Newsletter

The Bunker: Pentagon Poppycock

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: Enough of defense-business merger-mania; Boeing and the Air Force continue to struggle at the gas pump; key weapons info suddenly MIA; despite such woes, the defense biz is booming; a Bunker bye-bye; and more.

DEFENSE-CONTRACTING TRIFECTA

Takes a licking, but keeps on ticking

Grim times for the military-industrial complex. First, a government agency stood up and declared that defense-industry consolidation has gone too far. Two days later, another government agency—and, like the first, unrelated to the Pentagon—declared that the Air Force and one of its biggest suppliers are unable to produce a low-risk, and vitally-needed, program. Finally, a Pentagon —surprise!—shop reported on how new weapons are working, but decided to hold back a lot of critical details for the first time.

Once again, taxpayers are right to be puzzled over a Pentagon that seems to act more like a public-works project, seeing its primary mission to spend money willy-nilly, rather than winning wars. The latest particulars:

  • The Federal Trade Commission said January 25 that it would sue to block Lockheed, the Pentagon’s #1 contractor, from gobbling up rocket-builder Aerojet Rocketdyne. The headline on the FTC’s press release spells it out: “Agency Seeks to Prevent World’s Largest Defense Contractor from Eliminating Last Independent U.S. Missile Propulsion Provider and Further Consolidating Markets Critical to National Security and Defense.” The fact that this is even up for debate shows how far the Pentagon’s procurement pendulum has swung toward consolidation, with all the risk that entails.
  • The FTC isn’t buying Lockheed’s assurances that Aerojet, as a Lockheed subsidiary, would be permitted to sell rocket engines to Lockheed’s rivals. That doubt surfaced in the agency’s heavily redacted 22-page complaint(PDF) seeking to stop the deal. Even before Lockheed began its push to buy Aerojet, “Lockheed sought unsuccessfully to prevent Aerojet from supplying Critical Propulsion Technologies to other prime contractors on a number of occasions,” it said. Lockheed said it was debating whether to fight the FTC in court or abandon the deal. The Bunker bets it bows out.
  • Meanwhile, Boeing and the Air Force remain unable to fix long-standing woes on their new KC-46 aerial tanker. “The Air Force and Boeing are currently addressing several critical deficiencies—such shortfalls that can cause death or injury, or loss or damage to the aircraft—that are delaying use of KC-46's full aerial refueling capabilities,” the Government Accountability Office said in a January 27 report. The GAO said the plane “was considered to be a relatively low-risk effort to integrate mostly-mature military technologies onto an aircraft designed for commercial use,” which makes it that much more vexing that the program has had repeated cost overruns and delays. The good news for taxpayers is that Boeing’s contract with the Air Force requires the company to pay for development costs above $4.9 billion. The bad news for Boeing is that it has now spent $5.4 billion more than that on the program. The Bunkerdetailed this sad saga three years ago—and it’s only gotten sadder since.
  • Finally, the Pentagon’s testing office published its latest annual report(PDF), minus key details on weapons performance that have been routinely included in prior years. The Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation’s (DOT&E) yearly accounting has always been issued in classified and unclassified forms. But this year marks the first time there’s a third version, containing “controlled unclassified information.” Last month, the testing office said this Goldilocks variation is needed because some unclassified material “shouldn’t end up in our adversaries’ hands.”

This is Pentagon poppycock, as POGO’s Dan Grazier told Valerie Insinna at Breaking Defense. “Congress established DOT&E in 1983 over the furious objections of service and defense-industry leaders because members knew they weren’t getting the truth about the performance of new weapons,” Grazier said. “By caving to pressure inside the Pentagon and hiding unclassified information behind a pseudo-classification, the current leaders of DOT&E are undermining the effectiveness of their own agency.” It reminds The Bunker of how information about the Afghan war dried up as the U.S. effort there flagged. We all know how that turned out.

