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 in The Bunker: Back in the 1980s, the Pentagon hyped the Soviet threat so loudly that we spent unneeded billions; now that we can see how bad their Russian progeny is…well, we’re going to spend unneeded billions again; and more.
The Ukrainians are putting up a good fight
Hardware isn't everything
The Russians apparently didn’t learn their lesson in Afghanistan, which is why they’ve ended up mired in Ukraine. Heart beats hardware most every time, which explains why Russia seems to be narrowing the goal of its unprovoked February 24 invasion. Regardless of the outcome, the Ukrainians have cut the Russians down to size.
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The Ukrainians have made it clear by their martial mettle that if the Russians attempt to govern Ukraine, the country's citizens will become a sucking chest wound that will bleed the Red Army white. It is a stunning rebuke to a nation whose Cold War military parades sent shivers around the world, and fattened the Pentagon’s annual Soviet Military Power books with dire warnings of Moscow’s might during the Reagan administration. Of course, once the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, we learned that its military was little more than a paper bear.
The Ukrainians, fighting for their homeland and despising the invaders, have mustered a ferocity that the poorly commanded and trained Russian troops have struggled to match. “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations,” Napoleon Bonaparte said 200 years ago. “The balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.”
The similarity between Russia’s performance in Afghanistan and Ukraine has lessons-unlearned echoes of the U.S. misadventures in Vietnam and (again!) Afghanistan. It seems to be a tutorial that big countries overlook: big armies with shiny weapons set the stage for war, but rarely offer a way out. Absent will—something that cannot be forged out of iron—military power can be a dangerous mirage. General Peter Schoomaker updated Napoleon’s 200-year-old adage 20 years ago, during his initial short retirement between running U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Army. “Humans,” the Army four-star said, “are more important than hardware.”
Why we keep ignoring this fact is a mystery for the ages.
Judging the Russian military
In more than 40 years of covering military conflicts, The Bunker knows that the early days of most campaigns revolve around what each side is doing right. But the Russo-Ukrainian war is different. Sure, the Ukrainians are putting up a heck of a fight, but that’s not nearly as surprising as how poorly the Russians have fought (or not) so far:
- Why are Russia’s logistics, the lifeblood of any sustained military campaign, so anemic?
- Where is the Russian air force?
- Why are up to 60% of some Russian missiles duds?
- How come so many Russian generals are dying in combat?
- Why did Russian troops apparently kill their brigade commander by crushing him under an armored vehicle?
Granted, we need to be skeptical of such reports, but the pattern is clear: Moscow has a Potemkin military. That’s a reference to the fake and moveable villages supposedly built by Grigory Potemkin in 1787. He was the governor-general of Russia’s then-new southern provinces. Potemkin had the facades put up to impress Catherine the Great as she traveled down the Dnieper River, in the heart of Ukraine, to view her expanding empire.
A HANDY CROWBAR
Using Russia to boost U.S. military spending
What’s really a hoot about Russia’s abysmal showing in Ukraine has been how quickly it has led to calls from various nooks and crannies of the U.S. military-industrial complex to boost the nation’s defense budget. The “logic” boils down to this: “The Russians are stupid—and we have got to match them.”
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), chairman of the armed services committee, said March 23 (PDF) that it’s “an interesting question” whether or not the war suggests the U.S. has exaggerated the military prowess of Russia—and China. Take all those stalled Russian armored vehicles littering the Ukrainian countryside, for example. “They should be able to fuel their vehicles,” Reed said. “They haven’t been able to do that.” Yet the same day, 40 Republican lawmakers called for higher defense spending (PDF), saying that Russia’s invasion “has already left us and our NATO allies less secure.”
The U.S. troop presence in Europe has jumped from 60,000 to 100,000 following Russia’s invasion, but the Pentagon doesn’t think that’s enough. “My suspicion is we're going to still need more,” Air Force General Tod Wolters, chief of the U.S. European Command, told Congress March 29. The Pentagon is tickled that Russia is doing so poorly, but still wants more money to deal with this threat. On March 28 the Biden administration requested $773 billion for the Defense Department in 2023, a 4% boost from 2022. The budget “provides additional funding to forcefully respond to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and its economic, humanitarian, and security consequences,” President Biden said at the White House.
But across the river at the Pentagon, Comptroller Michael McCord said the budget request had been drafted before the invasion so “there is nothing in this budget that specifically was changed because it was too late to change it if we wanted to, to reflect the specifics of the invasion.” Regardless, Republicans want a 5% after-inflation increase in the 2023 budget, and they’re likely to get most of it. Defense budget expert Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is betting that Congress will add about $25 billion to Biden’s request.
This all may sound like we’re returning to the scary days of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown and Cold War levels of defense spending. But that’s plainly not going to happen. “Going back to Cold War levels of Pentagon funding,” William Hartung and his colleagues note, “would mean reducing, not increasing spending.”
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Ukrainian military aid (PDF)
Here’s a brief March 28 report from the Congressional Research Service detailing the security assistance the U.S. has provided Ukraine in recent years.
Uri Friedman assessed the risk of the Russo-Ukrainian war going nuclear in The Atlantic March 23.
As Russia hints of using nuclear weapons, Ron Buntzen recalls watching the detonation of an atomic bomb in the South Pacific in 1958, in this March 27 piece in the New York Times.
The Air Force has a WC-135C/W Constant Phoenix surveillance plane flying over Europe primed “to execute mobile nuclear air sampling,” the service said in this March 25 article in Florida Today.
The company’s woes can be traced back to when the wall between its commercial and military products collapsed, after its merger with Pentagon-dependent McDonnell Douglas 25 years ago, Andrew Cockburn wrote at Spoils of War March 23.
Bill LaPlante, the Pentagon’s incoming top weapons buyer, used that term at his recent Senate confirmation hearing. It describes the all-too-common practice of letting defense contractors own the blueprints for the weapons they build, instead of the government. That forces the Pentagon to buy spare parts only from the original manufacturer, Marcus Weisgerber explained at Defense One March 25. That, predictably, drives up the price. LaPlante’s fix: the Defense Department needs to own the blueprints (no one said running the Pentagon was rocket science).
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