Defense Monitor : January-May 2017

An F-35A Lightning II team parks the aircraft for the first time at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, February 8, 2016.
The aircraft arrived at the base to conduct operational testing in order to determine its combat capabilities.
F-35 Continues to Stumble
The following piece was first published in March 2017. It has been excerpted and updated, and the original can be found at
The F-35 still has a long way to go before it will be
ready for combat. That was the parting message of Dr.
Michael Gilmore, the now-retired Director of Operational
Test and Evaluation, in his last annual report.1 The Joint
Strike Fighter Program has already consumed more than
$100 billion and nearly 25 years.2 Just to finish the basic
development phase will require at least an extra $1 billion
and two more years.3 Even with this massive investment
of time and money, Dr. Gilmore told Congress, the Pentagon, and the public, “the operational suitability of all variants continues to be less than desired by the Services.”4
In a public statement, the F-35 Joint Program Office
attempted to dismiss the Gilmore report by asserting,
“All of the issues are well-known to the JPO, the U.S. ser-
1 Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF),” FY 2016 Annual Report, January 2017. (Hereinafter DOT&E FY 2016
Annual Report)
2 Anthony Capaccio, “F-35’s ‘Grotesque Overruns’ Are Now Past, Says Pentagon’s Chief at Odds With Trump,” Bloomberg Technology, January 18, 2017.
3 DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 105.
4 DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 50.
©2017 Project On Government Oversight
ISSN # 0195-6450 • Volume XLVI, Number 1 • January-May 2017
Danielle Brian, Executive Director
Scott Amey, General Counsel
Lydia Dennett, Investigator
Danni Downing, Editor & CTP Director
Abby Evans, Donor Relations Manager
Ned Feder, M.D., Staff Scientist
Leslie Garvey, Digital Media Manager
Iulia Gheorghiu, Beth Daley Fellow
Ari Goldberg, Director of Communications
Neil Gordon, Investigator
Dan Grazier, Jack Shanahan Fellow
Liz Hempowicz, Policy Counsel
David Hilzenrath, Chief Invetigative
Lynn Mandell, Finance Manager
Sean Moulton, Open Government
Program Manager
Chris Pabon, Director of Development
Nick Pacifico, Investigator
Justin Rood, Congressional Oversight
Initiative Director
Keith Rutter, COO & CFO
Pam Rutter, Web Manager
Nick Schwellenbach, Director of
Mandy Smithberger, Director of the CDI
Straus Military Reform Project
Mia Steinle, Investigator
Mark Thompson, National Security
Daniel Van Schooten, Researcher
Adam Zagorin, Journalist-in-Residence
Lt. Col. Tony Carr, USAF (Ret.)
Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA (Ret.)
Maj. Donald E. Vandergriff, USA (Ret.)
Col. Gary I. Wilson, USMC (Ret.)
Col. Michael D. Wyly, USMC (Ret.)
David Hunter, Chair
Debra Katz, Vice Chair
Dina Rasor, Treasurer
Ryan Alexander
Henry Banta
Lisa Baumgartner Bonds
David Burnham
Andrew Cockburn
Michael Cavallo
Mickey Edwards
Pamela Gilbert
Debra Katz
Dan Olincy
Nithi Vivatrat
Anne Zill
Morton Mintz, Emeritus
vices, our international partners, and our industry.”5 JPO’s acknowledgement
of the numerous issues are fine as far as it goes, but there’s no indication
that the Office has any plan—including cost and schedule re-estimates—to
fix those currently known problems without cutting corners. Nor, apparently,
do they have a plan to cope with and fund the fixes for the myriad unknown
problems that will be uncovered during the upcoming, much more rigorous,
developmental and operational tests of the next four years. Such a plan is
essential, and should be driven by the pace at which problems are actually
solved rather than by unrealistic pre-existing schedules.
What will it take to fix the numerous problems identified by Dr. Gilmore,
and how do we best move forward with the most expensive weapon program
in history, a program that has been unable to live up to its own very modest
Electronics Used to Justify Cost Not Delivering Capabilities
The F-35 is being sold to the American people based in no small part on its
mission systems, the vast array of sophisticated electronics on board the jet,
and its ability to gather massive amounts of information.6 This information is
supposed to come through its onboard sensors and the data links to outside
networked sources, and then be merged by the F-35’s computer systems to
identify and display for the pilot the specific threat, target, and accompanying
force picture (i.e. “situational awareness”). This process is designed to allow
the pilot to dominate the battlespace. Based on the actual test performance
of these systems during developmental testing, however, it appears the electronics actually interfere with the pilot’s ability to survive and prevail.
• The Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), which is supposed to help
the F-35 detect and destroy enemy fighters from far enough away to make
dogfighting a thing of the past, was singled out by pilots as inferior in resolution and range to the systems currently being used on legacy aircraft.
Limitations of EOTS, including image degradation with humidity, force
pilots to fly in closer to a target than they had to when using earlier systems just to get a clear enough picture to launch a missile or take a shot.7
• The Distributed Aperture System, one of the primary sensors feeding the
displays to the infamous $600,000 helmet system, is described by several
test pilots as “operationally unusable and potentially unsafe” because of
“symbol clutter” obscuring ground targets.8
• Pilots are reporting that the different instruments, like the plane’s radar
and the EOTS, are detecting the same target but the computer compiling
the information is displaying the single target as two. Pilots have tried to
work around this problem by shutting off some of the sensors to make the
superfluous targets disappear.
Newsletter design for POGO by:
Rachel Freedman,
© Copyright by the Project On Government
Oversight. POGO encourages quotation
and reprinting of any of the material,
provided POGO is credited. POGO requests
a copy of such use.
Lee Hudson, “F-35 Joint Program Office doesn’t object to DOT&E report findings,” Inside Defense,
January 17, 2017.
6 Carl Prine, “F-35 Jet Will Likely Change How America Fights Wars,” The San Diego UnionTribune, October 23, 2016.
7 DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 69.
8 DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 53.
Combat Shortcomings
initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E), which is
unlikely before 2021. Failure to complete these CAS tests
realistically—a distinct possibility given JPO mismanagement and delaying of test resources—will certainly jeopardize the lives of American troops.
