Washington state estimates that in 2012, the “military industry” was responsible for 136,000 jobs and $15.7 billion in economic activity.
By Jon Talton
With President Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, committing the nation to an open-ended war in the Middle East, it’s a good time to look at Washington’s defense economy.
For all our reputation as a peacenik blue state, the military has a big footprint here.
According to a 2011 Bloomberg report, Washington ranked 14th among the states in defense spending at $13.5 billion, or 4.1 percent of state gross domestic product. Defense personnel totaled more than 93,000. By comparison, the economic impact of the University of Washington has been estimated at $9.1 billion.
The state estimates that in 2012, the “military industry” was responsible for 136,000 jobs and $15.7 billion in economic activity. It tallied 1,500 companies doing defense work in 35 of 39 Washington counties. By its measures, Washington boasts the nation’s sixth-largest military presence.
Most of it, by far, is in the Puget Sound region:
- Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the combined Army and Air Force base, is the largest employer in Pierce County. Including active-duty and other military personnel assigned there, plus civilian workers, the post employs more than 66,000.
- Naval Base Kitsap, created in 2004 with the merger of Naval Station Bremerton and Naval Submarine Base Bangor, is one of the largest U.S. Navy installations in the country. It is Kitsap County’s largest employer.
The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and other ships make their home port at Bremerton. Bangor hosts eight ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN), one of the major components of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. It also serves two former SSBNs that have been converted to launch cruise missiles and the USS Jimmy Carter, a unique attack submarine with classified mission capabilities.
- Naval Station Everett, the home port of the carrier USS Nimitz, as well as guided missile destroyers and frigates.
- Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, home of Navy tactical electronic attack squadrons equipped with the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler. It also hosts squadrons flying the P-3 Orion and EP-3E Aries.
- Boeing. In addition to building the KC-767 tanker in Everett, Boeing assembles a variety of military versions of the 737 in Renton.
But this bounty is facing challenges. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state will receive a $4.3 million Defense Department grant “to support local efforts to address the impact of potential downsizing of the state’s defense industry.”
The Budget Control Act of 2011, better known as the sequester, forces automatic, across-the-board cuts. While a deal last year put it on hold, the sequester will return in fiscal 2015 without a deal between Congress and the White House.
To be sure, the $1.1 trillion worth of austerity, driven by deficit hawks in Congress, is evenly split between defense and other programs. But it will certainly be felt in a state with such a large military presence.
For example, in June the (Tacoma) News Tribune reported that mandated reductions in the Army could eliminate 16,000 active-duty positions from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Austerity is part political ideology, but the fiscal issues are the consequence of more than 30 years of tax cutting, a slow economy and two wars. A drawdown was expected as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan ended. This was before Islamic extremists made new gains, Russia nibbled at Ukraine and a more assertive China challenged the American order in the western Pacific.
All these may make sequester moot as Republicans and many Democrats rally to new long, twilight struggles.
Meanwhile, what President Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general, derisively called the military-industrial complex, faces other challenges.
Many programs are enormously costly and produce weapons of dubious quality, most notoriously the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A RAND Corp. report said the airplane, meant to be the backbone of Air Force, Navy and Marine air power “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
Of particular importance here, the Navy must fund a replacement for its Ohio-class SSBNs. The overall cost could be $100 billion and risks crowding out needed spending on attack subs and the surface fleet. Such dilemmas are facing all the services.
Another quandary is little discussed in circles of power.
It concerns the opportunity costs of such a heavy defense budget and endless war. Where else could much of that money be invested in an America that is falling behind in so many areas?
Does the United States need to pay out more on its armed services than the next biggest-spending 10 countries combined?
The comeback is that without current or increased defense spending, we risk a terror attack, frayed alliances and more rogue states. Unanswered is how much our belligerence is creating more terror and how we encourage “free riders” on the global commons policed by American power.
One thing is sure: American military power historically was based on a strong economy. It wasn’t the source of economic strength.
So while a robust defense is necessary, so is a revival of the middle class, easing inequality, investing in infrastructure and so much more. The difference is that these public goods lack the support in Congress enjoyed by the military-industrial complex.