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.
The Bunker will be taking the next two weeks off for a little R&R. See you bright and early on Wednesday, August 19!
Shoddy accounting…but only if you’re a taxpayer
If you want to know one reason why Lockheed’s F-35 fighter program—at $400 billion, the most costly weapon system in world history—is so screwed up, check out this line from Theresa Hull, an assistant inspector general at the Defense Department: “The DoD is in an environment in which it is dependent on Lockheed Martin for information related to the F-35, including contractor performance, because the government did not maintain its own data,” she told the House Oversight and Reform Committee July 22.
Did you catch that? “…dependent on Lockheed Martin for information related to the F-35, including contractor performance…”
Italics are The Bunker’s.
Like so much involving Pentagon procurement, this gets complicated. But try to follow along. It highlights what is effectively a tacit alliance between weapons-sellers and weapon-buyer, to the detriment of the taxpayer footing the bill.
About 1,000 of the F-35’s 50,000 parts, roughly 2%, are deemed critical and need to be accompanied by digital documentation to ensure they don’t exceed usage limits. Without such data, such parts “can create life and safety concerns for aircrews,” Hull said.
These so-called “ready-for-issue” parts are supposed to arrive at Air Force bases from Lockheed ready for installation aboard F-35s. “Non-RFI” parts are supposed to be set aside and not used aboard aircraft until they comply with the contractually-required standards. But the military has been ignoring that rule for years, and installing non-RFI parts aboard F-35s.
The Pentagon spent up to $303 million between 2015 and 2018 to bring those non-RFI spare parts up to the required RFI standard that taxpayers paid Lockheed to meet. In June 2018, for example, Lockheed delivered 263 supposedly-RFI spare parts to Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base, but only 50 of them—19%—actually were RFI. Taxpayers continue to pay about $1 million a week to correct a problem, according to Hull, that wouldn’t exist if Lockheed fulfilled its contractual obligations.
Given the amazing complexity of the F-35 and its accompanying bookkeeping, it costs U.S. taxpayers between $7,000 and $11,000 each time Pentagon personnel have to bring a non-RFI part up to standard. The military has adopted informal work-around measures to deal with the problem. “The DoD’s use of local guidance and ad hoc manual processes allowed aircraft to fly and complete missions instead of the DoD grounding aircraft due to receiving non-RFI parts from Lockheed Martin,” Hull said. The military formally approved F-35s flying with non-RFI parts in October 2018; it had been allowed informally since August 2017.
The kicker to all this contracting drama is that F-35s are flying that don’t meet what’s called for in the contract between the Pentagon and Lockheed. That, in turn, leads to overstated readiness rates for the aircraft. In one Air Force unit, for example, 20 of 22 F-35s had 172 non-RFI parts installed among them, allowing them to be deemed ready to fly.
“This resulted in inflated aircraft-availability hours used to pay the contractor incentive fees for those 20 aircraft on that day,” Hull said. In fact, she added, because the Pentagon does not collect such data, it “relied solely on contractor-reported information on availability hours to pay Lockheed Martin $32 million of the $38 million in performance incentive fees for 2017 and 2018.” Betcha wish 84% of your bonus—assuming you get one—was based on your own assessment of how good of a job you’re doing.
Lockheed’s revenues for the second quarter of the year were up 12%, to $16.2 billion, the company reported last week. Earnings were up 14%. “Second quarter, we saw strong growth across F-35,” Kenneth Possenriede, Lockheed’s chief financial officer, told financial analysts July 21. “Really strong production growth in the second quarter, and sustainment is up as well. And so for the year, we're looking at double-digit growth for F-35.”
“…and sustainment is up as well.”
Now you know part of the reason why.
THE ARMY’S NAME GAME
Showdown looms over posts named for Confederates
The tug-of-war over the names of 10 U.S. Army posts is increasingly looking like a name-changer. Those posts, all located in states that belonged to the Confederacy, were named in honor of rebel Civil War officers, mostly around World War I. Not only was that a slap at those who opposed the slavery for which the Confederacy fought, most of them weren’t even good military officers.
