The Triumph of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex
To understand perverse military decision-making, follow the money
In his farewell address in January 1961, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower famously cautioned the American public to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
Today it’s routine for critics of wasteful military spending to cite Eisenhower’s warning. Unfortunately, Eisenhower did not warn us that the military-industrial complex would become increasingly malignant as it morphed into less obvious forms.
The “complex” is no longer just “military” and “industrial,” and it has extended far beyond just its congressional branch, which Eisenhower also intended to include.
It’s now deeply embedded in the fiber of the American political system, academia, the civilian leadership of the Defense Department and—increasingly—the White House itself.
The military-industrial-complex was on display—but passed without wide notice—on Dec. 5 when Pres. Barack Obama announced, at the White House, his selection of Harvard professor Ashton Carter to replace the ineffectual and effortlessly discarded Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.
Avuncular in public tone and appearance, Carter—a nuclear physicist with an avowed enthusiasm for medieval history—has already served in multiple high Department of Defense positions, deciding national security policy and later weapons acquisition.
Consequently, Obama described Carter at the White House as “bring[ing] a unique blend of strategic perspective and technical know-how.”
Obama even joked that Carter is “one of the few people who actually understands how many of our defense systems work.”
But look closer and you’ll see that Carter has a dark side. Beyond his early and enthusiastic support for starting and prolonging the 2003 war in Iraq and extending the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan, he has spoken out in favor of initiating war against North Korea and Iran.
Now that Obama is returning the U.S. military to Iraq and retaining up to 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the two men seem to be increasingly of one mind.
“I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice,” Carter told Obama at the White House. Expanding the Iraq-Syria conflict and prolonging the war in Afghanistan may very well be what he has in mind.
His advocacy of more and longer wars is not the only troubling element of Carter’s track record. Between stints at the Pentagon, he has associated with defense-connected firms including MITRE, Goldman Sachs, Global Technology Partners and Textron.
More darkly, he more recently associated with a firm called SBD Advisors, which has advertised itself as working in Washington’s shadows so that “only the inner circle knows that we were involved,” according to the company.
The firm professes it has no defense-related clients, but its board includes former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen and former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair—a seeming contradiction.
The Harvard credentials and degrees in physics from Yale and Oxford notwithstanding, Obama’s characterization of Carter as “one of the few people who actually understands how many of our defense systems work” does not rest comfortably with his record in the Pentagon.
Today’s poster children for failing weapons programs prospered with Carter as under secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology and then as deputy secretary of defense. Among the unhappy examples of how not to select and buy weapons are the Navy’s grotesquely over-cost $14-billion new aircraft carrier and the $23-billion Littoral Combat Ship program.
The Defense Department has found that the LCSs cannot survive in serious combat, are all too frequently inoperable, and at $680 million apiece are way over budget. But both the carrier and the LCS program prospered under Carter.
Similarly, Carter recommended little more than a makeover for the world’s most expensive program, the $400-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
An embarrassment to all associated with it, the F-35 has doubled in unit cost since its official inception. Its potential combat debut looks to be about a decade late—so far—and its combat capabilities could represent a major step backward from the aircraft it is supposed to replace.
One of the aircraft the F-35 cannot competently replace is the cheap, deadly A-10 Warthog attack plane, which the Pentagon has been desperate to retire. Obama’s talking points at White House event had him waxing on about Carter’s proficiency at getting rid of “old or inefficient” and “outdated, unneeded” weapons, which is exactly how F-35 boosters see the A-10.
The combat-proven A-10 has been the centerpiece of a knockdown, drag-out fight in Congress between skeptical legislators who want to keep the veteran plane and top Air Force officers who are determined to get rid of all 283 low- and slow-flying A-10s and spend the $4.2 billion in “savings” on the over-budget F-35.
The A-10 has been in the Air Force inventory for more than 30 years, but with recent upgrades it’s viable well into the 2030s. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it continues to support ground troops far better than the high-speed, high-altitude multi-mission jets the Air Force prefers.
The Warthog also the cheapest combat aircraft to operate in the Air Force’s inventory.
Knowing full well how effective the A-10 is, a community of current and past Warthog pilots, forward air controllers and soldiers and Marines of virtually all ranks—except generals—whose lives had been saved by A-10s leaped to the jet’s defense.
They swept into Congress’ office buildings, testifying to the A-10’s worth. They wrote articles and analyses, and generally swamped a shamed Air Force with data and compelling combat history.
The result was a pleasant surprise. A vast majority of Congresspeople, most of whom had no contractor or home base links to the A-10 to explain their support as merely pecuniary, voted in all four of the House’s and Senate’s defense bills to protect and preserve the entire A-10 force.
But all too typically, acting behind closed doors the so-called “Big Four” members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees undermined the A-10 community.
The Air Force demanded to switch 800 A-10 maintenance personnel to the F-35 program in 2015 by prematurely retiring, in effect, 36 A-10s. The flying branch’s concocted explanation was that after 14 years of program history, it had suddenly discovered a maintenance shortfall that would jeopardize the planned December 2016 deadline for declaring the first F-35 squadron combat-ready.
