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The Bunker: Do You Feel a Draft?

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: betcha didn’t know that KISS stands for “Keep It Simple, Sailor”; lawmakers continue to push for a bigger role in going to war; Afghanistan continues its sad slide into chaos; & more.

COSTLY LESSON LEARNED?

Navy procurement becomes a little less ambitious

It’s refreshing when anyone high up inside the Pentagon acknowledges error. That’s primarily because it’s so rare. So it was bracing to hear Admiral Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, concede the Navy screwed up by trying to stuff too many new technologies into its latest aircraft carrier.

The Navy needs to take “a much more deliberate approach with respect to introducing new technologies to any platform,” he said in an interview released July 21. He then turned his fire on the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first in a new class of carriers that has been plagued with problems. “We had 23 new technologies on that ship, which quite frankly increased the risk of delivery and cost,” he said. Those technologies included totally new systems to arm, launch, and recover the ship’s warplanes. “We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that, in order to make sure that we keep risk at a manageable level,” Gilday said. That single vessel—planes not included—will cost more than $13 billion. It is set to make its first deployment next year after 20 years in development.

Keeping risk at a manageable level hasn’t been the Navy’s strong point. The service made the same mistake when it built its Zumwalt class of destroyers over the past two decades. Those ships foundered on the reefs of technological hubris when the Navy and its contractors couldn’t get its 11 new technologies(PDF) to play well together. “Cramming a lot of new technologies into one platform was just crazy—it was doomed from the start,” John Lehman, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary for six years, toldThe Bunker concerning the Zumwalt’s woes in 2018. “Incremental is always the way to go when you’re talking about big systems.” The three Zumwalt destroyers cost more than $24 billion—$8 billion each. The Navy is still trying to figure out their mission.

The core issue here is why the Navy—and the Pentagon, more broadly—feels the need to shovel the latest shiny gimcracks and gewgaws into its new weaponry. The U.S. military is the best in the world and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Too often, its weapons designers are like a toddler in a toy store reaching for the latest and most costly playthings when a yo-yo would suffice. Why Congress and taxpayers spoil the child rotten, with predictable results, remains a mystery.

It’s also refreshing to hear that the Navy might actually be taking some of these costly lessons to heart. Rear Admiral Bill Houston, the Navy’s undersea requirements officer, pledges that his service’s next attack submarine will create the “ultimate apex predator” by cobbling existing technologies inside a new hull. “It is going to be faster, carry a significant punch, bigger payload, larger salvo rate; it’s going to have acoustic superiority,” he said July 21.

But not to fret. “We’re taking what we already know how to do and combining it together,” he added. “We’re confident that we’re going to be able to do that because we’ve already built that on those previous platforms, we know how to do that. We just have to mesh it together with one platform.”

Color The Bunker skeptical. But “Bravo Zulu!” to the Navy for acknowledging the problem up front, instead of churning through billions seeking stealthy silver bullets that never pan out.

WORLD COP OUT?

Congress tries to re-assert its war-making power

The U.S. has a lousy win-loss record in big-time wars since World War II. Its only clear victory was driving Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. It lost in Vietnam, and it’s looking grim in both Afghanistan and Iraq 2.0. Korea remains a tie—after 68 years. It’s no coincidence that all these conflicts happened without a declaration of war by Congress, as required by the Constitution. A valiant trio of senators is trying to change that by beefing up the congressional role in going to war. Unfortunately, they’re not demanding that Congress declare war. But these days The Bunker will take whatever it can to involve the nation in such life-and-death decisions.

“Today, we have combat troops in over a half dozen countries all around the world without having had any debate on the floor of the U.S. Congress,” Senator Chris Murphy, D-CT, said July 20. “That's incredibly dangerous, and it's time that we start trusting the national security instincts of the American public.” Senators Mike Lee, R-UT, and, and Bernie Sanders, I-VT, joined Murphy in proposing the National Security Powers Act(PDF).

The legislation, which aims to replace 1973’s War Powers Act, also would give Congress a bigger role in approving or denying overseas arms sales. It comes as Congress continues to debate the wisdom of so-called congressional authorizations for the use of military force. White Houses have used them since 9/11 to justify attacking targets pretty much anywhere at any time. The Project On Government Oversight, The Bunker’s Big Boss, supports the legislation, as do many other groupsinterested in a more rational and accountable U.S. national security.

Unfortunately, Congress has been too timid to take up arms against such presidential overreach. Lawmakers seem much more comfortable allowing the White House to flex U.S. military muscle unilaterally. That way, when things go wrong—as they invariably do in combat—members of Congress can shirk responsibility.

As if to prove the point, the Biden administration attacked Shabab insurgents in Somalia for the first time on the same day the three senators proposed stronger congressional oversight of such actions. “We’re troubled that no one in the administration sought the required legal authorization from Congress for Tuesday’s drone strike in Somalia,” they said in a July 22 statement. “We need to reestablish a system of checks and balances in our national security to make Congress a part of these decisions about war and peace and put the interests of the American people front and center.”

The day after the senators’ statement, the U.S. military attacked Somali insurgents again.

