Given how progressive many of the initial Biden administration domestic policy actions have been, its foreign policy seems incongruous to some. This apparent contradiction becomes easier to understand by recognizing the critical role played by the military-industrial complex (MIC) in shaping foreign policy.
Many commentators have pointed out that Biden’s foreign policy appointments come from the Obama administration, and reflect a Democratic old guard. This group was intimately tied to the MIC and there is little evidence that these ties have been severed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was deputy secretary and national security adviser under Obama, a supporter of the Iraq War and a China hardliner. After Obama, he led a firm that consulted with top military contractors, with his associate Michèle Flournoy, board member of top nuclear weapons firm Booz Allen Hamilton. CIA Director Avril Haines was Obama’s deputy national security adviser and former CIA deputy director.
The MIC, fueled by federal defense contacts, operates under quite different economic conditions than general civilian manufacturing, whether automobiles, appliances, electronics or pharmaceuticals. These latter have to compete in national and international markets. They need effective products, and prefer to keep labor costs low. They don’t need foreign enemies or foreign wars, but rather foreign manufacturers to keep costs down, and foreign markets to expand sales.
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The markets for defense contractors are very different: Sales to foreign governments require State Department approval, and the primary buyer for most major weapons systems is the U.S. government. For most of the increasingly expensive modernized nuclear weapons, such as the new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the U.S. government is the only buyer. To justify spending the enormous amount of taxpayer dollars on weapons contracts, the MIC contractors require major foreign “enemies.” It’s quite irrelevant who they are — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea can all be claimed as imminent dangers, and work equally well to argue that more weapons are needed, and more tax dollars must be invested in the Pentagon to maintain “national security.”
The “war on terror” was adequate to maintain Pentagon spending after 9/11. However, to justify enormously expensive new nuclear weapons, such as the $100 billion new ICBMS, “terrorists” aren’t a strong enough card to play. So, the MIC now pivots back to old Cold War propaganda, claiming that the U.S. is endangered on all sides.
For nuclear weapons manufacturers, profitability simply requires that the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources continue to vote for hundreds of billions of dollars for weapons contracts. According to the Congressional Budget Office, one-third of the Department of Defense’s budget ($244 billion) is used to procure new systems, upgrade existing systems and perform research, development, testing and evaluation of new systems. Adding $20 billion a year spent on nuclear weapons by Department of Energy contractors, we estimate $264 billion of the $760 billion National Defense Authorization Act and Department of Energy budgets is going toward weapons development and manufacture.
According to the Federal Election Commission, as reported by the Center for Responsive Politics, defense firms spent an average of $127 million a year over the past 12 years on congressional lobbyists, and in the past two election cycles, $25 million per cycle on donations to federal political candidates. The role of major defense contractors, such as Raytheon, United Technologies and Lockheed-Martin, in lobbying Congress has been described in detail by William Hartung. We surveyed available information on the web about the six principal national peace groups and their state affiliates, discovering that U.S. peace and justice organizations spend around $250,000 a year on lobbying to reduce military expenditures and support peace treaties, and essentially nothing at all on political contributions. Nearly all lobbying is done by volunteers, and a minority of these organizations mobilize volunteers to support a few political candidates. Essentially, military corporations have spent 760 times more than peace groups on lobbying and political contributions during the past two election cycles.
The Protected Profits of Weapons Contractors
Defense contracts — for example, for nuclear weapons — are a monopoly since Congress does not allow them to be outsourced to foreign bidders. In addition, the profitability is guaranteed, regardless of whether or not the products work. Thus, the repeated failures of the F-35 jet — the most expensive weapon system in world history — have hardly any effect on the continuance of the contracts. If Chevrolets failed to start, experienced frequent brake failures and rolled over often, Chevy sales would plummet.
Even though military literature and Air Force documents are full of the F-35’s failures, year after year, the Air Force pushes for more planes and more money to fix F-35 failed systems, the lobbyists hit the congresspersons from the 45 states where the F-35 is manufactured and donate to their campaigns, and Congress keeps pumping out more money.
Congresspersons and senators know that lucrative defense industry positions will be available to them when they retire as legislators. The Project on Government Oversight estimates that, in 2018, 645 senior government officials — mostly from the Pentagon, the uniformed military and Capitol Hill — took jobs to work at one of the top 20 defense contractors. The defense contractors cannot match these protected profits in the open civilian market.
