The Bunker: Far From Shipshape

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: climbing below decks to find out what’s ailing the U.S. Navy; Congress (again) fails to do its job; the battle over reporting requirements; why the U.S. can’t win its wars; and more.


A grim look below decks on Navy warships

To get a sense of today’s U.S. Navy, you’ve got to leave the bright and shiny bridge and clamber several decks below to visit the grimy and hot engineering spaces where the machinist mates and hull-maintenance techs work. These sailors don’t hold back when describing to government investigators why it is so hard to keep their warships shipshape:

  • “The hours of required maintenance exceed the hours in a day.”
  • “A surface ship’s maintenance division is at 40 percent of its optimal crewing levels.”
  • “The operational tempo has increased over the last 2 years. Because of this, junior personnel do not receive proper training, which in turn leads to junior personnel gaining senior status and still not knowing what they are doing.”
  • “Many of the Navy’s schools do not teach crewmembers how to service equipment onboard ships because much of that equipment is obsolete.”
  • “Crew shortages and additional demands to perform maintenance cause mental health and morale issues that may result in sailors taking leave for medical reasons such as to receive mental health evaluations, which further increases crew shortages.”
  • “Members of one ship’s crew stated that they lost one person to suicide and a dozen other personnel experienced mental health issues over a period of 7 months.”
  • “Ships’ crews just fix equipment with Band Aids so that a submarine can get underway. Essentially, a commanding officer does not want the ship to be perceived by superiors as the `boat that cannot get underway.’”
  • “Ships’ crews described sailors arriving from Navy schools with little to no practical maintenance training and a few ships’ crews said they sometimes had to rely on social media to help solve maintenance problems.”

Ah yes, the Great Facebook Fleet.

These cries for help come from sailors aboard 16 ships, interviewed by the Government Accountability Office for a February 8 report. Interestingly, to The Bunker at least, the GAO deemed their insights so valuable it made them a separate appendix (PDF) in a 60-page report with the don’t-read-me title NAVY SHIP MAINTENANCE: Actions Needed to Monitor and Address the Performance of Intermediate Maintenance Periods (PDF).

The dire condition of Navy maintenance and training has plagued the service for years. Unfortunately, the same woes affect its ship-building programs, too. All this has happened as the Navy’s annual budget has nearly doubled (PDF), from $83 billion on 9/11 to $164 billion today, even as the size of the fleet has shrunk from 316 to 296. It's long past time for the nation to give its sailors a break. The Bunker’s recommendation: trimming the Navy’s commitments so that it can do a lot well instead of everything poorly.

Most critically, these sailors’ workloads can be more than wearying—they can be deadly. “Submarine departures from specifications [The Bunker translation: ignoring standard operation procedures] as a percentage of all maintenance jobs,” the GAO said, jumped 66% between 2015 and 2020 (from 9% to 15%). Cutting corners deep underwater has always set off The Bunker’s alarm, who all too well remembers the sinking of the USS Thresher pretty much in his backyard in 1963. The Navy blamed a “piping failure” for her loss, and all 129 souls aboard. Makes one wonder what kind of tragedy it will take to right the Navy’s course.


Equal-opportunity opprobrium for a Congress that won’t do its job

The Bunker never hesitates to let the Defense Department have it when justified, and let’s face it—the Pentagon is a target-rich environment. But we’re going to direct some of this week’s fire at Congress. That’s because it increasingly is unable to perform its most basic task when it comes to the U.S. military: funding it on time. Sure, its failure to fulfill its Constitutional role to declare war, or not, is a close second, but that’s something that occurs sporadically, and unpredictably. But paying for the U.S. military—also something required by the Constitution—is something needed 24/7/365. Instead, as in too many past years, the U.S. military is going to spend much of 2022 under a so-called “continuing resolution,” which caps much of this year’s spending at 2021 levels.

“When we have prolonged CRs, it affects readiness,” Army Lieutenant General Erik Kurilla told senators February 8 as they weighed his nomination to head U.S. Central Command, where the U.S. recently fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It affects our ability to train. It affects our combat training centers, our rotor-wing flight hours,” he added. And it hurts on the home front, too: “It stops the prevention of new starts, such as military construction for barracks, motor pools, and child development centers.”

Here at the Project On Government Oversight, we want our tax dollars spent as efficiently as possible. But that’s not possible so long as lawmakers fail to pass Pentagon budgets on time, locking this year’s spending and priorities into last year’s. High inflation widens the spending chasm.

What’s amazing is that a Congress that force-feeds further funding into the Pentagon, like a sadistic farmer fattening a goose for foie gras, can’t pass legislation to get the biggest bang for the, um, duck. The inaction is costing the Pentagon about $5 billion a month in purchasing power that Congress authorized but has not yet appropriated. There are smarter ways to cut defense spending than by lawmaker laziness that simply throws sand into the spending gears of a military that Congress professes to respect.


The never-ending Pentagon paper chase

Speaking of congressional responsibility, the Project On Government Oversight joined with 41 other groups in a February 10 letter to President Biden objecting to his declaration that the Pentagon won’t comply with certain congressional reporting demands. Biden, in a signing statement added to the 2022 defense-authorization bill, said full compliance “could reveal critical intelligence sources or military operational plans” that might threaten national security. Such boilerplate is 99% bipartisan baloney. But it is in keeping with the growing trend toward secrecy that is increasingly cloaking the national-security state.

Yet it’s worth pointing out that on the very same day, the Government Accountability Office said the number of new annual reporting requirements Congress has imposed on the Pentagon jumped from 513 in 2000 to 1,429 in 2020. That’s a 179% hike. The Bunker humbly suggests that if Congress would fulfill its two most important nat-sec tasks—pass budgets on time, and vote to declare war (or not) before beginning generational trillion-dollar misadventures—the need for most of those reports would evaporate.


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

Afghan autopsy

Interviews with U.S. military officers, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton of the Washington Post and published February 8, reveal their frustration over the Biden administration’s bollixed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. (You can read the actual “MEMOANDUM” summarizing the view of the top commander on the ground, here [PDF]).

Turns out it is rocket science…

A solar disturbance has incinerated up to 40 of Elon Musk's 49 recently-launched Starlink satellites as they fall back into Earth’s atmosphere, Space News reported February 9. The Pentagon is counting on such satellites to help it conquer the final frontier.

More rocket news

Lockheed, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, announced on Super Bowl Sunday that it was abandoning its push to buy rocket-engine maker Aerojet following the Federal Trade Commission’s recent complaint that the consolidation would hurt competition. The Bunker predicted the move February 2.

Pentagon interference

Nearly 50 years ago, Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger issued an order checking President Richard Nixon’s power to launch nuclear weapons, Garrett M. Graff (author of Watergate: A New History) tells Axios’ Mike Allen February 15.

More than a few good women

That’s because without more of them, the Marines will have difficulty joining its sister services in making basic training co-ed, Philip Athey reported in Marine Corps Times February 9.

One reason we can’t win wars

Retired Marine lieutenant general—and firebrand—Greg Newbold wrote February 10 at Task & Purpose that those in charge of launching America’s wars (both in and out of uniform) are too willing to sacrifice lethality on the altar of diversity and gender. The Bunker has been hearing such complaints as long as the U.S. military has been losing its wars. Not that correlation is causation.

A second reason we can’t win wars

Military historian James A. Warren explains why the Pentagon’s penchant for technological solutions to military challenges explains its lack of familiarity with winning at the Daily Beast February 13.

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