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.
In this week’s issue: the Pentagon continues its effort to build a shield of dreams; UFOmania; new study says military’s mobile mini-nukes don’t make sense; should the U.S. declare Taiwan off-limits to China?; and more.
ANOTHER TOUGH WEEK FOR MISSILE DEFENSE
The “hits” keep on coming
On April 27 we finally learned the cost of the Pentagon’s third try to develop and deploy a silver bullet. Supposedly capable of shooting down incoming missiles aimed at the U.S., the cost of a new interceptor comes to a cool $17.7 billion. The next day, we learned why the Pentagon needs that new Next-Generation Interceptor for its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), a system designed to collide with and destroy enemy missiles from 44 silos in Alaska and California.
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In the fiscal year that ended September 30, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had planned to acquire one new Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) and conduct one flight test with a mock GBI. “MDA did not deliver the one GBI planned for fiscal year 2020,” the Government Accountability Office reported (PDF). “In fiscal year 2020, GMD did not conduct its one planned flight test, GMD Booster Vehicle Test (GM BVT)-03, because of challenges developing a 2-/3-stage selectable GBI functionality.” In case you have difficultly wading through all this acronymed gobbledygook, the bottom line is clear: the nation’s primary missile defense system was 0-for-2 last year (it has achieved a 63% success rate (PDF) in the Pentagon’s highly-scripted tests between 2007 and 2019).
Why neither delivery nor test happened in 2020 is illuminating. The delivery delay stems from a 2018 snafu “where the boost vehicle contractor mishandled a key avionics component of the boost vehicle,” the GAO found. “MDA now plans for the GBI to be delivered in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2021, three years later than originally planned.”
The flight test didn’t happen because that quest to develop a “2-/3-stage selectable GBI functionality”—allowing the interceptor to increase its range against an enemy missile—ended up with an initial cost of nearly $1 billion. Hard as it may be to believe, the Pentagon appears to have scrapped that redesign as too costly. “MDA subsequently revisited the 2-stage performance requirements and instead decided to pursue a software-only solution that program officials stated would achieve roughly half of the battlespace expansion previously expected,” the GAO said.
Ever since the U.S. government embraced a national missile defense system in 2002, there has been a rush to throw billions of dollars at a limited threat. Today’s missile defense gap echoes the imaginary 1950s U.S. missile and bomber gaps (alongside the Soviet Union) used to justify sharp increases in U.S. defense spending. A theology now surrounds missile defense, with its choir singing a constant chorus that the threat is growing and requires even more resources, faster.
Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are competing to build the Next Generation Interceptor, which could be deployed by 2028. If you’re surprised at spending nearly $18 billion on 31 silver bullets, you just haven’t been paying attention: the MDA has spent more than $200 billion(PDF) on missile defenses since 1985.
SPEAKING OF STAR WARS…
UFOs are running amok
If you find missile defense news too dry and technical, feel free to sift through the recent incoming barrage of reports on that good ol’ American standby—Unidentified Flying Objects. The British-based U.S. Sun recently interviewed Luis Elizondo, who headed up the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The Defense Department says it shut the operation down nearly a decade ago. But Elizondo warns that a growing number of UFOs represent a “national security issue…There is something in our skies, we don’t know what it is, we don’t know how it works, we don’t know fully what it can do, we don’t know who is behind the wheel, we don’t know its intentions, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.”
The New Yorker posted a lengthy piece April 30 on U.S. government UFO probes (a major report into such efforts is set for release in June). In fact, the nation’s biggest contractor may have UFO pieces in its possession. “I was told for decades that Lockheed had some of these retrieved materials,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told the magazine. “And I tried to get, as I recall, a classified approval by the Pentagon to have me go look at the stuff. They would not approve that.”
That’s hard to believe. If Lockheed had UFO secrets in its possession, no way the F-35 would have been such a disaster.
Should the U.S. military deploy nuclear reactors?
You have to sympathize with the U.S. military’s desire to develop a better way of generating power in the field. Shipping in diesel fuel via truck convoys is not only inefficient, but it exposes those running the convoys to enemy attack. In fact, the Pentagon has said that U.S. troops conducting convoy operations in Afghanistan and Iraq accounted for more than half the U.S. casualties in those countries between 2001 and 2010. So the Pentagon, with pushes from Congress and the nuclear-power industry, has long salivated over the prospect of providing miniature atomic reactors to power all the electrical gear that hums 24/7 at U.S. military outposts. Plus, atomic power could fuel future high-energy weapons.
Not so fast, says the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas. “There is currently no good argument for deploying mobile nuclear reactors to U.S. military bases in war zones,” argues NPPP’s Alan Kuperman in an April 22 report (PDF). His investigation into U.S. convoy casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq indicates that only 18% of total casualties could be attributed to fuel convoy operations, and not the 52% cited by backers of deployable nuclear reactors. And, he adds, any notion of harnessing nuclear power for Buck Rogers-like weapons “is dubious because such weapons use energy intermittently, and thus would not require the large steady-state power output of a nuclear reactor, but instead could be powered much less expensively by diesel generators coupled with energy storage.”
