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The Bunker: The Sky’s the Limit!

This week in The Bunker: new ICBM price tag soars; a call for the Pentagon to defend the moon against Chinese aggression; how the “most disabled” U.S. vets are short-changed; and more. 

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This week in The Bunker: new ICBM price tag soars; a call for the Pentagon to defend the moon against Chinese aggression; how the “most disabled” U.S. vets are short-changed; and more.

INCREDIBLY COSTLY BALLISTIC MISSILES (ICBMs)

Cost of new nuclear weapons jumps 37%

Some geostrategic chess players don’t think much of intercontinental missiles because they’re, in strictly military parlance, sitting ducks. Stuck inside underground silos in known locations, they’re bizarrely designed as a “nuclear sponge” designed to draw enemy nukes to the U.S. heartland. Submarines and bombers, the other two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, don’t have this problem. But it turns out that money, not mobility, could be the most dangerous threat to the Pentagon’s new ICBM fleet.

The Air Force told Congress January 18 that the newly estimated cost of each LGM-35A Sentinel has jumped from $118 million in 2020 to $162 million today. That’s a 37% spike. This is not good news for the leg of the triad most vulnerable to being amputated. The Pentagon maintains it needs all three legs to preserve U.S. security. But the triad is a Cold War relic that the military-industrial complex has worked overtime to retroactively justify. The cost of buying and operating these weapons, according to the independent Arms Control Association, could reach $2 trillion over the next 30 years.

When it comes to the cost of the new ICBM fleet, we’ve seen this movie — think of it as Dr. $trangelove 2.0 — before. The service’s original 2016 estimate for the program was $62.3 billion. Then it ballooned to $95.3 billion. The latest projection suggests its new cost could be nearly $132 billion.

About 400 Sentinels are slated to slide into renovated Minuteman III silos across five states, controlled by a new command system and launch-control centers. The problems could delay the new missiles’ initial alert status from 2029 to 2031 and compel additional spending to keep the 50-year-old Minuteman fleet operating longer.

They’ll cost even more if the Heritage Foundation gets its way. The conservative think tank urged January 11 that the Pentagon consider putting Sentinel ICBMs on giant trucks that could move them around during times of crisis. “Given that they would operate deep inside American territory in relatively unpopulated areas and move on pre-determined but randomized routes,” Heritage analyst Robert Peters argued, “it would be virtually impossible for adversaries to track, target, and destroy them in real time, given the necessary flight times for even very fast missiles to traverse from Russia or China to the center of the United States.”

President Reagan rejected that scheme in 1981, but these days, anything is possible.

OUTER LIMITS

Green Cheese Dep’t.

The Pentagon needs to start now to prevent a Chinese occupation of the moon. That’s the word from the Mitchell Institute, the scholarly wing of the Air & Space Forces Association, which maintains the so-called cislunar space — that realm between Earth and moon — is vulnerable to a hostile takeover (some days, The Bunker simply writes itself). For a down payment of $250 million annually and 200 new personnel, the U.S. Space Force can prepare “for the new responsibilities associated with emerging national interests on the moon and cislunar region,” the Air Force lobbying group says.

The recommendation is from its January 17 report, Securing Cislunar Space and the First Island Off the Coast of Earth. The “First Island” is a reference to the so-called “First Island Chain” of archipelagos, including Japan and Taiwan, where China is increasingly flexing its military might. “We should expect that China will treat the moon and other regions in space territorially, as they have demonstrated time and time again in the island chains of the Western Pacific,” retired U.S. Space Force Colonel Charles Galbreath, the report’s author, said.

His study calls for no weapons (yet) on the moon, but rather what he calls “a strong signal of the nation’s commitment” to its peaceful development. “Given that the United States is competing with adversaries in this domain, failure to act now will result in a capability gap,” it concludes(PDF). “This demands additive funding.”

Of course it does.

WAR’S HIDDEN TOLL

Disabled vets aren’t made whole

The more grievous the harm suffered by working-age U.S. military personnel, the poorer they are once out of uniform. And that’s despite the $125 billion in tax-free, inflation-adjusted benefits the Department of Veterans Affairs pays disabled vets each year (up from $11.3 billion[PDF] in 1995).

The VA pays monthly disability benefits for physical wounds, as well as illnesses tied to toxic exposure, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. Male post-1990 vets getting VA disability compensation have an average annual total income of $52,200, 16% less than non-disabled veterans (numbers were similar for women), according to a new Congressional Budget Office study.

But what’s really striking is how income drops depending on how severely a veteran was hurt. That’s calculated via the VA’s complex system of disability ratings, which range from 10% to 100%. “Veterans with the lowest disability ratings — that is, the least severe disabilities — earned the most, or about 5% more, on average, than veterans with no rating,” the CBO reported. “Veterans with a disability rating of 30% to 60% earned about 6% less than veterans with no rating. Veterans with the highest ratings earned the least, or 38% less than veterans with no rating.” Last year, a vet with a disability rating of 100% received about $3,620 monthly(PDF).

“By law,” the agency added, “those payments are based on VA disability ratings that reflect, as much as practicable, the severity of veterans’ service-connected conditions and the average earnings they would be expected to lose as a result of those conditions.”

The higher a veteran’s disability rating, the CBO said, the less likely they are to work. That accounts for at least some of the shortfall (most veterans under 55 receiving disability benefits in 2022 had jobs). The share of veterans receiving disability benefits rose(PDF) from 9% in 2000 to 25% in 2020. In 2022, the most common disability rating among vets — received by 1 in 5 — was 100%. These are IOUs, inadequate as they are for those most harmed, for the nation’s post-9/11 wars that we’ll be paying out for decades to come.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Oppie research…

Catie Edmondson explored how Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project secretly got the $2 billion they needed to invent the atomic bomb, in the January 17 New York Times.

→ “E Pluribus Broke

The U.S. has no more money to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion, the AP’s Tara Copp and Lolita C. Baldor reported January 23.

Batteries not extruded(PDF)

A flashlight mistakenly left by a mechanic inside the engine inlet of an F-35 fighter got sucked into the powerplant during a test run on the ground, chewing it up and doing nearly $4 million in damage, an Air Force probe released January 18 concluded.

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