When I began covering the U.S. military for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Washington 40 years ago, it was to report on the Texas contractors who built what the Pentagon bought. Tens of thousands of the paper’s readers cared a lot about the fate of the weapons rolling off their assembly lines. Cuts in production ordered by the Pentagon or Congress in faraway Washington could take food off their table; boosts could lead to overtime on the line and a fatter paycheck.
The “military-industrial complex” that President (and five-star Army general) Dwight Eisenhower warned us of in 1961 has funneled down to a few “Walmarts of war.”
Back then, General Dynamics was building the Air Force’s agile F-16 fighter on Fort Worth’s west side. Vought was building the Navy’s A-7 attack plane nearby. And Texas Instruments (TI) was building the revolutionary High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile—HARM—which could destroy enemy radars. But as the U.S. defense industry entered a post-Cold War contraction, a rash of mergers changed all those name plates.
The F-16 ended up being built by Lockheed Martin. Vought was spun off from the LTV Corp., a once-powerful conglomerate, with pieces ending up in the arms of Northrop Grumman. And the HARM missile is no longer produced by TI, but by the Raytheon Corp.
The merger mania that surged as the Cold War wound down—when 51 aerospace and defense companies shrank to five—is making a comeback. The “military-industrial complex” that President (and five-star Army general) Dwight Eisenhower warned us of in 1961 has funneled down to a few “Walmarts of war,” as Daniel Wirls, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, quoted defense researchers calling the surviving contractors in a June 26 Washington Post column.
Less competition can drive up costs while dampening innovation. Backers counter that efficiencies, job cuts, primarily, lead to lower costs that can save the Pentagon money—rarely—or let it buy more for the same price—also rare. And the middlemen—the lawyers and financiers who nurture these deals—do just fine, thanks.
Mergers’ merits are murky when it comes to costs and innovation, and haven’t been studied much. It’d be a good move, both for taxpayers and the government, if Congress and the Government Accountability Office took deep dives into the issue to learn enough to make smart decisions. The issue has been debated for decades. Back in 1997, Robert Pitofsky, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), told Congress that the FTC “strongly believes … that competition produces the best goods at the lowest prices and is also most conducive to innovation.” (end of excerpt)
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