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The Bunker: Daunting Challenges

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.


Following the Electoral College’s confirmation of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president, The Bunker checks out his Pentagon nominee, and the assorted challenges he’ll face, including a naval-fleet fantasy. Then, The Bunker begins a long winter’s nap. We’ll be back January 6.


Cabinet picks shouldn’t be self-inflicted wounds

No wonder President-elect Joe Biden flubbed his pick to run the Pentagon. There it was, buried on page 78 of the Democrats’ 91-page 2020 platform (PDF).

It came after the economy, health care, criminal justice, climate change, democracy, immigration, and education. “American leadership” was the eighth and last item on the list. “We will reinstate national security policymaking processes that advance competent civilian control,” it said. Then Biden blew a hole amidships by tapping a retired Army general serving on the board of a couple of major Pentagon contractors to serve as defense secretary. Guess it all depends on how you define “competent civilian control.”

Federal law requires that Congress grant Biden nominee Lloyd Austin III a waiver before he can serve as defense secretary because he has been out of uniform only four years, and not the seven required. This is becoming a pattern. The first defense chief granted such a waiver was George Marshall, 70 years ago. The next was Jim Mattis, who served as President Trump’s first defense chief; lawmakers were eager to put “Warrior Monk” Mattis into the Pentagon’s top civilian job because Trump made them nervous. Christopher Miller, Trump’s current acting defense chief, only retired from the Army six years ago (he doesn’t need a waiver because he is serving in an acting capacity, another dodge Trump has regularly deployed). “Choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who pulled three tours in Iraq alongside U.S. troops as a CIA officer, and then held a senior Pentagon post.

Notably, Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense. Austin gets high marks from generals as well as grunts, but there is wisdom behind keeping the recently-retired brass out of the Pentagon’s top civilian slot. No human can spend 41 years somewhere and not have his or her judgment slanted by that service. Either they’d be too palsy-walsy with their old service buddies—unfair—or bend over backward to prove they’re not—also unfair.

Doug Ollivant argues that the chumminess that existed between ex-Marine Mattis and Marine General Joe Dunford, who served alongside Mattis as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, led to a “dysfunctional” Pentagon (that is, more dysfunctional than normal). “Having a chairman who comes from the same background and community as the secretary is not in the best interests of the Pentagon,” he said in Defense One. Ollivant, a retired Army officer who served on the National Security Council staff in the Obama administration, argues that if retired Army general Austin is confirmed, the current Army general serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, “should be asked—kindly but forcefully—to retire.”

Like power in Washington, it’s the perception of favoritism that counts. Everything a Defense Secretary Austin would do will be seen through the prism of his perceived bias—for the Army, and for Raytheon and Nucor, the two companies on whose boards he sits. Who needs the grief? It’s plain Biden’s friendship with Austin—the general often attended Sunday Mass with the president-elect’s late son, Beau, when they served together in Iraq—affected his decision.

Imagine how different things would be if Biden had tapped Austin to run the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to run the Pentagon, instead of the other way ‘round?

Sure, McDonough never served in the military, but that makes him a better choice to run the Defense Department than the VA. Nearly a quarter of U.S. defense secretaries (seven of 29)—have run the Pentagon without spending a day in uniform. That includes notables like Jim Schlesinger and Dick Cheney (who did a much better job, in The Bunker’s view, as defense chief than he did as vice president). Such independent eyes can be critical atop the Defense Department. Prior to McDonough, the only VA chief who wasn’t a veteran was Trump’s first, David Shulkin, who the president tweet-canned after a year in the job.

Veterans are justifiably a proud bunch, and many see putting a non-vet in charge as a mistake. “The idea that Biden couldn’t find a qualified candidate among the more than 3 million veterans feels exceptionally patronizing,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Plus, if the highly-regarded McDonough were at the Pentagon, he’d have another thing going for him: McDonough apparently has never been on the payroll of a defense contractor. Austin has run into a buzzsaw of opposition because he serves on the boards of Raytheon, the Pentagon’s 4th largest contractor and Nucor, the nation’s largest steel company, and a subcontractor to at least two major defense contractors.

