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The Bunker: High Seas of Make-Believe

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.


SHIP HAPPENS

Why can’t the Navy build warships anymore?

Last week the Navy announced plans to build a $450 million museum. But if its track record for controlling its warship costs is any guide, it’s going to end up costing a lot more than that. And, like a broken record, it’s happening again: the first 10 of its yet-to-be-built fleet of frigates is likely to cost 40% more than the Navy estimates, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in a study released October 13.

The FFG(X) frigate program is designed to build a fleet of small warships to replace the woeful Littoral Combat Ship program whose lead ships cost 150% more than the Navy estimated. “Historically the Navy has almost always underestimated the cost of the lead ship, and a more expensive lead ship generally results in higher costs for the follow-on ships,” CBO said. The math tends to get confusing, because as additional ships come in at higher prices, it’s those real-world prices that become the yardstick for future ships—not that original rosy estimate.

The frigate’s projected higher costs push the Pentagon’s hopes of boosting the fleet from today’s 300 hulls to 500 by 2045 into the high seas of make-believe. The Navy’s inability to build shipshape ships is due to a witch’s brew that consistently combines gee-whiz technology with low-balled costs. Because no one is ever held accountable, the cycle continues. The Government Accountability Office focused on this problem in a damning 2018 study (PDF), and the Military Industrial Circus here at the Project on Government Oversight drilled down on one spectacularly bad disaster last year (and bad news about that Zumwaltclass of destroyers keeps on coming; then again, so does what passes for good news in the Navy’s Planet Bizarro universe).

But if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said October 13 that the service is planning on building a new generation of destroyers dubbed DDG Next. “I don’t want to build a monstrosity,” he said, apparently recalling the Navy’s recent history. Assuming he achieves that goal, it would be a refreshing change of course for the sea service.

ARMY BULLET POINTS

The service’s ammo plants are deadly

There is nothing more basic to war than ammunition. So why has the Army let its ammo plants fall into such a deadly state of disrepair? “We’ve kind of come to the end of the rope with respect to modernization for those facilities,” Bruce Jette, the Army’s acquisition boss, told reporters October 13. There are “people who were killed at the facilities doing exactly what they were supposed to do, [following] the procedures had been ‘modernized,’ yet we still had catastrophic events.”

Many of the Army’s 14 World War II-era plants (often operated by private contractors) need wholesale changes to their equipment, training, and processes. “We need,” Jette said, “to get people away from the energetics.” Lawrence Bass, 55, was killed in a 2017 blast at an Army ammo plant in Missouri as he scooped up highly-explosive tetrazene with a handheld wooden spatula. That’s a job for robots, not humans.

This is not a new concern. In 2003, the Rand Corp. studied the Army’s ammo plants and concluded they were riddled with problems including “the absence of a strategic vision, lack of investment capital, declining workload and high costs, and a requirement for expertise that falls outside the Army's primary areas of competence.”

This is the dirty secret of the nation’s defense. Even as annual U.S. defense budgets now eclipse the Cold War average, the Congress, Pentagon and White House still can’t apportion funds responsibly. While sparkling new weapons garner all the attention, the nation’s infrastructure dedicated to producing and maintaining key elements—ammo, nukes (PDF), ships (PDF), and others—is rotting. The Army estimates that revamping its ammo plants will cost $16 billion spent over 15 years. And you can bet your bottom bullet that when the budget vice tightens, non-glamorous investments like this will be the first to go.

TROOPS NON GRATA

Extremists in uniform

Uncle Sam needs to get some recruiting posters declaring “I DON’T WANT YOU!” given all the crazies popping up in U.S. military uniforms lately. A pair of Michigan Army National Guard soldiers posted a video last month declaring that “liberals and Democrats” are “crybabies and snowflakes” for “burning our f-----g country down,” Army Times reports. They made the video, armed and in uniform, while they were deployed to the Persian Gulf region. A neo-Nazi group is recruiting people with military skills, including U.S. active-duty troops and U.S. veterans, for an impending civil war, the Southern Law Poverty Center says. An active-duty 2nd lieutenant created an anti-Semitic post about Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Stars and Stripes reported.

