 4% of GDP. Such a policy is clearly designed to deceive the public about ludicrously wasteful spending on weapons systems which has gone on for decades.
It is hard to imagine any sector of the American economy more driven by ideology, delusion, and propaganda than the armed services. Many people believe that our military is the largest, best equipped, and most invincible among the world’s armed forces. None of these things is true, but our military is, without a doubt, the most expensive to maintain. Each year, we Americans account for nearly half of all global military spending, an amount larger than the next 45 nations together spend on their militaries annually.
Equally striking, the military seems increasingly ill-adapted to the types of wars that Pentagon strategists agree the United States is most likely to fight in the future, and is, in fact, already fighting in Afghanistan — insurgencies led by non-state actors. While the Department of Defense produces weaponry meant for such wars, it is also squandering staggering levels of defense appropriations on aircraft, ships, and futuristic weapons systems that fascinate generals and admirals, and are beloved by military contractors mainly because their complexity runs up their cost to astronomical levels.
That most of these will actually prove irrelevant to the world in which we live matters not a whit to their makers or purchasers. Thought of another way, the stressed out American taxpayer, already supporting two disastrous wars and the weapons systems that go with them, is also paying good money for weapons that are meant for fantasy wars, for wars that will only be fought in the battlescapes and war-gaming imaginations of Defense Department “planners.”
The Air Force and the Army are still planning as if, in the reasonably near future, they were going to fight an old-fashioned war of attrition against the Soviet Union, which disappeared in 1991; while the Navy, with its eleven large aircraft-carrier battle groups, is, as William S. Lind has written, “still structured to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy.” Lind, a prominent theorist of so-called fourth-generation warfare (insurgencies carried out by groups such as al-Qaeda), argues that “the Navy’s aircraft-carrier battle groups have cruised on mindlessly for more than half a century, waiting for those Japanese carriers to turn up. They are still cruising today, into, if not beyond, irrelevance… Submarines are today’s and tomorrow’s capital ships; the ships that most directly determine control of blue waters.”
In December 2008, Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, a former high-ranking civilian in the Pentagon’s Office of Systems Analysis (set up in 1961 to make independent evaluations of Pentagon policy) and a charter member of the “Fighter Mafia” of the 1980s and 1990s, wrote, “As has been documented for at least twenty years, patterns of repetitive habitual behavior in the Pentagon have created a self-destructive decision-making process. This process has produced a death spiral.”
As a result, concluded Spinney, inadequate amounts of wildly overpriced equipment are purchased, “new weapons [that] do not replace old ones on a one for one basis.” There is also “continual pressure to reduce combat readiness,” a “corrupt accounting system” that “makes it impossible to sort out the priorities,” and a readiness to believe that old solutions will work for the current crisis.
Failed Reform Efforts
There’s no great mystery about the causes of the deep dysfunction that has long characterized the Pentagon’s weapons procurement system. In 2006, Thomas Christie, former head of Operational Test and Evaluation, the most senior official at the Department of Defense for testing weapons and a Pentagon veteran of half a century, detailed more than 35 years of efforts to reform the weapons acquisition system. These included the 1971 Fitzhugh (or Blue Ribbon) Commission, the 1977 Steadman Review, the 1981 Carlucci Acquisition Initiatives, the 1986 Packard Commission, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, the 1989 Defense Management Review, the 1990 “Streamlining Review” of the Defense Science Board, the 1993-1994 report of the Acquisition Streamlining Task Force and of the Defense Science Board, the late 1990s Total System Performance Responsibility initiative of the Air Force, and the Capabilities-Based Acquisition approach of the Missile Defense Agency of the first years of this century.
Christie concluded: “After all these years of repeated reform efforts, major defense programs are taking 20 to 30 years to deliver less capability than planned, very often at two to three times the costs and schedules planned.” He also added the following observations:
“Launching into major developments without understanding key technical issues is the root cause of major cost and schedule problems… Costs, schedules, and technical risks are often grossly understated at the outset… There are more acquisition programs being pursued than DoD [the Department of Defense] can possibly afford in the long term…
“By the time these problems are acknowledged, the political penalties incurred in enforcing any major restructuring of a program, much less its cancellation, are too painful to bear. Unless someone is willing to stand up and point out that the emperor has no clothes, the U.S. military will continue to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars and critical years while acquiring equipment that falls short of meeting the needs of troops in the field.”
