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The Bunker: Iranian Saber-Rattling

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: Dicey times in the Middle East require a deft U.S. response to Iran’s provocations; a woman finally ascends to the highest level of the U.S. military; a defense contractor admits to skipping required aircraft engine inspections; and more.

THE GUNS OF NOVEMBER

Talk of a U.S. war with Iran grows louder

Iran is poking the U.S. following Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel from the Palestinian territory of Gaza. Since then, Tehran’s proxies — militants largely based in Iraq and Syria — have attacked the 3,400 U.S. troops in those two nations with drones and rockets at least 52 times. They’re lashing out because of Washington’s support for Israel’s continuing strikes on Hamas’ Gaza stronghold. The U.S. has retaliated with three airstrikes over the past three weeks. The most recent November 12 U.S. attack reportedly killed at least eight Iranian-backed fighters.

While at least 56 U.S. troops have been wounded, all of the injuries — luckily, so far — have been slight. But that could change in an instant, especially given a veiled threat by Hezbollah, Hamas’ Lebanese ally, that the growing U.S. Navy presence in the region could be targeted by its Russian-supplied missiles. Or if an exploding Iranian drone that hit a U.S. barracks in Iraq hadn’t been a dud.

Headlines reflect the tensions now roiling the Middle East. “U.S. strikes Iran-linked sites in Syria amid fears Israel-Hamas war could escalate,” reportsThe Guardian. “As U.S. bombs Iranian sites in Syria, Houthis shoot down drone over Red Sea,” Politicosays. “U.S. forces under fire in Middle East as America slides towards brink,” Reuterswarns.

Republican presidential candidates, in their November 8 debate, called for the Biden administration to beef up its retaliatory strikes against Iran and its militant allies: “That’s just inviting more attacks from the Iranians,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared. “You punch them hard, and they will back off,” former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley asserted. “If you want to make a difference, you cannot just continue to have strikes in Syria on warehouses,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina insisted, four days before he dropped out of the race. “You actually have to cut off the head of the snake. And the head of the snake is Iran, and not simply their proxies.”

Well now.

This sounds a lot like the murmuring of war drums before Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Those U.S. wars began with a bang and ended with a whimper. Sure, the U.S. is far more powerful than Iran — just like it was far more powerful than Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But each ended badly: for the U.S. troops who fought there, for the U.S. Treasury who spent there, and for a Congress that didn’t have the guts to debate and declare — or refuse to declare — war. Not to mention how things ended up for the Vietnamese, the Afghans, and the Iraqis.

A war with Iran could engulf the entire Middle East and make those earlier conflicts seem like minor-league skirmishes. President Biden is trying to keep a lid on the simmering tensions with Tehran. Unfortunately, that may be largely out of his hands if, God forfend, a weapon with Iranian fingerprints all over it kills dozens of U.S. troops (like this). Absent such an attack, we all would be better off keeping our voices down. And our own fingers crossed that Iran’s mullahs are wise enough to avoid crossing a line that would lead to their demise.

FINALLY…

A woman joins the Joint Chiefs

More than 30 years ago, The Bunkerinterviewed(PDF) the first U.S. Navy woman to command a Navy ship. More than 20 years ago, The Bunkerinterviewed(PDF) the first woman to command a Navy warship. More than a decade ago, The Bunkerinterviewed(PDF) the first woman to command an air war (and no, all such coverage wasn’t laudatory[PDF]). In 2012, The Bunkerinterviewed the first two women ever to wear four stars on their shoulders. On November 2, The Bunkerwatched as Admiral Lisa Franchetti became the first woman to serve as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What took so long?

The U.S. military is forever saying it wants to be fast and fleet on its feet, but it rarely is — whether it comes to waging war, straightening out its procurement mess, or opening up its ranks to women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ individuals. But, as frustrating as it may be, progress tends to be more sustainable when it moves more slowly.

Not to get all Kumbaya on you, but it seems the more time that the U.S. military as an institution spends getting to know people outside of its traditional comfort zone, the better the outcome. That may be why Admiral Franchetti has joined the Pentagon’s E-ring where the top civilian and top military officer are both Black.

A fairer military is a stronger military.

FALSE CLAIMS

Big defense contractor gets caught

As someone who spent decades flying aboard military aircraft — from an F-16 fighter, to Air Force One, to an MC-130 special ops aircraft, to helicopters roller-coastering across Afghanistan and Iraq to avoid getting shot down — it toasts The Bunker’s buns when contractors cut corners to make a buck. That’s what happened November 6 when General Electric’s aerospace unit agreed to pay $9.4 million for selling the Pentagon parts that weren’t properly inspected, or didn’t meet specifications, between 2014 and 2019.

“Failing to inspect parts as required by contract specifications compromises military systems and potentially endangers the lives of U.S. service members,” Patrick J. Hegarty of the Pentagon inspector general’s office said.

No way, the company countered. “Safety is our top priority,” GE Aerospace said. “While these issues had no impact on the safety of the aircraft involved, we implemented significant corrective actions to ensure this does not occur again.”

Thankfully, The Bunker is neither an engineer nor a lawyer. But common sense suggests that ignoring contractually-required inspections for engines powering military aircraft makes profit GE Aerospace’s “top priority.” GE was the Pentagon’s 16th biggest contractor in 2022, with sales to the Defense Department totaling $2.5 billion. So think of that $9.4 million settlement as a 0.4% tax for trying to snooker Uncle Sam.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Fill ‘er up!

The Pentagon has spent nearly $1 billion buying fuel from a Greek refinery that regularly buys Russian oil, which could be helping power Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, colleague Jason Paladino here at the Project On Government Oversight reported November 14.

Blood relations

The U.S. military is drafting first-of-their-kind pacts with allies to provide blood to wounded U.S. troops if a prolonged war breaks out in the Pacific, Patty Nieberg wrote November 6 at Task & Purpose.

Dutch treat

The Netherlands says the U.S. has given it “initial certification” to carry U.S. nuclear weapons aboard Holland’s F-35 warplanes, Thomas Newdick reported November 10 at The War Zone.

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