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The Bunker: Profoundly Harrowing

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.


OF POLITICS AND A PILOT

This week, The Bunker touches down amid the political turmoil now buffeting the nation. Then it’s time to take off with an Air Force pilot killed because of multiple mistakes made by his superiors. The Bunker won’t be publishing next week, to give thanks to him, and all those who serve. Have a safe holiday. See you back here December 2.

UNGRACIOUSLY BOWING OUT

Slowly but surely, President Trump exits stage fright

President Donald Trump’s slow-mo implosion finally seems to be happening, more than two weeks after the nation cast its ballots. He will go down, literally, in history as the leader who spewed lies about both the infection and the election. And he seems intent on remaking the Pentagon on his way out the door. He has replaced senior Senate-confirmed civilian officials with rookies and toadies primed to do his bidding. He’s planning on slashing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, risking a renewed civil war there (The Bunker believes we should have left in 2002, but ad hockery like this is bonkers). The president asked his advisers (such as they are) about attacking Iran last week, risking a major war in the region. Who knows what other mischief may be afoot? Stay tuned.

Now comes word that Trump’s re-election campaign sent a Nov. 5 letter to Attorney General William Barr claiming more than 3,000 Nevada voters who do not live in the state “improperly cast” absentee ballots there—even though more than 100 of those listed had overseas U.S. military post office-box addresses or were living in another state under military orders—and were able to vote legally via absentee ballots. “My husband and I have both been accused of fraud,” said Amy Rose, a one-time ACLU lawyer (post-election, Trump just can’t seem to catch a break) who moved to California so her Air Force officer husband could attend school paid for by the military. “We take our duties as citizens very seriously,” she told KSNV TV in Las Vegas. “It’s just a shock to see that this accusation had been made without any basis in fact.”

NO ROOM FOR TYRANTS

General Milley lays down a marker for the president

The vicissitudes of political life make it easy, and perhaps wise, for a president to dump aides. But there’s a line not to be crossed when it comes to the military. And that’s what gives General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his clout as President Trump shreds the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. The military’s allegiance is to the Constitution, not the commander-in-chief. It is only by remaining apolitical that the U.S. military can keep its most cherished possession: support from both sides of a nation that is now being torn asunder by political warfare.

Trump wounded Milley when the president used him like a prop as the president stormed Lafayette Park on June 1. Milley accompanied Trump as the president hiked across the park to brandish a Bible in front of St. John’s Church amid civil unrest following police brutality. As the Trump administration flames out, the nation’s top military officer has made it clear the U.S. armed forces won’t be used that way again. “We are unique among militaries,” Milley said November 11, two days after Trump tweeted his firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “We do not take an oath to a king or queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual.”

Got that, Mr. President?

ERRORISM

Keep this in mind when they blame “pilot error”

Reading a military accident report is always distressing, especially when lives are lost. And it’s even worse when a series of errors is to blame. Breaking any link in that chain of mistakes might have prevented the crash. That’s why the military, generally, is painstaking when it tries to figure out what happened. So after an F-16 crashed June 30, killing its lone pilot, investigators got cracking. Their probe into the South Carolina mishap was released(PDF) November 9. It is profoundly harrowing.

The night-time training mission was 1st Lieutenant David Schmitz’s first attempt at trying to destroy mock enemy air defenses, and the first time he tried to conduct an aerial refueling. That was the first error: Air Force rules require that a solo pilot’s first aerial refueling take place during daylight hours. If the service had obeyed its own rules, Schmitz couldn’t have been assigned this mission. That means he wouldn’t have been capable of making an error. That means he’d still be alive. Beyond that, if his commanders had reached out for help, he’d still be alive. And, finally, if the Air Force had properly maintained his plane, he’d still be alive. Three Air Force strikes, it seems, and a pilot with less than 100 hours flying the F-16 is out.

Schmitz was training with three other F-16s on a cloudy night with thunderstorms and rain in the forecast. His commander “miscalculated the level of risk for the mission, neglecting to include the risk values for ‘Landing After 2200L,’ ‘Instrument Meteorological Conditions Enroute/in the Working Area,’ and ‘Greater than 5 Days Since the Last Flight’”—in other words dark, rainy, and rusty. Two additional risk factors—including “Never Flown Mission Type”—were miscalculated. Had they been calculated correctly, the mission would have been deemed 70% more dangerous, and required approval from a more senior officer.

After his three colleagues gassed up from a KC-135 tanker, Schmitz’s attempt to refuel “ended after being unable to meet the intense formation requirements to receive fuel.” That failure forced him and his commander to return the 100 miles to Shaw Air Force Base without conducting the planned attack training. “Following his unsuccessful air-to-air refueling attempt, the mishap pilot is heard expressing frustration over the cockpit voice recorder.” On the way back to Shaw, Schmitz “struggles to maintain proper formation spacing and airspeed” behind his commander’s F-16. “That was not the way to start your tanking experience,” the commander tells Schmitz in a “light-hearted tone.” He then follows up: “That was really challenging.”

Schmitz exhaled. “No excuse,” he responded.

Shaken and upset, Schmitz mistakenly used a set of lights 1,000 feet short of Shaw’s runway to guide his landing, instead of the threshold lights at the start of the tarmac. The F-16’s left and right main landing gear struck a pair of antennas well short of the runway, seriously damaging the left one, and severing hydraulic lines. The F-16 then touched down for 330 feet before lifting off 470 feet before the runway. “Landed short, [had] a hydraulic pressure light, and the gear [were] stuck down,” Schmitz radioed his still-flying commander 50 seconds after hitting the antennas. Twenty seconds later, he declared an inflight emergency.

