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The Bunker: Whose Thumbs Are on the Scale of the Pentagon’s Budget?

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.


WAITING FOR THE DUST TO SETTLE

Check back next week (we hope) for election roundup

Back when the U.S. waged big-league wars, the Pentagon often spoke about BDA—Battle Damage Assessment(PDF)—and how vital it was to determine the outcome of a bombing mission. Sometimes it could take days to get a clear picture of what had been accomplished because of smoke or clouds—the literal fog of war. Turns out, same thing’s true with Tuesday’s presidential election. There’s already lots of smoke and fire, but no clear BDA. So The Bunker is going to exercise some responsible restraint and avoid diving into what it all means for national security until next week. You’re welcome.

HOT-AND-COLD-RUNNING F-16s

Pentagon’s $62 billion push for overseas sales

The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin, its biggest contractor, have launched a worldwide sales push to peddle $62 billion worth of F-16 jet fighters over the coming decade. It’s good for business and the bottom line, but perhaps not so good if you’re leery of willy-nilly weapons deals. In a break with tradition, the Pentagon-Lockheed F-16 deal is an “indefinite-delivery/indefinite quantity” contract. That’s generally used for support services and spare parts—not full-up weapons systems.

Traditionally, each foreign weapons sale involves a new contract, with months, if not years, of paperwork before the hardware heads overseas. It’s like a custom-tailored suit, which takes time and money. But an IDIQ contract is like going into a department store with hundreds of suits already on the racks. Beyond the price set in the IDIQ contract for the base-model F-16s, purchasers only have to pay for options they want (although sophisticated avionics tend to cost more than raised cuffs). Air Force officials say such deals can cut delivery times by a third.

How did the Pentagon and Lockheed arrive at that colossal $62 billion figure? It “was developed as an independent government estimate of the total cost of orders for F-16 aircraft over a period of 10 years,” an Air Force spokesman tells The Bunker. “Many factors were considered in the development of that estimate, including an estimated number of aircraft to be sold, inflation, and expected improvements and changes to the aircraft configuration over that 10 years.” Lockheed declined to comment on the deal, although it recently estimated that it could sell 400 more F-16s.

The company eyes its new F-16 customers like Chevrolet buyers who someday may end up behind the wheel of a Cadillac. “For a lot of these countries…as we get them capable with the F-16, we believe the next step for many … is future procurement of the F-35,” a Lockheed official says.

Check out our latest Military Industrial Circus for more details if you have a hankering for F-16s, or know someone who does.

POLITICAL INFLUENCE

Thumbs on the scale?

The Bunker was struck in the past week by a pair of articles saying that politicians don’t pack that much punch when it comes to landing contracts. Gordon Adams zinged Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who faced a tough re-election bid, for claiming credit for Pentagon contracts awarded to Maine companies. “The Washington, D.C., money game lets politicians take credit for what the military already plans and wants,” Adams, who oversaw Pentagon spending at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, wrote October 28 in the Portland Press-Herald. “The services award contracts, not the Congress. And generally, the services get more than 95% of the funds they ask for, so it’s their plan that is being funded.”

Alex Karp, the CEO of secretive software developer Palantir Technologies, echoed that view in the October 22 cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He argued that his company’s decision to go public and issue stock in September wasn’t driven by the prospect of President Trump losing the election (Palantir has thrived during this administration). “Karp insisted the election had nothing to do with it—federal contracts, he said, were largely apolitical, and a change in the White House was unlikely to affect Palantir,” author Michael Steinberger wrote. “He also noted that he was supporting Biden and was about to make a donation to his campaign.”

It’s true that the military and its contracting officers do most of the decision-making when it comes to what to buy, but Congress does play a key role (Adams, after all, is the author of 1981’s The Iron Triangle, detailing the pernicious effects of all three entities on smart defense decisions).

But, truth be told, lawmakers often tend to affect Pentagon procurement decisions only at the margins. Yet margins can count for a lot when we’re spending $2 billion a day on the nation’s defense (which, critically, isn’t the same as defending the nation). And those margins can also be enough to make the Pentagon loathe to cancel or curtail a failed program lest they receive the wrath of members where those systems are built. Now Congress is busy evading their nearly 10-year old ban on earmarking.

With that much money floating around, there’s plenty of greed to go around, too. But most of it happens far from Capitol Hill, as this incredible tale about the fleecing of the U.S. intelligence community—uncovered by a skeptical Air Force general—makes clear. What’s also unbelievable is how easy it was for a low-level former federal employee to harness the paranoia of the U.S. national-security state to line his own pockets with $4.5 million in taxpayer money. “It was never clear who knew what,” Rachel Weiner wrote of the scam in the October 28 Washington Post. “And the classified nature of the project made it potentially illegal to ask.”

Perfect.

