A leading independent think tank has concluded that despite a declaration by the Bush administration that the so-called “war on terror” is different from previous conflicts, the “military-industrial-congressional complex” has done little to change the way the Pentagon acquires its weapons systems.

“This business-as-usual response to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan is the predictable result of politically driven, special-interest policies,” says economic historian Robert Higgs, senior fellow at the Independent Institute.

Simply put, economic experts at the institute believe the government is still wasting far too much taxpayer money by not demanding more for every dollar spent by the Pentagon. And Congress, Higgs says, is definitely a co-conspirator.

“In examining congressional oversight of the defense program, it is easy to fall prey into thinking that Congress is the mischief maker and the Pentagon the long-suffering soldier just trying to do his job,” Higgs wrote in the fall issue of The Independent Review, a magazine published quarterly by the organization. “In fact, the military departments are no less culpable than Congress. Defense Department decision makers are as self-interested as others involved in the defense program.”

Higgs says pressure from defense contractors coupled with the typical bureaucracy of the Defense Department and politicians “beholden to the military-industrial-congressional complex” is turning the war between “the U.S. and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network into a more traditional exercise in pork-barrel politics.”

Titled, “The Cold War is Over, But U.S. Preparation for it Continues,” Higgs’ article notes, “If you are the Pentagon czar, intent on managing the DOD (Department of Defense) exclusively with an eye to the optimal employment of its budget in the service of maximizing national security … [h]ow likely is it that despite the countless changes in specific threats, technologies, resource costs and military experience, you would ever have occasion to change the interservice distribution of total resources by more than a trivial amount?”

The article also quotes former Air Force chief Gen. James P. Mullins, who, in 1986, said the U.S. is “still living in the past in the area of weapons procurement and support. … We don’t do things differently today. We do them just like we did decades ago – in another day and age.”

“That statement remains valid today,” Higgs said.

The economic historian also quoted Lawrence Korb, a former high-ranking Defense official, who said that “getting the Pentagon to be more businesslike could save about $100 billion over the next five years.” However, Higgs said, “what incentive exists today to elicit businesslike behavior from a vast bureaucracy fueled by taxpayer money and accountable to neither customers nor shareholders?”

Prior to launching the war against terrorism, the Bush administration had asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to review the current weapons systems in development by U.S. contractors and compare them to threats analysts perceived would face the nation in the next several decades.

Some analysts inside the Pentagon advocated eliminating the construction of new aircraft carriers, as well as a few of the most advanced fighter programs and main battle tanks. In the end, however, Rumsfeld did not agree with those recommendations.

That decision did not surprise Higgs, mostly because lawmakers did little to challenge it.

“As a rule … the actual objective of congressional actions is the re-election of incumbents, and if viewed in that perspective, those actions make good sense,” Higgs wrote. “In countless ways, big and small, members of Congress treat the defense budget as a slush fund used for winning the favor of constituents and others whose support would improve members’ re-election prospects.”

“This concern for the public-works aspect of the budget … often leaves the Congress unable or unwilling to make hard choices on defense issues, particularly on issues with large dollar implications,” Richard Stubbing, a longtime defense analyst at the Office of Management and Budget, was quoted as saying in the article.

The Bush administration is requesting $343.2 billion for the Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2002 – an increase of more than $32 billion over current levels and a figure that includes the $14.3 billion for the Energy Department’s defense functions.

In September, the Center for Defense Information released a report entitled, “Reforging the Sword: Forces for a 21st Century Security Strategy.” Written by defense analysts Col. Dan Smith, USA (Ret.), Marcus Corbin and Christopher Hellman, it “proposes an alternative U.S. military force for the first quarter” of the new century.

“The force is designed to execute a new international security strategy that attempts to respond to the challenges of a changing world and also shape what that world will look like in 2025,” the authors wrote.

Principally, the report notes that “the U.S. military will face new military scenarios and new forms of warfare in the next quarter century, yet change in strategy and forces has been slow.”

“Reshaping of the military to respond to the changing face of warfare needs to be accelerated,” the authors assert.

In trying to create this new force, the CDI analysts say that, “from the perspective of soldiers on the front line and the taxpayer, the defense industry is not performing well.” Weapon systems are taking a full “human generation” to develop, the authors said, which ultimately adds to their cost and could put them out of their useful cycle before they are ever deployed.

“Each new weapon is doubling or tripling the cost of its predecessor,” said the report, adding that it’s “difficult to change or stop programs once they get started, regardless of what has happened elsewhere in the world.”

The authors have proposed a “smaller, albeit transformed, U.S. military force” that – after an initial period of regular budget increases to fund the transformation – would eventually eat up less of the federal budget. The total figure “would be somewhat lower than today,” the authors wrote.

In the end, the analysts believe the defense budget could be “15-20 percent below Fiscal Year 2001 levels. …”

In terms of real defense expenditures this year, and in comparison to other nations, the requested Pentagon budget is six times higher than Russia, though Moscow is second in the world in terms of military expenditures, the CDI said.

The Pentagon’s budget is also more than 23 times as large as the combined spending of the seven countries traditionally identified by the Pentagon as our most likely adversaries – Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. And it is more than the military spending of the next 15 highest-spending nations combined.

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