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The Bunker: Flip Sides on War and Peace

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.


THE U.S. MILITARY’S ROLE IN ELECTIONS

Who will they salute if there’s a close vote?

If President Trump ever harbored hope that the U.S. military might help him stay in office in the event of a contested election outcome, his purported comments on troops killed in action being “losers” and “suckers” should disabuse him of that notion. Of course, we’ve learned that precedents and norms mean little to the commander-in-chief, so let’s examine what might happen come January 20, 2021. First of all, in more than 40 years of covering the U.S. military, The Bunker knows full well that the rank and file—regardless of rank—swears an oath to the Constitution, not to their commander-in-chief. And most understand and embrace that bright shining line with a fervor that would surprise many civilians.

But the President would not be so foolhardy as to mount a frontal assault on the Constitution. As with water, erosion can be just as effective (sometimes more so) than a tidal wave. That is what is behind all his talk of rigged/delayed elections and mail-in ballots. “The Democrats are trying to rig this election because that’s the only way they’re going to win,” he said September 12 in a brazenly breathtaking claim designed to inflame his base. It’s a charge that is dismissed by U.S. election experts.

But it’s a topic that has been bruited about for months. And, unfortunately, ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away. The scariest scenario involves Trump garnering an early election-night lead November 3 over Democrat Joe Biden, and prematurely declaring victory before all votes—popular as well as electoral—are tallied.

How might Trump react if he still ends up losing what he and millions of his supporters are already describing as a “rigged” vote? Beyond the U.S. military’s bedrock allegiance to the Constitution, it’s doubtful Trump could rustle up the military like the cavalry to ride to his rescue. “Martial law—a term that generally refers to the displacement of civilian authorities by the military—can be and has been employed in the United States. Indeed, federal and state officials have declared martial law at least 68 times over the course of U.S. history,” Joseph Nunn, an emergency-government-powers lawyer at the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program, wrote in an August report. But, he concludes, “under current law, the president lacks any authority to declare martial law.”

Yet in some cases, the military might have to act, despite its strong institutional aversion to partisan politics. “Unfortunately, due to a quirk in American civil-military relations both as practiced in the academy and as taught in the staff and war colleges, it seems unlikely that military leaders will ever feel empowered to take on that role,” Thomas Crosbie, a Danish defense scholar who studies the intersection of military and politics, warns in Defense One. “If any of the unlikely and very distasteful scenarios described below comes to pass, then we will face a real disaster unless the military acts.” He goes on to detail a half-dozen ways, ranging from delaying tactics to a bloody coup, that might require the U.S. military to involve itself in the transfer of power. Military officers, he believes, would only act against Trump once it became clear the President was acting illegally. That can be a fuzzy line. “So long as the myth that the military is apolitical remains, we will be unable to intelligently debate how the military should wield its political influence,” Crosbie says. “It is for this reason that Trump may well once again outfox his opponents.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

WE LIKE IKE

President Trump echoes President Eisenhower

On a more pleasant note, the memorial honoring President Dwight Eisenhower will be dedicated just off the National Mall tomorrow evening, Thursday, September 17. That’s more than 20 years after Congress authorized it, about as long as the F-35 was in development. And, at $150 million, it costs about as much as a single F-35 (obviously, either our memorials or our warplanes—most likely both—cost too much).

The Bunker was born during Ike’s presidency, and while seeing his moonlike face on our small black-and-white TV in the 1950s bored us to tears (it also meant all three [!] networks would be televising his speech, which had to violate the 8th Amendment somehow), his reputation has aged well. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower presciently said in his 1961 farewell address to the nation. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

It was jarring to hear Trump channel what some heard as his inner Ike September 7 when he blamed Biden for sending U.S. troops “to fight in these crazy endless wars.” (Of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rightly or wrongly, were launched by a Republican president.)

“It’s one of the reasons the military—I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are,” Trump added, before his tongue achieved escape velocity and entered the Twiflight of Fancy Zone. “The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars, so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”

That’s quite a statement to unpack. First of all, it’s a calumny on the Pentagon’s men and women, holding whatever rank, to say they “want to do nothing but fight wars” (and that’s despite SECDEF Mark Esper’s pre-Pentagon role as Raytheon’s top lobbyist in Washington). Anyone who has spent any time with senior military leaders knows that they, more often than not, are the brake on military action advocated by U.S. diplomats and lawmakers. Secondly, all of the “top people in the Pentagon,” in and out of uniform, got their jobs because Trump or his people chose them. Finally, many Pentagon officials prefer to buy weapons, and not have them tested on the field of battle, for fear they won’t pan out. “Peace through strength” is another way of putting it. Besides, Trump regularly calls for increased military spending and no White House occupant has pushed overseas sales of U.S. weapons more vigorously.

