Report Sounds Alarm Over Growing Role of Big Tech in US Military-Industrial Complex

The center of the U.S. military-industrial complex has been shifting over the past decade from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area to Northern California – a shift that is accelerating with the rise of artificial intelligence-based systems, according to a report published Wednesday.

The report – entitled How Big Tech and Silicon Valley Are Transforming the Military-Industrial Complex – was authored by Roberto J. González, a professor of cultural anthropology at San José State University, for the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs.

The new paper comes amid the contentious rise of AI-powered lethal autonomous weapons systems, or killer robots; increasing reliance upon AI on battlefields from Gaza to Ukraine; and growing backlash from tech workers opposed to their companies’ products and services being used to commit or enable war crimes.

“Although much of the Pentagon’s $886 billion budget is spent on conventional weapon systems and goes to well-established defense giants such as Lockheed Martin, RTX, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Boeing, and BAE Systems, a new political economy is emerging, driven by the imperatives of big tech companies, venture capital (VC), and private equity firms,” González wrote.

“As Defense Department officials have sought to adopt AI-enabled systems and secure cloud computing services, they have awarded large multibillion-dollar contracts to Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Oracle,” he added. “At the same time, the Pentagon has increased funding for smaller defense tech startups seeking to ‘disrupt’ existing markets and ‘move fast and break things.’”

BREAKING: Billions of Pentagon dollars are shifting to Silicon Valley and Big Tech, according to our latest research. The top five contracts to major tech firms between 2019 and 2022 had contract ceilings totaling at least $53 billion combined. https://t.co/Te6rOQKn3v pic.twitter.com/caSujbwAWp

— The Costs of War Project (@CostsOfWar) April 17, 2024

The report highlights the rise of a new class of billion-dollar military contractors, “a combination of gargantuan tech firms like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, and hundreds of smaller, pre-IPO startup companies supported by VC firms.”

“The use of drones and AI-enabled weapons systems in Ukraine and Gaza, and a feared AI arms race with China, have fueled the Pentagon’s heavy investment in advanced digital tech,” González wrote.

A lack of transparency is obscuring the true value of some of the largest military contracts to tech companies.

“One estimate indicates that U.S. military and intelligence agencies awarded at least $28 billion to Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) between 2018 and 2022,” the report states. “The actual value of these contracts is likely much higher, because many of the largest known contracts with U.S. tech companies are classified and withheld from public procurement databases.”

González found that the five largest military contracts to major tech firms between 2018 and 2022 “had contract ceilings totaling at least $53 billion combined.”

A growing portion of the Defense Department’s spending is going to large, well-known tech firms, including some of the most highly valued corporations in the world. [2/10] pic.twitter.com/OBrpWWQM4q

— The Costs of War Project (@CostsOfWar) April 17, 2024

“Major tech firms are also awarded large subcontracts from relatively obscure intermediaries or ‘passthrough’ companies that are granted primary contracts from the Pentagon – evading scrutiny and analysis,” the paper adds.

González said that multi-year software-as-a-service contracts “could make the Pentagon and CIA more dependent than ever on the expertise of technical experts from the private sector.”

The risk of conflicts of interest increases as military-dependent tech companies go public.

“As just one example, since going public, more than half of Palantir Technologies’ revenue has come from the federal government,” the report states. “Recent Palantir contracts with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the Air Force are worth more than $900 million. Palantir stock rose more than 170% in 2023.”

There’s also the danger of a “revolving door” between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon as many senior government officials “are now gravitating towards defense-related VC or private equity firms as executives or advisers after they retire from public service.”

“The traditional ‘revolving door’ meant that a former defense official might accept an executive position with traditional weapons manufacturers; there are more lucrative options now,” González wrote. “At least 50 former defense officials are working in VC and private equity, leveraging their connections with current officials or members of Congress to advance beneficial legislation for defense tech firms in their firms’ investment portfolios.”

“The implications are significant: The new ‘revolving door’ will accelerate military and intelligence agency funding for early-stage defense tech startups,” the report states.

González details how “overblown, inaccurate, ideological talking points are driving defense funding for Big Tech,” including “grandiose claims about the effectiveness of artificial intelligence; the overestimation of China’s military and technological capabilities; the idea that America has the ability and duty to protect the world’s democratic societies; and a steadfast belief that the best way to preserve U.S. dominance is through a free market that prioritizes corporate needs.”

“These perspectives boost demand for military AI, and are promoted by a network of tech executives, venture capitalists, think tank analysts, academic researchers, journalists, and Pentagon leaders,” he wrote.

Finally, the report warns that “aggressive Big Tech business models” can rush the development of weapons, endangering both combatants and civilians.

“Members of the armed services and civilians are in danger of being harmed by inadequately tested – or algorithmically flawed – AI-enabled technologies,” the paper states. “By nature, VC firms seek rapid returns on investment by quickly bringing a product to market, and then ‘cashing out’ by either selling the startup or going public. This means that VC-funded defense tech companies are under pressure to produce prototypes quickly and then move to production before adequate testing has occurred.”

Brett Wilkins is is staff writer for Common Dreams. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. This originally appeared at CommonDreams and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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