Privileged Dependency And Waste
The Military Budget and Our Weapons Culture
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine November 1997
Back in 1968, in his hook The Weapons Culture, Ralph Lapp
forcefully highlighted the budget used to he explained and justified
on 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 case with which its
frequently absurd justifications for new weapons were accepted
by politicians and the media. The United States remains a weapons
culture to day, with the MIC still powerful and dominant in national
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 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 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 percent
of the time and that its radar "could not tell a rain cloud
from a mountain side. "
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 any lunatic boondoggle (most notably,
Star Wars) 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 confessed that it had made a little
mistake in the size of Soviet military outlays, but this was long
after the contracts were signed 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. 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
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
a 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
Most striking, this throwing of enormous sums of money at
often non-existent problems is not 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
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 trade offs, reproduced here, which dramatizes the choices
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
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 log rolling. 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 else where.
This corrupt process 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. 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 per cent 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).
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.
Concocted Missions, Lost Dividends
Military budgets have been justified by the steady creation
of alleged "gaps" that require large outlays-dreadnoughts,
bomb s, 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 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 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 materialized 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 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). 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 1 980s, Guatemala in the 1
950s, 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.
The MIC's continued 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 trade offs, represents a major failure of democracy. These
are also manifestations of brutal inhumanity in an on going class