The Bunker: Designed and Delayed into Oblivion

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: Pentagon procurement disasters both aloft and afloat, the quest for an enemy to justify high defense spending, and giving credit where credit is due.


Don’t look now, but the F-35 is afterburnered toast

After more than a decade of critical reports on the F-35 (from both inside(PDF) and outside government), the tri-service aircraft has entered a stall from which recovery is all but impossible (an aircraft stalls when it doesn’t have enough air flowing across its wings to stay aloft, unlike the more commonplace stall here on Earth that simply means the engine has stopped).

The latest tailspin began February 17 when the Air Force’s top officer said the F-35 was like a Ferrari to be reserved for special occasions, and not the cheap, everyday Volkswagen the taxpayers thought they were buying for his service (which plans to buy 1,763 F-35s), as well as the Navy (273 F-35s) and Marines (420 F-35s). So maybe, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles “CQ” Brown suggested, the Air Force should go back to the drawing board and consider buying a follow-on to the cheaper and simpler F-16. That’s a cocked pistol aimed at the heart of the F-35 program.

Then, on March 5, the head of the House Armed Services Committee declared the program a “rathole.” Unlike “stall,” “rathole” is easily understood.

Last week brought a double-whammy. First, the Government Accountability Office reported(PDF) March 18 that the cost of upgrading the F-35 has risen to $14.4 billion, a 15% hike over 2019’s estimate. Why a new plane needs upgrades is a topic for another day, but the F-35’s extended development has played a major role. The items contributing to the cost growth show a plane in trouble, a program in trouble, or both: $705 million related to testing, including “additional developmental test aircraft”; $471 million for nothing special (“this increase resulted from a general rise in all program overhead and administration costs and is not due to the addition of any specific initiatives or parts to the program,” is how the GAO archly put it); $336 million more for training; and $296 million for a “technology refresh” because “development is more complex than originally thought.” These are teething problems common in a program’s early going, but the F-35 is now 20 years old (and has yet to enter full-scale production).

The next day, Rep. John Garamendi, D-CA, chairman of the armed services committee readiness subcommittee, implied that the F-35’s maintenance woes have grown so great that Congress may have to cut production of the plane to ensure the aircraft it already has can fly. The F-35’s “huge problem” is that “we buy more planes [but] we’re not able to maintain the older ones, so the more we buy, the worse the overall performance has been. That is going to stop,” he said March 19, without elaboration. But he doesn’t need to: the only way to crack that nut is to buy fewer planes, or to spend more money. Hint: the latter ain’t gonna happen.

The Pentagon remains in denial. “Program risks still exist,” the F-35 program manager conceded, “but are well understood and actively managed.” Balderdash. Nearly a decade ago, Merrill “Tony” McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994, told The Bunker that trying to design a single airplane to be shared by the Air Force, Marines, and Navy was a mistake from the start. “The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong,” he said. It has been painful to watch the F-35, buffeted by hype and hubris, try to take off over the past decade. Now that it’s airborne and entered that aerodynamic stall, there’s only one question left: can it avoid a death spiral?


The Zumwalt class finally gets a mission

The Bunker found it eye-watering to report on the Zumwalt class of destroyers two years ago. The Navy ended up with a trio of warships costing $24 billion. But it has paid a far higher price in the public perception that it no longer knows how to build ships, or manage those trying to do so. The Ford class of carriers and the flubbed Littoral Combat Ship program have only reinforced that grim realization.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see that the Navy, on March 18, declared that it wants to install its first ship-based hypersonic weapons aboard the Zumwalt class. The decision to put a radical new kind of weapon aboard those hulls comes after the service tried and failedto put a new kind of supergun on them. Swapping the useless guns for hypersonic launchers would be “giving the three ships a mission for the first time in their troubled build and services lives,” Paul McLeary reportedin Breaking Defense.

“Troubled” is right. The Navy’s official ship registry says the USS Zumwaltis “active, in commission,” but it remains only active in that it’s hunting for a mission it can perform. The Zumwalt “was commissioned into service on September 7, 2016. Its delivery date was revised multiple times. In the Navy’s FY2021 budget submission, the ship’s delivery date was revised to March 2020,” the Congressional Research Service said in a report last month. “This created an unusual situation in which a ship was commissioned into service more than three years prior to its delivery date.”

Things haven’t gone any better for the other two vessels. “The delivery dates for the second [USS Michael Monsoor] and third [USS Lyndon Baines Johnson] ships have also been revised multiple times,” the CRS said. “In the Navy’s FY2021 budget submission, the delivery dates for the two ships were revised to September 2020 and September 2022, respectively. In January 2021, it was reported that the delivery date of the second ship had been delayed from September 2020 to sometime in FY2022.”

