22 February 2014

Anatomy of the Deep State

Attached is an important essay, Anatomy of the Deep State, written by one of my closest friends Mike Lofgren (so I am biased and proud to say so!).  It is posted on Bill Moyers website, and it accompanies a must see 26 minute video interview of Mike by Bill Moyers.  Mr. Moyers has kindly given me permission to post Lofgren’s essay en toto. Included at the end are links to valuable commentaries by Danielle Bryon, Andrew Bacevich, Heidi Boghosian, Juan Cole, Henry Giroux, and Tim Wu. Readers of this blog should be familiar with Mike’s incisive analyses and writings, but in my opinion, he has again outdone himself.  Kudos to Bill Moyers for giving visibility to a subject that should concern every American who believes in the founding principles of our nation.  I urge you to watch the video interview -- "The Deep State Hiding in Plain Sight" -- before reading Mike's essay.

Exclusive Essay: 
Anatomy of the Deep State
by Mike Lofgren, Moyers & Company, February 21, 2014

Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
– The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)
There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. [1]
During the last five years, the news media has been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: In the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.
As I wrote in The Party is Over, the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.
Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions — with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance.
These are not isolated instances of a contradiction; they have been so pervasive that they tend to be disregarded as background noise. During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing 13 people. During that same period of time, the government spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of 17 football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have coined. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single trace of your electronic life.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude. [2]
How did I come to write an analysis of the Deep State, and why am I equipped to write it? As a congressional staff member for 28 years specializing in national security and possessing a top secret security clearance, I was at least on the fringes of the world I am describing, if neither totally in it by virtue of full membership nor of it by psychological disposition. But, like virtually every employed person, I became, to some extent, assimilated into the culture of the institution I worked for, and only by slow degrees, starting before the invasion of Iraq, did I begin fundamentally to question the reasons of state that motivate the people who are, to quote George W. Bush, “the deciders.”
Cultural assimilation is partly a matter of what psychologist Irving L. Janis called “groupthink,” the chameleon-like ability of people to adopt the views of their superiors and peers. This syndrome is endemic to Washington: The town is characterized by sudden fads, be it negotiating biennial budgeting, making grand bargains or invading countries. Then, after a while, all the town’s cool kids drop those ideas as if they were radioactive. As in the military, everybody has to get on board with the mission, and questioning it is not a career-enhancing move. The universe of people who will critically examine the goings-on at the institutions they work for is always going to be a small one. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
A more elusive aspect of cultural assimilation is the sheer dead weight of the ordinariness of it all once you have planted yourself in your office chair for the 10,000th time. Government life is typically not some vignette from an Allen Drury novel about intrigue under the Capitol dome. Sitting and staring at the clock on the off-white office wall when it’s 11:00 in the evening and you are vowing never, ever to eat another piece of takeout pizza in your life is not an experience that summons the higher literary instincts of a would-be memoirist. After a while, a functionary of the state begins to hear things that, in another context, would be quite remarkable, or at least noteworthy, and yet that simply bounce off one’s consciousness like pebbles off steel plate: “You mean the number of terrorist groups we are fighting is classified?” No wonder so few people are whistle-blowers, quite apart from the vicious retaliation whistle-blowing often provokes: Unless one is blessed with imagination and a fine sense of irony, growing immune to the curiousness of one’s surroundings is easy. To paraphrase the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, I didn’t know all that I knew, at least until I had had a couple of years away from the government to reflect upon it.
The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.
I saw this submissiveness on many occasions. One memorable incident was passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008. This legislation retroactively legalized the Bush administration’s illegal and unconstitutional surveillance first revealed by The New York Times in 2005 and indemnified the telecommunications companies for their cooperation in these acts. The bill passed easily: All that was required was the invocation of the word “terrorism” and most members of Congress responded like iron filings obeying a magnet. One who responded in that fashion was Senator Barack Obama, soon to be coronated as the presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He had already won the most delegates by campaigning to the left of his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the excesses of the global war on terror and the erosion of constitutional liberties.
As the indemnification vote showed, the Deep State does not consist only of government agencies. What is euphemistically called “private enterprise” is an integral part of its operations. In a special series in The Washington Post called “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest and William K. Arkin described the scope of the privatized Deep State and the degree to which it has metastasized after the September 11 attacks. There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances — a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government. While they work throughout the country and the world, their heavy concentration in and around the Washington suburbs is unmistakable: Since 9/11, 33 facilities for top-secret intelligence have been built or are under construction. Combined, they occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet. Seventy percent of the intelligence community’s budget goes to paying contracts. And the membrane between government and industry is highly permeable: The Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, is a former executive of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the government’s largest intelligence contractors. His predecessor as director, Admiral Mike McConnell, is the current vice chairman of the same company; Booz Allen is 99 percent dependent on government business. These contractors now set the political and social tone of Washington, just as they are increasingly setting the direction of the country, but they are doing it quietly, their doings unrecorded in the Congressional Record or the Federal Register, and are rarely subject to congressional hearings.
Washington is the most important node of the Deep State that has taken over America, but it is not the only one. Invisible threads of money and ambition connect the town to other nodes. One is Wall Street, which supplies the cash that keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater. Should the politicians forget their lines and threaten the status quo, Wall Street floods the town with cash and lawyers to help the hired hands remember their own best interests. The executives of the financial giants even have de facto criminal immunity. On March 6, 2013, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder stated the following: “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” This, from the chief law enforcement officer of a justice system that has practically abolished the constitutional right to trial for poorer defendants charged with certain crimes. It is not too much to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice — certainly beyond the dreams of a salaried government employee. [3]
The corridor between Manhattan and Washington is a well trodden highway for the personalities we have all gotten to know in the period since the massive deregulation of Wall Street: Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner and many others. Not all the traffic involves persons connected with the purely financial operations of the government: In 2013, General David Petraeus joined KKR (formerly Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) of 9 West 57th Street, New York, a private equity firm with $62.3 billion in assets. KKR specializes in management buyouts and leveraged finance. General Petraeus’ expertise in these areas is unclear. His ability to peddle influence, however, is a known and valued commodity. Unlike Cincinnatus, the military commanders of the Deep State do not take up the plow once they lay down the sword. Petraeus also obtained a sinecure as a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The Ivy League is, of course, the preferred bleaching tub and charm school of the American oligarchy. [4]
