The Bunker: When Pigs Fly

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.


But Northrop MIA from defense-contractors’ warning

Last week, leaders of eight of the nation’s biggest defense contractors went begging, titanium cups in hand, for federal dollars to ease the pinch the COVID-19 virus is inflicting on their bottom lines. All the usual suspects were there: BAE Systems, Boeing Defense, General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls, L3Harris Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Textron and Raytheon.

Except one.

Northrop Grumman chief Kathy Warden didn’t join the two July 7 letters signed by the other eight CEOs to the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer and the acting head of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Without such aid, the CEOs said all sorts of disasters will befall the nation—“thwarting its ability to meet the challenges and threats associated with great power competition.” Frankly, that’s an absurd claim when it comes to a $750 billion annual Pentagon tab that tops the Cold War average. Although the letters don’t mention sums, a top Pentagon official said July 13 that it is seeking “about $10 billion” to pay contractors’ virus-related costs.

Interestingly, only the letter to the White House brazenly warned the OMB chief of one particular downside if the Pentagon doesn’t reimburse contractors for COVID-19-related expenditures: “This would create a ripple effect throughout the defense industrial base, leading to less investment in new technologies and significant job losses in pivotal states just as we are trying to recover from the pandemic.”

The letter didn’t bother to define “pivotal,” but with President Trump’s re-election in doubt, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure it out. It reads like a blatant spiel suggesting Trump’s re-election might be aided with a bunch of bailout billions. Frankly, this surprises The Bunker, because the defense industry is generally more deft when it comes to such transactions.

So why is Northrop different? The company says it has already realized savings because of efficiencies achieved following its recent $9 billion acquisition of rocket-builder Orbital ATK, Warden told defense-industry analysts during an April 29 conference call. “We have some increased COVID-19 related cost, as any company does, as we do more of the safety protocols, cleaning, social distancing,” she added. “And we fully expect…that we can offset those through other cost reduction measures that we anticipate taking this year.”

Ten weeks passed between that Northrop conference call and the July 7 letter to OMB. That suggests Warden still believes her company can handle the extra costs without Pentagon help. Too bad she’s the only one.


There’s pork on land, sea and air—so why not space?

In the olden days, Congress brought home the bacon by wheedling defense officials and strong-arming the competition. It was a bare-knuckle brawl to land contracts for the factories in their districts that made tanks, warships and warplanes for the Pentagon. But given the merger-mania in the defense biz, it’s been tough for lawmakers and local leaders to find glistening hunks of pork to satisfy their hungry constituents. That’s what makes the fight to land the headquarters for the Pentagon’s new Space Command so tempting. Twenty-six states—that’s 52% of the nation, according to The Bunker’s rudimentary math skills—have put in bids to host the new HQ.

The Air Force isn’t naming the contenders, saying they can ID themselves if they want. Those who have declared their interest to seek the other white meat include Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington state. Several states have multiple candidates.

The Air Force, which oversees the new military service, invited locales that met certain requirements to enter the Space Command sweepstakes. Bids were due June 30, and the Air Force plans to announce its preferred choice in January. That will trigger an environmental review that could take up to 24 months before the choice is approved, or not.

President Trump ordered the creation of U.S. Space Command (to wage war in space) in December 2018; a year later he created U.S. Space Force (to train and outfit members of Space Command; of course it’s confusing). “Amid grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital,” he said at the Space Force’s creation. It is the nation’s eighth uniformed service (the others, in order of creation, are the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Service). The command is temporarily based at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base. The future headquarters will ultimately have about 1,400 workers, which is pocket lint in terms of Pentagon dollars. But that hasn’t stopped the National Guard from pushing for a Space Guard.

Not everyone is impressed with the base-basing contest. Rep. Jim Cooper, the Tennessee Democrat who sits on the armed services committee, calls it a “moondoggle.” So even though the new service doesn’t yet have a permanent home, it’s already funnier than Netflix’s Space Force sitcom, which tried to poke fun at the nation’s newest service.


Joint Chiefs chairman sets up a showdown with the President

Guerilla wars are complex. Think Vietnam, if you’re as ancient as The Bunker, or Afghanistan, if you’re a newer model. They lack the clarity of what we used to call, in the days before nuclear weapons—“unconditional war.” Back then, victory was made plain by vanquished foes signing a document of surrender aboard a battleship, or some such sideshow of force. President Trump and his top military adviser, Army General Mark Milley, are now engaged in a similar fight, in which only one can prevail.

Last week, Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made it crystal clear he doesn’t like the 10 posts his service has named for Confederate officers. “Those generals fought for the institution of slavery,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. “The Confederacy, the American civil war, was fought and it was an act of rebellion. It was an act of treason against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution.”

