While I was researching the topic of the F-35 I noticed a certain pattern in military politics which comes up again and again.

  • In the TFX program Boeing was the clear winner of the Request For Proposal out of 6 firms.The Source Selection Board wanted the Boeing prototype. Current Secretary of Defense (SecDef) McNamara ordered to restart the competition. SSB again found out the Boeing was the best deal, both Air Force and Navy favored Boeings design. SecDef McNamara ordered to restart the competion again. SSB still comes to the very same conclusion, McNamara ordered now the third time to start over. You may have predicted it, SSB stayed to Boeing, so McNamara ruled after 4 tries that General Dynamics (GD) get the contract.
    In relation to GD the Boeing design offered a ferry range of more than ~1200 miles, 69% more load on fully extended wings (11% more on fully swept ones), 50% more nuclear bombs, twice more AAMs and weighted 2200 pounds less, GD's designs only offered more place on carriers.
    The congress set up the McClellan committee and McNamara was asked to defend his decision, explicitly asking if vice president Lyndon B. Johnson which comes from Texas has influenced the decision. McNamara pulled out explanations out of his hat and - that was it. No cancellation of the contract and McNamara gets scot free.

  • In the book "The Pentagon Wars" from Colonel James G. Burton the Army actually threatened Burton with restationing to Alaska if he insists to make live-fire tests of the M2 Bradley which was actually his assigned task. After Burton send internal copies of the order to everyone remotely concerned and therefore leaking the document to potential whistleblowers the Army agreed to allow him to do his tests in writing. A while later some Army brass regretted the decision and tried to force him into retirement or restation him again and lied before Congress after it was asked if this order exists. Congress got finally the order in writing and had therefore proof that they were being lied to. And that was it - no repercussions for the people involved. Burton completed the tests and was sacked later, all the responsible people got promoted, some also got lucrative jobs in the private sector.

These are two examples of many others where I get the impression that the Congress is led on the line, you only need to be a good self-confident liar. You may be inconvenienced by being forced to visit the Congress, but you only need to sit it out because nothing can really happen to you, only uncomfortable questions. This is kind of strange because the senators in the congress are quite influential, so I thought they should be able to influence important equipment decisions for the armed forces.

While it may alarm the public, I sincerely do not see that congressional hearings influences the military decision if a project is cancelled, postponed, modified or otherwise influenced at all. The list is long: F-35, V-22 Osprey, RAH-66 Comanche.

Can someone come up with some important decisions on military projects influenced by congressional hearings?

  • I'm guessing the reason this happens is that the military is under the Executive branch, so while Congress has oversight capacity they do not have much in the way of practical enforcement that doesn't breach separation of powers. Mostly Congress just holds the purse strings and the threat of giving the army bad PR. Jul 20, 2018 at 12:50

2 Answers 2


A lot of these projects are purposefully spread out among as many districts as possible to make them hard to kill. The F-35 may be assembled in one plant, but the parts are made around the country. I originally got my driver's license in Georgia close to an aircraft engine plant that only made engines to be shipped somewhere else. Congress might publicly say bad things about these projects, but killing them will cost jobs and votes.

That said, I served in a Bradley unit in the early 90's and those things were amazing. They were fast, accurate guns and some anti-armor firepower. They aren't meant to be M1 tanks with soldiers. Compared to the earlier M113's which were nothing more than metal boxes with an option of a machine gun on top, the M2's were amazing.

I also spent a year at a DoD agency that was mostly civilians and they had dozens of briefing books for the representatives and senators they reported to. In that year about half a dozen people made 2-3 trips to DC to testify to their sub-committees about their projects. It's not free money, but killing big projects isn't popular to get votes in the next election.

  • I am under the impression that the main reason for spreading the projects out is not to make them hard to kill but to stimulate the local economic health of as many districts as possible. In this analysis, making them hard to kill is a secondary effect that improves the economic stimulus by making it more stable.
    – phoog
    Jul 23, 2018 at 22:08
  • 1
    This is all very interesting, but it does not answer the question: "How are important decisions on military projects influenced by congressional hearings?"
    – Philipp
    Jul 23, 2018 at 22:17
  • You'll have to read up on it, but the price of the B-2 bomber changed depending on the quantity ordered and Congress ended up with one of the higher quantities due to the lowering of the per unit costs and the congressional hearings about it. And read up on the development of the F-16 and F-18. They were originally competitors and Congress decreed that they wanted more common parts among the different aircraft.
    – Alen
    Jul 23, 2018 at 22:43

Please note that the power to investigate by Congress is a non-enumerated power. As such, it may not be readily circumscribed, and the Supreme Court has held that is an inherent part of the Legislative Process, although there are some limitations around civil rights and Congressional legitimate tasks. The power to investigate therefore is broadly imbued in Congress, and they have used it repeatedly for setting budgets for the military, criminal referrals to the Department of Justice or to the Department of Defense, and for findings of contempt.

The conduct of the American armed forces is frequently the object of congressional investigations and hearings. Indeed, Congress’s first investigation, conducted in 1792, inquired into the military defeat of Major General Arthur St. Clair’s expedition against Indian tribes of the Northwest Territories. More recently, senior military officers have testified about the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Congressional review can lead to the creation of independent panels/commissions to examine vexing issues. Consider

An independent panel comprising eight appointed members would be tasked “to assess the rates of military aviation mishaps between fiscal years 2013 and 2018 compared to historic aviation mishap rates.”

The panel would then be tasked “to make an assessment of the causes contributing to military aviation mishaps; and to make recommendations on the modifications, if any, of safety, training, maintenance, personnel, or other policies related to military aviation safety,” according to the amendment.

However, that being said, Congressional review at this point seems a case study in Congressional pork barreling and public choice theory. See for example the weapon system, the Crusader, where the Congress passively receives milestone reports from the DoD, and while Congressional activity is described as active, what is apparent from the report is to maintain spending in Congressional districts, not the efficacy of the weapon's program.

Congress has become actively involved in deciding the fate of the Crusader, whether that be to endorse the DOD cancellation decision, continue the current development schedule, or to choose another option. There are many factors to weigh in considering this issue, including: DOD arguments, Army arguments, industrial base implications, affordability issues, and comparing shorter-term versus longer-term security interests

In this instance, the Congress openly advocated continuation of the program against the advice of the DoD, and had somewhat a secret liaison with the Army's legislative affairs office that found: inappropriate steps were taken to provide congressional supporters with “talking points” in favor of the program after Secretary Rumsfeld had made his decision [to cancel, ed note, same source]. Note that this investigation came from the IG at DOD, not Congressional Review.

There is a trend of Congress being more beholden to spending than to actual review, as you can see in this link where most weapons programs, when they do get nixed, are done by the Dod, not Congress. DoD gets some marks here for self-review.

Finally Congressional investigations can backfire, especially in potentially criminal cases.

The impact of congressional investigations and hearings can be disastrous for subsequent or parallel criminal prosecutions, including those conducted by the military. The post-My Lai courtmartial of Staff Sergeant David Mitchell serves as one historical case in point. Congressional grants of immunity can also make it extremely difficult to bring a subsequent criminal case against an immunized witness, as exemplified by the failed federal prosecutions of Vice Admiral John Poindexter and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North following the Iran-Contra scandal.

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