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.
BLACK HAWK FROWN
It’s amateur hour inside Trump’s Pentagon
There is both good and bad news with the way President Trump is trashing the Pentagon on his way out the door. After nearly four years of dealing with it in his typical haphazard way, he’s now engaged, for reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable, in scorched-earth tactics.
The Bunker isn’t going to wade into the wisdom of his ordering the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. troops from Somalia, putting some of his personal stooges onto the Defense Business Board (and also firing much of the Defense Policy Board), and the bootlicking endorsement acting defense secretary Christopher Miller has offered in response. In fact, The Bunker—as regular readers know—has often criticized many elements of U.S. military policy since he first set foot inside the Pentagon more than 40 years ago. But this is no way for a great nation to act.
Trump and his minions are now playing games with U.S. national security. They have stopped the Defense Business Board from publishing its recommendations to the Biden team on how to manage the world’s biggest bureaucracy (luckily, Politico has posted it). They’re imposing petulant orders on the Pentagon’s retooled and rookie civilian “leaders.”
He’s doing to U.S. national security, in his final days as commander-in-chief, what Saddam Hussein did when the U.S. and its allies kicked Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. For those who may have forgotten, Iraq’s retreating forces set hundreds of Kuwait’s oil wells ablaze in a kind of mindless “Kilroy was here” rampage.
Fires and fury: a fitting pair of epitaphs for two losers.
What’s the new president mean for the Pentagon?
President-elect Biden has tapped retired Army four-star general Lloyd Austin as defense secretary. While highly-regarded inside the military, he has two strikes against him. There’s a law barring retired military officers from serving as defense secretary until they have been out of the service for seven years. Austin hung up his Army greens only four years ago, in 2016. “I hope that Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin,” Biden said in an Atlantic piece explaining his choice. But Biden left unsaid the fact that Mattis got the waiver, at least in part, because so many lawmakers were unnerved by Trump. Perhaps more critically, Austin sits on the board of Raytheon Technologies, whose missiles sold to Saudi Arabia have played a major role in Yemen’s civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people. We’ll get deeper into Austin’s pros and cons next week, but influencers in the nation’s capital have been offering guidance awaiting his nomination.
The Quincy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, is calling(PDF) for a major overhaul of U.S. foreign policy that would lead to a less aggressive global military posture. “Two decades of endless war and a bloated Pentagon budget that has proven useless in preventing COVID–19 deaths…are a jarring reminder that America’s foreign policy is thoroughly broken,” the group said in a Biden blueprint it issued December 3. “Marginal adjustments to the current approach will prove insufficient. A deeper rethinking of American foreign policy is warranted.” Biden, Quincy argues, should complete Trump’s drawdown of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021, reduce its military presence in that part of the world, and “normalize relations with Iran.”
Don’t hold your breath, argued libertarian Doug Bandow in The American Conservative the very same day. “Biden says America is back, which likely means as sanctimonious nanny wielding a metaphorical AK-47 to enforce its wishes,” he writes. “The ride will be dramatically different, and potentially much worse, than the experience over the last four years.” Bandow concedes the nation doesn’t know what Biden will do, but says his early picks for national security posts offer some insight. “Americans should expect a revival of liberal interventionism,” he says.
Yet despite coming from different points on the political spectrum, Quincy and Bandow sometimes sound like a Venn diagram where common sense and a smarter military overlap. The post-World War II status quo Biden inherits “actually makes America and Americans less safe,” Quincy says. Bandow warns the nation can look forward to “lots of mindless meddling disconnected from U.S. security, and some activity that makes Americans much less secure.”
The trouble, of course, is that hoary military-industrial-complex that President Eisenhower warned us about 60 years ago next month. After all, it has all the money (contracts, payrolls, and campaign contributions) that vested interests (generals, workers, and politicians) crave. “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” California pol Jesse Unruh said five years after Ike’s 1961 warning. And, as Clausewitz told us long before that, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”
Missing and misspent money means more mishaps
Much of the surge in peacetime aircraft accidents in the U.S. military in recent years can be blamed on trying to do too much with too little, the congressionally-appointed National Commission on Military Aviation Safety concluded December 3. Between 2013 to 2018, when the number of crashes jumped by 40%, the U.S. military suffered 198 deaths and 157 destroyed aircraft worth $9.41 billion, its final report(PDF) said.
The increase in accidents tracked the funding caps imposed by Congress and the White House beginning in 2013 under the so-called Budget Control Act(PDF). But the Pentagon remained in denial about the impending cuts. Once they became law, it never trimmed its forces to fit under the tighter budget caps, with predictable results measured in lives lost. So it hasn’t been so much about how much money the Pentagon had as it was about how it has deployed the dollars it got.
When commissioners asked air crews and maintainers what would cause the next aircraft accident, their answers were consistent: “insufficient flight hours, decreasing proficiency levels, inadequate training programs, excessive administrative duties, inconsistent funding, risky maintenance practices, and a relentless operations tempo.” Six of those seven reasons boil down to misspent money.
Nearly half the crashes—43%—were caused by human error, which rises when flight hours are cut to keep funds flowing to the next generation of weapons. About 38% were due to weather and other environmental issues. The remaining 19% were deemed to be organizational issues, which included a lack of spare parts (once again, cost-related) and poor leadership.
“One Air Force major command representative told the commission that ‘jets are coming out of the [repair] depot in worse shape than when they started,’” the study noted. Pennywise and pound foolish had become SOP—standard operating procedure. “A junior Marine told the commission that his unit was reusing expendable $5 filters on aircraft,” the report said. “The unit, he explained, still had missions to do even if there was no money to purchase new filters.”
