The Bunker: Snafu City

This week in The Bunker: how wrong decisions led to the loss of a $35 million jet fighter; Big Defense Contractors support congressional Big Liars; the Gaza pier’s lesson; and more.

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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This week in The Bunker: how wrong decisions led to the loss of a $35 million jet fighter; Big Defense Contractors support congressional Big Liars; the Gaza pier’s lesson; and more.


Small mistakes compound into disaster

Most civilians don’t know how much can go wrong during the kind of military training U.S. troops conduct every day. Like most of us, those in uniform can tolerate an occasional flub. But when they begin piling up — and involve heavy-duty hardware expressly built to kill and destroy — the results can be catastrophic.

Take the flight of a pair of F-15s over Oregon on May 15, 2023. One of the planes never should have been flying. It had evidence of a hydraulic leak that should have kept it grounded. But maintainers crossed their wrenches and gave it an “Exceptional Release” to train with F-35 fighters.

That decision came back to bite the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing right in the fuselage. After the exercise, the pilot of the second F-15 spied hydraulic fluid leaking from his partner’s plane. The pilot of the leaking F-15 declared an in-flight emergency and told the tower he planned to land normally. But if his hydraulic-powered brakes failed, he said he would fly around and make a second try. On that second attempt, he said, he’d rely on his lowered tailhook to snag the emergency arresting cable stretched across the runway and bring the plane to a safe landing (Navy warplanes rely on tailhooks to land on short aircraft-carrier decks, but the Air Force uses them only in emergencies).

The tower told him the cable was up, but the pilot changed his mind halfway down the runway. As his brakes faded, the pilot thought he was running out of room to power up his jet for a fly-around. He needed to land, now, using the F-15’s tailhook. He uttered a single fateful word to the tower: “Cable.”

The official Air Force inquiry (PDF) into the mishap, released June 4, transcribed the resulting frantic conversation in dry prose, without an exclamation point in sight.

The air traffic controller thought the pilot wanted the arresting cable lowered. “Cable coming down,” the tower told the pilot three seconds after flipping the switch to lower it. “No, no, I need cable, cable up, cable up, cable up, cable up,” the pilot radioed seven seconds later.

Four seconds later, the tower declared “Cable up.” But it was too little, too late. “No cable” the pilot radioed the tower.

The pilot opted not to use the plane’s emergency braking system for fear of blowing the plane’s tires and losing control. Instead, he planned to drive the plane off the end of the runway and have it bog down to a stop.

But when the pilot veered the plane around a light fixture four seconds after leaving the runway, the F-15 hit a raised berm at about 55 mph and momentarily took off again, before plunging into an irrigation canal (PDF).

If the maintainers had done their job, “there is a high likelihood” the F-15 would have been grounded, the probe concluded. If the pilot and tower had communicated better about the arresting cable, or if the pilot had used his emergency brake, there would have been a safe, not-much-drama, landing. But when all three parties failed to do their jobs, a $35,536,444 aircraft was destroyed. The pilot, while injured, survived.

Think of it as a 21st century for-want-of-a-nail tale.


Defense contractors go along, to get along

The 2021 attack on the Capitol was fueled by falsehoods of a purloined 2020 presidential election. Video of that day was the Zapruder film for a new generation. It was so gut-wrenching that it led many corporations to suspend campaign donations to the political liars involved. Several key Pentagon suppliers, seemingly unwilling to take a side, paused all campaign donations.

But that was yesterday, as a June 4 study from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) makes clear. It’s back to business-as-usual for most of those businesses, now making campaign contributions to the 168 lawmakers who have argued that the 2020 election was stolen or voted to overturn it.

Of the 230 companies that originally committed not to donate to such boosters of bogus claims of election fraud, 37 — including eBay, Lyft, and Nike — have stuck to that pledge. “In continuing to abstain from giving, these companies show it is possible to forgo the potential short-term benefits of political contributions for the longer-term health of the democracy,” CREW said. “They deserve recognition.” But it’s also worth noting that the Pentagon’s top five contractors — Lockheed, RTX, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop — rank among CREW’s top 20 corporate supporters of debunked voter fraud claims.

On June 3, the Pentagon launched a push to rely on smaller companies for new drones. While the Defense Department “remains committed to our highly capable legacy products, we have become convinced that widening the aperture to include more non-traditional aerospace companies offers the best chance at accomplishing our cost-per-unit goals, project timeline, and production quantity goals,” a Pentagon official said.

And maybe democracy, too.


Aid woes highlight another fantasy

The Bunker grumbled three months ago about how the U.S. was supplying Israel with the weapons it was using to wipe out Hamas in Gaza at the same time it was sending aid to those beleaguered innocents caught in the crossfire. But at least the bombs worked. The sad story of the Pentagon’s efforts to build a pier off Gaza’s coast to funnel food into the Palestinian territory is symbolic of U.S. efforts to carry out a Goldilocks strategy in a Frankenstein war.

The problems began in April, when an engine fire forced a Navy ship carrying pier parts from the U.S. to Gaza back home. The pier, completed May 17, juts into the Mediterranean Sea and allows ships to unload a fraction of the humanitarian aid needed into trucks and carry it to an estimated 1 million starving Gazans. But a string of security, logistical, and weather woes shut the pier down on May 25. Following $22 million in repairs, the pier re-opened June 8, although problems persist.

This is a single pier, deployed in a known location, not under attack, at a specific time, for a designated purpose. This entire episode should serve as a skeptical reminder of U.S. plans to spend billions of dollars on a U.S. national missile defense system to thwart incoming enemy missiles.

A pierless shield of dreams, indeed.


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

Bigger Bang Theory

The U.S. may begin expanding its nuclear arsenal after decades of cuts, Julian E. Barnes and David Sanger reported June 7 in The New York Times.

A changing U.S. military mindset?

Ukraine is a new kind of “drone and satellite” war, David Ignatius wrote in the June 4 Washington Post, and the Pentagon ignores it at its peril.

“Fill ‘er up!”

B-2 pilots are learning how to refuel their own bombers single-handedly, Courtney Mabeus-Brown reported June 4 in Air Force Times. Guess the recruiting crisis is worse than we thought…

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