The Shark That Never Sleeps

FORTRESS AMERICA: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace.

Remember the peace dividend? Are you still looking for yours? Don’t wait up. The American military establishment — which William Greider defines as the “interlocking structure of armed forces, industrial interests and political alliances” — endured a little downtime after the fall of the Communist bloc. But at no time was the U.S. not fully mobilized for war; and at no time was the military budget below what we spent two decades ago, when we were staring down the Soviet bear.

Now military spending is back in all its glory, with Clinton asking for a $112 billion increase over six years, and military-industrial types saying the proposed increase is too small and is compromising national security. It’s funny what a couple of defiant dictators halfway across the world will do for a military budget.

What a difference a year makes. When Greider was writing Fortress America in 1998, he could say, “America could decide, of course, to reverse direction and begin pumping up its defense budgets again. This turn of events appears most unlikely…. It also begs the question of purpose: to what end? If the world is at peace, why should America now have to remobilize?… To justify the significant budget increases that might rescue the military from its dilemma of competing obligations, political leaders will first have to find convincing dangers — a rising threat of actual war, and on a very large scale.”

Greider goes on to say that military experts claim we have to be ready to fight two good-sized wars in two theaters at once. Well, here we almost are — in the Balkans and in Iraq. No one would suggest that bombing Iraq and Belgrade within the same fiscal year is simply a way to justify a proposed defense budget increase. But it sure must help.

If you’ve ever worked inside a government of any size, you find out that a good many of the large decisions are simply the best guesses of fallible human beings who are themselves a compendium of sometimes conflicting beliefs, agendas, ambitions, interests, philosophies, and psychological imprints. These human beings are pressed on all sides by advisors and people with various types of access who don’t have to make the final decisions and, therefore, function as representatives of particular interests and agendas. Concerning foreign policy, among these are: think tankers with foreign policy theorems, weapons producers, Pentagon or foreign intelligence functionaries, human rights advocates, businesses and industries operating in global markets. What part among many parts, then, is our current policy in Kosovo a function of lessons from the Holocaust, a function of lessons from Vietnam, a function of the new military-industrial complex that now hopes to define the vacuum left by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989?

In Fortress America, William Greider tries to help us understand the last part of this calculation — how all the king’s horses and men are trying to define the new U.S. military role in the world. He is not operating with a pacifist purpose; rather he is bent on figuring out what keeps us, at this important juncture, from creating an effective, efficient military operation that is in tune with our domestic, economic, and social needs, and responsive to new geo-political realities. Why are we sustaining this behemoth created during more than four decades of Cold War, and at what cost?

“This book,” Greider writes, “assembles evidence for a single proposition that underlies all other questions: the U.S. military-industrial complex, as we have known it, is in the process of devouring itself, literally and tangibly…. The existing defense institution is too large to sustain, too backward-looking in design, too ambitious in its preparations for future war. Yet it is also too settled and powerful to think of undertaking fundamental change.”

Bill Greider begins his tour of the military establishment with a six-mile ride down North Avenue to view the Fort Hood motor pool, including: 200 helicopters, 2,400 tanks, and 11,500 trucks, tankers and other transporters, in forty-eight equipment yards. Fort Hood houses 40 percent of the U.S. Army’s combat power. It includes a target range for tankers, built to look like a European village. Even after the end of the Cold War, redundancy is still the name of the game. In 1997, one-fifth of America’s tanks was deployed and operating with combat divisions. The rest were with reserve units, or kept overseas, or stored. One hundred old tanks were dumped into Mobile Bay to form artificial reefs. Ninety-one tanks were leased to Brazil for free while forty-five tanks were given to Bosnia and fifty to Jordan. Taiwan bought 160 tanks for one-tenth their actual price, while Egypt got 700 for nothing.

It costs $2,000 an hour to operate an M-1A2 tank. So the Fort Hood command decided to train soldiers on video tank simulators, purchased from Lockheed Martin for $25 million. The simulators are still programmed with Soviets as the enemy, using tactics and deployment formations according to Soviet doctrine. This may not correspond to the tactical deployment of future, smaller enemies.

There’s a similar situation in the Navy. Since 1991, the Navy has bought seventeen destroyers that are smaller and faster than their predecessors. Twelve more, priced at $850 million, are moving toward delivery, held up for a while by a fight between shipyards in Maine and Mississippi and their advocates, then-Senator, now Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Meanwhile, the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, Virginia’s largest private employer, has just turned out a new $4.5 billion aircraft carrier and, at Greider’s writing, was working on the $5 billion carrier Ronald Reagan.

It costs a lot to keep all this running: $11.3 million a year for one of the small destroyers, plus another $1.8 million for training. “It is like the shark that never sleeps,” Greider writes, “that must keep moving through the water, feeding continuously to sustain itself…. If you slow down the cycle too much or short-change it, if military readiness is reduced to computerized simulations, then the people moving through the system may not get what they need to operate the high-technology armaments. But if you try to keep everyone fully primed for war, in perpetuity, it’s so expensive that something has to be sacrificed.”

