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An Op-Ed Piece for the New York Times


David Alexander


Copyright (C) David Alexander

        As a Times editorial piece made clear recently, the Pentagon, like many another large business institution today with far-flung global interests, faces budgetary crisis. The comparison to the Pentagon as a business is not superfluous because the Pentagon views itself as a large corporation. As the DOD's fact sheet, "Pentagon 101" points out, the Pentagon views itself as "America's oldest, largest, busiest and most successful company.” It goes on to explain that, “With our military units tracing their roots to pre-Revolutionary times, you might say that we are America’s oldest company. And if you look at us in business terms, many would say we are not only America’s largest company, but its busiest and most successful.”

        The corporate analogy was present from the outset. From its earliest beginnings the Pentagon was planned as the world’s largest government office building, which it still holds the distinction of being. Also from the outset, the Pentagon’s purpose was largely one of management of the sprawling military infrastructure that already existed in the era between the First and Second World Wars, and which was expected to grow exponentially as America first prepared for, and then entered, the war in Europe and the Pacific. A dominating presence in the then War Department was an able manager, General George C. Marshall, who, given the opportunity to command Allied forces in Europe chose to remain at his post as plenipotentiary of the Combined Chiefs of Staff and instead sent his protégé, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to lead Allied forces in the field.

        That the Pentagon has always been as much concerned with conducting business as it has been with waging war should come as a surprise to few, based alone on the telling statistic that on any given business day civilians in suits outnumber uniformed military by a ratio of about of three to one. Nor is it accidental that most defense secretaries were former corporate honchos.

That this fact does surprise many was brought home to me while doing media appearances to publicize my recent book The Building: A Biography of the Pentagon, in which talk show hosts that I'd expected to know better seemed stunned to learn that the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not set America's military policy, and that it was the civilian-run Defense Department that oversaw Pentagon operations, or for that matter that this arrangement was enshrined in the laws of the United States, via enactments dating back to the origins of the republic and which themselves originated in the Constitution.

By an astonishing margin, I found myself questioned about periods during which the Pentagon was supposedly wrested from the chiefs and brought under "civilian control," such as during Robert McNamara's tenure as defense secretary. My response was to politely state that the Pentagon had always been under civilian control as it had been before, during and after McNamara's term in office, and that this was the law of the land.

        In hindsight I can understand the notion that the Defense Department can write its own ticket, a misconception fostered, in large part, by the enormous recent expenditures in both standard annual budgeting as well as historically high budget supplementals approved by Congress on an ad hoc basis. Collectively these allocations for defense have dwarfed even the closest historical comparisons -- the budgets of the Reagan-era Pentagon, which, it must be pointed out, were allocated to prepare for a potential apocalyptic battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, with regional sideshows elsewhere in the world.

        Yet the opposite is true: budgeting for defense has always been a preoccupation at the Pentagon, and has always been a matter of considerable concern -- sometimes even of pronounced dissension in the ranks. Such was the case during the Pentagon’s construction, as attested to by the Building's windowless fifth and topmost floor. The Army Corps of Engineers’ Brigadier General Brehon Somervell (who'd earlier built La Guardia Airport) had instructed his Brooklyn-born chief engineer General Hugh J. Casey to shoehorn it in at practically the last moment -- original construction plans had not budgeted for more than four floors.

        Budgetary priorities underlay the period of postwar restructuring as codified in the 1947 National Security Act and its 1949 Amendment. It was by and large questions about whether the Army or the Navy got their fair shares of postwar defense allocations -- and whether the plans of both services would be challenged or superseded by the newly created Air Force -- that precipitated a so-called "Revolt of the Admirals." Then, a Truman administration gripped by nascent Cold War tensions, and viewing a nuclear-armed and apparently expansionist Soviet Union in a way not unlike America now views analogous contemporary threats, was ramping up for new defense spending for a Pentagon headed by Defense Secretary James Forrestal. Forrestal asked for but didn't get as fat a defense budget as he'd wanted. Nor did his successors Louis Johnson and George Marshall run a Pentagon flush with defense megabucks. And while Robert A. Lovett, who ran DOD between 1951 and 1953, requested and got extremely large defense funding (for the era) to fuel an expanded Cold War military, he got less from Truman and Congress than he'd asked for as well.

        Also a part of the historical record is that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was recruited in 2001 by President George W. Bush principally to balance the Pentagon budget, streamline the system used at DOD for the procurement of military systems and keep the chiefs' ever-present demands for new and often complex warfighting systems at affordable levels. It was to this end that Rumsfeld appointed General Richard Myers, an able manager, to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Prior to the attacks of 911, Rumsfeld's main preoccupation as secdef focused on accomplishing this end, and Rumsfeld drew considerable fire by canceling Crusader, a super-howitzer that could discharge artillery shells at rates of fire on a machinegun-like scale. He did so for reasons similar to present Defense Secretary Gates' controversial plans to curtail procurement of the F-22 Raptor fighterplane. Like the Raptor today, Crusader then was a big-ticket program that had already cost billions, yet was perceived as a Cold War-era dinosaur. And, again like the F-22, cutting Crusader meant cutting pork-barrel funding, resulting in job losses for Congressional leaders' constituents.

        Yet, what comes round often goes round. Despite a mandate to do the contrary, the September 11th attacks and OIF/OEF intervened and stood Rumsfeld's original brief squarely on its head. Because of it, history may well remember Donald Rumsfeld not as the Belushiesque "Samurai Defense Secretary" he was hired to be, but as the Pentagon honcho who presided over the largest aggregate budgetary allocations in U.S. history. Today, it's Secretary Gates who is preoccupied with fat-trimming at the Puzzle Palace and who is eying the Raptor, Zumwalt-class destroyers (stealthy combat ships optimized for littoral warfare) and the array of robotically enabled and networked systems collectively known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), as principle big-ticket expenditures to be hacked by the budgetary sword.

        That Mr. Gates is correct in doing so is beyond question. These, and other programs facing cancellation or cutbacks, are enormously costly, have been fraught with developmental issues, and represent warfighting capabilities that may well be tremendously out of proportion to the threats the U.S. and our global defense partners are likely to become embroiled with into the next decade of the emerging century. On the other hand, the F-22 Raptor is a fighter in an entirely different class from the F-35 "Lightning II" Joint Strike Fighter which the Pentagon does recommend for continued production. Simply put, other fighters from other global producers feature performance capabilities that give them parity or near-parity with the F-35. Such is not the case anent the F-22 and those other fighters, which include the French Rafale, the Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum, the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, developed by a consortium of European nations, or for that matter even the HAL Tejas multirole fighter currently under development by India.

        The Pentagon, viewing itself as the oldest and largest American corporation, must rightfully hold budgetary matters paramount. But as the orator Cicero once remarked to the Roman Senate, "infinite money is the sinews of war." This is also incontestably true. As true as the fact that the tides of history have a habit of surprising and frequently dangerous shifts. With the appointment of former DOD Comptroller William Lynn as Deputy Defense Secretary, and with Secretary Gates attaching high priority to direct oversight of the defense budget, the Pentagon's future course is sure to be penny-wise. For America's and the world's sake, though, let's hope that it won't ever be pound-foolish.