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The Bunker: Sleight-of-Math

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.

In The Bunker this week: How the Pentagon tinkers with numbers to make things look better than they really are; the fight over a puny report on the nation’s ICBM force; the never-ending battle over weapons’ hype; and more.


Twisting data into better shape

The Pentagon deploys integers the same way it deploys infantry. It’s not fudging, exactly—it’s just a really rich mixture of faux cocoa, artificial sugar, and skim milk. When it comes to troops, the Defense Department “shrinks the footprint,” as it likes to say, by routinely overlooking the private contractors and uniformed “enablers” supporting the trigger-pullers. That’s how it tries to minimize the number of Americans involved. And when it comes to weapons, the Pentagon is as good as any used-car salesman (“No, it doesn’t come with floor mats. Or an engine.”). That’s how it can minimize the numbers of dollars involved.

The latest example surfaces in a report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) charting the 20-year decline in how many of the Pentagon’s planes are able to fly. Pretty basic stuff, huh? Hardly. That’s because the calculations are a lot like an iceberg: the CBO looks at the entire iceberg to come up with its answer, while the Pentagon prefers to look only at the part sticking above the water.

That’s where the sleight-of-math happens: the Pentagon doesn’t include aircraft being repaired or in storage in calculating readiness rates, while the CBO does. “CBO uses the same numerator as DOD,” which The Bunker loves to read—because numerators without denominators are worthless. Then it charts that identical numerator against those differing iceberg-denominators used by DOD and CBO. For example(PDF), the Air Force said 67% of its F-15Cs—121 out of 180—were ready for action in 2019. It just neglected to mention that it had another 124 F-15C hangar queens being repaired or in storage. According to the CBO, that meant the F-15C’s readiness rate was 40%.

The Bunker will leave it up to you to decide which number is right, but here’s a clue: you paid for all 304.

The Bunker will never forget his first challenge when he arrived in Washington 43 years ago this month to cover the Pentagon for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: just how much did the brand-new Fort Worth-built F-16 fighter cost? The numbers bounced between $4 million and $6 million a copy. The higher price tag included things like the research and development that made the plane possible, but the Pentagon always preferred to use the lower “flyaway” figure. The $4 million wasn’t the sticker price; it was the sucker price. And let’s not dwell on how the Pentagon tends to use uninflated dollars to make weapons seem cheaper than they actually are.

Some things never change. The latest scheme involves the F-35, the $400 billion program to buy new fighters for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines (POGO’s own Dan Grazier has grappled with the Pentagon’s F-35 slippery arithmetic). For decades, the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Reports included engines in the price of aircraft when it reported weapons costs to Congress. But a decade ago, the Pentagon broke the cost of the F-35 in two: one line for the plane itself, and a second line for its engine(PDF). So think of it as a bargain: an F-35 lacking a powerplant is about 16% cheaper than one with an engine. Of course, they’d have to be stored away and never fly. And that, according to Pentagon calculations, means they won’t hurt the readiness rate.


Interminable Confusion for Brain Matter (ICBM)

A new skirmish has broken out over the future of the nation’s land-based nuclear-missile force. This time it involves yet another think-tank report. “The $75,000 contract awarded in December to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will result in a five-to-seven-page unclassified paper later this month examining ‘the relative risks and benefits of various options regarding the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad,’” Bloomberg’s Anthony Capaccio reported January 5.

Those who want to see the nation’s Minuteman III missiles replaced with the still-on-the-drawing-board Ground Based Strategic Deterrent see the study as a Biden administration ploy to derail the new ICBM. “There’s no way yet another review can possibly provide any insights that would outweigh a decade’s worth of previous analyses,” said Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It’s puzzling why the administration has insisted on pursuing yet another review of the same thing.” Of course, if the government halted re-reviews of current and future U.S. defense strategies, scores of think tanks[PDF] reliant on such lucre would wither and die, forcing thousands of combat cogitators to find real jobs.