Among the most dangerous and expensive of these weapons programs is the push for a $2 trillion upgrade over the next 25 years of all three components of the nuclear triad. With thousands of active warheads on submarines, bombers and in silos, the last thing the nation needs is more and more dangerous nuclear weapons.
In April 2020, the Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company was awarded the contract to engineer and manufacture the nuclear long-range standoff missile (LRSO), which will be the air-launched leg of the new nuclear triad, even before the amount of the initial contract was determined. (It must also be noted that Biden’s secretary of defense just came from Raytheon’s board of directors.) The air-launched nuclear LRSO will replace the 375 existing Boeing nuclear AGM-86Bs. The Air Force is planning to spend $2.7 billion on the LRSO through 2022, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will cost $10 billion to produce 1,000 missiles at $10 million apiece.
Next Generation of Nuclear Weapons Will Decrease National Security
The LRSO makes nuclear war more likely because it will be launched from B-52 bombers, and within a few years, from the new-gen B-21 stealth bomber. The B-52s are based in Louisiana and North Dakota, and the B-21s are slated to be based in Texas, South Dakota and Missouri. When slated for repeated missions in the Middle East or Central Asia, both planes would be temporarily based in Diego Garcia in the north-central Indian Ocean. They would patrol as close to probable targets as deemed safe, thus reducing the flight times of the nuclear missiles once launched, thereby leaving “the enemy” only 5 or 10 minutes to decide on a response. The target will not know if the missiles are nuclear or conventional, and will therefore be likely to respond assuming they are nuclear.
The recent Air Force award to Northrop Grumman of a $13.3 billion contract in September to develop a replacement silo-based ICBM, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), is another example. This missile, threatening a devastating first strike to our supposed adversaries, will only increase the chance of a nuclear war, and decrease national security. Its true role is to ensure the profits of Northrop-Grumman and its subcontractors for decades to come. The 600 GBSDs will cost nearly $100 billion, and an additional $168 billion to keep them operational over their lifetimes.
The fact that this weapon exists primarily for industry profits is demonstrated by its uselessness in warfighting, and the fact that its use would destroy much life on Earth. Silo-based ICBMs are the most vulnerable nuclear weapons, since their locations are known and they can’t move. They take longer to get to their targets (at least a half an hour) than other nuclear weapons, and can easily be detected from the moment of launch. This guarantees that the intended targets will launch their targeted missiles before the U.S. ICBMs reach their targeted empty silos. If they were used against Russia, all 400 would be fired at once, and they (and the warheads sent in retaliation) would destroy much life on Earth. Whichever side launched first would target the other’s missiles, and whichever launches second would target other military and civilian targets, since the other’s missiles had already been launched.
We are told by the nuclear weapons companies and the nuclear weapons generals (and congresspersons where the weapons are based) that the U.S. needs this new generation of nuclear weapons because it is in danger of being attacked by Russian or Chinese or Korean guided missiles. In March 2020, the Raytheon Company received a $2.1 billion contract to produce and deliver SM-3 Block IB missiles to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles attacking Japan from China or North Korea, and Europe from Russia or Iran. The contract covers continuing production through 2023. Four-hundred SM Block 1B missiles are already deployed on U.S. and Japanese ships, and on a U.S. base in Romania, soon to be joined by a U.S. base in Poland.
The Raytheon SM-3 Block IIA is under development, and in late 2020, shot down an ICBM (intercontinental-range) warhead for the first time. Both these interceptors for intermediate-range and intercontinental-range nuclear missiles make nuclear war more likely because, along with other aspects of the new generation of nuclear weapons, they make adversaries think the U.S. is developing a first-strike capability. These interceptor missiles do not count as part of the nuclear weapons budget, even though they are for nuclear war fighting.
Money spent on the new generation of nuclear weapons is actually far greater than the stated $2 trillion, because the figure not only excludes nuclear missile interceptors, but also excludes a prorated share of the cost of ships, drones and manned aircraft that are dual-capable — platforms for launch of both conventional and nuclear weapons.
This is the time to support congressional efforts to cut the Pentagon budget, as called for by Our Revolution and the Poor People’s Campaign. The leading group on this front is the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose People’s Agenda calls for Pentagon spending reductions. Whether progressive voices can overcome MIC money remains to be seen. In fact, challenging in primary elections those congressional members who take those dollars and threatening to vote them out of office may be the best route forward.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that 600 Ground Based Strategic Deterrent weapons will cost nearly $100 billion, and an additional $168 billion to keep them operational over their lifetimes.