Investing in food, not fighter jets, for security

Mar. 07, 2014 @ 06:44 AM

A child of the “Cold War,” I grew up less than half a mile from where Republic Aviation Corporation was building and testing the Air Force’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber.  When the jets took off we would stand looking straight up into the back of their engines watching the orange glow of the afterburners as the planes rocketed into the blue. In later versions of the aircraft we could hear the deafening, short, test bursts of their mounted 20mm, exploding shell, revolving cannons.

I was told by my father who worked there that this modern fighter would make America safe against the Communists. Those were the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, six decades later, we are again manufacturing a new generation of fighter planes, equipped with the latest computerized “cloaking” and targeting technologies.

The new aircraft is the F-35 Joint Strike fighter jet, and we are building 2,457  at an average production cost of $137 million a plane.  It will cost $1.1 trillion on top of that to operate and sustain them (Pentagon report to Congress).

There is a feeling of deja-vu here, and it comes from the fact we seem incapable of thinking outside of defense paradigms in three critical areas:  Who are our current enemies? In what does “security” consist?  How can we best achieve it?

Some nostalgic politicians and pundits are fond of lauding late President Ronald Reagan -- a former Hollywood actor who frequently portrayed military characters in his movies -- for his national security bravado in facing off with the Soviet Union, for his bold “Star Wars” plan and for his oft-quoted, macho challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

An earlier Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, however -- who, unlike his actor-turned-president successor, possessed bona fide military credentials -- sounded a much more sober note just three months into his own presidency.

In an address to the National Association of Newspaper Editors on April 6, 1953, the decorated-general-turned-President did not mince words: “Every gun made, every warship launched, represents, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed… We pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat…This is not a way of life, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

The current cost of a bushel of wheat on the world market is about $8.01. What we U.S. taxpayers are spending on a single F-35 Fighter Jet (and remember: we’re building thousands) could purchase more than 1 trillion bushels of wheat. 

How is this not “a theft from those who hunger?”

True security will not come from being able (via an onboard computer and a $1 million-a-pop, jet pilot’s helmet) to “get the draw” on,  and to fire on, a rival country’s fighter jet 15 seconds before it even detects another plane, but from something far more fundamental.

That is because for too many impoverished families in our world, “security” is defined as the ability to put just a day’s worth of food on the table for their families. 

In our own country, I t is estimated close to 50 million Americans are to one degree or another “food insecure.” (USDA Food and Nutrition Services).  You can multiply that by 20 for those in the developing world.  Nearly 1 billion people on earth earn less than $1 a day.  Some 925 million  go to bed hungry every night (FAO, United Nations).

This is what our 34th president  saw when he warned the country about the insatiable thirst to feed the growing “military industrial complex,” (his words) and about the danger of believing military weapons could ultimately provide our country’s security.

Still, how hard it is to know how to turn things around!

In our search for answers it has seemed less complicated to proffer military technology as an answer to periodic instability than to address the roots of war and violence, and to come up with creative and lasting answers to global unrest.

What, though, would be the “security pay-off” were we to take a modest 5 percent of the nearly $1.5 trillion -- the cost of developing, testing, building and maintaining the fleet of F-35s -- and in launching a coordinated effort with our allies and our alleged global rivals, Russia and China, to address the world’s hungriest and most economically vulnerable populations?

Power is magnanimous when used to resolve and heal rather than to strike and subdue; but is it too late to make critical shifts in our thinking and acting? 

Let’s hope and pray it is not, and do what we can to effect those changes.

Joe Moran of Durham is retired regional director of Church World Service.