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.
REDUCING HUMAN CAPITAL
One of the simplest ways for the Pentagon to save money is to reduce the number of humans in uniform. War-waging robots have long been the stuff of science fiction, but as flying drones have made clear recently, they’re becoming more real every day. Both the Navy and Air Force are trying to expand that reality.
Pentagon weighs bigger Navy using unmanned ships
The U.S. military, like any living organism, is constantly evolving to ensure its own survival. Just check out the Pentagon’s latest great idea: since the U.S. Navy has no chance of achieving its goal of a 355-ship fleet, it wants to build a 500-ship fleet—and get there by building hulls that don’t require pesky humans aboard. This dramatically retooled force has been recommended by experts tapped by Defense Secretary Mark Esper to rethink the Navy. “Unmanned will enable us to grow the United States Navy well beyond 355 ships,” the defense chief told sailors during a September 17 visit the carrier USS Carl Vinson. “It will add more lethality, survivability, capability, et cetera, to the United States Navy.”
The good news is that the experts want to head in that direction by marginally shrinking its operational fleet of $20 billion (including planes) aircraft carriers from 10 to 8. They’d put the savings into a fleet of about 75 large unmanned warships and 50 unmanned subs, according to Defense News. The bad news for the Navy is that there is next to no chance of getting the extra bucks it needs to build this expanded fleet.
The Bunker has long believed that the Navy is the Pentagon’s best ambassador, peacefully sailing the world’s seas. When it’s time to fight, it can freely head into the 70% of the globe covered in salt water, unlike the Army and Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy has long bit off more than it can chew, hatching schemes to build numbers of ships it could never afford. That leads to rising price tags for each ship it does end up buying, which leads to fewer ships, but no proportional reduction in their missions.
But make no mistake: getting rid of humans is a great way to save money. When we think of out-of-control Pentagon spending, we tend to focus on the roughly 25 cents of every U.S. defense dollar that pays for weapons, while ignoring the 50 cents that pays for people to design, operate, maintain, and audit (not!) them. But if we’re being honest, that demands that the nation’s civilian leaders either boost the Navy budget or trim its sails, so that there are enough ships to do what we expect the Navy to do. The fact is, the Navy could only do 44% (PDF) of what U.S. war-fighting commanders asked it to do in 2015, the last time that telling figure seeped onto the public record. An honest accounting that balances risk vs. cost is long overdue. We continue to pretend at our peril.
AND OVERHEAD, AS WELL AS OVERBOARD
The Air Force wants more unmanned craft, too
The Air Force is considering expanding its humanless flying machines beyond the Predators, Global Hawks and Reapers that have garnered so much attention since 9/11. Now it’s exploring pairing robotic warplanes alongside conventional human-operated warplanes, and refueling both from crewless aerial tankers.
Skyborg is a program to design and build ever-more-sophisticated drones capable of accompanying traditional warplanes into combat. The goal is to make them cheap enough that they could be dispatched on kamikaze missions if their human partner decides that makes sense. “I expect that the [human] pilots…will decide, does the Skyborg return and land with them and go to fight another day, or is it the end of its life and it’s going to go on a one-way mission?” Air Force weapons boss Will Roper said September 23. Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos Defense, and Northrop Grumman are vying for $400 million in Air Force money to build prototypes. MIA is Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, triggering speculation that it may buy Kratos to boost its crewless cred.
The Air Force also wants unmanned tankers to refuel its warplanes mid-mission. Today’s tankers are big fat targets, Roper said. One way to fix that is to have smaller, crewless tankers. “How can you defend a tanker against an onslaught of fighters who know that every tanker you kill is like killing a lot of fighters, or bombers, or drones it supports,” he said. “We’re definitely going to be thinking about autonomy as a way to change the risk calculus, having something smaller without people [so] that we could take more risk, with prices lower as a way we could go after the problem.” Of course, first the Air Force has to get its $43 billion crewed KC-46 tanker operational. Until that happens, follow-on flying robotic fuel stations are just a gas pipeline dream.
Pork Island Recruit Depot
But there’s one place you can’t get rid of humans—military posts. They’ve been immune to shutting down since 2005, even as the Pentagon has pleaded for the ability to do so because it has 25% more real estate than it needs…and because it costs real money to keep those surplus runways, barracks, parade fields, and training ranges on hand. A flurry of domestic U.S. bases shuttered following the Cold War’s end. But it happened after gutless lawmakers kicked the ball over to Base Realignment and Closure Commissions, which contained a gem of an idea: Congress could only vote for, or against, all of its recommendations, and not pick and choose among them. Furious about being backed into a corner, Congress has refused to approve any additional BRAC rounds beyond the five between 1988 and 2005.
It has gotten so bad that even considering base closings is seen as an act of war. That was made clear September 24 when we learned that the Marines were thinking of shuttering its two aging boot camps (Parris Island in South Carolina and San Diego in California) in favor of a single location built for co-ed training. “It's just an option we're talking about,” a Marine spokesman said.
