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.
This week in The Bunker: the Air Force’s funny money, both old and new; “wokeism” and its backlash now ravaging the ranks; War With China Over Taiwan 2.0?; can the U.S. do right by the Afghans who helped U.S. troops; and more.
THE PENTAGON’S SAME OLD NEW MATH
Old whine in a new bottle
When it comes to spending your money, the Department of Defense is a lot like many major U.S. retailers. “Half off!” the mercantile mavens shout about their newest car, or mobile phone. “Save 50%!” The peddlers are hoping you’ll overlook the fact that to save a buck you still have to spend 50 cents on something you probably don’t need. Unfortunately, time and time again, they’ve been proven right.
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The Air Force is getting into a particularly brazen form of this bait-and-switch as it tries to convince us that our nation is, um, wry toast if we don’t buy a new fleet of 400 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to sprinkle across Middle America. The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) is needed, the service insists, to replace the Air Force’s 50-year-old Minuteman III system, currently standing alert in underground silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Sure, developing and deploying the new missiles will cost as much as $264 billion (warheads not included), but that’s a bargain…because hanging on to the older missiles (hold on to your wallets) will cost even more.
It was neat to see this estimate surface at a recent congressional hearing. It was one of those Pentagon pas de deux that can give opera librettos a run for their money when it comes to a scripted score. “What is the current estimated cost difference between pursuing GBSD, and trying to life-extend the Minuteman?” Senator Deb Fischer wondered. She’s the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee. She hails from Nebraska, the home state of U.S. Strategic Command (the Pentagon’s nuclear war-fighting headquarters) and 82 Minuteman silos (a slice of the nation’s nuclear warfighters).
“Ma’am, thank you for the question,” Air Force General Timothy Ray, chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, responded. “The bottom line, up front, is that it’s a $38 billion difference, with GBSD being the least-expensive and more effective option in every category that we analyzed it on,” he told the Senate panel May 12. The costs include procurement and sustainment through 2075. “We were given six criteria—classified criteria—no version of the Minuteman III ever in that discussion satisfactorily met those in an affordable fashion.” (Because those criteria remain secret, it’s not known if one of them was an option designed to generate the most support from Capitol Hill’s ICBM lobby, but it wouldn’t be surprising.)
The existing ICBMs are so old (“I Can’t Bomb Moscow”) that refurbishing them will cost far more money than developing new ones from scratch, boosters of the new missile maintain. The Air Force lacks a source for more than 300 parts used aboard the Minuteman’s propulsion system alone (although the Air Force’s woes along these lines aren’t limited to ICBMs). Retrofitting software into the old missiles will also be costly (yet, as the F-35 program has made crystal clear, the military hasn’t had much better luck developing software for new weapons, either).
What’s hilarious about this line of (none-dare-call-it) logic is that it requires the one thing the Pentagon has never had: knowledge about how much things are going to cost the day after tomorrow, never mind through 2075. When it comes to weapons, they invariably take longer to develop and cost more than originally estimated. And once that price point begins its ascent, it never comes down. Pressures mount until—Boom!—the $500 million “stealth bomber” becomes the $2 billion B-2 (such funny accounting is already happening with the B-21 bomber, the B-2’s successor).
Trying to compare the cost of improving the Air Force’s existing ICBMs to extend their lives with the cost of a new ICBM still on the drawing board is inane. Both sets of numbers at this point are fiscal fantasies and only fiscal fools would take them seriously. Which, of course, brings us to the Pentagon and their bean counters on Capitol Hill.
What we have here is a nuclear showdown. Former defense secretary William Perry and others have argued that the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad is destabilizing and adds nothing to the defense of the country. The nation’s nuclear-armed bombers and submarines, they say, are more than enough to ensure U.S. national security. A February poll found that most Americans surveyed don’t support the Pentagon’s push for new ICBMs. Alternatives exist (PDF). Don’t think these currents, unsettling to those who prefer the triad-and-true, aren’t playing a role in the Air Force’s new math.
MORE AIR FORCE MATH
The overhead cost of doing business overhead
After learning the Air Force says it could pocket $38 billion (we prefer not to use the word “save,” because any such surplus tends to be funneled into another Air Force program, rather than being returned to the taxpayers), The Bunker took note of several other recent Air Force money stories:
-- The Air Force plans to cut its procurement of F-35 fighters by 10% over the next five years, “citing sustainment costs for the jet well above what was expected,” Air Force Magazine reported May 14. Internal documents “appear to show the USAF giving the F-35 program an ultimatum: Get costs under control over the next six to eight years or the overall buy will be sharply reduced.” Turns out, believe it or not, the Air Force may consider retiring its oldest F-35s before the plane even enters full-scale production.
-- For a two-minute peek at how the F-35 ended up in such a tailspin, check out this nifty May 19 video put together by The Bunker’s colleagues at the Project On Government Oversight.
