Although it feels like a pipe dream, think back to the last time you stepped onto an airplane. You likely flew American, Delta, Southwest or United — given the four airlines together control roughly two-thirds of the United States market. But the airline you chose is not all that relevant. The global passenger aircraft market is controlled exclusively by Boeing and Airbus. Some airlines such as Southwest rely primarily on Boeing and others, including Delta, on Airbus.
While you were snacking on your complimentary pretzels you may not have realized you were flying courtesy of either the second largest, Boeing, or seventh largest, Airbus Group, defense contractor in the world. The two companies raked in $38.2 billion from arms sales in 2017 alone. Only half of Boeing’s revenue comes from commercial aircraft whereas 30% accounts for defense, space and security systems. In July, Boeing secured a $1.2 billion contract with the Pentagon.
So the Pentagon contracts private companies to maximize their output, what’s the big deal?
The range of contracts the federal government awards to private entities is astonishing. The Pentagon and a conglomerate of corporate suppliers engage in a symbiotic relationship — known as the military industrial complex — for anything from intelligence to engineering in exchange for exorbitant contracts.
The concern lies within the complexity of these relationships. A growing web of stakeholders rely on a steadily increasing defense budget, leaving U.S. policymakers vulnerable to advanced interest groups with one motive: inflating profit.
President-elect Joe Biden announced retired U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin III as his nominee for Secretary of Defense earlier this week.
Historically speaking, civilian control of the military is a quintessential feat of the American democratic model. The Constitution recognizes the president as commander-in-chief and grants Congress the power to declare war and approve funds for the military. When Congress created the Department of Defense in 1947, it put a great deal of emphasis on the importance of a civilian Secretary of Defense.
If a former member of the U.S. Armed Forces were to fill the position, the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act requires at least seven years between their retirement and assuming the role of Secretary. Although a waiver is possible, the matter is subject to congressional approval. Former Secretaries of Defense James Mattis and George Marshall, who filled the position during the Korean War, have been the only two exceptions.
Austin retired in 2016 making him ineligible for the role, without a waiver from Congress, under the current federal law.
Ensuring a separation between military and state is critical to prevent politicization. Additionally, bureaucratic agencies are strange creatures. The transition from commander to politician is not an easy task, especially during a high stakes presidency such as Biden’s.
Most importantly though, the Secretary of Defense is the American people’s liaison to the defense industry.
Austin joined the board of United Technologies, now Raytheon, shortly after leaving the military and earned $1.4 million over four years. Raytheon is the third largest defense contractor and facilitated $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2019.
Time and time again, the military industrial complex reminds us of its indifference toward the well-being of the American people. In March, the Pentagon used $1 billion in COVID-19 emergency relief aid to fund new defense contracts instead of manufacturing medical equipment. The interests of the military industrial complex and Americans will forever be diametrically opposed.
Austin, with his short-lived, post-military civilian life tainted by ties to defense contractors, is incapable of empathizing with the American people. Placing a defense executive in a position where he must speak on behalf of the American people is as insane as appointing an oil industry sympathizer as the liaison between climate activists and oil and gas executives.
Katelyn Balakir (she/her) is a junior studying policy analysis and world political systems. She is a member of Indiana Model United Nations.