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The Bunker: Don’t Blink or You Might Miss the Non-Sequitur

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.


PENTAGON F(L)AT

Biden’s DOD budget proposal = the status quo

The sweet spot in Washington policy fights is when you’re subject to criticism from both the right and left. That makes President Biden’s proposed 2022 defense budget, released April 9, cotton candy. His barebones outline (PDF)as the first spending blueprint by a new administration usually is—earmarks $715 billion for the Pentagon, a 1.6% rise. (When Energy Department defense spending—mostly for nuclear weapons—is included, the budget rises to $753 billion, a 1.7% boost.) Accounting for inflation, that makes for basically a flat budget.

But you’d never know it judging from the reactions it sparked. “Senior Senate Republicans accused the president of trying to shortchange the Pentagon, alleging that this would put the country at a disadvantage against China,” the Washington Post reported. “Progressives in the House made the opposite complaint: that Mr. Biden was spending too much on the military,” the New York Times said.

Both can be right, of course—to their supporters. But Biden is a politician of the old school who spent 36 years in the Senate, and is known as a compromiser. He isn’t going to rock the boats, Navy or otherwise. His budget message—check China, invest in hypersonic weapons, boost Navy shipbuilding, and modernize nuclear arms—could just as easily have come from a Republican president, but only if it contained more money. Last year, President Trump said he wanted $722 billion for the Pentagon in 2022, meaning Biden’s request is more than 99% of what Trump would have sought. Many GOP lawmakers want an annual increase of 3 to 5%.

But Biden’s proposal does torpedo the Pentagon’s infamous (PDF) Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The Pentagon has used this aircraft-carrier-sized loophole to fund its post-9/11 wars, as well as pump billions of dollars into new weapons not included in the Defense Department’s base budget. That’s why the OCO cost-per-troop-deployed to those wars ballooned from $1 million in 2008 to nearly $5 million in 2017, even as the annual OCO account shrank. “This misuse of OCO is bad for the Department of Defense, and it’s bad for the budget overall,” The Bunker’s boss, Mandy Smithberger, told Congress last month. “We recommend ending its use.”

Just like the U.S. military, we’ll take victory wherever we can find it.

SERVICES AT WAR

Both sides—and the Army—take aim

As the budget rollout showed, and as The Bunker noted last week, China is Pentagon Threat No. 1. U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that view April 13 in their annual assessment of threats facing the country. The White House said (PDF) the Defense Department’s 2022 budget request “prioritizes the need to counter the threat from China as the Department’s top challenge.” Republicans agreed—but warned Biden that he isn’t spending enough to do the job. “China’s military investments match its desire to out-compete America and hold our military forces at risk,” five senior GOP senators said. “President Biden’s defense spending cut doesn’t even keep up with inflation.”

Don’t blink, or you might miss the non-sequitur.

The political division over China has spread to the looming budget battles among the U.S. military services, as a shrinking fiscal pie typically does. It may take decades for the military to grapple with racism in the ranks, but it can be remarkably nimble when it comes to sniffing out where the next budget bonanza is. The Army wants to deploy long-range missiles in the western Pacific to deal with the threat. That has set the Air Force’s hair on fire.

“Service tensions are boiling over into public view, and it ain’t pretty,” one unnamed expert told Theresa Hitchens at Breaking Defense April 8. “The long-simmering turf war between the two services boiled over…when Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, called out as ‘stupid’ the new strategy by Army Chief Gen. James McConville to expand the ‘speed and range’ of its ground mission.”

All this may pre-occupy traditional national-security worrywarts, but veteran arms-eyeballer John Isaacs sought to put things in perspective simply by detailing each nation’s military might. “The two powers’ primary competition is not in the realm of the military and will not be resolved by spending more on the Pentagon,” Isaacs posted on the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation website April 8. “Indeed, China remains the United States’ largest trading partner, and any military confrontation by either side would likely cripple both economies.”

Of course, unconstrained military spending could pretty much do the same thing.

WHEELS UP

Biden administration is ready to leave Afghanistan

On April 13 White House officials said that Biden would bring the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan home by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s a decision that’s been long overdue. Let this also be the end of force-feeding reporters fictions about the progress of our forever wars.

GOOD NUKES, AND BETTER NUKES

Improving old ones and a new mission

Let’s start with the good nukes. The Air Force is sending letters out to Montana landowners letting them know the service needs to gain access to their property as part of a planned modernization of the Minuteman III missile system. About a third of the nation’s 400 ICBMs are controlled from Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls. “The Air Force is conducting field surveys of the Malmstrom missile field to identify and document potential threatened and endangered species, wetlands, or archaeological areas of concern that may impact project planning and implementation,” the base announced April 7. The Bunker loves such irony.

