The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 Chuck Spinney Archive
The High Cost of the Military Technical Revolution
Flush With Cash, Running on Empty
🔊 Listen RSS
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information


Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Troll, or LOL with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
Search Text Case Sensitive  Exact Words  Include Comments
List of Bookmarks

One of the never ending claims made by proponents of the military technical revolution is that emerging complex weapons technologies create more combat power per unit of labor — that we are substituting capital for labor and technology-intensive capital goods are the key America’s competitive advantage, given America’s high cost labor. This claim is bullshit pumped out by a sound-byte addicted Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex.

For readers who think my rhetoric excessive, consider please the following series of graphics. That the revolution in military affairs (RMA) continues with increasing intensity despite such evidence to the contrary, and without substantive critical debate, says a lot about the dominant values in Versailles on the Potomac.

If the claim made by the RMA evangelicals were true, then a percentage reduction in the size of combat forces would be accompanied by a greater percentage savings in defense budgets. But as this table shows, huge reductions in force size (ranging from 56% to 69%) from the spending peak of the Vietnam War (1968) to the spending peak of the so-called Global War on Terror or GWOT (2010) have been accompanied by a 34% increase in the defense budget, after removing the effects of inflation (using DoD deflators which are biased to reduce the size of this disconnect).

Measures of Force Size

Yet, as the next figure shows, compared to Vietnam, the GWOT is a tiny war, when compared in terms of troops deployed or operational tempos (e.g., total attack sorties).

GWOT vs Viet Nam

Moreover, despite the GWOT’s small size and low operating tempos, the next figure shows that, after removing the effects of inflation, the GWOT is already by far the second most expensive war in U.S. history going back to the American Revolution — it already exceeds the cost of Viet Nam by a factor of 2, and because the GWOT has mutated into perpetual war, there is no end in sight, and like Viet Nam, there is also no light at the end of the GWOT’s victory tunnel.

Cost of US Wars

The net result of the economic impact of the ongoing military-technical revolution can be seen in the next figure, which places President Obama’s current budget plan in a historical perspective in both current dollars and two estimates of inflation adjusted dollars (the first assumes that inflation affects the Pentagon in the same way as it effects the entire economy and the second uses the Pentagon’s biased inflation index which conveniently makes current budgets look like a far smaller departure from past budgets):

DoD Outlay FY16PB

One would think the end of a Cold War with a nuclear-armed superpower and the massive force structure reductions that have taken place over the long term would have some effect on the pattern of boom-bust Pentagon spending dynamics — but they did not, except to raise both the ceiling of the boom phase and the floor of the bust phase.

The bottom line should be clear to even the most casual observer: The claim that the ongoing military-technical revolution reduces costs by substituting capital for labor is fact-free claptrap. Moreover the hype about this military-technical revolution, which has became ever more hysterical since the mid-to-late 1980s, has been accompanied by a dramatic worsening of the mismatch been promises and reality.

Perhaps the apotheosis of the cost and labor saving dimensions of the military-technical revolution has been the evangelical rhetoric surrounding the use of “labour saving” unmanned airplanes — drones — in the GWOT. I urge readers in denial about my bottom line to carefully study How America Broke Its Drone Force by David Axe in the Daily Beast. Axe describes how the high cost of labor-intensive drone operations has broken the back of the drone force to such a point that it had to cut back operating tempos in the face of the increasing intensity of the offensive campaign waged by ISIS.

Bear in mind, the pathetic misery in the drone force described by Axe coincides with Era IV of the boom bust cycle in the preceding chart of Defense Spending.

(Republished from The Blaster by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Military Spending 
Hide 12 CommentsLeave a Comment
Commenters to FollowEndorsed Only
Trim Comments?
  1. Good stuff except for citing the ‘alternative mainstream media’ propaganda rag ‘Daily Beast.’ Any publication featuring the work of ‘paranoid-pop-fascist legend’ Bernard Henri Lévy can hardly be trusted to put out straightforward facts. You should have found a better source. Readers might find this follows interesting:

    a following few facts going to the above linked article:

    “Who benefits?

    “Western corporate oligarchy, plain and simple, with a roll call of long familiar names: Lockheed-Martin in 1st place, Boeing in 2nd and BAE Systems of Britain in 3rd … add your favorite here ____________ (e.g. Raytheon’s interceptor missile sales to Poland benefiting from the NATO build-up on Russia’s borders)

    “This report cites General James Cartwright, who was elected to a paid position on Raytheon’s board of directors while serving on the Defense Policy Board. Admiral Gary Roughead also served on the Defense Policy Board while joining the board of Northrop Grumman.

