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The Bunker: Change of Command

The Bunker: Change of Command

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.


CHANGE OF COMMAND

Biden’s hired, Esper’s fired. Like it or not, the U.S. military obeys its non-uniformed overseers at the Pentagon and White House. After a topsy-turvy four years under President Trump (speaking of being fired), what’s on the horizon for national security?

THE ELECTION

The national security status quo prevails

The stock market surged in the wake of the election, convinced that a continuing divided government, assuming Republicans retain control of the Senate, was good because it means no radical change. Of course, with record debt and deficits and a rampaging virus, radical change could be just what the doctor ordered.

More of the same holds true for the U.S. military. Major shifts in national security require a president willing to make them and, just as critically, a Congress willing to endorse them. But split government acts as a damper on dramatic action. In other words, it’s basically a recipe for the status quo. “We would see this as an unexpected-yet-good outcome for defense policy and spending,” Roman Schweizer, a defense-industry analyst, wrote in a note to investors after the election.

And, let’s face it: President-elect Biden is a moderate pragmatist when it comes to the U.S. military and foreign policy (he was declared the nation’s next president 48 years to the day he first won election to the Senate, that most hidebound institution, where he served the people of Delaware for 36 years). While the Pentagon’s budget jumped from $606 billion when Trump took office in 2017, to $713 billion last year, it’s slated to drop slightly in 2021. But defense-industry executives see no deep cuts. “Obviously there is a concern that defense spending will go way down if there is a Biden administration, but frankly I think that’s ridiculous,” Raytheon chief Gregory Hayes said on CNBC before the election.

The $494 billion modernization(PDF) of the nuclear triad—meaning new submarines, bombers, and ICBMs—will continue, although it may be slowed down. A Biden administration is likely to cast a skeptical eye on the Pentagon’s new “low-yield” warhead now aboard submarines. The Defense Department’s push for a 500-ship Navy (up from the current 300) wasn’t going to happen under a re-elected President Trump, and it’s not going to happen under a President Biden.

There’s a bunch of things Biden can do by executive order without congressional approval. Many will simply roll back Trump’s executive orders. Look for construction of Trump’s wall along the Mexican border to grind to a halt, and a slowdown in Trump’s proposed U.S. troop pullouts from Afghanistan (despite promises to end forever wars) and Germany. Biden wants to extend New START, the lone nuclear-arms treaty with Russia, and will likely reconsider Trump’s decision to pull out of the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran. Trump’s restrictions on diversity training for U.S. troops and his ban on transgender soldiers are all but certain to be lifted. Given congressional support for renaming 10 Army bases named for Confederate officers—something Trump vowed to halt—it’s a safe bet the name “Fort Bragg” and those of nine other posts will fade into history, just like the commander-in-chief who pledged they would never change.

Despite the fact that the nation remains engaged in its longest-ever war, national security was peripheral to a nation concerned about a pandemic and its impact on the economy. The administration’s refusal, so far, to acknowledge Trump’s loss is bound to complicate the transfer of power. The last time that happened was in 2000, when the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore wasn’t decided until mid-December by the Supreme Court. The 9/11 Commission Report suggested the administration’s late start was a vulnerability that al Qaeda exploited when it launched the 9/11 attacks less than eight months after Bush took office. Here’s hoping the current White House’s intransigence won’t lead to another avoidable disaster this time around.

THE NEXT 70 DAYS

What comes next?

They’re breathing a sigh of relief at the Pentagon. Not because they’re liberal or conservative, but because they have hated surprises ever since Pearl Harbor. Trump’s early-morning tweets unilaterally declaring new policies—pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, or insisting the Navy go back to steam catapults to launch planes from its aircraft carriers—drove the military nuts.

Trump’s first national security action following his loss was unsettling. He tweeted November 9 that he had “terminated” Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and was elevating Christopher Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, to serve as acting defense secretary. At a time when the White House should be striving for stability, Esper’s cashiering demonstrates the opposite. It also makes Miller the fifth person to run Trump’s Pentagon, following confirmed defense secretary Jim Mattis, acting defense secretary Pat Shanahan, acting defense secretary Richard Spencer (for a week), and Esper, confirmed by the Senate on July 23, 2019.

Beyond canning his defense secretary, there’s plenty more Trump can do before leaving (or being ushered out) of the White House 70 days from Veterans Day. If he presses ahead with his desire to withdraw all of the 4,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan “by Christmas,” some have raised concerns that the country could slide into civil war and the Taliban could end up in charge once again. The U.S. has threatened to shutter its embassy in Baghdad amid a flurry of Iranian-inspired attacks. You can bet your bottom rial that Iran, China, and North Korea all are watching the transition turmoil carefully to see how it might be exploited to their benefit. “Defense Department officials have privately expressed worries that the president might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries in his waning days in office,” the New York Timesreported.

