How big is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? By one set of measures, it is three times bigger than the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, ten times bigger than either the Apollo Project or the International Space Station or Hurricane Katrina, or one hundred times bigger than the Panama Canal. These comparisons are only moderately outlandish. US$1.45 trillion is the Pentagon’s own December 2010 estimate of lifetime operating and supporting costs for the 2,443 copies of the F-35 currently on order by the United States government, which we can then compare to the known price tags, in 2007 dollars, of these five projects.[i] Costs—also variously prefaced as procurement, actual, sunk, fly-away, upgrade, true and so on—and their contestations are central to a discourse of accountancy that surrounds all projects that require large-scale mobilization of public power. But enormous as they are, these numbers still cannot capture the size of this particular weapons program. To understand just how big the F-35 is, I wish to suggest in this two-part post, we ought to conceive it as a proper assemblage—a heterogeneous association of human and nonhuman elements that is at once split, processual, emergent, and, most importantly, constitutive of the modern international.
Part two of a post on my presentation at this year’s ISA. Part one is here.
So what would be the normative-political case for the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC)? As Ledbetter notes, the defence industry never had a shortage of defenders, proponents, beneficiaries, and apologists. Various critiques of the MIC notwithstanding, numerous American commentators are now firmly united in the belief that their country needs a large defence budget in order to protect and project its identities and interests in the world. According to Maddow, this collective belief had a lot to do with the discursive and institutional success of the infamous “Team B” reports on Soviet power, which so profoundly enthused Ronald Reagan and his administration, leading to the gigantic military buildup in the 1980s. Maddow’s assessment is worth citing at length:
The Think Tanks and Very Important Committees of the permanent national security peanut gallery are now so mature and entrenched that almost no one thinks they’re creepy anymore, and national security liberals have simply decided it’s best to add their own voices to them rather than criticize them. But like we lefties learned in trying (and failing) to add a liberal network to the all-right-wing, decades-old medium of political talk radio, the permanent defense gadfly world can’t really grow a liberal wing. It’s an inherently hawkish enterprise. Where’s the inherent urgency in arguing that the threats aren’t as bad as the hype, that military power is being overused, that the defense budget could be safely and wisely scaled back, that maybe this next war doesn’t need us? The only audience for defense wonkery is defense enthusiasts, and they’re not paying the price of admission to hear that defense is overrated.
But knotted into the right-wing discourse on defence spending is a number of corollary arguments that are associated with a variety of lefty positions in the U.S. context. America’s mainstream media outlets rarely fail to acknowledge how the twinning of the country’s economic and armed forces not only creates high-skilled jobs, but also – and critically – keeps them in the country. The move is mainly rhetorical. Not only have successive U.S. administrations encouraged American defence industry to globalize, but there is also little evidence to suggest that defence spending creates more jobs relative to spending on, say, health care or education (see, for example, Pollin and Garrett-Peltier, 2011). I would suggest, then, that what lies behind contemporary pro-MIC arguments is, in fact, a creative and complex combination of certain economic theories, (realist?) beliefs in war (or the threat of war) as a manifest destiny of the international system, as well as an overarching (liberal?) commitment to a powerful, sovereign state capable of exercising global leadership (aka., a “force for good”, in still favoured New Labour parlance.)
Let us revisit the pro-MIC rhetoric from the era of “Team B.” In a footnote, Ledbetter directs the reader to The Lonely Warriors (1970) by John Stanley Baumgartner, who is described as “one notable true defender of the MIC.” Written by an expert in public management and business administration, Baumgartner’s book makes three arguments for the MIC: 1) defending the free world is a moral thing to do (“Sputnik is only one example of the reasons for MIC”); 2) by definition, defence is a big enterprise and all big enterprises (directly or indirectly, the MIC employs one in ten Americans) occasionally make big mistakes, especially when they respond to the murky and changing specifications set by the government (“the tiger” or “the monster”) and its contracting officers; and last, 3) “unconscionable profit” is not so unconscionable in comparative terms (profit on sales, profit on investment, price/earning ratios etc. tend to be below the industrial average).
Earlier this year, the U.S. government set out to reduce its vast defence budget. On 5 January, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to hold a press conference at the Pentagon. What prompted it was the release of Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence, a “strategic guidance” document outlining the national blueprint for “deterring and defeating aggression,” while reducing record budget deficits “through a lower level of defence spending.” (The document also attracted much media attention because it offered a rare glimpse into the strategic thinking of a president who seems to refuse to be associated with a “doctrine.”) In his State of the Union address three weeks later, Obama reinstated his belief that paring defence sending could help “pay down our debt.” The Pentagon’s FY2013 budget projection followed on 13 February, with a request for $614 billion in funding: $525 billion for the base budget and $88 billion for the so-called overseas contingency operations. FY2012 budget request, the Pentagon noted, was bigger.
Pundits in the US have been debating the meaning of the coming defence cuts, starting with the question of whether there will, in fact, be any cuts in the first place. This debate will probably intensify as the election date approaches, although, indicatively, Obama’s strategic guidance contains no “East of Suez” moments, and his Pentagon speech was a candid expression about the need to stay the course: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership… I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defence budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined” (emphasis mine; also, “10” appears to be way too low).
Much remains to be said about the type, magnitude, and sequence of the coming changes to America’s defence, and the electoral 2012 will be too short to say it all. The first round of projected budget cuts (“$487 billion”) takes into consideration the provisions of the self-flagellating Budget Control Act from August 2011. The second round of cuts (“$500 billion”) refers the so-called automatic sequestration cuts, also specified in the Act, which will take effect in January 2013 if Congress does find “alternative” ways to control the budget. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described these automatic cuts as the “doomsday scenario,” a label that Congress’s bipartisan supercommittee will no doubt keep in mind as it looks for those alternatives (such as, for example, legislation to reverse the Act). In the end, what will change is the ordering of America’s military priorities, but not the militarization of America’s “global responsibilities” (to use Obama’s own label) as such. Behind it, after all, are multiple and reinforcing structural factors that make real cuts difficult. One of them is “defence industry,” which some pundits and watchdog organizations like to call, somewhat retrospectively, the “military-industrial complex” (MIC).
As a conceit, the MIC goes back at least to World War I, but it is popularly dated to Eisenhower’s ‘Farewell Address’ in 1961. As far as US presidential speeches/speechwriting goes, Eisenhower’s was a tour de force in every respect, but the reason why we read it today – or, rather, search for it on YouTube – is for the parts where the president urges the American citizens to pay attention to the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [that is] new in the American experience,” while advising the American government to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”