The Bunker: Congress as the Pentagon’s Doughboy

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This week in The Bunker: A first-ever report details just how much extra money lawmakers are giving the Pentagon, and where it’s going; Cruise Missile Threat 2.0; military families’ support for military service wanes; and more.


Congress plays the Pentagon Doughboy

The Defense Department is spending more than $1 billion a week that it didn’t request, thanks to Congress. Call it legitimate or lard, this legislative largesse gets spelled out for the first time in a new Pentagon report(PDF) detailing how the Defense Department is spending the extra cash. In a nutshell, more than half of the $58.6 billion is headed into weapons production — $17.7 billion for more of what we’re already buying, and $9.9 billion to develop new arms. More than $25 billion is slated to keep existing hardware humming.

Some of the plussed-up appropriations added to the 2022 defense budget went to fund the war in Ukraine and disaster relief. But more than $4 billion is for new ships, many built by the constituents of senior appropriators like Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the senior Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Another $1.8 billion is to buy 16 C-130 cargo planes, John Donnelly of Roll Callreported July 14.

The added moola represents nearly 8% of the $743.2 billion contained in the Pentagon’s base budget this year. Surprisingly, many items did not make the Pentagon’s so-called “unfunded priorities lists,” viewed by some as “wish lists.” That suggests Congress, and not the military, called the shots (surely 535 defense secretaries are better than one). While some of the details are already on the public record, this new Pentagon report totes them up and publishes them in a single document for the first time.

The Defense Department produced the report because of a provision in the 2022 defense authorization act by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a Pentagon and CIA veteran who sits on the armed services, homeland security, and veterans committees. “Good for Representative Slotkin for peeling back a layer of the secrecy that lets lawmakers boost Pentagon spending without leaving fingerprints,” says Danielle Brian, director of the Project On Government Oversight. “That transparency is also a necessary step in holding the Defense Department accountable for what it is doing with all the money Congress is throwing its way.”

Throwing is right. The Pentagon’s base budget has jumped by nearly 50% over the past five years, “far exceeding the rate of inflation,” Roll Call’s Donnelly reported.


Another week, another threat

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Again.

Nearly 40 years after the Reagan Administration launched its never-built Air Defense Initiative(PDF) to protect the U.S. from a cruise missile attack, a prominent D.C. think tank says it’s time to launch an air-defense initiative to protect the U.S. from a cruise missile attack.

“Emerging hypersonic missile threats garner significant attention, but garden-variety cruise missiles represent one of the most underappreciated, high-capacity, and near-term threats to the U.S. homeland,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a July 14 report(PDF). It argues that current ground radars, surveillance aircraft, drones, blimps, and missile interceptors should be tied together as a first step to address the threat.

Where does one draw the line when it comes to defeating or deterring threats? We’ve spent $280 billion(PDF) defending against long-range ballistic missiles. Now there’s talk of similar programs to defend the nation against cruise and hypersonic missiles. When should the U.S. trade the promise of a use-it-when-needed military retaliation for much more costly 24/7/365 defenses? It’s plain that there are some in the national-security arena who believe the only way to protect America from attack is to physically shield the country from attack. But that’s a bad deal for deterrence, for troops, and for taxpayers. While point defenses for specific deployments or buildings make sense (like these protecting the core of Washington, D.C.), trying to come up with a nationwide system is physically and fiscally impossible.

That fact doesn’t necessarily render the CSIS report DOA, but readers should be skeptical when it claims such a system could be built and operated for 20 years for $32.7 billion. CSIS, after all, receives funding from contractors who could benefit from such a program, including major players like Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Northrop, and Raytheon. A 2021 Congressional Budget Office study looked at four such systems and pegged each one’s 20-year cost at somewhere between $75 billion and $465 billion. But CBO’s work, the CSIS report said, was marred by mistakes that resulted in “brittle and expensive solutions.”

Pot, meet kettle. If there’s one thing the Pentagon knows, it’s brittle and expensive programs that are more about spending than solutions.