Petraeus and most of the avatars of the Deep State — the White House advisers who urged Obama not to impose compensation limits on Wall Street CEOs, the contractor-connected think tank experts who besought us to “stay the course” in Iraq, the economic gurus who perpetually demonstrate that globalization and deregulation are a blessing that makes us all better off in the long run — are careful to pretend that they have no ideology. Their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well considered advice based on profound expertise. That is nonsense. They are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. Domestically, whatever they might privately believe about essentially diversionary social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, they almost invariably believe in the “Washington Consensus”: financialization, outsourcing, privatization, deregulation and the commodifying of labor. Internationally, they espouse 21st-century “American Exceptionalism”: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world with coercive diplomacy and boots on the ground and to ignore painfully won international norms of civilized behavior. To paraphrase what Sir John Harrington said more than 400 years ago about treason, now that the ideology of the Deep State has prospered, none dare call it ideology. [5] That is why describing torture with the word “torture” on broadcast television is treated less as political heresy than as an inexcusable lapse of Washington etiquette: Like smoking a cigarette on camera, these days it is simply “not done.”
After Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent and depth of surveillance by the National Security Agency, it has become publicly evident that Silicon Valley is a vital node of the Deep State as well. Unlike military and intelligence contractors, Silicon Valley overwhelmingly sells to the private market, but its business is so important to the government that a strange relationship has emerged. While the government could simply dragoon the high technology companies to do the NSA’s bidding, it would prefer cooperation with so important an engine of the nation’s economy, perhaps with an implied quid pro quo. Perhaps this explains the extraordinary indulgence the government shows the Valley in intellectual property matters. If an American “jailbreaks” his smartphone (i.e., modifies it so that it can use a service provider other than the one dictated by the manufacturer), he could receive a fine of up to $500,000 and several years in prison; so much for a citizen’s vaunted property rights to what he purchases. The libertarian pose of the Silicon Valley moguls, so carefully cultivated in their public relations, has always been a sham. Silicon Valley has long been tracking for commercial purposes the activities of every person who uses an electronic device, so it is hardly surprising that the Deep State should emulate the Valley and do the same for its own purposes. Nor is it surprising that it should conscript the Valley’s assistance.
Still, despite the essential roles of lower Manhattan and Silicon Valley, the center of gravity of the Deep State is firmly situated in and around the Beltway. The Deep State’s physical expansion and consolidation around the Beltway would seem to make a mockery of the frequent pronouncement that governance in Washington is dysfunctional and broken. That the secret and unaccountable Deep State floats freely above the gridlock between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is the paradox of American government in the 21st century: drone strikes, data mining, secret prisons and Panopticon-like control on the one hand; and on the other, the ordinary, visible parliamentary institutions of self-government declining to the status of a banana republic amid the gradual collapse of public infrastructure.
The results of this contradiction are not abstract, as a tour of the rotting, decaying, bankrupt cities of the American Midwest will attest. It is not even confined to those parts of the country left behind by a Washington Consensus that decreed the financialization and deindustrialization of the economy in the interests of efficiency and shareholder value. This paradox is evident even within the Beltway itself, the richest metropolitan area in the nation. Although demographers and urban researchers invariably count Washington as a “world city,” that is not always evident to those who live there. Virtually every time there is a severe summer thunderstorm, tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of residents lose power, often for many days. There are occasional water restrictions over wide areas because water mains, poorly constructed and inadequately maintained, have burst. [6] The Washington metropolitan area considers it a Herculean task just to build a rail link to its international airport — with luck it may be completed by 2018.
It is as if Hadrian’s Wall was still fully manned and the fortifications along the border with Germania were never stronger, even as the city of Rome disintegrates from within and the life-sustaining aqueducts leading down from the hills begin to crumble. The governing classes of the Deep State may continue to deceive themselves with their dreams of Zeus-like omnipotence, but others do not. A 2013 Pew Poll that interviewed 38,000 people around the world found that in 23 of 39 countries surveyed, a plurality of respondents said they believed China already had or would in the future replace the United States as the world’s top economic power.
The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State, and its time in the sun as a rival to Rome, Constantinople or London may be term-limited by its overweening sense of self-importance and its habit, as Winwood Reade said of Rome, to “live upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face.” “Living upon its principal,” in this case, means that the Deep State has been extracting value from the American people in vampire-like fashion.
We are faced with two disagreeable implications. First, that the Deep State is so heavily entrenched, so well protected by surveillance, firepower, money and its ability to co-opt resistance that it is almost impervious to change. Second, that just as in so many previous empires, the Deep State is populated with those whose instinctive reaction to the failure of their policies is to double down on those very policies in the future. Iraq was a failure briefly camouflaged by the wholly propagandistic success of the so-called surge; this legerdemain allowed for the surge in Afghanistan, which equally came to naught. Undeterred by that failure, the functionaries of the Deep State plunged into Libya; the smoking rubble of the Benghazi consulate, rather than discouraging further misadventure, seemed merely to incite the itch to bomb Syria. Will the Deep State ride on the back of the American people from failure to failure until the country itself, despite its huge reserves of human and material capital, is slowly exhausted? The dusty road of empire is strewn with the bones of former great powers that exhausted themselves in like manner.
But, there are signs of resistance to the Deep State and its demands. In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the House narrowly failed to pass an amendment that would have defunded the NSA’s warrantless collection of data from US persons. Shortly thereafter, the president, advocating yet another military intervention in the Middle East, this time in Syria, met with such overwhelming congressional skepticism that he changed the subject by grasping at a diplomatic lifeline thrown to him by Vladimir Putin. [7]
Has the visible, constitutional state, the one envisaged by Madison and the other Founders, finally begun to reassert itself against the claims and usurpations of the Deep State? To some extent, perhaps. The unfolding revelations of the scope of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance have become so egregious that even institutional apologists such as Senator Dianne Feinstein have begun to backpedal — if only rhetorically — from their knee-jerk defense of the agency. As more people begin to waken from the fearful and suggestible state that 9/11 created in their minds, it is possible that the Deep State’s decade-old tactic of crying “terrorism!” every time it faces resistance is no longer eliciting the same Pavlovian response of meek obedience. And the American people, possibly even their legislators, are growing tired of endless quagmires in the Middle East.
But there is another more structural reason the Deep State may have peaked in the extent of its dominance. While it seems to float above the constitutional state, its essentially parasitic, extractive nature means that it is still tethered to the formal proceedings of governance. The Deep State thrives when there is tolerable functionality in the day-to-day operations of the federal government. As long as appropriations bills get passed on time, promotion lists get confirmed, black (i.e., secret) budgets get rubber-stamped, special tax subsidies for certain corporations are approved without controversy, as long as too many awkward questions are not asked, the gears of the hybrid state will mesh noiselessly. But when one house of Congress is taken over by tea party Wahhabites, life for the ruling class becomes more trying.
If there is anything the Deep State requires it is silent, uninterrupted cash flow and the confidence that things will go on as they have in the past. It is even willing to tolerate a degree of gridlock: Partisan mud wrestling over cultural issues may be a useful distraction from its agenda. But recent congressional antics involving sequestration, the government shutdown and the threat of default over the debt ceiling extension have been disrupting that equilibrium. And an extreme gridlock dynamic has developed between the two parties such that continuing some level of sequestration is politically the least bad option for both parties, albeit for different reasons. As much as many Republicans might want to give budget relief to the organs of national security, they cannot fully reverse sequestration without the Democrats demanding revenue increases. And Democrats wanting to spend more on domestic discretionary programs cannot void sequestration on either domestic or defense programs without Republicans insisting on entitlement cuts.
