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: Army popguns, a decline in Americans’ trust in the military, and Congress deep-sixes public reports on warship readiness.
Yet another Army dud on the horizon?
The Army hasn’t had much luck when it comes to building long-range guns. First there was the $11 billion Crusader program (wonder how many countries in the Middle East would have bought something named that?). It was a self-propelled howitzer designed to lob a 100-pound shell 25 miles. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld killed it in 2002, deeming it too heavy and too costly, after a $3 billion investment. The Pentagon diverted $310 million in Crusader funding into the fledgling $160 billion Future Combat Systems and its Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon. Defense Secretary Bob Gates killed the FCS, including its cannon, in 2009, after spending nearly $20 billion.
Sign up for The Bunker
The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson.Subscribe
The big guns—artillery—were once known as the Queen of the Battlefield. But they’ve been pushed to the rear in recent counter-insurgency fights. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have waned, the Pentagon has turned its attention to what it calls a looming “Great Power competition” and the weapons it says are needed to win any resulting war. The Army’s current big guns are limited to raining steel on targets up to 20 miles away.
The Army believes it’s time for a much better and bigger gun. Having failed to build modestly-better ones, the Army is now working on what it calls its Strategic Long Range Cannon (SLRC). The apparent love child of Big Bertha and Buck Rogers, the Army says this highly-classified behemoth will be able to hurl shells (most likely with built-in rocket-boosters) more than 1,000 miles. This raises a host of questions, such as: how will the Army know what it is aiming at? Who will pick the targets? Who will say “Fire!”
Most importantly, will it work?
That’s a fair question. After all, the Navy proposed a $35,000 shell capable of traveling 100 miles, but ended up with one with a range of only 63 miles at a cost of nearly $1 million apiece.
So color Congress skeptical. The House Armed Services Committee has asked the National Academy of Sciences “to learn more about this imaginative concept and the technical challenges associated with development of such a capability especially with respect to propellant, projectiles, and cannon.” Lawmakers tend not to use adjectives like “imaginative” lightly. For its part, the NAS has said it is studying the “feasibility” of the supergun. It wants to see “a technology maturation roadmap, including an estimated funding profile over time, needed to achieve an effective operational SLRC that describes both the critical and associated supporting technologies, systems integration, prototyping and experimentation, and test and evaluation.”
Heck, if every Pentagon pipe dream had to undergo that kind of external pre-production scrub, few weapons would ever leave the drawing board. The order has basically halted work on this grandson-of-a-gun until the NAS wraps up its work—sometime in the next several months.
But even if NAS green-lights the project, look for flak from the Air Force and Navy, who feel such a gun could threaten not only future targets, but the monopoly those two services currently hold on long-range attacks. The Army knows it needs such a capability if it’s to play a role in planning for a war with China, which is deploying a so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy to thwart U.S. military muscle in the Pacific. “Our Navy has incredible capabilities; our Air Force has incredible capabilities,” General James McConville, the Army chief of staff, said (PDF) March 11. “What you want to do is provide the COCOM [Combat Command] commander multiple capabilities.”
And for the taxpayers to pay for all of them.
Survey suggests confidence in U.S. military is waning
The good news for the U.S. military is that they remain one of the most respected institutions in the land. The bad news is that shine is tarnishing. The number of U.S. adults who say they have “a great deal of trust and confidence” in the military fell from 70% in 2018, to 56% in February, according to a survey (PDF) conducted by the Ronald Reagan Institute and released March 10.
“This downward trend in trust of the military is a leading indicator of a diminishing national spirit and an affront to President Reagan’s legacy,” Roger Zakheim, director of the institute, said (PDF). Given the political turmoil of the past year, the non-profit institute said, “it is understandable that Americans are experiencing a sense of pessimism.”
The survey was conducted one month after supporters of then-President Trump stormed the Capitol seeking to overturn Joe Biden’s election based on false claims of voter fraud. It found that even as a “great deal” of confidence in the military has sagged, it topped public trust in police (39%), public health officials (33%), the presidency (30%), election administrators (26%), the Supreme Court (23%) and public schools (21%). In their perpetual battle for the bottom, the press (14%) barely edged out Congress (10%).
The survey of 2,500 adults showed that 61% believe domestic threats are either equal to (25%) or greater than (36%) those from overseas. Twenty-six percent think the nation spends too much on its military, while 26% think it spends too little; 39% says the size of the defense budget is “about right.” Despite the drop in public confidence in the U.S. military, the Pentagon preferred to see the canteen as half full. “The military is still the most trusted institution in America,” spokesman John Kirby said. “We take that trust and confidence very, very seriously and want to make sure that we're always earning it.”
UNREADY FOR INSPECTION
Tough Navy reports are walking the plank
What’s a Navy to do when the publicly-available readiness rates of its warships, according to independent inspectors, have fallen three years in a row? Easy—deep six the reports. That’s just what the sea service is apparently trying to do, with help from a too-compliant Congress.
The Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV, in service parlance) was founded more than 150 years ago. “The reports have long been a headache for the Navy because they often paint an unfavorable picture of the fleet’s readiness,” Mallory Shelbourne wrote March 11 at the independent U.S. Naval Institute website. But, she added, there was a legal depth charge contained in the 2019 defense authorization act that simply said “No report shall be required under this subsection after October 1, 2021.”
Unnamed lawmakers cited in the USNI article say they decided to do away with the annual public summaries of Navy readiness to reduce the service’s paperwork burden, and to keep possible warship vulnerabilities secret from U.S. adversaries. But several named lawmakers say they will fight to make sure publicly-available versions of the reports continue. “I think that the taxpayers need to understand how the Navy’s being maintained, how their tax dollars are being used and what the readiness of our Navy is for our national defense,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a former Navy officer and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
It’s telling that there’s no lawmaker identified who supports ending the public reports, but three named who oppose it.
In light of that discrepancy, it’s also worth noting that a March 9 report(PDF) from the Congressional Research Service points out that the percentage of lawmakers who once served in the military has fallen from 73% in 1971, to 17% today. The Bunker bets this dearth of vets gives the Pentagon the upper hand when it comes to writing legislation it likes.
And speaking of accountability…
No one knows ethics like Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (and no, just like “military intelligence,” “government ethics” isn’t necessarily an oxymoron). He recently enlistedin the good-government fight here at the Project On Government Oversight. He’s conducting a virtual forum with POGO’s own civic engager, Zoë Reiter, as he details how political corruption really works...and how it keeps government from working as well as it should. Sign up here for the 60-minute session on Tuesday, March 23, starting at 3 p.m.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Mark Bowden examines the nation’s growing reliance on the U.S. Special Operations Command in the April issue of The Atlantic. “Its annual budget today is about $13 billion, which is a sacrosanct 2 percent of all military outlays (and roughly what it costs to build an aircraft carrier),” writes Bowden, author of 1999’s Black Hawk Down. “American Special Ops Forces Are Everywhere,” the headline reads. “They’ve become a major military player—and maybe a substitute for strategic thinking.”
That’s the bottom line on the F-35 jet fighter from the New York Times, which weighed in on the most-costly weapons program in history in a March 15 editorial. “The F-35, whatever one makes of it and however overpriced, is here to stay for a few more decades as a deterrent in the skies against a resurgent Russia and a rising China,” the paper said. But the program should be cut “sharply” and “complemented with a mix of less expensive, older fighters and unmanned drones for more routine tasks like patrolling American skies or hammering insurgents who pose no threat to a high-flying jet.”
The Buy American Act is engineered to give U.S. companies an edge when it comes to U.S. government purchases. Signed into law in 1933 on the final day of Herbert Hoover’s presidency, it continues to evolve, per this directive signed by President Biden during his first week in office. Nations are wary of overseas companies that could cut off the flow of vital supplies during a war…or a pandemic. China is taking multi-billion-dollar steps in this direction, especially in technology, as this March 10 New York Times piece makes clear.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, told David Ignatius in the March 10 Washington Post that U.S. troops increasingly see themselves as “elite.” That, he suggests, is part of the reason extremism has become salted throughout the ranks. “You can come back [from deployments abroad] and feel that you’re inherently superior to your fellow citizens,” he said. Ten years ago, in a Time cover story, The Bunker reported on how the Pentagon itself helps nurture that very mindset. “Being an Army apart isn't a problem for the Pentagon; it has become part of the sales pitch,” The Bunker noted. “‘From the first day of training you're constantly reminded that you signed on the dotted line because you want to be better,’ Army vet Matt Gallagher, who served in Iraq, says. ‘A lot of guys feel they're part of a warrior caste, separate and distinct from society.’”
Too often, U.S. military officials are too eager to echo claims by potential foes of some great weapons breakthrough that the Pentagon uses as leverage to seek more money. So a respectful tip of The Bunker helmet to Army General Robert Abrams, who played down the threat posed by a new submarine-launched missile that debuted in a January North Korean military parade (is there any other kind in Pyongyang?). “Projecting a capability in a parade, while an effective communication strategy, does not necessarily equal the ability to deliver it,” Abrams, chief of U.S. forces in South Korea, told the House Armed Services Committee, according to a March 10 dispatch in NK News.
The Korean War, which raged on the peninsula from 1950 to 1953 (although it’s technically still underway, paused only by a truce) has long been known as the “Forgotten War.” It took until 1995 to land its own memorial, downhill from the Lincoln Memorial. Now, like the Vietnam Memorial and its 58,000 names etched in stone just across the Reflecting Pool, it will get a wall with the names of the 43,000 U.S. troops and their Korean allies killed in the fight. “The Korean War was not just a two-bit exercise,” William Weber, a retired 95-year-old Army colonel, told the Washington Post’s Mike Ruane March 16. “It was a full-blown war, which, sadly, is pretty much lost in American history.”
…but “Fly Like a Girl” patches are becoming popular in the Air Force, according to this March 14 piece in Air Force Magazine.
And thanks to you for making The Bunker as popular as it is. Forward on to your colleagues, and have them sign up here to get it delivered via email early on Wednesday.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.