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.
Brass stumble in their NVGs—no-vision goggles
The Bunker has seen hundreds of dog and pony shows in more than 40 years of covering the U.S. military. According to the dictionary, a dog and pony show is “an often elaborate public relations or sales presentation.” No one can stage them like the Pentagon. Many that T.B. has seen have been led by the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But June 1 marked the first time the SECDEF was the dog, and the nation’s top military officer was the pony.
One thing Americans expect from the leaders is situational awareness, or “SA” as it’s called in the military. It means knowing what’s happening, so you’ll be ready to deal with what happens next. We tend to expect that from our hired help. When the doctor slices you open to take out your gallbladder, you don’t want her removing your spleen. When your mechanic says you need new shock absorbers, you don’t want him replacing the struts. And when you’re the country’s top military officials, you don’t want to be a victory lapdog trailing the president through Lafayette Park amid civil unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd in police custody.
A battery of retired military officers, led by former defense secretary (and Marine general) Jim Mattis criticized Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley for their walk-on roles supporting President Trump’s walk in the park, after federal paramilitaries ousted peaceful protesters from the premises.
Military leaders also are supposed to choose their words carefully. Esper may have thought he was on a private conference call with Trump and the nation’s governors when he declared the U.S. cities to be a “battlespace” that had to be “dominated.” Then again, Esper may have been trying to curry favor with the president, a tendency that has led some in the Pentagon call him “Yesper.” Within hours, his words suggesting National Guard units confront American citizens went viral. Either Esper was foolish to think his words would stay off the record, or he was smart enough to know they wouldn’t, and he used them anyway. Either way signals a SA failure.
But it may be that’s what you get when you tap the top lobbyist for Raytheon, one of the Pentagon’s biggest contractors, to run the place. Whether you’re trying to sell Patriot missiles to the U.S. military—or yourself to the commander-in-chief—sometimes you get caught trying a little too hard.
No name, rank and serial number for them
One of the disquieting elements about the June 1 clash in Lafayette Park were that some of those pushing the protesters around lacked any identifying insignia. While initial reports said the D.C. National Guard and the U.S. Park Police cleared the square, individuals in black paramilitary garb also were involved. The U.S. military has long complained about the challenges associated with fighting those who fail to don uniforms. Now it is happening on U.S. soil, with the imprimatur of the federal government. Their anonymity was as distressing as the refusal by Esper and Milley to explain the U.S. military’s role in handling domestic unrest to the House Armed Services Committee this week.
Lafayette Park’s Men In Black episode recalls the “little green men” the Russians dispatched to Crimea before seizing it from Ukraine in 2014. Apparently, at least some of the unmarked U.S. personnel worked for Bureau of “Prisons,” which is part of the Department of “Justice.”
ON THE HOME FRONT
Rethinking giving Pentagon hand-me-downs to police
In the wake of the widespread civil disturbances following Floyd’s death in Minneapolis May 25, there is a renewed push to halt the sharing of surplus Pentagon gear to police forces around the country. While President Obama curtailed the sharing of armored vehicles and similar items with U.S. police departments, President Trump—long a champion of robust law-enforcement—has resumed the practice.
And he is eager to deploy military forces as well. “Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming presence until the violence is quelled,” Trump said June 1 shortly before heading to Lafayette Park. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
Of course, dispatching the U.S. military to invade a U.S. city repeats the error the nation made in Afghanistan and Iraq, where American ignorance of the local culture made victory impossible. Mayors know their cities far better than presidents, and they can call on their own National Guard (and seek U.S. military backing) if they feel it is needed. Thankfully, heads cooler than the president’s ultimately prevailed. They ordered 1,600 active-duty U.S. troops back to their garrison. Maybe now they’ll do the right thing with the hardware, too.
The danger of rushing weapons into production
The Pentagon is on speed, and has been for years. Its rush to accelerate assembly lines has led to escalating costs, blown schedules and weapons unable to perform as advertised. That’s the bottom line in the Government Accountability Office’s 18th annual report into how the U.S. Department of Defense buys its weapons.
The average cost of major Pentagon weapons has jumped by 54% since they began. That $628 billion overrun is largely “unrelated to the increase in quantities purchased,” the GAO says. And they are assigned to fighting forces more than two years late. “DOD continues to look for ways to deliver systems as fast as possible,” the congressional watchdog agency says. “Until DOD can reconcile gaps in the ambitious schedules that programs promise with the incomplete knowledge they have attained, its ability to accelerate the speed at which it delivers capabilities remains in jeopardy.”
Congress and the Pentagon have teamed up to speed up slo-mo military procurement (the Air Force has been trying for nearly 20 years to replace its aging aerial tankers; the Army has taken just as long seeking a Bradley Fighting Vehicle replacement). But such efforts tend to fail because the U.S. military is rarely interested in good-enough. It wants top-flight programs like the F-35 fighter and the Zumwalt-class destroyer, which it then sabotages by rushing them into production before the blueprints are dry.
Why the rush? The haste seems particularly vexing, given that the U.S. has been mired in wars against insurgents and second-tier opponents since 9/11 (Afghanistan, lost; Iraq, tie). Toss in Vietnam (lost), or Korea (tie), if you want to get all historical about it. For those keeping score at home, that works out to a 0-2-2* record.
But the Pentagon is forever telling lawmakers, salivating over the prospect of well-paying defense-plant jobs in their districts, that they must fund such sophisticated gold-plated silver bullets now: “We have to put the pedal to the metal and pay the piper because who knows when[INSERT CURRENT TOP PROSPECTIVE FOE HERE] is going to strike!” Yesterday it was the Soviet Union, today it’s China, and who knows who it will be tomorrow. It’s the closest thing yet to a perpetual-commotion machine that humans have invented.
*And when you’re a superpower, a tie counts as a loss.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
The Army reverses course and says it is open to the idea of renaming the 10 posts now named in honor of Confederate military officers, Politico reported June 8. The Bunker urged the Army to do just that three years ago.
Not only is the Pentagon taking its time spending the $10.5 billion Congress gave it to battle the coronavirus, millions of what it is spending is aimed at more traditional foes. The Washington Post reported June 4 that the Defense Department plans on “spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects seemingly unrelated to the pandemic, including submarine missile tubes, space launch facilities, and golf course staffing.”
Irene Triplett, the final person getting a pension stemming from the Civil War, died May 31 at the age of 90. The Wall Street Journal reports she was the daughter of a rebel-turned-Yankee soldier who married a woman nearly 50 years younger than him 60 years after the conflict. The Department of Veterans Affairs was paying her $73.13 a month. 1930-2020. R.I.P.
Sure, the Pentagon may have actually created Space Force, but it appears Netflix is beating it when it comes to registering the term as a trademark. Space Force is a new TV comedy dedicated to poking fun at the Pentagon and its newest military branch. The streaming giant has snared trademarks for Space Force™ in “Europe, Australia, Mexico and elsewhere,” the Hollywood Reporter said June 5. The jury is still out on who’s going to win the U.S. trademark. But as far as The Bunker is concerned, the jury has rendered a guilty verdict on a show consisting of little more than trite humor and a fusillade of F-bombs. Too bad, because it’s such a target-rich environment.
You do the math
“U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered the military to remove 9,500 troops from Germany”
—Reuters, June 5
“The president demanded 10,000 troops be sent to the federal city”
—Associated Press, June 7
Thanks for reading The Bunker during yet another crazy week. Keep your head down and your mask up out there.