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The Bunker: An Exclamation Point for a Turkey!

This week in The Bunker: The Pentagon gets unduly excited as the F-35 fighter finally enters full-rate production; West Point’s war of words; Defense Department slo-mo; and more. 

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 gets unduly excited as the F-35 fighter finally enters full-rate production; West Point’s war of words; Defense Department slo-mo; and more.

PENTAGON SOCCER TROPHY

Talk about an exclamation pointless!

The Bunker’s offspring are now on their second generation of soccer trophies. His sons won them by the armful, and now his grandson has begun collecting them. It was great to see the Pentagon following suit when the general running the F-35 program hailed its recent move into full-rate production. “I am very proud of our team,” Lieutenant General Mike Schmidt said March 12 in an official Defense Department statement. “This is a huge accomplishment!”

Note that exclamation point.

Exclamation points turn up as often in Pentagon press releases as U.S. military programs are delivered on time and budget. So what precisely is that “huge accomplishment” warranting such exuberant punctuation?

It’s like your mechanic just told you your brand new car is years old, costs too much, will be spending a lot of time as a garage queen, and that its 8-track tape player jams. “But,” he adds, “it’s a huge accomplishment!”

The Pentagon’s announcement said the F-35 “brings stealth, sensor fusion, and interoperability to enable access in contested environments and enhances situational awareness.” Yep, sounds just like my kids playing soccer. And while Lockheed continues to churn out more copies of the $168 million-a-copy(PDF) fighter, the Pentagon has refused to accept delivery of new F-35s because of software problems. So about 70 of these newest aging aircraft are currently in storage. It sounds a lot like that bookcase in The Bunker’s basement, where soccer trophies keep piling up.

U.S. MILITARY ACADEMY

Fighting words at West Point

The Battle of Wake Island was a World War II fight in the Pacific where the Japanese defeated U.S. forces before handing the island back to the U.S. after losing the war. The Battle of Woke Style is a civil war now raging in certain corners among Americans. But this one doesn’t involve bombs and bullets. Instead, it’s a skirmish involving words and phrases that only serves to detract from the real business of keeping the nation secure.

On March 11, the U.S. Military Academy — a.k.a. West Point, which readies young people to command the U.S. Army — explained why(PDF) it is changing its mission statement. As part of a periodic review, it said it is replacing “Duty, Honor, and Country,” buried within the (lengthy) one-sentence statement, with the more anodyne “Army Values.” The Army brass, West Point Superintendent Lieutenant General Steve Gilland added, has approved the change.

In the olden days, say before 2015, West Point’s tweaking would have passed without notice. But these days, every tweak in the political-military sphere sparks fighting words. “Wow! #WestPoint announcing they’ve gone full globalist,” Fox News co-host Rachel Campos-Duffy tweeted on X. “Purposely tanking recruitment of young Americans patriots to make room for the illegal mercenaries.” Added conservative radio host Jeff Kuhner: “West Point is going woke. We’re watching the slow death of our country.”

Calm down, professional rabble-rousers. Let’s keep things in perspective. West Point’s mission statement has been modified nine other times over the past 100 years. Only in the last two(PDF), dating back to 1998, did the words “Duty, Honor, and Country” appear.

The phrase — made famous by General Douglas MacArthur — has been West Point’s motto since 1898, and will remain so.

The lesser-known mission statement is a goulash of platitudes. Frankly speaking, the Army’s record in the 25 years since it added “Duty, Honor, and Country” to its mission statement hasn’t been that great. If getting rid of it somehow leads to more success on the battlefield, The Bunker’s all for it.

BIG AND SLOW

One reason military procurement lags

It’s always striking that when the Pentagon pulls out a tape measure to see how well it’s doing, too often the bottom line is: not so good. Now, you need to take that admonition with a grain of … PALT. That’s a new acronym, even for The Bunker. It stands for Procurement Administrative Lead Time. It’s the length of time between the Defense Department formally declaring “We want to buy this!” and it signing the contract to actually buy it.

“DOD uses contracts to procure goods and services ranging from cutting-edge military aircraft to common office supplies,” the Government Accountability Office said in a March 14 examination of this relatively new Pentagon yardstick. “DOD leadership and contractors have expressed concern about the length of time it takes to award contracts.” In 2017, Congress ordered(PDF) the Pentagon to begin tracking PALTs.

Turns out that between 2019 and 2022, the number of days between contract solicitation and contract award actually shrank from 36 days to 29 days — a 19% reduction. But that was only for rinky-dink (for the Pentagon) contracts of $50 million or less. When it came to contracts of $50 million or more, the trend, alack and alas, headed in the opposite direction. The median length of time between contract solicitation and contract award for those bigger contracts jumped from 185 days in 2019 to 255 days in 2022 — a 38% hike.

It makes sense that more complicated contracts might take longer to award than simpler ones. And the contracts that take the longest to award are for weapons, ammo, and R&D(PDF). Sustainment and clothing deals are the shortest.

But a nearly 40% increase over four years in the time it takes to award major contracts boggles the mind. Especially, the GAO noted, given the Pentagon’s stated 2017 goal “to reduce the time needed to award contracts for major weapon systems by as much as 50%, as measured from requirements validation to contract award.”

So far, its efforts appear pretty PALTry.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Another Pacific lily pad

The Air Force wants to spend $400 million to expand an airbase on Yap, a flyspeck of an island in the Pacific within striking distance of China, Greg Hadley reported March 14 in Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Bernie Schwartz, R.I.P.

An antiwar business executive who turned Loral Corp. into a multi-billion-dollar defense contractor, Bernard Schwartz died at 98, The New York Times reported March 18.

Missing parts

The Pentagon does “not effectively manage the retention and disposition of organs that were the subject of forensic examinations” by the U.S. military, the Department of Defense inspector general said in a March 18 inquiry.

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