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The Bunker: The Military-Industrial Vortex

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: Military-industrial coziness is never a good thing; the F-35 has opted to keep its own lousy nervous system instead of getting a transplant; tracking the U.S. bucks bound for Ukrainian; and more.

THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL VORTEX

Boeing’s move into the Pentagon’s shadow is bad news

Like Homer Simpson pushing his living room TV closer to the refrigerator in the kitchen, Boeing’s decision to move its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Virginia, isn’t good news for the rest of us. The aerospace titan is the latest Defense Department behemoth to pull up stakes out in the real world — out where metal is bent to build planes, ships, and tanks — in favor of seeking succor close to the Pentagon. It’s bad news for troops, taxpayers, and technology.

Boeing, a one-time icon of U.S. industrial prowess, was founded more than a century ago in Seattle, Washington, 2,300 miles away from the other one. Twenty years ago it moved its headquarters to Chicago, 700 miles from the capital, shortly after its 1997 purchase of St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas. The move reflected a growing split between proud engineers and bottom-line managers. The resulting culture clash has stained Boeing’s reputation with both its commercial and military customers (about a third of Boeing’s revenue comes from the U.S. government).

Boeing’s May 5 announcement that it’s moving to D.C. came a day after its key commercial competitor, Europe’s Airbus, said it’s stepping up production at its Alabama factory. The difference couldn’t be more stark. “One company is saying ‘We’re going to build lots of jets,’” veteran aerospace expert Richard Aboulafia told CNN. “The other is saying ‘We’re going to lobby the Pentagon and Congress for defense dollars.’ It’s a big contrast.”

There had been wishful thinking in Washington state that Boeing’s headquarters might return there, where it was founded in 1916. “The choice of Virginia dashes the hopes of many in the Pacific Northwest that Boeing, facing a litany of troubles that have sunk the company’s fortunes, might consider moving back to Seattle,” the Seattle Times reported.

Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said Boeing’s hop-scotching headquarters has consigned its world-class engineering to the back burner. “Moving their headquarters to Chicago, and away from their roots in the Pacific Northwest, was a tragic mistake that took them further from that mission, and empowered Wall Street bean-counters over the line engineers who built their once-great reputation,” he said. “Moving their headquarters again, this time to be closer to the federal regulators and policymakers in Washington, D.C. is another step in the wrong direction.”

As the number of major defense contractors has collapsed — going from 51 as the Cold War wound down to five today — they’ve become increasingly interested in cozying up to their biggest customer. Lockheed left its California headquarters after it merged with Maryland’s Martin Marietta in 1994, establishing its combined headquarters just outside the capital in Bethesda, Maryland. General Dynamics abandoned St. Louis for northern Virginia in 1991. Northrop followed suit in 2011, pulling up its southern California roots.

Changing the location of a company’s headquarters doesn’t move its factories and assembly lines — it just gives a sense of its priorities, fueling white-collar paper pushers and the highly-paid battalions of Beltway bandit consulting firms (nine of the 20-richest counties in the country are in the D.C. area, eclipsing Silicon Valley’s earning power). The schmoozing such chumminess breeds blurs the lines between government and industry, speeding the revolving door and all the ills that generates. Call The Bunker old-fashioned, but there’s something noble about defense contractors headquartered outside the Washington Beltway, more interested in innovation than cozying up to contracting officers and government officials.

Boeing moved to Chicago in 2001 because it concluded its Seattle HQ was too wedded to its airliner-production business, especially following the McDonnell Douglas deal. “It became apparent that our headquarters needed to be in a neutral location, one not directly associated with one of the major units of the company,” John Warner, who led the search party that ended up in Chicago, told Harvard Business Review in 2001.

Well, so much for that logic.

ALIS IN BLUNDERLAND

The F-35’s bait-and-switch

When Pentagon officials talk about the “tip of the spear,” they’re referring to those who actually do the fighting, as opposed to those who enable that tip to fight. But in an increasingly high-tech military, it’s those folks on the flight line, and in the repair depots, who often are more critical to mission success than those in the cockpit.

Nowhere is that more true than in Lockheed’s $400 billion F-35 fighter program, the Pentagon’s replacement for the tried-and-true F-16. It’s a misbegotten Swiss army knife of a program, providing jet fighters to the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The original key to keeping these fifth-generation warbirds flying and fighting was its Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS, pronounced like “Alice” in Wonderland), a welter of sensors and computers on board the F-35. They would tell maintainers on the ground, in near-real time, how the plane’s parts were working, and which needed to be tweaked or replaced.

It didn’t turn out that way. ALIS was stricken with false alarms that kept combat-ready fighters grounded, forcing maintainers to manually redo what ALIS was supposed to have done. Its ground components were just the way you’d think a Pentagon computer system would be: big, bulky, and slow. It suffered from lousy inventory control and snafus that delayed delivery of needed spare parts. If the F-35 is the Pentagon poster child for how not to buy a weapon, ALIS is its centerfold. It was a radical concept, poorly thought out. Like many such ideas, it failed.

In January 2020, even the Pentagon conceded the $16.7 billion ALIS system was doomed. It announced that it would be replaced with a simpler, cloud-based system known as the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN, aka the god of war in Norse mythology). “F-35 Program Dumps ALIS for ODIN” read the headline in Air Force Magazine.

