156. "Military Industry's Threat to National Security" The New York Times, (April 6, 1984).

Defense analysts have long understood the need to keep careful watch over the defense industry and the role it plays in shaping our military policy. Yet few people seem to have noticed the disturbing way that many defense contractors are encouraging the Government to neglect preparations for conventional war and thus rely increasingly on nuclear weapons.

Each defense contractor seeks quite naturally to promote his own weapon system. Unfortunately, however, this means that soldiers, sailors and aviators are inevitably neglected because, unlike money appropriated for B-1 bombers, MX missiles and other fixtures of nuclear war, the share of the defense budget dedicated to salaries and fringe benefits provides scant profits for weapons manufacturers. The result is to reduce our conventional strength and thus lower the nuclear “flash point,” at which the United States would resort to nuclear force.

Despite the feverish growth of American defense spending in recent years, the planned increase in conventional forces has been scaled back time and again to allow for more budget allocations for big, new weapon systems. Typically, last year, an Air Force request for 20,000 additional personnel resulted in an increase of 2,000. The share of the defense budget allotted to personnel has been decreasing since 1982 and is expected to continue to fall. Meanwhile, combat-readiness is declining in both the Army and the Air Force.

When prodded on this issue, defense manufacturers concede that their lobbying efforts have much more success when they seek major weapons contracts from Congress than when they try to influence the Pentagon’s detailed decisions about such routine items as standard-issue hand grenades and bullets. Key among the big systems that congress must approve are land-based nuclear missiles, submarines and bombers– and most defense contractors agree that they do their best business when they become the sole producer of such major weapons.

“Anybody can compete in making uniforms or parachutes,” one manufacturer told me. But if he can win a contract to produce a “big-ticket item,” he may be able to corner the market for future “generations” of that system by adding relatively small modifications. Eventually, he may also be able to “unload” the obsolete version of the weapon overseas. Meanwhile, he will be doing brisk business in spare parts for this system.

How does defense industry lobbying work against conventional forces? Contractors mobilize local community leaders and labor unions to put pressure on their elected representatives to get contracts and new business that keeps local plants going. Connecticut and Texas fight on behalf of General Dynamics, for example, while the State of Washington lobbies for Boeing. Yet no district representatives lobby to increase the numbers of marines, sailors or aviators– for such increases benefit no particular district.

Yet another, new form of pressure comes from political-action committees set up by big defense corporations to influence election campaigns. In the 1982 elections, for example, United Technologies gave $211,025, Lockheed gave $183,330 and General Dynamics came up with $176,990.

Profit-conscious corporations are not alone in encouraging investment in strategic nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional forces. Pentagon officials also fear reductions in their budgets, and they try to hedge against the future by securing contracts for big items– items that take years to complete and hence bind future budget makers. At the same time, many defense analysts argue that we can never overcome the Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional forces and that we therefore should devote most of our energy and money to maintaining our advantage in technology and nuclear weapons.

Why is it so important to maintain a strong conventional defense? Most experts agree that the most likely way for a nuclear war to start is with the escalation of a limited confrontation between the superpowers in either Western Europe or the Middle East. But the longer such a conflict could be limited to conventional warfare, the better the chances that both sides would work out their differences and avoid nuclear war.

In the long run, there is only one way to remove the threat of nuclear escalation: a mutual freeze on nuclear weapons followed by a significant reduction of strategic forces. Meanwhile, however, defense lobbying pressures must be curbed. We cannot afford to tilt against our own conventional forces.

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