Buying less with more at the Pentagon; a guide for newcomers

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 winner in this project: aircraft maker Lockheed Martin Corp., Cockburn says in a new book, The Pentagon Labyrinth. Written as a series of essays by 10 authors steeped in Pentagon culture, the book is intended as a guide for military officers, journalists, congressional staffers and anyone else who wants or needs to understand how the U.S. military works.

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

And the answer, according to the book, is defense contractors, the senior military officers who eventually go to work for them and the lesser civilian bureaucrats and careerist military personnel who burrow in to comfortable and generally unproductive sinecures.

"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. Yet "this gigantic defense budget is not producing a greater sense of security for most Americans," says Spinney, who spent 33 years as a civilian Pentagon employee, most of them as a whistleblowing budget analyst.

Now retired, Spinney is still blowing the whistle, this time at President Obama.

He faults the president for "continuing his predecessors' war-centric foreign policy," and for putting military spending off limits in the effort to reduce federal spending.

There is a chapter by former Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler on Congress' aversion to serious oversight of the military, and senior military officers' polished ability to avoid answering tough questions.

And there are chapters on weapons buying. Writes fighter plane designer Pierre Sprey, "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 the officers' club at Fort Myer in Virginia on March 2, "It's only getting worse."

Wheeler, who organized and edited the book and wrote two of its chapters, said he concluded it was necessary because "I kept running into people who totally misunderstand the problem."

In his chapter, "Decoding the Defense Budget," Wheeler describes Pentagon practices that consistently understate costs -- separating the "base budget" from the money spent to fight wars, ignoring development costs when calculating weapons prices, "rebaselining" programs to hide weapons cost growth, and on and on.

A more accurate -- but much harder to understand -- version of the defense budget is published annually by the Office of Management and Budget, Wheeler says. "Unfortunately, the DoD press corps routinely ignores the more complete OMB materials."

The press is part of the problem in other ways as well, according to Cockburn. Instead of questioning costs, journalists too often simply accept them. For example, a 2010 New York Times article on the enormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan attributed part of it to the high cost of '21st century technology,' as if that were a sufficient explanation and also unavoidable," Cockburn wrote.

Sprey said the book is an attempt to provide young officers, congressional aides and news reporters with perspective to counter the "mountain of misinformation" that the Pentagon presents.

He said he particularly hopes young officers will read it, perhaps as required reading at the military academies. "I have much more hope for second lieutenants than for generals," Sprey said.

Wheeler said the book is available free on the Internet and sells for $10 on It was published by the Straus Military Reform Project, which Wheeler heads at the Center for Defense Information.

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