So, for the foreseeable future, the Deep State must restrain its appetite for taxpayer dollars. Limited deals may soften sequestration, but agency requests will not likely be fully funded anytime soon. Even Wall Street’s rentier operations have been affected: After helping finance the tea party to advance its own plutocratic ambitions, America’s Big Money is now regretting the Frankenstein’s monster it has created. Like children playing with dynamite, the tea party and its compulsion to drive the nation into credit default has alarmed the grown-ups commanding the heights of capital; the latter are now telling the politicians they thought they had hired to knock it off.
The House vote to defund the NSA’s illegal surveillance programs was equally illustrative of the disruptive nature of the tea party insurgency. Civil liberties Democrats alone would never have come so close to victory; tea party stalwart Justin Amash (R-MI), who has also upset the business community for his debt-limit fundamentalism, was the lead Republican sponsor of the NSA amendment, and most of the Republicans who voted with him were aligned with the tea party.
The final factor is Silicon Valley. Owing to secrecy and obfuscation, it is hard to know how much of the NSA’s relationship with the Valley is based on voluntary cooperation, how much is legal compulsion through FISA warrants and how much is a matter of the NSA surreptitiously breaking into technology companies’ systems. Given the Valley’s public relations requirement to mollify its customers who have privacy concerns, it is difficult to take the tech firms’ libertarian protestations about government compromise of their systems at face value, especially since they engage in similar activity against their own customers for commercial purposes. That said, evidence is accumulating that Silicon Valley is losing billions in overseas business from companies, individuals and governments that want to maintain privacy. For high tech entrepreneurs, the cash nexus is ultimately more compelling than the Deep State’s demand for patriotic cooperation. Even legal compulsion can be combatted: Unlike the individual citizen, tech firms have deep pockets and batteries of lawyers with which to fight government diktat.
This pushback has gone so far that on January 17, President Obama announced revisions to the NSA’s data collection programs, including withdrawing the agency’s custody of a domestic telephone record database, expanding requirements for judicial warrants and ceasing to spy on (undefined) “friendly foreign leaders.” Critics have denounced the changes as a cosmetic public relations move, but they are still significant in that the clamor has gotten so loud that the president feels the political need to address it.
When the contradictions within a ruling ideology are pushed too far, factionalism appears and that ideology begins slowly to crumble. Corporate oligarchs such as the Koch brothers are no longer entirely happy with the faux-populist political front group they helped fund and groom. Silicon Valley, for all the Ayn Rand-like tendencies of its major players, its offshoring strategies and its further exacerbation of income inequality, is now lobbying Congress to restrain the NSA, a core component of the Deep State. Some tech firms are moving to encrypt their data. High tech corporations and governments alike seek dominance over people though collection of personal data, but the corporations are jumping ship now that adverse public reaction to the NSA scandals threatens their profits.
The outcome of all these developments is uncertain. The Deep State, based on the twin pillars of national security imperative and corporate hegemony, has until recently seemed unshakable and the latest events may only be a temporary perturbation in its trajectory. But history has a way of toppling the altars of the mighty. While the two great materialist and determinist ideologies of the twentieth century, Marxism and the Washington Consensus, successively decreed that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the market were inevitable, the future is actually indeterminate. It may be that deep economic and social currents create the framework of history, but those currents can be channeled, eddied, or even reversed by circumstance, chance and human agency. We have only to reflect upon defunct glacial despotisms such as the USSR or East Germany to realize that nothing is forever.
Throughout history, state systems with outsized pretensions to power have reacted to their environments in two ways. The first strategy, reflecting the ossification of its ruling elites, consists of repeating that nothing is wrong, that the status quo reflects the nation’s unique good fortune in being favored by God and that those calling for change are merely subversive troublemakers. As the French ancien régime, the Romanov dynasty and the Habsburg emperors discovered, the strategy works splendidly for a while, particularly if one has a talent for dismissing unpleasant facts. The final results, however, are likely to be thoroughly disappointing.
The second strategy is one embraced to varying degrees and with differing goals, by figures of such contrasting personalities as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Deng Xiaoping. They were certainly not revolutionaries by temperament; if anything, their natures were conservative. But they understood that the political cultures in which they lived were fossilized and incapable of adapting to the times. In their drive to reform and modernize the political systems they inherited, their first obstacles to overcome were the outworn myths that encrusted the thinking of the elites of their time.
As the United States confronts its future after experiencing two failed wars, a precarious economy and $17 trillion in accumulated debt, the national punditry has split into two camps. The first, the declinists, sees a broken, dysfunctional political system incapable of reform and an economy soon to be overtaken by China. The second, the reformers, offers a profusion of nostrums to turn the nation around: public financing of elections to sever the artery of money between the corporate components of the Deep State and financially dependent elected officials, government “insourcing” to reverse the tide of outsourcing of government functions and the conflicts of interest that it creates, a tax policy that values human labor over financial manipulation and a trade policy that favors exporting manufactured goods over exporting investment capital.
All of that is necessary, but not sufficient. The Snowden revelations (the impact of which have been surprisingly strong), the derailed drive for military intervention in Syria and a fractious Congress, whose dysfunction has begun to be a serious inconvenience to the Deep State, show that there is now a deep but as yet inchoate hunger for change. What America lacks is a figure with the serene self-confidence to tell us that the twin idols of national security and corporate power are outworn dogmas that have nothing more to offer us. Thus disenthralled, the people themselves will unravel the Deep State with surprising speed.
[1] The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime. In British author John le Carré’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth, a character describes the Deep State as “… the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.”  I use the term to mean a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.
[2] Twenty-five years ago, the sociologist Robert Nisbet described this phenomenon as “the attribute of No Fault…. Presidents, secretaries and generals and admirals in America seemingly subscribe to the doctrine that no fault ever attaches to policy and operations. This No Fault conviction prevents them from taking too seriously such notorious foul-ups as Desert One, Grenada, Lebanon and now the Persian Gulf.” To his list we might add 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
[3] The attitude of many members of Congress towards Wall Street was memorably expressed by Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, in 2010: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”
[4] Beginning in 1988, every US president has been a graduate of Harvard or Yale. Beginning in 2000, every losing presidential candidate has been a Harvard or Yale graduate, with the exception of John McCain in 2008.
[5] In recent months, the American public has seen a vivid example of a Deep State operative marketing his ideology under the banner of pragmatism. Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates — a one-time career CIA officer and deeply political Bush family retainer — has camouflaged his retrospective defense of military escalations that have brought us nothing but casualties and fiscal grief as the straight-from-the-shoulder memoir from a plain-spoken son of Kansas who disdains Washington and its politicians.
[6] Meanwhile, the US government took the lead in restoring Baghdad’s sewer system at a cost of $7 billion.
[7] Obama’s abrupt about-face suggests he may have been skeptical of military intervention in Syria all along, but only dropped that policy once Congress and Putin gave him the running room to do so. In 2009, he went ahead with the Afghanistan “surge” partly because General Petraeus’ public relations campaign and back-channel lobbying on the Hill for implementation of his pet military strategy pre-empted other options. These incidents raise the disturbing question of how much the democratically elected president — or any president — sets the policy of the national security state and how much the policy is set for him by the professional operatives of that state who engineer faits accomplis that force his hand.
Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback on August 27, 2013.


