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The Bunker: Follow All of the Money

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: F-35 flies and lies; politicians seem more opposed to mandatory vaccines than the troops; Afghanistan continues its slide into chaos and civil war; & more.

F-35 Math 1.0

Another portent of problems

Last week we dealt with the quality of the weapons the Pentagon buys, and its tendency to try to cram too much high-tech into them. Predictably, that drives costs and production delays through the roof. This week, triggered by the latest F-35 news, let’s deal with the quantity side of the ledger. And not the number the Pentagon is buying, mind you, but the number it said it wanted to buy. There’s often a gap between those two numbers big enough to slide the Pentagon through.

The Defense Department develops weapons in dreams but buys them in nightmares. In its early stages of development—when costs are low—dreams are high: “We’re gonna buy enough of these ships/tanks/planes to keep the cost of each one way down,” the Military-Industrial Choir sings. Their civilian overlords, in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, nod sagely in harmony…even though history teaches us that this rarely happens. Once a program enters production the money to build at the original pie-in-the-sky rate evaporates as programs are pitted against each other for a bigger slice of the budget pie. That means fewer can be built, which sends the cost of each one actually bought soaring.

Nothing new here. The Air Force wanted 750 F-22 fighters; it got 187. It wanted(PDF) 132 B-2 bombers; it got 21. Now it looks like this pathology has infected the F-35, a $400 billion program to build new fighters for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy.

After years of delays the program is running into math problems. The Pentagon wants to buy nearly 25% of its planned 2,470 F-35s before beginning a yet-to-be-determined date for full-scale production. The desire to put new technology into the F-35, as well as COVID-19, will slow down production, Lockheed Chief Financial Officer Ken Possenriede told financial analysts during the company’s quarterly earnings call July 26. Discussions with the Pentagon are “likely to show the plateau of production slightly pushed out to the right, but also elongating, if you will.” Pentagon translation: “pushed out to the right” means delayed into the future; “elongating” means “stretching out.” Taxpayer translation: they’re going to cost more money. Take it from someone who has covered such debacles for more than four decades: this is only the beginning.

Any cuts in annual or total F-35 buys will cost more per plane. The Air Force has already discussed slashing the service’s F-35 buy from 1,763 to 1,050 jets—a 40% reduction, which would dramatically increase the cost of each plane purchased. In February, General Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, made it clear that the F-35—originally intended as a low-cost fighter—has become a “high-end” warplane. “I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” Brown said. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [fighter]; we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight.” And technical snafus continue to drive up costs.

During the Reagan defense buildup, the Defense Department boosted efficient production rates for its major weapons systems from 48% in 1984 to 57% in 1985, the General Accounting Office said(PDF) in 1986. The Pentagon said such efficiencies would save $2.8 billion between 1981 and 1989, back when $2.8 billion was real money. “However, these savings may be overstated because savings estimates are not reduced by costs incurred when other major systems are funded at less economical rates to provide funding for systems at economical rates,” the GAO said. Bottom line: The Pentagon slowed down the production of some weapons, which increased their cost by $3.5 billion, “primarily” to save $2.8 billion realized by boosting the production of others.

You can’t make this stuff up.

F-35 Math 2.0

Buyer be wary

As that first item makes clear, there are lots of numbers floating around when it comes to Pentagon programs: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. They’re often sharpened and weaponized. Last week, for example, The National Interest ran a piece headlined “The F-35 Cost Critics Have No Idea What They are Talking About” before unleashing a fusillade of data trying to prove the point.

“Years ago, a single F-35 cost well over $90 million, yet multiple sources now say that number has dropped to $80 million or even less due to multiple Lockheed cost reduction initiatives and increased production efficiency,” it read. “As for comparison, there are varying estimates of a cost-per-plane for an F-15EX plane, yet many sources place the jets price to be above an F-35, costing more than $85 million per plane.”

That’s a decidedly rosy point of view. As olde-tyme radioman Paul Harvey might have said, here’s the rest of the story. “Defense reporters trying to make the case that the F-35 program is anything other than a disaster and national embarrassment instantly undermine their case by aping the talking points, and especially misleading cost figures, of the Pentagon, defense contractors, and industry funded-think tanks,” counters Dan Grazier, who has covered Lockheed Martin’s F-35 like a military blanket (he’s a Marine veteran) for years here at the Project On Government Oversight.

For example, money for a specific F-35 is paid out over several years, largely for parts needed in advance, with the biggest chunk spent in the year the plane rolls off the assembly line. “That construction-year cost is often sold to the public as the whole cost of the weapon,” Grazier says. “In less time than it takes to read a Lockheed Martin press release, you can pull up the Air Force's own budget document(PDF) and use the PDF search function to learn that gross weapon system unit cost of a F-35A in 2022 is $98.225 million, and not the sub-$80 million credulously reported in many publications.” The Navy’s budget document(PDF) shows that a Navy F-35C will cost $119 million next year (it's beefed up for carrier operations), and each Marine F-35B $148 million (so it can use smaller ships and airfields.)

