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‘Ill-Equipped,’ ‘1950s’ Pentagon Needs an Expensive Upgrade, Media Insist 

News outlets routinely caution that the Pentagon needs billions of dollars’ worth of improvements to systems, personnel and technology.

The post ‘Ill-Equipped,’ ‘1950s’ Pentagon Needs an Expensive Upgrade, Media Insist  appeared first on FAIR.


Wired: Office Life at the Pentagon Is Disconcertingly Retrograde

There are no laptops at meetings in the Pentagon,” Navy official John Kroger warned (Wired, 8/20/20). “There are no whiteboards, either.

Despite its immense power, the Pentagon is a relic of decades past.

Such was the argument by Navy official John Kroger, writing for Wired (8/20/20). Commenting on the daily operations of the Defense Department, Kroger depicted a workplace bereft of modernity: no WiFi, scant cell signals, workflows of “a glacial pace,” and a “hermetic closure” to talent from the private sector, amounting to a “retrograde” “1950s environment,” unprepared to sustain 21st-century national security.

Kroger’s warning wasn’t the first of its kind, nor was it the last. News outlets routinely caution that the US Department of Defense—the largest government agency of the world’s wealthiest country, with an $858 billion budget that can be exceeded with impunity—is sclerotic and inefficient. The only remedy, they tell their audiences, is billions more dollars’ worth of improvements to management systems, personnel, and weapons and intelligence technology.

‘Backward’ superpower

With such an antiquated Defense Department, the argument goes, the US will be “ill-equipped” (Wired, 5/2/22) for future war, trailing its most formidable adversaries.

Foreign Policy boosted this view in an op-ed (10/25/21) that described the Pentagon as a “living museum” plagued by “backward” working conditions. The piece, penned by fellows at the Truman National Security Project and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (both of which count weapons manufacturers among their top funders), pleaded for a program of modernization to help the DoD adapt to “the evolving character of war and an ongoing reframing of national security,” and counter “an increasingly aggressive China and a stubbornly revanchist Russia.” Without a comprehensive upgrade, the piece asserted, the United States would “at best muddle through the challenges it faces.”

Foreign Policy: The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The Pentagon “remains burdened by the strict adherence to slow, sequential processes,” Zachery Tyson Brown complained in Foreign Policy (10/25/21), “while more contemporary workplaces have learned that parallel, simultaneous, and asynchronous methods dramatically speed their delivery of value.”

Politico (6/27/23) echoed these concerns when it bemoaned the Pentagon’s “endless struggle with AI,” reporting that “the military needs more AI technology, faster.” According to the piece, the DoD can’t keep up with the tech industry’s pace of military technology development, imperiling “American dominance” as China ascends. Citing “defense pundits,” the article promoted additional funding for autonomous weapons and surveillance, among other forms of contemporary warfare, framing the Department’s request for $1.8 billion in AI research and development funding as modest: “a record, but still just a fraction of the nearly $900 billion defense budget.”

Considering the enormous sum—which grows considerably every year—at the Pentagon’s disposal, one might question the notion that the US military is underresourced or in imminent danger of being militarily eclipsed. In 2022, for instance, the US outspent the next ten highest-spending countries combined on war preparation, accounting for 39% of the world’s military expenditure that year. (China, whose population outnumbers that of the entire Western Hemisphere, came in second at 13%, with Russia in third at 4%.)

Additionally, available data—even from US-based institutions—indicate that the US far outspends China and Russia on defense-related AI research and development.

Georgetown University’s Center for Security & Emerging Technology found that the US planned to devote $5 billion to military AI for fiscal year 2020, compared to estimates ranging from $0.3 billion–$2.7 billion for China in 2018. “The numbers directly oppose the prevailing narrative” that the US was losing the “so-called AI arms race,” reported MIT Technology Review (12/5/19). Though publicly accessible information on Russia’s spending is limited and of questionable accuracy, sources like Defense One (4/4/18) and the RAND Corporation placed Russia’s total AI spending at $12 to $36 million annually in 2017 and 2018.

