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The $850 billion chicken comes home to roost

The military industrial complex is not designed to actually fight wars. If so, you wouldn’t see Ukraine struggling right now to win one.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Watching a recent video of Ukrainian troops scrambling out of a U.S.-supplied Bradley armored fighting vehicle just after it hit a mine, I remembered how hard the U.S. Army bureaucrats and contractors who developed the weapon had fought to keep this vehicle a death trap for anyone riding inside. 

As originally designed, the Bradley tanks promptly burst into flame when hit with anything much more powerful than a BB pellet, incinerating anyone riding inside. The armor bureaucrats were well aware of this defect, but pausing development for a redesign might have hurt their budget, so they delayed and cheated on tests to keep the program on track. Prior to one test, they covertly substituted water-tanks for the ammunition that would otherwise explode. 

Only when Jim Burton, a courageous air force lieutenant colonel from the Pentagon’s testing office, enlisted Congress to mandate a proper live fire test were the army’s malign subterfuges exposed and corrected. His principled stand cost him his career, but the Bradley was redesigned, rendering it less potentially lethal for passengers. Hence, forty years on, the survival of those lucky Ukrainians.

This largely forgotten episode serves as a vivid example of an essential truth about our military machine: it is not interested in war.

How else to understand the lack of concern for the lives of troops, or producing a functioning weapon system? As Burton observed in his instructive 1993 memoir Pentagon Wars, the U.S. defense system is "a corrupt business -- ethically and morally corrupt from top to bottom."

Nothing has happened in the intervening years to contradict this assessment, with potentially grim consequences for men and women on the front line. Today, for example, the U.S. Air Force is abandoning its traditional role of protecting and coordinating with troops on the ground, otherwise known as Close Air Support, or CAS. Given its time-honored record of bombing campaigns that had little or no effect on the course of wars, CAS has probably been the only useful function (grudgingly) performed by the service.

The Air Force has always resented the close support mission, accepting the role only because handing it to the Army would entail losing budget share. Thus the A-10 “Warthog” aircraft, specifically dedicated to CAS, was developed by the air force only to ward off a threat from the Army to steal the mission with a new helicopter. 

As it turned out, the A-10, thanks to the dedicated genius of its creators, notably the late Pierre Sprey, was supremely suited to the mission. But its successful record cuts no ice with the air force, which has worked with might and main to get rid of the A-10 ever since the threat of an army competitor in the eternal battle for budget share had been eliminated.

That campaign is now entering its final stages. The Air Force is not only getting rid of its remaining fleet of A-10s, it is also eliminating the capability to perform the close air support mission by phasing out the training for pilots and ground controllers essential for this highly specialized task. True, the service claims that the infamously deficient F-35 “fighter” can and will undertake the mission, but that is a laughable notion for many reasons, including the fact that the plane’s 25 mm cannon cannot shoot straight.

The consequences for American troops on the ground in future wars will be dire, but their fate apparently carries little weight when set against the unquenchable urge of the air force to assert its independence from the messy realities of ground combat, where wars are won or lost. Thus its hopes and budget plans are focussed on costly systems of dubious relevance to warfare such as the new B-21 bomber, the new Sentinel ICBM, and the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, none of which will fly for years to come, except in the form of cash out of our pockets.

Pentagon spending this year is projected to nudge $850 billion (the total national security bill is already way past a trillion, but that’s another story.) Yet, even when endowed with such a gigantic pile of cash, the system is apparently incapable of furnishing the wherewithal for even a limited war, such as the one currently underway in Ukraine. The conflict has been marked by successive announcements that progressively more potent weapon systems are being shipped to the Ukrainians — Javelins anti-tank missiles, 155 mm Howitzers, HIMARS precision long range missiles, Patriots air defense missiles, Abrams tanks, with F-16 fighters in the offing. A U.S. military intelligence officer pointed out to me recently the actual basis on which these systems are selected: “when we run out of the last system we were sending.”

Now Biden has generated global outrage by promising to send cluster bombs, known for their ability to kill and maim children fifty years after the relevant war has ended, as any Laotian farmer could tell you. The military rationale for their use is their supposed utility against “soft” targets such as dismounted infantry, radars, and wheeled vehicles. However, a former armor officer and veteran of the 1991 Gulf war recalled to me that “we disliked them intensely and pleaded with the artillery and Air Force not to employ them. They simply damaged support elements and wheels that followed us into action. After the war we treated numerous people wounded by them including our own soldiers, as well as civilians (children).”

Biden has admitted that these devices are being sent only because the U.S. is running out of the artillery ammunition that the Ukrainians actually require. “This is a war relating to munitions. And they’re running out of that ammunition, and we’re low on it,” he told a TV interviewer. 

So off go the cluster bombs, their passage lubricated by crocodile tears from administration officials: “I’m not going to stand up here and say it was easy…It’s a decision that required a real hard look at the potential harm to civilians,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. (Back when it was reported that the Russians were using cluster bombs in Ukraine, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki denounced such action as “a war crime.”)

So, the richest war machine in history, having scraped its cupboard bare, is now reduced to fielding a device of dubious military utility deemed illegal by over a hundred countries. That’s what we get for our $850 billion.

This article has been republished with permission from Andrew Cockburn’s “Spoils of War”

Ukrainian soldier waits for potential medical evacuation in Luhansk region, Nov. 2022. (Photo by Ashley Chan / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
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