The game of chicken the US and China are playing in the Pacific looks worryingly familiar

Biden and Xi Jinping
Joe Biden, then US vice president, and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California in 2012.

  • The US and Chinese militaries have been operating in close proximity in the waters and airspace of the Pacific Ocean.
  • US and Chinese may not be seeking a war, but the interactions between their forces, and the close calls they sometimes have, could lead to one.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The leaders of China and the United States certainly don’t seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives.

Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons – no sure bet – would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war.

Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China’s coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don’t always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan’s December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off.

None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Navy destroyer Mustin China aircraft carrier
US Navy officers aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin monitor Chinese ships in the Philippine Sea, April 4, 2021.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era – China, the United States, and Russia – are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era.

All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and “show-of-force” operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk.

As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia’s border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China’s eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let’s instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing.

Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and US/allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific – far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands).

The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan’s defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China’s extended boundary claims are illegitimate.

There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas – places where US and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing limits (and defying them)

blinken anchorage
US and Chinese officials had a tense first meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

The leaders of the US and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas.

For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or US counterattacks.

For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China’s claims and ensuring that its leadership can’t realize them through military means.

Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks.

These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to US technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country’s exports to the US His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country’s leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing’s repeated “bullying” of other claimants to islands in that sea.

Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law” – language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being “bullied” by China.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi shows the way to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting in Beijing.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on US diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then.

This was understood to be part of Washington’s commitment to a “One China” policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation).

Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence – an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait.

According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were “a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Speaking of that island’s increasing diplomatic contact with the US, he added, “Those who play with fire will get burned.”

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

In the first high-level encounter between US and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 and 19, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing “deep concerns” over China’s behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

‘Gunboat diplomacy’ today

Navy destroyer John McCain South China Sea
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea, April 7, 2021.

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren’t met.

The US used just such “gunboat diplomacy,” as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the US engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas – Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels.

In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the US, Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China.

This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the US Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America’s continuing ability to dominate the region – as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region.

China Liaoning aircraft carrier
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailing between Okinawa and Miyakojima islands toward the Pacific Ocean, April 3, 2021.

For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China.

“Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” was the way Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden’s inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24, and the USS John Finn on March 10.

On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the US military would “continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”

Typically, when the US Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA – responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels.

This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA.

In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort – to put the matter as politely as possible – the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

uss decatur
A confrontation between the USS Decatur, left, and PRC Warship 170, right, in the South China Sea on September 30, 2018.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences.

“You are on [a] dangerous course,” the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. “If you don’t change course, [you] will suffer consequences.”

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: The captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018?

Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the US and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance – a war this planet simply can’t afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn’t be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn’t it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences?

Strident language and provocative military maneuvers – even if only intended as political messaging – could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is “All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change.” He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane US-China Policy.

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The ‘border-industrial complex’ is bigger than Trump or Biden, and it thrives on crisis

us-mexico border arizona
US Border Patrol agents follow the tire tracks of drug smugglers through the Sonoran Desert in the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona, near the US-Mexico border, December 9, 2010.

  • President Donald Trump made the US-Mexico border, and migration there, a centerpiece of his presidency.
  • An influx of migrants at the border has become a dominant issue of President Joe Biden’s first weeks in office.
  • How Biden addresses the border remains to be seen, but his administration will be no less caught in the border-industrial complex than Trump’s, writes journalist Todd Miller.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In late February, I drove to see the Trump wall in Sasabe, Arizona. As soon as I parked, a green-striped Border Patrol vehicle stationed a quarter of a mile away began to creep down the dirt road toward us. Just ahead, a dystopian “No Trespassing” sign was flapping in the wind.

It was cold as I stepped out of the car with my 5-year-old son, William. The wall ahead of us, 30-feet high with steel bollards, was indeed imposing as it quavered slightly in the wind. Through its bars we could see Mexico, a broken panorama of hills filled with mesquites backed by a blue sky.

The Homeland Security vehicle soon pulled up next to us. An agent rolled down his window and asked me, “What are you doing? Joyriding?”

After I laughed in response to a word I hadn’t heard in years, the agent informed us that we were in a dangerous construction zone, even if this part of the wall had been built four months earlier. I glanced around. There were no bulldozers, excavators, or construction equipment of any sort. I wondered whether the lack of machinery reflected the campaign promise of the recently inaugurated Joe Biden that “not another foot” of Trump’s wall would be built.

