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The Bunker: A New Death Star in the Defense Department

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SPECIAL LEGACY EDITION! The Pentagon legacy lexicon: from its definition, to one legacy weapon that warrants retirement, to one that doesn’t, to a third that increasingly looks like it has “legacy” written all over it, even before it enters full-scale production.

WAR OF WORDS

Light, Lethal…Legacy

Words come and go inside the Pentagon. Sleuths can pick up the scent, which generally boils down to money. “Lethal” and “light” have been the go-to labels in recent years for generals and general contractors seeking to fatten up bottom lines. “Cyber” and “digital” are other favorites of those seeking to turn on the cash afterburners. But then there are the grim reapers of Pentagon terminology. In the past, they have included “heavy” and “non-stealthy.” But there’s a new death star in the Defense Department’s firmament: “legacy.”

Sure, to many of us legacy is a good word, meaning the positive things someone or something has done to leave the world, or at least your neighborhood, a better place. But that’s not what it means at the Pentagon. It’s similar to the way Air Force generals tend to refer to “aging aircraft,” apparently unaware that something starts aging the moment it rolls off the production line.

Put simply, a legacy weapon generally is one that is no longer in production—and one that has a replacement chomping at the bit to hit the big bucks.

The White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued March 3 said(PDF) it plans to “shift our emphasis from unneeded legacy platforms and weapons systems to free up resources for investments in the cutting-edge technologies and capabilities that will determine our military and national security advantage in the future.” The Pentagon chimed in the next day. “Where necessary, we will divest of legacy systems and programs that no longer meet our security needs, while investing smartly for the future,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III told (PDF) his Pentagon minions.

Check out those caveats: “unneeded legacy platforms” and “legacy systems and programs that no longer meet our needs.” Both push to scrap older weapons, but not to save money. Rather it’s to invest in newer, and ever-more-costly ones, which rarely deliver on their sales spiel. Think of it as a self-licking ice cream cone with sprinkles on top.

And, of course, when it comes to legacy, “need” is in the eye of the beholder. “There are legacy systems which all the services ask us to eliminate,” Senator Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat and new chairman of the armed services committee, said(PDF) February 24. “There’s certain reluctance because they’re stationed in our home states.”

That’s how Pentagon procurement works: generals want the new weapons, but lawmakers prefer the legacy versions because of the jobs they generate—both where they are built, and where they are based. That flips once the new weapon gains enough contracting clout to attract enough congressional support to bomb the legacy advocates to smithereens.

Think of it as a legacy of democracy.

SPEAKING OF LEGACY WEAPONS

Time to turn the nuclear triad into a dyad

When it comes down to legacy weapons that are no longer needed, it’d be tough to come up with a better example than the nation’s 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles burrowed into the Great Plains. That’s the topic of The Bunker’slatest Military Industrial Circus, where we detail three atomic choices facing President Joe Biden. The biggest of the trio is whether it makes any sense to spend up to $140 billion to build a new ICBM fleet.

The nation’s nuclear triad—bombers, submarines, and ICBMs—is an ad hoc Cold War construct that has become gospel in certain corners of the Pentagon (which, with five sides, has more corners than most buildings). Belts and suspenders—bombers and submarines—are plenty redundant, and more than sufficient to assure the nation’s security. The Center for International Policy issued a report(PDF) March 9 detailing the workings of the ICBM Coalition, a group of senators for whom ICBM might as well mean I Cherish Ballistic Missiles.

Beyond the nuclear issues, Biden is taking some flak for not taking a cleaver to the defense budget his administration is expected to unveil May 3. But these defense budgets that span two presidencies rarely make waves, because so much of what goes into a new administration’s defense budget was developed by the old administration. On another front, he’s getting credit for his willingness to repeal and seek a new and narrower congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force to replace the two flabby AUMFs that have been used to justify combat pretty much anywhere at any time against anyone since 9/11. We think repeal should be the first priority.

BIG, UGLY FAT FELLOW, MORE OR LESS

A tried-and-true legacy weapon

President Biden also sent a pair of B-52 bombers near Iran March 7 to brush back Tehran amid rising tensions over its nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism. The two Stratofortresses flew from North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base to “deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the U.S. military’s commitment to security in the region,” the Pentagon said, without mentioning Iran. It marked the fourth B-52 mission to Iran’s neighborhood this year, and the second on Biden’s watch.

The B-52 is the very definition of a legacy weapon: it took off for the first time a year before The Bunker’s birth (which was closer to Orville Wright’s first flight than it is to today). The B-52’s rugged design and regular upgrades have made it a key player in U.S. national security decisions for decades. In fact, the Air Force has pulled two of them from its Arizona boneyard, spruced them up, and sent them back to the front lines. Plus, it’s a bargain, costing “only” $70,388 per hour to fly. The Air Force’s newest bomber, the B-2, spins the meter at $130,159 per hour.

