Pentagon Prophecies

When military spending leans more toward supply than demand.

After three decades covering the U.S. military, journalist Andrew Cockburn has seen it often enough to recognize the pattern: The Air Force spends $100 million to build an EC-130H aircraft with ground-penetrating radar to hunt for $25 homemade bombs buried along Afghan roadways-and after hundreds of flights, finds nothing.

The question "first and foremost in the mind of anyone looking into this or any military initiative," he says, should be "who profits?"

In this case it's aircraft maker Lockheed Martin Corp., Cockburn says in a new book, The Pentagon Labyrinth (Center for Defense Information, 2011). Defense contractors, and the senior military officers, and the civilian bureaucrats who eventually go to work for them, often benefit more than the troops, he notes.

A series of essays by 10 authors steeped in Pentagon culture, the book is intended as a guide on how the U.S. military works.

"Today, 20 years after the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the United States spends more on defense than at any time since the end of World War II," writes Franklin Spinney, who spent 33 years as a civilian Pentagon employee, most of them as a whistleblowing budget analyst. "This gigantic defense budget is not producing a greater sense of security for most Americans."

Though retired now, Spinney is still blowing the whistle, this time at President Obama. He faults the president for putting military spending off limits in the effort to reduce federal spending.

And there are chapters on weapons buying. Fighter plane designer Pierre Sprey writes, "Cheap $15 million close air support planes will clearly contribute far more to saving American troops in trouble and to winning wars than $2.2 billion B-2s, or $160-plus million 'multipurpose' fighters like the F-35."

The Pentagon Labyrinth is loaded with familiar, and often discouraging, examples of the military, Congress and the defense industry gone awry. And, said Spinney at a book debut in March, "it's only getting worse."

The book's editor and author, Winslow Wheeler, who heads the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, says the stories needed to be told because "I kept running into people who totally misunderstand the problem."

Wheeler describes Pentagon practices that understate costs, such as separating the base budget from money spent to fight wars, ignoring development costs when calculating weapons prices and rebaselining programs to hide cost growth. And the press is part of the problem, according to Cockburn. Instead of questioning costs, journalists too often simply accept them, he says.

The book now can be downloaded for free at and sells for $10 at

William Matthews is a freelance journalist who has been covering government and technology in Washington for two decades.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.