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The Bunker: The Pentagon’s Flying Circus

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: we take to the skies to check out what the U.S. military is doing, both good and bad, high above our heads; President Biden’s unilateral war-making; fragging comes home; stink tanks; & more.


Lots of flights of fancy, or not

Air power has always been vital to the Department of Defense—and not just to the Air Force (with capital letters). That’s why there are three other lower-case air forces—one each for the Army, Navy, and Marines. Pound-for-pound, they’re the most costly weapons systems going. With Thanksgiving behind us, leftovers are still occupying refrigerators like so many hangar queens. In the same way, some things buzzing around the Pentagon are turkeys, stuffed or otherwise. Others have merit. If the past is any guide, we won’t learn which is which until we’ve spent billions. Please make sure your seat back and tray table are in their full upright position, and your seat belt is securely fastened, as we survey some recent skyward sightings.


Learning from prior flubs

Multi-mission aircraft have long been a mixed bag for the U.S. military. Back in the 1960s, the Air Force and Navy plan to develop the TFX fighter—forced on the services by then-defense secretary Bob McNamara—flopped when the Navy bailed out and left the Air Force to fly all by itself what became the F-111. The F-35—shared among the Air Force, Marines, and Navy—is even worse. Sold as a common airframe for three very different aircraft, it ended up serving none of them very well. “The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong,” retired General Merrill McPeak, once the Air Force’s top officer, told(PDF)The Bunker in 2013.

That’s what happens when you try to do more with more—by turning a state-of-the-art warplane into a flying Swiss army knife. It would seem to make more sense to do more with less. That’s pretty much what the Air Force is trying to do by seeking to launch weapons from cargo airplanes. It’s not a new idea, but has had trouble, if you’ll excuse the phrase, getting off the ground.

The Bunker has wondered for decades why the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) hasn’t revolutionized warfare. A JDAM basically turns cheap dumb bombs into marginally more-costly hyper-accurate smart ones. They could be launched, for many missions, from silver-plated cargo planes instead of gold-plated bombers and fighters. Well, maybe that explains it.


Fighter fiscal insanity continues

But such common sense has limited range. Take the sad story of the F-22 warplane, which has been the Air Force’s most advanced fighter since 2005. You spent $64.5 billion for 184 of them—about $350 million each. Developed to wipe the skies of Soviet fighters and elude Soviet air defenses, its reason for being evaporated along with the Soviet Union (which dissolved in 1991, 14 years before the F-22 became operational, highlighting the Pentagon’s molasses-like lag time between idea and execution). Since then, it has played only minor roles in combat. Beyond that, it's hardly in fighting form—only about half of the F-22 fleet has been ready for action over the past four years, largely because of challenges with its radar-eluding capabilities (its readiness target is 80%).

“The F-22 faces challenges with its low-observable system and spare parts,” the Government Accountability Office reported(PDF) last year. “The Air Force is contracting to increase low observable repair capacity and securing additional funding for spare parts.” So the service announced(PDF) November 5 that it will be spending $10.9 billion through 2031 on “Advanced Raptor Enhancement & Sustainment (ARES)” to “sustain and modernize the F-22 Raptor, including modernization hardware kit procurement and services such as upgrades, enhancements and fixes, as well as performance-based logistics services.” The Bunker’s tactical-nuclear calculator shows that works out to about $60 million per plane.

It’s not like the F-22s are being flown hard. That GAO report said the average F-22 has flown 1,866 hours spread over 12 years. That works out to 156 hours annually, or 26 minutes a day. In comparison, each A-10 attack plane has logged 298 flying hours a year—49 minutes per day. “The venerable A-10s are the healthiest, if least capable, jets in the fighter force,” Air Force Magazinenoted when it reported 2021 aircraft readiness rates November 22 (the A-10 topped the list, at 73%). Of course, some might suggest that grounded aircraft are the least capable of all.