But failing to include such pertinent context—let alone moral critiques—about global government spending continues media’s long history of presenting a “lagging empire” narrative that frames the US as a floundering underdog in need of additional defense funding (, 9/1/15). “To keep up with China, the Defense Department is trying to lure private capital,” reported the Wall Street Journal (3/26/23), in yet another example. One of the article’s sources, a co-founder of a “national security innovation” center at Stanford University, likened China to “Silicon Valley,” and the US to a “Detroit auto maker,” concluding: “That’s not a fair fight.”

‘Struggling’ weapon-makers

NYT: Start-Ups Bring Silicon Valley Ethos to a Lumbering Military-Industrial Complex

High-tech systems are “getting real-world testing in the war in Ukraine,” the New York Times (5/21/23) reported, “earning praise from top government officials there and validating investors who have been pouring money into the field.”

In order to strengthen their case, some media shine a spotlight on the military startups aspiring to sign lucrative DoD contracts, characterizing firms that seek to facilitate mass violence throughout the world as hapless victims of a hamstrung bureaucracy.

Financial Times (3/17/22) advocated for tech businesses that “struggle to break into the Pentagon,” suggesting they’re being deprived of the long-term software contracts they deserve. The paper went further, tacitly supporting Silicon Valley founders’ accusations of “innovation theater,” which FT defined as “paying lip service to the importance of disruptive technology while holding back the vast bulk of their budgets for traditional, large-scale programs from incumbent contractors.”

More recently, the New York Times (5/21/23) lamented the Department’s apparently inadequate catalog of contracts with scrappy, enterprising military-systems companies. Assessing the military-industrial complex as “lumbering” and the DoD as “risk-averse,” the Times portrayed a Pentagon too conservative with expenses, requiring “years of planning and congressional funding decisions” before it would buy enough product to keep afloat startups that specialize in logistics, weapons technology and intelligence.

Among the casualties, according to the Times: Primer and Capella Space, both of which laid off employees while awaiting decisions from the Pentagon. (Both Primer and Capella, bankrolled in part by billionaire Thomas Tull, have raised approximately $250 million.) “Many other tech start-ups struggl[e] to pay bills” while in the same holding pattern, the Times added.

Recruiting more ‘nerds’

Wired: To Win the Next War, the Pentagon Needs Nerds

Wired (5/2/22): “Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of war, and the US needs to adapt in order to maintain its edge.”

Keen on Silicon Valley’s technical expertise, media in some cases propose that the Defense Department be awarded additional funding to attract and hire tech workers from the private sector.

Wired (5/2/22) exemplified this with the disconcertingly twee headline, “To Win the Next War, the Pentagon Needs Nerds.” Echoing Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, the piece fretted that the Pentagon lacked the talent to develop cutting-edge war technology, in part because the DoD couldn’t “compete” with the salaries offered by the private sector.

Years earlier, Wired (2/16/19) presented this thesis in an opinion piece urging the Pentagon to lure tech workers away from high-paid, prestigious posts at such Silicon Valley staples as Google, Facebook (now Meta), Amazon and Apple. Its author, consultant and “futurist” Amy Webb, made her prescriptions plain:

The government can allocate significant funding—several billion to start—for basic and advanced research in AI. It can use some of that money for better compensation packages, to build capacity among existing staff, and to fund projects allowing the tech giants and public sector to start working much more closely together.

Conveniently enough, as of June 2023, the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act would give the DoD a record $886 billion, highlighting “increased funding for cutting-edge technologies,” including “the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.” It seems that Webb’s—and much of corporate media’s—wish has come true.

The post ‘Ill-Equipped,’ ‘1950s’ Pentagon Needs an Expensive Upgrade, Media Insist  appeared first on FAIR.

This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Julianne Tveten.

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