Indeed, that was why I was here – to see what the border looked like as the post-Trump era began. President Biden had started his term with strong promises to reverse the border policies of his predecessor: families torn apart would be reunited and asylum seekers previously forced to stay in Mexico allowed to enter the United States. Given the Trump years, the proposals of the new administration sounded almost revolutionary.

Border wall
A Honduran migrant grabs his son as they climb the border fence before jumping from from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego, California.

And yet something else bothered me as we drove away: Everything looked the same as it had for years. I’ve been coming to this stretch of border since 2001. I’ve witnessed its incremental disfigurement during the most dramatic border fortification period in this country’s history.

In the early 2000s came an influx of Border Patrol agents, followed in 2007 by the construction of a 15-foot wall (that Sen. Joe Biden voted for), followed by high-tech surveillance towers, courtesy of a multibillion-dollar contract with the Boeing Corporation.

Believe me, the forces that shaped our southern border over the decades have been far more powerful than Donald Trump or any individual politician. During the 2020 election, it was commonly asserted that, by getting rid of Trump, the United States would create a more humane border and immigration system. And there was a certain truth to that, but a distinctly limited one.

Underneath the theater of partisan politics, there remains a churning border-industrial complex, a conjunction of entrenched interests and relationships between the US government – particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – and private corporations that has received very little attention.

The small border town of Sasabe and its surrounding region is a microcosm of this.

The cumulative force of that complex will now carry on in Trump’s wake. Indeed, during the 2020 election the border industry, created through decades of bipartisan fortification, actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans.

The complex

border wall
Government contractors erect a section of Pentagon-funded border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, September 10, 2019.

In the 12 years from 2008 to 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dolled out 105,000 contracts, or a breathtaking average of 24 contracts a day, worth $55 billion to private contractors. That sum exceeded their $52 billion collective budgets for border and immigration enforcement for the 28 years from 1975 to 2003.

While those contracts included ones for companies like Fisher Sand and Gravel that built the 30-foot wall my son and I saw in Sasabe, many of them – including the most expensive – went to companies creating high-tech border fortification, ranging from sophisticated camera systems to advanced biometric and data-processing technologies.

This might explain the border industry’s interest in candidate Biden, who promised: “I’m going to make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.”

Behind that bold, declarative sentence lay an all-too-familiar version of technological border protection sold as something so much more innocuous, harmless, and humane than what Trump was offering. As it happens, despite our former president’s urge to create a literal wall across hundreds of miles of borderlands, high-technology has long been and even in the Trump years remained a large part of the border-industrial complex.

One pivotal moment for that complex came in 2005 when the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Jackson (previously Lockheed Martin’s chief operating officer), addressed a conference room of border-industry representatives about creating a virtual or technological wall.

“This is an unusual invitation,” he said then. “I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organization.”

Of course, by then, the border and immigration enforcement system had already been on a growth spurt. During President Bill Clinton’s administration (1993-2001), for example, its annual budgets had nearly tripled from $1.5 billion to $4.3 billion.

Clinton, in fact, initiated the immigration deterrence system still in place today in which Washington deployed armed agents, barriers, and walls, as well as high-tech systems to block the traditional urban places where immigrants had once crossed. They were funneled instead into dangerous and deadly spots like the remote and brutal Arizona desert around Sasabe. As Clinton put it in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“[O]ur administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.”

Sound familiar?

border patrol
An US Border Patrol agent near the border fence in Columbus, New Mexico, February 19, 2017.

The Clinton years, however, already seemed like ancient times when Jackson made that 2005 plea. He was speaking in the midst of a burgeoning Homeland Security era. After all, DHS was only created in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

In fact, during George W. Bush’s years in office, border and immigration enforcement budgets grew from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $15.2 billion in 2008 – more, that is, than during any other presidency including Donald Trump’s. Under Bush, that border became another front in the war on terror (even if no terrorists crossed it), opening the money faucets. And that was what Jackson was underscoring – the advent of a new reality that would produce tens of thousands of contracts for private companies.

In addition, as US war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wane, many security and defense companies pivoted toward the new border market. As one vendor pointed out to me at a Border Security Expo in Phoenix in 2012, “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.” That vendor, who had been a soldier in Afghanistan a few years earlier, smiled confidently, the banners of large weapons-makers like Raytheon hanging above him.

