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The Bunker: Funny Figures

This week in The Bunker: As defense spending approaches a trillion dollars annually, it’s more important than ever to track spending accurately; Congress greases the skids for a draft; believe it or not, the Navy is screwing up another ship program; and more.

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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This week in The Bunker: As defense spending approaches a trillion dollars annually, it’s more important than ever to track spending accurately; Congress greases the skids for a draft; believe it or not, the Navy is screwing up another ship program; and more.

FIGURES DON’T LIE

But they don’t always add up, either

President Trump boosted U.S. defense spending by a hefty 20% during his four years in office. President Biden has done the same — but it only took him three years. Plainly, combat corpulence is a bipartisan game. And now Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the senior Republican on the armed services committee, wants the nation to make “a generational investment” in the U.S. military. He proposes (PDF) boosting next year’s $850 billion military budget by $55 billion and raising it from 2.9% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product to 5% within seven years.

Wicker detailed his push in a May 29 op-ed column in the New York Times. It touched all the same old bases, including how China and Russia are “helping one another prepare for future fights,” while NATO and other U.S. allies are MIA from his piece. He warned darkly that top U.S. military leaders are telling lawmakers “behind closed doors” that “we face some of the most dangerous global threat environments since World War II.” That is a refrain The Bunker has been hearing publicly from the U.S. military for nearly a half-century, ebbing and flowing as regularly as the tides.

But Wicker hit a spending bump when he cited growth in the Defense Department’s annual “unfunded priorities lists” (PDF) as proof of Pentagon poverty. Those are the congressionally-mandated “wish lists” that uniformed military leaders submit to Congress spelling out what they wanted, but couldn’t get, from their civilian overlords at the Pentagon and White House. “The U.S. Indo-Pacific commander released what I believe to be the largest list of unfunded items ever for services and combatant commands for next year’s budget, amounting to $11 billion,” Wicker wrote.

It took The Bunker all of 60 seconds online to find the Air Force’s $18.75 billion wish list for 2009 — about $28 billion in today’s dollars. Frustratingly, the Air Force’s 11-page 2009 wish list didn’t include that total cost, unlike 2008’s $16.9 billion plea (PDF). Tellingly, this Pentagon panhandling happened with a Republican in the White House. These are two easy-to-find wish lists from the not-so-distant past that are far bigger than Wicker’s “largest list of unfunded items ever.” Just because his math, or his staff’s, leads him to believe that USINDOPACOM’s wish list is the biggest ever doesn’t mean that we have to.

He derails his own logic train when such a basic fact is wrong. But here’s a true fact worth knowing: Wicker is the Senate’s top recipient of campaign contributions from defense contractors.

CONGRESSIONAL SHIRKING

Do you feel a draft?

Congress hasn’t performed one of its key Constitutional duties — to debate and declare, or not declare war — since 1942 (PDF). But lawmakers want to make sure young men will be automatically registered for a possible draft when they turn 18. Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) pushed for the amendment in the 2025 defense authorization act drafted by the House Armed Services Committee. The percentage of young men registering for the draft fell to 84% in 2022. The Selective Service is spending $33 million this year to boost that number.

“By using available federal databases, the [Selective Service] agency will be able to register all of the individuals required and thus help ensure that any future military draft is fair and equitable,” Houlahan said. “This will also allow us to rededicate resources — basically that means money — towards reading readiness and towards mobilization … rather than towards education and advertising campaigns driven to register people.”

But a “fair and equitable” draft requires a “fair and equitable” declaration of war by Congress. Until then, let’s just call this the “Automated Cannon Fodder Act of 2024.”

ANCHORS ASTRAY!

Navy’s newest warship s(t)inking fast

If you thought the Navy’s snafu over its most recent “low-cost” warship might have taught it some lessons for the next one, think again. The Littoral Combat Ship program has been a disaster, with the service scrapping relatively new LCS hulls even as it is producing newer ones. So in 2017, the Navy launched a new small-warship program with a keen eye on the LCS’s shortcomings. That’s the $22 billion, 20-hull Constellation-class frigate program, now being built in Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s Wisconsin shipyard.

Think of it as good intentions ignored.

The Navy planned to reduce risk by using a European-designed frigate already in the Italian and French navies. But while Americans like European food, wine, art, and architecture, the ship’s blueprints weren’t good enough for the Pentagon. “Navy decisions to substantially modify the frigate design from the parent design have caused the two to now resemble nothing more than distant cousins,” the Government Accountability Office reported May 29 (PDF). “Further, inadequate functional design review practices and botched metrics that the frigate program continues to rely on obscured the program’s actual design progress and contributed to prematurely starting lead ship construction before the design was sufficiently stable to support that activity.” Construction on the first ship “is at a standstill,” and it will be delivered — fingers crossed — three years late.

“…prematurely starting lead ship construction before the design was sufficiently stable to support that activity.”

That’s the same knuckleheaded strategy that doomed the F-35 fighter.

“But wait!” as the huckster says, “there’s more!”

As of September, the shipbuilder had completed construction on only 3.6% of the lead ship (PDF), compared to the 35.5% it was supposed to have done by that point.

“While the Navy tracks design progress, its process to calculate design stability hinges largely on the quantity — rather than the quality — of completed design documents,” the GAO reported (PDF). The Navy has accepted incomplete documents like “drawings, diagrams, specifications, and configurations(PDF) for the new vessel, including some “without any design content(PDF) because of “the contractor’s desire to meet a contract deadline.” The service deems such incomplete requirements 50% accomplished.

The botched planning has led the frigate’s weight to grow by 10%. “The Navy disclosed to us in April 2024 that it is considering a reduction in the frigate’s speed requirement as one potential way, among others, to resolve the weight growth affecting the ship’s design,” the GAO said (PDF).

Sentencing those responsible to walk the plank — only bureaucratically, of course — would also help.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

A weak reed?

Army Lieutenant Colonel Steven Chetcuti explores what’s happening to war-fighting culture as contractors play a growing role on the battlefield in a May 30 piece on the Army War College’s War Room website.

Smarter intel

Dylan Matthews wrote in Vox May 28 about the unheralded U.S. intelligence agency that got Vietnam, Iraq, and Ukraine right.

Backfire?

Western economic sanctions and export controls, instead of throttling foes, have nurtured “a global shadow economy” led by China, Ian Talley and Rosie Ettenheim reported May 30 in the Wall Street Journal.

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