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.
Tectonic shifts: National defense is a lot more complicated than you might think, as two crises make plain.
Higher walls won’t bring security
Climate change experts are forever fretting about how our little blue marble is a fragile sphere, capable of spinning off its axis into a fire-and-brimstone future if we’re not careful. The gleaming white dome of the U.S. Capitol, the seat of U.S. democracy, is pretty much the same. They closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in 1995 after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks that killed 2,977, they blocked off much of official Washington behind bollards, barriers, and barricades. Now they want to seal off the Capitol to keep people away from the People’s House. Yogananda Pittman, the acting chief of the Capitol Police, said on January 28 that the only way to secure the U.S. Capitol is to build a “permanent perimeter fence” around it.
This is the common refrain of those charged with protecting us.
It carries echoes of President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 call to build a missile shield over the nation to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” It resembles the nation’s response to perceived threats—force-feeding trillions of dollars to a military-industrial complex with mixed results. Yet while the Pentagon’s wars and weapons generally happen out of public view—and therefore are easier to ignore—wrapping a forever fence around the Capitol is an in-your-face declaration of failure.
For the past two decades, the fringed right has been building a bonfire of the inanities. That was considered tolerable, so long as the adults in the room kept a lid on their followers’ zeal. But President Trump, and his enablers, set off a chain reaction after declaring that last fall’s election had been stolen. On January 6, their little atomic reactor went critical when Trump partisans stormed the Capitol.
There are two ways out of this jam: Ideally, Republicans of goodwill would need to refute the big lie (“Stop the Steal!”) that has brought us to this point. That would remove the political plutonium from the reactor they’ve built. Unfortunately, the GOP has largely chosen not to do that. So, by default, that leaves bigger, higher, and thicker walls as the only route to contain their fanatics’ fury.
Lawmakers are leery of the message that constructing a fence will send to their constituents and the wider world. Beefed-up security has already kept Washingtonians from sledding down Capitol Hill following a January 31 snowfall. More fortifications give the impression of action, just as spending more money on the U.S. military does. But neither deals with the root of the problem. There will always be terrorists, domestic and foreign, as well as politicians capable of poisoning minds. But they are rare enough that modest security improvements, far short of walling off the Capitol, will suffice. We need to be wary of the Fraidy-Cat Caucus and the contractors who benefit from their venality.
An ominous change at the top
Last week, Lockheed officially pushed Boeing from its long-held perch as the nation’s largest aerospace and defense company. While Lockheed continued to pocket taxpayer dollars as the Pentagon’s biggest contractor in 2020 ($65.4 billion in revenues), COVID-19 crushed the airline industry—and Boeing’s airliner production—in one fell swoop (revenues fell 24% last year to $58.2 billion).
Some of Boeing’s woes were its own fault: On January 27 it announced $275 million in new cost overruns on the KC-46 aerial tanker it is building for the Air Force. That means the company has paid $5.1 billion to fix nagging problems with the aircraft, in addition to the $4.9 billion the Pentagon has paid to develop it. The not-ready-for-war tankers keep piling up, and the Air Force is trying to “make lemonade out of lemons” by using the 42 it has for “limited operations.”
But the more vexing issue is how a tiny virus put an American industrial icon into a tailspin. After all, it’s things like Boeing’s commercial airliners that generate the tax dollars needed to build Lockheed’s F-35s and keep them, and the rest of the U.S. economy, flying.
The attack on the Capitol, and Boeing’s plight, indicate the too-narrow focus of the U.S. national-security establishment. After 75 years of being focused on attacks by outsiders, it’s time to consider broadening that lens and acknowledge the insider threats now ravaging our bodies and our politics.
MAY THE SPACE FORCE BE WITH YOU
President Biden inherits a new military service
New military organizations are like kudzu, that invasive plant that grow so fast and ferociously that it’s impossible to kill. The latest example is President Trump’s 2019 creation of the Space Force, the nation’s seventh (after the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard) military service.
A military service is a bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy’s most important function—just like us humans—is to survive. So while the betting is that the U.S. Space Force is here to stay, it’s not likely to be as robust as Trump and its backers may have hoped. “Elimination would require an act of Congress,” explains Bob Burns, the Associated Press’s respected Pentagon reporter since 1990. “…A bipartisan consensus holds that America’s increasing reliance on space is a worrying vulnerability that is best addressed by a branch of the military focused exclusively on this problem.”
In fact, the bureaucratic imperative is already in play. On January 29, the Space Force sided with the Air Force over the Navy when it selected what to call its ranks. Guardians—as all members of the fledgling force will be known—will be commanded by a general, not an admiral (despite opposition from Star Trek’s Captain Kirk). “Guardians will wear Air Force rank insignia until the Space Force finalizes its own rank insignia designs,” the service announced, “which is expected sometime in the coming months.”
Kinda sounds like the Space Force is here to stay.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
Saudi Arabia has been in the doghouse lately, what with creating a humanitarian disaster in neighboring Yemen and killingWashington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. That doesn’t look good for one of the biggest buyers of U.S. weaponry (with deals totaling $126.6 billion now on the books). So be thankful for small signs of progress, like the kingdom’s recent moves to scrub anti-Semitic and misogynistic passages from its textbooks. The tomes no longer call for executing adulterers, apostates, gay people, and sorcerers. “We are encouraged by the positive changes in influential textbooks used throughout Saudi Arabia,” a State Department official told the Washington Post January 30.
An eventual showdown looks to be looming in the western Pacific between the U.S. and Chinese navies. “The problem is not just China’s emergence as a maritime power; it is our own seemingly apathetic willingness to cede dominance at sea,” argues Navy booster Steve Cohen in a January 30 column in The Hill. “…We have taken too few steps to appropriate the necessary funds to expand the fleet.” Not so fast, counters Marcus Hellyer, naval analyst in Real Clear Defense. “Simply seeking to outbuild China doesn’t seem to be viable, particularly if it requires massive increases in funding, which likely isn’t a high priority for the new administration,” he writes. This region is the likely flashpoint if we’re ever stupid enough to stumble into a major 21st Century war.
An Australian company has inked a $1.1 billion deal with the Defense Department to improve 12,000 housing units on Army posts in Alaska, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Texas. The contract also calls for 1,200 new homes in those states, the Army said January 27. The move comes after military families complained to Congress of poor on-post housing built by private developers. “We are getting in front of housing issues,” Army General Ed Daly said. Better late than never.
When military food is good, it’s OK. But when it’s bad…Geoff Ziezulewicz of Navy Times explored the worst military chow, which often is served, if you’ll excuse the term, during so-called “Restriction of Movement” ops. Like a Christmas dinner consisting of an orange, succotash, and a Snickers bar.
Do you have what it takes to be an Air Force pilot? The service posted an online game January 26 to test your skills in the cockpit and in other assignments. “It’s up to the participants to combat task saturation by working strategically and efficiently to accomplish each challenge and, of course, have fun while they’re at it,” a recruiter says.
Well, if that doesn’t sound like a description of wading through The Bunker, we have no idea what is. Thanks for saturating your tasks with us, and feel free to sign up here to get each issue delivered to you via email.