13 February 2014

George Wilson: A Legendary Reporter Remembered

(CS Note: this is a slightly edited version of my original emailing)

Today, the Washington Post reported that its legendary defense reporter George Wilson passed away at 86.  I remember him fondly, and working with people like him was one of the great blessings of my career in the Pentagon.

George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend.  I will miss him and his reporting.  His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home as much on the battlefields as in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this ever present humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

I particularly remember one morning in the Pentagon when I got a call from an Air National Guard one-star general, Dave Hoff, asking me for some help in getting him into the Pentagon.  The civilian guards would not let him thru the gate because he did not have a Pentagon pass. That was because Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger had just approved a stupid policy saying visiting military officers could not enter the Pentagon without a special Pentagon pass; so hundreds if not thousands of officers of all ranks visiting the Pentagon each day needed special escorts just to get them through the door.  Dave was the wing commander of a Guard A-10 wing that was based in Wisconsin.  His wing was part of the NATO war plan, and in this capacity, he was a full time active duty officer.  He had been called to DC for one of those never-ending, boring planning conferences.  He didn't want to be there.  Of course he had his military ID and was in full uniform, but that did not matter; the guards said no.  I got him in and he came up to the my office for a coffee before going to the meeting.  Coincidentally, Capt. Black popped his head in the door, as usual for no particular reason, and after introductions, I launched Dave -- who went into a half hour tirade about how stupid Weinberger's door plugging policy was.  The next day, a short hilarious story about how generals whose units were part of  the NATO war plans could not get into the Pentagon appeared on the front page of the Post, and the following day the policy was rescinded.  

Then there was the joy Captain Black had in penning a series of front page articles that shut down Weinberger's hysterical plan to plug all leaks by hooking everyone in the huge Office of the Secretary of Defense into the flutter box, even though the lie detector test had just fingered the wrong person.  The witch hunt was triggered by a story Captain Black wrote about the estimated long-term costs of the Reagan spendup made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  On his own responsibility and at considerable risk to his job at the Post, he wrote to Weinberger to tell him he had the wrong guy and was prepared to say so under oath in court; but he would refuse to name the person who supplied him with the information.  How many reporters would take such a risk to correct the record in this way?

George Wilson did some really serious work on important issues and wrote some great books. On balance, and I did not always agree with him, no one would say he was not a force for good.  But what I remember most was his prepossessing humanity -- he was a character and he was great fun to be around.  Young reporters would do well to learn from his example. (see also James Fallows' remembrance in The Atlantic)

11 February 2014

The Best Government Money Can Buy

Revolving Door Syndrome in the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Complex
The Best Government Money Can Buy
Those of you who think it is incorrect to attach “Congressional” onto the end of Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC) would be well advised to read “Lawmaker holds stock in defense contractor he champions” (by Donovan Slack, USA Today, 8 Feb 2014) to see one reason why I always include the reference to Congress.
Slack describes the ethically-challenged influence peddling capers of Congressman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin), a Harvard educated lawyer and one of longest serving and wealthiest members of Congress.  Petri used his position in Congress to enhance his political career (and power) as well as his personal wealth by promoting a controversial $3 billion dollar armored truck procurement contract to Oshkosh corporation that pushed dollars, jobs, and profits into his home district as well as wealth into his own stock portfolio.  Slack describes how Petri intervened to (1) fend off Oshkosh’s competitors, especially Texas based BAE corp, who had protested the contract award, accusing Oshkosh of low-balling its cost estimates and (2) how he worked to neutralize the rescue efforts by BAE’s friendly congressmen.  The story is complex, and I urge you to read Slack’s report at the link above.
Petri’s hijinks are old as our democracy (see this hilarious example of how the Navy’s Ship of the Line program was funded in the years after the War of 1812), but the intricacies of his maneuvers illustrate the subtle and deep-seated general nature of corruption and influence peddling now pervading our nation’s defense policy making machinery.  The threads of this influence peddling network are now woven deeply, almost invisibly, throughout the entire fabric of the contemporary American political economy.
Some political scientists use the metaphor Iron Triangle as a short hand for describing the structural aspects of this web of influence relationships.  The attached diagram depicts the triangle’s basic features for the MICC.  Note its principle idea: the two mutually-reinforcing circulations: (1) a counter-clockwise circulation of influence peddling fueling (2) a concomitant clockwise circulation of money.