A more senior “supervisor of flying” was soon on the radio with Schmitz and his commander. The commander said Schmitz’s nose landing gear was “down and locked” and believed that meant the plane was in a “landable” condition. The two senior officers concluded Schmitz should follow a checklist designed for landing with his landing gear either up, or unsafe. Schmitz had his doubts that was the right call, and twice asked the supervisor of flying if they had selected the right procedure to get his airplane safely on the ground. “On each occasion, the supervisor of flying did not directly answer the mishap pilot’s question.” The supervisor decided Schmitz should land with help from an emergency arresting cable stretched across the runway, like those used aboard aircraft carriers.

Lockheed, the manufacturer of the F-16, has experts on call to offer guidance in such emergencies. Three were available for consultation during the half-hour the F-16 remained aloft after hitting the antennas. While the supervisor and a colleague discussed reaching out to Lockheed, they chose not to do so because they believed they were using the right checklist. After the crash, Lockheed engineers told the Air Force that the checklist wasn’t designed for landing an aircraft with damaged landing gear like Schmitz’s. In fact, because there are so many variables associated with such damage, there was no checklist for Schmitz’s predicament. In two prior such cases, the Lockheed engineers said, “an ejection was performed instead of attempting a cable arrestment”—sacrificing the plane to save the pilot.

But Schmitz and his colleagues didn’t know that as he approached the arresting cable at 160 miles an hour. His F-16’s tailhook smacked into the cable “but the engagement was unsuccessful” for unknown reasons. Five seconds later, the F-16’s left landing gear collapsed, forcing the left wing into the runway. That resulted in a “‘ground loop’ (very dangerous event)” as Schmitz activated his ejection seat, designed to save a pilot’s life even under such circumstances. The F-16 flipped nose over tail onto the grass alongside the runway before coming to rest upside down up on a concrete apron where it burst into flames.

As Schmitz, strapped into his seat, blasted from the aircraft, “a critical failure of the [ejection computer] occurred, resulting in its failure to sequence or control all subsequent actions.” The six explosive devices that should have separated the pilot and his parachute from the seat didn’t detonate.

There were two problems with that computer, known as the Digital Recovery Sequencer. The first involved a 2016 order to install a part designed to ensure it operated properly. Real-world experience and testing show that the computer has failed 9% of the time without that part. It was supposed to have been added to Schmitz’s F-16 in 2017, “but was not accomplished due to a lack of available parts.” Instead, its scheduled installation was delayed until August 28, 2020. That was two months after the crash. Beyond that, the entire ejection computer should have been replaced after 10 years in service, in February 2019. But “due to a lack of available parts,” three waivers were issued allowing its continued use aboard Schmitz’s aircraft until July 31, 2020. That was a month after the crash.

“The failure of the [ejection computer] to initiate multiple devices resulted in the mishap pilot remaining in the mishap seat and following a parabolic flight path until impacting the ground.”

Schmitz was killed instantly.

The investigation blamed the pilot for the crash. While accurate, in the narrowest sense, it is hardly true.

No excuse, indeed.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

PRIORITIES ‘R’ US

The state of Texas budgeted $18 million to deal with potential pandemics last year—and more than $400 million for border security, Kris Alexander noted in the Daily Beast November 16. Those topsy-turvy priorities are a key reason the nation will be flat-footed when it comes to distributing an eventual COVID-19 vaccine said Alexander, a former COVID crisis planner with the U.S. Army.

Waging worthless war…

How come the U.S. doesn’t win wars anymore? Retired colonel and Army strategist Glen M. Harned has a theory at West Point’s Modern War Institute that he posted on Veterans Day. BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): Too much focus on the bang, not enough on the build. “Outcomes-based strategies will be critical to reversing the trend of U.S. armed forces winning every battle, prevailing in every campaign, and losing every war it has fought since 1955,” he writes.

Disparities in care(PDF)

Women now account for 3% of the fake-limb patients treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Government Accountability Office reported in a November 12 report. And they need help. One study cited by the GAO found that only 43% of women who lost a lower limb were successfully outfitted with a prosthetic before leaving the hospital, compared to 69% of men. Women are studied less than their male counterparts, and that gap in research “limits the availability of evidence to support clinical decision-making for female veterans.”

Air Force One color scheme

“To the victor belong the spoils,” New York Senator William Marcy famously said nearly 200 years ago, after Andrew Jackson beat President John Quincy Adams for the White House. Now that President-elect Joe Biden has also ousted an incumbent, he too gets the spoils—including a chance to reverse President Trump’s plan to change the color palette on the exterior of Air Force One. In 2018, Trump said he was changing the plane’s classic light-blue-and-white livery into a bolder red, white, and blue motif on a pair of presidential planes slated to be delivered in 2024. No word yet if Biden will revert to the original paint job, according to this November 12 piece in Politico, but The Bunker bets he will.

Flag waver extraordinaire

Evan Thompson (no relation to The Bunker) lived near a bombing range outside Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. A sailor in the 1950s, he spent decades running outside his house waving a large American flag whenever warplanes flew overhead, and became a legend in those there parts. He died last month at 83, according to this November 10 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. On November 8, Air Force pilots honored his memory with a flyover of his house by four A-10 attack planes. While only a few pilots ever met him on the ground, all of them knew him by the call sign pilots had bestowed on him: The Real American.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading The Bunker. Once again, we’re taking next week off, so we’ll see you back here on Wednesday, December 2.