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The Bunker: Out With the Old, In With the New

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.


In The Bunker this week: too many bombers and ships; a tired broadside fired at the Navy; a senator slows down the revolving door; using the wrong yardstick, again, in yet another U.S. war; and more.

AN ARMS RACE WITH OURSELVES

Services retiring planes and ships early

The Pentagon likes to complain that its weapons cost so much because Congress always cuts the numbers the military wants to buy. That sends the costs of each weapon through the roof, because of inefficient production rates and the need to spread research funding over fewer items. That’s why the cost of a Navy gun round exploded from $35,000 to nearly $1 million before it was put out of its misery. But that’s a relatively easy kind of waste to track because it involves dollars (although the Pentagon has decades of practice of attacking weapons costs with cheat-seeking missiles, too, with one aim in mind: making weapons appear cheaper than they really are. It’s a target they rarely miss). Time is a more slippery calculation, but, as the old saying has it, time is money. So over-paying for weapons—and then mothballing them early—gives the Defense Department two bites at the taxpayer apple.

Proving the point was this headline in Air Force Magazine July 15: “Progress on B-21 Means Current Bombers Need a Fast Retirement.”

For a military claiming it is struggling with inadequate budgets, it seems the Air Force will soon have a quartet of heavy bombers flying: the B-52, the B-1, the B-2, and the new B-21. “The Air Force needs to move quickly as it brings on the B-21 and modernizes the B-52, because operating four bombers at a time is not sustainable,” the article read. “This means the venerable B-1s and B-2s need to head to the boneyard for retirement ASAP [As Soon As Profitable?—ed.], the service’s top planner said.”

Of course, the B-52 is far older (first flight: 1952, making it even more mature than The Bunker) than either the B-1 (1974) or B-2 (1989). But the B-52 is a dump truck of a bomber, simple and built to last. The B-1 (with its moveable wings) and B-2 (with its touchy radar-eluding skin) are far more complicated and costly. So the Air Force naturally prefers to buy the brand-new Northrop B-21 instead of keeping those two older bombers flying. It’s the ultimate billion-dollar-bait-and-switch: the older bombers were needed to meet an imminent threat that disappeared, requiring them to be shelved to meet a supposed new imminent threat.

So that leaves the Air Force, which pushed for the four-bomber fleet, with a new problem. “That is not affordable,” Air Force Lieutenant General David Nahom, the service’s top planner, told Air Force Magazine. “The B-1 and B-2, as phenomenal as they are, we’ve got to get those out of service as the B-21 comes on and we get ourselves to that two-bomber fleet, which is a B-21 and a modernized B-52.”

How long a bomber should last depends on how long the Air Force wants it to last. The B-52 was originally supposed to fly for 20 years; now it may last a century. Now that’s phenomenal. Both the B-1 and B-2 are bespoke gold-plated weapons designed for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But the B-1 flew close-air support missions in the post-9/11 wars that wore it out. Air Force plans to keep the B-2 flying until nearly 2060 crashed and burned amid its high operational costs. The bottom line is clear: simple weapons last longer and provide far greater value to U.S. taxpayers.

“We’re just accelerating planned retirements,” Air Force General Timothy Ray, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said in February. “The divestiture of the B-1 is necessary in order for the Air Force to create an even more lethal, agile and sustainable force with a greater competitive edge for tomorrow’s fight.” The service is taking a similar approach to its F-22 fighters. It wants to fly them out to pasture prematurely so it can buy new F-35 and Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighters.

The Navy plays this game, too, and is seeking to retire four Littoral Combat Ships next year. You paid for them to spend 25 years at sea. One of them, the Lockheed-built USS Detroit, launched its maiden cruise in October 2019. A second, the Lockheed-built USS Little Rock, began its first cruise in February 2020. “The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed to operate in near-shore environments, winning against 21st-century coastal threats,” the Navy says. “Initiated in February 2002, the LCS program represents a reduction in time to acquire, design, and build ships in comparison to any previous ship class.”

It represents a reduction in time to scrap them, too.