The inevitable day of reckoning, long predicted by Pentagon critics, has, I believe, finally arrived. Our problems are those of a very rich country which has become accustomed over the years to defense budgets that are actually jobs programs and also a major source of pork for the use of politicians in their reelection campaigns.
Given the present major recession, whose depths remain unknown, the United States has better things to spend its money on than Nimitz-class aircraft carriers at a price of $6.2 billion each (the cost of the USS George H. W. Bush, launched in January 2009, our tenth such ship) or aircraft that can cruise at a speed of Mach 2 (1,352 miles per hour).
However, don’t wait for the Pentagon to sort out such matters. If it has proven one thing over the last decades, it’s that it is thoroughly incapable of reforming itself. According to Christie, “Over the past 20 or so years, the DoD and its components have deliberately and systematically decimated their in-house technical capabilities to the point where there is little, if any, competence or initiative left in the various organizations tasked with planning and executing its budget and acquisition programs.”
Gunning for the Air Force
President Obama has almost certainly retained Robert M. Gates as Secretary of Defense in part to give himself some bipartisan cover as he tries to come to grips with the bloated defense budget. Gates is also sympathetic to the desire of a few reformers in the Pentagon to dump the Lockheed-Martin F-22 “Raptor” supersonic stealth fighter, a plane designed to meet the Soviet Union’s last proposed, but never built, interceptor.
The Air Force’s old guard and its allies in Congress are already fighting back aggressively. In June 2008, Gates fired Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley. Though he was undoubtedly responding to their fervent support for the F-22, his cover explanation was their visible failure to adequately supervise the accounting and control of nuclear weapons.
In 2006, the Air Force had managed to ship to Taiwan four high-tech nose cone fuses for Minutemen ICBM warheads instead of promised helicopter batteries, an error that went blissfully undetected until March 2008. Then, in August 2007, a B-52 bomber carrying six armed nuclear cruise missiles flew across much of the country from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. This was in direct violation of standing orders against such flights over the United States.
As Julian Barnes and Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times noted in June 2008, “Tensions between the Air Force and Gates have been growing for months,” mainly over Gates’s frustration about the F-22 and his inability to get the Air Force to deploy more pilotless aircraft to the various war zones. They were certainly not improved when Wynne, a former senior vice president of General Dynamics, went out of his way to cross Gates, arguing publicly that “any president would be damn happy to have more F-22s around if we had to get into a fight with China.” It catches something of the power of the military-industrial complex that, despite his clear desire on the subject, Gates has not yet found the nerve — or the political backing — to pull the plug on the F-22; nor has he even dared to bring up the subject of canceling its more expensive and technically complicated successor, the F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter.”
More than 20 years ago, Chuck Spinney wrote a classic account of the now-routine bureaucratic scams practiced within the Pentagon to ensure that Congress will appropriate funds for dishonestly advertised and promoted weapons systems and then prevent their cancellation when the fraud comes to light. In a paper he entitled “Defense Power Games,” of which his superiors deeply disapproved, Spinney outlined two crucial Pentagon gambits meant to lock in such weaponry: “front-loading” and “political engineering.”
It should be understood at the outset that all actors involved, including the military officers in charge of projects, the members of Congress who use defense appropriations to buy votes within their districts, and the contractors who live off the ensuing lucrative contracts, utilize these two scams. It is also important to understand that neither front-loading nor political engineering is an innocent or morally neutral maneuver. They both involve criminal intent to turn on the spigot of taxpayer money and then to jam it so that it cannot be turned off. They are de rigueur practices of our military-industrial complex.
Front-loading is the practice of appropriating funds for a new weapons project based solely on assurances by its official sponsors about what it can do. This happens long before a prototype has been built or tested, and invariably involves the quoting of unrealistically low unit costs for a sizeable order. Assurances are always given that the system’s technical requirements will be simple or have already been met. Low-balling future costs, an intrinsic aspect of front-loading, is an old Defense Department trick, a governmental version of bait-and-switch. (What is introduced as a great bargain regularly turns out to be a grossly expensive lemon.)
