The Bunker: Dissent in the Five-Sided Monument to Groupthink

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.

In The Bunker this week: Questioning hypersonic silver bullets; blasting nuclear skeptics inside the Pentagon; plane-and-sub news from Down Under; the Defense Department’s Same Auld Lang Spendthrifts; & more.


Answers MIA for these silver bullets

It’s always refreshing when someone inside the Pentagon—that five-sided monument to groupthink—starts asking uncomfortable questions. That’s just what Frank Kendall, the Air Force’s new top civilian leader, did when he started kicking the tires (yes, it’s merely a figure of speech) of the service’s hypersonic weapons. Purportedly the silverest of silver bullets, they’re powered by either rockets or jet engines. Backers believe they will revolutionize warfare; skeptics think they will simply speed up spending and stupidity.

Kendall is “not satisfied with the degree to which we have figured out what we need for hypersonics—of what type, for what missions,” the new Air Force secretary said September 20. “The target set that we would want to address, and why hypersonics are the most cost-effective weapons for the U.S., I think it’s still, to me, somewhat of a question mark.” That’s aeronautical blasphemy, but the service’s uniformed leaders dismiss him at their peril. After all, it was a decade ago that Kendall—then the Pentagon’s top civilian weapons buyer—decried the mammoth F-35 program as “acquisition malpractice” for buying the plane before finishing its design. Turns out he was right.

For those who have been sleeping through Air Force scramjet dreams over the past decade, hypersonic weapons are basically missiles capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound. It’s kind of like replacing arrows with musket balls. But as we sadly witnessed August 29 in Afghanistan—when a missile fired from an Air Force drone mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven kids—speed is worse than worthless without the right intelligence to guide a weapon to the right target.

Such lousy intelligence goes hand-in-hand with the Pentagon’s lousy hypersonics leadership. It’s basically nowhere to be found when it comes to the 70(PDF) hypersonic efforts the Defense Department is pursuing, the Government Accountability Office reported in March (Yes, that’s more than one hypersonic effort for every state…and territory!). “DOD itself has not documented the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the multitude of its organizations, including the military services, that are working on hypersonic-weapon development,” the GAO said. “Without clear leadership roles, responsibilities, and authorities, DOD is at risk of impeding its progress toward delivering hypersonic weapon capabilities and opening up the potential for conflict and wasted resources as decisions over larger investments are made in the future.” The Pentagon wants to spend $3.8 billion on hypersonic weapons next year, a nearly 20% hike from 2021’s $3.2 billion.

Kendall isn’t opposed to hypersonics, he simply wants fundamental questions answered before the Pentagon begins buying gobs of them. “We have to solve the problem first of where we’re trying to go,” he added, “and then get there as quickly as possible.” Or the military can ignore his warning, as it did on the F-35, and get there as slowly as possible.


Another Pentagon official gets atomized

Readers of The Bunker with a half-life approaching that of Urainum-235 may recall back in June when Thomas Harker, the acting Navy secretary at the time, ran afoul of the nuclear priesthood. His sin was saying the sea service should scrap a new submarine-launched, nuclear-tipped cruise missile. He apparently left the Navy last month, according to his LinkedIn profile, and has yet to resurface.

Well, looks like it has happened again. Leonor Tomero, who questioned the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization plans, was reorganized out of her senior Pentagon post after only eight months on the job, Politicoreported September 21. In her role as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, she would have overseen the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

Over the past 30 years, four Nuclear Posture Reviews have routinely rubber-stamped the status quo when it comes to U.S. nuclear-weapons policy. They’ve generated sage chin-stroking nods of approval from those in the military, industry, and Congress interested in business as usual. Which, alas, is pretty much everybody in the military, industry, and Congress who’s an atomic power.

Tomero’s offense? She wanted the nation to rely less on nuclear weapons. “Certainly that’s the objective of the president, is to find ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and so we look forward to examining those issues, as part of our Nuclear Posture Review,” Tomero told the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese news outlet, in April.

“People wonder why we don’t learn from failures like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor and nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, told the Washington Post. “The reason is simple: People who point out alternatives to current national-security policies are systematically driven out of positions of authority,” he added. That yields (if you’ll excuse that word when it comes to nuclear weapons) predictable results: “Firing her sends a clear message to everyone in the Pentagon that there is no tolerance for new ideas when it comes to our nuclear-weapons policies.”

While the half-life of the U.S.’s calcified Cold War nuclear strategery hasn’t lasted as quite as long as U-235’s (700 million years), it has lasted far too long.


Wild blue idiots

We don’t know about you, but The Bunker still gets a chill when witnessing a plane passing behind a skyscraper—or even the Washington Monument. It brings back too many memories of 9/11. He first felt that shiver while reporting on a fatal B-52 crash in 1994; the video is heart-stopping. Now comes a video of a C-17—a large, lumbering plane not that different from the B-52—threading the skyline September 23 over Brisbane, Australia. It seems the crew was practicing for an air show—exactly what that hot-dogging B-52 pilot(PDF) was doing when he killed his three crewmates and himself. Given such C-17 clownery Down Under, we may have been better off if we’d let the Aussies buy those damn French submarines.


