Will Trump bolster the Military-Industrial Complex?

By William D. Hartung | ( Tomdispatch.com ) | – –

As with so much of what Donald Trump has said in recent months, his positions on Pentagon spending are, to be polite, a bundle of contradictions.  Early signs suggest, however, that those contradictions are likely to resolve themselves in favor of the usual suspects: the arms industry and its various supporters and hangers-on in the government, as well as Washington’s labyrinthine world of think-tank policymakers and lobbyists.  Of course, to quote a voice of sanity at this strange moment: it ain’t over till it’s over. Eager as The Donald may be to pump vast sums into a Pentagon already spending your tax dollars at a near-record pace, there will be significant real-world obstacles to any such plans.

Let’s start with a baseline look at the Pentagon’s finances at this moment.  At $600 billion-plus per year, the government is already spending more money on the Pentagon than it did at the peak of the massive military buildup President Ronald Reagan initiated in the 1980s.  In fact, despite what you might imagine, the Obama administration has pumped more tax dollars into the military in its two terms than did George W. Bush. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. currently spends four times what China does and 10 times what the Russians sink into their military.

So pay no attention to those cries of poverty emanating from the Pentagon.  There’s already plenty of money available for “defense.”  Instead, the problems lie in Washington’s overly ambitious, thoroughly counterproductive global military strategy and in the Pentagon’s penchant for squandering tax dollars as if they were in endless supply. Supposedly, the job of the president and Congress is to rein in that department’s notoriously voracious appetite. Instead, they regularly end up as a team of enablers for its obvious spending addiction.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump.  He’s on the record against regime-change-style wars like Bush’s intervention in Iraq and Obama’s in Libya.  He also wants our allies to pay more for their own defense.  And he swears that, once in office, he’ll eliminate waste and drive down the costs of weapons systems.  Taken at face value, such a set of policies would certainly set the stage for reductions in Pentagon spending, not massive increases.  But those are just the views of one Donald Trump.

Don’t forget the other one, the presidential candidate who termed our military a “disaster” and insisted that huge spending increases were needed to bring it back up to par. A window into this Trump’s thinking can be found in a speech he gave in Philadelphia in early September. Drawing heavily on a military spending blueprint created by Washington’s right-wing Heritage Foundation, Trump called for tens of thousands of additional troops, a Navy of 350 ships (the current goal is 308), a significantly larger Air Force, an anti-missile, space-based Star Wars-style program of Reaganesque proportions, and an acceleration of the Pentagon’s $1 trillion “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal (now considered a three-decade-long project).

Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, if Trump faithfully follows the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, he could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade. Trump asserts that he would counterbalance this spending splurge with corresponding cuts in government waste but has as yet offered no credible plan for doing so (because, of course, there isn’t one).

You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that the defense industry, always sensitive to the vibes of presidential candidates, has been popping the champagne corks in the wake of Trump’s victory.  The prospects are clear: a new Pentagon spending binge is on the horizon.

Veteran defense analyst David Isenberg has convincingly argued that the “military-industrial-congressional-complex,” not the white working class, will be the real winner of the 2016 presidential election. The Forbes headline for a column Loren Thompson, an industry consultant (whose think tank is heavily funded by weapons contractors), recently wrote says it all: “For the Defense Industry, Trump’s Win Means Happy Days are Here Again.”  The stocks of industry giants Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman rose sharply upon news of his election and the biggest winner of all may be Huntington Ingalls, a Virginia-based manufacturer of aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines that would be a primary beneficiary of Trump’s proposed naval buildup.

The Ideologues Form Their Ranks

Of course, the market’s not always right.  What other evidence do we have that Trump will follow through on his promises to dramatically increase Pentagon spending? One clue is his potential appointees to national security positions.

