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Joint Chiefs Chair Retires, Immediately Becomes Paid F-35 Cheerleader

Dunford defended the troubled plane and was rewarded with a Lockheed position within months of leaving the Pentagon.
General Dunford

In 2015, things weren’t looking great for the Marine Corps’ F-35B fighter jet. Reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Department of Defense inspector general had found dozens of problems with the aircraft. Engine failures, software bugs, supply chain issues, and fundamental design flaws were making headlines. The program was becoming synonymous in the press with “boondoggle.” 

Lockheed Martin, the program’s lead contractor, desperately needed a win. 

Luckily for Lockheed, it had a powerful ally in the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joseph Dunford. Five years later, Dunford would be out of the service and ready to collect his first Lockheed Martin paycheck as a member of its board of directors.

Back in 2015, the F-35 program, already years behind schedule, faced a key program milestone. The goal was to have the F-35B ready for a planned July initial operational capability (IOC) declaration, a major step for the program, greenlighting the plane to be used in combat. The declaration is a sign that the aircraft is nearly ready for full deployment, that things are going well, that the contract, awarded in 2006, was finally producing a usable product. The ultimate decision was in Dunford’s hands. 

About a week before the declaration, some in the Pentagon expressed serious doubts about the aircraft. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) obtained a memo from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation that called foul on the test that was meant to demonstrate the ability of the F-35B to operate in realistic conditions. 

Dunford, however, said he had “full confidence” in the aircraft’s ability to support Marines in combat, despite the testing office’s report stating that if the aircraft encountered enemies, it would need to “avoid threat engagement”—in other words, to flee at the first sign of an enemy.

Ignoring the issues raised internally, Dunford signed off on the initial operational capability. Lockheed Martin was thrilled. “Fifty years from now, historians will look back on the success of the F-35 Program and point to Marine Corps IOC as the milestone that ushered in a new era in military aviation,” the company said in a statement.

Lockheed’s CEO was apparently elated, declaring it “send a strong message to everyone that this program is on track.”

But problems continued to plague the “combat ready” aircraft in the months afterwards. And Dunford downplayed cost overruns and sang the aircraft’s praises at a press event in 2017. When the moderator asked routine questions submitted by the audience (Will the aircraft continue as a program? Is it too expensive to maintain?), Dunford responded by calling the questions loaded and accusing the audience member of having an “agenda.”

Retirement and a Reward

On September 30, 2019, Dunford, the military’s highest ranked official, stepped down from his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He had served in the Marine Corps since 1977, working his way up to the highest tier of the armed services over 42 years.

Just four months and 11 days later, he joined the Pentagon’s top contractor, Lockheed Martin, as a director on the board.

In announcing Dunford’s hire, a January press release from Lockheed Martin quotes CEO Marillyn Hewson: “General Dunford’s service to the nation at the highest levels of military leadership will bring valuable insight to our board.” 

Dunford’s consistent cheerleading of the F-35 and his subsequent hiring at its manufacturer create the perception of a conflict of interest and raised the eyebrows of at least one former senior military official. 

“Here he is having been an advocate for it, having pressed it, having pushed for it …  and now he’s going to work for the company that makes the aircraft, that just, to me, stinks to high heavens,” retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as special assistant to Colin Powell when he led the Joint Chiefs, told POGO. 

Dunford’s Rolodex of Pentagon decision-makers is valuable to defense contractors, and with just over four months to “cool off,” many of those relationships will likely be intact. 

Lockheed Martin was the top recipient of Department of Defense dollars in fiscal year 2019, taking in over $48 billion, according to government data. The company spent over $13 million lobbying the federal government in 2019, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. 

The Revolving Door Spins On

“I think anybody that gives out these big contracts should never ever, during their lifetime, be allowed to work for a defense company, for a company that makes that product,” then-President-elect Donald Trump said in a December 2016 rally in Louisiana. “I don’t know, it makes sense to me.”

Fast forward more than three years and the revolving door is spinning right along, defense stocks are surging, and Lockheed Martin has a record backlog of unfulfilled contracts. While Trump did issue an ethics executive order for his appointees, it did not include a lifetime ban on lobbying for contractors.

