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The Bunker: Haywire Hardware Headaches

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: The Pentagon’s complexity means failures can happen narrowly to a specific weapon, more broadly in a specific weapons program, or historically when it comes to readying for Armageddon; and more.

TILT-ROTOR TROUBLES

Another V-22 crashes

Whenever an aircraft crashes, people want to know why. So, when a U.S. Air Force V-22 plunged into the sea off Japan November 29, clues slowly emerged. The Air Force’s initial announcement of the tragedy said only that the tilt-rotor was on “a routine training mission” and that “the cause of the mishap is currently unknown.” Then we learned the crash, which apparently killed all eight aboard, happened during daylight and clear weather. One eyewitness said he saw the V-22 flip upside down with fire coming from one of its engines before it exploded and fell into the sea. Finally, we learned the most ominous news from Hiroyuki Miyazawa, Japan’s vice defense minister, who told local reporters the accident was an “incident.” Why not call it a “crash,” one asked. “The U.S. side explained to us that the pilot did his best until the very end,” he said, “so we’re using the term ‘emergency water landing.’” Taken together, these facts suggest a mechanical problem — not human error, weather, or darkness — was responsible.

The day after the crash, the Japanese government asked the U.S. military to ground its Japanese-based V-22s, which the Pentagon declined to do. About 30 of the 464 V-22s bought by the U.S. military are based in Japan. Tokyo grounded its own 14 V-22s.

Despite long-standing claims by V-22 builders Bell and Boeing that the hybrid technology would be embraced by global military and commercial customers, the V-22 remains the world’s lone production tilt-rotor — and Japan its only foreign buyer. The complex plane’s tilting engines and rotors let it take off and land like a helicopter; they tilt forward in flight to fly like a turboprop airplane.

There has been a flurry of recent V-22 crashes. Three Marines died in August in an Australian accident. In 2022, a pair of crashes in California and Norway killed nine others. “It is clear from the investigation that there was nothing the crew … could have done to anticipate or prevent this aviation mishap,” the California probe found(PDF). “They were engaged in routine flight operations and training, in accordance and compliance with all applicable regulations, when an unanticipated, unrecoverable, and catastrophic mechanical failure occurred.” Sounds like the Japanese crash.

The V-22 was born following the failed 1980 mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran using H-53 choppers that killed 8 U.S. troops (there’s that grim number again). Yet, when it came time to get Osama bin Laden, well after the V-22 was flying, the U.S. military opted to use tried-and-true UH-60 Black Hawks instead. The Air Force V-22 cost $80,000 per flight hour(PDF); the Marine version cost $43,000(PDF). The Army’s UH-60 costs $3,100(PDF). So, while the V-22 can carry twice as many troops, it costs up to 25 times as much to fly. The Air Force’s V-22 Class A Mishap Rate (a crash that kills or does $2.5 million in damage) is 5.08 per 100,000 flight hours(PDF) over 10 years; nearly double the Marine V-22 rate of 3.16. In comparison, the UH-60’s Class A mishap rate is 0.87(PDF).

The bottom line seems clear: the V-22 kills more and costs a lot more, but it can fly faster and further. The bargain is in the eye of the beholder.

DÉJÀ FLEW

Making the same costly mistake again

The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer made headlines more than a decade ago when he declared the U.S. military had committed “acquisition malpractice” by putting the troubled F-35 fighter into production before its blueprints were finished. Now the Navy is doing the same thing in its rush to develop and deploy pilotless refueling planes aboard its aircraft carriers.

The service plans on “making the decision for initial production before conducting developmental test and evaluation (DT&E) and declaring initial operational capability (IOC) before conducting initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E),” the Pentagon inspector general said in a November 20 report. In other words, the Navy intends to buy MQ-25 Stingrays before conducting basic tests to make sure it works — and to declare it works before proving it.

The Navy justifies its action because of its “assessment of critical and urgent expected benefits of deploying the MQ25A,” the IG said(PDF). That’s especially rich given how far the Navy’s dreams for this particular drone have fallen. The shortcuts pose “significant risks” — a phrase the IG uses 11 times in its 32 page report(PDF). Boeing (the Pentagon’s #5 contractor) is building the drones; Lockheed (#1) is building the carrier-based control stations.

When The Bunkerlooked into the program five years ago, the program’s cost was estimated at $7.2 billion for 72 of these flying filling stations. The IG report pegs the latest cost at $16.5 billion(PDF) for 76 (PDF) of them — $217 million each. Talk about premium gas.

NUCLEAR KUDZU

The U.S. can’t keep up with the demand for A-parts

You’ve probably heard of the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs, where the nation’s atomic weapons are developed and maintained. But 80% of U.S. nuclear weapons consists of non-nuclear parts, which are bought by, or produced at, the Department of Energy’s lesser known Kansas City National Security Campus. That’s where 7,000 people keep U.S. nukes ready for action. They produce or buy everything from fasteners to the devices designed to detonate a nuclear weapon — or to keep it from blowing up accidentally.

Turns out they’re a lot busier than they expected to be in this post-Cold War world. In fact, they’re running out of room. “Consistent with stockpile planning assumptions” when the facility was built in 2006, it was sized to “support one weapon program in production and one weapon program in design,” according to a new Government Accountability Office report(PDF). However, “the site is currently supporting two … weapon programs in production and three … weapon programs in design.”

And that’s hardly the end of the line. Once those programs end, the Kansas City site is planning to support(PDF) a “Future Strategic Land-Based Warhead,” a “Future Strategic Sea-Based Warhead,” and a “Future Air-Delivered Warhead.” The site’s “workload demands may continue to increase substantially through the 2040s,” the GAO says(PDF). That’s going to require more space. The expanded campus is slated to be finished(PDF) in 2043 at a cost of “several billion dollars.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

 Jobs ‘R’ Us

Lawmakers opposing aid to Ukraine are doing so despite the fact that nearly 90% of those funds pay the wages of workers on U.S. assembly lines, Marc A. Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post November 29.

 BYOB (Bring Your Own Bomb)

Officers maintained a secret “John Wayne Saloon” at the Colorado Air Force base responsible for the defense of the U.S., USA Today reported November 29.

 Unfunny money

Compadre Julia Gledhill detailed the Pentagon’s bookkeeping horrors December 4 at Responsible Statecraft.

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