by Colby Goodman and Taner Bertuna
As President Trump continues to authorize record-breaking U.S. arms deals to Saudi Arabia and many other countries around the world and propose major increases in Pentagon spending, he is positioning himself to claim wins on two of his campaign promises: build a military that is “gonna be so strong nobody’s gonna mess with us,” and increase U.S. jobs. According to a relatively new book, however, it is critical that Americans question these increases as they may not help improve U.S. security or the U.S. economy. They are also likely to increase U.S. corruption.
At an April event in Washington D.C., U.S. national security experts Sarah Chayes, Bridget Conley, and William Hartung, and senior national security correspondent Mark Thompson gathered for a public launch of the book, Indefensible by Paul Holden, et al. The book seeks to debunk seven core myths that fuel defense spending and the global arms trade. These include the fallacies that increased military spending generally equals greater security, the “defense industry is a key contributor to national economies,” and “corruption in the arms trade is only a problem in developing countries.”
According to the book, it is often unclear that major defense spending consistently provides a measurable improvement in security. In some cases, it can even decrease a country’s security. The authors highlight that increased U.S. defense spending to ensure U.S. military dominance in Asia runs the danger of increasing tensions with China and the region. They also point to a RAND study that examined the life cycles of 648 terrorist groups from 1968 to 2006. The study showed that military campaigns were the cause of these groups demise in only seven percent of the cases. Integrating the groups into the political process or effective “policing action” were much more effective in defeating these groups.
The panel focused on dispelling myths about the number of jobs created by increased U.S. defense spending. Bill Hartung described how defense industry claims of major increases or decreases in U.S. jobs are often exaggerated. He noted several organizations had discredited Lockheed Martin’s formula for estimating the creation of indirect jobs and dismissed Aerospace Industries Association’s claim that the industry would lose 1 million jobs with budget caps last year.
Hartung also cited a 2011 University of Massachusetts study from the book that found the rate of job creation for defense spending was paltry compared to other potential U.S. investments in health care, clean energy, and education or even U.S. tax cuts. Another study showed the limited returns on significant amounts of public funds used in supporting defense industry arms sales abroad. The authors also note that the defense industry is doing less and less to drive technical innovation that can later be used in the U.S. economy.
The book mentions U.S. offers to invest in the defense industries of foreign countries—often called offset agreements—which the Trump administration used in the recent $110 billion Saudi deal. These so-called offsets can negatively affect U.S. defense industry in the long term. As more arms manufacturers are created, this can result in more competition for the U.S. defense industry, which can eventually force U.S. companies to lower their prices or force them out of the market altogether.
During the panel discussion, Sarah Chayes and other panelists talked about how corruption in defense spending and the arms trade can hamper U.S. interests. In particular, Chayes focused not just on the outright illegal acts such as bribery, but the growing number of inappropriate acts known as institutional corruption. Indefensible defines institutional corruption as “the influence brought to bear on institutions that is legal, and may even be considered ethical, but that stops those institutions from performing their intended functions properly.”
The “revolving door” between the industry and government is one such example. As in other regulated industries, the revolving door often incentivizes government officials to prioritize industry interests over U.S. government interests. According to the Boston Globe, institutional corruption is likely widespread: over 80 percent of all retiring three- and four-star generals became paid affiliates of the defense industry from 2004 through 2008. In some cases, these same generals continued to have a say in Pentagon strategy, which allows them to push for policies that support certain arms purchases.
In one rare example in which U.S. officials addressed this type of corruption, the Boeing Corporation briefly lost a contract in 2003 to supply the U.S. Arms Force with jet refueling tankers. A senior U.S. Air Force official had tailored the procurement criteria for Boeing’s bid for the tankers and helped the company lobby to win the contract. The book also highlights the extreme waste of U.S. taxpayer money on contractors in Iraq with close ties to the Bush administration.
U.S. arms exports can also run counter to U.S. interests through what the authors call a “global escalation of military capacity.” By providing sophisticated weapons systems to a wide range of questionable partners, the United States may lose some technical military advantage over these partners. This can encourage the Pentagon to ask for more funds to regain this military advantage, potentially wasting U.S. taxpayer funds.
Other studies and prosecutions have highlighted the clear role that intermediaries, brokers, or agents play in subverting or manipulating procurement decisions, providing bribes, and fueling corruption. In 2010, for example, BAE Systems pleaded guilty and paid a $400 million fine to the United States after being caught in a scandal to cover up, among other items, payments made to “marketing agents” to help it secure arms contracts with Saudi Arabia. The company failed to disclose any fees paid to the agents. However, the United States has been slowly stripping this disclosure requirement away from U.S. regulations.
As debate continues around the Trump administration’s arms sales and defense spending, the authors suggest several ways to actually improve security and reduce corruption, for instance by increasing transparency on defense strategies, including “how expenditures on systems and programs align with the threats to national security.” The authors also encourage the U.S. policy community to support new sanctions on corruption and to impose a legal obligation that defense contractors reveal the agents they use in all arms deals.
As Hartung said during the panel, it can be easy to think there are no ways to prevent irresponsible U.S. defense policies and sales. But in the past decade there have been some notable successes in curbing procurement decisions and sales that would harm U.S. interests. The book provides scores of useful examples and insights to help Americans better identify administration proposals that could be harmful to U.S. short- and long-term interests.
Colby Goodman is the director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy where he leads research and analysis on U.S. foreign security assistance around the world. Taner Bertuna also works for Security Assistance Monitor. Photo of Sarah Chayes via Forum on the Arms Trade (Flickr).