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‘Cold War momentum’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When Congress reconvened last month after its long summer break, House and Senate appropriators immediately entered into a fractious debate over a $1.8 billion military spending provision for the F-22 Raptor -- the next-generation “stealthy” attack jet for the Air Force. Just prior to recess, Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis of California, chairman of the defense panel on the Appropriations Committee, stunned the military community by diverting money needed to buy six F-22s in order to acquire fighters already being used by the Pentagon.

It was a rare move by a Republican lawmaker, much less one from a state with a considerable defense industry. But Lewis, worried that not enough testing had been done on the Raptor, was wary about spending $3 billion to buy the plane before being certain it worked as advertised. Instead, the committee committed $1.2 billion for more research and development. The Senate had no such qualms about the plane’s abilities and had earlier voted to spend $3 billion for more research and the acquisition of six new aircraft, thereby setting the stage for the budget battle to come.

The episode serves as a telling example of the high stakes involved -- and the lengths the defense industry is willing to go -- in keeping the Cold War era weapons manufacturing systems running even over the objections of experts who find them strategically unnecessary and economically draining.

The stakes were high: Lockheed Martin -- the company building the F-22 -- knew that if the House won the clash over the new jet, there was an outside chance the entire program might be canceled -- all $64 billion worth. Congress worried that if the F-22 program were eventually eliminated, $20 billion for research and development would have been spent with nothing to show for it.

Further, the Air Force had been pushing for the plane since it hit the drawing board in 1981 and, if the program were cut, would be dealt a serious blow in the never-ending interservice rivalry for budget dollars.

Meanwhile, at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia 35 miles south of Capitol Hill, the stakes were high, too. Each Saturday, a small group of Marines congregate to rummage through used clothes, furniture and other items that have been salvaged from the trash pick-up spots on the base. With military pay about 14 percent below that of private industry, after-duty part-time jobs and searching for free clothing are the order of the day for many in uniform. Indeed, in a report on the weekly Quantico give-away, The Washington Post referred to those who showed up as “needy” -- not a term usually associated with the Marine Corps.

But it need not be so. Despite the lack of a superpower foe, the United States still spends more than twice as much on defense than that spent by eight potential enemies combined. According to The Military Balance, an annual report on military developments around the globe, Russian defense expenditures in 1997 (the most recent year for which data are available) were $64 billion; China spent $37 billion; and the total amount spent by Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, Libya and Cuba was under $16 billion. When defense expenditures of our NATO allies Japan and South Korea are factored in, the United States and its closest partners outspent likely enemies by more than four to one.

All of which leads to the question “Where does the money go?”

High tech/high prices

One place the Pentagon spends a chunk of its budget is on expensive weapons programs like the F-22. Designed during the height of the Cold War to penetrate deep into Soviet airspace, the Raptor became an anachronism when the communist state crumbled in 1991. John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, underscored this point recently by noting that the F-22 is “utterly unrelated to any plausible threat” and pointed to the Kosovo conflict as an example. “There was not a military deficiency there that could be fixed by the F-22,” he said.

Despite the fact that the F-22’s mission had evaporated, and that the United States already dominates the skies with the relatively inexpensive F-15, the drive to continue the Raptor program is difficult to stop. Too much money has been spent, and too many military careers are on the line -- a situation Pike likens to “Cold War momentum.”

But the F-22 is just one of many programs critics believe could be cut or eliminated because of their cost or questionable value to the nation’s security. At a time when the military is supposed to be developing a lighter, more mobile force to contend with the contingencies it is likely to face in the coming years, the Pentagon continues to purchase weapons to fight major land, sea and air battles against a superpower enemy. Indeed, according to Larry Korb, a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Pentagon is spending money “as if [it] were still in an arms race with the Soviet Union.” Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, also noted that the Pentagon has “more than enough money” but then asked rhetorically, “Are they spending it on the right things?” He answered that question no.

Among the weapon systems targeted by some as unnecessary is the Navy’s Super Hornet attack jet, which will cost taxpayers $46 billion when all 548 planes are built. This program, “which ranks among the most costly of military aviation projects,” according to a General Accounting Office study, “will deliver only marginal operational improvements over the current [Hornet] model.” Additionally, the Army’s RAH-66 Comanche reconnaissance helicopter -- the lynchpin of its aviation modernization plans -- “continues to contain significant risks of cost overruns, schedule delays and reduced performance,” the GAO noted in an August report.

