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The Bunker: The Navy’s on Fire!

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 U.S. Navy has a costly problem with fires aboard warships while under repair; the Pentagon seeks congressional OK to begin developing weapons on its own; treating leaks as gospel; and more.

SMOKE ON THE WATER

Navy has trouble dousing fires on ships

When The Bunker was growing up hard by the Atlantic Ocean, we’d recall great World War II warships like the battleship USS Arizona and carrier USS Yorktown lost in combat. These days, kids are more apt to be recalling the attack sub USS Miami and amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. But they were hardly heroic. Those two losses didn’t happen in the middle of the ocean. They happened while the vessels were undergoing maintenance, in port. It wasn’t enemy fire, but friendly firearson, in at least one case — that scuttled them. Even while secured safely in the harbor, the Navy was unable to put the fires out to save them. And they were only two of the 10 major fires on U.S. Navy warships undergoing repairs while tied up in port over the past decade.

What the blazes is going on here?

Turns out, the Navy does a poor job learning from its past fires to reduce the chances of future ones, the Government Accountability Office said in an April 20 report(PDF). “The Navy does not have a process for consistently collecting, analyzing, and sharing these lessons learned,” the GAO said. “As a result, the Navy has lost lessons learned over time — such as steps that a ship can take to improve fire safety.” Between 2017-2018, a stunning 92% of in-port onboard fires that required reporting were in fact not reported. “Navy officials stated that the underreporting has given the Navy a false sense of security with fire incidents and an incomplete picture of the true extent of the problem,” the congressional watchdog agency noted.

Let’s acknowledge that fixing ships is hazardous work, involving flammable materials, welding, and electricity. There’s a less-than-full crew around to extinguish small fires before they become raging conflagrations.

But the GAO isn’t telling the Navy anything new. In the wake of the 2020 Bonhomme Richard blaze, the Navy Safety Center launched an inquiry that concluded(PDF) that “noncompliance with fire prevention, detection, and response policies and procedures was likely prevalent across the fleets.” General sloppiness abounds. “Many of the mishap ships displayed declining standards in watchstanding to include poor ownership of stowage and cleanliness of spaces, poor log keeping, procedural noncompliance, absent forceful backup, and a lack of critical self-assessment,” the probe found(PDF). Between 2008 and 2020, 15 major fires cost the Navy more than $4 billion. Thankfully, there were no deaths reported.

The Navy’s own investigation also highlighted “a significant and largely unmitigated threat with regard to arson and other acts of gross negligence such as careless smoking,” the Major Fires Review said(PDF). You know you’ve got trouble when you have to write a report with that title…and it’s filed under “HOT TOPICS” in the Navy’s Freedom of Information Act reading room. “This insider threat represents a critical hazard and requires a formalized and diligent approach to identify potential insider threats and mitigate the impact of their actions.”

A small fire, set by a painting contractor seeking to get out of work during a 2012 overhaul of the USS Miami, spread and caused $700 million in damage. That led the Navy to scrap the sub. “After the loss of the USS Miami, the Navy realized that it could not afford another setback from a fire of this magnitude,” the GAO report noted. Yet eight years later, pretty much the same thing happened on board the Bonhomme Richard, which was getting a $250 million upgrade so Marine F-35Bs could fly from its deck. After the six-day fire caused up to $3.2 billion in damages, the Navy scrapped that warship, too.

Better luck next time.

WHO TO ROOT FOR?

The Pentagon wants to get ahead of Congress

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the sclerotic national security state. Everything takes too long, costs too much, and it often doesn’t work as advertised. The Pentagon is now arguing that congressional gridlock is freezing development of vitally needed new weapons and wants lawmakers’ OK to spend up to $300 million annually on such work before Congress approves the budget that funds it. “We’re in a very aggressive contest for military technology superiority,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said April 19. Too often, he argues, congressional stopgap funding bills delay critical work on future weapons by a year or more: “That’s a lot to give away, and it’s totally unnecessary.”

So on April 12 the Pentagon proposed its Rapid Response To Emergent Technology Advancements or Threats(PDF). “Our pacing challenge, China, is moving aggressively to field systems designed to defeat the U.S.,” the Pentagon argues. “Our standard practices are not responsive to this threat.” This $300 million head start is 0.03% of the annual Pentagon budget, but don’t count on a congressional rubber stamp. “One of the reasons this hasn’t happened in the past,” Kendall said, “is because Congress is reluctant to give up even this much authority.”

These guys deserve each other.

THE GULLIBILITY GAP

Why are the leaked docs treated as gospel?

It’s strange how good reporters — who usually take everything they hear with a grain of salt — toss such reservations aside when a leak is involved. Take the series of stories the Washington Post has been publishing based on the documents leaked by Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira, including:

Journalists decry stenography, noting that merely serving as a conveyer belt for government (dis?)information is an abdication of reportorial responsibility. Yet too often, that is turned on its head when such information is stamped “secret.” It’s dangerous when secrecy sexiness is allowed to eclipse accuracy, or at least a skeptical take on what the purloined docs assert. The authors of such intelligence often have hidden agendas or biases. Fact is, secret intelligence is just as likely to be wrong as public statements (Cf.Afghanistan, Ukraine).

The Post acknowledges as much in the subhed of that Taiwan exclusive cited above. “Troubling details raise questions about U.S. intelligence agencies’ ability to detect a pending invasion and the island’s capacity to defend itself,” it says. Just as readers should “raise questions” about such credulous reporting based on “hey, look what we got!” intelligence.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

An accounting…

Tom Engelhardt reflects on what he sees as the poor return on investment the U.S. gets from its military April 23 at TomDispatch.

Big bang bucks

Global military spending hit a record $2.2 trillion in 2022, up nearly 4% over 2021, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported April 24.

GI shortfall

The Army says it will recruit only 85% of the soldiers it needs this year, Military Times reported April 19.

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