Moreover, as the triangle illustrates, the influence peddling and associated money flows to and from the Congressional wing of the MICC, including Petri’s operations, are but two threads in a highly evolved pattern in America’s contemporary political-economic culture. The triangle is useful in that it draws our attention to an oversight in Donovan Slack’s otherwise excellent report: Slack has no discussion of what role any links between the long-serving Congressman Petri and Oshkosh Corp. might have played in the story.  He only notes a vague reference to Oshkosh by Petri’s spokesman as one of the biggest employers in Petri’s district and “we do work with them a lot.”  But there is no development of what “working” with Oshkosh entails.  Nor does Slack inquire into any political contributions possibly made by Oshkosh to Petri’s election campaign, or PACs, or even a possibility that some kind of quid pro quo passed between Petri and Oshkosh.  At the very least, he could have written that no evidence of any influence of this kind was found.
Bear in mind,  the MICC is by no means unique: the same kind of iron triangle is a useful shorthand for thinking about the political economy of Big Pharma, Big Oil, the Banksters, environmental protection businesses, and other large financial or industrial networks.  Our concern today, however, is the MICC.
Referring back to the diagram, note how inside the triangular circulation/counter-circulation of influence and money is a reference to the revolving door.  This reminds us of (1) the incestuous flow of people moving from job to job throughout the triangle; and (2) that the microscopic incentive structure of individual self-aggrandizement accompanying the revolving door is one of, if not the, major engine(s) powering the larger pattern of influence and money flows.
Thirty-three years experience in the DoD convinced me that the incentive structure of the revolving door is the most poisonous influence operating within the poles of these triangles.   The incentive structure produces a behavioral pattern of cynical bureaucratic gaming strategies accompanied by a mix of situational ethics that have evolved over time to lubricate and rationalize the flow of money throughout the triangle (see my pamphlet Defense Power games for some examples of these behaviors).  The result has been an insensible but profound cultural evolution over time: Today, there exists an ubiquitous incentive structure in a culturally mature form, wherein it is both common knowledge and a normative moral value that people who contribute to the money flow should be rewarded, and people who pose a threat to that flow by, for example, (1) exposing problems like cost overruns, testing failures, or management incompetence, and (2) by recommending lower-cost or more efficient solutions should be punished or otherwise neutralized.
Readers might think my characterization of the revolving door is too harsh.  I would ask them to consider the incentive structure and moral implications implicit in Brian Bender’s blockbuster report on just the military-industrial dimension of the revolving door, “From the Pentagon to the Private Sector”. This report appeared on 26 December 2010 in the Boston Globe.  Bender’s report may be the best of its kind, but it is hardly alone.  Other reports illustrating the ubiquity of the revolving door can be found here and here.
No doubt, President Eisenhower would have recognized most of the preceding points, including the revolving door.  But more subtle aspects of the traditional iron triangle and military-industrial revolving door began to evolve, again almost insensibly, after 1981, when the huge flood of money was unleashed during the Reagan Administration.  Perhaps the most prominent of these subtle changes has been a steady increase in the number of Congressional staffers flowing through the revolving door, moving from jobs in Congress to jobs in industry, often via political appointments in the Pentagon.
Members of the Congressional staff work for individual senators and congressmen. By definition their loyalty is political loyalty to their boss’s wishes. The organizational environment in Congress is more like that of a feudal medieval court where elected officials of the lords and the staffers are the courtiers catering to the lords.  Also, Congress resembles a feudal political organization in the sense that it is composed of multiple political power centers rather than the huge top-down information-processing bureaucracy of the executive branch, which organized along the strict chain-of-command lines of a military or industrial age management system.  While one can argue that political power is being concentrated in leaders’ offices on Capital Hill, there is nothing in the Hill’s bureaucratic structure that remotely resembles the huge, highly centralized, rigid hierarchies of  bureaucracies in the Pentagon.
That is to say, there is nothing in a hill staffer’s work experience that prepares him/her for the Pentagon’s bureaucratic battlefield.  Consequently former Hill staffers are particularly easy targets for the gamesters in the Pentagon and the defense industry to overload with “information” and back-to-back meetings, all the while seducing them with outward trappings of power (e.g., long titles, big offices, apparent deference, power point briefing etc.).  In short, Congressional staffers who become political appointees in the Pentagon are easy meat for the seasoned civilian and military bureaucratic warriors, who are skilled in the control of information flowing into their offices.  See my 2010 essay Inside the Rat’s Nest for a description of how “subordinates” set their bosses up to do their bidding.
Consider, for example, the background of the new Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James.  Traditionally, her qualifying “executive” experience for going through the revolving door into the Pentagon would have been with an arms manufacturer or perhaps a big commercial industrial firm.  But her experience is that of a long-time Congressional staffer (and not a very prominent one at that), with a short stint in the Clinton Administration as Assist. Sec. of Defense (ASD) for Reserve Affairs.  Although reserve issues should be important in the grand scheme of things, that ASD position is one of the least powerful and least effectual ASD positions in the entire Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon.  After leaving the Pentagon, Ms. James rotated through the revolving door into SAIC, a well known Beltway “consulting” firm, and a notorious revolving-door way station for apparachiks leaving government, who want to (1) cash in on their connections to do business with the government and (2) pad their resumes for a future job in government.
A biting summary of Ms. James background can be found in Debbie Does USAF. To be sure this is a snotty portrayal by a former Bush II official who seems to have an ax to grind.  But can anyone possibly believe that a person with James’ kind of background has built up the requisite  technical knowledge, management savvy, and decision-making expertise needed, for example, to (1) rein in huge, out of control programs like the F-35, or (2) withstand the bureaucratic and political pressure to start a new high cost stealth bomber program (which, by the way, requires starting a new cold war with China for justification).
And while Ms. James is coping with the types of specific management problems mentioned above, she must also cope with an Air Force budget plan that is more out of whack than at any time since I began studying this plans/reality mismatch problem in the early 1970s.
Nothing in her background has prepared her for the bureaucratic battles over the crises between readiness and modernization, not to mention the need to solve the moral and leadership problems that are now sweeping over the Air Force .  Nothing in her background has prepared her for the even more complex bureaucratic battles with Army and Navy in an increasingly stressful budget war over what service gets hosed by the long-term financial pressures posed by the budget sequester.
Or consider the new nominee for the Deputy Secretary of Defense — the more capable Robert Work.  Work is a well educated, retired Marine Colonel with post-retirement stints as an undersecretary of the Navy during the first Obama Administration and in think tanks.  But those think tanks, especially the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), have a history of advocating certain types of high-cost, high-tech defense technologies, especially robotics and stealth technologies (including particularly a new stealth bomber for the Air Force).  Moreover, at least one of these think tanks — CSBA — has a long history of receiving money from the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment to produce studies advocating the need for these stealth and robotic technologies together with the concomitant strategies aimed at “containing” China.
Whereas Ms. James epitomizes the congressional hack rolling through the revolving door, Work’s passage thru the revolving door illustrates the growing influence of more obscure outfits — think tanks with agendas and obscure links between industry and government — that lie outside the traditional poles of the iron triangle.  Advocacy outfits, like CSBA, that pose as dispassionate, independent, quasi-scholarly sources of bipartisan information, may have less visible connections to the players in the Iron Triangles, but their funding patterns and advocacy agendas show they are deeply connected to the larger MICC agendas.
Bear in mind, I have only scratched the surface of the revolving door problem and the big cozy family of courtiers in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.  Anyone who thinks the Obama Administration is going to rein in the MICC now that Afghanistan is winding down, need only compare the interests of the Iron Triangle to its panoply of political appointees to see why the big green spending machine is poised to pass on the costs of the budget sequester onto social programs and perhaps start a new cold war with China to justify the extravagance.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Obama Administration is now signalling that it will cave in to this network’s pressures and exempt the Pentagon budget from the constraints of the budget sequester and begin growing the defense budget in FY 2016 and beyond.
Welcome to the best government money can buy.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.

