William Hartung

How the arms industry scams the taxpayer

Hartung and Gledhill: How the Arms Industry Scams the Taxpayer

Yep, you’ve read this before, haven’t you? Once again, heat records were set over Labor Day weekend from California to Colorado as the West, in a historic megadrought, continues to burn, with fierce fires bursting out and some areas experiencing temperatures 20 degrees above the norm for this season. Yawn…

And ho-hum as well: With Covid officially more or less over, masking in this country largely left to the dead, and a mere 380 or so of us a day (yes, you read that right!) still dying from the disease that’s slaughtered more than a million Americans, with a new booster arriving but sure to be underused, and another nearly 40,000 of us hospitalized by the pandemic at any moment, all’s well in this nation, right?

Oh, and then there was that state capital, Jackson, Mississippi, which, after massive floods, couldn’t provide its inhabitants with drinking water for days on end, thanks in part to decades of deferred maintenance on a failing water treatment plant. But, honestly, no big deal, not in the larger scheme of things, right?

And don’t forget that, “post”-pandemic, the reading and math scores of American nine-year-olds have fallen, on average, “by the largest margin in more than 30 years.”

And I almost forgot that hunger has risen in this country by 9% since 2019.

Now, let me turn for a moment to a personal high, I’m 78, at a time when life expectancy in this country has plummeted to 76, the “sharpest two-year decline in nearly 100 years,” so, honestly, I feel great and you should, too (if you happen to be more than 76 yourself, that is)!

And all of that, of course, is after Donald Trump’s presidency but before we’ve felt the full impact of gun sales rising to nearly 20 million a year in a country that may all too literally be coming apart at the seams.

Let me just add that if, however irrationally, any of the above worries you, you should stop fretting right now! Instead, read the latest piece from TomDispatch regulars and Pentagon experts William Hartung and Julia Gledhill and you’ll feel enormous relief. After all, isn’t it an upper to know that, in such times, our congressional representatives, Republicans and Democrats alike, are endlessly ready to raise staggering sums annually… no, not to help you (please!), but to support… yep, the Pentagon and the rest of the military-industrial complex in the fashion they deserve. So, relax, read the piece, and know that this country couldn’t be better defended — or do I mean more defensive? Or, actually, do I mean more offensive? You decide. Tom

Spending Unlimited: Contractors Cash in as Congress Adds Billions to the Pentagon Budget

Congress has spoken when it comes to next year’s Pentagon budget and the results, if they weren’t so in line with past practices, should astonish us all. The House of Representatives voted to add $37 billion and the Senate $45 billion to the administration’s already humongous request for “national defense,” a staggering figure that includes both the Pentagon budget and work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy. If enacted, the Senate’s sum would push spending on the military to at least $850 billion annually, far more — adjusted for inflation — than at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the peak years of the Cold War.

U.S. military spending is, of course, astronomically high — more than that of the next nine countries combined. Here’s the kicker, though: the Pentagon (an institution that has never passed a comprehensive financial audit) doesn’t even ask for all those yearly spending increases in its budget requests to Congress. Instead, the House and Senate continue to give it extra tens of billions of dollars annually. No matter that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has publicly stated the Pentagon has all it needs to “get the capabilities… to support our operational concepts” without such sums.

It would be one thing if such added funding were at least crafted in line with a carefully considered defense strategy. More often than not, though, much of it goes to multibillion-dollar weapons projects being built in the districts or states of key lawmakers or for items on Pentagon wish lists (formally known as “unfunded priorities lists”). It’s unclear how such items can be “priorities” when they haven’t even made it into the Pentagon’s already enormous official budget request.

In addition, throwing yet more money at a department incapable of managing its current budget only further strains its ability to meet program goals and delivery dates. In other words, it actually impairs military readiness. Whatever limited fiscal discipline the Pentagon has dissipated further when lawmakers arbitrarily increase its budget, despite rampant mismanagement leading to persistent cost overruns and delivery delays on the military’s most expensive (and sometimes least well-conceived) weapons programs.

In short, parochial concerns and special-interest politics regularly trump anything that might pass as in the national interest, while doing no favors to the safety and security of the United States. In the end, most of those extra funds simply pad the bottom lines of major weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies. They certainly don’t help our servicemembers, as congressional supporters of higher Pentagon budgets routinely claim.

A Captured Congress

The leading advocates of more Pentagon spending, Democrats and Republicans alike, generally act to support major contractors in their jurisdictions. Representative Jared Golden (D-ME), a co-sponsor of the House Armed Services Committee proposal to add $37 billion to the Pentagon budget, typically made sure it included funds for a $2 billion guided-missile destroyer to be built at General Dynamics’ shipyard in Bath, Maine.

Similarly, his co-sponsor, Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), whose district abuts Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipyard, successfully advocated for the inclusion of ample funding to produce aircraft carriers and attack submarines at that complex. Or consider Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a dogged advocate of annually increasing the Pentagon budget by at least 3% to 5% above inflation. He serves a district south of Huntsville, Alabama, dubbed “rocket city” because it’s the home to so many firms that work on missile defense and related projects.

There are even special congressional caucuses devoted solely to increasing Pentagon spending while fending off challenges to specific weapons systems. These range from the House shipbuilding and F-35 caucuses to the Senate ICBM Coalition. That coalition has been especially effective at keeping spending on a future land-based intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the Sentinel on track, while defeating efforts to significantly reduce the number of ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal. Such “success” has come thanks to the stalwart support of senators from Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, all states with ICBM bases or involved in major ICBM development and maintenance.

The jobs card is the strongest tool of influence available to the arms industry in its efforts to keep Congress eternally boosting Pentagon spending, but far from the only one. After all, the industrial part of the military-industrial-congressional complex gave more than $35 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress in 2020, the bulk of it going to those on the armed services and defense appropriations committees who have the most sway over the Pentagon budget and what it will be spent on.

So far, in the 2022 election cycle, weapons firms have already donated $3.4 million to members of the House Armed Services Committee, according to an analysis by Open Secrets.org, an organization that tracks campaign spending and political influence. Weapons-making corporations also currently employ nearly 700 lobbyists, more than one for every member of Congress, while spending additional millions to support industry-friendly think tanks that regularly push higher Pentagon spending and a more hawkish foreign policy.

The arms industry has another lever to pull as well when it comes to the personal finances of lawmakers. There are scant, if any, restrictions against members of Congress owning or trading defense company stocks, even those who sit on influential national-security-related committees. In other words, it’s completely legal for them to marry their personal financial interests to those of defense contractors.

The Cost of Coddling Contractors

Legislators arbitrarily inflate Pentagon spending despite clear evidence of corporate greed and repeated failures when it comes to the development of new weapons systems. Under the circumstances, it should be no surprise that weapons acquisitions are on the Government Accountability Office’s “High Risk List,” given their enduring vulnerability to waste and mismanagement. In fact, overfunding an already struggling department only contributes to the development of shoddy products. It allows the Pentagon to fund programs before they’ve been thoroughly tested and evaluated.

Far from strengthening national defense, such lawmakers only reinforce the unbridled greed of weapons contractors. In the process, they ensure future acquisition disasters. In fact, much of the funding Congress adds to the Pentagon budget will be wasted on price gouging, cost overruns, and outright fraud. The most notorious recent case is that of the TransDigm Group, which overcharged the government up to 3,850% for a spare part for one weapons system and 10 to 100 times too much for others.

The total lost: at least $20.8 million. And those figures were based on just a sampling of two-and-a-half years of that company’s sales to the government, nor was it the first time TransDigm had been caught price gouging the Pentagon. Such practices are, in fact, believed to be typical of many defense contractors. A full accounting of such overcharges would undoubtedly amount to billions of dollars annually.

Then there are weapons systems like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter aircraft and that same company’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Both are costly programs that have proven incapable of carrying out their assigned missions. The F-35 is slated to cost the American taxpayer a staggering $1.7 trillion over its life cycle, making it the most expensive single weapons program ever. Despite problems with its engine performance, maintenance, and basic combat capabilities, both the House and the Senate added even more of them than the Pentagon requested to their latest budget plans. House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) famously remarked that he was tired of “throwing money down that particular rat hole,” but then argued that the F-35 program was too far along to cancel. Its endurance has, in fact, forced the Pentagon to restart older jet fighter production lines like the F-15, developed in the 1970s, to pick up the slack. If the U.S. is going to be forced to buy older fighters anyway, cutting the F-35 could instantly save $200 billion in procurement funding.

Meanwhile, the LCS, a ship without a mission that can’t even defend itself in combat, nonetheless continues to be protected by advocates like Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT), co-chair of the House shipbuilding caucus. The final House and Senate authorization bills prevented the Navy from retiring five of the nine LCS’s that the service had hoped to decommission on the grounds that they would be useless in a potential military faceoff with China (a conflict that should be avoided in any case, given the potentially devastating consequences of a war between two nuclear-armed powers).

