Foreign Policy in Focus
The trillion-dollar war bill and a half-billion-dollar jet fighter engine are connected in a way that goes beyond their status as budget items.
The full-page ads in The Washington Post seem so reasonable. The military contractor Pratt & Whitney has been arguing that America doesn’t need to spend $485 million to develop a second engine for the F-35 jet fighter. It’s a compelling argument. We’re in a serious economic crisis, so why on earth would we build another jet engine when the first one is sufficient?
Pratt & Whitney has supporters in high places. Pentagon Chief Robert Gates doesn’t want the second engine, which would be built by General Electric and Rolls Royce, and neither does his Air Force. President Obama, too, has come out against the unnecessary spending.
Pratt & Whitney isn’t spending hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars simply out of a spirit of fiscal rectitude. They’re the builders of the original F-35 engine, and they don’t want the competition muscling into their territory. Still, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is already a terrible boondoggle — Lockheed Martin recently confessed that the per-plane cost has nearly doubled since the initial estimate — so adding a second engine would be nonsense on stilts.
And yet, last week the House decided to risk a presidential veto by restoring funding for the second engine.
Yes, you read that correctly. The president and the Air Force don’t want the bloody thing. But Congress, which treats every weapon system like an endangered species, insists on keeping this vestigial program alive. The engine represents jobs, and U.S. politicians have a difficult time of saying no to jobs at the moment. Even Barney Frank (D-MA), who has taken the most courageous stand against military spending by calling for a 25 percent reduction in the Pentagon budget, voted in favor of the back-up engine because it meant jobs at the GE plant in his state.
If GE and Rolls Royce proposed to paint the F-35 pink with green polka dots, Congress would probably stand up and cheer the effort, as long as the initiative promised to employ enough people.
This engine vote comes at a particularly sad time. This past Memorial Day weekend, the United States officially passed the trillion-dollar mark in spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We exceeded the cost of the Vietnam War several years ago, and now we’re heading for the record of most expensive conflict of all time.
The trillion-dollar war bill and the half-billion-dollar engine are connected in a way that goes beyond their status as budget items.
Last month, Gates took the opportunity of a speech at the Eisenhower Library in Kansas to call for a thorough scrutinizing of the Pentagon budget. “Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state — militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent,” Gates said. Taking his cue from Obama, who warned of the military-industrial complex, Gates was willing to do his share of belt-tightening at this time of economic difficulty.
The Pentagon chief’s willingness to focus on waste and overhead and bureaucracy explains his opposition to the second F-35 engine (as well as C-17 cargo planes and a couple other Cold War weapons systems). But Gates — and many other fiscally responsible hawks — aren’t talking about reducing Pentagon spending so that we can afford universal health care or a real jobs bill. He wants to trim one part of the Pentagon budget in order to pad it somewhere else – namely America’s war-fighting capabilities. “The goal is to cut our overhead costs and to transfer those savings to force structure and modernization within the programmed budget,” Gates concluded. The Pentagon chief is going after those second engines so that he can continue to get the resources he needs to fight America’s wars.
But wait: Didn’t the Obama administration just release a new National Security Strategy that emphasizes diplomacy over war-fighting? U.S. troops are set to begin leaving Iraq this summer and Afghanistan next summer. So, a trillion dollars is the high-water mark of our “overseas contingency operations,” right? Not so fast.
Obama’s National Security Strategy (NSS) indeed lays to rest some of the nastier aspects of the Bush doctrine (such as torture and preemptive war), eschews imperial overstretch in favor of rebuilding economic security at home, advances a disarmament agenda, and recommends comprehensive engagement with the world based on respect for international law. A trillion dollars could go a long way toward achieving these goals. Toward that end, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support for a unified security budget would help to shift funds away from defense and toward development and diplomacy — just as Foreign Policy in Focus has proposed in its very own Unified Security Budget.
The NSS appears to put some limits on the use of force. For instance, it clarifies that the United States is fighting a war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates — not a war against a tactic (terrorism) or a religion (Islam).
But the NSS also lays out the rationale for the United States to remain engaged militarily in virtually every corner of the world. And that rationale is being played out on the ground. Consider how hard the Pentagon just fought to keep one military base in Okinawa — even though the Japanese government will likely crumble as a result of giving in to U.S. pressure. Consider the marked increase in drone attacks in Pakistan during the Obama era. Consider the increased U.S. military activities in Africa through AFRICOM. Consider the Patriot missiles and U.S. troops that just arrived in Morag, Poland, just 40 miles from the Russian border.
And that military engagement costs money. Congress is so addicted to the economic payouts from the military contractors that it can’t give up even the asterisk of all budget items, the second F-35 engine, even when so many of the members understand the absurdity of the situation. And Washington, in general, is so addicted to U.S. military control of the world that it can’t give up a single base or allied operation, even when the president, in his NSS, articulates all the reasons why a different, more cooperative approach makes more sense.
We are thus trapped in two illusions: that military spending creates jobs and that the U.S. empire makes us more secure. And these two illusions ensure that the United States continues to spend huge sums on war and the military budget in general.