Let’s start with his transition team.  Mira Ricardel, a former executive at Boeing’s Strategic Missiles and Defense unit, has been running the day-to-day operations of the defense part of the transition apparatus.   She also served a lengthy stint in the Pentagon under George W. Bush. As Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One has noted, she’s advocated for the development of space laser weapons and more military satellites, and is likely to press for appointees who will go all in on the Pentagon’s plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a new nuclear bomber and a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles. So much for “draining the swamp” of special-interest advocates, as Trump had promised to do.  Vice President-elect Mike Pence, recently named to head the Trump transition team in place of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, has promised to cleanse the transition team of lobbyists.  But government watchdog groups like Public Citizen are skeptical of this pledge, noting that corporate executives like Ricardel who have not been registered lobbyists are likely to survive any changes Pence may make.

The person currently rumored to be the frontrunner for the defense job is General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a 44-year Marine and former head of the U.S. Central Command who left the military in 2013 amid disagreements with the Obama administration over how many troops to deploy in Iraq and how hard a line to take on Iran.  According to a Washington Post profile of Mattis, he “consistently pushed the military to punish Iran and its allies, including calling for more covert actions to capture and kill Iranian operatives and interdictions of Iranian warships.”  These proposals were non-starters at a time when the Obama administration was negotiating a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but may receive a warmer reception in a Trump White House.

Another candidate for the Pentagon post is Jim Talent, a former senator from Missouri who is now based at the conservative American Enterprise Institute after a seven-year stint at the Heritage Foundation. Talent is a long-time advocate of spending an arbitrary 4% of gross domestic product on defense, an ill-advised policy that would catapult the Pentagon budget to over $800 billion per year by 2020, one-third above current levels. The conservative National Taxpayers Union has derided the idea as a gimmick that is “neither fiscally responsible nor strategically coherent.”

Another person allegedly in the mix for Pentagon chief is Kelly Ayotte, who just lost her Senate seat in New Hampshire.  She was a rising star in the ranks of the Capitol Hill hawks who roamed the country with Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain advocating an end to caps on Pentagon spending.  Ayotte’s name may have been mentioned primarily to show that Trump was casting a wide net (the whole spectrum from hawks to extreme hawks).  Conservative Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas — a fierce opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and an avid booster of increasing Pentagon spending beyond what even the Pentagon has asked for — is reputedly another contender.

Congressman Randy Forbes, a Republican from Virginia, is looking for a job after losing his seat in a primary earlier this year. He has been mentioned as a possible secretary of the Navy.  The outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, he has been the most vocal advocate in Congress for a larger Navy.  Not coincidentally, Virginia is also home to Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding.

Retired Army Lieutenant General Mike Flynn has now been selected to serve as Trump’s national security adviser, where he may get the last word on foreign policy issues.  A registered Democrat, he was an early Trump supporter who gave a fiery anti-Obama speech at the Republican convention and led anti-Clinton chants of “lock her up” at Trump rallies — hardly the temperament one would want in a person who will be at the president’s side making life-and-death decisions for the planet.  To his credit, Flynn has expressed skepticism of military interventions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he has also advocated regime change as a way to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and criticized President Obama for being too “politically correct” to use the term “radical Islam.”  His own views on Islam and how best to deal with terrorism are particularly concerning.  He has described Islam as a “political ideology” rather than a religion, and has made demonstrably false assertions regarding the role of Islam in American life, including the absurd claim that Islamic law, or Sharia, has taken hold in certain communities in the United States.

The scariest potential Trump appointees — or at least the scariest voices that could have the president-elect’s ear or those of his closest advisers, are not necessarily the ones with preexisting economic stakes in high levels of Pentagon spending.  They are the ideologues.  R. James Woolsey, former CIA director and fierce advocate of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, punches both tickets.  He’s closely connected to right-wing think tanks that press for spending more on all things military and was a member of neoconservative networks like the Project for the New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.  Woolsey is also an executive at Booz, Allen, Hamilton, a major defense and intelligence contractor.

Then there’s Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. A former Reagan-era Star Wars enthusiast turned professional Islamophobe, he has insinuated that President Obama might be a secret Muslim and slandered fellow conservatives for allegedly having questionable ties to radical Muslim organizations.  Such claims should make Gaffney unfit to serve in the government of a democratic society.  However, his advice is reportedly being listened to by key Trump insiders and appointing him to some national security post may not prove a problem for a president-elect who has already installed white supremacist Stephen Bannon as his strategic adviser in the White House.

