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The Bunker: The Russians Are Coming (Again)!

This week in The Bunker: gullible Americans are again losing sleep over the Red Army; why the Navy can’t get F-35 engines to its carriers; a top Pentagon official bashes contractors for lining their own pockets; 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: gullible Americans are again losing sleep over the Red Army; why the Navy can’t get F-35 engines to its carriers; a top Pentagon official bashes contractors for lining their own pockets; and more.

BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.

Latest Russian scare sounds familiar

It was 41 years ago that Ronald Reagan warned us about the threat posed by Soviet missiles (25 years after JFK did the same thing), and nothing happened. Now Washington is in a tizzy because the Soviet Union’s successor, Russia, is purportedly developing some kind of nuclear (of course!) gizmo to wipe out the satellites the U.S. relies on for military and mercantile missions. “At the moment,” the New York Timesgravely intoned, “the United States does not have the ability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites, a former official said.”

Two unanswered questions:

  • Why should anyone think that the Russians, bogged down two years after invading Ukraine, have the smarts in space to build such a weapon? The Bunker has spent time at Moscow’s Baikonur spaceport and found the most sophisticated thing there was the vodka.
  • And what would be the point? Suppose the Russians miraculously extinguish the constellation of U.S. satellites. Then what? That we’ll wave a white flag in surrender? That the suddenly-10-foot-tall-again Red Army will storm the East Coast and take over the U.S.? There is no plausible endgame harnessing such a capability that redounds to the Russians’ benefit (unlike the suspicious February 16 death in a Siberian prison of Alexei Navalny, who represented a key threat to Russian thugocrat Vladimir Putin).

Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the threat is a medium-to-long-term issue, but one that needs to be kept in perspective: “No need to buy gold,” he said. But if you do, there are suddenly a lot more defense contractors willing to sell.

A NEW DOMINO THEORY

The For-Want-of-a-Nail Department

Defense contractors and their co-dependents in government have been trying to improve weapons ever since David slew Goliath with a smooth stone. (“Wouldn’t it be better if the stone was jagged?” you can hear them asking. “And forehead-seeking?”) But as weapons grow ever more complicated, downstream complications can arise.

The latest example is the grounding of the Pentagon’s V-22 tilt-rotor fleet following the November crash in Japan that killed eight Air Force personnel. While military officials recently hinted they know the cause of the crash — an unspecified mechanical flaw — they’ve been coy about the problem and when the V-22 Ospreys may return to flight.

Unfortunately, the only aircraft capable of carrying F-35 jet engines to aircraft carriers at sea is a V-22. The F-35 is supposed to be the newest and best punch aboard the Navy’s fleet of 11 carriers. But F-35s without working engines are simply hangar-deck queens, taking up space and not contributing to the fight.

This all adds up to a hat trick of military malpractice:

Aircraft carriers (informally known as “targets” in the Chinese military) are the U.S. Navy’s biggest warships, and they should be replaced with smaller vessels to distribute U.S. maritime firepower more widely.

— The Navy’s F-35s are short-legged (forcing carriers closer to the enemy) but costly (forcing taxpayers closer to bankruptcy). They’re prematurely chewing up their engines, which have to work harder than projected to keep the F-35’s electronics cool. It’s a safe bet carriers would need more F-35 engines if war breaks out.

— The Navy’s V-22s are the only practical way to get F-35 engines to an aircraft carrier at sea. Since they’ve been grounded, the Navy is relying on its shrinking number of C-2 Greyhounds, the V-22’s predecessor, to ferry needed supplies to the flattops. Unfortunately, the C-2 is not big enough to carry an F-35 engine. The Navy’s top aviator says there will be “significant operational impacts” if the V-22s remain grounded.

The independent Navy Timesreported in 2010 that the inability to supply spare F-35 engines to carriers was “a significant design oversight” that the F-35 program’s boss conceded was “a huge challenge.” The Navy “solved” it by breaking the F-35’s engine down into five modules (the biggest is the so-called “power module,” about two-thirds of the complete engine, and the piece the C-2 can’t carry). Engineers succeeded in crowbarring the power module into the V-22 with three inches to spare (the tilt-rotor has also affected blueprints for other military hardware).

Here’s hoping the Pentagon can figure out how to get its V-22s airborne safely again. Then we can keep flying our over-priced and short-range fighters from the decks of huge floating bullseyes.

SELF-DEALING OVER NATIONAL DEFENSE

Navy chief blasts contractors for stock buybacks

Defense contractors spend too much money repurchasing their own stock — often padding their paychecks in the process — instead of investing in more robust factories and shipyards. That may be a dirty little defense-industry secret, but Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro let the cat out of the seabag February 15 when he leveled the charge before an audience crammed with the cream of the military-industrial complex in San Diego:

“Overall, many of you are making record profits — as evidenced by your quarterly financial statements — and while I am happy for you, you can't be asking for the American taxpayer to make greater public investments while you continue to goose your stock prices through stock buybacks, deferring promised capital investments, and other accounting maneuvers that — to some — seem to prioritize stock prices that drive executive compensation rather than making the needed, fundamental investments in the industrial base at a time when our nation needs us to be all ahead flank.”

It was a bracingly refreshing tune for such a confab, where rote recitations about too many threats and too little money are too often the only anthems sung. Del Toro didn’t name any contractors. But he didn’t have to. The Navy retired-officer-turned-businessman dropped his depth charge 15 days after HII, a top builder of Navy ships and subs, said it was boosting its buyback authority from $3.2 billion to $3.8 billion because of its confidence in the company’s financial health (also true industry-wide[PDF]). And 22 days earlier General Dynamics, another major supplier of Navy vessels, said it had bought back over $1.6 billion of its stock in the past two years.

Talk about buried treasure…

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

A record $2.2 trillion…

…is how much the world spent on defense last year amid a “deteriorating security landscape,” London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies reported, according to Tim Martin’s February 13 dispatch in Breaking Defense.

Flashpoint

The USS Carl Vinson’s cat and mouse game with China in the western Pacific was detailed February 19 in the Wall Street Journal.

Cart before horse…

The Air Force, which has been unable to get its new fleet of aerial tankers shipshape, wants to build new stealthy tankers with “exquisite capabilities” that can survive in “extreme threat areas,” Audrey Decker wrote February 15 in Defense One.

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