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The Bunker: More Rot in the Ranks

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: costly Air Force fighter defeated by…cost; the threat posed by Pentagon know-it-alls; policing the cops; & more.


The Air Force’s hottest fighter fades away

Last week the Air Force said its best air-to-air fighter will start flying into the sunset in 2030. It was only five years ago that the plane’s backers wanted more of what they viewed as a sky-scouring badass, capable of wiping the heavens of enemy warplanes like a stealthy windshield wiper. Plus, the average F-22 Raptor—which cost nearly $350 million each—is only 13 years old.

So what happened? First of all, the Air Force’s wish for 750 F-22s shrank to a “requirement” for 381, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates trimmed to 187 in 2009. That made each plane, and its maintenance, too costly. Gates thought too much money was being poured into a system of scant use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Operational since 2005, the F-22 finally saw action over Syria in 2014, where the world’s best air-to-air fighter was relegated to bombing a single target…on the ground.

Even the Pentagon boosters at the Heritage Foundation found the program wanting. Only half of Lockheed’s F-22s were capable of flying on any given day in 2019, it noted last fall. Plus, “structural alterations” needed to help the plane reach its “promised service life…takes six F-22s off the flight line at any given time.” Repairs took too long (like a year after a landing-gear failure). The F-22 “is a tough airplane to maintain,” a top Air Force general conceded last week.

Don’t worry, General Charles Brown, the service’s top officer, said. The even-newer Lockheed (starting to notice a pattern here?) F-35 will help fill gaps left by the Lockheed F-22. The F-35 “will be the cornerstone” of the Air Force for decades to come, he said May 12. But the Air Force officer running the F-35 program sent a decidedly different message the very next day. “I see high costs,” Lieutenant General Eric Fick warned May 13, “as an existential threat to the F-35.”

But don’t fear if the F-35, like the F-22, enters a premature tailspin. Work is just getting underway on the Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter. On May 27, when the Pentagon is expected to release its detailed 2022 budget request, it will show a “large…commitment” to developing the NGAD. Money, in other words.

But, once again, don’t fret. Remember, the F-22 began life as the Advanced Tactical Fighter, and the F-35 was the Joint Strike Fighter. When Air Force warplanes are merely a gleam in a pilot’s eye (with clunky names like the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter), they’re always projected to be delivered on time and budget. But don’t worry (for the last time, The Bunker promises): Lockheed will likely vie to build the NGAD fighter, too.


What should we make of those who are so certain?

Christopher Miller, serving as acting defense secretary when a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol, is pretty darn sure of what he did that day. He summed it up in his prepared statement for his appearance before a House panel last week, four months after supporters of his commander-in-chief defiled the heart of American democracy. “I stand behind EVERYdecision I made that day and the ones I made in the days following January 6,” he said. Miller was channeling his inner Trump with his ALL-CAPS “every”; the boldface was his own touch.

It reminded The Bunker of acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly, who left that post 13 months ago. Modly had flown from Washington, D.C. to Guam to denounce the commanding officer of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt for doing all he could to protect his crew being ravaged by COVID-19. Modly resigned the day after a leaked audio revealed he had called the skipper “stupid” in a profanity-laced rant broadcast to the ship’s crew. In February, he detailed the five key questions he faced during the episode, and wondered, 10 months later, if he had answered them correctly. He gave the same one-word answer five times: “Yes.”

These are the kinds of yes-men a president gets when he’s leery of tapping anyone who might challenge him. It brings aboard bands of sycophants, which can lead to an attack on a skipper, on a Capitol, or even a war. That’s why Trump filled so many positions in the Pentagon and elsewhere with “acting” officials, who lacked the gravitas, and the resulting clout, that comes with Senate confirmation. Their resulting insecurity drives them to insist they are right, even when they’re not. By the time Trump left office, 40% of the Pentagon jobs requiring Senate confirmation didn’t have a confirmed occupant, including the defense secretary and the four key slots overseeing policy, intelligence, research and development, and money.

This didn’t start with Trump. In more than 40 years at the Pentagon, even a reporter as bone-headed as The Bunker could figure out who is respected, and who is a lightweight. And it’s those lightweights, bereft of humility, who tend to get us into trouble. The Bunker has never forgottenthe certainty of a CIA official at a July 4, 2003, celebration. He’d been asked about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—the key reason for the U.S. invasion four months earlier—that had yet to be located. “We’re going to find them. I know it,” he said. “I guarantee it.” The Bunker was stunned that an intelligence officer had surrendered the tools of his trade—curiosity, hunches, intuition—for certitude. “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves,” the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “and wiser people so full of doubts.”


It’s not only the civilians

There is something disquieting about more than 150 retired U.S. generals and admirals signing a letter denouncing President Joe Biden for stealing the 2020 presidential election. “Under a Democrat Congress and the Current Administration, our Country has taken a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyrannical government which must be countered now by electing congressional and presidential candidates who will always act to defend our Constitutional Republic,” they wrote May 10. “The survival of our Nation and its cherished freedoms, liberty, and historic values are at stake.” (The Bunker is always leery of messages brandishing Capital Letters exploding in mid-sentence, like Landmines.)

