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The Bunker: Peculiar Pentagon Shortages

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: shortages of generals, transparency, and golf courses; a surplus of predictions on China’s threatened invasion of Taiwan; renaming Army posts; and more.

PENTAGON GAPS

Surveying military shortfalls

The U.S. military is all about logistics: having enough troops and materiel to defend the nation. Of course, it’d also be nice to have all the dollars and wisdom needed to deploy them smartly, but these days we take what we can get. Beyond the obvious — the Pentagon has never been satisfied with its share of the federal purse — it’s telling to tabulate other shortfalls.

Take generals, for example. The public thinks of them — and admirals, their Navy equivalent — as planning and waging wars. But with 885 such general officers(PDF), ranging in rank from one to four stars, there aren’t enough wars to go around. Even Congress, rarely fat-averse, has decided that’s too many. Back in 2017, it ordered the Pentagon to shed 110 pounds generals by 2023.

To help meet that goal, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered that the top military officers in five U.S. embassies will no longer be generals or admirals, Aaron Mehta reported at Breaking Defense. Instead of stars, the military attachés in Britain, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan and Turkey will become mere colonels (or Navy captains). The demotions make “no sense,” a former Pentagon official predictably told Mehta. “Unfortunately,” Austin wrote in his August 8 memo, “hard decisions must be made.” If that qualifies as a “hard decision,” it’s no wonder retooling the Defense Department is impossible.

Part of any struggle to reform the Pentagon is its penchant for secrecy, which is triggering renewed Senate scrutiny. In the past year, the military has stopped labeling documents FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY in favor of branding them CONTROLLED UNCLASSIED INFORMATION. The new stamp has spread like the latest Covid variant. “Officials have put the designation on a government phone directory, an `any questions?’ slide in a PowerPoint presentation and an invitation to a ship tour,” the independent U.S. Naval Institute’s website reports.

The Senate Armed Services Committee wants the Defense Department to stop applying the label so willy-nilly. The panel is especially concerned about the most recent Pentagon weapons-testing report, which carried the CUI brand. In the wake of recent “over-classification,” the Senate panel says(PDF) it is “concerned that a clear, systematic process and corresponding guidance from the Department for applying the CUI marking guidance is lacking.”

Finally, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., has run into local opposition concerning its proposal to open a golf course. A second golf course. (Suggested new Navy motto: “We can’t double the hulls, but we can double the holes.”)

“Opponents fear that an additional 18-hole golf course on the peninsula will destroy important wetlands and forest habitat, pollute the bay and cut off the public’s access to the shore,” the Washington Postreports. “They also worry that the proposal is further along than the Navy will admit and that well-connected Navy veterans and wealthy graduates will have outsize influence in determining whether it gets built.”

All these examples highlight too much money and too little humility.

PENTAGON SURPLUS

What happens if China invades Taiwan?

But there’s no shortage when it comes to the Pentagon and its percussionists banging the war drums over the imminent threat China poses to Taiwan. It’s the best lever the Pentagon and its allies have for pumping up the already historically high U.S. defense budget. Even though the U.S. public doesn’t want U.S. troops involved in such a conflict, according to a recent poll. (In May, the Pentagon said it would need more than $75 billion over the next five years “to maintain or restore the comparative military advantage of the U.S. with respect to the People’s Republic of China.) Opinion is divided on how such a war would go. “China has the power to take Taiwan, but it would cost an extremely bloody price,” CNN reports. CountersMilitary Times: “In think tank’s Taiwan war game, U.S. beats China at high cost.”

“Extremely bloody”? “High cost”? Time to take a deep breath. Michael O’Hanlon, veteran defense guru at the Brookings Institution, sums up the current state of the art in his new report on the topic. “Can China take Taiwan?” the title asks. “Why no one really knows.” This conforms with The Bunker’s long-standing conviction that the more declarative the title on any Pentagon-related article or study, the less likely it is to come true.

SMALL PRICE TO PAY

$21 million to rename Army bases

Slowly but surely, the congressionally created panel charged with coming up with better names for Army posts now honoring Confederate war traitors, is working to erase their names from the front gates of some of America’s largest military posts. In an August 8 report(PDF), the Naming Commission said it will cost $21 million to strip the names A.P. Hill, Benning, Bragg, Gordon, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk and Rucker from Army forts across the south and replace them with true American heroes(PDF) instead.

The military originally named the posts in a “haphazard and historical” fashion while readying for World Wars I and II, the panel said. “Pressed for time while arming against immense opponents and global threats, the Army often deferred to local sensitivities and regional connections of a name-sake while naming them,” it added. “When the military asked local leaders for input, local white Southerners advocated for names they had been raised to revere.”

It has been more than seven years since The Bunkerfirst wrote about the need to remove these stains from the U.S. military. Back then, the Army opposed the idea. “These historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies,” the Army’s top spokesman said at the time. “It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”

It appears that the Army was as good at understanding division as The Bunker was back in the 6th grade.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Big bucks

Global defense-contractor revenues were up 8% last year, Joe Gould reported at Defense News August 8.

And, for bargain hunters…

The Pentagon is modifying crop-dusters to protect troops on the ground, Marcus Weisgerber reported August 1 at Defense One.

Failure was an option

Retired Army General Dave Petraeus tries to explain in The Atlantic August 8 why the U.S. screwed up Afghanistan. Top reason: “our lack of commitment.”

MIA

The BBC reported August 4 on the three U.S. nuclear weapons that remain missing.

Doomsday plane birthday

Steve Liewer of the Omaha World-Herald reports on the Air Force unit that has stood alert for 60 years primed to wage nuclear war from the sky.

Exam time!

The Defense Department celebrated its 75th birthday August 10 and gave us a pop quiz to see how much we know about it.

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