Alas, the reaction was predictable. "It ain't gonna happen!" Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who sits on the armed services committee, thundered in a tweet the next day. "If you're looking to save money—let's start with cutting those people who think closing Parris Island is a good idea.” He was joined by much of his state’s power structure.
This is a recipe for disaster. When even discussing tough decisions is deemed DOA, it’s clear that pork and/or politics has eclipsed policy. President Trump took the same attitude when the Pentagon said it was open to the possibility of changing the name of Army posts honoring Confederate officers. “My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations,” the president tweeted.
We are becoming an increasingly rigid polity, unable to limber up enough to merely consider—never mind make—changes that might be better suited for the future. This is a slippery slope that ultimately will make the U.S. military less effective, and, consequently, less relevant. But those glistening slabs of pork, alas, will continue to trigger pols’ salivary glands until they, and their constituents, can break the habit.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Missile defensive maneuvers
Why does missile defense still win such backing—and billions—from Congress? It’s a fair question, given that the threat they’re defending against is largely illusory and—if any nation were stupid enough to launch a missile strike against the U.S.—there’s a fair chance it wouldn’t work. MIT researcher Subrata Ghoshroy explores this paradox September 24 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He’s got his work cut out for him. On September 28, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency announced it is interested in exploring the development of a “Sea-Based Terminal Future Interceptor.” One thing’s for sure: it’s going to intercept a lot of your tax dollars.
James Baker, former White House chief of staff and secretary of state, is the subject of a new biography—The Man Who Ran Washington—by Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser, published yesterday, September 29. At 720 pages, it may be more than most readers need to know, but Politico niftily summed up Baker’s “7 Rules for Running Washington” the day before it hit the street. He saved the best for last. “7. And finally, never forget who the real enemy is: the Pentagon.” Alas, the excerpt only details a spat with the U.S. military over an arms-control deal with the Soviets, so some may dismiss it. But the fact that it tracks so well with what former defense secretary Bob Gates wrote in Duty, his 2014 autobiography, gives one pause. One could wonder if the U.S. has been fighting the wrong foe since 1943.
Lightnings stricken twice
The Netherlands ministry of defense cancelled the flight of a pair of Dutch F-35 Lightning II jets over Europe August 28 due to lightning. “There was a great risk of lightnings that day,” a Dutch MOD official told the Aviationist September 22. “Therefore we have decided not to do it.”
Several senators, all Democrats, have introduced legislation banning federal law-enforcement officers from wearing camouflaged uniforms. Sure, the Clear Visual Distinction Between Military and Law Enforcement Act shouldn’t be needed, but apparently some in blue prefer the camo look on U.S. streets. The garb is simply the latest fetishization of the U.S. military, which has been steadily rising since 9/11. “Citizens of a free society shouldn’t be constantly confused about who is military and who is law enforcement,” Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said in a September 23 statement. “Sadly, that has become a regular occurrence across the U.S. this year.” Kaine and his fellow Democrats have a powerful ally on the issue as well. “You want a clear definition between that which is military, and that which is police in my view,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in July.
Global Reach, Global Power (& local tattoos)
It wasn’t that long ago that there were all sorts of military rules and regs about where and how big tattoos could be on the skin of U.S. troops. But the Air Force relaxed its rules in 2017, allowing full sleeve tattoos and large back tattoos. Now it’s gone even further, and opened a tattoo parlor at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base. “We are always leading from the front and finding new ways to improve the quality of life for our Airmen,” the base announced. This way they won’t have make the 12-mile trek to the Las Vegas strip to have it done, Military Times reported September 23. The Bunker, as usual, is taken aback. Why the need to eliminate such a short hop for a lifetime inking? After all, the Air Force has often declared its mission to be “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power.”
USS Thresher update(PDF)
You may have heard The Bunker mention in the past the loss of the attack sub USS Thresher and all 129 souls aboard off Cape Cod in 1963. That’s because he lived nearby, and the memory of the crew’s loss weighed heavily on the Rhode Island Navy town where he spent several years as a youngster. Not everyone has been satisfied with the Navy’s investigation into the tragedy. A lawsuit seeking more details led a federal judge to order the Navy to release more information September 23. The documents make for chilling reading, even if they shed little new light on what caused the sinking. “I want to know the truth, the whole truth. Not some smoke screen from the Navy,” Michael Shafer, who lost his father and uncle aboard the Thresher, told the Associated Press as the Navy released the first 300 pages of documents. Ultimately, more than 1,000 pages are slated to be made public.
When Blue Stars turn Gold
Blue Star families are those with a loved one serving in uniform. Gold Star families are those whose loved one has been killed in the service of their nation. Sarah Sicard writes of what it’s like when blue turns to gold in a tough-but-tender September 26 piece in Military Times.