The Bunker: Threatening the Next Treat

This week in The Bunker: the Pentagon peanut gallery quakes when a top official doesn’t commit to a new jet fighter; a pair of Army officers say what we’ve been saying for decades; the House whiffs on defense bill; and more. 

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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This week in The Bunker: the Pentagon peanut gallery quakes when a top official doesn’t commit to a new jet fighter; a pair of Army officers say what we’ve been saying for decades; the House whiffs on defense bill; and more.


Air Force chief waffles on new warplane

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who discovered that dogs could be trained to salivate whenever something they mentally linked to chowtime happened — even if the food was nowhere in sight. Think of it as autonomous animal anticipation: Once so conditioned, the subject expects what has happened so many times before.

We witnessed that IRL (yea kids, I’m hip with the lingo) June 13 in reaction to a rather anodyne comment by General David Allvin, the Air Force chief of staff. Despite a nearly trillion-dollar defense budget, the service’s top officer warned that buying the Air Force’s still top-secret Next-Generation Air Dominance (PDF) fighter is not guaranteed. “We’re going to have to make those choices,” he said. That caveat was enough to send defense reporters clutching their Pearl Harbors:

  • “Air Force Chief of Staff won’t commit to fielding NGAD,” Breaking Defense’s headline fretted.
  • “Air Force chief declines to confirm plans to build next-gen fighter,” declared Defense One.
  • “Air Force chief of staff hedges on commitment to next-gen stealth fighter,” DefenseScoop warned.

All Allvin said was that the plane’s future is one of many “choices” the Air Force faces. But that’s not good enough for today’s Pentagon, where hyped threats warrant perpetually pricey programs set on autopilot ad infinitum forever as far as the eye can see and beyond.

Allvin “did not describe NGAD as a must-have, as the service has done previously,” harrumphed Air & Space Forces Magazine, the service’s leading industry-supported journal. To add insult to injury, Allvin uttered the blasphemy inside Air & Space Forces Association headquarters, the magazine’s publisher. Sponsors of his “Warfighters in Action” (“Warfighters Inaction”?) talk included BAE Systems, Collins Aerospace, General Dynamics, Honeywell, L3Harris, and Lockheed, candidates to help produce the new plane. Lockheed and Boeing are the leading contenders to build it, and a contract is — was? — expected sometime in 2024.

Big defense contractors have been salivating over the prospect of bending metal for a new air-superiority fighter since 2009. That’s when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the F-22 program after producing only 187 of the 750 the Air Force initially sought. The NGAD has been projected to begin replacing F-22s around 2030, each costing an unspecified hundreds of millions of dollars. Any snag in the NGAD program is sure to raise more questions about the wisdom of investing billions in piloted fighters and sending them into skies increasingly crowded with unpiloted drones, long-range missiles, and ever-more sophisticated radars and sensors.

Bully for Allvin. If someone like him had been in charge 20 years ago, maybe the F-35 wouldn’t have flown into the history books as the most costly — and troubled — warplane in U.S. history.


Spending ourselves to defeat

The U.S. military and its allies are spending too much and getting too little, according to a June 13 op-ed in Real Clear Defense. But this wasn’t the bleating of some Brookings Institution pointy head, or a random ne’er-do-well at the Rand Corp. Nope, it was a pair of top U.S. Army officers.

“An axis of aggressors has embarked on a new strategy to defeat the West: relentless attacks with inexpensive weapons, produced at scale, to provoke a global response,” Major General Matthew Van Wagenen and Colonel Arnel P. David wrote. “Western militaries, which cling to outdated and excessively expensive weapon systems and platforms (that take too long to develop and replenish, and regularly exceed their budgets), are being systematically bled dry.”

The wars in Gaza and Ukraine, where cheap weapons are destroying costly ones, highlight the Pentagon’s problem. “Those with the responsibility, authority, and personnel to deliver programs (e.g., ships, planes, software), lack both the incentive and the means to adapt to this fast-changing landscape,” these Army brass warned. “The ingrained culture of preserving existing programs stifles innovation and adaptability. It is unlikely a program manager will kill their program for the greater good. Likewise, the political representatives of states where these programs sit will lobby heavily to keep these programs (i.e., jobs) alive irrespective of any negative strategic impact.”

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Well, actually we did. Dina Rasor, founder of the Project On Government Oversight, edited More Bucks, Less Bang: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons. Forty-two years ago.

Welcome aboard, gentlemen.


Taking molehills, instead of mountains

Russia is waist-deep in Ukraine, and China is playing footsie with Taiwan. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the big national-security issues Republicans focused on as they pushed their $895.3 billion version of the 2025 defense authorization bill through the House June 14. They larded the bill at the last minute with poison-pill amendments on abortion and diversity. That has set up a showdown just like last year with the more politically moderate, but costlier, $911.8 billion Senate offering. And, just like last year, the Senate will largely prevail.

The House Armed Services Committee had sent its version of the legislation to the House floor on a 57-1 vote, in keeping with the panel’s traditional comity. But after House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) allowed votes on the controversial amendments, the GOP-backed legislation passed 217-199, largely along party lines.

Reasonable people can debate access to abortion and the push for more diversity in the ranks of the U.S. military. But the annual defense authorization bill is not the place for such congressional combat. These culture clashes make brittle what used to be bipartisan. They relegate young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Guardians into pawns on partisan checkerboards. The defense authorization debate should be about the U.S. role in the world, and how the U.S. military should be used to carry it out — not over divisive domestic squabbles.

“Once again,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), a former Navy helicopter pilot, GOP members are “choosing to use the National Defense Authorization Act to shove their extremist culture-war agenda down the throats of the American people. Homophobia? Check. Racism? Check. Misogyny? Check. Serious policy amendments that will strengthen our national security? Far less important to this majority.”

Sounds like dereliction of duty from here.


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

Scaling back

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says he would cut military spending in half by the end of his first term, Chris Cameron reported June 13 in the The New York Times.

Domestic abusers

Thousands of Army domestic abuse cases are falling through the cracks, according to a June 13 investigation by René Kladzyk of the Project On Government Oversight. Some things, alas, never seem to change (PDF).

Vax disinformation?

The U.S. military launched a clandestine program to discredit China’s COVID vaccine inoculation, putting innocent Philippine lives at risk, Reuters’ Chris Bing and Joel Schectman reported June 14.

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