Return of the 'military-industrial complex'?

Pentagon officials come to Congress to make case for big rise in defense spending.

In his vow to fight terrorism - to "win the first war of the 21st century" - President Bush has pledged "whatever it takes, whatever it costs...." If the administration's projections are correct, in just a few years that cost will near a half-trillion dollars a year.

On Capitol Hill this week, service secretaries and other top Pentagon officials are explaining to Congress how those sums will be spent. At a time of anticipated budget deficits, lawmakers are likely to temper their support for national security with the need to appear frugal.

Yet, depending on where they're from, they also can be expected to assert that the military bases and defense plants in their districts are among the most vital assets to protect the homeland.

In a military budget that is as big as the 15 next biggest countries combined, what's the potential for waste, inefficiency, and good old-fashioned pork? When it comes to military spending, the tradition of the "iron triangle" - Congress, the Pentagon, and defense industries - joining to push costly weaponry is nothing new.

"We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," five-star Army General Dwight Eisenhower said in his last speech as president in 1961. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

With the nation under recent attack, US forces fighting overseas, and patriotism-fueled Pentagon budgets rising faster than usual, that potential increases.

Writing in the Washington Post, White House budget director Mitch Daniels warns that special interests are likely to jump on the national security and homeland defense bandwagon to promote their products.

But larding the federal budget with extras isn't limited to nonmilitary items, others note. "What Mr. Daniels forgot to mention was that vested interests also exist in the defense sector - that is, defense industries - that are out to do much the same," says the Cato Institute's Ivan Eland.

Some weapons outmoded?

Under increased scrutiny are big-ticket weapons that critics say are too costly, unreliable, or otherwise inappropriate in an era shifting from superpower cold war to terrorism and other forms of unconventional conflict. Among these are the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft, B-1 bomber, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, Crusader self-propelled artillery system, and Comanche helicopter.

These "are five of the most wasteful and ineffective weapons systems," says Danielle Brian of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

Before Sept. 11, Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself had questioned some major weapons systems that, in his view, did not fit the needs of military "transformation." When he was Defense Secretary 10 years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney questioned the value of some major weapons, too.

While the current Pentagon budget slows some programs, it doesn't eliminate any controversial big-ticket items. Mr. Rumsfeld says that there had been a "holiday" in procurement that needs to be redressed. Critics say it's matter of bureaucratic inertia, military turf protection, and favored congressional programs. "The new defense plan ... is focused on the acquisition of traditional on the acquisition of traditional kinds of weapons programs, such as tactical fighters, aircraft carriers, and heavy artillery systems," says Steven Kosiak, a defense specialist with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

This is likely to be an issue for many lawmakers, particularly in the Democrat-controlled Senate. "Longstanding problems in areas such as financial management, acquisition management, management of information technology, and personnel management have not disappeared just because we are now fighting a war," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D) of Michigan said Tuesday.

Other spending necessities

Weapons procurement is not the largest portion of the Pentagon budget. (That's operations and maintenance.) But procurement, together with research and development on new weapons and other gear, adds up to nearly a third of the budget - $123 billion proposed by the administration for 2003. In addition, the proposed budget for homeland security nearly doubles the current figure to $38 billion - more opportunities for military industries.

Within weeks of the terrorist attacks, the Defense Department issued a "Broad Agency Announcement," in which military contractors were asked for "help in combating terrorism." Thousands of proposals have been submitted since then.

The "military-industrial complex" that General Eisenhower warned of presents potential political landmines for any administration. For example, many former Republican officials and political associates of those now in the Bush administration are associated with the Carlyle Group, an equity investment firm with billions of dollars in military and aerospace assets.

Chairman of the group is Frank Carlucci, secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and a close friend of Mr. Rumsfeld. Others who work for Carlyle include former Secretary of State James Baker as well as the president's father, former President George Bush.

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