The United States of Amnesia

August, 1966

Henry D. Thoreau, 7/12/1817

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Die Rakete

From the earliest days of the Third Reich, when Wernher von Braun and other German army enthusiasts developed the tech that spawned the V-2 and, later, when they came to the United States and Soviet Union after WWII, helped create long-range missiles that doubled as astronaut launchers, big chemical rockets have held an outsized fascination. Hitler himself was rather unimpressed, actually, realizing right away that they would be useless in conquering lots of foreign landmass. For that he needed young bodies, bullets, and old-fashioned blast. You still would. “Es war doch gewaltig,” he said with an absent smile after first witnessing the spectacle of two static rocket motor firings in March 1939. “Well, it was grand.” Meh. What turned the costly and finicky weapons into an existential threat by the late-1950s was mounting nuclear bombs on top, though this also made them practically useless, since firing them with hostile intent would be an act of national suicide.  It still would. Now that North Korea has apparently joined–in potential, if hardly in kind–the U.S., Russia, China, France, Great Britain, India, and Israel as wielders of these singular munitions, the world’s 70-year-old nuclear nightmare gains yet another set of imaginary, apocalyptic concentric circles showing who could hit whom with what. If Kim Jong-un and his generals ever want to incinerate their entire nation, they now (or will soon) have the means to ensure this happens quickly. Short of that, however, they simply join the strange geopolitical calculus of strategic nuclear theory, which we have been living fitfully with for a long time.

B-21: Raiders of the Lost Mind

The minuscule number of Americans who take even a cursory glance, let alone a concerted gaze, at their nation’s fantastically expensive strategic weapons programs quickly run into the wall of secrecy that keeps all but a few officials in near total darkness. Even the Congressional Research Service, tasked with informing members of Congress about such arcane subjects, is only able to compile shallow reports of little practical use. Many hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake, but we must believe that a handful of Annapolis, West Point, or Colorado Springs graduates and their industry dependents are wise managers of this treasure. Longtime observers know that the historical evidence is not encouraging.

In October 2015, the Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to build a new strategic bomber, dubbed the B-21 “Raider”, with the following (unclassified) funding profile, according to the CRS:








The money until FY2009 was just for R&D. Then the program was paused for two years while the Obama administration pondered its necessity. It made up for lost time after that. CRS essentially throws up its hands in frustration when trying to evaluate these numbers, because so few technical details have been revealed. Too, although the B-21 is one of the Air Force’s largest projects, the bomber is being managed and paid for through what CRS calls “nontraditional means,” namely something known as the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, “a much smaller program office than typical for such a significant program.”  That is, even fewer eyes than usual. CRS could not even determine whether formal acquisition milestone certifications of the technology were being carried out. They do know that the development contract is cost-plus, one of the classic horrors of military procurement. Northrop Grumman’s winning bid came in so far below Pentagon estimates that it raised the specter of old-fashioned “buying in,” a defense industry tradition. “Congress may wish to revisit DOD’s cost estimation to understand why the estimated cost was significantly higher than the actual bid,” CRS politely suggests. “In addition, Congress may wish to use its oversight mechanisms to verify that the contract can be executed at the price bid.” The outlook is not auspicious: “Both the House- and Senate-passed versions of the FY2017 defense authorization bill included requirements that DOD disclose the total cost of the B-21. However, those provisions did not appear in the final conference report.” So it goes.

Finally, the CRS points out, most of the B-21 program is classified at the Special Access level, above Top Secret. “Due to the size of the B-21 program, its implications for defense budgeting, and other issues like the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, the B-21 may attract interest from Members not typically involved in such issues. Congress may wish to consider whether such Members’ interests require a greater level of access to program data, or whether the issues can be adequately addressed under current rules.” If past is prelude, this is about as likely as making those numbers in Table 1 match the reality of a blank check.


Heliocentrism is a BAD deal for geocentrists

Annals of anti-science.

