The Bunker: A Warmed-Over Cold War Budget

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.

In The Bunker this week: assessing the war in Afghanistan; the Pentagon's budget finally arrives; domestic violence in the military; more woes for the Air Force’s new tanker; tweaking fitness standards for Army women, which gets its first female civilian boss; and more.


The Taliban are rising anew

The two stories, 48 hours apart, sum it up pretty well. “Pentagon Accelerates Withdrawal From Afghanistan,” the New York Timesreported May 25. “A Wave of Afghan Surrenders to the Taliban Picks Up Speed,” the paper said two days later. This should make the bile rise into the throat of every American. We have spent nearly 2,500 U.S. lives and $2 trillion for a 20-year war that appears to have accomplished pretty much nothing.

That’s to take nothing away from the U.S. troops who served so valiantly in that “graveyard of empires.” Yes, the central Afghan government that Washington tried to nurture following centuries of tribalism was corrupt. The Taliban—the tribe that sheltered Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda while he plotted the 9/11 attacks—were, and are, armed with patience. That is something the U.S. lacks.

But the critical element in the Afghan war was and is the role played by neighboring Pakistan. That’s the focus of The Bunker’slatest Military Industrial Circus. As in Vietnam, the war was not contained inside a single country, and so eluded the quick solutions favored by military planners. “When the conflict has metastasized due to cultural, economic, and tribal links that know no border, even the U.S. and its military, with all its firepower, cannot save the patient,” The Bunker concludes. “Next time—and there will be a next time—let’s hope those in charge know the limits of American power, and, tempering U.S. hubris with humility, act accordingly.


Hardly a call to arms, dismaying both sides

There was something to tick off both hawks and doves in the proposed 2022 $715 billion Defense Department budget that President Biden finally sent to Capitol Hill May 28. Tossing in nuclear weapons built by the Department of Energy, and other odds and ends, boosts the total budget to $753 billion. That’s a 1.7% increase—or basically flat, after inflation. Biden refrained from the 10% cut sought by some Democrats, but plainly isn’t seeking enough for some Republicans.

It’s basically a warmed-over Cold War budget, with a

a predictable and conventional spending blueprint. That came as no surprise, given the centrist commander-in-chief’s conventional and predictable 36 years in the Senate, and the industry background of many of his Pentagon picks. The budget pushes to mothball so-called legacy systems (including 201 Air Force warplanes, among them 42 grunt-loving A-10s, and a dozen Navy warships) to free up funds for modernizing the nation’s nuclear triad and other gee-whiz weaponry. That includes continued work on the Air Force’s new land-based IBCM and its Long Range Stand Off cruise missile (The Bunkernoted in March that Biden might move away from the Pentagon’s nuclear-war mindset by scuttling such programs, but turns out that was wishful inking). There’s more than $20 billion for missile defense. Personnel assigned to the new U.S. Space Force are slated to grow from 6,400 to 8,400 next year—a 31% boost—the only service with an increase. Veteran reporter Walter Pincus detailed why that’s happening June 1 at the Cipher Brief. One bit of good news, relatively speaking: some of the retiring Air Force F-16s will likely end up as fake enemy fighters for Navy wargames.

The Pentagon’s research and development budget rises $112 billion, an all-time high (although an increase of only about 1%). Research and development spending, which tends to reflect future spending levels, has jumped 43% (from $71 billion in 2017) over the past six years. This signals that U.S. military budgets won’t likely be coming down any time soon.

Keeping with that grim prognosis, arms control efforts continue to wither. Biden has endorsed two Trump moves to punish Moscow for allegedly violating arms control pacts. The president’s proposal funds new missiles that exceed the ranges allowed under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which applied to non-nuclear missiles too). The day before the budget’s release, the administration said it would not seek to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty with Russia, which permitted one nation to make unarmed flights over the other nation to monitor military activities.

But Russia is so yesterday. Tomorrow’s foe is China. “The budget prioritizes the China threat as the department's pacing challenge,” Pentagon’s acting money chief Anne McAndrew said. Outsiders joined in. “New data indicates that, despite China’s ridiculously low official defense spending figures, the value of its defense budget may have surpassed what the U.S. actually spends on defense,” Bill Greenwalt, a former defense aide to the late senator John McCain, said.

This, of course, triggered a run-on riposte from Beijing. “Facing a serious strategic threat from the U.S., China was urged to increase the number of nuclear weapons, especially its sea-based nuclear deterrent of intercontinental submarine-launched ballistic missiles, to deter potential military action by U.S. warmongers, Chinese military experts said on Friday, after reports that the U.S.’ new defense budget will modernize its nuclear arsenal to deter China,” China’s state-run Global Times newspaper reported the same day the Pentagon released its budget.

So, yea, make no mistake about it—it’s more of the shame. The Cold War’s back. Same fear, different foe.


There’s something Sisyphean about the war business

The U.S. military has a problem with domestic violence, the Government Accountability Office told Congress(PDF) May 25. “Domestic abuse in the military has been a subject of congressional concern for over 20 years,” the GAO’s Brenda Farrell said. Actually, it was 27 years—and two days—before that hearing that The Bunkerdetailed(PDF) that plague in the pages of Time magazine. Senator Bill Cohen (R-ME), brandished the article on the Senate floor. “A recent survey conducted for the Department of the Army revealed, according to Time magazine, that each week a family member dies at the hands of a relative in uniform,” the future defense secretary said, “and that spousal abuse is occurring in one in every three Army families.”

