THE BLOG
01/02/2014 06:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2014

Who's Afraid of the Military-Industrial Complex?

Is the military-industrial complex losing clout? Absolutely, according to Sara Sorcher of the National Journal. In a piece entitled "How the Defense Lobby Became Irrelevant" that ran on New Year's day on the magazine's website, Sorcher points to the arms industry's inability to fully overturn automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget as evidence of the lobby's reduced clout on Capitol Hill. Among the reasons cited for this surprising turn of events are a loss of credibility stemming from the arms industry's vast overstatement of the negative economic effects of Pentagon spending cuts and a growing willingness by Republican deficit hawks to stop treating the Department of Defense's budget as sacrosanct.

On one level, Sorcher is right. The arms lobby is no longer an all-powerful force that gets whatever it wants when it wants it, if it ever was. Pentagon contractors are just another special interest group, and not necessarily the strongest one. They have definitely damaged their credibility by crying wolf on Pentagon spending cuts even as the profits of firms like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were rising and the Aerospace Industries Association's claims of massive job losses linked to Pentagon cuts proved to be wildly off the mark.

But don't count the arms lobby out yet. The alliance of weapons contractors and the uniformed military that President Eisenhower warned of over 50 years ago will continue to be a major factor in determining how much the country spends on the Pentagon, and what those funds are used for. The difference now is that, given the growing interest of organizations and individuals across the political spectrum in cutting Pentagon spending, the military-industrial complex won't win every battle.

Even before the word sequester came to dominate the budget debate in Washington, there were signs that the military-industrial complex was no longer ten feet tall. The Obama administration's successful effort to terminate the F-22 fighter plane program was won with the assistance of a bipartisan coalition that included not only Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but also Tea Party favorites like Sen. Jim Diment (R-SC), who has since left Congress to run the Heritage Foundation. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) led the successful fight to end General Electric's bid to become a second engine supplier for the F-35 combat aircraft -- despite the fact that the engine would be built near the district of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). And staunch conservative Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) joined long-time liberal Barney Frank (D-MA) in pushing through an amendment that actually cut funds from the Pentagon's budget request. It wasn't a huge reduction, but it was the first time in recent memory that Congress cut the Pentagon's budget instead of adding to it.

The common thread uniting these examples is the emergence of a right-left coalition in Congress that includes conservative budget cutters who hate government spending more than they love the Pentagon. The split between deficit hawks and military hawks in the Republican Party has forced the arms lobby to operate on unfamiliar terrain. Sorcher's article quotes one lobbyist as saying that arms industry officials have stopped seeking meetings with some Tea Party representatives because they are tired of "junior members of Congress who are lecturing us about how screwed up we are."

But one sign that reports of the death of arms lobby influence may be premature was the industry's ability to stave off $20 billion in automatic cuts in December's Ryan-Murray budget compromise. While this still left the majority of the cuts called for in the original Budget Control Act in place, it was a welcome turn of events for an industry, which, as noted above, had been screaming to the rooftops about its alleged inability to absorb the full level of reductions that would have occurred without December's deal.

A good test of whether the military-industrial complex can regain its momentum will come in the next few years. As Russell Rumbaugh of the Stimson Center's Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense (BFAD) project has noted, after bottoming out at a still very generous $500 billion per year in 2016, current law calls for Pentagon and related spending to be flat (adjusting for inflation) through 2021. What "flat" means will remain to be seen. The Pentagon has been known to manipulate inflation figures to its benefit, and for a while at least it will be able to dip into funds described as being for support of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to subsidize non-war-related expenditures. But one thing is clear -- the seemingly endless upward trend in Pentagon spending that ran from 1998 through 2010 is over, and significant growth in the Pentagon's budget is not on the horizon.

This is the new landscape on which future fights over the Pentagon budget will be fought. Can critics of misguided Pentagon priorities successfully press for additional cuts in its budget? Can the arms lobby win increases from the current, "flat" projections? Or will the $500 billion figure for Pentagon and related spending stick?

No matter which of the above-mentioned options comes to be, there will still be heated debates over the fate of specific weapons programs. Current Pentagon buying plans were conceived in flush times, and they have yet to be scaled back far enough to address current budgetary realities, much less take account of likely cost overruns.

For example, the F-35 combat aircraft -- the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon -- has already doubled in price. It will consume an average of $12.6 billion per year for every year between now and 2037. And current projections for nuclear weapons spending call for new nuclear bombers, new ballistic missile submarines, and new land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) at a procurement cost of over $150 billion.

Something will have to give, and it is quite possible that we will see the military-industrial complex at war with itself -- supporters of surface ships versus submarine boosters, and advocates of fighters versus promoters of bombers or tankers or drones. A case in point was the battle between Pratt and Whitney and General Electric about whether there should be a second engine supplier for the F-35 fighter.

Has the military-industrial complex passed its prime? The next few years will tell. But supporters of budget discipline at the Pentagon are in a much stronger position than they were in the first decade of the 2000s, and should give the arms lobby a run for its money.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books).