Within the next month, the Pentagon will submit its 2009 budget to Congress and it's a fair bet that it will be even larger than the staggering 2008 one. Like the Army and the Marines, the Pentagon itself is overstretched and under strain--and like the two services, which are expected to add 92,000 new troops over the next five years (at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion per 10,000), the Pentagon's response is never to cut back, but always to expand, always to demand more.
After all, there are those disastrous Afghan and Iraqi wars still eating taxpayer dollars as if there were no tomorrow. Then there's what enthusiasts like to call "the next war" to think about, which means all those big-ticket weapons, all those jets, ships, and armored vehicles for the future. And don't forget the still-popular, Rumsfeld-style "netcentric warfare" systems (robots, drones, communications satellites, and the like), not to speak of the killer space toys being developed; and then there's all that ruined equipment out of Iraq and Afghanistan to be massively replaced -- and all those ruined human beings to take care of.
You'll get the gist of this from a recent editorial in the trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology:
"The fact Washington must face is that nearly five years of war have left U.S. forces worse off than they have been in a generation, yes, since Vietnam, and restoring them will take budget-building unlike any in the past."
Even on the rare occasion when--as in the case of Boeing's C-17 cargo plane--the Pentagon decides to cancel a project, there's Congress to remember. Contracts and subcontracts for weapons systems, carefully doled out to as many states as possible, mean jobs, and so Congress often balks at such cuts. (Fifty-five House members recently warned the Pentagon of a "strong negative response" if funding for the C-17 is excised from the 2009 budget.) All in all, it adds up to a defense menu for a glutton.
Already, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that 2009 funding is "largely locked into place." The giant military-industrial combines -- Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon -- have been watching their stocks rise in otherwise treacherous times. They are hopeful. As Ronald Sugar, Northrop CEO, put it: "A great global power like the United States needs a great navy and a great navy needs an adequate number of ships, and they have to be modern and capable" -- and guess which company is the Navy's largest shipbuilder?
There should be nothing surprising in all this, especially for those of us who have read Chalmers Johnson's Nemesis, The Last Days of the American Republic, the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy. Published in 2007 (and just out in paperback), it is already a classic on what imperial overstretch means for the rest of us. As global stock markets tumble and the world shudders, Johnson has just written a piece of almost unbearable timeliness: "Going Bankrupt: Why the Debt Crisis Is Now the Greatest Threat to the American Republic." It is, quite simply, a magisterial account of how the mightiest guns the Pentagon can muster threaten to sink our own country.
"Our short tenure as the world's 'lone superpower' has come to an end... Some of the damage done can never be rectified. There are, however, some steps that this country urgently needs to take. These include reversing Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the wealthy, beginning to liquidate our global empire of over 800 military bases, cutting from the defense budget all projects that bear no relationship to the national security of the United States, and ceasing to use the defense budget as a Keynesian jobs program. If we do these things we have a chance of squeaking by. If we don't, we face probable national insolvency and a long depression."