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 The Bunker this week: Losers’ lament over Afghanistan; new War Powers push; the Pentagon’s lust for omniscient networks; Turkey’s push to get its F-35 down payment back; & more.
DEFEAT IS AN ORPHAN
So let’s blame somebody else
Close-quarters combat has erupted on Capitol Hill over the war in Afghanistan, and its ignominious conclusion. The U.S. military blamed the State Department for the chaotic and late rush to the exits, a charge the State Department dismissed. Republican lawmakers blamed President Biden. Democrats defended Biden from GOP attacks. Top military leaders said they wanted to keep a small U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan despite Biden’s claim to the contrary. Grunts blamed the brass.
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Lawmakers, who were content to wash their hands of the war as it dragged on for two decades, pounced in hearings September 28 and 29 (once it crashed and burned for good). If they had spent more time looking through the windshield as we drove into and through the war, and less time checking the rearview mirror after the U.S. lost it, the nation would have been far better off.
According to the New York Times, the blame-casting was pure agitprop: “Republican senators who had in the past defended President Donald J. Trump’s desire to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan demanded resignations from military leaders who carried out a Democratic president’s orders to withdraw. Democrats, who are traditionally tougher on military leaders, on this occasion, provided solace in the form of softer questioning and traced flaws back to the Trump administration.”
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, crossed swords with Senator Tom Cotton when the Arkansas Republican asked why Milley hadn’t resigned over Biden’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out. “My dad didn’t get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima, and those kids there at Abbey Gate, they don’t get a choice to resign,” Milley said, referring to the Kabul airport entrance where a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops during the rush for the exit. “If the orders are legal from the civilian authority, I intend to carry them out.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was the State Department’s “call” on when to begin the formal civilian retreat, officially known as a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (Milley reportedly was even more blunt behind closed doors). Secretary of State Antony Blinken blinked in response, saying no single U.S. government agency was to blame: “We did it together.”
We did, indeed.
Meanwhile, rural Afghans—accounting for nearly three-quarters of the country’s 40 million people—live amid the ruins of the longest war in U.S. history. “Everyone here hated the Americans,” a 30-year-old man said in the October 5 Washington Post. A 2019 airstrike blew up his shop, 25 miles outside Kabul, killing 12. The ruling Taliban may be brutish, but a long-absent calm has finally returned. “Death,” the local imam said, “has disappeared.”
Another Sisyphean push up Capitol Hill
Even if the war in Afghanistan is over, the 20-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force that green-lighted it remains on. That’s the legislative fig leaf that Congress passed shortly after 9/11 to let the White House and Pentagon wage war without lawmakers actually having to get their hands bloody by declaring one. “As a matter of domestic law, the president has authorized U.S. forces to strike ISIS-K targets in Afghanistan, pursuant to the 2001 AUMF,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said September 30, 7,318 days after it passed (ISIS-K is the Afghan branch of the Islamic State). The law has been used by presidents of both parties to launch combat operations pretty much anywhere at any time, so long as they link it, however tangentially, to the 9/11 attacks.
Believe it or not, some in Congress think—as required by the Constitution—they should have a bigger say when it comes to war. Seven House members, from both parties, have introduced the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act (PDF). Beyond matters of war and peace, the legislation would beef up congressional oversight of overseas arms sales. It is similar to a bipartisan Senate bill introduced in July. Such congressional initiatives in the past have gone nowhere. It’s unlikely that the Afghan fiasco will change things, given congressional squeamishness on pretty much all critical issues.
“For decades, presidents of both parties have slowly but surely usurped Congressional authority on matters of national security,” Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) said of the latest effort. “We need to come together in a bipartisan way to reclaim our rightful role as a co-equal branch of government before it’s too late.”
Before it’s too late?
The Pentagon’s all-knowing network won’t
There are growing questions about Pentagon efforts to knit all of its satellites, sensors, and shooters into the tongue-twisting Joint All-Domain Command and Control network (JADC2). “The Departments of the Air Force, Army and Navy each have their own projects that are expected to contribute to JADC2 but are funded and managed separately,” National Defense magazine reported September 29. And this’ll come as a surprise, especially in the publication of a leading defense-industry trade group: “The Defense Department is at risk of spending billions of dollars without achieving its aims, officials and analysts are warning.”
Skeptics “raise questions about its technical maturity and affordability, and whether it is even possible to field a network that can securely and reliably connect sensors to shooters and support command and control in a lethal, electronic warfare-rich environment,” a recent report (PDF) by the Congressional Research Service noted. Because much of the network is classified and spread among various agencies, there isn’t a public price tag available. One analyst estimates the military will spend more than $1 billion on it this year, with funding to “ramp up in budgets to come.”
Dan Grazier, here at the Project On Government Oversight, warns of the vulnerability created by such an over-arching system. “The U.S. needs a strategy that does not hinge on fragile networks,” he wrote recently at Defense One. “All networks are fragile when the enemy’s survival depends on disrupting them, so building an entire operation around them would be self-defeating.”
