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The Bunker: Danger Dressed As Deterrence

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’s warped preoccupation with speed; the Navy’s nuclear-tipped cruise missile makes a U-turn; the GAO’s dire annual report on how the Defense Department buys its weapons; & more.


Supplying troops with rockets’ red fare

Remember the old adage, that you have to learn to walk before you can run? The Pentagon believes this in theory but not in practice. It’s consumed with pumping money into dubious schemes while it continues to lose wars. Even if it works, such gee-whiz gimmickry only makes getting into war more likely. It doesn’t address the fundamental political and moral questions that have kept the U.S. from prevailing in nearly all of its wars since the unconditional surrenders of Germany and Japan 76 years ago.

Take the latest Air Force push to supply troops on the battlefield with rocket-delivered provisions. Boosters (pun intended) say commercial space efforts like Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship are driving down rocket delivery’s stratospheric costs. That, they say, warrants the Pentagon’s interest in the blandly-named Rocket Cargo program.

Why deliver 100 tons via space when an Air Force C-17 cargo plane can do the same thing via air? “Fundamentally, because a rocket can get all the way around the planet in 90 minutes,” Rocket Cargo boss Greg Spanjers said, “and an airplane cannot.” The Air Force is seeking nearly $50 million in next year’s budget to, um, launch the effort. No dates have been set on when test flights might start.

Two things are driving this push: China recently announced its plans for a 100-ton-payload rocket of its own, and the fledgling U.S. Space Force is busy looking for work. Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth lauds the program as “a significant milestone” because it’s the first such effort “evaluated under the Space Force’s oversight.” The Rocket Cargo program “is a clear example of how the Space Force is developing innovative solutions as a service, in particular the ability to provide independent options in, from, and to space,” General Jay Raymond, chief of U.S. Space Force, said June 4. “Once realized, Rocket Cargo will fundamentally alter the rapid logistics landscape, connecting materiel to joint warfighters in a fraction of the time it takes today.”

The Air Force wants “the ability to land a rocket on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces, including at remote sites,” the service says. It “will research the ability to safely land a rocket near personnel and structures, engineer a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading, and air drop cargo from the rocket after re-entry in order to service locations where a rocket or aircraft cannot possibly land.” In other words, the rockets could ferry supplies—and maybe troops—using a detachable pod that would separate from the rocket over a war zone. The reusable rockets would be leased by the Air Force and could stand alert at bases inside the U.S.

To the U.S. military mind, this may be perfectly logistical—just like dispatching portable nuclear reactors to war zones. But, like so much of what the military does when its budgets are flush, it doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Just as with the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike(PDF) notion—let’s build the capability to destroy anything, anywhere on Earth, in less than an hour—this lust for speed is misplaced. The Bunker is hard-pressed to recall when such a capability would have made a difference—even if the U.S. could locate the right target. Just because such a program might be possible doesn’t mean it makes sense. Ships are, by far, the cheapest way to transport troops and materiel, with aircraft much more costly. No way spaceships can compete. Slower deciding, on balance, also leads to better decisions—sometimes because what was an imminent threat at midnight dissolves by dawn.

But the military will press ahead. Besides, it says it will do it on the cheap. “The Air Force is not investing in the commercial rocket development,” the service says(PDF) in its proposal, but “seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever.” That has echoes of another effort to piggyback atop a commercial product. The Air Force hired Boeing 10 years ago to convert the company’s 767 airliner into the Air Force’s beleaguered, behind-schedule and beyond-cost KC-46 tanker.

And that wasn’t even rocket science.


Navy’s nuclear cruise missile makes a U-turn

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker was acting like a Navy secretary June 4 when he told his service to scrap its plans for a new submarine-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missile. Once news of the order leaked, Republican lawmakers said Harker was embracing the Biden administration’s goal to “project weakness,” a strange claim for a nation with a nuclear force second to none.

The Pentagon’s top leadership duly saluted. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, basically told the Senate Armed Services Committee June 10 that Harker’s order would be put on hold pending yet another Nuclear Posture Review, which for decades has adopted a supine posture as it seeks to preserve the atomic status quo.