-- The Air Force told Congress May 18 that it needs more money to address a $30 billion backlog in maintenance at its bases. “Twenty years of neglect at Air Force installations across the globe have left a backlog of repairs to buildings, runways, heating and air conditioning systems, and other infrastructure needed to support airmen, according to officials,” Military.com reported.
-- Lawmakers blasted the service’s long-troubled KC-46 aerial tanker program, a modified version of Boeing’s 767 commercial airliner. “In my estimation, the overall procurement of this ‘commercial’ aircraft, and the penalty built into the contract requiring minimum orders of deficient airplanes, is at best procurement malpractice, or at worst an illegal binding of Congress requiring annual procurements,” Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA) said at a May 18 House Armed Services Committee hearing. The chief of U.S. Transportation Command seemed as skeptical as lawmakers as they pressed him on when the tanker will be ready for prime time. “I think we’ve got a long way to go on the KC-46 with regard to Boeing, and the work that has to be done,” Army General Stephen Lyons said. “The Air Force would be in a better place to answer that question.”
-- The Air Force may prematurely retire its hottest fighter, the $350 million-per-copy F-22, so it can spend the savings (told you!) on its newest super-secret fighter program. “The first public shots have been fired in a new U.S. Air Force effort to justify increased funding for the shadowy Next Generation Air Dominance program,” airpower analyst Justin Bronk wrote in a column for the independent Royal United Services Institute think tank May 19. “Its commander appears willing to part with its premier fighter fleet much earlier than anticipated in order to secure this.”
-- The Air Force Special Operations Command is pushing to refit C-130 aircraft so they can take off and land on the water, an Air Force officer said May 19. Perfect for that looming conflict with China in the western Pacific. Let’s call it Spruce Goose 2.0.
-- On May 20, the Air Force opened a $13 million Space Warfighting Operations Research & Development Laboratory—SWORD—at New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Base. “I would like to say that space war fighting looks like absolutely nothing is happening,” a colonel involved in the effort said. “Our enemies are deterred from taking aggressive action in space, and therefore our space capabilities are still there whenever they are needed the most by our war fighters.”
-- The Air Force Academy announced May 20 that it has extended the contract of its athletic director, Nathan Pine, by three years. “Air Force has enjoyed record-breaking fundraising numbers under Pine, including total number of donors and dollars raised, as well as the rebranding of its fundraising arm for athletics to the Falcon Athletic Fund,” it said. “Formerly known as the Falcon Pride Club, the Falcon Athletic Fund was refreshed and rebranded under Pine’s leadership with increased giving levels and benefits.” Nowhere did the academy say how much Pine is paid, although it’s likely boosters—and not taxpayers—are footballing the bill.
-- A former Air Force employee pleaded guilty to pocketing more than $1 million in fraudulent cash advances, the Justice Department said May 19. He spent the money on, among other things, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a baby grand piano.
This laundry list of how the U.S. Air Force is spending your money is fundamentally unfair. Not only is it not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the numbers involved purée it into mush.
It’s as goofy as predicting that keeping the Minuteman III alive is going to cost $38 billion more than developing and deploying the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
But at least The Bunker admits it.
JUST THE FAX
Same as it’s ever been
Turning away from the Air Force for just a moment, the CIA has announced that its last classified fax machines are about to retire. For you youngsters, those are the primitive analog devices that “take a picture” of a document at Point A and transmit it electronically to a similar machine at Point B. Then that second machine prints out a copy of the original document. The Bunker fell in love with them 40 years ago when it meant he didn’t have to rush to the Pentagon or Capitol Hill to pick up a document late in the afternoon. Instead he could have it “faxed over” before deadline. All but killed the bike messenger industry, too.
Come August, the Central Intelligence Agency is shutting down the classified facsimile-machine network it uses to share sensitive data with its contractors. “Our communications with industry, at the classified level, is through secure fax machines,” according to a CIA official quoted in Defense One last week. “In this day and age, embarrassingly, we probably would see fax machines in the Smithsonian.”
Which reminds The Bunker of the day back in 1989 that he stumbled upon the Air Force’s—you knew this was coming—$421,000 Fantastic Fax Machine. “While taxpayers can pick up a fax machine—which transmits copies of documents over telephone lines—for less than $1,000, those devices aren't up to the sand, dust, rain, salt fog, fungus and nuclear-survivability standards the Air Force requires,” a much-younger Bunker reported. The Air Force wanted 173 super-duper fax machines for $32.9 million, plus $40 million more for support and spare parts (that works out to $421,000 per machine in 1989—$893,000 in 2021 dollars).
The Air Force, then as now, was sensitive to any suggestion that it might be wasting taxpayer dollars. “The government is acquiring a state-of-the-art facsimile machine that can send and receive high-resolution imagery data in any place, at any time, around the world," an Air Force colonel told The Bunker. “Now, when the battlefield commander needs to send time-sensitive targeting photographs to the wing level, the AN/UCX-4 can transmit these images in near-real time in any climate.”
