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: a deadly drone from a rinky-dink contractor heads to Ukraine; a big contractor proposes linking up various U.S. missile-defense systems; the Army may be wasting up to $22 billion on soldiers’ super-goggles; and more.
Pentagon dispatches secret Phoenix Ghost drone to Ukraine
If Casper is the friendly ghost, the Pentagon’s just-unveiled Phoenix Ghost drone is decidedly the unfriendly one. On April 21, the Pentagon announced it is sending 121 (where do they get such bizarre numbers?) of these previously-classified Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems to help Ukrainians battle Russian invaders in the eastern part of Ukraine. “It was developed rapidly by the Air Force to specifically address some of the Ukrainian requirements,” a senior defense official said April 21. He let the drone out of the bag in a background briefing for Pentagon reporters, who were left scratching their heads because “developed rapidly” is a foreign phrase inside the Pentagon.
Hours later, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby set the record straighter: “This is a drone that had been in development before the invasion, clearly,” he back-pedaled. “In discussions with the Ukrainians…about their requirements, we believed that this particular system would very nicely suit their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine.” The ghost drones are part of President Biden’s latest shipment to Ukraine of $800 million in security assistance. That brings the total since the February 24 invasion to $3.4 billion, about $10 for each American.
Understandably in wartime, the Defense Department is unwilling to say just what this new weapon will do, and how it will do it. Pentagon officials merely say it is a “killer-hunter”, like the 700+ Switchblade kamikaze drones the U.S. has already sent to Ukraine. They can loiter over the battlefield until it finds a target worth destroying — often armor — along with itself. Unlike the backpackable Switchblade, which can fly for less than an hour, the Phoenix Ghost reportedly can stay airborne for six, which gives it the patience to hunt for more valuable targets.
Aevex Aerospace , the California-based company that developed the Phoenix Ghost, has remained mum on its newest drone, which isn’t featured on its website (yet). The company was created in 2017 by the merger of CSG Solutions (founded in 2017), Merlin Global Services (2006) and Special Operations Solutions (2008). It and its 500 employees didn’t even rank among the Pentagon’s top 100 contractors last year. But the company highlights the Pentagon’s push to develop new capabilities in new ways, partnering, as Politico reported, “with small firms to develop and buy new technologies outside of the cumbersome acquisition hierarchy that often slows down or quashes leap-ahead technologies.”
AND SPEAKING OF CUMBERSOME ACQUISITIONS
The Pentagon’s biggest contractor’s shield of dreams
Of course, small contractors like Aevex could never keep the U.S. military-industrial complex satisfied. For that, you need the big guns. And there’s no bigger gun than Lockheed and its 114,000 employees. It has been the U.S. military’s #1 contractor each year since 2000 (which is the earliest year tracked on this handy-dandy Defense News tally). Last year it collected $62 billion from the Pentagon, accounting for 96% of its revenues, up 11% from 2020.
You don’t get to be a battlefield behemoth by building backpackable drones. Instead you have to focus your firepower on trillion-dollar-plus programs like Lockheed’s beleaguered F-35 fighter, or its new pipe-scheme to wipe enemy missiles, hypersonic or otherwise, from the skies. After all, why aim for the Russians when you can aim for the stars? “Lockheed Martin proposes multi-layer space network for missile defense,” read the headline atop an April 18 SpaceNews article. The subhead added: “The company says data collected from every orbit is needed to defend against advanced ballistic and hypersonic missiles.”
All the Pentagon would have to do, a Lockheed official explained, is knit together the growing constellations of missile-defense systems into one all-seeing eye, connected to one all-knowing-brain. That’s because attacking low-flying, speedy and maneuvering hypersonic missiles is much tougher than taking out high-flying ballistic missiles that follow predictable parabolic arcs (which, by the way, aren’t that easy to destroy, either). Tracking hypersonic missiles requires low-orbiting spy satellites, between 110 and 1,200 miles high, that would have to share what they’re learning with communication satellites. “The location data of the incoming missile would move through space via the transport layer [those communication satellites] and then downlinked to radar and weapon systems on the ground or at sea so they can try to intercept the incoming missile,” reporter Sandra Erwin wrote. But this plan “doesn’t solve the data transport needs at medium Earth orbit [from 1,200 to 22,000 miles high] and geosynchronous orbit [22,000 miles up], and the real power of deterrence is when you connect all of the various assets,” the Lockheed official said. Such a layered system would give the Pentagon “far more bang for its missile-defense buck,” the article added.
Yea, right. There are only two problems with this scheme: it costs too much, and it won’t work. Lockheed’s F-35 program is eight years late and $165 billion over its original cost estimate. And while the SpaceNews article didn’t cite any price estimates, it seems the folks running Lockheed have trouble estimating cost and value. Robert Stevens, who retired as Lockheed’s CEO in 2012, put his riverfront D.C.-area house on the market for $60 million in 2020; he eventually sold it for $48 million a year later, a 20% reduction. He was succeeded by Marillyn Hewson, who served as Lockheed’s CEO from 2013 to 2020. She sold her D.C.-area home for $2.7 million in 2018 after listing it for $3.2 million — a 16% hit. She sold a newer home in Virginia for $5.55 million on March 21, 2022, after buying it for $5.45 million in 2018. That’s a gain of less than 2% over four years in a town where the average-home price jumped 27% from March 2021 to March 2022. That’s all complicated math and, as they say, your mileage may vary.
