Delta of Power: The Military-Industrial Complex

The Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) is not what it used to be.  The good news is that it continues to produce the world’s most dominant arsenal, even while imposing less of a “burden” on the country than during the Cold War.  The bad news is that waste, fraud, abuse, lobbying, and misfeasance are worse than ever.

While military spending increased steadily during the Cold War and beyond, it has declined about as steadily as a percentage of both national GDP and federal spending.  America’s percentage of world military spending since the Cold War has held constant, even as it spends more than the next seven countries combined. Also in the “good news” column is a diminished impact of the MIC on national policy.  President Dwight Eisenhower worried that the MIC would subordinate the national interest to military, corporate, and political interests.  It did, and still does, but this “undue influence” is diminished.

The pattern of waste, fraud, and abuse is more troubling.  The Department of Defense (DoD) still dominates the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.  In 2015, the DoD carried on its books $6.5 trillion in “unidentified funds.”  A 2011 DoD “Report to Congress on Contracting Fraud” bears an eerie resemblance to comparable accounts in the Cold War.  A 2009 audit of a $1.69 trillion portfolio of eighty-two major weapon systems under development found that the average age of those programs was 14.2 years and growing.  The MIC still delivers its technological marvels late, over cost, and under specifications, like the infamous F-35 fighter aircraft, the most expensive weapon system ever produced.

The MIC serves a military paradigm that has changed little since the Cold War.  Its greatest success has been strategic deterrence—the nuclear weapons, missiles, bombers, and submarines that have given us “the Long Peace.”  Conventional forces and their arsenal have been more disappointing.  While the U.S. still has the world’s best conventional arsenal, it has lost more wars than it has won.  Much of the blame for this rests with the civilians who led the country into those wars, but the DoD did too little to prepare for them and to advise their civilian masters what they could and could not achieve.  Too often Pentagon leadership fell in love with complex weapon systems designed primarily to fight peer rivals—read the Soviet Union/Russia and China.  Those were not the wars they were called upon—and agreed—to fight.  The United States now has eleven nuclear-powered super carriers; the rest of the world has none.  And the MIC continues to build generations of aircraft that never fly the missions for which they were designed.

The largest disruption to the Cold War national security paradigm was the reorganization of the security establishment following the attacks of 9/11, when the Department of Defense—primarily a department of force projection—failed to defend.  New agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Administration combined with the expanded and reorganized Intelligence Community to preclude a repeat of 9/11.  Since then, they have been more effective in their missions than the Department of Defense, but they have driven the total national security budget of the United States up near $1 trillion.  There is now an Intelligence Industrial Complex lodged within the MIC, but it focuses on what the military calls C4ISR—command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.   The country might be well served by a Department of National Security encompassing all these functions, prioritizing national defense and reigning in force projection.

Perhaps the most startling indicator of the current standing of the MIC reveals itself in what President Eisenhower called “the great equation.” By this he meant the balancing act of providing adequate security for the United States without bankrupting the country.   He feared that the MIC quest for ever more military spending might erode the real foundation of U.S. national security: the economy.  One catchphrase of the Cold War encapsulating this concern was “How Much Is Enough?”  Others likened it to a zero-sum contest between guns and butter or swords and plowshares. Was the United States a “Warfare State” or a “Welfare State”?  A Bureau of the Budget assessment has answered the question.  In 1970, “Human resources” and “National defense” each consumed about 40% of federal spending.  In 2018, “human resources” accounted for 70.5% of federal spending and “national security” just 15.4%.  That disparity is conclusive.  Over the course of the last half century, the welfare state trumped the warfare state.  Butter smothered guns.  Plowshares buried swords.  The Military-Industrial Complex shrank in size and influence.

Order Delta of Power: The Military-Industrial Complex at the following link:

Alex Roland is Professor of History Emeritus at Duke University. He is the author of Delta of Power: The Military-Industrial Complex.

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