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The Bunker: Unaffordable, Unattritable, Unacceptable

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: The Pentagon proposes its 2024 budget; declares the death of cheap planes before they take off; announces sexual-assault record among future military leaders; and more.


We generally don’t cover the UN at The Bunker, but there’s been a lot of non-diplomatic things happening around here lately: UNaffordable, UNattritable, and UNacceptable:


Hawks say nearly $1 trillion ain’t nearly enough

The Pentagon has proposed a record 2024 budget of $842 billion, a cool $100 billion more than its 2022 request (plus around $44 billion more for defense-related programs run by other agencies, like the Energy Department’s nuclear-weapons work). Released March 13, it’s just the opening bid in the annual national-security auction that finds the nation spending ever-more money(PDF) for an ever-less efficient and effective military. Many lawmakers want to spend even more.

Now a nearly trillion-dollar defense budget isn’t unaffordable in a strict sense; it’s just unaffordable in a sane sense. The U.S. has been spending like a drunken sailor for the past two decades, driving the national debt from less than $6 trillion on 9/11 to over $31 trillion today. Defense spending — which accounts for nearly half of federal discretionary spending — has to be tamed, along with entitlement accounts. We just don’t have the money, people. Every day we ignore this imbalance tightens the vise on the future of The Bunker’s grandkids. He’s fed up.


How Pentagon procurement (doesn’t) work

One reason taxpayers don’t get a fair return on their investment in the U.S. military is said military’s perpetually promising more than it can deliver. We’ve seen that in the fleet of warships the U.S. Navy is now buying, as well as its F-35 fighter, also being flown by the Air Force and Marines. The latest example surfaced March 8 when Air Force Major General Scott Jobe scolded those calling a new Air Force drone an “attritable” aircraft.

It’s one of those new Pentagon buzzwords designed to confound spellchecking software. According to the Air Force: “Attritable refers to a new class of unmanned aircraft that are purpose-designed and routinely reusable, but built affordably to allow a combatant commander to tolerate putting them at risk.” But Jobe takes issue with the label. The push to build cheaper unmanned warplanes “doesn’t mean … that this is an attritable type of platform,” said Jobe, who oversees Air Force warplane development. “That’s a common misconception.”

In that case, someone should let the Air Force brass know. “The expectation is that these aircraft can be designed to be less survivable and less capable, but still bring an awful lot to the fight in a mixture that the enemy has a very hard time sorting out and dealing with,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said about them last year. “You can even intentionally sacrifice some of them to draw fire, if you will, to make the enemy expose himself.” Sounds like “attritable” to The Bunker.

The Air Force also has an attritableONE aircraft, a Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration program, a Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology portfolio, and a Design for Manufacture of Attritable Aircraft Primary Structure program. The Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board said(PDF) such aircraft “will be significantly less expensive than the crewed platform so that they might potentially be used as attritable assets.” Even General Charles Brown, now the Air Force’s top officer, used the term when he was in charge of his service’s Pacific forces. “If they are attritable, if they don’t make it back, I’m not going to say it’s not a big deal,” he said in 2019. “But it’s not losing an F-35.” (As the Air Force learned March 14 when one of its drones splashed into the Black Sea after a Russian fighter jet collided with it.)

As the F-35’s cost has soared, so have efforts to cut drone costs by making them short-lived: disposable, semi-disposable, optionally-expendable, and/or attritable. The Air Force wants to buy 1,000 of these so-called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones in the next 10 years, with each one costing no more than half an F-35’s cost (hardly a bargain: a barebones F-35 costs about $80 million).

Jobe prefers to call these CCA drones “affordable mass,” designed to fly alongside costly F-35s like heavenly Hamburger Helper. His word choice is more than semantic. It suggests a willingness to spend more money for an aircraft that won’t be shot down — a non-attritable aircraft, in other words.

It also befuddles those trying to follow U.S. military procurement. Veteran Pentagon reporter Hope Hodge Seck took to Twitter to sum up this latest flimflammery: “This is the military’s most annoying trick: inventing a term and making everyone use it, then abandoning it with alacrity and blaming you, when you use it, on harboring a ‘misconception’ about what they’re trying to do.”


The scourge of sexual assaults rolls on

Reported sexual assaults at U.S. military academies spiked to a record high during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a Pentagon report(PDF) released March 10. A Friday, of course. That’s when the Defense Department releases embarrassing news. It’s profoundly distressing that this is happening at West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy, where future officers are getting paid while receiving a top-drawer education courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. They are, supposedly, the cream of the crop. But too much of that cream is curdling: most of the alleged offenders are fellow cadets or midshipmen.

One in five female students said she had experienced unwanted sexual contact, the highest since such surveys began nearly 20 years ago. Sexual assault reports jumped by 18% over the prior year. “These numbers are extremely disappointing and upsetting,” Elizabeth Foster, the Pentagon’s executive director of force resiliency, said. “I mean, there’s really no other way to see it.”

This has been happening for decades at the academies.

Once again, the Pentagon is rounding up the usual suspects(PDF): More training! More evaluations! More prevention! More leadership! Less alcohol!

“The academy leadership is making it crystal clear to cadets — perhaps more so than ever since the school started admitting women cadets in 1976 — that there is zero tolerance for the type of misconduct identified through various panels and reports,” the Pentagon said when the Air Force Academy rolled out its “Agenda for Change(PDF) to deal with the problem.

That was 20 years ago this month.

Hard as it may be to believe, this nightmare is not over. “While these numbers are troubling,” Foster said, “it is important to acknowledge that we’ve had a number of prior indicators that tell us that this problem may be getting worse.”


Here’s what has caughtThe Bunker’s eye recently:

Up in arms

The U.S. share of global weapons exports grew from 33% between 2013-17 to 40% between 2018-22, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported March 13. 

Uncle Sucker

The U.S. pays far more proportionately for defense than its allies, Justin Logan detailed in a March 7 Cato Institute analysis. 

Strangelove 2.0

It’s time for the world to get serious, again, about the threat of nuclear war, Serge Schmemann warned in the March 13 New York Times.

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