Navy officials have privately told lawmakers that adding nuclear weapons to attack subs, as well as surface ships, would cause budgetary, security, and operational problems.

Backers of the nuclear-armed Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM, or “slick-em” to its pals) say the new missile, armed with a relatively small warhead, will counter Russia’s edge in such weaponry. “The SLCM-N demonstrates to adversaries that they cannot expect to conduct a limited nuclear attack without having to face the prospect of a U.S. nuclear response in kind or worse,” Vic Mercado wrote last August, when he was serving as President Trump’s assistant defense secretary for strategy. “By providing the president with a wider range of credible response options, it strengthens deterrence of Russian nuclear use, however limited, in the first place.”

Of course, the U.S. already has the “or worse”—the nation’s bloated nuclear triad—standing alert around the clock. In reality, the push for smaller nuclear weapons is danger dressed as deterrence.


GAO’s annual weapons report lacks greatest hits

For 19 years—almost as long as the war in Afghanistan—the Government Accountability Office has issued an annual report(PDF) assessing how good a job the Pentagon does buying weapons. Its latest 243-page survey, issued June 8, “comes at a time of significant internal changes to the department's acquisition process,” the GAO says.

Deckchairs, meet RMS Titanic.

“Specifically, DOD began implementing its new acquisition framework intended to, among other things, deliver solutions to the end user in a timely manner,” the congressional watchdog agency reports. But anyone who has spent time at the Pentagon knows what’s coming next: “However, GAO found that many programs have planned acquisition approaches that, unless properly managed and overseen, could result in cost and schedule challenges similar to those GAO has reported on for nearly the past 2 decades,” the report’s summary concludes.

Did you catch that caveat? “Unless properly managed and overseen,” it says. That’s a loophole big enough for the entire F-35 program to fly through. (The Pentagon wants to spend about $400 billion buying 2,457 F-35 fighters for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, the most costly weapon system in the history of the world.)

The Pentagon plans on spending $1.8 trillion on major weapons that “continue to forgo opportunities to improve cost and schedule outcomes by not adhering to leading practices for weapon system acquisitions,” the GAO says, a refrain it has repeated for decades. Exaggerated threats—demanding too many super-weapons, delivered too fast, at too high a price—are the driver of this wholesale stupidity.

Fittingly, the cover(PDF) of the GAO report features an F-35 as it “performs aerial maneuvers.” Also fittingly, the Pentagon awarded the F-35 contract to Lockheed Martin on October 26, 2001, 19 days after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The war will end up costing U.S. taxpayers about $2 trillion (assuming U.S. troops don’t have to return, which is what happened following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011). And the F-35’s total cost will be nearly as much if they fly, as projected, through 2070 (assuming they’re not retired early, which the Air Force wants to do with its F-22, the world’s hottest fighter).

At least the U.S. is finally pulling out of one of those two ill-fated ventures.


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


There won’t be any U.S. combat boots on Afghan soil by late summer, as the U.S. military rushes to meet President Biden’s September 11 deadline. In a grim foreboding of what may come, there’s going to be scant airpower—U.S. or otherwise—in Afghan skies, too. “There’s a good chance that most of the Afghan military’s planes and helicopters will be unable to fly shortly after all U.S. troops leave the country,” Jeff Schogol wrote June 9 over at Task & Purpose. “And the Pentagon does not yet have a plan for how to keep the Afghan Air Force in the fight against the Taliban.” That’s because U.S. contractors—responsible for keeping most Afghan aircraft flying—are also pulling out, along with U.S. troops. In part, this is because the U.S. forced Afghanistan to trade in its simpler Russian aircraft—which Afghans could maintain—for more complex and costly U.S. models heavily-reliant on U.S. contractors to stay airborne. “That’s great news if you’re an American contractor,” The Bunkerpointed out three years ago, “but not so good if you’re an Afghan pilot or mechanic—or a U.S. taxpayer.”

Well, at least U.S. airpower will be on alert at bases ringing Afghanistan to help the beleaguered Afghan government keep the resurgent Taliban at bay. Right? Um, no, according to the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe in a June 14 piece: “U.S. plans call for airstrikes in Afghanistan after the withdrawal only in circumstances involving threats on the United States and its allies.”

