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The Bunker: We’ve Got Secrets

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.


TROUBLING TRIFECTA

This week, The Bunker dives into the Pentagon’s lust for secrecy, its inability to maintain the weapons it already has, and its failure to keep track of how much it’s paying its workers. But it’s not all depressing—we take note of how the U.S. military also invented your favorite snacks!

“WE’VE GOT SECRETS”

Pentagon’s penchant for privacy keeps proliferating

We all know the U.S. military has good reasons to keep some information from those of us paying the bills. But too often, it seems, they’re designed to avoid embarrassment rather than preserve legitimate secrets. For starters, let’s agree that information can help potential foes—as well as actual taxpayers. The nub of the problem is to know where to strike that balance. Recently, the Pentagon is tilting that scale away from those of us footing the bill involving hardware, war-fighting, and crash-related fixes to its most costly weapon ever.

On the hardware front, the Government Accountability Office released a scrubbed version (PDF) of an August investigation into aircraft-readiness rates on November 19. “DOD deemed some of the information in our August report to be sensitive (i.e., For Official Use Only), which must be protected from public disclosure,” the congressional watchdog agency said. “Therefore, this report omits sensitive information about mission capable and aircraft availability rates.” As Neil Gordon, my colleague at the Project On Government Oversight, reported in 2014, the “For Official Use Only” label has too often been used as a blanket to keep government data from taxpayers improperly.

Thumbing through the sanitized 228-page GAO report, it quickly becomes clear why the Pentagon would prefer to close-hold its contents: “GAO examined 46 types of aircraft and found that only three met their annual mission capable goals in a majority of the years for fiscal years 2011 through 2019 and 24 did not meet their annual mission capable goals in any fiscal year.”

That’s an indictment of how the Pentagon buys and maintains its gear. It’s chilling to think of how much worse the FOUO data denied us normal folks are.

On the war-fighting front, more key yardsticks measuring progress in America’s longest war also are being kept from the public. In his October 30 quarterly report (PDF), Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said the list of facts barred to the American public continues to grow. It now includes, among other information, the number of enemy attacks, the number of Afghan casualties, Afghan unit troop counts, and assessments of how well Afghan troops are performing. This would suggest to an objective observer that things are not going well.

And, on the crash front, the Pentagon’s F-35 office has decided that mechanical fixes ordered following a May 23 Air Force F-35 crash “must remain secret,” Air Force Magazinereported November 23. “Explicit details related to corrective actions have the potential to compromise operational security,” a spokeswoman told the magazine, a not-unfriendly organ published by the Air Force Association, an Air Force booster group. The lone pilot ejected and survived, but the F-35, “valued at $175,983,949, rolled, caught fire, and was completely destroyed,” the accident report said (point of personal privilege: how can the Pentagon, whose books are so fouled up they cannot be audited, pinpoint the price of this F-35 so precisely?).

The Pentagon’s F-35 office “declined to comment on whether the government or Lockheed Martin bears the responsibility for the hardware deficiencies, and who will pay to correct them,” the magazine’s John Tirpak wrote. “It is unusual for the government not to reveal corrective measures required when a military aircraft crashes due—even in part—to hardware and software deficiencies.”

As someone who has covered hundreds of military aviation accidents over the past 40 years—and the resulting repairs to ensure they won’t happen again—this just doesn’t wash. “The potential to compromise operational security” is a one-size-fits-all dodge big enough to fly a B-52 through.

Jason Paladino here at POGO dived into what he called “the Pentagon’s war on transparency” a year ago. Like Afghanistan, this war continues. These latest examples highlight the U.S. military’s brazenness at hiding data that suggest its war-fighting machines and prowess aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be. This problem of less-bang-for-more-bucks will only get worse the more it is allowed to fester.

TWO SIDES, SAME COIN

The Pentagon’s truth decay

Just like clockwork, the folks at the Heritage Foundation have just released their latest version of the conservative group’s Index of Military Strength(PDF) (“The only non-governmental and only annual assessment of U.S. Military Strength,” Heritage touts). For the third year in a row, the report says the U.S. military services score no better than “marginal,” even as President Trump pumped trillions of dollars into their care and feeding.

It’s revealing to compare the Heritage study with the GAO report on aircraft readiness The Bunker mentioned in the item above. Plainly, the U.S. government has decided it makes sense to field a bigger military than it can afford. That leads to stresses on those in uniform, reduced training time, and empty spare parts bins (and that can lead to unneeded deaths, as The Bunker noted recently in the infuriating case of 1st Lieutenant David Schmitz, killed when his F-16 ejection seat failed to operate because of a lack of required parts).

There is no way the U.S. defense budget is going to grow enough to erase the marginal marks contained in the Heritage report, or boost the miserable aircraft-readiness rates highlight in the GAO study. It’s long past time for the U.S. government to concede that a bigger but hollower military isn’t as good as a leaner, but meaner, fighting machine. Unfortunately, the biggest U.S. defense alliance isn’t NATO, but the Pentagon officials, lawmakers, and defense contractors who collude to dull the fighting edge of the U.S. military by maintaining the fiction that bigger is better. Wonder if the family of Dave Schmitz feels the same way.

