How Obama Got His Tomahawks

From THE GREAT DEFORMATION: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, by David A. Stockman.  Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.

How Obama Got His Tomahawks

At the heart of the Reagan defense buildup was a great double shuffle. The war drums were sounding a strategic nuclear threat that virtually imperiled American civilization. Yet the money was actually being allocated to tanks, amphibious landing craft, close air support helicopters, and a vast conventional armada of ships and planes.

These weapons were of little use in the existing nuclear standoff, but were well suited to imperialistic missions of invasion and occupation. Ironically, therefore, the Reagan defense buildup was justified by an Evil Empire that was rapidly fading but was eventually used to launch elective wars against an Axis of Evil which didn’t even exist.

Among the costly programs which had precious little to do with the alleged strategic nuclear threat was the fabled six-hundred-ship navy. The latter entailed hundreds of billions in new procurement for mostly surface ships and carrier battle groups. These vast iron flotillas had no role whatsoever against a Soviet first strike, save perhaps to burn the last candles for civilization after it was over.

Likewise, hundreds of billions more were absorbed by conventional land and air forces, including 13,000 new main battle tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Over the next decade the Reagan buildup also funded about 18,000 new tactical aircraft and helicopters, and hundreds of thousands of cruise missile and guided munitions.

During the first year or two, however, even the Pentagon could not spend money on big-ticket items fast enough to consume all the top-line dollars. So the military services launched a once-in-a-lifetime shopping spree for spare parts, ammo, tools and equipment, electronic components, and every other kind of material on their stock lists. Spending for some items grew by 50 percent annually for several years.

By contrast, only a tiny fraction of this $1.46 trillion defense bonanza actually went into strategic nuclear procurement. For example, about $30 billion—or 2 percent of the total—went to the B-1 bomber, which was based on obsolete pre-stealth technology. Ironically, the last batch of the 100 B-1 bombers was delivered in May 1988—six months before the Velvet Revolution in Prague triggered a swift end to the rickety Soviet empire.

What actually kept the Soviets at bay was the retaliatory desolation that the thousands of submarine based Trident missile warheads would rain down upon its cities, along with an equal number of independently targeted warheads launched from land-based minuteman ICBMs. The Soviets had no defense against these land- and sea-based retaliatory forces and had no prospect of developing one.

This deterrent force was what actually kept the nation safe and had been fully in place for years. American nuclear security in 1981 required hardly an incremental dime of expenditure—and certainly not the $20 billion MX “peacekeeper” missile, which was an offensive weapon that undermined deterrence and wasn’t actually deployed until the Cold War was nearly over.

Indeed, virtually none of the Reagan defense build-up impacted the strategic nuclear equation. The tried-and-true doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), based on 656 Polaris submarine missiles and 1,054 Minuteman ICBMs already bought and paid for, kept the nuclear peace until the last day of the Soviet Union in 1991.

So the idea that the Reagan defense buildup somehow spent the Soviet Union into collapse is a legend of remarkable untruth. The preexisting nuclear balance of terror never really changed during the 1980s, and the United States spent no serious money to threaten the Evil Empire. The Soviet leadership did end up feeling beleaguered and imperiled, but it was due to the epochal economic failure of an ossified state socialism, not the new US armada of conventional ships, tanks, and planes.

Indeed, the original notion that the Soviet Union was bent on developing global military superiority and nuclear war–winning capability was never plausible. Even at the time, there was no evidence to support it, and it was embraced by no more than a tiny but vocal minority of the national security community.

The now open Soviet archives also prove there never was a Soviet defense-spending offensive. By the early 1980s Soviet military outlays were growing at only 1–2 percent per year, and even that figure was based on the dubious statistics of a command economy which was falling apart.

On the scary weapons front, the Soviets’ heavy fixed-silo ICBMs turned out to be far less accurate than claimed, meaning they were never close to being the deadly first-strike weapons the neocons had ballyhooed. The new mobile ICBMs were not accurate enough to function as first-strike weapons, either.

Nor was there any heavy long-range bomber program—only an intermediate range aircraft that could not have actually threatened North American sites. Likewise, there was no massive civil defense program, just a mishmash of disorganized and poorly resourced local boondoggles.