The National Defense Authorization Act that both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees passed prohibited retiring any A-10s in any way, but the chairmen and ranking minority members of the two committees—the Big Four—betrayed their unambiguous legislative instruction and succumbed to the blandishments of the Air Force and—very likely—the F-35’s contractors.
The perfidy was a vivid example of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex to overrule data, constituents, combat history and explicit congressional votes in order to shower resources on a grossly unaffordable and under-performing aircraft—and to do so at the cost of a remarkably inexpensive plane that the troops love.
This sad development was made all the more repugnant by another statement by Obama at the White House ceremony anointing Carter—the cutting of “outdated, unneeded systems” was “because [Carter] was trying to free up money for our troops to make sure they had the weapons and gear they needed.”
Trashing the A-10 to spend still more treasure on the F-35 is the diametric opposite of supporting the troops and giving them the gear they need.
The cherry on top was the presence at the White House ceremony of Sen. Carl Levin, then a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin is retiring from the senate.
The president described Levin, sitting in the audience, as “my dear friend” and the “kind of guy” who had worked effectively with Carter in the past. It was Levin, along with the rest of the Big Four, who walked away from the legislative instruction to preserve the A-10 force.
Levin’s actions were neither unexplainable nor singular. One public report showed him, as a Michigan politician, receiving the political benefit of $186 million in F-35 spending by 22 companies in various towns and cities in his state—creating what Lockheed claims to be more than 2,000 “direct and indirect” jobs.
In addition, Levin’s 2008 re-election campaign received $209,000 in individual and political action committee contributions from defense industry sources, including $10,000 from Lockheed. Since he was not planning on running again, Levin stopped accepting contributions after 2009.
Today, receiving such campaign money is routine behavior, as the rest of the Big Four have demonstrated.
Levin’s House counterpart was Congressman Buck McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He, like Levin, did not run for re-election in 2014.
But McKeon, unlike Levin, accepted $228,200 from defense industry sources between 2013 and 2014, including another $10,000 from Lockheed. It’s unclear just what McKeon will do with this money.
The top-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee was James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. He received $373,700 in contributions from defense industry between 2009 and 2014, including $30,000 from Lockheed.
The then-top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, ranking minority member Adam Smith of Washington, took in $274,200 from defense industry sources between 2012 and 2014 for his 2014 re-election, including $20,000 from Lockheed.
Today there are new leaders in both committees. But the behavior—accepting money from defense manufacturers before and after voting on the programs those same companies promote—isn’t going to change in the slightest.
The new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—Arizona senator John McCain, a Republican—took $246,300 from the defense industry, $32,500 of that from Lockheed. The new ranking minority member is Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, a Democrat who accepted $419,500 from the defense industry, including $40,000 from Lockheed.
The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas, benefited from $415,400 in defense industry donations—$20,000 of that from Lockheed.
Taking in corporate money during government service does not define the extent of the problem. Just as Carter traded in his high-level Defense Department positions for entry into a number of defense-interested firms, so do innumerable other former Pentagon officials, senior military officers and members of Congress and their staffs.
The behavior is rampant among senior generals and admirals. In a seminal article in 2010, the Boston Globe found that 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star generals went to work for defense related firms—and one year, 34 out of 39 did.
The issue is not that all these beneficiaries of the revolving door receive obscenely large compensation to enhance their already generous government pensions, it’s that the prospect of future pay can and does alter their decision-making while in government.
Much, but not all, of this behavior is perfectly legal. That the laws governing post-government service are so full of loopholes is not an accident. In fact, it’s the effect of the strong preferences of the military-industrial-congressional complex.
Today’s fatuous rhetoric from the White House, Congress, most establishment media and all too many think tanks—all willing recipients of defense industry money—masks selfish behavior that ill serves our troops, grotesquely inflates defense costs and destroys combat effectiveness.
Industry-serving behavior has become so pervasive and repugnant today that one would like to think it would have moved Eisenhower to speak, and act, well before the last days of his eight years in office.
Where is today’s leader, military or civilian, who doesn’t wrap him or herself in the flag of patriotism, the welfare of the troops, defense reform, rescuing the taxpayer or whatever other cliche forms a useable sound bite—all the while implementing the antithesis?
Today’s repulsive national security system is corroding the security, not to mention the liberty, of every American. We search in vain for a leader of conscience in the White House, Congress or the Pentagon to repair our broken national defenses.
Sadly, that search will remain entirely hopeless for as long as we permit our military and political leaders to accept defense contractor compensation or contributions.
The prospect of plush defense corporation jobs dangling over generals and civilian decision-makers throughout their careers—and the active flow of cash to politicians during and after their elected terms of office—suborn our democracy.
Ben Cohen is the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and the founder and head stamper of StampStampede.org, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the corrupting influence of money in politics.
Winslow Wheeler recently retired as the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight. He worked on national security issues for 31 years in the U.S. Senate for members of both political parties and at the Government Accountability Office.