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The Bunker: Lessons Unlearned

This week in The Bunker: What the latest grim news about the V-22 tiltrotor and the F-35 fighter tells us about how the Pentagon dreams up, develops, and deploys weapons; someone finally is getting serious about a dedicated drone carrier; and more. We’re off next week, returning June 5.

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: What the latest grim news about the V-22 tiltrotor and the F-35 fighter tells us about how the Pentagon dreams up, develops, and deploys weapons; someone finally is getting serious about a dedicated drone carrier; and more. We’re off next week, returning June 5.

PENTAGON SNAFU #1

The V-22’s clipped wings

You have to be careful when it comes to Pentagon press releases. There’s often a “rest of the story” that gets left out. Following last November’s V-22 crash in Japan that killed eight Air Force troops, the Pentagon grounded the tiltrotor aircraft for three months trying to nail down the cause of the accident. Investigators said a “material failure” caused the crash, but couldn’t determine why.

Nonetheless, the V-22s returned to flight March 8. “Maintenance and procedural changes have been implemented to address the materiel failure that allow for a safe return to flight,” said the office in charge of buying all the Pentagon’s V-22s (it’s a Navy office, although the aircraft is also flown by the Air Force and Marines). The Navy added that it “remains committed to transparency and safety regarding all V-22 operations.”

Transparency, not so much. Turns out, the Navy’s CMV-22s are barred from flying more than half-an-hour beyond a place where they can land, according to a congressional report. That’s a big problem for the Navy variant, which is being bought to deliver vital supplies to aircraft carriers well out at sea. “The committee understands that current CMV-22 operations are limited to flights and missions that stay within 30 minutes of a suitable divert airfield,” the draft of the 2025 defense authorization bill said (PDF). “This prohibits the use of the CMV-22 for carrier onboard support of deployed aircraft carriers once they have left their homeport” — the key reason the Navy is buying 44 V-22s for about $120 million each (PDF).

The Pentagon conceded that its V-22s will continue to fly indefinitely within a “limited envelope.” That’s forcing the Navy to rely on the C-2 Greyhounds the V-22 is supposed to be replacing.

Tapping the V-22 for the carrier mission was a controversial choice, given that it required replacing the tried-and-true C-2, which could easily have been modernized, with the far more complicated and costly aircraft. The CMV-22 remains “not operationally suitable due to failures of many subsystems,” according to the Pentagon’s most recent annual test report (PDF). The congressional committee also noted (PDF) the Navy’s V-22 fleet “inherently requires a substantial logistics tail for its own support” via Navy C-130 and C-40 cargo planes. “This only further complicates the logistics situation of the carrier strike group.”

Amid the V-22 grounding, Stephen Kingston, a retired Navy captain, detailed the politics behind choosing the V-22 over the C-2. It’s an insider’s peek at the insidious and invidious way the nation arms itself. Read it at your peril, and hold on to your wallet.

PENTAGON SNAFU #2

Congress rolls up its sleeves on the F-35

Lawmakers are so fed up with the production and performance of the once-vaunted F-35 fighter that they are threatening to cut the Pentagon’s buy of the warplane by nearly a third next year. And that was before the Government Accountability Office’s May 16 report tabulating how many of Lockheed’s F-35 planes (91%) and Pratt & Whitney’s F-35 engines (100%) were delivered late in 2023.

“We are trying to get the attention” of the Pentagon and its F-35 contractors, a congressional staffer with the House Armed Services Committee’s airland subcommittee told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “We are tired of talking about [F-35 delays] and hearing excuses.” The committee has threatened to cut up to 20 of the 68 F-35s the Pentagon wants to buy next year unless key problems are fixed.

The military has been refusing to accept new F-35s for the past nine months until issues with a major upgrade are resolved. That’s forcing Lockheed to store finished but undelivered F-35s on its own property. “DOD deemed reporting the specific quantity of [those stored] aircraft to be unsuitable for public release,” the GAO said (PDF), but it’s nearing 100. “If [upgraded] software is delayed past April 2024” – it was — “Lockheed Martin is projected to exceed its maximum parking capacity and will need to develop a plan to accommodate more parked planes.”

Think of this growing fleet of grounded F-35 Lightning IIs as the ultimate lightning in a bottle.

You cannot make this stuff up. Every week — when The Bunker is desperate to write about something else — the F-35 program dives to new levels of newsworthiness.

The V-22 and F-35 debacles highlight everything wrong with U.S. defense procurement. The current system marries threat inflation with technological overreach to produce bastard weapons that look far better in glossy brochures than on active flight lines and aircraft carriers.

AT LEAST SOMEONE IS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT

Unfortunately, it’s China

Modern war is trending increasingly small and robotic. That’s why Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Pentagon strategist, told The Bunker more than a decade ago that the U.S. Navy’s huge aircraft carriers were too big, too costly, and too vulnerable to attack. “We should scale back our carrier design to something much cheaper and simpler,” he said. “Think of mother ships launching waves of cheap drones — that would actually be more frightening and intimidating.”

Well, it turns out that someone was listening.

“China has built the world’s first dedicated drone carrier,” Naval News reported May 15. “Many of the circumstances surrounding it remain a mystery.” The squat flat-top’s deck is roughly a third the length and half the width of a U.S. Navy carrier based on satellite imagery, the outlet said.

Iran and Turkey are also exploring such drone carriers. “There are no official plans for the United States to build purpose-built drone carriers,” the Interesting Engineering website noted in November. “For the foreseeable future, the United States appears more content with adapting its sizeable Navy to accommodate drones of varying descriptions, with its supercarriers and smaller helicopter carriers being modified for specialist drones.”

But that could change, it added, “if drones prove as game-changing to naval combat as the aircraft did for the battleship.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Shell game

There aren’t enough hardened shelters for U.S. military aircraft in the Pacific region to protect them from … well, you know who … lawmakers tell the Pentagon, according to a May 13 Air & Space Forces Magazine piece by Unshin Lee Harpley.

Inflation threat

The U.S. defense industry is tired of shouldering the cost increases it says are caused by inflation, Valerie Insinna reported May 17 at Breaking Defense, a claim the Project On Government Oversight has found to be sketchy.

Surprise!

U.S. military officers who out-rank their military doctors get better health care in U.S. military hospitals than lower-ranking personnel, according to a May 16 paper in Science.

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