The Bunker: Peering Into the U.S. Military’s Dark Corners

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.


Fighting an insidious insider threat

It was distressing to learn that nearly one in five of those who stormed the Capitol in January had military backgrounds. Just as painful are the conclusions contained in an October Pentagon report (PDF) about extremism in the ranks that only surfaced when John Donnelly of Roll Call reported on it February 16. “Despite a low number of cases in absolute terms, individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events,” the report said, eerily telegraphing the attack on the Capitol that would be carried out 84 days later.

It has taken another four months—and a change in administrations—for the Pentagon finally to roll out measures designed to smother the smoldering hate that has been burning inside pockets of the U.S. military for years.

On February 26, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin posted 13 pages of talking points (PDF) to guide commanders in carrying out his order (PDF) to deal with the problem. Why now? “The increased level of domestic protests around the country in the past several months has emboldened some violent extremist groups to take more aggressive anti-government and racially motivated actions,” the guidance to commanders reads, chillingly. “These groups are known to actively target current and former military personnel.” While there are no hard numbers of extremists in the U.S. military, it added, “we are seeing an increase in concerning behavior.” Troops are to be schooled on the oath they take when joining the military, told of “impermissible behaviors”—those that “encourage discrimination, hate, and harassment against others”—and reminded that they have an obligation to report such actions up the chain of command.

All this can be read as a dreamy wish list, with scant chance of effecting real change. Yet The Bunker well remembers similar skepticism 20 years ago. Senior officers and NCOs warned that letting openly gay men and lesbians to serve would destroy the morale of the U.S. military. Those serving proved them wrong then. Here’s rooting that they can prove them wrong now.


Peering into the U.S. military’s dark corners

A pair of new reports published February 25 cast stark light on what the U.S. military is doing in our name, and how much it’s costing us. The U.S. conducted counter-terrorism operations in 85 nations around the world in 2018, 2019, and 2020, the Costs of War project reported (PDF). After some quick flicks on The Bunker’s abacus, that works out to about 44% of the world’s 195 countries.

Maybe we should call it the Nearly-Half-Global War on Terror.

The activities range from ground warfare to bombing to training foreign military forces in the anti-terror fight. “Despite the Pentagon’s assertion that the U.S. is shifting its strategic emphasis away from counterterrorism and towards great power competition with Russia and China, examining U.S. military activity on a country-by-country basis shows that there is yet to be a corresponding drawdown of the counterterror apparatus,” said the study, authored by Stephanie Savell, co-director of the project at Brown University. “If anything, counterterrorism operations have become more widespread in recent years.”

And that may explain a second study, which seemed to generate headlines everywhere except in the U.S. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) publishes its authoritative Military Balance every year to chart the ups and downs of defense spending worldwide. “Global military spending hit record levels in 2020 amid Covid-19 pandemic,” read the headline on an Agence France-Presse story published widely around the globe. “The United States remained the world's largest defence spender in 2020, IISS said, accounting for 40 per cent of US$738 billion globally,” AFP added.

But it wasn’t ignored by all American papers. “Global defense spending, led by US and China, hits new high,” read the headline in Stars and Stripes. But, then again, S&S is the in-house newsletter for the U.S. military.


The long-overdue Air Force tanker wobbles skyward

When your new aerial refueling tanker racks up as many woes as the KC-46, it’s probably not smart to send it off to war. That’s why the Air Force announced February 24 that it’s going to let its new Boeing tanker (44 of 179 have been delivered) perform limited operations to free up the aging tankers it was supposed to replace for actual war-fighting missions.

“We will now commit the KC-46 to execute missions similar to the ones they’ve been conducting over the past few years in the Operational Test and Evaluation plan, but can now include operational taskings from U.S. Transportation Command,” Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost, chief of the service’s Air Mobility Command, said.

