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The Bunker: Latest Lethal Legislative Lethargy

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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: Congress continues to fail at funding the U.S. military on time, making an inefficient war machine even more so; the Pentagon and Lockheed fight over how to boost the F-35’s lousy readiness; new U.S. military demographics; and more. 


No way to run a military … or a country

There’s so much blame to go around when it comes to Pentagon mismanagement. But it’s not all over at the Defense Department — let’s pick on Congress for a change! Simply put, the legislative branch can’t get its act together. And whether you think the U.S. is spending too much — or not enough — on its military, this congressional dilly-dallying compels even greater inefficiency. Hard to believe, The Bunker knows, but true.

We need to spend less money on the military. A key way of doing that is wringing every cent out of every dollar spent. But the added weariness Congress imposes on the Pentagon with its never-ending series of so-called continuing resolutions (CRs) simply adds sloth to the U.S. military. Beyond that, the impact ripples overseas, distressing U.S. allies and pleasing U.S. foes. This is not the way a great power, morally and militarily, is supposed to act.

Congress has passed a CR because it can’t get its House (or its Senate) in order. Lawmakers once again failed to pass the appropriations bills needed to run the government before the new fiscal year began October 1. A CR generally limits spending to the prior year’s levels and halts new programs from being launched. Think of it as fiscally running-in-place while inflation erodes your buying power.

“This is my ninth CR as deputy secretary,” Kathleen Hicks, the Pentagon’s #2 civilian for less than three years, said November 21. “We estimate we lost probably a total of about four years’ worth of progress on our modernization efforts in the decade.” The Pentagon is fed up: “Trust is a two-way street,” Hicks said, “and we are really being challenged to trust that our partners in Congress can get done what they need to do.” She cited shipbuilding and the nuclear triad — two Capitol Hill favorites, because they are so costly — as programs that will be hit hard by the CR.

“If you are a firm thinking about doing business with the government and you see this, why would you?” explained David Norquist, a former top Pentagon official, who now heads a defense-industry trade group. The unpredictable stop-and-go nature of CRs can lead to assembly-line layoffs and other logistical headaches. “This drives up the cost to the U.S. government because companies have to recover the workforce,” he added, “or it simply drives firms out of the market who decide they just don’t want this hassle.”

And it gets worse, at least from the Pentagon’s perspective. If all 12 of the appropriations bills are not passed by January 1 (highly unlikely), all federal agencies will be cut 1% below 2023’s level for the next two years, beginning April 30. That’s a $36.6 billion cut (PDF) from the Pentagon’s wished-for 2024 spending, and $45.4 billion in 2025. Those huge cuts are rooted in the soaring growth in the defense budget. U.S. military spending has risen (PDF) from $316 billion in 2001 — the year of 9/11 — to $852 billion in 2023.


The dogfight to keep the F-35 flying continues

The tension between Congress and the Defense Department echoes the ongoing battle royale between the buyer of the F-35 fighter (the Pentagon) and the maker of the F-35 (Lockheed, and its legion of subcontractors).

They’re at loggerheads over making what was supposed to have been an affordable-to-fly aircraft actually affordable. The high costs have limited the tri-service F-35’s mission-capable rate to 55%, well below the Air Force goal of 70%, and the Navy and Marine target of 75%. And that's just for F-35s able to conduct one of their several missions. F-35s able to perform them all have a fully-mission-capable rate below 30%. Congress is insisting that any new multi-year deal between the Pentagon and Lockheed either boost readiness or decrease costs. In the real world, that’s standard operating procedure. At the Pentagon, it’s typically a pipe dream.

Currently, the Defense Department pays Lockheed annually “on an ad hoc basis for parts and maintenance,” Breaking Defense reported November 22. A multi-year Performance-Based Logistics contract, on the other hand, “would tie dollar awards to performance outcomes.” Imagine that! Alas, negotiations over such a deal have broken down. Unfortunately, these struggles over the cost of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon with its biggest supplier are not new.

“Why is it at 55%?” Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, recently wondered in an interview with Defense News. “You would think on a new production line … you would learn pretty quickly what your maintenance and repair models would be. All of those things seem to be lacking in this.”


While the Pentagon plans to spend $416 billion (PDF) to buy 2,470 F-35s (PDF), it also wants $1.3 trillion to keep the F-35 flying into the 2070s (PDF). If the program can’t cut the plane’s operating costs sufficiently, Congress has said it will cap the number (PDF) of F-35s each service can buy beginning in 2028. That’s redundant. Simple math — not Congress — is all but certain to force a cut in that planned F-35 buy before then.


Demographic report offers a snapshot of the force

As anyone who has ever served in uniform knows, the U.S. military loves its numbers. The Pentagon has just issued a 232-page report (PDF) on who’s who in the military — crammed with tables, charts, and graphs — including these facts:

  • The U.S. 1.3-million-strong active-duty force is 82.5% male (PDF).
  • 87.5% of U.S. troops are based in the U.S (PDF).
  • The number of women in the ranks (PDF) grew by 14.2% between 2005 and 2022, while men dropped by 8.3%.
  • There was one officer (PDF) for every 4.5 enlisted personnel in 2022, a 13% officer-inflation creep since 2005’s 5.1 enlistees per officer.
  • While racial minorities (PDF) make up 31.2% of the U.S. military, they account for only 12.1% of its generals and admirals.
  • 8.4% of U.S. military personnel have graduate degrees (PDF); 0.1% lack high school diplomas or GEDs.
  • Single parents (PDF) head 3.9% of military families.
  • More than half the military assigned to posts within the U.S. is based (PDF) in six states: California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

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

Insurrection resurrection?

Former President Trump is hinting that, if re-elected, he would be willing to use the U.S. military to put down domestic disturbances, Gary Fields of the Associated Press wrote November 27.

Arms bizarre

Europe is trying to figure out how to sell weapons to foreign countries as easily as the U.S. does, Politico’s Laura Kayali reported November 24.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Northrop is seeking another inflation bailout from Congress this year for its fledgling B-21 bomber after being stiff-armed by the Pentagon last year, colleague Julia Gledhill reported November 21 here at the Project On Government Oversight.

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