The Bunker: History Has Never Deterred the U.S. Military

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This week in The Bunker: the burdens of defending instead of attacking, the Army looks to invade the Pacific, and subs-(not)-to-go, along with a side of nukes-to-go.


Defending is a lot tougher than attacking

Back in 1949, well before The Bunker was on the case, the Department of War rebranded itself as the Department of Defense. Actually, the dirty deed was done by Congress, with the support of President Truman. It came amid the warmth following the unconditional World War II victories over Germany and Japan, and the glow from the nuclear monopoly. It’s a complicated bureaucratic tale that we don’t need to dive into here, but the bottom line was clear: warriors had become defenders.

Beyond the name change’s PR advantages, it highlighted what happens when a hard-scrabble nation forged in revolution becomes a world power seeking to preserve advantages rooted in the status quo. All of a sudden, it has a lot more to defend. Even for a superpower, there is no immunity from impunity. Pound-for-pound, defending something has always been more costly than attacking it. Attackers only have to succeed once, at a time of their choosing. Defenders have to be ready to prevail 24/7.

This came to mind March 23, when the Missile Defense Agency announced it had awarded a pair of contracts worth up to $7.6 billion to Lockheed and a Northrop-Raytheon team for the latest silver bullets capable of shooting down U.S.-bound enemy missiles. “In alignment with the Department’s current missile defense strategy,” the Pentagon said, the companies “will perform Technology Development and Risk Reduction of the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) All-Up-Round capable of surviving natural and hostile environments while countering emerging threats.” That’ll be a change. The original interceptors, standing guard since 2004, have been unreliable. The first effort to replace them failed in 2019. The winner in this latest competition between Lockheed and Northrop-Raytheon is supposed to be tapped in about five years to replace existing interceptors in Alaska and California.

Defense is, of course, a fundamental aspect of war-fighting, dating back to Roman shields. But, once again, defense costs more than offense: There is tension in the western Pacific, where Chinese missiles costing several million dollars threaten $20 billion U.S. aircraft carriers. The Pentagon is pushing to build a missile shield over Guam, 2,500 miles from Beijing, as part of a five-year, $27 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative. Is Hawaii, 5,200 miles from Beijing, next?

The funny thing about missile defense is that missiles are fingerprinted as soon as they are launched. The U.S. is very good at detecting missile launches, and therefore knows who did the launching. And can respond accordingly. That could push a foe to use less easily-traced methods. After all, we’re not nearly so good at detecting explosives, nuclear or otherwise, hidden aboard a cargo ship.


China may not be the only U.S. foe in the Pacific

The U.S. Army is trying to throw its weight around in the Pacific. And the other military services are getting antsy. The Army is “putting on a full-court press to duplicate long-range strike, air- and space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and command and control capabilities that already exist in the other services,” David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, grouses. The U.S. military’s goal of “joint operations,” where each service contributes to the fight, requires “each of the services to dominate in their respective domains—not encroach into the domains of the other services,” Deptula says.

The Army triggered this latest interservice brouhaha March 23 with its release of a white paper(PDF) detailing how it plans on playing a major role in the Pacific as tensions with China escalate. The 33-page proposal calls for stationing Army troops on or near the western Pacific islands that China covets. Outfitted with long-range missiles, the soldiers would be capable of hitting targets inside China and use “mobility, cover, concealment, and deception” to thwart Chinese takeovers. It’s an updated version of the tactic the Iraqi army used in 1991’s Gulf War. For those who weren’t paying attention, Saddam Hussein’s forces bedeviled U.S. forces with Scud missile attacks(PDF) that the world’s most advanced military could rarely thwart. Of course, there is less land to hide on amid Pacific archipelagos than there was in the Middle East, and finding nations to host U.S. weapons pointed at China could be, um, challenging.

The Army says it plans “to transform itself to become a multi-domain capable force that is able to dominate adversaries in sustained large-scale combat operations by 2035.” That’s no immodest boast, seeing as the Army has been unable to dominate adversaries in sustained small-scale combat operations dating back to 9/11. Sure, the service has been able to dominate in individual battles, repeatedly. But that hasn’t translated to sustained stability in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Yet history has never deterred the U.S. military. “The Army is boldly transforming to provide the Joint Force with the speed, range and convergence of cutting-edge technologies that will be needed to provide future decision dominance and overmatch for great power competition,” General James McConville, the U.S. Army chief of staff, said, brandishing his tactical nuclear thesaurus. The Army itself, following its leader, is also mainlining the latest martial buzzwords when pushing for this new, let’s-keep-the-Army-relevant strategy: “By 2035, the Army will enable the Joint Force to maneuver and prevail with a calibrated force posture of multi-domain capabilities that provide overmatch through speed and range at the point of need.”*

The Army has been laying the groundwork for its Pacific offensive for years. In 2013, Congress—with strong Army backing—made the Army commander in the Pacific a full general, with four stars on his shoulders, after decades of making do with two- and three-star Army generals in charge. “For many years there was a case laid forward on why it was important to have a four-star level command in Hawaii,” Vincent Brooks, the first since Vietnam to hold the four-star rank at the Army’s Pacific command, told(PDF) The Bunker in 2015. “It’s been very helpful…to help us in warfighting.” And speaking of warfighting, there’s no doubt the Army’s latest white paper will send the Air Force, Navy, and Marines scurrying to their grinding wheels, honing their blades for the looming budget wars.

*Yes, “point of need” is official Department of Defense terminology. It means “a physical location within a desired operational area designated by the geographic combatant commander or subordinate commander as a receiving point for forces or materiel, for subsequent use or consumption.” In other words, “need.” It appears on page 169 of the 362-page DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, (PDF), last updated in January.