Air Force officials have often argued that the lack of
an effective gun won’t matter in future wars because the
Air Force intends to conduct CAS differently—that is, at
high altitudes using smaller precision munitions.13 But
the F-35 will not be cleared to carry those weapons until
at least 2021.
In the meantime, the F-35 can carry only two guided
bombs right now, and those are 500 pounds or larger.
None of those models are usable in proximity to friendly
troops. According to the military’s risk-estimate table, at
250 meters (820 feet), a 500-pound bomb has a 10 percent
chance of incapacitating friendly troops.14 This means
that within that bubble, the enemy can maneuver free
from close air support fires. A 250-pound Small Diameter
Bomb II is now in low rate production and cleared for use
on the F-15E; even that, though, is much too large to be
used near friendly troops in “danger close” firefights, and
the software and bomb racks necessary to employ it on
the F-35 will not be available and cleared for combat until
2021 at the earliest.
While the entire program is plagued with problems,
the Navy’s variant has several unique problems. One of
One of the suspected shortcomings this latest report confirms is that the F-35 is not as maneuverable as legacy
fighters. All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.” One
such problem is known as wing “dig-in,” where the jet’s
wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something
that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.9
As an air-to-air fighter, the F-35’s combat capability
is extremely limited because at the moment the software
version only enables it to employ two missiles, and they
have to be the radar-guided advanced medium-range airto-air missiles (AMRAAMs); in the future it will carry
no more than four if it wants to retain its stealth characteristic. The F-35’s capability as an air-to-air fighter is
currently further limited because the AMRAAM is not
optimized for close, visual-range combat. (Eventually,
upgraded software versions will allow the plane to carry
missiles other than AMRAAMs, but not any time soon.)
This means that any fight the F-35 gets into had better be
short, because it will very quickly run out of ammunition.
As a close air support aircraft, it also falls short.
DOT&E concluded that the F-35 in its current configuration “does not yet demonstrate CAS capabilities equivalent to those of fourth generation aircraft.”10 This statement is particularly disturbing in light of the Air Force
chief’s recent statements that the
service intends to renew its efforts
Any fight the F-35 gets into had better be short, because
to cancel the CAS-combat-proven
A-10 in 2021.11
it will very quickly run out of ammunition.
Contributing to the problem is
that none of the three F-35 models
in the current fleet can use cannons in combat.12 Based on the most important characteristics the Navy’s variant of
preliminary test experience, it appears that severe inac- the F-35 must have is that it has to be able to operate from
curacy of the helmet-mounted gunsight on all three F-35 aircraft carriers. Otherwise, what is the point of designing
versions makes the cannon ineffective in air-to-air combat a specialized naval version of the plane? But the Navy’s
and in CAS. That accuracy problem may be technically own pilots say the F-35C doesn’t work with the ships. For
inherent and incurable. Note that the cannon accuracy instance, developmental testing revealed that a severe
requirements for CAS are considerably more stringent amount of jerking during catapult launches—termed
than for air combat: when shooting in close proximity to “excessive vertical oscillation”—“make the F-35C operfriendly troops, even minor accuracy problems can have ationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to
tragic consequences. The combat suitability of F-35 can- fleet pilots who conducted training onboard USS George
nons for CAS will not be known until the end of Block 3F Washington during the latest set of ship trials.”15
DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 61.
DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 69.
Oriana Pawlyk, “A-10’s Earliest Retirement Reset to 2021: General,” Stars and Stripes, February 7, 2017.
DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 49.
Lara Seligman, “Welsh: F-35 vs. A-10 Testing a ‘Silly Exercise,’” Defense News, August 24, 2015.
Global, “Risk-Estimate Distances.”
DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 64.
Aircraft taking off from the confined decks of carriers require a major boost to reach the necessary speed to
achieve lift and takeoff, which is accomplished with a catapult set into the flight deck. Before the jets are launched,
the pilots increase the engine thrust. To keep the jets from
rolling off the front of the ship before launch, they are held
down with hold-back bars. The force of the thrust compresses the gear’s strut as it is being held down. When
the hold-back bar is released and the jet is launched, the
F-35C’s strut is unloaded, causing the nose to bounce up
and down, jarring the pilot according to a Navy report
that was leaked to Inside Defense in January 2017.16
The problem is dangerous to the pilot. The HelmetMounted Display is unusually heavy, currently weighing in at 5.1 pounds, and when that’s combined with
the forces generated during a catapult launch, the extra
weight slams the pilot’s head back and forth. In 70 percent of F-35 catapult launches, pilots report moderate to
severe pain in their heads and necks.17
The launch also impacts the alignment of the helmet.
Pilots reported difficulty reading critical information
inside the helmet, and they have to readjust it after getting into the air. The pilots say this is unsafe as it happens
during one of the most critical phases of any flight. Pilots
try to counter the oscillations by cinching down their
body harnesses tighter, but this creates a new problem by
making it hard to reach emergency switches and the ejection handles in the event of an emergency.18
Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35
Much has been said since the election about further F-35
purchases and affordability. The prices quoted in the
press are usually based on the cost of an Air Force conventional take-off variant, the F-35A—the least expensive
of the three variants. In addition, that cost figure is only
an estimate of future costs, one that assumes everything
will proceed perfectly for the F-35 from here on out—
which is unlikely as the program enters its most technologically challenging test phase. As this latest DOT&E
report shows, the program has a long way to go before
the F-35 will be ready for combat.
The Joint Program Office recently claimed the price for
an F-35A went below $100 million each in the FY 2016
contract. Yet in its FY 2016 legislation, Congress appropriated $119.6 million per F-35A.19 Even this amount
doesn’t tell the whole story: it only covers the procurement cost, not what it will cost to bring F-35As up to the
latest approved configuration, nor the additional Military
Construction costs to house and operate F-35As.20 And of
course, the $119.6 million price tag does not include any
of the research and development costs to develop and test
the F-35A. The 2016 production-only cost for the Marine
Corps’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C is $166.4 million and
$185.2 million per plane, respectively.