Political engineering is the strategy of awarding contracts in as many different Congressional districts as possible. By making voters and Congressional incumbents dependent on military money, the Pentagon’s political engineers put pressure on them to continue supporting front-loaded programs even after their true costs become apparent.
Front-loading and political engineering generate several typical features in the weapons that the Pentagon then buys for its arsenal. These continually prove unnecessarily expensive, are prone to break down easily, and are often unworkably complex. They tend to come with inadequate supplies of spare parts and ammunition, since there is not enough money to buy the numbers that are needed. They also force the services to repair older weapons and keep them in service much longer than is normal or wise. (For example, the B-52 bomber, which went into service in 1955, is still on active duty.)
Even though extended training would seem to be a necessary corollary of the complexity of such weapons systems, the excessive cost actually leads to reductions in training time for pilots and others. In the long run, it is because of such expedients and short-term fixes that American casualties may increase and, sooner or later, battles or wars may be lost.
For example, Northrop-Grumman’s much touted B-2 stealth bomber has proven to be almost totally worthless. It is too delicate to deploy to harsh climates without special hangars first being built to protect it at ridiculous expense; it cannot fulfill any combat missions that older designs were not fully adequate to perform; and — at a total cost of $44.75 billion for only 21 bombers — it wastes resources needed for real combat situations.
Instead, in military terms, the most unexpectedly successful post-Vietnam aircraft has been the Fairchild A-10, unflatteringly nicknamed the “Warthog.” It is the only close-support aircraft ever developed by the U.S. Air Force. Its task is to loiter over battlefields and assist ground forces in disposing of obstinate or formidable targets, which is not something that fits comfortably with the Air Force’s hot-shot self-image.
Some 715 A-10s were produced and they served with great effectiveness in the first Persian Gulf War. All 715 cumulatively cost less than three B-2 bombers. The A-10 is now out of production because the Air Force establishment favors extremely fast aircraft that fly in straight lines at high altitudes rather than aircraft that are useful in battle. In the Afghan war, the Air Force has regularly inflicted heavy casualties on innocent civilians at least in part because it tries to attack ground targets from the air with inappropriately high-performance equipment.
Using the F-22 to Fight the F-16
The military-industrial complex is today so confident of its skills in gaming the system that it does not hesitate to publicize how many workers in a particular district will lose their jobs if a particular project is cancelled. Threats are also made — and put into effect — to withhold political contributions from uncooperative congressional representatives.
As Spinney recalls, “In July 1989, when some members of Congress began to build a coalition aimed at canceling the B-2, Northrop Corporation, the B-2’s prime contractor, retaliated by releasing data which had previously been classified showing that tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in profits were at risk in 46 states and 383 congressional districts.” The B-2 was not cancelled.
Southern California’s biggest private employers are Boeing Corporation and Northrop-Grumman. They are said to employ more than 58,000 workers in well-paying jobs, a major political obstacle to rationalizing defense expenditures even as recession is making such steps all but unavoidable.
Both front-loading and political engineering are alive and well in 2009. They are, in fact, now at the center of fierce controversies surrounding the extreme age of the present fleet of Air Force fighter aircraft, most of which date from the 1980s. Meanwhile the costs of the two most likely successors to the workhorse F-16 — the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — have run up so high that the government cannot afford to purchase significant numbers of either of them.
The F-16 made its first flight in December 1976, and a total of 4,400 have been built. They have been sold, or given away, all over the world. Planning for the F-22 began in 1986, when the Cold War was still alive (even if on life support), and the Air Force was trumpeting its fears that the other superpower, the USSR, was planning a new, ultra-fast, highly maneuverable fighter.
By the time the prototype F-22 had its roll-out on May 11, 1997, the Cold War was nearly a decade in its grave, and it was perfectly apparent that the Soviet aircraft it was intended to match would never be built. Lockheed Martin, the F-22’s prime contractor, naturally argued that we needed it anyway and made plans to sell some 438 airplanes for a total tab of $70 billion. By mid-2008, only 183 F-22s were on order, 122 of which had been delivered. The numbers had been reduced due to cost overruns. The Air Force still wants to buy an additional 198 planes, but Secretary Gates and his leading assistants have balked. No wonder. According to arms experts Bill Hartung and Christopher Preble, at more than $350 million each, the F-22 is “the most expensive fighter plane ever built.”