No surprise, then, that a substantial part of the tens of billions of dollars Congress is adding to the latest Pentagon budget will directly benefit major weapons contractors at the expense of military personnel. In the House version of the military spending bill, $25 billion — more than two-thirds of its additional funding — is earmarked for weapons procurement and research that will primarily benefit arms contractors.

Only $1 billion of the added funds will be devoted to helping military personnel and their families, even as many of them struggle to find affordable housing or maintain an adequate standard of living. In fact, one in six military families is now food insecure, a devastating reflection of the Pentagon’s true priorities.

In all, the top five weapons contractors — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — split more than $200 billion in “defense” revenue in the last fiscal year, mostly from the Pentagon but also from lucrative foreign arms sales. The new budget proposals will only boost those already astounding figures.

Pushing Back on Contractor Greed

Congress has shown little intent to decouple itself in any way from what’s still known as “the defense industry.” There is, however, a clear path to do so, if the people’s representatives were to band together and start pushing back against the greed of weapons contractors.

Some lawmakers have begun making moves to prevent price gouging while improving weapons-buying practices. The Senate Armed Services Committee, for instance, included in its version of the defense budget a provision to establish a program that would improve contractor performance through financial incentives. Its goal is to make the Pentagon a smarter buyer by addressing two main issues: delivery delays and cost overruns, especially by companies that charge it above-market prices to pad their bottom lines. It would also curb the ability of contractors to overcharge on replacement parts and materials.

The program to prevent further price gouging has a couple of possible paths to President Biden’s desk. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) also included it in the bicameral Stop Price Gouging the Military Act, an ambitious proposal to protect the Pentagon from outrageous contractor overcharges. The bill would close loopholes in existing law that allow companies to eternally rip off the Defense Department.

There are obviously all too many obstacles in the path of eliminating moneyed interests from defense policy, but creating an incentive structure to improve contractor performance and transparency would, at least, be a necessary first step. It might also spur greater public input into such policy-making.

Secrecy, Inc.

Here’s the sad reality of the national security state: we taxpayers will fork over nearly a trillion and a half dollars this year in national security spending and yet the policy-making process behind such outlays will essentially remain out of our control. The Senate Armed Services Committee typically debates and discusses its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) behind closed doors. The subcommittee hearings open to the public rarely last — and yes, this is not a mistake! — more than 15 minutes. Naturally, the House and Senate will reconcile any differences between their versions in secret, too. In other words, there’s little transparency when it comes to the seemingly blank check our representatives write for our defense every year.

Sadly, such a system allows lawmakers, too many of whom maintain financial stakes in the defense industry, to deliberate over Pentagon spending and other national security matters without real public input. At the Pentagon, in fact, crucial information isn’t just kept private; it’s actively suppressed and the situation has only gotten worse over the years.

Here’s just one example of that process: in January 2022, its Office of the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation issued an annual report on weapons costs and performance. For the first time in more than 30 years, however, it excluded nearly all the basic information needed to assess the Pentagon’s weapons-buying process. Redacting information about 22 major acquisition programs, the director treated data once routinely shared as if it were classified. Given the Pentagon’s rocky track record when it comes to overfunding and under-testing weapons, it’s easy enough to imagine why its officials would work so hard to keep unclassified information private.

Scamming the taxpayer has become a way of life for the national security state. We deserve a more transparent, democratic policy-making process. Our elected officials owe us their allegiance, not the defense-industry giants that make such hefty campaign contributions while beefing up lawmakers’ stock portfolios.

Isn’t it time to end the national-security version of spending unlimited in Washington?

Weapons manufacturers and their 'arsenals of autocracy' perpetuate war and imperil everyone

William Hartung, Armed Hypocrisy

There really isn’t a word for it. Bonanza hardly does the trick. Stroke of luck? Not appropriate, given the subject. Hit the jackpot? Well, it wouldn’t be inaccurate, that’s for sure.

Not in recent memory has there been a U.S. arms transfer to another country quite like the latest one designated for Ukraine. As last week ended, Congress put its stamp of approval on a $40 billion package of aid, $7 billion more than even President Biden had asked for. About 60% of it will be for “security assistance” — that is, weaponry of just about every imaginable kind, ranging from anti-tank missiles and drones to long-range howitzers. Such numbers instantly left countries the U.S. gave military assistance to in 2021 in the dust and will make Ukraine the largest recipient of American military aid in decades. As the Washington Postput it recently, in these last months Ukraine has become “the world’s single largest recipient of U.S. security assistance, receiving more in 2022 than the United States ever provided to Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel in a single year.”

And count on one more thing: this may just be the beginning in a conflict all too near the heart of Europe that shows no sign of ending any time soon. So, whatever you think of that war, why not raise a glass to its instant winners? And no, I don’t mean either Russia, its military in ever more disastrous shape, or Ukraine, a staggering percentage of its population no longer even living in their own homes and its economy decimated. I was actually thinking of the only obvious jackpot winners in that ongoing disaster, the military-industrial-congressional complex and especially, as TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert William Hartung makes strikingly clear today, our largest weapons-making corporations. They are on a tear, a run for our money that he puts all too sadly in context on a planet that hardly needed one more war. Tom

Arsenal of Autocracy? The Major Weapons Makers Cash in Worldwide, Not Just in Ukraine

These are good times to be an arms maker. Not only are tens of billions of dollars in new military spending headed for the coffers of this country’s largest weapons contractors, but they’re being praised as defenders of freedom and democracy, thanks to their role in arming Ukraine to fight the Russians. The last time the industry gained such a sterling reputation was during World War II when it was lauded as the “arsenal of democracy” for fueling the fight against fascism.

Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes recently underscored this point in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. While discussing how he should respond to criticism of his company benefiting from a rise in sales right now, he said:

Look, we don’t apologize for making these systems, making these weapons. The fact is, they are incredibly effective in deterring and dealing with the threat that the Ukrainians are seeing today… I think again recognizing that we are there to defend democracy and the fact is eventually we will see some benefit in the business over time.

Indeed, Raytheon will “see some benefit” from the war “over time.” The company produces the Stinger anti-aircraft missile and co-produces (with Lockheed Martin) the Javelin anti-tank missile, both of which Washington has provided to Ukraine by the thousands. Now, the companies will be handsomely reimbursed as the Pentagon moves to replenish its stockpiles of those systems. Those sales, in turn, will bolster Hayes’s annual $23 million compensation package, which grew by 11% in 2021. It will undoubtedly only rise more as the company is showered with new contracts tied to Ukraine and other global conflicts.

Raytheon is, of course, anything but the only major arms manufacturer reaping financial and reputational benefits from the war in Ukraine. Earlier this month, President Biden singled out Lockheed Martin for special praise when he toured the Alabama facility where it produces those Javelin missiles. It was part of his effort to promote tens of billions of dollars in new aid for Ukraine and transform himself into a war president.

These days, even arms industry CEOs are having their moment in the sun as media stars. On Mother’s Day, for instance, Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet was featured on CBS’s Face the Nation. Because of the softball questions served up by interviewer Margaret Brennan, media critic Dan Froomkin at Responsible Statecraft described the segment all too accurately as an “infomercial.” Taiclet used the opportunity to tout the rise of global tensions as a remarkable long-term business opportunity for his company:

Well, we’re planning for the long run and not just in the Javelin, because this situation, the Ukraine conflict, has highlighted a couple of really important things for us. One is that we need to have superior systems in large enough numbers… We know that there’s going to be increased demand for those kinds of equipment, too, because the threat between Russia and China is just going to increase even after the Ukraine war [that] we hope is over soon. Those two nations and, regionally, Iran and North Korea are not going to get less active. Probably they’re going to get more active. So we want to make sure we can supply our allies and our country what they need to defend against that.

The president has just approved a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine rushed through Congress — an even higher figure, you’ll undoubtedly not be surprised to learn, than he asked for. More than half of that package will go for military purposes, which means the outlook for firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin couldn’t be brighter. Add to that new sales to NATO allies beefing up their military budgets in response to the Russian invasion, as well as the Pentagon’s own astronomical budget — slated to exceed $800 billion for 2023 — and the opportunities for profit seem nothing short of endless.

And it’s true that Ukraine does indeed need weapons to defend itself. In the context of a policy in Washington designed, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently put it all too bluntly, to “weaken Russia” rather than simply end the war, there is, however, a danger in sending too much, too fast. After all, escalating the conflict in this way could possibly lead to a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, two nuclear-armed nations.

Putting that nightmarish possibility aside, there’s another question that comes to mind (mine, anyway): Does arming Ukraine really make Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and their cohorts “defenders of democracy”?

As someone who has followed Washington’s arms production and its global weapons sales for decades now, my answer would be: far from it. At best, those firms are opportunists, selling their wares wherever they’re allowed to, regardless of whether their products will be used to push back a Russian invasion of Ukraine or fuel the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe of this century in Yemen.

