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In the Bowels of Behemoth

TFX Contract Investigation Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

Report of the Committee on Government Operations made by its
Report No. 91-1496. 91st Congress, 2nd Session

The War Profiteers

by Richard F. Kaufman
Bobbs-Merrill, 288 pp., $8.50

The Military Establishment: Its Impact on American Society

by Adam Yarmolinsky
Harper & Row, 434 pp., $10.00

The Pentagon Watchers: Students Report on the National Security State

edited by Leonard S. Rodberg, edited by Derek Shearer
Doubleday, 416 pp., $1.95 (paper)

How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program

by Alain C. Enthoven, by K. Wayne Smith
Harper & Row, 364 pp., $8.95


Mass murder, to paraphrase that famous General Electric commercial, has become our most important product. The Pentagon dwarfs the biggest of American big businesses. In addition to some 3 million men and women in uniform, it employs almost twice as many civilians as General Motors. In 1968 its expenditures were $10 billion greater than the gross revenues that year of America’s five largest corporations combined.1 It is not surprising that every investigation of so monstrous an enterprise uncovers a gargantuan mess.

The latest, longest, and most extensive investigation of this kind ended with the release by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of its final report on the contract for the notorious TFX (Tactical Fighter Experimental), later to be known as the F-111. This was the largest single military contract of the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara years, and one of the biggest blunders. The investigation stretched out over seven years. The hearings fill thirteen volumes. Though this contract is only one of the Pentagon’s more notorious pratfalls in procurement, no other has ever been subjected to so extensive and prolonged a Congressional inquiry.

The result is the most complete guided tour available into the murky labyrinth of the military-industrial complex. The final report, too quickly brushed under the rug by the press, offers an unequaled opportunity to study not just this one controversial contract but the problem of keeping so enormous a public business under a measure of control. By comparing the committee’s account with discussion of the TFX affair in several new books on the Pentagon, we can better assess the report itself and begin to see how limited Congressional and other civilian controls turn out to be. The conclusion which emerges is that the military establishment, by its sheer size and complexity, its roots in man’s most primitive instincts and its links with his most advanced technology, is essentially uncontrollable. How do you house-break—and domesticate—a dinosaur?

Even so able an industrial manager as Robert S. McNamara proved unequal to the task. In the TFX affair he started out in 1961 at the very beginning of his stewardship by hoping that he could save a billion dollars by building essentially the same fighter plane for the Air Force and the Navy. The program is ending as a billion-dollar bust. Instead of 1,700 aircraft for about $5 billion, the government will spend almost $8 billion for about 500, “and of the 500,” the committee report said, “less than 100 [the F-111Fs] come reasonably close to meeting the original standards.” The Navy is building its own plane, the VFX, now known as the F-14, so the two services will end up having what they wanted from the very beginning—two separate planes. But the F-14 may turn out to be as costly and unwieldy a contraption as the F-111 and for the very same reasons.2

Both services want one plane to fulfill so many different tasks, and to carry such complex equipment, that both the TFX and the VFX sound as if they were designed by Rube Goldberg. The Air Force’s F-111 and the Navy’s F-14 are both technological monstrosities—and trying to put them into one produced a double monstrosity which had finally to be abandoned. The prime error lay in the unrealistic requirements set up by the services in their first flush of enthusiasm for the “swing-wing” plane—and in the industrial salesmanship which encourages expensive gadgetry and complexity.

Both services started by asking for a tactical fighter. But the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command wanted a fighter which could also fly as far as the Soviet Union without in-flight refueling and compete with the Strategic Air Command in strategic bombing, albeit in the name of “deep interdiction.” It was to fly high enough to avoid interception and then suddenly duck down low enough to get under enemy radar (as the Senate report says) “with supersonic speed at tree-top heights”! The Navy wanted a new dog fighter which would also be a fighter-bomber big enough to carry six Phoenix missiles and their radars. These are for long-distance defense of aircraft carriers from a nonexistent type of Soviet nuclear bomber, though the other side has cheaper and easier ways to sink carriers.3 McNamara made the mistake of taking these requirements seriously and then compounded the difficulties by trying to build one airplane to fit both sets of fantastic specifications.