Plus, there’s the obvious downside. “In light of adversary precision weapons, and U.S. defensive measures that might inhibit ambient cooling,” Kuperman writes, “a reactor accident could radioactively contaminate thousands of nearby U.S. troops.” His report echoes many of the concerns raised by The Bunker in a Military Industrial Circus columntwo years ago.
Nonetheless, the Army has hired two companies to develop prototypes for testing and possible purchase. It seems that folks just need to get over their irrational atomic fears. “The problem with nuclear reactors…is the word ‘nuclear,’” Major General Sue Davidson, who oversees U.S. Army logistics in the Pacific, conceded last year. “All people think of when they hear ‘nuclear’ is either Chernobyl—which was tragic—Three Mile Island, or [the Fukushima disaster in] Japan.”
REDUCING THE CHANCE OF WAR WITH CHINA
How about swapping one S.A. for another?
The Pentagon prides itself on S.A., which is mil-speak for “situational awareness”—in other words, knowing what is happening around you. Yet when it comes to the defense of Taiwan, the U.S. prefers another kind of S.A.—“strategic ambiguity.” That’s shorthand for Washington’s refusal to declare whether or not it would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked by China. That second kind of S.A. has been official U.S. policy since 1979.
Avril Haines, chief of U.S. intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee April 29 that it wouldn’t be smart for the U.S. to pledge to come to Taiwan’s defense if the mainland attacked. “The Chinese would find this deeply destabilizing," she said. “It would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China's rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide.”
But others say that junking “strategic ambiguity” is the only way to make clear to China to keep its hands off Taiwan. “The policy known as strategic ambiguity has…run its course,” Richard Haass and David Sacks argue. “Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities,” the pair wrote in September in Foreign Affairs.
“There is just one problem with this way of thinking,” defense expert Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution countered April 28. “A promise by America to defend Taiwan does not mean that it could defend it.”
All this tug-of-warring around the world’s most dangerous flashpoint is giving the Pentagon the vapors. “Deputy Defense Secretary Says Conflict With China Is Not Inevitable,” the Defense Department’s PR machine declared April 30. While that may be the official line, some inside DOD, the defense industry, and on Capitol Hill want you thinking otherwise.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what caught The Bunker's eye recently
The Pentagon announced April 30 that it was canceling construction of sections of former President Trump’s wall along the Mexican border that were being built with money diverted (PDF) from the Pentagon. The unused funds, likely totaling in the billions, will be returned to the U.S. military for military-construction projects. An Army Corps of Engineers estimate found the government will save about $2.6 billion after paying demobilization costs to contractors. Trump declared a national emergency and ordered the Pentagon to fund wall construction after both Congress and Mexico came up short.
Those in and out of uniform have been known to say military justice is an oxymoron—kind of like military music or jumbo shrimp. A pair of recent stories involving the Marine Corps highlights the problem. The first piece, posted on The War Horse website April 28, is a first-person account by a former Marine public affairs officer who says his commanders told him to fib about why a senior Marine officer was canned. “I never thought that refusing to lie to the press would be the end of my career in the Corps,” Paul Gainey, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, wrote.
On May 3, Task & Purpose reported that the Marines’ inspector general (IG)—its watchdog-in-chief—had been suspended from that critical post late last week because of his role in the 2020 amphibious assault vehicle sinking that killed nine. General David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, belatedly yanked Major General Robert Castellvi from the sensitive IG post following a probe that concluded Castellvi “bears some responsibility” for inadequate training that may have played a role in the disaster. “The Marine Corps should never have appointed an officer who oversaw possibly the worst training disaster in modern Marine Corps history to the position of Inspector General,” said Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), head of the armed services committee’s personal panel. “If the Marine Corps is serious about fixing its failed safety culture, it must start by holding its top leadership accountable.”
Not only do we go into known wars without a declaration from Congress, the U.S. has gotten into this bad habit of quietly picking off bad guys outside of war zones. President Biden has suspended such drones strikes and commando ops allowed by his predecessors. They were expanded under this 2017 memo pried out of the government by the American Civil Liberties Union, which posted a redacted version of this once-secret document April 30.
A veteran Marine V-22 tilt-rotor pilot has declared that the Army would be better off buying a more conventional chopper to replace its UH-60 Black Hawk fleet than a smaller version of the V-22. Scott Trail argued in Breaking Defense April 30 that Sikorsky-Boeing’s Defiant X compound helicopter makes more sense than the Bell V-280 Valor tilt-rotor for the Army’s low-flying mission. The Army tapped those two in March as finalists for its $40 billion Future Long Range Assault Aircraft program. Trail served as a “Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow” at Sikorsky in 2014-2015, but “has never received any compensation” from either company, Breaking Defense noted.
The U.S. is rightly concerned about the health effects of the defoliant Agent Orange that rained down on U.S. troops during the War in Vietnam. “American veterans and their offspring who meet certain requirements are eligible for benefits,” Vietnamese novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote in the April 29 New York Times. “Vietnamese and other victims in Southeast Asia are still waiting for the U.S. government to provide a similar level of assistance.” She has a point.
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