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 push for additional Air Force B-21 bombers is rooted in the fib that got the program airborne; Pentagon launches lunar mission; a surreal snafu threatens F-35 deliveries; and more. The Bunker is now settling down for a long winter’s nap. We’ll be back January 10!
FLIGHTS OF FANCY
Why the push for more B-21 bombers?
This is the time of year that The Bunker sits down and begins listing all those desired holiday gifts. So why should the Air Force be any different? It wants its hangar-sized holiday stockings and tinseled tarmac crammed with even more fledging B-21 Raider bombers. A decade ago, the number of B-21s the Air Force wanted to find under its tree was somewhere between 80 and 100. Then the desired total floated up to, and froze at, 100. Then, a key wingman began flying in front of that number: “at least.” Now there’s talk of buying “250 or more.”
The holiday shopping season seems to have kicked off in earnest:
“Airpower Experts: US Needs More than 100 B-21s to Meet Future High Demand”
— Air and Space Forces Magazine, November 23
“B-21 Raider: Will the U.S. Air Force Build Enough of Them?”
— The National Interest, November 30
“Shouldn’t The US Air Force Buy At Least 200 B-21s?”
— Warrior Maven, December 2
Frankly, Air Force fingers are crossed that the service can get to 100. The service fears the B-21 could become another “dive bomber,” in terms of how many it ultimately gets. That’s what happened to its predecessor, the B-2. The Pentagon planned on buying 132 of those bat-winged stealth bombers when the program began in 1981 but dropped its goal to 75 in 1990 as the Cold War wound down. Two years later, the first Bush administration capped the program at 20 (later bumped to 21), which predictably drove the per-plane cost into the stratosphere. “By the time the research, development, and requirements processes ran their course, the aircraft, despite its great capability, turned out to be so expensive — $2 billion each in the case of the B-2 — that less than one-sixth of the planned fleet of 132 was ever built,” then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates said in 2009.
That’s what happens when defense planners (and leaders) launch new weapons into production while paying scant attention to how many of them can be squeezed into future defense budgets. As schedules slip and rosy glasses slip from the Pentagon’s cherry-like nose, the number of weapons invariably wanes. The top-secret B-21’s price is now pegged at $692 million a copy, but that’s artificially low, as The Bunkerdetailed eight years ago when the bomber was sold as a $550 million bargain in the wake of the $2 billion B-2.
The B-21 made its first flight last month over California, where Northrop is now building six of them. The Air Force officially continues to say it will become operational in the “Mid-2020s,” which suggests an expanding middle. Actually, 2030 now looks more realistic.
Why does the nation need additional bombers, anyway? Long-range missiles — which don’t put pilots at risk — are sufficient for everything save World War III, when a bigger bomber fleet isn’t going to assure victory.
And speaking of naughty or nice, here’s the real reason why Air Force advocates have gone from pushing for as few as 80 B-21s to now seeking 200 or more: “The service only quoted such a low figure ‘to get the program started,’ within an acceptable dollar amount,” a former aide to the Air Force’s top general told a recent B-21 confab, according toAir and Space Forces Magazine.
Or as Santa himself might say: “Ho! Ho! Hokum!”
The Pentagon plots a lunar takeover
Given that the U.S. military has had such success meeting its challenges here on Earth — budgets, timetables, victories — it’s no wonder it’s now shooting for the moon. The Defense Department announced December 5 that it has tapped 14 companies — including those piloted by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — to draft the blueprints needed to build a commercial and peaceful lunar economy.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is sponsoring the “10-Year Lunar Architecture Capability Study,” dubbed “LunA-10.” The program “has the potential to upend how the civil space community thinks about spurring widespread commercial activity on and around the Moon within the next 10 years,” DARPA’s Michael “Orbit” Nayak said. Key study areas will include lunar power, mining, communications, navigation, transit, mobility, logistics, construction, and robotics.
“LunA-10 will help to enable the near-term maturation of lunar technologies and capabilities that will be necessary for future architecture objectives,” DARPA’s August solicitation said. “The study will result in the design of system-level solutions that fuse multiple necessary lunar services and deliver a quantitatively defendable analytical framework for future lunar infrastructure that leverages technology overlap between potential services to the maximum extent possible.” That’s about as close to a perfect Pentagon word sausage as you’re likely to find on your holiday plate this year.
The companies’ work will be “highly collaborative,” DARPA says. It better be: LunA-10’s final report is due in June. You know, as in Moon.
MEANWHILE, BACK ON EARTH
The latest F-35 snafu
F-35 builder Lockheed is suing the supplier of the plane’s titanium “backbone” for halting deliveries last month after the supplier demanded what Lockheed calls a “massive price increase” (PDF) for them.
Lockheed complaining about over-charging? How refreshing!
The suspended deliveries could further bungle the already-troubled $400 billion program, according to the November 30 lawsuit(PDF). The Pentagon’s top contractor is suing Howmet Aerospace because the Pittsburgh-based supplier’s move “threatens to cause substantial delays in Lockheed Martin’s construction of F-35s, and therefore substantial delays in Lockheed Martin timely delivering such F-35s to the U.S. military for critical, urgent national security needs,” the suit contends(PDF).
Howmet counters that it has complied with its contracts with Lockheed and its suppliers, and that world events have forced its hand. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 dramatically reduced global titanium sponge supply,” Howmet said in a statement a day after Lockheed sued. “As a result, Howmet’s titanium sponge suppliers drastically increased their prices, contrary to their agreements with Howmet.”
Every day is Christmas when reporting on the Pentagon.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
The Air Force disciplined 15 military personnel for failing to take action that would have prevented Airman Jack Teixeira from posting classified documents online, the Air Force Inspector General said in a damning report(PDF) released December 11.
Did an Army reservist’s years of training troops on how to throw hand grenades rattle his brain so much that he became a mass murderer? — the New York Times asked December 11.
The Pentagon has probed scores of troops for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government, Vice reported December 5. Meanwhile, Congress wants to abolish a Defense Department working group aimed at rooting out extremism.
Thanks for stopping by The Bunker for our final 2023 edition. Consider forwarding this on to a friend so they can sign up here. See you next year!