Business As Usual Inside Obama’s Pentagon

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Winslow Wheeler’s three-part series on the Navy that wrapped up on Battleland Wednesday shows that the sea service is up to its old tricks.

To wit, it is impregnating President Obama’s five-year defense program by front-loading today’s budget in a way that creates irresistible pressure to grow its future budgets –even if it takes a marginal reduction in the near term.

Think of this as an emerging right to programmatic life issue, because, for reasons explained by Wheeler, abortion is out of the question, even though a programmatic miscarriage is inevitable.

Any one who doubts this, or thinks this future pathway is unlikely or accidental, need only recall the braggadocio of Ronald Reagan’s chief navy stud, Navy Secretary John Lehman, when he told a seminar in January 1983 at the Brookings Institution, that it was “too late” to stop the buildup to a 600-ship navy.

“We’ve already accomplished it,” he continued, “because we front-loaded (emphasis added) the budget.”

Predictably, Lehman’ 600-ship navy miscarried a few years later in the late 1980s in terms of fleet size, if not money.

Lehman used the Pentagon‘s term of art — front loading — to describe the ubiquitous practice of downplaying the future consequences of a current programmatic decision in order to gain approval to proceed on a given course of action.

The most familiar example is low-balling a cost estimate for a new weapon, but it front loading can take many sophisticated forms as I explained in my 1990 pamphlet Defense Power Games, where Lehman’s 1983 caper is described on pgs. 18-19. Examples of front-loading are everywhere in the U.S. political system, which is one reason why it has run aground: check out the low-balling of the cost of the second Iraq War in 2003 (Bush II), for example, low-balling the future consequences of tax cuts on future deficits in 1981 (Reagan) and 2001 (Bush II), and Medicare Part D (Bush II)).

Like a strutting peacock showing feathers in a sexual game to attract a mate, Lehman’s front-loaded 600 ship Navy and Mitt Romney’s now forgotten 350-ship Navy (Guess what? Lehman was a senior defense advisor to Romney), were simply fluff to hype the Navy’s courtship with Congress, the media, and the taxpayers. The courtship aimed at ejaculating the flow of money into the womb of the Navy faction of the military-industrial-congressional complex via a front-loading penetration that would then be locked open by political engineers trained in the seductive arts of quickly spreading dollars, jobs, and profits to as many congressional districts as possible.

They built a social safety net of political and economic dependency to reduce the probability of a program’s termination. To temporarily switch metaphors, front loaders can be likened to the infiltration troops that soften up the front for a penetration while the political engineers are the Panzers storming through the hole to demolish any resistance, in effect locking the door open (our political paralysis in dealing with the massive overruns and delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being the most stunning current example of the effectiveness of these two power games).

This kind of intercourse guarantees a pregnancy that freezes up a political-decision-making system and allows unit costs to always grow faster than budgets, or equivalently a programmatic pregnancy wherein some cells of the fetus (new program) grow faster than the body, even when the budget (the body) grows rapidly, as happened in the 1980s and after 1997.

The economic relationship of cost growth eclipsing budget growth guarantees that combat forces shrink in size and weapons gets older (resulting in the budget plan’s inevitable miscarriage, as I explained here, and here). As Wheeler writes, the impregnation is well under way again, even as America approaches the fiscal cliff.

Anyone who thinks the Navy’s (really the Pentagon’s) game ended when Romney predictably lost to Mr. Obama is whistling Dixie.

Mr. “Change You Can Believe In” has signaled the defense budget is now off the butcher’s block in the emerging grand bargain on taxes and social spending that will heave what is left of the shrinking middle class off the fiscal cliff, sequester or no sequester.

That is because we must protect the Defense budget, Mr. Obama’s Pentagon says, to counter the rising threat posed by China.  This requires us to pivot strategically (and expensively) toward the Pacific and East Asia. Think of the China threat inflation as another display of “peacock feathers” in a courtship strategy aimed at impregnating the political system with a flood of money. The pivot really means the Pentagon’s big scoop shovel is being moved into position to dump money on the Navy and the Air Force, once again at the expense of the poor old Army.

If there is one thing we now know about Mr. Obama when it comes to the Pentagon, it is that he does what he is told to do by his defense advisers, who are card-carrying members of the military-industrial-congressional complex, and that means lower cost options will remain off the Pentagon’s decision making table.  Which brings us the to the writing of Andrew Cockburn, who wonders in the Los Angeles Times, if the perks and peccadilloes of our generals will continue to keep “we the people” distracted from the real game?

Such is the enduring nature of budget combat in Versailles on the Potomac, which always stays the same, even after the superpower threat of Soviet Union evaporated or after we liquidated Osama bin Laden.