The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
The Pentagon Merry-Go-Round Keeps on Spinning
The Bunker recalls sitting in the West Wing of the White House 34 years ago and interviewing former deputy defense secretary David Packard about the way the U.S. military buys its weapons. He was explaining the fruits of his just-released Packard Commission report (PDF), charged with fixing the Pentagon’s broken procurement system. “With notable exceptions,” it concluded, “weapons systems take too long and cost too much to produce. Too often, they do not perform as promised or expected.'”
That 1986 report, by The Bunker’s calendar, was a third of a century ago. Last week, the Pentagon made it clear, once again, that nothing has changed when it comes to military-industrial complexities. “We need to build a more lethal force and speed delivery of capability to the warfighter,” Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, told reporters October 7 as she detailed what the Defense Department is calling its new Adaptive Acquisition Framework. “In other words, DOD acquisition needs to move at the speed of relevance.” There are lots of changes, just as there have been in dozens of previous efforts.
The effort comes on the heels of dozens of others dating back to World War II. Following Packard’s report (officially the Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management), Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act creating the Defense Acquisition Board that same year. It was followed by 1990’s Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act; 1994’s Acquisition Reform: A Mandate for Change by Defense Secretary William Perry (Perry was one of 16 members of the Packard panel); the Federal Streamlining Act of 1994; 2009’s Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act; 2010’s Better Buying Power push. You get the picture.
Sign up for The Bunker
The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson.Subscribe
These reports are almost like horses running in the Potomac Derby, where innovation, smarts and it’s-long-past-time-to-break-some-rice-bowls1 are supposed to prevail. But after a couple of decades of watching the ponies blur by, you realize they’re beginning to look familiar. You’re not watching a race, but a carousel with the same nags, frozen in place atop that spinning platform, giving a delusion of progress.
“Efforts to address cost overruns, schedule slips, and performance shortfalls have continued unabated, with more than 150 major studies on acquisition reform since World War II,” a top GAO official told (PDF) Congress in 2013. “Every administration and virtually every secretary of defense has embarked on an acquisition reform.” It’d be wrong to suggest these tweaks in the way the Pentagon buys weapons are like rearranging decks chairs on the Titanic. There’s always enough smoke, mirrors, and jargon to make it more like moving them to the Lusitania. There are too many vested interests invested in preserving the status quo. Doing things more effectively boils down to doing more with less: fewer generals overseeing less work being done by fewer workers. And that would require a president backed by a Congress willing to shatter rice bowls.
Perhaps the best explanation The Bunker ever read for the Pentagon’s inability to buy weapons right is the conclusion reached in a GAO report nearly 30 years ago (so long ago, in fact, that the GAO was then known as the General Accounting Office, until it rebranded itself as the Government Accountability Office, in 2004).
The incentives built into the system are counter-productive, the congressional watchdog agency argued. The military-procurement culture long ago went beyond “the filling of voids in military capability at minimal cost,” the GAO said, in favor of filling unneeded “needs.” Those needs “involve the definition of roles and missions, the justifications of budget levels and shares, service reputations, organizational influence, the industrial base, jobs, and careers,” it added. That creates “an environment that encourages ‘selling’ programs, along with undue optimism, parochialism, and other compromises of good judgment.” Congress and the defense industry, the GAO added, are key players key in the bamboozlement.
Given the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the GAO titled that 1992 report Weapons Acquisition: A Rare Opportunity for Lasting Change (PDF). Turns out the green-eyeshade crowd was wearing rose-colored glasses. The Army, of all places, summed the sorry state of U.S. military procurement more accurately in the title of its 2011 study into the same problem: Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960–2009 An Elusive Goal (PDF).
Then-defense secretary Bob Gates dismissed such busywork while preparing to shift from being defense secretary to President Bush to President Obama in 2009 (he is the only Pentagon chief to bridge two administrations). “We didn’t need any more studies on how to acquire more effectively—we had rooms full of those,” he wrote in Duty, his 2014 autobiography. “And they hadn’t done any good.”
Lord isn’t deterred. She says the Adaptive Acquisition Framework “is the most transformational change to acquisition policy in years, perhaps decades, and an effort we expect to have a long-lasting, positive impact across the department.”
Good on her. But history tells us Lord’s prayer has a snowball’s chance in Hell of effecting real change.
ARMING THE HEAVENS
Before we do it, let’s discuss
President Trump ordered the creation of U.S. Space Command (to wage war in space) in December 2018; a year later he created U.S. Space Force (to train and outfit members of Space Command; of course it’s confusing). Now they’re gearing up to fight far above. “The U.S. Space Force is transforming the way the U.S. military develops its space warfighters…to protect U.S. interests in space, deter aggression in, from and to space and conduct space operations,” one of the Pentagon’s space-warfare trainers says. One of Space Command’s “primary missions” is “to develop ready and lethal joint warfighters in order to enhance space warfighting readiness and lethality.”
Well, that’s all fine and dandy. But shouldn’t we decide whether or not waging war in space makes sense before shooting billions skyward?
