Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan addresses a group of reporters off-camera at the Pentagon in January. Photo: Sgt. Amber Smith/USA
THE SHANAHAN ERA
Feb. 4, 2019
Following the resignation/firing of James Mattis in December, Patrick M. Shanahan may be President Trump’s extended-term choice to lead the Defense Department. Shanahan is likely to continue his technocratic focus, whether as acting secretary or as a confirmed nominee, rather than pursue a foreign policy parallel to that of the White House and State Department, as Mattis did.
Although Shanahan, at this writing, is still Acting Defense Secretary, Trump has endorsed him on several occasions, calling him “a wonderful man” during his December visit to Iraq. Trump suggested Shanahan may be in the top Pentagon job “a long time.”
In fact, if Shanahan is still acting secretary Mar. 1, he will eclipse the record of William Howard Taft IV, who served 60 days in that capacity in 1989, during the George H.W. Bush administration.
The law is unsettled about how long Shanahan could serve in an “acting” capacity without being officially nominated for the job, and Trump said in early January that “I sorta like ‘acting’?” because that status gives me more “flexibility.” Mick Mulvaney has been serving as “acting” chief of staff at the White House since the departure of Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly on Jan. 1, but that position is not subject to Senate confirmation. Trump said he’s “in no hurry” to make either appointment permanent.
Shanahan was confirmed by the Senate as deputy, so his confirmation seems likely if Trump officially nominates him for the job.
Shanahan has been supportive of controversial Trump policies, particularly Trump’s demand for a US Space Force, and he has echoed some of Trump’s rhetoric regarding missile defenses and progress in reducing the nuclear threat from North Korea. He has not publicly differed with the president on any policy matters.
He told reporters his priority will continue to be to posture the US military for great power competition and to expedite the fielding of new equipment affordably. He said he’ll be less active in diplomacy than Mattis, whose background as a former combatant commander gave him extensive experience with foreign militaries; experience Shanahan lacks.
In a late January press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Shanahan repeated Trump’s assertion that NATO partners haven’t paid their fair share to the alliance, but are doing so now. He said NATO allies have increased defense spending by $41 billion since 2016 and forecast that contribution will increase to $100 billion by 2020. He went beyond Trump, though, in saying the US is with NATO “100 percent.”
In his first press conference since being named Acting Defense Secretary, Shanahan said he wants to establish a separate Space Force “under” the Air Force and to make it as small as possible to carry out the mission.
He told reporters in an off-camera Jan. 29 meeting that he has settled on the person “who would lead Space Command” but didn’t disclose who he has in mind.
Space Force will be a topic for discussion “over the next five, six months,” Shanahan said.
“The focus will be … ‘How do we go faster with delivering capability?’?” Shanahan said. Acknowledging concerns about bureaucracy, he said, the Pentagon must answer a key question: “How do we not generate unnecessary cost?”
“It’s going to be small—[to have] as small as possible footprint. That’s why it’s … recommended it sits underneath the Air Force.” The main objective of delivering technology faster will be “leveraging commercially available technology,” he said.
Shanahan sought to clarify Trump’s assertion that ISIS is defeated in the Levant, saying that the terror group is more than 99.5 percent crippled—but is still able to plan attacks and worthy of attention and military action. While there’s “more work to be done,” ISIS is now “incapable of governing” the territory it once held in Syria, Shanahan said.
Asked if he’s willing to challenge Trump on military matters, Shanahan said, “I’m always prepared to give the president feedback. That’s what he asks me to do. That’s my job, okay?”
Shanahan worked for 30 years at Boeing and was credited with building and refining that company’s global supply network. That long-term relationship might be problematic if he’s seen as too sympathetic to his former employer.
Boeing secured three major defense contracts in the fall—the Navy’s MQ-25 refueling drone, and the Air Force’s T-X advanced trainer and UH-1N helicopter replacement—and Shanahan has criticized the F-35 fighter, made by Boeing rival Lockheed Martin.
Asked about potential conflicts of interest, Shanahan said all DOD executives must sign “ethics agreements” and noted he has recused himself from involvement in any actions regarding Boeing. Paraphrasing the questions about his loyalties, he said, “Am I … still wearing a Boeing hat? … I think that’s just noise.”
Whether it is or not, the Air Force appears poised to include funding for a souped-up version of the Boeing F-15, called the F-15X, in its upcoming budget submission. That would mark a reversal of nearly two decades of Air Force policy that it will not buy any “new old” airplanes. Asked if he’s an enemy of the F-35—and by implication, a supporter of the F-15X—Shanahan said: “I am biased toward performance. I am biased toward giving the taxpayer[s] their money’s worth. And the F-35, unequivocally, I can say, has a lot of opportunity for more performance.”
Maintaining nuclear weapons to deter Russia, China, and others just got a lot more expensive. The cost of operating and modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years has ballooned by 23 percent in just two years.
The Congressional Budget Office, a bipartisan agency, is required to calculate the 10-year costs of the nuclear enterprise every two years. The last estimate, in 2017, predicted costs for the nuclear enterprise from 2017-2026 at $400 billion. The latest forecast, released in January, pegs the pricetag at $494 billion from 2019-2028.
“The period now includes two later [and more expensive] years of development in nuclear modernization programs,” CBO reported, accounting for more than half the increase, or $51 billion. Normal “economy wide” inflation is also higher, accounting for “about one-fourth” of the rise. The balance comes from new modernization programs called for by the Nuclear Posture Review, which added another $37 billion.
