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The Bunker: Carrier Stool Pigeons

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.


“I CAME, I SAW, I RAN” FOR RE-ELECTION

The Trump administration takes on Tehran, again

The U.S. is doing what soldiers call “walking the point”—out front, all alone, vulnerable to incoming fire—to ratchet up pressure against Iran. The Bunker is all for that, just not weeks before a U.S. presidential election. The White House reimposed one set of economic sanctions Saturday, and added a new bunch on Monday.

It’s part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign.” It comes more than two years after President Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear accord, designed to hamper Tehran’s push for atomic arms. Britain, France and Germany quickly issued a statement distancing themselves from Washington’s Saturday move, saying it is “incapable of having legal effect.”

But it could have a political effect.

Two years of sanctions is bringing increasing pain to Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. reimposed sanctions because the arms embargo against Iran is due to expire next month, under the nuclear pact from which the U.S. withdrew. But that’s a fig leaf, at best (an E.U. arms embargo against Iran is not due to expire until 2023). War, or the threat of war often makes for good domestic politics.

“We encourage Tehran to cease its malign activities throughout the region and to act like a normal country,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said September 21 as the new sanctions were announced at the State Department. “But we are also prepared to respond to Iranian aggression. Our commanders have the authorities and resources they need to protect their troops and to prepare for any contingencies.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday than Tehran is still seething over the U.S.’s decision to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a January drone strike. “President Trump ordered the assassination of a national hero for Iran and the region,” Zarif said. “I’m not in the business of making threats, but the book is not closed.”

The betting is that the looming U.S. election will restrain Iran from acting until it knows who the next president is. But tensions are high, and getting higher. Neither the Iranian theocracy nor Trump is known for subtlety. The whole kit-and-caboodle has strong echoes of the buildup to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That conflict has ended up benefiting…Iran. Only this time the threats and counter-threats are happening with the possible catalyst of a U.S. presidential election tossed into the volatile mix.

CARRIER STOOL PIGEONS

Aircraft carriers and the future of the South China Sea

If “aircraft carrier” is simply a term that the Chinese translate as “target,” why is Beijing stepping up its production, even as the U.S. Navy fumbles in its efforts to launch a new class of flattops? Make no mistake about it: a future big war could pit Beijing vs. Washington in or around the South China Sea, and aircraft carriers would play a key role. And China’s way behind right now. But don’t blink.

Construction of China’s third aircraft carrier is now well underway at a Shanghai shipyard, according to satellite imagery cited in a September 17 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Chinese are showing tremendous capability of designing and fitting out vessels,” Matthew Funaiole of the CSIS ChinaPower project, told the Washington Post. “It’s impressive the process they’re going through to position themselves at the forefront of carrier technology.” That’s a key message for the U.S. Navy.

Unlike the first two Chinese carriers—one built in Russia, the second based on Moscow’s design—this third hull is a homegrown vessel. It could rival the size and technology of the new USS Gerald R. Ford class of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. China watchers believe Beijing wants to build a fleet of at least six carriers. China sailed its first carrier in 2012, its second in 2019, and U.S. Navy intelligence Pentagon predicts the third will sail in 2024. The U.S. currently has 10 operational carriers, all of the older Nimitzclass. Of course, China is focused only on the western Pacific; the U.S. Navy is interested in all seven oceans around the world. The Ford is expected to enter the fleet no earlier than 2022, after years of delays. In July the service cashiered the Navy captain responsible for bringing the ship on line.

A top U.S. Navy admiral saluted China’s effort. “It makes the argument that carriers are important,” Admiral Chris Grady, in charge of providing sailors to the fleet, said September 17. “We have them. They want them and they’re building them.” Grady noted that the U.S. Navy has spent a century perfecting carrier aviation. But China’s unlikely to take so long. It’s rumored to be deploying an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) on its third carrier, something the U.S. Navy is struggling to do on its Ford class. The hope is that EMALS will be far more efficient than traditional steam launches.

