[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Sharon Weinberger, Host:
“A detailed accounting of all of Lockheed Martin’s government contracts could fill several large volumes,” writes William Hartung, in his new book Prophets of War, a history of the nation’s largest defense contractor. “Suffice it to say that they are involved at one level or another in nearly everything the federal government does, from providing instruments of death and destruction to collecting taxes and recruiting spies.”
For those who have followed the defense industry for years, that statement is no revelation, but for the vast majority of the American public, the notion that the maker of the radar-evading F-22 Raptor aircraft has also been involved in sorting the mail, is both surprising, and important.
In fact, given the current reach of the company—from multi-billion contracts to build jet fighters to helping the IRS with tax notices—it’s surprising that no one has written a comprehensive and critical account of the nation’s largest defense contractor. Hartung artfully traces the company’s history from a pair of brother described as “carnival performers who had become enmeshed in the birth of the aviation industry,” to one of its modern CEOs, Norm Augustine, a “virtual renaissance man of the military industrial complex.”
Lockheed’s rise to the top of the military industrial heap follows a chaotic history of near bankruptcy, bribery scandals, and weapons buying disasters. Other companies might well have imploded from the type of crises Lockheed has weathered, and it seems at times that the company has survived in spite of itself. What has often saved it is not corporate genius but the belief among senior policymakers that the defense megalith is vital to national security. But is that true?
Indeed, Lockheed has also had some notable successes, like the U-2 spy plane, a complex technological challenge that the company’s secretive Skunk Works division completed under budget. The U-2, as Hartung acknowledges, played a significant role in proving that the United States was overestimating Soviet military capabilities (even if that revelation did little to change the course of the arms race).
It’s sometimes difficult to know who the bad guys are: Congress, which pushes funding for unneeded defense projects to benefit parochial interests? Pentagon bureaucrats, who fail in their job to properly manage the contracts? The military services, which make unrealistic demands for exotic technology that drives up costs? Or the company itself, which benefits from all of these forces by way of lucrative defense contracts?
Hartung’s book doesn’t always answer the intriguing questions raised by the rapid growth of Lockheed Martin, but it should provoke a lively debate. One thing is clear, it’s the American taxpayer that foots the bill, and we need look no further than today’s headlines to understand what’s at stake: a $700 billion a year defense budget that few think we can actually afford.