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: plumbing parallels between the Pentagon and The Bunker’s first new car, the Army comes under increasing fire for its Pacific offensive, recalling the misleading official line as the U.S. deadline for leaving Afghanistan nears, and an April Fools’ quiz.
CHINA AND THE PONTIAC
Pondering the future of war, and cars
So there was this in-your-face headline on the front page above the fold (for those of you who still favor your news printed on dead trees) of the Washington Post on April 2: Military scrambles to hold edge over China, it blared(PDF).U.S. flying aging planes, the subhed breathed heavily, as Beijing works on hypersonics and AI. Now The Bunker knows Missy Ryan, the author of the piece, to be a fine reporter. And it knows that she doesn’t write the headlines. Fact is, Beijing is also flying aging airplanes, and the Pentagon is feverishly working on hypersonics and AI—artificial intelligence—too.
Today, the U.S. beats the Chinese military pretty much across the board. The consensus is that it will for the foreseeable future. But foreseeable future is not the same as forever.
Of course, we’ve heard such clutch-the-pearls alarms before. The Poststory begins with pilots flying tanker airplanes dating back to 1957—which happened to be the year the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space when it launched Sputnik. The Bunker was but a tyke when his family and all his neighbors nervously peered into the night-time sky to see the Red satellite menace streaking across the heavens—right over our own front yard in Newington, Connecticut.
Sputnik’s rocket fuel became U.S. rhetorical fuel that helped give rise to the claims that the Soviet Union had more bombers and missiles than the U.S. Both claims rate right up there with the “intelligence” showing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq 18 years ago. We have spent trillions readying for war against such armed apparitions. Notice a pattern?
The Bunker knows all about those aging tankers that led the Post piece; in fact, it wrote about the troubled gestation of their replacement, the Boeing KC-46, two years ago. The tanker “is emblematic of the challenges Pentagon leaders face in seeking to maintain the U.S. military’s shrinking edge over its chief competitor, China,” Ryan reported. “The United States, once the world’s undisputed military superpower, has been struggling for years to efficiently update its arsenal and field new technology in cutting-edge areas such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence, at a time when some senior officials warn that China could be within five years of surpassing the U.S. military.”
Let’s take a step back here for a moment. When did Moses deliver the tablet that declared, etched in stone, that the U.S. would be the world’s top military for eternity? The Bunker believes that democracy, freedom, and capitalism are the true superpower triad, and that military might, while critical, isn’t all that it’s often cracked up to be.
Yet the U.S. military, with cheers from lawmakers and contractors, keeps insisting the U.S. military will always be tops. Just like the Romans and the British. Yet China’s economy is on track to eclipse the U.S.’s by the middle of this decade. And military power is rooted in money. “While U.S. forfeiture of its place as the world’s leading power is far from certain, the plausibility of such a scenario given recent and forecasted trends make considering it necessary, however uncomfortable for American strategists,” Collin Meisel of the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures wrote in Defense One April 1. “Better to plan ahead and make the necessary adjustments ahead of time than, as was the case with the United Kingdom, recognize a great power transition only after the fact.”
It is becoming increasingly clear, in a world filled with the threats posed by terrorists, insurrectionists, mass shooters, and pandemics, that the chance of state-on-state industrial warfare between major states is fading. Yes, China is a bad actor in many ways: its rocky relationship with Taiwan (and Hong Kong), its expanding, island-building presence in the South China Sea, and its oppression of its Uighur minority top the list. But our economies have become inextricably bound together. The issue isn’t how to beat Beijing on some future battlefield, but how to prevail in the far more complex realm that includes, in addition to military might, economics, trade and human rights. Wars akin to those of the last half-century—minor-league skirmishes, for the most part—are going to continue. But a World War II-style clash is not in the cards. Both sides have too much to lose. There is no logical endgame for such a fight.
But preparing for such a war remains very much in the cards. As Deep Throat infamously (but apocryphally) said: “Follow the money.” Fareed Zakaria made that very point in the very same Washington Post two weeks before Ryan’s piece. “Having spent two decades fighting wars in the Middle East without much success, the Pentagon will now revert to its favorite kind of conflict, a cold war with a nuclear power,” he wrote March 18. “It can raise endless amounts of money to ‘outpace’ China, even if nuclear deterrence makes it unlikely there will be an actual fighting war in Asia.”
