Supporting the troops means ending the Pentagon’s defense boondoggles

September 14, 2023 4:24 am

The Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Billings (LCS 15) transits the Caribbean Sea, July 10, 2021. Billings is deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet area of operations to support Joint Interagency Task Force South’s mission, which includes counter-illicit drug trafficking missions in the Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Austin G. Collins).

It’s bad enough that we have to live with the ghost of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Too bad we have to pay so dearly for the privilege.

Eisenhower, after guiding the nation at first in war as a general, and then to peace as civilian president, left office, warning of the dangers of a growing, cash-hungry military industrial complex. He saw clearly what we still struggle to grasp.

That the massive lobbying efforts, led by billion-dollar defense contractors, would appeal to America’s fierce military loyalty, and cater to the vanity buried deep in our national soul that commands us to be take first place in every global endeavor. Eisenhower seemed to understand that was a potentially dangerous recipe for problems.

That’s why he probably would not have been surprised by a massive reporting project by ProPublica which the Daily Montanan featured yesterday on the topic of the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships. It’s probably odd for a Montana-based news outlet to care about a fleet of broken ships and busted plans, seeing as how the closest thing we have to an ocean is Flathead Lake.

But one of these very terrible vessels was named for Billings, the largest city in the Treasure State. So, with much fanfare, including a blue-ribbon support committee comprised of city leaders and veterans, Billings has t-shirts, hats and tchotchkes with the USS Billings emblazoned on them, which demonstrate ample support and patriotism.

Our poor Congressional delegation, namely our two U.S. Senators, have been pestered by me for years, literally, asking about this doomed class of ships that has earned the snarky nickname, “Little Crappy Ships” (instead of littoral combat ships).

I credit both Montana senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester, for admitting the class needs to be retired and both have supported different measures that would stop the federal habit of throwing good money after bad. It’s at least nice to know they acknowledge the failure.

These ships have failed almost every objective measure of success, including that they often spend more time in port for repairs than anywhere near the open seas. Computers don’t work; engines corrode; transmissions fails; and there are two different manufacturers of the same poorly designed ship, which means the crews, parts and vendors are incompatible.

None of this has been a secret, and Pentagon officials, politicians and presidents of both parties have supported this bipartisan boondoggle. Nope, it’s not Trump or Obama – it’s all of them.

To add insult to injury: The crappy manufacturing hasn’t stayed on budget, running massively (think billions) overbudget, and repairs to even make the ships semi-operable are being split between the defense contractors and the American public. In other words, we’ve overpaid for junk, and then we got left holding the repair bill. What a deal.

And so we aren’t just living Eisenhower’s curse, we’re paying doubly for it. It must be a great racket being a defense contractor: Design a shoddy ship, be reimbursed for massive cost increases and then get paid to fix the crappy components.

There is at least one very important accidental byproduct of this bad boating experience: It illustrates our costly and complex relationship with the military.

Our general and unwavering support of the military needs some refining. This happened not just because of lobbyists, and not just because politicians love to spend your money. Instead, continuing to throw billions at a defense system, the fancy nomenclature for a fleet of ships, becomes a sort of proxy patriotism. In other words, voters demand that politicians fully fund the military because that’s what we’re supposed to do as loyal, patriotic and supportive citizens.

Yet, like those same ships, we’re veering off course.

If the littoral combat ships demonstrate anything, it’s how we’ve confused support of the defense contractors for support of the soldiers. When we discuss supporting the military, we need to tune our talk to a discussion of what our troops need to stay competitive, safe and healthy. Of course, that includes being given weaponry and equipment that is state-of-the-art, or at least, functional (the LCS computers would often break down making it impossible to even purchase a soda on board).

As Congress begins to talk about budgets, how to spend less, and contemplates a partial shutdown, maybe it’s time to take a look at the Pentagon’s budget with new eyes. We have to care about the troops enough not to reflexively rubber-stamp every idea, just because it has some tie to troops. And citizens must agree to a cease-fire on politicians whenever one of them has the temerity to question critically an expenditure by the military. Patriotism isn’t a spending spree, rather it’s caring enough about the troops to make sure the money is spent right.

In a very real way, those rusting, broken down ships that at one time embodied a bold vision, American ingenuity, and a desire to be among the leaders of the world, mirror the dysfunction and gridlock of what has become commonplace in almost all American politics.

While the rest of the world moves ahead, we limp back to port to once again try to repair a collection of bad ideas, rather than looking reality straight in the face and admitting that we’ve made a series of regrettable mistakes, and it’s time to hit the reset.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.