Back then the Pentagon insisted it was dealing with the problem. “But the military is spending only $80 million of the $120 million it says it needs this year to fight domestic abuse,” the story noted. “That $40 million gap is less than the price of one of the three dozen F/A-18 fighters the Navy is buying in 1994.”

Nothing has changed. “The department is committed to enhancing the welfare and well-being of our service members and their families, which includes preventing and responding to domestic abuse,” Patricia Barron, the Pentagon’s top family policy-maker, told the House Armed Services Committee personnel subcommittee at that May 25 hearing. But lawmakers were not impressed. “Excuses are over,” Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) said. “The safety and wellbeing of our service members is at risk.”

When you’ve been reporting on the U.S. military as long as The Bunker has, you’ve seen it all before. Domestic abuse ebbs and flows, with the Pentagon dutifully insisting it is doing everything it can to combat it. Same with racism, sexism, and extremism, revolving-door logrolling, weapons delivered late and over budget.

Newcomers (a.k.a. clueless editors, but The Bunker repeats itself) view each such event—over-priced spare parts, the latest sexual abuse case, the latest Iraq war—in isolation. Too often they’re seen as a solo wave, rolling in and crashing on the shore. But, in reality, it’s more like the tides, rising, falling, and then rising again, endlessly.


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

KC-46 gas pains

The Air Force’s fledgling fleet of new Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tankers continues to have problems, as The Bunker first noted more than two years ago. Turns out, the Air Force knew of the biggest one—the plane’s inability to refuel via a complicated remote-vision refueling boom—nearly a decade ago. But it didn’t fix it when it would have been cheapest to do so, the Pentagon inspector general reported May 27. “In August 2019 and March 2020, the Air Force issued contract modifications, valued at $100 million, for the redesign of the KC-46A tanker refueling boom,” the report said. “Had KC-46 Program Office officials effectively managed the development and testing of the refueling boom for the KC-46A tanker, the Air Force would not have had to spend an additional $100 million for the redesign of the refueling boom to achieve its required performance.”

That statement conflicts with an Air Force assurance that such snafus would be fixed at no cost to taxpayers. “The Air Force has identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system,” the service said in January 2019.

But you gotta give the Air Force some credit. It invited Brian W. Everstine of the service-friendly Air Force Magazine to be the first reporter to fly aboard a KC-46 as the plane refueled F-16s over Lake Huron recently. In earlier tankers, the boom operator was at the rear of the plane, guiding the boom into the fuel receptacle of the thirsty plane with the human eye. But now it’s all done with cameras. “Even with the 3D goggles, depth perception is difficult,” Everstine’s eyewitness account said. “While wearing the goggles, the center of the screen is sharp, but when you look to the edge of the screen, it gets blurry and disorienting. The camera feed does not accurately show the end of the boom—there’s about another foot-and-a-half beyond what is visible on the screen, so boom operators use the shadows to gauge where the tip is before connecting to the receptacle. If there’s no shadow, on a cloudy day, for example, the operator has to rely on experience, rather than technology, to make the connection.”

But not to worry. The state-of-the-dark refueling system, an Air Force expert said, works “best at night.”

Changing the rules?

The Army is considering tweaking its gender-neutral fitness tests “after early data shows nearly half of female soldiers can't pass the test and might face being removed from service once it becomes official next year,” reported May 25.

Two days later, the Senate confirmed Christine Wormuth as the first female secretary of the Army ever. She told(PDF) the Senate Armed Services Committee that she will consider different yardsticks to ensure more young Americans are eligible to serve in the Army without diluting its quality: “The Army developed and implemented the Tailored Adaptive Personality Assessment System (TAPAS) that measures an applicant’s noncognitive ‘stick-to-it-ness’ that can be an accurate predictor of success in training; qualities that more traditional methods of qualification assessment are not able to measure.” She also said she supports an Army pilot program permitting “a small number of applicants who slightly exceed body fat standards.”

Marching in Lockheedstep…

Turns out, it’s not only the Defense Department that has the desire to shake up institutions too long deemed white and male-centric. Lockheed Martin has hired White Men As Full Diversity Partners, a diversity-consulting firm, to “awaken together” the white men working for the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, City Journal reported May 26.

How much is due ailing veterans?

Veterans may be provided care for pretty much anything that can be linked to potential toxic exposure during their service, according to legislation now making its way through Congress. “Lawmakers and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart, have said inaction at [the Department of Veterans Affairs], government skepticism of linking toxic exposure to certain illness and concerns about budgets have left legions of veterans without care,” Alex Horton reported in the May 26 Washington Post. “The legislation, and the advocacy that powered it, reframe veteran care as a central cost of war, rather than an afterthought, Stewart said.”

Long overdue. For both the vets, and taxpayers.

Grave matters…

Why do so many veterans find comfort in tending to the final resting places of their comrades? “While a national cemetery’s sea of headstones provides a silent toll, the veterans attending to them serve as living monuments to the long road back from service,” Jasper Craven reported on the real Memorial Day (May 30) in the New York Times. “While some may have had misgivings about their military orders, many welcome the cemetery’s holistic mission: to secure peace for families of the deceased.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. flag measuring 25-by-30-feet was stolen from Los Angeles National Cemetery. It takes three people to move the banner, suggesting the heist wasn’t the work of a lone robber. “It’s so sad and shocking,” cemetery volunteer Rebekah Adams said, that “something like this would happen on Memorial Day.”

Not-So-Grand-Theft, indeed.

Thanks for checking out The Bunker this week!