Meanwhile, back in Washington, alarms continue to ring over a rising China as the U.S. grapples with “a slow, calcified budgeting process, unwieldy congressional requirements and the Pentagon’s inability to effectively piggyback on private-sector advances in digital know-how,” the Post reported. “It’s like the Pentagon is finding itself staring in the rearview mirror in the face of oncoming traffic,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said in Missy Ryan’s story.
And that mention of a rearview mirror brought back memories of The Bunker’s Pontiac. He faithfully followed in his father’s footsteps, and, in 1979, it became the first new car he ever owned. “It was a lemon, a cut-rate and an ill-aimed stab at beating the Japanese competition in the growing market for smaller cars spawned by rising fuel prices,” The Bunkernoted in 2009 when General Motors put Pontiac out of its misery. “My Pontiac, in fact, turned out to be the worst car I ever owned. And that's saying something, because it trumps my very first (used) car: a British 1960 Morris Minor 1000, complete with its rain-bedeviled Lucas electrical system that seemed to render the car immobile in the driveway whenever the weatherman forecast cloudy skies.”
There are parallels between the U.S. military-industrial complex and the U.S. automotive-industrial complex. Over the past generation, both have produced too many costly lemons. The nation’s generations-long failure to upgrade its infrastructure illuminates the challenges the U.S. faces as it tries to keep its military advantage over Beijing. This isn’t meant to suggest that the Pentagon is a Pontiac. But it suggests that General Dynamics, and its ilk, may have a lot more in common with General Motors than we’d like to admit.
“Get back where you belong, Army!”
As The Bunkernoted last week, the Army’s push to press for a bigger role in a possible Pacific showdown with China is generating fireworks from the other services. They feel the ground-pounders push for new fleets of long-range missiles are encroaching on their turf. Or surf.
Fire intensified over the past week. The Army’s “ambitions suggest it may be concerned with another pacing challenge—ensuring it does not lose budget share due to the limited relevance of land-based maneuver warfare in the Indo-Pacific,” Mark Gunzinger of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies argued in Defense One April 2. “DoD will waste its precious resources on excessively redundant capabilities if it does nothing to address this kind of behavior.” General Timothy Ray, chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, declared the Army scheme “stupid” and a waste of money.
Meanwhile, as the Pentagon continues its intramural warfare, a bipartisan band of 16 senators has written to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin calling for a fourth consecutive annual Defense Department audit to try to get a clear idea of where the Pentagon spends more than $700 billion annually. “While last year’s audit achieved numerous successes in accountability, only 7 of the 24 agencies in the DoD were able to produce ‘clean’ financial statement audits,” the lawmakers wrote. “An unqualified opinion audit of the Department of Defense is critical for keeping our budget on mission, finding savings for taxpayers, and ensuring military success.”
Only days before May 1 deadline for U.S. pullout
The final weeks are ticking down until the U.S. and international troops are slated to pull out of Afghanistan, under a 2020 deal struck by then-President Trump and the Taliban. But increasingly it appears that his successor is going to kick that deadline further down the road. President Biden and his team are scrambling to put a lid on the usual Taliban spring offensive that might enable U.S. troops to leave by that May 1 date. The problem, of course, is that any pause in Taliban trouble is likely to be just that: a pause.
The U.S. drove the Taliban from power in 2001 after they sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda while they plotted the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Over the past 20 years, the U.S., the central Afghan government, and their allies have tried a variety of strategies to bring stability, if not peace, to Afghanistan. The Bunker spent 15 years attending dozens of breakfasts in Washington listening to Pentagon leaders mislead reporters about the progress being made in what has become, by far, the nation’s longest war.
Tellingly, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a late March trip to Afghanistan, said the U.S. seeks a “responsible end” to the conflict. The phrase echoes President Nixon’s 1973 assurance that the U.S. had achieved “peace with honor” in Vietnam as that war wound down. The communist North Vietnam invaded and took over the U.S.-backed South Vietnam two years later.
At least the Vietnam war lasted only 10 years.
APRIL FOOLS’ FUN
Sifting military fact from fiction
One of the best things about covering the U.S. military for more than 40 years is the unbelievable things The Bunker has witnessed, and then gets to write about. Amid tales of intrepidity, triumph, and tragedy, are those that make one wonder: can that really be true? No better time to do that than around April 1.