The letter, organized by a group calling itself Flag Officers 4 America, is emblematic of a fever in the body politic that is now infecting the U.S. military. To read their missive, laden with fiery rhetoric, is to see how far beyond the bend many Americans, including those who once wore their nation’s uniform, have traveled. The fact that these retired officers (well, most of them) actually believe what they have signed is scary. They are not merely disagreeing with Biden; they view him as a traitor and a threat to the nation, just like China.

Many national security types dismissed the letter as a political stunt. “The retired flag officers who signed a May 10 open letter have been called a threat to democracy. Why do we give them that kind of power?” Paula Thornhill, a retired Air Force brigadier general, wrote in Defense One May 14. “Retired flag officers are, after all, first and foremost retirees.”

But that same day, U.S. Space Force fired an active duty commander after he complained about Marxism infecting the U.S. military. Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Lohmeier, a 14-year Air Force veteran who transferred to the Space Force last October, has written a book titled Irresistible Revolution: Marxism's Goal of Conquest & the Unmaking of the American Military. The book details “part of a longstanding plot against America, patiently and methodically pursued by those with a mind intent on the overthrow of the US Government and its replacement with a communist dictatorship,” its Amazon blurb says.

The former F-15 pilot, and 2006 graduate of the Air Force Academy, elaborated on his book, self-published May 10, in a May 12 podcast (he also spoke on a May 7 interview). “Since taking command as a commander about 10 months ago, I saw what I consider fundamentally incompatible and competing narratives of what America was, is, and should be,” Lohmeier said May 12.“That wasn't just prolific in social media, or throughout the country during this past year, but it was spreading throughout the United States military. And I had recognized those narratives as being Marxist in nature.” Two days later, Lohmeier’s superior officer, Lieutenant General Stephen Whiting, cashiered Lohmeier from his post as a Colorado-based missile-launch warning commander “due to loss of trust and confidence in his ability to lead.” By last weekend, Amazon was labeling the book its “#1 Best Seller in Military Policy.” The Bunker doesn’t know if it should be more concerned about the author, or the ranking.


Pentagon gear, and a chance to hear

More than 150 advocacy groups want Congress to end the Defense Department program that unloads excess military hardware onto civilian police departments. The groups, including The Bunker’s very own Project On Government Oversight, told lawmakers in a May 13 letter that the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 program “has contributed to a military-style police culture and has endangered countless lives, particularly in communities of color.”

Speaking of which, POGO is holding a virtual town hall Monday, May 24, about all those multi-million-dollar settlements municipalities are making to those hurt by police misconduct. Just where is all that money coming from, and why is it so hard to get the details? Katherine Hawkins, senior legal analyst at POGO’s The Constitution Project, explores the issue, starting at 1:30 p.m., with help from Representative Don Beyer and Senator Tim Kaine, Democrats from Virginia, and other legal experts. Register here.


Here’s what caught The Bunker's eye recently

Undercover Army?

The intrepid Bill Arkin details “the largest undercover force the world has ever known” for Newsweek May 17. The 60,000-strong force is part of a Pentagon program dubbed “signature reduction,” whose members burrow into all corners of commerce. “The unprecedented shift has placed an ever greater number of soldiers, civilians, and contractors working under false identities,” he wrote. “The explosion of Pentagon cyber warfare, moreover, has led to thousands of spies who carry out their day-to-day work in various made-up personas, the very type of nefarious operations the United States decries when Russian and Chinese spies do the same.” The Bunker has known and respected Arkin’s down-in-the-weeds work for decades. Whether the public has the same reaction to his latest exposéremains to be seen.

General Chaos…

Good peek at President Trump’s final days with what he liked to call “my generals.” Turned out they weren’t, according to this May 16 Axiosaccount.


“After 15 years, the Navy’s littoral combat ships are still in search of a mission,” the San Diego Union-Tribune’s big, bold headline read May 15. Funny. The Bunker always thought news was when something unexpected happened. More proof of how poorly the service has run its shipbuilding in recent years? The Navy plans to retire the first two LCS ships later this year. The service expected them to sail for at least 25 years, but each is being decommissioned after spending only about half that time at sea.

National Defense Strategy overboard!

The Bunker has long maintained that the U.S. government’s latest National Defense Strategy might just as well be called The Military-Industrial-Complex Full Employment Act. “It’s always been,” as The Bunkernoted a month ago, “a buzzword barrage that tends to avoid the hard choices that dollars impose.”

Turns out there’s a return volley of incoming fire on the same topic. “Now is the time for a fundamental rethink about linking long-term defense priorities and resourcing rather than ‘pie-in-the-sky’ strategy–a process that has not occurred since end of the Cold War,” retired Navy Rear Admiral Dan Oliver and Naval War College associate professor Anand Toprani wrote in a May 13 Defense One column. Raphael S. Cohen, a former active-duty Army officer now at the RAND Corp., argued in The Hill on May 17 that the NDS is too “nebulous and descriptive” to be a blueprint for the U.S. military.

U.S. National Defense University professor Gregory Foster called the NDS “a tactically oriented ideological tract, replete with unsubstantiated assumptions and assertions, that seeks to resurrect the ‘good old days’ of Cold War simplicity and excess.” He published his broadside May 13 over at the Royal United Services Institute, which describes itself as “the UK’s leading defence and security think tank.”

If anyone knows anything about a faded, once-proud superpower, it’s probably Britain’s leading defense and security think tank.

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