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 (welcome back, and happy New Year!) in The Bunker: weighing the wisdom of a 20th century military in a 21st century world; SECDEF MIA; re-opening a long-closed base in the (not-so) Pacific; and more.
PEAK INDUSTRIAL WARFARE
Wonder weapons are becoming less wonderful
No military-industrial-complex likes to believe that its logic is crumbling. But it’s increasingly looking like we’ve all but reached peak industrial warfare. As the Houthi rebels choke traffic in the Red Sea and the Israel-Hamas war continues, one thing is becoming clear: How much you spend on a military force isn’t necessarily linked to how much you win.
Yes, nuclear triads and mammoth arsenals ensure a balance of power, but they don’t win wars. They are merely an extremely costly way of preserving the status quo among the major powers. The war-fighting initiative seems to be shifting from nation states to so-called non-state actors. Sometimes, that’s to reduce the fingerprints of nations — like Iran, a major backer of the Houthis and Hamas — on the carnage. After all, nation states have capitals, governments, and hectares of military hardware — targets, in other words.
This trend is accelerating because commercial technologies‚ like drones, rockets, GoPros, cell phones and GPS (developed by the U.S. military), are increasingly hooking up with gunpowder and other war material. This shifts the fulcrum of force from those armed with costly multi-billion-dollar carriers and multi-million-dollar fighters, to those outfitted with hundred-dollar roadside bombs and thousand-dollar drones. “The Pentagon is beginning to worry about using $11 million interceptor missiles to take out drones that can cost as little as a few thousand dollars,” Defense Onereports. James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and former NATO chief, agrees: “Firing million-dollar cruise missiles at cheap drones is a losing long-term proposition.”
This shotgun marriage of easy-and-cheap tech with deadly force is yielding what Irish economist Philip Pilkington recently called the “commodification of the battlefield” in The National Interest. “Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza ... we have seen various other aspects of Western military strategy be called into question by the process of rapid battlefield commodification,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is time to reevaluate how we spend on weaponry and what we buy.”
While such cheap weapons won’t guarantee victory for their users, they can keep their opponents from winning. And, as the U.S. learned in Vietnam and Afghanistan, any time a superpower plays to a tie on the battlefield, it ends up losing.
MISSING IN ACTION
What was the defense secretary thinking?
Lloyd Austin is entitled to his privacy. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is not. Just like the U.S. troops under his command have to give up some rights(PDF) that civilians take for granted, Secretary Austin has to give up some privacy when he goes under the knife.
The debacle he triggered by trying to hide an unspecified elective surgery on December 22 — compounded when “severe pain” forced him to stealthily return via ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on January 1 for an extended stay — never should have happened. A Cabinet officer, especially one in the nuclear-warfighting chain of command(PDF) in an increasingly turbulent world, must promptly disclose his sidelining whenever medical issues or other tribulations render him unfit for duty.
And The Bunker can’t believe it’s necessary to say this: The defense chief must especially inform his lone superior, the president of the United States, whenever he is indisposed. President Biden didn’t know about Austin’s hospitalization, including time spent in intensive care, for three days. Austin may crave his personal privacy, but in this case, he was guilty — common sense-wise, if not legally — of dereliction of duty.
FIXIN’ UP THE OL’ PLACE
U.S. military readies historic Pacific base for action
If you thought the new year was time for new hope, sorry. You’re out of luck. Turns out the Pentagon, which abandoned the Pacific airstrip(PDF) that U.S. nuclear bombers used to end World War II, will be reopening it to deter China.
The U.S. Air Force will make “significant progress” in the coming months toward restoring the Tinian North airfield, used by the B-29 bombers that dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the service’s top general in the region said. The U.S. Army Air Force left the air base in 1946, with predictable results. It “has extensive pavement underneath the overgrown jungle,” General Kenneth Wilsbach told Nikkei Asia. “We'll be clearing that jungle out between now and summertime.”
Tinian, home to 3,000 people, is a 39-square mile patch of land nearly 4,000 miles west of Hawaii (there were 40,000 U.S. personnel on the island in World War II). It is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. The Pentagon’s 2024 budget for Tinian includes “$26 million for airfield development, $20 million for fuel tanks, $32 million for parking aprons, $46 million for cargo pad and taxiway extension, and $4.7 million for a maintenance and support facility,” Stars and Stripesreported December 27.
The re-opening is part of the Air Force’s new Agile Combat Employment strategy, which calls for distributing U.S. military aircraft to numerous Pacific sites to complicate Chinese efforts to wipe out U.S. airpower. “Adversarial technological advances in pervasive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and all-domain long-range fires have placed air bases at significantly increased risk,” the service says(PDF). “New weapons systems now place bases at risk that were previously considered sanctuaries.”
The U.S. aerial footprint in the region has recently expanded to the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, as well as to two beefed-up bases in northern Australia. “You create a targeting problem,” Wilsbach said of the basing scheme. “You may actually take some hits, but you still have preponderance of your forces still creating effect.”
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
Retiring Pentagon brass are increasingly shifting their post-military careers from giant defense contractors to venture capital firms trying to retool the military-industrial complex, Eric Lipton reported December 30 in the New York Times.
The new ICBM leg of the nation’s nuclear triad could cost 50% more than estimated, Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News wrote December 14.
The tri-service Pentagon fighter faces “significant challenges” that could lead to halting its production, according to the Air Force general in charge of the $400 billion program, Stephen Losey of Defense News reported December 15.
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