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The Bunker: The Navy’s Lost at Sea

This week in The Bunker: Bad data for the Navy aloft and afloat; Lockheed tightens its lock at No. 1; moving sexual-assault prosecutions outside the chain of command; the Air Force sends a general to court martial for the first time for sexual assault; 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.


This week in The Bunker: Bad data for the Navy aloft and afloat; Lockheed tightens its lock at No. 1; moving sexual-assault prosecutions outside the chain of command; the Air Force sends a general to court martial for the first time for sexual assault; and more.

A TALE OF TWO REPORTS

Documents detail a derelict Navy

Last year 7% of the Navy’s vaunted F-35 fighters were fully mission capable, meaning they stood ready to harness any of their capabilities to get the job done. That’s not a typo—fewer than 1 in 10 of the Navy’s newest warplanes was fully ready for action.

The Navy’s latest ship-building plan would cost the nation more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, and require doubling its average annual ship-building budget.

There are excuses for both striking numbers (think rose-colored glasses and politics), but no real reasons. The F-35 case is built on wishful thinking inside the Navy, while the ship-building scheme is based on political machinations by a defeated president and his sea-service enablers.

The F-35 data(PDF), presented by Diana Maurer of the Government Accountability Office on April 22, found the program lacking in a variety of ways, particularly for the Navy, whose 7% fully mission capable rate in 2020 fell far short of its 75% goal. Marine Corps F-35s were fully mission capable 15% of the time, compared to its 75% goal; and Air Force F-35s—the cheapest and simplest of the three—were fully mission capable 54% of the time, still well short of its 72% target.

The good news is that, taken as a whole, the tri-service fully mission capable rate improved from 32% to 39% from 2019 to 2020, while the less-stringent mission capable rate (an aircraft able to perform at least one of its several missions) grew from 59% to 69%. The Bunker, reflecting on long-ago report cards, knows that data means the fully mission capable rate for the entire F-35 fleet went from a grade of F to a grade of F, while the mission capable rate moved from F to D. “The services will collectively be confronted with tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs that they project as unaffordable during the program,” Maurer told the House Armed Services Committee readiness panel.

The GAO’s testimony is a cheat-seeking missile that ultimately will force the Pentagon to cut the F-35 program. The current plan is to buy 2,456 F-35s for $400 billion (the most costly weapon system ever) and spend $1.3 trillion to keep them flying until 2070.

There are four reasons for the lousy grades: suppliers, maintainers, software for the maintainers, and engines. The details are data-heavy and mind-numbing, but the bottom line is clear: F-35s break down and take longer to fix than the Pentagon or its contractors (Lockheed for the airframe and Pratt & Whitney for the engine) expected. The three services have to cut the current $9 million average annual operating cost of their F-35s to slightly more than $6 million to stay within projected future budgets.

There is no agreed path on how to solve the problem. But the Pentagon is trying: It recently changed the name of its F-35 “Cost War Room” to the “Affordability War Room.” Yet a name-changer isn’t a game-changer. Both the Air Force and Marines are concerned they may not be able to buy all the planes they want, but that’s something the Navy isn’t contemplating. “Navy officials stated that future cost-per-tail [cost-per-aircraft] per year overruns should be resolved through various cost savings initiatives being explored and implemented by the F-35 Joint Program Office’s Affordability War Room,” the GAO said of the service’s wishful sinking.

“Without a cohesive, strategic approach on the part of DOD, in tandem with ongoing congressional oversight, DOD may continue to invest resources in a program that the department and the services ultimately cannot afford to sustain,” Maurer concluded. In other words, if the F-35 program continues on autopilot, the Navy will be lucky to get 7% of its F-35s airborne.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office reported the very same day the GAO’s daunting data surfaced that funding the Navy’s latest ship-building plan(PDF) would require more than $34 billion a year. That’s a sum “unprecedented since World War II,” the budget office said. The plan is based on the Trump administration’s ambitious scheme to boost the Navy by 2045, including a 33% increase from 300 to 400 so-called battle-force (in other words, big and deadly) warships.

The Navy sales pitch for the bulked-up fleet is less than dynamic. “I believe we have the body of work that has defined the requirement as best we understand it for the naval force we need to be part of the joint force; we have the acquisition plans to be able to deliver that force; and then we have the resources identified and allocated to finance that at this point in time,” an unidentified “senior Navy official” told reporters back in December upon its release. “I am very comfortable that we have all of those aligned and synchronized in a way that we have not had in the past with what I believe are reasonable future budget assumptions that are executable.”