One reason the Pentagon’s JADC2 program is sketchy is that no one’s in charge. “Each of the military services owns their respective programs, platforms and battle networks—and the budgets that fund them—but there is no effective forcing function that ensures the services’ systems will be able to work together,” Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted (PDF) in August.
That’s precisely the same problem The Bunker highlighted last week, citing a Government Accountability Office report on hypersonic weapons. “GAO identified 70 efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and related technologies that are estimated to cost almost $15 billion from fiscal years 2015 through 2024,” it said (PDF). “DOD itself has not documented the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the multitude of its organizations, including the military services, that are working on hypersonic weapon development.”
Both examples suggest a Defense Department that has too much money. It’s a Pentagon fact of life that when the U.S. military is awash in cash, the only thing it can’t afford is accountability—because there’s no need to.
“Can I get my money back?”
It’s hard to know who to root for when it comes to the latest dogfight over the F-35 fighter, the crown jewel of Pentagon spending and the most-costly (PDF) weapon system in world history (roughly $400 billion to buy and about $1.3 trillion to fly). Turkey, no pun intended, is complaining that it wants the U.S. to return the $1.4 billion it spent on the F-35 before the U.S. kicked it out of the program in 2019. That happened after Turkey decided to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system. The U.S. said it booted Turkey (OK, pun intended) out because its ownership of the S-400 could let Russia glean details about Lockheed’s F-35, compromising its fighting edge. The Pentagon said Turkey should have bought the U.S.-built Patriot air-defense system instead. Shifting F-35 work from Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, to other nations will cost at least $500 million.
“We made a $1.4 billion payment, what will become of that?” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said September 29. “We did not—and do not—earn this money easily. Either they will give us our planes or they will give us the money.” He said he hopes to press President Biden for the cash, or the planes, during a Halloween G-20 summit meeting in Rome. Thirteen nations, in addition to the U.S., are buying the aircraft.
Turkey recently extended its lobbying contract with Arnold & Porter, a D.C. law firm, for $125,000 a month (PDF), to try and claw its way back into the program. Arnold & Porter, in turn, has hired a former Lockheed executive to help. But rejoining the program is as unlikely as a refund, especially since Ankara is considering even more military hanky-panky with Moscow.
And it looks like India is buying S-400s as well, jeopardizing relations between Washington and New Delhi.
Given the heartburn the Russian S-400 deals are causing in Washington, it’s noteworthy that the U.S.’s top military officer has talked with his Russian counterpart about using Russian bases in countries bordering Afghanistan. The U.S. needs such outposts to launch counter-terror strikes inside Afghanistan. Guess if that happens, don’t count on F-35s being involved.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
If the military becomes more precise—more “surgical” as the Pentagon used to say (before surgeons objected)—does that make war more likely? That’s the question posed by a new book by Yale professor Samuel Moyn, reviewed October 3 in the New York Times. “In ‘Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,’ he takes the reader on an excruciating journey, in incisive, meticulous and elegant prose, about the modern history of making war more legal, and in effect sanitizing it so that it can continue forever,” reviewer Robert D. Kaplan noted.
“Victory” is such a stark word. How about “fighting and succeeding in the nation’s wars,” retired Marine colonel Thomas C. Greenwood suggests in the independent-but-Navy-backed October issue of Proceedings. Alas, no matter how you define it, the U.S. military is still 0-for-2 in its last two outings.
As the Village People sang in their 1979 tune, there are certain traditions (PDF) in the U.S. Navy. Apparently, bribery is one of them, according to Craig Whitlock’s latest tale of nautical financial perfidy in the October 3 Washington Post.
When Tom Parker, an author at the Modern War Institute, based at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, suggests in an October 1 column that the 9/11 terrorists snookered us into overreacting, we might want to listen to what he has to say. Of course, he is British…
It’s important not to take all this nat-sec stuff too seriously. To help you with that, here’s a September 28 piece from mypanhandle.com about how local and state police swarmed Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base after getting a false report of an active shooter. Turns out it was a drill. “During the exercise there was a real-world 911 call made,’” a base spokesperson said. The problem was that local law enforcement didn't know it was only a drill.
Afghanistan marks the first time that the nation has ended a major war without leaving someone behind, Dave Philipps reported in the October 5 New York Times. That’s significant, both to the troops sent in harm’s way and their families nervously awaiting their return. It’s the unknowingness that is the real soul crusher for those involved, as The Bunker too well knows from reporting on two such cases in Iraq, from 2005 and 2016.
Speaking of not knowing, if you’ve never visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, you should stop by before it turns 100 next month. It’s one of the first places The Bunker took his two sons as soon as they were able to understand what it was all about (after the Marines’ Evening Parade at 8th and I, of course). Glad to see, per Paul Szoldra’s October 2 account in Task & Purpose, that the first all-woman changing of the guard took place recently upon that hallowed ground.
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