In short, the neocon case against MAD was based mostly on fantasy. The Soviet leadership was not prepared to launch a world-ending first strike because it did not even remotely have the capabilities to do it, even if it had succumbed to suicidal impulses.

The far more relevant truth, which had been evident to free market libertarians all along, was that the Soviet economy was on an inexorable path toward failure. This militated heavily against the prospect that it could have initiated a nuclear war–winning strategy or carried out significant conventional force aggression beyond its own border regions, such as the morass it sunk into in Afghanistan.

Had the United States simply gotten a massive defense buildup that it didn’t need, there might have been no lasting impact save for a modest waste of resources; perhaps a few percentage points of GDP. In fact, however, the Reagan defense buildup gave birth to a historical monstrosity: the Bush wars of occupation and imperial pretension that were possible only because of the immense conventional war machine the Gipper left behind.


What got built with the $1.46 trillion Reagan budget was a conventional war-making capacity and force projection ability that the only military expert to occupy the White House in the twentieth century, Dwight Eisenhower, had rejected as of marginal value against a nuclear adversary. The fiasco in Vietnam had already proven him correct, demonstrating painfully and tragically that massive conventional forces cannot successfully occupy, pacify, and rebuild third-world nations of the unwilling.

Yet that’s exactly what the Reagan top line bought: an occupation force which would have left General Eisenhower rolling in his grave. At the center were fifteen naval carrier battle groups armed to the teeth with attack aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, amphibious landing craft, and vast suites of communications and electronic warfare gear. Indeed, the standard aircraft carrier was accompanied by a fleet of eighty aircraft and a dozen escort ships, the equivalent of the entire military establishment of all except a handful of nations.

It is these nuclear carrier battle groups which gave US policy makers their striking imperial arrogance. An example of how these platforms were suited to imperial power projection, not anti-Soviet defense, is the sea-based Tomahawk cruise missile force.

The rise of Tomahawk force began in 1983 during the Reagan buildup, but the demise of the Evil Empire did not slow down its development one bit. By the end of the century the United States had about 150 surface ships and attack submarines that could launch these deadly cruise missiles and an inventory of nearly 5,000 missiles.

Tomahawks have a range of seven hundred miles. This means that from their offshore platforms they can reach three-fourths of the world’s population. And during the last two decades they have been used in just this “stand-off” manner against targets in Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, and others—teaching presidents that they could meddle freely without getting bloodied.

The Reagan defense buildup also provided cover for a vast renewal of conventional fixed-wing and helicopter forces, a binge of procurement that had no peacetime precedent. During the eight Reagan years, the Pentagon was authorized to purchase nearly 9,000 planes and helicopters compared to only 3,000 during the previous eight years.

This profoundly wasteful binge was predicated on the specious notion that the Soviets were fixing to launch a suicidal conventional land war in Europe. Yet even then the Red Army was proving every day that it couldn’t subdue RPG-toting tribesmen in the barren expanse of the Hindu Kush.

Moreover, when the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991 high rates of aircraft procurement continued unabated: Congressmen had no trouble seeing them as “jobs” programs, even if Eastern Europe was now being rapidly occupied by Burger Kings and Pizza Huts.

The Reagan buildup thus bequeathed national security policy makers approximately 13,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Except for 20 B-2 stealth bombers this giant inventory was designed for conventional war-making and power projection on distant shores, including 4,000 conventional attack and fighter aircraft and more than 5,000 helicopters whose mission was conventional battlefield support in an attack, transport, or utility role.

The two big land war programs launched during the Reagan build-up—the upgraded Abrams Tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle—experienced a similar untoward evolution. At the time of the Reagan top line windfall in 1981, there was ferocious debate among the experts as to whether a new, more expensive generation of the M1 tank should be developed.

Yet issues of cost and efficacy were no longer even debatable after the 7 percent growth top line became operative on January 30, 1981. The empty space in DOD’s new $1.46 trillion plan was so vast that both programs were sucked into its budget like air rushing into a vacuum. Over the next decade 7,000 Bradley’s and 6,000 M1 Abrams tanks were procured—useless weapons against a Soviet nuclear strike, but ideal for missions of invasion and occupation.