So put yourself behind The Bunker’s notebook and pick up your pencil. Your challenge is to know which of these stories from the past week are true (if any), and which are bogus (if any). Summaries follow, with links to the articles incorporated therein. There’s an answer key at the end of this item for those wannabe reporters who can’t take the time to review original source material:
1. Did you notice how much more productive the Pentagon has been during the pandemic? No? Well, 88% of nearly 50,000 of its civilian employees surveyed say they were more productive working from home from last March to August (47%), or just as productive (41%). Only 12% say they were less productive when teleworking, compared to being in the office. The Pentagon Inspector General released this study(PDF)April 1.
2. The 3rd Infantry Division began testing the Army’s new Main Battle Hover Vehicle (MBHV) at Fort Stewart, Georgia, on April 1. “Adding this vehicle to the Army’s arsenal will drastically increase the 3rd ID’s lethality by breaking up the predictability of legacy tank movements while adding new hover-pattern maneuvers to increase survivability chances during enemy engagements,” the Army said.
3. The Army is planning to spend up to $22 billion on “augmented reality vision systems,” Breaking Defensereported April Fools’ eve. “The goggles are an ambitious effort to combine multiple high-tech tools in a single package light and rugged enough for a soldier to wear on their face in combat,” it said.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Lust for lists(PDF)
There’s nothing Congress likes better than giving the military services more money than either the Pentagon or White House thinks is wise. What better way to show you’re a true patriot by over-stuffing the military’s coffers—and maybe even bringing home some extra pork to boot. In the past, the services and their congressional allies used such “unfunded priorities lists” to add billions to their annual budgets (taxpayers tend to call them “wish lists”). Such fiscal abuse has been a bugaboo of The Bunker for years. Defense Secretary Bob Gates fought to halt such run-arounds a decade ago, but they’re slowly re-emerging from the muck, Andrew Lautz reported March 30 for the National Taxpayers Union. Lautz has a number of steps both Congress and the military could take to cut down on such fiscal flim-flammery. Now that’s a wish list!
The Army announced March 31 that it had awarded a $50 million contract for the new MK22 Multi-role Adaptive Design (MRAD) sniper rifle. “The MK22 is a modular system that will be fielded with three separate calibers, the .338 Norma Magnum, .300 Norma Magnum and 7.62x51 NATO,” the service said of the Barrett Firearms product. “Army snipers will be able to conduct a barrel change and select calibers based on their mission operating environment.” U.S. Special Operations Command already uses the 15-pound gun, which can kill from nearly a mile away.The Army plans on buying about 2,800 of them, which works out to about $17,800 each.
Some say the Navy is living in the past with its embrace of its huge aircraft carriers. But the sea service isn’t dedicated only to fighting the last war. Amid all the buzz about new kinds of warplanes, the Navy has an ambitious goal for the share of carrier-based planes without pilots. It’s striving to “drive to an air wing that is at least 50% or more unmanned, over time,” an admiral says, according to a March 30 Air Force Magazinedispatch.
It’s hard to comprehend the grief and guilt a hotshot Army chopper pilot has felt since killing two fellow U.S. soldiers by mistake during 1991’s Gulf War. He has spent decades trying reduce the chances of such tragedies. But, according to David Wood in the April issue of Texas Monthly, Big Army isn’t interested in his idea. So Little Army soldiers will continue to die.
Those who suffer from sexual assault in the U.S. military often go through a second round of harm. That happens when they experience what appears to be retaliation—even if they haven’t formally complained about the original assault, Military.com reported March 30. One in five of those alleging sexual assault told no one at all, according to a Rand Corp. study.
Now that Boeing has bowed out of the Pentagon’s push to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the company is making sure that the existing ICBM Minuteman fleet, which it built, remains at the cutting edge of nuclear-warfighting as long as possible. It has just begun delivering new launch-code encryption units. “The upgrade will enhance launch-code encryption, improve physical site security by eliminating the need to routinely open them up through remote launch code changes, and deliver enormous time savings for airmen currently traveling to perform in-person code changes at the approximately 400 missiles on alert across the Midwest,” Boeing said. A top engineer added: “We designed and helped build the silos and launch facilities that were installed 60 years ago, so we’re uniquely positioned to perform this work.”
Despite its April 1 date, The Bunker is pretty sure the press release was not an April Fools’ prank.
And it’s no prank that you’ve reached the end of The Bunker this week. Thanks for sticking with us all the way through. Sign up here to have it delivered by 0-dark-30 into your email inbox each Wednesday.