First, they don’t include how much it will cost to fix
design flaws discovered in recent, current, and future
testing—a not insubstantial amount of money. Nor do
they include the costs of planned modernization efforts,
such as for Block 4 of the aircraft, which will be incorporated into all F-35As in the future. The Government
Accountability Office estimates the program will spend
at least $3 billion on the modernization effort in the next
six years.21 For example, modifications to fix just some of
the problems identified up to now cost $426.7 million,
according to the GAO. Each of these aircraft have already
had other modifications and they will have more in the
future. The Air Force has already acknowledged it must
retrofit all 108 of the F-35As delivered to it and in the
operational fleet.22 These costs will continue to grow as
known problems are fixed and new ones are discovered,
and they are an integral part of the cost per airplane.
As the program moves out of the easy part of the testing—the development or laboratory testing—and into
the critical combat (operational) testing period in the next
few years, even more problems will be uncovered. A good
example occurred in late 2016 when engineers discovered debris inside the fuel tank of an F-35.23 Upon closer
inspection, they found that the insulation around coolant
lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to
use the proper sealant. When the GAO had estimated it
would cost $426.7 million to fix some of the known problems in the F-35As already in depot, the coolant line insulation problem had not been discovered. Fixes to this and
other problems will all have to be devised, tested, and
implemented throughout the fleet of aircraft already produced and purchased.
Lee Hudson, “Pentagon establishes ‘red team’ to investigate F-35C nose gear issues, recommends possible redesign,” Inside Defense, April 4, 2017.
Kyle Mizokami, “The Navy’s F-35 May Need New Landing Gear,” Popular Mechanics, January 6, 2017.
Tyler Rogoway, “The Navy’s F-35C Has A Major Nose Gear Problem,” The, January 5, 2017.
Cheryl Casone, “Pentagon strikes new F-35 deal with Lockheed after Trump involvement,”, February 3, 2017.
Winslow Wheeler, “The Official F-35 Price Tags Are Bogus,” War Is Boring, December 22, 2016.
Government Accountability Office, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Preliminary Observations of Program Progress,” March 23, 2016.
Leigh Giangreco, “US Air Force must retrofit 108 F-35As,” Flight Global, February 16, 2017.
Colin Clark, “F-35 Insulation Fix: All Air Force Planes Flying By End Of Year,” Breaking Defense, October 14, 2016.
The Defense Monitor | January-May 2017
Second, the incomplete unit cost estimates used by the
JPO, Lockheed Martin, and the Pentagon—their so called
“flyaway” unit costs—do not include the purchase of
support equipment (tools, simulators for training, spare
parts, and more) needed to enable the F-35A fleet to operate. Quite literally, the DoD’s “flyaway” cost does not buy
a system capable of flight operations.
The Pentagon has already committed to purchasing 346 F-35s since the program entered into what DoD
euphemistically calls “Low Rate Initial Production.”24
The 798 jets the services would have at the end of a proposed block buy of about 450 from 2018 to 2021 would
be nearly 33 percent of the total procurement…all before
the fleet flew an average of 258 hours at $20,398 per flying hour. A-10s flew 358 hours on average at $17,227 per
hour. While these hours have never been independently
audited, and it is it is impossible to know if they are complete, the available data indicates that the F-35 is more
than twice as expensive to fly as the aircraft it is to replace.
Officials Hiding Truth about F-35’s Problems
and Delays from Taxpayers
When Lockheed Martin first won the contract 17 years
ago, the F-35 was expected to begin operational testing
in 2008.25 Once they failed to meet that, 2017 was supposed to be the big year for the start of the combat testing process. We now know that this process will
almost certainly be delayed until 2019…and possibly 2020 or 2021.26
Quite literally, the DoD’s “flyaway” cost does
The first page of the DOT&E report lists 13
not buy a system capable of flight operations.
major unresolved problems with the F-35 that will
prevent the program from proceeding to combat
the program completes initial operational testing and has testing in August 2017. But you wouldn’t know any of that
discovered what works as intended and what doesn’t. It from the public comments made by officials in charge of
is important to note that the real problem-discovery pro- the program.27 During testimony before a House Armed
cess will only begin when operational testing starts in Services subcommittee in February, officials neglected to
2019, as scheduled, or more likely in 2020 or 2021 when raise any of these issues with Congress even though the
operational-representative aircraft are actually ready DOT&E report had been released less than a month earto be tested. The 108 aircraft the Air Force has begun to lier.28
modify are only the tip of the iceberg, and that number
The scale of the challenge yet remaining with the F-35
does not include the hundreds of Marine Corps and Navy is easily quantified in DOT&E’s analysis. According to
aircraft to be similarly modified.
the report, the F-35 still has 276 “Critical to Correct” defiAn essential part of the question about F-35 costs is ciencies—these must be fixed before the development
whether it makes sense to buy a large block of aircraft process ends because they could “lead to operational
and worry about the costs to fix their yet-to-be-discov- mission failures during IOT&E or combat.”29 Of the 276,
ered problems later. It is certainly a good way to add to 72 were listed as “priority 1,” which are service-critical
the cost but hide it in the interim.
flaws that would prevent the services from fielding the
And there still remains the cost of actually operating jets until they are fixed.
the F-35 fleet. DoD has estimated that all training and
Despite the slipping schedule, the F-35 program office
operations over the 50-year life of the program (assuming has expressed a desire to skip many needed test points
a 30-year life for each aircraft) will be $1 trillion, making and to instead rely on testing data from previous flights—
the cost to buy and operate the F-35 at least $1.4 trillion.
where the test aircraft used earlier software versions—as
The cost just to operate the F-35 is so high because the proof the upgraded system software works. But DOT&E
aircraft is so complex compared to other aircraft. Based warns that the newer software versions likely perform
on the Air Force’s own numbers, in FY 2015 each F-35 differently, rendering the earlier results moot. Program
flew an average of 163 hours at $44,026 per flying hour. managers essentially want to declare the developmental
For comparison purposes, in the same year, each F-16 in testing process over and move on to operational testing,
DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 57.
