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Bleak Week: Civilians turnstiling through the Pentagon, Congress MIA when it comes to combat, the “arsenal of democracy” is running on fumes, and two Air Force pilots run out of sky.
THE MYTH OF “CIVILIAN CONTROL”
The numbers tell a different story…
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear this string of names: Panetta, Hagel, Carter, Mattis, Shanahan, Esper, Spencer, Esper (again), Miller, Norquist, Austin? Well, “civilian control of the military” ain’t most likely at the top of your list. Those are the 10 men who have served as defense secretary over less than the past decade, either in a Senate-confirmed, or acting, capacity.
That’s remarkable churn at the pinnacle of the nation’s military—less than a year, on average, in the job. At the same time, there have been only four chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
No wonder the uniformed military runs circles around their purported civilian masters when it comes to waging war and buying weapons. Of course, The Bunker began his reporting career shortly before Caspar Weinberger moved into the defense secretary’s suite in 1981. Cap stayed there for nearly seven years, becoming the Pentagon’s version of “President for Life” Idi Amin of Uganda. Reporters wondered if he ever intended to leave.
The lengthy stints of the nation’ top four-star officers contrasts with the shorter terms too often served by those military officers in charge of developing weapons. “Tenure agreements for military program managers are interrupted/shortened by promotion, deployments, schools, and transfers,” the Pentagon’s own Defense Business Board noted(PDF) in 2011. “Short tours lead to short-term decision making and risk avoidance, to the long-term detriment of the program.”
Same thing can be said of the civilians “in charge.”
The latest to testify about this sad state of affairs is Christopher Miller, who served as President Trump’s final Pentagon chief for 72 days. “When the system is weighted towards the [uniformed] Joint Staff and the [uniformed] geographic combatant commanders against civilian control, you know, we’ve got to rethink this,” he told Adam Ciralsky in an extraordinary January 22 article in Vanity Fair. By “idolizing and fetishizing” the military brass, Congress has overlooked the gradual loss of civilian control. “This f------ place,” the former Green Beret (and defense secretary!) said of the Pentagon, “is rotten.”
Speaking of four-stars, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin—confirmed January 22 and the first Black American to ever hold the post—wore them on his shoulders at the end of his 41-year Army career. It’s too early to say whether that will help, or hurt, any push to regain civilian control of the Defense Department.
Long past time to scrap existing approvals
As noted above, former acting defense secretary Chris Miller puts the blame for shrinking civilian control of the military on Congress. Same thing’s true when it comes to the nation going to war. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with clashes in several other nations, are happening under the authority Congress granted President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.
It’s long past time for Congress to revoke that pair of Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) and come up with something better, five Democratic representatives told President Biden in a January 21 letter(PDF). “The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs were both passed nearly 20 years ago and bear little resemblance to the threats we face today,” said the lawmakers, led by California Representative Barbara Lee. She was the lone lawmaker to vote against that 2001 authorization, aimed at punishing Afghanistan, three days after 9/11. “Over the past 19 years, three successive presidents have used military force pursuant to the 2001 AUMF in more than seven countries, against a continuously expanding list of targetable adversaries.” The Iraq-inspired 2002 AUMF “is not a necessary source of authorization for any current military operations,” they added, but it “has been stretched to cover past operations Congress never authorized, including the January 2020 killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.” The Biden administration has indicated its willingness to modify the authorizations.
Ever since World War II, members of Congress have been loath to debate and vote to declare—or vote against declaring—war (e.g. Vietnam, Panama, Iraq 1.0, the Balkans, etc). But the existing pair of AUMFs are even more insidious and pernicious than mere inaction. They represent an open-ended invitation for a president to bend them to initiate combat, anywhere in the world, without any additional congressional OK, all under the guise of waging a “war on terror.”
“Common sense will tell you it’s not right,” Representative Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, toldPolitico January 21. “Bin Laden’s on the bottom of the ocean. Saddam Hussein—his demise—it’s been over a decade ago, too.”
So why do lawmakers continue the charade, allowing combat that could lead to a wider war without their buy-in? “I've talked to many members—I'm not gonna mention names—a lot of them want war, or they want us out, but they don’t want to vote on it,” said Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served in Iraq. “They don't want to take a risky vote. And it’s not right. This is one of the most important things Congress is supposed to decide.”
