[Note for TomDispatch Readers:Because I'll be on the road for a few days, the next TD post will be on Tuesday, June 21st. Tom]
When it comes to Pentagon weapons systems, have you ever heard of cost "underruns"? I think not. Cost overruns? They turn out to be the unbreachable norm, as they seem to have been from time immemorial. In 1982, for example, the Pentagon announced that the cumulative cost of its 44 major weapons programs had experienced a "record" increase of $114.5 billion. Three decades later, in the spring of 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the military's major programs to develop new weapons systems -- by then 80 of them -- were a cumulative half-trillion dollars over their initial estimated price tags and on average more than two years delayed. A year after, the GAO found that 47 of those programs had again increased in cost (to the cumulative tune of $27 billion) while the average time for delivering them had suffered another month's delay (although the Pentagon itself swore otherwise).
And little seems to have changed since then -- not exactly a surprise given that this has long been standard operating procedure for a Pentagon that has proven adamantly incapable not just of passing an audit but even of doing one. What we're talking about here is, in fact, more like a way of life. As TomDispatch regular William Hartung has written, the Pentagon regularly takes "active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year -- from using the separate 'war budget' as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret."
When it comes to those cost overruns, Exhibit A is incontestably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane whose total acquisition costs were pegged at $233 billion back in 2001. That price now: an estimated $1.4 trillion for far fewer planes. (Even the F-35 pilot's helmet costs $400,000 apiece.) In other words, though in test flights it has failed to outperform the F-16, a plane it is supposed to replace, it will be, hands down (or flaps up), the most expensive weapons system in history -- at least until the next Pentagon doozy comes along.
Today, Andrew Cockburn, whose recent book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (just out in paperback), is a devastating account of how U.S. drone warfare really works, suggests that this is anything but a matter of Pentagon bungling. Quite the opposite, it's strategy of the first order. Tom
The Pentagon's Real $trategy
Keeping the Money Flowing
By Andrew Cockburn
These days, lamenting the apparently aimless character of Washington's military operations in the Greater Middle East has become conventional wisdom among administration critics of every sort. Senator John McCain thunders that "this president has no strategy to successfully reverse the tide of slaughter and mayhem" in that region. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies bemoans the "lack of a viable and public strategy." Andrew Bacevich suggests that "there is no strategy. None. Zilch."
After 15 years of grinding war with no obvious end in sight, U.S. military operations certainly deserve such obloquy. But the pundit outrage may be misplaced. Focusing on Washington rather than on distant war zones, it becomes clear that the military establishment does indeed have a strategy, a highly successful one, which is to protect and enhance its own prosperity.
Given this focus, creating and maintaining an effective fighting force becomes a secondary consideration, reflecting a relative disinterest -- remarkable to outsiders -- in the actual business of war, as opposed to the business of raking in dollars for the Pentagon and its industrial and political partners. A key element of the strategy involves seeding the military budget with "development" projects that require little initial outlay but which, down the line, grow irreversibly into massive, immensely profitable production contracts for our weapons-making cartels.
If this seems like a startling proposition, consider, for instance, the Air Force's determined and unyielding efforts to jettison the A-10 Thunderbolt, widely viewed as the most effective means for supporting troops on the ground, while ardently championing the sluggish, vastly overpriced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that, among myriad other deficiencies, cannot fly within 25 miles of a thunderstorm. No less telling is the Navy's ongoing affection for budget-busting programs such as aircraft carriers, while maintaining its traditional disdain for the unglamorous and money-poor mission of minesweeping, though the mere threat of enemy mines in the 1991 Gulf War (as in the Korean War decades earlier) stymied plans for major amphibious operations. Examples abound across all the services.
Meanwhile, ongoing and dramatic programs to invest vast sums in meaningless, useless, or superfluous weapons systems are the norm. There is no more striking example of this than current plans to rebuild the entire American arsenal of nuclear weapons in the coming decades, Obama's staggering bequest to the budgets of his successors.
Taking Nuclear Weapons to the Bank
These nuclear initiatives have received far less attention than they deserve, perhaps because observers are generally loath to acknowledge that the Cold War and its attendant nuclear terrors, supposedly consigned to the ashcan of history a quarter-century ago, are being revived on a significant scale. The U.S. is currently in the process of planning for the construction of a new fleet of nuclear submarines loaded with new intercontinental nuclear missiles, while simultaneously creating a new land-based intercontinental missile, a new strategic nuclear bomber, a new land-and-sea-based tactical nuclear fighter plane, a new long-range nuclear cruise missile (which, as recently as 2010, the Obama administration explicitly promised not to develop), at least three nuclear warheads that are essentially new designs, and new fuses for existing warheads. In addition, new nuclear command-and-control systems are under development for a fleet of satellites (costing up to $1 billion each) designed to make the business of fighting a nuclear war more practical and manageable.
This massive nuclear buildup, routinely promoted under the comforting rubric of "modernization," stands in contrast to the president's lofty public ruminations on the topic of nuclear weapons. The most recent of these was delivered during his visit -- the first by an American president -- to Hiroshima last month. There, he urged "nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles" to "have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them."
In reality, that "logic of fear" suggests that there is no way to "fight" a nuclear war, given the unforeseeable but horrific effects of these immensely destructive weapons. They serve no useful purpose beyond deterring putative opponents from using them, for which an extremely limited number would suffice. During the Berlin crisis of 1961, for example, when the Soviets possessed precisely four intercontinental nuclear missiles, White House planners seriously contemplated launching an overwhelming nuclear strike on the USSR. It was, they claimed, guaranteed to achieve "victory." As Fred Kaplan recounts in his book Wizards of Armageddon, the plan's advocates conceded that the Soviets might, in fact, be capable of managing a limited form of retaliation with their few missiles and bombers in which as many as three million Americans could be killed, whereupon the plan was summarily rejected.
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