Government Accountability Office, Joint Strike Fighter: Progress Made and Challenges Remain, March 2007.
DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 47.
Colin Clark and Sydney J. Freedberg, “Air Force Declares F-35A IOC; Major Milestone For Biggest US Program,” Breaking Defense, August 2, 2016.
“Military Services 5th Generation Tactical Aircraft Challenges and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program Update,” House Armed Services Committee,
February 16, 2017.
29 DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 54.
even though they haven’t finished all the necessary steps.
This is a highly risky move. DOT&E warns that following this plan
would likely result in failures in IOT&E causing
the need for additional follow-on operational testing, and, most importantly, deliver Block 3F to the
field with severe shortfalls in capability – capability
that the Department must have if the F-35 is ever
needed in combat against current threats.30
The DOT&E’s latest report is yet more proof that the
F-35 program will continue to be a massive drain on
time and resources for years to come, and will provide
our armed forces with a second-rate combat aircraft less
able to perform its missions than the “legacy” aircraft it
is meant to replace. The men and women who take to the
skies to defend the nation deserve something better.
The good news is, despite the conventional wisdom in
Washington, the services do not have to be stuck with the
F-35. Other options do exist.
To fill the near-term hole in our air-to-air forces, start a
program to refurbish and upgrade all available F-16As
and F-18s with life-extended airframes and the much
higher thrust F-110-GE-132 (F-16) and F-404-GE-402
(F-18) engines. Upgrade their electronic systems with
more capable off-the-shelf electronic systems. This
will give us fighters that are significantly more effective in air-to-air combat than either the later F-16 and
F-18 models or the F-35. Add airframes from the boneyard if needed to augment the force. Most importantly,
bring pilot training hours up to the minimum acceptable level of 30 hours per month, in part with money
saved by not purchasing underdeveloped F-35s now.
To fill the far more serious near-term hole in close
air support forces, complete the rewinging of the 100
A-10s the Air Force has refused to rewing and then
expand the inadequate existing force of only 272 A-10s
by refurbishing/rewinging every available A-10 in the
boneyard to A-10C standards.
30 DOT&E FY 2016 Annual Report, p. 68.
31, “Lightweight Fighter Program.”
32, “A-X Attack Fighter – 1966-73.”
The Defense Monitor | January-May 2017
Immediately undertake three new competitive prototype flyoff programs to design and build a more lethal
and more survivable close air support plane to replace
the A-10, and to design and build two different air-toair fighters that are smaller and more combat-effective
than F-16s, F-22s, and F-18s. Test them all against
competent enemies equipped with radar missile and
stealth countermeasures.
These programs should follow the model of
the Lightweight Fighter31 and A-X Programs32 in the
1970s, particularly in regard to live-fire, realisticscenario competitive flyoff tests. These programs
resulted in the F-16 and the A-10, two indisputably highly effective aircraft that were each less
expensive than the preferred Pentagon alternatives at the time. And they became operational
after testing in less than 10 years, not more than 25.
At an absolute minimum, the F-35 test program already
in place that both the JPO and Dr. Gilmore agreed to
must be executed to understand, before further production, exactly what this aircraft can and cannot do
competently. That means suspending further F-35 production until those tests are complete and honestly
reported to the Secretary of Defense, the President, and
The F-35 program office has reached a crucial decision
point. Bold action is required now to salvage something
from the national disaster that is the Joint Strike Fighter.
When gathering information to determine what that
action should be, officials should not just talk to the generals and executives, as they have no incentive to tell the
hard truth because they have a vested financial interest in
making sure the program survives (regardless of capability). As this report shows, they are not telling the whole
story. There are many more people lower down the food
chain with other points of view. They are the ones possessing the real story. And, as the above suggestions show,
there are still options. It is not too late to make significant
changes to the program, despite its defenders’ claims. n
We Need to Audit the Pentagon
In 1994 Congress passed legislation requiring every federal agency
to be auditable. Since then every agency has complied—except for
the Department of Defense.
After The Washington Post published about a little-noticed report
that found the Pentagon had missed
opportunities to save $125 billion,1
the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees
agreed that the Pentagon’s inability to pass an audit is unacceptable.
“We have known for many years
that the Department’s business practices are archaic and wasteful, and
its inability to pass a clean audit is a
longstanding travesty,” Chairs John
McCain (R-AZ) and Mac Thornberry
(R-TX) said recently in a joint statement. “The reason these problems
persist is simple: a failure of leadership and a lack of accountability.”2
President Trump’s proposed budget will increase Pentagon spending
an extra $54 billion. Yet increasing
Pentagon spending under these circumstances is the opposite of fiscal
responsibility. In fact, history tells us
we will actually get a force even less
prepared and less capable as a direct
result of a bigger budget. The reason
is quite simple: the United States does
not spend its military money well.
This proposal is only a blueprint,
it specifically mentions increasing
the number of F-35s even though the
F-35 has not come anywhere close to
proving itself as an effective system
and is vastly more expensive than
the aircraft it is meant to replace. It
cost approximately $10 million to
purchase an F-16 in 1976.3 Adjusted
for inflation, that would be about
$43 million today. The real cost of an
F-35A, the least expensive version, is
$157 million.4 We continue to get less
bang for more bucks.
The same can be said of the littoral
combat ships and the Ford-class aircraft carrier and any number of other
highly complex and expensive weapons. They are produced by a bloated
R&D and procurement bureaucracy
that is more concerned with its own
processes than with actually producing weapons that are useful in
Defense spending was at record
levels throughout the Obama years,
remaining higher than at any time
during previous administrations,
including at the peak of the Reagan
buildup in the 1980s.5
What did we get for those massive
budgets? We didn’t get more fighter
planes. We didn’t get more ships.
Why We Need to
Audit the Pentagon
Pumping more money into this
system is not the answer. That will
only reward continued bad behavior. If President Trump wants to truly
rebuild the military, he should actually slash budgets. It would force the
Pentagon and Congress to make the
difficult choices necessary to produce
a more effective fighting force.
Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms included the
need to audit the Pentagon. Congress
should heed their own platforms and
resist calls to give more money to an
agency they know to be irresponsible
with taxpayer dollars.6 n
Craig Whitlock and Bob Woodward, “Pentagon buries evidence of $125 billion in bureaucratic waste,” The Washington Post, December 5, 2016.
House Armed Services Committee, “Statement by Thornberry & McCain on Defense Business Board Findings on Pentagon Bureaucracy,” December
6, 2016.
3 General Accounting Office, Status of the F-16 Aircraft Program, April 1, 1977, ii.
4 Winslow Wheeler, “The Official F-35 Price Tags Are Bogus,” War is Boring, December 22, 2016.
5 Fred Kaplan, “Obama’s Whopping New Military Budget,” Slate, February 9, 2016.
6 “Republican Platform”; Clark Packard, “2016 Democratic Party Platform – Defense Spending,” National Taxpayers Union, July 26, 2016.
What I’ve
Covering the
Military for
40 Years
Scant public interest yields
ceaseless wars to nowhere
The Defense Monitor | January-May 2017
turns out that my spending four years on an
amusement-park midway trying to separate marks
from their money was basic training for the nearly
40 years I spent reporting on the US military. Both involve
suckers and suckees. One just costs a lot more money,
and could risk the future of the United States instead of
a teddy bear.
After 15 years of covering US defense for daily newspapers in Washington, and 23 more for Time magazine
until last December, it’s time to share what I’ve learned.
I’m gratified that the good folks at the nonpartisan Project
On Government Oversight, through their Straus Military
Reform Project, are providing me a weekly soapbox
to comment on what I’ve come to see as the militaryindustrial circus.
As ringmaster, I can only say: Boy, are we being taken
to the cleaners. And it’s not so much about money as it is
about value. Too much of today’s US fighting forces look
like they came from Tiffany’s, with Walmart accounting
for much of the rest. There’s too little Costco or Amazon
There was a chance, however slight, that President
Trump would blaze a new trail on US national security.
Instead, he has simply doubled down.
For too long, the two political parties have had Pavlovian responses when it comes to funding the US military (and make no mistake about it: military funding has
trumped military strategy for decades). Democrats have
long favored shrinking military spending as a share of
the federal budget, while Republicans yearn for the days
when it accounted for a huge chunk of US government
spending. Neither is the right approach. Instead of seeing the Pentagon as the way to defend against all threats,
there needs to be a fresh, long-overdue accounting of what
the real threats are, and which of those are best addressed
by military means. The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense
Review, which is supposed to do just that every four
years, is now a self-licking ice cream cone dedicated in
large measure to the Pentagon’s own growth and preservation. Congress is a willing accomplice, refusing to shutter unneeded military bases due to the job losses they’d
mean back home. The nuclear triad remains a persistent
Cold War relic, with backers of subs, bombers, and ICBMs
embracing one another against their real threat: a hardnosed calculus on the continuing wisdom of maintaining
thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.
Unfortunately, it’s getting worse as partisan enmity
grows. It’s quaint to recall the early Congressional hear-
ings I covered (where have you gone, Barry Goldwater?),
when lawmakers would solemnly declare that “politics
stops at the water’s edge.” The political opposition’s reactions to Jimmy Carter’s failed raid to rescue US hostages
held in Iran in 1980 that killed eight US troops and to the
loss of 241 US troops on Ronald Reagan’s peacekeeping
mission in Beirut in 1983 was tempered.
Such grim events have been replaced by Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi and Donald Trump’s January 29 specialops raid in Yemen. The rancid rancor by both sides
cheapens the sacrifice of the five Americans who died.
The resulting outrage triggers a confusing welter of new
rules designed to ensure they aren’t repeated. Mistakes
are a part of every military operation, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that fact, and act accordingly, leads
to pol-mil paralysis. It’s amazing that the deaths of Glen
Doherty, William “Ryan” Owens, Sean Smith, Chris Stevens, and Tyrone Woods seem to have generated more
acrimony and second-guessing than have the 6,908 US
troops who have died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars
as of this column.1
There is today a fundamental disconnect between the
nation and its wars. We saw it in President Obama’s persistent leeriness when it came to the use of military force,
and President Trump’s preoccupation with spending and
symbolism instead of strategy. In his speech to Congress
on February 28, Trump mentioned the heroism of Navy
SEAL Owens, but didn’t say where he died (Yemen). Nor
did he mention Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, where nearly
15,000 US troops are currently fighting.
He also announced he is seeking a $54 billion defense
budget boost, which would represent a 10 percent hike
and push Pentagon spending, already well beyond the
Cold-War average used to keep the now-defunct Soviet
Union at bay, even higher.
What’s surprising is Trump’s apparent ignorance that
the US military has had, pound-for-pound, the world’s
finest weapons since World War II. What’s stunning is his
apparent belief that better weapons lead inevitably to victory. There is a long list of foes that know better.
It’s long past time for a tough look at what US taxpayers are getting for the $2 billion they already spend
on their military and veterans every day. But the United
States has been unwilling to do that ever since the Cold
War ended more than 25 years ago. Instead, it simply
shrunk its existing military, then turned on a cash gusher
following 9/11.
I know many veterans who are angered that their sacrifice, and that of buddies no longer around, have been
squandered in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I recall flying secretly into Baghdad in December 2003
with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The bantam SecDef declared on that trip that the US military had
taken the “right approach” in training Iraqi troops, and
that they were fighting “well and professionally.” It turns
out it wasn’t enough. Last month, Defense Secretary Jim
Mattis declared in Baghdad that the US training of the
Iraqi military is “developing very well.”
If we’re going to spend—few would call it an investment—$5 trillion fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (and
Syria, and Yemen), don’t we deserve a better return?
The problem is that the disconnect between the nation
and its wars also includes us:
• Our representatives in Congress prefer not to get their
hands bloodied in combat, so they avoid declaring
war. They subcontract it out to the White House, and
we let them get away with it.
• Through the Pentagon, we have subcontracted combat
out to an all-volunteer force. Only about 1 percent of
the nation has fought in its wars since 9/11. We praise
their courage even as we thank God we have no real
skin in the game.