Moreover, once the Bradley and Abrams production lines were open, the odds of closing them down were between slim and none. Armored battlefield vehicles consist of an intensive mix of iron, precision machining, and complex electronic components and circuitry—which is to say, they are a “jobs program” par excellence.

The case in point can be seen in Lima, Ohio, where the M1 tank line refuses to shut down—40 years after the 7 percent top line brought it unnecessarily to life. Since then all of the nation’s industrial enemies have either expired, as in the case of the Soviets, or retired to civilian life, as in the case of China.

What passes for a state-based enemy is a nation of 78 million deeply unhappy citizens ruled by twelfth-century mullahs, whose major act of aggression over the past thirty years was to repel an attack by its Iraqi neighbor with twelve-year-old soldiers carrying stick rifles. Still, the military-industrial complex manages to keep retooling, upgrading, and modernizing its fleet of 9,000 Abrams tanks as if the Berlin crisis of 1961 never ended.

When all is said and done, the accidental and unnecessary 7 percent topline of January 1981 gave birth to a vast imperial expeditionary force and conventional war-fighting machine. Yet after the Velvet Revolution of December 1988, it inhabited a world that had no need for imperial expeditions or industrial-strength conventional wars.


The remains of the Soviet empire soon settled into a handful of kleptocracies, Europe adverted to welfare-state senescence, and Red China morphed into the sneakers and Apple factory of the world. In short, there remained no place for a great expeditionary force to operate, save for the littoral states of the Middle East.

The latter, unhappily, provided the ideal venue. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the six-hundred-ship navy began to steadily loose girth, but its capacity to rain destruction on the lands ringing the Persian Gulf from a standoff platform in the deep water could not be gainsaid.

Likewise, the helicopter fleets, the close air support and attack aircraft wings, the fighter-bomber forces, and the raft of tactical missiles and smart munitions all proved suited for occupying the Middle Eastern lands of the unwilling and mostly unarmed. Nor could the vast open deserts and the crumbling mud and stone walls of its towns and villages have provided a more conducive proving ground for Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

The only thing missing was any plausible and justifiable reason of state for the deployment of this accidental expeditionary force to the desolate hills and mountains of Afghanistan, the bloody plains of the Tigris-Euphrates, or even the empty, scorpion-ridden dunes of Kuwait. None of this made oil any cheaper, even if that were a valid reason of state, which it is not.

By the Pentagon’s own reckoning there were never more than a few hundred Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. There should have been no surprise, therefore, when the holy warrior himself was found to have been holed up for six years in a farmhouse with three wives, six children, and a dozen goats. Above all else, Bin Laden’s final demise proved that it takes a few bundles of greenbacks, not an expeditionary army, to hunt down such terrorists as actually exist.

There can be little doubt, therefore, that George W. Bush, and his father before him, carried out their imperial adventures in the lands ringing the Persian Gulf because they could. An accident of history had bestowed upon them a massive conventional war-fighting machine, so they went to war without having to prove the case or raise an army by taxing the people and getting a declaration of Congress.

That much is plainly evident from the outcomes. What valid domestic security reason, for instance, can distinguish between the corrupt, violent Afghan warlords still on our payroll ten years later and the equally venal tribal chieftains for whom the bloody terror of the Taliban is a way of life.

Likewise, Iraq now consists of three principalities of corruption and thuggery rather than just one. Yet neither the old régime nor the new régimes did have or will have any bearing on the well-being of the American public.

The same is true of Kuwait next door. From the viewpoint of the true national interest the only difference between the Emir Al-Sabah IV and Saddam Hussein is that the latter is dead, having been on the wrong side of an ancient border dispute that was none of our business in the first place.

George W. Bush was appropriately castigated for landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declaring victory after great swaths of the ancient city of Baghdad had been reduced to rubble in only a few weeks. But that was not proof of victory at all, just evidence that wanton destruction could be rained on any city located within a thousand miles of the very aircraft carrier on which the forty-third president stood.