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The Bunker: Tracking Cash, Tragic Crash

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 U.S. pumps more than $50 billion into Ukraine, tensions rise over the best way to monitor the spending; an Air Force training tragedy; an upstart startup tries to reboot the Military-Industrial Complex; and more. No Bunker next week!

“FOLLOW THE MONEY”

Keeping track of U.S. aid to Ukraine

In the wake of the Watergate break-in, which happened 50 years ago this month, “follow the money” became shorthand for a path that led to the truth, at least when it came to politics. That’s true for war as well, amid rising tensions between the White House and Congress over monitoring the more than $50 billion in aid U.S. taxpayers are sending to Ukraine to help it battle Russia’s invasion.

While lawmakers have backed U.S. help so far, some warn that support could erode unless the Pentagon improves its bookkeeping. “The U.S. government is sending billions in humanitarian, economic, and military assistance to help the Ukrainian people overcome [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s brutal war, and the American people expect strong oversight by Congress and full accounting from the Department of Defense,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told Politico. The Project On Government Oversight is one of a dozen groups that urged Congress in a June 1 letter to confirm inspectors general for the Pentagon (there hasn’t been a confirmed DOD IG in more than six years!) and the State Department to scrub such spending.

The need for a solid accounting of where the U.S. aid in Ukraine is headed is becoming increasingly critical. As the Russo-Ukrainian war passed 100 days last Friday, June 3, the initial euphoria of David bloodying Goliath’s nose has turned into a grinding stalemate with no end in sight. “We’ve likely reached the high-water mark of the grand alliance to defeat Russia in Ukraine,” former Pentagon official Andrew Exum writes in The Atlantic. “In the coming months, relations between the Ukrainian leadership and its external supporters will grow strained, and the culprit will be economic pain exacerbated by the war.” That makes a clear-eyed accounting of U.S. aid even more vital.

“The domestic arms industry may turn out to be the bill’s main financial winner,” Stephen Semler writes of the latest $40 billion U.S. Ukrainian aid package in Jacobin. But as the U.S. keeps re-learning to its own chagrin, there is no linear relationship between bucks and victory. The U.S. helped Afghan rebels, known as the mujahedeen, drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1989 for about $20 billion. Then it spent two decades — and more than $2 trillion — losing the longest war in U.S. history there to the Taliban, the spawn of the mujahedeen.

The U.S. military didn’t do a good job(PDF) keeping track of that second Afghan investment, much of which ended up in the Taliban’s hands. A lot of what U.S. taxpayers have learned about it came from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), created by Congress to keep an eye on the nearly $150 billion the U.S. spent rebuilding the country and its security forces until it all collapsed last September(PDF). But that represents only about 8% of the money spent in Afghanistan by U.S. taxpayers. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) wants SIGAR to add U.S. aid to Ukraine to its portfolio, but he’s in the minority. “The situation in Ukraine is quite different,” says Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), chairman of the armed services committee. “To take an agency who has expertise certainly in Afghanistan, and suddenly say, ‘You are now in charge of Ukraine’ is not particularly, I think, sensible.” It makes more sense for the full Senate to confirm Rob Storch as the new Department of Defense inspector general — which Reed’s panel did in March — and make sure he and his staff have the resources to do the job right.

THE T-38’S DIS-IN-FORMATION WOES

Another avoidable tragedy

Flying, especially in the military, is a tough business. Learning to fly is even harder. The Bunker highlighted that two years ago when it reported on an accident involving a pair of T-38 Talons that collided during a formation landing at an Oklahoma base. The two T-38s, which have been training military pilots since the Kennedy administration, were supposed to touch down at the same time, their wingtips less than 50 feet apart while traveling at 165 miles per hour. But the student pilot aboard one of the supersonic trainers bounced his plane upon landing, sending it careening into the path of the second plane. His right main landing gear caught on the second plane, flipping the first plane completely over and smashing it into the ground. The student and his instructor pilot died instantly. The Air Force banned such side-by-side landings — an obsolete technique rarely used today — following the crash.

Hard to believe it’s happened again, and that it’s even worse this time. Last November, a pair of T-38s practicing what the Air Force calls a “formation approach” at a Texas base collided. This time, the two instructor pilots survived. Only the single student pilot was killed. Like last week’s report on the string of snafus aboard the USS Connecticut that drove the submarine into an underwater mountain, this Air Force accident was triggered not so much by technology but by miscommunication, according to the official investigation into the crash(PDF) released May 25. These tough-to-read tales aren’t indictments of anyone, but simply humbling reminders of how even the best-intentioned troops can screw up. While hardware lacks hubris, too often humans don’t. Same thing applies to politicians who begin wars.

Before taking off for the Texas training sortie, the instructor pilots agreed whichever plane had less fuel would land first at the end of the mission, and the other plane would circle back and land a short time later. As the mission wound down, the student pilot’s plane had 30 pounds less fuel than the other T-38, flown by a single instructor pilot. The instructor pilot with the student pilot aboard assumed that difference meant that they would land first; the other instructor told investigators it would take at least a 100-pound difference before reversing the landing plan. “At any point during the recovery,” the Air Force investigation concluded, either instructor pilot “could have clarified who was landing and who was performing a low approach, thus alleviating any potential confusion.” But no one did. “Neither aircraft,” the report added, “could see the other.”