• The military services have hired private contractors to
handle half of the critical support missions that used
to be done by the military. The ruse conveniently lets
the White House keep an artificially low ceiling on the
number of troops in harm’s way. We like those lower
• We have contracted out paying for much of the wars’
costs to our children and grandchildren. They’ll be
thanking us in 2050, I’m sure.
Until and unless Americans take responsibility for the
wars being waged in their name, and for the weapons
being bought to wage them, this slow hemorrhaging of
US blood and treasure will continue. “We have met the
enemy,” another Pogo once said, “and he is us.” n
Pulitzer-winner Mark Thompson, who has covered the US
military since 1979, can be reached at (Downloaded March 6, 2017)
Scathing Contractor Evaluation
Should End the MOX Project
POGO and other groups send letter to
policymakers recommending cancellation
hat does it take to get a wasteful government project canceled?
That’s the question the Project
On Government Oversight has
been asking about the Mixed
Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility,
known as the MOX project, for years.1
With luck, a scathing evaluation by the National
Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) about the contractor in charge of MOX—released by Savannah River
Site Watch—will be the final straw.2
MOX was designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for US commercial nuclear reactors as part
of a diplomatic deal with Russia. But last year, Russian
President Vladimir Putin announced he would be withdrawing from the non-proliferation agreement that was
the basis for building the MOX facility.3
Adding to the project’s woes is the fact that it’s astronomically over budget, decades behind schedule, and
lacks even a single potential customer for the nuclear
fuel. Now, the NNSA’s annual performance evaluation of
the contractor (CB&I AREVA MOX Services) has provided
a searing indictment of the contractor’s project management—or lack thereof.
NNSA identified several instances where the contractor gave misleading or inaccurate information to the government, Congress, and the public, and detailed several
Construction on SRS MOX plant, June 20, 2016
incidents of poor management that have led to significant
cost growth and delays in completing the project.
For instance, NNSA declared the contractor’s claim
that the project is at least 70 percent complete to be
“patently false.” NNSA further found that the contractor compounded the problem by spending “considerable effort and resources” challenging NNSA’s estimates
rather than making up for the lack of progress on the
Any “improvement over the past year’s performance
simply mitigates (and is not sufficiently impactful to
reverse) the cost and schedule increases caused by the
Project On Government Oversight, “Outsmarting the MOX,” March 7, 2014; Project On Government Oversight, “Not Only Foolish, It's Fiscally Irresponsible,” October 7, 2015; Project On Government Oversight, “Nuke Fuel Facility Costs Ten Times Estimate, is 41 Years Behind Schedule,” October
13, 2016.
Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Contract DE-AC02-99CH10888, FY2016 Award Fee Determination,” December 5,
Lydia Dennett, “A recipe for wasteful spending: South Carolina Pork with Russian Dressing,” The Hill, October 7, 2016.
10 The Defense Monitor | January-May 2017
contractor’s previous inefficient performance,” NNSA’s
evaluation stated.
The evaluation also noted that CB&I AREVA MOX
Services had been given the opportunity to show their
commitment to improving project management by submitting a firm fixed-price proposal, but had declined to
do so.
Part of NNSA’s evaluation process requires the contractor to complete a self-assessment of their work over
the past year. CB&I AREVA MOX Services rated themselves “Excellent” overall, with a score of 92 percent for
the project management section of the self-assessment,
the section that makes up almost the entirety of the
evaluation. But NNSA found their cost, schedule, and
technical performance was unsatisfactory and awarded
them 0 percent. As a result, CB&I AREVA MOX Services
received an extraordinarily low 8.9 percent of their total
available award fee.
The NNSA cited several reasons for significantly
reducing the contractor’s award fee, including:
1. A breakdown in management systems that resulted
in “the inability to demonstrate that planned work or
procurements were necessary or required.”
2. A continued “lack of transparency and openness in
external communications with key project stakeholders...including continued release of misleading and
inaccurate project information.”
3. “The completion date (and other schedule dates) have
continued to fluctuate significantly and inexplicably
throughout the year.”
The agency ultimately concluded that “NNSA paid for
and was provided an incomplete and inaccurate document that will require additional work in order to ascertain and document the full set of facts. This situation is
representative of the contractor’s performance reporting
throughout the year.”
This absolutely withering evaluation and the significant downgrade in the award fee determination followed the 2015 poor evaluation and downgraded award
fee determination. CB&I AREVA MOX Services was
awarded 49 percent of the potential award fee in 2015.
NNSA noted in the evaluation at the time that “overall
performance is below the level needed for successful
project completion.”4
The National Nuclear Security Administration
(NNSA) told Congress in 2002 MOX would be
fully operational in three years and cost
$4 billion.
15 years later, $5 billion has already been spent
on construction, and life-cycle cost
estimates—which include finishing construction
and operating the plant for 20 years—fall
anywhere between $25.1 billion and $110 billion,
depending on annual appropriations from
The FY 2016 omnibus spending bill
appropriated $350 million for MOX. Continued
funding at this level will cost $110 billion and
delay completion to at least the year 2048.
The MOX facility lost its only potential
customer in 2008. The contractor in charge of
the project hasn’t found a single party willing
to purchase MOX fuel.
In the event of a terrorist threat, nuclear
facilities must be able to verify the location of
all special nuclear materials within 72 hours.
If nuclear materials were stolen from MOX,
it could take 180 days—60 times the safety
requirement—to physically verify the presence
of all special nuclear materials at the facility.
4 Project On Government Oversight, “MOX Contractor Slammed for
Poor Performance,” May 2, 2016.
Sleepwalking Into
a Nuclear Arms
Race with Russia
Lost in the debate about increases to the Pentagon’s budget and
increased spending on nuclear weapons is how the Russians will
react. Below is an abridged and edited analysis of the question that
was first published in “The Blaster” at http://chuckspinney.blogspot.
arack Obama first outlined his vision
for nuclear disarmament in a speech in
Prague on April 5, 2009, which became
the basis for what eventually became
the New START nuclear arms limitation
treaty.1 But to accomplish that he had to
manipulate the domestic politics of the
Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC). By
December 15, 2009, 41 Senators sent a letter to President
Obama saying that “further reductions in the U.S. nuclear
arsenal would be acceptable only if accompanied by ‘a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.’”2
Viewed in retrospect, it is clear that President Obama—
either naively or cynically—acquiesced to that senatorial
spending demand in order to keep the powerful nuclear
labs and their allies in the defense industry and Congress
from lobbying against his new arms limitation treaty.