A POGO analysis of the post-government employment of retired chairs of the Joint Chiefs found that only four of the 19 people who previously held the position went immediately to work for a major defense contractor within two years after leaving the government. In addition to Dunford, Admiral William J. Crowe joined General Dynamics, General John Shalikashvili joined the boards of Boeing and L-3, and General Richard Myers joined the boards of Northrop Grumman and United Technologies Corp. 

Former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs have many lucrative career opportunities that don’t create conflicts, actual or implied. Retired General Martin Dempsey, who held the position before Dunford, went on to teach at Duke University and was elected chairman of USA Basketball. Admiral Michael Mullen, who preceded Dempsey, joined the board of General Motors and later telecom giant Sprint. 

According to Wilkerson, then-Chairman Powell was conscious of the appearance of conflicts of interest and instilled in his employees a sensitivity. 

Wilkerson recalled a conversation he had with Powell right after his retirement. “What’s next, boss?” Wilkerson asked Powell. “Well, it’ll not be some defense contractor or some beltway bandit. That practice is pernicious,” he responded. Powell spoke to various members of Congress about their responsibility to rein in the practice, and tried to raise awareness of how widespread it was becoming, according to Wilkerson. 

Current ethics laws include cooling off periods that limit a former government employee’s job options. But a POGO study of the revolving door in 2018 found that current ethics regulations are insufficient, rely on self-reporting, and are full of loopholes. These cooling off periods range from a few years to a lifetime, depending on how much an individual was personally involved in the decisions to award contracts. This means top officials actually have fewer restrictions than contracting officers that were directly involved in the awards, even though they have more influence and likely more valuable connections. And the restrictions mostly prevent former officials from taking positions that involve representing or lobbying for a contractor, which is why there was no restriction on Dunford joining Lockheed’s board. 

The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told POGO that Dunford “has certain post-government employment restrictions,” but wouldn’t go into more detail. Dunford “at all times complied with his ethics obligations related to post-government employment,” according to the emailed statement. POGO has filed Freedom of Information Act Requests to learn more about Dunford’s ethical restrictions. 

Additionally, enforcement of the regulations is rare, with only four former Pentagon employees prosecuted for violations in the past 16 years. It is impossible to know if the low frequency of prosecutions in the current system is due to inadequate enforcement or high compliance with lax laws. 

Loading Boards with Political Influence

Since 2008, POGO found 42 senior defense officials “revolved” into Lockheed within two years of leaving the government. 

The boards of the top five defense contractors all have at least two sitting former high-ranking military officials. General Dynamics and Raytheon had four each, Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman had two each.  

The full number of revolvers is difficult to determine. POGO’s database currently contains 408 individuals who either went to work directly with defense contractors that were awarded over $10 million that year or went to work with lobbying firms that list defense industry clients. The POGO database relies on open source information. Another study found that between 2009 and 2011, 70% of three and four-star generals and admirals who retired took gigs with defense contractors or consultancies.

A GAO study found that in 2006, about 86,000 military and civilian personnel who had left service since 2001 were employed by 52 major defense contractors. The study also found that 1,581 former senior officials were employed by just seven contractors. The office estimated that 422 former officials could have worked on contracts related to their former agencies. 

From 25 Hearings in One Year, to None in 60 Years

This issue is far from new. In a 1959 alone, there were 25 hearings before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee for Special Investigations on the topic of the revolving door and its malign influences. President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous farewell address warning of the military-industrial complex just two years later.

An analysis by POGO did not find a congressional hearing explicitly on the issue of the Pentagon revolving door in over 60 years. 

There is some hope that the law will soon start to catch up. In May of last year, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced legislation that would impose a four-year ban on contactors hiring senior officials who managed that company’s contracts, and extend existing bans. It would also require contractors to submit annual reports on the employment of former senior officials and would ban senior officials from owning stock in major defense contractors. Another bill, passed by the House in March 2019, would broaden ethics rules and expands prohibitions on former officials receiving compensation from contractors. It is sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.

The American public should be able to be confident that our top military officials are making decisions in the interest of national security, not to secure a cushy board position. 

Jason Paladino is the National Security Investigative Reporter for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).




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