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The Bunker: Let the Arms Race Begin

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.

We’re up in arms here at The Bunker this week: arms spending, arms control and arms sales. So let the arms race begin!


The virus that ate the defense budget

Two weeks ago, The Bunkerwrote about the Pentagon’s strategy to keep spending money on new weapons by killing old ones amid the coronavirus scourge. But it’s increasingly looking like that may be, um, bunk, as real budget cuts increasingly look like a sucking chest wound that merely moving money around won’t fix. “Given what’s going on in this country over the last two or three months…my personal expectation is we’re not going to see three to five percent growth” that the Pentagon wants, Army General Mike Murray, chief of the aptly-named Army Futures Command said May 19. “We’ll be lucky to see a flat line.”

Translation: cuts, perhaps deep, could be coming out of the Pentagon’s hide. It’s going to boil down to what scares more Americans more: a plague and its resulting economic morass, or foes salivating at the prospect of a weakened U.S. ripe for military exploitation. But, like everything else in this country these days, the two sides are far apart.

“Congress must remain focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic and distributing needed aid domestically,” 29 Democratic House members wrote to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee May 19. “We must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined."

Balderdash! This is no time to lift the bugle and sound Retreat, counters Bradley Bowman, a former GOP Senate aide now with the Center on Military and Political Power at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Since the crisis began, Moscow has sent bombers to probe American air defenses near Alaska. China escalated its belligerent activity in the South China Sea. Iran has harassed U.S. naval vessels in international waters. North Korea launched a barrage of missiles. Hackers have pummeled defense networks and suppliers with cyberattacks. All the while, terrorists have continued attacking U.S. and partner forces in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he wrote at Breaking Defense May 20.

Bunker Thought Bubble: if rhetoric were money, all of our problems would evaporate.

Eventually, either wisely or painfully, the nation is going to have to recalibrate its national-security strategy. American politicians have a mile-long to-do list for the U.S. military, which is simply a recipe for doing a lot, poorly. That’s codified in the White House’s National Security Strategy, which routinely, in a long bipartisan tradition, assigns the military too many tasks given the budget the White House proposes and Congress disposes. “If we’re going to meet the demands of the National Security Strategy, we need to resource it to be able to do that,” Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, said May 20. “Or, the other choice is, you change and lower the demands of the National Security Strategy.”

“Lower” is probably not be the right word, General. But at least you’re thinking in the right direction.


Citing cheating by others, the U.S. is bailing from arms-control pacts

President Trump has decided to pull the U.S. out of the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty, a 28-year old confidence-building deal designed to let nations fly aircraft over potential foes to sweep up data about their military operations. Although satellites can do the same thing, many signatories lack such capabilities. While the president suggested the U.S. could be lured back into the accord, some see it as a sign he is shaping the battlefield, as they say, for a much bigger to-do: scuttling the existing New START deal that caps both U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons at 1,550 each. That deal expires in February, and the president has said he’ll exit unless it expands to include China, something Beijing has said it will not do.

This would follow a well-trod path: Trump bailed out of the 2015 multilateral deal restricting Iran’s nuclear-weapons push in 2018 (it was a lousy deal, he said), and withdrew from 1987’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia in 2019 (because the Russians were cheating, he said).

There’s plenty of cheating going on, at least by potential foes. That’s according to the State Department’s latest annual report on who’s following the rules. “In 2019, the United States continued to be in compliance with all of its obligations under arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements,” the April 15 assessment says (no word on whether there was any finger-crossing going on as that was being typed). Other participants in such agreements—let’s call them the actors of evil—are violating at least part of the agreements they have signed. They include China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia and Syria.

More significantly, U.S. intelligence has concluded that “Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield,” according to the report. That would violate the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bars all nuclear-weapons tests. It could be all the evidence the Trump administration needs to resume nuclear testing on its own. Disconcertingly, that topic surfaced at a May 15 session among top Trump administration national-security officials, according to the May 22 Washington Post.