If they were truly to become part of an “arsenal of democracy,” those militarized mega-firms would have to trim their client lists considerably. I suspect, in fact, that if we were looking at their global sales in a more clear-eyed way, we would have to come up with a more apt term for them entirely. My own suggestion when it comes to Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and similar firms would be the “arsenal of autocracy.” Let me explain why I think that term would be all too apt.

Missing News on the Weapons Trade

U.S. weapons contractors aren’t exactly fussy about which regimes they send weapons to. Quite the contrary, they seek out as many sales to as many places as the political market will bear. Those companies also devote considerable time, effort, and (of course) money to expanding their potential markets. They do so in particular by lobbying to lower restrictions on where the U.S. government is willing to promote weapons deals.

Nowhere is the “arsenal of autocracy” moniker more apt than in the case of the war in Yemen, where the United States has sold tens of billions of dollars of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their grim intervention there. The results have been horrific — thousands of civilians killed by indiscriminate airstrikes (using weaponry from those very companies) and millions on the brink of famine due to a Saudi-led air and sea blockade that has dramatically reduced Yemeni imports of fuel and other essential commodities. At this moment, a rare two-month, United Nations-negotiated truce between the Saudi-led coalition and the opposition Houthi rebels is about to end. During that truce, airstrikes have been limited, but sadly the blockade has largely continued. And there is a real danger that fighting may resume on June 2nd, at which point U.S.-supplied weapons will once again be the backbone of the Saudi war effort.

The impact of American arms in Yemen has been anything but abstract. Groups like the Yemen-based Mwatana for Human Rights, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented the devastating role of bombs produced by Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin in airstrikes that hit, among other civilian targets, a marketplace, a wedding, and even a school bus. When Amnesty International surveyed 22 arms makers about their role in enabling these Saudi crimes, many of them refused to answer, and those few that did offer variations on the government-let-me-do-it explanation, seeming to suggest that Washington’s imprimatur absolved them of any responsibility. They also cited customer confidentiality, as if that somehow justified participating in the slaughter of innocents.

The response from Raytheon was a case in point: “Due to legal constraint [and] customer relations issues… Raytheon does not provide information on our products, customers or operational issues.” As Amnesty noted, Raytheon “went on to say that military and security equipment is subject to a government review which includes ‘consideration of international human rights and international law.’”

So much for defending democracy. In recent years, U.S. weapons have flowed to other reckless, repressive regimes like the UAE, a partner-in-crime with Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, as well as a serial violator of the United Nations arms embargo on parties in the civil war in Libya. Other rogue regimes on the receiving end of U.S.-manufactured arms include Egypt, where the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has jailed and tortured human rights and democracy advocates and waged a scorched earth counterinsurgency campaign in the northern Sinai desert, killing civilians and displacing tens of thousands of people; the Philippines, where the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte killed thousands under the guise of an anti-drug campaign, including journalists, labor leaders, and land rights activists; and Nigeria, whose military has become notorious for killing and torturing civilians. And that’s not an exhaustive list either.

In none of those cases have any executives in the American weapons-making firms expressed the slightest qualms about their role in fostering human rights abuses and fueling destabilizing, unnecessary conflicts. And don’t hold your breath waiting for questions about such cases the next time an arms industry official speaks to the media.

The Dictators Lobby

Even as arms industry executives take cover behind Washington’s decisions to weaponize repressive regimes, their companies are working hard to bend the rules in their favor when it comes to who’s eligible to receive their products. Over the past two decades, military firms have spent $2.5 billion on their lobbying efforts while giving $285 million in campaign contributions to key members of Congress, according to Open Secrets, a group devoted to promoting government transparency. In an average year, the industry employs around 700 lobbyists, or more than one for every congressional representative.

Such industry efforts to influence arms-sales policy are further reinforced by lobbyists for foreign governments that want those weapons. As my Quincy Institute colleague Ben Freeman has noted, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the former chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has worked for Saudi Arabia and Lockheed Martin, both of which have a strong interest in pushing such weaponry out the door with as few questions asked as possible. Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Freedom Forward, and other organizations promoting human rights and democracy in the Middle East have placed operatives like McKeon who advocate for repressive regimes in their “lobbyist hall of shame.”

One well-documented case study of such lobbying from within the government itself offers a glimpse into how the process works. Charles Faulkner, a former Raytheon lobbyist, came to serve as a member of the State Department’s Office of Legal Affairs during the Trump administration. In September 2018, he pressed to give Saudi Arabia a clean bill of health when it came to whether or not it was intentionally targeting civilians in its Yemen airstrikes. He won that argument, which laid the groundwork for a sale of Raytheon precision-guided bombs to the Saudis to move forward. Then, in the spring of 2019, Faulkner sparked concern among lawmakers over his apparent role in crafting a plan to use emergency procedures to make an end-run around Congress when it came to a package of weaponry destined for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan.

Detailed examples like that are hard to come by because the arms industry does so much behind closed doors. It’s important to note, however, that the weapons makers don’t always win the day. When Raytheon’s then-CEO Thomas Kennedy showed up at the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to press him to lift a hold on a Raytheon deal with Saudi Arabia, he was rebuffed. Menendez summarized his response to Kennedy this way to a New York Times reporter:

I told him I don’t have an ideological problem; I have supported other arms sales. But you cannot, as a company, be promoting the arms sales to a country that is using it in violation of international norms. I understand the motivation for profit, but I don’t understand the motivation for profit in the face of human rights violations and civilian casualties.

In short, lobbying doesn’t always work, which is one reason the industry puts so many resources into it.

Stemming the Flow of Arms to Autocracies

Despite their lobbying power, weapons makers are facing significant resistance to their efforts to keep the weapons flowing to regimes like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. During the Trump years, bipartisan majorities voted to end military support for the Saudi armed forces under the War Powers Act and to block a sale of precision-guided bombs to the Kingdom, only to have those measures vetoed by President Trump.

Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) will be introducing a new War Powers Resolution in hopes of changing the Biden administration’s policy of continuing to arm Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In doing so, the president and his officials have ignored their earlier criticisms of the Saudi regime and its de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman who launched the war in Yemen in 2015 and was implicated in the 2018 murder of a Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.

There are also bills in the works to “flip the script” on arms sales decision-making. These would require congressional approval for major sales, thereby preempting the ability of the president to veto efforts to block specific deals. Such initiatives represent a high-water mark in Congressional efforts to restrict runaway arms sales since the passage of the Arms Export Control Act in 1976, more than four decades ago. Will they succeed in the Ukraine war moment when the weapons industry is riding so high and proclaiming its good deeds all too loudly?

It’s hard to say since this country has long been working to create and support global arsenals of autocracy. If the arms industry were truly focused on “defending democracy” on this planet, its firms would have already allowed the above-mentioned reforms to go through without objection, or even, heaven forbid, supported them. The fact that they won’t do so tells you all you need to know about their true intentions in what is for them a genuine gold-rush moment.

How Russia's war in Ukraine became a 'new gold rush' for defense contractors

William Hartung and Julia Gledhill, Ukraine and the Profits of War

Back in September 2008, Senator Joe Biden offered a bit of wisdom while running for vice president on Barack Obama’s ticket. In a speech criticizing the Republican presidential campaign of senatorial colleague John McCain, he claimed to be quoting his own father when he said: “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Almost 14 years later, how apt his father was when it comes to the country his son now presides over (more or less). After all, Joe’s $1.75 trillion domestic social-spending package, the Build Back Better bill, is in a ditch at the side of some West Virginia road. Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert William Hartung and Julia Gledhill, a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, make all too clear today, the next Pentagon budget, at an astronomical $813 billion dollars, is heading for passage by a humongous congressional majority. (To put that figure in perspective, it’s $75 billion more than Donald Trump’s last “defense” budget.) Worse yet, numerous representatives, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, are already demanding yet more of the same. In fact, in think-tank Washington and beyond, there are now even calls for a future Pentagon budget that would top one trillion dollars annually. Imagine that, in a country already spending more on what’s still called “national security” than the next 11 countries combined, even as crucial elements of the domestic budget that would actually keep so many Americans more secure increasingly end up in that West Virginia ditch.

So, give Joe Biden’s dad a little credit. He was all too on target. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you do indeed value. Is there any question about that in the America of 2022? As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore wrote recently, this country has “reached the point in our collective history where we face three certainties: death, taxes, and ever-soaring spending on weaponry and war.” And that should be the definition of “insecurity.” If you doubt me, just let Hartung and Gledhill fill you in on the ever more militarized “gold rush” this Ukrainian moment of ours represents. Tom

The New Gold Rush: How Pentagon Contractors Are Cashing in on the Ukraine Crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought immense suffering to the people of that land, while sparking calls for increased military spending in both the United States and Europe. Though that war may prove to be a tragedy for the world, one group is already benefiting from it: U.S. arms contractors.

