Newsletter

The Bunker: Hardware Headache Hat Trick

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 hat trick of hardware headaches involving the F-35, a blueprint for mediocrity, and the defense-industrial base; Biden’s missing words; Walter Reed 2.0; lightning strikes twice; and more.

DEFINING DEFENSE DEVIANCY DOWN

The latest F-35 “success”

Only in the U.S. military would the wholesale junking of the key support system of the most expensive weapons system in the history of the world be cause for celebration. Yet that’s precisely what the Pentagon folks running the tri-service F-35 program did February 1. “Maintenance milestone for the F-35 fleet!” they said (free Bunker advice: be wary when the Pentagon starts using exclamation marks!). “Due to the diligent work by the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin,” they added, initial replacement hardware to keep the F-35 flying was “fielded on time and within budget in January.” The new gear is “75% smaller and lighter” than the old stuff, the F-35 program office said, “and was procured at nearly 30 percent lower cost.”

This is the military’s equivalent of asking: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

That’s because the F-35’s original logistics support system—Autonomic Logistics Information System (acronym ALIS, as in Wonderland)—is so bad that commanders have been ignoring its “not-ready-to-fly” alerts. The Pentagon is now replacing it with the new Operational Data Integrated Network (acronym ODIN, like the Norse god of war). Both were/are designed by Lockheed, the F-35’s builder and the Defense Department’s #1 contractor (in dollars, not quality). The Pentagon plans to buy a 2,456 fleet of F-35s for $400 billion. It would cost $1.2 trillion more(PDF) to fly those planes through 2070. The chance of the U.S. spending that much money, on that many planes, is the same as the U.S. winning the war in Afghanistan.

ALIS was supposed to be a data-sucking network that would allow F-35 maintainers to monitor each $160 million aircraft(PDF) in near-real time. It would basically let them know, in advance, when oil and tire changes were due, and parts had to be replaced (and no, this isn’t the F-35’s only spare-parts snafu). But ALIS was plagued “by outdated technology, false alarms, laborious data entry requirements, and clumsy interfaces.” That eye-watering assessment is from Air Force Magazine, a leading cheerleader for the service, which is slated to buy about 70% of the Pentagon’s F-35s (the Marines and Navy also fly the plane).

ALIS funneled all of its data through a single conduit and computer “with no backup system or redundancy,” the Government Accountability Office warned in a 2016 report. “If either of these fail, it could take the entire F-35 fleet offline.” And it was heavy. ALIS computers “weigh approximately 200 pounds and require at least two people to lift.” Several would have to be deployed to foreign hotspots along with their F-35s and would “need a whole room to operate,” the GAO noted in a March 2020 report. “It can be hard to find a place to store them on a ship,” where both Marine and Navy F-35s are based. Not the most agile piece of hardware. Things got so bad that commanders have ignored ALIS alerts that their F-35s are unsafe to fly, the GAO said(PDF) in July 2020.

Of course, the Defense Department didn’t get into such details when it announced ODIN’s roll-out to replace “the legacy ALIS computer hardware.” But only the Pentagon can abandon a projected $16.7 billion “legacy” system at the heart of a jet fighter—a jet fighter that has yet to be approved for full-scale production—and peddle it as progress.

WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?

The Pentagon’s blue-ribbon blueprint for mediocrity

With all the focus lately on diversity—from the Supreme Court to the NFL—there’s one place where it’s MIA: any time the U.S. government grapples with defense procurement. The February 1 naming of the first four (of an eventual 14) members of a blue-ribbon panel to address procurement highlights the problem. All four have spun through the revolving door—two (here and here) working for defense contractors, one with an Air Force booster group funded by defense contractors, and one with a think tank funded by defense contractors.

The individuals’ names aren’t nearly as important as who pays, or has paid, them: Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Northrop, Raytheon and many others with a vested interest in defense-business-as-usual. Despite their sure-to-be professed good intentions, these are apparatchiks who have spent years, if not decades, unrocking boats.

The congressionally mandated Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Reform is supposed to spend the next 20 months figuring out how to speed up delivery of cutting-edge weapons to the U.S. military. This so-called PPBE process, among other woes, requires two years of paper-shuffling before money is actually spent on new programs. The Bunker has been following such efforts since the 1986 Packard Commission with scant results. In fact, one of the four named to this newest commission helmed a similar effort inside the Pentagon itself just over a year ago.

