Laugh, then cry, about US weapons sales

 In Arms Sales and Military Aid, Middle East, Pentagon Spending

On his show last week, Stephen Colbert responded with righteous indignation to the concept of cutting the military budget, saying we need to flood the world with weapons for the good of our economy. Money quote:

“We give the Defense Department billions to build new weapons to protect us from potential enemies. A few years later, we sell those weapons to countries all over the world, including potential enemies. Then, we have no choice but to manufacture newer, better weapons to protect ourselves from what we just sold.

That reminds me—this year’s defense budget was only $725 billion. That’s not nearly enough. I hear Saudi Arabia has F-15s now!”

Watch the whole hilarious segment here.

While Colbert brings us the absurd comedy of our military spending, the Danger Room blog brings us one of the many tragedies.

This spring, the United Arab Emirates is expected to close a deal for $7 billion dollars’ worth of American arms. Nearly half of the cash will be spent on Patriot missiles, which cost as much as $5.9 million apiece.

But what makes those eye-popping sums even more shocking is that some of the workers manufacturing parts for those Patriot missiles are prisoners, earning as little as 23 cents an hour. (Credit Justin Rohrlich with the catch.)

Noah Schachtman notes that top officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have been pitching the missiles to foreign governments. And it’s not the only program benefiting from cheap labor from America’s overcrowded prisons. Think how many weapons you can unleash on the world when one in 100 adults is behind bars!

Patriot assemblers Raytheon and Lockheed Martin aren’t the only defense contractors relying on prison help. As Rohrlich notes, Unicor “inmates also make cable assemblies for the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15, the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16, Bell/Textron’s Cobra helicopter, as well as electro-optical equipment for the BAE Systems Bradley Fighting Vehicle’s laser rangefinder.”

Unicor used to make helmets for the military, as well. But that work was suspended when 44,000 helmets were recalled for shoddy quality.

Government agencies — with the exception of the Defense Department and the CIA — are required to buy goods from Unicor, according to a Congressional Research Service report (.pdf). And no wonder: the labor costs are bordering on zero. “Inmates earn from $0.23 per hour up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour, depending on their proficiency and educational level, among other things,” the report notes.

I’m sure Colbert could have a field day with this latest news. But I’d much prefer if we could come up with a foreign policy that isn’t so painfully ripe for satire.

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