Bottom line: you’re on your own, Afghanistan.

Bull in the Pentagon’s china shop

“Why US will lose a war with China over Taiwan island,” read the headline over an April 27 column, which went on to call Taiwan’s leaders “renegade secessionists” and referred to the U.S. Congress as “corrupt” to boot. But hey—that’s typical fare in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper. What isn’t typical is the author: a retired U.S. Marine who still works at the Pentagon, and whose conduct as a whistleblower was once lauded by a senator named Joe Biden and POGO. The Washington Post unraveled the strange tale of Franz Gayl June 11.

Tankered up

Sure, the Air Force is notorious for its failure to deliver its new KC-46 aerial tanker with its crew of at least three humans. But the Navy is moving beyond that with a first-ever refueling of a manned aircraft from an unmanned tanker. That took place when a Navy MQ-25 Stingray drone tanker refueled an F-18 fighter, the service reported June 7. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing,” Rear Admiral Brian Corey said. And that’s the key to this effort: the Navy wants to keep its carriers outside the reach of China’s growing arsenal of carrier-killing missiles. But given Navy warplanes’ short range, the only way to keep the flattops out of harm’s way is to refuel its aircraft after they’ve taken off and are hundreds of miles away from their carriers. That’s why the MQ-25 is so important to the sea service.

Crash reports (PDF)

Controlled Flight into Terrain—CFIT, for short—is one of the saddest acronyms out there. It’s what happens when a perfectly good plane flies into the ground, generally because its pilot was disoriented or distracted. That, the Air Force said June 9, is what killed F-16 pilot Captain Hawk Jones last December in Michigan. After getting into bad weather on a training mission, Jones “went into a series of heading, altitude, and attitude changes” for unknown—unknowable—reasons, the investigation concluded. “Estimated outer boundaries of the flight envelope included 90 degrees nose low attitude, 135 degrees of right bank, and 600 knots airspeed, culminating with an extreme attitude that terminated with controlled flight into terrain. There was no attempt to eject by the mishap pilot.”

But the cause of a second F-16 crash last June was all too clear, according to a June 12 article. 1st Lieutenant David Schmitz was killed after a cascade of snafus—triggered by inadequate training—during a dangerous night-time training mission. “Schmitz's tragic death underscores the inherent risks of fighter training,” Oriana Pawlyk wrote. “But it also casts a harsh light on the impacts of limited flight hours and insufficient training due to limited available aircraft and the demands of real-life missions.”

The Bunker wrote up this crash last November when the Air Force released its investigation. “It is profoundly harrowing,” we noted. “The night-time training mission was 1st Lieutenant David Schmitz’s first attempt at trying to destroy mock enemy air defenses, and the first time he tried to conduct an aerial refueling. That was the first error: Air Force rules require that a solo pilot’s first aerial refueling take place during daylight hours. If the service had obeyed its own rules, Schmitz couldn’t have been assigned this mission. That means he wouldn’t have been capable of making an error. That means he’d still be alive. Beyond that, if his commanders had reached out for help, he’d still be alive. And, finally, if the Air Force had properly maintained his plane, he’d still be alive. Three Air Force strikes, it seems, and a pilot with less than 100 hours flying the F-16 is out.”

In journalism, doing more with less is a joke. In the military, it can kill you.


Elliot Ackerman fears that the virus coursing through the minds of those who maintain that Donald Trump won the 2020 election could turn virulent if members of the U.S. military succumb to it. “Many commentators have already pointed out that it’s likely that in 2024 (or even 2022) the losing party will cry foul, and it is also likely that their supporters will fill the streets, with law enforcement, or even military, called in to manage those protests,” Ackerman, a Marine veteran with five combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote in the June 14 New York Times. “It is not hard to imagine, then, with half of the country claiming an elected leader is illegitimate, that certain military members who hold their own biases might begin to second guess their orders. This might sound alarmist, but as long as political leaders continue to question the legitimacy of our president, some in our military might do the same.”

Could make January 6 look tame.

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