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The Bunker: A Farce-Sizing Construct

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: back to a two-war “force-sizing construct”; Congress moves to kill its Iraq-war OK; troops can now file claims against military doctors; no Bunker next week, & more.


New call for Pentagon to return to two-war strategy

Things were a lot easier for the Pentagon when the Soviet Union was still in business. If we could beat them, the thinking went, no need to worry about lesser threats. But ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the U.S. military has wrestled with: how much is enough? So the military came up with what they call a “force-sizing construct.”

It started with a “two major regional contingencies” blueprint. That supposedly meant the U.S. military should be able to fight and win two wars at once. Then there was “win-hold-win,” which meant the U.S. could prevail in War 1 while preventing defeat in War 2, until it won War 1 and could then focus on winning War 2. There also was the more modest “win/deny” framework, which junked that requirement for winning that second conflict.

On June 15, the Air Force’s key advocacy group called for a return to the two-war strategy. The failure to be ready to fight and win two wars at the same time in Europe and the Pacific could “invite” China or Russia to make a land grab (Taiwan or Ukraine, for example) if the U.S. were pinned down elsewhere, Mark Gunzinger of the Air Force Association said. “The failure to rebuild a two-theater force would deny combatant commanders the capabilities and capacity they need to defeat peer aggression as well as defend the U.S. homeland and deter nuclear attacks on the United States,” he and Lukas Autenried of the AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies write in a new report(PDF) pushing for the change.

Sure, it would be a costly move, but money could be saved if the Army focused on winning a land war in Europe, while leaving any island-hopping Pacific fight to the Navy and Marines. “The Air Force should be sized for conflicts in both theaters, since it is the only service capable of rapidly providing the forces needed to blunt Chinese and Russian invasions,” their report said (told you it was an Air Force advocate).

This might make sense if it bore any relationship to reality. But it doesn’t. The U.S. military has never been able to fight two wars at once. The U.S. embraced a win-hold-win strategy during World War II, when it focused first on Germany, and then on Japan. It happened again when the U.S. put its war in Afghanistan on the back burner to invade Iraq under false pretenses. Given that history, no wonder skeptics conclude the Defense Department’s force-sizing construct is basically a charade. It’s simply a handy Pentagon lever to justify more Army brigades, Navy ships, and Air Force fighter squadrons—a farce-sizing construct, if you will.

The Pentagon pondered a return to the two-war strategy in 2017 before concluding such calculations were “trite,” according to now-retired Air Force General Paul Selva, at the time serving as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon has “labored” since the Cold War’s end to come up with a smart yardstick for sizing the U.S. military, he said in 2018, “absent any real consideration of who might threaten the nation.” Their primary purpose has been to determine which part of the U.S. military “gets to win,” choosing “the size of a particular part of the force to do a particular piece of the strategy.”

Ah yes, the Defense Department’s budget war. It’s a true two-fer: a conflict the Pentagon knows how to fight, and its true forever war.


One war-making blank check down, one to go

The House has voted 268-161 to revoke the 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq. Now the bill heads to the Senate, where a vote is expected later this year. Congress should also repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that it approved in 2001, which green-lighted the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, and what the Bush administration came to call the Global War on Terror.

The Bunker is left with only one question about that June 17 vote: who the heck are those 161 lawmakers who voted to keep the Let’s-Overthrow-Saddam authority in place (he’s been dead for 15 years)? Well, 160 were GOP members; a lone Democrat joined them in voting against ending the authorization. “Many Republicans voted against it out of concern that a blanket repeal would limit the U.S. military from combating terrorism in the Middle East,” the Washington Examinerreported.

President Biden supported the move, making him the first president since 9/11 to push to limit his own unilateral war-making power (the Obama administration had supported repeal but also partially relied on the authority when conducting operations against ISIS). The Project On Government Oversight also called for its repeal. “Great to see a strong bipartisan vote to repeal this outdated war authorization,” POGO’s Center for Defense Information tweeted. “One step closer to Congress reestablishing itself as a coequal branch as envisioned by the Constitution.”

These slippery authorizations are an abdication of congressional responsibility to declare war, when warranted, or to vote to not declare war, when it’s not. Since the final formal U.S. declarations of war in 1942 (against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania), the nation has been steadily waging wars under such congressional fig leaves. To make going to war difficult, the Constitution requires that the Congress declare it. But politicians are all too willing to subcontract out that solemn war-making duty to the White House. It’s basically a legislative wink that shifts the burden for the war to the White House so that if, or when, things go south, lawmakers can more easily shirk responsibility. It’s a safe bet that such declarations would also end wars more quickly.

“For too long the American people’s voice on matters of war and peace–deciding when and why we send our troops into harm’s way–has been absent,” Nate Anderson of the Concerned Veterans for America said after the House action. “Debating and authorizing military action is one of Congress’ most solemn duties and repealing the outdated 2002 AUMF is a step toward Congress reasserting itself in this important role.”

