The Bunker: Fumbling Funding, Foes, and the Front Office

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: for today’s U.S. military, a perfect storm of fortune, fools, and freelancing leads to disturbing questions about funding, foes, and who’s in the front office; and more.


The world is turning upside down!

If this were a normal week, we’d be riffing the latest on the F-35 fighter (turns out it takes more than one huge C-17 cargo plane of supplies to support one tiny F-35 (PDF) deployed overseas, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. Who knew?). But that’s too much like shooting fuselage in a barrel. There are more profound questions about U.S. national security to grapple with this week: how do we pay for our military, who is the enemy, and just who’s in charge?


Some Republicans play chicken with national security

A renegade band of hard-right Republicans — the party that has always pledged to do more for the U.S. military — is threatening to end its funding October 1 unless it gets what it wants when it comes to federal spending. We’re in this chicken match because the Republicans have a narrow five-vote edge over the Democrats in the House. That gives the most radical GOP members the ability to stymie any action because their votes are vital to approving Pentagon (and other) spending bills. Those Republicans also have threatened House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s hold on power if he abandons the radicals in favor of enough Democratic votes to push a budget over the finish line. Not a profile in courage.

The left-leaning New York Times refers to this ever-shifting group of about 20 lawmakers (all in office for less than a decade) as the “Wrecking Ball Caucus” in its news pages, while the right-tilting Wall Street Journal calls them the “Dysfunction Caucus,” also on its news pages. With a narrow 221-212 majority, any five GOP lawmakers can halt action if all Democrats are opposed (a similar GOP ploy, barring senior military promotions, continues in the Senate).

Republicans thought they had come up with a plan to debate defense spending for a second time on September 21, but a couple of members bolted. For good or for ill, the defense appropriations bill has long been seen as a must-pass piece of legislation. “I don’t understand why anybody votes against bringing the idea and having the debate,” McCarthy said following the collapse (PDF). “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down” (regardless of how things turn out, the Defense Department will continue to limp along if the government shuts down, just even less efficiently than usual; troops will likely go without pay until the snag is resolved, when they should be reimbursed).

McCarthy and President Biden reached a deal earlier this year to fund the government that was signed into law. But that sliver of hard-right Republicans objected to that legislation then, and are trying to sabotage it now. Yet that won’t work: the Senate and White House are in Democratic hands. Or, as Bill Shakespeare (I-Stratford-on-Avon) put it: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


GOP imperils continued aid to Ukraine

A key element to the federal spending bills now snarled by Republican opposition is the party’s growing hostility to continued U.S. aid to Ukraine. This is a nation that Russia invaded 19 months ago — after seizing Crimea in 2014 — and has been slaughtering civilians ever since. But Moscow’s artillery shells and rockets, drenched in innocent blood, were no more shocking than the letter (PDF) 29 Republicans sent to the White House only hours before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived on Capitol Hill September 21 seeking more U.S. help.

The six senators and 23 representatives said the “open-ended commitment” to Ukraine lacks a clear endgame. So they said they will vote against the $24 billion the Biden administration is seeking for Ukraine beyond the more than $100 billion already spent, including weapons worth $44 billion (PDF). Just like threatening Pentagon spending, these Republicans are gutting generations of GOP doctrine on Russia. Most Americans polled want to continue sending weapons to Ukraine, although that number is shrinking.

As The Bunker has stated before, anyone serious about national security has to view whatever the U.S. spends on thwarting Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine as a bargain. What is the point of spending nearly a trillion dollars annually on a military establishment if you cannot divert 4% of those funds to a beleaguered ally who is grinding down the once-vaunted Russian military that had Americans ducking-and-covering during the Cold War?

This is one of those hinge moments in history. Here’s hoping the civilized world can push that heavy door in the right direction.


So who’s in charge up there?

The U.S. military is “shaping the battlefield,” as old soldiers say, to enable it to fight and win a war in space. In a congressionally-mandated report (PDF) on space warfare, the Defense Department said September 14 that China and Russia are the most likely foes. The report doesn’t deal with the U.S. military’s role in protecting the commercial satellites the Pentagon needs during war. “The congressional language did not specify that,” John Plumb, the assistant defense secretary for space policy, said when he released the report. “And so that’s not included.”

But maybe it should have been — and not just to protect those orbiting assets from potential foreign foes. It turns out Congress is concerned over Elon Musk’s decision not to extend his private Starlink satellite network to help Ukraine target Russian warships. Musk’s action revealed “serious national-security liability issues,” Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the same day the Pentagon launched its space report. “Neither Elon Musk, nor any private citizen, can have the last word when it comes to U.S. national security.”

This is, or should be, an aha moment for the U.S. military. Just as 9/11 made clear that nation states weren’t the only major-league threat, the growing concentration of technology in the hands of individuals like Musk makes it clear that the U.S. government is no longer calling all the shots when it comes to national security.


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

Thank you for your service

The U.S. is discussing a major arms sale to Vietnam, Reuters reported September 23.

Tilt-rotor trials

The latest fatal crash of a Marine V-22 Osprey is renewing long-simmering questions about the troubled program, colleague Julia Gledhill here at the Center for Defense Information reported September 21 at Responsible Statecraft.

"Don’t ask, don’t tell” upgrades

On the 12th anniversary of the end of the ban on openly gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people serving in uniform, the Pentagon announced that those booted out under the policy may be eligible for retroactive honorable discharges, Politico reported September 20.

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