So rather than putting us on the road to disarmament
in April 2009, Obama’s speech marked the first steps that
launched a huge spending plan to modernize US nuclear
forces across the board.3
A particularly dangerous component of the Obama
nuclear spending plan was the acquisition of low-yield
precision-guided nuclear warheads. These weapons
only make sense in a radical strategy for actually fighting a nuclear war, as opposed to the almost universally
accepted idea that our nuclear arsenal exists only to
deter any thought of using these weapons (since actual
use is unthinkable by most nations, with profoundly
unknowable consequences). Last December, the Defense
Science Board—an organization replete with members
closely connected to the nuclear labs and their defense
industry allies—resurrected the old and discredited ideas
of limited nuclear options (LNOs).4 LNOs are based on
the unproven and unprovable hypothesis that a president
could actually detonate a few nukes to control a gradually escalating nuclear bombing campaign.
Early cost estimates—really guesses—for Obama’s
entire nuclear modernization program are $1 trillion over
the next 30 years.5 Adding to Obama’s expansion of our
nuclear posture is President Trump’s intention to fulfill
his campaign promises to strengthen all nuclear offensive
and defensive forces, with particular emphasis on spending a lot more for the ballistic missile defense (BMD) program. This implies expanding the current deployments
of BMD weapons in Eastern Europe within a few hundred miles of the Russian border.
The components of the currently authorized
program—a new bomber, a new ballistic missile carrying submarine, a new ICBM, a new air-launched cruise
missile, a complete remanufacturing upgrade of the
existing B-61 dial-a-yield tactical nuclear bomb that also
adds a precision guidance kit, a new family of missile
warheads, new nuclear warhead production facilities,
and a massive array of new large-scale intelligence, surveillance, and command and control systems to manage
these forces—are all in the early stages of development.
Assuming business as usual continues in the Pentagon,
the $1 trillion estimate is really a typical front-loaded or
“buy-in” estimate intended to stick the camel’s nose in
the acquisition tent by deliberately understating future
costs while over-promising future benefits.
The money for all of these programs is just beginning
to flow into hundreds of Congressional districts, but it
guarantees the entire nuclear spend-up will acquire a
political life of its own, and that the taxpayer will be burdened with yet another unstoppable behemoth.
There’s been almost no thought given to how China
and Russia might react. This was clearly seen in the cognitive dissonance of the Obama Defense Department:
It was torn between insisting the Russians are not the tar-
“Remarks by President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered,” April 5, 2009.
Cole Harvey, “Nuclear Stockpile Modernization: Issues and Background,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, February 15, 2010.
Arms Control Association, “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” February 2017.
John M. Donnelly, “Pentagon Panel Urges Trump Team to Expand Nuclear Options,” Roll Call, February 2, 2017.
William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms,” The New York Times, September 21, 2014.
12 The Defense Monitor | January-May 2017
get of the nuclear program while at the same time justifying the nuclear build up as a means to counter Russian
conventional aggression.6 Equally revealing, an editorial in Defense News described President Trump’s upcoming Nuclear Posture Review without once mentioning the Russians or Chinese, or how they might react to
the looming American nuclear spending spree.7 On the
other hand, the editorial took great pains to explain in
detail how the forces of domestic political consensus
will ensure steady funding for Obama’s nuclear spending plans throughout the Trump Administration years.
Do Actions Trigger Reactions?
The Russians, particularly those internal political and
industrial factions that benefit from Russian defense
spending, are likely to characterize the American spending program as an aggressive sharpening of the US
nuclear sword and a strengthening of its nuclear shield,
synchronized with a threatening buildup of America’s
conventional force. That will be used to argue that Russia is spending far too little on defense because it faces an
existential threat due to increased American spending.
Don’t laugh. This is a mirror image of the argument
successfully used by President Ronald Reagan in a televised address to the nation on November 22, 1982. “The
combination of the Soviets spending more and the
United States spending proportionately less changed the
military balance and weakened our deterrent,” he said.
“Today, in virtually every measure of military power, the
Soviet Union enjoys a decided advantage.”8
Billions of Constant $
Mirroring Reagan’s argument, Russian defense advocates emphasizing the dangers of the US spend-up are
likely to point out that the United States and its allies are
already spending far more on their military forces than
Russia. Moreover, America certainly intends to rapidly
increase the size of this spending advantage, because the
large new American nuclear modernization program is
only part of a larger spending buildup.
After all, have not President Trump and Senator John
McCain (R-AZ) proposed huge increases to President
Obama’s defense budget to rebuild what they claim is a
“depleted” military?
Russian politicians, echoing Mr. Reagan in 1982, might
construct a graphic using the West’s own numbers from
military analysis publication Jane’s to prove their points9:
Billions of Constant 2016 $
S. Korea
Saudi Arabia
Source: Press release, Jane’s Database, December 12, 2016
Source: World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1971-1980.
A Russian defense advocate using the Jane’s metric
could argue that (1) Russia is now spending slightly
less than Saudi Arabia, less than India, and less than
the UK; (2) the size of Russia’s budget is only a quar-
Alex Emmons, “Obama’s Russian Rationale for $1 Trillion Nuke Plan Signals New Arms Race,” The Intercept, February 23, 2016.
Aaron Mehta, “Trump’s nuclear options: Upcoming review casts a wide net,” Defense News, February 8, 2017.
United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, “Administration Perspectives on US Security Requirements,” World Military Expenditures and
Arms Transfers 1971-1980, p. 4.
9 IHS Markit, “2016’s $1.57 Trillion Global Defence Spend to Kick off Decade of Growth, IHS Markit Says,” December 12, 2016.
8 13
ter of China’s; and (3) the size of Russia’s defense budget
is an astonishing one-twelfth that of the United States!