Trump’s remarks quickly ricocheted around the Twittersphere in what some deemed to be “a brilliant allusion” to Ike’s warning. “But the analogy doesn’t make much sense,” columnist Max Boot pointed out in the Washington Post. “Eisenhower, one of our greatest generals, wasn’t warning that generals would start wars to sell weapons. He was warning that, under pressure from the Pentagon and defense contractors, Congress would spend more than we needed on defense while neglecting domestic priorities. A deficit hawk, Ike cut defense spending by 27%.”

That’s just one reason The Bunker likes Ike.

SKELETONS ON THE BATTLEFIELD

The military-industrial complex is a lot like a cockroach

And The Bunker means that in the most complimentary way possible. Anyone who lived in an off-campus apartment during college can never forget turning the kitchen light on during those late-night trips to the fridge, and seeing battalions of cockroaches scurry away. Those bugs knew that’s where the food was, just as the military knows certain weapons garner a disproportionate share of the military budget.

The U.S. military’s long-standing and costly desire for “exoskeletons” to turn grunts into superheroes got a reality check last month when a West Point engineer said they will remain science fiction, as we noted here. But a scant two weeks later, they’re back like a Pentagon zombie. “Army Futures Command is drafting a formal requirement for a military exoskeleton and will seek feedback from manufacturers at a November industry day,” Breaking Defensereported September 1. Sure, its goals are more modest than the recent failures: “Instead of Iron Man, think Iron Leg.”

One reason that the U.S. military continues to pour billions of dollars into such efforts every year is the institutional infrastructure that’s already in place. Those peopling such institutions risk become irrelevant if they can’t keep coming up with things to do, even if it means doing them again. Just look at who’s pushing this latest gizmo: “Army Futures Command [“leads a continuous transformation of Army modernization in order to provide future warfighters with the concepts, capabilities and organizational structures they need to dominate a future battlefield”] officially gave…the go-ahead to write the Abbreviated Capabilities Development Document on August 14; the exoskeleton project falls under the command’s Soldier Lethality [“to narrow the capability gaps that affect Soldiers”] team, with input from Program Executive Office Soldier [“Rapidly deliver agile/adaptive, leading edge Soldier capabilities in order to provide combat overmatch today and be more lethal tomorrow”] acquisition officials, Natick Soldier Systems Center [“One Team advancing innovative technology for Today and Tomorrow”] researchers, and capability managers for infantry, armored, and Stryker units.”

Helps explain why only 100,000 of the 482,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army actually “close with, engage and destroy the enemy.”

SHUTTING OFF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY

EMP weapons’ fan club never dims

If those exoskeleton suits remain a fascination for the U.S. military, the threat posed by electro-magnetic pulse weapons remains a perpetual bogeyman. For decades, some defense experts out on the fringe have keep warning that someone—the Soviets, the Russians, China, the North Koreans, Iran—could be planning to explode a nuclear bomb high over the U.S. The good news is that no one would be killed. The bad news is that electricity would not survive, and the nation’s power grid would be plunged into darkness…which would eventually kill people, to be sure. President Trump signed an “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” last year.

The Department of Homeland Security issued (PDF) an update August 17 about U.S. efforts to combat this threat. “EMP attacks are part of the emerging threats against our nation and demand a response,” said Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli (yes, that’s his real title). “That is why DHS is taking these contingencies very seriously, working diligently to mitigate our risks and equipping our state and local partners with the resources they need to do the same.”

Call it “duck and cover” for the 21st Century.

“A nationwide blackout could last a year or longer, gravely impacting the food and water supply, healthcare and sanitation, public safety, communications and transportation, bringing society to a standstill and sparking starvation and spread of disease,” Homeland Security Todayreported.

Do you think such an outfit might have a vested interest in hyping the threat?

Back when The Bunker was a young reporter in a small New England town, he sometimes dealt with the local Civil Defense director. His job basically was to seek hand-me-downs from the federal government that might help in the event of natural disasters, or war. (“Those heavy GMC trucks cost the government about $20,000,” he confided to The Bunker 45 years ago this month. “The town got them for triple zero.”) But he didn’t have the power to spend billions against an illusory threat.

What The Bunker has never understood about EMP weapons is what happens after? Assuming some bad guy were actually able to succeed in detonating an atom bomb high above America to plunge it into silent darkness, then what? Do we walk outside, hands up in surrender to foreign invaders armed with flashlights? There is just no good second act here—just like there is no good second act in a nuclear war.