“Still had missions to do.” That’s what those in the lower ranks always say. It’s their higher-ups—up to and including generals, admirals, lawmakers and presidents—who avert their eyes when they cut budgets while insisting the troops keep carrying out the same missions.
Calibrating missions to money is vital. Consistent, predictable funding from Congress also is required to ensure flight safety, the panel said. And experienced pilots also help, which is why it recommended that military pilots be eligible for annual retention bonuses of up to $100,000. But, just like in journalism (ask The Bunker how he knows!), there is no way to do more with less. But at least reporters don’t pay in blood.
A PAIR OF PILOTS
Diverging flight paths
Red, white, and Air Force blue don’t blend into a single kind of patriotism. That becomes obvious when you check out two Air Force pilots who have been in the news lately.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, 42, is an Illinois Republican who joined the Air Force in 2003 and piloted KC-135 tankers and RC-26 surveillance planes above Afghanistan and Iraq. He remains an RC-26 pilot in the Air National Guard. He is one of the few GOP House members to acknowledge Biden’s election and has been highly critical of Trump’s efforts to hang on to power.
On December 2, after the president posted a bizarre 46-minute video on Facebook crammed with election conspiracy theories and lies, Kinzinger told Trump (in a tweet, of course): “Time to delete your account.” The Washington Post heralded him in a December 5 profile headlined “GOP Rep. Kinzinger wages a lonely fight against Trump’s falsehoods and right-wing disinformation.”
Funny thing is, some of that right-wing disinformation is coming from a former fellow Air Force pilot. Scott O’Grady, 55, first achieved fame in 1995 when his F-16 was shot down over the Balkans, forcing him to bail out and elude capture for nearly a week before Marines plucked him to safety. The Bunker co-wrote the Time cover story about his derring-do the following week, after landing one of the first interviews with him following his rescue.
A quarter-century later, O’Grady is spreading disinformation on Twitter, according to a December 4 CNN article. He has called Trump’s loss an attempted “coup,” and shared a tweet calling on Trump to declare martial law seeing as he won the election in “landside fashion.” On November 25, CNN added, O’Grady passed along a tweet that declared “Trump won & Biden & his Comrades will now attempt a coup," alongside a doctored photo of Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
That tweet came a week after Trump nominated O’Grady to serve as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs attended Princeton instead of West Point, he can say the U.S., after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, has achieved a “modicum of success” there. At least that’s the word from Defense One on December 2 on Army General Mark Milley’s recent chat at the Brookings Institution. “Modicum” comes from the Latin. West Pointers would say, as dictionaries do, that it means a “modest, small, or trifling amount.” But most West Pointers wouldn’t be as candid as Milley. Over the past 20 years, top U.S. officials have described U.S. progress in the Afghan war in much more optimistic terms. So give Milley credit for candor. The Bunker, not being an Ivy Leaguer, just wishes he’d had the brass to use the word “trifling” instead. You know, a word that most Americans understand.
A North Carolina county has approved a $27 million aid package to Pratt & Whitney, one of the Pentagon’s biggest jet-engine makers. The Buncombe County board of commissioners voted unanimously for the deal, the Mountain Xpress website reported November 18. They said the pact was worth the investment because the company has pledged it will bring 800 new jobs to the county, whose major city is liberal-leaning Asheville. But even conservatives should look askance at such taxpayer succor to a company that is part of Raytheon Technologies. Last year, Raytheon had revenues of $77 billion, $10 billion in cash on hand as of September 30, and plans to resume stock buybacks next year.
The Trump administration has refused to disclose the current size of the U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile, after the Obama administration did so from 2010 to 2017, and then declassified all such totals dating back to 1945. “As the first nuclear weapons state, the United States should strive to set a global example for clarity and transparency in nuclear weapons policy by disclosing its current stockpile size,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said in a December 3 statement. “Ambiguity is not helpful to anyone in this context.” The Project On Government Oversight concurs (as they say in the military), which is why Executive Director Danielle Brian is urging the incoming administration to promote “healthy information sharing.”
The State Department announced December 4 that U.S. overseas arms sales grew by nearly 3% last year. That adds up to $175 billion.
As The Bunker noted in October, former Navy SEAL and Texas GOP Representative Dan Crenshaw inserted a provision into next year’s defense policy bill requiring the new U.S. Space Force to replace its Air Force ranking system (topping out at “general”) with that used by the Navy (topping out at “admiral”). But that language disappeared from the final version of the bill, Military.com reported December 4. Whew!
Mike Putzel, who reported from Vietnam for the Associated Press during the war there, tells the tale of Staff Sergeant Ed Keith, and of his sacrifice to bring better intelligence to the grunts on the ground there, in this piece from Vietnam magazine.
Chuck Yeager, the first human to break the sound barrier, has died at 97. He flew into history in 1947 when his Bell X-1 flew faster than Mach 1 over California’s Mojave Desert. “After all the anticipation to achieve this moment, it really was a letdown,” Yeager wrote in his 1985 memoir. “There should’ve been a bump in the road, something to let you know that you had just punched a nice, clean hole through the sonic barrier.” Thankfully, his Big Bang was enough for the rest of us. He died in Los Angeles on December 7—Pearl Harbor Day—although all 13 planes he got credit for shooting down during World War II were German. 1923-2020. R.I.P.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for tagging along. Feel free to forward this on to your playground pals who enjoy the jungle gym that is U.S. national security.