This qualifies as good news because it suggests the Air Force is keeping the missiles, first deployed in 1970, ready for action. “Through state-of-the-art improvements, the Minuteman system has evolved to meet new challenges and assume new missions,” the Air Force says. “Modernization programs have resulted in new versions of the missile, expanded targeting options, improved accuracy and survivability.”

But the Pentagon’s official position is that the Minuteman, eligible for AARP membership, has reached the end of its service life, and needs to be replaced as soon as possible. Rebuilding this leg of the nuclear triad could cost as much as $140 billion. Many defense experts argue that the ICBMs are redundant, given the nation’s existing submarine and bomber fleets. In any event, they say, the current Minuteman missiles’ life can be extended to meet the nation’s nuclear-deterrent needs.

The better nukes is that the government is studying how to best use a nuclear weapon to deflect an Earth-bound asteroid. “In scenarios where there is little warning time prior to impact and/or where the incident asteroid is large, a nuclear device might be the only practical option,” an article in the upcoming June issue of Acta Astronautica reports. Scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Air Force Institute of Technology have teamed up to figure out how best to protect the planet from an inbound asteroid. “The outputs and effects of nuclear explosions are well characterized; nuclear devices are a mature technology,” the authors add. “All of these factors make the nuclear option a prime choice for combating asteroids on a collision path with Earth.”

Imagine that: a world in which everyone was cheering for a nuclear weapon to work.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Extremism in the ranks (PDF)

Defining extremism in the military, then determining who is an extremist in uniform—and what to do about it—is a big challenge. Nonetheless, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stepped up to the plate in this April 9 memo. The problem was highlighted in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, where roughly one in five participants had some link to the U.S. military. That’s why Austin is setting up what he calls the Countering Extremism Working Group.

Good luck with that. For years, the military’s first step when confronted with racism has been to set up such entities to rid the ranks of the problem. Last year, the Military-Industrial Circus reviewed what Austin’s service, the Army, had done to eradicate racism between 2005 and 2010: “The Army established the Army Diversity Office in 2005, which led to the creation of an Army Diversity Working Group, which spun its wheels, according to an official Army account. In 2007, the service created the Army Diversity Task Force. But bureaucratic turf wars thwarted mission success. To smooth things out, in 2010, the Army Diversity Office was moved into the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. Within that office, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights was renamed the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Diversity and Leadership. Later that year, the Army Diversity Office was combined with the Equal Employment Opportunity Civil Rights Office and the Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance and Complaints Office to form the Diversity and Leadership Office.”

Yet there’s still racism salted throughout the ranks. Maybe they’ll have better luck eradicating extremism.

More F-35 flak

A top Air Force general says today’s fleet of F-35A warplanes wouldn’t help keep China from conquering Taiwan tomorrow, The Drive reported April 12. “It wouldn’t be worth it,” Air Force Lieutenant General Clint Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, said. “Every fighter that rolls off the line today is a fighter that we wouldn’t even bother putting into these scenarios.” Here’s hoping that the long-delayed and ever-more-costly improvements to the F-35 fleet can be made before China decides to launch an invasion of what it deems to be a renegade province.

Closed skies…

The Air Force is retiring the only two aircraft it uses to conduct so-called Open Skies reconnaissance flights over Russia, Air Force Magazine reported April 6. The OC-135Bs are taking flight to the Air Force’s Arizona boneyard following the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of 1992’s Treaty on Open Skies last year. The Biden administration has expressed concern that rejoining the pact would send the “wrong message” to Russia, which U.S. officials say has repeatedly violated it by restricting flights in its airspace. The treaty’s 35 member states have flown 1,500 observation flights using unarmed spy planes over other members’ territory to monitor military forces and activities. The good news is that major powers can glean such intelligence from satellites. The bad news is that there seems to be an eagerness to mothball airplanes akin to doves, but not older ones—like the B-52—more like hawks.

Just can’t get good help anymore

Don’t you just hate it when the company you hire can’t build the kitchen of your dreams like they said they would? Well, looks like the two new Air Force Ones have the same problem, according to this April 8 Reuters dispatch. Turns out Boeing, producer of the presidential planes, has sued Fort Worth-based GDC Technics for fumbling interior work aboard the heavily-modified 747s. In a Texas court filing, Boeing said it has scrapped contracts with GDC “due to their insolvency and failure to meet contractual obligations,” jeopardizing work “that is of critical importance to the (U.S. Air Force) and the president of the United States.”

Well, thanks for sticking it out to the end of this week’s issue of The Bunker, which we also think is “of critical importance to the (U.S. Air Force) and the president of the United States,” among many others. Subscribe here.