Even before hostilities broke out, the CEOs of major weapons firms were talking about how tensions in Europe could pad their profits. In a January 2022 call with his company’s investors, Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes typically bragged that the prospect of conflict in Eastern Europe and other global hot spots would be good for business, adding that “we are seeing, I would say, opportunities for international sales… [T]he tensions in Eastern Europe, the tensions in the South China Sea, all of those things are putting pressure on some of the defense spending over there. So I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.”

In late March, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review after the war in Ukraine had begun, Hayes defended the way his company would profit from that conflict:

So I make no apology for that. I think again recognizing we are there to defend democracy and the fact is eventually we will see some benefit in the business over time. Everything that’s being shipped into Ukraine today, of course, is coming out of stockpiles, either at DoD [the Department of Defense] or from our NATO allies, and that’s all great news. Eventually we’ll have to replenish it and we will see a benefit to the business over the next coming years.

Arms to Ukraine, Profits to Contractors

The war in Ukraine will indeed be a bonanza for the likes of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. First of all, there will be the contracts to resupply weapons like Raytheon’s Stinger anti-aircraft missile and the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin-produced Javelin anti-tank missile that Washington has already provided to Ukraine by the thousands. The bigger stream of profits, however, will come from assured post-conflict increases in national-security spending here and in Europe justified, at least in part, by the Russian invasion and the disaster that’s followed.

Indeed, direct arms transfers to Ukraine already reflect only part of the extra money going to U.S. military contractors. This fiscal year alone, they are guaranteed to also reap significant benefits from the Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) and the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, both of which finance the acquisition of American weaponry and other equipment, as well as military training. These have, in fact, been the two primary channels for military aid to Ukraine from the moment the Russians invaded and seized Crimea in 2014. Since then, the United States has committed around $5 billion in security assistance to that country.

According to the State Department, the United States has provided such military aid to help Ukraine “preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve interoperability with NATO.” So, when Russian troops began to mass on the Ukrainian border last year, Washington quickly upped the ante. On March 31, 2021, the U.S. European Command declared a “potential imminent crisis,” given the estimated 100,000 Russian troops already along that border and within Crimea. As last year ended, the Biden administration had committed $650 million in weaponry to Ukraine, including anti-aircraft and anti-armor equipment like the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin anti-tank missile.

Despite such elevated levels of American military assistance, Russian troops did indeed invade Ukraine in February. Since then, according to Pentagon reports, the U.S. has committed to giving approximately $2.6 billion in military aid to that country, bringing the Biden administration's total to more than $3.2 billion and still rising.

Some of this assistance was included in a March emergency-spending package for Ukraine, which required the direct procurement of weapons from the defense industry, including drones, laser-guided rocket systems, machine guns, ammunition, and other supplies. The major military-industrial corporations will now seek Pentagon contracts to deliver that extra weaponry, even as they are gearing up to replenish Pentagon stocks already delivered to the Ukrainians.

On that front, in fact, military contractors have much to look forward to. More than half of the Pentagon’s $6.5 billion portion of the emergency-spending package for Ukraine is designated simply to replenish DoD inventories. In all, lawmakers allocated $3.5 billion to that effort, $1.75 billion more than the president even requested. They also boosted funding by $150 million for the State Department’s FMF program for Ukraine. And keep in mind that those figures don’t even include emergency financing for the Pentagon’s acquisition and maintenance costs, which are guaranteed to provide more revenue streams for the major weapons makers.

Better yet, from the viewpoint of such companies, there are many bites left to take from the apple of Ukrainian military aid. President Biden has already made it all too clear that “we’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead.” One can only assume that more commitments are on the way.

Another positive side effect of the war for Lockheed, Raytheon, and other arms merchants like them is the push by House Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-WA) and ranking committee Republican Mike Rogers of Alabama to speed up production of a next-generation anti-aircraft missile to replace the Stinger. In his congressional confirmation hearing, William LaPlante, the latest nominee to head acquisition at the Pentagon, argued that America also needs more “hot production lines” for bombs, missiles, and drones. Consider that yet another benefit-in-waiting for the major weapons contractors.

The Pentagon Gold Mine

For U.S. arms makers, however, the greatest benefits of the war in Ukraine won’t be immediate weapons sales, large as they are, but the changing nature of the ongoing debate over Pentagon spending itself. Of course, the representatives of such companies were already plugging the long-term challenge posed by China, a greatly exaggerated threat, but the Russian invasion is nothing short of manna from heaven for them, the ultimate rallying cry for advocates of greater military outlays. Even before the war, the Pentagon was slated to receive at least $7.3 trillion over the next decade, more than four times the cost of President Biden’s $1.7 trillion domestic Build Back Better plan, already stymied by members of Congress who labeled it “too expensive” by far. And keep in mind that, given the current surge in Pentagon spending, that $7.3 trillion could prove a minimal figure.

Indeed, Pentagon officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks promptly cited Ukraine as one of the rationales for the Biden administration’s proposed record national-security budget proposal of $813 billion, calling Russia’s invasion “an acute threat to the world order.” In another era that budget request for Fiscal Year 2023 would have been mind-boggling, since it’s higher than spending at the peaks of the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and over $100 billion more than the Pentagon received annually at the height of the Cold War.

Despite its size, however, congressional Republicans — joined by a significant number of their Democratic colleagues — are already pushing for more. Forty Republican members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have, in fact, signed a letter to President Biden calling for 5% growth in military spending beyond inflation, which would potentially add up to $100 billion to that budget request. Typically enough, Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), who represents the area near the Huntington Ingalls company’s Newport News military shipyard in Virginia, accused the administration of “gutting the Navy” because it contemplates decommissioning some older ships to make way for new ones. That complaint was lodged despite that service’s plan to spend a whopping $28 billion on new ships in FY 2023.

Who Benefits?

That planned increase in shipbuilding funds is part of a proposed pool of $276 billion for weapons procurement, as well as further research and development, contained in the new budget, which is where the top five weapons-producing contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — make most of their money. Those firms already split more than $150 billion in Pentagon contracts annually, a figure that will skyrocket if the administration and Congress have their way. To put all of this in context, just one of those top five firms, Lockheed Martin, was awarded $75 billion in Pentagon contracts in fiscal year 2020 alone. That’s considerably more than the entire budget for the State Department, dramatic evidence of how skewed Washington’s priorities are, despite the Biden administration’s pledge to “put diplomacy first.”

The Pentagon’s weapons wish list for FY 2023 is a catalog of just how the big contractors will cash in. For example, the new Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine, built by General Dynamics Electric Boat plant in southeastern Connecticut, will see its proposed budget for FY 2023 grow from $5.0 billion to $6.2 billion. Spending on Northrop Grumman’s new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, will increase by about one-third annually, to $3.6 billion. The category of “missile defense and defeat,” a specialty of Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, is slated to receive more than $24 billion. And space-based missile warning systems, a staple of the Trump administration-created Space Force, will jump from $2.5 billion in FY 2022 to $4.7 billion in this year’s proposed budget.

Among all the increases, there was a single surprise: a proposed reduction in purchases of the troubled Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft, from 85 to 61 planes in FY 2023. The reason is clear enough. That plane has more than 800 identified design flaws and its production and performance problems have been little short of legendary. Luckily for Lockheed Martin, that drop in numbers has not been accompanied by a proportional reduction in funding. While newly produced planes may be reduced by one-third, the actual budget allocation for the F-35 will drop by less than 10%, from $12 billion to $11 billion, an amount that’s more than the complete discretionary budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since Lockheed Martin won the F-35 contract, development costs have more than doubled, while production delays have set the aircraft back by nearly a decade. Nonetheless, the military services have purchased so many of those planes that manufacturers can’t keep up with the demand for spare parts. And yet the F-35 can’t even be properly tested for combat effectiveness because the simulation software required is not only unfinished, but without even an estimated completion date. So, the F-35 is many years away from the full production of planes that actually work as advertised, if that’s ever in the cards.

A number of the weapons systems which, in the Ukraine moment, are guaranteed to be showered with cash are so dangerous or dysfunctional that, like the F-35, they should actually be phased out. Take the new ICBM. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has called ICBMs “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president would only have minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. Nor does it make sense to buy aircraft carriers at $13 billion a pop, especially since the latest version is having trouble even launching and landing aircraft — its primary function — and is increasingly vulnerable to attack by next-generation high-speed missiles.

The few positives in the new budget like the Navy’s decision to retire the unnecessary and unworkable Littoral Combat Ship — a sort of “F-35 of the sea” designed for multiple tasks none of which it does well — could easily be reversed by advocates from states and districts where those systems are built and maintained. The House of Representatives, for instance, has a powerful Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, which, in 2021, mustered more than one-third of all House members to press for more F-35s than the Pentagon and Air Force requested, as they will no doubt do again this year. A Shipbuilding Caucus, co-chaired by representatives Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Rob Wittman (R-VA), will fight against the Navy’s plan to retire old ships to buy new ones. (They would prefer that the Navy keep the old ones and buy new ones with more of your tax money up for grabs.) Similarly, the “ICBM Coalition,” made up of senators from states with either ICBM bases or production centers, has a near-perfect record of staving off reductions in the deployment or funding of those weapons and will, in 2022, be hard at work defending its budgetary allocation.

