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The Bunker: Apparently the Sky Is the Limit

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In The Bunker this week: The military has more ideas for new toys; Congress is ready to throw more money at the Pentagon; watchdogs accused of wrongdoing and more.

SPECIAL HARDWARE EDITION

When in doubt, spend more!

Even as the nation is wracked by insurrectionists, politicians incapable of doing anything, and a raging pandemic, it’s nice to see the Pentagon focused on what really matters: new weapons that will cost too much and do too little. After 40 years on the beat, The Bunker knows that no matter how bleak the nation’s prospects or mood, the Pentagon’s Pavlovian response is always to pretend that spending billions for marginal improvements in the world’s most costly military is the right approach. Even if the biggest threats aren’t foreign nations bent on our destruction. And especially so right after the nation’s longest war ended in a humiliating defeat. So without further ado, let’s check the latest suggestions on where the Pentagon may spend your money as the nation is coming apart at the seams:

ON THE SEA

Better luck this time!

The Navy unveiled its blueprint(PDF) for its newest destroyer, crammed with hypersonic missiles and laser weapons, January 12. “Capabilities that we’re going to need for the 21st century to continue combating the threat are increased missile capability sensor growth, directed-energy weapons, which actually require a lot of power, increased survivability and increased power availability,” DDX(G) deputy program manager Katherine Connelly told a Surface Navy Association confab. “The size of the ship and estimated costs for the program remain unclear,” the independent U.S. Naval Institute reported (the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost(PDF) at nearly $3 billion apiece; the Navy has not said how many it wants).

The new ship will feature both electrical propulsion and a different shape. “New Hull Form Required to Introduce Enhanced Capability to Fleet and Pace Threat,” the service’s proposal said. Those are two things the Navy tried to introduce on its most-recent and troubled Zumwalt class of destroyers. In fact, the same day the Navy was highlighting its next-generation destroyer, the final Zumwalt destroyer left the Maine shipyard where it was built. That three-ship class—down from an initial goal of 32—cost $24 billion, or $8 billion per ship. It lacks a mission and weapons, but don’t fret: the Navy wants to outfit them with hypersonic missiles. Here’s hoping the Navy has better luck outfitting this tiny armada with them—capable of traveling five times the speed of sound (assuming they work)—than it did with the Zumwalts’ original gun. The Navy had to scrap that one when its cost ballooned from $35,000 to nearly $1 million per round.

ON THE LAND

Gives a whole new meaning to “high beams”

If the Navy’s gonna get lasers, it’s a safe bet the Army’s gonna want some, too. On January 12, Lieutenant General L. Neil Thurgood said the first set of Stryker combat vehicles will get 50-kilowatt laser weapons this fall, to combat drones and other battlefield pests. The Army’s Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense system (“Guardian,” to its pals) has been an all-too typical Pentagon procurement.

In 2019, the Army awarded the initial contract for the lasers to Kord Technologies, a subsidiary of KBR, the logistics outfit once overseen by Dick Cheney. Being owned by a logistics company, Kord smartly subcontracted with two teeny-tiny firms (Northrop, the Pentagon’s 5th biggest contractor) and Raytheon (the 2nd), to compete with one another to actually build the laser. Northrop’s laser ran into some problems and caught fire during testing, forcing the company to drop out of the competition. So the Army has awarded Raytheon a $123 million contract for the Stryker’s laser weapons. “We know,” an Army official conceded, “it is not going to be perfect.”

UP IN THE SKY

Nukesats (just like our Sun, only smaller!)

An Air Force booster outfit is recommending that the U.S. military power its satellites with nuclear reactors. That supposedly should give them enough horsepower to dodge any incoming Chinese or Russian threats. “Do we want to be behind the power curve?” Christopher Stone of the Air Force Association’s Spacepower Advantage Center of Excellence (SPACE) said January 13. Today’s chemical propulsion systems, he argued, aren’t as fast or as efficient as nuclear power. Their predictable and limited maneuvering makes U.S. satellites vulnerable to anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons now being developed by China and Russia, he says in his 22-page “Maneuver Warfare in Space: The Strategic Mandate for Nuclear Propulsion(PDF).

