The Bunker: A Cheap and Legal Scam
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.
As jolly as The Bunker is at this time of year, his sack is laden with coal for: the Pentagon’s fiscal fireplace, Hawaii’s bad water, lessons unlearned, rubber-stamp reviews, and more. The Bunker’s off for the next two weeks for a long winter’s nap. Happy holidays!
HOLIDAY SPENDING SPREE
The Pentagon gets more presents
As a wee lad, The Bunker’s parents limited him to five presents under the tree. The Pentagon, like those spoiled kids The Bunker grew up with, has no such ceiling. Lawmakers are moving to approve a $768 billion defense authorization for this year, $24 billion more than President Biden’s originally inflated request. We are now spending more than $2 billion a day, and closing in on a trillion-dollar annual allotment for a military that can’t win a war (we’ve already surpassed that eye-watering mark when you include veterans’ care).
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As Congress debated the budget last summer, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said their original request was more than adequate. “I don’t want China or Russia to ever think the United States military is not better than their military,” he said. “We are―in all domains, every day, 24/7. And that’s not just bragging, that’s fact.”
But that’s not good enough for Capitol Hill chicken hawks too timid to fulfill their constitutional role to debate whether or not to declare war. Yet they’re all in when it comes to spending more money than even the hardly svelte Defense Department sought. It happened with Democrats—supposedly more parsimonious than Republicans when it comes to national security—in charge of the White House and both congressional chambers. And it’s likely to continue, aided by stepped-up defense-industry lobbying. This vexation occurs amid a sense of gathering gloom about the nation and its direction. Such a mood tends to fuel free spending for armaments, even when a third of the country refuses to accept the results of our last presidential election.
A cheap and legal scam
Kinsley’s law, named for journalist Michael Kinsley more than 30 years ago, says that a Washington scandal is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. That fact—and it is a fact—is highlighted anew in a December 13 Pentagon inspector general (IG) report on the pricing practices of spare-parts supplier TransDigm. “We found that TransDigm earned excess profit of at least $20.8 million on 105 spare parts on 150 contracts,” the IG said. That’s because restrictions on Pentagon contract officers keep them from demanding cost data for sole-source contracts of less than $2 million (they can ask for it if it’s above $250,000 but nothing requires the company to turn the data over). The Pentagon has sought to clamp down on such abuse—twice in the 2021 defense-policy bill alone—but Congress has failed to act, the IG said.
“The laws have contracting officers so hamstrung that it’s too administratively burdensome to negotiate prices and ensure that the government—and therefore the American taxpayer—is getting a fair deal,” POGO’s Mandy Smithberger and Scott Amey noted in 2019.
TransDigm called the “implications” in the IG report “inaccurate and misleading” before going on to prove Kinsley correct: “The report makes clear that there was no wrongdoing by TransDigm, its businesses, or by the DOD,” the Cleveland-based company said. “TransDigm agrees with that conclusion.”
And The Bunker agrees this is a heck of a way to treat taxpayers and troops.
Poison for the holidays
The Navy said it will fix “as expeditiously as possible” the petroleum contamination near Pearl Harbor that has sickened its personnel and their families. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro issued the order (PDF) on Pearl Harbor Day. Nearly 1,000 military households have complained of cramps and vomiting after drinking water shown to contain 350 times the safe level of hydrocarbons. The Navy says it believes the problem was caused by a one-time spill of 14,000 gallons of jet fuel on November 20, and not by a new leak from a nearby World War II-era underground fuel depot that has oozed oil repeatedly over the years. But the Pentagon refused to confirm that. The Navy is “still working their way through exactly what happened,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said December 13.
That may be because the Navy’s track record on the issue, like its Red Hill fuel depot, is full of holes. The depot has threatened Oahu’s water for decades. The state fined the Navy $325,000 last year following its failure to conduct tests to prevent spills and pinpoint leaks from the 20 mammoth tanks capable of holding 250 million gallons of fuel. A 2018 report by a Navy consultant (PDF) said there is a 1-in-4 chance the tanks will leak up to 30,000 gallons in any given year, and predictably leak 5,800 gallons every year (the Navy said the consultant’s conclusions “may not be absolutely accurate” (PDF) and the issue needed more study). The Navy sought to protect the aging tanks from such snafus following a 2014 rupture that spilled 27,000 gallons of jet fuel. It said it would line the existing tanks for about $500 million, instead of a double-walled option that would have cost up to $5 billion.
More than 3,000 military families have fled their homes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and complained of Navy foot-dragging in resolving the issue. After squabbling between the Navy and the state of Hawaii, Senator Brian Schatz, D-HI, called for the Environmental Protection Agency to take the lead on the case.
The problem highlights the challenges such military infrastructure poses to both humans and habitat. The Government Accountability Office issued a report December 9 assessing the progress that has been made cleaning up the mess at the Hanford Site in eastern Washington state. The U.S. has spent more than $170 billion since 1989 trying to get rid of Hanford’s more than 500 billion gallons of nuclear and other wastes. The Department of Energy estimates it will spend up to $677 billion more over the coming decades to finish the job at the 580-square-mile facility.
Think of all this as a triple-bank shot: Hanford produced the plutonium that destroyed Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, ending World War II. Nagasaki produced the torpedoes used to destroy the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Following that attack—and the military sophistication it represented—the U.S. Navy buried its fuel depot at Pearl Harbor. That shielded the underground tanks from Japanese attacks, but—80 years later—the fuel is poisoning the U.S. sailors and families now living there.
The Navy says it plans to shut the fuel depot around 2045, 100 years after Hanford’s “Fat Man” A-bomb destroyed Nagasaki.
REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR!
