This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Give Donald Trump credit. As a businessman, he's brought into office some skills that previous presidents lacked. Take, for example, his willingness to plough staggering sums of money into five casinos destined to go bankrupt (and then jump ship, money in hand, leaving others holding the financial bag). Now, he seems to be applying the same principles to the Pentagon. He's already insisted on establishing a sixth branch of the armed services, a Space Force, which will cost a pretty penny -- as much as $13 billion just to set up its new bureaucracy. And lest that seem too financially ambitious, just the other day he unveiled a 2019 Missile Defense Review aimed at creating a modern version of President Ronald Reagan's extremely expensive (and failed) Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "Star Wars." Its purpose, as he put it, will be to "ensure that we can detect and destroy any [nuclear] missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime." The cost: possibly up to a trillion dollars without such a system being in any meaningful way capable of taking out Russian or Chinese missiles launched at the U.S. As a plan, however, it could hit the Trumpian trifecta: putting high-tech weaponry in space, heating up a new global nuclear arms race, and busting a Pentagon budget that's already in the stratosphere.
And give Donald Trump credit for something else as well: he doesn't let go of his obsessions easily. Take that "great, great wall" of his on our southern border that shut much of the government down for five weeks, could in the end cost tens of billions of dollars, and is likely to achieve next to nothing. (He even focused a significant part of his recent Missile Defense Review presentation on it.) In the process, he's left open the possibility of declaring a national emergency and essentially pirating the initial construction money from... you guessed it, the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the space equivalent of a great wall ("missile defense"), similarly capable of stopping next to nothing, will in cost terms reduce the border wall to, as comedian Jackie Gleason used to say, a "mere bag of shells."
As Mandy Smithberger from the Project On Government Oversight and TomDispatch regular William Hartung suggest today, the very Pentagon that President Trump is so eager to launch into space is now filled, from its acting secretary of defense on down, with former officials of, or consultants to, America's largest arms makers, a crew clearly prepared to give out lucrative contracts for space failure to such firms. Sooner or later, in true Trumpian fashion, they, too, will undoubtedly jump ship -- or rather step back through that Washington revolving door and exit the premises, money in hand, before the military version of the Titanic hits an iceberg. Tom
The way personnel spin through Washington's infamous revolving door between the Pentagon and the arms industry is nothing new. That door, however, is moving ever faster with the appointment of Patrick Shanahan, who spent 30 years at Boeing, the Pentagon's second largest contractor, as the Trump administration's acting secretary of defense.
Shanahan had previously been deputy secretary of defense, a typical position in recent years for someone with a significant arms industry background. William Lynn, President Obama's first deputy secretary of defense, had been a Raytheon lobbyist. Ashton Carter, his successor, was a consultant for the same company. One of President George W. Bush's deputies, Gordon England, had been president of the General Dynamics Fort Worth Aircraft Company (later sold to Lockheed Martin).- Advertisement -
But Shanahan is unique. No secretary of defense in recent memory has had such a long career in the arms industry and so little experience in government or the military. For most of that career, in fact, his main focus was winning defense contracts for Boeing, not crafting effective defense policies. While the Pentagon should be focused on protecting the country, the arms industry operates in the pursuit of profit, even when that means selling weapons systems to countries working against American national security interests.
The closest analogues to Shanahan were Charlie Wilson, head of General Motors, whom President Dwight Eisenhower appointed to lead the Department of Defense (DoD) more than 60 years ago and John F. Kennedy's first defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who ran the Ford Motor Company before joining the administration. Eisenhower's choice of Wilson, whose firm manufactured military vehicles, raised concerns at the time about conflicts of interest -- but not in Wilson's mind. He famously claimed that, "for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."
Shanahan's new role raises questions about whether what is in the best interest of Boeing -- bigger defense budgets and giant contracts for unaffordable and ineffective weaponry or aircraft -- is what's in the best interest of the public.
Rampant Conflicts of Interest
Unlike Wilson, Shanahan has at least implicitly acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interest in his new role by agreeing to recuse himself from decisions involving his former employer. But were he truly to adhere to such a position, he would have to avoid many of the Pentagon's most significant management and financial decisions. Last year, after all, Boeing received nearly $30 billion in DoD contracts for working on everything from combat, refueling, training, and radar planes to bombs, drones, missile-defense systems, ballistic missiles, and military satellites. If Shanahan were to step back from deliberations related to all of these, he would, at best, be a part-time steward of the Pentagon, unable even to oversee whether Boeing and related companies delivered what our military asked for.
There is already evidence, however, that he will do anything but refrain from overseeing, and so promoting, his old firm. Take Boeing's F-15X, for example. Against the wishes of the Air Force, the Pentagon decided to invest at least $1.2 billion in that fighter aircraft, an upgraded version of the Boeing F-15C/D, which had been supplanted by Lockheed Martin's questionable new F-35. There have been reports that Shanahan has already trashed Lockheed, Boeing's top competitor, in discussions inside the Pentagon. According to Bloomberg News, the decision to invest in the F-15X was due, in part at least, to "prodding" from him, when he was still deputy secretary of defense.- Advertisement -
And that's just one of a slew of major contracts scooped up by Boeing in the past year. Others include a $9.2 billion program for a new training aircraft for the Air Force, an $805 million contract for an aerial refueling drone for the Navy, two new presidential Air Force One planes at a price tag of at least $3.9 billion, and significant new funding for the KC-46 refueling tanker, a troubled plane the Air Force has cleared for full production despite major defects still to be addressed. While there is as yet no evidence that Shanahan himself sought to tip the scales in Boeing's favor on any of these systems, it doesn't look good. As defense secretary, he's bound to be called on to referee major problems that will arise with one or more of these programs, at which point the question of bias towards Boeing will come directly into play.
Defenders of Shanahan's appointment to run what is by far the largest department in the federal government suggest that key Boeing decisions won't even reach his desk. That, however, is a deeply flawed argument for a number of reasons. To start, when making such decisions, lower-level managers will be aware of their boss's lifetime connection to Boeing -- especially since Shanahan has reportedly sung the praises of his former firm at the Pentagon. He has insisted, for example, that the massive F-35 program would have had none of the serious problems now plaguing it had it been run by Boeing.
In addition, Shanahan will be developing policies and programs sure to directly affect that company's bottom line. Among them, he'll be setting the DoD's priorities when it comes to addressing perceived threats. His initial message on his first day as acting secretary, for instance, was summarized as "China, China, China." Will he then prime the pump for expensive weapon systems like Boeing's P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft designed specifically to monitor Chinese military activities?