Last week, both houses of Congress passed 2021 defense-policy bills that require that names of Army posts that honor rebels like Bragg, Benning and Hood be tossed on the ash heap of history (as has traditionally been the case for losers). But in a catalog of 57 White House concerns included in the House bill that might warrant a veto, renaming the bases was the first item listed, in an overwrought objection:
The two houses will be meeting in the weeks ahead to iron out their differences in their respective versions of the bill. The House mandates new names within a year, while the Senate says the posts must be renamed within three years. Things always take longer in the Senate, which some still refer to as the “world’s greatest deliberative body”…although that old saw, given the Senate’s do-nothing nature in recent years, should probably be tossed out along with bases named for Confederates.
Significantly, both houses passed their bills with veto-proof majorities. But Trump said July 24 that Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the armed services committee, will fight in negotiations between the two houses to eliminate the name changes. That could be difficult given that both houses have incorporated them into their proposed legislation. Pentagon leaders have said they are open to considering changing the names to help rid the military of racism. The Bunker has been asking why the posts are named for traitors for years.
Trump’s concern over the issue became clear several days before those votes. “What are we going to name it?” he asked about Fort Bragg in a July 19 interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News. “We’re going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton?”
Classy guy, our President.
OPTING FOR THE STATUS QUO
Let’s keep the troops everywhere and military spending sky-high
The U.S. is doubling-down on business-as-usual. Last week, both houses of Congress voted down bills that would have trimmed next year’s defense spending by a modest 10%, and President Trump continued in his vain quest to bring U.S. troops home. From pretty much anywhere (Afghanistan, Germany, Syria have been at the top of his list recently).
Amid economic turmoil triggered by a pandemic far worse than it ever should have become, the U.S. political class is frozen in fear. Now is the time for some bold action, based on the new kind of threat represented by COVID-19. It may be trite, but it also true, that Washington remains transfixed by the threats posed by other nations—ones that require spending $1 trillion annually, all told—rather than the gauzier threats represented by a novel virus or climate change.
“The pandemic adds a new dimension to the case for transforming U.S. foreign policy,” Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, argues. “Confronted with killer germs, a national-security state that takes armed primacy as its lodestar has delivered no security to the nation,” he said at Real Clear Defense on July 22. “The best one can say is that America’s privileged instrument, its globe-straddling military, has proven irrelevant to the greatest attack on the American people in a generation. Consider the irony: Many countries that the United States has bound itself to protect by force—Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea—have controlled the spread and secured their people. Their protector, by contrast, reigns supreme as the single most infected country in the world. We’re #1 in armed force around the globe and vulnerability to disease at home. And that is a generous interpretation. A less generous one would draw a straight line between American militarization and American insecurity.”
Part of this beat-the-bad-guys mentality is rooted in America’s frontier spirit, but even more important is the desire to preserve the status quo among what Gordon Adams famously called the “iron triangle”—the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry.
(Fun fact: President Eisenhower’s final speech, warning against “unwarranted influence” by the “military-industrial complex,” originally referred to the “military-congressional complex.” But aides did a radical congressionalectomy “because Ike didn't want his farewell speech to be seen as a partisan slap,” according to the late Andrew Goodpaster, a top Eisenhower aide who became a four-star Army general and served as NATO commander from 1969 to 1974.)
Yet the military-industrial complex without Congress is bankrupt. Every penny spent by the Pentagon has to be approved by the legislature, making lawmakers the key, if unacknowledged, players in the military-industrial complex.
We witnessed that again last week when the House voted 324-93 against the 10% cut. The measure lost even among Democrats, 139-92 (check out how your lawmaker voted here). There was no obvious link among those Democrats voting in opposition, according to the progressive Sludge website, unless one paws through campaign contributions.
“Democrats who voted against the amendment tend to have received far more campaign funding from defense-industry interests,” Donald Shaw and David Moore reported July 22. “On average, the Democrats who voted against the amendment have received $29,731 in contributions from the defense industry since January 2019, while Democrats voting for the amendment have received, on average, $8,800 from the industry during that period, according to a Sludge analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.”
Instead of blazing new trails, the nation’s elected representatives at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seem to be saying that all is well. That’s an ominous sign in a democracy, where anyone awake and alive—or either, for that matter—knows that all is not well. It’s enough to make The Bunker reconsider its long-standing opposition to both term limits for legislators, and public financing for their campaigns.