VETTING VETS

The label can be misused

Next Wednesday is Veterans Day. More than 20 years ago, The Bunker remembers the success B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley garnered after they wrote Stolen Valor, about those who boasted of their bemedaled past in Vietnam, yet had never served. That was justice. But there’s an injustice being perpetrated against nearly all 18 million U.S. veterans when the press calls a bad guy a veteran when that status is irrelevant. Sure, the veteran status of Lee Harvey Oswald and Timothy McVeigh was noteworthy. But that’s not always the case.

USA Today ran this headline over a September 23 story:

Former soldier with witchcraft obsession executed by federal government

You had to get to the 20th paragraph of the 24-graf story to see that the murderer (something that didn’t warrant mention in the headline) “joined the Army at 17”—33 years ago—“but was soon was discharged for going AWOL.” So not only was he a soldier for a short period of time, the Army kicked him out.

A Washington Post reader complained in an October 16 letter to the editor about a pair of headlines referring to criminals who had once been in the military:

Army vet in Va. gets 74-year prison term

…read the headline above a September 30 article.

“Other than a mention in passing, way down in the article, that the judge acknowledged the felon’s service, there was nothing that tied military service to the crime for which the individual was convicted,” Van Stewart wrote. “The headline suggested such a tie and was therefore unwarranted.”

…then there was a second article in the Post the same day, which carried this headline:

Veteran not competent to stand trial in slaying

This story “similarly suggested a connection between an accused murderer and his military service,” Stewart wrote. “Again, because the article didn’t discuss such a connection, the headline was unwarranted.”

The Bunker has no idea what Mr. Stewart does, but thinks he could make a fair and decent editor (The Bunker trusts all of his veteran readers will take pride in the nation’s thanks come Veterans Day).

WHAT WE'RE READING

Despite the election, here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Army rationed?

Lean times may be looming for the U.S. Army, Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel reported October 27 at War on the Rocks. After years of serving on center stage in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ground-pounders are likely to find themselves short-changed as the U.S. military’s focus increasingly shifts to China. “In a future war with China, the air and sea domains, together with space and cyber, will define the shape of the conflict,” the dynamic defense duo write. “As a force organized, trained, and equipped for land warfare, the U.S. Army clearly will be at a huge disadvantage in both the strategic arguments and budget fights to come.” That’s got to sting for Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general.

Chow time!

The Bunker always enjoyed dining with the troops, whether it meant years-old Meals-Ready-to-Eat with deployed soldiers and Marines, or on a warship’s mess deck with sailors. And Navy chow was always good, critical for maintaining morale when you’re crammed aboard a vessel for months. That’s what makes this piece from Task and Purpose so unappetizing. T&P’s Jeff Schogol reports on Kevin Selfaison, who posted photos of what he described as lousy food (allegedly including lettuce with bugs, hair in food, and raw chicken) that he and his shipmates were served aboard the USS Nimitz from 2017 to 2020. “This was served while we were deployed or at sea,” he posted on Facebook, shortly after leaving the service last month. “Food is one of the only things to look forward to when you’re out there.” He hopes his going public will improve the victuals for his buddies still afloat.

Gimme shelter…

Fallout shelters were all the rage during the Cold War, when The Bunker was a mere tyke trying to get the hang of “duck and cover” in elementary school. Meanwhile, back at home, some moms and dads were busy readying family fallout shelters for the Big Bang. The Washington Post’s John Kelly detailed one family’s exploration of how to outfit their basement for the apocalypse more than a half-century ago in his October 27 column.

Island tug-of-war

A three-star U.S. Air Force general warned in the October 27 South China Morning Post that U.S. troops could be sent to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, claimed by both China and Japan, if Beijing steps up its bellicosity.

Leave it to CLEAVER…

The Air Force continues to tiptoe toward turning its cargo planes into bombers, Theresa Hitchens reported October 29 at Breaking Defense. The latest work builds on its Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range (CLEAVERs), which the Air Force describes as “long-range, high precision weapons [that] destroy moving and non-moving targets.” Given the historic shift in a bomb’s targeting, from the pilot and plane launching it to the munition itself, it seems like a smart way to get more bang for the buck.

Ground control to Major Tom

The prospect of war in the blackness of space is growing ever more likely. Scientific American examines ways the world might avert such a heavenly disaster in its November issue.

And speaking of space…

The U.S. military services have spent more than 200 years designing “its machines, career paths, and uniforms through a male lens,” Air Force Magazine reported October 30. But the new U.S. Space Force could be different: it is the only military branch built with women in mind from the get-go. “It’s not just a boys’ club anymore,” 1st Lieutenant Emily Remeta, a space warrior at California’s Beale Air Force Base, says. “We’re here at the beginning and we’ll always be here.”

Timber, indeed

Crane, Indiana, is 600 miles from the nearest ocean. Yet its Constitution Grove is a haven for the majestic trees that provide the white oak beams and planks needed to keep the USS Constitution—at 223, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world—shipshape. Blake Stilwell told the tale of this enchanted forest at Military.com October 29.

Thanks for sticking it out with The Bunker this week. Appreciate you forwarding it on to chums and chumps who might find it dimly illuminating.