    “Eighty percent of generals retiring from 2004 to 2008 took these sort of employment positions, according to an independent Boston Globe investigation. And the fact many of the Pentagon’s generals believe in literal Armageddon as a matter of their extreme ‘Christian Dominion’ cult belief certainly can’t help with any future sane decision making” endquote

    • Replies: @map
  2. Great article.

    I suppose the causes of this are due to 1) shrinking competition amongst arms manufacturers and a defacto monopoly that Lockheed has on fighters.

    2) Exploding personnel costs caused mainly by encouraging parasitic family formation on service members and fraudlent disability claims. (I’m a vet, I’m allowed to point out that a huge number of recent VA disability claims are bullshit) That doesn’t even really show up here, since the VA is a different pot of money than the regular ol DoD

    3) Like, 29 different maintenance management programs. Even just in the navy like every damn specialty has a completely different maintenance program. I’m sure that drives up costs. AND sailors aren’t allowed to do shit for themselves anymore. Used to be you needed something built like a dock or whatever you just flew in some seabees and maybe assigned some swabbies TAD to them and got it done. Ditto for parts, the machinist mates would just mill out whatever you needed. Now small boys don’t even have a single machinist mate on board, and any sort of additive work that you do needs to go through an expensive, and generally lazy contractor.

    4) Retention of officers sucks, officers are expensive to train, and their performance overall is lower than in past wars. That’s a big money pit.

    5) The military is less an organization focused around the cherished values of killing the absolute shit out of people that annoy you and has morphed into an animal that consumes as many spending dollars as it can to prop up botique industries that have been gerrymandered into 5,000 congressional districts to keep the pork flowing.

    A huge portion of the military should be shunted over to reserve and NG status. Even pilots, probably the most training intense profession in the service, do fine in that set up, and it costs at most 1/6 the amount an active force does. Keep a few divisions, SOCOM, and 2-3 CSGs active and put everything else into a reserve that can be reactivated in a short time. This was the way we used to do things, actually, which is why you so rarely see USN instead of USNR when you go back through old personnel records of officers. Then focus on actually building up capability to kill, not capability to consume tax dollars.

  3. War for Blair Mountain [AKA "Great Battle for Blair Mouontain"] says:

    The $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ spent on invading,murdering…..and occupying Afghanistan,Iraq, and the Ukraine could have been completely spent subsidizing the higher education of Native Born White American Teenagers from the economically distressed American Heartland.

    I would completely defund the “US” Military.

    The “US” Military=A Global Force for Global Social and Cultural Filth!!!!..See your Military recruiter today!!!!…

  4. War for Blair Mountain [AKA "Great Battle for Blair Mountain"] says:

    Jesus Christ Almighty in Heaven!!!!!!!!!!!!!….don’t let your working class Native Born White American Sons and Daughters become canon fodder and a Walter Reed Army Hospital basket-case limbless stump attached to a horse-fly infested paradise known as a bedpan for the narcissistic homosexual Kenyan Foriegner and later…the violent hairy fat-ankled repellant bulldyke married to the violent psychopathic serial rapist Billy Clinton from Hot Springs.

  5. It is worse than depicted because of hidden military spending in other agencies. For example, the Veterans Dept was spun off the Pentagon’s budget in the 1980s, so that $169 billion for next year is not be counted as military spending. Over $30 billion in military retirement costs come from the Dept of Treasury. And since Congress exempts our military bases from paying local sales and property taxes, local citizens must cover those billions of dollars in losses.

    The overall annual US military budget is over $1 trillion a year. When confronted with facts, spinmasters start spouting GDP percentages, without realizing GDP is activity not wealth. For examples, bond trading, auto accidents, lawsuits, and hurricanes boost GDP. And hundreds of billions of these Pentagon dollars are spent in foreign nations each year, providing no boost to our own economy. The most bizarre thing is that we borrow money from China to spend defending against China, a current bogus threat.