“FUSTEST WITH THE MOSTEST”
Instead of winning the next major war, let’s prevent it
Getting to battle “fustest with the mostest” is the best way to win a war, according to an apocryphal quote often attributed to a U.S. Civil War Confederate general. But the U.S. military increasingly is unable to do that, according to a new report(PDF) from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “With the shift of U.S. strategic focus to great power competition, interest in industrial mobilization for a long-term, high-intensity conflict has returned,” Mark Cancian and Adam Saxton maintain in their January 8 study. “However, the highly consolidated and fragile U.S. defense industrial base is not designed to meet this challenge.”
This topic looms larger these days as the Pentagon, after two decades of minor-league wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is spending more time focusing on the prospect of this renewed “great power competition” that could pit the U.S. against China or Russia. The cushion for wartime surge production that used to exist in the U.S. defense industry has eroded as that slack shrank following the Cold War.
What was once known as the “arsenal of democracy” has become so anemic that it “would be inadequate to sustain forces in the field for any length of time,” the study concludes. Too many weapons would take years, if not decades, to replace. Fundamentally, the U.S. would go to war with the weapons it had on hand the day the war began, with no assurance battlefield losses could be replaced in time to make a difference.
The authors suggest a stunningly simple recommendation. “The Defense Department would be well advised,” they recommended in a January 19 column in Breaking Defense, “to make some modest investments to hedge against a protracted great power conflict.”
Bad things happen in threes
Military pilots are fond of saying it usually takes a string of problems—mechanical malfunctions and pilot error chief among them—to bring down a U.S. military aircraft that isn’t shot out of the sky. That’s the sad, but too familiar, refrain of an Air Force investigation (PDF) released January 21. It explores a crash that happened a year ago—January 27, 2020—killing the only two crewmen aboard their communications plane flying out of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Voss, 46, and Captain Ryan Phaneuf, 30, were piloting a twin-engine E-11A—basically a “wi-fi in the sky”—over eastern Afghanistan’s snowy mountains. Nearly two hours into the mission, a fan blade failed and ripped through the plane’s left engine, shutting it down as they flew at 41,000 feet. That was the first link in the snafu chain.
Twenty-four seconds later, the crew shut down the right engine, leaving the plane unpowered. “The cause of the mishap was the crew’s error in analyzing which engine had catastrophically failed,” the official investigation concluded. “This error resulted in the decision to shut down the working engine, creating a dual engine out emergency.” (Air Force veterans were puzzled why the instrument panel of a $120 million plane apparently didn’t make clear which engine had failed, but that’s a story for another day). That was the second link in the accident chain.
Yet even with both engines out, the aircraft had enough altitude, at nearly eight miles high, to glide to safety. There were three airports within gliding range, including major ones at Kabul (20 miles away) and Bagram (44 miles away). For reasons unknown, the crew decided to try to glide to Kandahar (265 miles away). That was the third link in the fatal chain.
The double-engine outage, and severe vibration caused by the failed fan blade, shut down both the cockpit voice and flight data recorders. “Therefore,” the probe said, “the exact experience of the crew cannot be fully determined.”
The pilots ran out of sky 21 miles from a fourth airfield, where they had hoped to make an emergency landing. Unfortunately, they broke through clouds only 1,000 feet above the ground. In their final seconds of flight the pilots would have seen the rugged Afghan terrain, corduroyed with ditches and berms up to six feet high, coming up fast beneath them.
Their aircraft “impacted a smaller berm almost immediately, then more completely impacted the ground and skidded to a halt in approximately 340 meters,” the investigation said. “During this time the wings were ripped from the mishap aircraft, and subsequently much of the cockpit and cabin were destroyed by fire.”
There is no predicting how people—and pilots are people, too—will react when put into a high-stress situation. There is an increasing awareness of something called a “startle response” that can be sparked by an “unexpected event that violates a pilot’s expectations and can affect the mental processes used to respond to the event,” the report said, quoting from a 2017 FAA notice. The Air Force’s best guess: “Mishap aircraft vibrations and mishap crew sensations (after the bang [caused by the thrown turbine blade]), with the human factor startle response, may have convinced the mishap crew to react immediately (because of potential catastrophic aircraft damage), and prevented them from recognizing the exact condition of the left engine, and instead to conclude that the right engine should be shut down.”