Or, actually not

The Navy’s submarine force continues to struggle with a maintenance backlog despite hiring more workers for its four public shipyards, and diverting some repair work to private yards. That’s the bottom line in a new report from the Congressional Budget Office, which also contained this grim underwater peek into the future: “The Navy will experience maintenance delays throughout the next 30 years because the demand for labor will exceed the shipyards’ supply of it in 25 of the next 30 years,” the March 24 study says.

The Navy’s 70 submarines, all nuclear powered, represent nearly a quarter of its total fleet. Yet even as the Navy grapples with a projected 4.6% shortfall in its goal of 37,000 federal workers dedicated to sub maintenance over the coming three decades, the time spent overhauling submarines continues to rise.

It is Navy policy to maintain its nuclear subs at the government-owned shipyards in Hawaii, Maine, Virginia and Washington state. But under time pressure, some work on nuclear subs has been done at private yards. Yet that’s led to other problems. The USS Boise, for example, was slated for maintenance at the government-owned Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 2015, but the Navy decided to move the work to the private Newport News Shipbuilding yard nearby. “As a result of the initial delays at Norfolk and the decision to change yards, the start of maintenance on the Boisewas delayed by more than three years or about 10 percent of the submarine’s service life,” the report noted.

Such problems have kept submarines undergoing maintenance up to 40% longer than expected. “As a result, some submarines have missed deployments or had their deployments at sea shortened,” CBO reported. “The delays have reduced the number of submarines that the Navy can put to sea, idling expensive ships and their skilled crews.” And that’s the real issue: the nation spends billions buying a combat capability that falls well short of what was advertised.

The Navy can fix the problem by improving its projections of future maintenance needs, by hiring more workers, and/or by shrinking its numbers of submarines. It could achieve that final goal by retiring older submarines early, or buying fewer new subs. But don’t bet on fewer new boats (yes, that’s Navy shorthand for submarines). In fact, the Navy ordereddown a brand-new one March 29. The Bunkernoted a quarter-century ago that the Navy helped pay $2.4 billion for a new attack submarine in 1997 after scrapping 15 older attack submarines, “some of which spent barely half their 30-year life spans at sea.” Such choices, often submerged from public view, are just one of the reasons U.S. military spending is too high.


To power those hot-spot outposts

The U.S. military pumps 10 million gallons of fuel a day, and getting that petrol around global hotspots can be a dangerous business. So the Pentagon is eager to develop portable nuclear reactors it can ship overseas to power the kilowatt-hungry diesel generators that keep the electrified U.S. war machine humming. That could sharply reduce the need for never-ending fuel-truck convoys that are a fat target for enemies (U.S. troops conducting convoy operations accounted for more than half the U.S. casualties(PDF) in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2010).

On March 22, the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office awardedcontracts to two firms to develop what it calls “a transportable advanced nuclear microreactor prototype.” After an additional year of development, either BWXT Advanced Technologies of Lynchburg, Virginia, or X-energy of Greenbelt, Maryland, “may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype,” the Pentagon said.

The Jetsons-like notion certainly has its advantages. But there are downsides, too, as The Bunkerdetailed in POGO’s Military Industrial Circus two years ago.


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

Capitol decorations

Marine veteran Elliot Ackerman wondered in a March 26 op-ed in the New York Times if the National Guard troops, who (belatedly) helped defend the Capitol following the January 6 insurrection, should be awarded ribbons to honor their service there. Ackerman, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggested such decorations are fraught with political baggage. “With military experience in Congress at its lowest levels in 75 years, divisive gestures that could contribute to the politicization of the military should not become the norm,” he wrote. “Certain ribbons simply aren’t worth handing out.”

Speaking of the Capitol insurrection

The Pentagon is busy trying to wring extremists from its ranks. In Politicoon March 27, Betsy Woodruff Swan and Bryan Bender reported on a training guide that U.S. military officials have been issued to help weed them out. “Be aware of symbols of far right, far left, Islamist or single issue ideologies," it says, adding that both military and civilian personnel have “a duty and responsibility” to report it up the next link in their chain of command.

National Review…

…that one-time conservative playbook, is calling on Congress to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq. “Once upon a time, Congress would declare war in the face of a discrete menace, and then undeclare it when the threat had been removed,” Charles C. W. Cooke wrote March 26. “Now, if they bother at all, lawmakers lob the power over the White House wall and then run for cover ’til they retire.” He lauds Representative Barbara Lee, D-CA (as The Bunker did[PDF] last week) for her speech defending her lone vote against the September 14, 2001, war authorization that came three days after the 9/11 attacks. “Two decades have passed since Lee made that speech, and not only has the provision to which she objected been used to justify intervention in seven different countries, it remains on the books and is likely to stay there even if its successor from 2002 is pared back,” Cooke wrote. Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted March 25 to repeal the Iraq war authorization. Moves are also afoot to modify the 2001 Get-Into-War-Free card.

Day is done…

The Bunker and his kin interred our Uncle Bob in Court 9 at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013, four months after it opened. On March 29, the Army pleaded for help in fixing what appear to be numerous shortcomings. Why does it seem to be falling apart after less than eight years?

A to Z…umwalt

The Navy keeps looking for a mission for its $24 billion, three-ship Zumwalt class of destroyers. David B. Larter in a March 25 piece in Defense News elaborates on the hyped hypersonic quest raised here last week in The Bunker, along with other possible missions.

Shooting yourself in the fuselage…

A Marine F-35 shot itself with its own cannon, reported March 24. The plane is supposedly able to elude enemy fire, but crickets on whether or not tests have been conducted on self-inflicted wounds. Yet.

Whew! Well, on that note, let’s call it quits for The Bunker this week. Thanks, as always, for making it all the way through. If this kind of military intelligence appeals to you and yours, sign up here to get it delivered to your email inbox each Wednesday.