At the time (as now), an “unprecedented boom period” was forecast for the border market. As the company VisionGain explained then, a “virtuous circle … would continue to drive spending in the long-term based on three interlocking developments: ‘illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration,’ more money for border policing in ‘developing countries,’ and the ‘maturation’ of new technologies.”

Since 9/11, border-security corporate giants became big campaign contributors not only to presidential candidates, but also to key members of the Appropriations Committees and the Homeland Security Committees (both House and Senate) – all crucial when it came to border policies, contracts, and budgets.

Between 2006 and 2018, top border contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon contributed a total of $27.6 million to members of the House Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the House Homeland Security Committee. And from 2002 to 2019, there were nearly 20,000 reported lobbying “visits” to congressional offices related to homeland security. The 2,841 visits reported for 2018 alone included ones from top CBP and ICE contractors Accenture, CoreCivic, GeoGroup, L3Harris, and Leidos.

By the time Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, the border-industrial complex was truly humming. That year, he would oversee a $20 billion border and immigration budget and have at his disposal nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents (up from 4,000 in 1994), 650 miles of already built walls and barriers, billions of dollars in border technology then in place, and more than 200 immigration-detention centers across the United States.

He claimed he was going to build his very own “big, fat, beautiful wall,” most of which, as it turned out, already existed. He claimed that he was going to clamp down on a border that was already remarkably clamped down upon. And in his own fashion, he took it to new levels.

That’s what we saw in Sasabe, where a 15-foot wall had recently been replaced with a 30-foot wall. As it happened, much of the 450 miles of wall the Trump administration did, in the end, build really involved interchanging already existing smaller barriers with monstrous ones that left remarkable environmental and cultural destruction in their wake.

Trump administration policies forced people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico, infants to appear in immigration court, and separated family members into a sprawling incarceration apparatus whose companies had been making up to $126 per person per day for years. He could have done little of this without the constantly growing border-industrial complex that preceded him and, in important ways, made him.

Nonetheless, in the 2020 election campaign, the border industry pivoted toward Biden and the Democrats. That pivot ensured one thing: that its influence would be strong, if not preeminent, on such issues when the new administration took over.

The Biden years begin at the border

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

In early January 2021, Biden’s nominee to run DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas disclosed that, over the previous three years, he had earned $3.3 million from corporate clients with the WilmerHale law firm.

Two of those clients were Northrop Grumman and Leidos, companies that Nick Buxton and I identified as top border contractors in “Biden’s Border: The Industry, the Democrats and the 2020 Election,” a report we coauthored for the Transnational Institute.

When we started to look at the 2020 campaign contributions of 13 top border contractors for CBP and ICE, we had no idea what to expect. It was, after all, a corporate group that included producers of surveillance infrastructure for the high-tech “virtual wall” along the border like L3Harris, General Dynamics, and the Israeli company Elbit Systems; others like Palantir and IBM produced border data-processing software; and there were also detention companies like CoreCivic and GeoGroup.

To our surprise, these companies had given significantly more to the Biden campaign ($5,364,994) than to Trump ($1,730,435). In general, they had shifted to the Democrats who garnered 55% of their $40 million in campaign contributions, including donations to key members of the House and Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

It’s still too early to assess just what will happen to this country’s vast border-and-immigration apparatus under the Biden administration, which has made promises about reversing Trumpian border policies. Still, it will be no less caught in the web of the border-industrial complex than the preceding administration.

Perhaps a glimpse of the future border under Biden was offered when, on January 19, Homeland Security secretary nominee Mayorkas appeared for his Senate confirmation hearings and was asked about the 8,000 people from Honduras heading for the US in a “caravan” at that very moment.

The day before, US-trained troops and police in Guatemala had thwarted and then deported vast numbers of them as they tried to cross into that country. Many in the caravan reported that they were heading north thanks to back-to-back catastrophic category 4 hurricanes that had devastated the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts in November 2020.

Guatemala immigrants migrants deportation
Guatemalan migrants in Guatemala City after their deportation from the US, April 30, 2020.

Mayorkas responded rather generically that if people were found to qualify “under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly, if they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won’t.” Given that there is no climate-refugee status available to anyone crossing the border that meant most of those who finally made it (if they ever did) wouldn’t qualify to stay.