“The best offense is a good defense”

Sorry to say, but the F-22 is small potatoes compared to the Pentagon’s new push to build hypersonic weapons. Such weapons—and the ability to defend the U.S. against them—have become the military-industrial complex’s latest addiction. On the defensive side of the ledger, it boils down to this: after the U.S. has spent more than $400 billion on defenses against ballistic missiles, with their predictably boring parabolic arcs, foes are developing weapons that don’t follow those rules. So naturally, that requires billions to thwart their newer, more maneuverable models.

On November 19, the Pentagon announced(PDF) it was awarding “Enhanced Hypersonic Defense” contracts to Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon to develop “Glide Phase Interceptors.” Their goal is to destroy incoming hypersonic weapons traveling at more than five times the speed of sound. The contracts are only about $20 million each, but that’s just to get the Glide Phase Interceptor’s nosecone under the tent. The current crop of interceptors doesn’t do a good job of protecting the nation from those predictable-path ballistic missiles. So it makes perfect Pentagon sense to launch something far more ambitious.


Lack of gas could stymie success vs. China

One problem if the U.S. has to go to war with China in the western Pacific—the most likely flashpoint for such a conflict—is that China lives there…and the U.S. doesn’t. The only way to fix that problem is to beef up the Pentagon’s “brittle” aerial tanker fleet, including bases and fuel depots in the region, according to a new study(PDF). “Among adversaries China poses the greatest threats to aerial refueling,” says the November 15 report from the hawkish Hudson Institute. “It could exact high levels of real and virtual attrition that would greatly disrupt air operations.”

The U.S. Air Force’s tanker fleet, it notes, has dropped from 701 to 473 since the Cold War wrapped up 30 years ago. “As the strength of the U.S. aerial refueling architecture becomes a weakness,” it adds, “U.S. military forces may be incapable of deterring or defeating aggression.” Of course, recent Air Force history suggests the Pentagon already is incapable of buying tankers.

It turns out that waging war is a lot like real estate: it boils down to location, location, location.


More Unidentified Foggy Obfuscation

Just before Thanksgiving, the Pentagon announced it is setting up an “Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG).” That rolls-off-the-tongue acronym adds insult to injury, following the government’s recent move to rebrand UFOs as UAPs—unidentified aerial phenomena. AOIMSG’S focus is to “detect, identify and attribute” UFOs, and “to assess, and as appropriate, mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks directed in her November 23 memo(PDF).

The Pentagon “action”—if you can’t do anything, set up an office or a blue-ribbon commission to show you’re on the case—follows a June report(PDF) by the Director of National Intelligence into more than 140 UFO sightings for which the U.S. was unable to pinpoint their origin. It comes as the Senate weighs the creation of an ‘‘Anomaly Surveillance and Resolution Office” to get to the bottom of these UFO sightings. “If it is technology possessed by adversaries or any other entity, we need to know,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, toldPolitico’s Bryan Bender the week before the Pentagon announcement. “We’ve not had oversight into this area for a very long time.”

So what we’ve got here is a new Pentagon effort purportedly to investigate UFOs (UFO aficionados have their doubts), and a congressional push to investigate the Pentagon’s investigations of UFOs.

Paging Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone: call your office.


Drones launching drones!

The Pentagon likes drones because they don’t risk the lives of a crew when ordered into harm’s way. Defense Department logic, such as it is, suggests that drones launching drones would be even better. That’s why the brainiacs at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are developing the LongShot (which, come to think of it, would be a good name for a large share of what the U.S. military buys).

“A plane launches the LongShot mothership, which in turn launches its own air-to-air missiles,” Breaking Defensereported on Thanksgiving Eve. “The mothership could be sized to be carried by fighter jets and bombers. So yes, in the spirit of the holiday: if a ground-based missile is a chicken, the LongShot is a turducken.”

Nothing better than leftover turkey!


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

An Afghan slap on the knuckles…(PDF)

The Army’s own professional journal has an article in its latest issue drubbing the U.S. over the war in Afghanistan. “Notwithstanding the urgency of combating terrorism, making war on the Taliban was a failure of judgment and not in the national interest,” Todd Greentree, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan, wrote in the winter issue of Parameters, released November 23. “Once again, the core of the problem was the long-attested and largely disregarded over-militarization of American foreign policy.”

