The Bunker: Where Does Bad News Come From?

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: Seeking the source of bad Pentagon news; the sunk costs of cleaning up after the military; the Defense Department goes 0-for-6 when it comes to accounting for taxpayer dollars; and more.


Where does it come from?

It seems like news articles are always full of bad news about weapons production. That’s because the Pentagon is so busy over-hyping what’s supposedly good about them that the reality is newsworthy. The Bunker has witnessed it for decades: In the beginning, Wonder Weapon X is gonna be the best thing since sliced bread, but once production begins, it tends to become moldy crusts not fit for the pigeons outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mary Poppins.

Building new weapons is rocket science. But the Defense Department typically tries to cram too much technology into its newest platforms. That leads to cost overruns and schedule delays, which invariably means the Pentagon can’t buy as many as it wants. So a replacement is ordered up, where the same problems arise. It’s the dictionary definition of a self-licking ice cream cone.

The uniformed military shies away from such critiques. But every once in a while you get a civilian like Frank Kendall, the Air Force secretary. A decade ago, as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, he gave the brass heartburn by branding the Pentagon’s procurement of the F-35 fighter as “acquisition malpractice” for building it while the Air Force, Navy, and Marines were still drawing their blueprints for the plane. The $416 billion F-35 program is the most costly in world history; if you think that should have tempered the Pentagon’s unwarranted rush to buy it, you’d be wrong.

Now Kendall’s gone and done it again. He said on November 13 that he’s “nervous” about the development of the Air Force’s $96 billion (PDF) LGM-35A Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. It’s the replacement for the Minuteman III ground-based ICBM, one of the three legs of the nation’s nuclear triad. “Sentinel, I think, is quite honestly struggling a little bit,” he warned. “There are unknown unknowns that are surfacing.”

Kendall’s words are in sharp contrast to those made by uniformed types. “As I look at where we are with Sentinel, I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to do well,” Air Force General Anthony Cotton, chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in August. “The first flight test is still on track, and are still scheduled for this year,” Air Force Brigadier General Ty Neuman said in February (time is running out). The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center says the Sentinel is “the most cost-effective option” to rebuild the ICBM fleet (that is, as we taxpayers say, a low bar).

Kendall’s s-word went supersonic. “Sentinel ICBM program ‘struggling’ with ‘unknown unknowns’: Kendall,” Breaking Defense reported. “US Air Force’s Sentinel missile ‘struggling,’ faces rising costs,” Defense News said. “New Sentinel ICBM ‘Struggling’ Due to Complexity, Kendall Says,” Air & Space Forces Magazine declared.

But don’t blame Kendall. And don’t blame the magpie media. Both are doing their jobs. Blame the engineers, lawyers, and accountants salted throughout the military-industrial complex. They keep on getting it wrong, and, following such snafus, are allowed to go out and do it again.


The detritus of defense

Sure, the Pentagon has plenty of garden-variety waste, fraud, and abuse. But when it comes to waste, there’s a second category: poisons created by building short-lived weapons that can persist for generations. This came to The Bunker’s attention because of the slo-mo disposal of the USS Enterprise, the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered carrier.

Commissioned in 1961 and mustered out of the service in 2012, the “Big E” has been sitting pier-side in Virginia for a decade while the service decides how to handle its radioactive dismantlement (the 1,123-foot-long, nearly 100,000-ton behemoth contains eight nuclear reactors). Turns out it’s likely to take at least 17 years between the vessel’s decommissioning and its ultimate destruction, at a cost approaching $1 billion, Justin Katz reports at Breaking Defense.

We tend to focus inordinately on how much weapons cost. We pay less attention to how much they cost to operate, which is more expensive. And the cost of junking military gear when its day is done is pretty much buried in such “operating and support” accounting (O&S for the F-35, for example, is projected to be $1.3 trillion [PDF] — 76% of the program’s total cost). Cleaning up military messes is not cheap:

-- The cost of scrubbing “forever chemicals” from hundreds of U.S. military sites is projected to be $31 billion.

-- Getting rid of chemical weapons cost the nation nearly $42 billion, going some 2,900% over budget.

-- Purging the Hanford nuclear-weapons lab in Washington state of its atomic hazards could take decades and cost up to $640 billion.

Given the cost of ridding ourselves of such garbage, it should come as no surprise that the Pentagon is spending nearly $52,000 apiece on trash cans.


Pentagon flunks audit sixth time in a row

Another year, another audit (PDF). And for the sixth straight year the Pentagon’s books have failed to sum up smartly. The Defense Department has already picked the low-hanging fruit since beginning the congressionally mandated bookkeeping exercise in 2018. Improvements since then have been meager.

Only seven of the Defense Department’s 29 mini-audits that span the department were “clean” in 2023 — the same as 2022. A “clean” audit is one where bean-counters declare the Pentagon presented their financial statements accurately using standard accounting principles. Cutting-edge outfits like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and National Security Agency can’t keep track of their dollars.

The Pentagon has $3.8 trillion in assets spread among 4,500 sites around the globe. Defense Department comptroller Mike McCord told reporters that the favorable audits cover 50% of the Defense Department’s assets. “This does not mean,” he said, “that the other 50% is unaccounted for.”

But some budget holes are big enough to fly UH-60 choppers through. “There have been instances as part of the audit process where [the Defense Department] themselves have found assets in warehouses like Black Hawk helicopters that weren’t on the property records,” Asif Khan, financial management director at the Government Accountability Office, told Congress in July. “In that respect, audit readiness really does impact the military’s readiness.”


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

→ “Bye-bye “Buy American” push?

U.S. defense contractors oppose efforts by the White House and Congress to produce more military hardware in the U.S., Politico reported November 13.

When gold-plated just isn’t good enough…

The Pentagon and Raytheon have developed an improved radar built using diamonds, Defense One reported November 16.

→ “Over and out!(PDF)

The Defense Department released its Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) November 17, and called the integration of the Pentagon’s public affairs shop “a key component of OIE across the competition continuum.” God help us all.