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 Pentagon finally decides to interview U.S. troops wounded in the deadly 2021 blast that killed 13 comrades as the U.S. military fled Afghanistan; the world’s hottest jet goes MIA; the Navy keeps buying the warship it’s simultaneously scrapping; and more.
Re-opening a festering wound
It was a disastrous end to a disastrous war, and the U.S. military couldn’t even get that right. On September 15, the Pentagon said it would be re-investigating the 2021 Afghan airport bombing that killed 13 U.S. troops — and more than 170 Afghans — as the U.S. chaotically pulled out of Afghanistan as its 20-year fight ended in defeat.
No, no, no, U.S. Central Command told reporters, it isn’t re-opening its official probe into the deadly attack. Rather, it’s merely interviewing about 24 U.S. troops who were at the Kabul airport when it happened, and who were never interviewed about what they witnessed that day. The Pentagon announced the do-over in a typically de rigueurFriday afternoon statement, which is when news coverage is minimal.
Former Marine Sergeant Tyler Vargas-Andrews told a congressional hearing in March that he was thwarted in his efforts to stop the attack. Vargas-Andrews, a sniper, lost an arm and a leg in the suicide bombing. He, and others wounded like him, were not interviewed by Pentagon investigators. “These interviews will seek to determine whether those not previously interviewed due to their immediate medical evacuation possess new information not previously considered, and whether such new information, if any, would affect the results of the investigation,” a Central Command official said.
The official November 2021 Pentagon probe(PDF) into the attack concluded it “was not preventable.” Marine General Frank McKenzie, the Central Command chief when the attack happened, said the investigation was “comprehensive, credible and definitive” when he released it in February 2022.
Within 14 hours of the attack, the U.S. military hospital at the airport “was empty of patients, with three flights taking personnel to Qatar or Germany, to include 19 U.S. casualties,” the investigation said(PDF). The investigating officer noted(PDF) he had requested — and received — more time for his inquiry “to ensure I could conduct sufficient interviews of widely dispersed forces.” That initial investigation interviewed 139 witnesses in five nations (PDF). Adding 24 more suggests that the Pentagon questioned only 85% of the available witnesses.
The tragedy of the attack is compounded by this apparently-less-than-thorough investigation. Family members of those killed and wounded have said the Pentagon hasn’t been candid about what happened that day. Congressional critics will cite the need for additional interviews as evidence of the sloppiness of the original inquiry.
“The battlefield is a confusing and contradictory place,” McKenzie said the day he released the report 20 months ago. “And it gets more confusing the closer you are to the actual action.”
The Bunker has never claimed to be a rocket scientist. But it seems pretty fundamental that if you’re investigating an explosion, you’d want to make sure you talked to all of those closest to it who survived.
“ANYBODY SEEN OUR JET?”
Marines lose world’s most advanced fighter
For years, we’ve been told that the Pentagon’s $168 million-a-copy F-35 fighter is going to wipe the skies of enemy aircraft thanks to its sheer omniscienceness. The plane’s electronic guts envelop “the aircraft with a protective sphere of situational awareness,” the Pentagon says. “It warns the pilot of incoming aircraft and missile threats as well as providing day/night vision, fire control capability and precision tracking of wingmen/friendly aircraft for increased tactical maneuvering.”
But, unlike E.T., it apparently just can’t phone home.
The Marines lost one of their F-35s on September 17, after its pilot ran into unspecified trouble and safely ejected over the pine forests of South Carolina. The plane has “unmatched data sharing” capable of “delivering vast amounts of information to accelerate critical decisions and win the fight,” F-35 builder Lockheed says. “The F-35 is the most advanced node in the networked 21st Century Security operational vision.”
But despite a fuselage crammed with 8 million lines of computer code, and all kinds of sensors and radios, the doomed aircraft apparently was unable to transmit its location to anyone in charge because its transponder failed (not a new problem for the military). That forced the Corps to post a cry for help on social media. “If you have any information that may help our recovery teams locate the F-35, please call,” the Marines pleaded. A search team located the wreckage more than 24 hours after the plane went down, no thanks to the aircraft.
The F-35: too smart to work, and too dumb to call when it can’t.
LITTLE CRAPPY SHIPS 2.0
The Navy keeps retiring them — and churning them out
Last month, the Navy retired the USS Sioux City after less than five years of its expected 25 years of service. Earlier this month, the Navy retired the USS Milwaukee after less than eight years. The Navy will retire two more before October 1. All four are Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships, which the Navy says are ill-suited to future wars. Nonetheless, on September 16 the Navy commissioned the USS Marinette, a — you guessed it! — Freedom-class LCS.
Residents of the community where the USS Marinette was built along the Michigan-Wisconsin border are proud of their work and were invited to tour the vessel. “She is the first naval warship to bear the name of Marinette, Michigan,” the Navy said of Saturday’s commissioning (big deal: when it commissioned the USS Sioux City in 2018, the service noted it was “the first naval vessel to be named in honor of Sioux City, Iowa”).
When the Navy retired the USS Sioux City last month, many press reports said it had cost $362 million. That figure apparently comes from a 2015 press release from Lockheed, the ship’s prime contractor. But that only paid for a bare-bones boat, and not the costly plug-and-play mission modules (anti-sub operations, mine clearing, and surface warfare) that make it a warship. “Costs to construct the ships have more than doubled from initial expectations,” the Government Accountability Office reported last year, “and promised levels of capability have been unfulfilled.” The program’s total cost is $28 billion for 32 ships the GAO said — $875 million each.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’swhat has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
The Pentagon is teaching drones built by different companies to speak to each other to boost their lethality in combat, Forbes reported September 18.
Beijing and Washington are stepping up their efforts to spy on each other, the New York Times reported September 17.
The Pentagon spends $9 billion annually on systems to keep track of its money, and still can’t pass an audit. The Government Accountability Office explained why September 12.
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