The Modern Military-Industrial Complex

William Hartung discusses Prophets of War

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Fifty years ago this month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address to Americans, cautioned that the "military-industrial complex" must never be allowed to "endanger our liberties or democratic processes." Despite his warning, William Hartung argues, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin have ballooned in size, scope, and influence. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, recently spoke with U.S. News about his new book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, and what Congress can learn from Eisenhower's address. Excerpts:

Describe the military-industrial complex.

It's really about the conjunction between the military itself, the weapons contractors, and in some degree the Congress. And it deals with how they kind of work in tandem to lobby for perhaps higher levels of military spending than we might otherwise need.

[See 5 lessons from Eisenhower's farewell address and JFK's inaugural.]

What is Lockheed Martin's role in it?

It's the biggest Pentagon contractor. They got $29 billion in Pentagon awards, which is about $6 billion more than the next company. And they are involved in almost the full gamut of weapons programs: They build fighter planes, they build artillery systems, they run a nuclear weapons laboratory, and they build submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Other than pistols or semi-automatic rifles, they make almost everything the Pentagon would want.

What is positive about the company?

They made the U2 spy plane, which helped the U.S. keep tabs on the Soviet Union in the 1950s. They built the C-130 transport plane, which has become sort of the bread-and-butter reliable aircraft for the U.S. armed forces going back decades. They helped with organizing the census. They are an important company, certainly necessary to the defense of the county. My concern in the book is just about their lobbying power, and does it distort our national security priorities? And also, given its size, can we keep it accountable in terms of costs and reliability of weapons programs performing as advertised?

What kind of impact do defense contractors have on foreign policy?

They actually help to finance think tanks that then advocate policies—whether it be regime change in Iraq or a different approach to nuclear weapons policy—that, if pursued, would be of benefit to the company. Then there's the relationship with Congress. [Lockheed Martin is] the biggest contributor to [California Rep.] Buck McKeon, the incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and they have a plant in his district, so he's pretty much pledged to work on their behalf. And they also are the biggest donor to [Hawaii Sen.] Daniel Inouye, who runs Senate Appropriations. They are very strategic in how they give money, and it's usually reinforced by the location of their plants.

How will the new Congress change the military-industrial complex?

One thing that might happen with the new Congress is at least more scrutiny with the deficit. From sources you wouldn't normally expect it, you're seeing at least an acknowledgment that we have to have a debate about how much we are spending on the Pentagon. Private contracts given out by the Pentagon account for a little less than half of military spending. If you're going to cut military spending, there's going to be projects, programs, and services cut back that will impact the bottom lines of the contractors.

What can Congress learn from your book?

The companies cry wolf in certain moments about how changes in procurement or other spending are going to affect the company. Generally, a company like Lockheed Martin will argue, "We can't survive this change; it's going to cost tens of thousands of jobs if we do this." Members could be a little more skeptical about this notion that the sky is falling every time we make an adjustment in defense spending.

What surprised you writing this book?

The scope of operations of the company. They've engaged in things like helping to reform the justice system in Liberia, lending people to help write the Afghan constitution, hiring interrogators for Guantanamo. Every time I turn around, Lockheed Martin is doing some kind of activity that I hadn't associated them with.