Towards a New Policy

Coming up with a sensible, realistic, and affordable defense policy, always a challenge, will be even more so in the midst of the Ukrainian nightmare. Still, given where our taxpayer dollars go, it remains all too worthwhile. Such a new approach should include things like reducing the numbers of the Pentagon’s private contractors, hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are engaged in thoroughly redundant jobs that could be done more cheaply by civilian government employees or simply eliminated. It’s estimated that cutting spending on contractors by 15% would save around $262 billion over 10 years.

The Pentagon’s three-decades-long near $2 trillion “modernization” plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines, along with new warheads, should, for instance, simply be scrapped in keeping with the kind of “deterrence-only” nuclear strategy developed by the nuclear-policy organization Global Zero. And the staggering American global military footprint — an invitation to further conflict that includes more than 750 military bases scattered on every continent except Antarctica, and counterterror operations in 85 countries — should, at the very least, be sharply scaled back.

According to the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force and a study of alternative approaches to defense carried out by the Congressional Budget Office, even a relatively minimalist strategic rethinking could save at least $1 trillion over the next decade, enough to make a healthy down payment on investments in public health, preventing or mitigating the worst potential impacts of climate change, or beginning the task of narrowing record levels of income inequality.

Of course, none of these changes can occur without challenging the power and influence of the military-industrial-congressional complex, a task as urgent as it is difficult in this moment of carnage in Europe. No matter how hard it may be, it’s a fight worth having, both for the security of the world and the future of the planet.

One thing is guaranteed: a new gold rush of “defense” spending is a disaster in the making for all of us not in that complex.

2021 was another banner year for the military-industrial complex

2021 was another banner year for the military-industrial complex, as Congress signed off on a near-record $778 billion in spending for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. That was $25 billion more than the Pentagon had even asked for.

It can’t be emphasized enough just how many taxpayer dollars are now being showered on the Pentagon. That department’s astronomical budget adds up, for instance, to more than four times the cost of the most recent version of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which sparked such horrified opposition from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and other alleged fiscal conservatives. Naturally, they didn’t blink when it came to lavishing ever more taxpayer dollars on the military-industrial complex.

Opposing Build Back Better while throwing so much more money at the Pentagon marks the ultimate in budgetary and national-security hypocrisy. The Congressional Budget Office has determined that, if current trends continue, the Pentagon could receive a monumental $7.3 trillion-plus over the next decade, more than was spent during the peak decade of the Afghan and Iraq wars, when there were up to 190,000 American troops in those two countries alone. Sadly, but all too predictably, President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and contractors from Afghanistan hasn’t generated even the slightest peace dividend. Instead, any savings from that war are already being plowed into programs to counter China, official Washington’s budget-justifying threat of choice (even if outshone for the moment by the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine). And all of this despite the fact that the United States already spends three times as much as China on its military.

The Pentagon budget is not only gargantuan, but replete with waste — from vast overcharges for spare parts to weapons that don’t work at unaffordable prices to forever wars with immense human and economic consequences. Simply put, the current level of Pentagon spending is both unnecessary and irrational.

Price Gouging on Spare Parts

Overcharging the Pentagon for spare parts has a long and inglorious history, reaching its previous peak of public visibility during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Then, blanket media coverage of $640 toilet seats and $7,600 coffee makers sparked public outrage and a series of hearings on Capitol hill, strengthening the backbone of members of Congress. In those years, they did indeed curb at least the worst excesses of the Reagan military buildup.

Such pricing horror stories didn’t emerge from thin air. They came from the work of people like legendary Pentagon whistleblower Ernest Fitzgerald. He initially made his mark by exposing the Air Force’s efforts to hide billions in cost overruns on Lockheed’s massive C-5A transport plane. At the time, he was described by former Air Force Secretary Verne Orr as “the most hated man in the Air Force.” Fitzgerald and other Pentagon insiders became sources for Dina Rasor, a young journalist who began drawing the attention of the media and congressional representatives to spare-parts overcharges and other military horrors. In the end, she formed an organization, the Project on Military Procurement, to investigate and expose waste, fraud, and abuse. It would later evolve into the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the most effective current watchdog when it comes to Pentagon spending.

A recent POGO analysis, for instance, documented the malfeasance of TransDigm, a military parts supplier that the Department of Defense’s Inspector General caught overcharging the Pentagon by as much as 3,800% — yes, you read that figure right! — on routine items. The company was able to do so only because, bizarrely enough, Pentagon buying rules prevent contract officers from getting accurate information on what any given item should cost or might cost the supplying company to produce it.

In other words, thanks to Pentagon regulations, those oversight officials are quite literally flying blind when it comes to cost control. The companies supplying the military take full advantage of that. The Pentagon Inspector General’s office has, in fact, uncovered more than 100 overcharges by TransDigm alone, to the tune of $20.8 million. A comprehensive audit of all spare-parts suppliers would undoubtedly find billions of wasted dollars. And this, of course, spills over into ever more staggering costs for finished weapons systems. As Ernest Fitzgerald once said, a military aircraft is just a collection of “overpriced spare parts flying in formation.”

Weapons This Country Doesn’t Need at Prices We Can’t Afford

The next level of Pentagon waste involves weapons we don’t need at prices we can’t afford, systems that, for staggering sums, fail to deliver on promises to enhance our safety and security. The poster child for such costly, dysfunctional systems is the F-35 combat aircraft, a plane tasked with multiple missions, none of which it does well. The Pentagon is slated to buy more than 2,400 F-35s for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy. The estimated lifetime cost for procuring and operating those planes, a mere $1.7 trillion, would make it the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons project ever.

Once upon a time (as in some fairy tale), the idea behind the creation of the F-35 was to build a plane that, in several variations, would be able to carry out many different tasks relatively cheaply, with potential savings generated by economies of scale. Theoretically, that meant the bulk of the parts for the thousands of planes to be built would be the same for all of them. This approach has proven a dismal failure so far, so much so that the researchers at POGO are convinced the F-35 may never be fully ready for combat.

Its failures are too numerous to recount here, but a few examples should suffice to suggest why the program minimally needs to be scaled back in a major way, if not canceled completely. For a start, though meant to provide air support for troops on the ground, it’s proved anything but well-designed to do so. In fact, that job is already handled far better and more cheaply by the existing A-10 “Warthog” attack aircraft. A 2021 Pentagon assessment of the F-35 — and keep in mind that this is the Department of Defense, not some outside expert — found 800 unresolved defects in the plane. Typical of its never-ending problems: a wildly expensive and not particularly functional high-tech helmet which, at the cost of $400,000 each, is meant to give its pilot special awareness of what’s happening around and below the plane as well as to the horizon. And don’t forget that the F-35 will be staggeringly expensive to maintain and already costs an impressive $38,000 an hour to fly.

In December 2020, House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith finally claimed he was “tired of pouring money down the F-35 rathole.” Even former Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown acknowledged that it couldn’t meet its original goal — to be a low-cost fighter — and would have to be supplemented with a less costly plane. He compared it to a Ferrari, adding, “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays.” It was a stunning admission, given the original claims that the F-35 would be the Air Force’s affordable, lightweight fighter and the ultimate workhorse for future air operations.

It’s no longer clear what the rationale even is for building more F-35s at a time when the Pentagon has grown obsessed with preparing for a potential war with China. After all, if that country is the concern (an exaggerated one, to be sure), it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which fighter planes would go into combat against Chinese aircraft, or be engaged in protecting American troops on the ground — not at a moment when the Pentagon is increasingly focused on long-range missiles, hypersonic weapons, and unpiloted vehicles as its China-focused weapons of choice.

When all else fails, the Pentagon’s fallback argument for the F-35 is the number of jobs it will create in states or districts of key members of Congress. As it happens, virtually any other investment of public funds would build back better with more jobs than F-35s would. Treating weapons systems as jobs programs, however, has long helped pump up Pentagon spending way beyond what’s needed to provide an adequate defense of the United States and its allies.

And that plane is hardly alone in the ongoing history of Pentagon overspending. There are many other systems that similarly deserve to be thrown on the scrap heap of history, chief among them the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), essentially an F-35 of the sea. Similarly designed for multiple roles, it, too, has fallen far short in every imaginable respect. The Navy is now trying to gin up a new mission for the LCS, with little success.

This comes on top of buying outmoded aircraft carriers for up to $13 billion a pop and planning to spend more than a quarter of a trillion dollars on a new nuclear-armed missile, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. Such land-based missiles are, according to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, “among the most dangerous weapons in the world,” because a president would have only minutes to decide whether to launch them on being warned of an enemy nuclear attack. In other words, a false alarm (of which there have been numerous examples during the nuclear age) could lead to a planetary nuclear conflagration.