The “family business” is hurting

Last week, The Bunker led off with the tough times the U.S. military services are having filling their ranks. We noted that one of the reasons for the shrinking pool of potential recruits is the growing gap between U.S. troops and U.S. citizens. That has led the U.S. military to resemble a family business, where sons and daughters follow moms and dads into a career in uniform.

As The Bunkerreported a decade ago:

“A growing share of active-duty troops has a sibling or had a parent in uniform; close to 100,000 troops are married to another service member. The number of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy who have a parent who also attended West Point has grown by 50% in the past generation. `It's a family business, and it's a very tough time to be in the family business,’ says Dave Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded all allied troops in Afghanistan in 2003-04 and has two sons in the Army. `As my kids deploy around the world, they're running into their playmates from when they were growing up, at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Lewis, in Kandahar and Jalalabad,’ he says. `Their classmates as kids on military bases are the people they're fighting with.’"

But this reliable pipeline is springing leaks.

It turns out that fewer military and veteran family members are recommending military service as a career path, according to a survey(PDF) released July 14 by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN), which studies the attitudes of military families. In 2019, 75% of respondents said they would recommend the military as a job choice. But by 2021 there had been a “troubling drop” to 63% in MFAN’s 2021 survey of 8,638 military family members. The share of those who would not recommend military life rose from 26% to 37%. Most of those surveyed were spouses; half of U.S. troops are married(PDF).

The reasons cited for the growing dissatisfaction with military life were its toughness on families, poor pay, benefits, and leadership, and frequent moves. In true military tradition, enlisted family members “were significantly less likely” to recommend a military career than officer family members. “The downturn in the propensity to recommend military life amongst military and veteran family respondents is striking,” the report said, and warrants more study. That’s especially true for the Army, which is the service facing the toughest recruiting environment. A stunning four of every five Army recruits have relatives who served in the military.


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

I’ll see your 50K and raise you 8K

Speaking of recruiting, the Army is trying to lure recruits with bonuses of up to $50,000, as we noted last week. Highlighting yet another form of interservice rivalry, the Air Force has announced it is paying enlistment bonuses of up to $58,000, Air Force Times reported July 13.

Accountability 101

The Navy has punished a three-star admiral and 26 others for failing to put out the fire that destroyed a billion-dollar warship, Geoff Ziezulewicz reported in Navy Times July 15. It’d be nice to see that kind of responsibility assigned in the impending Pentagon report on the 20-year Afghanistan war debacle, but don’t hold your breath.

China confusion

China suffers “multiple structural problems that hamper its goal of becoming a self-reliant innovation powerhouse,” Ma Xiu and Peter W. Singer opined in Defense One July 17. But you’d never know that from the tone of stories warning that the purchase of 300 acres of North Dakota farmland by a Chinese company is a threat to U.S. national security.

Flying high…

The Navy’s Blue Angels have tapped Lieutenant Amanda Lee as the first female pilot to join their precision air-show team, the service said July 18.

Real-world Transformer

A U.S. company is peddling a French-designed military boat outfitted with tracks, dubbed the Iguana, so it can operate on land, Stew Magnuson reported July 12 at National Defense. Wonder if it’ll be more successful than the U.S. Marines’ “swimming tank” sunk by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2011.

Boom service

The Air Force is working with Native American tribes to ensure their 822 archaeological sites, sprinkled across the vast Utah Test and Training Range, will be protected as solid-rocket motors from decommissioned Minuteman III ICBMs are destroyed, the Ogden Standard-Examiner said July 15.

About time someone listened…

Back in 2011, Thomas P.M. Barnett, a seasoned military thinker, said the U.S. Navy needed to retool its carrier fleet. “We should scale back our carrier design to something much cheaper and simpler,” he told The Bunker. “Think of mother ships launching waves of cheap drones — that would actually be more frightening and intimidating.” Well, it finally happened, Emma Helfrich and Tyler Rogoway reported July 17 over at The War Zone. Unfortunately, they’re being built and launched by the Iranian navy.

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