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The Bunker: The Show Must Go On

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.


WHY THE STATUS QUO PERSISTS

Exhibit A in why it’s so hard to change the Pentagon

The bigger a bureaucracy gets, the less inclined it is to take chances. And the Pentagon is among the world’s biggest bureaucracies. So when then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered the Air Force to boost the readiness rate for three kinds of its warplanes to more than 80 percent two years ago, it did what most bureaucracies do: It waited for him to leave. Then it declared it wasn’t going to do it. Actually, it might be more accurate to say the Air Force can’t do it, given the Pentagon’s visceral desire to fund complicated weapons but then allocate only enough money to maintain simple ones.

Air Force General Charles Brown let the cat out of the cockpit at his confirmation hearing May 7 to become the service’s chief of staff. In written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, the service’s prospective top officer said the F-16’s 2019 readiness rate peaked at 75 percent, the F-22 crested at 68 percent, and the F-35 peaked at 74 percent. And that’s grading on a curve: “readiness,” as defined under the Pentagon’s so-called “Mission Capable 80” program, required that an airplane be able to conduct only one of its several missions to be deemed “ready.”

Then Brown dropped one of those verbal bombs that so delight students of the U.S. military:

“Maintaining aging aircraft is an extremely difficult and expensive task, while new, technologically advanced weapons systems present their own challenges.”

Talk about precision-guided rhetoric: Apparently, Air Force planes are either too old, or too new, to achieve Mattis’s goal. Thankfully, Brown continued, “the Office of the Secretary of Defense determined the FY19 80-percent Mission Capable (MC) Rate initiative is not an FY20 requirement.” Note that deft bureaucratic touch: While an individual, Mattis, issued the 80-percent order, it was rescinded by some faceless “office” with…hold on to your wallet…5,000 bureaucrats (although it could be 10,000, because no one is quite sure how they should be counted).

Instead of the 80-percent mark, the Air Force has reverted to its tradition of allowing local commanders to set their own readiness targets. “Letting commanders set their own readiness standards is like letting students grade their own papers,” Todd Harrison, veteran defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—and an Air Force vet—told Military.com.

But not to fear. If the Pentagon has let the Air Force abandon the “Mission Capable 80” initiative, it’s come up with a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane full of buzzwords to replace it. “We developed and are now implementing a Strategic Sustainment Framework that will both improve materiel readiness and set the conditions for long-term cost reduction by developing multiple sources of supply, enhancing our repair network capabilities, and capitalizing on conditions-based maintenance plus and other commercial best practices,” Brown said.

Yeah, right.

THE ARMS BUSINESS

President Trump’s weapon obsession

When it comes to buying new weapons, the Pentagon wants contractors in every state. That translates into local jobs, which means congressional support for arms that sometimes don’t deserve it. The same principle applies globally. To get foreign nations to buy U.S. weapons, the Pentagon has, for decades, offshored weapons production. This supposedly lowers the cost to American taxpayers (more units of something should lead to lower prices for each one built) and purportedly spreads the cost of R&D among more buyers (although that doesn’t seem to happen often).

When I first came to Washington 40 years ago as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a big part of my beat was tracking General Dynamics’ efforts to sell the Fort Worth-built F-16 fighter overseas. The competition often pitted the F-16 against the St. Louis-built McDonnell Douglas (remember them?) F-18. Both companies offered all kinds of goodies to foreign countries if they would buy their plane. Many involved so-called “co-production,” (PDF) where parts of the airplane actually are built in that country. “Offset” deals simply involved the seller buying specific goods, unrelated to the weapon, from the buying nation (some can be downright strange: Australia agreed to buy F-18s only after the U.S. Navy agreed to buy lollipops from a Down Under candy maker).

Sweet.

President Trump argues that too much of today’s F-35 jet fighter, the most-costly weapons program ever, is being built overseas. “It’s a certain fighter jet, I won’t tell you which, but it happens to be the F-35,” he told Fox Business May 14. “It’s a great jet, and we make parts for this jet all over the world…the problem is, if we have a problem with a country, you can’t make the jet.” He pledged to halt the practice and “make everything in the United States.” Trump’s weapons lust isn’t limited to the F-35, of course. More chilling is the hell U.S. weapons, delivered by Saudi Arabia with a lot of help from the Trump administration, have rained down on Yemen, per this account on Page 1 of Sunday’s New York Times.

The Bunker isn’t going to dissect what’s wrong in Trump’s F-35 broadside (others have done that). Such deals have been common for the past half-century, and, in fact, there are good arguments for reining them in. But The Bunker does find it interesting that the key U.S. actors involved—the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-35—were struck mute following Trump’s comments. It is becoming increasingly clear that the president’s favorite weapon, whatever it may be today, always is equipped with a silencer.

TRADEOFF SHOWS

Arms bazaars are moving online, bizarrely

The coronavirus has upended all facets of American life, and nothing is more American than weapons. So as you’re Zooming with work colleagues or hanging out at (not-so) happy hours, know that the U.S. military-industrial complex is doing the same thing when it comes to its roster of trade shows. Check out last week’s guide to what the U.S. Special Operations Command described as the first-ever “Virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference,” acronymized as “vSOFIC” with that nifty lower-case “v”.

The big arms extravaganzas—the Farnborough and Paris air shows, the service-specific spectacles in and around Washington, D.C.—are awash with big-spending contractors promising their latest geegaws are going to change warfare as we know it. It never happens, but the supersonic swag is neat, and the food and drink are well above enlisted-grade chow.

The Farnborough International Airshow, conducted every other year outside London, announced March 20 that this year’s five-day show set for July had been cancelled because the coronavirus has made it “impossible” to stage the show. But on May 11, it reversed course, virtually, saying “a summer without an Airshow was simply inconceivable.” So the Farnborough team says it is scheduling “free-to-attend digital aerospace events” over the same five days (the website suggests to The Bunker that exhibitors won’t be free-to-exhibit).

SILENT SERVICE

Typing letters for the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs…

It’s always refreshing to learn of someone who walked through history but didn’t talk about it much. Take Ruth Hunter, whose life was crammed with church and serving as a Brownie troop leader. And, by the way, she also served as a secretary to Army General Omar Bradley when he was serving as the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. “Perhaps because of her security clearance or maybe just her small-town humility, she rarely spoke about her work,” her obituary in the May 18 Washington Postread. She was 94. Rest easy, Ma’am. R.I.P.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

#1 with a warhead!

The intrepid pipe-dreamers over at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons estimate the U.S. accounted for half of 2019’s global nuclear-weapons spending in a report released May 12.

Cancer in the ranks

Tara Copp continues her ground-breaking work for McClatchy newspapers in this May 12 report on spiking cancer rates among U.S. military veterans.

The Future of War 1.0

We can’t predict how a war is going to go when we know we’re going to do it—think Afghanistan and Iraq—so you can imagine the challenge faced by Rand Corp. researchers in their May 11 Peering into the Crystal Ball: Holistically Assessing the Future of Warfare, summing up the next decade of conflict.

The Future of War 2.0

Of course, if you’re in the mood for something more chilling than billing, check out Burn-In, the latest techno-thriller from P.W. Singer and August Cole. The Tom Clancy of tomorrow pair follow up on their 2015 Ghost Fleet with a tale of terrorism and robots. Luckily, the robots are on our side. This time around. Out next Tuesday, May 26.

Beats a sports car

General George Patton’s World War II command car is up for auction in June. Slaps not included.

What we're looking forward to

We've scheduled an online session for May 27 to explore, with experts across the political divide, how COVID-19 is likely to affect the Defense Department budget and related legislation. Check it out to explore how the sausage is made, if you dare.

Lesson learned. Again.

Last week, The Bunkermentioned the rash of training accidents that kill too many troops. It focused on a pair of Air Force pilots who died aboard their T-38 trainer when one of them, a rookie flier, tried to conduct a “formation landing” alongside another jet and crashed into it. The student-pilot’s family didn’t care for the May 1 probe into the crash, which blamed both pilots for their demise. They said the same day that such formation landings are “dangerous and wholly unnecessary” because they have “no continuing practical benefit to combat-pilot proficiency or survivability.” Turns out the night before that November 2019 accident, the instructor pilot who was killed talked with his superiors about the need to eliminate those dangerous landings…because operational pilots rarely do them anymore. Three months after the crash, the Air Force quietly halted such landings. It only informed the dead student-pilot’s family on May 11, according to an article posted the next day by Air Force Magazine. The service’s action, the family said after hearing the news, “substantiates the failure of Air Force leadership to discontinue an archaic and dangerous training requirement, in a tired 58-year-old plane, before it took the life of our son Travis and his instructor pilot.”

On that solemn note…

…it’s worth remembering that Monday is Memorial Day. Remember 2nd Lieutenant Travis Wilkie, and his prescient instructor pilot, Colonel John Kincade, that day. It’s a special holiday, as The Bunker noted in this Memorial Day column two years ago.