It’s important to note that these two-year reviews are separate from an October 2017 CBO report that pegged the cost of modernizing virtually every aspect of the nuclear enterprise at $1.242 trillion through 2046. Those programs include a new ICBM (the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent); a new stealth cruise missile; B-21 bombers and upgrade of the existing B-1, B-2, and B-52 bomber fleets; new ballistic-missile submarines, as well as a new sea-launched ballistic missile; updated nuclear command, control, and communications systems; and an overhaul of the nuclear weapons development, production and sustainment enterprise, mostly through the Department of Energy.
The difference between the two CBO reports is that the modernization estimate extends through the 2040s, but does not include all operations costs.
The biennial estimate released in January, meanwhile, covers just 10 years and includes development and operations costs.
In the new estimate, the CBO said that $432 billion of the $494 billion estimate would “implement the administration’s 2019 plans as DOD and DOE have laid them out—provided those plans did not change or experience any cost growth or schedule delays.” The remaining $62 billion is CBO’s estimate of cost overruns “incurred over the 2019-2028 period if the costs of nuclear programs exceeded planned amounts at roughly the same rates” as seen in the past.
Broken down, CBO’s new estimates are as follows:
- Strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons: $234 billion
- Tactical nuclear delivery systems and weapons: $15 billion
- DOE labs and activities: $106 billion
- The nuclear C3 and early warning system: $77 billion
Over the 10-year period, annual costs rise steeply from $33.6 billion to $53.5 billion, CBO said, an increase of 60 percent through 2028. That works out to a compound annual growth rate of 4.76 percent—more than double the inflation rate.
What was the effect of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review on these estimates
The CBO noted that three new capabilities called for in that review—a new low-yield warhead; a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), and an increase in plutonium-production capability—added $17 billion to the total over 10 years.
The new SLCM and its warhead would cost $9 billion across the 10 years, assuming the SLCM’s design “would draw heavily” from that of the Air Force’s new Long-Range Standoff missile, or LRSO.
FEET WET: CLIMATE CHANGE HITS BASES
The Pentagon is feeling the effects of climate change and is taking steps to become more resilient against its effects, according to a new Pentagon report released in January.
In “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense,” Ellen M. Lord, undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, notes that climate change is having an acute impact on military bases. Rising sea levels threaten JB Langley-Eustis and nearby naval bases in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, wildfire risks are rising at Rocky Mountain bases, and desertification threatens Western states. Thawing permafrost is undermining facilities in Alaska, and droughts are hurting readiness across a wide swath of US and overseas facilities.
Of the 35 Air Force bases considered by the Pentagon for susceptibility to climate change effects, 32 were deemed vulnerable to wildfires; 20 to flooding; 20 to drought and four to desertification. The latter four are Creech AFB. Nev.; Hill AFB, Utah; Nellis AFB, Nev. and Kirtland AFB, N.M. These facilities are expected to become even drier than they already are, making them vulnerable to “erosion and increas[ing] soil fragility, possibly limiting future training and testing” activities.
Climate change is also heightening tensions, instability, and the risk of humanitarian disasters overseas, particularly in Africa, which is seeing a new cycle of “flooding and drought/desertification.” Melting ice in the Arctic is making that region more navigable for more of the year, requiring a greater naval presence and increased search and rescue capabilities, the report said.
Forces must be ready to deal with each of these.
Of the 79 bases examined in the report, “about two-thirds” are vulnerable to recurrent floods, with Langley and Hampton Roads facing the greatest threat, according to the report. Built at sea level, those bases already have seen more than a foot of sea level rise, leading to recurrent floods that hurt the bases’ ability to perform their missions.
At Langley, for example, where flooding is becoming “more frequent and severe,” the Air Force has ordered that all new development be constructed at a minimum elevation of 10.5 feet above sea level, “with some projects planned for higher elevation due to high communication intensity and need for greater hardening.”
At the same time, Eglin and MacDill Air Force Bases in Florida are working with local communities to “address coastal erosion around their installations.”
While the report did not blame the recent hurricane damage to Tyndall AFB, Fla., on climate change, it noted that coastal facilities in general are taking greater punishment from more frequent and powerful storms.
Rising temperatures drove the Defense Logistics Agency to increase cooling power in its data centers “to ensure provision of the cooling needed for processors and servers to operate efficiently in warmer temperatures.” DLA is also planning to relocate some facilities “from flood-prone areas to safer areas,” Lord’s report noted.
Fort Hood, Texas, has seen a sharp increase in flash floods. During a 2016 exercise involving “a low river crossing,” flash floods “resulted in the death of several soldiers,” the report noted.
Drought is considered a hazard for virtually all US bases, increasing the potential for wildfires and impairing operations and training. This will lead to an increase in “the number of black flag day prohibitions for testing and training,” Lord’s report said. Drought increases the risk of “heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”
Prolonged drought also leads to “significant reduction in soil moisture at several Air Force bases, resulting in deep or wide cracks in the soil, at times leading to ruptured utility lines and cracked road surfaces.” At Edwards AFB, Calif., drought has caused large cracks to open up in the dry lakebeds used as runways, putting the value of the base itself—located there for its huge expanses of flat, concrete-hard surfaces—at risk.
Lord’s report said all departments are now preparing comprehensive plans for a response to climate-change effects and mitigation efforts. It did not forecast what the cost of these efforts will be. However, it did say that even where evaluated bases did not face a present problem with climate change, eventually, they will.
“In a few instances, locations considered not currently vulnerable were deemed to be vulnerable in the future,” the report said, positing that seven military bases not currently facing chronic flooding can expect to have that problem in the near future, while five bases not now subject to drought will face excessively dry conditions soon, as will “a number of installations” likely to face wildfires.
“It is relevant to point out that ‘future’ in this analysis means only 20 years in the future,” the report warned. “Projected changes will likely be more pronounced at the mid-century mark.” Absent new strategies to mitigate the risks, the report concluded, mission effectiveness will be degraded severely.