It’s possible that, by the time I went to see that wall with my son in late February, some people from that caravan had already made it to the border, despite endless obstacles in their path. As we drove down Highway 286, also known as the Sasabe Road, there were reports of undocumented people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all traveling through the rugged Baboquivari mountain range to the west of us and the grim canyons to the east of us in attempts to avoid the Border Patrol and its surveillance equipment.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans against what he dubbed “the military-industrial complex” in 1961, he spoke of its “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual… felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government.”

Sixty years later, something similar could be said of the ever-expanding border-industrial complex. It needs just such climate disasters and just such caravans (or, as we’re seeing right now, just such “crises” of unaccompanied minors) to continue its never-ending growth, whether the president is touting a big, fat, beautiful wall or opting for high-tech border technology.

For my son and me, the enforcement apparatus first became noticeable at a checkpoint 25 miles north of the international boundary. Not only were green-uniformed agents interrogating passengers in any vehicle heading northward, but a host of cameras focused on the vehicles passing by.

Whether they were license-plate readers or facial-recognition cameras I had no way of knowing.

What I did know was that Northrop Grumman (which contributed $649,748 to Joe Biden and $323,014 to Donald Trump in the 2020 election campaign) had received a valuable contract to ensure that CBP’s biometric system included “modalities” of all sorts – face and voice data, iris recognition, scars and tattoos, possibly even DNA sample collection, and information about “relationship patterns” and “encounters” with the public.

And who could tell if the Predator B drones that General Atomics produces – oh, by the way, that company gave $82,974 to Biden and $51,665 to Trump in 2020 – were above us (as they regularly are in the border regions) using Northrup Grumman’s VADER “man-hunting” radar system first deployed in Afghanistan?

As we traveled through that gauntlet, Border Patrol vehicles were everywhere, reinforcing the surveillance apparatus that extends 100 miles into the US interior. We soon passed a surveillance tower at the side of the road first erected by the Boeing Corporation and renovated by Elbit Systems ($5,553 to Biden, $5,649 to Trump), one of dozens in the area.

On the other side of that highway was a gravel clearing where a G4S ($49,233 to Biden, $33,019 to Trump) van usually idles. It’s a mobile prison the Border Patrol uses to transport its prisoners to short-term detention centers in Tucson. And keep in mind that there was so much we couldn’t see like the thousands of implanted motion sensors manufactured by a host of other companies.

border wall arizona
Border fence construction on a mountain in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Lukeville, Arizona, January 7, 2020.

Traveling through this border area, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a profitable version of a classic panopticon, a prison system in which, wherever you might be, you’re being watched. Even 5-year-old William was startled by such a world and, genuinely puzzled, asked me, “Why do the green men,” as he calls the Border Patrol, “want to stop the workers?”

By the time we got to that shard of Trump’s “big, fat, beautiful” wall, it seemed like just a modest part of a much larger system that left partisan politics in the dust. At its heart was never “The Donald” but a powerful cluster of companies with an active interest in working on that border until the end of time.

Just after the agent told us that we were in a construction zone and needed to leave, I noticed a pile of bollards near the dirt road that ran parallel to the wall. They were from the previous wall, the one Biden had voted for in 2006.

As William and I drove back to Tucson through that gauntlet of inspection, I wondered what the border-industrial world would look like when he was my age and living in what could be an even more extreme world filled with ever more terrified people fleeing disaster.

And I kept thinking of that discarded pile of bollards, a reminder of just how easy it would be to tear that wall and the world that goes with it down.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. His latest book is “Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders.” You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddmillerwriter.com.

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Joe Biden is still stuck in the 20th-century world

US President Joe Biden, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department during his first visit in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks to the staff of the US State Department, February 4, 2021.

  • Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden committed his administration’s foreign policy to the pursuit of the US’s “cherished democratic values.”
  • But Biden and his team appear wedded to 20th century narratives about the world and the US’s role in it, writes Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

You may have noticed: The Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party.

So if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.

The boss shows them how it’s done.

Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived – SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it’s convenient to do so, but without exception.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.

Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values.

The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by The Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.

Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally, as a “pariah state” that possessed “no redeeming value.”

Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals – they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington “check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional US-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the “friendship” between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil.

In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship’s tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.

While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.

Threading the needle

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011.

As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington’s relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.

The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the US government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass.