NAVY BLUES

A tried-but-true salvo is fired at the sea service

The Bunker has been grumbling about the Navy’s inability to get things right for years. It dates back to 1988’s shootdown of Iran Air 655 that killed 290 people, the 1989 gun turret explosion aboard the USS Iowa that falsely charged a dead sailor for the blast, and 1991’s Tailhook scandal in Las Vegas, where dozens of aviators sexually assault scores of women. Recent Navy screwups have had less to do with such mammoth foul ups. They’ve been more insidious, involving waves of botched procurements like this and this, and lousy leadership.

The situation has grown so dire that conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill have shifted their fire from their usual Democratic colleagues (“You’re starving the military!”) to the Navy itself. Four Republican lawmakers tapped a pair of retired officers to investigate today’s Navy. In a 22-page report released July 12, they concluded the service has shortchanged war-fighting, training, and maintenance, with too much emphasis on micromanagement and a zero-defect mindset. “Our sailors are too often deprived of the training and leadership they need to fight and win at sea,” said Senator Tom Cotton, R-AR.

This is what happens when the Navy stretches its dollars too thin. One of the recurring flaws of the U.S. military has been its willingness to salute and carry out orders, even if the funding to carry out those orders is MIA. It’s worth noting that the last time a top Navy official quit over being asked to do too much with too little was 1988—and it was civilian Navy secretary Jim Webb, who bowed out, not a uniformed officer.

“The Navy is too small to accomplish all the missions with which it is tasked by senior civilian leaders and combatant commanders,” the new report says. But it’s wrong to think that means the Navy does all it is ordered to do. In fact, in 2015, it carried out only 44% of them. So the question can be flipped: is the Navy, and its budget, too small or is it being asked to do too much? The answer seems obvious when it can fail to do 56% of its missions and the nation remains intact.

The report is a political blunderbuss tracing familiar ground. “Many of the issues raised by the document are not new to the Navy, experts or even one of the report's authors,” a Military.com story said. “Every mid-grade to senior-grade surface Navy person knew we had these challenges,” that author said.

Cotton noted that he and his colleagues had launched “this investigation into the Navy’s culture after several high-profile losses of sailors and warships.” He could have saved himself the trouble and simply have read The Bunker’s 2017 piece written shortly after those crashes. The headline reads, “Navy Collisions Are Its Own Fault.”

WARREN SLOWS THE REVOLVING DOOR

A senator advises…then consents

Slowing down the revolving door between the Defense Department and the defense industry is hard to do. That’s because it has been spinning so fast, and so lucratively, for so long that folks sometimes forget there are brakes. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, demonstrated this when she put the nominations of two top Defense Department officials on hold until they agreed to double the time they’ll avoid working for defense contractors after leaving the Pentagon.

Frank Kendall, President Biden’s nominee to serve as Air Force secretary, and Heidi Shyu, tapped to be his Pentagon R&D chief, have agreed to stay out of the defense business for four years after leaving the department, double the two years required by law. The pair also agreed to recuse themselves from decisions involving their former employers while in government.

“This is precisely the kind of thing that senators should be doing to ensure that we shore up our system to make sure that there’s integrity, and that there isn’t even the perception that people are going to be using their public service to advance their own personal financial interests,“ Mandy Smithberger, who works with The Bunker here at the Project On Government Oversight, toldMilitary.com. She likened Warren’s scrutiny to that of the late Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who didn’t let his Navy background cloud his steel-eyed judgment on what was in the taxpayers’ interest. If this becomes a trend, POGO’s hyper-revving Pentagon Revolving Door Database might actually be able to slow down.

AFGHANISTAN SHODDY COUNTS

Once again, the U.S. uses the wrong yardstick

The Pentagon was notorious for suggesting that enemy body counts during the Vietnam war could serve as a proxy for progress. Well, we all learned how that turned out. So the U.S. military generally kept its enemy KIA counts in Afghanistan to itself (but not always). U.S. military officials rarely shouted them from the rooftops like they did during the press briefings—the so-called “5 o’clock follies”—in Saigon. “I don’t do body counts,” the late Don Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, said in 2002, shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. “This country tried that in Vietnam, and it didn't work.”

