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The Bunker: Supply Chain of Fools

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.


GOOD TO BE BACK

Vacation’s over!

Just returned from a couple of refreshing weeks hard by Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, near where The Bunker grew up. Salty air, chowda, and clam cakes…yum! Amazing how easy it is to escape the hurly-burly Washington world, even as face masks remind you that wider concerns persist. But, what-the-heck: let’s rejoin the hurly-burly…

“HEY, WANNA BUY SOME ROPE?”

China a growing source of critical Pentagon supplies

Speaking of face masks, the U.S. discovered earlier this year as it attempted, vainly, to wrestle the coronavirus to the mat, that it didn’t have the rudimentary supplies it needed, including those face masks (along with swabs, gowns and medicines). It seems that the classic American lust for cheap has driven production of such supplies to China and other lower-cost producers.

Don’t look now, but that reliance on Beijing for American well-being has infected the Defense Department, too, according to a new analytical snapshot (PDF) from Govini, a national-security data analysis firm headquartered less than two miles from the Pentagon. “From 2010–2019, the number of Chinese suppliers in the Department’s supplier base in the sample Govini assessed increased by a total of 420%, to 655, across numerous critical industries,” it reports. “In comparison, U.S. companies grew 97%, to 2,219.”

Govini drilled deeply into the Pentagon’s supply chain, assessing just where the parts the U.S. military uses come from. Sure, the biggest links in that chain are the prime contractors who deal directly with the Pentagon, selling it airplanes, boots, and computers (84% of those companies are American). But 70% of the companies supplying those primes are foreign. Every subcontractor supplying a widget to a prime buys some of its components from other companies. And those companies, in turn, buy stuff from, you guessed it, other companies. And so on.

The share of Chinese firms in “critical” links in the Pentagon’s supply chain jumped 50% (from 6% to 9%) between 2010 and last year. They “rival U.S.-based companies’ share in Specialty Chemicals, Major Diversified Chemicals, Telecommunications Equipment, and Electronic Components,” Govini reports.

The Pentagon knows this is a vulnerability. “What I would like to see is the U.S. have the capacity and through-put to take care of ourselves in times of need,” Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said in April. “I think we have found that our dependency on China is more than we need it to be.”

The trend is disquieting, given China’s push to expand its nuclear arsenal. It echoes the U.S.-Soviet relationship immediately after World War II, as the one-time allies morphed into Cold War foes. Any suggestion that Tom Friedman’s 1996 McDonald’s hypothesis—that two nations with McDonald’s restaurants wouldn’t go to war with one another—has fallen apart. Burger-and-fry loving NATO nations attacked Serbia three years later, and Russia seized part of Ukraine in 2014. All had their own Golden Arches. So commerce has proven no bar to attack. Now, the U.S. (14,000 McDonald’s) and China (2,700) are reducing their commercial ties.

“The prevalence of China-based companies across the Department’s supplier base will make it difficult to identify with certainty all of the cases where they are a single-source provider of a key technology or material,” Govini reports. Just like with COVID-19, that means we’ll likely only learn that key parts, and parts of parts, are MIA when it’s too late to do anything about it.

KINKS IN THE CHAIN OF COMMAND

Who’s in charge if the President loses but won’t leave?

Henry Kissinger purportedly said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. You could almost smell the musty tobacco smoke emanating from the faculty lounge last week in a reprise of that old saw. It involved a pair of retired U.S. military officers warning the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it would be his duty to remove President Trump from the White House if he loses in November, but refuses to leave the Executive Mansion. This is what happens when five months of coronavirus quarantining forces national-security nabobs to shift their neurons from fretting about a war with 1.4 billion Chinese to a battle for the 816 square feet of the Oval Office.

“The president of the United States is actively subverting our electoral system, threatening to remain in office in defiance of our Constitution,” John Nagl and Paul Yingling wroteAugust 11 in an “open letter” to Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order,” their letter, published in Defense One, said.

The only problem is that the chairman is merely the principle military adviser to the President, not a commander. None of the 1.3 million U.S. troops are under his command, except for 4,000 or so on the Joint Staff (over-staffing, anyone?) armed with tactical iPhones and strategic PowerPoint presentations.

Other nat-sec graybeards quickly returned fire. “Their call for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be ready to issue orders to the American military for forcibly removing President Trump from office is as dangerous to our republic as the problem they purport to solve,” defense scholar Kori Schake and former Army officer Jim Golby posted the next day on the same website. “Even contemplating it is damaging to the trust between the American people and those citizens who serve in our military.”

And then there’s that legal nicety. “…if you’re going to advocate a coup, you might want to choose as its leader someone with command authority over actual troops,” Schake and Golby added. “When the Congress created the chairman’s role in 1949 by amending the 1947 National Security Act, they made the position weak in part because they feared exactly the kind of role Nagl and Yingling advocate: a soldier putting themselves above the branches of government.”

Their fear is far-fetched, although plainly less so than for prior occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Besides, Milley has already shown a willingness to escort the President—remember June’s infamous stroll across Lafayette Park?—from the White House.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Aiming like a laser

The Pentagon has tapped a Navy veteran to draft guidelines so that the military services’ laser weapons can play well with one another. “It’s going to allow for identifying components and subsystems that we can standardize around,” Christopher Behre pledged. Such uniformity will reduce costs, Breaking Defense reported August 11.

