The Bunker: Plane Stupid

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: Who’s in charge of air traffic control at the Pentagon?; loathsome Russian blamethrowing; a general’s warning; welcome back … and a Happy (real, not fiscal) New Year!; and more.


The Pentagon’s not doing its job up there

Imagine you had four kids. For the sake of conversation, let’s call them Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Each of them now has a driver’s license, and parents know what a nightmare that can be. Army wants a gargantuan GMC Hummer. Navy wants a titanic Nissan Armada. Air Force wants a colossal Lincoln Aviator. And Marine Corps wants a Chevy Malibu, which is the cheapest of all — except Marine wants one that can take off and land vertically, making it the most expensive.

Parents know this is crazy, not to mention unaffordable. So they make some rules and force the kids into sharing, even if their choices aren’t the golden chariots the youngsters want. That’s called responsible parenting.

Too bad the Pentagon doesn’t take the same approach when it comes to buying aircraft for its offspring.

Turns out the Defense Department is spending $20 billion a year on aircraft without making those kids sit down and cooperate. “DOD is making significant development and procurement investments but has not yet conducted integrated acquisition portfolio-level analyses of its tactical aircraft platforms,” the Government Accountability Office says in a new report. “Further, DOD guidance does not require that information underlying these analyses be reported to Congress.” Such service-driven stove-piped procurement could leave the Pentagon with too many of some kinds of warplanes but not enough of others. The GAO’s review included the tactical aircraft belonging to the Air Force (A-10, F-15, F-16, F-22A, and F-35A), Navy (F/A-18E/F, EA-18G, and F-35C), and Marines (AV-8B, F/A-18A-D, the jump jet F-35B, and the carrier-based F-35C).

What could go wrong? Well, for starters, the Navy wants to mothball older airplanes the Air Force is counting on to win the next war. Predictably, the Navy wants to do this so it can spend more money on newer airplanes to win the war-after-next.

Those Navy’s EA-18 Growler planes are required to “support joint force requirements for tactical airborne electronic attack capability and capacity,” the GAO says. The Navy maintains this is a “non-core mission” for its fleet. The Air Force says, according to the GAO, “that if the Navy goes through with this proposal, it would leave the joint force — particularly the Air Force — without an electronic warfare capability considered critical to its operations.”

Crazy, right?

“Without an analysis of the tactical aircraft platform portfolio and a requirement to report underlying information externally, DOD and Congress will continue to have limited information when making major investment decisions,” GAO said. Seven of eight recent Pentagon studies cited by the GAO found the current fighter fleet lacking, even though the U.S. has many more such warplanes than any other nation.

In the hamster wheel that is Pentagon procurement, the GAO noted that in recent years the Defense Department conducted multiple studies into its aircraft needs that “largely assumed unconstrained funding when determining requirements.”

Just another way the Pentagon differs from your family.


Starting the new year with a bang

Before we left for the holidays, Russia’s war against Ukraine was going … not great. In the new year — one minute in, to be precise — it got a lot worse. That’s when a Ukrainian barrage of six U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) projectiles zeroed in on a vocational school in the city of Makiivka. Located in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region of Ukraine, Russian troops had been using the building as a makeshift barracks. While the Russian Ministry of Defense said it shot down two of the incoming HIMARS, it acknowledged that four slipped through.

Moscow said the strike killed 89; Ukraine has estimated the death toll at about 400. But even the lower toll makes it the most deadly strike suffered by Russia since it invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

In the blame game too often cited by commanders when the commanded perish, the Russian MOD was quick to blame the dead for their own demise. “It has already become obvious at present that the main cause of the occurrence was activation and large-scale use, contrary to the ban, of personal phones by personnel within the reach of enemy’s destruction means,” Russian Lieutenant General Sergey Sevryukov tut-tutted. “This factor enabled the enemy to take the bearing and determine coordinates of servicemen location to deliver a missile strike.”

That’s no doubt true, but hardly the entire story. Reports suggest that those killed were newly-mobilized troops, thrown into a war not of their own making, and — The Bunker assumes — scared to death. It was their commanders who, first of all, crowded them all into a single structure, making for a fat and juicy target. Second, they were garrisoned within range of Ukrainian weapons. Finally, they apparently were surrounded by Russian ammo, which some have speculated was set off by the incoming rockets.

Moscow’s brazen counterattack — let’s call it a blamethrower — burned those using it. “It is not cell phones and their owners that are to blame,” one Russian military blogger maintained, “but the negligence of the commanders.” Sergie Mironov, a leader of a pro-Kremlin party in the parliament, said the death toll requires the prosecution of all those responsible, “whether they wear epaulets or not.”


Top military officer’s sobering words

Ernest Hemingway wrote of how bankruptcy happens: “Gradually, then suddenly.” The line from 1926’s The Sun Also Rises echoes throughout the testimony given to the January 6 committee by Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which the congressional panel released over the holidays. He was speaking of the danger posed by politicizing the U.S. military. It makes for chilling reading, because — perhaps like bankruptcy — such rot too often can’t be detected until it is too late.

“The events of January 6th, in my personal opinion, were a horrific day, a tragic day in the history of America,” Milley told the panel(PDF) behind closed doors more than a year ago. “I think it was an assault on the Constitution of the United States of America. And I swore an oath to support and defend that Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

It’s a sobering 302 pages.


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

Yet more unpowered F-35s

In the wake of a December crash, the Pentagon has halted deliveries of new engines for its F-35 fighters, Defense News reported January 4, the latest powerplant woe for the $400 billion program.

The future fight

Algorithmic warfare — and no, it’s not named for the former vice president — is changing warfare, David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post December 19.

One step closer...(PDF)

On January 5, the Pentagon ordered the military to change all its names honoring the Confederacy by year’s end, a cause The Bunkerhas been championing for nearly a decade.

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