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: Amid the Russo-Ukrainian war, a big chunk of House Republicans backs Putin over NATO; a nuclear-missile tug of war; despite a $813 billion budget request, the military says it needs more money; and more.
A big crack in Republican support
Vladimir Putin doesn’t think much of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the world’s most powerful military alliance. Especially since it’s shipping weapons to Ukraine to kill Russian soldiers following Moscow’s unprovoked invasion. Former President Donald Trump doesn’t think much of it, either. Unfortunately, this virus is spreading. On April 5, 63 Republican members of the U.S. House—nearly a third of the GOP caucus—voted against a symbolic resolution affirming U.S. support for NATO and its principles during the biggest war in Europe since World War II.
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It's a tempest in a samovar really, except for the naivete and nativism it reveals—and what it may bode for NATO’s future. Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) denounced the resolution (PDF) because its text cited “internal threats from proponents of illiberalism” that some unnamed NATO nations are now facing. “That is a progressive, leftwing dog whistle for Poland and Hungary,” Harris said. (The Bunker doesn’t know why he failed to mention the U.S.) Harris got bipartisan pushback. “There is no intention other than to support democracy in this,” Representative Mike Turner (R-OH), a senior member of the armed services committee, said. “Having authored this language, I don’t know what the gentleman from Maryland is referring to,” Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) added. Undeterred, Harris called for a roll-call vote on the resolution after it passed on a voice vote. That allowed him and 62 colleagues to be branded as Russian apparatchiks. Such Republicans, Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) says, represent “the Putin wing of the @GOP.”
What the heck is going on here?
You don’t have to be a military scholar to believe that a military alliance, based on Western values, has been the cornerstone of keeping Europe largely peaceful since Hitler was around. Military spending and missions can be done more efficiently when the burden is shared among 30 nations. Sure, the U.S. pays more—think of it as a superpower tax. (Though, other members of the alliance have started to increase their NATO support through increased military spending.) Amid the horror Russia is inflicting every day on the Ukrainian people, it’s borderline bizarre that so many GOP House members would vote against NATO. The trend weakens the long-standing bipartisan U.S. consensus that Russia was—and remains—a threat that needs to be countered.
How inane is this faction? Well, 10 of them have introduced legislation (PDF) barring “the obligation or expenditure of military or security assistance to Ukraine until operational control of the United States-Mexico border is achieved.” Another (PDF) piece of legislation would require “that the number of members of the Armed Forces who are deployed by reason of the situation in Ukraine does not exceed the number of members of the Armed Forces who are deployed to the Southern Border of the United States.” These lawmakers remind The Bunker of the kids he grew up with who’d visit local cemeteries after dark and topple tombstones—people being reckless just to be reckless. Of course, those kids were vandals, and these are duly-elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives. But it’s hard to tell the difference.
All of a sudden, Democrats have become the hawks when it comes to Russia (all 219 Dems who voted on the NATO resolution supported it). The GOP split, 143 to 63. “In Congress, the purveyors of isolationism, appeasement, and Russian propaganda are on the right, not the left,” William Saletan notes at The Bulwark, a conservative website.
This GOP anti-NATO effort echoes the U.S. go-it-aloneness and generic crankiness that was salted through American politics before World War II. Back then, the U.S. allied itself with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to defeat the Nazis. This time around, a growing cadre of one of our two major political parties is tacitly allying itself with a war criminal who has killed—and continues to kill—thousands of innocent civilians.
DUCK AND COVER!
Incoming missile fight heats up
Meanwhile, back on the home front, President Biden has run into the military’s buzz saw over his proposal to scrap a new nuclear cruise missile. Unlike those Republicans stiffing NATO in the previous item, it’s nice to see each side playing its traditional roles here. This latest explosion (sorry) involves Biden’s decision, in his proposed 2023 defense budget, to deep-six the fledgling Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear (PDF) program. President Trump had launched the SLCM-N (“slick-em”) in 2018, restoring a capability the Navy had lacked since President Obama scrapped the sub-launched, nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missile more than a decade ago (notice a partisan pattern here?).
