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The Bunker: What’s a Superpower to Do?

This week in The Bunker: The tough decisions that have to be made when U.S. troops are killed abroad; the F-35’s too hot for its own good; are Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce the 21st Century’s equivalent of Maxwell Smart and Agent 99; and more. 

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 tough decisions that have to be made when U.S. troops are killed abroad; the F-35’s too hot for its own good; are Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce the 21st Century’s equivalent of Maxwell Smart and Agent 99; and more.

SUPERPOWER FRUSTRATION

What to do when U.S. troops are targeted

The killing of three Army reservists in their container-unit barracks January 28 by a drone attack launched by Iran-linked militants can’t go unanswered. Five days after it happened, the Biden administration began launching air strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. There are more to come, Biden pledged. Unfortunately, that can only salve, not solve, the problem.

The globe can be a nasty place, and the U.S. — with global interests it wants to defend — regularly runs into trouble protecting them. When that happens, it can retreat, go to war, or poke back at the troublemakers. Pinched between the two extremes, Biden has chosen to poke. “Attacks on American forces will not be tolerated,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said February 5. “We will continue to take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our forces and our interests.” It’s bigger than a pinprick, but well short of war. It is unsatisfying, but rooted in the reality that the U.S. has no desire for a third post-9/11 war in Southwest Asia.

Many Americans feel otherwise. “It’s time to send more carriers, frigates, F-15’s, 16’s, 22’s, 35’s and B-52s and knock…Iran off the map,” a high school classmate — and Marine veteran — says. But The Bunker is well aware, because he has reported on many conflicts over the past 40 years, that the first day of war is the gung-hoest. Victory usually proves fleeting if not ephemeral. Too often armchair generals are willing to take Step 1 — attack and destroy — without thinking through Steps 2, 3, and 4. We saw how well that worked in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Proxy warfare is even more nettlesome. Hamas and the Houthis are attacking Israel and commercial shipping in the Red Sea, arm’s-length from their backers in Iran. Killing such puppets (especially outside of their sponsoring nation, as the U.S. is doing so far), is relatively easy. But targeting those pulling the strings back in Tehran would mean a major war. The Constitution requires a congressional declaration first. That would be a bracing debate that this nation has too long avoided. This conflict of tit-for-tatting, a slow ebbing and flowing of Iranian-backed strikes and U.S. counterstrikes, may be infuriating — but it beats the alternatives. At least for now.

THE MELTING SELF-LICKING ICE CREAM CONE

The Pentagon’s hottest fighter is too hot

It would be hard to come up with a better example of the Defense Department’s self-licking ice cream cone than the F-35 fighter. It was nearly a year ago that The Bunkernoted the most-costly weapon system in history was so crammed with heat-producing avionics that its engine had to work overtime to keep all that electronic whizbang gadgetry chilled enough to work.

(WARNING: MATH AHEAD!) Engineers originally assumed the F-35’s electronics would have to handle no more than 14 kilowatts of excess heat. It gets rid of it via an aerial air-conditioning system using tubes of liquid coolant wrapped around the plane’s electronic innards. But 15 years ago (as if you need reminding of just how slothful defense procurement is), F-35 builder Lockheed discovered the plane needed to get rid of up to 32 kW. “As a taxpayer,” an Aviation Week reader posted, “it appalls me that our tax funds are going to fix this type of engineering failure.”

That increased cooling demand requires the F-35’s single engine to work harder. That has boosted engine replacement and repair costs by a, um, cool $38 billion(PDF). Current and planned electronics, radar, and sensor upgrades to the F-35 (remember, it’s still technically in low-rate production) could boost its waste heat to as much as 80 kW. The Pentagon acknowledged its shivering shortfall in December, when it sought solutions to the thermal meltdown. The Defense Department “is adding and upgrading numerous systems that require additional cooling and power beyond current capabilities,” it said of its brand-new airplane.

Such solutions could require serious tweaks to the F-35’s current Honeywell cooling system, including bigger cooling tubes. But bigger cooling tubes would require drilling bigger holes inside the F-35’s bulkheads and frames to accommodate them. Drilling bigger holes in the F-35, Honeywell says, would affect its structural integrity.

Collins Aerospace announced January 30 that it has proposed a new F-35 cooling system to replace the existing Honeywell gear. “In order to modernize the platform with advanced systems to counter emerging threats,” Collins says, “a significantly enhanced cooling capability is required.” No word yet on its cost, or whether bigger holes will have to be drilled to accommodate all that melting ice cream.

AROUND THE BEND

Is Taylor Swift a secret Pentagon asset?

The Defense Department has come up with a pop culture psyop — singer Taylor Swift and her Super Bowl-bound boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce — to help President Biden win re-election in 2024, according to some conspiracy theorists. This belief, fanned by conservative media and pundits, suggests two things:

-- That some fringe political elements have achieved escape velocity when it comes to common sense.

-- That some believe that Pentagon psychological operations actually work.

Swift (who endorsed Biden in 2020) and Kelce (who made a pro-COVID vaccine ad for Pfizer) are driving some supporters of former President Trump bonkers. They fear a joint Biden endorsement by the couple, perhaps during a Super Bowl appearance engineered by the NFL and the purported deep state, could help re-elect him. “Have you ever wondered how or why she blew up like this?" Fox News host Jesse Watters asked last month, before offering an evidenceless explanation: the “Pentagon’s psyop unit pitched NATO on turning Taylor Swift into an asset.” 

The Defense Department dutifully denied the charge. “Taylor Swift is not part of a DOD psychological operation. Period,” a Pentagon spokeswoman told Politico February 2. Yea, right. Who’s going to believe the U.S. military when it comes to disclosing Top Secret (aka T.S., the same initials as you-know-who) stuff like that? It would have been cooler if the Pentagon had simply said: “Taylor Swift is not part of a DOD psychological operation. Question mark.”

Enjoy the game!

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Paying their fair share

The prospect of a second Trump administration has some European nations urging their spendthrift neighbors to boost defense spending, Daniel Michaels wrote January 31 in the Wall Street Journal.

Where’s your data?

A Pentagon panel recommends that the Defense Department get data rights — basically, the blueprints and other intellectual property — for all the weapons it buys, Edward Graham reported in Defense One February 6.

A private-sector A-bomb

Sharon Weinberger fretted February 2 in the Wall Street Journal that a rogue billionaire might build a nuclear weapon.

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