The Bunker: The Brass Flies Economy

This week in The Bunker: The Pentagon apparently is opting to command future nuclear wars from safely inside used commercial airliners; the Department of Veterans Affairs’ selfish self-inflicted scandal; the nuclear arms race continues atom infinitum; and more.

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

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: The Pentagon apparently is opting to command future nuclear wars from safely inside used commercial airliners; the Department of Veterans Affairs’ selfish self-inflicted scandal; the nuclear arms race continues atom infinitum; and more.


Bargains for the brass

For decades, the U.S. has unloaded tons of used military gear to foreign countries. We’re not talking shiny new F-35 jets here, but pre-owned equipment like warships, patrol craft, armor, and fighter aircraft (sometimes laundered through a third country so the third country can afford F-35s). Heck, the Pentagon even has a term — “Excess Defense Articles” — for lots of the stuff. The EDA program transfers “excess defense equipment to foreign governments or international organizations … for modernization of partner forces,” the Pentagon says. They’re provided “at a reduced price (based on the condition of the equipment) or as a grant.” Think of it as the eBay of Death & Destruction.

Yet it seems unfair that such bargain-hunting should be a one-way street. That’s why U.S. taxpayers should take heart following the May 8 news that the Pentagon’s next fleet of “Doomsday” planes apparently are going to be used South Korean airliners. These flying command posts allow senior U.S. military officers — and maybe even the President — to wage nuclear war safely above the blast, fire, and fallout affecting those of us left on the ground.

This marks a second win for those skinflints running the Pentagon. The Defense Department acquired its newest pair of Air Force Ones after the Russian airliner that originally bought the two 747s went belly-up. Of course, there are two ways to view these transactions. Sure, they’re a relative bargain (for the taxpayer, if not for builder Boeing, in the case of the Air Force Ones). But there seems something slightly amiss, from here, about American presidents and U.S. nuclear-war commanders going up in hand-me-downs.

Then again, it’s kind of fitting, because it lets those actually doing the fighting get the brandy-newest hardware. Turns out that after earmarking more than $2 trillion for the F-35, there’s not enough money left over to buy new planes for the brass.


VA bosses pocket bonuses not meant for them

Too often, critics blast the Department of Veterans Affairs when it’s actually doing a pretty good job. Then, all that good work is blown to smithereens by something like the May 9 report(PDF) by the VA’s own inspector general. The report’s title included worrisome words: “Improperly,” “Million,” “Incentives,” and “Central Office Senior Executives” — never a promising combination.

The IG reported how the agency paid out nearly $11 million in bonuses to 182 senior officials at VA headquarters last year. Several pocketed more than $100,000 each. The average bonus was about $59,000, 25%(PDF) of their salary.

The cash came from additional funds provided by Congress to beef up the VA’s frontline staff to handle billions of dollars in expanded veterans’ benefits. VA Secretary Denis McDonough halted the payouts when he learned of them last September and ordered them repaid (which remains a work in progress[PDF]). Problems like this tend to surface when there’s too much money sloshing around. The VA is now the U.S. government’s fifth most-costly agency, its budget soaring (PDF) from $37.5 billion in 1995 to $297.8 billion last year.

What’s amazing about the 93-page report are the verbal somersaults done by the top managers in the VA’s two biggest offices — the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration — to explain the plunder.

What’s even more amazing is how the VA’s third major office dealt with the matter. “National Cemetery Administration leaders were aware that VHA and VBA were planning to issue [such bonuses] to senior executives at [the VA’s central office], but they decided against offering them because, according to the principal deputy under secretary for memorial affairs, they did not believe they had ‘a justifiable reason to do so,’” the IG report said(PDF).

Imagine that.

Oh, by the way: the VA awarded similar bonuses totaling another $10 million to about 200 senior VA officials (an average of $50,000 each) working outside D.C. The IG has recommended(PDF) that the VA investigate those payments, too.


Our luck eventually is going to run out

The Pentagon’s newest nuclear bomber and nuclear-tipped aircraft-launched Long-Range Stand-Off(PDF) missile are both secretly humming along in development, the Air Force’s top weapons buyer said May 8. Sure, that might sound redundant: If you’ve got a bomber to drop bombs on a target, why do you need a long-range missile to do the same thing?

A sourpuss attitude like that will keep you from ever working in the defense business. After all, these are the same folks who have been championing the nuclear triad — consisting of bombers, subs, and missiles — for a half century (The Bunker thinks of the triad as the belt, suspenders, and staple-gun theory of keeping your pants from falling down). And the Pentagon just certified the fitfully flying F-35 fighter to carry nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared May 9 that “our strategic forces are always in combat readiness,” using the less-scary pol-mil term for nuclear weapons. Three days earlier, his defense ministry said it would hold tactical nuclear weapon drills, the first time Moscow has publicly announced such an exercise. On May 12, Putin cashiered his long-time defense minister. China and North Korea (and five other nations) also hold atomic hole cards.

Nuclear staredowns made more sense in the chilliest days of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in a superpower showdown. But now we find ourselves in a possible shootout at the not-OK Corral, where there are nearly a dozen cowboys with atomic arms in their holsters. “Everything — everything — depends on deterrence holding, forever,” conservative columnist George Will noted May 1, before dropping a non-sequitur: “Talk of ‘banning the bomb’ is pointless.”

Just as pointless as using the bomb.

But here’s the key fact: If both are pointless, they will be used before they are banned.

MADness reigns supreme.


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

Battleship away!

The USS New Jersey set sail — well, it was tugged — from its dock for the first time in more than 20 years for repairs that even a floating museum needs, the New York Times reported May 1.

Bombs away!

The U.S. has suspended bomb shipments to Israel because of concerns over Israel’s looming invasion of Rafah, Politico’s Connor O’Brien wrote May 8.

Bomber away!

The Air Force says it is junking one of its 20 $2 billion B-2 bombers because repairing it would cost too much, Joseph Trevithick reported at The War Zone May 10.

Thanks for dropping by The Bunker this week. Forward this on to your most trusted allies so they can sign up here.