05 February 2014

The Report on the Structure of the Air Force

Mental Masturbation is Alive and Well in Versailles on the Potomac

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY, Counterpunch, February 5, 2014

The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force just sent its final report to President Obama and Armed Services Committees in both the houses of Congress on January 30, 2014.  This glitzy report is over 122 pages long, with its main body being 45 pages, and almost 80 pages of appendices.  Obviously, the report cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to produce.  Did the American taxpayer get anything of value for this expenditure?  Will the information in this report serve any constructive purpose other than bloating the resumes of the Commission’s members?
The short answers are NO and NO.
Like most blue ribbon panel reports, this one is destined for the dustbin of history.  It ducks even a basic acknowledgement of the most fundamental force structure issues facing the Air Force.  The only effect is to lull the reader to sleep with deadening verbiage.  It that sense, this report is a really pathetic, if all too typical, example of why our government cannot solve its most basic problems.
But the report does have one redeeming value: Its egregious omissions demonstrate the extent to which the collective mind of the American governing elite is disconnected from reality and is talking to itself.
A very simple exercise proves this point: I ask you to take a few minutes to peruse this report; to repeat, it can be downloaded from this link.
Now, for a little background on the problems underpinning the subject this report claims it is addressing: Fundamentally, the Air Force’s structural problems are rooted in its long procurement history of buying ever more technically complex equipment, with each new generation of equipment costing substantially more to buy and operate than its predecessor.  This has caused an economic asymmetry wherein rising unit costs that always grow faster than budgets grow, even when budgets increase very rapidly, as they did in the 1980s and after 1997.
The consequences of the relationship have been well understood for a long time: Weapons increase in complexity, force structure shrinks in size, weapons already in the inventory become older on average, and there is continual pressure to reduce readiness, because increasing complexity reinforces the aging to magnify operating costs further.  The long-established Pentagon’s Power Games accelerate this evolution when budgets increase — the little shop of horrors known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being a recent case in point.
This evolutionary pattern generates important indirect effects as well.  These effects have also been understood for a long time (e.g., see my 1980 report Defense Facts of Life or my 2002 briefing Defense Death Spiral (DS), especially slides 23-50, both which were based on official DoD data).  To summarize the indirect effects:
First, as forces shrink in size, supporting physical infrastructure also shrinks (e.g., via base closures or depot shutdowns); but infrastructure is protected by local political pressures, so it always shrinks more slowly that force structure shrinks.  Consequently, in the case of the Air Force, the bed down of airplanes on bases has become more diluted over time and its depot capacities become more excessive.  These differential rates of shrinkage create cost-growth pressures and institutional rigidities that magnify the evolutionary pattern (DS analyzes this evolution explicitly on pages 49-50).
Second, as forces shrink, organizational infrastructure (i.e., the number of operational units, command structures, headquarters, support services, etc) shrinks at a slower rate.  Command structures become top heavy with a bloated rank structure.  In the case of the Air Force, squadrons have fewer aircraft, wings have fewer aircraft, numbered Air Forces have fewer aircraft.  In short, the increasing organization bloat produces requirements for excessive numbers of Lieutenant Colonels, Colonels, and especially Generals.  The excessive rank overhead, coupled to an “up or out” promotion system, has all sorts of pathological results — e.g., it increases the predilection for micromanagement, over-centralization, bloated staffs, busywork, etc. These evolutions translate into increased costs in peacetime.  Even worse, they increase organization rigidity to slow down decision cycles when the military goes to war (DS, especially pages 34-36). If you doubt this, just look at the tooth-to tail-ratio and bloated command structures in Afghanistan.
To repeat, these problems have been understood for a very long time.  Nor are they impossible to comprehend and explain in a digestible way without glitzy distractions.  Consider, for example, an oped I published in the Washington Post in 1989 — 25 years ago! The subject is changing the force structure to make it more efficient without sacrificing capability.  It gives the reader examples of the kinds of analysis and changes that should have been considered by National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force. (By the way, this Op-Ed was officially cleared by security review in the Office of the Secretary of Defense — and was never rebutted on a factual basis.)

(Bear in mind, the following op-ed shows what was possible during the far more demanding days of the Cold War; such decisions should be easier and would make even more sense today)

