Features » August 8, 2008
All Guns, No Butter
'And the other thing that's interesting -- tragic is more the word for it -- is we don't know where the hell all this money is!'
Now retired, Thomas P. Christie has served the U.S. government as an influential military analyst and manager. After holding senior positions at the Pentagon on and off from 1973, Christie worked as director of Operational Test and Evaluation from 2001-2005, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, the highest ranking civil service appointment in the Pentagon. Though largely unknown outside the Pentagon, Christie was a key figure in some of the biggest battles over military spending in recent years.
He regularly disproved contractors’ claims about new weapons systems, though some of the most unecessary have continued to be developed nonetheless. A master bureaucrat, tall, white-haired, soft-spoken, Christie rose through the ranks, providing leadership and institutional cover for an informal group of like-minded individuals concerned with Pentagon deficiencies across the board, from tactics and strategy to technology and economics.
More vocal than ever in retirement, Christie’s insights remain essential to discussions about how to control breakaway military spending.
The Pentagon spends enormously. The Defense budget for fiscal year ‘09 is $519 billion – $129 billion for personnel, $180 billion for operations and maintenance, $104 billion for procurement, $80 billion for research and development, $24 billion for military construction and $2 billion for management.
But that doesn’t come close to how much money eventually will be spent on the military. That doesn’t include the [$165 billion] supplemental [bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan]. So you’re easily up to $700 billion in this coming fiscal year. And a large part of the budget is over in the Department of Energy – all the nuclear stuff. The Veteran’s Administration is carrying a burden associated with our veterans.
So I don’t know how much is being spent. But a lot of that money is going into systems that Defense Secretary Bob Gates has criticized quite frankly – systems that were started and justified based on what was going on during the Cold War.
What justifies spending more on military matters than the rest of the world combined?
Take a look at what’s in the budget in the context of modernization. The F-22 fighter plane is a classic example. That program goes back to the early to mid-’80s. At one time, the Air Force was going to buy 700. We’re buying 180 now, and the Air Force wants to buy more.
And Secretary Gates’ point is those systems aren’t playing any role in the situations we’re involved in – in Afghanistan and Iraq – nor will they.
So we are postulating now that the Chinese are the threat of the future, or peer competitors, or whatever we call them. We’re grasping at straws in order to justify this amount of money. The stuff we’re spending money on – some of the Navy ships, nuclear attack submarines or the F-22 – can they really be justified when you look at the future and see a world that is going to be similar to what we have today? You’ve got two things happening: First, everything we’re developing and buying is costing an arm and a leg. And second, you’re justifying it based on a questionable projected threat.
I really despair about getting a handle on this because it isn’t just the Defense Department, it’s also Congress. It’s a military-industrial and congressional complex that is going full steam, and any attempt to draw back on that will be met with defeat, unfortunately. And I don’t care which administration comes in. Once you’ve got all this stuff going down the pike, these big systems – they are jobs programs.
Is it intellectually respectable to argue in favor of, say, a 50 percent cut in military spending? Can one defend that position?
I think so. That would be doable. You’re talking definitely about smaller forces. Of course, manpower, and the operating and support costs are what’s eating our lunch today.
And the other thing that’s interesting – tragic is more the word for it – is we don’t know where the hell all this money is! We can’t track where our money is going. And we’ve known this for 20 or 30 years. We’ve had Pentagon comptroller after comptroller say, “Okay, we’re gonna get it fixed,” and then they throw their arms up in despair.
We need to stop where we are, aside from continuing to do whatever we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, finish that off to the extent we can – just stop everything for a year or so until we get our financials into some shape.
We need to get a real independent group to look at where we should be going in the Defense Department in the future: What are the real threats? How should we structure our forces? What systems should we be looking to develop and buy? And then take a look at what we need in the way of the defense budget.
Unfortunately, an arbitrary cut like 50 percent – even though I think you could rationalize it – certainly would never sell.
The difference between U.S. spending and everybody else’s is that other countries balance their priorities. They’ve got healthcare programs, education, infrastructure. If the military is soaking up all this wealth, there’s nothing left over.
You got it. The infrastructure of this country is in very sad shape. Part of the problem is the huge defense budget. Even with little or no spending on the infrastructure, we’re still running up these huge deficits. You shake your head and wonder. Look at the health situation in this country. Something’s got to be done there. We’re paying no attention to it.
Two years ago, the country elected a different Congress. They’ve been in power for a year and a half now. What have they done differently?
Not much! It’s a stalemate.
Are you optimistic that if Obama were elected, that he would be able to escape the influences of this military industrial and congressional complex?
No, I’m not optimistic. The Clinton administration came in and caused a lot of the problems with this acquisition reform business. We cut way back on the people that oversaw acquisition programs, and it was like, “Let the contractor do his thing, and we’ll accept what we got.” We are still suffering from that regime.
When I was being interviewed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take the job that I did in 2001, Rumsfeld and his transition team were right on when they said, “We have got to get control of the military. We have got to exercise civilian control of the military. It’s been totally absent during the previous administration.” And that was true.
But we ended up still going off on a bunch of big modernization programs with little or no oversight. And we’ve had these monstrous cost overruns that have been coming to light for the last several years. Now we’re faced with a lack of people who can competently look into what is being done in these development programs or the contractors and be able to see before the cost overruns or technical problems surface.
Were cluster bombs and landmines weapons that you dealt with at all?
Oh yeah. Particularly cluster weapons. You have what looks like a bomb that opens up and flings out 200 or 300 of baseball-sized bomblets. We flung them all over Bosnia and Kosovo and all over the desert. And when you’re flinging out thousands of these things and you have less than 90 percent reliability, you’ve got a big problem. So, the world has reacted. And our military is just wedded to this stuff.
As far as landmines, that’s a different situation, but it’s similar. You’ve got this problem with civilians afterwards.
We haven’t acceded to the treaty on landmines. Is that right?
That’s true. We learned in Vietnam that they had these reliability problems all along, but we never stopped to think that once the conflict is over, then what? It’s happened over and over. So the world is reacting. And I guess the United States recently tried to sabotage the deal in Dublin to ban cluster bombs.
That’s an agreement which we’re not part of.
And that makes us look bad.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about?
It’s very disturbing. I’ve seen good people in the Pentagon, good people in the military, all the way to the top, just throw their hands up in frustration: “No way we can turn this ship around and get it in the right direction.” And that’s unfortunate. You just gotta come in and scrap the whole process.
In a bureaucracy, you have to often make decisions about whether you’re going to make incremental changes or radical changes. But most important changes can’t be made on an incremental basis. It would take a strong president to do that.
And a strong Secretary of Defense. And leadership on the Hill that will support it. As well as so-called “industry titans.” And getting all of that to come together at one time – that’s the problem.
What needs to be done can’t be done bit by bit. It’s got to be revolutionary.
George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict. He is now a writer in Washington, and host and producer of the podcast Electric Politics.