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Fighting the Greedy Defense Lobbyists: Our Schools vs. Their Worthless Weaponry

With less money to go around, why burn it on stupid projects for the defense industry?

Over the next several months there will be a battle for hearts and minds, but not in Iraq or Afghanistan. The war will be here at home, waged mostly in the halls of Congress, where grim lobbyists for one of the top 15 economies in the world are digging in to preserve their stake in the massive U.S. military budget. With the country in deep recession and resources dwindling for the new administration's programs on health care, education, and the environment, the outcome of this battle may well end up defining the next four years.

But coming to grips with the issue, as one military analyst noted, is likely to resemble the worst of World War I trench warfare. "It will be like the British Army at the Somme," Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information (CDI) told the Boston Globe , "you will just get mowed down by the defense industry."

Up Against the Industry

For starters, there are 185,000 corporations behind those metaphorical machine guns, and a few are formidable indeed: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Alliant Techsystems, United Technologies, Textron, Teledyne, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Texas Instruments, just to name a few.

The World Policy Institute found that dozens of high Bush administration officials were former arms company executives, consultants, or shareholders, and that this network of influence reaches deep into Congress. The combination of lobbying and PAC money that pours into election coffers every two years gives the arms industry enormous influence over the actions of the executive and legislative branches.

The reason is simple: the money at stake is staggering, although nailing down exactly what this country spends on the military is extremely difficult. "Figures on defense spending are notoriously unreliable," defense expert Chalmers Johnson points out. "All numbers released by the Pentagon should be regarded as suspect."

While the "official" 2009 U.S. military budget is $516 billion, that figure bears little resemblance to what this country actually spends. According to CDI, if one pulls together all the various threads that make up the defense spending tapestry - including Home Security, secret "black budget" items, military-related programs outside of the Defense Department, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and such outlays as veterans' benefits - the figure is around $862 billion for the current fiscal year. Johnson says spending is closer to $1.1 trillion.

Even these figures are misleading, since it does not project future costs. According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, when the economic and social costs of the Iraq War are finally added up - including decades of treatment for veterans disabled by traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder - the final bill could reach $5 trillion.

Cuts in the Offing?

Given the current economic crisis, even the defense establishment recognizes that some cuts are inevitable. A recent study by a Pentagon advisory group, the Defense Business Board, says that current defense spending is "not sustainable" and recommends scaling back or eliminating some big-ticket weapon systems.

Canceling Lockheed Martin's F-22 stealth fighter and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Virginia Class submarine, the V-22 Osprey, the Zumwalt Class destroyer, and Boeing and Raytheon's missile defense system, combined with some judicious reductions in other budget items, would save $55 billion annually, according to FPIF's Unified Security Budget.

The problem with U.S. military spending isn't just expensive weapons, but the underlying philosophy that the use of force is a valid policy tool. And on that question, the incoming Obama administration has yet to break from the past.

While Obama has pledged to stress diplomacy over warfare, he has also promised to "maintain the most powerful military on the planet" and to increase the armed forces by some 90,000 soldiers. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that will cost at least $50 billion over five years.

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