“Prophets of War” by William D. Hartung

After reading a book about the history of the oil industry, I was curious if some similar work existed for the defense industry, where I am currently employed.  I don’t believe there is a comprehensive history of the defense industry out there, but I did find this recent book which focuses on Lockheed Martin.  Since Lockheed is the gorilla in the room of the defense industry, I thought a history of Lockheed might as well be a good surrogate for the industry as a whole.  Sadly, the book is not very balanced; the bulk is a screed condemning Lockheed as the poster child of the wasteful and immoral military-industrial complex.

To be fair, there are plenty of examples from Lockheed’s past (and present) confirming the author’s conjecture.  To wit: the C-5A Galaxy scandal ($7662 coffee maker, etc), bribery in Japan and elsewhere in the 1980’s, and an endless cycle of lobbying, pork-barrel politics, and “revolving-door” practices of company executives becoming government procurement officials and vice versa.  As an engineer, though, I do admire many of the systems that LM has developed in the past.  I was particularly disappointed that the book only spent about 2 pages on the Skunk Works.

Just a few notes:

  • After WWII, there was a hesitation in the government about the need or benefit to maintaining a strong military.  One fear was that, if the strength was readily available, we would too easily go to war, without sufficient justification.  (I feel that this is totally the case with the “war on terror,” and it will bite us in the end…but I digress)  On the other hand, I appreciate the “defense industrial base” argument.  Weapon systems are now so complex, and potential conflict timelines are so compressed, that spinning up the defense industry gears from a full stop and starting over “from scratch” each war, as in WWI or WWII, is not practical.
  • A successful tactic for drumming up defense business is to scare people about potential adversaries.  This happened in the 1960’s “missile gap” fears, and again during Reagan – from the perspective of history, it turns out both times our fears were completely unfounded; America always had the technological and military advantage versus the Soviets.  I think the same thing is happening today with China.
  • Norm Augustine’s merger strategy of early-mid 1990s, when the total defense budget was slashed 50%, was quite clever.  Failing companies or divisions could be had cheap, so Martin became Lockheed Martin and bulked up, betting on an eventual turnaround in the budget when they could make a killing across many fields.  He predicted 1997; actually happened post-9/11.  Betting against world peace is sadly usually a good bet.

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