    An excellent example of a massive propaganda campaign was the successful effort to convince everyone that the Pentagon suffered deep budget cuts these past four years, while its budget continued to grow by using an off budget OCO “war” spending slush fund. Our nation will spend $90 billion on “combat operations” next year, even our military is not engaged in any serious combat. Here is an excellent review of that effort, which begins:

    “Breaking news! Nearly four years after budget caps imposed by Congress began to modestly rein in runaway spending at the Pentagon, the sky hasn’t fallen. In fact, none of the dire predictions of Pentagon contractors – from mass layoffs to a collapse of the U.S. military – have come true. Instead, weapons makers’ profits have soared, employment has increased nationwide, and Congress is busily cooking up budget gimmicks to violate its own spending caps and return to record spending levels…”

  6. unit472 says:

    As a percentage of Federal government spending the military has certainly fallen from almost 55% of Federal government spending in 1960 to about 20% today. Force size has fallen from more than 3 million MEN out of a population of 180 million to less than half that with a sizable component of less combat capable females out of population of 315 million.

    The RMA is a mixed bag. In 1968 taking out a bridge in North Vietnam took repeated air strikes by entire squadrons of F-105’s and F-4s and weren’t always successful. Loss of aircraft and pilots were high as well. Today, a single precision guided missile or bomb that costs a fraction of what a single F-105 cost in constant dollars can take out that bridge. OTOH is a F-35 that much better an airplane than an F-16 to justify its soaring costs. Guys like Abe Karem , who developed our drone aircraft, are not convinced and neither am I ( but I am not a celebrated aviation designer).

    One big issue beyond the soaring costs of big ticket weapons systems is their service life. If you buy a new aircraft carrier and its air wing you are committed to that system for 40 years. A new combat aircraft is your frontline fighter for almost as long. We need to remember we went from piston powered aircraft in 1944 armed with .50 caliber machine guns to the F-15 in less than 40 years. From 20,000 ton wooden decked aircraft carriers to 90,000 ton nuclear powered CVN’s in even less time.

  7. JustJeff says:

    Who would’ve thought bureaucrats would be the new janissaries, but more dangerous?

  8. Biff says:

    The idea that militarization advances technology is bunk. Germany and Japan have been putting their best engineers to task not developing the best high-tech bombers and bombs, but to the best creature comfort appliances on the planet.

    I’ve been in the mechanical business most of my life, and the best products, and advancements by far come from Japan and Germany:
    The most efficient, and longest lasting air conditioners, heaters, water heaters, solar systems, in floor heaters, fridges, freezers – electrical components, switches, relays, terminal connectors(for those who boat on salt water, you know what I mean), starters, governors.
    Better, and longer lasting vehicles, railways, high speed trains.

    America – the ‘can do’ nation still makes the best bombers, but that is about it anymore.

    • Replies: @MarkinLA
  9. Flower says:

    The last I heard, the military couldn’t account for over 8 TRILLION dollars that was legislated to it. And we just can’t figure out why we are spending more and getting less.

  10. MarkinLA says:

    I was in defense when the military was pushing the boundaries of semiconductor technology and imaging technology. It is costly but pushing into new territory isn’t the same an coming up with a more efficient motor to run an air conditioner.

    There are plenty of areas in medical technology where American companies are the leaders and a lot of that technology was developed for the military like the use of hybrid substrates in microelectronics.

    One of the many companies Al Mann has started – he got his start with government contracts in defense.

  11. map says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    “a following few facts going to the above linked article:

    “Who benefits?

    “Western corporate oligarchy, plain and simple, with a roll call of long familiar names: Lockheed-Martin in 1st place, Boeing in 2nd and BAE Systems of Britain in 3rd … add your favorite here ____________ (e.g. Raytheon’s interceptor missile sales to Poland benefiting from the NATO build-up on Russia’s borders)”

    This does not amount to much. Every government policy requires contracting with the private sector to implement what needs to be done. Whether you are talking about missiles or school lunches, there is a billion dollar corporation behind it. Always.

    You want to build a school, buy books and computers, provide lunches, well, each one of these entities has a corporation behind it. Yet, no one talks about the “educational-congressional” complex.

  12. Joe Hill says:

    Why not pedal to the metal? The faster the Pentagon Parasites suck blood from the Empire, the sooner said Empire collapses, and gives the rest of the world a break.

    The English finally gave up on empire. The Russians gave up on empire. But the arrogant Americans will not. Uncle Sam will continue to rampage across the planet until it finally collapses from exhaustion.

    Our Dear Leaders believe their own propaganda and have silenced most dissenting voices. Big mistakes.

Current Commenter

Leave a Reply - Comments on articles more than two weeks old will be judged much more strictly on quality and tone

 Remember My InformationWhy?
 Email Replies to my Comment
Submitted comments become the property of The Unz Review and may be republished elsewhere at the sole discretion of the latter
Subscribe to This Comment Thread via RSS Subscribe to All Chuck Spinney Comments via RSS