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The Bunker: A Tank by Any Other Name

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: The Army tanks when it comes to naming its new weapon; the Navy pledges accountability while burying a critical report; NATO looks east; Justice Department questions a military merger; and more.

TANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

U.S. Army comes up with a bigger name

Winston Churchill played a key role in the development of the tank during World War I, as he wrote early in the conflict:

As Britain’s first lord of the admiralty, Churchill’s shop also came up with the first name for the new weapon: the landship. But no army is going to war aboard — or inside — a ship. They quickly decided to call them tanks, pretending they were building water tanks rather than killing machines. Plus, “tank” just works: it’s a short, squat, and sturdy word that has stood for more than a century.

But that’s not good enough for the U.S. Army, which on June 29 announced(PDF) that General Dynamics had landed a contract “for the Mobile Protected Firepower.” That’s the official name, as ungrammatical and syntactically challenged as it is, for what the Army says is its “first new design vehicle fielded in over four decades.” The initial contract is $1.14 billion for “up to” 96 MPFs — close to $12 million a pop (that “up to” tends to screw taxpayers).

Interestingly, the word “tank” is MIA in both the Army contract announcement and its press release about the deal. It’s also missing from General Dynamics’. But this is how GD describes what it plans to build:

“The highly lethal, survivable and mobile direct-fire combat vehicle melds recently developed and battle-tested designs to dominate ground threats on the multi-domain battlefield. The MPF vehicle employs a four-person crew and features an enhanced thermal viewer, a large-caliber cannon, a lightweight hull and turret, and a modern diesel engine, transmission and suspension system.”

Sure sounds like a tank to The Bunker (and even looks like one, too, according to the pair of photos accompanying that Army press release). Yet this lethal logorrhea shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Churchill outfit that developed the notion for the tank was the Landships Committee. The U.S. Army office overseeing the Mobile Protected Firepower is the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team.

The British Imperial War Museum actually telegraphed the Army’s new name for its latest tank in its first sentence detailing the original’s history:

“The concept of a vehicle to provide troops with both mobile protection and firepower was not a new one. But in the First World War, the increasing availability of the internal combustion engine, armour plate and the continuous track, as well as the problem of trench warfare, combined to facilitate the production of the tank.” (Emphasis added by The Bunker.)

And that, in an armored nutshell, is the U.S. military’s problem: why use a single cheap syllable when eight costly ones will do?

NAVY LEAK

Service pledges accountability while hiding smoking gun

Once again, the U.S. military has poisoned people after strenuously denying it. Whether it’s the downwinders, Agent Orange, families who lived at Camp Lejeune, or those whose lungs were scarred by burn pits during the post-9/11 wars, the Pentagon’s default position invariably is: don’t blame us. But then, as often as not, it ends up being culpable.

This time it involves the leaky Red Hill fuel depot at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which sickened thousands who drank water it had contaminated. “The lack of critical thinking, intellectual rigor, and self-assessment by key leaders at decisive moments exemplified a culture of complacency and demonstrated a lack of professionalism that is demanded by the high consequence nature of fuel operations,” the Navy said in a report(PDF) released June 30. The Navy has pledged to hunt down and hold accountable those responsible for the snafu (the base commander retired last month; the Navy awarded him the Legion of Merit on his way out the door.

But we’ve heard this record before. Once the hunt for the responsible miscreants has begun, the dirty deed has already been done. What’s needed is a way to reduce such problems, and encourage commanders to take the time and money to nip them in the bud. Easier said than done, that’s for sure. But, time after time, wrist slaps after the fact only allow more wrongdoing. That’s especially true when the military’s reflexive response is invariably threat-based. On a June tour of the depot, Navy officials stressed the “importance of the facility as the threat from China grows, and seemed to dismiss the larger concerns of military families,” Alex Horton reported in the Washington Post.

It's also striking how difficult it is to find a link to the 234-page probe on Navy news websites. Nearly a week after its release, it was not on the Navy’s Pearl Harbor website (although how to “stay safe in paradise” this summer is [Don’t Drink the Water!”]). It’s not on the Navy’s Pacific Fleet news website, although there is a June 10 release saying Pearl Harbor’s water is now safe to drink). And it’s not on the overall Navy news website, although there is a July 1 announcement noting the creation of Joint Task Force Red Hill, with a link to the Navy’s plan to empty the huge tanks by 2025 (locals, including the chief of Honolulu’s water supply, are not impressed).

Turns out the report is buried in the Navy’s Freedom of Information Act reading room. Just don’t count on the Navy to make it easy to find. Flabbergastingly, no link nor news of the report has been officially posted to Pearl Harbor’s busy Facebook page, despite repeated online requests there from members of the community.

It used to be that just the submarine force was known as the “silent service.” Now, apparently, it applies to the entire Navy.

NATO EXPANSION

The alliance grows…in two ways

Speaking of China, NATO just did. You might have heard that the alliance is going from 30 to 32 nations after Turkey dropped its opposition to Finland and Sweden enlisting. But at the same summit in Madrid, the 73-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization cast its eye toward China as a possible threat for the first time. “China is not our adversary,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said June 29. “But we must be clear-eyed about the serious challenges it represents.” NATO’s move comes long after the Pentagon’s threatometer shifted its focus from Moscow to Beijing.

