De-Hyper: The US Military Is Not the Best Innovator in Manufacturing


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When the United States entered World War Two in 1942, the planet would change in ways that now seem nearly irreversible. When the dust was settled, not only did the hostilities allow the U.S. to usurp the role of global hegemon, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Production Board had managed to convert a substantial number of U.S. factories to the production of military weapons and supplies. Whereas the country spent just 1.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on the military in 1940, this number jumped to 37 percent in 1945, the last year that the Board was in place.

After the war was over, many of the businesses that enjoyed lucrative government contracts for increased military output felt that source of revenue begin to shrink. If they wanted to maintain similar levels of funding from the feds, they would need the U.S. economy to shift from one of peace to one of war.

“There was a little period right after the war where there was a dip in military spending and the contractors organized themselves into associations and hired former Pentagon procurement officials to represent them and put all kinds of lobbying and financial force behind the notion that we needed to spend more on defense, including pumping up the dangers of the Soviet threat,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program for the Center for International Policy (CIP), a non-profit foreign policy research and advocacy think tank. “So, there was an ideological component as well as an economic component. And that sustained itself pretty much up to the present.”

In addition to acting as a director for CIP, Hartung has been a critic of U.S. foreign policy and weapons manufacturing for nearly two decades, authoring Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex and other work. We spoke to the prolific defense analyst to learn how it is that the U.S. military comes to represent such a strong presence in the country’s manufacturing industry and the pitfalls that result.

For us in the 3D printing industry, this topic is particularly relevant given the position that the defense and aerospace segments occupy in our niche sector. A 2015 report on “Additive Manufacturing In Space And Defense Aerospace Markets” from SmarTech Analysis estimated that vertical alone to reach $600 million by 2022. Compared to roughly $15 billion that the 3D printing industry is worth as a whole, that may be a relatively small number, but the influence of the military can be felt in part by the players that guide the sector’s development.

As a part of a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (also referred to as Manufacturing USA), the first federally funded 3D printing institute in the United States, America Makes, was established in 2012 with the Department of Defense (DoD) granting $30 million in funding to a consortium called the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM).

The NCDMM does not advertise its military focus as openly as it did in 2012, but this page from an NCDMM overview brochure showcases an array of weapons projects that the organization has been involved in.

Manufacturing USA was launched in part on behalf of military manufacturers who, as a part of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) Steering Committee, drew up a proposal for the network. The AMP Steering Committee included such defense contractors as Dow Chemical, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell, Intel, Caterpillar, and Allegheny Technologies. All of these members, with the exception of Intel and Allegheny, were at the time members of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a network known to lobby for the increase of the U.S. government’s International Affairs Budget in order to fund U.S. efforts in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

The pilot institute in Manufacturing USA, America Makes, sees private agencies, such as the DoD and Department of Energy, match public funds with private members, such as all of the top military manufacturers alongside numerous universities and other firms, including the leading names in 3D printing. This means that Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and Boeing work side by side with 3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS to drive the additive manufacturing (AM) industry forward.

However, if the public body (DoD) and the consortium (NCDMM) that established America Makes are military-oriented, what does that mean for the direction that AM research heads in?

Of 73 projects America Makes has directed, 70 percent (51) have involved military applications. 57 percent of the approximately $112 million raised for those programs has come from public funding, leaving the remaining 43 percent to be provided by private partners.

Naturally, a military focus in manufacturing isn’t the fault of a specific organization but is really built into the overall patchwork of the country’s larger military-industrial complex. Hartung explained that the sheer size and resources of defense contractors provides them with extra weight in the public-private marketplace.

“They make national security arguments, sometimes even classification-related arguments. The notion is that defense comes first: we have to defend the country and, therefore, those applications should get priority,” Hartung said. “Of course, depending on who the public partner is, these companies often have superior resources, employ more engineers and scientists that they’ve got the capability to dominate what should be more of an equal relationship.”

While the exact amount that the federal government spends on the military varies year-to-year, the decade after 9/11 has seen the U.S. defense budget increase for 10 years straight. This is a record for a nation that spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined, representing about 38% of the world’s total military spending.

Image courtesy of CIP.

Under the administration of the newest president, Joe Biden, the country is likely to spend about the same amount as under its previous executive at roughly $740 billion. That is roughly 15 percent of all federal spending and more than half of discretionary spending. This comes despite the fact that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have dropped from over 180,000 in 2010 to less than 10,000 now. How is it that the budget can increase while the country’s two largest battlefronts have shrunk?