“You want moola on that?”

Speaking of Australia, you may have heard it stiff-armed France recently. It jettisoned a troubled $66 billion deal for 12 French diesel subs in favor of a pact with the U.S. and Britain for more advanced nuclear-powered ones (and no, they won’t carry nuclear weapons). It’s a way to blunt Chinese military power in the western Pacific, and is part of a new Australia-U.S.-United Kingdom (AUSUK) alliance. Predictably, the decision ticked off both France and China. The effort will begin with a study lasting up to 18 months to determine just what kind of underwater firepower Australia needs. It could be “decades” before the Down Under subs begin cruising down under the Pacific, according to Admiral Mike Gilday, the U.S. Navy’s top admiral. And, based on early indicators, the deal won’t come cheap: former U.S. Navy secretary Donald Winter is going to help smooth Australia’s entry into the AUSUK alliance for $6,000 a day. “Plus expenses.”


Pentagon begins 2022 fiscal year October 1

New Year’s Eve for most of us happens on December 31, before we wake up the next morning with foggy recollections—and sometimes regrets—about what we did the night before. The Pentagon has the same annual problem three months earlier, because each fiscal year begins on October 1, 92 days before the calendar year starts.

Those of us (Defense Dweeb Alert!) who anxiously await the Pentagon’s contract announcements each weekday at 5 p.m. notice that they start growing by leaps and bounds every September. Plucking two recent dates at random, a month apart, highlights the discrepancy: On August 24, there were 11 such announcements, which is typical. On September 24, there were 55, which is not. “Spending in the last week of the year is 4.9 times higher than the rest-of-the-year weekly average, and year-end information technology projects have substantially lower quality ratings,” a 2017 study noted. Plundering the Pentagon purse at year’s end has become so popular it has even nurtured a cottage industry to help contractors get their share. Check out how to do it, here and here.

Let’s return to Frank Kendall, the Air Force honcho questioning hypersonic weapons, who we met higher up in The Bunker this week. A U.S. Military Academy graduate who spent 11 years in the Army—he taught engineering at West Point—he knows how the military works. He discussed the tradition of pushing money out the door of the Pentagon by the end of each fiscal year a decade ago. A fighter pilot approached Kendall after the session. “He brought up the fact that at the end of the year, every year when he was in the unit, they would go out and fly around at the end of the [fiscal] year in September to burn up fuel,” Kendall said. “The reason they were doing it was obvious, right? The reason they were doing it is because they would get their budget cut the next year if they didn’t burn up their fuel and spend their money. That’s not the kind of culture we want, OK?”

Kind of makes you wonder how you can change that incentive. Yet shifting the U.S. military’s mercantile ethos is just as vital. “Changing culture is one of the hardest things you can do in any organization,” Kendall said. “It’s a long-term project. It requires constant reinforcement and tenacity.”

Just like the war in Afghanistan.


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

America’s newest refugees

No surprise—they’re from Afghanistan. The September 25 Washington Post reports how nearly 6,000 of them in southern Virginia are faring near the town of Blackstone, population 3,600. Seems the new arrivals are splitting the town in two, like pretty much everything else happening in the U.S. these days.

Bombers away…

Britain’s Rolls-Royce beat out the U.S.’s General Electric and Pratt & Whitney to provide new engines for the Air Force’s old B-52 bombers. “Rolls-Royce said on Monday it had been selected to provide engines for the United States Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers, in a contract which could be worth up to $2.6 billion to the British engineering firm,” Reuters reported September 27. Sure, the Rolls-Royce unit doing the work is the former Allison Engine Co. of Indianapolis, Indiana, which Rolls bought in 1995. “With more than 16,000 military engines in service with 160 customers in 103 countries, Rolls-Royce is a powerful player in the defence aero engine market,” the company says on its website. Nonetheless, it’s still jarring to realize that America’s most-heralded bomber is going to be powered by a corporation that still doesn’t know how to spell “defense.”

Shipyard shots

Only about half of the workers at two of the Navy’s shipbuilders have been vaccinated against COVID-19, Defense One reported September 23. The Bunker is sure they’re gung-ho when it comes to building ships to protect the nation, but finds it curious that so many are disinclined to getting shots to protect themselves.

Fried potatoes(PDF)

The Defense Department is moving out with plans to build a prototype portable nuclear reactor in Idaho to help slake the Pentagon’s perpetual and growing thirst for energy. It released its draft environmental impact statement for public comment on the effort September 24. “As one of the largest users of energy in the world, DOD installations need the capability to reduce their present reliance on local electric grids and diesel-fueled generators,” the Pentagon said. “Advanced nuclear power is capable of meeting the DoD's need to increase energy security and resilience, but must demonstrate its technical and safety specifications at full size and power.” The Bunkersifted through the pros and cons of sending pint-sized atomic-powerplants downrange two years ago.

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