And then there’s John Bolton, the hawk’s hawk who never met an arms control agreement he didn’t despise, and who took to the pages of the New York Times last year to advocate bombing Iran.  Prominent neoconservatives are pushing Bolton as a possible secretary of state in a Trump administration.  A potential obstacle to a Bolton appointment is his strong anti-Russian stance, but he could still get a post of significance or simply be an important voice in the coming Trump era. He has already called for Trump to scrap the Iran nuclear deal on his first day in office.  Another reported candidate in the race for secretary of state is Rudy Giuliani, perhaps the most undiplomatic man in America. Recent reports suggest, however, that the former New York mayor no longer has the inside track on the job. The latest name to be mentioned in the secretary of state sweepstakes is former Massachusetts governor and failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a harsh critic of Trump during the campaign.

Below the cabinet level, certain Republican foreign policy experts who opposed Trump or remained neutral during the campaign have been trying to mend fences — even some of those who signed a letter suggesting that he might be “the most reckless president in American history.”  Part of this backpedaling has included preposterous claims that Trump’s pronouncements have become more “nuanced” in the post-election period, as if he didn’t really mean it when he called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals or talked about banning Muslims from the country.

One hawk who hasn’t accommodated himself to a Trump presidency is Eliot Cohen, a leader of the “Never Trump” movement who had initially urged foreign policy specialists to put aside their reservations and enter his administration.  Cohen has since reversed course and suggested that no “garden variety Republican” go near Trump, arguing that he and his “mediocre” appointees will “smash into crises and failures” on a regular basis. 

In the end, it may not matter much just how the contest for top positions in the new administration plays out.  Given the likely cast of characters and the nascent crop of advisers in the world of national security, it’s hard to imagine that Trump won’t be strongly encouraged in any efforts to pump up Pentagon spending to levels possibly not seen in the post-World War II era.

Reaganomics on Steroids?

One thing, however, does stand in the way of Trump’s current plans: reality.

As a start, how in the world will Trump pay for his ambitious military, “security,” and infrastructure plans?  A huge military buildup, a $25 billion wall on the Mexican border, a potentially enormous increase in spending on immigration enforcement officials and private detention centers, and a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, all against the backdrop of a tax plan that would cut trillions in taxes for the wealthiest Americans.  The only possible way to do this would be to drown the country in red ink.

Trump is likely to turn to deficit spending on a grand scale, which will undoubtedly exacerbate divisions among congressional Republicans and cause potentially serious pushback from the Party’s deficit hawks.  On the other hand, his desire to lift current caps on Pentagon spending without a corresponding increase in domestic expenditures could generate significant opposition from Senate Democrats, who might use current Senate rules to block consideration of any unbalanced spending proposals.

Nor will Trump’s incipient infatuation with Pentagon spending do much for members of his working class base who have been left behind economically as traditional manufacturing employment has waned.  In fact, Pentagon spending is one of the worst possible ways of creating jobs.  Much of the money goes to service contractors, arms industry executives, and defense consultants (also known as “Beltway bandits”), and what does go into the actual building of weapons systems underwrites a relatively small number of manufactured items, at least when compared to mass production industries like automobiles or steel.

In addition, such spending is the definition of an economic dead end.  If you put taxpayer money into education or infrastructure, you lay the foundations for further growth.  If you spend money on an F-35 fighter plane, you get… well, an overpriced F-35. A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts indicates that infrastructure spending creates one and one-half times the number of jobs per dollar invested as money lavished on the Pentagon.  If Trump really wants to create jobs for his base, he should obviously pursue infrastructure investment rather than dumping vast sums into weapons the country doesn’t actually need at prices it can’t afford.

At present, with its proposals for steep military spending increases and deep tax cuts, Trump’s budget plan looks like Reaganomics on steroids.  A Democratic Congress and citizens’ movements like the nuclear freeze campaign managed to blunt Reagan’s most extreme policy proposals.  The next few years will determine what happens with Mr. Trump’s own exercise in fantasy budgeting.

