The Bunker: Ship Overboard!

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: Yawn. (Stretch). The Bunker is back, tanned, rested, and, too often like the U.S. military, unsteady. Let’s skim some national-security cream that has curdled while we were away: early Navy retirement; crash parallels; hearing loss; and more.


Why does the Navy keep doing this?

Built for $875 million each, Littoral Combat Ships are meant to sail for 25 years. But the USS Sioux City was retired last month after 1,731 days — less than five years — of service.

But don’t bother asking the ship’s builder, Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, for any money back. The early retirement of these Littoral Combat Ships, or LCS — dubbed Little Crappy Ships by some of their crews — is just another cost of doing business for today’s U.S. Navy.

The ships are “fast, agile, mission-focused platforms designed to operate in near-shore environments, winning against 21st-century coastal threats,” the Navy boasts. Turns out (PDF) they aren’t so fast, agile or mission focused.

Eager to build lots of cheap ships to make the Navy appear bigger, the service launched the 35-ship LCS program in 2004. In 2011, the Navy expected it to cost $38 billion to operate the fleet for a quarter-century. That cost has since ballooned to more than $60 billion (PDF), driven by the cost of having contractors do more maintenance on these ships than any other class (PDF) of warships. The program got bogged down by key systems that failed and hulls that cracked and engines that sputtered. Sounds a lot like Zumwalt-class destroyers and Ford-class carriers. Plus, the ships have been deemed too wimpy to fight [insert default foe here] China.

The city of Sioux City, Iowa, which spent $1.5 million for the 2018 commissioning ceremony for the first Navy vessel to be named in its honor (in Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, no less) was not pleased. Mayor Bob Scott said the service was “wasting taxpayers’ money” and doesn’t “give a crap about a local community.” The final entry in the Sioux City’s official history says she completed “her first successful deployment on 04 December 2020.”

“Ultimately, the Navy has to make difficult decisions on how to invest in the future,” the Navy told Navy Times about the Sioux City’s early bird decommissioning. “To maintain our strategic advantage, particularly under fiscal constraints, it is important for the Navy to carefully review our force structure regularly and divest of legacy capabilities that no longer bring sufficient lethality to maximize our effectiveness in deterring and defeating potential adversaries” (the Navy always wins the war of words).

The Sioux City’s official motto was “Forging a New Frontier.” For the Navy’s — and nation’s — sake, we can only hope that isn’t true. Unfortunately, history suggests that it is.

The Navy plans to bequeath the ship to a foreign navy seasick enough to want it.


Don’t blame the military-industrial complex

A V-22 tiltrotor crashed in Australia August 27, killing three Marines. While the cause isn’t yet known, this latest tragedy highlights a pattern the military too often embraces when it comes to weapons that kill the good guys. A Marine investigation released in July into a 2022 California crash that killed five Marines contains striking parallels to Army helicopter crashes (PDF) that killed hundreds from the 1960’s through the 1980’s:

  • The military tends to know of problems for years before fixing them. The 2022 V-22 crash was triggered by a clutch issue that has plagued the program since 2010. The 67 UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra crashes killed hundreds of troops between 1967 and 1983. That was due to a design flaw in the rotor system that led to “mast bumping,” where the rotor system catastrophically separates from the aircraft.
  • The military initially made both hardware problems the pilots’ responsibility. “For years, the Corps says it has trained its [V-22] crews to be aware of and work around the issue,” Aviation Week reported in July. “Despite USMC claims that its crews could work around the issue, an investigation released July 21 states there was nothing the expert pilots could do.” The Army produced a film in 1980 warning about mast-bumping and how to avoid it. “The problem is being resolved through training and educating the aviators,” the Army said of its Cobra and Huey choppers back in 1985.
  • It ultimately takes blood for fixes to be ordered. “It is clear from the investigation that there was nothing the crew of [the 2022 V-22 crash] could have done to anticipate or prevent this aviation mishap,” the July probe found (PDF). “They were engaged in routine flight operations and training, in accordance and compliance with all applicable regulations, when an unanticipated, unrecoverable, and catastrophic mechanical failure occurred.” The report contained eerie echoes of what the Navy said after an AH-1 Cobra mast-bumping crash in 1983 that killed one pilot while producing the first survivor (after 231 had perished) in such accidents. “There are possible unknown factors” involved, the investigation concluded, that “occur in flight regimes under which a pilot would not normally expect this phenomenon to occur.” The Army ultimately grounded 600 helicopters to fix the problem in 1984.
  • Sometimes interservice rivalry is a good thing. The Army’s choppers woes didn’t come to light until the Navy, flying the same choppers, lost five highly trained test pilots and barred their use on demanding flights. The Marines’ clutch troubles were exposed only after the Air Force grounded its V-22s a year ago because of the problem.

Perfect: we end up with the Navy highlighting Army shortcomings, and the Air Force pinpointing Marine snafus.

Those are the kind of joint operations the Pentagon needs.


Says it still is not their fault

The military-industrial complex’s desire to blame troops instead of hardware surfaced anew August 29 when 3M agreed to pay $6 billion to compensate up to 246,000 (PDF) veterans for hearing loss suffered while wearing the company’s earplugs in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in training.

The maker of Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes has spent more than $466 million in legal costs — nearly a half-billion bucks — fighting claims that its Combat Arms Earplugs failed to protect troops’ ears. “This agreement is not an admission of liability,” 3M said of the gargantuan payout. “The products at issue in this litigation are safe and effective when used properly.”

Where have we seen that before?


Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

For more on the Navy’s woes…

Check out the service’s barnacle-encrusted ship-building bureaucracy in this September 4 piece in the New York Times.

Spreading your arms…

The Pentagon plans to expand weapons co-production deals with many nations around the world, Breaking Defense reported August 29.

Pentagon prison procurement

The Defense Department spends about $163 million annually buying goods made by inmates in federal prisons, the Government Accountability Office reported August 30.

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