December 20, 2012
“Why is it so difficult to shift the defense paradigm”
The Asia Institute
The Asia Institute
Director, Foreign Policy in Focus
Why is it that we are unable to shift our focus concerning security? Why do we keep making these weapons for some imagined future war that will be a souped-up version of World War II?
We keep building expensive weapons systems for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason is bureaucratic inertia. The various organs of the national security state compete with each other for their piece of the budgetary pie and they don’t want to see their overall total budgets go down. They put some money into research and development, but these weapons systems have traditionally been a budgetary no-brainer: we have to maintain our nuclear triad, we have to maintain a certain number of jet fighters, we have to maintain our navy at a certain level if we are to remain a global power, and so on.
It is remarkable how difficult it is for politicians to break out of this system. It is not just cynicism, there seems to be compelling reason for this continued military build-up.
This bureaucratic imperative has a regional and political element as well. These weapons systems are built of many components for which the manufacturing is scattered across the United States. There isn’t a congressional district that isn’t connected in some way to the manufacture of weapons systems. And this manufacture means jobs, sometimes the only surviving manufacturing jobs. So, even politicians who are deeply committed to cuts in Pentagon spending will vote in favor of the weapon systems produced in their district.
Let me give an example from my report with Miriam Pemberton The Green Dividend:
The president didn’t want the engine. The Pentagon chief didn’t want the engine. Even the Air Force didn’t want to spend $485 million to develop a second engine for the F-35 fighter jet. After all, Pratt & Whitney had already won the bid for the F-35 and was already developing it. A second engine was, literally, overkill. Yet in May 2010, Congress decided to defy the Pentagon and risk a presidential veto by restoring funding for this second engine.
The second engine, to be built by General Electric and Rolls Royce, represents jobs, and U.S. politicians have a difficult time saying no to jobs. Even Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who has taken the most courageous stand against military spending by calling for a 25 percent reduction in the Pentagon budget, voted in favor of the backup engine because it meant jobs at the GE plant in his state. This was no isolated example. It repeated a pattern from 2009 when the president, the Pentagon, and even the defense contractor Lockheed Martin teamed up to remove funding for the F-22 fighter jet from the budget only for the House to restore the money (the item eventually was dropped during the reconciliation process).
Oddly, the radical outsourcing of American industry over the last twenty years has meant that literally the only places remaining that are engaged in manufacturing and offer good jobs are tied to the military. So, ironically, the shift to a military-based economy is a result of the very real needs of people at the local level. Equally important, the military industrial complex has become the only part of the American economy in which, on a limited scale, the United States can practice industrial policy. Ironically, the military ends up playing a valuable role in terms of technology and manufacturing even as its global role becomes increasingly counter-productive. Although these weapons systems may not bring “security” in a geopolitical sense, they bring “security” to communities in a socioeconomic sense. And perhaps that is the sense in which those arguing for “security” are in fact using the word. The first step away from a bloated military is to create a space for social and industrial policy.