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 www.cdi.org and sells for $10 at Amazon.com.
William Matthews is a freelance journalist who has been covering government and technology in Washington for two decades.