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The Bunker: Déjà amnesia

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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.


This week in The Bunker: linking the Iraq invasion, which began 20 years ago this week, with the Pentagon’s ignorance of how many weapons it needs to fight; and more. (Housekeeping note: The Bunker’s taking next week off.)

LESSON UNLEARNED

Who knew the Pentagon needed bullets?

It was 20 years ago this week that “shock and awe” didn’t. Iraq refused to capitulate following the March 20, 2003, U.S. invasion of Iraq, in what turned out to be a fruitless hunt for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Two weeks before the war began, The Bunker asked General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to explain what “shock and awe” was all about.

“If asked to go into conflict in Iraq, what you’d like to do is have it be a short conflict,” said Myers, who as a four-star fighter-pilot Air Force general knew a lot about dropping bombs and firing missiles. “The best way to do that would be to have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on the end was inevitable.”

It was the first official peek into what the war should look like.

It didn’t turn out that way. After an initial spasm of hellfire from on high, shock and awe petered out. It took a ground invasion by 160,000 troops before Baghdad fell, and nearly a year for the U.S. to discover there were no banned biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons that the U.S. brandished as justification for its attack. “We were almost all wrong,” the top U.S. WMD-hunter conceded. It would take 18 fitful years, 4,598 U.S. troops’ lives, and $2 trillion, for the U.S. to officially end combat operations in Iraq. The invasion, built around a failed U.S. strategy, triggered a civil war and has left neighboring Iran as the major winner.

This lousy scorecard comes to mind as the Pentagon, apparently surprised that war requires bullets and bombs, has just created what it’s calling the Joint Production Accelerator Cell (JPAC) to produce more weapons more quickly. “The JPAC will focus on developing actionable recommendations to build production capacity for a specific set of weapons systems,” William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said in a March 10 memo(PDF). “These systems may evolve with the threat environment, and will be selected by [LaPlante’s office] based on periodic deliberative processes with senior Department leaders.” Beyond grappling with munition shortfalls, he added, the new shop will deal with “defense weapons systems and suppliers overall.”

There are some surprises (insert wan grin) here. First of all, it’s a bit of a blow that the Pentagon’s immense weapons-buying bureaucracy wasn’t aware that shipping munitions to Ukraine would deplete U.S. stockpiles, and that they couldn’t be replenished quickly. Secondly, that the Pentagon ever proposes “unactionable recommendations.” Thirdly, that there are meetings with senior defense leaders that are not “deliberative.” (The Pentagon’s adjective arsenal never runs dry.) But the most surprising thing is that the Pentagon needs to set up a special office to build enough weapons for war. What the heck have we been paying thousands of military logisticians to do all these years?

A Major League war between the U.S. and China — the Pentagon’s looming threat du jour — would require far more munitions, far more quickly, than Ukraine’s current conflict with Russia. The creation of the new office is emblematic of an institution that consistently over-promises and under-delivers. It’s an indictment of a fetish for a few costly weapons over fleets of cheaper, simpler ones. The fact that “shock and awe” failed two decades ago, and that our weapons stockpiles today are meager, are rooted in the same soil.

It’s shocking, 20 years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Pentagon finds itself with too few munitions on hand. But it’s awesome that the Pentagon has inadvertently stumbled upon these shortages, thanks to indicted war criminal Vladimir Putin, before that war with China.

DIS-VESTED INTERESTS

Johnny-One-Note preaches to the choir

Back when he was pounding out stories on his manual typewriter, The Bunker learned the difference between uninterested and disinterested. Folks who don’t care about college basketball are uninterested. But the referees overseeing the NCAA’s March Madness are disinterested. Unlike those of us nervously eyeing our brackets, the refs are there to ensure a fair game without rooting for either side. That’s why so much of what is written about U.S. national security isn’t so interesting: the authors have a stake in their games.

“A prominent airpower think tank says(PDF) the U.S. Air Force must more than double its planned purchase of a minimum of 100 B-21 bombers if it is to win a war against China,” Defense Onereported March 16. What the article didn’t mention is that author Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel, spent more than 3,000 hours flying B-52 bombers.

Three days before, The Atlantic published a piece headlined The Age of American Naval Dominance is Over. It called for a bigger U.S. fleet and a more robust ship-building industrial base to support it. “The United States is no longer investing in the instruments of sea power as it once did,” Jerry Hendrix wrote. “As rival powers develop ships and missiles that target our aircraft carriers and other large surface vessels, we should make greater investments in advanced submarines equipped with the latest in long-range maneuvering hypersonic missiles. We should pursue a future in which our submarines cannot be found and our hypersonic missiles cannot be defeated.” Hendrix served 26 years as a Navy officer, retiring as a captain.

Given their authorship, both reports are suspect. It would be a lot better — for inquiring readers, as well as U.S. national security — if the bomber pilot had written about the requirement for a stronger Navy and the sailor had written about the need for more bombers.

Now those would be a couple of reports worth reading.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Airsickness

The Pentagon has found high cancer rates among its pilots, as well as those who maintain their planes, Tara Copp of the Associated Press reported March 19.

War story

Will Selber, in The Bulwark March 19, recalls his harrowing “Summer of Death” in Iraq, and its echoes today.

Wishful (short war) thinking…

Speaking of “shock and awe,” Navy officer Ryan T. Easterday wrote about the “optimism bias” that wars will be short March 16 in The Strategy Bridge.

And we’re shocked, but not awed, that you checked out The Bunker. We’re away next week, so look for us again on April 5. Encourage your mates to sign up here to get The Bunker delivered via email.