U.S. military prowess relies overwhelmingly on cutting edge technologies. When American soldiers shoot, they acquire their targets through the thermal sights of an AN/PAS-13. When they move, they use a world-class logistical network. And U.S. military services use high-speed wireless networks to communicate, arming their forces with information in real time.
The U.S. government works closely with private corporations to provide such a cutting edge, by constantly investing, testing and upgrading battlefield technologies. Such heavy investment in research and development has been our modus operandi at least since the dawn of the Cold War and has even brought us civilian benefits such as the Internet. The U.S. is projected to spend an estimated $21 billion on defense research and development in 2015 alone.
This strategy might have served Washington well in a bipolar world where we anticipated showdowns with numerically superior Soviet forces in apocalyptic tank battles in the Fulda Gap. However, the United States’ continued overreliance on technology in this post-Cold war era has become counterproductive. For one, the technology that we have put our reliance on has its limits. Not every battle or crisis can be resolved with superior technology and yet if such technology is the hammer we provide the military, every problem they face will seem to them to be a nail. Second, even the most advanced microchips can fail.
Even military leaders have voiced concerns about U.S. overreliance on technology. "We must be able to operate when systems go down," Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of Joint Forces Command, told a joint war-fighting conference in May. “It is much more important for officers to get comfortable operating with uncertainty rather than to keep grasping for more certainty.”
Mattis’ words should be taken seriously. Overreliance on any one factor for victory can become a weakness. If cutting edge technology is going to be the foundation of our strategic posture, simply put, it needs to work. Beyond the broad questions of strategy, however, the U.S. government’s acquisition process raises a set of different questions.
Unless carefully monitored, the expensive webs of industrialized public-private bureaucracy in control of the massive outlays of taxpayer dollars is prone to graft and cronyism. This latter point was amply demonstrated by our ill-fated investment in the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A), a communications tool meant to integrate intelligence from a network of sensors and databases to provide the Army and Air Force with intelligence shared in common.
The U.S. overreliance on its overwhelming technological advantage as a primary military strategy follows a fairly straightforward evolution. After the long, deadly slog in Vietnam, the U.S. military was forced to restructure itself in the 1970s and 80s. The U.S. invested even more heavily on superior technology to make up for the Soviet Union’s numerical advantage and to enable a smaller all-volunteer professional military to deal flexibly with smaller-scale engagements around the world. As retired Army General Paul Gorman put it, the new way of waging war “draws adroitly on advanced technology, concentrates force from unprecedented distances with overwhelming suddenness and violence, and blinds and bewilders the foe.”
Even with the most careful oversight of military spending, such investing was bound to buy some lemons. But the scale of Pentagon waste and graft is breathtaking. One of the most notorious failures is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A 2011 study issued by the Department of Defense cited at least 13 categories of concern, including issues with its weight and stealth capability. Congress has already set aside nearly $400 billion for the project and yet tax dollars continue to be invested, with the hopes that private contractors will eventually solve its problems if we fork over more cash to them.
The DCGS-A acutely exemplifies our Cold War-era obsession with big spending on military technology. The DCGS-A was meant to improve communication by connecting friendly forces to small and large level contingencies around the world in real time. And it would give commanding officers a live picture of what is happening on the ground even in far-flung corners of the world. The problem is, as with the F-35, the DCGS-A doesn’t work. So why has the Army invested $5 billion in a failed project?
The answer is simple: cronyism. In a scathing report last month, the Associated Press noted, some of the key military personnel who were involved in managing the Army’s contracts with DCGS-A have left to work at those companies. In at least one case, a former contractor joined the Army intelligence command as a senior advisor. That sort of revolving-door relationship might not be outright illegal, but it has critics of the program fuming.
“The Defense Department and the Army are not going with companies that have proven solutions,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), an outspoken critic of DCGS-A, said last month. “What they are going with are people who know government and the government acquisition process.” The entire DCGS-A process has been a revolving door of graft that blurs the line between patriotism and corruption.
The manner in which DCGS-A’s business is being conducted is not only dubious, but should also be illegal. We need to eliminate the revolving door between private and public offices by instituting a multi-year “cooling off” period for high-level officials transitioning between the public and private sectors. The dealings between the military and their contractors should, as much as possible, be made available to public. Too often our sprawling security apparatus hides behind the cudgel of “state secrets” in order to insulate the public, rather than our enemies, from the details of its business. But its business is our business.
Whistleblowers who alert the public about such corruption should be protected. The Obama administration has prosecuted more people using the 1917 Espionage Act (six) than have been previously been arrested under the act in total. One of those arrested was Thomas Andrews Drake, Navy veteran and former National Secuirty Agency employee who disclosed allegedly unconstitutional NSA data gathering on American citizens. That the charges were eventually dropped only emphasizes the cynicism surrounding secret government programs and the smugness of defense institutions. Taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for.