China may never stamp out carriers like it stamps out iPhones, but then again it might not have to. Just as the Reagan administration boosted military spending in a successful push to crush the Soviet economy, that shoe may be on the other foot today. Indeed, last week in California, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. Navy needs to shift more money into shipbuilding so it can buy more ships to maintain its maritime edge over China. Budget experts believe the only way that’s likely to happen is by cutting personnel and maintenance accounts. Such belt-tightening led to the poorly-trained crews aboard two Navy warships that collided with merchant vessels in 2017, killing 17 U.S. sailors, as the Military Industrial Circus reported shortly after they happened.

Carriers are so costly and complex they have become emblematic of a world-class military. The U.S. is spending close to $20 billion per carrier, including aircraft. But those planes can’t fly very far without midair refueling, and increasingly-accurate land-based missiles can keep them away from heavily-defended shores. They also are vulnerable to submarines. With Taiwan—located less than 100 miles from mainland China—the most likely U.S.-China flash point, naval experts believe such a conflict would occur close to the mainland China, bristling with anti-ship missiles. That could force U.S. carriers within Chinese missile range, or relegate these “targets” to the sidelines.

ONE-STOP COPPING

The Pentagon beefs up U.S. police forces

American law enforcement has taken delivery at least $1.6 billion in military gear from the Pentagon since 9/11, according a new study from the Costs of War project at Brown University. “Today’s high level of police militarization is one of the cruel, complex domestic costs of recent American wars abroad,” author Jessica Katzenstein argues in her September 16 report. “Police militarization is in a sense as old as U.S. policing itself, yet it has exploded since September 11, 2001 and its intensification must be counted among the costs of this country’s post-9/11 wars.” The Pentagon has played a major role in turning local police, once known for their “good cop, bad cop” persona, into heavily-armed fighting forces that do little to treat the root causes of domestic violence. “Militarization certainly curries little public favor,” the report says. “Visibly militaristic tactics and imagery breed fear and mistrust, particularly among poor and hyper-policed communities of color.”

The U.S. military has so much hardware—including at least 1,114 Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles worth more than three-quarters of a billion dollars—that it can bequest it to local and state police forces.

Congress began these hand-me-downs in 1988 to deal with domestic concerns over illicit drug trafficking. Then it ramped it up to deal with terrorism at home. But, like some medical treatments, the cure can be worse than the disease. There’s something to be said for restricting such gear to local National Guard units, able to rumble down U.S. streets only when summoned by the governor. This continued blurring of the line between combat and cop isn’t good for anyone.

A TRUE STEALTH JET

Air Force’s latest warplane eludes prototyping

Back in the Olden Daze of the 20th Century, the first so-called “stealth” warplane was the F-117, a bat-winged fighter-bomber that the Pentagon hid from public view for six years until it was used in America’s 1989 superpower showdown with…Panama.

The 21st Century planely demands something even more stealthy, and last week the Air Force rolled it out, kind of. It’s a secret fighter designed entirely in cyberspace—but good enough that a developmental version has been built and flown based on its all-virtual design.

Air Force weapons boss Will Roper revealed the project September 15 as part of the service’s Next Generation Air Dominance program (“air superiority,” long the Air Force’s gold-plated standard, was replaced by a yearning for “air dominance” a generation ago. “Air dominance goes beyond air superiority and supremacy in that it not only ensures that friendly aircraft can fly anywhere in enemy territory, but that they can also be effective at performing their mission,” an F-15 pilot wrote more than 20 years ago. And here you were, like most of us paying attention to airpower arcana, supposing that air superiority, ipso facto, meant effectiveness).

“NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world, exploring things that would have cost time and money to wait for physical world results,” Roper said. “NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. It’s broken a lot of records in the doing.” But he offered no additional clues about the mystery plane. Aviation geeks believe it is a sixth-generation fighter, beyond the fourth-generation F-15s and F-16s, and the fifth generation’s F-22s and F-35s.

The goal is to tweak the plane’s design on a computer, instead of bending metal and writing software to actually fly the thing. Theoretically, millions of designs, each marginally different from the others, could be “flown” in cyberspace before committing to the winner’s physical production. That could, theoretically once again, lead to huge cost savings (the Pentagon is spending billions modifying early F-35s because the plane’s design changed after they rolled off the assembly line).