The Navy, too, has a costly weapon of its own called the “New Attack” submarine. At a price of $2 billion each, the wisdom of buying 30 of these subs at a time when the Russian sub force is a shadow of its former self is being questioned as a Cold War holdover. All told, some $50 billion will be spent on weaponry in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 even though, according to John Pike, many of the weapons are “solutions looking for a mission.”

The industry flexes its muscle

But the Pentagon does not work in a vacuum. The military contractors also play a major role, through lobbying and campaign contributions, in creating a need for newer, more expensive weapons systems. A classic example of the contractors at work was seen in early 1994 when Lockheed Martin representatives were in Washington passing out a 33-page lobby booklet detailing the benefits of the F-22. The first page offered a primer on how to push for a new weapons program on Capitol Hill: “The world is not at peace,” it intoned; “sophisticated fighter airplanes . . . are being sold around the world, [and] … current U.S. fighters cannot be upgraded sufficiently to combat future adversaries.” Despite the ominous implications of the Lockheed document, John Pike believes that with its current aircraft inventory the U.S. Air Force will have a “dominant technological superiority for the foreseeable future.”

Of course, the weapons industry lobbyists are also expert in dealing with members of Congress who hold the purse strings. According to a 1997 study by the World Policy Institute in New York, during the 1996 election cycle “the top 25 arms exporters gave a record $10.8 million in political action committee and soft money donations.” The campaign contribution recipient list reads like a who’s who of congressional appropriators and military committee members with Robert Livingston, R-Louisiana, and John Warner, R-Virginia, leading the pack in the House and Senate, respectively. Not surprisingly, the military firm that delivered the highest amount of cash to political campaigns that year ($2.4 million) was Lockheed Martin -- maker of the F-22.

A third method contractors use to wrangle money out of Congress is by placing production facilities for one weapon system in several states. By diversifying production the companies win the support of numerous legislators who see the weapons program as a source of jobs for their constituents and votes for themselves, all wrapped in the cloak of national security. For example, production of the F-22 is primarily in Georgia, but other facilities are located in Texas, Washington and Florida. The F/A-18 Super Hornet is being built in Massachusetts, Missouri and California while the New Attack submarine is made in Connecticut and Virginia.

Congress’ turn

With the Pentagon’s yearly claims of being underfunded and the industry spreading its wealth, Congress has few misgivings about spending huge sums on the military. The expected rise of the Pentagon’s acquisition budget -- the pot of money used to buy new equipment -- from $45 billion in 1997 to around $70 billion in 2005, will likely face little congressional opposition and probably will get overwhelming support. The current Pentagon budget is a case in point. At $268 billion it is $4.5 billion more than the Pentagon wanted and is $17 billion higher than last year’s level.

Congress is so enamored of gee whiz military technology and the jobs it creates for the folks back home that each year it appropriates money -- sometimes billions of dollars -- for weapons programs the Pentagon does not request. A fine example of such pork barrel spending was seen this year when Congress appropriated $315 million for five F-15s the Air Force doesn’t need and $375 million for a helicopter carrier ship to be built in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s home state of Mississippi. The Navy, however, has said it can’t use the ship until 2005.

While their voices are few, some members of Congress oppose such business-as-usual spending. Republican presidential candidate Arizona Sen. John McCain, long an opponent of pork-filled legislation, said in an Oct. 14 statement that Congress didn’t spend money on the Pentagon’s most urgent needs. McCain noted that the fiscal 2000 Pentagon appropriations bill “includes $6.4 billion in low-priority, wasteful spending not subject to …[a] deliberative, competitive process.” All this, McCain said, “at the same time we are struggling with a myriad of readiness and modernization problems.”

So what happened to the F-22 debate in Congress? Like many of these Capitol Hill disputes, after a month of arguing the legislators decided to split the difference, sort of. Of the $1.8 billion Rep. Lewis was going to hold back from the F-22, ultimately $1 billion was approved for the purchase of up to six “test” aircraft and for a down payment on the production of 10 full-fledged F-22s in 2001. An additional $300 million was appropriated to cover “contract termination liability.” In layman’s terms this means that if Congress kills the Raptor program because the test aircraft performs poorly, the company gets a $300 million payment to go away quietly.

Next years’ F-22 funding could rise to $3.5 billion.

Tom Cardamone is a project director at the Council For A Livable World Education Fund in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999