Of course, that’s what the Pentagon said about the F-35, which it sold to Congress as one fighter for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy that would share 80% of their parts. But a Rand Corp. report found that each service’s plane would share less than half of its parts with the other two services. And that 2013 study measured only the change that had occurred between 2001 and 2008. “The tension between maintaining maximum commonality and meeting different service requirements has been difficult to resolve in the [F-35] program, resulting in less common variants, greater technical complexity and risk, less optimization for service needs, and difficulty in achieving the promised savings,” Rand concluded.

So best to keep a laser-like focus on such salesmanship.

$62 billion?

The Air Force awarded an eye-watering $62 billion contract for overseas F-16 customers August 14. That’s a big chunk of change. Sure, it’s spread over a decade, and some of the unidentified foreign buyers will be paying the freight for an unknown number of warplanes. But in a world amid a pandemic, you’d think there’d be smarter things to spend $62 billion on.

Avoiding the draft…

A federal appeals court has upheld the legality of a male-only military draft, the Associated Press reported August 13 from New Orleans. But this ain’t over by a long shot.

Global Positioning Snafu?

The Global Positioning System, like the Internet itself, has become such a part of our everyday lives that it may be hard to recall that the Defense Department brought them both to life. We already spend a lot of time worrying about what bad actors could do to the Internet. Greg Milner reminds us in the August 6 New Yorker about the vulnerabilities of GPS, a keystone in Pentagon war plans. “We still have not figured out,” he warns, “exactly how to safeguard a technology that is so crucial yet so porous.”

Why didn’t we think of that?

Japan has killed a $4.2 billion U.S. missile-defense deal because Tokyo discovered it had a critical flaw, the Nikkei Asian Reviewreported August 5. It’s unfortunate that Washington too often lets spending eclipse skepticism when it comes to major weapon systems.

Do your 1967 pants still fit?

Well, they almost surely don’t fit the way they did back then (assuming you were even around). That’s why the Air Force is finally updating cockpit designs originally based on the size and shape of 1967’s male U.S. Air Force pilots. “The 1967 study excludes 44% of the U.S. female population,” the service noted in an August 7 release detailing the change. “For example, the F-15 Eagle currently accommodates only 8.9% of women.” Somewhere, Amelia Earhart is smiling.

Minority rules!

Sometimes it seems like the national-security state is frozen in amber. That’s a fair conclusion to be drawn from surveys of 80,000 Americans summarized by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. Bottom line, up front: there are nearly 150 issues, both foreign and domestic, on which most Republicans and Democrats agree. According to the results released August 7, respondents want to do away with the land-based ICBM leg of the nuclear triad. They also support continuing the New START arms-control pact with Russia. Both views are contrary to positions held by the Trump administration, and much of the nation’s atomic-weapons academy.

And speaking of ICBMs…

A pillar of high defense spending is, duh, the number of high-paying jobs it generates. Those well-paid voters keep the pressure on the local representatives and senators to keep the funds flowing. For example, Northrop Grumman is looking to hire more than 600 new employees, largely engineers, for its Utah operations. “We just opened a brand-new facility at Hill Air Force Base [just north of Salt Lake City] to support the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program,” a company official told the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News August 7. That’s the $85 billion program to replace the nation’s fleet of land-based, nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles sprinkled in underground silos across the High Plains.

Turns out, Northrop is going to build the new missile without any competition, as The Bunkerpredicted a year ago in the Military Industrial Circus. And those employees building the new missiles won’t be short-term hires, the Northrop official told the paper. This Intercontinental Ballistic Monopoly is expected to create local jobs through 2075. “We’re talking long-term careers, lifetime careers, if not generations of careers that are definitely fueling our need for people,” she said. Of course, per the prior item, 61% of Americans prefer to “phase out land-based missiles (ICBMs) instead of replacing them.” Funny how the missile debate mirrors the gun-control debate, albeit with bigger guns that could end life as we know it: a determined minority prevails because most of us don’t care that much.

Fake news…

Have you noticed the plethora of news websites like Snopes.com dedicated to countering false news on the Internet? That’s because of the tidal wave of trash that parades across our screens with pixels that don’t appear much different from those marching for real news organizations. That problem is compounded for U.S. troops far from home, as Gina Harkins detailed a series of European social media posts in an August 16 article at Military.com: “A member of 1st Armored Division had allegedly killed a Polish soldier, stolen a car and was on the run. The posts referenced the soldier's unit, which actually was in the country at the time, and used his real photos.” That quickly got the Army’s attention, and ultimately the story was declared untrue. But as Mark Twain once supposedly said, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Combine such fast falsehoods with those ICBMs on use-‘em-or-lose-’em hair-trigger alert, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. We’ve dodged that nuclear bullet for 75 years, as of this month. But as the mis/dis information racket grows ever more sophisticated, The Bunker is leery of maintaining that 1.000 batting average.

Thankfully, there’s no fake news here at The Bunker. We’re just dedicated to wrangling various versions of the truth to the ground in an effort to make our readers smarter about national security. Thanks for being one. Please consider sharing this edition with those who might find reading The Bunker illuminating or infuriating.

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