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The Bunker: Vaccines and Wonder Weapons

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.


SILVER BULLETS

Vaccines and wonder weapons

President Trump has been betting on a yet-to-be-discovered COVID-19 vaccine to protect him and the nation, just as the U.S. military keeps reinventing silver bullets to win its wars. Both have achieved—if that’s even the right word—similar “success.”

Faith in technology is rooted deep in the American psyche. Perhaps that has something to do with winning the “Wild West” armed with Colt revolvers and U.S. pre-eminence post World War II. During what Time magazine co-founded Henry Luce christened “the American century”—that would be the 20th—everything from autos to atomic weapons broke America’s way. We kinda got use to thinking that it would always be that way.

Yet it’s the height of hubris to think humans can employ a metaphorical sniper rifle to shut down the virus with a vaccine. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s similar to drawing to an inside straight in poker—about 10%. That’s why public health officials have been imploring since the pandemic’s early days for a shotgun approach: masks, social distancing, and bans on large groups are all key elements to keep the virus in check.

But making that work takes leadership. The president has repeatedly played down the need for such steps, even as the virus drove him to the hospital over the weekend. And that stay didn’t seem to change his attitude. “Don't be afraid of Covid,” he said after dodging a bullet that has killed more than 200,000 of his fellow Americans. The Bunker witnessed this stance up close Sunday, October 4, in Bethesda, Maryland. Outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where Trump was spending his last full day, those carrying anti-Trump signs (and reporters) were far more likely to be wearing masks than those showing support for the ailing president. So we’ve ended up with a still-sick president who resolutely thought he knew better than his doctors.

Likewise, when it comes to war, the U.S. military continues to believe that spending more money, on more exotic arms, is going to make future campaigns rosier than those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

National will is something that has been MIA in both our post-9/11 wars, and this year’s battle against the coronavirus. Both highlight a disdain for shared sacrifice. When it comes to the nation’s post-9/11 wars, the Congress—whose most vital role is to declare, or not declare war—passed mushy, open-ended resolutions that shirked its Constitutional responsibility to commit the nation to combat. The American public subcontracted wars out to an all-volunteer force. The Pentagon low-balled the troops it needed by sending as many private contractors to the war zones as those in uniform. And the government has borrowed extensively to pay for the wars—their ultimate cost now tops $6 trillion—sending the war’s bills, COD, to our children and grandchildren.

The pandemic has been handled in the same way. Instead of a unified federal response, Trump let the states fight it out among themselves. Industries were on their own; each airline, for example, had to come up with its own rules about filling middle seats, instead of an industry-wide FAA directive. And, from the get-go, the president and his political appointees have played down the threat it poses.

This is a low-grade fever that continues to rise in America as the nation’s politics have become more polarized. So long as that polarization persists, the body politic will continue to suffer.

In war, as well as in peace.

DEAL OR STEAL?

F-35 pact leaves taxpayers hungry for more

The late Air Force whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald famously declared that U.S. warplanes were “a bundle of over-priced spare parts flying in close formation.” Although he passed away nearly two years ago, his prescience shines through when it comes to the F-35’s latest travails. On September 29, F-35 builder Lockheed Martin agreed to “pay” the Pentagon nearly $71 million for a spare parts snafu.

More than 15,000 F-35 spare parts have been provided to the U.S. military without the contractually-required data needed for their proper use. That information is important because it lets the U.S. military track the life of spare parts, leading to cheaper, and safer, maintenance. The government has been paying about $1 million a week to patch the data gap Lockheed is supposed to fill, as The Bunker detailed in July.

Alas, this isn’t quite the good news for taxpayers that it might seem. First of all, instead of refunding the money to the government, Lockheed will “compensate the government with Lockheed Martin investments” designed to fix the problem, a company spokesman said. Secondly, the $71 million is less than half the $183 million Pentagon auditors said the government had to spend filling in the missing data, Defense News reported September 30 (the Pentagon inspector general said the government spent up to $303 million creating data packages for such undocumented spare parts between 2015 and 2018).

All told, sounds like a pretty good deal for the most-costly weapon system in the history of the world, and the Pentagon’s biggest contractor that is building it. Taxpayers? Not so much.

HOMEGROWN HARDWARE

Can the Pentagon buy 100% U.S.-made weapons?

U.S. weapons have been built with a growing number of foreign parts for more than a generation. In fact, the U.S. has often co-produced weapons overseas to turn allies into buyers. Now there’s a move afoot in Congress to require that all parts on major weapons be built in the U.S. “As we’ve seen through the current pandemic and the early severe lack of personal protective equipment, when we don’t have the manufacturing capacity here in the U.S., our national security and the lives of Americans are at risk,” argues Rep. Donald Norcross, the New Jersey Democrat pushing the effort. “Buy American, which has the strong support of our hard-working defense contract workforce, shows that we are truly serious about building things in the U.S., creating good paying jobs and supporting the American worker.”

