The Bunker: Balloonacy!

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: that Chinese balloon poses a bigger threat to U.S. taxpayer wallets than U.S. national security; the Pentagon creates a new outfit to better run itself; and more.


U.S.-China relations go down, down, and further astray

Three cheers for the intrepid U.S. F-22 pilot and the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile (thanks, Tom Amlie) that shot down that Chinese balloon just off the South Carolina coast February 4. But The Bunker will hold back on the huzzahs for those blowing the deflationary escapade out of proportion.

The balloon was photographed over Montana on February 1. Some lawmakers demanded it be shot down as soon as it crossed into U.S. airspace. “Literally every regular person I know is talking about how to shoot down the Chinese Spy Balloon,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) tweeted February 3. “It would be great if an average Joe shot it down because China Joe won’t.” But based on the Pentagon’s recommendation, President Biden held his fire until 22 hours later, waiting for the balloon to float above the ocean to ensure it didn’t hit any people as it crashed back to Earth.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the Middle Kingdom’s mysterious aerial ambassador: Why send something that can be seen from the ground — it was as tall as a 20-story building — when it has a fleet of spy satellites doing the same thing? Does the balloon’s large sensor pod represent a new kind of threat, something the U.S. might be able to figure out as it autopsies the remains?

Instead of political hot air, the episode should carry historical, not hysterical, echoes. The eerie whitish orb triggered the same kind of fear that Sputnik did after the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first orbiting satellite. Back in 1957, Americans could look into the night sky and see a foreign intruder overhead. Suddenly an IFO — an identified flying object — was just as scary as a UFO. Let’s face it: there is something unnerving when the bad guy — who you can see from the ground — can peer into your back yard. Or your ICBM missile field.

The episode also reminds The Bunker of the 1960 shootdown of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 over the Soviet Union while he was trying to photograph Moscow’s ICBM sites. After the spy plane went missing, the U.S. said it was a NASA weather plane. The Russians popped that fib three days later when they revealed they had captured Powers, who had admitted his mission’s true purpose. Balloongate also echoes the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK overruled the Pentagon’s push for an attack in favor of a blockade that ended peacefully. Cooler heads prevailed in 1962, and they prevailed, thankfully, 61 years later.

China was plainly hiding something. It never alerted the U.S. that its balloon was America-bound. Only after the world learned of the intruder did Beijing say its phantasmagoric “civilian” gasbag accidentally drifted off course (China conceded February 6 that a second balloon had mistakenly floated over Latin America, raising serious questions about credibility, airworthiness, or both) Beijing had to know its discovery would trigger U.S. outrage. Predictably, the U.S. will now read China the riot act, warning that it will reserve the right to shoot down any balloon, wayward or otherwise, before it flies over the U.S. Just as predictably, given the Pentagon’s acknowledgement that its “domain awareness gap” missed previous such incursions, U.S. defense spending will continue its rise toward the trillion-dollar-a-year realm, a doubling over the past 20 years.

But the balloonacy offers another lesson, too. If done deliberately, it was stupidity on steroids. If inadvertent, China’s inability to steer the balloon clear of U.S. airspace — or to order its self-destruction before it got there — should give pause to those who liken China’s military prowess to that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Not to burst anyone’s, um, bubble, but Beijing’s hapless actions represent a Chinese technical, military, and political disaster.


Pentagon promises to get better

The Defense Department is too ponderous, too slow, and too costly. To help with this troubling triad, the Pentagon has just launched what it’s calling the Defense Management Institute (DMI). “It’s groundbreaking because never before has there been an institute dedicated solely to performance improvement,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said January 31 (now they tell us). “We simply cannot compete on today's global stage without reliable and ready-to-use data to inform our decision making.”

The DMI’s goal is to straighten out the Pentagon’s organization, management, and spending. It wants to electrify Pentagon decision-making by hypersonically incorporating data into speedy decisions, instead of letting critical decisions slog along like Russian tanks through Ukrainian mud. The institute also plans to develop a management network consisting of Pentagon, industry, and academic veterans, and create a how-to-run-the-Pentagon library (think of it as a Dewey Decimal System of Death and Destruction).

“In an institution as large and complex as DoD, there is always a target rich environment for improvement at many levels,” says Michael Donley, the Pentagon’s director of administration and management. The nonprofit, nonpartisan DMI will be part of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), one of many Pentagon-funded think tanks that apparently aren’t dedicated solely to performance improvement. The IDA president is retired general Norton Schwartz, who served as the Air Force chief of staff, its top officer, while Donley was serving as the Air Force secretary, its top civilian. The Pentagon offered no cost estimate for the new shop.

The U.S. government has been trying to fix the Department of Defense since its creation following World War II. Whether it’s the Reagan-era Packard Commission intended to improve defense procurement, or Quadrennial Defense Reviews and National Defense Strategies designed to deploy those weapons more smartly, the military-industrial-complex navel-gazing never stops. Brigades of internal government watchdogs — like the Government Accountability Office — and battalions of outside think tanks have been scrubbing Pentagon operations for years. But the dirge remains the same: the Department of Defense rarely gets passing grades when it comes to buying weapons or winning wars.

Not sure how better managers will yield smarter weapons, or victories on the battlefield. For all its good intentions, the Defense Management Institute is a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.


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

Rein it in…

Kevin Roberts, the president of the traditionally spend-more-on-the-Pentagon Heritage Foundation, wrote January 31 at The American Conservative that U.S. military spending needs to be on the chopping block.

Fill ‘er up! Again!

Even as the Air Force struggles to get its new KC-46 tanker straightened out and figures out a second flying gas station, it is launching a third tanker program — stealthy, this time — to begin operating in 2040, John Tirpak reported February 2 at Air & Space Forces.

Sorry…couldn’t resist

Seven U.S. F-35s were shot down in a three-hour dogfight with a Chinese balloon, Duffel Blog (it’s The Onion, in uniform) reported February 6.

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