The "Iron Triangle"
In general, the dynamic system now in place generates so much work and so many new ideas that it is sometimes accused of promoting projects for which there is no real military need. Hence, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning against the "military-industrial complex" and the scientific-technological elite, and the indictment of the Pentagon as a kind of state within the state, nurturing new weapons in order to perpetuate the cold war and the "warfare state." Recurrent scandals involving kickbacks, exorbitant consultant fees, and "revolving door" employment of civilian and military-procurement personnel by defense contractors have reinforced this suspicion. Nevertheless, the reality is more prosaic. The profit motive and corrupt practices oil the wheels, but they do not drive the machine. Cold war anxieties, coupled with the rapidity of technological change in modern times, provide the main impetus for weapons innovations, as is apparent in the fact that the Soviet Union, even without a private-sector economy, has developed a thriving military-industrial complex of its own.
More and more, this system has also come to involve Congress in detailed decisions on R & D and procurement. Although Congress has rarely if ever shaped new strategic or defense policy (such as the "New Look" or "Massive Retaliation," which have typically been introduced by the executive), both houses and their committees take a keen interest in the allocation of federal funds for defense R & D and procurement. Much of this is a pork-barrel interest. Members of Congress are eager to
secure new projects for their districts and to preserve those already created. Key legislators on key committees are in the best position to control the distribution of the largesse, resulting in an "iron triangle" that links the military services, the contractors, and the key members of Congress. Their combined efforts create a formidable force in favor of the perpetuation of military spending and the initiation of new programs. When there is conflict, it is often because those in the triangle perceive their interests differently. When one aircraft has to be chosen from among several candidates, different constituencies become rivals, and the prime contractors seek to reduce political risk by spreading the work over as many congressional districts as possible. When the interests of one branch of the service have to be chosen over those of one of its rivals, the same kind of competition ensues. Congress sometimes plays a more constructive role when individual members expose scandals and use the legislature's investigative power to expose kickbacks, inflation of costs, and other forms of fraud and waste. The General Accounting Office, a major watchdog agency of Congress, has also achieved significant reforms in contracting procedures after discovering that contract reviews in negotiated R & D contracts were often inadequate and unduly influenced by relationships between the contractors and the military-procurement officers. But the opportunities and temptations have proved hard to control or police, and collusive practices persist.
To characterize the military R & D and procurement processes as a triangle, however, is to miss some of its dimensions. Much of the incentive for new programs comes from service rivalries, sometimes even within particular branches of the services. Thus, "bureaucratic politics" involving competition between two services, as in the conflict between the army and air force in the Thor-Jupiter controversy, weighs heavily in the outcome of such struggles. The Defense Department's effort to gain a measure of control over such rivalries is also a factor in the picture, yet the DOD is itself a bureaucratic actor. It has sometimes promoted weapons systems and modernization out of its own "organizational imperative."
Disentangling self-interest from public interest is difficult. When the services and the DOD propose some pattern of military spending, it is not necessarily, or even usually, the case that they are acting purely out of organizational self-interest. These organizations tend to develop a concept of a public interest in national security that is presumably being served by the policies they advocate. They argue, often plausibly, that they cannot carry out their policies unless they can count on help from
others in the executive branch, especially the president, and unless they receive enough backing from public opinion to influence Congress to vote the funds in accordance with their priorities, rather than those dictated by political pressures.
Nevertheless, the general pattern of support for new military projects is one in which the laboratories tend to initiate ideas, the services become committed to particular projects and strive to have them adopted and brought to completion, the Defense Department reviews them and determines which of them make sense, and the secretary of defense, in collaboration with the contractors and Congress, decides whether or not to pursue them. By no means are all plausible candidates supported, and the evidence suggests that the contractors alone cannot carry the day unless they can succeed in forging a strong enough coalition with at least one of the armed services and interested politicians. A good example is the B-1-bomber program. When President Carter decided to shelve this program in favor of upgrading the older B-52 until the Stealth bomber would come into production, the proposal for a major new military program was temporarily defeated. This happened even though the prime contractor, Rockwell, had a great deal at stake and had assembled a formidable coalition of industrial subcontractors who stood to benefit from the adoption of the program. The formidable B-1-bomber lobby spent heavily on behalf of the cause and eventually succeeded, but it would not have done so without the election of Ronald Reagan, who was committed to a broad program of strategic modernization, including the B-1. Thus, the B-1 cannot be viewed as an example of a lobby's strength alone. In this case, the key to its success was the election of a president with a political mandate to support the program.