The Air Force has been struggling to replace its aging KC-10 and KC-135 tankers for 20 years. The decade-long KC-46 effort has been plagued by problems, largely focused on its complex camera-operated refueling boom, as the Military Industrial Circus here at the Project On Government Oversight reported two years ago. The service planned to begin full-rate production of the KC-46 in 2017, but that decision has now been put off to 2024. It’s a stunning delay for what should basically be a simple modification of Boeing 767s into flying gas stations.

The good news here, such as it is, is that Boeing and not taxpayers is footing the bill for the snafus ($5 billion, to date). The bad news is that the KC-46 still can’t fly in combat operations, even safely out of enemy-missile range. The worse news is that, even if it could fly such missions, the KC-46 wouldn’t be allowed to refuel the Air Force’s most advanced, radar-eluding warplanes. That’s because the tanker’s refueling boom has a nasty tendency to scrape the planes gassing up, something that could render B-2s, F-22s and F-35 instantly unstealthy.


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

Risky analysis

Certain elements of U.S. national-security policy have long had an amen corner that leads the nation to spend far more money than it should in certain areas. Stealthy tactical aviation (i.e., the F-35) is one, and missile defense is another. It’s somehow apt that when The Bunker tries to visit the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency website it runs into a brick wall. Google Chrome, for example, warns that “attackers might be trying to steal your information from (for example, passwords, messages, or credit cards),” although it’s pretty clear that missile defense has been stealing our credit-card info for decades. But the biggest con is the bogeyman of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons. Backers are convinced that China or some other military power is plotting to detonate a nuclear weapon high over the U.S. to “fry” our electronics, pitching us into a prolonged dark winter that could kill millions of Americans.

President Trump caught this right-wing fever and signed an executive order (PDF) requiring the military to defend against EMP. “This will ensure critical fuel infrastructure remains operational, as well as contributes to a national Dissuasion Strategy intended to preclude adversarial use of EMP as a weapon,” the Air Force said, according to an EMP-defeat effort detailed by Aaron Boyd on the Nextgov website February 26. The Bunker’s never been able to understand why this is needed. If a foe is stupid enough to launch a nuclear weapon exploding above us, they shouldn’t be surprised if we blow them to smithereens. Believe it or not, it’s called “deterrence.”

Think Tanked

Part of the problem with the defense commentariat in Washington, D.C., is that too many think tanks, which rely on defense contractors for much of their funding, embrace their funders’ aims and methods. The latest example is a February 25 heavenly assessment from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. US Needs Better Space Defenses, Including Weapons: CSIS, one headline read. Study: The US Needs To Build More Space Weapons, said another. Major CSIS funders include Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, who also happen to be the Pentagon’s five biggest contractors. Such largesse tends to lead to a stultifying sameness in such analyses.

Chinese checkmate

A possible war with China has preoccupied the U.S. national-security community ever since the Soviet Union was consigned to the ash heap of history 30 years ago. Michael Auslin details how it might unfold four years from now in a detailed February 19 piece in The Spectator. Thankfully, it ends with a “Cold Peace” between the two nations, although China extensively damaged the USS Gerald R. Ford with a pair of DF-21 “carrier-killing” missiles with a resulting “severe loss of life.” Meanwhile, the U.S. is preparing for a Sino-U.S. war by practicing Pacific “island-hopping with F-35s, an “essential innovation to stay ahead of more advanced militaries such as China’s,” according to Patrick Tucker at Defense One.

Reportering for duty…

Finally, Jeff Schogol, the sublimely sardonic reporter for the all-things-military Task and Purpose website, is returning to the Pentagon after 11 months away due to the pandemic. He says it was tough participating in Zoom briefings. “Some briefers sounded like the ‘Wah, wah, wah’ sounds that adults make in Charlie Brown cartoons,” he complains. Sheesh, Jeff…as The Bunker recalls, most of the live, in-person briefings he attended from 1979 to 2016 sounded just like that, too…

Thanks for wading through this week’s briefing at The Bunker. Forward on to those sharing your foxhole, and encourage them to sign up for email delivery here.