The Bunker has been hanging around military airfields since shortly after the F-16 took off in 1978. He has watched as the A-12, B-1, B-2, F-22, F-35, and V-22, among others, were supposed to rewrite the rules of aerial warfare. And each surely played a role (except for the Navy’s A-12, killed by defense secretary Dick Cheney in 1991). Yet pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar, The Bunker believes the F-16 remains the best warplane produced by the Pentagon since World War II. Alas, a renegade fighter mafia, not a computer, was responsible.

The Navy’s Training Wheel

She championed co-ed boot camp after Tailhook

Navy captain Kathy Bruyere fought for expanded roles for women in the sea service. She played a key role in helping to rebuild its frayed relationships between men and women after 1991’s Tailhook disgrace. The Bunker spent time with Captain Bruyere when she commanded the Navy’s first co-ed boot camp in Orlando. “They have been hot, tired, and seen each other at their worst,'” she told The Bunker in 1992. “The heads shaved on the guys, and no makeup on the women at 3 o`clock in the morning.'' Turns out that was a good thing. 1944-2020. Godspeed, Sailor. R.I.P.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

“JDAM it!”

Ever since the introduction of the Joint Direct Attack Munition in 1997, getting the weapon to the target didn’t depend on a pilot’s help. JDAMs are self-controlled dumb bombs, guided to their destination thanks to computerized fins that convert GPS coordinates to steel on target. There was talk back at the dawn of the JDAM era that it would render bombers obsolete. Of course, such talk didn’t get far in the Air Force. In fact, a B-52 pilot wrote September 18 in Defense One that the service needs a new non-stealthy bomber—just like the B-52—despite investing tens of billions on the radar-eluding B-2 and B-21 bombers. It’s funny, but only in a perverted Pentagon way, that the day before, Air Force Magazine reported on testing designed to see if JDAMs can be dropped from definitely non-stealthy C-17 cargo planes. “This concept, once fully mature, is for the munitions to behave just as if they were dropped from a bomber aircraft,” Air Force Mobility Command Chief General Jacqueline Van Ovost said. Yea, a showdown between cargo-plane and bomber pilots in the U.S. Air Force…can’t imagine who’s going to prevail.

Silver bullets…

Speaking of kinetic killing machines, the $24 billion fleet of three U.S. Navy Zumwalt destroyers still lacks something to fire from its two huge guns, which have been dormant since the Navy commissioned the first hull in 2016. Now there’s talk of using them to launch so-called Hyper Velocity Projectiles, designed to shoot down incoming cruise missiles. Currently, the only guns aboard the ship are puny 30mm weapons. The Military Industrial Circus, The Bunker’s alter-ago, told the Zumwalt’s sad saga last year.

The brain-computer interface is coming…

…and we are so not ready for it, according to this discomfiting September 15 piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. If you like what the Pentagon has done with the F-35 fighter, Paul Tullis’ piece suggests, you’re going to love what it can do to your mind.

$50K to stay!

The Marines are offering its elite retirement-eligible Raiders up to $50,000 to stay in uniform, Marine Corps Times reported September 16. “Due to the intentionally small footprint of Critical Skills Operators, it is important that Marine Forces Special Operations Command keeps the best and brightest within our formation to be able to respond to emergencies when our nation requires,” a Marine spokeswoman said.

Seven Years of Sexual Harassment (PDF)

The top civilian at the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency sexually harassed a pair of female subordinates for seven years, the Pentagon inspector general said in a July report made public September 17. The official in question retired in February, so the IG said it was forwarding its investigation to his former boss “for inclusion in his personnel file.” The boss said he was shocked that such misconduct had gone on for so long. He has “ordered a comprehensive review of harassment policies, procedures and training,” according to USA Today.

Air Force Mach One…and the very first One

If you’re still breathless over the Air Force’s push for a supersonic Air Force One, please put your seat in a reclining position and relax as you read about the very first Air Force One, flown only by President Eisenhower. It cruised at about one-quarter the speed of sound, according to this September 15 piece in Simply Flying.

Well, thanks for flying with The Bunker this week. Please return your seat back and tray tables to their upright position, and encourage friend, foe and declared neutrals to subscribe.