The Bunker: Recycled Weapons

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: when the new weapons don’t work, you can always push the Pentagon to improve the old ones that still do; let me know if you’ve heard this one before: the Russians are still coming; and more.


When new gizmos don’t work, upgrade old ones

Boeing, long one of the Pentagon’s key suppliers, has run into turbulence lately. Its troubled KC-46 aerial tanker has been delayed again, and the underwater drone it is building for the Navy is both late and over budget. What’s the Pentagon’s second-biggest contractor supposed to do when its new weapons won’t work? Simple: Propose upgrading the old ones.

That’s just what it did at the Association of the U.S. Army’s recent annual weapons bazaar, as it pushed an upgraded Army attack helicopter. “Boeing is proud and excited to introduce the Modernized Apache — a dominant, affordable concept built on the combat-proven Apache platform that represents the next evolution of the current AH-64E v6,” the company announced October 10.

Boeing did the same thing with its F-15, convincing the Air Force two years ago to buy an upgraded version(PDF) of the Reagan-era F-15 fighter for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Tellingly, unlike the tanker and sub, neither of these programs was Boeing-born: the AH-64 was developed by Hughes Helicopters then bought by McDonnell Douglas in 1984; the F-15 Eagle was developed by McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing acquired in 1997.)

There are only two problems with a retooled AH-64: the Army doesn’t want it, and it already has a replacement in mind — the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (the FARA is too early in development to have a questionable nickname like Apache). An Army general says the service has no need for a new-and-improved Apache as its critical “kick in the door” gunship. “FARA and its ecosystem are actually our intrusive force at the lower level of airspace,” Major General Walter Rugen toldForbes recently, as his vertical-flight verbiage achieved escape velocity: “This force will be able to find, correct and complete the moving threats. Then we start disintegration and open a corridor. And really, I don’ t think Apache is involved in the penetration phase. I think the FARA and FARA ecosystem do that.”

Yet Boeing’s whirlybird warriors, like everyone else, know that budgets can be squeezed and that the new chopper may never take off. “We believe we’re going to have to do something with the Apache in the future,” said Kathleen Jolivette, Boeing’s — super-cool title alert! — vice president for attack helicopters. “It can’t just remain where it is.” Her PR wingman agrees. “There’s nothing right now that is on the books that’s going to replace the Apache,” said Jessie Farrington, Boeing’s — boring title alert — director of attack helicopter global sales and marketing.

For the record, The Bunker has no problem upgrading existing military hardware instead of buying new stuff. In fact, the U.S. military, and U.S. taxpayers, would be better off doing more of it.

Ironically, the Marines did just that back in the 1980s. That’s when they decided to keep flying Bell AH-1 Cobras instead of buying their own AH-64 Apaches. The Marines stuck with upgraded AH-1s (the latest is the AH-1Z Viper) because they’re simpler and cheaper than the Army’s Apaches (the AH-1 is based on Bell’s UH-1 Huey, which hovered for the first time 66 years ago this week).

The Army argued it needed the AH-64 Apache to destroy Russian tanks that would spearhead any invasion of Western Europe. Yep, those very same tanks now lying strewn and dead across Ukraine, defeated by cheaper, man-portable, weapons .


Where to paint the line?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

On October 11, Air Force General Glen VanHerck warned that U.S. protection from Russian cruise missile attacks is little more than a “picket fence” that can be easily breached, with dire consequences for those of us on the other side. “Their cruise missiles that they’ve developed that can be employed from land, air, subsea, sea, are very low radar cross-section now,” VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said. “They make our North Warning System look like a picket fence. It was designed for a 36,000-foot bomber back in the 70s and 80s timeframe, and now they can know where all those radars are and circumnavigate those.”

Russian cruise missiles, which are tougher to detect than ballistic missiles because they fly low, also vex Pentagon defenders because they can be launched from Russian warplanes whileflying over Russia, he said. And because climate change is melting the Arctic ice pack, Russian submarines could be able to sneak closer to U.S. territory before launching their warheads.

The White House released a 10-year Arctic strategy(PDF) October 7 warning of increased Russian activity in the Far North. “Russia has invested significantly in its military presence in the Arctic over the last decade,” it says. “We will collaborate with Canada on North American Aerospace Defense Command modernization” — improving General VanHerck’s picket fence, in other words.

The Bunker turns 70 next spring, and he’s been worried about being attacked from God’s realm — the Heavens, for Pete’s sake — for more than 65 years. No doubt it had something to do with ominous warnings of an impending nuclear war with the Soviet Union — amped up after Moscow launched Sputnik in 1957. A 4-year-old Bunker recalls standing in his Connecticut front yard at dusk, craning his neck as it passed overhead, along with all of his nervous grown-up neighbors.

Then there was the bomber gap, then the missile gap. They were followed by Nike anti-missile bases and the Safeguard missile-defense system. Then came the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars” for the movie that had been released six years earlier), which has now morphed into the Missile Defense Agency and its constellation of programs to shield us against death from on high.

And those are just the highfrights — there have been dozens of such systems and programs costing hundreds of billions of dollars over the past half-century.

Assessing risk requires judgment.

After more than a half-century of such sky-is-falling rhetoric, you’ve got to wonder: Is the Pentagon actually Tom Sawyer, snookering taxpayers into perpetually upgrading that picket fence in front of Aunt Polly’s house?


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


More than 500 retired U.S. military personnel, including many who wore stars on their shoulders, have secretly gone to work for foreign governments, including repressive regimes, Craig Whitlock and Nate Jones reported October 18 in the Washington Post. Also you can find POGO’s reporting on the issue here.

Vets attack from the right flank

Some bemedaled U.S. military veterans are running for Congress as hard-right Republicans, bemoaning the nation’s willingness to push “the military easy button” to solve problems, Jonathan Weisman reported October 15 in the New York Times.

Mortal spin

The U.S. military too often hypes future weapons as sure bets when too often they’re not, James Holmes of the Naval War College posted over at the 1945 website October 16.

Thanks for checking out this week’s Bunker. Consider forwarding on to an ally, and encourage them to sign up for weekly delivery here.