The Bunker: Hardware House of Horrors

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: even for the Pentagon’s typically botched-up acquisition system, it has been a rough week: an underpowered engine; the Navy runs aground; a hypersonic crash; and more.


The Bunker takes a week off to launch his eighth decade — yep, he’s as old as a B-52 bomber — and things start falling apart at the Department of Defense. Sure, it’s never smooth sailing when it comes to buying weapons — warships, or otherwise — but in recent days there’s been a plethora of Pentagon problems. March 29 was particularly grim. This is what happens when generals and admirals have to trek to Capitol Hill to justify their nearly trillion-dollar annual budget:


The F-35’s engine can’t do the job

The Pentagon’s F-35 fiasco continues. At $412 billion for 2,470 jets for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy (over 75% more[PDF] than originally estimated), you’d think they’d be spending enough money to get it right. But you’d be…wrong. The most expensive weapon system in world history ran into some unexpected turbulence March 29 when the three-star Air Force general piloting the program revealed that the engine in the single-engine plane isn’t up to snuff. Even worse: it never has been.

“We have been eating into the life of this engine since the beginning of the program, because we did under-spec the engine and its requirements,” Lieutenant General Michael Schmidt told a congressional panel. “We are building costs into this program by eating into the life of this engine with additional overhauls that are expected over the life of the program.” (To “under-spec” means drafting specifications for a weapon in development that are not robust enough for it in the real world.)

Mind you, the F-35 engine isn’t your typical motor. It’s such a huge program that since 2010(PDF) it has warranted its own entry(PDF) in the Pentagon’s irregularly-issued Selected Acquisition Reports. That separates it from the “F-35 aircraft” line item (one way to make the plane, um, glider, appear less expensive). And from the day the program began, the Pentagon and engine-builder Pratt & Whitney agreed the engine could be out of order five times as often as those used on other U.S. fighter jets.

Turns out the F-35’s increasingly complicated on-board computers need more electric and cooling capabilities than originally thought. That requires its $27 million(PDF) F135 engine to run harder, which wears it out more quickly.

In 2008, F-35 builder Lockheed discovered the engine was too wimpy. Five years later (and you wonder why defense procurement is like molasses in February?) it asked the Pentagon to beef up the engine. “But program officials determined that it was too late to redesign the engine given the cost and schedule impacts of such a change at that stage of the overall program,” Jon Ludwigson of the Government Accountability Office told(PDF) that same House hearing. Striking to say that it was “too late” to fix the engine given that, a decade later, the F-35 has yet to enter full-rate production because of continuing problems.

Pentagon bottom line: the engine has to run twice as hot as designed. That wears it out more quicky, which requires more maintenance. That’s a big reason why only 29.3% of the Pentagon’s 564 already-delivered F-35s were able to fly all their missions in February. For the math-challenged among us, that means barely one in four F-35s is fully ready to fly and fight. To combat this, the F-35 program has launched what it is calling its “War on Readiness(PDF). Technically speaking, of course, it’s already winning that war. What it should be launching is a War on Unreadiness.

Taxpayer bottom line: Anyone who has brought their car into the shop for repairs knows it isn’t cheap. “When you send an engine back more times than it was supposed to over [its] life … it is a huge amount of money that is going to cost us to refurbish these engines many extra times,” Schmidt toldDefense One.

How big is “huge”? The GAO pegs the extra cost(PDF) of tending to the anemic engine at (hold your breath)…

$38 billion.

That works out to more than $100 for every American. Not for the plane. Or its engine. Or to keep that engine running. It’s just for the extra repairs the engine requires because its blueprints were so lousy.

But don’t fear. To grapple with this challenge, the F-35 program has launched a second campaign that it calls its “War on Cost(PDF). Turns out China and Russia aren’t the only foes that can blow the F-35 out of the sky. “Cost,” Schmidt says, “is a significant threat to the F-35 program.”

Actually, cost is the significant threat to the F-35 program. 


Navy has a fleet of foul-ups

The Pentagon’s latest procurement problems aren’t limited to the skies. They’re on the seas, as well:

  • Production of the Navy’s first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine is 10% behind schedule.
  • Production of the Navy’s Virginia-class attack subs is “significantly behind” schedule.
  • Delivery of the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier has been delayed from 2024 to 2025.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told a House panel March 29 that a key tool to righting the Navy’s shipbuilding woes is “increasing legal immigration.”


Latest Air Force wonder weapon isn’t

The Air Force has decided to scrap the AGM-183 hypersonic missile program intended to counter the purported threat posed by such weapons from China and Russia. After its troubled development and several test failures, the service told Congress March 29 that it was halting development of Lockheed’s Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (cute acronym: ARRW).

The decision to kill what could have become the U.S.’s first operational hypersonic weapon highlights the challenges associated with building a maneuverable missile capable of traveling at least five times the speed of sound. The Pentagon plans on spending $11 billion on hypersonic-weapons research next year. ARRW’s death leaves the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile, now under development, as the Air Force’s only hypersonic survivor.

The Bunker is puzzled by the Pentagon urge to buy weapons it can’t produce on time and on budget. Sure, innovation requires taking risks — but not every time, which increasingly seems to be the U.S. military’s modus inoperandi.


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

Sunk costs

The Justice Department announced March 31 the indictment of a trio of ex-executives of Navy shipbuilder Austal — including its former CEO — for a “multimillion dollar accounting fraud scheme” involving the Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ship program.

Training wheezes

The Marines don’t have enough operators for all the MQ-9 Reaper drones it is buying, Justin Katz reported March 28 at Breaking Defense.

Dearth of a salesman…

The argument that the U.S. has to peddle weapons overseas to keep potential adversaries from landing such deals is flawed, Elias Yousif of the non-profit Stimson Center argued March 30 in Defense One.

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