Reagan's Defense Buildup Bridged Military Eras
Reagan's generosity also bred waste and excess in the defense industry, Gansler said, leading to scandals after which Congress scolded the military for spending hundreds of dollars on spare parts such as hammers and toilet seats. That led to the formation of the Packard Commission during Reagan's second term, a group led by computer executive David Packard on which Gansler served.
The group recommended changing how the Pentagon does business, aiming it toward commercial practices in hopes of efficiency. A 1999 government study found that contracting efficiency got worse after Packard's reforms were put into practice, but many of them -- such as giving companies more freedom to oversee their own subcontractors -- continue to this day.
For all the criticism, some experts credit the Reagan administration with fostering the last real renaissance in Defense Department technology. Advances in stealth, the use of composite materials, software for increasingly sophisticated computer control systems, and the development of "smart" munitions all advanced because of heavy spending during the Reagan years, said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
That marked the end of a long period, dating at least to World War II, when the military was the nation's big technological innovator, said John E. Pike of Globalsecurity.org. Soon after Reagan left office, the rise of the Internet sent commercial technology zooming past the military, which has struggled to catch up.
"The defense sector has become a consumer of technological innovation rather than a leader of technological innovation," Pike said.
Fresh from a wave of consolidations, the defense industry is remaking itself again by absorbing information technology companies and working to develop networks and systems instead of machines that fly, crawl or explode. So while weapons spending is beginning to increase again, the Pentagon is not buying the same stuff that Reagan bought.
General Dynamics built 947 M1 tanks in 1987; it has not built one since 1993. The Reagan administration advocated the purchase of 29 Seawolf-class nuclear submarines, but only three have been built. Reagan was spending his way toward a 600-ship Navy and almost got there, with 591 ships in 1989; today the Navy has 295 ships.
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
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