The all-too-smooth transition from general to arms salesman | Jay Bookman

An important piece of work from the Boston Globe:

An hour after the official ceremony marking the end of his 35-year career in the Air Force, General Gregory “Speedy’’ Martin returned to his quarters to swap his dress uniform for golf attire.

He was ready for his first tee time as a retired four-star general.

But almost as soon as he closed the door that day in 2005 his phone rang. It was an executive at Northrop Grumman, asking if he was interested in working for the manufacturer of the B-2 stealth bomber as a paid consultant. A few weeks later, Martin received another call. This time it was the Pentagon, asking him to join a top-secret Air Force panel studying the future of stealth aircraft technology.

Martin was understandably in demand, having been the general in charge of all Air Force weapons programs, including the B-2, for the previous four years.

He said yes to both offers.

The Globe goes on to document that 80 percent of three-star and four-star officers now go immediately into consulting work with the defense industry. In many cases, they arrange the contracts well before they retire, a process that inevitably creates temptations. And when, once retired, they also serve as consultants to the Pentagon, they are not required to disclose that they are serving two masters nor how much they are being paid to do so.

The consequences — and advantages to defense contractors — can be significant, as the Globe reports:

“There was a clear sense of urgency as top Army officials and advisers converged on the National Defense University’s campus on the banks of the Potomac River for a high-level meeting in June 2009.

Their goal: develop ideas for the Army’s next ground combat vehicle. The Army badly needed to get a new tank program rolling after its previous effort resulted in an embarrassing, $14 billion flop.

A veil of secrecy surrounded the event. The Army did not publicly disclose the guest list for the meeting. It required participants to sign nondisclosure agreements.

And to block potential bidders from gaining an unfair advantage, defense contractors were pointedly excluded.

Yet, defense contractors had a robust presence inside.

At least six retired generals invited by the Army were also consultants or executives of defense companies that would bid on the new tank contracts, according to a meeting roster obtained by the Globe. The roster did not list their private-sector affiliations. Each was listed by the Army only as ‘distinguished participant.’”

It’s hard to imagine such a system being accepted so blithely in any other line of government contracting. And that’s the larger point, I suppose: There is no other line of government contracting like Pentagon contracting.

Cost overruns, bidding scandals, the absence of competitive bidding, congressional meddling and expensive weapons systems that fail to perform are all more or less accepted features in that world, at great cost to the taxpayer and to those “at the tip of the spear,” where lives depend on weapons that work.

A half century ago next month, a man who knew a thing or two about such things left us a prescient warning:

“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

I’m far from confident that we have heeded President Eisenhower’s warning.

The all-too-smooth transition from general to arms salesman | Jay Bookman.

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