MBS’s sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York’s JFK airport or Washington’s Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.

Recalibration also means that the United States is “pausing” – not terminating – further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy.”

Translation? Don’t expect much to happen.

Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for US arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however. Mr. Khashoggi’s demise has complicated but will not derail the US-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.

US Air Force Army airmen soldiers Prince Sultan Air Base Saudi Arabia
US airmen and soldiers arrive at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2019.

Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Mr. Ross told The New York Times.

Biden, he added approvingly, is now “trying to thread the needle.” Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that “there isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role – on Iran, on competing with the Chinese.”

Ultimately, it’s that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.

As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine.

The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China’s emergence as a great power. And let’s face it: The United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MBS’s insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.

So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as “national security.”

More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.

Second thoughts?

trump sword dance saudi arabia
President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone The New York Times consults on issues of the day.

So should we attend to Professor Conway’s contrarian perspective? Very much so and here’s why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden’s employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He’s open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired.

Consider his provocative essay “Making Trump History,” recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been “History as Illuminated by Trump.”)

By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been “an insult to the historical narrative,” a living, breathing “refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the US are supposed to work.”

Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden’s job is to hasten its return.

Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.

Conway boldly rejects the media’s preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province January 11, 2011.

As a first step toward grasping what’s now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to “bury their narratives of the twentieth century” – on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a “history of the present” is emerging. And he identifies “three trig points” to begin mapping the “uncharted landscape” that lies ahead.

The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has “burst its banks,” Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are.

Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) “footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists” who “communicate more directly and effectively with the public.” Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?

Conway’s second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract – individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits – no longer applies. Instead, the “new politics of the bazaar” shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion).

Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden’s efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.

His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned “political frontiers of the left and right.” In the History of the Present, politics emphasize “identity and grievance.” Citizens lend their support to causes centered on “emotions, group identity, or aspirations,” while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. “Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms” are being “replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics.” Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.

Conway doesn’t pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway’s History of the Present portends.

Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the 20th century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.

Wrong thread, wrong needle

BIDEN-TRUMP

Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway’s analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway’s primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West.

That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden’s awkward effort to “thread the needle” regarding Saudi Arabia.

Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of 21st-century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won’t even make it anywhere near the first tier.

His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other US military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very “narratives of the twentieth century” to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important – indeed beloved – narrative celebrates the US role in ensuring freedom’s triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden.

Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic US global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world.

As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and “its most cherished democratic values” in neat alignment.

By discarding the narratives of the 20th century, Conway’s History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is – a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman.

A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MBS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.

What this country does need is to recognize that the 20th century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious.

If Professor Conway is right – and I’m convinced that he is – then it’s past time to give the narratives of the 20th century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.

Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump’s failures, they will perpetuate their own.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” His new book, “After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed,” is due out in June.

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Why pricey Pentagon weapons programs rarely get canceled even when they have major problems

Air Force F-35 maintainer
Air Force maintainers recover an F-35A during an exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, February 3, 2020.

  • Pentagon weapons programs are rarely cancelled, no matter how poorly they performs, how much they go over budget, or how long they take to field.
  • Political, economic, and cultural factors keep that trend going, and that needs to change, writes William J. Astore, a history professor and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced.

In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled – at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the US military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled.

As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our 21st-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s 21st-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well?

After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Air Force KC-46 refueling tanker F-15
A KC-46A aerial refueling tanker connects with an F-15 test aircraft, October 29th, 2018.

Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled – and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve written extensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the US military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford fighter jet flight deck
F/A-18Es and F/A-18Fs prepare for launch aboard USS Gerald R. Ford while in the Atlantic, March 21, 2020.

* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.)

Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the 21st century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny.”

It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one – and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?

Is it even possible to cancel a major weapons system like the F-35?

USS Zumwalt
USS Zumwalt.

The Navy’s Zumwalt-class of destroyers was such a disaster that the program was indeed canceled a mere $22 billion along the line, but what about a program like the F-35? Is it even possible to cancel such a behemoth of a weapons system?

That question was put to me by Christian Sorensen, author of “Understanding the War Industry,” who like me is a member of the Eisenhower Media Network. Overpriced and underperforming weapons, Sorensen noted, are a feature of, rather than some sort of bug in, the military-industrial complex as future profits for giant weapons companies drive design and fielding decisions, not capability, efficiency, or even need.

