What Military-Industrial Complex?

Oct. 1, 1988

One of the great myths of modern times is that a conspiratorial “military-industrial complex” is somehow undermining our national purpose and wellbeing. The myth gained new life this summer from allegations by the Justice Department that some industry consultants, in cahoots with government insiders, had been trying to manipulate the defense procurement process. These revelations have fed demands that Congress and the Administration toughen up their controls on the Pentagon and the defense industry.

As specific charges emerge, the public may conclude that shady actions are typical of the defense acquisition community from top to bottom. Many people may see the current scandals as confirming the sinister military-industrial complex myth. If so, they will be making a big mistake.

To begin with, the best does not exist. The defense industrial base has so shrunk that it can no longer respond to a call for surge production or wartime mobilization. For that matter, domestic industry has trouble meeting peacetime defense needs. Within the next decade, the United States may become even more dependent than it already is on foreign sources for critical components in its high-technology weapon systems. Defense plays second fiddle to commercial product lines in the marketplace. The government-industry relationship, far from cozy, is becoming increasingly adversarial, strained, and hostile.

Such are the sorry facts about what the mythmakers paint as a powerful and dangerous conspiracy. A more valid concern would be that the United States is on the road toward becoming a second-rank manufacturing and technology power.

The term “military-industrial complex” was introduced by President Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address. Unusually forgotten is that his warning about its potential for “unwarranted influence” was a corollary to his larger points that “we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense” and that a strong armaments industry had become essential to US security.

President Eisenhower acknowledged that the armed forces had led in World War II could not have won without support from the “Arsenal of Democracy.” At peak production, American industry turned out a military aircraft every ten minutes, a tank every twenty-five minutes. That capability is gone, probably forever.

Today, the average waiting time for aircraft landing gear is twenty-eight months; for engine bearings, twenty-three months. No more than a handful of suppliers remains for gun mounts, specialty lenses, optical coating, and many other components. The F-16 fighter and the MT Abrams tank are just two of the US military systems that contain semiconductor chips available only from foreign sources.

Most defense contractors are honest and intensely serious about national defense. There are some shifty operators and, unfortunately, a few real crooks. For example, the outfit that deliberately sold defective flash suppressors for M16 rifles then shrugged it off by saying that if the faulty equipment killed one soldier, there would be more soldiers around to complete the job. Such cretins, however, are not typical. Decent contractors are as revolted by them as the rest of us are.

The decent contractors are tagged with a bad reputation they do not deserve. It has been compounded by the folklore that waste, fraud, and abuse are rampant in government, especially in defense. The aggressive fraudbusting initiatives of the 1980s have turned up some wrongdoing, but they have also found that fraud exists only in a small fraction of defense procurements.

Since 1982, the Department of Defense has increased its fraud investigation force by 178 percent and the fraud-reporting hotlines and has told government employees to be alert for anything that looks like fraud. As we know from the Justice Department’s recent revelations, bugging and wiretaps have been in active use. The number of suspensions and debarments of defense contractors has risen tenfold. It is doubtful, however, that any other sector of industry would have looked better — or as good — if put through the same wringer.

Unfortunately, this bad image is only part of the defense industrial base’s problem. Federal budgets that allocate less than six percent of GNP to defense have left today’s industry a pale shadow of the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Wild fluctuation in funding from year to year creates an atmosphere of instability and uncertainty. Procurements are governed by a nightmarish tangle of laws and regulations that often contradict each other and throw incentives and disincentives into confusion.

American industry has not made the long-range commitments, capital investments, or productivity enhancements to complete in the world market. While we remain sensitive to accusations of “protectionism,” foreign firms, with the strong backing of their governments, continue to penetrate US markets.

The public should not waste its time wondering whether a mythical “military-industrial complex” is growing to strong. It should worry instead about a defense industrial base that has become too weak for its own good — or for ours.