Austin “may have to stay out of decisions on the Pentagon’s costliest weapons system, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, because of his ties to its engine-maker, Raytheon Technologies Corp,” Bloomberg reported. And he “also may have to recuse himself from decisions on the company’s missile defense and shipbuilding contracts aimed at countering China and Russia.”

Here’s a tip for future presidents: as the number of defense firms continues to shrink, it become ever more important to tap someone to run the Pentagon unbeholden to the military-industrial complex. As they like to say over there, it’s not rocket science.


The President-elect faces daunting challenges

After four years in Sea State 9—waves approaching 50 feet high—under Skipper Donald Trump, the Pentagon and the U.S. national security establishment are hoping for calmer waters under Biden. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be waves.

Whether you agreed with his policies or not, Trump’s words and actions over the past four years, including six different secretaries of defense, have sown chaos both inside the Pentagon and among allies. Calm waters would make for a refreshing change. But it’s frankly doubtful that Biden’s ol’ pol tendency to default to the center, in an effort to win bipartisan support, will be enough to give the Pentagon the shock therapy it needs in dealing with defense spending, the post-9/11 wars, a resurrected Great Power competition, and several others.

In the Project On Government Oversight’s latest Military-Industrial Circus, The Bunker explores the tough tasks facing the Biden Pentagon, regardless of whom ends up running the place, here.


Huge Navy ship-building mirage rolled out

The Trump administration, on its way out the door, is calling for boosting the Navy’s war-fighting fleet by 37%, from 296 to 405 vessels, by 2051. When you toss in the unmanned vessels it wants to build, the total rises to as many as an incredible 688 vessels.

Those eye-watering numbers come from the Pentagon’s December 10 Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels. “The 30-year shipbuilding plan is consistent with the National Defense Strategy (NDS) which recognizes China and Russia as near peer threats,” Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

The report’s cover sheet said the 23-page document had been “prepared by” the Chief of Naval Operations, the service’s top officer. But it was unveiled in a December 9 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, and Russell Vought, chief of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, suggesting a more political motive. The Navy, in fact, was initially mum on the overly-ambitious plan. That’s “an indication that the White House and Pentagon are leading the charge and the Navy is taking a back seat,” Paul McLeary reported in Breaking Defense.

In a neat bit of fiscal legerdemain, Trump’s final proposed defense budget, for 2022, shifts $45 billion from other parts of the Pentagon budget into ship-building over the next five years. Now pay attention: it’s not boosting the defense budget to pay for a lot of this. It’s simply funneling $35 billion from the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account, supposedly used to wage the nation’s post-9/11 wars, into new warships.

Green eye-shaded defense dweebs know the OCO account has been used to avoid Pentagon budget caps required by 2011’s Budget Control Axe of Sequestration (the OCO account was exempt from the budget limits). The logic was simple: the Pentagon argued that its basic budget doesn’t include money to fight wars, so it had to be added to cover (some of) their costs. Now that those wars are winding down, the Pentagon doesn’t need that money anymore, kinda. That’s why Trump’s 2022 budget proposal kills the $69 billion OCO account. Americans might expect that to yield $69 billion in savings, but how naïve can you get? Much of it is slated to pay for new Navy ships. It’s this kind of taxpayer trickery that keeps driving the Pentagon budget, over time, skyward.

Regardless of whether or not the Biden administration embraces this sea-power surge (hint: it won’t), a call for such a tidal wave of blue-water might make more sense if the Navy had shown any skill over the past 20 years when it comes to building ships on time and on budget. Last year, The Bunker detailed the Navy’s failure to develop the Zumwalt class of destroyers. That, along with colleague Dan Grazier’s reports on Navy flubs building the Ford carrier class and its fleet of Littoral Combat Ships, show the sea service’s ship-building snags are deep and systemic.