“We have old hardware, we have old operating systems,” Air Force Brigadier General David Abba said of ALIS(PDF) a month after the Pentagon decided to scrap it. “If we were ever going to get to a modern software architecture, modernizing ALIS wasn’t going to get us there.”

The people turning wrenches on the F-35 liked the sound of that. “Pentagon begins rolling out replacement for the F-35 system that maintainers hate the most,”Navy Times reported in October 2020. “ALIS Is Dying; Long Live F-35’s ODIN,”Breaking Defense hurrahed last August. In fact, as recently as February, the Pentagon office running the F-35 program declared that ALIS was toast. “As announced by the U.S. Department of Defense in early in 2020, ODIN is the planned replacement for ALIS,” it said. “The successful fielding of ODIN hardware is an important step in the evolution to a modern, capable, portable, and affordable logistics information system for the F-35 fleet.”

Um, not quite.

Like so much Pentagon procurement, what’s promised rarely meets what’s delivered. Buried deep in a Government Accountability Office report(PDF) released April 25 was the revelation that ODIN won’t be replacing ALIS after all. “The F-35 program office has changed plans from replacing its logistics system and is now taking incremental steps to improve and modernize it,” the GAO said.

But in typical Pentagon fashion, the final tweak to ALIS will be the most critical of all. “DOD officials stated that when key elements of the ALIS system are significantly improved,” the GAO’s Diane Maurer told a congressional panel April 28, “they intend to rename the system ODIN.”

In that case, here’s a thought: why not rename the always-improving F-16 the F-35?

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Where are those Ukraine-bound U.S. billions going?

As the U.S. government weighs pumping $40 billion in military and other aid to help Ukraine battle Russian invaders, a key element is missing: an outside investigator to make sure the money is going to the right places. “There is a galling lack of adequate oversight over this spending,” Bunker Boss Danielle Brian wrote in an op-ed in The Hill May 13. Such scrutiny is needed to ensure “that war profiteers aren’t taking advantage of the crisis for their own gain.”

The best way to make that happen is to appoint and confirm permanent inspectors general at the Pentagon and State Department, the two agencies overseeing most of the Ukrainian money, Brian wrote. The Defense Department has been without a confirmed IG for the past six years; the State Department’s slot has been empty for two. The Project On Government Oversight also endorses an alternative approach: expanding the mission of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to scrutinize these funds flowing into Ukraine, as proposed by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), but not his call for the flow of aid to be cut off until the IG assignments are final.

SIGAR, led by junkyard dog John Sopko, has given Americans the best inside peek at what went wrong in Afghanistan. A SIGAR report released May 17 shows just how off the rails the U.S. effort had gone. For example, when the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan last year, its contractors did, too, leading to the quick grounding of most of the U.S.-provided UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter fleet. Congress, led by the Connecticut delegation, crammed those helicopters into Afghanistan despite Pentagon support for simpler Russian-built choppers that the Afghans had been flying (and repairing) for 17 years, as The Bunkernoted in 2018. “As a result,” SIGAR says in its brand-new report, “Afghan soldiers in isolated bases were running out of ammunition or dying for lack of medical evacuation capabilities.”

Think of it as “blood on the blades.”

That’s why it’s vital to have an independent eye on the tidal wave of U.S. cash and weapons now flooding into Ukraine to make sure, as Brian wrote, “that war profiteers aren’t taking advantage of the crisis for their own gain.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Dimtelligence

The Senate Intelligence Committee has fired off a classified missive to the U.S. intelligence community demanding to know why it underestimated the Taliban military’s ability to retake Afghanistan so quickly, and overestimated the Russian military’s ability to invade and conquer Ukraine, CNN reported May 13. (P.S.: don’t neglect the IC’s snafus concerning the collapse of the Soviet Union, or Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction, either.)

And speaking of Russia…

The increasingly aggressive moves by the U.S. and its allies to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine “have greatly increased the danger of an even larger conflict,” Tom Stevenson warns in the May 11 New York Times. “They are taking a risk far out of step with any realistic strategic gain.”

Humans-vs.-hardware

The war in Ukraine is highlighting how much more important troops are than fancy weapons—especially when it comes to the non-commissioned officers who actually lead fighters in combat, Caitlin M. Kenny reported May 5 in Defense One.

Aboard the Doomsday plane

Rachel S. Cohen offered a rare peek inside the E-4B, the command-and-control plane that a U.S. president might board to run a nuclear war, in Air Force Times May 10. It’s one of The Bunker’s favorite ways to fly, recalling the nonstop 20-hour D.C.-to-Kuala Lumpur trip made possible by the modified 747’s midair refueling capability.

Mental ed…

There have been too many suicides by soldiers in Alaska. To help deal with the problem, the Army is seeking $99 million from Congress — money not included in its 2023 budget request — for an additional gym at Fort Wainwright, Defense One reported May 11.

Heroic Gunny

John Canley, a Marine sergeant major awarded the Medal of Honor 50 years after the Vietnam war’s Tet Offensive in 1968, has died at 84, the Washington Post reported May 12. “The gunny kept us alive,” a comrade said. He was the first living Black Marine to receive the nation’s highest military decoration for valor. 1937-2022. R.I.P.

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