Hartung suggests that, the defense industry deploys new enemies, rhetorically, as it influences congress financially. The weapons manufacturers, according to Hartung, inflate the nature of the risks associated with the “threat of the moment”, such as Russia or China, as a sales pitch for obtaining more funding from the federal government.

“For example, during what they used to call the ‘Global War on Terror’, which is still going on, there was a special account called the Overseas Contingency Operations account. This was separate from the Pentagon’s regular budget. At that time until the present, there were 10 years where we were under budget caps that were part of the Budget Control Act,” Hartung said. “But this Overseas Contingency Operations fund was not under those caps. What they did is put tens of billions of dollars of pet projects into that account that had nothing to do with fighting the wars. So, the wars were the justification to the public, but then they spent much of the money on things that were not war related.”

Though the “War on Terror” is still used to justify defense spending, the new threat is China, Hartung says. However, even this new “threat” fails to be a military challenge when held under close scrutiny, according to the analyst:

“The army, the marines—there’s not going to be a scenario under which the United States does a land invasion of China because it would be a disaster. It would be impossible to carry out. It could trigger a nuclear conflict. And, yet, these services are saying, ‘We will need to be part of the potential war with China…’ But the larger issue is that winning a war with China is not a reasonable objective for U.S. defense strategy. Yet, it’s embedded in the National Defense Strategy Commission, which was a congressionally mandated commission to review the Pentagon strategy. The majority of the members of the Commission had connections either directly or indirectly to the defense industry. So, you had the industry essentially shaping the discussion of what the threats actually are.”

In addition to the defense-linked players inflating military threats, Hartung noted that there is economic rhetoric for why defense should be awarded so much public funding. Specifically, military contractors and the DoD claim to provide jobs.

As an example, he used the F-35 program, which has been criticized for cost overruns, mismanagement, and technological failures. Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon claim that this problematic program is responsible for 254,000 jobs in the U.S., with union workers at factories responsible for the F-35 writing letters in support of the program. This information is then passed around to Congress to prevent elected officials from voting against F-35 funding. However, Hartung argues, these numbers are grossly inflated:

“The program spends about $10 billion a year, which is a lot of money, but, under normal calculations, that would create perhaps 70 or 80,000 jobs, not 254,000. So, what they do is they make these exaggerated claims about how that money is going to ripple out into the economy: how much are workers going to spend at the restaurant across the street from the factory, or what are they going to spend on clothing, or how does that money spread itself around the economy? They exaggerate that effect and then they come up with these absurdly high numbers that they then use as one element of selling high defense budgets.”

Perhaps most relevant to 3D printing are the arguments related to technological knock-on effects related to defense spending. For instance, military actors conducting metal 3D printing research and development will surely improve that technology for the rest of the AM industry and, therefore, the public at large. It is often argued that these developments would never have occurred without the defense industry. Hartung suggests that innovation actually occurs at a faster rate and more efficiently outside of the rigid structure of the Pentagon’s contracting hierarchy, with historical examples, such as nuclear energy and the internet, used to direct attention away from this fact.

In many cases, then, large defense contractors may not be the most efficient or innovative businesses for driving the direction of technological development. Examples of problematic military projects date back to at least the 1960s, when Lockheed’s C5 transport plane became the first development program with a $1 billion cost overrun ($7 billion today) and suffered numerous design problems. More recently, Boeing’s KC 46 aerial refueling aircraft has faced $5 billion in overruns and a plethora of technical issues.

In some cases, DoD funding can be used for corrupt practices. Due to big bribery scandals in the 1970s, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed that prevents outright bribery of foreign officials, but there are still methods influencing political actors. For instance, offset agreements make it possible for a foreign government to acquire a weapon and, in exchange, the company from whom the weapon is bought will make investments in the recipient country to offset costs. This might include shifting some of the production of that weapon to that country or helping the country advertise some of its products globally.

For example, part of the offset requirements by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) includes depositing money into an investment fund. In one case, money from that fund was provided to a U.S. think tank that was supportive of UAE geopolitical positions. In other cases, a company might set up operations in a recipient country that hires relatives of the nation’s leadership that may not be the most qualified to run the business. All of this takes the place of the more straightforward bribery of the past.

“Basically, it’s an economic kickback but it’s legal,” Hartung said. “And it’s only legal in the defense sector. Other sectors, under World Trade Organization rules, are not allowed to do this sort of thing.”