But don’t take our word for it. Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, chief of Navy research, fessed up during an October 29 chat at Stanford University. He candidly detailed (PDF) what happens when cheap and innovative weapon designs—the kind the U.S. military desperately needs—are sent to the Pentagon for final approval. “You take this thing that should cost $10 or $20 million, and it comes back costing $100, or $200 million, or worse,” he said. “We just cannot afford to keep building the same things…we need to build different things that are much less expensive.”

Until that changes, look for the Navy to keep treading water.


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

Targeting submarines

When folks start talking about the need for the nation’s nuclear triad, Chicken Littles come calling. The triad, of course, is that Cold War creation of bombers, submarines and land-based ICBMs designed to deter, and, if necessary, “win,” a nuclear war. The Pentagon argues all three need to be replaced for nearly $500 billion. But lately there’s been discussion that it may be time to amputate the triad’s ICBM leg, relying instead on a dyad of bombers and submarines.

As predicably as the swallows of Capistrano, that’s led the Air Force’s ICBM boosters (people, not the rockets that launch the ICBMs into space) to warn that the Navy’s single leg of the triad is becoming increasingly vulnerable to “new technology and enemy efforts.” The Bunker has been hearing these ominous warnings for decades. It didn’t find them convincing then, and doesn’t find them convincing now. Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists explained why in Defense One on December 10.

Viral threat…

This coronavirus just keeps getting more dire, vaccine or not. “The Air Force’s top weapons buyer is worried the top-secret Next Generation Air Dominance program might become an ‘unintended casualty’ of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brian W. Everstine warned in Air Force Magazine December 10. It highlights our inability to know what challenges are ahead, and should temper our outlook about future threats with humility.

New nukes? (PDF)

Just how the U.S. will modernize its nuclear weapons remains a subject of controversy, and “whether the United States is or is not creating ‘new’ nuclear weapons,” according to a paper published December 10 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The U.S. now relies on extending the life of its current nuclear stockpile rather than building “new” warheads, although the Trump administration is pushing for two new designs. New designs could require nuclear tests, which the U.S. hasn’t conducted since 1992. “Novel warhead designs and production facilities may change the shape of the U.S. arsenal…and bring forward the next generation of nuclear weapons scientists,” the CSIS paper concludes. Interestingly, it adds that the study was “was made possible through the generous support of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency”—American taxpayers, in other words. DTRA says its primary mission is “to counter and deter weapons of mass destruction.”

Name game…

According to the latest annual Gallup poll, only 6% of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in Congress. So The Bunker can’t understand why the U.S. Navy has decided to name one of its new frigates the USS Congress. “A number of members of the defense press, among others, initially thought Braithwaite was outright joking with legislators,” The Drive reported. Thankfully, Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite explained his logic at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee The Navy’s civilian boss said he chose the name “to honor and recognize the work that you and your staff do every day to support our sailors, our Marines and the people of the United States of America," according to a December 3 piece on In other words, because lawmakers control the money.

Well, it beats naming U.S. Army posts for traitors.

The American Centurion

Former Secretary of State and Marine George Shultz turned 100 on December 13. On his birthday, he published in the Washington Post a list of the 10 things he’s learned about trust over the past century. No. 2: “During World War II, I served in the Pacific theater in a Marine outfit that included a sergeant named Palat. I have forgotten his first name, but I have never forgotten the respect and admiration—the deep-seated trust—that he inspired. When Palat was killed in action, it brought home to me more than ever how pitiless war can be. Later in life, I thought about the loss of this trusted, beloved sergeant when I advised President Ronald Reagan about military action: Make sure it is just, I said—and equip the troops for victory.” Semper Fi.

Well, that’s it for this week. The Bunker will be hibernating for the next two weeks before returning bright and early on January 6. Happiest of holidays to you and yours, and here’s to a better 2021!