MONEY, MONEY—WHO’S GOT THE MONEY?

Pentagon made $5 billion in improper payments to civilians last year

How screwed up is Pentagon bookkeeping? Well, according to its just-released annual financial report, the Defense Department made $4.916 billion in improper payments to its 750,000 civilian workers in the fiscal year that ended September 30.

That’s not the worst of it: for 99.1% of those improper payments, auditors were unable to say whether they represented overpayments or underpayments. “Instead, the department simply doesn’t have the documentation to show whether the payments were authorized at all,” the Federal News Network reported November 23.

Improper payments to members of the military were $5.2 billion last year, spread among 1.3 million active-duty members. Interestingly, the Army (8.14% in improper payments) and the Air Force (5.64%) accounted for $5.1 billion in improper payments; the Navy and Marine Corps made only $52 million of them. The Pentagon’s 750,000 civilian workers total more than the uniformed ranks of the Army (480,000), Navy (341,000), Air Force (333,000) or the Marines (186,000).

The bottom line (sorry): nearly 8% of the payments the Pentagon made to its civilian workers last year could have been improper in one way or another. That’s a huge jump from 2019’s tally, which estimated improper payments to Pentagon civilians at 0.14%. That cloudy news, while startling, does have a silver lining. After all, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging it exists.

Then again, the Pentagon said only 0.08% of its payments to contractors were improper.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Fire for effect…

The Navy has decided to scrap a fire-ravaged warship after concluding it would cost $3.2 billion to make it shipshape, Breaking Defense reported November 30. The USS Bonhomme Richard is an amphibious assault ship undergoing an overhaul in San Diego when fire roared through 11 of its 14 decks in July. Arson is suspected.

A similar fire-asco happened in Maine in 2012 when the attack sub USS Miami was set ablaze by a worker looking to leave work early. When the cost of repairing the boat reached $700 million, the Navy decided to scrap it, as The Bunkernoted in July.

Both cases suggest today’s Navy is building Fabergé eggs instead of fighting warships. The Miami, after all, wasn’t sunk by an enemy torpedo, but by a painter who set some rags on fire atop a sailor’s bunk. That’s something to keep in mind the next time an admiral says the nation’s aircraft carriers will be able to elude Chinese carrier-killing missiles if war ever comes to the western Pacific.

Best-paid plans

The Trump administration has used $17 billion intended to beef up businesses vital to U.S. national security to help a roster of companies with fuzzy links to defense, Yeganeh Torbati and Aaron Gregg reported in the Washington Post November 25. “Aircraft manufacturers including Boeing were the fund’s intended recipients but balked at the terms and did not apply,” they said of the loans, designed to cushion COVID-19’s economic blows.

Wartorn

Historian Margaret MacMillan has just published WAR: How Conflict Shaped Us. “War has always been cruel and squalid, but it’s the modern world that has made it so fantastically bloody,” Dexter Filkins said in his November 29 review in the New York Times. “The Industrial Revolution gave states the ability to manufacture ever more lethal weapons on ever greater scales, and nationalism turned populations into armies, blurring the distinction between soldiers and civilians.”

MADness

The U.S. Navy’s success at shooting down a fake nuclear missile by a ship-based interceptor scrambles the deterrence that has prevented nuclear war, Andreas Kluth wrote November 30 at on the Bloomberg website. “This month’s test was the first in which a ship did the intercepting,” he wrote. “This twist means that before long the U.S. or another nation could protect itself from all sides.” That will lead us into a time even more dangerous than the Cold War. “The era of MAD [Mutually-Assured Destruction] and mutual vulnerability was terrifying but in a surreal way also stable,” he concluded. “The coming era of questionable deterrence and asymmetric vulnerabilities will be less stable and therefore even more frightening.”

The original stealth bomber

Russian women eager to fight the Nazis during World War II signed up with the 588th Night Bomber Regiment and quickly became known as the Night Witches for their fighting prowess aboard their 1920s-era canvas and plywood biplanes. “Since the plane itself already posed so many of its own safety issues, flying at night was really their only way to ensure any sort of stealth and safety,” Amy Dickey wrote on the Sandboxx website November 24. “Most runs would happen with three planes, the first two meant to draw attention and enemy fire, with the third being the one to drop the bomb. What made this so dangerous is the fact that the third plane, to avoid detection, would have to cut their engine and glide over their target as quietly as possible.”

Military morsels…

Finally, did you know the U.S. military has been a game-changer when it comes to munchies? “From instant coffee to Cheetos, packaged cookies and energy bars, the U.S. military helped invent many of the snacks Americans love to eat,” the Voice of America reported November 30. “Cheetos, one of America’s favorite cheesy, crunchy snacks, are made possible by the dehydration process the military worked on to remove the water from cheese.” That may help explain why nearly one out of three young Americans can’t enlist because they’re obese.

Well, time to raid the refrigerator. Thanks again for checking out The Bunker, and pass it on to your friends like a bowl of Cheetos if you think they enjoy snacking on salty commentary about national security.