“NATO’s updated ‘strategic concept’ document name-checked China as a source of concern for the first time and promised to address ‘the systemic challenges’ it poses,” the Washington Post noted in a June 30 editorial. “But there were few specifics on how to back up that new commitment with tangible resources.”

Nonetheless, China was ticked. “We solemnly urge NATO to immediately stop spreading false and provocative statements against China,” Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “What NATO should do is to give up the Cold War mentality, zero-sum game mindset, and the practice of making enemies and stop seeking to disrupt Asia and the whole world after it has disrupted Europe.”

But there’s reason for concern. “While expected, the move reflects rising suspicion towards China among the Western military alliance, but also a recognition of Beijing’s growing military clout,” the South China Morning Postreported. “The strategy has not been updated since 2010, and since then China has been closing the military and economic gap with the United States and other NATO members.”

Let’s face it — China’s one-party rule, state-directed economy, growing military muscle, and its persecution of its citizens are cause for concern. Already the world’s most populous nation, it’s slated to become its richest when it eclipses the U.S., projected to happen by 2030. So an alliance is definitely the way to go.

Turns out, the U.S. already tried this once, launching the anti-communist Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, along with seven other nations, in 1954. “When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the most prominent reason for SEATO’s existence disappeared,” a State Department history says. “As a result, SEATO formally disbanded in 1977.”

Forty-five years later, there’s a new sheriff in town. From here on out, guess we’ll have to think of NATO as the North Atlantic & Pacific Treaty Organization — an A&P for the 21st Century.

WELL, IT’S ABOUT TIME

U.S. tries to block defense merger

There may be no direct link, but as the number of defense-contractor mergers has grown, the Pentagon’s ability to win wars — what we pay it to do in the final analysis — has shrunk. So it was heartening to see(PDF) the Justice Department seek to block Booz Allen Hamilton’s purchase of EverWatch Corp. on June 29. The U.S. alleges that the merger would kill competition between the two companies to provide “modeling and simulation services” for the top-secret National Security Agency, “leaving NSA to face a monopoly bidder.” The deal “imperils competition in a market that is vital to our national security,” Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said. “Both the acquisition agreement and the underlying transaction violate federal antitrust law.” Booz Allen disagreed, saying the merger would “would bring together two companies with complementary capabilities to support our collective national security interests and would enhance competition overall in an industry that is highly competitive.”

Of course, these are fingerling potatoes when it comes to defense mergers, not thunderclaps like Northrop and Grumman (1994), Boeing and McDonnell Douglas (1997), or Raytheon and United Technologies (2020). Booz Allen, the Pentagon’s 22nd biggest contractor last year, is a consulting firm on steroids. EverWatch develops artificial intelligence and cloud capabilities for the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies.

Battle lines, so to speak, are already being drawn. “Big mergers in the defense industry stomp out competition and threaten national security,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted after the suit was filed. “The Justice Department is right to oppose this merger that could waste taxpayer dollars and further industry consolidation.”

But don’t count out the defense contractors just yet. They’ve both got defense heavyweights in their corner. Deborah Lee Jones is a member of the advisory board of Enlightenment Capital, which just happens to own EverWatch. Jones served as secretary of the Air Force in the Obama administration, and is one of a platoon of past Pentagon pooh-bahs serving on that panel. Plus, she was just tapped to co-chair the non-profit Atlantic Council’s Breaking and Remaking the U.S. Defense Innovation System: A Commission on Improving DoD Engagement with New Companies and Innovators.

Apparently, the same folks who named the new panel are also the ones who named the Army’s newest tank.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Rethinking military might

Phillips Payson O’Brien says Russia’s poor showing following its invasion of Ukraine should lead nations to reconsider how to take stock of a nation’s power, in The Atlantic July 1.

Oops!

Headphone-wearing linguists aboard U.S. Air Force spy planes flying over Europe could listen to the Russians planning to invade Ukraine, and translate what they were saying. But there was just one problem: there were no Air Force translators who could speak Ukrainian, Air Force Times reported July 1.

Hell Week

A mother was horrified to learn the details of how her son died during Navy SEAL training, according to this June 27 article on the Military.com website.

Collateral damage

The Bunker has visited many pawn shops, and other businesses just outside the gates of U.S. military bases, designed to separate troops from their paychecks. The New York Times studied this peculiar commerce surrounding Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in this June 30 piece.

Same old story…(PDF)

On June 30, the day the Pentagon announced this contract to buy military aircraft for Tunisia, the Carnegie Endowment released this column declaring the North African nation “is staring down an unprecedented fiscal crisis while a would-be dictator smashes checks and balances.”

Last of the greatest

Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last survivor among the nearly 500 U.S. troops awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in World War II, died June 29, the New York Times reported the same day. The Marine earned his decoration for valor on Iwo Jima. 1923-2022. Semper Fi, Corporal.

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