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PRIVILEGED DEPENDENCY AND WASTE: THE MILITARY BUDGET

Edward S. Herman

Back in 1968, in his book The Weapons Culture, Ralph Lapp forcefully highlighted the enormous role weapons development and acquisition played in our political economy, the privileged position of the military-industrial complex (MIC) in the budget process, and the ease with which its frequently absurd justifications for new weapons were accepted by politicians and the media.

 

Resource Allocation in a Weapons Culture

The United States remains a weapons culture today, with the MIC still powerful and dominant in national priorities. This is strikingly displayed in the Center for Defense Information's (CDI) chart (shown below) depicting Clinton's proposed 1998 allocation of discretionary (as opposed to mandatory) spending. It can be seen that military spending is in a class by itself, and outlays for mundane matters like education and health are relatively tiny--the two together accounting for only 21 percent of the spending on "defense."

As more than half of the immense U.S. military budget used to be explained and justified on the ground of the need to counter the Soviet Threat, huge savings should have followed the end of that threat. But the military budget has only fallen by perhaps 15 percent from its Cold War average, and is going up again. This suggests that the size of the military budget is not a function of military need; rather, it is based on the MIC's power to get votes to fund weapons and take on missions that it wants to undertake. As the CDI has noted, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Reviews are "budget rather than threat and strategy driven," and "the last two Administrations have simply substituted the need to control 'regional instability' for containing Soviet expansion to justify continued high levels of military spending."

 

The B-2 Fiasco

The continued privileged feeding at the trough of the public treasury, and almost unlimited waste of resources, by military contractors and the Pentagon, was dramatically highlighted in mid- August with the release of a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the B-2 bomber. The GAO found that that bomber, for which the taxpayers had forked out $45 billion for 21 planes--i.e., $2.1 billion per plane--deteriorates in rain, heat and humidity and "must be sheltered or exposed only to the most benign environments." The "environmentally controlled shelters" in which they must be housed are not available in overseas bases, at which the plane was supposed to be located to quickly penetrate to the Soviet heartland. Because of its fragility and vulnerability to weather, the plane was also found to require up to 124 hours of maintenance time for each hour in the air, which of course made it phenomenally expensive even beyond its staggering capital cost.

Another problem with the plane is that, partly because of its great fragility and sensitivity to climate, it doesn't work. The GAO found that the B-2 failed in its trial missions 74% of the time and that it's radar "could not tell a rain cloud from a mountainside."

A further problem with the plane is that its theoretical "mission" disappeared with the end of the Cold War, as it was devised in the early 1980s for evading Soviet radar (from advance bases!) to deliver nuclear bombs on Moscow and other Soviet targets.

A still deeper problem is that the plane wasn't needed in the first place. It was contracted for at the height of the Cold War, on the basis of the frenzied inflation of the Soviet Threat in the Carter-Reagan era, when anything the MIC wanted to do was fundable. During those years the CIA, Reagan and Secretary of Defense Weinberger got away with claiming a clear Soviet military superiority, first strike capability, and greater accuracy of nuclear weapons. (These lies, and the way in which the mainstream media left them unchallenged, were compellingly described in Tom Gervasi's classic The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy). Ultimately, the CIA did confess that it had made a little mistake on the size of Soviet military outlays, but this was long after the contracts were let and the buildup was in full flight.

In a sane society, the recent B-2 disclosures would have caused great indignation and a demand for an investigation into the responsibility for the virtual theft of $45 billion. Instead, politicians and the media have treated the matter lightly, and the B-2's $330 million budget allocation is not definitively quashed; in a new compromise it is left to Clinton to decide whether that money will be spent on the plane. And this boondoggle is by no means dead. There is still a congressional faction seeking funding for more B-2s, and in the tradition of completely discredited weapons systems taking on budgetary life with newly contrived "missions," its supporters will wait for the bad publicity to die down before trying again to serve the "national defense."

 

The F-22 and other Boondoggles

Back in April, the first F-22 fighter plane was unveiled, with development costs of $22.4 billion, and a planned purchase of 438 more of this craft at $198 million per plane, for a total cost of $64 billion. The price per plane is five times that of the still quite serviceable F-15, which the F-22 is designed to replace. When the plane was unveiled, the media did briefly quote critics saying that this was expensive and pointless, and that "we are in an arms race with ourselves." Patrick Sloyan actually pointed out that in this era of budget crunch we should be comparing this expenditure with the "savings" in expenditures on poor people (Newsday, April 8, 1997), but this was exceptional and the issue was certainly not pressed.

Many other enormously expensive Cold War dinosaurs continue to draw billions. We are building a third nuclear submarine at the cost of $4.3 billion, a new nuclear aircraft carrier for $6.5 billion, and $3 billion is to be spent in 1998 for a guided missile destroyer (we have 53 destroyers in service). Star Wars, Reagan's lunatic plan to build an impenetrable shield against incoming missiles, is still alive. The taxpayers have paid $70.7 billion already for antimissile systems, there is $3.7 billion in the current budget for such programs, and the Clinton administration plans to spend $21.4 billion on antimissile systems through fiscal 2003.

 

Military Justification? Tradeoffs? Forget it!

