12 January 2011

The Familiar Face of Threat Inflation Rises Again ...

... or Back to Budgetary Normacy

Budget time is always the silly season in Versailles on the Potomac, but for the last several years, the Pentagon has had to settle for inflating the threat posed by a small number of deranged terrorist fanatics, in part because it was the only threat inflation game in town.   That may now be changing, thanks to some grainy photos of the humongus J-20 Chinese steath fighter making its rounds in the aviation geek community, particularly in aviation publications in the US and thinktanks in Australia.  The J-20 was just rolled out and may have made its maiden flight, but we know almost nothing about it. 

No Problem; in fact the uncertainty is good for business.  

Indeed, the photos plus the uncertainty are manna from heaven for the threat inflators at Aviation Week and the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex, as my good friend Andrew Cockburn decribes today in the L.A. Times (also attached below).  

Andrew knows of what he speaks, having authored the classic exposé of how we grossly inflated the Soviet threat during the Cold War -- i.e., see  The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine (Random House 1983).  Andrew decoded the Soviet meltdown well before its collapse and long before the intelligence community began to sense that the inflated Soviet Union threat was evaporating into emptiness (an awareness that gradually washed over our threat-inflating spooks after the Soviet Union had in fact collapsed).  

During the 1990s, the Pentagon struggled futilely to come up with what it euphemistically called a "peer or near peer competitor" -- first in some form of a reconstituted Soviet Union, then an emergent China (a particular favorite of Hill Rambos like Senator McCain), and then the need to simultaneously confront a combination of two major regional competitors (Iraq, Iran, N. Korea, etc.).  Of course, no one, except a few outspoken marginalized intelligence analysts, paid any attention to Osama bin Laden (because inflating the terrorist threat was simply not workable option as a serious budget inflator), until 9-11 sufficiently terrified the American people and broke loose the uncritical spending psychology needed to lever the huge spending increases for the cold-war inspired weapons that were already in the out-years of Pentagon's computers before 9-11 (see Slide 1 in my last congressional testimony here).

Now with the Global War on Terror running out its string, the public going wobbly on Afghanistan, and with the most serious domestic economic crisis since the Great Depression threatening cutbacks in future defense budgets, the Big Green Spending Machine desperately needs to inflate some kind of emerging threat that lies in the unknowable future -- so that it can sell the magic shake oil of fear and uncertainty that worked so well during the Cold War.  Happily, the J-20 fits the bill -- with J-20's magic coupled with a latent insecurities stemming from China's stunning economic growth, together with the help of threat inflators in the media and aviation geeks world wide, the grainy photos of J-20 will be used to "prove" China has embarked on a military expansion that will make it a peer competitor or even better, let us pray, a super power threat in the unknowable future.  And then, like a  cargo cult's vision of manna from heaven, the money will rain down on Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex, and Eisenhower's nightmare will continue unabated. 

 At least Andrew understands what is going on.  Read his op-ed and weep, because it is your social security and medicare that will pay the bill.


China stealth jet is no reason to boost U.S. defense spending

The warplane could be decisively superior, some experts have said. But another arms race is unnecessary, especially over a plane whose capabilities are untested.

By Andrew Cockburn, Los Angelos Times, January 12, 2011

The world may be in turmoil, but in the defense business there are signs of a return to normalcy. After dreary decades in which the U.S. military had to live without a presentable threat with which to justify its spending on high-technology weapons, the Chinese stepped up to the plate. With ominous talk gaining currency in Washington of actual cuts in the U.S. defense budget, our Asian friends have suddenly offered a titillating peek from an airfield in Chengdu at their newest warplane, described as a radar-evading "stealth" fighter like our own F-22. .... continued