Congress Considering Expanding Wasteful Pentagon Programs

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The House of Representatives is meeting this week to consider the Pentagon’s budget proposal. But critics say the House Armed Services Committee voted to block virtually every cost-saving measure proposed by the Pentagon while pushing the construction of a record number of nuclear weapons and other programs that are unnecessary.

Now joining us to discuss this are two guests.

We joined by William Hartung. He’s the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, author of Profits of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

We’re also joined by Greg Mello. He’s the cofounder and executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.

Thank you both for joining us.

So, William, let’s start with you. You know, the Republicans say that we need this level of spending, we need these programs, we need our nuclear weapons and the F-35 to keep America safe and to be prepared for any strategic threats that emerge, whether it be China or any other instability around the world. What’s your response to statements like this?

WILLIAM HARTUNG, DIR., ARMS AND SECURITY PROJECT, CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY: Well, there’s a few problems with that argument. First of all, this bill will authorize $500 billion-plus for the Pentagon, which is one of the highest budgets they’ve had in history. It is about four times what China spends, about 13 times what Russia spends. So I don’t think the issue is is there enough money at the Pentagon. I think the issue is how are they using it, how much are they wasting, is it being spent on things that actually are going to defend us, ’cause some of these–we just don’t need, certainly, these huge arsenals of nuclear weapons to defend us.

We don’t need the F-35 fighter, the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken, ’cause it’s not working. The cost is going up by the day. And it’s not really clear what the mission is. I mean, we’re not going to have an air war with China. Most of the other conflicts the United States has been in in recent history, the other side has not even had an Air Force, much less decent antiaircraft fire. So the current U.S., you know, fighter arsenal is more than adequate for any likely threats.

So there’s a lot of things in there that, you know, spending money on them is not going to make the United States safer, although it will be good for weapons contractors, be good for members who have some of these things in their districts, and it’ll be good to, you know, basically keep the Pentagon budget higher than it would otherwise be.

NOOR: And, Greg, as we mentioned in the introduction, the House of Representatives is actually considering–or it has rejected the Pentagon’s own proposed cuts, the long-term cuts. Give us your response.

GREG MELLO, EXEC. DIR., LOS ALAMOS STUDY GROUP: Well, the Pentagon’s cuts were modest, and as Bill said, this is really a very high Pentagon budget. What’s lacking here is some sort of real vision for where the country is going, what national security looks like in this century. So the White House has proposed something which is only very modestly–it’s basically a status quo budget. And this–so the conversation that’s taking place is really a very surreal conversation in the House within the ambit of the defense echo chamber, as it were, within the Beltway. Bill’s exactly right.

But what is not happening is some real assessment of the overall security picture of the United States, which involves a great deal more about U.S. infrastructure, about the future of the economy, future of the country, rather than these illusory threats that pump up spending for particular clients of the House of Representatives members.

NOOR: And, William, talk a little bit about who’s–and we already discussed this a bit, but talk more about who is benefiting from this. Talk about the military contractors that are going to be receiving vast amounts of money from this bill.

HARTUNG: Well, it’s interesting. At the same time that there’s been a very modest dip in Pentagon spending over the last few years, contractors have been screaming about going out of business, profits have been as high [incompr.] a company like Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-35, Boeing, which is looking looking to build a new bomber [incompr.] will get their way. General Dynamics wants to build a new ballistic missile submarine. All these things are moving along without any kind of serious criticism from the Congress other than a few stalwart members, who haven’t been able to, you know, assemble a majority to actually take a bite out of any of these things.

NOOR: And, William, what’s your response? And talk more about some of the programs you feel are most wasteful or don’t contribute to security.

HARTUNG: Well, I think Greg is probably, you know, the expert on the nuclear program, so I wouldn’t spend too much time on that, except to say you don’t need thousands of nuclear weapons in this world that we live in. That’s not really where the threat is. It could be cyber attacks. It could be the fact that our country falls apart through lack of investment infrastructure. You know, you don’t need a new set of, you know, armor for the Marines and the Army. The Army should be [incompr.] the House has resisted the idea of reducing the Army, even though we’re ideally getting out of Afghanistan, we’re no longer in Iraq. Even the Obama administration says we shouldn’t [incompr.] Iraq or Afghan style wars in the future. Nonetheless, the House is not letting them reduce the Army, not letting them reduce our National Guard. So they’re really living in a–kind of in a dreamworld. I mean, they haven’t really explained how they’re going to fund these things or what they really do [to defend us].

NOOR: And, Greg, please talk about the nuclear weapons and why you feel they’re not necessary.

MELLO: Well, there’s–yeah, there’s a couple of levels here. First of all, there’s the waste involved in overfunding the priorities we have, and then there’s the weirdness of the priorities that we have. So the waste in the nuclear weapons conflicts really dwarfs most Pentagon programs. The analysts who work on this in the government, they would love to get the nuclear weapons program to the level of the Pentagon, which can’t even audit itself, but at least those cost overruns are typically only a factor of two instead of a factor of ten. We have thousands of nuclear scientists that are on sinecures, basically, that amount–that their budgets–excuse me–their salaries are as high as cabinet officials, joint chiefs of staff. And so we have these super inefficient weapons complex contractors on the one hand. And then we have, as Bill said, an excessive number and variety of nuclear weapons. So there’s multiple layers and multiple opportunities for saving money.

But it’s not just money. It’s the ideology that goes with it helps really inflame the whole. And, you know, I can get more details if you like, but it’s a very surreal discussion. And it’s a no-go area for a lot of members of Congress because they’re frightened of the power of the contractors. They don’t see any leadership from the White House. They’re afraid of the technical aspects. And so those few who want to reform are kind of left all alone. Just a little bit of leadership from a few people could really break this logjam.

NOOR: And so, on that point, what can grassroots movements, just regular people do to help help these congresspeople achieve these means?

HARTUNG: Well, there are groups working on this. They don’t have the kind of funding or, you know, large-scale support that they, you know, would need, but there’s groups like Peace Action, Friends Committee on National Legislation. There’s a coalition called Win Without War that includes MoveOn and others.

And I would say their biggest push at the moment is to stop the Pentagon from using the Afghan war budget as a slush fund, because basically the regular Pentagon budget has been capped, albeit at a very high very high level. And for all their pork barrel projects, they’re hoping to stuff them into the Afghan war budget even though they have nothing to do with Afghanistan. So, thankfully, a couple of members have taken it upon themselves to say, you can’t do that anymore, to at least try to hem in the Pentagon little bit. And it’s quite possible that that amendment could pass. And so people are asking for people to make their members of Congress know that they support this concept that it’s sort of one small step towards spending discipline at the Pentagon.

MELLO: Mhm. There is kind of many possibilities for bipartisan good-government amendments like this, and people should get their congressperson behind them.

But I think the main thing that’s missing from the discussion is a sense of urgency about these priorities. A lot of these programs that the armed services committees are interested in, they’re not the funding committees, so they are able to write these sweeping requirements that are unfunded at the moment. And occasionally it slips out where the money will eventually be expected to come from, which is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, social programs, very important programs that have less powerful constituencies. So it’s that urgency and that sense that this is really a choice, a moment of choice for the country, I think, that your typical Congressman–in the welter of things they must that they must deal with, I don’t think that gets across quite as much that should.

NOOR: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us, William Hartung and Greg Mello.

HARTUNG: Thank you.

MELLO: Thank you very much.

NOOR: And you can follow our discussion at TheRealNews.com. Thank you so much for joining us.

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