Say it ain’t so, Joe

Speaking of disregarding the over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy, more than 30 U.S. lawmakers from both parties are questioning President Biden over his recent missile strike in Syria, Politico’s National Security Daily reported November 18. “We are deeply troubled by your administration’s dangerous claim that Article II of the Constitution permits you to bypass Congressional authorization to perform strikes inside Syria, as well as your administration’s claim that the wide range of activities that you have undertaken as part of the ongoing U.S. occupation of a large swath of Syrian territory is justified by the Authorization for Use of Military Force...of 2001,” said the letter(PDF), spearheaded by Representative Peter DeFazio, D-OR. “These claims raise serious constitutional questions about unchecked military activities conducted by the Executive Branch in Syria and Iraq without approval from Congress, and they could lead to actions that prolong the U.S.’s involvement in ‘endless wars’ overseas.”

Fragging comes home…

Author Eugene Linden has seen the fury now roiling U.S. politics before. “Lately, I’ve had a sense of déjà vu witnessing the rage boiling in America: voters sending death threats to Republican representatives who voted for a bipartisan infrastructure; school board meetings blowing up in fights over reading lists; passengers punching airline crews in the face over wearing a simple surgical mask; and countless other expressions of fury completely disproportionate to the events that prompted them,” he wrote in The Bulwark November 22. “I’ve seen this kind of anger before, 50 years ago in Vietnam. Back then I was a young journalist investigating and writing about an epidemic of ‘fragging’, which is what we called the murder of officers by their own troops.”

Linden cites racial tensions, drug use, the draft, and a military adrift in a war seemingly without end as setting the stage for such carnage (at least 86 were killed, and some 700 wounded). “The military’s problem with internal warfare was solved when we exited Vietnam and switched to an all-volunteer army. In other words, the military didn’t solve the problem—they changed their personnel and then relocated,” Linden writes. “Alas, that option isn’t available to us when our unit is the whole of society.”

Stink tanks

The Bunker has long been leery of people and publications succored by the cream of the taxpayer’s milk skimmed off the top by U.S. national-security interests. There is a real need for a vital and strong U.S. military, but its flabbiness today reflects too much money and not enough thinking. It infects every corner of the business. Josh Rogin, in his column in the November 23 Washington Post, notes that the pernicious practice even affects the ivory-towered think tanks sprinkled across Washington’s tonier neighborhoods. We’ve known that many of them depend on cash from defense contractors. Turns out that many of them also rely on contributions from foreign countries—sustenance that often goes unreported. “It’s a win-win for the think tanks, which collect millions, and for the foreign actors, who can successfully spread their influence in D.C. without scrutiny,” he writes.

China watch

John Isaacs warned November 28 in The National Interest that the Pentagon’s latest report on China(PDF) is too consumed with counting bombs and boats. “The Cold War was won on the strength of alliances, free markets, and democratic values, not only by military spending,” writes the veteran Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation expert. “An effective policy response to China’s military buildup should consider all aspects of the situation, not just the potential numbers of nuclear weapons or ships, and employ all instruments of policy, not just the military.” Besides, he adds, even if China acquires the 1,000 nuclear weapons worrying the Pentagon, the U.S. has 3,800.

Rose Gottemoeller, a former senior U.S. arms negotiator, wrote in Politico November 23 that there are lessons from that first Cold War to help prevent a second one between Washington and Beijing: “The last thing we want to do is to repeat the experience of the Cold War, when the United States built over 32,000 warheads and the USSR over 40,000.” And The New York Times reported November 28 that the Biden administration is pushing Beijing to discuss each side’s capabilities and intentions, in hopes of reducing superpower instability and the chance of war, accidental or otherwise.

Hey, it’s the holiday season, so hope springs eternal.

Here’s hoping you’ve made it to the end of The Bunker, enlightened if not delighted. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox early Wednesday mornings.