The Air Force’s top general says he’s looking for more information before calling for scrapping legacy weapons. “Typically when you say ‘legacy,’ your first mindset is old, right?” General Charles “CQ” Brown said Feb. 24. “I really think about it from a capability perspective. Is that capability going to be relevant today, relevant tomorrow?” the Air Force chief of staff said. “And if it's not going to be relevant tomorrow or it's going to be, you know, overly expensive to make it relevant for tomorrow” it needs to be retired.

EARLY LEGACY FIGHTER?

Well, you heard the general

General Brown says weapons need to be retired if their needed capabilities are “overly expensive to make it relevant for tomorrow.” That’s the very definition of the F-35 fighter that Lockheed is now building for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. The roughly 500 F-35s already delivered need $12.1 billion in upgrades to make them fully combat ready (that’s because the Defense Department and Lockheed started building the planes even as they were changing their blueprints). If that proves too costly, it could lead to the sidelining of close to $40 billion worth of these so-called “concurrency orphans,” colleague Dan Grazier has reported. Beyond that, continuing troubles have forced the Pentagon to delay indefinitely a full-rate production decision on the 20-year-old program.

Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, has seen enough. “I want to stop throwing money down that particular rat hole,” he said of the F-35 on March 5. He thinks he knows how the Pentagon and Lockheed would respond to any proposal to cut F-35 production (they’re planning on buying nearly 2,000 more). “I love this argument—‘Well, I know it doesn't work particularly well, but if you have bought more, your per-unit costs would go down.’ That's just awesome. And I respect that from a business standpoint, but ultimately it drives us into the ground.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Afghan pullout

It’s not the U.S. troops we’re talking about—it’s the Afghan soldiers who are abandoning checkpoints and outposts across the country, according to this grim March 3 assessment from Bill Roggio at Long War Journal.

Boom-boom times

The number of companies landing Pentagon prime contracts fell 36% over the past decade, even as defense spending grew by 18%, Bloomberg Government reported March 8. That combination is leading to growing concerns about the health of the U.S. defense industrial base, something the Military Industrial Circus explored two years ago.

Arms bizarre

Five of the nation’s biggest defense contractors spent $60 million last year greasing the skids for overseas arms sales, Stephen Losey reported at Military.com on March 7. A new report from the Center for Responsive Politics details “how a network of lobbyists and donors steered $285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending over the last two decades, as well as hiring more than 200 lobbyists who previously worked in government,” he reports. Peaceniks don’t stand much of a chance against that kind of firepower.

Afghan air farce(PDF)

You paid $486 million to buy 20 Italian-made G222 aircraft for Afghanistan’s air force more than a decade ago. Sixteen of the twin-prop transport planes wound up being sold as scrap for $32,000 within a few years, according to a February 26 report by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. That works out to a purchase price of $24.3 million per plane. Those 16 sold for scrap garnered $2,000 per plane. They performed poorly because of slipshod maintenance exacerbated by Afghanistan’s high altitude and extreme weather. There was ample evidence of potentially illegal acts by an (unnamed) Air Force general involved in the procurement, who went on to work for the plane’s manufacturer after leaving the Air Force. But the Department of Justice chose not to pursue criminal charges, Sopko said, because it concluded the case “would be too difficult to prosecute successfully.” It’s a shame the U.S. government didn’t adopt such a conservative use of force when it came to prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

Brass ceiling

The Marines have announced the promotion of Colonel Anthony Henderson, a battle-tested vet of Afghanistan and Iraq, to brigadier general. Passed over for promotion three times in the last four years, he could become the first Black four-star general in Marine history, Helene Cooper reported in the March 4 New York Times.

There’s no place like home…

Two military families living in privately-funded military housing in California have sued their landlord for what they contend are deplorable living conditions involving mold, rodents, and sewage. If this sounds familiar, it’s because there have been a flurry of such cases in recent years, Haley Britzky over at Task & Purpose reported March 4. But frequency doesn’t make it any less outrageous. When it’s your family, 100% of what the Pentagon says about honoring the troops has a stink all its own.

Welcome home

Thankfully, a friendlier kind of home awaits the late Army Captain Emil Kapaun, a Catholic chaplain who died in 1951 as a POW during the Korean War. The ministering the Kansan rendered to his ailing and wounded fellow POWs led President Obama to give him the Medal of Honor in 2013. Buried in an unmarked grave in Korea, his unidentified remains were interred in 1954 in Hawaii, along with 847 fellow troops. The Pentagon said they had identified his remains March 5. Two days later, Stan Finger wrote up his powerful story for the Wichita Eagle. His family has not yet selected his final resting place, although Arlington National Cemetery has been mentioned as a temporary site. Oh yeah: he’s also up for sainthood.

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