Russia, like the U.S., signed the CTBT in 1996. Moscow ratified it in 2000. The U.S. has not. Which raises a, ahem, critical question: Is it more important to ratify a treaty and ignore it, or adhere to it before pulling out?


Trump’s merchant of menace

President Trump has made it clear that he is eager to sell weapons around the world for the well-paying jobs they generate for Americans. (Of course, they create relatively fewer jobs per dollar than almost any other kind of work, but what’s a little income inequality among friends?) He’s doing a pretty good job at it. Trump is “a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as they said of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. His administration has brokered nearly a quarter-trillion dollars through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program, according to a Center for International Policy study released May 21.

“Arms sales have been a persistent preoccupation of the Trump administration,” the study says. “Ever since his first few months in office, when he announced a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the President has been promoting arms sales as a job creator and a boon to the U.S. economy, as strategic and human rights concerns take a back seat to economic considerations.”

Better make that inflated economic considerations. Following that Saudi deal, Trump said it would create a half-million or so U.S. jobs. Not true, the CIP report says: “The President’s claims of up to 500,000 jobs from arms sales to Saudi Arabia are more than ten times the actual total of 20,000 to 40,000 jobs.”

But, on the other side of that ledger, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia have played a major role in turning the civil war in Yemen, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the Arab world’s poorest nation, into the globe’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Blood money, indeed. And in deed.


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

“We never really fought to win”

That’s what President Trump said about the last 18 years of war in Afghanistan, per May 18’s Washington Post. While a bittersweet statement—especially for the families of the 1,899 killed in action there—it also happens to be true. The Bunker can well remember the day the U.S. invaded, October 7, 2001, to oust the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda as the terrorists plotted the 9/11 attacks. But the Taliban were removed from power by 2002. Then the U.S. government, and its military, simply began treading blood, and spending trillions. That’s what can happen when you have a gutless Congress unwilling to declare war, and an all-volunteer military that comes from only 1 percent of America.


….to see Pentagon research chief Mike Griffin say that he’s “extremely skeptical” about putting laser weapons on warplanes, in this May 20 article from Breaking Defense. Not sure what triggered his change of heart—he was a laser-lover only a year ago—but the head-snapping U-turn is welcome, whatever its cause.

Flyover country…

The Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels have been conducting flyovers to honor the nation’s health-care workers battling the coronavirus. Here’s a piece from Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute’s shipshape magazine, about that aerial tradition.

War hero

June Willenz was the driving force behind the 1997 creation of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial just outside Arlington National Cemetery. While she never served in uniform, she spent much of her life fighting for women in uniform and female veterans, according to her May 24 obituary in the New York Times. 1924-2020. R.I.P.

Stolen valor

Here’s a Pennsylvanian who said he was a disabled veteran wounded in Iraq. Actually, he went AWOL from basic training in 2007 and ended up stealing nearly $17,000 from his local American Legion post. Stars & Stripes reported May 21 that a county judge sentenced him to up to 12 years in prison, including a year behind bars for lying about his military record. The Bunker knows some vets who would argue he got off light. Hard to believe it has been nearly 25 years since B.G. “Jug” Burkett stopped by my office in Washington to tell me of the book he and Glenna Whitley were writing called Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History. Burkett was driven to show how the public’s perception of him and his fellow Vietnam veterans was distorted by a slew of popular films like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver. The press didn’t come out so well, either.

Speaking of long ago…

Seeing as, for us old-timers, Memorial Day will always be celebrated on May 30, guess there’s still time for a final nod to that most solemn of U.S. military holidays. Here’s something I penned May 21 for the news website in my Rhode Island hometown. It’s about the first Memorial Day I can really remember. It happened this coming Saturday, May 30, 55 years ago. Damn, The Bunker’s getting up there…

Thanks for reading, and stay safe as this strange, unofficial summer officially starts.