Bottom line: if the nation feels the need to send young troops into harm’s way, its lawmakers should at least have the guts to declare war.


A step toward justice for those in combat boots

Just as those congressional authorizations for the use of military force have been twisted by U.S. presidents to justify combat ops pretty much anywhere at any time, a long-standing legal ruling has become an authorization for the abuse of military force. Under an order from Congress, a small step toward righting this wrong took place June 17. That’s when the Pentagon rolled out rules detailing how troops alleging malpractice by military doctors can file claims with the government. It ain’t the same as taking your commander, or surgeon, to court, but it’s an overdue step in the right direction.

Up until now, such claims have been barred under a 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres doctrine. The ruling meant that troops could not sue the military “for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service.” Over the past 70 years, the ruling has been used to bar lawsuits far removed from combat, including cases involving medical malpractice, sexual assault, and training exercises.

The Pentagon’s rules for handling such claims going forward are less lawsuit than petition, where the Pentagon will serve as judge and jury. “The adjudication of claims under this authority is not an adversarial proceeding, there is no prevailing party to be awarded costs, and there is no judicial review,” the new Defense Department regs stipulate. “The settlement and adjudication of medical malpractice claims of members of the uniformed services is final and conclusive.” If the Pentagon concludes a claim has merit, it will pay up to $100,000. Higher amounts will come from the U.S. Treasury.

The 57 pages of rules are less than clear, contends Dwight Stirling of the Center for Law and Military Policy. “Congress should never have allowed the rules to be written by the Department of Defense,” he toldTask & Purpose. “How can letting the agency at fault dictate the process be considered a good idea?”

But, as imperfect as it may be, it’s a crack in the monolithic military mindset that rarely tolerates formal second-guessing. It could be a small but significant move toward curbing Feres’ impact on troops negligently harmed by their service. Eventually, the time may come to lower a similar shield that protects defense contractors, too.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Be prepared

Leaders of the U.S. Army told Congress that the Pentagon’s flat-footed response to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol was because the violence was unexpected and required an “unforeseen” change in their mission, the Washington Post reported June 15. The Bunker’s hardly clairvoyant, but noted shortly after the attack how “minimal foresight” could have dramatically curtailed the stomach-turning mayhem.

Good and bad news…

…for the Navy carrier fleet. In the good news department, the sea service announced that its new USS Gerald R. Ford had “successfully completed” its first shock test, Defense News reported June 21. Such tests—underwater blasts set off near the ship—are designed to see how well new ships can withstand enemy attacks. In the bad news, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has told Congress that the Navy’s carriers are increasingly vulnerable to hypersonic missiles, U.S. Naval Institute Newsreported.

Contracting out

As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, U.S. contractors are fleeing with them. As The Bunkerreported three years ago this week, the U.S. congressional push to replace simple Russian-made MI-17 helicopters with more complicated U.S.-built UH-60s is likely to ground this critical part of the Afghan air force in the near future. That’s because the UH-60s are heavily reliant on U.S. contractors to keep them flying, unlike the MI-17s, which the Afghans could pretty much maintain on their own. “Aside from not being able to carry as much cargo at higher elevations as the MI-17s, the more complicated Black Hawks effectively reset maintenance training for Afghan mechanics,” the New York Times reported June 19. “One U.S. official said it would take until the mid-2030s for the Afghans to be able to maintain the Black Hawk fleet on their own.”

An Infomercial for America

The 1986 blockbuster move Top Gun, starring Navy aviation and Tom Cruise, “retains its allure in part because it is selling a desire that remains, all these years later, unfulfilled: an America that proves worthy, finally, of its immense power,” Megan Garber wrote June 15 at The Atlantic.

AI war

China says its fighter drones, piloted by Artificial Intelligence, fare “better than humans” in war games and can shoot down manned aircraft, the U.S. Sun reported June 16. The Pentagon said the same thing last August, as The Bunker noted at the time. Now if we can only get Artificial Taxpayers to pay for it.


Did you know an Italian defense contractor conspired with U.S. intelligence to rig the 2020 U.S. presidential election via military satellites? Well, according to the June 19 Washington Post, that’s the theory a former GOP congressional candidate pushed following Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden last fall. As someone who has spent more than 40 years in Washington listening to crackpots of every stripe, this fits right in with the conspiratorial garbage that floats just beneath the surface of every big story. “Pure insanity” is how one DOJ official described it. What’s unusual about this tale is that Mark Meadows, Trump’s White House chief of staff, brought it to the attention of the Department of Justice last December and urged it to investigate. Literally incredible, as in unbelievable.

Thanks again for slugging through the slog of U.S. national security in The Bunker this week. We’re taking next week off, but we’ll be back bright and early Wednesday July 7.