AFGHAN BOMBS AWAY

As U.S. military exits, it attacks insurgents

Meanwhile, the U.S. military launched renewed attacks against Taliban targets even as its presence in Afghanistan dwindled toward zero (except for 650 troops dedicated to defending the U.S. embassy in Kabul). There’s palpable concern in the Pentagon and elsewhere across the U.S. government that, unlike in South Vietnam, there may be no “decent interval” between the U.S. troop pullout and the collapse of the Afghan government Washington has spent nearly 20 years, $2 trillion, and nearly 2,400 lives propping up. Henry Kissinger asked China for 18 months between the U.S. pullout from South Vietnam and its collapse (he got 25); a U.S. intelligence assessment says Afghanistan could fall within six months.

“It does not take much vision to predict that the collapse of the present Afghan government is now all too likely, and that if the current Afghan central government collapses, a partisan U.S. political battle over who lost Afghanistan will follow,” defense guru Anthony Cordesman writes in a new study. “The key issue is not why the war was lost, it is whether letting it escalate and prolonging it was worth its cost.”

It’s all up to the Afghans now. “The future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people, and there are a range of possible outcome in Afghanistan,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said July 21. “I want to emphasize repeatedly, and I've said this before: a negative outcome, a Taliban automatic military takeover, is not a forgone conclusion.”

Them’s frightening words.

That’s because of concern that the Taliban’s return could lead to a new sanctuary for al Qaeda terrorists who struck the U.S. on 9/11. “We have something like four times the number of jihadist groups as there were on 9/11,” Gil Barndollar, a Marine veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, told the Washington Post July 27. “The global war on terror has failed by just about any measure.” Civilian casualties in Afghanistan jumped 47% in the first six months of 2021 compared to 2020, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported(PDF). The U.N. mission said it “is concerned by the increased number of civilian casualties that have occurred since the announcements by international military forces in April, and then commencement shortly thereafter, of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, after which the Taliban captured a significant number of district administrative centers.”

When pressed on what the U.S. is doing to help Afghanistan militarily, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had a short list when it came to hardware. “We're going to provide on Friday three newly-refurbished UH-60s,” he said July 21, referring to the complex U.S. helicopters that the U.S. forced on Afghanistan. Those Black Hawk choppers require extensive U.S. support, unlike the much simpler Russian choppers the Afghans had been flying and mostly maintaining on their own. As U.S. contractors supporting the choppers and other weapons fall from 16,000 to several hundred, Afghan maintainers will be helped by U.S. contractors via Zoom, Politico’s Paul McLeary reported.

These are not the actions of a superpower. Heck, they’re not even the actions of cogent and competent commanders—military or civilian. But there’s both good and bad news as the Afghan government seems to be circling the drain. The bad news is that the Taliban now control half of Afghanistan’s 419 government districts, Milley said. The good news is that they don’t control a single one of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. “None of them have been seized,” he noted, “as of today.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

All politics is local

Representative Elaine Luria, D-Naval Station Norfolk, is one of the few Democrats in the House calling for boosting military spending beyond the $715 billion requested by her party’s leader, President Biden, the Washington Post reported July 24. That sets the Virginia lawmaker, and the House, apart from the Senate, where the Democratically-controlled armed services committee voted July 21, by a whopping 25-to-1 margin, to increase Biden’s proposed 2022 defense budget to $740 billion. Both highlight the fact that those with defense plants or bases in their districts or states tend to believe, almost without fail, that more is better.

“Do you feel a draft?”

Conservatives are upset over a Senate provision that would require women to register for the draft, the intrepid John Donnelly reported in Roll Call July 23. “It’s one thing to allow American women to choose this service,” Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said, “but it’s quite another to force it upon our daughters, sisters, and wives.” Donnelly suggests some GOP lawmakers believe focusing on the issue will be a winner among Republican voters in next year’s midterm elections.

Parental rites and wrongs

A pair of senators—Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y) if you can believe it—have teamed up to fight for soon-to-be-parents attending the nation’s military academies. Current policy requires that they abandon the military or their child. “Women who get pregnant or men who father a child have three options,” Jacqueline Feldscher reported at Defense One July 22. “To stay at school, they can either get an abortion or give the baby up for adoption, severing their legal and financial responsibility. To keep the baby, they must leave the military academy. Any student that leaves the school in their junior or senior year has to repay the government for their education, since they will not fulfill their commitment to serve in the military after graduation.” Plainly, the article goes on to note, the policy primarily affects women. “Men,” it adds, “sometimes don’t even know they’ve gotten a woman pregnant.”

Below decks

The report issued last week by four Republican lawmakers on what they view as a weakened U.S. Navy warfighting capacity focused on the brass. But there are problems within the lower ranks, too, writes former six-year Navy veteran Luther Ray Abel in National Review July 21. It boils down to this: Spending money like a drunken sailor isn’t so much a stereotype as a statement of fact. And while it's particularly bad during overseas port calls, it also is too much a part of everyday life for sailors when they’re not at sea. “My suggestion for curbing the same at home,” Abel writes, “would be random breathalyzer tests every morning upon arriving to work.”

A true centurion

Tuskegee Airman Brigadier General Charles McGee wants to inspire youngsters to fly, the Washington Post reported July 25. “The young folks are the future of this country,” said the 30-year military vet, who flew in World War II (Bell P-39Q Airacobras, Republic P-47D Thunderbolts, and North American P-51 Mustangs), Korea (Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars and Northrop F-89 Scorpions) and Vietnam (McDonnell RF-4C Phantom IIs). “I don’t have too much time left here,” the 101-year old said, “so mentoring them is one of the most important things I can do.”

And one of the most important things you can do is to fly with The Bunkereach week. Share with friends, and sign up here to get it delivered Wednesdays to your inbox.