The F-22 has several strikingly expensive characteristics which actually limit its usefulness. It is allegedly a stealth fighter — that is, an airplane with a shape that reduces its visibility on radar — but there is no such thing as an airplane completely invisible to all radar. In any case, once it turns on its own fire-control radar, which it must do in combat, it becomes fully visible to an enemy.
The F-22 is able to maneuver at very high altitudes, but this is of limited value since there are no other airplanes in service anywhere that can engage in combat at such heights. It can cruise at twice the speed of sound in level flight without the use of its afterburners (which consume fuel at an accelerated rate), but there are no potential adversaries for which these capabilities are relevant. The plane is obviously blindingly irrelevant to “fourth-generation wars” like that with the Taliban in Afghanistan — the sorts of conflicts for which American strategists inside the Pentagon and out believe the United States should be preparing.
Actually, the U.S. ought not to be engaged in fourth-generation wars at all, whatever planes are in its fleet. Outside powers normally find such wars unwinnable, as the history of Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires” going back to Alexander the Great, illustrates so well. Unfortunately, President Obama’s approach to the Bush administration’s Afghan War remains deeply flawed and will only entrap us in another quagmire, whatever planes we put in the skies over that country.
Nonetheless, the F-22 is still being promoted as the plane to buy almost entirely through front-loading and political engineering. Some apologists for the Air Force also claim that we need the F-22 to face the F-16. Their argument goes this way: We have sold so many F-16s to allies and Third World customers that, if we ever had to fight one of them, that country might prevail using our own equipment against us. Some foreign air forces like Israel’s are fully equipped with F-16s and their pilots actually receive more training and monthly practice hours than ours do.
This, however, seems a trivial reason for funding more F-22s. We should instead simply not get involved in wars with former allies we have armed, although this is why Congress prohibited Lockheed from selling the F-22 abroad. Some Pentagon critics contend that the Air Force and prime contractors lobby for arms sales abroad because they artificially generate a demand for new weapons at home that are “better” than the ones we’ve sold elsewhere.
Thanks to political engineering, the F-22 has parts suppliers in 44 states, and some 25,000 people have well-paying jobs building it. Lockheed Martin and some in the Defense Department have therefore proposed that, if the F-22 is cancelled, it should be replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also built by Lockheed Martin.
Most serious observers believe that this would only make a bad situation worse. So far the F-35 shows every sign of being, in Chuck Spinney’s words, “a far more costly and more troubled turkey” than the F-22, “even though it has a distinction that even the F-22 cannot claim, namely it is tailored to meet the same threat that… ceased to exist at least three years before the F-35 R&D [research and development] program began in 1994.”
The F-35 is considerably more complex than the F-22, meaning that it will undoubtedly be even more expensive to repair and will break down even more easily. Its cost per plane is guaranteed to continue to spiral upwards. The design of the F-22 involves 4 million lines of computer code; the F-35, 19 million lines. The Pentagon sold the F-35 to Congress in 1998 with the promise of a unit cost of $184 million per aircraft. By 2008, that had risen to $355 million per aircraft and the plane was already two years behind schedule.
According to Pierre M. Sprey, one of the original sponsors of the F-16, and Winslow T. Wheeler, a 31-year veteran staff official on Senate defense committees, the F-35 is overweight, underpowered, and “less maneuverable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 ‘lead sled’ that got wiped out over North Vietnam in the Indochina War.” Its makers claim that it will be a bomber as well as a fighter, but it will have a payload of only two 2,000-pound bombs, far less than American fighters of the Vietnam era. Although the Air Force praises its stealth features, it will lose these as soon as it mounts bombs under its wings, which will alter its shape most un-stealthily.
It is a non-starter for close-air-support missions because it is too fast for a pilot to be able to spot tactical targets. It is too delicate and potentially flammable to be able to withstand ground fire. If built, it will end up as the most expensive defense contract in history without offering a serious replacement for any of the fighters or fighter-bombers currently in service.
The Fighter Mafia
Every branch of the American armed forces suffers from similar “defense power games.” For example, the new Virginia-class fast-attack submarines are expensive and not needed. As the New York Times wrote editorially, “The program is little more than a public works project to keep the Newport News, Va., and Groton, Conn., naval shipyards in business.”