In politics, they say “follow the money.” When it comes to defense spending, it’s “follow all of the money.”

COVID WARS

It’s politics as usual when it comes to vaccinations

Just as the Pentagon is pulling out of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s grappling with a new battle over vaccinating troops against the COVID-19 virus. This is what happens when the nation’s politics frays amid a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans. “Since many vaccinations are required for active duty military today, I’m asking the Defense Department to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 to the list of vaccinations our armed forces must get,” President Biden said July 29.

There hasn’t been a lot of vocal opposition to making the vaccine mandatory among troops. “Honestly, if the Army wants you to do something, they’ll make you,” a soldier who declined to give her name told the New York Times July 30. “It was still voluntary, so I just put it off.” In fact, more active-duty troops—64%—have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 than the 60% of Americans over 18 who have gotten the shot(s). The Pentagon has been reluctant to order troops to get vaccinated because the newly developed shots have yet to win the full approval of the Food and Drug Administration. The virus has killed 26 members of the U.S. military.

But as The Bunker noted previously, politicians are making more of this than the grunts. For nearly all troops it will be business as usual if the Pentagon mandates the vaccine.

AFGHANISTAN’S AGONISTES (CONT.)

The grim news just keeps getting worse

The war in Afghanistan had three chapters: U.S. victory over the Taliban (that lasted about six months), U.S.-Taliban stalemate (that last about 19 years) and U.S. defeat at the hands of the Taliban (now underway). Over the past week we’ve seen increasing evidence of the collapse of Afghanistan—or at least the Afghanistan that the U.S. tried to succor with thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Recent headlines tell the story. “As Fears Grip Afghanistan, Hundreds of Thousands Flee,” the New York Timessaid. “Citing Taliban violence, US expands Afghan refugee program,” the Associated Press reported. “Taliban advances into major Afghan cities for first time in two decades,” the Washington Postsaid. Afghanistan President Ashraf “Ghani Blames Insecurity On ‘Sudden’ U.S. Decision As Afghan Battles Move To Major Cities,” Radio Azadi—formerly known as Radio Free Afghanistan, and funded by the U.S. government—reported.

As someone who covered the launch of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, from inside the Pentagon, who visited the country several times, and charted its ups and downs over two decades, the lesson is clear. After ousting the Taliban from power, the U.S. should have declared “mission accomplished” and left, save for efforts to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The U.S. predicament grew more dire year after year after it opted to stay and rebuild Afghanistan. Each passing year and “fighting season” increasingly confirmed U.S. impotence. The likely coming defeat will only serve to highlight U.S. incompetence. God bless the 2,312(PDF) who willingly wore their nation’s uniform and made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of a graceless nation that, in the final analysis, didn’t care.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Vindman-ication

Chilling blow-by-blow account by Alexander Vindman, the Army lieutenant colonel who blew the whistle on then-President Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. The Atlantic posted this excerpt from his new book, Here, Right Matters: An American Story, August 1.

Not-such friendly fire

Turns out that last year’s conflagration aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, was deliberately set by an unnamed member of the crew, CNN reported July 30. The Navy decided to scrap the billion-dollar ship after an assessment showed it would take up to seven years and $3.2 billion to put it back into service. It was less than a decade ago that a civilian worker set a fire aboard the attack sub USS Miami that did up to $700 million in damage, leading to its scrapping.

A clean machine

An F-22 fighter crashed last year, destroying the $200 million warplane. It happened after the plane was washed, which somehow affected its flight stability. Unfortunately, that’s all we’re going to learn because the Air Force, citing “operational concerns,” elected not to do a publicly-releasable investigation, Air Force Magazine reported July 30. Sounds dirty to The Bunker.

Kudzu Korps

Arnold Punaro, a long-time defense pro (and retired Marine major general), has a bleak look at U.S. defense acquisition, according to this excerpt from his new book, The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force, published in Breaking Defense July 29.

“Disordered eating”

The U.S. military creates a “perfect storm” for troops trying to starve and exercise their way into meeting the services’ height-and-weight standards, Task & Purpose reported August 2. Some Army standards, Haley Britzky reported, date back to the 1800s and are “perhaps based on pseudoscience.”

Travel section

Dennis Overbye visits Trinity Site, New Mexico, where the first-ever nuclear explosion took place 76 years ago, for some radioactive nostalgia in the August 3 New York Times.

Thanks, padre

Air Force Chaplain David Sparks has spent the past 20 years welcoming home the U.S. troops who didn’t make it home alive. “He watched a father reaching for his dead son, repeatedly bellowing the Marine’s name, and he heard little boys weep,” the Associated Press reported from Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base. “In anger, families cursed him, and in gratitude, they held him tight.” As the Afghan war winds down, so is Sparks’ Air Force career. Matt Sedensky told the tale of this unseen 74-year-old hero of that war July 20.

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