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The Bunker: Pentagon Progress…and Inertia

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 trio of good-news tales on hardware and hypersonics, balanced by more business-as-usual when it comes to missile defense and sexual assaults; stealthy NATO; and more.

After more than 40 years at this game, The Bunker knows that trying to get the Pentagon to change direction is a lot like sitting at the stern of an aircraft carrier, sticking your hand in the water, and expecting the flattop to change course (momentum = mass x velocity, + inertia, more or less). Even so, it’s worth noting hints of Defense Department progress on three fronts recently: (1) seeking to curb defense industry merger-mania; (2) voicing caution about the current hypersonic weapons craze; and (3) acknowledging that—due in no small part to the highway-robbing costs of some new spare parts—the Defense Department should make it easier to buy used spare parts.

Yet every stride forward seems matched with a backward step: (a) a culture war continues to rage between the Defense Department and some lawmakers; (b) the futility of missile defense, highlighted in a new study; and (c) reported sexual assaults have reached an all-time high at the military academies:

Mergers

The Pentagon is a pendulum, perpetually swinging from over-emphasized to overlooked. In a nutshell, that’s why it tends to be better at fighting yesterday’s war than tomorrow’s. It takes the same approach to its suppliers, encouraging mergers 30 years ago and now reacting to the resulting dramatic contraction like an arsonist experiencing a hair-on-fire moment. The Bunker, having reviewed daily defense-contract announcements for decades, is amazed at how many, for all kinds of weapons and support services, are now going to the Big 5: Lockheed, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop. “Having only a single source or a small number of sources for a defense need can pose mission risk and, particularly in cases where the existing dominant supplier or suppliers are influenced by an adversary nation, pose significant national security risks,” the Defense Department said February 15. “For all these reasons, promoting competition to the maximum extent possible is a top priority for the Department.” Good news for everybody except the Big 5.

Dehyping Hypersonics

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is throwing lukewarm water on hypersonic weapons, designed to fly at least five times the speed of sound. “The cost-effectiveness has to be looked at carefully,” he said February 15. “Hypersonics can be very expensive, and the question is, ‘Can you do the job with conventional missiles at less cost just as effectively?’” His skepticism is bracing coming from the Pentagon’s hypersonic hothouse, where the military services are rushing headlong into such hardware. They have(PDF) 70 such programs now underway; spending on them jumped 740% between 2015 and 2020.

It must be pointed out that the Air Force secretary's motives may not be completely altruistic. If effective hypersonic munitions can be developed, they would challenge the need for large aircraft programs like the F-35 and B-21.

Kendall achieved notoriety along Pentagon corridors a decade ago this month, when he was serving as the military’s top civilian weapons buyer. He branded prior Defense Department procurement czars guilty of “acquisition malpractice” for buying F-35 fighters before the blueprints were finished. His F-35 warning has proven to be prescient, as the most costly weapon system in world history is plagued with problems. Here’s hoping someone is listening to him now.

Used Spare-Party Time

Military spare parts cost too much. That was true 40 years ago when the Project on Military Procurement, which has since morphed(PDF) into the Project On Government Oversight, brought the problem to light. Alas, it remains true today, as POGO’s recent reporting on parts supplier TransDigm makes all too clear. That’s why it was heartening to hear talk about buying more “used serviceable material” when it comes to keeping the U.S. military humming.

Red tape has limited the military’s use of pre-owned parts, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said at the February 15 confirmation hearing of Christopher Lowman to serve as assistant secretary of defense for sustainment. “I’ve seen reports where purchasing officers have a program…function on their keyboard F7, where they just hit a function and it populates a form and they can buy brand-new parts,” the ex-Army chopper pilot said. “But it is multi-steps to use this program that exists for used parts.”

Lowman pledged to fix the system: “If confirmed, I’ll work closely with the services…to make sure there are no policy barriers to use of the USM.” That’s vital, given the readiness-rate tailspin of U.S. weapons. It can’t happen fast enough, especially given the fact that F-35 sustainment, for example, “is going to be the fastest-growing part of the portfolio,” in the words of the chief financial officer of F-35 builder Lockheed.