The Bunker has been around troops long enough to know that they can spout some pretty vile things. But posting such trash where the world can see it dramatically raises the stupidity stakes.

This trend must be terminated with extreme prejudice, according to retired Marine general Jim Jones, who served as commandant—the corps’ top officer—from 1999 to 2003. “The factors that divide Americans today pose a greater threat to the country than any foreign adversary does,” he wrote October 17 in The Atlantic. “For this reason, the Pentagon must respond forcefully to alarming evidence that white-supremacist groups and other extremist organizations might be seeping into the armed forces and targeting uniformed service members and veterans for recruitment, coveting their training in weapons and tactical knowledge.”

This is not a close call.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Uniformed fakes

As a much-needed public service, The New Yorkerreported October 19 on how to tell if someone boasting of military service never actually served.

American power?

Why does the U.S. feel the need to be military Colossus on the world stage? It’s a fair question—even if you think continuing U.S. armed pre-eminence is vital—asked by Stephen Wertheim in the New York TimesOctober 15.

Terminating endless wars(PDF)

Human Rights First has published a blueprintfor building a more humane U.S. foreign policy, including a chapter on ending the nation’s endless wars. “For nearly 20 years, successive administrations have adopted a costly war-based approach to counterterrorism with no clear endgame in sight,” it begins. “This shortsighted strategy has led to egregious human rights violations; damaged the rule of law, international cooperation, and the reputation of the United States; set a dangerous precedent for other nations; fueled conflicts and massive human displacement; contributed to militarized and violent approaches to domestic policing; diverted limited resources from more effective approaches and other national priorities; and, most consequentially, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Other than that, no problem.

Texas boom town

In 1963, Lackland Air Force Base experienced a cataclysmic explosion. People thought World War III had started. Today, it’s been almost completely forgotten. But long-time military reporter David Wood remembers, in the November Texas Monthly.

Strategic dysfunction(PDF)

Coming up with some unifying theory of foreign policy—a grand strategy, like isolationism or containment—is increasingly looking like an artifact of the 20th Century, Dan Drezner of the Fletcher School at Tufts University writes. He suggests this has happened because expertise doesn’t count for as much as it used to, bipartisan cooperation has gone out the window, and the resulting political polarization has led Congress to surrender foreign-policy powers to the White House. “Each president’s grand strategy will only endure from four to eight years, and then be replaced by one from the opposite side of the political spectrum,” he writes. “The very concept of a consistent, durable grand strategy will not be sustainable.”

Consider yourself warned.

`Doomsday’ training

The Bunker didn’t know when he spent time in the cockpit of the Air Force’s E-4B nuclear command-and control plane that its crew didn’t have simulators to train on. On October 14, the Air Force said that would change with a $16 million contract to develop one. Kinda strange, according to this report in Air Force Magazine October 14: E-4Bs have been flying without a simulator for 40 years—and development of a replacement “doomsday” plane is already begun. Better late than never!

Killed by an F-16…

The Bunker is never surprised to learn of the long string of errors that can lead to death during military training. Heart-breaking story October 15 in the Alamogordo Daily News about a contractor killed during a night-training exercise when an F-16 firing live rounds mistook his observation post for the target.

Not so Shy

Edward “Shy” Meyer was plucked deep from the Army’s bench when President Carter tapped him to lead the service in 1979. In the morass following the Vietnam war, he had the gumption to declare a “hollow Army” and then set about fixing it in time for 1991’s Persian Gulf War. He died October 13, according to his obituary in the Washington Post. 1998-2020. R.I.P.

That’s all we’ve got this week. Thanks for tagging along to the finish line. Forward The Bunker to your allies and encourage them to enlist!