This never-sleeping shark in the guts of our military policy is Greider’s target. Forces are being reduced, pushing remaining military personnel to the limit. Many specialized military units are deployed overseas more often and for longer stretches. Both divorce and suicide rates have increased for Air Force personnel. At the same time, the Army, Navy, and Air Force are purchasing another $300 billion worth of fighter-bombers, helicopters, and precision-guided bombs.

According to the General Accounting Office, since the end of the Cold War, “the Pentagon has tripled its inventory of long-range missiles to attack ground targets.” A 1996 G.A.O. study concluded:

The services already have at least 10 ways to hit 65 percent of the thousands of expected ground targets in two major regional conflicts. In addition, service interdiction assets can provide 140 to 160 percent coverage for many types of targets. Despite their numerous overlapping, often redundant, interdiction capabilities, the services plan to acquire aircraft and other weapons over the next 15 to 20 years that will further enhance their interdiction capabilities.

The projected increase in weapons purchases necessarily means further reductions in training, maintenance, and personnel. According to Greider, part of the purchase of the F-22 fighter-bomber was paid for last year by layoffs of between 25,000 and 30,000 servicemen and women.

Greider moves from a discussion of the three major service branches to the heart of his story. As sometime Observer writer Tom Ferguson would say, “Show me the money.” Greider does. That peace dividend you were expecting? Well, it went to shareholders in the major defense companies. While the defense budget shrank after the fall of the Berlin Wall, stock prices for weapons builders went up, and $75 billion in capital traded hands. Shares increased 48 percent for Lockheed Martin, 50 percent for Northrop, and 80 percent for McDonnell Douglas. These companies kept filling orders from the Reagan era while reducing costs — most notably reducing their workforces by almost 50 percent.

The big companies were not interested in converting to peacetime business. The real money was in consolidating, merging, and profiting from the vastly reduced production costs. Does the taxpayer benefit from these reduced costs? Not much. According to Greider, in 1993, Clinton’s Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry told a private dinner of defense contractors that the government was willing to split the cost savings of defense industry mergers, saving the taxpayers some money but reserving a large profit for the contractors. Soon afterward, new Pentagon procurement regulations allowed companies that were consolidating to charge restructuring costs to the government in already existing contracts. The G.A.O. told Greider that the Department of Defense is still waiting to see cost reductions in reduced contract prices.

In 1988, there were fifteen major U.S. defense contractors. Now there are three. This does not lend itself to competitive pricing, with former competitors now subsidiaries of their old rivals. And the three mega-corporations left standing — “McBoeing,” “LockMartin” and “RayHughes,” as Greider dubs them — are themselves collaborating on weapons production. Lockheed, for instance, has 66 percent of the F-22 airframe manufacturing in Fort Worth. Boeing has the other 33 percent, while Raytheon makes the radar.

With fewer companies, and political, economic, and government concerns about reduced defense employment, the taxpayer is not realizing real savings, but instead is paying for excess capacity and increased costs for the development of each new weapon. Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to provide defense contractors with such subsidized amenities as Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth — given to Lockheed Martin rent-free. Lockheed uses the plant to build F-16s, a large number of which are targeted for foreign markets. So the U.S. government is subsidizing Lockheed Martin’s profits from foreign sales long after the expensive research and development phase of the F-16 was completed. At the same time, Lockheed is employing 11,000 people at the plant, down from 31,000 in 1989, when production peaked for the Reagan defense procurement budget.

As Greider emphasizes, the global marketplace is where the real realignment is taking place. “The unstated political objective [of adding three former Soviet satellites to NATO],” writes Greider, “is to open new markets for American arms industry.” Before the papers were signed, Lockheed Martin C.E.O. Norman Augustine was courting Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Romania. “…[T]he countries of Central Europe will have to step up to tough choices on modernization of equipment and the requirement to achieve inter-operability with NATO forces,” he told them. Augustine is a senior advisor to the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO. Augustine also suggested that U.S. defense contractors could become partners with European manufacturers in weapons production.

This multi-national strategy threatens U.S. defense industry jobs, which have been a cornerstone of America’s economic health for the past fifty years and are always on the minds of politicians. But, more frightening, an industry that was created, subsidized, and nurtured by the U.S. government is threatening to cut itself free of those bonds. We could have little control over the defense industry we created. Already, says one expert, foreign sales by U.S.-based companies suggest that “we are effectively engaging in an arms race with ourselves.”

In Fortress America, Greider talks to Senator John McCain and Gary Hart, both of whom are proposing reductions in overseas deployment and our weapons over-capacity. He talks to engineers who are designing unmanned bombers for long-distance warfare of the future. He wonders whether we are falling into the trap of other empires, imposing our military and economic will on the world without much thought given to what the reaction may eventually be.

Greider writes, “The United States cannot escape the gut question: What constitutes the national security interest in a world where superpower rivalry has disappeared but where globalizing commerce and finance steadily attack the old meanings of national sovereignty and interest?”

Because he refuses to roll over and play dead, Greider hopes we reject imperial America as our international role, that the democratic public interest assert itself, that we work more cooperatively with other nations on shared goals. I guess we all do.

Geoff Rips is a former Observer editor.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST