Newsletter

The Bunker: There’s Still a Plans-Reality Mismatch

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: As the Pentagon budget plateaus, commanders start shaping the battlefield to seek more money; what can be done about this plans-reality mismatch; not to worry though, Pentagon contractors are doing fine; & more.

SHORT RATIONS?

What’s a military service to do?

Even before the Biden administration sends its proposed 2022 defense budget to Capitol Hill, the services are warning it’s going to be too skinny to defend the nation. It’s as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano: if a military service’s budget doesn’t go up, the nation could go down. “I think there is a lot of risk in the budget,” John Whitley, the acting Army Secretary, told a congressional panel May 5.

The $715 billion budget—basically flat when discounted for inflation—is likely to force the Army to decide between more soldiers or better weapons, General James McConville, the Army chief of staff, warned. He wants the Army’s ranks boosted 13%, from its current 485,000 troops to 550,000, even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come to unsatisfying ends. He adds that paying for such an increase could force a slowdown in needed upgrades to the Army’s M-1 tanks. “We’re going to have to come back once we see what the resources are,” the Army chief of staff said, “and that may drive us to make some tough decisions that people are not going to like.” Heck, The Bunker does that all the time—bet you do, too.

Meanwhile, the Marines are complaining that they may have lost their edge when it comes to launching amphibious assaults, the key reason for their existence (and one they haven’t launched since the Inchon landing in 1950). Shortfalls in training and maintenance (always the first things tossed overboard when budgets shrink) led to the deaths of eight Marines and a Navy corpsman during an amphibious-assault vehicle mishap off the California coast last July.

Only one of the 13 amphibious assault vehicles delivered to the Marine unit involved in the accident actually worked. After three months of work, all 13 had achieved “what we thought” was the ability to safely ferry troops from ship to shore, Marine Major General Gregg Olson told the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel May 3. Yet an investigation in the tragedy’s wake showed that 54% of the Marines’ AAV fleet was not safe to go into the water. “We had a problem across the fleet with our watertight integrity,” was how Olson phrased it.

But that was only one of the fatal woes. After-the-fact investigations showed that many of the Marines had not completed training on how to escape from a submerged vehicle, and had inadequate swim qualifications—a deadly combination that doomed them when their leaky AAV sunk beneath the waves.

The Navy is claiming that its paltry budgets are stretching it like so much saltwater taffy. It can’t even keep up with maintenance on the current fleet, never mind the bigger one that Navy boosters in Congress and the Pentagon are seeking. So its Capitol Hill benefactors backers are proposing a transfusion of $25 billion into its beleaguered shipyards. They’re proposing it be included as part of President Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure program. In one fell swoop, the money would pay for the service’s $21 billion, 20-year shipyard revival plan to modernize its own four shipyards, as well as earmarking $4 billion for private shipyards that help keep the fleet afloat.

The bipartisan sponsors of the 11-page(PDF) SHIPYARD (Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards, and America’s Repair Docks) Act, all hailing from shipbuilding states, say the investment is good for their local economies, and bad for China. “Our shipyards are having trouble servicing today’s 296-ship fleet, and are clearly insufficient to maintain the 355-ship or larger fleet we need to counter China, Russia, and other adversaries,” Senator Roger Wicker (R-Ingalls Shipbuilding) said. Added Senator Tim Kaine (D-Newport News Shipbuilding): “This legislation would ensure that our sailors, shipbuilders, and ship repairers have the most up-to-date tools, equipment, and facilities to ensure our Navy remains ready to protect our nation.”

Others suggest this isn’t the right fix. “The unchecked discretionary authority offered in the SHIPYARD Act is a real national-security risk,” naval expert Craig Hooper warned in a May 6 piece on the Forbeswebsite. “The irreplaceable recapitalization funds Congress is working so hard to find could easily be frittered away on America’s rough-and-tumble waterfront—an enterprise that has centuries of experience in separating fools from their money.” Of course, the Navy’s done just fine frittering away shipbuilding funds—on the Zumwalt destroyers, the Ford class of carriers, and the LCS—without such a flush slush fund (say that fast three times).

Last, but not least, the Air Force told Congress that tightening budgets will force it to junk older, cheaper weapons for—wait for it!—newer and more costly ones. “America cannot wait to modernize the Air Force any longer, not one year, one month, or one week,” Acting Air Force Secretary John P. Roth and Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee in a joint statement May 7.Congress routinely blocks Air Force efforts to retire older aircraft, often because they’re stationed at bases in their state or district.

SO HOW TO FEED THE PENTAGON?

Depends on how responsible you want to be

It’s been clear since the end of the Cold War—and maybe even before—that the Defense Department needs to bulk down (Bunker boss Mandy Smithberger explained May 11 why the defense budget never loses weight over at Tom Dispatch). Fact is, we’re spending more now each year than we did during the Cold War when we were engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball showdown with the Soviet Union (remember them?). The nation has never been able to fulfill its goal of being, for lack of a better phrase, “the world’s police.” Not only has it gotten us into wars we shouldn’t have fought, it has driven us to spend more money than we should. But a lot of people, including most in Washington, like the comfortable careers that come with being that global cop.