The Air Force, congenitally unable to know when enough is too much, rolled out another expert to detail the technological wizardry built into these new gizmos. “Our fax machine will reproduce an image with practically no loss of detail," the second official said. “I was looking at a picture of a squirrel it produced this morning, and if you wanted to sit there long enough you could count the hairs on the squirrel.”
Humor columnist Dave Barry, The Bunker’s colleague at Knight-Ridder Newspapers back then, had a field day with the battlefield fax machine. “The questions that probably come to your mind are: 1. The Air Force is using a $421,000 fax machine to send pictures of squirrels?” he wrote. “2. Are these enemy squirrels?”
But this was no laughing matter. Then-Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) launched a just-the-fax investigation that wrapped up eight months after The Bunker’s original report. “I have concluded that the fax machine was not as bad as it seemed at first blush,” he said (PDF) on the Senate floor. “It was far, far worse.”
The Air Force, he reported, had demanded a fax machine capable of operating between minus 25 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 15,000 feet in altitude. It needed to work after tilting back-and-forth, and side-to-side, by 40 degrees, and after being immersed in three feet of water. Those last two requirements were for the Navy, which bailed, along with the Army, from the fax-machine fiasco in 1982 due to its cost. But the Air Force never jettisoned those Navy requirements.
Turns out, the Air Force’s 173 fax machines, and the assorted gear needed to make them work, cost nearly $116 million, or about $668,000 each ($1.4 million today). “The Air Force estimates that it could save a little over $4 million by cancelling the contract now,” Levin said. “This incredible waste” highlighted the Pentagon’s peculiar way of doing business, he added. “There is a culture here that has to be changed before we can make real progress.”
Unfortunately, not much has changed.
That’s just a little background to keep in mind when the Air Force says it is going to cost $38 billion more to keep an old ICBM ready for action than buying a new one. If you believe that, The Bunker has a fax machine for sale.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
The tizzy over “wokeism” in the ranks of the U.S. military is simply a symptom of a deeper malaise infecting U.S. society. The Bunker has watched the U.S. military grow more comfortable with women and sexual and ethnic minority groups in the ranks over the more than 40 years he has been paying attention. “The United States military strives to be a more perfect version of itself,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said May 22 at West Point’s graduation. “That cherishes the rich tapestry of the backgrounds of its citizens.”
The current spat, detailed in this May 21 Politico piece, diminishes a nation that likes to think of itself as a superpower and a beacon of democracy. For some, welcoming the “other” into U.S. military uniforms can never happen fast enough. For others, such assimilation threatens to turn the world’s most powerful fighting force into a field of “emasculatedpansies.” Part of the reason the U.S. military remains so respected by so many Americans is that it represents one of the few remaining centers of gravity among the citizenry. To keep that respect, it has to keep moving in the right direction.
Turns out the U.S. and China came a lot closer to nuclear war over Taiwan, way back in 1958, than we ever knew. Daniel Ellsberg, known for letting the world know the shady backstory of U.S. involvement in Vietnam when he leaked the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, has done it again. When “Red China,” as it was once known, began shelling islands controlled by Taiwan, the U.S. rushed to protect its ally. “American military leaders pushed for a first-use nuclear strike on China, accepting the risk that the Soviet Union would retaliate in kind on behalf of its ally and millions of people would die,” a jarring May 22 New York Times story said, citing a classified 1966 document Ellsberg gave the newspaper.
Tensions are once again on the rise between China and Taiwan. The U.S. remains cagey on whether or not it would fight China to keep it from invading and seizing Taiwan, an island Beijing has always deemed a renegade province. “As the possibility of another nuclear crisis over Taiwan is being bandied about this very year,” Ellsberg said, “it seems very timely to me to encourage the public, Congress and the executive branch to pay attention to what I make available to them.” Ellsberg hopes his disclosures will make a good test case for challenging the Justice Department’s use of the Espionage Act to silence whistleblowers.
There’s growing concern that thousands of Afghans who helped U.S. troops, as interpreters and in other key roles, could face Taliban execution if they’re not given asylum in the United States before U.S. troops leave Afghanistan this summer. Lawmakers and Pentagon officials acknowledged problems with the special visa program designed to prevent such retribution. “A year or two from now, [if] anybody who cooperated with our military forces in Afghanistan, is being hunted down or killed, this will be a horrible thing,” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said at a May 20 hearing, according to The Hill. “I think it goes to the honor of our country. These are people who have sacrificed, risked their lives to help us when we were there.”
Anyone who has spent time with troops far from home knows there’s a comedian in every outfit. Turns out there were a lot of fledgling professional comedians in uniform, too, according to this May 18 muster from Military.com. They included Mel Brooks, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Nipsy Russell, and Jerry Stiller (Army); Lenny Bruce and Don Rickles (Navy); George Carlin (Air Force); and Drew Carey and Jonathan Winters (Marines).
Plainly, the Army’s the funniest service.
Thanks for grinning (and grimacing) along with The Bunker this week. Sign up for Wednesday morning email deliveries here, and feel free to forward this on to any fax aficionados you may know.
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