Now, to the negative side of the ledger:

Culture War (cont.)

The Pentagon, pretty much like every other U.S. institution these days, finds itself embroiled in controversies weighing past wrongs and how, and how much, to right them. The Army’s 10 posts named for Confederate traitors is a recent hot-button issue, with new names coming (although not fast enough for some, like Kevin Baron over at Defense One). Having lost that battle, conservatives are now challenging Defense Department spending on efforts to counter extremism and promote diversity. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently informed Congress(PDF) the military has spent nearly 6 million hours and about $1 million grappling with the topics over the past 14 months, “comparable to other Joint Force periodic training requirements.”

This generated a heat-seeking missive from 12 Senate Republicans led by Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking GOP member of the armed services committee. “We are alarmed that so much training time and taxpayer money was devoted to a partisan, political agenda instead of recruiting, training and equipping the lethal force we need to defend this country,” they said. What’s alarming is lawmakers declaring $1 million “so much…taxpayer money.” That works out to 1 minutes of Pentagon spending. While The Bunker agrees that a defense dollar is a terrible thing to waste, there are far fatter targets for the senators’ ire-and-forget dispatches.

Missile Defense

Speaking of ill-aimed spending, there are fewer bigger bullseyes in the Pentagon budget than missile defense. Such shields of dreams are costing the nation about $20 billion a year, totaling some $350 billion since World War II. A February 9 study from the American Physical Society highlights the futility of even the rudimentary system the U.S. has in place against impoverished and starving North Korea. “No missile defense system thus far developed has been shown to be effective against realistic ICBM threats,” it says.

The Bunker has always been struck, when it comes to military matters, by the scientific skepticism expressed by groups like APS, the Federation of American Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Their views are consistently at odds with those held by scientists employed by the military and its contractors. You don’t have to be an Einstein to follow the money.

Sexual Assault

The U.S. military academies are the furnace in which tomorrow’s U.S. military is forged. That’s why it’s so depressing to learn that sexual assaults there reached an all-time high(PDF) in the 2020-2021 academic year. Students at the U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, New York; the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland; and the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colorado; reported 131 incidents of sexual assault last year, up nearly 50% from the year before. In part, that was because COVID-19 shut down the academies for the final quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. “Once everyone went home,” Nate Galbreath, the Pentagon’s sexual-assault prevention chief explained, “there were no further reports of sexual assault at the academies.” Nonetheless, the latest jump represents a continuing climb in the number of such assaults since the Pentagon began tracking them in 2005.

Galbreath explained that the academies do “very well” when it comes to complying with the rules on sexual assaults. So why do they keep rising? “That's because the academy programs are very heavily response-oriented,” he said. “That means that they're very good about taking care of victims once they report.” Prevention, not so much. While “we're working hard to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money,” Galbreath said, “we also need the academies to hire a prevention champion.”

Wait until those senators hear about that.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Union soldiers

Some members of the Texas National Guard are moving to form a union amid grumbling over their assignment to the Mexican border by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, Military.com reported February 16.

Masters of our domains…

The military’s push to create “domains” on land, sea, air, and space is simply inefficient “stove-piping” in new clothes, Space Force Major Mark Crimm argued in Defense News February 18.

Military-industrial-real-estate-complex

Ex-Lockheed CEO Robert Stevens sold his suburban Washington, D.C., home for $48 million (after listing it for $60 million) to Dan Snyder, owner of the recently-renamed Washington Commanders NFL team, the Washington Business Journal reported February 15.

Candy Bomber, R.I.P.

Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, the Air Force pilot who achieved fame for dropping candy and chewing gum to German kids during 1948’s Berlin airlift, died February 16 at 101, the New York Times reported. 1920-2022. R.I.P.

NATO goes stealthy

None of the three college seniors on Jeopardy February 18 could say what the acronym “NATO” means, retired Army colonel Joseph J. Collins tweeted after the show. Of course, they probably couldn’t locate Ukraine on a map, either…

Well, guess that means it’s time for The Bunker to dust off the “whither NATO” evergreen he’s been writing, off and on, for more than 40 years. Thanks for reading, and sign up for early-Wednesday deliveries here.