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How Pentagon Spending Perpetuates Pentagon Spending

Words: Holly Zhang
Pictures: Sahand Hoseini

“The prospect of domination by the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded” warned President Eisenhower in his farewell address. The President’s warning against the consequences of institutionalized government funded research is often lost among his grander criticism of a military industrial complex. But, as prescient as Eisenhower was, even he might be awed by the gargantuan flows of money from the Department of Defense into the “independent” research community. Since Eisenhower’s time, this system has grown immensely. The Pentagon now provides hundreds of millions in funding to think tanks every year, and those think tanks in turn promote the Pentagon’s narrative, pushing Congress and the President to perpetuate Pentagon spending. This creates a dangerous echo-chamber in the ideas industry that steers foreign policy debates to one solution: military might.

The close working relationship of RAND Corporation and the Pentagon — so close that RAND is known in DC circles as “Pentagon’s think tank” — exemplifies the fine-tuned system that works in tandem with the military industrial complex. As a public policy research organization, it receives far more funding for its research from the Department of Defense and other US security agencies than other organizations, by a long shot. In the most recent Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative report at the Center for International Policy, where I work, we tracked $1.078 billion of funding donated by defense contractors and US government agencies to the top 50 think tanks in the US from 2014-2019. RAND received a staggering 95% of this total — or $1.029 billion. Most of the money entering RAND is from four US government sources: the Office of the US Secretary of Defense and other national security agencies ($391 million), the US Air Force ($281 million), the US Army ($246 million), and the Department of Homeland Security ($110 million).

Defense funding allows RAND to be one of the most active and influential think tanks in America. RAND experts produce hundreds of reports a year and their analyses are widely considered amongst the most thorough and objective in the field. Their experts also regularly testify at US Congressional hearings to offer analysis on current issues and policy recommendations. During the 2014-2019 period we tracked, experts from RAND testified 129 times. Crucially, while each of these testimonies and the research behind them might be beyond reproach, nearly all share an implicit or explicit recommendation: more Pentagon spending.

We tracked $1.078 billion of funding donated by defense contractors and US government agencies to the top 50 think tanks in the US from 2014-2019. RAND received a staggering 95% of this total — or $1.029 billion.

Take the testimony on “Russia and China in the Middle East” presented to the House Foreign Affairs Committee by RAND’s International Security and Policy Center director. RAND’s scholar’s characterization of the existing international paradigm and policy recommendations complement the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, designed to maintain America’s world superpower status. Of the four recommendations she makes, preserving military dominance and building a dynamic economy through “frontier technologies” both have obvious links to the Pentagon budget. The Pentagon, for example, currently conducts significant research on “frontier technologies” through its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Though the director warns of the consequences of military overreach, she still supports Pentagon spending not only by calling for military dominance, but also by encouraging less obvious streams of Pentagon spending like technology development.

Another testimony on “Climate Change and US Security in the Arctic” presented before the House Homeland Security Committee by the RAND associate director of the Engineering and Applied Science Department supports the Pentagon budget. Again, the expert’s analysis parallels the Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy, both regarding American military presence in the Arctic as paramount. She suggests an expensive investment in “remotely controlled air, sea, and amphibious craft” and reexamining the coast guard budget, which she deems as critical to the US Arctic strategy. While she also advocates for participation in multilateral networks like the Arctic Council, many action items require additional Pentagon spending.

Both of these RAND experts, like all those who testify before Congress, included “Truth in Testimony” Disclosure Forms with their testimony to disclose funding sources that may be of relevance to the topic of the hearing. The Middle East expert reported that RAND’s National Defense Institute of Research received $141 million through three separate contracts with the Pentagon, while the Arctic expert listed nearly $500 million RAND had received through Pentagon Contracts for its four defense-related research centers between 2017-2019. Needless to say, there are enormous financial incentives for RAND to support the Pentagon.

The issue is not that RAND experts unabashedly toe the Pentagon line, because they do not — the issue is that an echo chamber is created in which they often, either implicitly or explicitly, advocate for investment into the Pentagon. In other words, they often include policy recommendations that encourage further spending from an already bloated department budget, and then those funds trickle back to RAND itself.

This cycle of funds flowing from the Pentagon to RAND and then RAND advocating for more defense funding also occurs with the backdrop of a “revolving door,” which the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) explains as “[t]he practice of former government officials leaving to work for corporations they oversaw or regulated.” A closer look at RAND leadership reveals that the revolving door between RAND and the Pentagon spins feverishly — seven of the 21 leadership executives listed on the RAND website have ties to the Pentagon, often spending long stints in senior roles. Such practices pose the risk of leading to “favoritism, ineffective weapons programs, bad deals, and misguided foreign policy,” according to POGO’s report on the Pentagon’s revolving door.

Despite the close relationship between these two organizations, RAND offers a level of transparency that most of its peers do not — providing comprehensive lists of funders, exact funding amounts, and listing specific funders in reports and testimonies. Think tanks should all aspire to this level of reporting and openness regarding their funding. That said, it is important for the public and Congress to grapple with built-in incentives to promote more defense at every opportunity.

Eisenhower’s prescient warning should remind us all to be critical of the well-oiled machine that is responsible for the cyclical flow of money from the Pentagon into research. Transparency allows us to consider the staggering amount of money that flows from the Pentagon into RAND, but it does not change the fact that voices funded by the Department of Defense continue to rise to the top of foreign policy. At a time when non-military threats, like a global pandemic, are upending traditional notions of security, it is imperative that we strive for a more even playing field in the debate over where the US should devote its scarce resources to keep Americans safe.

Holly Zhang is a researcher at the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.

Holly Zhang

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