The organization Global Zero has demonstrated convincingly that eliminating land-based missiles altogether, rather than building new ones, would make the United States and the rest of the world safer, with a small force of nuclear-armed submarines and bombers left to dissuade any nation from launching a nuclear war. Eliminating ICBMs would be a salutary and cost-saving first step towards nuclear sanity, as former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg and other experts have made all too clear.

America’s Cover-the-Globe Defense Strategy

And yet, unbelievably enough, I haven’t even mentioned the greatest waste of all: this country’s “cover the globe” military strategy, including a planet-wide “footprint” of more than 750 military bases, more than 200,000 troops stationed overseas, huge and costly aircraft-carrier task forces eternally floating the seven seas, and a massive nuclear arsenal that could destroy life as we know it (with thousands of warheads to spare).

You only need to look at the human and economic costs of America’s post-9/11 wars to grasp the utter folly of such a strategy. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the conflicts waged by the United States in this century have cost $8 trillion and counting, with hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, thousands of U.S. troops killed, and hundreds of thousands more suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. And for what? In Iraq, the U.S. cleared the way for a sectarian regime that then helped create the conditions for ISIS to sweep in and conquer significant parts of the country, only to be repelled (but not thoroughly defeated) at great cost in lives and treasure. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, after a conflict doomed as soon as it morphed into an exercise in nation-building and large-scale counterinsurgency, the Taliban is now in power. It’s hard to imagine a more ringing indictment of the policy of endless war.

Despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, for which the Biden administration deserves considerable credit, spending on global counterterror operations remains at high levels, thanks to ongoing missions by Special Operations forces, repeated air strikes, ongoing military aid and training, and other kinds of involvement short of full-scale war. Given the opportunity to rethink strategy as part of a “global force posture” review released late last year, the Biden administration opted for a remarkably status quo approach, insisting on maintaining substantial bases in the Middle East, while modestly boosting the U.S. troop presence in East Asia.

As anyone who’s followed the news knows, despite the immediate headlines about sending troops and planes to Eastern Europe and weapons to Ukraine in response to Russia’s massing of its forces on that country’s borders, the dominant narrative for keeping the Pentagon budget at its current size remains China, China, China. It matters little that the greatest challenges posed by Beijing are political and economic, not military. “Threat inflation” with respect to that country continues to be the Pentagon’s surest route to acquiring yet more resources and has been endlessly hyped in recent years by, among others, analysts and organizations with close ties to the arms industry and the Department of Defense.

For example, the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally mandated body charged with critiquing the Pentagon’s official strategy document, drew more than half its members from individuals on the boards of arms-making corporations, working as consultants for the arms industry, or from think tanks heavily funded by just such contractors. Not surprisingly, the commission called for a 3% to 5% annual increase in the Pentagon budget into the foreseeable future. Follow that blueprint and you’re talking $1 trillion annually by the middle of this decade, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. Such an increase, in other words, would prove unsustainable in a country where so much else is needed, but that won’t stop Pentagon budget hawks from using it as their North Star.

In March of this year, the Pentagon is expected to release both its new national defense strategy and its budget for 2023. There are a few small glimmers of hope, like reports that the administration may abandon certain dangerous (and unnecessary) nuclear-weapons programs instituted by the Trump administration.

However, the true challenge, crafting a budget that addresses genuine security problems like public health and the climate crisis, would require fresh thinking and persistent public pressure to slash the Pentagon budget, while reducing the size of the military-industrial complex. Without a significant change of course, 2022 will once again be a banner year for Lockheed Martin and other top weapons makers at the expense of investing in programs necessary to combat urgent challenges from pandemics to climate change to global inequality.

Copyright 2022 William Hartung

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

The U.S. is in the business of selling death — will Biden finally rein it in?

When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.

In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington's threat du jour, China.

Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts. The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress. This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it's bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates. The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.

While it is well known that the United States provides substantial aid to Israel, the degree to which the Israeli military relies on U.S. planes, bombs, and missiles is not fully appreciated. According to statistics compiled by the Center for International Policy's Security Assistance Monitor, the United States has provided Israel with $63 billion in security assistance over the past two decades, more than 90% of it through the State Department's Foreign Military Financing, which provides funds to buy U.S. weaponry. But Washington's support for the Israeli state goes back much further. Total U.S. military and economic aid to Israel exceeds $236 billion (in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars) since its founding — nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars.

King of the Arms Dealers

Donald Trump, sometimes referred to by President Joe Biden as "the other guy," warmly embraced the role of arms-dealer-in-chief and not just by sustaining massive U.S. arms aid for Israel, but throughout the Middle East and beyond. In a May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia — his first foreign trip — Trump would tout a mammoth (if, as it turned out, highly exaggerated) $110-billion arms deal with that kingdom.

On one level, the Saudi deal was a publicity stunt meant to show that President Trump could, in his own words, negotiate agreements that would benefit the U.S. economy. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a pal of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the architect of Saudi Arabia's devastating intervention in Yemen, even put in a call to then-Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson. His desire: to get a better deal for the Saudi regime on a multibillion-dollar missile defense system that Lockheed was planning to sell it. The point of the call was to put together the biggest arms package imaginable in advance of his father-in-law's trip to Riyadh.

When Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia to immense local fanfare, he milked the deal for all it was worth. Calling the future Saudi sales "tremendous," he assured the world that they would create "jobs, jobs, jobs" in the United States.

That arms package, however, did far more than burnish Trump's reputation as a deal maker and jobs creator. It represented an endorsement of the Saudi-led coalition's brutal war in Yemen, which has now resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people and put millions of others on the brink of famine.

And don't for a second think that Trump was alone in enabling that intervention. The kingdom had received a record $115 billion in arms offers — notifications to Congress that don't always result in final sales — over the eight years of the Obama administration, including for combat aircraft, bombs, missiles, tanks, and attack helicopters, many of which have since been used in Yemen. After repeated Saudi air strikes on civilian targets, the Obama foreign-policy team finally decided to slow Washington's support for that war effort, moving in December 2016 to stop a multibillion-dollar bomb sale. Upon taking office, however, Trump reversed course and pushed that deal forward, despite Saudi actions that Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) said "look like war crimes to me."

Trump made it abundantly clear, in fact, that his reasons for arming Saudi Arabia were anything but strategic. In an infamous March 2018 White House meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, he even brandished a map of the United States to show which places were likely to benefit most from those Saudi arms deals, including election swing states Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He doubled down on that economic argument after the October 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at that country's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, even as calls to cut off sales to the regime mounted in Congress. The president made it clear then that jobs and profits, not human rights, were paramount to him, stating:

"$110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries — and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!"

And so it went. In the summer of 2019 Trump vetoed an effort by Congress to block an $8.1-billion arms package that included bombs and support for the Royal Saudi Air Force and he continued to back the kingdom even in his final weeks in office. In December 2020, he offered more than $500 million worth of bombs to that regime on the heels of a $23-billion package to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), its partner-in-crime in the Yemen war.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE weren't the only beneficiaries of Trump's penchant for selling weapons. According to a report by the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, his administration made arms sales offers of more than $110 billion to customers all over the world in 2020, a 75% increase over the yearly averages reached during the Obama administration, as well as in the first three years of his tenure.

Will Biden Be Different?

Advocates of reining in U.S. weapons trafficking took note of Joe Biden's campaign-trail pledge that, if elected, he would not "check our values at the door" in deciding whether to continue arming the Saudi regime. Hopes were further raised when, in his first foreign policy speech as president, he announced that his administration would end "support for offensive operations in Yemen" along with "relevant arms sales."

That statement, of course, left a potentially giant loophole on the question of which weapons would be considered in support of "offensive operations," but it did at least appear to mark a sharp departure from the Trump era. In the wake of Biden's statement, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were indeed put on hold, pending a review of their potential consequences.

Three months into Biden's term, however, the president's early pledge to rein in damaging arms deals are already eroding. The first blow was the news that the administration would indeed move forward with a $23-billion arms package to the UAE, including F-35 combat aircraft, armed drones, and a staggering $10 billion worth of bombs and missiles. The decision was ill-advised on several fronts, most notably because of that country's role in Yemen's brutal civil war. There, despite scaling back its troops on the ground, it continues to arm, train, and finance 90,000 militia members, including extremist groups with links to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The UAE has also backed armed opposition forces in Libya in violation of a United Nations embargo, launched drone strikes there that killed scores of civilians, and cracked down on dissidents at home and abroad. It regularly makes arbitrary arrests and uses torture. If arming the UAE isn't a case of "checking our values at the door," it's not clear what is.

To its credit, the Biden administration committed to suspending two Trump bomb deals with Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, it's not clear what (if any) other pending Saudi sales will be deemed "offensive" and blocked. Certainly, the new administration has allowed U.S. government personnel and contractors to help maintain the effectiveness of the Saudi Air Force and so has continued to enable ongoing air strikes in Yemen that are notorious for killing civilians. The Biden team has also failed to forcefully pressure the Saudis to end their blockade of that country, which United Nations agencies have determined could put 400,000 Yemeni children at risk of death by starvation in the next year.

