The Bunker: Shielding the Innocent
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: the Pentagon, under pressure, produces a policy to protect civilians amid war; the conflict in Ukraine won’t end anytime soon; the great jet-engine lottery; and more.
Pentagon rolls out new policy to protect civilians
War is hell. Especially for civilians. And as laudatory as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s new rules for protecting innocents amid combat, announced August 25, they won’t change much.
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For lack of a better villain, let’s blame it on human nature. After all, the Pentagon has a gazillion rules to ensure taxpayers get weapons on time and on budget. This rarely happens. It also has reams of documents designed to eradicate sexual harassment in the ranks. Yet it persists. Same thing with the military’s suicide epidemic. War, and what passes for human nature, are just too complicated to be circumscribed by codes.
Austin’s Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan aims (sorry) at protecting civilians by making their survival a key part of Pentagon planning and doctrine. “We will ensure that we are well prepared to prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian harm in current and future conflicts,” Austin said in the 46-page document (PDF). The new rules call for a “steering committee” and a “Civilian Protection Center of Excellence” to minimize civilian deaths. This do-no-harm ethos will be baked into the Pentagon’s “strategy, doctrine, [and] plans,” as well as tweaking its “condolences and the public acknowledgement of harm” missions.
The trigger (sorry, again) for Austin’s edict was the August 29, 2021, killing of 10 civilians, including seven kids, by a U.S. Hellfire missile as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan following the U.S. military’s defeat in its longest war. As the Pentagon rolled out its new policy, it cited “cognitive bias” as something that could have prevented that deadly error.
The targeteers focused on the fact that the suspected terrorist was driving a white Toyota Corolla, long favored by Islamic State killers in Kabul. That “led U.S. officials to view everything that followed through a they-must-be-terrorists lens,” The Bunker noted a month after the attack. The general who investigated the snafu cited the car as one of the “most recurring” bits of intelligence that led to the attack. But “he didn’t mention the fact that as of 2015, roughly 90% of the cars in Afghanistan are Toyota Corollas. And the color white? `White is a favorite of buyers because it shows the dirt less, there is a lot of dust here,’ an Afghan used-car salesman said in 2013.”
Too often in war, time is compressed, and deliberation is a luxury. In 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 aboard, after its crew misidentified it as an Iranian F-14 threatening their warship. Similar errors — where the supposed pressures of war eclipsed due-death diligence — have led to U.S. military strikes that killed innocents in an Afghan hospital, aboard a pair of U.S. helicopters flying over Iraq, and inside the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Following each of these accidents, the Pentagon pledged new rules to help keep them from happening again.
The New York Times put Austin’s new policy on the front page, along with a third-paragraph bow to itself for the reporting that forced the Pentagon to act. The Washington Post, uninvolved in the policy’s birth, buried the story inside the paper. The Times’ hat tip is fitting, however…because publicity is the sole reason for the new policy.
Unfortunately, far more non-combatants die outside the spotlight. About 250,000 civilians were killed in the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Costs of War project estimates. We can write all the guidelines we want, but until there is real oversight and accountability into how and why we are prosecuting undeclared wars around the world, the failures will continue to mount, and civilians will continue to die.
CRIMEA AND PUNISHMENT
Mystery blasts, more U.S. weapons suggest long war
Two attacks deep inside Russian-controlled Crimea, and an unprecedented announcement of more U.S. weapons bound for Ukraine, mark August as a key month in the Russo-Ukrainian war: it’s going to be long conflict that could stretch through the punishing winter and well into 2023.
Four major explosions rocked Saki airfield in central Crimea on August 9, destroying at least eight aircraft. One week later, on August 16, an ammo base blew up. “The attacks, far behind enemy lines, were beyond the range of the weapons the U.S. and others have publicly sent to Ukraine, and videos of the explosions did not appear to show any incoming missile or drone,” CNN reported August 27.
Experts are puzzled. “The attacks seem likely to continue, but the attack mechanism is a mystery,” retired Marine Colonel Mark Cancian wrote at Breaking Defense. “No single explanation is consistent with all the known facts.”
On August 24, the Pentagon announced it would be sending $3 billion in new military aid to Kyiv — the biggest chunk to date — pushing the total provided by U.S. taxpayers to $13 billion (PDF) since the war began. But this batch is coming from defense contractors, and not Pentagon stockpiles like earlier shipments. Some will take years to deliver.
The need for oversight into such shipments is obvious. We don’t want to risk arming tomorrow’s version of the Taliban.
POWERING THE FUTURE
Pentagon scrambles jet-engine biz
Military jet engines are fire-breathing monsters that regularly break down, as we’ve seen aboard both the F-16 and F-35 fighters. That’s a big reason why the Air Force — in a surprising August 19 announcement (PDF) — awarded near-billion-dollar contracts to long-time engine builders General Electric and Pratt & Whitney for its next-generation fighter. But it also awarded identical deals to three aircraft builders — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.
The five contracts for the Next Generation Adaptive Propulsion program are to develop the powerplant for the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter. Both the airplane and its engine are highly classified, leaving onlookers scratching their helmets. “The plan shows Air Force leaders’ desire to keep its three large airplane makers — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman — as well as engine makers General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, viable to build aircraft for years to come,” Marcus Weisgerber hypothesized over at Defense One.
Or maybe just engines.
A senior Air Force official warned earlier this month that the nation’s ability to build fighter-jet engines is “very thin,” and could “collapse” if the Pentagon elects not to build a new F-35 engine, never mind an NGAD motor. One way to fatten up that capability is to pump nearly $5 billion into five of the Pentagon’s biggest contractors. Even if most of them don’t build engines.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
“Hooah!” to the Army (PDF)
Parameters, the Army’s professional journal, published military scholar (and retired Army officer) John Nagl’s “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars” August 25.
Michael Marks in the August 22 Texas Standard explains a recent appellate court decision that chips away at a long-standing legal ruling that shields the military from suits alleging sexual assault.
Hope Hodge Seck wrote in Military Times August 26 about Marine Staff Sergeant Ryan San Juan, a clarinetist who helped evacuate U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Ukraine, making him the latest legendary leatherneck.
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