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He is the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 William D. Hartung

Via Tomdispatch.com

12 Responses

  1. One real quick way to save some money is CANCEL the F-35 program.

    Some of the HARD lessons I have learned over the years designing lots of different types of technology . . .

    – Complexity leads to massive failure – The F-35 is massively complex because they threw in everything including the kitchen sink and the Drano.

    – Targeted, focused products are ALWAYS better than multi-purpose products – By trying to design one aircraft to meet hundreds of different mission profiles, the aircraft is terrible at all mission profiles. One of the lessons Iran learned is, to make “good enough,” focused weapons systems – this leads to excellent performance for very low cost.

    – Stable systems always perform better – the F-35 is aerodynamically unstable without the real-time computer control – As noted in point #1, these control systems will fail (computers always fail because it is impossible to test every possible scenario).

    The bottom line is it would be far, far better and cheaper to make several much less complex aircraft that are targeted to specific mission.

    Mark my words, the F-35 aircraft will fail a lot and be on the ground (or carrier deck) more than it is in the air.

    There are lots of USA and European companies that can supply very adequate aircraft almost “off-the-shelf” for far less than the F-35.

    The F-35 is the worse combination of bad product design and HUGE cost over-runs.

    It is long past time to quit throwing good money at this worthless project.

    Of course, I know my little rant will be ignored because the fly-boys must have their bright shiny new toys no matter the cost. Of course when the planes start killing the fly-boys, they may wish for a more stable plane.

    • To date, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is way over-budget, behind schedule, and has experienced significant problems. Nevertheless, it is naive to think the project could be canceled, and it has nothing to do with the “fly-boys having their bright shiny new toys.” The F-35 will not be canceled because too many entities have a stake in continuing its development and production.

      To manufacture the air frame, engine components, avionics, and additional software required, there are 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs. The F-35 supports 40,000 jobs in Texas alone. Additionally, the F-35 will be the major export fighter, generating revenue downstream. That provides the F-35 with a lot of political protection from Congressmen who will not vote to cut the project’s positive impact in their states and congressional districts.

      • Actually – the F-35 will not be a viable export aircraft due to its high costs and very bad flight characteristics. So far, the only fools to think about using them are the Israelis and I suspect they will regret that decision over time.

        China, Russia, Europe all have much better, cheaper aircraft for sale.

        But you are very correct that they designed the supply chain to minimize the chance that congress would kill it.

        As I noted, I do not expect that the F-35 will be killed for several years (it will eventually die after the costs become untenable and enough pilots get killed), I just pointed out it SHOULD be killed.

        • I suspect the F-35 will evolve as other newly developed frontline aircraft have in the past. Once the bugs are worked out it will prove to be a very versatile aircraft. And if enough are exported for sale, the price per unit will bring it within affordable range.

          Whatever the attributes of Russian and Chinese aircraft, they will not compete with the F-35 for the simple reason that American aircraft come with a full package of training and maintenance, something the Russians and Chinese lack, particularly continuing maintenance. Additionally, our allies prefer inter-operability with the U.S., something they would lose with Russian and Chinese aircraft.

        • @William – there are so many basic design flaws in the F-35 that they will never be “worked out.” There is no such thing as a “versatile” aircraft. The best aircraft are ones that are purpose deigned for a particular mission.

          Why do you thing Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, etc offer so many different models of commercial aircraft? To minimize the cost and complexity by matching the aircraft to the mission. Yes their aircraft often share components but the designs are focused on distinct mission.

          The F-35 is a kludge mess of massive design compromises so it will cost far too much and do no mission well or even adequately.

          Your thinking about non-USA aircraft is dated, myopic and flat out wrong. The days when the “best” stuff came from the USA are LONG, LONG GONE and smart buyers are well aware they can get better stuff for less from non-USA sources.

          After trump insults most of the world’s leaders, there will be no market for the F-35.

          BTW – do you really think the competitors are going to sit around and wait for the F-35 to eventually fly in 2050? They are selling reliable good hardware right now.

