Friday, February 10, 2012

Military Procurement Is Not A Jobs Program

For those of you unfamiliar with National Journal, and I'm assuming many of you are not unless you reside in the Beltway, it is the ultimate publicly available insiders guide to what's occuring in Congress.  It's also one of the most disgusting and blatant examples of everything that is wrong with the military-industrial-congressional complex.

A friend of mine worked for them a few years back, and would send me their magazines.  While I appreciated all the "Insider" polls and what things were on the mind of lobbyists and elected officials, the first thing I noticed were the number of ads from established defense firms.  Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, BAE, you name it, they all had full page spreads hawking their programs and "national security solutions." 

I recently came across the National Security Insiders Poll, and was disgusted to see not one, but FOUR ads for the Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed Martin.  They are all the same, and dominate the page.  Brilliant placement, considering that those who would read that article are probably the same influencing those who vote in Congress.  Interestingly, the main focus of the ads is not combat effectiveness, but the number of jobs it "supports."  Here are the highlights:
-127,000 American Jobs
-1300 Suppliers in 47 States
-Security and Jobs for Decades to Come
In Lockheed's defense, a focus on jobs is a lot more likely to garner the attention of an embattled Congressperson than the theoretical threat of a rising China.  Unsurprisingly, defense firms tailor these ads the way they do because they work.  Highlighting the fact that 47 different states have a stake in the JSF's ultimate fate means that nearly every elected official has skin in the game.  In a recession, this is not lost on our enlightened Representatives.  It would be interesting to have National Journal publish an ad from Operators highlighting the JSF's deficiencies.    

I can guarantee that there is probably no good business reason to have so many sub-contractors spread throughout the country.  This only makes sense if your firm derives over 80 percent of its revenue from government contracts.  In Lockheed's case, this is the case.  It pays to have Congresspeople with constituents employed by their firm.  After all, Congress authorizes most of Lockheed's annual allowance -- to the tune of $38.4 billion in 2009.   

This comes on the heels of a report, published by National Journal itself, that backers of the Joint Strike Fighter receive much more cash from contractors involved in the project than those that don't support it.  This is common in our democracy, and isn't necessarily indicative of corruption. After all, firms should be able to support who they will.  But it does show how money to incumbents preserves the status quo and make it extremely difficult for innovative firms and solutions to break into the game.  These contributions do, however, raise eyebrows when a top DoD buyer accuses the F-35 program of "acquisition malpractice."

I'm beating up on the F-35 mostly because its the biggest and most visible of our current acquisition projects.  It has been rife with delays and cost-over runs, as I've detailed before.  But this is not a new phenomena in defense procurement.  The B-1 bomber was notorious as a program built in many Congressional districts throughout the country, making it difficult to ax when its tactical usefulness was questioned.  It's not hard to figure out which Congresspeople and Senators are front and center in support of a particular weapons system.  Republican or Democrat, if its built in their district, they'll be the first to support its perpetual and unquestioned continuation.

For the past ten years, Defense has gotten a blank check to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While much of this was necessary to combat our enemies abroad, not having any constraints also inhibits discipline.  This is especially true when creating budgets.  The Silver Lining to a projected Defense drawdown, as outlined by Arthur Herman, is that "maybe the Pentagon will have to clean up its weapons procurement mess."

These Mickey Mouse acquisition games that harm the warfighter go on all the time.  The US military has been trying to buy a new Air Force aerial refueling aircraft for the past ten years.  And every time the government makes a decision one way or another, the losing party sues.  The Senator from either Washington (where Boeing builds their airframes) or South Carolina (where Airbus would have assembled theirs) raises a huge stink, claims national security is in peril and demands a new look at the decision.

Meanwhile, aviators over Afghanistan are tanking off of 1960s technology from planes much older than they are.  At this point "Buy American" is manufactured political BS.  Nearly every product is built in a variety of overseas locations, regardless of where the parent company locates their headquarters.  In the past ten years, we could have built and put into service these new platforms -- either one.  Instead, warfighters suffer while politicians wrestle for pork.

This shell game has most recently played out after the Air Force bought Brazilian made Super Tucano close air support aircraft for the fledgling Afghan army.  In what should have been an easy procurement choice, American-held Beechcraft has complained that their US-built competing platform was given short shrift.  The planes are virtually identical in their capabilities.  Choose one.  Move on.  Get it to the battlefield. 

Defense firms and their Congressional surrogates will not go softly into the night.  With potentially hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, the established interests have great incentive to push for their cherished projects.  And the new tack they will take will emphasize American employment, especially amidst our soft economic recovery.

Our electorate should not be duped into accepting this state of affairs.  Defense procurement is for one purpose only: to equip our men and women in uniform with the best possible kit, regardless of political considerations.  If a piece of technology is truly desired and tactically significant, it will stand on its own merits.  There will be no need to build it in 47 states when it could be more efficiently built in far fewer.  If it provides American jobs as an ancillary benefit, great.  But that should not be the primary consideration. 

Additionally, our Congressional representatives must look towards the greater needs of the Union and not parochial, local interests when allocating defense dollars.  They only insult our servicemembers by extolling their virtues while only supporting programs that bring money and jobs to their districts, rather than those that truly make warfighters more lethal. 

The status quo will remain in place unless we hold our representatives accountable at the ballot box.  Defense procurement is not a jobs program.  It is, instead, a sacred requirement to purchase the best and necessary technology free from political influence. 

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