Funding the plan would double the Navy’s annual ship-building budget compared to the past 30 years. It was sent to Capitol Hill in December as a depth charge designed to blow the Biden administration out of the water when it presents a more responsible plan.

Both reports suggest, at least to rational taxpayers, that the Navy’s lost at sea.

NUMBER 1-100 WITH THE BULLETS

Defense Department releases its top-contractor list

The General Services Administration is out with its annual list(PDF) letting us taxpayers know who got how much cash in fiscal year 2020, which ended last September 30. The big news involves Lockheed Martin, which tightened its grip on the top spot of contractors across the federal government. In 2020, LockMart pocketed $76.8 billion, a whopping $48.6 billion more than No. 2 Raytheon’s $28.2 billion haul. In 2019, it eclipsed No. 2 Boeing by a far smaller $21 billion. And, in 2018, it topped No. 2 Boeing by “only” $11 billion. Lockheed’s boom is due primarily to several big F-35 contracts and a $15 billion deal to develop and produce C-130J cargo planes. Rounding out the top five were General Dynamics ($25.4 billion), Boeing ($23.2 billion), and Northrop Grumman ($14.6 billion).

As contractors have merged in recent decades, the dollars have become concentrated in a smaller number of firms, a trend we noted in the Military Industrial Circus in 2019. Raytheon moved up the chart last year after gobbling up much of United Technologies Corp. United Technologies sold off its storied Sikorsky helicopter division to Lockheed in 2015, plumping up Lockheed’s Pentagon business.

Beyond the traditional movers and shakers are a couple of relative newcomers. Clocking in at No. 23 is Atlantic Diving Supply (doing business as ADS Tactical) with more than $3 billion in Pentagon funding. The Project On Government Oversight recently took a look at the company and its claim to be a “small business.” And coming in at No. 31 was Fisher Sand & Gravel, which collected $2.5 billion, largely for its work on then-President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Remember: if you have concerns about any of these contractors, check out POGO’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

SEXUAL ASSAULT

Time for a different kind of investigation?

The Bunker has been covering sexual assaults in the military for decades: Army recruiters preying on would-be soldiers, Navy midshipmen allegedly raping a classmate, senior soldiers abusing subordinates, troops assaulting trainees, Navy aviators assaulting women at 1991’s infamous Tailhook convention in Las Vegas. “This is a longstanding problem,” The Bunker told the PBS NewsHour in 2013. “I was on this show 16 years ago talking about it.”

Some things, it seems, never change. That’s why a Pentagon panel has recommended that decisions on sexual assault prosecutions be taken away from the alleged perpetrator’s commander. Instead, the outside group has recommended to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that such actions be assigned to military lawyers delinked from the chain of command. Such a change, also being pushed on Capitol Hill, would reverse decades of strenuous U.S. military support for leaving such decisions within the chain.

Seven years ago, a similar outside panel recommended that decisions to prosecute sexual assaults should remain within the chain of command. The military has long insisted that commanders need the ability to punish transgressors—and for that to be witnessed by their comrades—to maintain “good order and discipline” in its ranks. “It is my strong belief ... the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said back then.

But reports of sexual assaults continue to rise, jumping 13% in 2018 and 3% in 2019. “There is growing concern inside the Pentagon that … the military cannot be counted on to defend those in its ranks against sexual predators,” The Bunker noted eight years ago. “Followed to its logical conclusion, that means some elements of combating sexual assault may have to be pulled out of the military's treasured chain of command.”

AND SPEAKING OF SEXUAL ASSAULTS

A General reckoning?

The Air Force has launched its first-ever court martial of a general for an alleged sexual assault. General Arnold Bunch, chief of the Air Force Materiel Command, announced April 21 that Air Force Major General William Cooley will face a court martial on a charge of sexual assault while serving as chief of the Air Force Research Laboratory. “The charge stems from an August 12, 2018 off-duty incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Cooley allegedly made unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching a female victim,” the Air Force said. “The civilian victim is not a military member or DoD employee.”

“I think in the past, this type of allegation would have resulted in … getting a slap on the wrist and being told to retire,” Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group supporting military sexual-assault victims, toldAir Force Times. “So, I do think it’s a change in the way … they’re dealing with it at the very highest levels,” said Christensen, a former chief Air Force prosecutor.

Courts martial of general officers are rare. The Army has held five since World War II; the Navy held one for a single admiral. (The phrase “general officer” includes all four ranks of generals in the Air Force, Army, and Marines, and all four ranks of admirals in the Navy, who are also known as “flag officers.”)