The technological complexities were matched by the intricate struggle within the military-industrial complex between two giant concerns, Boeing and General Dynamics, for the multibillion-dollar contract, the largest ever let by the Pentagon. Their allied political and local interests were drawn into the conflict, for military contracts mean jobs and bread. The Senate investigation itself, as the report admits, was begun in response to a request from Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, a member of the investigating subcommittee. He was acting on complaint of the loser, Boeing, a major source of employment in his state. Jackson complained that Boeing’s bid had been the lower and the technically superior.

The full truth about the TFX will probably never be known. Only a novelist, a new Dreiser, could put flesh and blood on the story of how the biggest military contract of the new Kennedy-Johnson Administration came to be awarded to General Dynamics in time to save this giant defense holding company from serious financial trouble and keep its plant at Fort Worth, Texas, from being shut down.4 No one yet knows how the Kennedy Administration came to pick a lawyer for General Dynamics—Roswell Gilpatric—to be Deputy Secretary of Defense and (after John Connally resigned to run for governor of Texas) a Fort Worth banker, Fred Korth, to be Secretary of the Navy.

With Secretary of the Air Force Zuckert and Secretary of Defense McNamara, these men overruled repeated recommendations by the top military selection board in favor of Boeing. Senator McClellan of Arkansas, chairman of the Senate investigating subcommittee, asked Secretary McNamara in December, 1962, to hold up the contract until its investigation had been completed. The contract was signed the same day despite McClellan’s request. He received a letter from Gilpatric declaring it was “in the national interest” to proceed “without delay.”

Korth and Gilpatric became the McClellan Committee’s prime visible targets. The final report, signed by all the members of the subcommittee except Muskie and Javits,5 says Korth should have disqualified himself because the bank of which he was head did business with General Dynamics and because (as Senator Mundt told him during the hearings) “it would stagger a Solomon to look objectively at a contract that meant so much to your community as this one would.”6 One cryptic passage in the final report leaves Korth under a cloud. At one point in his interrogation by the McClellan Committee, Korth defended his integrity and declared his willingness to resign if the committee found otherwise. The final report quotes this promise and adds:

Other information compiled by the subcommittee relating to Mr. Korth and his business interests while he served as Secretary of the Navy was made available to the President [Kennedy] during the early autumn of 1963. Secretary Korth handed in his resignation on October 14, 1963.7

The committee staff will not disclose the information which led to Korth’s resignation.

The report says Gilpatric “was guilty of a flagrant conflict of interest in the TFX award,” and adds: “The record shows unequivocally that he deliberately attempted to mislead the subcommittee regarding his relationship with the General Dynamics Corporation.” His prepared opening statement to the McClellan Committee said that he had made it a policy as a lawyer “of never representing any member of the defense industry in dealing with the Defense Establishment” except that he did “serve as an adviser on other matters on a few occasions for concerns such as Boeing and Convair.” Convair was the General Dynamics subsidiary picked to build the TFX.

The first part of the statement turned out to be untrue. Committee staff dug up one instance after another of just such dealings, which Gilpatric then admitted. But the most deceptive part of the statement was in making it appear that he had acted equally for Boeing and Convair. It turned out that in the Boeing affair he did no more than appear once as a witness in a renegotiation proceeding. This could hardly be equated with his work for General Dynamics. The committee found that in the two and a half years before going to the Pentagon he had spent one-third of his total time at Cravath, Swaine and Moore on General Dynamics business,8 had billed it $110,000 in fees for his efforts, and had acted as “a de facto member of the company’s board of directors.”

In “Individual Views,” appended to the TFX report, Senator Javits said he had known Mr. Gilpatric “for many years as a leading member of the New York bar” and could not accept the majority view that the latter had been guilty of a “flagrant conflict of interest.” The “vital point,” Javits went on, “is that the committee’s report itself shows that Mr. Gilpatric played only a minor concurring role in the decision to award the TFX contract to General Dynamics” and that this “seems to have been confined largely to a final meeting” with McNamara in which Mr. Gilpatric was asked his advice and “concurred in the recommendation” to give General Dynamics the contract.