Unfortunately, the nation hasn’t had that debate, and rushing weapons into space could backfire. That’s according to a new study from the Aerospace Corporation, the government-funded non-profit that advises the Pentagon and other customers on space matters. “The United States has not had a robust public debate about the advantages and disadvantages of weaponizing space in almost 20 years,” the October 6 report says (PDF).
While potential stratospheric foes are stepping up their space efforts, the Aerospace Corp. report warns that matching them may not be a smart move. “Rather than basing a U.S. decision primarily as a reaction to China’s and Russia’s provocations, the United States should carefully consider the viability and effectiveness of space weapons for itself,” it says. The Pentagon “will need to make significant investments to protect and defend U.S. space-based weapons,” it adds. U.S. ground-based weaponry capable of taking out Beijing’s and Moscow’s space-based assets, on the other hand, wouldn’t need such costly defenses.
The bottom line is that the world is at another tipping point, weighing the development and widespread deployment of space weaponry. The U.S., perceiving threats, might be able to counter them with a cheaper solution.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how the Pentagon and its allies are going to want to handle this challenge.
SPEAKING OF THE SPACE FORCE
Remember when you were a kid, and the only place you could find zany ads for things like sea monkeys, rubber skulls, and super spy scopes were in the back pages of comic books (trust The Bunker on this, kids). Well, now that the entire Internet is one big comic book, there’s a whole new galaxy of such bizarre advertising. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a constellation of ads selling U.S. Space Force $2 bills. They appear to be real bills, over-printed with the Space Force logo (and, in some cases, supplanting Thomas Jefferson as the bill’s key feature).
“Each is a Genuine, Authentic, U.S. Legal Tender $2 Bill which has been enhanced by us with beautiful colorized images celebrating our space prowess and Space Force logo,” the National Collector’s Mint says ($14.95 each). “Included is a Certificate of Authenticity to guarantee that your bills are authentic and recognized by every monetary authority around the world, and assuring its Collector Edition status,” adds the I Love My Freedom website ($19.95 each). “Join your fellow patriots in supporting the youngest branch of our military and claim your collectible $2 bill and this unique piece of history today,” Proud Patriots say ($29.99 each).
It’s all legal, according to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (the folks who print the real greenbacks in Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas). “These companies are not required to ask BEP for permission to produce such items,” a spokeswoman says. “Whether or not these notes will be accepted in commerce transactions is up to private, commercial businesses themselves.”
And just look at those prices. One is double the cost of another, and the premium above the face bill ranges from 650% to 1400%. Sounds about right for the Pentagon. Who said P.T. Barnum wasn’t an astronaut?
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
U.S. troops who fought in Afghanistan are now watching their children head off to the same war, Stars & Stripes reported October 6.
It’s something Americans don’t dwell on, but maybe it’s time they did. Why should the U.S. president have the unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons? The debate over this Cold War hangover has been limited to arms-control dweebs for decades. But it becomes more than merely academic now that President Trump has been taking a mind-altering steroid, the New York Times noted October 11. “Do not operate heavy machinery while taking this medication,” a common drug-warning label reads. Think we might take step to ensure that a medically-addled finger isn’t atop the nuclear button, too.
Well, it wasn’t the cyber Pearl Harbor chicken littles have been warning about for decades, but a cyberattack apparently killed a German woman last month. “It is plausible that (out of all that happened in 2020) the passing of a single woman in a medium-sized German city may be the most important event this year,” Air Force strategist David Benson argued in a September 24 piece at the OSIRIS Codex. “This death represents a fundamental change in cyber power, because death changes everything.” Rationality goes out the window when the killing starts, argues Benson, a professor of at the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. “It is now more plausible that a government would retaliate against certain kinds of cyberattacks, even if no one died, because we know for sure someone could have.”
Retired U.S. admiral Jim Stavridis lists five reasons why he believes U.S. troops have become disenchanted with the commander-in-chief. “The president is now finding himself underwater essentially across all ranks of the force,” the former NATO chief wrote in Time October 9. “There are several reasons for this, none of which are reversible between now and the election.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration is buying a new $105 million super-duper computer system to keep the nation’s atomic weapons primed for action, Nextgov.com reported October 6.
Marian Elcano was a U.S. Army nurse who tended to the wounded and dying in military hospitals that leap-frogged across France during World War II. She beat her husband-to-be to the beaches of Normandy by 20 days. The memory of the Battle of the Bulge—America’s largest land battle of the war, killing 19,000 of the half-million GIs involved—stayed with her. “I remember how quiet it was with all those severely wounded patients in the tent. Even the ones with real bad burns were quiet,” she said of the six-week campaign. “And none of them complained.” The French government bestowed the Légion d’Honneur on her shortly before she died, October 4, at 99, according to the October 7 Washington Post. R.I.P., Captain Elcano.
Thanks for joining The Bunker for this latest spin on the national-security carousel. Please forward and/or share with both friends and foes. See you next week.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.