The Johnson is “under construction,” according to the Navy’s ship registry. And the Monsoor is listed as “in commission, special” on the Navy’s books. When you click to find out what that means, you get to a page that says “No definition has been created for this term.” Whoosh!Eight billion dollars, up in smoke.

Like the F-35, the Navy tried to do too much when it designed the Zumwalt. “Cramming a lot of new technologies into one platform was just crazy,” John Lehman, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary for six years, told The Bunker two years ago. “It was doomed from the start.”

The real twist is that the hypersonic program the Navy wants to put aboard the Zumwalt class is a so-called “prompt strike” weapon. Quite a side-splitter for a destroyer designed and delayed into oblivion, and now camouflaged as a testbed for exotic weapons…just like itself.


Looking for a foe to call our own

In the 20th Century, the U.S. military built itself to beat the Red Menace. Now it’s the Yellow Peril, an 18th Century racist trope that has been all but dusted off for the 21st Century. Last week, the Biden administration’s initial meeting with Chinese officials did not go well.

The U.S. has a tendency to survey the world and tacitly conclude that if you’re not an ally, you’re a foe. That drove U.S. defense spending while the Soviet Union was around. Terrorism, in the wake of the horror that was 9/11, replaced Moscow following the end of the of the Cold War. Now that U.S. preoccupation with terror has eased, China has moved from Stage East to loom the largest in the Pentagon’s calculations.

It’s fair to conclude, in hindsight, that the U.S. spent way too much money dealing with the Soviet and terror threats. Will it repeat the mistake a third time, with China?

You bet. “The Pentagon is using China as an excuse for new huge budgets,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post March 19. Regular reports from the Pentagon and Congress hype the threat. To be sure, Beijing is a bad actor, in a lot of ways. But the reflexive thinking that military might is the optimal way for the rest of the globe to do our bidding has failed so often that it’s long past time to reconsider that mindset.

It’s almost quaint, that however great or small the threat, U.S. military spending basically stays the same. There are high and low tides, to be sure, but it’s still the same old ocean. Strong communities support the status quo, including the military, the Congress, the contractors, and the voters who work for those contractors. This is logical, from a strictly realpolitik point of view. But that doesn’t make it right. Besides which, wars in Asia haven’t exactly been going the Pentagon’s way. The U.S. beat Japan in 1945, tied North Korea in 1953, and lost in Vietnam in 1975.


A pioneer should get her fair share of the credit

On March 25, the House begins work on repealing its 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Presidents have brandished the authorization as a blank check from Congress to attack anyone anywhere in the world at any time based on purported links to terrorism.

For years, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the lonely charge against vesting such unilateral war-making power in the White House. Now that the push to repeal is finally picking up steam, it’s important to acknowledge her leading role in the effort. The lawmakers who may be riding her coattails into history should make sure Lee’s push to return war-making powers to the Congress—where the Constitution makes clear it belongs—is recognized.


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

One size doesn’t fit all…

The Defense Department apparently has been taken aback by some troops’ view that those who stormed the Capitol January 6 and those protesting police brutality last year are pretty much the same kind of troublemakers. “That the two events are viewed as equivalent by some troops has caught the Pentagon’s attention in its effort to educate service members that extremist views and activity—on either side of the political spectrum—go against the oath they took when they joined the military, the top enlisted leader told reporters,” McClatchy’s Tara Copp reported March 18.

MIA: Missing Information Again

Jeff Schogol at Task & Purpose wrote up his latest bill of particulars when it comes to the Pentagon’s lack of transparency March 16. Troop levels, airstrikes, and COVID vaccination numbers have all been absent without leave recently, from the taxpayers, anyway. It makes for a depressingly grim follow-up to POGO colleague Jason Paladino’s ground-breaking “The Pentagon’s War on Transparency” more than two years ago.

Oil change

How does North Korea evade the sanctions that supposedly bar it from importing oil? The New York Times spent six months tracking several tankers engaged in the murky embargo-busting trade, which it posted as a fascinating 10-minute video on March 22. The newspaper focused on a tanker linked to the Winson Group, a Singapore-based oil trader. “Just days after The Times asked questions about the Winson Group’s…role in these oil deliveries,” the Times reported, “Winson Shipping changed its name to Zheng Yu Shipping.” The Times found that opaque ownership structures only make it more difficult to keep track.

And for some light reading…

…from James Johnson and the folks at West Point’s Modern War Institute on March 18: “Artificial intelligence, autonomy, and the risk of catalytic nuclear war.”

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