Last week I discussed the tendency for policymakers to treat the Pentagon like a giant jobs program. It was prompted by an article from the Associated Press on members of Congress shoving unwanted upgraded Abrams tanks down taxpayers’ throats because retooling tanks sustains jobs back in the district. As it turns out, former Reagan budget director David Stockman touches on the Abrams tank situation in his new book, The Great Deformation.
In Chapter 5, “Triumph of the Warfare State,” Stockman gives an account of the behind-the-scenes dealings that resulted in the massive military buildup during the Reagan administration. Stockman says political calculations—and not “one scintilla of bottoms-up program detail or even a single hour of professional analysis”—drove the new Reagan administration to champion 7 percent (real) growth in defense spending every year for five years (1982-1986), and from an already elevated level. According to Stockman, the “7 percent real growth top line” was a “blank check” for the Pentagon to go on a spending binge, much to the pleasure of the military-industrial complex.
From p. 74:
No fresh start or strategically coherent defense plan was ever developed by the Reagan administration. This immense, content-free “top line” was simply backfilled by the greatest stampede of Pentagon log-rolling and budget aggrandizement by the military-industrial complex ever recorded.
In a process that went on week after week for the better part of a year, the huge swaths of empty budget space under the new defense “top line” were converted into more and more of virtually everything that inhabited the Pentagon’s vasty deep. Much of it, which had languished for years and decades on the wish lists of the brass and military contractors, now got funded without much ado.
With defense funds being virtually slopped onto the waiting plates of the four military services, it is not surprising that much of it went to the conventional forces. Notwithstanding all the scary stories about the nascent Soviet nuclear first-strike capabilities, there really weren’t many concrete programs to counter it except for a new strategic bomber and an MX missile upgrade.
At the heart of the Reagan defense buildup, therefore, was a great double shuffle. The war drums were sounding a strategic nuclear threat that virtually imperiled American civilization. Yet the money was actually being allocated to tanks, amphibious landing craft, close air support helicopters, and a vast conventional armada of ships and planes.
These weapons were of little use in the existing nuclear standoff, but were well suited to imperialistic missions of invasion and occupation. Ironically, therefore, the Reagan defense buildup was justified by an Evil Empire that was rapidly fading but was eventually used to launch elective wars against an Axis of Evil which didn’t even exist.
That leads to the Abrams tank.