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The Bunker: Tarnished Silver Bullets

This week in The Bunker: the Pentagon’s preoccupation with fools-gold-plated warplanes means we end up with costly weapons that can’t fly as often; Navy recruiting woes; a grim invasion anniversary; and more.

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.


PLANE COMPLICATED

The silver bullet paradox

The Pentagon is perpetually pushing for new weapons, insisting they’re vital to preserve the U.S. military’s fighting edge. There’s just one problem: Too often, these new wonder weapons are grounded because their very high-techedness means they cost too much to keep operating as often as the systems they’re replacing.

The Congressional Budget Office recently published a pair of reports highlighting the issue. The Navy’s new F-18 fighters fail to outperform its older models, both in terms of their readiness to fly and how quickly they’re aging, the CBO’s February 9 report said. A second study, issued February 13, found the Air Force’s F-35 fighter is less ready to fly than the much older F-15s, and it flies fewer hours each month, to (combat) boot.

This is a problem as old as war. Soldiers were more reliable than horses, which were more reliable than tanks, and so on. At the Pentagon, the quest for a marginal edge has gone around the bend: the Defense Department is willing to pay a premium for something that fights a little bit better, even if its complexity keeps it on the sidelines more often.

The numbers can make anyone’s eyes glaze over. But they’re critical to understanding why the U.S. military keeps getting less bang for its buck. So, pay attention: Newer F-18E/F Super Hornets have a readiness rate 18% lower than their F-18C/D Hornet predecessors, when measured at the same age. In other words, newer F-18s are falling apart more quickly than older ones. A 10-year-old F-18E/F, the CBO adds, is ready for duty as often as a 20-year-old F-18C/D. Plus, a 10-year-old F-18E/F flies roughly four fewer hours each month than a 10-year-old F-18C/D did. The CBO gleaned this information from the Navy’s Decision Knowledge Programming for Logistics Analysis and Technical Evaluation (DECKPLATE) database. (If the military were as good at acquisition as it is at acronyms, The Bunker would go belly up).

F-18s are what give U.S. aircraft carriers their offensive firepower. When the USS Gerald R. Ford deployed for the first time last year, all of its attack planes — the aircraft carrier’s reason for being — were F-18E/F Super Hornets. That basically means the brand new $13 billion carrier’s air wing packed only 82% of the punch of an older carrier with older F-18s.

The stealthy F-35 is also in a tailspin. “Between 2021 and 2022, F-35As’ availability fell by 11 percentage points,” CBO says. That drop, from 65% to 54%, essentially means that nearly half of the Air Force’s F-35s were grounded last year. The F-35A readiness rate dives from about 70% in its first year of service to below 50% in its fifth. The F-35A is the only version of the plane flown by the Air Force; the Navy and Marines fly F-35Bs and F-35Cs.

Bottom line: The Defense Department buys overly complicated airplanes that cost too much and keeps them on the ground because its bureaucratic imperatives favor shiny new weapons over spare parts and fuel. It highlights the Pentagon’s baked-in hankering for hardware over common sense.

Adequately funded operations and maintenance accounts could cut the number of warplanes the Pentagon needs. “Then you don’t need as many aircraft,” defense budget guru Todd Harrison pointed out in 2018. “A squadron of 20 aircraft with a 60% availability rate is equivalent to a squadron of 15 aircraft with an 80% availability rate.”

Apparently, the Pentagon flunked percentages back in elementary school.

WEAKER, OLDER, AND LESS SHARP

Navy recruiting hits rough waters 

The U.S. Navy — like the rest of the U.S. military — is having a tough time filling its ranks. That’s why it has moved out on several fronts recently to keep its ships — and shore billets — fully crewed:

  • Sailors who fail their physicals — which can lead to dismissal from the service — will have those flubs erased from their record and be allowed to restart with a blank slate. The February 16 change could help the Navy retain up to 1,500 sailors (it has roughly 340,000 personnel).

  • In December, the Navy launched a pilot program that lowered its entrance exam requirements to remove “a potential barrier to enlistment.”

  • In November, the service boosted the maximum enlisted age for sailors from 39 to 41 because of what the Navy calls “a challenging recruiting environment.” The service is now accepting the oldest enlisted recruits (the Army ceiling is 35, the Air Force 35, and the Marines 28).

Gives a whole new meaning to “old salts”...

A GRIM ANNIVERSARY

A brittle stalemate could trigger disaster

February 24 marks the first anniversary of Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine. It’s no closer to victory now than it was when the war began.

Then again, neither is Ukraine.

So, we begin a second year. We are witnessing a repeat of something we’ve never seen: a replay of World War I, where armies are bogged down in muddy and bloody terrain, and civilians pay the price for Putin’s czarist fantasy fetish. While casualty estimates vary widely, the Russians are believed to have suffered about 200,000 dead and wounded, nearly double the Ukrainian toll. The U.S. has been the long pole in the supply tent, providing Ukraine with $30 billion(PDF) in aid, including armor and long-range artillery.

President Biden put the U.S. thumb on the scale with his surprise February 20 visit to Kyiv. Putin countered the next day by suspending Russia’s participation in New START, the last arms control pact between Moscow and Washington. Biden is playing a risky balancing act, waiting for both sides to capitulate to negotiations. However, an unintended mistake, miscalculation, or misfortune could lead to escalation. Danger will spike if Ukraine makes progress toward retaking Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Most Pentagon officials think that is unlikely. But if it comes to pass, a checkmated Vladimir Putin could resort to nuclear weapons. U.S. officials think that is unlikely, too.

But unlikely is not impossible.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Well, that’s something new

The Pentagon has ordered a study into winning future wars “at the lowest possible cost,” Courtney Albon reported in Defense News February 15.

A non-pilot program

Pentagon brainiacs have flown an F-16 jet fighter without a pilot aboard, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said February 13.

Not a close call…

On February 17, one day before former President Jimmy Carter’s nonprofit organization announced he was entering hospice care, the Navy said it would rename Maury Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in his honor. Pioneering U.S. Navy oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the Navy named the engineering building for him 50 years later. At 98, Carter is the nation’s oldest living ex-president ever, and its only Annapolis grad (Class of ’47).

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