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The Bunker: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Runway

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.


BACK TO THE FUTURE, SUPERSONICALLY

Air Force thinking of a new F-16ish fighter

After decades of hearing about gold-plated aircraft like the B-2, F-22, and F-35, it’s refreshing to see that the Air Force is banking hard toward a new lower-cost fighter. “I don’t know that it actually would be the F-16,” General Charles “CQ” Brown, the service’s chief of staff, said February 17. “Actually, I want to be able to build something new and different that’s not the F-16.” Admittedly, The Bunker has a soft spot for the tried-and-true Fighting Falcon, given that it was the first fighter* he ever flew. But its punch-price ratio is tough to beat, which is one reason why 27 nations around the world have flown the agile aircraft since the Air Force took delivery of the first one in 1979.

But taxpayers should be aware that there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch happening right before our eyes. The Air Force had hoped to replace the cheaper F-16 with the F-35, just as the more costly F-15 was replaced with the F-22. This was sold as the “high-low mix” when the Air Force was trying to replace both planes. “This is similar to the high-low mix we went for in post-Vietnam,” General Michael Ryan, the service’s top officer, explained in 1999. “That is, with the F-15 at the high end and the F-16 at the low end. We are doing the same thing here in our modernization with the F-22 at the high end and the Joint Strike Fighter at the low end.” Two years later, the Joint Strike Fighter was formally designated the F-35.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the runway: the costs of both replacements exploded. A planned buy of 750 F-22s shrank to 187. To help fill the costly-fighter gap, the Air Force is now buying (PDF) new F-15s, after taking final delivery of the original U.S. production run in 2004. Likewise, the Air Force’s planned buy of 1,763 F-35s is sure to be slashed as well (there has been internal talk of buying only 1,050). That’s why Brown is talking about building a new F-16-like plane to fill the resulting cheaper-fighter gap.

Now pay attention, because here’s where that bait-and-switch comes in. Brown said the F-35’s continuing woes (as depressingly detailed by comrade Dan Grazier February 23) may force the service to fly them less often. “I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” Brown said. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [fighter]; we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight.”

Boom!

Just like that, the F-35—long peddled as the low-end fighter in the high-low mix—has suddenly become the high-end fighter. That’s what happens when you spend $400 billion on a new warplane.

*And, technically speaking, also the last fighter he ever flew.

INJECTION REJECTION

1 in 3 troops spurning vaccine

About a third of U.S. troops eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccination are telling their superiors: “Thanks, but no thanks.” The Pentagon says that reflects American society, despite a recent Census Bureau survey that put the refusal rate among Americans as a whole about 10 points lower (77% of those surveyed said they would definitely or probably take the vaccine, compared to 67% of those in uniform).

There’s an old adage that says “if the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one,” but it doesn’t apply here. That’s because the COVID-19 vaccines have won only “emergency” status from the Food and Drug Administration, and not the standard full-authorization approval. That means no one can be compelled to take it. If the FDA fully authorizes the vaccines, “the voluntary may change to mandatory,” a Pentagon spokesman said in December. The Pentagon has an extensive arsenal of vaccines for troops, generally mandatory (PDF), depending on where they are deployed.

The rejection rate seems high for a military force used to saluting, and one that has been strenuously encouraged to roll up their sleeves. “We need to continue to educate our force and help them understand the benefits and ensure there's leadership involvement in the discussion of the benefits of the vaccine," a top Pentagon general told Congress February 17. In January, the Navy’s personnel chief said “we’re trying to get the facts out there to dissuade the disinformation that’s in social media and other places with respect to the safety of the vaccine.”

But it should come as no surprise. Today’s troops are smarter and more skeptical than ever. They’re willing to challenge whatever assurances they may get from their commanders. It’s a shame it has come to this, but if you’d been in uniform any time since 9/11, you’d probably be leery of what the brass is telling you, too.

AFGHAN WOMEN

The Taliban could reverse two decades of progress

Over nearly 20 years, the U.S. has spent almost a billion dollars trying to bolster the well-being and status of girls and women in a tribal and patriarchal Afghanistan, where they have been treated poorly for centuries. But much of that progress, in areas including education and health care, is in jeopardy as the U.S. weighs striking a peace deal with the Taliban and trimming its forces there down to the vanishing point.

“The question facing U.S. policymakers is how to protect the gains that have been made,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said (PDF) February 17 as he released a report (PDF) into the status of Afghan women. “The effort to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan may be hampered by a narrative that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.”

To preserve the gains, Sopko said the U.S. should make future aid contingent on protecting girls and women. To do otherwise, he warned, is to risk turning their two decades of progress into a mere “historical footnote”.

CONTRACTOR FOOD FIGHT!

Duck before you’re hit with a solid rocket motor

Raytheon complaining about Lockheed’s planned $4.4 billion purchase of Aerojet Rocketdyne is like Bluto Blutarsky (memorably played by John Belushi in Animal House) complaining that his fellow Delta Tau ChiFraternity brothers at Faber College are loud and obnoxious drunks.

Raytheon (the Pentagon’s fourth-largest contractor in 2019) has devoured (in toto or large chunks of) E-Systems, Pratt & Whitney, Rockwell Collins, Texas Instruments, and many others. Lockheed, of course, is no slouch in the acquisition game either, having gobbled up a big chunk of the military-industrial complex, including General Dynamics’ aircraft outfit, Loral, Sikorsky, and Unitech. It was the Defense Department’s top contractor in 2019.

Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes said February 17 that Aerojet is a “huge supplier” of the solid-rocket motors used on Raytheon missiles and fears Lockheed’s purchase would hurt his company’s chances for future contracts. Hayes said Raytheon will complain to the federal government, which is reviewing the proposed deal.

Lockheed has countered that Northrop’s purchase of missile-motor-maker Orbital ATK in 2018 can be used as a guide. The Federal Trade Commission approved that earlier deal only so long as Northrop built a “firewall” around its missile-motor business.

Maybe we should let Dean Vernon Wormer handle this dispute.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Guess it depends on your definition of “small”

How can a firm that did $3 billion with the federal government in 2019 qualify as a small business when it comes to the Pentagon? POGO’s trio of troublemakers, Nick Schwellenbach, Jason Paladino, and Adam Zagorin, took a deep dive February 18 into the strange world of Atlantic Diving Supply. “ADS has a known history of fraud, yet DoD continues to award contracts to this company,” Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, complains. Tough luck, taxpayers—especially those of you running real small businesses.

Penny-wise, pound foolish…

The Navy wants to cut its in-house audit agency from 290 to 85 personnel over the next two years, Navy Times reported February 23. Why? So the Navy can build more ships. “I am deeply troubled that the [Navy’s] only internal audit agency is targeted for such a draconian and misguided reduction,” the audit chief wrote to the Navy’s top officer. This isn’t likely to happen, but it speaks volumes about the sea service’s priorities after a series of recent ship-building fiascos that would have benefited mightily from battalions of additional bean-counters.

Suicide in the ranks

Experiencing some kinds of violent combat makes troops more likely to kill themselves, a study by the Naval Health Research Center has found. “Despite public interest in and national commitment at the highest leadership levels to the topic, almost no research is available on the association of killing during combat, or other specific combat events, with subsequent suicide-related outcomes,” said the study, published February 2 by the Journal of the American Medical Association. But reviewing the cases of 57,841 active-duty troops shed some light on this national tragedy. “Combat experiences with significant association with suicide attempts included being attacked or ambushed…seeing dead bodies or human remains…and being directly responsible for the death of a noncombatant,” it added. The researchers monitored participants for an average of 5.6 years. “In addition to the suicide attempts, 26 participants were censored in the analysis because of death by suicide during the follow-up period.”

Time to scrap the Carter Doctrine?

For the past 40 years, the U.S. has pledged to use military force, if needed, to repel “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region.” It was put into place by President Jimmy Carter after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. was heavily reliant on Persian Gulf oil. Well, the Soviet Union has been history for 30 years, and U.S. reliance on oil from the region has slowed to a trickle. That’s why, according to a February 12 column by Mark Kukis at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft website, the U.S. should junk the Carter Doctrine. “Pursuit of the Carter Doctrine through successive administrations ultimately gave rise to what has become an elaborate, endless military campaign intended to free up Middle East oil supplies, even though those supplies were not in real danger,” he writes. The Bunker concurs. It was a decade ago that he cited a Princeton economic study estimating that the U.S. had spent $8 trillion defending the flow of Persian Gulf oil. It’s a safe bet that it’s well north of $10 trillion now, and The Bunker isn’t even an economist.

No spares change

How come U.S. military aircraft readiness rates are so lousy? The Bunker dug into those low rates last fall after the Government Accountability Office reported that more than half the aircraft studied had failed to meet any of their annual readiness targets from 2011 to 2019. Everett Pyatt, the Navy’s civilian logistics chief from 1984 to 1989, knows the challenge. “We faced the same problem in the 1980s and found a simple solution: Adjust spare parts’ economic order quantities and safety levels to cover the uncertainty shown by prior demand. The goal was to assure that mechanics would not be waiting for a part while a multimillion-dollar aircraft languished,” he wrote in Defense News February 19. “That simple solution worked for several years until cost cutters started reducing spares budgets followed by mission-capable decline.” Bureaucracies, alas, are infamous for spending dollars on shiny new stuff and pennies to keep it running.

It finally fits!

After years of trying to fit into body armor designed for men, some Air Force women finally are getting gear tailored for them. “I am happy to see some antiquated issues finally being addressed and resolved,” Master Sgt. Brianne N. Trapani said in a February 17 Air Force release.

And speaking of antiquated issues…

Retired military leaders and the National Coalition for Men are asking the Supreme Court to declare that requiring only men to register for the draft is unconstitutional, the Washington Post reported February 18. “The registration requirement is one of the last sex-based classifications in federal law,” says the American Civil Liberties Union, representing the coalition, in a petition to the high court. “It imposes selective burdens on men, reinforces the notion that women are not full and equal citizens, and perpetuates stereotypes about men’s and women’s capabilities.” Although Congress has dragged its feet on the issue, don’t be surprised if the court opts to stay out of this fight and declines to review a lower-court ruling saying the status quo is legal. That might be because the very same Supreme Court also declared it legal 40 years ago, when women were barred from combat.

Thanks for staying with The Bunker to the bitter end this week. Feel free to subscribe here and pass on to your friends and foes.