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Military Peer Review

Miriam Pemberton
National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament
Martha Honey
Institute for Policy Studies' Peace and Security Program

When Defense Secretary William Cohen unveiled the Pentagon's budget in February, he made another announcement that received less attention but may be more important. He released the appointments to the National Defense Panel, which is mandated by Congress to produce an "independent assessment" of the long-term security needs of the United States. The list indicates that Cohen, a published poet with a gift for language, has an odd understanding of the word "independent".

Last Year, Congress decided the Defense Department needed to conduct a Quadrennial Defense Review, a once-every-four-years formal assessment of its structure, budget and strategy. The Q.D.R., due to be released in mid-May, is to be reviewed by both Congress and a nongovernmental National Defense Panel. The panel, appointed by the Defense Secretary in consultation with Congress, was to be made up of independent, nonpartisan, private-sector military experts. This panel would assess the Q.D.R. and evaluate the threats faced by the United States and the appropriate level of military spending needed to deal with them. Its final report is due out in December.

Here was a chance to rethink U.S. defense policy in light of the demise of the Soviet Union: to identify cold war relics such as the F-22 fighter plane, the Comanche helicopter, the ballistic missile defense system and the Navy's new attack submarine; to examine the opportunities for deep cuts in the nuclear stockpiles; and to scrutinize sharply the military budget in an era of balanced budgets. It was never likely that a genuinely independent examination would emerge from a process in which the Pentagon picks its own critics. But to look at the appointees is to know that no such review is going to happen.

The nine panel members include four retired generals and admirals (one from each service), an Army Reserve brigadier general and three former Pentagon officials. Only Janne Nolan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, can be considered outside the military establishment, but, as the lone woman, she's become, as one colleague put it, "a perennial" on defense review panels. This one has "usual-suspect types", commented John Pike, a military analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.

Take Robert RisCassi, a retired Army general who's now a vice president with military industry giant Lockheed Martin. Even one "industry source" told Inside the Air Force magazine that the Pentagon "can't afford to have it look like the largest defense contractor in the country is sitting on the panel. It's too much access, too much influence." Other panel members include a retired Marine general now serving as managing director of McDonnell Douglas-Europe, and a retired Navy admiral and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is now C.E.O. of Technology Strategies and Alliances. And the panel's chairman is Phil Odeen, the head of BDM International, an 8,000-employee information technology company that receives more than half its work from military contracts.

BDM has prospered in recent years despite modest cuts in the military budget. In 1995 the firm increased its defense revenues from $245 million to $332 million. Its latest annual report predicts a rosy future for the military market: "There is broad consensus that, while cost pressures will continue to constrain the defense marketplace, the defense budget has been cut enough and 1997 will see the beginning of a period of real growth in defense spending." And what's in it for BDM? "All in all, we see a fertile growth environment for BDM's defense initiatives."

Thus, Odeen, who is supposed to lead the panel's effort to decide how much military spending the country needs, has thoroughly vested interests in getting more. Even Republican Senator John McCain, an ex-P.O.W. and member of the Armed Services Committee, complained that Odeen's appointment "only fuels early reports that the Q.D.R. will go unchallenged and will only restate the status quo".

Statements by Cohen and senior military officials indicate the Q.D.R. will propose modest troop reductions but increased spending for new weapons systems. Military spending overall, which fell after the cold war, is now budgeted to climb over the next five years. Nothing in the makeup of the National Defense Panel suggests it will be much more than a rubber stamp.

Imagine if a panel intended to review corporate welfare were primarily composed of corporate executives. Cohen's selections do not inspire confidence that the Pentagon will be treated to a no-holds-barred, dollar-by-dollar, "independent" review. Someone should buy that wordsmith-turned-warrior a dictionary.

© The Nation, 1997

Miriam Pemberton and Martha Honey, "Military Peer Review" The Nation 26 May 1997, p. 24.

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