More than 80% of the highest-ranking military officers who left the service over the past five years moved into jobs working for the defense industry, according to a new think tank report.
Twenty-six of the 32 four-star officers who retired after June 2018 were then employed by “the arms industry as board members, advisors, executives, consultants, lobbyists, or members of financial institutions that invest in the defense sector,” according to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a defense-focused think tank that advocates for peace and diplomacy.
The report argues that the staggering statistic “generates the appearance — and in some cases the reality — of conflicts of interest in the making of defense policy and in the shaping of the size and composition of the Pentagon budget.”
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The institute’s report found that many four-star officers — 15 — opted to take spots on the boards or act as advisers to “small and medium-sized arms contractors.” Five became executives for one of the nation’s top arms contractors.
One major result, the Quincy Institute argues, is that major weapons systems and platforms continue to live on despite having no military value or use.
The issue of “the revolving door between the U.S. government and the arms industry,” as the report puts it, is not new. In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned Americans of the perils of the then-growing military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower feared that “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” could lead to “the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”
The report cites several retired military officers who went on to work for BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, and effectively lobbied to keep the Navy’s beleaguered Littoral Combat Ship program funded and part of the service’s portfolio.
In 2010, at the start of the LCS program, the ships were billed as a way for the Navy to buy small, adaptable and nimble ships, but problems quickly began to mount. The ships started experiencing public and embarrassing breakdowns, and rumors began to swirl that they wouldn’t even be able to fulfill all the missions that were promised. By 2021, the problems reached their zenith: The Navy announced that the Freedom-class version of the ship had a critical design flaw in its drivetrain.
The Navy finally had enough. In 2022, it announced it would scrap all the Freedom-class LCS ships, including one that was just two years old. The response from Congress was swift and harsh.
Then-Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said in a series of tweets at the time that the Navy owed “a public apology to American taxpayers for wasting tens of billions of dollars on ships they now say serve no purpose.” However, Congress played a role in keeping the program alive in 2019 by insisting on adding three more ships despite an already substantial body of research that raised doubts over their utility.
“Retired military officers were … prominently involved in a lobbying effort that prevented the Navy from divesting itself of multiple copies of the Littoral Combat Ship,” the report said, adding that “the work of these former military officers resulted in the procurement and continued deployment of flawed ships that cost taxpayers billions of dollars and put crew members at risk.”
The report also cited Gen. Jim Mattis’ efforts to have the Army buy and utilize blood testing equipment of the now-disgraced company Theranos, where he served as a board member, as another example of the problems inherent with officers making their way into companies with defense ties.
Theranos’ CEO Elizabeth Holmes was eventually exposed as a fraud and is now serving more than 11 years in prison.
The authors of the report suggest that the Pentagon impose tighter regulations on what flag and general officers can do in retirement to avoid future conflicts of interest.
Specifically, the report suggests that officers be barred from working for any “arms contractor receiving more than $1 billion per year from the Pentagon” and that there be a longer “cooling off period” for any other national security-related roles.
“A substantial cooling off period moving from the Pentagon or Congress to the arms industry would mean that key contacts with former colleagues would be less useful as personnel in the executive branch turn over,” the report argues.
The authors also suggest that the Pentagon compile and make available lists of former military and civilian officials who have gone to work in the arms industry.
The report coincides with some legislative action on Capitol Hill, as well. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., recently introduced bills that would stop former top officers from working at defense companies in the first four years of their retirement and bar current officials from owning stock in companies that receive more than $100 million in Pentagon contracts.
Some of Warren’s data is cited in the Quincy Institute’s report.
— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.
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