04/10/2013 01:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

Realigning Defense Workers

Every gun that is made, every warship launched,

every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense,

a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,

those who are cold and not clothed. This

world in arms is not spending money alone. It is

spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius

of its scientists, the hopes of its children

- Dwight Eisenhower


There is much talk of the need to realign U.S. defense, but little specific attention to a critical component -- the need to realign defense workers. Military industry is not a jobs program. It puts national assets to nonproductive uses that national security urgently requires.

But unfortunately military industry is indeed a jobs program. Any time there is a proposal for a significant reduction, there is an immediate outcry that the program in question is unquestionably critical for national security. The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission was set up for exactly this reason -- normal Congressional procedures were simply unable to manage the political pressures generated by job losses at bases being closed. Illustrating this same problem is the F-35 fighter. It is the single most expensive program in the Defense Department budget; both the rationale for its need and its technical performance have been subjected to extensive criticism. But the main contractor, Lockheed Martin, has spread the work across 45 states -- critics call it “political engineering” -- which in turn has generated broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, nominally for the plane but in reality for the jobs.

This challenge is exacerbated by two major trends: globalization and technological developments. Globalization has made U.S. workers vulnerable to competition from abroad and has spurred the development of rival manufacturing centers globally, many of them even owned by U.S. companies. This means that jobs within the United States are increasingly difficult to find, especially good-paying jobs. The other piece of this challenge is that technological developments continue to increase the productivity of individual workers, so fewer workers are needed, especially less skilled workers. The papers are filled with hundreds of stories like the toll takers at the Golden Gate Bridge being replaced by automated entry portals. Many workers in the defense industries face an additional hurdle: they are highly skilled but in very specialized fields; their jobs provide good pay but poor transferability. So well-paid workers in military industry may actually have few alternatives.

Of course these workers are patriotic, sometimes excessively so. They want to feel that they are making real contributions to the nation. Understandably they are very reluctant to accept that their particular program may not really be needed, that it might actually be undermining national wellbeing instead of supporting it. When their jobs are threatened they naturally turn to their congresspeople -- that's what congresspeople are for. And although they may actually be a small minority of a constituency, they can be a very organized, vocal, and persuasive minority. Their concerns are reinforced by civic leaders, military leaders, industrial leaders, union leaders, and politicians. And even citizens concerned about budgets are also sensitive to their neighbors losing jobs -- losses that may also impact them indirectly.

A major driver of military realignment is not just budget pressures, but strategic pressures. The new millennium has brought a fundamental and largely unrecognized shift in the global strategic situation. For the first time in history, the major challenges facing the nation are not military but economic. Despite bluster from North Korea and concerns about Iranian nuclear programs, the United States faces minimal actual threats to its national security. And actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan vividly illustrate the inadequacies of military force in addressing current challenges. In fact, military emphasis undermines national security in two major ways:

  • It puts situations into a confrontational context, as well illustrated by U.S. relations with China. China is building up military assets and threatening to dominate all of East Asia. US military responses naturally provoke further military developments. But the strategic challenge for the United States is to promote a cooperative China on the global stage; the biggest threat is that the leadership of an economically collapsing China will turn to virulent nationalism and violent confrontation to build internal legitimacy. But promoting cooperation with China requires a very different set of U.S. capabilities and programs, promoting industrial modernization and broad social development. This same military focus was the core problem in Afghanistan; it is disgraceful that after a dozen years of U.S. support, the country remains an economic basket case with questionable stability.
  •  Military spending drains assets from productive programs: infrastructure modernization, human resource development, social integration. This is much more than a domestic challenge. The U.S. economy is the bedrock of its international standing as well as its democratic government. Already significant problems are visible. Intractable employment challenges, worsened by an increasingly lopsided wealth distribution translate into millions of dissatisfied people which cannot help but breed anger, violence and crime.

Freeing labor and economic resources from military programs allows them to be put to productive civilian uses. Allows, but does not facilitate. How do high-performance fighter aircraft designers, submarine construction specialists, and artillery engineers find employment in the civilian sector? Any significant drawdown of military industry would necessitate a structured transition program to systematically move assets into productive uses. This means identifying in some detail projected developments in infrastructure upgrades; expansion of medical capabilities; basic research into space, brain, and computer sciences; and human resource development, as well as a wide variety of challenges from climate change. Lacking any structured approach to realigning defense workers it is clear that military industry will staunchly defend the urgency of the military requirements they support.