The bottom line was made clear in recent days by two Republicans. “The U.S. military has extensive commitments around the globe to protect our interests, including interests that align with our allies and partners,” Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said May 3 in Real Clear Defense. “By contrast, the Chinese and Russians focus almost all of their defense spending and military forces on limited regional objectives in close geographic proximity.” That may have made sense in the decades following World War II, but it carries little logic in today’s multipolar world.

“We have to come to grips as a country if we’re going to accept less resources, those requirements are going to have to be pared down as well,” Representative Steve Womack (R-AR), said at that May 5 Army hearing. Makes sense to The Bunker, which has maintained for years that it’s time for the nation to pare back some of its overseas military obligations (which is why The Bunker has never been elected to Congress or toiled in the vineyards of the military-industrial complex).

Back at that May 5 Army hearing, McConville warned that both the military and Congress know what is likely to happen next. “If we don’t get the resources we think we need, by law I have an obligation to come back to you and lay out what those unfunded requirements are,” McConville said. Those are the notorious lists the services have been submitting to Congress in recent years when their Pentagon and White House overlords didn’t give them what they wanted. “That’s going to be an extraordinarily important document,” Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) said.

But they’re important only to the degree they shield the services from tough budget scrubs. They toss out assurances from the defense secretary and president that what they’ve requested is sufficient to defend the nation. These “wish lists” have been a thorn in The Bunker’s side for more than a decade. It’s heartening to see others(PDF) are now coming to the same conclusion.

BUT NO SHORT RATIONS FOR CONTRACTORS

Top defense supplier bigwigs doing just fine

But don’t fear—whatever budgetary pain the military thinks it is feeling, the top dogs at its top contractors are doing swell. The 29 most senior executives at the nation’s five biggest contractors pocketed more than a combined billion dollars from 2017 to 2020. That’s the bottom line of a May 4 analysis(PDF) by the Center for International Policy think tank into the compensation paid those running Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon.

“One indicator of Pentagon waste can be found in the huge sums paid to the CEOs and other top executives of the nation’s five largest weapons contractors,” William Hartung and Leila Riazi wrote. Financial documents show that the top executives, including CEOs, chief financial and legal officers, and division heads, all “have compensation packages well in excess of $1 million per year.” For the defense industry, the good times continued to roll despite the COVID-19 virus. Like it or not, U.S. taxpayers “are subsidizing the one-percenter lifestyle of a tight group of fat cats,” Kelley Beaucar Vlahos wrote May 5 over at Responsible Statecraft. “That should make anyone sick, pandemic or not.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Bullseye

A deep May 8 dive into the U.S. drone strike in Iraq in January 2020 that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful and feared military commander, by Jack Murphy and Zach Dorfman at Yahoo News.

Nuclear slowdown(PDF)

The race to replace the nation’s aging nuclear triad “faces the prospect of delays,” the Government Accountability Office reported May 6. The U.S. is planning on spending more than $1 trillion to build new fleets of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the Pentagon’s combination of extending the lives of the existing systems, while dilly-dallying on their replacements, could lead to a bureaucratic unilateral nuclear reduction. “For example, parts of the current ICBM could age out faster than expected,” a summary of the report said, “while the replacement ICBM faces delays.” And the platforms to deliver atomic weapons aren’t the only challenge: “every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program” also faces delays, the GAO said.

Missions Accomplished.

Repeated militia attacks have forced the Pentagon’s biggest contractor from Iraq’s Balad air base, home to the nation’s F-16s. “The decision by Lockheed Martin is expected to ground the few remaining F-16s from Iraq’s fleet that were still operational,” the New York Times reported May 10. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is tearing apart gear left behind 1,400 miles to the east at Bagram, the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan, to ensure it doesn’t fall into enemy hands. “Anything that is not being taken home or given to the Afghan military is being destroyed as completely as possible,” the intrepid Kathy Gannon wrote for the Associated Press the same day. “They left us nothing,” one Afghan scrap dealer told her. “They are giving us only destruction.”

Unmemorial Day

The Pentagon, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, has declined to allow thousands of motorcyclists to use its parking lot as a staging area for their annual Memorial Day rally. “There are no options with as much space and convenient routes to the memorials [as the Pentagon parking lot], meaning it will be more difficult, disruptive, and expensive than if they were available,” Joe Chenelly, national executive director for AMVETS, the organizers of the ride, told Leo Shane of Military TimesMay 3. “We are now squarely focused on pulling together everything we need in the final few weeks.”

Ponytails OKed…for women

The latest relaxation in grooming standards for soldiers is the Army’s decision to let women wear ponytails under their helmets. “This new modification is more practical for our female soldiers,” a service official said in a May 6 statement. But they’re not going to let it all hang out. “Commanders will analyze the risk of a free hanging ponytail or braid,” Sergeant Major Brian Sanders said, “and use commander’s discretion to determine if long hair will be secured or tucked inside the uniform top.”

Thanks for reading The Bunker. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox on Wednesday mornings.