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The Bunker: Moscow’s MIA Military Might

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: The Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to show the Russian military might not be all it’s cracked up to be, and how wrong pre-invasion reports of its prowess were; Putin follows Bush’s blueprint; a new tack on the military’s continuing suicide epidemic; and more.

HYPING THE RUSSIAN THREAT

Before invading Ukraine, they were 10 feet tall again

During the Cold War, the U.S. spent mightily to deter the Red Army’s 10-foot-tall soldiers. We were always told they were poised to plunge through Germany’s Fulda Gap and drive their tanks to the English Channel. But once the Cold War ended, it quickly became apparent that Soviet troops actually were about 5-foot-9—and that was with lifts in their combat boots.

How quickly we forget. “Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal,” the January 27 Page 1 story in the New York Times declared. “A significantly upgraded military has emerged as a key tool of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, as he flexes his might around the globe and, most ominously, on the Ukraine border.” The Washington Post had the same story, the same day, on the same page. “As it weighs action in Ukraine,” the Post headline read, “Russia showcases its new military prowess.”

But we’ve seen little evidence so far of that purported prowess in the two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. A 40-mile long convoy has been bogged down 15 miles outside of Kyiv for more than a week. A pair of top Russian generals reportedly have been killed in the fighting. The Russian air force has barely got off the ground. Ukraine’s drones are destroying Russian armor, while Russian drones have been MIA. Groups of Russian troops, poorly-trained and outfitted, are surrendering. They have been looting Ukrainian grocery stores.

Why do we keep getting it so wrong? Those newspaper stories reflect the groupthink that taints so much national security coverage. They echo what the “experts” tell the reporters, who could use some fortified skepticism. We were reminded of this problem in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when The Bunker’s former colleagues, at what was then known as Knight-Ridder Newspapers, were pretty much the only ones poking holes in the Bush administration’s rush to war. And that echoed the expert claims before Gulf War 1.0 in 1991 that the Iraqi military was so fierce that the U.S. military could expect to suffer between 3,000 and 10,000 combat deaths in its drive to push Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait (148 died[PDF]).

There is a predisposition in the U.S. national-security community to favor hardware over heart when it comes to waging war. That explains why defense spending is so high. Yet, since World War II, Congress remains unwilling to declare war or, since Vietnam impose a draft, ensuring that the nation’s heart isn’t invested in the battle. That why, when it comes to fighting adversaries armed with plenty of heart but only rudimentary weapons—the Taliban or Viet Cong, for instance—the U.S. gets very little bang for its buck.

The whole world is now witnessing just how devastating a seemingly bungled military campaign can be for the people trying to live through it. But even as the Russians appear to be stumbling through Ukraine, the Pentagon continued the hype. “They’re aggressively pursuing hypersonic capability tenfold to what we have done, as far as testing within the last year or so, significantly outpacing us with their capabilities,” Air Force General Glen VanHerck, chief of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress five days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Then again, he was talking about China.

A BETTER SUICIDE SCREEN?

New tool to deal with the military’s scourge

The Bunker reported on military suicides before 9/11—an offensive joke, a deadly jet repair—and the tidal wave that followed. They have always been among the toughest stories to report and write, in part because prevention efforts have seemed so futile. More than 30,000 troops and veterans(PDF) have killed themselves since 9/11, four times the number that have died in combat. “The military’s suicide prevention effort is failing, and we must find out why,” Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) told the Pentagon’s top suicide fighters March 2. In 2020, 580 active-duty service members(PDF) killed themselves.

A decade ago, The Bunker’sstory on the topic in Time highlighted the plague with a cover line(PDF) that read, “One a Day: Every day, one U.S. soldier commits suicide. Why the military can’t defeat its most insidious enemy.” Back then, a suicide a day in the ranks was a major story. Yet it has faded from public view even as the military’s suicide epidemic has grown worse. In 2020, 580 active-duty service members killed themselves. That’s 1.6 suicides a day, a nearly 60% jump since that 2012.

That’s what makes a new Pentagon push to mine the mind for subconscious suicidal thoughts intriguing. Military screening for suicidal soldiers has long relied on their answers to questions about their moods and state of mind. What if there were a way to tap into their brains for early-warning signs without having to count on the troops’ conscious answers, molded by personal denial and expectations of what the screeners want to hear? That’s the idea behind the Pentagon’s Neural Evidence Aggregation Tool (NEAT) designed to detect “preconscious brain signals” highlighting those prone to self-harm. “Using the preconscious will hopefully enable us to detect signs of depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation earlier and more reliably than ever before,” said Greg Witkop, a former Army surgeon now with the cutting-edge Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “Just as the objective evidence of an X-ray or MRI is sometimes necessary to help a military member not feel like they are letting their unit down because of a visible injury, NEAT will attempt to provide objective evidence of invisible injuries for help to be provided in time.”

Neat, indeed.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

No blank check

Any boost in U.S. military spending because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would largely be “pointlessly siphoned away by self-interested, ineffective, or politically motivated actors in both the public and private sectors of the defense world,” Jack Butler of the conservative National Review argued March 4.

The business of war…

…is less profitable as the world’s economies become more dependent on each another, Paul Krugman wrote in the March 1 New York Times. (Defense contractors excepted, of course.)

Out of gas

The Pentagon has decided to shut down the Navy’s long-troubled mammoth Red Hill fuel depot in Hawaii that has been blamed for poisoning the drinking water of thousands, Christina Jedra of Honolulu Civil Beat reported March 7.

Back to the drawing board

Turns out the pants worn by female members of the new U.S. Space Force are “baggy and ill-fitting” because “the model lost some weight,” Air Force Magazine reported March 1.

Bobbleheaded hero

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is on the cusp of becoming a Bobblehead for being the “face of defiance and a symbol of strength,” the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum announced March 3. Unfortunately, the $30 dolls won’t ship until July.

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