Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” 

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RALEIGH – Have you ever felt like you are getting ripped off? The four passengers who boarded the Titan submersible might have felt that way for the two milliseconds before the implosion dismembered them. I imagine their families are feeling ripped off. It will be interesting to see if the liability waivers that the four passengers signed will hold up in court.

Here is another example. There are times when it feels like we are being ripped off by the Department of Defense. The U.S. military is one of the largest and most heavily funded organizations in the world. According to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the 2023 allocation for the Department of Defense is nearing the $1 trillion level:

“For the 62nd consecutive year, Congress has reached a bipartisan, bicameral agreement to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Each year, the NDAA authorizes funding levels and provides authorities for the U.S. military and other critical defense priorities, ensuring our troops have the training, equipment, and resources they need to carry out their missions… The 62nd annual NDAA supports a total of $857.9 billion in fiscal year 2023 funding for national defense. Within this topline, the legislation authorizes $816.7 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD) and $30.3 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy (DOE).”

That’s a lot of money. And for this money we should reasonably expect a high level professionalism and competence from the organization. Unfortunately, we have these situations where, instead of competence, we can feel like we are getting ripped off.

I know I felt ripped off when, on September 11, 2001, the jet crashed into the Pentagon. The Pentagon is the headquarters of the Department of Defense. Tens of thousands of people work there. And the jet hit the Pentagon two hours after the first jet crashed in NYC, so there was plenty of warning. The jet that hit the Pentagon had time to fly from Dulles airport all the way to Ohio, and then make it all the way back to the Pentagon. Can’t we reasonably expect that the Pentagon would be well-defended and have a well-planned response to any attack? Shouldn’t there be anti-aircraft missile batteries on site, and fighter jets flying overhead at all times to protect this facility, and other important facilities?

There was that same feeling on January 6, 2021 at the United States Capitol building. The Vice President was there, all the senators were there, and this building was breached by insurrectionists? Why weren’t there armed soldiers fast-roping out of Blackhawk helicopters, along with a thousand paratroopers landing to defend the capital? Situations like this can make the DOD look completely incompetent.

There is a new situation that is bubbling right now. It is not as dramatic as the prior two examples, but it again shows a big problem. The United States appears to be unable to produce enough artillery shells to supply Ukraine with the ammunition it needs.

You can read articles like these to understand the problem here:

We can form a simplified picture from these articles:

  • Russia is shooting perhaps 20,000 artillery shells per day at Ukraine.
  • Ukraine wants to shoot back and needs ammunition to do it.
  • However, the one factory in the United States that can produce 155 mm artillery shells only produces 14,000 shells per month.
  • Maybe, if the DOD spends billions of dollars and waits 5 years, production can rise to 90,000 shells per month.
  • But even then, that production level in 5 years misses Ukraine’s ideal daily demand by a factor of 7X.

A normal citizen, seeing that the DOD receives such a gargantuan amount of money every year, might feel ripped off. Might expect the Department of Defense to be proactive and competent. “Why aren’t there 10 factories in the United States ready to produce artillery shells? Why can’t the DOD use these 10 factories to spin up production in a week, and go from producing 14,000 shells per month to 20,000 shells a day?” Wouldn’t we expect the DOD to be ready for war? Wouldn’t we expect the possibility of a war starting suddenly, and therefore the DOD needs to be able to react suddenly?

Then add in this related factor:

“When a gunpowder mill in Minden, Louisiana, caught spark and blew up in June 2021, the Pentagon lost its sole domestic producer of black powder.”

There is one factory in the U.S. to make the stuff. One. The United States needs this component to make hundreds of different ammunition types. Why would the DOD allow the country to get into such a vulnerable position?

These are not rare events. The article points out: “Only one company makes the rocket motors for Javelin anti-tank missiles, for example, and one foundry forges all the titanium casings used in howitzers.”

It feels as though no thought has been given to supply chain problems, or capacity problems, or the risks of sole-sourcing, or the need to rapidly spin up production for things like artillery shells, howitzers, and anti-tank missiles when a war starts. It all feels incompetent, like on September 11 and January 6.

How can an organization that has been given something close to a trillion dollars a year be acting this way? Why isn’t everything at the DOD thought through and operated in completely competent ways that anticipate what might happen in the future?

We could add one more recent development to the pile – an inability to keep track of classified documents.

Think back to the day in April 2023 when you heard about this one: Somehow, people were finding photographs of Top Secret military documents scattered across the Internet. This article from April 7 is typical:

You might have been thinking, “How would anyone get hold of this many Top Secret documents in order to leak them? And wouldn’t we immediately know who the leaker was?” Wouldn’t we assume that there is at least a rudimentary check-out system for Top Secret documents, like the local public library would have? A system where we know who has accessed each Top Secret document. And a system where we would put some kind of limit on the number of documents that can be checked out? And a system where there would be a time limit on checkouts? We would expect much more than this obviously, given that the documents are Top Secret. Therefore, the whole incident seemed impossible.

A week later they arrested the leaker, Jack Teixeira, and we found out that he is a 21-year-old member of the air national guard, living with his mother, a gun nut, an obvious racist, and so on:

From the third article: “New evidence filed in Massachusetts District Court suggests Jack Teixeira, the Massachusetts Air National Guard member suspected of leaking a trove of classified military intelligence, had a history of making violent comments, sought information about how to commit a shooting and had what prosecutors called a ‘virtual arsenal of weapons’ stored at his places of residence, including an AK-style weapon.”

How was he granted access to Top Secret documents to begin with? Why wouldn’t there be background checks that prevented this sort of thing from happening? Why wouldn’t there be controls on what gets checked out and how the documents are managed?

Again, there is this feeling of incompetence in even the simplest matters, and the feeling of getting ripped off by the DOD.

All this together is a doomsday scenario of the highest order. If the DOD is receiving all this money and support, but it then acts in ways that are so incompetent, then everyone in the nation is vulnerable. An incompetent Department of Defense cannot defend us from enemies both foreign and domestic. The DOD is an organization that should be 100% on the ball and ready for anything 100% of the time. The DOD receives such an enormous amount of money exactly so they will perform at this level.