Yet none of this kind of rot seems to impact the U.S. arms industry. In fact, these are the good ol’ days, per defense execs’ recent briefings with Wall Street analysts. “According to chief executives of the top taxpayer-funded weapons firms, their balance sheets will benefit from the U.S. engaging in great power competition with Russia and China, the recent escalations in the Yemen war, and the potential for a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Eli Clifton wrote January 28 at Responsible Statecraft. Such quarterly earnings calls bring out “a degree of candor about companies’ fundamentals and their business interests that aren’t always disclosed in marketing materials and carefully-worded press releases.”

Now that’s something you can take to the bank.

GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS

DOD tries again on civilian casualties and sexual harassment

The Bunker has seen the Pentagon grapple with civilian casualties on the battlefield and sexual harassment in the ranks for decades. Nothing, alas, ever seems to change. But the Pentagon, and White House, are trying again. On January 27, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the military(PDF) to do more to prevent civilian deaths, following a mistaken missile strike that killed 10 innocents in the final hours of the Afghan war. A day earlier, President Biden signed an executive order making sexual harassment its own unique crime, in the latest push to curb sex crimes in the military.

But well-meaning commands from on high are not sufficient to change what happens on the ground. The Bunker recalls, early in his career, when anti-gay violence in the U.S. military was a regular occurrence. That faded as society’s attitudes changed. It will take similar shifts to reduce civilian casualties and sexual harassment. Best to think of these executive edicts as a step in the right direction, but merely a step.

DREADLINE OF THE WEEK

Alas, a new Bunker feature

We’ve been poring over military minutiae, including hundreds of news articles weekly, for more than 40 years. They’ve generally been limited to the topics of troops and taxpayers, and wars and weapons. But there is a new, and disturbing kind of story now surfacing: the prospect of the United States of America, as we know it, falling apart. Such stories could never have been written even a couple of years ago. But they’re becoming increasingly common. “We are a factionalized anocracy [basically, a repressive democracy] that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” international-relations professor Barbara F. Walter argues in her new book, How Civil Wars Start. Such unrest is approaching like a storm, with winds building and the patter of rain growing ever louder. So, going forward, we’re going to periodically note these grim tidings in our weekly recommended reading list under a DREADLINE headline. Here’s the first:

Why A Second U.S. Civil War Would Be Far Worse Than The First

You’ve been warned.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE…

Bunker boss bailing!

Mandy Smithberger, who has been The Bunker’s editor for his five years at the Project On Government Oversight, is moving on. Details in due course, as they say. Half The Bunker’s age—but twice as smart—she has overseen POGO’s Center for Defense Information since 2014. Mandy will be missed. But as ol’ Bunker buddy Sun Tzu says, “Never venture, never win.” We’re glad she is—and we know she will.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

It’s worse than you thought…

George Packer’s epic take on the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, posted on The Atlantic’s website January 31, should leave you simmering in shame and anger.

Inverted pyramid

The Biden administration has decided to deny Egypt $130 million in military aid because of human rights violations, CNN reported January 28.

Ukrainian pork

Three lawmakers are pressing the Pentagon to speed up delivery of home-grown-and-maintained M-1 tanks to Poland to help beef up NATO’s eastern flank as Russia threatens Ukraine, according to their January 24 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Concorde 2.0

The Air Force is investing $60 million in the development of a supersonic commercial airliner, Ars Technica reported January 26.

Loud lawsuit

A federal jury awarded $110 million to a pair of Army veterans who claimed that flawed 3M earplugs contributed to their hearing loss while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, Military.com said January 28.

From blue skies to blacktop…

A Vietnam-era B-52 just rumbled 1,407 miles along highways from Arizona to Oklahoma, where its final mission will be to test new B-52 components…but only on the ground, Air Force Times reported January 27.

And thanks for making the journey to the end of this week’s Bunker. Forward on to friends, and sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox on Wednesdays.