In addition, the Biden administration has cleared a sale of anti-ship missiles to the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the most repressive government in that nation's history, helmed by the man Donald Trump referred to as "my favorite dictator." The missiles themselves are in no way useful for either internal repression or that country's scorched-earth anti-terror campaign against rebels in its part of the Sinai peninsula — where civilians have been tortured and killed, and tens of thousands displaced from their homes — but the sale does represent a tacit endorsement of the regime's repressive activities.

Guns, Anyone?

While Biden's early actions have undermined promises to take a different approach to arms sales, the story isn't over. Key members of Congress are planning to closely monitor the UAE sale and perhaps intervene to prevent the delivery of the weapons. Questions have been raised about what arms should go to Saudi Arabia and reforms that would strengthen Congress's role in blocking objectionable arms transfers are being pressed by at least some members of the House and the Senate.

One area where President Biden could readily begin to fulfill his campaign pledge to reduce the harm to civilians from U.S. arms sales would be firearms exports. The Trump administration significantly loosened restrictions and regulations on the export of a wide range of guns, including semi-automatic firearms and sniper rifles. As a result, such exports surged in 2020, with record sales of more than 175,000 military rifles and shotguns.

In a distinctly deregulatory mood, Trump's team moved sales of deadly firearms from the jurisdiction of the State Department, which had a mandate to vet any such deals for possible human-rights abuses, to the Commerce Department, whose main mission was simply to promote the export of just about anything. Trump's "reforms" also eliminated the need to pre-notify Congress on any major firearms sales, making it far harder to stop deals with repressive regimes.

As he pledged to do during his presidential campaign, President Biden could reverse Trump's approach without even seeking Congressional approval. The time to do so is now, given the damage such gun exports cause in places like the Philippines and Mexico, where U.S.-supplied firearms have been used to kill thousands of civilians, while repressing democratic movements and human-rights defenders.

Who Benefits?

Beyond the slightest doubt, a major — or perhaps even the major — obstacle to reforming arms sales policies and practices is the weapons industry itself. That includes major contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, and General Dynamics that produce fighter planes, bombs, armored vehicles, and other major weapons systems, as well as firearms makers like Sig Sauer.

Raytheon stands out in this crowd because of its determined efforts to push through bomb sales to Saudi Arabia and the deep involvement of its former (or future) employees with the U.S. government. A former Raytheon lobbyist, Charles Faulkner, worked in the Trump State Department's Office of Legal Counsel and was involved in deciding that Saudi Arabia was not — it was! — intentionally bombing civilians in Yemen. He then supported declaring a bogus "emergency" to ram through the sale of bombs and of aircraft support to Saudi Arabia.

Raytheon has indeed insinuated itself in the halls of government in a fashion that should be deeply troubling even by the minimalist standards of the twenty-first-century military-industrial complex. Former Trump defense secretary Mark Esper was Raytheon's chief in-house lobbyist before joining the administration, while current Biden defense secretary Lloyd Austin served on Raytheon's board of directors. While Austin has pledged to recuse himself from decisions involving the company, it's a pledge that will prove difficult to verify.

Arms sales are Big Business — the caps are a must! — for the top weapons makers. Lockheed Martin gets roughly one-quarter of its sales from foreign governments and Raytheon five percent of its revenue from Saudi sales. American jobs allegedly tied to weapons exports are always the selling point for such dealings, but in reality, they've been greatly exaggerated.

At most, arms sales account for just more than one-tenth of one percent of U.S. employment. Many such sales, in fact, involve outsourcing production, in whole or in part, to recipient nations, reducing the jobs impact here significantly. Though it's seldom noted, virtually any other form of spending creates more jobs than weapons production. In addition, exporting green-technology products would create far larger global markets for U.S. goods, should the government ever decide to support them in anything like the way it supports the arms industry.

Given what's at stake for them economically, Raytheon and its cohorts spend vast sums attempting to influence both parties in Congress and any administration. In the past two decades, defense companies, led by the major arms exporting firms, spent $285 million in campaign contributions alone and $2.5 billion on lobbying, according to statistics gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics. Any changes in arms export policy will mean forcefully taking on the arms lobby and generating enough citizen pressure to overcome its considerable influence in Washington.

Given the political will to do so, there are many steps the Biden administration and Congress could take to rein in runaway arms exports, especially since such deals are uniquely unpopular with the public. A September 2019 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, found that 70% of Americans think arms sales make the country less safe.

The question is: Can such public sentiment be mobilized in favor of actions to stop at least the most egregious cases of U.S. weapons trafficking, even as the global arms trade rolls on? Selling death should be no joy for any country, so halting it is a goal well worth fighting for. Still, it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will ever limit weapons sales or if it will simply continue to promote this country as the world's top arms exporter of all time.

Copyright 2021 William D. Hartung

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the author, with Elias Yousif, of "U.S. Arms Sales Trends 2020 and Beyond: From Trump to Biden."

It's time for Biden to take on the Pentagon bloat

Now that Joe Biden is slated to take office as the 46th president of the United States, advice on how he should address a wide range of daunting problems is flooding in. Nowhere is there more at stake than when it comes to how he handles this country's highly militarized foreign policy in general and Pentagon spending in particular.

Defense spending increased sharply in the Trump years and is now substantially higher than it was during the Korean or Vietnam War eras or during the massive military buildup President Ronald Reagan oversaw in the 1980s. Today, it consumes well over half of the nation's discretionary budget, which just happens to also pay for a wide array of urgently needed priorities ranging from housing, job training, and alternative energy programs to public health and infrastructure building. At a time when pandemics, high unemployment, racial inequality, and climate change pose the greatest threats to our safety and security, this allocation of resources should be considered unsustainable. Unfortunately, the Pentagon and the arms industry have yet to get that memo. Defense company executives recently assured a Washington Post reporter that they are "unconcerned" about or consider unlikely the possibility that a Biden administration would significantly reduce Pentagon spending.

It's easy enough to understand their confidence. Many of the officials rumored to soon be appointed to lead the Pentagon, including a number of former Obama administration figures, have spent the past few years working, either directly or indirectly, for defense contractors. Not surprisingly, then, their policy prescriptions emphasize some of the most expensive and risky military technologies imaginable like hypersonic weaponry. The expected next secretary of defense, Michèle Flournoy, has already insisted that Washington needs to make "big bets" on unmanned systems and artificial intelligence. Of course, she won't be the one who will pay the price if they fail -- or even if they succeed and take money that might have been used for crucial domestic purposes like health care in a pandemic moment.

Still, contrary to the wishes and hopes of the military-industrial complex and figures like Flournoy, there is a growing congressional interest in trying to bring runaway Pentagon spending under control. This July, for instance, Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushed parallel measures in the House and Senate to cut Pentagon spending by 10%, a savings of more than $70 billion that could have been put to good use elsewhere, including aid to increasingly desperate low-income communities. Although their initiatives lost, the very fact that they were proposed may be a turning point in a Congress that, for years, has signed off on whatever the Pentagon asked for, without resistance of any sort.

Think of those votes on Pentagon budget reductions as just the beginning of a long-term effort to tame that out-of-control institution. Representatives Pocan and Lee, for instance, created a defense-savings caucus in the House focused on going after misguided Department of Defense spending. During campaign 2020, both Joe Biden and the Democratic platform emphasized that this country and the world can indeed be made safer while spending less on the Pentagon.

Clearly, the fairy-tale explanation that more spending equals better security needs to be ditched. Will it happen soon? Who knows? At least it's time for the rest of us to begin thinking about how much less should be spent on the Department of Defense and how to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent more wisely.

A Pentagon Spending Agenda for the Biden Administration

In reality, it's not that complicated. Pentagon spending could easily be reduced substantially even as the world was made a safer place. For that to happen, however, its budget would have to begin to deal with the actual challenges this country faces rather than letting billions of dollars more be squandered on outmoded military priorities and artificially inflated threats supposedly posed by our biggest adversaries.

One blueprint for doing just that has been put together by the Center for International Policy's Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of former White House, Pentagon, and congressional budget officials, retired military officers, and think-tank experts from across the political spectrum. They have crafted a plan to save $1.25 trillion from proposed Pentagon spending over the next decade.

As that task force notes, for durable reductions in such spending to become feasible, this country's leadership would have to take a more realistic view of the military challenges posed by both China and Russia.

In recent years, the regime in Beijing has indeed been increasing its military spending, but when it comes to an armed presence in the Pacific region and the ability to make war there, the United States remains staggeringly stronger. As a start, it has an arsenal of nuclear weapons five to six times as large as China's (though, of course, using it would mean a planetary Armageddon). And while Beijing's influence is primarily focused on its own region, the U.S. military has a historically unprecedented global reach, deploying nearly 200,000 troops overseas garrisoned on at least 800 military bases scattered across continents, and maintaining 11 aircraft carrier task forces to patrol the global seas. In reality, the sort of "arms race" with China now being considered will be costly and unnecessary, while only increasing the risk of war between those two nuclear-armed powers, an outcome to be avoided at all costs.

