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The Bunker: Are Major Pentagon Cuts Coming?

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.


COVID-19 can kill weapons, as well as us

Only inside the Pentagon is “legacy” a bad word. For the rest of us, it suggests something good that someone did, usually before leaving this realm. But at the Defense Department, it has long been the code word for “aging,” as in “aging weapons.” (Of course, everything in existence is aging, but if we wanted to get into a debate about how the Pentagon butchers the English language, The Bunker’d be writing forever…talk about a legacy!) Amid trillions in new federal spending to battle the coronavirus, Pentagon officials fear their dreams of increased defense spending are just that. So they’re planning on speeding up the killing of so-called legacy weapons.

Any resulting savings, of course, won’t be returned to the Treasury. Instead, they’ll be pumped into brand-new (i.e., aging-but-not-yet-legacy) weapons. “We need to move away from the legacy [weapons], and we need to invest those dollars in the future,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said May 5. “And we have a lot of legacy programs out there right now—I could pick dozens out from all branches of the services” for termination with extreme prejudice. Esper claims he knows how to do it. As Army secretary from 2017 to 2019, he said he reallocated $25 billion, largely by shifting funds from older weapons to more urgent priorities, although specifics seem to be MIA.

No one can argue with cutting today’s unneeded weapons. Except when such savings are always used to fund tomorrow’s. Because even at the Pentagon, tomorrow eventually becomes…today.

Think of it as an arms race… with ourselves. It’s the closest the Pentagon has come to a perpetual-spending machine.


The U.S. military is making more facts stealthy

The Pentagon keeps on keeping information from the taxpayers who are paying for America’s wars. The latest example is Air Forces Central Command, which is responsible for the sky over the troubled chunk of the globe stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. For years, it has publicly posted each month what it calls “airpower summaries,” detailing how many missions it has flown over Afghanistan (as well as Iraq and Syria), how many of those flights dropped bombs or fired missiles, and the total number of weapons so unleashed.

But not since March 1. “Due to a multiplicity of diplomatic relational concerns, including how the report could adversely impact ongoing discussions with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan peace talks, we are not, at present, publishing a monthly Airpower Summary report,” a Pentagon official told May 5. Of course, the Taliban know how often they’re being bombed, so good luck figuring out the logic of the statement. No word yet on whether the Pentagon will resume issuing tallies for Iraq and Syria, either.

Unfortunately, this a pernicious pattern detailed in a comprehensive December report by my Project On Government Oversight colleague, Jason Paladino. “Secrecy without justification seems to have become the new normal,” he wrote. “Across the Department of Defense, basic information is becoming harder to find…”

But it’s actually kind of perfect, if you take a moment to realize the symmetry the silence represents. First, we’re stuck with a Congress that often refuses to do its duty by declaring war, or voting not to do so. As a bonus, we get a military that increasingly denies us the yardsticks we need to chart the progress of those undeclared wars. Given no brake on presidential power to launch a war, and a dearth of data to figure out how it’s going, it’s no wonder the U.S. military and Afghanistan will celebrate 20 years together next year. The traditional 20th anniversary gift is china (or, in this case perhaps, China).


Readying for war shouldn’t mean wasting lives

Military training is a dangerous business, whether it happens at boot camp, on the high seas, or in the sky. But there is no place for dubious, risky training that too often leaves the innocent dead, and the brass shrugging their epauleted shoulders.

That seems to be the case surrounding a pair of Air Force T-38 supersonic trainer jets attempting a “formation landing” at an Oklahoma base last November. The jets were supposed to touch down at the same time, their wingtips less than 50 feet apart while traveling at 165 miles per hour. But the student pilot aboard one of the supersonic trainers bounced his plane upon landing and it careened into the path of the second plane. His right main landing gear caught on the second plane, followed instantly by its right wing, flipping the first plane completely over the second and smashing it into a decommissioned taxiway. The student and his instructor pilot—“one of the best instructors in the unit,” according to the accident investigation report released May 1—were killed instantly. The two pilots aboard the second trainer were uninjured.

The Air Force concluded the first pair died because of errors each made during the landing. It’s funny how often “pilot error” is the cause when the pilot isn’t around to argue. But the student pilot’s family has spoken up, saying such formation landings are “dangerous and wholly unnecessary” because they have “no continuing practical benefit to combat-pilot proficiency or survivability.”