He’s right, of course. There may even be a perverse incentive within the system to build flawed weapons, since there’s so much money to be made in troubleshooting and “fixing” those flaws. Meanwhile, the F-35, like America’s leading financial institutions in the 2007-2009 Great Recession, is treated as if it were too big to fail. And perhaps it is.

Jobs, profits, influence, and foreign trade are all involved here, so much so that mediocre (or worse) performance is judged acceptable, if only to keep the money flowing and the production lines rolling. And as it happens, the Air Force really has no obvious alternative to the F-35.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the aerospace industry used to build a wealth of models: the “century series” of fighters, from the F-100 through the F-106. (The notorious F-111 was an early version of the F-35.) The Air Force could also tap Navy designs like for the F-4 Phantom. Now, it’s essentially the F-35 or bust.

In its obvious desperation, that service is turning to older designs like the F-15 Eagle (circa 1970) and the F-117 Stealth Fighter (circa 1980) to bridge the gap created by delays and cost overruns in the F-35 program. Five decades after its initial flight, it’s something of a miracle that the F-15 is still being produced – and, of course, an obvious indictment of the soaring costs and inadequate performance of its replacements.

The exorbitant pricing of the F-35, as well as the F-22 Raptor, has recently even driven top Air Force officials to propose the creation of an entirely new “low cost” fighter. Irony of ironies, once upon a time in another universe, the F-35 was supposed to be the low-cost replacement for “fourth-generation” F-15s and F-16s.

F-35 and F-16
An F-35 and an F-16.

Last month, current Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown exhibited the usual convoluted and nonsensical logic of the military-industrial complex when he discussed that new dream fighter:

“If we have the capability to do something even more capable [than the F-16] for cheaper and faster, why not? Let’s not just buy off the shelf. Let’s actually take a look at something else out there that we can build.”

In other words, why buy already-proven and much-improved variants of the F-16 when you could design and build an entirely new plane from scratch, supposedly in a “cheaper” and “faster” manner? Of course, given that new fighters now take roughly two decades to design and field, that’s an obvious fantasy from the start.

If my old service – I’m a retired Air Force officer – wants fast and cheap, it should simply go with the tried-and-true F-16. Yet an entirely new plane is so much more attractive to a service under the spell of the giant weapons makers, even as the F-35 continues to be produced under its old, now demonstrably false, mantra of cheaper-and-better.

As Christian Sorensen summed up our present situation to me: “If an exorbitant under-performing platform like the F-35 can’t be canceled, then what are we doing? How do we ever expect to bring home the troops [garrisoning the globe] if we can’t even end one awful weapons platform or address the underlying systemic issues that cause such a platform to be created?”

Of course, an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” like the one that President Dwight D. Eisenhower described in his 1961 farewell address to the nation (in which he first warned of the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” gaining “unwarranted influence”) would work to cancel wasteful, unnecessary weapons systems like the F-35.

But what if the forces in place in American society act to keep that very citizenry apathetic and ignorant instead?

trump military defense donald bill spending ndaa fort drum
President Donald Trump and Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt view air-assault exercises at Fort Drum in New York, August 13, 2018.

Call me jaded, but I can’t see the F-35 being canceled outright, even though it hasn’t technically yet reached the stage of full production.

Likely enough, however, such a cancellation would only happen in the wake of major cuts to the defense budget that forced the services to make hard choices.

But such cuts clearly aren’t on the agenda of a Congress that continues to fund record Pentagon budgets in a bipartisan fashion; a Congress that, unchecked as it is by us citizens, simply won’t force the Pentagon to make tough choices.

And here’s one more factor to consider as to why cancel culture is never applied to Pentagon weaponry: Americans generally love weaponry. We embrace weapons, celebrate them, pose with them.

To cancel them, we’d have to cancel a version of ourselves that revels in high-tech mayhem. To cancel them, we’d have to cancel a made-in-America mindset that equates such weaponry – the stealthier and sexier the better – with safety and security, and that sees destruction overseas as serving democracy at home.

America’s military-industrial complex will undoubtedly keep building the fanciest, most expensive weaponry known to humanity, even if the end products are quite often ineffective and unsound. Yet as scores of billions of dollars are thrown away on such weapons systems, America’s roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure continue to crumble.

How about it, America? Why not cancel those weapons and build back better at home?

Read the original article on Business Insider