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The Bunker: Crossing a grim threshold

This week in The Bunker: talk about waste — this year the U.S. is slated to spend more on interest for the national debt than on its military; the Pentagon is perfecting warplanes flown by artificial intelligence; a brave but unsung Pentagon intel official punctures talk of China’s newest bomber; and more.

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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This week in The Bunker: talk about waste — this year the U.S. is slated to spend more on interest for the national debt than on its military; the Pentagon is perfecting warplanes flown by artificial intelligence; a brave but unsung Pentagon intel official punctures talk of China’s newest bomber; and more.

THE D-BOMB

A suicidal weapon that keeps growing

A half-century ago, the U.S. developed the neutron bomb as the perfect way to win wars — kill people, but leave their buildings intact. Eventually, common sense prevailed — why make nuclear weapons more useful? — and the notion was shelved. Today we’re facing a similarly insidious weapon. But, unlike the neutron bomb, it won’t be used in a war against some other country. Nope, this is a weapon we are using on ourselves, with even more dire and indiscriminate consequences. 

It’s the debt bomb, and this year the U.S. will spend more paying for interest on its national debt than it will allocate for the entire U.S. military. That’s a dangerous threshold to cross, according to historian Niall Fergusson. “Any great power that spends more on debt service (interest payments on the national debt) than on defense will not stay great for very long,” he wrote April 21. “True of Hapsburg Spain, true of ancien régime France, true of the Ottoman Empire, true of the British Empire, this law is about to be put to the test by the U.S. beginning this very year.” U.S. military spending was 3% of GDP last year, while net interest on the debt was 2.4% This year, according to this February chart(PDF) from the Congressional Budget Office, those numbers flip: interest will account for 3.1% of GDP, while defense will be 2.9%

The U.S. military budget accounts for roughly half of U.S. discretionary spending. Mandatory spending written into law for things like Social Security and Medicare also plays a major role in this threatening debt detonation that could turn into an invisible, but no less lethal, mushroom cloud.

Some military leaders have been warning about this for more than a decade. “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt,” Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said back in 2010, after the defense budget jumped from $320 billion in 2000 to $738 billion a decade later (and a $895 billion request for 2025, which Congress surely will increase to within spitting distance of $1 trillion).

Interest on the debt — slated to be $870 billion(PDF) this year — must be paid if the U.S. is to avoid default. And without scaling back entitlements, fewer dollars are left for non-entitlement — discretionary — programs. Defense is the biggest such program, meaning it will be squeezed the hardest so long as interest payments and entitlement payouts continue to rise. True, cutting defense is only part of the solution to this no-longer-looming-but-now-here crisis. It’s long past time for us to force our so-called leaders to derail this oncoming train wreck, just as they shelved that neutron bomb.

ROBODOGFIGHTER

Still fighting the last (century’s) wars

The Pentagon says an F-16 fighter outfitted with artificial intelligence has successfully engaged in dogfights with a piloted F-16. It didn’t say who, if either, won. Nonetheless, a series of mock dogfights over the California desert in recent months “show transformational progress for human-machine teaming and trusted autonomy,” according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Trust is a key factor in close aerial combat, given that if you run your plane into your enemy — or shoot down one of your side’s warplanes — it could ruin your whole day.

This would be big news if dogfighting — or, as the Pentagon prefers to call it, “within-visual-range combat scenarios” — were relevant these days. Unfortunately, due to ever-more-sophisticated sensors and missiles that allow warplanes to fight BVR — “beyond visual range” — dogfights are pretty much a thing of the past. It’s like inventing a better newspaper.

But that isn’t stopping the Pentagon from developing its Collaborative Combat Aircraft program, basically AI-operated planes to accompany piloted aircraft into combat. The recent AI dogfights illustrate “how do we apply machine learning to combat autonomy,” Air Force Colonel James Valpiani said.

Now if we could only apply machine learning to the wisdom of going to war.

THE CHINA CLOSET

Hot air about a new bomber

You could hear national-security heavy breathers panting over the past couple of years as word leaked out that China was building a new bomber that might be able to attack the U.S. mainland. “China’s H-20 stealth bomber is expected to introduce an entirely new sphere of threat dynamics,” Warrior Maven reported last year. The bomber, the defense-technology website warned, “further cements China’s nuclear triad and massively extends its nuclear attack range to include major portions of the continental U.S.”

“China is on the brink of unveiling its highly-anticipated Xi’an H-20 stealth bomber, a move that could significantly shift the strategic balance in the Pacific,” The National Interest reported April 15. “The H-20, dubbed ‘Storm’ by analysts, is poised to enhance China’s long-range striking capabilities, potentially reaching as far as the U.S. West Coast with a payload of 45 tons … the H-20 signifies China’s growing prowess in modern aerial warfare and its quest for a qualitative edge in nuclear and conventional strike capabilities.”

Well, that’s not how the Pentagon sees the yet-to-be-unveiled bomber. The H-20 is “probably nowhere near as good” as current U.S. bombers like the B-2, and “particularly more advanced ones that we have coming down” like the B-21, a Defense Department intelligence official told reporters April 22. Briefing rules barred naming the intel official’s name or position. Asked point-blank if the H-20 concerns the Pentagon, the official responded: “Not really.” Even if China shows off the bomber to highlight its military might, that “doesn’t necessarily mean it actually delivers them the kind of capability that they would need,” added the official, who, working at the Pentagon, is likely well acquainted with such claims.

The Bunker tends to take comments from unnamed Pentagon officials with a grain of salt. Unless they’re speaking to him, of course. But when they’re as contrary to the fortunes of the Military-Industrial Complex as this, it warrants a toast to the truth-tellers.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Same old, same old…

Congress continually demands reports from the Defense Department that generate Pentagon pablum (The Bunker can vouch for that) calling for changes that never happen, Trump deputy national security adviser Nadia Schadlow wrote April 22 in Breaking Defense.

Amazing triplets photo

The Navy scored a hat trick when one of its C-130 aerial tankers refueled a beefy CH-53 helicopter in midflight as the chopper was ferrying an F-35 slung under its belly, Matt White of Task & Purpose reported April 28.

Scorched-earth helicopter

The President’s brand new $5 billion fleet of helicopters is currently barred from landing at the White House because the helos’ exhaust scorches the grass, Tony Capaccio and Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News reported April 23.

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