At the end of the day, that’s all second-guessing. It’s irrelevant to the pilots’ widows, and Lieutenant Colonel Voss’s three daughters. “These airmen gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation while deployed supporting an overseas combat mission,” said General Mark Kelly, chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. “They should be recognized and remembered for their dedication and bravery.”
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
That’s an adage associated with the Texas Rangers, an elite Lone Star law-enforcement agency, but it might also apply to the January 6 storming of the Capitol. That’s because a January 21 tally by National Public Radio revealed that 27 of 140 of those facing charges in connection with the attempted insurrection apparently have a military background (although, truth be told, no Rangers—an elite Army outfit—are known to have played a role, even though a former Navy SEAL did). That’s a stunning 19.3%, nearly triple the 7% of all adult Americans who are veterans.
The Bunker examined the growing chasm between the U.S. military and U.S. citizens a decade ago in a Time cover story called “The Other 1%.” That was the share of American adults actually in military uniforms in 2011. As the piece noted: “The political leanings of people in uniform are nearly the mirror opposite of the public they serve. [A Pew] survey found that 36% of veterans describe themselves as Republicans, while 21% say they are Democrats. In the public at large, those numbers are nearly reversed: 34% of the public identifies as Democratic, while 23% identifies as Republican…From 1976 to 1996, the share of senior military officers identifying as Republican jumped from one-third to two-thirds, while the share claiming to be independent fell from 46% to 22%. Senior military officers who described themselves as liberal fell from 16% in 1976 to 3% in 1996.”
Conservatives generally aren’t rioters, to be sure. But those who broke down the doors of the Capitol three weeks ago plainly were drawn from their ranks.
The U.S. military needs help fighting radicalization among its troops, California Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat, argued January 19 in a Washington Post op-ed. “The military lacks the tools it needs to detect and root out this insidious threat,” said Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee. A good place to start, she argues, would be reviewing recruits’ social-media posts, something that isn’t done even for those seeking top-secret security clearances.
Looks like the Biden administration is going to scale back the Trump administration’s ambitious Navy ship-building plans, according to a January 19 piece by Paul McLeary in Breaking Defense. That’s because it was crystal clear that the Trump scheme, released after the election, would be swamped by a rising tide of reality (it proposed, for example, boosting the ship-building budget from this year’s $19 billion to an incredible $27 billion in 2022, on its way to a fleet of 446 manned vessels by 2045). That’s one of the key things The Bunker has learned after 40 years of covering military budgets: once you peer into the future, Pentagon spending plans have about as much fidelity to facts and finances as the Tooth Fairy.
And if the Navy is running into rough seas when it comes to buying new ships, the Air Force is flying into heavy flak when it comes to buying its F-35 fighter (the Navy and Marines are also buying the plane). High operational costs for the F-35 may mean the service buys new, relatively cheaper, F-16s. This talk comes two decades after it last bought the sleek, single-engine fighter, aerospace-reporting ace Steve Trimble reported in Aviation Week January 21. The planes could be funded by slashing the Air Force’s F-35 buy from the planned 1,763 to about 1,050, a cut of 40%, something the service first suggested—only internally, of course—in 2018. This. Was. Completely. Predictable.
The just-passed 2021 defense authorization act contains two provisions that should warm the hearts of taxpayers and truth-tellers. They “mark significant steps forward in providing much-needed additional transparency of companies’ real owners,” Tim Stretton, a policy analyst here at the Project On Government Oversight, wrote January 21. “Until now, anonymously incorporating a company in the United States has been easier than getting a library card in all 50 states.”
The Air Force, in an alliance of convenience with the NFL, will send a trio of bombers—a B-52, a B-1, and a B-2—over the Super Bowl on February 7.
Apparently, President Biden isn’t as concerned with the paint scheme slated for the new pair of Air Force Ones as his predecessor was. You may recall, then-President Trump called for doing away with the Kennedy-era white-and-light-blue livery in favor of a bolder red, white and blue motif. “I can confirm for you here the president has not spent a moment thinking about the color scheme of Air Force One,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters January 22.
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