Sound of One Hand Clapping: The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site

The aptly named Ronald Reagan missile defense testing range centered in the Marshall Islands at Kwajalein Atoll was back in the news this week for the latest attempt to hit a mock ICBM launched there with an interceptor fired from California. Military officials called it a success, but longtime observers of this program know how that term can express Zen-like mysteries from an engineering perspective. If all the dollars sunk at Kwajalein since it was a Navy base in World War II were simply allowed to pile up on the sea floor, the hundreds of Marshallese workers who tote and fetch for thousands of Bechtel and Lockheed Martin employees could probably walk from their homes on Ebeye Island instead of taking a ferry. The official figure of about $123 billion spent on developing a ballistic missile defense system since 2002 is just a spit in the ocean for an essentially endless effort that stretches back so far in time that the people who first devoted their careers to it are either long dead or of limited memory capacity. My 99-year-old father, who journeyed to Kwajalein in the 1960’s for Martin Marietta, is in the latter category. Whatever exactly he did there is lost in the mist and doesn’t matter anyway. The rockets are still nothing a nation should stake its life on. The latest GAO report on missile defense sums up the situation perfectly: “The lack of traceability of MDA’s [Missile Defense Agency] integrated test schedule makes it difficult not only to determine what is happening with a test, but also with its testing progress as a whole, including what and when requirements were originally planned to be met and which ones have been met, when they were met, and with what test.”  In other words, it’s all a blur. Money, too, is squirrelly: “MDA has reported the total costs for a specific test using its test level cost estimates, but the information for the same test has been inconsistent across requests. Specifically, for one test we received an estimate of $261 million and later received an estimate of $26 million for that same test. Similarly, for another test Congress received an estimate of $212.1 million and we received an estimate of $51.01 million for the same test.” No doubt it gets lonely out there in the middle of the Pacific. Washington starts to look like a mirage.  But that $600 billion military budget has to be spent on something, and missile defense is perhaps the biggest suckhole in history. Truly a Reagan monument.

American Longevity

Of the ten U.S. counties where life expectancy has dropped the most since 1980, eight are in Kentucky, largely due to socioeconomic disparities.  Wagering on all races on the 143rd Kentucky Derby Day program totaled $209.2 million, a 9 percent increase over the 2016 total of $192.6 million and an increase of 8 percent over the previous record set in 2015 of $194.3 million.  Bets on the Derby alone increased 12 percent over 2016 to $139.2 million, also a record.








A Man, A Tan

Melanoma fans will rejoice over House passage of the Trumpcare bill, whose section 231 repeals Obamacare’s tax on tanning salons. From the very handy Congressional Research Service summary of the legislation, which it is reasonable to assume few if any House Republicans found time to read before voting:




Vinson Sails Into the Masalembo Triangle

American aircraft carrier strike forces are the nation’s most powerful expression of military might–being actually useful, unlike the nuclear triad.  So when one of them figures prominently in an international crisis, the situation is presumed to be deadly serious. Or, in this post-factual era, not.  That the USS Carl Vinson wasn’t anywhere near where the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the admiral who leads the Pacific Command said it was last week is a mind-boggling scenario. Under the circumstances, a bluff would be even worse than a miscommunication.  There truly never has been an Administration like this one.

There is only one “Cuban Missile Crisis”

My old New York Times colleagues (the emphasis here is on old) Bill Broad and David Sanger continue their cheer-leading reportage for American intervention in North Korea with today’s headline that the situation is a “Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow-Motion.” They didn’t coin this terrible analogy themselves, thank goodness, but quote a political scientist who was in elementary school in 1962. (If his teachers conducted duck-and-cover drills on those scary October days long ago, perhaps that explains his lingering dread.)  In their fifth paragraph, they insert a whopper of a caveat–“while all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise”–but nonetheless pursue a comparison that would be tossed aside rather quickly in a cogent university classroom. The confrontation of two superpowers at the peak of rivalry, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons of every kind, had nothing in common with today’s pissing match between Washington and Pyongyang.  If a modicum of caution were to result from reading this article, then a bit of good will have come of it, but it is far more likely to ramp up the paranoia that Broad and Sanger have already helped to create.