        • “Your thinking about non-USA aircraft is dated, myopic and flat out wrong. The days when the “best” stuff came from the USA are LONG, LONG GONE and smart buyers are well aware they can get better stuff for less from non-USA sources.”

          Your use of all-caps for emphasis notwithstanding, they do not enhance the validity of your argument. Our NATO allies, other non-treaty allies, the Gulf States, and other traditional purchasers of US military aircraft would heartily disagree with your cited quote above. They value not only the aircraft themselves, but just as importantly, they value the complete package that comes with it: continued training, parts, and ongoing maintenance. That is a big plus for the US that neither Russia nor China provides.

      • Lockheed Martin’s former VP-General Counsel was none other than James Comey – who made large personal donations to GOP candidates, including John McCain and Mitt Romney, according to Federal Election Commission records downloadable on their public website – Comey assumed the directorship of the FBI with a history of many thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to Republican candidates.

        One could argue that Comey’s background would lend itself to be predisposed to skew the FBI’s investigative activity to promote the political interests of Donald Trump, and by extension, his former employer, defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

        Federal employees are barred from engaging in campaign activity by virtue of the Hatch Act, however it has been no secret that most federal law enforcement officials were vastly more sympathetic to the potentiality of a Trump presidency rather than a Hillary Clinton administration in Washington.

        Back in the days of the JFK administration, the TFX fighter contracts were a political football that represented “pork barrel” politics at its finest. This was on the heels of the farewell address of President Eisenhower’s warning of the reach of the military-industrial complex in America.

        During the 1990s the Clinton administration advocated for the creation of a commission to study prospective U.S. military base closings. That commission caused a furor as many areas in the U.S. were economically dependent on the U.S. Department of Defense operation of these military installation locations.

    • The problem is, the faster the military becomes rational, the faster it switches to flying killer robots and then spends most of the money saved in indoctrinating the public to accept this as a solution to non-existent threats. Granted, it was all going to happen anyway. The folks who whine about drone warfare being an exceptionally American evil are not paying attention to what’s going on overseas. The countries that have the most productive workforces will be the fastest to push the envelope on drone capabilities. American death merchants are small shops building maintenance-hungry Ferraris at huge markups. If, instead, you run a real industrial economy, you will be looking to build the Ford Model T of drones. Or the Kalashnikov of drones. Which hasn’t happened yet.

      It will be easy, because that country will not hesitate to sell that product. Not just to governments, but to private individuals. We’ve all been told for 100 years that robots were coming. They’ve got wings. We’ll add our own guns.

      • Armed drones of all sizes have either been prototyped or are in production.

        Air-frames are capable of withstanding far more stresses than a human can. If an aircraft ever approached its mechanical stress limits, the human inside would be a puddle of jelly, so it is perfectly logical to eliminate the human inside.

        Note also that outside the USA , the government sets the price it will pay native weapons makers, so they get their toys for much lower cost and complexity than the USA, where private greed ensures there is lots of complexity to hide huge profits.

  2. I’ve been saying that the Military-Industrial Complex is White Man’s Welfare. We’re about to see how far that can go.

    If Trump intends to set fire to all our alliances, a lot of troops and surveillance gear will be coming home from bases in over 130 countries. In fact, I support keeping more of our forces stateside, but under the extraordinary nature of Trumpism, we must now consider the danger that domestic uses be found for those forces and weapons to justify their sitting around. Weapons spending itself doesn’t produce many jobs. But every time a military base opens up next to a right-wing burg because its congresswhores lobbied to be rewarded for their friendliness to the MIC, you create a new base for the far right. The theocratic churches flock in. The base entangles itself with the community through propaganda efforts. The retiring GIs and Halliburton contractors move off-base with their pensions like medieval knights established as men of influence.

    So when the time comes to put down dissent in that other America hostile to the military, these guys will all be in one mental bubble about their right to do so with military force.

    • I don’t expect any of our troops to be coming home any time soon. Once someone explains to Trump how the military corruption works, he’ll be all in.

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