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How the Military-industrial Complex Works

How the Military-industrial Complex Works

  • Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield
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    10:43 pm
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Andrew Cockburn, The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. Verso, 2021

In this book Cockburn lays bare the inner workings of the military-industrial complex (MIC). The expression ‘war machine’ in the subtitle is misleading, as the main activity to which the MIC is geared is not warfare but money-making. Even the generals and admirals are not interested in waging war except as a means of enhancing their budgets. So critics who accuse the Pentagon of having no strategy are being unfair. It may have no military strategy, but it has a financial one, namely: Don’t interrupt the money flow; add to it

And this means that the concept of an arms race, with each side responding to threats with measures that pose new threats in a never-ending cycle, is also misleading. There is no arms race, because the threats are imaginary and the measures do not work. 

The MIC comprises three types of actors: military bureaucrats (high-ranking officers), arms-manufacturing corporations, and congresspeople.

The military bureaucrats are divided into factions that compete for prestige and budgetary allocations. The most important factions are those corresponding to the armed services – the army, the navy, the air force, and now the space force. The more money in the budget, the more high-level posts and the better the prospects of promotion.


The arms corporations face no real market competition. They get contracts by cultivating good relations with military bureaucrats, who in exchange obtain highly paid employment with the corporations after they retire. Payment of corporations on a ‘cost-plus’ basis encourages them to maximize profits by maximizing costs, which always vastly exceed initial estimates. This is an incentive to develop systems of great complexity. Huge sums are spent on projects known to be infeasible in principle, such as ‘hypersonic’ missiles. 

The corporations induce congresspeople to vote for astronomical military budgets – this year’s is over $768 billion – by ensuring that each congressional district gets a share of military production and employment. All congresspeople take part in such ‘pork-barrel politics’ — and that includes Bernie Sanders. They even insist on continuing to fund the production of weapons for which the armed forces no longer have any use. 

Cockburn exposes the economic interests underlying decisions that appear to be about ‘national security’ or geopolitics. Thus, the driving force behind the eastward expansion of NATO was ‘the urgent necessity [after the end of the Cold War] to open new markets for US arms companies.’ 

Bombing the Right Targets

An interesting case study concerns the choice of bomber for air support of ground operations. Lower-level officers, who care more about warfighting efficacy than their superiors do, favor the A-10 Warthog, a relatively cheap plane that flies low and slowly enough for its crew to identify targets visually, ensuring that it bombs enemy troops rather than civilians or friendly forces. However, the ‘institutional prosperity’ of the US Air Force is based on much more expensive long-range bombers that fly high and fast and – despite fancy electronics – often bomb the wrong targets. The top commanders of the air force have long striven to get rid of the Warthog, although thanks to counter-lobbying by its defenders their efforts have not been wholly successful.   

Another example of useless high tech is the $100 million spent by Lockheed on EC-130H aircraft with ground-penetrating radar. A study by military intelligence found that this program had ‘no detectable effect’ on attempts to locate bombs buried underground by insurgents in Iraq. At the same time, provision of basic equipment to US troops on the ground was neglected: ‘American families went into debt to buy armored vests, socks, boots, and night-vision goggles’ for their sons and daughters fighting in Iraq. And the army insisted on furnishing soldiers with helmets from a favored contractor that actually exacerbate the effects of bomb blast.  

Stealing the Enemy’s Boots

I was astonished to learn that half of all American casualties during the first winter of the Korean War were due to frostbite. Without decent cold-weather footwear of their own, US troops resorted to raiding enemy trenches to steal the enemy’s warm padded boots. 

Producers of boots and socks just don’t have the clout of arms manufacturers!  

We are socialists. We don’t want to fight wars. Nevertheless, it is hard to derive consolation from the inefficiency of the armed forces as a warfighting machine. After all, they still have more than enough overkill capacity to destroy the world anyway. Who will be around to complain that they didn’t do it as efficiently as they could have? And the enormous waste of human effort and material resources is the same in either case, not to mention the hefty contribution they make to pollution and global heating.