Long-time Pentagon watcher Winslow Wheeler predicted how this latest exercise would turn out even before armed-services-committee lawmakers tapped those first four members (the defense secretary and other congressional leaders will choose the other 10). “This is not to be a commission of independently-minded, objective professionals who want real change in the DOD acquisition system,” he wrote December 13 over at Responsible Statecraft. “It is to be DOD itself, the non-oversight congressional defense committees, captured think tanks and defense corporations themselves doing the analysis and recommendations.”

Albert Einstein never worked at the Pentagon. And while he often gets credit, he never said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” But if the genius had toiled inside the five-sided hall of mirrors—and been paying attention to the Pentagon’s repeated purported procurement reforms—he surely would have coined the adage.

“THE SKY IS FALLING!”

Defense industry sounds the alarm. Again.

The National Defense Industrial Association—basically, a lobbying group you might call Military-Industrial Complex, Inc.—has given the nation and itself a failing grade on the health of the factories, laboratories and depots that supply the Pentagon. “This failing score is a wake-up call to all the decision-makers on Capitol Hill and the executive branch and the [Department of Defense] that care about national security and this nation,” NDIA President Hawk Carlisle, a retired Air Force four-star, said February 2. He spoke as NDIA released its third annual edition of Vital Signs: The Health and Readiness of the Defense Industrial Base(PDF).

While COVID-19 has accelerated the decline of the U.S. defense industrial base, Carlisle added, it has been shrinking for years. And that contractor contraction, he warned, must be reversed: “The aggressive Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border and the…rapid military modernization efforts of the People's Republic of China remind us that our industry’s work of providing superior products and services to armed services so that they can compete and win and all domains of warfare can never be taken for granted.”

The annual survey, which gave the defense-industrial base a grade of 72 in its 2020 and 2021 editions, has now slipped to a 69. “This marks the first time the defense industrial base has not received a passing grade since Vital Signs was first released in 2020,” NDIA’s National Defense magazine noted. (The Bunker respectfully notes that a 69 is generally deemed a passing grade, with nine points to spare. Do not ask how he knows).

The NDIA surveyed more than 400 companies on more than 50 factors—including profitability, worker quality, and government regulation—to assess the health of the U.S. defense-industrial base. It's fair to think of this report card as the defense-industry clone of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’Doomsday Clock, which has been predicting imminent nuclear war since 1947. In other words, it’s not necessarily something that you can take to the bank, even if its sponsors can.

TO SUM UP:

Each of these hardware hassles—poor F-35 logistics, poor procurement, and a poor defense-industrial base—is deeply rooted in the different pathologies that guide how the Pentagon develops and buys its weapons. Yet it’s a safe taxpayer bet, according to those running the show, that they’ll share a common fix: more money.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Dogfight!

Lawmakers have created the Mach 1 Caucus to represent fighter pilots, Air Force Magazine reported February 4. It joins the ranks of similar lawmaker groups supporting airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the Army, shipbuilding, submarines, and many others. Not unlike the tides, they tend to rise when their programs are threatened, and ebb into somnolence when they’re fat.

“All options are on the table”

That oft-uttered statement, by U.S. presidents trying to deter war, hasn’t escaped President Biden’s lips regarding Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine, Russell Berman noted on The Atlantic website February 1.

“Imminent”

That’s a word regarding that possible invasion that the White House used only once and is now distancing itself from, the Washington Examiner said February 2.

Got us, coming and going

A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank says the Pentagon should refocus its hypersonic weapons efforts on defending against the Chinese and Russian arms that can travel at least five times the speed of sound, Theresa Hitchens reported at Breaking Defense February 7.

Déjà shame

Lousy living conditions at the military's Walter Reed hospital forced out Army leaders in 2007 who had let them fester. The military’s pre-eminent hospital moved four miles in 2011 and has been operated by the Navy ever since, which—wait for it—has been providing troops with lousy living conditions there, Navy Times’ Geoff Ziezulewicz reported February 7.

Lightning strikes twice!

In addition to The Bunker’s opening item this week, it turns out there’s a second bit of good news regarding the Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II: it soon will be allowed to fly closer to lightning that could have blown it up, Air Force Times reported February 3.

Thanks again for threading your way through The Bunker and the storm clouds that threaten a smarter and leaner U.S. military. Consider enlisting in The Bunker force here for early-Wednesday delivery.