Shape Up and Fly Right: How to Build a Better Air Force for Less Money 

Franklin C. Spinney
Published: Washington Post Outlook, April 16, 1989, Republished shortly thereafter in Air Force Times.
Author’s note: This the officially cleared version and does not include minor copy editing changes by the editors of Washington Post.
Between 1980 and 1989, defense spending grew by 40% in inflation adjusted dollars. The increase was not, however, distributed evenly throughout the budget; procurement and R&D spending soared by 67%, while spending for current operations (personnel, operations, and maintenance) increased by only 23%. As I explained in an earlier article (October 31, 1988), we “front loaded” our budgets with politically engineered modernization programs in the mistaken belief that, by spreading the money around to the important congressional districts, we could buy votes for ever larger defense budgets.
Despite repeated warnings, Congress signed up uncritically to one front-loaded budget after another in the 1980s.  The money flowed to contractors and subcontractors located throughout the fifty states, and defense jobs increased by 63%.  Now we are poised to reap the consequences: even if future budgets are frozen at the current level, a huge bow wave of unaffordable procurement commitments and a stern wave of deferred readiness obligations will wash over the Pentagon and Congress in the early 1990s.  If we do not change the way we do business, production rates will decline (but few programs will be cancelled), readiness for combat will plummet, equipment will get older, and forces will shrink.  Some — perhaps many — defense workers will lose their jobs.
What can be done to moderate the damage caused by the reckless politicizing of defense decisions?  Is it possible to devise a fiscally responsible retrenchment plan that lays out an effective defense program without succumbing to the usual expedients of robbing readiness and shrinking the size of our forces to preserve the politically engineered money flows?  It is possible–but only if our leaders have the courage to step up to some really tough choices. The fun is over, and as we say in the Pentagon, it is time to slaughter some sacred cows.
One option for reducing budget requirements in the 1990s is to move a larger portion of our forces into the reserves. This appears to be most attractive in the case of the Air Force; but even in the case of the Air Force, it is not politically painless. To be effective, the reserve option must be part of a larger plan–one that forms a smaller number of larger units and closes excess bases.  Such changes could generate enormous savings; readiness and sustainability could actually be increased; and further force shrinkage might be averted.  Lets take a closer look at why it is possible to build a stronger Air Force for less money.
Simply shrinking the size of the active force and increasing the reserve proportion does not automatically generate savings over the long term. Between 1956 and 1990, the active Air Force will have shrunk from about 23000 to 6900 airplanes–a decline of 70%. During the same period the reserves will have dropped from about 3000 to 2200 airplanes, but its share of the total force will have doubled from 12% to 25%. The drop in total operations is comparable (from 9 to 3.3 million flying hours).  These impressive reductions did not generate any savings; on the contrary, after taking out the effects of inflation and introduction of ballistic missiles, we will spend 6% more for operations and maintenance in 1990 than in 1956 ($23.3 versus $21.9 billion in constant FY 89 dollars).
How can 9100 airplanes cost as much to operate as 26000 airplanes? There are at least two reasons, and they reinforce each other:
First, the evolution of ever more complex technologies increased operating costs. Fighter aircraft are a case in point: taking out the effects of inflation, our top tactical fighter in the mid-1950s, the F-100, cost about $1470 per hour to fly, while today’s top fighter, the F-15C costs over three times as much to fly–about $4660 per hour. High-technology engines and electronics, in particular, require more costly maintenance skills, increase the need for capital intensive diagnostics and repair equipment, shift repairs away from flight lines toward distant depots, and generate the need for more costly logistics technologies to manage the proliferating assortment of high value spare parts. In addition to driving up direct and indirect costs, these changes created economies of scale that favor the concentration of airplanes at as few locations as possible.
Second, the number of airbases and squadrons declined more slowly than the number of airplanes.  Constituency-based politics resisted the closing of bases and bureaucratic politics opposed reductions in “command flags.”  Bases now support fewer airplanes, and many squadrons are now smaller than in the 1950s. The creeping mismatch between infrastructure and force size has relentlessly driven up overhead costs and unnecessarily magnified the effects of complexity-induced cost growth. Consider the current situation:
In the continental U.S. and Alaska, after removing the bases recommended for deactivation by the base closing commission, there are at least 60 bases, with 300 million square feet of concrete, available to the active force for the “bed-down” of its combat-coded, replacement training, and sundry support aircraft. In 1990, however, the force structure assigned to these bases will require only 150 million square feet of parking space–yielding an average base load factor of 50%. (This calculation is based on official planning factors.)  Moreover, the distribution is very uneven, eight bases have load factors in excess of 100% while 14 others, for example McClelland and Bergstrom (with load factors of 7% and 12%), have load factors of 20% or less.
* In 1990, the 31 active KC-135 tanker squadrons have between 10 and 19 aircraft, the average being about 14. The historical norm for large airplanes is 18 planes per squadron.
* Between 1986 and 1990, the active force of C-141 transports will have decreased by 16 aircraft, but the number of squadrons in the active force will have increased from 13 to 16.  In three years, the average size of a C-141 squadron will have shrunk from 18 to 13.6 airplanes–a 24% decline. Squadron sizes now range from 12 to 17 aircraft.
Taken together, low base load factors and understrength and irregularly structured squadrons mean we are using people and facilities inefficiently. We could reduce costs without shrinking the force by assigning more aircraft to some bases, by forming larger units, and by closing other bases. If, for example, we decided to increase the average base load factor from 50% to a modest 60%, we could eliminate 50 million square feet of concrete. This equates to closing somewhere between five and nineteen more bases, depending on whether we close large or small bases. So, even in the absence of an active-to-reserve swap, there is a real opportunity to reduce overhead by consolidating the active force.
Now suppose we also take some airplanes off the 60 active bases by transferring them to reserve units, most of which are located at municipal airports around the country. If we keep the 60% load-factor goal and the larger active units, we could close even more bases, and multiply the savings further. Lets examine the reserve side of the restructuring opportunity.
Reserve units are also too small; 70% of the tactical (fighter/attack, recce) and 100% of the intercepter squadrons have 18 instead of 24 airplanes; 100% of the tactical airlift squadrons are assigned only eight C-130s; and the strategic tanker and airlift squadrons are assigned eight or ten KC-135s or C-141s.  With a few exceptions, these units can be easily and cheaply expanded. Most fighter and intercepter units already have facilities that are capable of supporting 24 aircraft, and the airlift and tanker squadrons have facilities designed to support 12 aircraft. Moreover, the current recruiting situation is excellent; somewhere between 500 and 800 pilots are now trying to enter the reserves. So, a large number of active airplanes can be transferred to the reserves without forming new reserve units.
Now, bringing the different strands of the analysis together, the general idea is as follows: Consolidate the active force into a smaller number of larger units; transfer planes from the active force to the reserves to bring reserve units up to strength; where transfers are not feasible, consolidate the reserves into a smaller number of larger units by deactivating some reserve units and transferring their airplanes to other units; close enough bases to modestly increase the average base load factor for the active force from 50% to 60% or 65%.
The following example illustrates what is physically, if not politically, possible by the mid-1990s:
* Transfer 240 tactical fighters to the reserves (deactivate 10 active squadrons) to bring all the reserve units up to full strength.
* Consolidate the reserve C-130s into eighteen 12-plane squadrons (deactivate 8 reserve squadrons).  An active-to-reserve transfer is probably not appropriate since about 60% of the tactical airlift force is already in the reserves.
* Transfer 20 C-141s to the reserves (forming one new 18 aircraft squadron and increasing the size of another reserve squadron to 10 aircraft); consolidate the active force into eleven 18- aircraft squadrons (deactivate 5 active squadrons).
* Transfer 14 KC-135s to the reserves and use aircraft to increase 7 reserve squadrons from 8 to 10 aircraft; consolidate active force into twenty-four 18-aircraft squadrons (deactivate 7 active squadrons).
* Consolidate the reserve interceptor force into nine 24-aircraft squadrons (deactivate 3 squadrons).
* Use some of the savings to correct the growing shortages in the war reserve stockpile of spare parts and munitions.
Result: the number of combat-coded airplanes stays the same, the total force is more combat ready because it is better supplied, 274 more airplanes (a 4% reduction in the active force) are in the reserves, and the reduction of at least 50 million square feet of concrete (closure of 5 to 19 bases) and the deactivation of 33 squadrons (22 active, 11 reserve) results in a leaner infrastructure that reduces manpower and budget requirements.
Naturally, a restructuring of this magnitude would be disruptive in the short term, and we should expect considerable bureaucratic and political opposition. The following counterarguments are among those that can be expected:
Rotation Base. A transfer of 240 fighters to the reserves will require a reduction in forward-based tactical forces in Europe and Asia because the stateside force will be too small to support reasonable personnel rotation policy. There is merit to this argument, but there are ways around it.  Assuming we need to keep the same rotation policy (40-45% of our forces forward), we would have to reduce the forward forces by four squadrons (96 airplanes). While this reduction could have important consequences affecting alliance politics, the strategic consequences could be negated by dual-basing (keeping the overseas bases fully supplied and ready to receive aircraft while basing the aircraft in the U.S.) four more active units in the states. Our strategic warning capabilities are adequate to permit the timely deployment of these forces in periods of increasing tension.  Moreover, the dual-basing policy could be combined with a burden-sharing plan in which our allies pay for the upkeep of the forward bases.
Rated supplement. The Air Force currently has about 22000 pilots and about 6900 airplanes (some of which require two pilots). The rated supplement is composed of those pilots assigned to non-flying duties. It has been argued that a transfer of a total of 274 aircraft to the reserves (a 4% reduction in active aircraft) will make the flying inventory too small to support the manpower policies governing the assignment of pilots to non-flying jobs. All that is needed to get around this bureaucratic logjam is a revival of the “can-do” spirit.
Non-mobilized contingencies. Some believe that a transfer of this magnitude would inhibit our ability to respond to undeclared wars such as the Grenada invasion.  This argument relates mainly to tactical fighters, and it needs to be put into perspective. We have about 1750 fighter/attack aircraft in the active force; a transfer of 240 to the reserves would leave about 1500 in the active force. Surely 1500 airplanes is a large enough asset base to support such contingencies.
Reserve recruitment. Some believe that a transfer 4% of the active force to the reserves will result in a long-term recruiting problem for the reserves–that by reducing the demand for new pilots in the active force, you reduce the number of pilots who eventually quit the active force, and therefore fewer pilots will be available to join the reserves in the 1990s. This argument turns the current situation on its head; pilots are waiting in line to join the reserves, and the active force has a mushrooming retention problem. If a reserve recruiting problem eventually emerges, we could recruit pilots directly into the reserves after they graduate from college, as is now done on a selective basis in the National Guard. But this is in the distant, unpredictable future.
There is one counter-argument that will not be heard, namely that the reserves are not as effective as the active force. One of the best kept secrets in the DoD is the story of the Air Force’s reserves, particularly the Air National Guard. The reserves are a superb fighting force; they win more than their fair share of tactical competitions; they are manned by highly experienced dedicated personnel, and given a decision to mobilize, they can deploy as rapidly as the active force; and because they operate on a regimental system, reserve units have good personnel retention, they have enduring ties to local communities, and they have high unit cohesion and esprit de corps. If the shift to the reserves were combined with increased purchases of spare parts and munitions (made possible by the savings from the consolidation described above) a more combat ready, lower cost Air Force is possible.
— End Oped —
Of course there in nothing in the Commission’s report that even hints at these kinds of possibilities.
One final point:  We all know the DoD budget is poised to slow its rate of growth and possibly even decline in the short term.  News reports indicate the Air Force’s force structure is poised to shrink yet again, and notwithstanding the huge increases of recent years, the AF has its worst aircraft aging problem in its entire history.  These conditions also apply the force structures of the Navy and Army.