Inhofe pushed for language in the 2022 defense-policy bill demanding documents(PDF) related to any contract associated with extending the life of the current ICBM force, or its nearly $100 billion replacement (warheads not included). Bloomberg reported that Inhofe and Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the senior GOP member of the House Armed Services Committee, see the $75,000 study as “a waste of money.”

The ICBM imbroglio highlights the looming fight over the future of the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear triad. The Navy’s submarines and Air Force’s bombers are seen as more critical to the nation’s defense, leading some to suggest that the existing ICBMs be scrapped or modernized, rather than replaced (the Pentagon says it needs to replace its existing submarines and bombers, too, costing about $225 billion).

It’s funny, but another taxpayer-funded study apparently didn’t attract the lawmakers’ ire. Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Triad is the name of a January 3 RAND Corp. study. Its subtitle makes its conclusion clear: The Rationale for a New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It was written “to assist Air Force officials' decision-making,” RAND says.

Frank Klotz is co-author of the 62-page report, along with Alexandra Evans, a RAND researcher. Before joining RAND, Klotz served as the first commander of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, which oversees the service’s ICBM and nuclear-bomber forces. The think tank, a 1948 brainchild of the Air Force and a major defense contractor, knows which side its bread is gun-vs.-buttered on. “The RAND Corporation received, by far, the most funding from U.S. government and defense contractors of the 50 think tanks we analyzed, raking in a whopping $1.029 billion between 2014-2019 and accounting for approximately 95% of all the funding we tracked,” a 2020 report by the Center for International Policy said.

So let’s not quarrel with its work.


Smoke and mirrors and arms

Russia recently rolled out its new Su-75 Checkmate fighter with all the hoopla that typically accompanies shiny new military hardware. “Putin hails Russia’s air power as new fighter goes on view,” the Associated Press reported in July, followed by a flurry of gee-whiz stories. “Russia’s New Fighter Breaks Cover—It’s Got ‘Stealth’ Written All Over It,” Forbesadded. “Russia targets low cost, high performance with Su-75 Checkmate fighter,” Flight Globalsaid.

If reporters couldn’t smell a big story, the Su-75’s builder was more than willing to help. Russian aircraft manufacturer Rostec teamed up with the Perfumers Guild of Russia to create Checkmate perfume, combining “the scents of glass, natural leather and metals” to be used in the yet-to-be-built plane (who knew glass smelled?). “The biggest story going in the military aviation world right now,” the War Zonereported, “is Russia's new light-to-medium-weight fighter that has been hyped-up by what seems to have been an incredibly effective and glitzy media campaign.”

No kidding, a pair of defense experts at the RAND Corp. (yea, they’re everywhere) said January 5, before reeling off a roster of reasons why the Su-75 is unlikely to soar. “Given the Russian aerospace sector’s difficulties in developing, let alone delivering, advanced combat aircraft, prospective Checkmate buyers should consider a range of options to meet defense needs,” John V. Parachini and Peter A. Wilson argued in Defense One. “What’s attractive about the sales pitch may in the end just be marketing vapor that will simply evaporate.”

Such skepticism is too often lacking when it comes to new weapons, both foreign and domestic. The Bunker has spent decades reporting on purported advances in military technology that never made that tentative first step, never mind the leap, from brainstorm to battlefield.


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

Winged Luddites

The biggest threats to the powerful punch packed by U.S. aircraft carriers are the Top Gunners dragging their feet when it comes to replacing manned aircraft with drones. That’s the view of Colonel Noah “Spool” Spataro, a Marine drone pro, and Lieutenant Commanders Trevor “Mrs” Phillips-Levine and Andrew “Kramer” Tenbusch, a pair of Navy aviators. “Today, leaders in naval aviation are impeding the rapid adoption of reconnaissance and strike-capable aircraft carrier drones through deliberate incrementalism, purposefully constraining autonomous platform capabilities and delaying deployment with cautious and lengthy feasibility studies—all while adversaries accept greater risks to rapidly field imposing capabilities,” they wrote January 10 in War on the Rocks. “The Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance strike-fighter project is embattled by Luddism, and its leaders are striving to maintain human pilots as the centerpiece of the aircraft carrier’s power projection capability.”