Most striking, this throwing of enormous sums of money at often non-existent problems is not even subject to public discussion and debate. The politicians and media don't demand clear military justifications for multi-billion dollar weapons expenditures, nor do they discuss tradeoffs. What is the price of a new nuclear submarine or F-22 in terms of foregone schools, roads, bridges and job training and child care programs? Is a B-2 bomber worth more than twice the $800 million currently being saved by cutting off 150,000 disabled children with insufficiently severe disabilities? Is $248 billion for the military and $31 billion for education a proper balance in the use of federal funds? The CDI put up a table of tradeoffs, reproduced here, which dramatizes the choices being made. I would submit that these choices only survive because the mainstream media maintain silence and don't permit the tradeoffs to be made explicit.

 

Privileged Dependency and Waste

This non-debate reflects power. Only the powerful can command huge resources without public discussion, leaving them to engage in back room negotiations for sharing the loot. This has been going on for decades, based in part on the fact that the military establishment serves the corporate system, helping it carve out privileged opportunities abroad (e.g., "protecting" Saudi Arabia, and post World War II Europe with NATO, and taking economic privilege in exchange). It is also based in part on the fact that the MIC gradually developed its own semi-autonomous power, with the contractors, Pentagon, and legislators in a mutual support and protection racket, all designed to command budget resources.

Part of the system consists of spreading the business among various states, thereby mobilizing an important set of contractor- labor-congressional constituencies interested in profits and jobs and ready to engage in logrolling. Both the B-2 and F-22 are assembled in Gingrich's congressional district, and with him getting money from the contractor as well, we can be sure that Gingrich will log-roll for these gigantic boondoggles while preaching budget austerity elsewhere.

This corrupt process, along with service to the powerful, has made the military budget "special," not subject to regular budget procedures and outside the jurisdiction of executive bureaus of the budget. George Bush even negotiated a deal with the Democrats keeping the military budget separate from the rest of the budget after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to protect it from budget damage in the new era of austerity.

The privileged position of the military budget has also long been reflected in the fact that it was regularly given cost-of- living adjustments, whereas this was often not true of civil budgets. This past year, when it was decided that the inflation factor used to estimate Pentagon needs was too high, Clinton and the Republicans together decided that the $13 billion windfall would remain with the Pentagon as a gift. No budget stringency here!

Equally or more important, although the poor contracting practices, inefficiency and waste in Pentagon operations have been notorious, with the GAO periodically issuing scathing reports on these subjects, and even Reagan's 1983 commission on government efficiency finding that sheer waste absorbed 20 percent of the military budget, congress never makes across-the-board cuts in Pentagon budgets on the assumption that efficiency savings could and should be made (as they did for Medicare). Again, this is the sign of a protected and privileged sector.

Although the MIC is the very model of a "special interest," it is so powerful that the term is never applied to it, as it is to programs with weak clients who can be defamed and defunded. Gaps, Concocted Missions, and Lost Peace Dividends

Military budgets have been justified by the steady creation of alleged "gaps" that require large outlays--dreadnoughts, bombers, missiles, throw-weight. Or there are "threats" that establish missions or needs. Sometimes these are comical--like the need for an ABM system in the 1960s because China might be tempted, at some future date, with a missile that didn't yet (and still doesn't) exist, to shoot it off at us across the Pacific in desperation, even though knowing we would destroy their society in retaliation. I. F. Stone cited a case in which a Secretary of the Air Force explained the need to counter a "follow on" Soviet bomber that did not yet exist, and without any evidence that they intended to produce one, but which the Air Force thought the Soviets "ought to have." Stone suggested that perhaps the MIC should finance the Soviet bomber to give more substance to the Air Force claim. Today, we sell our advanced planes to everybody in sight, thus justifying scores of billions for newer ones to allow us to remain ahead. Clinton and the Republicans are also still funding research and development of antimissile systems to the tune of many billions, and debating installation, to fend off hypothetical "rogue" missiles.

"Peace dividends" never materialize in the United States because the MIC has the power to command the resources in question, and manufactures new missions to justify continuing to produce weapons and absorb manpower. Bush welcomed the Persian Gulf War, in part, because his comrades in the MIC viewed it as an opportunity to reduce inventories, show the utility of a large military establishment, and display the merits of new weapons systems. Narco-terrorists, Third World upstarts, threats of Third World or terrorist missile attacks--a rationalization will always be found for preserving a gigantic military budget because it rests on power, not rational policy calculations based on real national interest.

 

The National Security Gambit

The MIC has always been able to use the "national security threat" as its political trump card in maintaining its hegemony over the budget. Politicians dread being accused of selling national security short, so they are easily bamboozled into voting for boondoggles to hedge against the accusation of lack of patriotism. When anticommunist fervor is stoked up, this tactic is especially effective. It is of course helped along by the economics and logrolling of the MIC, which brings "jobs" and threatens campaign funding reductions for recalcitrant politicians.

According to Herbert York, President Eisenhower's Director of Defense Research, "we [the United States] have repeatedly taken unilateral actions that have unnecessarily accelerated the [arms] race....In a large majority of cases the initiative has been in our hands." (Road To Oblivion, p. 230). The arms race reduced our security as it led to the Soviet Union achieving the power to destroy our society, but at each step the argument that more weapons would enhance our national security was politically effective--and it was never challenged by the mass media. Everybody threatens the pitiful giant--Nicaragua in the 1980s, Guatemala in the 1950s, China's nuclear threat in the 1960s--all conveniently justifying spending money on arms and personnel, and all protected by the failure of the mainstream media to ask and press hard questions.

In sum, the MIC's coninued command of immense resources for boondoggles and killing, and the ongoing slashing of budgets for ordinary citizens on the grounds of a budget crunch, without serious discussion of tradeoffs, represents a major failure of democracy. These are also manifestations of brutal inhumanity in an ongoing class war