Mr. Gilpatric, however, was given a chance to say just that in his own defense during the hearings but did not do so. “I want to know,” Senator McClellan asked him, “if you really recommended it [the contract award to General Dynamics] or if you are saying now you really had not much to do with it?” Mr. Gilpatric replied that he preferred to fall back upon the way he stated his role in his prepared statement. This said:

As Deputy Secretary of Defense, Mr. Chairman, my part in the TFX source selection process consisted primarily of informing myself as to the elements in the program determination and source selection and giving the Secretary my best judgment to assist him in making his decision.9

One does not have to be a sharp lawyer to see that Mr. Gilpatric’s own carefully prepared statement is hardly the same as the Javits defense. Mr. Gilpatric did not claim that his was “only a minor concurring role…confined largely to a final meeting” with McNamara. On the contrary he implied that as McNamara’s deputy, he took part fully in studying the matter and giving McNamara his best judgment on it, as with any other important matter.

Senator Javits seems to have forgotten that originally Mr. Gilpatric described his role in even more explicit terms. At a hearing before the McClellan Committee on March 21, 1963, Senator Ervin asked Mr. Gilpatric whether he was saying that his past connections with General Dynamics “had no influence whatsoever” on his advice in the TFX contract. “I certainly am, Senator,” Mr. Gilpatric replied. “Let me make it plain that while I did not have the ultimate responsibility for this decision, that rested upon the Secretary of Defense, I did participate, I did assist, consult, as is my job. But my former connection with the firm…would never influence my judgment.” Senator Javits was present during the testimony that day.10

  1. 1

    GM, Standard Oil (N.J.), AT&T, Ford, and General Electric.

  2. 2

    See Bernard D. Nossiter, “Navy Is Investing Billions In New Jet That Younger Pilots Fear Is Inferior,” Washington Post, April 6, 1970.

  3. 3

    The Nossiter story just cited reported that naval pilots complain that all this electronic gear makes the F-14 less maneuverable than the simpler Mig-21 it would face in a dog fight. At one session to sell the virtues of the F-14, one raucous pilot, according to Nossiter’s account, shouted out, “Buy Mig-21s.”

  4. 4

    See my earlier two-part analysis in The New York Review, January 2, 1969.

  5. 5

    The other signers were Jackson, Ervin of North Carolina, Ribicoff of Connecticut, Metcalf of Montana, Mundt of South Dakota, Percy of Illinois, and Gurney of Florida. Muskie, who was on the subcommittee during the first stage of the investigation (which ended in November, 1963), joined Javits in filing “individual views.”

  6. 6

    TFX Report, p. 38.

  7. 7


  8. 8

    Among his more interesting duties was offering jobs with General Dynamics to various generals and civilian employees of the Pentagon. “He called General Irvine at the Pentagon,” the final report relates, “testifying that this call was an inquiry about the General’s prospective employment with General Dynamics. He stated that he called Under Secretary of the Air Force MacIntyre on the same subject. He stated that he called General Ascensio about the possibility of the General’s employment by General Dynamics. He called General Donnelly about the prospective employment by General Dynamics of General Dow…. He recommended for consideration [for employment by General Dynamics] Brig. Gen. Emmett B. Cassady…. He wrote to General Dynamics about the possible employment of Charles H. Shuff, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. Mr. Gilpatric testified that none of the persons referred to were hired by General Dynamics.” Was this personnel or public relations?

  9. 9

    TFX Report, p. 39. The committee never asked what Gilpatric meant by “primarily.” Does this mean he did more than inform himself and advise McNamara?

  10. 10

    TFX Contract Investigation, Part II, Hearings Before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, 88th Congress, 1st Session. Pursuant to Senate Resolution 17, 88th Congress, p. 421.

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