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The Pentagon’s Silver-Bullet Hype Machine

But don’t go blaming just the Defense Department
The Pentagon’s electromagnetic railgun is designed to fire projectiles up to six times the speed of sound. Naval Research Laboratory photo

Last week’s Pentagon announcement of how much money it says it needs for 2018 (around $650 billion, wars included) illustrates the inanity of how we arm the nation. The military is seeking nearly a 20% boost in research and development funding next year, to prepare for future weapons purchases. But, contrary to tradition, the budget proposal was for only a single year, and included no details about what it wants to buy between 2019 and 2022.

While the lack of the usual five-year plan is likely because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is pretty much running the Pentagon all by himself (only 12 of the 53 political appointees have been nominated or confirmed), that lack of oversight won’t derail the U.S. military’s love of technology.

As the world’s richest country since at least World War II (although now being challenged by China), the U.S. and its military have always sought to trade treasure for blood. With dollops of hardware and hubris, the American way of war has been to spend more on weapons so that fewer GIs will die. There is a logic to this argument, although the Pentagon has taken it too far for several decades. And its enablers increasingly are the reporters covering the Defense Department.

The stories fly by like photons from a futuristic ray gun:

Youtube is full of videos, produced by both contractors and the government (some featuring stirring/ominous musical scoring), extolling the latest wares.

Way back in the 20th Century, when the U.S. used to win at least some of its wars, stories about breakthroughs in military technology were few and far between. Sure, there was the New York Times exclusive on the A-bomb in 1945, but in the decades afterward there were few such stories. In part, that was because only a few outfits—Aviation Week & Space Technology was at the top of the pecking order—were writing well about new weapons.

AvWeek would report something new about the still-secret radar-eluding “stealth” bomber, which, like a stone tossed into the middle of a pond, would lead to a ripple of stories in the mainstream press. Then all would settle down and the pond would soon enough become calm again. There was never this constant daily drumbeat extolling the next wonder weapon.

In part, that was because most reporters covering the Pentagon focused on the big picture. Sure, we reported on hometown projects (as a reporter in Washington for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1979 to 1985, I spent what seemed like three years in congressional hearings trying to figure out how many Fort Worth-built F-16s would be in next year’s budget). Those planes represented paychecks to many Star-Telegram readers.

But all of that has changed over the past two decades, as newspapers and magazines, if they haven’t folded, stopped covering the Pentagon as a beat. They were replaced by dozens of newsletters and blogs popping up to cover advances in the defense industry—and skim their share of cream from defense-contractor advertisers and subscribers.

Most of these stories about defense hardware aren’t about workers bending metal. They’re written for, and read by, those trying to influence the beast known as the military-industrial complex as it weighs what embryonic concepts might warrant funding. Besides, writing about military hardware is much easier than writing about what really counts in war: personnel, command and control, and leadership—the true keys to victory.

Top stories are salted with buzzwords: today’s are “drones” and “lasers” (it used to be “stealth” and “lasers,” and before that it was “cavalry” and “lasers”). This might make sense if all this reporting were dedicated to prevailing in war. But one thing the U.S. military has proven over the past half-century: the best hardware is no guarantee of success on the battlefield.

Here’s the dirty little secret about wonder weapons: they ain’t that wonderful. The military spends billions seeking weapons that can prevail 99% of the time. For a lot less money, we could buy weapons that would do the job 95% of the time. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Moving the fulcrum on that lever is a political act.

The military-industrial complex is as close as we’ve ever come to a perpetual-motion machine.

This new generation of reporting hypes the weapons the U.S. needs because it also hypes the threats it might someday face. “Balance” is achieved by emphasizing weapons under development (make that “under consideration”) by potential adversaries. In fact, very few of these are ever built. In keeping with that “balance,” very few of the U.S. versions are ever built, either.

Everything has become urgent, dangerous, a crisis. As Pete Townsend of the Who can attest, playing your music with the amp cranked to 11 doesn’t make you stand out from your peers. It just makes you deaf.

Just as important, the stories always suggest breakthrough. But when they invariably fall through, there is scant followup. The military-industrial complex is as close as we’ve ever come to a perpetual-motion machine.

When the Pentagon rolls out its budget each year, reporters are consumed with the hardware accounts. But it’s the everyday reportage on blue-sky weapons that’s the real problem. A more balanced approach—weighing the real costs of additional pie-in-the-sky technologies—would help citizen-taxpayers, as well as citizen soldiers (if not defense contractors). In our post-9/11 environment, any failure to fund a possible silver bullet is deemed unpatriotic, and is too often cited as evidence that skeptics don’t care about our men and women in uniform. Balderdash.

The true bottom line is obvious: people are more important than weapons.

And will is more important than both.