The Bunker: Davids and the Drones

This week in The Bunker: technology is letting little powers strike big ones and forcing the Goliaths to respond; the math that plays a major role in rising weapons costs; F-35 fables; and more. 

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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This week in The Bunker: technology is letting little powers strike big ones and forcing the Goliaths to respond; the math that plays a major role in rising weapons costs; F-35 fables; and more.


Cheap pests can be deadly

Goliath has to watch out for David, the Bible tells us. U.S. military leaders are finally starting to believe, too. That’s the bottom line as assorted troublemakers at home and abroad are launching cheap drones and forcing the U.S. and other militaries to seek novel ways to thwart them.

Pipsqueaks seek cheap and effective ways to torment, if not defeat, more powerful foes. One-way drones crammed with explosives are the next generation in this struggle. “That is one of the top threats because it is it is inexpensive; it’s a precision-guided weapon,” Army General Michael Kurilla, chief of U.S. Central Command, recently noted. “Iran produces some that can go over 2,000 kilometers.”

Knocking one or two out of the sky isn’t much of a challenge. “The bigger concern is if you start talking about swarm,” he added. “So we need to continue to invest in things like high-powered microwave to be able to counter a drone swarm that is coming at you.” Just as roadside bombs became the signature weapon of the insurgents the U.S. was fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, drones are becoming flying IEDs(PDF) for less-well-outfitted fighters.

It’s “getting too expensive” to shoot down drones costing thousands with missiles like the Navy’s SM-2 costing millions, William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said last month. The Pentagon is aiming for drone killers costing less than $10,000 a pop. The Defense Department is pursuing high-powered microwaves, lasers, anti-drone rockets, stringy streamers, drone-killing drones, and other technologies to make drone destruction cheaper. “There isn’t a silver-bullet solution out there,” Army Major General Sean Gainey said last fall.

“Downing Iranian-supplied missiles and drones with multi-million-dollar SM-2 missiles to protect shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden is a bad exchange that must change,” is how the U.S. Naval Institute described the May 1 message from Admiral Christopher Grady, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Grady said the Pentagon has to swap costly missiles for lasers and microwaves — so-called directed-energy weapons — “where a drop of fuel becomes a weapon.”

And inside the U.S., the Air Force’s No. 2 officer said he is “not satisfied” with the coordination among the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security, and local governments to keep drones — what the military calls Unmanned Aerial Systems — away from sensitive sites. “Although the services coordinate effectively together and leverage each other’s capabilities, every single locale has its own story,” General James Slife, the service’s vice chief of staff, said May 1. “So there is no national approach to counter this small UAS issue. It is local-issue by local-issue.”

Late last year, unknown drones regularly buzzed Virginia’s Langley Air Force Base. It’s located amid the biggest concentration of U.S. military firepower on the East Coast, including the Pentagon’s hottest F-22 fighters. “While F-22s are the hardest fighters to confront in the sky,” The War Zonenoted in March, “comparatively simple drones could destroy dozens of them as they sit idle on the ground, and do so over great distances.”


One reason weapons cost skyrocket

Pentagon procurement is like a teeter-totter. As the number of things you buy goes down, the cost of each one you end up buying goes up. Examples include the B-2 bomber (cut from 132 to 20, with a per-plane price tag increase from $571 million to $2 billion), the F-22 fighter (cut from 750 to 179, its price soared from $86 million[PDF] each to $370 million[PDF]), and the Zumwalt-class destroyer, whose cost zoomed to $8 billion each when the Navy slashed its planned buy from 32 to 3.

Well, it has happened again. On April 25, the Air Force told Congress, as required by law, that the cost of each of its MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopters has jumped by more than 25%. The “critical” cost breach happened because the Air Force decided to cut its buy from 80 to 42 choppers. The 42 will be dedicated to protecting intercontinental ballistic missile bases in the nation’s heartland; the others were slated for VIP transport around Washington, D.C. The Pentagon could save itself a lot of headachy headlines if it would just be more realistic when declaring at a program’s launch how many it will buy, and then sticking to its, um, guns.

This latest price hike is bad news for taxpayers. But it’s also good news for taxpayers, because it means the cost of the entire program should drop by more than $1 billion because of the reduced buy. And it’s business as usual for both Boeing and the Pentagon: the Defense Department, four days day after informing Congress of the cost bump, awarded Boeing a $178 million contract for seven new Grey Wolves.


Where to get the skinny on the F-35

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was on Capitol Hill April 30 when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asked him about a new Government Accountability Office report into Lockheed’s F-35 fighter, and the Air Force’s acknowledgment that its F-35s are fully-mission capable only 29% of the time. “Does that seem low to you?” Gaetz asked.

“It’s a complex airframe,” Austin responded. “There are a number of reasons why a platform could be not operational at any one given time. But having said that, it is probably one of the best aircraft in the inventory.”

The day before Austin testified, Defense News carried a story on a January 7 memo about the five new F-35s a Marine squadron in San Diego had received. The Marines discovered “metal shavings in contaminated fuel, incorrectly assembled parts, and a plastic scraper protruding from a wing fold,” reporter Stephen Losey wrote. All told, the snafus required more than 700 hours to fix and wasted 169,000 pounds of fuel.

“F-35 readiness continues to plague the Marine Corps and degrade our ability to be the nation’s stand-in force,” the squadron commander groused. “The number of failed components, expended man-hours and lost sorties is unacceptable to maintain a baseline level of proficiency and consistency at the operational level.”

As the brass at the Pentagon always used to tell The Bunker: “Get out of this building and talk to the troops in the field to see what’s really happening.”


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

The real bottom line…

Defense contractors continue to buy their own shares to boost their stock prices despite Pentagon opposition, Valerie Insinna reported in Breaking Defense May 6.

Families pay the price...

Around 700,000 service members and their families live in privatized military housing. On May 7, POGO’s René Kladzyk reported on what can happen when those families say their houses aren’t safe — and how the Pentagon has stacked the deck against them.

Help wanted…

The Army has launched a new video trying to lure those already in its ranks into its more secretive psyops units, Lolita C. Baldor of the Associated Press reported May 2.

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