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: last week, The Bunker dove into how and why the Pentagon can’t keep track of its money. This week, we’ll focus on why it says it needs more of it. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions. And more!
Getting ready to fight in the heavens
The first recorded ground war took place nearly 5,000 years ago. Fighting moved offshore about 2,000 years later. Just over a century ago, war headed skyward, less than eight years after Orville Wright flew an aeroplane for the first time. Given humanity’s penchant for converting domains into battlefields, it should come as no surprise that the Pentagon has declared it’s time to lock and load for warfare among the aurora borealis.
Air Force Major General David Miller, chief of operations of U.S. Space Command, said June 26 that heavenly warfare is here. “We’ve got to … stop debating if it’s a warfighting domain, stop debating whether there are weapons, and get to the point of how do we responsibly … deter conflict that nobody wants to see, but if we do see it, demonstrate our ability to win?”
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Miller spoke at the unveiling of a new study by the Mitchell Institute, an affiliate of the Air and Space Forces Association, a Military-Industrial Loudspeaker. “Recognizing space as a warfighting domain means any serious effort to achieve space security must include space weapons,” the paper says. “It’s oxymoronic to establish a new military service charged with protecting interests in space without arming it with the weapons it must have to accomplish its mission.” (The Pentagon’s “Stormbringers” unit is already readying for war on high.)
According to Air and Space Forces Magazine, a Military-Industrial Echo Chamber, the paper recommends four key things to preserve peace above:
- Clear guidance from senior military and civilian leaders on the need for counterspace weapons.
- A counterspace force design developed by the Space Warfighting Analysis Center.
- Improvements from the Space Force in space situational awareness; telemetry, tracking, and control of satellites; and test and training infrastructure.
- Additional funding for the Space Force from Congress.
Funny how they always bury their most fervent wish last. (The Bunker is old enough to remember when “counterspace” was that gap between the coffeemaker and the toaster.)
Is the Air Force too old and small to win?
That’s the bottom line in a second Mitchell Institute report, issued three days after the sky-is-falling study cited above. “We’re on a collision course” with reality says a retired three-star Air Force general who helped write the paper. Fighter force readiness could “fall off the cliff,” he added. (It already has [PDF].) “It may take losing” a major war before the U.S. public understands how vital military airpower is, adds a second retired three-star. The funding, he argues, doesn’t match the so-called National Defense Strategy that supposedly guides U.S. military priorities. The military-industrial-congressional-White-House complex uses the defense strategy as a crowbar for more money, instead of weighing doing less or accepting more risk.
The report’s key recommendation: boost fighter production from the current 72 to 109 per year. “A major portion of this modernization must be met by robust F-35 acquisition,” the report says. A series of planned so-called Block 4 F-35 upgrades will increase the plane’s combat power by a factor of 10, a booster boasts. A new radar is twice as capable, and better sensors will detect enemy emissions without betraying the F-35’s presence. A planned mod will cram one-third more missiles in the same F-35 weapons bay. Improved cockpit displays will give pilots only what they need to prevail. All this will be knit together by a new computer harnessing artificial intelligence and 25 times more processing power.
“After significant development and investment, the F-35 is on the cusp of fielding an extensive array of upgrades,” the report says, “that range from improved sensors and enhanced electronic attack systems to the added ability to carry a broader weapons portfolio and connect with more actors across the battlespace.”
Meanwhile, new F-35s remain grounded
Usually, when the military grounds an aircraft, it’s because of some problem that’s arisen after it’s been flying for awhile. But, as we’ve been told, the F-35 is an exceptional fighter. That’s why some of them rolling off their Texas assembly line starting this month will be grounded from birth.
Up to 81 brand-new F-35s won’t take flight and will be stored at Lockheed’s Fort Worth plant. Even the rosy-visored Pentagon says they don’t perform as promised and has refused to take delivery of them until they can. This represents a neat snapshot contrasting promises vs. reality, per the previous item. Good on the Pentagon for putting its combat boot down and spurning the planes.
It turns out that the required F-35 hardware and software modifications needed for that Block 4 upgrade haven’t yet been proven to work. Starting this month, the nine tweaked F-35s scheduled to be delivered monthly will be “safely and securely stored” until tests show they’re ready for that upgrade. The Pentagon and Lockheed predict those tests should be wrapped up sometime between December and April, meaning between 45 and 81 F-35s will be cooling their wheels in Fort Worth.
But given the Pentagon’s track record, those F-35s could end up spending more time in Texas than Willie Nelson. The required tweaks are already a year behind schedule. Yet that actually isn’t bad when it comes to the F-35. In 2018, the Pentagon projected the Block 4 upgrade would cost $10.6 billion and be finished by 2025. By 2020, those numbers had risen to $14.4 billion and slipped to 2028. In 2021, $15.1 billion and 2029. The latest guess — made last September — is $16.5 billion and 2030.
Meanwhile, as of February, only 53% (PDF) of the roughly 500 U.S. F-35s already delivered can perform at least one of their assigned missions at any given time. Fewer than one in three can do them all.
Why the military and its suppliers can screw up so mightily, and rarely be held to account, rates right up there with Atlantis, Stonehenge, and the Loch Ness monster as one of the great mysteries of our age.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
The Pentagon has told Hollywood that it will not cooperate with U.S. studios if they let Beijing tweak their films as a requirement for distribution in China, Betsy Woodruff Swan reported in Politico June 30.
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has set up the TIGER (“Technical, Industrial and Governmental Engagement for Readiness”) task force to speed up U.S. arms sales to foreign militaries, The Hill reported June 27.
The Pentagon is investing in domestic production of rockets, ball bearings, aluminum, and cobalt, among other critical products, to wean the U.S. defense industrial base from Chinese and Russian suppliers, Bryant Harris reported June 27 in Defense News.
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