The Defense Industry’s Disease, Eloquently Explained

When I read, it’s not always about weapons and defense policy. I sometimes go slumming in books about the airliner biz.

It says something that it’s pretty hard these days to write a book about the business of selling airliners without devoting a bunch of pages to defense programs — the in-bred cousins of many Boeing and Airbus airliner technologies (Airbus=fly-by-wire; Boeing=where do I start?).

In his new book Boeing Versus Airbus, author John Newhouse interweaves several defense-related sub-plots in telling a fascinating story about the paranoid and bitter rivalry between these two goliaths of industry.

But I would like to draw attention to his comments about what he calls the "Iron Triangle" and many also call the "Revolving Door" — the practice of job and influence peddling among lobbyists, government employees and contractors. This is the disease in the defense industry, but few have described the substance of the malady with more eloquence than Newhouse.

He devotes a page of his book describing the issue, from which I’ll give you a small excerpt.

"A weapons program is normally managed by a so-called integrated product support team. And it is a team. There is a corporate product manager and a government product manager. The work together as team players. Suppose they are working on a combat aircraft and the air force’s project manager, possibly an experienced and fast-track colonel, sees the program falling short of agreed performance benchmarks. Should he flat-out complain? He isn’t expected to. Complaining carries the risk of being seen as a non-team player, a judgment to be avoided, especially if he takes the complaint to OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) or Congress.

The air force colonel may be approaching retirement age and thinking about sustaining or, even better, raising his income level. The cost of educating children may be a concern. Holding his opposite number too closely to the program’s specifications might weaken his chances of being offered a postretirement job by the prime contractor. Under rules aimed at discouraging conflicts of interest, the colonel could not upon retiring turn up there working on a program that he had been managing. But he could acquire a role in another of the comapny’s several military programs." 

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