No wings attached? Civil–military relations and agent intrusion in the procurement of fighter jets

Publication Date01 March 2020
AuthorYf Reykers,Daan Fonck
Date01 March 2020
DOI10.1177/0010836719850203
SubjectArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/0010836719850203
Cooperation and Conflict
2020, Vol. 55(1) 66 –85
© The Author(s) 2019
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836719850203
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No wings attached?
Civil–military relations
and agent intrusion in the
procurement of fighter jets
Yf Reykers and Daan Fonck
Abstract
This article studies civil–military relations in defence procurement. Applying insights from the principal–
agent model, we argue that decision-making about defence procurement is inherently vulnerable
to agency problems. Given the technical nature of these dossiers, governments and parliaments
are often heavily dependent upon military expertise, creating leeway for defence administrations
to steer decision-making towards their preferences. By means of a case study of the replacement
of the F-16 fighter jets in Belgium, we examine whether and how complex defence procurement
dossiers allow for exploitation of expertise through strategic information management from the
defence administration to the Minister of Defence. In addition, empirics reveal a to date unexplored
phenomenon of agent intrusion. It captures the situation in which an agent takes a prominent formal
advisory position within the decision-making apparatus of its political principal, providing additional
means to outplay its information advantage over the principal in favour of its own interests.
Keywords
Defence procurement, civil–military relations, principal-agent, fighter jets, Belgium
Introduction
In March 2017, the Belgian government distributed a Request for Government Proposal
(RfGP) for 34 fighter jets to five state agencies, in prospect of replacing its ageing F-16
fighter jets, which were considered to be out of use by 2023 (Belgian Ministry of Defence,
2017). By holding an open competition, the government attempted to avoid doubts over
its final decision, such as there were in Canada in 2010 (Hoeffler and Mérand, 2016; von
Hlatky and Rice, 2018). Yet, in March 2018, a political crisis developed when an
Joint first author; both authors contributed equally to this work.
Corresponding author:
Yf Reykers, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), Maastricht
University, Grote Gracht 86, 6211 SZ Maastricht, The Netherlands.
Email: y.reykers@maastrichtuniversity.nl
850203CAC0010.1177/0010836719850203Cooperation and ConflictReykers and Fonck
research-article2019
Article
Reykers and Fonck 67
opposition party disclosed email exchanges between the military staff, revealing attempts
to conceal studies which indicated that the lifetime of the F-16s could potentially be
extended beyond 2023. The conversations furthermore showed that several leading mili-
tary commanders openly favoured the American-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as
replacement, which undermined the unprejudiced procurement process the government
officially committed itself to. The revelations led to accusations that the Minister of
Defence did not have control over his administration (De Morgen, 2018: 6). The Belgian
case strikingly illustrates the contentious nature of large defence procurement decisions,
raising questions about civil–military relations and the capacity of the military to push its
preferences.
This article studies civil–military relations in defence procurement decision-making,
guided by the question ‘How can we explain agency problems in defence procurement?’
We first highlight why large defence procurement dossiers are inherently contentious and
come with a considerable risk of agency problems, or undesired agency behaviour. We
then apply the principal–agent model, a core framework in the study of civil–military
relations (e.g. Auerswald and Saideman, 2014; Feaver, 1998; Lagassé and Saideman,
2017, 2019), to the case of the F-16 replacement in Belgium. This typical case of contro-
versial defence procurement allows for establishing whether and how complex defence
procurement dossiers allow for exploitation of expertise. Empirics show that the defence
administration profited from its expertise vis-à-vis the Minister of Defence to strategi-
cally withhold information in order to steer the governmental decision-making process
towards its own preferences.
Our case study furthermore reveals a to date unexplored phenomenon, which we
introduce as agent intrusion. It captures the situation in which an agent (here: military
staff) takes a formal advisory position within the decision-making apparatus of its politi-
cal principal. We argue that instances of agent intrusion increase the risk of agency prob-
lems. It gives the agent additional means to outplay its information advantage over the
political principal in favour of its own interests. We conclude that this risk is particularly
likely in technical and confidential decision-making dossiers wherein the Minister of
Defence is highly dependent upon the expertise of its military staff and administration,
such as in large defence procurement decisions.
Civil–military relations
The risk of agency problems, defined as behaviour by the agent which is not entirely in line
with what the principal originally envisioned (Hawkins and Jacoby, 2006: 212), is a key
concern in civil–military relations. It is at the core of a literature which is largely founded
on Huntington’s The Soldier and the State (1957) and Janowitz’s sociological The
Professional Soldier (1960). At the origins of this civil–military relations scholarship is the
tension between creating a military which is strong enough to guarantee security of the
civil community by which it was created, and ensuring that it does not become so strong
that it can enforce its will on that civil community. While initially developed in a Cold War
context with the threat of coups in emerging or consolidating democracies in mind (e.g.
Cottey et al., 2005; Nordlinger, 1977; Rouquié, 1987), civil–military scholars gradually
expanded their focus to established democracies (Feaver, 1999).

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