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William Hartung

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Nukes for the Troops? - The Absurdity of Uncritical Support for the Pentagon

Posted: 02/ 3/2012 4:34 pm

Just when you thought there were enough arms industry front groups pushing for higher Pentagon spending, there's a new kid on the block: the Coalition for a Common Defense. Leaders of the group include Frank Gaffney, whose Center for Security Policy has long enjoyed the support of such disinterested observers as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, and representatives of other beneficiaries of arms industry largesse such as the Lexington Institute and the Heritage Foundation. And, of course, no such group would be complete without the support of the neocon's neocon, John Bolton. While many of these groups and individuals support high military spending on ideological grounds, their support from the weapons industry is revealing nonetheless.

The new group -- or, more accurately, the re-branded version of several very old groups -- poked its head above water earlier this week when it released a report that claimed (surprise!) that scaling back the Pentagon's spending plans would do serious economic damage, almost everywhere. These magical results were achieved by looking only at the impacts of changes in military spending, not at the effects of changes in the overall federal budget. That's the wrong way to go about it. In an era of deficit reduction, keeping Pentagon spending high means cutting more deeply into education, energy, infrastructure and aid to state and local governments. Because Pentagon spending is such a poor job creator, the net result of propping up the Pentagon would be a loss of jobs nationwide. Far from damaging the economy, sensible Pentagon cuts could help it.

Enough about the coalition's biased study. If all goes well, it will be dropped into the dust bin of history, where it belongs. But the group's ongoing campaign for the highest possible levels of Pentagon spending bears watching. Its web site encourages viewers to contact their member of Congress to demand "no more cuts to defense" because "the military has already offered its part by giving $465 billion in budget cuts towards cutting the deficit."

The coalition's statement on Pentagon "cuts" is so wrong in so many ways it is hard to know where to begin. First, the military hasn't "given" anything yet - the changes referenced would occur over ten years. They are possible changes, not current realities. Second, the alleged cuts are measured against what the Pentagon would like to have, not what they have now. Compared to current levels, Pentagon spending is slated to go down a meager 1.6% over the next five years (adjusted for inflation). Considering that military spending has been at post-World War II record levels and that until recently the Pentagon budget grew for an unprecedented 12 years in a row, the Obama administration's new plan is a modest course correction, not the budget cutting "tsunami" claimed by the Coalition for a Common Defense (which might be better named "The Coalition for What Defense Contractors Have in Common").

In addition to making wildly exaggerated claims about slashing defense, the coalition engages in the time-honored tactic of pretending that every Pentagon project -- no matter how ill-conceived -- is designed to "protect the troops." Or, as the group puts it on its web site, "the budget is going to be balanced on the backs of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines."

Really? Does every dollar of Pentagon spending help the troops?

Let's look at just one example -- nuclear weapons spending. Does the fact that we possess thousands of nuclear warheads and massive nuclear overkill help the troops? Nuclear weapons are precisely the kind of "outmoded Cold War systems" that President Obama has promised to scale back as part of his new national security strategy. Building more -- or modernizing the ones we have -- will serve no purpose other than to encourage other countries to develop or expand their own arsenals. Yet the Pentagon and the Department of Energy are planning to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear systems over the next decade, including investments in new nuclear bombers, new nuclear submarines, and new nuclear weapons factories. Cutting nuclear weapons spending would make us all safer, including our men and women in uniform. But you wouldn't know it from reading the propaganda produced by the Coalition for a Common Defense.

Uncritical support of Pentagon spending will make us weaker, not stronger. We need to get our fiscal house in order while still finding money to invest in the pillars of a strong economy -- a healthy, well-educated work force supported by state-of-the-art infrastructure and investments in markets of the future like clean energy. Wasting money on weapons we don't need at prices we can't afford will undermine those goals.

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.