The Bunker: Merger Myopia

This week in The Bunker: defense contractors have gotten too big to defend the nation; Pentagon weapons spend an entire decade in development before being fielded; a general faces court martial; and more. 

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

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This week in The Bunker: defense contractors have gotten too big to defend the nation; Pentagon weapons spend an entire decade in development before being fielded; a general faces court martial; and more.


The downside of downsizing

For a five-sided building, the Pentagon sure has a thing for triangles. Take the three services — Army, Navy (which includes the Marines, and the Coast Guard in times of war) and Air Force (which includes the Space Force). Or the nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, a Cold War hangover we just can’t seem to shake. Others are more happenstance than history, like the once-large constellation of U.S. warplane builders that has collapsed.

Today, encouraged by the Pentagon, the U.S. military has only three companies it can rely on to build jet fighters: Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop. Many manufacturers covered by The Bunker back in the day have faded (Fairchild, Vought) or folded (McDonnell Douglas, bought by Boeing in 1997; General Dynamics, purchased by Lockheed in 1993; Grumman, gobbled up by Northrop in 1994).

This is bad news for four reasons: U.S. warplanes have gotten so expensive and take so long to develop that there’s little chance for real competition and the innovation it can generate among the trio. And because of their jewel-like nature and cost — “exquisite,” in the word of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — the U.S. military needs to keep them flying for a long time. But irritatingly, the older a plane gets, the more costly it is to keep flying. While the Pentagon’s new F-35 fighter is slated to cost $442 billion, keeping it flying will cost $1.58 trillion (PDF) — 79% of the program’s total price tag. And building a plane to fly that long bakes in obsolescence. The F-35, which flew for the first time in 2006, is slated to remain airborne until 2088 — 82 years. Whether you’re a plane or a person, it’s tough to stay state-of-the-art for that long.

These elements all play a role in the Air Force’s recent reluctance to commit to developing its top-secret Next-Generation Air Dominance (PDF) fighter:

  • Northrop said a year ago it wasn’t interested in building the NGAD, despite its rumored eyewatering $300 million per-copy sticker price. That’s because it has its hands full building all three legs of that ol’ nuclear triad.
  • Boeing, once a U.S. industrial icon, is fumbling the Air Force’s new ICBM, tanker, and Air Force One — not to mention its commercial planes falling from the sky.
  • That leaves F-35 builder Lockheed. As troubled as that plane is, supporting it through 2088 would be a cash cow for the company, and cool its ardor to push for a program that would compete with the F-35 for Pentagon money.

The Defense Department faces a “truly miserable choice,” veteran defense-industry-watcher Richard Aboulafia told Defense One: “Boeing, which still hasn’t replaced the worst senior management team in history ... or Lockheed Martin, which has absolutely no incentive to execute on this in a cost-effective way.”

The U.S. military has to move much faster to build fleets of cheap and clever unpiloted aircraft, opening the marketplace to smaller and more nimble enterprises. These true 21st Century warplanes have to be quickly developed, speedily deployed, and promptly discarded to make way for their successors. And repeat, ad aerial infinitum, until peace breaks out.


The Pentagon is just as slow as ever

Along those lines, the Defense Department continues to flail when it comes to producing weapons on time, the Government Accountability Office says. “DOD remains alarmingly slow in delivering new and innovative weapon system capabilities, even as national security threats continue to evolve,” the GAO said (PDF) in its 22nd annual arms-acquisition assessment. Released June 17, it examined 108 programs projected to cost $2 trillion.

Weapons not yet fielded are spending more than 10 years in development, the GAO found. Those that have been fielded have seen their development cycle grow by nearly 40%, from a projected 8 years to an actual 11 years. “Recent reforms were intended to lead to faster results, but slow, linear development approaches persist,” the GAO said. The Pentagon, it added, needs to emulate the commercial world, where companies build “good enough” products quickly. Then the companies upgrade them once they are fielded, instead of embracing pie-in-the-sky capabilities that lead to routinely missed deadlines and ever-rising costs.

Various procurement-reform tweaks are “providing programs an opportunity to start fast, not necessarily finish fast,” the GAO’s Shelby Oakley said. She cited the 13 years it is taking the Air Force to replace the engines (PDF) on its B-52 bombers. “Establishing new policies really isn’t enough,” she added. “Until you change the underlying behaviors that lead to programs that aren’t structured to leverage the flexibilities that are provided by the new pathways, we’re going to continue to see the same outcomes that we’ve always seen in these programs.”


Star shortage snags Air Force court-martial

Military courts-martial require that jury members outrank the accused. That became a problem for the Air Force last week in its effort to prosecute a two-star general — because the service ran out of generals to put on his eight-seat jury. But not to fear: more starry reinforcements headed to San Antonio to fill the panel.

Major General Phillip Stewart faces sexual assault and drinking within 12 hours of flying (he pleaded guilty to charges of adultery and dereliction of duty June 24 as his court-martial began). Stewart had been the service’s top pilot trainer until he was relieved of command last year. He faces up to 66 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Stewart is the second Air Force general ever to face court-martial.

The Air Force denied Stewart’s request earlier this year to retire, almost surely at a lower rank and with a smaller pension, instead of facing court-martial. That represents a stark change in how the Army dealt with a similar case, also involving a major general, nearly 25 years ago. The service allowed David Hale to retire quietly, only four months after becoming the Army’s deputy inspector general, one of its most sensitive jobs. But once word of the sleazy deal leaked, the Army court-martialed Hale and demoted him, reducing his annual $76,000 pension by nearly $9,000.

The arc of the military universe bends, one slow degree at a time, toward justice.


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

Are we becoming the Soviet Union?

Historian Niall Ferguson argued in The Free Press June 18 that the U.S. is beginning to look a little too much like the U.S.S.R. for comfort.

A changing U.S. military mindset?

Janet Reitman dug deeply into the suicide of Austin Valley for the New York Times June 19. What she found was distressing, infuriating, all too familiar (PDF), and sad.

Trump 2.0

Robert C. O’Brien, who served as President Trump’s national security adviser, spelled out what a second Trump term might look like for the Pentagon June 18 in Foreign Affairs.

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