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: Congress — yet again — meekly goes along with a president unilaterally wielding the immense power of the U.S. military; the 1,000th F-35 rolls off the assembly line while still in “low rate” production; Boeing’s blunders; and more.
DECLARE WAR (OR NOT), BY GEORGE!
Yet another slippery slope
For a guy who royally screwed up getting out of a 20-year war in Afghanistan, President Biden apparently didn’t learn his lesson. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have risked stumbling into a war with Iran by launching massive airstrikes on the Houthi rebels in Yemen without a congressional thumbs-up, never mind a Constitutionally-mandated declaration of war. The Houthis have been attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea for the past two months in support of their Hamas allies battling Israel. That’s plenty of time for U.S. legislators to decide whether to chance a war with Houthi-backer Iran.
George Washington nailed it 230 years ago. “The Constitution vests the power of declaring War with Congress,” he wrote in 1793. “Therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.” Insisting Congress do its job would result in fewer wars, less defense spending, and more global respect for the U.S. If it was good enough for George, it’s good enough for The Bunker.
THE 1000TH F-35
And the darn plane is still in low rate production
Lockheed recently turned out its 1,000th F-35. That’s an awful lot of so-called fifth-generation fighters built under what’s known at the Pentagon as Low Rate Initial Production. LRIP logic is sound — don’t buy too much of something until the blueprints are dry and testing is done. The goal is to make sure you’re not buying a bushel of lemons that’s going to cost extra billions to turn into lemonade.
Turns out, we already know the F-35 is some kind of puckered-up citrus fruit. That 1,000th F-35, like dozens of others that have rolled off the assembly line since July, is sitting idly in Texas. The Pentagon refuses to accept the planes until their upgraded avionics are ready for prime-time flying. Most of the 1,000 jets are headed to the U.S. military, which plans to buy 2,470(PDF) of them (for $416 billion[PDF], or $168 million a pop). That means the U.S. will buy far more F-35s than the standard LRIP goal of 10% before green-lighting full rate production.
“Once the program can demonstrate control of the manufacturing process, acceptable performance and reliability, and the establishment of adequate sustainment and support, the program can declare full rate production of the aircraft,” the Government Accountability Office said (PDF) in September. “However, after over 10 years of producing and developing the F-35, as of April 2023, DOD officials had not established when low rate initial production will end and full rate production will be declared.”
Not that it makes any difference. “Although DOD has not declared full rate production,” the GAO added (PDF), “the F-35 program has generally procured aircraft at full rate production levels over the last several years…without establishing (PDF) the expected common design baseline.”
Think of it as Grand Theft Autopilot: build them before they’re ready, and then bill taxpayers extra to fix them.
BOEING TAILSPIN (CONT.)
Key Pentagon supplier hits more turbulence
Back when The Bunker was a wee reporter seeking a bigger paycheck (those were the days!), he paid attention to those lists of the most admired companies. In 1986, Fortune said Knight-Ridder Newspapers and Time Inc. were among the most admired places an ink-stained wretch could work. So, The Bunker went to work for Knight-Ridder that year, and for Time Inc. in 1994. Both are now out of business. Another company on that list was Boeing, the Pentagon’s fifth-biggest contractor. And while it is still in business, its growing snafu roster raises questions about its current management and the future of an American industrial icon.
The company’s latest woe involves missing bolts from a cabin panel that blew out the side of a two-month-old Boeing 737 Max 9 over Oregon January 5. United and Alaskan airlines said they had found loose parts on multiple Max 9s after the U.S. government grounded 171 similarly designed jets.
That door-plug work was done by Spirit AeroSystems. Spirit was part of Boeing until 2005, and still builds about 70% of each Boeing 737 fuselage. Spirit has a record of manufacturing woes, including recent reports of cockeyed tail assemblies and improperly-drilled holes (“Spirit,” a financial analyst said in October, “is in very bad financial shape.”) Spirit got a $190 million boost from Boeing last fall for its work on 737 and 787 airliners, 10 days after Patrick Shanahan was tapped to run Spirit. Shanahan spent 30 years at Boeing before President Trump chose him as deputy secretary of defense. Trump also nominated Shanahan to serve as defense secretary in 2019 before Shanahan dropped out amid reports of domestic violence within his household years before his nomination.
But wait — there’s more:
- A week before the door-plug mishap, the FAA said Boeing had issued a warning to 737 operators to check for loose bolts in 737 rudders “after an international operator discovered a bolt with a missing nut while performing routine maintenance on a mechanism in the rudder-control linkage.”
- Boeing has absorbed $7 billion in cost overruns developing the Pentagon’s troubled KC-46 aerial tanker, far more than the $4.9 billion it’s getting from the Air Force for the job.
- Boeing has lost $2.4 billion on an Air Force deal to revamp a pair of 747s originally bought by a now-bankrupt Russian airline for use as new Air Force Ones(PDF).
- The Pentagon has grounded all its Bell-Boeing V-22s tilt-rotors following an unexplained November crash in Japan that killed eight. Boeing paid an $8.1 million fine in September to resolve charges that it made false claims regarding its manufacture of V-22 parts.
- Boeing was questioned about cutting corners, leading to two crashes of new 737 Max 8s in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun says the recent 737 door-plug blowout stemmed from a “quality escape” at both Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems. Sounds more like a mass jailbreak.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
As political divisions among Americans grow deeper, the U.S. military academies are striving to inculcate in their students the need for loyalty to the Constitution, Gary Fields reported for the Associated Press January 14.
Top Navy officials concede that despite decades of hype, laser weapons remain beyond their reach, Justin Katz reported January 11 at Breaking Defense.
More than a dozen Senate Democrats are seeking to block President Biden’s push to ship arms to Israel without telling Congress, the Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner reported January 9.
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