That prospect also means that the Pentagon should “deploy ASAT weapons systems capable of holding Chinese and Russian targets at risk.” (Not everyone agrees, as this January 11 paper calling for a U.S. moratorium on testing anti-satellite weapons makes clear.) The U.S. has explored both space nuclear propulsion and ASAT weapons in the past. The longer you spend hanging around the defense business, the more you realize it’s a lot like cable TV—largely reruns and remakes, with very few hits, kinetic or otherwise.

APPARENTLY, THE SKY IS THE LIMIT

Pentagon R&D continues to climb

Next year’s Defense Department budget for research is likely to top this year’s staggering record of $112 billion, the Pentagon’s research and engineering boss says. Among other things, 2023 will see a “significant increase” in funding for testing hypersonic weapons, Heidi Shyu, the DOD undersecretary for research and engineering said. “In December, 15 members of Congress came over to the Pentagon and I was able to give them a briefing on what R&E’s doing and they were thrilled,” Shyu said. “Halfway through my briefing they asked, ‘How much money do you need?’”

In recent years, lawmakers “have expressed concern that the long-held technological edge of the U.S. military is eroding due, in part, to the proliferation of technologies outside the defense sector, organizational and cultural barriers to DOD effectively incorporating and exploiting commercial innovations, and insufficient engagement with leading-edge companies that have not historically been a part of the DOD innovation system,” a Congressional Research Service report noted(PDF) last month. Bottom line: throw more money at it, which Congress has been doing with relish. Pentagon research spending has jumped from $71 billion in 2016 to this year’s $112 billion, a 58% boost.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the stuff I’m doing,” Shyu said of her congressional overseers. “I’m very happy.” Taxpayers, not so much. Scientists say there is no such thing as a perpetual-motion machine, but they plainly never drafted Pentagon budgets.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Aren’t Inspectors General supposed to be the good guys?

Sure, but like soldiers and cops, there are a few bad apples inside those independent offices designed to ferret out wrongdoing. In one case, an employee of the Pentagon’s inspector general shop was sentenced to seven years in prison for steering government contracts to an unqualified subcontractor at inflated prices, the Washington Post reported January 14. Matthew LumHo, “undermined the mission of the Inspector General—to fight waste, fraud, and abuse—from within the organization,” prosecutors said.

In a second case, Charles Edwards, a former acting IG at the Department of Homeland Security, pleaded guilty the same day to stealing government software after he left the government and founded his own company. “From at least 2015 until 2017, he stole software from [the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General], along with sensitive government databases containing personal identifying information of DHS and [the U.S. Postal Service, where he also worked in the IG shop before DHS] employees, so that his company could develop a commercially-owned version of a case management system to be offered for sale to government agencies,” the Justice Department said. Edwards will be sentenced later.

Help wanted!

The pandemic is driving the Army to offer some recruits up to a record $50,000 to enlist, the Associated Press reported January 12.

Bored of education?

The Pentagon has gone without nearly a dozen advisory boards since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin purged them a year ago, Air Force Magazine reported January 11. Have you noticed?

Pentagon piggy-backing

The annual defense-policy bill is deemed “must-pass” legislation, which opens it up to all kinds of mischief—like this provision giving a South Carolina Native American tribe the green light to open a casino, Roll Call reported January 12.

You don’t need (your own) weatherman…

The Pentagon, which has long relied on its own weather-forecasting corps, is thinking of hiring private companies to figure out which way the wind blows, C4ISRNET said January 11.

Hero rat

Magwa, who spent his life sniffing out land mines in Cambodia, has died. The highly-decorated African giant pouched rat was 8. “His contribution allows communities in Cambodia to live, work, and play; without fear of losing life or limb,” APOPO, the Belgium non-profit for which he toiled, said in a eulogy published on January 11. “Over 60 million people living in 59 countries from Cambodia to Zimbabwe, do so in daily fear of landmines and other remnants of past conflict.” The announcement of Magwa’s death came a day after an abandoned mine killed three humans clearing mines in northern Cambodia. 2013-2022. R.I.P.

Thanks, Magwa. And thanks to all you non-rodents for reading The Bunker. Sign up here for weekly email delivery.