The Bunker: Measuring War’s Yardsticks

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Crude proxies: Are we using the right tools when trying to assess military might? Strategically, as the election looms next week, are dollars the right proxy for military strength? Tactically speaking, do fitness tests translate into military capability? Two very different questions, but they focus on a key challenge when it comes to national security: are we measuring the right things, in the right way?


There’s no linear relationship

More money doesn’t mean more victories on the battlefield. If it did, the U.S. would have been out of Afghanistan 18 years ago. That’s why, to the degree anyone is paying attention to national security when they cast their ballot, to re-elect President Trump or vote to replace him with former vice president Joe Biden, their defense-spending plans don’t add up to much. Biden wants to spend less (Trump “abandoned all fiscal discipline when it comes to defense spending”), but Biden has made it clear that doesn’t mean deep cuts are part of his agenda. Trump pumped record levels of money into the Pentagon, but his five-year defense spending plan projects no increases.

Neither has shown any inclination to make wholesale changes in how the United States defends itself. Absent that, defense spending will remain pretty much on auto-pilot, young Americans will continue to die, and U.S. taxpayers will keep paying through the nosecone. Even a blue tidal wave won’t make much difference. Representative Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, said October 21 that if Democrats take the White House and Senate, and keep their hold on the House, he foresees only a $20 billion cut in a $740 billion defense budget—less than 3%.

Regardless of who wins the election, the military-industrial-congressional complex is in a robo-rut of its own making, spending ever more money while failing to prevail in combat. Sure, with its highly-trained forces and top-drawer weapons, the U.S. can pretty much end up on top in any single battle. But, as Afghanistan makes clear, that’s not good enough.

The nation needs to have a sit-down conversation with itself and rewrite its roster of what’s worth fighting for. Because, as hard as it is to acknowledge, it certain isn’t the places—Afghanistan, Iraq, Niger, Somalia, Syria, and so many more—where U.S. troops have died in recent years. If they were, they would have been a part of last week’s final presidential debate. The fact that the nation’s quiet wars went all but unmentioned is an indictment of the moderator, the candidates—and us, in whose name they are purportedly fighting and dying.


Like push-ups win a war

The Army wants to roll out a new fitness test. There’s only one problem: while 7% of male soldiers fail, 54% of female soldiers flunk. What to do? Well, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are pushing to suspend its Army-wide introduction. With women now eligible for all Army jobs, this is the service’s first gender-neutral fitness assessment.

The Army Combat Fitness Test consists of six events: weight-lifting, a 10-pound medicine ball throw, push-ups, sprinting with weights, a leg tuck requiring both legs to touch both elbows while hanging from a crossbar, and a 2-mile run. “The event which has caused the highest number of test failures is the leg tuck, the same event which has no proven predictive value to military occupation,” the senators wrote. “The Army has failed to show that the leg tuck has any nexus to the skills necessary for combat.” They want to delay the implementation of the new test until its relevance can be shown. “It is imperative that we pause implementation until all questions and concerns are answered,” they added. “Soldiers' careers depend on it and the continued lethality of our force requires it.”

Beyond the test’s impact on a soldier’s career is its bearing on the military as a whole. While the nation needs physically-fit troops on the front lines, there’s no need for desk-bound cyber-warriors to be bulked up (while there are different PT requirements for different military occupations, critics contend even the lower standards may be unachievable for some). Some of the tests involve specific weights, which put women, generally lighter than their male counterparts, at a disadvantage.

The new test is designed to replace the 40-year-old Army Physical Fitness Test, which consists of timed push-ups, sit-ups, and a 2-mile run. That earlier test “required a $3 stopwatch,” the senators noted. The new test “requires approximately $3,000 worth of equipment to put one individual through the test. In order to train and prepare, soldiers are personally procuring equipment.”

Sounds like the Army is as good at fiscal fitness as it is at physical fitness.


Dealing with ballot bullies

The Bunker’s been paying attention to presidential elections since 1960 (“Kennedy’s Catholic, just like me!” was the extent of my political analysis that year) and has never sensed the chance for civil unrest that’s in the air now. But better safe than sorry. So, ahem, arm yourself with these informative guides to dealing with ballot bullies, armed and otherwise:

—The Center for Strategic and International Studies writes about the proper role federal forces might play in ensuring electoral integrity.

—Georgetown’s law school has issued a state-by-state guide on laws regulating private militia groups and armed individuals during an election.

—The Giffords Law Center details what steps can be taken in each state against armed voter intimidation.