There has long been evidence, despite the military’s repeated declarations that it takes sexual assault seriously, of a wink-and-a-nod attitude. The Bunker noted in 2014 that the Army’s “command climate”—including what is tolerated in a military unit—played a role in a case of a one-star brigadier general charged with sexual assault. The Bunker also covered the 1998 case of a two-star Army general who allegedly blackmailed a subordinate’s wife into an affair. She filed a complaint with Army investigators shortly after their relationship collapsed. When the general learned of the investigation, he asked to resign—a request the Army’s top general approved a week later. Only after the case became public did the Army court martial him. The service eventually demoted him from a two-star major general to a one-star brigadier general, cutting his $76,000 annual pension by nearly $9,000, and fining him $22,000.

The general’s final posting was as deputy inspector general, overseeing all Army investigations into personnel misconduct, including allegations of sexual assault. Before taking that post, he had served in a senior NATO assignment, where he had adulterous affairs with the wives of four subordinates, including the one who complained. “There are two systems of justice in the military, and those who practice in the military justice system are deluding themselves if they say otherwise,” her lawyer said. “The troops in the field sure know it.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

“Make-or-Break Time for the F-35”

You know the F-35 is in trouble when that’s the headline of a major April 23 piece published by Air Force Magazine, the (sort-of-independent) house organ of the Air Force itself. The article contains gems like this: “Worst case, the Air Force risks having no working engines for 20 percent of its F-35As by 2025, the F-35 Joint Program Office acknowledged.” Its conclusion is grim: “The F-35 could turn out to be just a bridge to the future combat air force, rather than the destination once envisioned.”

Four flashpoints

Jim Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral and NATO commander, lays out what he thinks are the most likely places that a war between China and the U.S. might break out. “I see four distinct maritime ‘flashpoint’ zones, where the Chinese navy may potentially take military against the U.S. and its allies, partners and friends,” he wrote in an April 25 Bloomberg Opinion column. “They are the Taiwan Strait; Japan and the East China Sea; the South China Sea; and more distant waters around China's other neighbors, including Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and India.” Predictably, he gives the edge to the U.S. in a war with China over Taiwan, “but the trends at this moment are not moving in the right direction.”

Lost in translation(PDF)

The U.S. government charged six ex-employees of a government contractor with rigging language tests designed to dispatch qualified linguists to help U.S. troops communicate with locals—including soldiers—in Afghanistan. The six recruited underqualified speakers of Dari and Pashto, and used better-qualified speakers to take required tests. “Thedefendants sought to make it appear that the linguist candidates possessed stronger language skills than was the case and to ensure that their unqualified linguist candidates would receive passing scores,” the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia said in an April 22 statement. “At times, the defendants themselves fraudulently impersonated candidates during interviews. During the scheme, the defendants received a base salary plus a series of incentive-based bonuses determined by how far through a multi-step vetting process a recruited candidate progressed.” The Bunker maintains that “incentive-based bonuses” should only be used for victory.

New Air Force One update

A couple weeks ago, The Bunker reported on a lawsuit filed by Boeing against the company it hired to develop interiors for the pair of 747 aircraft that will be the next generation of Air Force One. Now, the defendant—GDC Technics of Texas—is returning fire. It is “Boeing’s mismanagement of the completion of two Air Force One presidential aircraft, not delays caused by GDC, that has caused a delay in the completion of those aircraft,” GDC said as it filed a countersuit against Boeing. “Because of its problems with engineering, program management, and its own financial difficulties, Boeing has fallen behind in the project schedule for the aircraft,” the lawsuit alleges, according to an April 20 piece on the Simple Flying website. “Boeing looked to GDC as a scapegoat to excuse its lack of performance on the aircraft to the United States Air Force.” It’s enough to make you yearn for the good ol’ days when the most serious issue was what color to paint the new aircraft.

“He likes it!”

Readers of a certain age will recall that delightful 1970s TV commercial where two leery brothers watch their youngest brother trying Life cereal for the first time. “He likes it!” one exclaims. Some defense mavens were just as surprised when Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) gave an update on the Air Force’s new and still highly secret B-21 bomber. Smith, the chairman of the armed services committee, recently denounced the F-35 as a “rathole.” But he has pivoted when it comes to the B-21. The bomber is “on time, on budget, and they’re making it work in a very intelligent way,” he said, according to an April 22 account in Breaking Defense.

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