The tale carries eerie echoes of the Air Force’s T-3 trainer tragedy that The Bunker wrote about more than 20 years ago. The Air Force grounded the $42 million, 106-plane, fleet for nine years, after three crashes killed three students and three instructor pilots. Then it paid a scrap firm $12,000 to get rid of them. And similar threads run through recent spate of Army and Marine vehicle training accidents, and the role inadequate Navy training played in the deaths of 17 sailors in a pair of ship collisions in 2017. Troops, whether on land, sea or air, will acknowledge they need to train hard to be ready for war. But they’ll also be the first to say they don’t want to die needlessly. And when they’re silenced by stupidity, it’s too often left to their loved ones to complain about unnecessary risks through bitter tears.


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

Crystal Clarity (PDF)

“Each year, we make more than 1,000 recommendations to help improve the federal government,” the green eyeshade crowd over at the Government Accountability Office says in a May 11 report about what needs to happen to improve things at the Department of Defense. Here is its summary on the tri-service F-35 program, at $428 billion the most-costly weapons system in world history:

Thanks for the clarification!

Amphibious assaulter

Former senator, U.S. Navy secretary and forever Marine Jim Webb doesn’t like the recent retooling proposed by the current top Marine. As usual, he doesn’t hold back in this May 8 piece for The National Interest. Webb contends the proposed China-centric and slimmed-down corps sought by General David Berger, the commandant, will gut the Marines. He warns that Americans should be leery of such wholesale changes from one of the nation’s top military officers. “In the wake of two decades of costly strategic blunders and an inability to accomplish our national objectives it is nonetheless remarkable that along the way a trusting America consistently has given our top military leaders huge deference and frequent free passes,” Webb writes. Well, that may be true, but saying the current crop of military officers got us into this mess is no reason to keep heading down that same path. And Webb should know: after all, he served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, when U.S. military leadership was also derelict.

Unequal consequences

And speaking of the Marines, here’s an epic, and epically grim, tale posted on the Task and Purpose website May 11. It details how some Marine leaders handle rape and sexual-assault charges…or don’t.

Nuclear double-standard? (PDF)

The Department of Energy’s nuclear-bomb makers are in a rush to build more key components for nuclear weapons, contending it’s a “critical national security mission.” So they have rejected a request by New Mexico’s two senators seeking a longer period of time, citing the coronavirus, for public comment on the proposal. It’s a jarring refusal, given how often DOE and its a-bomb-making National Nuclear Security Administration seek such extensions for themselves, Nuclear Watch New Mexico director Jay Coghlan says in a May 6 statement reacting to the denial.

Speaking of nukes…

Given the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then the pandemic, the critical issue of nuclear weapons seems to have been pushed to the back burner, if not off the stove entirely. But as the so-called “great-power” struggle picks up steam, pacts limiting nuclear weapons are more important than ever, Thomas Countryman, a former top State Department arms-control official (and now chairman of the board at the independent and non-profit Arms Control Association) argues in May’s Foreign Service Journal.

Mind control…

The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit wants to use artificial intelligence to prevent “unwanted negative outcomes” (as opposed to those wanted negative outcomes, The Bunker presumes). The project, dubbed Vigilant Keeper, aims to improve the mental health of U.S. troops, reported May 5. The goal is to help “both people and the mission,” the solicitation reads. Too bad they didn’t add “total victory in war” while they were at it. Better apply here, now: the deadline is Friday.

Space Farce

[CHEATING ALERT: This is about a video.] Admit it. Hollywood poking fun at the U.S. military can get tiring. But every once in a while a TV series comes along that rings true. Think M*A*S*H (Army), No Time for Sergeants (Air Force), Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (Marine Corps, duh!), or McHale’s Navy (Navy, double-duh!) for example. Not sure if Space Force, launching on Netflix May 29, will soar that high. But with Steve Carell as the four-star general responsible for setting up the newest branch of the U.S. armed forces, it might join that pantheon in misleading Americans about the military. But just a little.

Thanks again for reading The Bunker. Keep your head down, and mask up, out there!