China's real twenty-first-century challenge to this country isn't military at all, but political and economic in nature. Its leadership has focused on increasing that country's power and influence through investment programs like its ever more global Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Despite many problems, such efforts are clearly giving Beijing the sort of growing global clout, especially in the America First era of Donald Trump, that a hopeless attempt to match U.S. military power never could. Add to this one other factor: if there's to be any hope of preventing future pandemics from ravaging the planet, curbing the growing impact of climate change, or reviving a global economy that's distinctly in the dumps, increased cooperation and transparency between the two greatest powers on the planet, not confrontation, will be a necessity.

As for Russia, a relatively shaky petro-state, its primary tools of influence in recent years have been propaganda, cyber-threats, and "hybrid warfare" on its peripheries (as in its use of local allies to destabilize Ukraine). Despite its still vast nuclear arsenal, Russia does not represent a traditional military challenge to the United States and so shouldn't be used to justify another pointless Pentagon spending boost. To the extent that there is a military challenge from Russia, it can be more than adequately addressed by various European nations with the United States in a limited, supporting role. After all, European members of NATO cumulatively spend more than three times what Russia does on their militaries and far outpace it economically. Keep in mind that this just isn't the Cold War era of the previous century. In reality, Russia's economy is now smaller than Italy's and Moscow is in no position to engage in an arms race even with the nations of Western Europe, no less Washington.

Despite its disastrous forever wars in distant lands, if the institution still often referred to as the "Department of Defense" were to refocus on actual national defense rather than global military domination, it could, as a start, instantly forgo a number of ill-conceived and staggeringly expensive new weapons systems. Those would range from plans to "modernize" the country's already vast nuclear arsenal by buying a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines at a cost of up to $2 trillion to the fantasy of building up from current levels to a 500-ship Navy.

High on any list of programs to be instantly eliminated would be a proposed new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has pointed out, ICBMs are among "the most dangerous weapons in the world" for a simple reason: a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch such missiles upon being warned of another power using similar weaponry to attack the U.S. Since, in the past, such warnings have proven anything but accurate, new weaponry of this sort will only increase the chances of an accidental nuclear war being started. The Pentagon has, however, already given the giant arms maker Northrop Grumman a sole-source contract and $13.3 billion to develop just such a new weapon, a down payment on a program that could ultimately cost $264 billion to build and operate. Funds like those could go far to meet other genuinely pressing national needs.

As for the nuclear arsenal's upgrade as a whole, the organization Global Zero has outlined an alternative nuclear posture that would halt the Pentagon's costly nuclear "modernization" plan, eliminate ICBMs altogether, and reduce the numbers of nuclear-armed bombers and submarines. The idea would be to switch the U.S. to a "deterrence only" strategy and dump the elaborate and dangerous nuclear warfighting scenarios the Pentagon now swears by. The ultimate goal would, of course, be the global elimination of such weaponry, as called for in the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is slated to enter into force early next year.

Then there's that dream (or nightmare) of a future Navy to deal with. Building up to a fleet of 500 ships is not just unaffordable, but a sign of the degree to which the Pentagon has an urge to run stark raving mad with taxpayer dollars. Even a previous plan to build 330 ships was so mismanaged that it left the Navy 50 ships short, $11 billion over budget, and years behind schedule. Rather than seeking to preserve the capability to have warships virtually everywhere on Earth all the time, the Navy set up to surge into areas of tension could be roughly half the size of the 500-ship one and still be powerful beyond words.

More savings could easily be found by ending the procurement of unworkable weapons systems like Lockheed Martin's disastrous F-35 jet fighter. Already the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken (at a cumulative cost of $1.7 trillion over its lifetime), the Project On Government Oversight has determined that the F-35 may never truly be ready for combat. Upgraded versions of current jet fighters integrated into a smaller Air Force would save tens of billions of dollars and be more effective.

President Trump's cherished Space Force is a bad idea that predated his presidency but received a major boost during his tenure. A new military bureaucracy geared up primarily to spend more money, it could cost tens of billions in the years to come while only increasing the risk of an arms race in space.

You could add to the above billions in savings from cutting waste and bureaucracy at the Department of Defense. To cite just two obvious examples, the Pentagon routinely overpays for spare parts and sustains a work force of more than 600,000 private contractors, many of whose jobs are either redundant or could be done more cheaply by government employees. Symbolic of the broken nature of the procurement process, the Air Force seriously contemplated paying $10,000 for a toilet seat cover and one contractor charged so much for a spare part that it stood to make a 4,451% profit on it. Fixing the Pentagon's procurement system and rolling back spending on private contractors could save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.

And don't forget the savings that could be had from reforming how the Pentagon does business, including, for example, retaining intellectual property rights to weapon systems researched and developed with taxpayer dollars. As a Marine Corps captain wrote in the New York Times last year, the military too often lacks the "right to repair" its own equipment. Acquisition laws written in the interests of defense contractors need to be revised so that the Department of Defense can negotiate fair and reasonable prices and auditors need to be empowered to root out waste, fraud, and abuse.

And, of course, in an institution that has never even successfully audited itself, who knows what other savings might be conceivable were you to be able to get inside it and take a serious look at its finances -- and financial shenanigans?

Obstacles to Change

Even if the Biden administration could be persuaded to take a deeper look at the Pentagon's spending priorities, it would still face immediate and stiff political obstacles. The jobs generated by the Pentagon's $700 billion-plus budget (and the political funding of congressional representatives by defense companies) have created a broad constituency in Congress poised to block any effort to close unnecessary military bases or defund major weapons programs. To policymakers in Washington, it seems to matter not at all that virtually any other form of spending would create more jobs than throwing money at the Pentagon. New infrastructure spending or a green-new-deal-style emphasis on creating a renewable energy economy would be guaranteed to generate at least one-and-a-half times as many jobs per dollar spent, while new expenditures on education would create twice as many.

Another impediment to change is the two-way revolving door between the Pentagon and the arms industry. Senior government officials go to work for weapons makers, using their contacts with former colleagues to curry favor for their corporate employers. Meanwhile, arms-industry executives head for the Pentagon and other military-related government posts where they make policies that favor their former (and possibly future) employers. Despite criticisms from both President Trump and his son, Donald, Jr. about the damaging influence of that very revolving door, expect former Trump administration officials to set up shop as lobbyists, join the boards of directors of major defense contractors, and otherwise ally themselves with arms makers like Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics.

No one should be surprised either by early indications that figures with defense-industry ties will fill key policy positions in the Biden administration. Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense and already an unofficial spokesman for the incoming administration, still sits on the board of Raytheon. Michèle Flournoy, the most likely candidate for secretary of defense, and Anthony Blinken, whom Biden will nominate to be secretary of state, both work for a private consulting firm with undisclosed defense-industry clients. While this practice may not be as prevalent as under Trump -- three of his secretaries of defense served as board members, executives, or lobbyists for General Dynamics, Boeing, and Raytheon, respectively -- the role of former industry advocates and employees in the Biden administration is nonetheless guaranteed to cause conflicts of interest.

"Independent" experts at influential inside-the-Beltway think tanks are already receiving millions of dollars from arms manufacturers and the Pentagon in an ongoing effort to shape any debates about future spending. Meanwhile, individuals with close ties to that industry populate government panels like the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission, which advocated in 2018 for a whopping 3%-5% annual increase in Pentagon spending. If their analyses of the supposedly abysmal state of national defense were true, a case would have been made for firing all the top civilian and military officials in the building, not for increased spending.

Possibilities for Change

The best hope for reducing Pentagon spending is the collision between that department's never-ending, ever-rising desires and the overriding economic and political realities of this difficult moment. It's simply not possible to fund pandemic prevention, as well as any kind of economic revival that would begin to address longstanding inequalities, no less a much-needed green revolution, while keeping the Pentagon budget at near-record levels. Something will have to give and it shouldn't be the civilian communities and businesses that have been most negatively impacted by the coronavirus.

As for politics, it's important to remember that this year's presidential election was decided primarily by voter concerns about Covid-19 and the economy, not by voters crying out for a continuation of America's endless wars or demanding yet more money for the Pentagon. The political clout of the military-industrial complex may diminish as Americans move forward, however chaotically, into a new era with radically different challenges to public health and safety.

The arms makers and their allies in Congress and the executive branch won't give up without a fight when it comes to the pandemic of Pentagon spending. You can count on that. A crucial question of this moment is: Will fear, exaggerated threats, and pork-barrel politics be enough to keep the Pentagon and its contractors fat and happy, even as the urgent priorities of so many of the rest of us are starved of much-needed funding?

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

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