While there are areas of innovation within these corporate behemoths, such as Lockheed’s Skunk Works and Boeing’s Phantom Works, Hartung noted that these represent only a portion of otherwise slow and stodgy businesses.

“There’s a lot of overhead. There’s a lot of inefficiency. And that’s really not what you want in an R&D program because you’re wasting scarce investment funds by funneling it through these big operations. Often these companies are not particularly innovative themselves, but they buy up smaller companies. The extent that they have innovative technology is usually because they’ve purchased it, not because they’ve developed it internally,” Hartung said. “Some of them have developed particular technologies like stealth, but some of those technologies are also overrated. You know, stealth does not make planes invisible. It just obscures their radar signature and many of the planes that have stealth characteristics, like the F-35, have many other deficiencies that far outweigh the fact that they have this stealth capability. So, to me, if you want the most innovation, you would want university researchers or smaller firms to be in more of a leadership role rather than having big defense companies steering applications towards military use.”

Naturally, with the DoD maintaining over half of the discretionary budget, there is little room left over for social welfare, environmental protection, education and public health. In turn, Congress attempts to insert funding for those types of projects into the Pentagon budget. Meanwhile, some of the bigger threats to the well-being of those in the United States—such as climate change, gross inequality, and even the ongoing pandemic—are left without long-term spending.

“I think there’s got to be serious pressure on the administration and the Congress to rethink what makes us safe,” Hartung said. “We’ve lost more than half a million people to the pandemic, which is more than all of the wars since World War One. Climate change is hitting us on a daily basis. There’ll be stronger hurricanes, wildfires, and just unpredictable weather patterns that have devastating effects. So, I think there’s got to be a sort of a cultural shift that says defending the country means, first and foremost, dealing with the things that are the greatest threat to our lives. And those would not be things that the military is equipped to address.”

The CIP conducted a project dubbed the Sustainable Defense Task Force in 2019 that looked at how the U.S. could maintain superior defense capabilities while spending less money. The task force called for cutting about $1.2 trillion from the DoD budget over 10 years by reducing overseas troop deployments, reducing the size of the armed forces by 10 to 15 percent, not hiring as many private contractors—of which the Pentagon has over 600,000—and not building a new generation of nuclear weapons. Without reducing the security of the country, this would free up funds to be used for making the electrical grid more resilient, investing in alternative energy, and investing in public health with funding that would be relatively small in comparison to the amount spent on the DoD.

Image courtesy of CIP.

“If more than half of your discretionary budget is being absorbed by the Pentagon, then your ability to deal with infrastructure and public health and environment is so severely diminished that you can’t really establish a game plan where you’re going to make progress over time.”

One of the steps that needs to be taken to be able to even have a national discussion about this topic, according to Hartung, is to make the federal budget more transparent. The Pentagon budget is nearly impossible to decipher in part due to the fact that money spent on private contracts is included, as well as classified R&D and procurement programs. Additionally, most of the budget is expressed in language that is inaccessible to the public.

In 2020, we saw many 3D printing firms, as well as manufacturers at large, shift production due to the significant need for medical supplies due to spikes in COVID-19 cases and supply chain disruptions from the pandemic. There were, of course, wide-scale efforts to 3D print face shield parts, but there were also more innovative examples of the use of 3D printing, such as completely novel nasal swabs for COVID testing. This demonstrated not only the potential for additive manufacturing to act as a stop gap measure during supply chain disruptions, but also entirely new approaches to design and manufacturing.

Perhaps even more significant were the examples of manufacturers that retooled their production of standard commercial products, such as auto parts, to ventilators. In one instance, a ventilator company even temporarily made its product open source in order to quickly expand the pool of potential manufacturers to meet demand.

These cases demonstrate that the possibility exists to shift away from a permanent war time production to one of peace. Based on the United Nations’ likely under-precautious accounting, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will need to be reduced by more than 45 percent by 2030. Therefore, it is likely that we will need to retool our manufacturing and transportation infrastructures entirely in an unprecedented amount of time. However, the War Production Board showed those in the U.S. that it is possible to completely change how and what a society manufactures. And, given the fact that the U.S. military is the largest institutional user of fossil fuels, reducing its footprint may be the place to start. The 3D printing industry is still a young one, so it may not be too late to divert its energies away from military applications and toward something more sustainable.

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