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: why did the Air Force ground their V-22s while Marine tilt-rotors are still flying?; a new two-China policy; the Pentagon finally rolls out a social media policy; and more.
Who grounds, and who doesn’t?
Despite public perceptions, the U.S. military services don’t always march in lockstep. The latest example is the Air Force’s decision to ground its V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor fleet while the Marines are refusing to do so. The Air Force took the extraordinary step August 16 after a pair of V-22s experienced an engine problem over the past two months that could have doomed the aircraft. The Marines,have said that they are enacting “risk mitigation controls” that makes grounding their V-22s unnecessary. It may be unfair to conclude this suggests the Air Force values the lives of its people more than the Marines do — but it isn’t an unreasonable theory.
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There are lots of reasons for such conflicting decisions. The Marines’ 296 V-22s are a key part of the corps’ force, while the Air Force 52 V-22s play a smaller, special ops role. More critically, perhaps, is the fact that the Marines midwifed the V-22 Osprey, and derailed Dick Cheney’s effort to kill it when he was defense secretary.
We’ve seen this movie before. Nearly 40 years ago, The Bunker reported (PDF) how the Army dismissed the deaths of nearly 250 troops after their UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopters came apart in mid-air due to their unique design. Only after another service — the Navy — began seeing their pilots die in the same kind of chopper, did an outside panel convince the Army to ground nearly 600 of them. Fixes were implemented across the military, saving untold lives. Just like in the current V-22 standoff, the UH-1 and AH-1 helicopters were developed by one service, but it took a second to sound the alarm.
Before the publicity, the Army maintained the accidents could be prevented if the pilots flew their helicopters correctly, and even produced a training film to press that point (that argument fell apart in 1983 when the first person to survive such a crash, a highly-experience test pilot, said that neither he nor his fellow co-pilot, killed in the accident, had done anything wrong). The Marines are now saying the same thing. “We have trained our pilots to react with the appropriate emergency control measures should the issue arise during flight," the corps said, justifying its decision to keep its V-22s flying.
Pinpointing the cause of a military accident means weighing evidence on a slippery scale that balances blame among the design of the system involved, the training provided the operators, and the operators themselves. Too often — especially when the operators have perished — it’s too easy for military investigators to blame those no longer around to defend themselves, rather than those still alive who developed the hardware and trained the crews. The Marines echoed that line one day before the Air Force’s V-22 grounding when they released a probe into a March 2022 V-22 crash in Norway. That V-22 “deviated” from its flight plan and flew into a valley wall, killing all four Marines aboard. “The cause for the aviation accident was pilot error,” the Marines said. Less than three months after the Norwegian accident, a V-22 crash in California killed all five Marines aboard; it remains under investigation.
The Marines also blamed “pilot error” for a 2000 V-22 crash in Arizona that killed 19 Marines. It took 16 years of unrelenting pressure from the widows of the two pilots, and one determined congressman, to get the Pentagon to reverse that calumny.
(And we’re not talking about Taiwan)
Speaking of movies we’ve seen before, the war drums continue to pound about the looming Chinese threat. “China’s Navy Could Have 5 Aircraft Carriers, 10 Ballistic Missile Subs by 2030,” reads one recent headline. “U.S. Indo-Pacific commander warns about Chinese nuclear buildup,” says another. “Time Is Running Out to Prepare for War in the Pacific,” reads a third.
The Bunker watched this movie for decades — but it starred the Soviet Union back then, not China. He was amazed during his first visit to Russia nearly 30 years ago to see how decrepit the country really was. The difference between what Americans had been told, and what The Bunker saw, wasn’t a credibility gap — it was a credibility chasm.
China is not Russia, obviously, but there are growing cracks in Beijing’s foundation. Its birthrate is shrinking as its economy goes backwards. “China’s Demographics Spell Decline Not Domination,” the Washington Post argued August 15. “As China’s Economy Stumbles, Homeowners Boycott Mortgage Payments,” the New York Times reported August 17. “The Chinese Economy Is In A Death Spiral,” adds a third article.
Both trends will temper China’s military ambitions. It would be nice if they also muffled Washington’s war drums.
“BETTER LATE THAN NEVER”
Pentagon rolls out social media policy
Nearly a quarter-century after Google arrived on the scene — and 18 years after Facebook and 16 years after Twitter debuted — the U.S. Department of Defense finally has its first social media policy. “It's long overdue,” Andy Oare, director of digital media for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, said August 15 when the policy (officially DOD Instruction 5400.17) was announced.
That’s because Pentagon social media accounts can send information — and misinformation — around the globe in seconds. Predictably, the policy warns those overseeing Defense Department social-media accounts against snark and stupidity. “If social media is mismanaged or mishandled, the U.S. Government’s reputation with the American public…may be compromised,” it adds. That’s a long way from when The Bunker first set foot inside the Pentagon, physically hoofing there to conduct an interview or pick up a document, returning to downtown DC to write about it, then waiting for it to be edited, published, and hopefully read, the next day.
Social media will change war in ways we can’t imagine. “The world stands on the eve of a new era in the character of war brought forth by rapid technological change,” the data analysis firm Govini reported (PDF) earlier this month. “Unlike in the past, however, the technologies driving change are not primarily military in nature, but rather civilian technologies that can be adapted for military use.”
You’ve been warned.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Two-thirds of the world’s population could starve to death following a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, the Washington Post reported August 16.
The U.S. shared highly classified intelligence with allies and the public before Russian invaded Ukraine, signaling its use as a new strategic weapon, intel expert Joshua Huminski wrote August 18 in Breaking Defense.
President Donald Trump acted as if the U.S. military swore an oath to him — and not the country — Theodore R. Johnson argued in The Bulwark August 19.
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