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 and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.