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The Bunker: Old Whine in a New Canteen

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 Biden administration rolls out a trio of war-fighting documents that document stealth change from the status quo; what’s at stake as Congress splinters over aid to Ukraine; and more.

TRYFECTA

Pentagon unveils a trio of key documents all at once

For the first time, the Defense Department has rolled out its three key strategic documents — the National Defense Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the Missile Defense Review — all at once(PDF). Think of it as a hat-trick of hegemony, a Kellogg’s Variety Pack of kinetic carnage designed to keep China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the bad guys in Iran and North Korea at bay. “By weaving these documents together, we help ensure that the entire department is moving forward together, matching our resources to our goals,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said October 27.

They’re blueprints to do what is needed to protect the nation today as well as tomorrow “across all theaters, across the full spectrum of conflict, and across all domains,” Austin told reporters as he released the three reports as a single 80-page tome (and no, Afghanistan didn’t come up). Analysts weighed fresh buzz phrases in the new strategy — like “integrated deterrence” and “acute threat” — while wondering what had happened to old favorites like “global operating model” and “dynamic force employment.”

Bottom line: This is what happens when a thesaurus gets loose inside the Pentagon.

All three reports, like their predecessors, are fundamentally political position papers. Tweaks are only at the margins. Supposedly, they’re the building blocks of future Pentagon budgets, but without money they’re just firing blanks. Predictably, conservatives zinged the effort for not putting forth enough resources — money, in other words — to achieve the Pentagon’s goals. Liberals protested a Brobdingnagian nuclear-weapons complex seemingly on automatic pilot.

The Biden administration has decided it doesn’t need the new nuclear-armed submarine-launched cruise missile, despite the military’s support for it. “Our inventory of nuclear weapons is significant,” Austin said in a stunning understatement. Yet Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review plows ahead when it comes to operating and rebuilding all three legs — Navy submarines(PDF) as well as Air Force bombers(PDF) and ICBMs(PDF) — of the nation’s nuclear triad (cost over the next 10 years: $600+ billion).

Missile defense remains a growth stock. The Pentagon wants “a full-spectrum approach to prevent and defeat adversary missiles in all domains, all timelines, through a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities,” a senior Pentagon official said. (Yeah, and The Bunker wants to be as rich as a decent Elon Musk).

In a nutshell, the new strategy is old whine in a new canteen. It focuses on three areas: “integrated deterrence,” which means coordinating military, diplomatic, and economic actions to thwart foes (what we used to call the “whole-of-government” approach); “campaigning” by taking military steps in the right order (what we used to call “victory”); and making “the right technology investments” (which we used to call “more bang for the buck”).

“We will be a fast-follower where market forces are driving commercialization of militarily-relevant capabilities in trusted artificial intelligence and autonomy, integrated network system-of-systems, microelectronics, space, renewable energy generation and storage, and human-machine interfaces,” the National Defense Strategy says.

That pledge sounded familiar, and it sent The Bunker pawing through his notebooks. “We want to partner with businesses on everything from autonomy to robotics to biomedical engineering; from power, energy, and propulsion to distributed systems, data science, and the Internet of things,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said back in 2015.

Unfortunately, he passed away three days before he got to see his words recycled.

WHAT KIND OF A COUNTRY ARE WE?

U.S. aid to Ukraine divides lawmakers

Americans can tolerate wars, so long as they’re short. But when they drag on — even when U.S. troops are at scant risk — support flags. That’s why Washington’s $18 billion in military aid to help Ukraine battle Russian invaders for the past eight months is making lawmakers nervous.

Their doubts are bipartisan. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) got this ball rolling two weeks ago when he said there will be no “blank check” for Ukraine if, as expected, the GOP wins the majority in the lower chamber November 8. McCarthy, currently the minority leader, is favored to become speaker if Republicans prevail.

Then, 30 members of the Democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus set off a firestorm October 24 when they released a letter(PDF) they had written (in June!) urging Biden to speak directly to Russia to try to end the war. Its release caught party leaders by surprise, especially because Ukraine, on the offense, has no desire to negotiate an end to the conflict. (The letter’s signers apparently ignored the recent U.S. fiasco in Afghanistan, where the U.S. negotiated directly(PDF) with the Taliban while the soon-to-be-toppled U.S.-backed Afghan government stayed on the sidelines.) The backlash over the proposed diplomatic push led the signers to declare a “return to sender” the next day, blaming the letter’s release on errant staffers. (We’ve all worked for bosses like that.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to seize on the growing U.S. split October 27, saying Russia opposes not the West, but “Western elites.” Russia embraces the West of “traditional, mainly Christian values,” he said. But, he added, “there’s another West — aggressive, cosmopolitan, neocolonial, acting as the weapon of the neoliberal elite,” as the New York Timesreported, seeking to force its “pretty strange” values around the globe.

The Democrats’ letter also sounded a lot like Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to Washington. “We need negotiations where we can define the shape of world order,” he said October 20. “Such an idea exists in some progressive circles in the United States of America.”

Democracies can bend like willows in the wind when it comes to war (and pretty much anything else). Dictators don’t have to deal with such inconveniences. That’s something worth pondering before giving Putin one square inch of the Ukrainian territory he has taken since 2014 while killing thousands of innocent Ukrainians along the way.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Ahoy?

The Navy is 9,000 sailors short, Heather Mongilio of USNI News reported October 25. The next day, she reported that the service has kicked out nearly 2,000 sailors for refusing COVID shots.

Senatorial courtesy

The Senate has approved an amendment to the 2023 defense policy bill that will boost Defense Department contracts, supposedly to account for inflation. It acted even though the Pentagon has not yet verified inflation’s impact, nor has it publicly pushed for such increases, Julia Gledhill of the POGO’s Center for Defense Information wrote October 27.

Chinese checkers

In the latest example of U.S. multi-service cooperation, Air Force B-1 bombers recently trained to drop ship-and-sub-killing mines somewhere in the Indo-Pacific theater, Air and Space Forces Magazine reported October 27. “MineX missions require close coordination and integration between the Navy and the Air Force,” one commander pointed out.

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