Learning lessons the hard way
Speaking of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack on the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific fleet marked the end of the battleship’s reign as “queens of the sea.” They were eclipsed by aircraft carriers, which have remained Navy royalty ever since. But after 80 years, the flattops look increasingly like fat targets. And don’t just take The Bunker’s word for it (PDF).
The U.S. military has “made the mistake of concentrating firepower in a small number of expensive and vulnerable platforms, such as aircraft carriers, rather than distributing power in vast numbers of ‘good enough’ platforms,” Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, wrote on December 7. “In other words, the American military has in some ways itself become one large Pearl Harbor—a magnificent row of battleships of imposing size but dubious utility, complacently anchored in a port we imagined was secure.”
Such warnings have been sounding for years. “It’s just tradition, the industrial base and some other old and musty arguments” that keeps the Pentagon buying $20 billion carriers, one-time Pentagon deep-thinker Thomas P. M. Barnett told The Bunker a decade ago. “We should scale back our carrier design to something much cheaper and simpler. Think of mother ships launching waves of cheap drones—that would actually be more frightening and intimidating.”
Doing the same thing, again and again
Anyone who has paid attention to the cascades of reports, reviews, and studies coming out of the U.S. national-security establishment in recent decades has to be struck by its aversion to change. Whether it’s the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Reviews, its Quadrennial Defense Reviews, or waterfalls of outside reports, they all basically say the same thing: all is well, the auto-pilot is working, and don’t rock the boat. Or airplane. Or tank.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s highlighted in the proposed 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (PDF), published December 7. It sets up, within its 2,165 dense pages, five commissions to ruminate, resolve, and recommend answers to some pretty fundamental questions:
- How to buy weapons better. The Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Reform seeks procurement reform “particularly with respect to facilitating defense modernization.”
- The future of military biotechnology. The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology is charged with figuring out how biology will affect “current and future missions and activities of the Department of Defense.”
- Why the U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan War Commission will “examine the key strategic, diplomatic, and operational decisions that pertain to the war in Afghanistan.” The words “loss” or “defeat” are MIA from the commission’s writ.
- How to defend the U.S. The Commission on the National Defense Strategy “is to examine and make recommendations with respect to the national defense strategy for the United States.”
- The future of nuclear weapons. The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States is to conduct “a strategic threat assessment and a detailed review of nuclear-weapons policy, strategy, and force structure and factors affecting the strategic stability of near-peer competitors of the United States.”
And you thought you were spending nearly $800 billion a year to pay Pentagon deep-thinkers to answer these questions.
The commissions range in size from eight to 25 members, appointed by the usual suspects: congressional and Pentagon leaders. Winslow Wheeler, who spent more than 40 years watching the Pentagon from perches on Capitol Hill, the Government Accountability Office, and the Center for Defense Information, took aim at that new panel examining how the military buys its weapons. “This is not to be a commission of independently-minded, objective professionals who want real change in the DoD acquisition system,” he wrote in Responsible Statecraft December 13. “It is to be DOD itself, the non-oversight congressional defense committees, captured think tanks and defense corporations themselves doing the analysis and recommendations.”
They’ll soon start hiring staff and moving into government offices to prepare their reports, due to be delivered over the next three years. The members of most of the commissions apparently will be unpaid, although their true compensation will be in “shaping the battlefield” (as they say at the Pentagon) to fight for more military dollars.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
It’s long past time for the U.S. and its military to get out of the regime-change business, Michael Mazarr argues on the Modern War Institute’s website at West Point. “The benefits of covert interventions and proxy wars rarely outweigh their costs,” the senior political scientists writes in an excerpt published at Rand Corp. “And there is one Cold War pattern that the United States would do well to avoid entirely: efforts to discredit, undermine, and, in some cases, remove inconvenient national leaders or governments in developing countries.”
Retired Navy commander Norman R. Denny, in the December issue of the independent Navy journal Proceedings, argues that it’s time for the Army, Navy, and Air Force to gobble up the Marine Corps. Predictably, the proposal triggered an amphibious assault against such heresy in the comments section.
The rusty hull of the USS Zumwalt was a sorry sight as the $8 billion warship recently pulled into San Diego, The Warzone reported December 10. Such rust usually is “found on ships that have been deployed for long periods of time, executing high tempo operations, not those that spend the vast majority of their time tied up to the pier at one of the Navy's most well-equipped harbors,” Tyler Rogoway wrote. Commissioned five years ago, the vessel has yet to make its first operational deployment. It’s the latest chapter in a sad sea-no-evil salt-water saga that The Bunker detailed three years ago.
Defense contractors aren’t always pushing for more money. Sometimes, they’re simply trying to pay their people less. That’s the bottom line of a federal criminal complaint (PDF) filed in Connecticut that charged a manager at “a major aerospace engineering company” of colluding with other firms to restrict poaching one another’s engineers. Mahesh Patel and his “co-conspirators recognized the mutual financial benefit of this agreement—namely, reducing the rise in labor costs that would occur when aerospace workers were free to find new employment in a competitive environment.” Alex Wood of the Manchester Journal Inquirer did some digging and discovered Patel worked for jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney. P&W is a division of Raytheon, whose CEO made $21 million in 2020.
The Bunker noted last week how the number of officers continues to grow relative to the number of enlisted troops they oversee. “Air Force pilots,” it noted, “must be officers.” But for the past four years, the service has at least let enlisted personnel operate drones from ground stations. Now that’s ending, too, according to a December 7 article in Air Force Times. So don’t look for that officer-enlisted ratio to reverse course anytime soon. On the positive side, uniformed Air Force personnel can now put their hands in their pockets.
Speaking of which, The Bunker will be pocketing some time off for the holidays. Hope yours is happy and healthy! See you January 5.
Center for Defense Information
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.