The 1933 Buy American Act requires that the government buy American-made weapons. But current interpretations of that law require than only 50% of its parts be made in the U.S. Under Norcross’s proposal, weapons wouldn’t be deemed American-made (a requirement for Pentagon purchases) unless domestic parts accounted for 75% of the total by October 1, 2021. That percentage would rise by 5% annually until reaching 100% on October 1, 2026. The proposal is now part of the House version of next year’s defense-authorization bill, and the Senate is considering similar legislation (check out why boosters say the proposed change wouldn’t be as onerous as it sounds).

Many of Norcross’s constituents work for the nation’s biggest defense contractors in New Jersey’s Philadelphia suburbs like Lockheed (#1) and Boeing (#2). Unions employing defense workers support the change. “Buy American policies serve the public good by targeting our tax dollars for the purchase of American made products and services, thereby employing U.S. workers and putting our federal tax receipts to work here at home,” says Robert Martinez, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Suppliers agree. “As a nation, we’re currently struggling to manufacture adequate health-care materials to protect our nation; we don’t want to be in the position where we can’t design, build and equip U.S. warships without a dependency on other countries,” adds George Williams, chief of the American Shipbuilding Suppliers Association.

Both the Trump administration and Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who heads the armed services committee, oppose the provision. And as groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense have pointed out, these kinds of provisions can make it more difficult to cut program costs. For good or for ill, it’s also a surefire way to curb U.S. arms exports.

If Apple thought this way, we’d end up with $10,000 iPhones.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Location, location, location

The Army has spent $8.5 million on homes for the top three leaders running the new Army Futures Command, Stars and Stripes’ Rose Thayer reported October 2. Taxpayers didn’t pay—directly—for the homes, located in one of the ritziest ZIP Codes in Austin, Texas. Instead, the Army gave one of its private-housing partners $8.5 million in profits from Army housing to buy them. None dare call it a kickback. The top commander’s 5,700-square-foot home features a pool, three-car garage, a media room, and a “wine grotto.” No wonder the Pentagon wanted to kill the damn newspaper. POGO’s urged Congress to keep it.

Mum’s the word

It’s got to be tough running the Pentagon under President Trump, who once declared that he knew more about the Islamic State “than the generals do.” That may explain why Defense Secretary Mark Esper has gone radio silent recently. On his recent five-day Mediterranean tour, the defense chief “fielded no on-the-record questions from reporters” traveling with him aboard his government aircraft, the Washington Post reported October 4. “This is at least the fourth trip Defense Secretary Esper has taken over the last two months in which he refused to speak to reporters on the record,” reporter Gina Hawkins of Military.com tweeted in response. “I was on one of those trips in August.”

The Bunker, who took many of those trips back in the day, knows how frustrating that is for reporters. Why bother accompanying the SECDEF if he isn’t going to chat with the reporters traveling with him, editors can fairly ask. Of course, radio silence is generally understood as an order from commanders to stop communicating lest such transmissions are intercepted by the enemy. In his case—given Esper’s increasingly rocky relationship with Trump—he’s apparently keeping his trap shut to make sure his remarks aren’t intercepted by his commander-in-chief.

Time for the Pentagon to pull up its Middle East stakes?

In the years following World War II, when the Cold War raged and oil fueled the global economy, it made sense for the U.S. to defend the oil-rich Middle East. But that was then, and this is now. The U.S. is now an oil exporter, petroleum is no longer the key fuel it once was, and Americans are tired of wars in the region. “The Middle East is a small, poor, weak region beset by an array of problems that mostly do not affect Americans—and that U.S. forces cannot fix,” argues Justin Logan of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship in a new paper posted at Defense Priorities. “The best thing the United States can do is leave.” The Bunker posed the same question a decade ago when he discovered the nation had spent an estimated $8 trillion defending the oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf between 1976 and 2010.

Suicide in the ranks

In the decade following 9/11, The Bunker wrote way too many stories about suicides among men and women in uniform. This 2012 Time article on the topic carried the cover headline “ONE A DAY…why the U.S. military can’t defeat its most insidious enemy.” That “one a day” worked out to about 365 military suicides annually, and it was a big and continuing story for several years. The Pentagon released its most recent study on the topic October 1. “In Calendar Year 2019,” it said, “498 members died by suicide.” Granted, there is a lot of other news happening, but this continuing scourge—and the lack of attention it is getting—remains a national disgrace.

IG watch

Former Pentagon inspector general Gordon Heddell warns that Jason Abend, President Trump’s nominee to serve as the Defense Department’s next IG, is “inexperienced and untested.” The Senate, he argues, shouldn’t confirm him for the post in this September 29 Defense News column.

Zzzzz

The Army has long prided itself on the rigors of its physical training. But beyond pushups and marches, 21st Century grunts also need “strategic and aggressive napping,” Dave Philipps writes in the October 1 New York Times.

Happy anniversary (PDF)

October 1 marked the 50th anniversary of The Bunker’s first paid by-line. Here’s his reflection on a career spent covering the military, and the sad state of journalism today, penned to note the milestone.

Many thanks for sitting down in The Bunker this week to try to make sense of the national security challenges facing the U.S. Please lob this copy to anyone whose thinking sometimes colors outside the lines. Tell them it’s a kinder, gentler, hand grenade.