Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Gaming the system

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently announced a new defense budget in which he slashed several behemoth weapons programs in favor of expanded recruiting, training, medical care, and family benefits for soldiers. I'm over-simplifying a bit, but I stand by that (admittedly inexpert) opinion of the overall focus. It's more money for individual soldiers and the gear that affects their everyday battles, more money for life-saving drones, and less for the mega-budget superweapons that line the pockets of government contractors.

But the chances of this budget making it through Congress are slim. The military contractors are veterans of this game and know exactly how to stack the odds in their favor.

One of the prize pigs being slaughtered in this budget is the F-22A Raptor stealth fighter. This $350 million beast, of which we already own 187, is technologically incredible. It is "unmatched by any known or projected fighter aircraft." But in spite of the awesome "cool" factor, there's very little practical application for a weapon like this. We're not in an arms race against a superpower anymore, we're fighting small wars against a mobile enemy with an underwhelming techonological disadvantage. The extra 200 Raptors, demanded by the Air Force but slashed from this budget, will do nothing to change the outcome of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or potential conflicts with Iran and Syria. Even if we were surprised by an unlikely attack by Russia or China, it is hard to imagine that more superweapons would contain the catastrophic damage of such a conflict. (Besides, we currently hold a decided sea/air/nuclear advantage over the rest of the world combined.)

Yet, you can bet your income tax refund that this project will be preserved by the politicians. Why? Because Lockheed Martin has spread out the subcontracting for this plane to key legislative districts in 46 different states! That's some brilliant manuevering. So 92 Senators would have to go back home and explain to constituents in their most influential districts why they voted to have their jobs taken away. Think that's going to happen?

Somehow, I believe we'll continue churning out $350 million toys on our way to $10 trillion in debt, as unemployment rises and government expands. I sure hope I'm wrong.


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