Esper isn’t the only one heading to the exits. The Pentagon’s acting policy chief—the #3 civilian position in the building—quit Tuesday, November 10, amid rising tensions with the White House. James Anderson’s departure cleared the path for retired Army one-star general Anthony Tata, controversial and unconfirmable because of his Islamophobic tweets, to assume the post. And more departures and changes kept being announced throughout the day.

Three days after the election Lisa Gordon-Hagerty quit her job as the nation’s top nuclear-weapons builder. The first woman to head the National Nuclear Security Administration, Gordon-Hagerty abruptly resigned following escalating tensions with her boss, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette (yes, DOE designs and builds the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons) over NNSA’s future. She “resigned after being told by Brouillette’s office that President Donald Trump had lost faith in her ability to do her job, according to two people familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg reported, adding that the statement announcing her departure misspelled her name.

That, in turn, generated a (non-nuclear) blast from Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the armed services committee. “That the Secretary of Energy effectively demanded her resignation during this time of uncertainty demonstrates he doesn’t know what he’s doing in national security matters and shows a complete lack of respect for the semi-autonomous nature of NNSA,” Inhofe said.

Three days later, the Esper shoe dropped amid “this time of uncertainty.” Not to put too fine a point on it, Esper’s firing highlights Trump’s willingness to prioritize his personal pique over national security. The president had been down on Esper since June, when the defense secretary pushed back against Trump’s call to use active-duty troops to control civilian protests over police brutality. The ouster sends a troubling signal around the world, and is already triggering whispers about plots, both foreign and domestic. The concern at the Pentagon is that the new acting defense chief (a former Green Beret, Miller had been in the counterterrorism job only three months) won’t have the standing to tell Trump “No!”

Esper told the Military Times the day after the election that he had no intention of stepping down, but figured Trump would fire him before the president’s term ended. That, he warned, could be a disaster.

WHY THAT STATUS QUO PREVAILS

The hidden scaffolding supporting the defense budget

Regardless of who’s in command, U.S. military spending remains at record levels because of the nation’s fundamental geostrategic aim. “U.S. policymakers for the last several decades have chosen to pursue, as a key element of U.S. national strategy, a goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia,” defense sage Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service wrote two days after the election in a fascinating two-page précis(PDF) entitled Geography, Strategy, and U.S. Force Design.Although U.S. policymakers do not often state explicitly in public the goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia, U.S. military operations in World War I and World War II, as well as numerous U.S. military wartime and day-to-day operations since World War II, appear to have been carried out in no small part in support of this goal.”

That has led to a peculiar situation. “The United States is the only country in the world that designs its military to depart one hemisphere, cross broad expanses of ocean and air space, and then conduct sustained, large-scale military operations upon arrival in another hemisphere,” O’Rourke says. That’s the key reason the U.S. military is so much larger—and costs so much more—than the armed forces of any other nation. “The fact that U.S. policymakers for the last several decades have chosen to pursue, as a key element of U.S. national strategy, a goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia, does not necessarily mean that this goal was a correct one for the United States to pursue, or that it would be a correct one for the United States to pursue in the future.”

Should this hidden hand continue to guide U.S. foreign policy and the military spending it demands? Fair question. Too bad American policymakers seem unwilling to ask—never mind answer—it.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Dive, dive, dive!

The Navy awarded a $9.4 billion contract to General Dynamics’ Electric Boat division to begin work on the first pair of a planned fleet of 12 new ballistic-missile submarines. The most secure leg of the nuclear triad, these Columbia-class subs are slated to replace the Ohio-class boats now in service. The new subs will eventually carry 70% of the nation’s nuclear weapons, Breaking Defense reported November 5.

Breathless(PDF)

The Pentagon inspector general has been probing the problems Navy pilots have had breathing aboard their aircraft. The Bunkerlooked into this, and similar problems in the Air Force, nearly three years ago. The good news is that the Navy is reducing the number of such PEs—Physiological Events—that could kill its pilots, it said in a November 4 investigation. The bad news will sound familiar to any military pilot: “Aircrew members also told us that they felt PE Roadshows were used to blame aircrew members for PEs,” the IG said of special briefings designed to alert pilots to the problem.

Speaking of flight

One way pilots stay alert and conscious during strenuous maneuvers is the G-suits they wear over their torsos and legs. The suits inflate as G-forces rise, keeping blood flowing to the pilots’ brains. After 20 years of wearing G-suits made for male pilots, female jet jockeys are finally getting a version tailored for women, the Air Force reported November 3.

By George!

What today’s generals could learn from General George Washington. Former ink-stained wretch-turned-historian Tom Ricks tell us in this November 9 excerpt in Defense One from his new book, First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.

Boeing, Boeing, gone

Boeing, the Pentagon’s second biggest contractor, has had trouble delivering the Air Force’s new KC-46 tanker. Its commercial side has been clobbered by the dramatic decline in air travel caused by the coronavirus, following a pair of 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people. Tough times lead to tough choices. That’s why the aerospace giant has sold its 130-foot yacht for $13 million, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported November 3.

Happy Veterans Day!

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