Of course, from a Russian leader’s point of view, the
strategic threat goes well beyond the madness implied by
the asymmetries in defense budgets.
They might see the Trumpian expansion of both
nuclear offense and missile defense as evidence the
sions worked to deliberately isolate and impoverish Russia—and the potential (though to date frustrated) expansion by the West into Ukraine and Georgia intensified the
sense that Russia had been hoodwinked by the West. Moreover, the rapid, opportunistic expansion of
NATO and the EU created a kaleidoscope of internal
frictions. Now both institutions are in trouble, riven by
contradictions and disharmonies. Great Britain is
leaving the EU but will remain in NATO. Northern
Russian leaders might see the expansion of
Europe and the EU bankers are imposing draconian
both nuclear offense and missile defense as
austerity measures on Southern Europe, particularly
evidence the United States is planning to
Greece. The destruction of Libya, Iraq, and Syria,
dominate Russia by preparing to fight and
under U.S. leadership with European participation,
win a nuclear war.
has created the largest refugee crisis of our time,
deeply threatening the EU’s organizing principle of
United States is planning to dominate Russia by prepar- open borders. The increasing tide of European instability
ing to fight and win a nuclear war—a radical shift from and chaos, accompanied by the looming specter of growAmerica’s 50-plus years of building nuclear forces only ing Fascist movements from Spain to Ukraine, inevitably
for deterrence (often referred to as Mutually Assured add to the traditional Russian sense of being endangered
and encircled.
Destruction or MAD).
What would you do?
Faced with such a threat, militarist factions inside RusFor patriotic Americans interested in increasing their
sia are likely to insist on a rational application of the prereal national security (rather than their national secucautionary principle by the Russian nation.
That principle will dictate a response, presumably rity budget), the nuclear issue boils down to a question of
a massive Russian nuclear arms race with the United understanding the powerful impact of America’s spendStates. The obvious fact that the politically engineered ing decisions and actions on patriotic Russians. In other
US nuclear program cannot be reined in or terminated words, it is a question of reasoned empathy and pragby politicians in the United States is almost certainly matic self-interest.
Yet the mainstream media and the politicians of both
understood by the Russians. But that appreciation would
serve merely to magnify the sense of menace perceived parties in thrall to our MICC are working day and night
to pump up anti-Russian hysteria and hype fear to ensure
by patriotic Russian leaders.
Bear in mind, the Russians are unlikely to view the Americans remain completely oblivious to the poweremerging nuclear menace in isolation. For one thing, ful, dangerous impact of our senseless Obama-Trump
there is the toxic question of NATO’s expansion and the nuclear spend-up on the Russians—or on anyone else for
that matter. n
mistrust it created.
The expansion of NATO eastwards, President George
W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Franklin C. Spinney retired from the Defense Department in
Missile Treaty, and the deployment of ABM systems to 2003 after a military-civilian career spanning 33 years. The latEastern Europe certainly increased the Russians’ sense ter 26 of those years were as a staff analyst in the Office of the
of mistrust and menace regarding US intentions.10 To Secretary of Defense. His sharply critical analysis of the Reagan
this day, Putin’s speeches repeatedly refer to the broken defense program landed him on the cover of the March 7, 1983,
issue of Time Magazine.
American promises.
In parallel with the NATO expansion, the European
Union (EU) expanded eastward beginning in 1995 and Pierre Sprey was one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamacontinuing to 2013. The EU’s exclusion of Russia from the ra’s “Whiz Kids” in the Pentagon in the 1960s. During the late
“greater European home” further fueled an atmosphere 1970s, Sprey, Col. John Boyd, and a small, dedicated group of
Pentagon and congressional insiders started the military reform
of mistrust and menace.
From a Russian perspective, the NATO and EU expan- movement.
10 Wade Boese, “U.S. Withdraws from ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2002.
14 The Defense Monitor | January-May 2017
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This most recent evaluation comes after years of failures. Completing construction of the facility alone has
gone from $1.6 billion to a staggering $17 billion—over
10 times the original estimate. That cost doesn’t include
operating the plant over the next 20 years. Independent
estimates have found that, over the facility’s lifetime,
MOX will cost taxpayers $110 billion when operating and
construction costs are included.5
While the facility was supposed to be fully constructed in 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers recently
released a report stating that MOX won’t be finished
and ready for operations until 2048—putting it 41 years
behind schedule.6
And in 2008 the project lost it’s only potential customer for the mixed oxide fuel and hasn’t been able to
find a single replacement customer.
So why is the MOX project still receiving hundreds of
millions of dollars every year?
It is likely in part due to a successful lobbying effort.7
The two companies that make up CB&I AREVA MOX Services, Chicago Bridge & Iron Works (CB&I) and AREVA,
spent a total of $2.4 million lobbying the government in
2015 alone on various issues including the MOX project.
In the first two quarters of 2016, the groups spent $1.4 million. That amount doubles when including other organizations that listed MOX as a lobbying objective, like the
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
MOX should be an easy place to cut wasteful spending. POGO and Savannah River Site Watch sent a letter
to policymakers asking them to cancel the wasteful project. It’s unaffordable and has been delayed so long that
the political landscape has changed. Continuing to spend
billions of taxpayer dollars to uphold a deal that no longer
exists is madness. Not to mention continuing to support a
contractor that has lied to the government, Congress, and
the American taxpayer. It is clear that MOX has failed the
viability test and it’s time to lay it to rest once and for all. n
5 Project On Government Oversight, ‘Why It’s Time to Cancel MOX,” 2015.
6 Department of Energy, 2016 Updated Performance baseline for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site, 2016. (Downloaded 2016)
7 Project On Government Oversight, “Why Does Congress Continue to Fund This Boondoggle?” July 21, 2016. 15
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We Need to Audit the Pentagon
What I’ve Learned Covering the Military for 40 Years
Scant public interest yields ceaseless wars to nowhere
Scathing Contractor Evaluation Should End the
MOX Project
POGO and other groups send letter to policymakers
recommending cancellation
F-35 Continues to Stumble
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
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