Boot camp gets a boost…

The whole military-industrial-enterprise spends too much time on hardware—weapons—and not enough on software—people. So it’s refreshing to see the Navy is stretching its boot camp—initial sailor training—from eight to 10 weeks with the goal of “improving recruits’ war fighting and emergency skills,” according to this January 7 dispatch by Lolita C. Baldor of the Associated Press. The Bunker has long been a boot-camp buff, including when such training went co-ed (1992) and amid concerns it was going soft (2001).

Bloody money

Leading defense contractors rank among the most generous donors to lawmakers who voted not to certify the 2020 presidential-election results in Arizona or Pennsylvania, John Donnelly of Roll Call reported January 3. Boeing, General Dynamics, L3Harris, Lockheed, and Raytheon were the major Pentagon donors, according to a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon had temporarily suspended campaign contributions after the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol. “Giving money to legislators who want to overturn election results is not participation in the democratic process, but subversion of it,” John Carl Baker of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms-control advocacy organization, argued in Defense One January 6. “Adherence to basic democratic principles—like accepting an obvious and well-documented election loss—should become a prerequisite for receiving industry dollars.”

Norwegian briefs

Norway’s military recruits have been ordered to return their underwear so it can be used by the next batch of would-be soldiers, the Associated Press reported January 10. Oslo is blaming the pandemic for the hand-me-downs, saying that due to “a challenging stockpile situation, this move is necessary as it provides the Armed Forces with greater garment volumes available for new soldiers starting their initial service.” Personally, The Bunker finds it refreshing to see “stockpile” refer to skivvies instead of nuclear weapons for a change, so to speak.

Ship happens…

It’s not often a ship’s namesake—and his ship—end up in the news in the same week. But it just happened. It started when former Navy secretary Paul Ignatius zapped Boeing for the budget-cutting management snafus that led to a pair of recent airline disasters. “This is not the Boeing I knew many years ago when I was the Defense Department’s official responsible for buying aircraft and other equipment for the Vietnam War,” he wrote in a letter to the editor in the December 31 Washington Post. When Boeing screwed up production of military helicopters, Boeing’s CEO privately told Ignatius that the company would lose $200 million on the deal (back when $200 million was a lot of money). “He never asked for any relief and never made any public outcry,” Ignatius said. “His example is worth recalling as Boeing struggles to regain its peerless reputation.” A week later, the Navy canned the skipper of the destroyer USS Paul Ignatius “due to a loss of confidence” in his ability to command. Yes, it’s rare that U.S. Navy ships are named for living people. But as the Congressional Research Service notes(PDF), the Navy tends to reserve such honors for truly old salts. Ignatius was 92 in 2013 when the Navy, which he led from 1967 to 1969, decided to honor him. Which makes him 101 today.

You paid for it…

The Bunker would never begrudge someone’s ability to make a buck, but the recent sale of the home belonging to the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin might require a re-reckoning. Robert Stevens, the son of a steelworker, spent his working life in the defense industry, rising through the ranks of Fairchild Republic (R.I.P.) and Loral (R.I.P.) before beginning work at Lockheed in 1996. The Marine veteran ran the company, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, from 2004 to 2012 (nearly 70% of the company’s revenue comes from the U.S. government; it pockets 28 cents of every Pentagon dollar spent on contracts). Stevens recently sold his home, located along the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The $48 million sale makes it “the most expensive home ever sold in the D.C. area,” according to the January issue of Washingtonian magazine.

While the sales price may be shocking, the property shares some traits with the goods that Lockheed sells to the Pentagon. First, Stevens demolished the millionaire’s mansion that was there when he bought the property. Then he “spent close to five years and tens of millions of dollars designing and constructing a new home,” according to the Wall Street Journal. He put it on the market for $60 million in late 2020. It spent 391 days sitting there, before it sold for 20% below his asking price. Scrapping one thing for something new, over-pricing it, and watching it languish—yep, the place seems to have a lot in common with the F-35 fighter, Lockheed’s flying cash cow.

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