I have, however, concentrated on the Air Force because the collapse of internal controls over acquisitions is most obvious, as well as farthest advanced, there — and because the Air Force has a history of conflict over going along with politically easy decisions that was recently hailed by Secretary of Defense Gates as deserving of emulation by the other services. The pointed attack Gates launched on bureaucratism was, paradoxically, one of the few optimistic developments in Pentagon politics in recent times.
On April 21, 2008, the Secretary of Defense caused a storm of controversy by giving a speech to the officers of the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. In it, he singled out for praise and emulation an Air Force officer who had inspired many of that service’s innovators over the past couple of generations, while being truly despised by an establishment and an old guard who viewed him as an open threat to careerism.
Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997) was a significant military strategist, an exceptionally talented fighter pilot in both the Korean and Vietnamese war eras, and for six years the chief instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. “Forty-Second Boyd” became a legend in the Air Force because of his standing claim that he could defeat any pilot, foreign or domestic, in simulated air-to-air combat within 40 seconds, a bet he never lost even though he was continuously challenged.
Last April, Gates said, in part:
“As this new era continues to unfold before us, the challenge I pose to you today is to become a forward-thinking officer who helps the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict.
“Let me illustrate by using a historical exemplar: the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps Commandant [General Charles C. Krulak] and a Secretary of Defense [Dick Cheney] for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War….
“In accomplishing all these things, Boyd — a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character — had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: ‘One day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do’… We must heed John Boyd’s advice by asking if the ways we do business make sense.”
Boyd’s many accomplishments are documented in Robert Coram’s excellent biography, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. They need not be retold here. It was, however, the spirit of Boyd and “the reformers he inspired,” a group within Air Force headquarters who came to be called the “Fighter Mafia,” that launched the defense reform movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Their objectives were to stop the acquisition of unnecessarily complex and expensive weapons, cause the Air Force to take seriously the idea of a fourth generation of warfare, end its reliance on a strategy of attrition, and expose to criticism an officer’s corps focused on careerist standards.
Unless Secretary Gates succeeds in reviving it, their lingering influence in the Pentagon is just about exhausted today. We await the leadership of the Obama administration to see which way the Air Force and the rest of the American defense establishment evolves.
Despite Gates’s praise of Boyd, one should not underestimate the formidable obstacles to Pentagon reform. Over a quarter-century ago, back in 1982, journalist James Fallows outlined the most serious structural obstacle to any genuine reform in his National Book Award-winning study, National Defense. The book was so influential that at least one commentator includes Fallows as a non-Pentagon member of Boyd’s “Fighter Mafia.”
As Fallows then observed (pp. 64-65):
“The culture of procurement teaches officers that there are two paths to personal survival. One is to bring home the bacon for the service as the manager of a program that gets its full funding. ‘Procurement management is more and more the surest path to advancement’ within the military, says John Morse, who retired as a Navy captain after twenty-eight years in the service….
“The other path that procurement opens leads outside the military, toward the contracting firms. To know even a handful of professional soldiers above the age of forty and the rank of major is to keep hearing, in the usual catalogue of life changes, that many have resigned from the service and gone to the contractors: to Martin Marietta, Northrop, Lockheed, to the scores of consulting firms and middlemen, whose offices fill the skyscrapers of Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river from the capital. In 1959, Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois reported that 768 retired senior officers (generals, admirals, colonels, and Navy captains) worked for defense contractors. Ten years later Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin said that the number had increased to 2,072.”
Almost 30 years after those words were written, the situation has grown far worse. Until we decide (or are forced) to dismantle our empire, sell off most of our 761 military bases (according to official statistics for fiscal year 2008) in other people’s countries, and bring our military expenditures into line with those of the rest of the world, we are destined to go bankrupt in the name of national defense. As of this moment, we are well on our way, which is why the Obama administration will face such critical — and difficult — decisions when it comes to the Pentagon budget.
Chalmers Johnson is the author of three linked books on the crises of American imperialism and militarism. They are Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006). All are available in paperback from Metropolitan Books. To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview with Johnson on the Pentagon’s potential economic death spiral, click here.
Copyright 2009 Chalmers Johnson