But the reason such a technological tapestry will never work is far simpler. On the evening of April 20, a twin-engine De Havilland Twin Otter took off from Maryland’s Andrews Air Force base for the short hop to Nationals Park, where the D.C. pro baseball team plays. Six members of the Army’s Golden Knights would be parachuting into the ballpark, a mile south of the Capitol, as part of a pregame ceremony. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the Capitol Police, who ordered an emergency evacuation of the Capitol complex as the plane approached. “The mix-up created an off-the-field scramble to determine how authorities apparently miscommunicated about the flight on Military Appreciation Night at the baseball game,” the Washington Postreported. “Aircraft generally are restricted over the District, one of the nation’s most heavily guarded and controlled areas.” Added the Associated Press: “The incident was a stunning communications failure, all the more remarkable because of Washington’s focus on improving security since the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.” (The FAA took responsibility for the snafu.)
A federal government that can’t handle such a simple air-defense chore has no business spending hundreds of billions to build a continental Swiss watch in space.
Army’s new super-goggles spark a spat
The Bunker’s been reading Pentagon procurement documents for decades and rarely has seen one salted with such non-bureaucratic language. The Department of Defense Inspector General, in a new report, said it didn’t like the way the Army is developing its Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) — high-tech goggles for the battlefield. The current program, the IG warned, “could result in wasting up to $21.88 billion in taxpayer funds to field a system that soldiers may not want to use or use as intended.”
Well, as they say at the Pentagon, them’s fighting words.
The service made that clear in its March response to a draft version of the report (the IG included the Army’s counter-attack in the appendix of its final report released April 22). The service unleashed a fire-and-please-forget missile into the IG’s use of the word “wasting” (you know, the one that perpetually pals around the Pentagon with its buddies, Fraud and Abuse):
“This is fundamentally flawed and inflammatory, and must be removed or rewritten. If re-written, the word `wasting’ must be removed. It is a biased word, intended to illicit an emotionally negative belief in a fictional outcome, without fact or proof. $21.88B is part of the narrative to illicit an emotional response. However, it is an impossible outcome for the Army. This is a contract ceiling that includes all possible hardware, components, and services over a 10-year period at the worst possible pricing structure. Less than half of this total is possible for the U.S. Army. This total includes all possible sales to all sister services, Foreign Military Sales and all maximized service contracts.”
Got it. Well, to get all technical, first of all the IG noted the waste could be “up to” $22 billion. Secondly, the Army apparently would be cool if the IG said the service might be wasting “less than half of this total” — say, $10 billion or so. To its credit, the IG didn’t blink.
But beyond the waste is the guts of the IG probe: the Army never set yardsticks to see if these super-goggles are any good. The Army “compiled data from surveys and asked questions regarding use of the IVAS after test events, but did not determine if user acceptance was at an appropriate level,” it said. It’s tough for folks like The Bunker, who read IG reports for fun, to tell: all the soldier surveys and assessments of how well the IVAS goggles work were redacted.
The devices, developed with Microsoft’s help, look like high-tech virtual reality goggles. They’re designed to help soldiers aim weapons, give them thermal-imaging vision, night vision, navigation and biofeedback. The system also is designed to give soldiers on the battlefield computer access and let commanders monitor individual troops. After four years in development, soldiers are slated to start getting the goggles later this year. “These capabilities will provide the increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries in any domain,” the Army says. Following the initial hoopla, the custom-designed eyewear has run into some problems.
And this IG report isn’t going to help. There is only a single complete sentence in the report’s conclusion that isn’t blacked out: “Program officials stated that, if soldiers do not love IVAS and do not find it greatly enhances accomplishing the mission, then soldiers will not use it.”
But you can bet, regardless of how it performs, that taxpayers will pay for it.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
A pair of lawmakers have allied with the Pentagon in pushing defense contractor TransDigm to voluntarily repay $20.8 million for the costs of spare parts that were deemed excessive by the Defense Department’s inspector general (as POGO has detailed), Bloomberg reported April 18.
The Government Accountability Office reported April 25 that Pratt & Whitney, which builds the engines for Lockheed’s F-35 fighter, delivered six of them on time in 2021. The remaining 146 — 96% — were delivered late (good to see the aircraft garnering an A in at least one category). “The F-35 program is in the early stages of planning to modernize the F-35 engine,” the GAO said, an eye-watering fact given that the F-35 has yet to enter full-rate production.
Major General William Cooley was found guilty of sexually abusing his sister-in-law, making him the first Air Force general ever convicted at court martial, Military.com reported April 26. He will serve no jail time.
A widow, whose Army husband’s remains were partly buried in a landfill following his death in Iraq in 2006, won her fight against the government stemming from her complaints about the practice, the Washington Post reported April 21.
Retired U.S. Navy admiral James Stavridis warned in an April 19 Bloomberg op-ed that the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet by Ukrainian missiles highlights “the vulnerability of surface ships — including aircraft carriers, the heart of the U.S. Navy — to relatively low-cost, numerous and technologically advanced cruise missiles.”
Sean McFate, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne and now at the Atlantic Council, argued in The Hill April 24 that “battlefield victory no longer wins wars, so let’s stop wasting trillions of dollars on it.”
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