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: what’s needed to slay the feared “hollow force”; a source for the groupthink surrounding U.S. nuclear strategy; the still-not-ready-for-prime-time F-35 gets a new radar; and more.
THE HALLOWED “HOLLOW FORCE”
The crowbar for even more military spending looms
Army General Douglas MacArthur achieved immortality when he declared “I shall return” after the Japanese drove the U.S. out of the Philippines in the early days of World War II. These days you could say the same thing about the hobgoblin “hollow force,” that martial mirage of weaponry without the troops or training to prevail on the battlefield. “The U.S. military is headed toward becoming a 21st century version of the dreaded ‘hollow force’ that plagued the nation after the Vietnam War,” former Pentagon strategist Harlan Ullman warned January 11.
Sign up for this newsletter!
Get The Bunker first thing to your inbox Wednesday mornings.
Even as annual U.S. defense spending arcs toward an incredible trillion dollars, there are cries that isn’t enough. The U.S. military today is “weak,” the Heritage Foundation said in October. “This is the logical consequence of years of sustained use, underfunding, poorly defined priorities, wildly shifting security policies, exceedingly poor discipline in program execution, and a profound lack of seriousness across the national security establishment even as threats to U.S. interests have surged.”
But how about if, instead of throwing more money at the problem, we threw more thought? That’s Ullman’s point in his Atlantic Council piece. His reckoning with reality requires three steps: first, junking the National Defense Strategy (PDF), which guides U.S. military planning, “because its aims are unachievable.” Second, scaling back U.S. military ambitions, “because of uncontrolled real cost growth of every item from precision weapons to people to pencils.” And finally, cutting the Pentagon’s 1.4 million troops by about a third because the current force “is not sustainable given the declining cohort of personnel eligible for service and those who wish to serve.”
All three points are irrefutable in any sane world. That’s our world, today, where the prospect of losing a war is shrinking as the prospect of succumbing to a virus or climate change grows. Our national-real-security investments should reflect that, instead of our too-long-warped obsessions with overseas bogeymen.
Unfortunately, the perpetual commotion machine requires more money for defense without asking the fundamental question: just what is China or Russia going to win if they go to war against the U.S.? Their demographics are worse than ours; their political structures more enfeebled than ours (hard as that may be to believe). The performance of Russian troops in Ukraine is illustrative, and China is no better. The U.S. largely prevailed in a recent series of war games against China (PDF), and smarter spending and priorities will hone that edge. There is no way Chinese or Russian troops have the will to wage and prevail in a war with the U.S. The notion that either Beijing or Moscow is capable of ruling the world by military force collapses into a haystack of contradictions, despite politicians’ braying to the contrary.
Yet Pentagon spending, fueled by fear and fiction rather than facts, continues to grow, as this chart (PDF) from a January 11 Congressional Budget Office report makes clear. “But more money will not guarantee more defense,” Ullman argues.
MacArthur declared “I have returned” when he went back to the Philippines 31 months after the Japanese drove him out. Just as surely, a “hollow force” will soon return, absent key changes to U.S. national security strategy.
(No, not that kind)
Money is a lot like gravity. You can’t always see it — in fact, you may be unaware of its presence — but its invisible influence is indisputable. The latest example of that is the nuclear-weapons complex. Turns out that 45 of the world’s top national-security think tanks receive funding from defense contractors or governments “with interests in the continued development and deployment of nuclear weapons,” according to a report (PDF) by Kjølv Egeland and Benoît Pelopidas of the Center for International Studies in Paris.
“We find, first, that effectively all think tanks in the sample accepted funding from nuclear vested interests and, second, that such ‘stakeholder funding’ has real effects on intellectual freedom,” their December paper says. “Given the widely-held view that democracy relies on intellectual independence, this finding calls for a serious debate about conflicts of interest in foreign policy analysis generally and nuclear policy analysis specifically.” Those surveyed included U.S. nuclear-strategy heavyweights like the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the RAND Corp.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to The Bunker, who recalls when those willing to tweak U.S. nuclear policy — former defense secretary Bill Perry, Lee Butler, the former Air Force general who commanded the nation’s nukes, and Chuck Horner, who ran 1991’s air war over Iraq — were deemed naïve and sidelined by the atomic fundamentalists.
Money is insidious (that’s one reason the Project On Government Oversight accepts no corporate donations). The smoking mushroom cloud here isn’t what is written, but who writes it. “Funders may not have much say over what individual think tanks or analysts write or say in specific circumstances,” the study concludes, “but they largely get to determine who gets funded to write or say something in the first place.”
The F-35’s getting a new one
The Pentagon is debating whether or not its F-35 fighters need a new engine, given all the woes (PDF) it has had with the current Pratt & Whitney powerplant. Turns out that may not be the only major improvement for the troubled $400 billion program. Northrop Grumman, which builds the F-35’s current radar, announced January 11 that it is now developing a replacement for it. The new radar “is an advanced multifunction sensor that will be compatible with all variants of the F-35 aircraft,” Northrop said, “and will be capable of defeating current and projected adversarial air and surface threats.”
So there you have it: the F-35 could end up upgrading its engine and radar — two of its most costly components — before it enters full-rate production (something initially set for 2019, but now pushed until late this year or 2024). “I’m not surprised that there are new mission systems being developed for the F-35 now,” says Dan Grazier, who has spent years eyeballing the program for the Project On Government Oversight. “I just would have expected them to be installed on aircraft that weren’t still very expensive prototypes.”
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
The Navy’s grousing about poor-performing contractors, Megan Eckstein reported January 11 in Defense News.
The erosion of the middle class is a threat to U.S. national security, Jack Gardner, a retired Army lieutenant general, wrote January 16 at Real Clear Defense.
The Navy’s launching a new fleet of speedy hospital ships, Hope Seck reported January 12 at Sandboxx. Although the Pentagon won’t say it, these Expeditionary Medical Ships are clearly aimed at saving U.S. lives in a war with China.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.