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The pork-barrel politics of the C-17.

The pork-barrel politics of the C-17

The US Defense Department has been telling legislators for the last three years that it has enough C-17 cargo aircraft, yet Congress keeps on authorizing more. This year's budget contains $2.5 billion for an extra 10 of Boeing's giant transporters, which would bring the US military's Globemaster fleet to 215.

The reason, say Elgin and Epstein (in Business Week's November 2009 issue), lies in pork-barrel politics. More than 30,000 people in 43 US states are employed to build the C-17. They all have votes and could mark their displeasure at the ballot box if the orders dried up and their jobs were lost.

The federal government desperately needs to curtail military spending and reshape the US armed forces for counterinsurgency rather than Cold War. But by spreading manufacturing across a large number of states, contractors can now deliberately design military projects to be difficult to kill.

Politics and major spending projects are rarely comfortable bed-fellows, as the history of high-speed rail in the UK demonstrates.

In the November 2009 issue of Management Today, Caulkin highlights the underinvestment, absence of vision and lack of political will that have dogged railways in Britain since the end of the Second World War. British Railways showcased its latest express steam locomotive at the 1951 Festival of Britain - two years after France built its last steam engine. While France was forging ahead with electrification of its principal rail routes using Marshall Aid from the USA, Britain was "timidly patching an antiquated network". And by the 1970s, France was building new tracks and trains for its high-speed network while Britain was still simply upgrading existing tracks between its principal population centres, for trains that would run just over half as fast as the TGV.

The result is that France now has more than 1,000 miles of high-speed track while Britain has just 68 - between London and the Channel tunnel.

Caulkin points out that Britain is unlikely to catch up with its main competitors any time soon. A high-speed line from London to Birmingham and then north to Scotland is on the drawing board. It has the strong support of Transport Secretary and rail enthusiast Lord Adonis. But the UK record on large infrastructure projects is not encouraging, and it could easily be a victim of public-spending cuts.

Meanwhile, China is spending $60 billion on a high-speed network linking its major cities and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. The country plans to have 5,678 miles of high-speed track in place by 2025 - when Spain and France will each have more than 4,000 miles and Japan 3,774.

Caulkin also has a sobering story about Britain's engineering base. High-speed train builder Alstom was originally a 50-50 joint venture with the UK's GEC. But GEC pulled out of heavy engineering in the late-1990s to concentrate on telecommunications. Renamed Marconi, it crashed when the dot-com bubble burst. The British Government sat on the sidelines and allowed all this to happen.
The French Government, in contrast, bailed out Alstom, by now French owned, when it ran into difficulties in 2003. The move was entirely consistent with French Government policy of backing national champions - sectors and companies that civil servants have earmarked for investment and growth.

As a result, Alstom leads the world in building high-speed trains, while train-building in Britain has hit the buffers.