Yet, as this chart shows,  the Pentagon’s Operations and Maintenance Budget (O&M - the green shaded wedge) has exploded since 1997, even if one removes the effects of inflation using DoD’s cooked deflators. Moreover, that O&M budget is poised to remain higher throughout the Pentagon’s peacetime planning horizon out to 2018 than at any time between 1948 and 2000.  Note, this peacetime O&M projection is substantially higher than the O&M budget at the peak of the Vietnam war, yet it will be supporting force structures between 25% and 40% as large as those of the Vietnam War, and it is predicated on low peacetime operating tempos.  Also bear in mind, the out year projection is much higher that that implied by the dreaded sequester.
Put bluntly, the skyrocketing O&M budget means the economic chickens are coming home to roost. (I will have more to say on this in a future essay.)
So, the Commission’s report appeared at a propitious time.  Apparently, the Commissions’s goal was to determine what changes to the force structure and mix of active and reserve forces can help the Air Force cope with future budget constraints.  This necessarily implies dealing with the monstrous O&M problem depicted above.
If the Commission had done its job properly, it might have provided information to help decision makers in Congress and the Pentagon reduce future defense budgets efficiently.  But if one compares the the kind of information in my 25 year old  short op-ed and the official data reproduced in the Defense Death Spiral to the “new” information in the Commission’s report, at least three questions become obvious:
* Is there any new information in the Commission’s report that will help decision makers reorganize the force structure of the Air Force in a way that helps to extract the Air Force from its ever more costly death spiral, especially when one considers the implications of the  the projections in the chart or the budget sequester?
* Or will the Commission’s obvious analytical omissions, merely work to set the stage for a horrendous readiness debacle in the near term, accompanied by the usual cries of a “hollow military,” to be followed by yet another burst of budget growth to bail out the DoD and the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex?
* Finally, can American taxpayers ever get his/her money’s worth out of government, if their government  continues to waste money on blue-ribbon commissions manned by apprarachiks who produce glitzy reports that paper over real, obvious, and growing problems?
To ask such questions is to answer them; and that demonstrable incompetence, dear reader, is why your Social Security and Medicare are poised to be sacrificed on the altar of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex in the name of fiscal prudence.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.