Which kinda makes spending billions of dollars every year to achieve a standoff kinda stupid.

“Nuclear war is a serious threat,” Kelsey Atherton wrote in Foreign Policy in July. “It has been for decades, however much we might want to forget about it. But the idea of a nuclear weapon creating an EMP without immediately sparking a nuclear war is entirely laughable.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Moving on (PDF)

The U.S. post-9/11 wars have forced somewhere between 37 million and 59 million people in the war zones to move, according to a September 8 Costs of War study published by Brown and Boston universities. They moved within and without Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. That’s nearly 10% of the world’s nations. It’s a safe bet that many are angry at the U.S. for the trauma and turmoil. And will be for the rest of their lives.

A kinder, gentler bomb

The Air Force recently tested a new bomb designed to be “a less-hazardous alternative to cluster munitions,” the service reported August 27. When the BLU-136 blows up, its pieces are non-explosive fragments, unlike the bomblets contained in cluster bombs, notorious for killing civilians because many fail to explode until someone picks them up weeks, months, or even years later. “The tests proved that the design of the BLU-136 was effective in area denial and would be very effective against light vehicles, light structures, and personnel.”

Off course(PDF)

It’s always interesting when civilians backstop military probes, because they often find things overlooked, downplayed, missing (pick your own word) by uniformed investigators. That certainly the case when it comes to the 2017 collision between the Navy’s USS Fitzgerald and a merchant ship in the Pacific that killed seven U.S. sailors. The U.S. National Transportation Board released its inquiry into the crash September 3 and revealed that an “unexplained course change” by the destroyer eight minutes before the collision caused the accident.

“This course change proved to be a critical error, and investigators were unable to determine the reason for it,” the report says. “If the Fitzgerald had not made the course change from 190° to 200° 8 minutes before the collision, the destroyer would have passed ahead of the ACX Crystal with a Closest Point of Approach of about 1,000 yards, or about a 1/2 nautical mile.” The Military Industrial Circus blamed the collision on inadequate Navy training three months after it happened, and eventually so did the Navy. Three years later, the NTSB concurs, while also making clear that the Navy’s record-keeping that night was as lousy as its ship driving. Bet those seven families agree.

Rewards for whistleblowing

Alexander Vindman talked to The Atlantic in a September 14 article about how his Army career got derailed when he reported what he thought was a corrupt push by President Trump to get a Ukrainian leader to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

Inter-Continental Ballistic Monopoly

Northrop Grumman landed a $13 billion contract to begin the $100 billion effort to replace the nation’s aging fleet of land-based Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, the Washington Post reported September 8. It was sort of inevitable: Northrop was the only company competing, and it is now the prime contractor on two legs of the nation’s nuclear triad (it’s also building the B-21 bomber), and a critical supplier of the rocket motors that power the Navy’s sub-launched nuclear missiles, the third leg. That’s an awful lot of reliance on a single company, especially given the military’s logic that it needs to rebuild all three legs to ensure it always has at least one kind of weapon ready to retaliate. Of course, that same logic would require having a different contractor build each leg.

David, Goliath…and Washington

TransDigm, the aircraft-parts supplier that kicked back $16 million in alleged overcharges to the Pentagon last year, is weathering the pandemic with $1.5 billion in loans from the federal government, and additional Washington handouts. It has also announced it will lay off up to 3,000 workers, 15% of its workforce. On September 12, ProPublica contrasted the federal help this major defense contractor is getting compared to small businesses, including one that is also a tenant in the same Cleveland skyscraper that houses TransDigm’s HQ.

Widening the Trail

Jacqueline Van Ovost was once barred from flying fighter jets. Now as the Pentagon’s only female four-star general, she runs Air Mobility Command, overseeing more than 100,000 airmen who fly and maintain hundreds of cargo, tanker and passenger aircraft, including Air Force One. “Frankly, I never wanted to be ‘the first,’” she told Military.com September 13. “I've been fortunate that other people have broken those glass ceilings and I've been able to blaze right behind them and widen the trail.” Hard to believe it has been nearly a decade since The Bunker sat down with the first pair of female four-stars and chatted with them about breaking that very ceiling.

Buck up, Americans

Joshua Geltzer, who served in counter-terrorism roles in the Obama and Trump administrations, has some advice for the folks running our country. It is stated simply in the headline over his September 10 column in Defense One: “19 Years After 9/11, Politicians Need to Stop Overhyping Threats.”

Watch it, buddy. That’s The Bunker’s bread and butter you’re messing with there.

Well, that’ll do it for this week. Thanks for tagging along, and please share The Bunker with fellow defense dweebs and/or American taxpayers.