The Bunker: Double-Barreled Blast at Pentagon Procurement

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: A pair of blistering government reports highlight what’s still going wrong with the way the Pentagon buys, and tends, its weapons; and more.


U.S. weapons are too complicated and costly to work

Pentagon weapons designers took a double-barreled shotgun blast to the gut last week. Both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office peppered buckshot into the Defense Department’s hidebound buying bureaucracy. The sober yardsticks provided by professional probers are a welcome change from the dewy-eyed assessments of the Pentagon, defense contractors, and their parasitic partners in the trade press.

Turns out U.S. military aircraft are grounded too often because they are too complicated to maintain, according to the GAO’s November 10 report. Complicated translates into costs, which translates into how often a given warbird can fly. Bottom line: Not much.

The CBO inquiry, issued the same day, concludes the Navy is low-balling its shipbuilding plans. Bottom line: Too much wishful sinking (sorry; Freudian ship). Unfortunately, given the id of the military-industrial complex, more money won’t solve the problem: It will only lead to more spending with even more waste. The Pentagon’s quest for silver bullets, it turns out, is fool’s gold…


U.S. military aircraft readiness keeps declining

The U.S. military spends about $1 billion a week(PDF) — $1,650 a second — keeping its airplanes flying. Yet despite that heavy investment, 26 of the 49 planes and helicopters studied by the GAO failed to meet their mission capability goal in any single year from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2021. “DOD did not meet its mission capable goals for fiscal year 2021 for 47 of the 49 aircraft we reviewed,” the agency added. Thirty aircraft “were more than 10 percentage points below the mission capable goal in fiscal year 2021.” Specific numbers were MIA because of Pentagon objections, although the report noted the Air Force’s F-22 fighter had a goal of 75% in 2021. That meant three of every four were supposed to be able to fly at least one of their three missions (in high school, this is called “grading on the curve”).

Airframes chalking up big fat zeroes included vital platforms like the Air Force’s C-17 cargo plane, F-16 and F-22 fighters; the Army’s AH-64 attack helicopter; the Marines’ F-35 fighter and V-22 tilt-rotor; and the Navy’s F-18E/F fighter and MH-53 helicopter minesweeper. This happens despite a Pentagon policy(PDF) requiring weapons “be maintained to the optimum mission capable status.”

This is how you create a “hollow force” — purchasing too many complicated weapons to keep them properly maintained. Buying big-ticket shiny hardware is the crack cocaine of the military-industrial complex, even though the lion’s share of a weapon’s total cost — about 70% — is spent after it is delivered. “Weapon systems are costly to sustain in part because they often incorporate a complex array of technical subsystems and components and need expensive repair parts and logistics support to meet required readiness levels,” the GAO notes in its 352-page study.

Boosting the F-35’s readiness rate “was not affordable” and the F-16’s poor showing was due to “funding shortfalls.” A push to cut maintenance costs for the V-22 by cutting its 70 (!) different configurations to 15 is flagging “due to budget constraints and schedule delays.” But it isn’t only money and time. Pentagon officials said “aging aircraft, maintenance challenges, and supply support issues account for this decrease in mission capable rates.”

Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that the most-ready aircraft the GAO found was the Air Force UH-1 helicopter, an upgraded version of the storied Army chopper that first flew in 1956.


Going down with the ships

The Navy has weathered rough seas buying ships in the past, and the future isn’t looking any calmer. The new CBO report says the service’s new attack sub and destroyer are going to cost billions more than the Navy projects. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has followed the work of the Project On Government Oversight on the sea service’s botched buys of its most recent aircraft carrier, coastal craft, or destroyer. But it does suggest a continuing, and stunning, inability by the Navy to get its ducks, and dollars, in a row.

“CBO’s estimates of new-ship construction costs are higher than the Navy’s because CBO and the Navy made different assumptions about the design and capabilities of some future ships, used different estimating methods, and treated growth in the costs of labor and materials for shipbuilding differently,” the CBO report says. Bottom line, up front: The CBO bases its cost projections on the Navy’s shipbuilding record, while the Navy bases its estimates on crossed fingers. How out of touch is the Navy? Well, its 30-year shipbuilding plan would require about 30% more money each year than the Navy has gotten annually over the past five years, CBO says — “a half-decade that saw the highest level of such funding since the 1980s.”

The Navy says the DDG(X), its newest destroyer, “would be equivalent or superior” to the destroyer now in production, but with “a larger hull, substantially more power, more stealth characteristics, and a greater capacity to accommodate the installation of new weapon systems and other capabilities in the future.” The Navy is making the laws of economics and physics walk the plank: The service predicts this new warship will weigh 40% more than the destroyers it is now buying, but cost only 10% more. The Navy says each new DDG(X) will cost $2.3 billion; CBO says it will cost at least $3.1 billion — around 35% more.

Same story for the Navy’s new fleet of attack subs, dubbed SSN(X), CBO says. While the service “has not yet determined its capabilities or size,” it “should be faster, stealthier, and able to carry more torpedoes than [the current] Virginia class ships.” Nonetheless, the Navy pegs the cost of each SSN(X) at $5.6 billion; CBO says it will cost between $6.2 billion and $7.2 billion (up to 29% more). Having watched this game for decades, The Bunker bets the CBO’s numbers are more accurate.

A week before the reports, Navy Admiral Charles Richard warned that Beijing’s military is threatening to blow the U.S. military out of the water. “As I assess our level of deterrence against China,” the chief of U.S. Strategic Command said, “the ship is slowly sinking.”

Hate to tell you, Admiral, but it ain’t China that’s sinking the U.S. military.


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

Frequent-flier smiles

The mysterious X-37B unmanned spaceplane has touched down after a 908-day flight, Air and Space Forces Magazine reported November 14.

Border war continues

Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS along the Iraq-Syria border, just turned 8, The Cipher Brief’s Walter Pincus reminded us November 8.

Improper props

The Air Force has grounded 100+ C-130 cargo planes after suspecting mechanics damaged their propeller blades by engraving serial numbers into them, Defense One reported November 8.

Thanks for dropping anchor alongside The Bunker this week. If you like what you're reading, forward this to a friend so they can sign up here.