So the U.S. tried another way to measure progress in Afghanistan. As the final U.S. combat troops leave that war-torn country after nearly 20 years of war, it turns out that this new method didn’t work so well, either.

A July 14 study by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) examined how U.S. taxpayers spent $144 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, to help woo it away from the Taliban and other insurgents. The projects ranged from building or repairing roads and dams, developing Afghan businesses, and maintaining Afghan air force helicopters. But, as in Vietnam, the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies reverted to the old bureaucratic imperative: they were preoccupied with counting what was easy to count, instead of counting what counted.

“We found that agencies placed far more emphasis on tracking program activities and outputs than on assessing outcomes and impacts,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in the 324-page report (not that the total number of pages has any bearing on the report’s merit). “A project that met contracted deliverables and performance-indicator targets would be considered ‘successful,’ whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals.” The ability to check off “completed” boxes led to misimpressions that are becoming increasingly clear. “The assumption was that work completed well would lead to good results,” the SIGAR report said.

That, of course, is the problem with war. It consistently defies easy answers and rational accounting. It taunts logic. It repeatedly confounds the nation’s national-security establishment while killing thousands and costing trillions.

Those costs, the SIGAR report suggests, are likely to rise in the coming days. “The first-order question of how to accurately project how the ANDSF [Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces] would perform against an adversary in the absence of direct U.S. combat enabler support—which will end no later than September 2021—remains difficult to answer,” the report says. “The systems designed to measure that capability have been criticized for being inconsistent.”

The Bunker’s money is on the Taliban.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Lockheed leads the way

The nation’s biggest defense contractor has eclipsed the world’s second-biggest biggest auto maker in campaign contributions to U.S. lawmakers who voted to question President Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump. Lockheed Martin donated to 53 Republican objectors in the first six months of 2021, beating out Toyota’s 47, according to a July 19 accounting in Public Information. Toyota had been leading in the cynical cash campaign sweepstakes, but halted such donations after an earlier Public Information report that it held the top spot. “At this time, we have decided to stop contributing to those Members of Congress who contested the certification of certain states in the 2020 election,” Toyota said July 8.

A week after the January 6 unpleasantness at the Capitol, Lockheed said it was suspending its campaign contributions “as we continue this evaluation to ensure our political donation and engagement program remains aligned with our business priorities.” But it has now lifted that apparently across-the-board pause and resumed making donations aligned with their business priorities.

A Lockheed spokesman told the Washington Post July 15 that after reviewing its “political engagement program” the company “will continue to observe long-standing principles of nonpartisan political engagement in support of our business interests.” The company, the paper noted, gave $1,000 to Representative Andrew Clyde, R-GA, June 2, several weeks after he likened the attack on the Capitol to a “normal tourist visit.”

Just like the Lockheed F-35 is a normal jet fighter.

Woodsat

Satellites cost too much. So why not make them out of wood? That’s what a small Finnish company is trying to do, according to this July 14 piece from Defense One.

Can brass corrode?

Comments reportedly made by Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs—who has not denied making them—highlight the growing rift between the nation’s civilian and military leaders. Kori Schake detailed this unnerving trend in The Atlantic July 19.

“Sclerotic bureaucracy”

Michael Brown has withdrawn his nomination to serve as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer. If you just glanced at the headlines, you might assume he got tripped up by some ethical lapses. But in Slate July 19, veteran defense scribe Fred Kaplan digs deeper—and suggests why changing the way the nation buys its weapons is so tough to do.

Ponytail express

The Coast Guard announced July 15 that its female members can now wear their hair in ponytails. “My hope is that women around the Coast Guard will consider this a load off their minds,” Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joanna Nunan said. That leaves the Marine Corps as the lone anti-ponytail service.

Thanks again for combing through another issue of The Bunker, national-security tangles and all. Feel free to forward it on, and register here to get it delivered to your inbox by 0-dark-30 each Wednesday.