Lots of senior military officers feel that way. What was surprising about Milley’s volley was that it came less than a month after his commander-in-chief declared the names would. Not. Change. “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump tweeted on June 10. “Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”

Unfortunately for the President, both houses of Congress and his top military aide are now moving to the other side. Trump has promised to veto any bill that mandates the names be changed, but vetoes can be overridden if two-thirds of each house agrees. Yet that’s not what’s important. After more than three years of sycophancy, it’s bracing to finally see a general climbing out of his E-ring foxhole and stating plainly that he believes his boss is wrong.

The good news is that the nation has leaders like Milley and Warden. The bad news is that they must be feeling pretty lonely…


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

Panglossian Chagossians?

With the U.S. military engaged in some serious soul-searching about the acknowledged racism in its ranks, there another fight for equality involving the Pentagon that is happening 9,500 miles away. The U.S. has been using the 17-square-mile isle of Diego Garcia as a stationary aircraft carrier since the 1970s. Pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it has served as a key American base during the Cold War, as well as more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon’s island landlord is Britain, which seized it from the nation of Mauritius and its indigenous Chagossian people in 1814. The United Nations voted 116-6 last year calling on Britain to give Diego Garcia and the other 54 islands in the Chagos Archipelago back to Mauritius (London and Washington were in the minority). Mauritius’ UN ambassador recently said the U.S. military could keep its base if Mauritius regains sovereignty over the island, Defense One reported July 10.

That’s mighty generous of them, all things considered. After the British forced all of the roughly 1,500 Chagossian people from the island between 1968 and 1973, they ultimately were replaced with the U.S. military base, part of which was known as…Camp Justice. Apparently, the irony proved too much, so the base was rebranded as Thunder Cove in 2006 (“Footprint of Freedom” is another name favored by the U.S. military for the island). But stealing is still stealing, and Plunder Cove is a colonial legacy the U.S. should be eager to shuck.

Unacceptable and unsustainable

It’s pretty rich how angry the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee has gotten toward the Pentagon, complaining about everything from its treatment of military families to ending F-18 production. The “contravention of the constitutional authority of the United States Congress has now become habitual,” the panel’s report accompanying its latest spending bill reads. “The Committee finds this to be both unacceptable and unsustainable,” it added, according to a July 9 piece by CQ Roll Call’s John Donnelly. Of course, these lawmakers might have more standing to gripe if they took more seriously their most solemn responsibility—voting to declare, or not declare, war. That hasn’t happened since 1942.

Gold-plated silver bullets

The Air Force Association is complaining in a new paper that both the Pentagon and Congress continue to place “a premium on cheapness” when it comes to buying new weapons, according to a July 8 account in the AFA’s Air Force Magazine. The Bunker must have missed it.


Fascinating tale of an Army photographer, now 96, and his assignment covering military medicine during World War II, in the July 13 Washington Post. He trained for the assignment at the Army Medical Museum, which The Bunker wrote about in 2017.

The Viruses are coming!

Strange how things work out. Now comes word that COVID-19 has led the Air Force to station its ICBM teams in, ahem, bunkers 60 feet underground for as long as two weeks to reduce the chance they’ll fall prey to the virus. “The moves are unprecedented and stretch beyond even the training scenarios for doomsday events that these forces previously practiced,” Paul Shinkman reported in U.S. News July 9.

Top gun

The Navy has its first Black female fighter pilot, reported July 10. Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle just finished training aboard the T-45C Goshawk and is expected to end up an in F-18 or F-35 cockpit. Reminds The Bunker of that day back in 1993 when then-SECDEF Les Aspin lifted the ban on women flying in combat. The Air Force quickly rolled out some of its female fliers in a Pentagon briefing room to make PR hay, only to be outdone by the Navy. The sea service had several of its own female pilots land at, of all places, Andrews Air Force base, where reporters had been helicoptered in from the Pentagon for a tarmac press conference. Guess whose pilots led the evening news?

Canine cuts

The Marines are planning to shrink from 184,000 to 170,000 leathernecks between now and 2030. So guess it only makes sense that their Military Working Dogs count is slated to be cut from 210 to 150, reported July 10. "We have what we call single-purpose dogs and dual-purpose dogs,” the Marines’ dog boss says. “We're trying to get more dual-purpose dogs, because we feel like we get more bang for the buck." Gotta love Marine-talk, although he should have said “more bark for the buck.”

The orange-dust menace

You might think 21st Century weapons would be all electrons, pixels and touchscreens, but you’d be wrong. Take the Pentagon’s THOR (short for Tactical High-Power Microwave Operational Responder) a drone-killer now under development. Developers wanted it to be as easy to operate as an iPhone, so they gave it a touchscreen. “That sounds great—except you find out that that doesn’t work for warfighters who are pulling a long shift, because they do things like eat Cheetos while they’re sitting there working, and then the touchscreen does not work,” an Air Force scientist reported, according to a July 7 dispatch in Breaking Defense. No word yet on whether the problem has been solved with Fritos.

Thanks for munching all the way through this week’s edition of The Bunker. Try to stay safe out there, while trying to look out for society before looking out for yourself…