One second after the T-38 with the single instructor pilot landed, the nose gear of the student pilot’s aircraft caught the other T-38’s horizontal stabilizer. As both planes began disintegrating, the student pilot’s instructor, sitting in the rear seat, pulled the handle initiating ejection for both him and the student pilot. His rocket-powered ejection seat exploded from the plane as it rolled sideways, and he was so severely injured he could not be interviewed by Air Force investigators. Slightly more than a second later, as the pre-programmed ejection sequence dictates, the student pilot’s ejection seat blasted him from the T-38. His “ejection was fully interrupted by the ground, as the aircraft was inverted, causing fatal injuries.”

Fellow pilots praised the 23-year-old student after the accident. He had, the accident investigation report said, “a fantastic willingness to accept instruction and ask questions.” Too bad neither of the instructor pilots flying with him that day bothered to ask: “Hey, who’s landing first?”

TIME FOR A NEW APPROACH?

Trying to shake up the Military-Industrial Complex

There it was, a full-page ad in the June 6 Washington Post, with a bigger-than-life poster of Uncle Sam, pointing right at the reader. “It’s up to you,” he warned. “In a period of unprecedented technological growth, our warfighters are still asked to defend the nation with pre-Internet technology. It’s time to Reboot the Arsenal of Democracy.”

There are two red flags here. The first is “warfighters.” It was in the wake of World War II that the U.S. government changed the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense, deciding that “war” was too, well, offensive. But since 9/11, “warfighter” has become a popular label throughout the Military-Industrial Complex, even as victory has proven elusive. Capitalizing “Reboot,” “Arsenal,” and “Democracy,” recalls the bizarre typography of a recent commander-in-chief, as well as the branding of a new website: rebootingthearsenal.com.

When it comes to war, alas, technology is always advancing. The Bunker is in no way endorsing the status quo — after Afghanistan, who could? — but there is no military marvel when it comes to war. Every silver bullet is soon blocked by a silver shield, ad infinitum. Muskets to rifles to machine guns, to ever-improving armor, to roadside bombs. Submarines to depth charges, aircraft carriers to anti-ship missiles. Warplanes to radar and improved anti-aircraft missiles, protecting pilots first with stealth and now replacing them with drones. With the exception of nuclear weapons — fingers crossed, right Vlad? — improvements in military tech have only led to a perpetual arms race with no guarantee of winning.

Anduril Industries is the California artificial-intelligence startup behind the Reboot the Arsenal of Democracy campaign. It is encouraging more engineers and entrepreneurs to enroll in what it sees as the coming showdowns with China and Russia. In 2020, Anduril — named for a sword in The Lord of the Rings — landed a major Department of Homeland Security contract for a “smart wall” along the U.S. southern border. But “Anduril’s broader goal is to compete in the larger, more lucrative defense contracting market,” the company’s chief revenue officer told the Washington Post that same year.

As The Bunker noted at the top of this column, follow the money.

FIVE-SIDED BUILDING

Now its five biggest contractors will be neighbors

Raytheon Technologies, the Defense Department’s second-biggest contractor, announced June 7 that it is moving its headquarters from suburban Boston to just outside Washington, D.C., setting up shop two subway stops from the Pentagon. It was the last of the U.S. military’s five biggest suppliers to make the move, after 100 years in Waltham, Mass.

It was only three Bunkers ago that we noted Boeing was abandoning its Chicago headquarters to set up shop in northern Virginia, close by the Pentagon and the HQs of General Dynamics, Lockheed, and Northrop. Call The Bunker old-fashioned, but there’s something troubling about the Military-Industrial Complex becoming the MilitaryIndustrialComplex right before our eyes.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Blowhard

Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, is willing to build a new wind tunnel to test hypersonic weapons, but the company hasn’t been able to get a revenue commitment from the U.S. government that would allow it to obtain the financing from Wall Street, Valerie Insinna reported at Breaking Defense June 2.

Pro-fusion confusion

After decades of relative superpower nuclear stability, Vladimir Putin’s hints about their utility is leading to a riskier world, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad noted in the June 1 New York Times.

Pentagon PR

On May 25, the Marine Corps issued a press release hailing Captain Michael Wolff for earning the Distinguished Flying Cross after safely landing his KC-130 cargo plane following a midair collision. “What the Marines’ news release doesn’t say,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported May 31, “is that Wolff lost those two engines due to a mid-air collision with a Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II jet.”

Qatari quicksand

A former U.S. diplomat pleaded guilty to violating revolving-door rules regarding his secret work for the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, after implicating a retired four-star U.S. Marine general in the effort, Spencer S. Hsu of the Washington Post reported June 3.

…worth a thousand words

Fifty years ago this week, Nick Ut of the Associated Press snapped that historic photograph of a 9-year girl burned by napalm as she ran, screaming and naked, down the street of her South Vietnamese village. He recalled that dark day in the June 2 Washington Post. Four days later, Kim Phuc — the girl in the photo — reflected on her burning, and its aftermath, in the New York Times.

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