Then again, take heart in veterans’ efforts to protect the franchise they may have risked their lives to save. Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America have teamed up with the federal Department of Homeland Security to combat foreign disinformation aimed at vets about the looming election. Veterans are tempting targets for such ruses because they vote at high rates and can sway non-veterans with their views. And hundreds of vets are volunteering to replace older Americans, more vulnerable to COVID-19, as poll watchers. “We just want to make sure that people have trust in the process,” former Army National Guard sergeant Christopher Purdy said. “Vets are people who know how to serve, know how to operate in challenging environments.” Thank you for your service, indeed.


“Leave the complicated stuff to U.S.”

The hash pipe dream that is national missile defense continues its profligate ways (total investment to date: $53 billion. Total incoming missiles downed: zero). Now the Missile Defense Agency, apparently not satisfied with Boeing’s performance in developing the first ground-based interceptor, is thinking of doing the job itself. “This approach offers potential benefits, such as greater insight into cost, schedule, and performance,” the Government Accountability Office says in a new report. Relying on contractors to manage programs, the GAO and others have found, “has contributed to poor program outcomes.” In response, Congress has required the Department of Defense to bring management of complex systems in-house. But that’s not without its own headaches. “Challenges—such as hiring staff with enough expertise and access to technical data—could outweigh benefits.”

Boeing, as you might expect, is not pleased by the prospect. “Boeing officials told us that if it were no longer the system integrator, the company would not likely be able to retain the current team supporting the program,” it told GAO officials. “Boeing officials also told us that they may lose some personnel whose experience and expertise with GMD is irreplaceable.”

Of course, Boeing’s work has left a lot to be desired. The Military-Industrial Circus checked out those challenges last fall. Funny how some political factions—always eager to bow before the smarts of private contractors—are willing to (mixed metaphor alert!) toss that overboard wrapped in chains and anchors when a prized program finds itself in a pickle. The real pickle, of course, is developing an affordable and reliable missile shield to protect the nation from nebulous threats. So far, all indications are that one can probably make it affordable, or probably make it reliable, but not both.


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

Arms bizarre

China says it will sanction U.S. military contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon for supplying weapons to Taiwan, which Beijing deems to be a renegade province. Things were a lot easier during the Cold War, where there was no such commerce between Washington and Moscow. But now that there’s a two-way street between the U.S. and China for all sorts of electronics, China has clout that the Red Army never did. Just wait until China threatens to take away U.S. defense execs’ Chinese-made iPhones…

Rank amateur

Good to know that with all the challenges facing the military and the nation, Representative Dan Crenshaw has his priorities straight. The Texas Republican and former Navy SEAL has a provision (Section 927, on page 956) in the pending 2021 defense-authorization bill grappling with one of our toughest issues, according to Jamie McIntyre’s October 22 Daily on Defense newsletter at the Washington Examiner: “The Space Force shall use a system of ranks and grades that is identical to the system of ranks and grades used by the Navy,” the language reads in its entirety. The fledgling Space Force has been using Air Force ranks (topping out at “general”) instead of Navy ranks (topping out at “admiral”). That’s upset William “Captain Kirk” Shatner of Star Trek fame, as well as Crenshaw. Would that Congress instead would do its duty by declaring war (or not), and pass spending bills on time, instead of dealing with this kind of piffle.

Since when have the Marines needed outside advice?

The corps is paying the University of Pittsburgh $2 million on how to train men and women together at boot camp, reported October 20. The Bunker supposes it could have asked the Army, for free—or even the Air Force or Navy, who also conduct co-ed basic training—but that makes too much sense.

War ad infinitum

Daniel Davis doesn’t think much of the establishment’s view on our post-9/11 wars and skirmishes around the globe. “Forever-war advocates rest on the logic that because it is theoretically possible a negative outcome might result if we end unsuccessful wars, it is safer to continue supporting them; that the lowest cost is to maintain the status quo,” the retired Army officer, now with Defense Priorities, wrote in Military Times October 23. “When the actual conditions of each deployment are examined, however, it becomes quickly evident the significant costs we are enduring, right now, are inappropriate and unsustainable.” That is, of course, unless it’s not your family doing the fighting and not your generation doing the paying.

Down in the Pentagon weeds…

…is this disturbing tale of the Department of Defense and its continuing racial issues…about a tug-of-war between a Black civilian leading the Army’s diversity efforts and a white Trump appointee who…well, you know. Published by October 23. Part 2 here.

Zero fatalities!

Navy and Marine aviators suffered no aviation deaths in the fiscal year that ended September 31, 2020, the service reported October 19. As someone who has interviewed far too many family members whose loved ones did not survive such crashes, this unprecedented achievement is great news. Bravo Zulu!

Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

Let’s end on that bittersweet note, shall we? Don’t forget to vote, if you haven’t done so already. And feel free to forward The Bunker on to a friend or colleague with orders to subscribe (tell ‘em you’ll pay for it).