We sure as heck aren’t getting our money’s worth out of the military-industrial complex. Or Congress.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
CQ’s John Donnelly reports that the Senate’s corona relief proposal sounds like a defense industry wish list. And unsurprisingly, the top beneficiaries of the weapon system buys are some of the Pentagon’s biggest contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. When $740 billion isn’t enough…
That’s the title of a piece by Army War College Jacqueline Whitt posted on the nonprofit Strategy Bridge website July 23. “There is, understandably, a lot of consternation at the prospect of designing a strategy for the explicit goal of not losing,” she writes. “But perhaps this is precisely what is required in many cases where the complexities of the actors, the environment, and the interests make clear-cut victories impossible.” Frankly, that already seems to be the unacknowledged strategy. If we make it official, maybe we’ll be able to save some money.
For more depressing reading, don’t miss Mark Gilchrist’s July 22 piece on West Point’s Modern War Institute website on how to end wars. “The tumult of the experience in Afghanistan will hopefully re-teach planners how difficult it is to bring conflict to a politically acceptable close when the adversary is in a position of strength,” he writes. The world’s lone military superpower hasn’t been able to wrestle the Afghan bad guys to the ground…after 19 years? Gilchrist served in Afghanistan as a war planner in 2018-19, so we probably should take him seriously. However, he’s Australian and was there with the Australian army, so you need to take what he says with a grain of Vegemite, at the very yeast.
Here’s some chest-thumping cheerleading for Defense Secretary Mark Esper by James Carafano and Thomas Spoehr, two Heritage Foundation honchos. Too bad they don’t mention that Esper once served as chief of staff at the conservative think tank.
Military scholar (and Colorado senator and presidential candidate) Gary Hart reminds us in a column in the July 23 New York Timesthat the President of the United States possesses “extraordinary presidential powers in the case of a national emergency, virtually dictatorial powers without congressional or judicial checks and balances.” The current White House occupant referred to these powers back in March: “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” Hart suggests that these secret powers should see the light of day. Tough to argue with that, no matter who is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Despite the nationwide surge in coronavirus cases across much of the country, especially in the Sun Belt, the Army has resumed large-scale exercises, primarily in the Sun Belt, where most of its large posts are concentrated. “We must be ready for any planned and unplanned crisis,”
Army Lieutenant General Ray Flynn said, according to a July 22 report at Military.com. “We have to be able to do this any time, any place against any threat whether it's a hurricane, whether it's a wildfire, a terror attack, a nation-state armed aggressor or even a global pandemic.”
Meanwhile, back in the rear echelons, the virus has taken down major October events. The Association of the United States Army has decided to conduct its huge annual convention, which draws up to 30,000 people to Washington, D.C., entirely online. And the storied Marine Corps Marathon has been scotched for the first time in its 45-year history. At this rate, Halloween is beginning to look pretty questionable.
The estimable Bob Burns, who has been covering the Pentagon for the Associated Press since 1990, had a good July 25 piece featuring interviews with B-2 “stealth bomber” pilots who told him they’re fine with their bat-winged planes being retired before much-older B-52s. The fact that it echoes what The Bunkerwrote more than a year ago in one of his Military Industrial Circus columns only confirms what a good reporter Burns is. He also quotes defense analyst Loren Thompson (no relation to The Bunker), who says that when the Air Force had to choose one of the bombers to keep flying, “they decided the B-52 was good enough.” Of course, many folks have been making that argument for decades. It’s just that until recently, they weren’t wearing Air Force blue.
LEGO has scrapped its planned August 1 launch of a 1,642-piece model of the Bell-Boeing V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. It made that decision after European (of course!) protesters pointed out that it is a war machine, the We Are the Mighty military website reported July 23. “We have a long-standing policy not to create sets which feature real military vehicles, so it has been decided not to proceed with the launch of this product,” the Danish toymaker said. “We appreciate that some fans who were looking forward to this set may be disappointed, but we believe it's important to ensure that we uphold our brand values.” Boy, are the Marines gonna be ticked.
Thanks for reading The Bunker. Once again, it’s giving you the next two weeks off while it heads for New England’s refreshing briny air. See you back here on August 19.