Three senior U.S. military officers have declared their support for the missile in recent days. They include Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Navy Admiral Charles Richard, who oversees the Pentagon’s nukes as chief of U.S. Strategic Command; and Air Force General Tod Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander (just not as supreme, given that House vote).
During his confirmation hearings to serve as the nation’s top military officer in 2019, Milley told Congress the missile is needed “to enable our flexible and tailored deterrence strategy as we modernize aging nuclear forces.” That’s the bottom line here: the Pentagon is arguing that we need these less-powerful nuclear weapons so we can respond in kind if Russia uses such tactical nuclear weapons (like in Ukraine, as has been in the news of late).
Otherwise, we’d have to use the big ones.
And they are doing just fine, thank you very much. Biden’s proposed SLCM cut is simply a bone to the arms-control community. Its estimated $17 billion cost pales alongside his plan to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad. These new fleets of B-21 bombers, Columbia-class submarines, and Sentinel land-based missiles (known, until April 5, as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) will cost up to $1.5 trillion. Requested spending for nuclear weapons jumped from $43.2 billion in 2022 to $50.9 billion for 2023, an 18% hike.
This is all a game of atomic chicken. The nuanced nuclear notion of titting-for-tatting if nuclear war begins is just as daft as the wholesale simultaneous purchase of an entirely new Cold War nuclear triad.
Death, taxes and Pentagon wish lists
The requisite corollary of the Pentagon never having enough nukes is that it never has enough money. Even though President Biden has proposed spending $813 billion on the Pentagon next year —the biggest peacetime defense budget in U.S. history—the U.S. military insists it still needs more. That’s why, in the days following the proposed budget’s release, the military services have told Congress what they’d do if lawmakers boost their budgets so they can buy more stuff.
And more stuff is pretty much what they want to buy with any extra bucks:
- The Army wants $5.1 billion more, much of it intended to upgrade M-1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and speed up artillery purchases.
- The Air Force wants $4.6 billion more, largely for more F-35 fighters, EC-37B electronic warfare aircraft, bombs, and spare parts.
- The Navy wants $4 billion more, mostly earmarked for additional F-35s, E2-D command aircraft, missiles and spare parts.
- The Marines are seeking $3.5 billion more, primarily for F-35s, C-130 cargo planes, and a new amphibious ship.
The Pentagon’s budget-making process is far from perfect, but at least it travels to Capitol Hill as a balanced package. Once Congress gets involved, the stakes become far more political than protective, as lawmakers fight to add extra dollars for pet programs and posts in their states and districts. After the military services fattened up their so-called “unfunded priorities lists” by $31 billion in 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates cracked down on the practice and cut such requests by about 90%. But his victory was short-lived.
Like much of what ails Washington, Congress is at the root of this problem. Lawmakers require the services to submit such lists each year. If they scrapped that edict, and stuck to declaring war—or not, the nation would save money, lives, and honor, without sacrificing national security.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
A history of those hand-written messages on bombs and missiles to those being attacked, from the April 9 Washington Post.
Admiral Linda Fagan has been tapped as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, making her the first woman to head a U.S. military service, Sam LaGrone at USNI News reported April 5.
Active-duty Air Force pilots who re-up can earn bonuses of up to $420,000, Air Force Magazine reported April 11.
The noble steeds that ferry U.S. troops to their final resting places at Arlington National Cemetery are ailing, and dying, due to “unsatisfactory” conditions, CNN reported April 7.
The daughter of a Vietnamese refugee on what it was like for her father to help build U.S. military helicopters, once their family settled in Connecticut, from the April 5 New York Times.
Aviation geeks have been swarming all over the secret California plant where the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider bomber is being built, hoping to catch a peek of the elusive aircraft, Valerie Insinna reported April 8 at Breaking Defense.
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