America's Endangered Arsenal of Democracy

By Davis, M. Thomas; Fick, Nathaniel C. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

America's Endangered Arsenal of Democracy


Davis, M. Thomas, Fick, Nathaniel C., Joint Force Quarterly


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January 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of two of the most memorable Presidential addresses in American history. The more famous speech is John F. Kennedy's inaugural address of January 20, 1961, with its crisp cadence and ringing request that Americans "ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." The second speech is Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address delivered 3 days earlier. Like the man himself, Eisenhower's tone was measured, efficient, and businesslike. It is most remembered for his caution that "in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

President Eisenhower likely never imagined that this one passage would be so long remembered. Yet because of its tenor, and the fact that Eisenhower himself was a product of the complex he warned about, the American public has subsequently held a lingering suspicion of the influence of the Nation's defense sector, an exaggerated impression of its size, and an insufficient understanding of the vital role it plays in national security.

Years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had referred to America's ability to build "more ships, more guns, more planes--more of everything" as the free world's "arsenal of democracy." Now commonly referred to as the defense industrial base (DIB), this arsenal has helped the United States emerge victorious in many of its wars, including the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Though it usually escapes mention, elsewhere in his farewell speech President Eisenhower recognized the value of the DIB when he stated, "A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction."

Today, the DIB continues to be a vital strategic asset and an important source of advantage for the United States. As Barry Watts, the former Director of the Pentagon's Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E), has written, if a nation had to choose a defense industrial base to serve its national interests, "the American military-industrial complex would surely be the one most people and nations would choose." It is, after all, the complex that not only has provided military equipment that is often the world standard, but also has stimulated the development of many technologies that are now a major component of modern American life, including high-performance jet aircraft, satellite communications, the Global Positioning System (GPS), high-speed computers, and even the Internet. Additionally, American aerospace and defense create the largest foreign trade surplus of any manufacturing sector, and constitute the second-largest export sector behind only agriculture.

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Over the years, the DIB has indisputably given the United States a major strategic advantage, particularly since the massive mobilization required for World War II. The question today is whether that will continue in the years ahead. As a senior government official recently noted, "Having a vibrant, capable defense industrial base is not a God-given right." The DIB is under stress as the American manufacturing base erodes, the vital engineering skills it requires become scarce, and tightening budgets reduce cash flows. Systemic flaws in U.S. military procurement processes, as well as past missteps by the DIB itself, have also contributed to the overall endangerment of America's arsenal of democracy during an age when rapid fielding of high-tech military equipment against nimble adversaries will increasingly determine whether the United States wins or loses wars. A primary national security challenge of the coming decade will be sustaining the arsenal of democracy so it is both viable and responsive to the needs of the Nation. …

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