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The Bunker: Playing Chicken With National Defense

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: Republicans in Congress are waging a two-front war on the Pentagon, holding it hostage over debt-ceiling relief, and holding up promotions because of the Defense Department’s new abortion policy; and more.

TODAY’S GOP: G.UTTING O.UR P.ENTAGON

Some congressional Republicans are playing a dangerous game

The Republican party has always wanted to bulk up the U.S. military. But now, driven by narrow political aims rather than a broad, all-American concern for national security, key elements of the party are threating to seriously wound it instead. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and his GOP majority in the House say they are willing to send the U.S. government into default for the first time in the nation’s 247-year history. They want deep federal budget cuts in exchange for voting to increase the current $31 trillion debt ceiling. Democrats argue that the debt ceiling and budget are separate issues and should be handled that way. Absent a debt-ceiling increase, the nation could find itself unable to pay its bills by June 1, with the Pentagon suffering — instead of inflicting — untold collateral damage.

And in the Senate, a single lawmaker, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a member of the armed services committee, has put all top Defense Department promotions on hold since March. He has frozen the Pentagon’s intricate management flywheel because he opposes the military’s plan to let troops in uniform travel to get abortions following last year’s Supreme Court decision allowing states to bar the procedure. You can grumble over those tapped to command the Pentagon and the nation’s 1.3 million troops, but this lone freshman senator and former Auburn University football coach (his official government website labels him “Coach Tommy Tuberville”) seems willing to send the Pentagon careening into chaos.

The Bunker has long been critical of the Pentagon for its inefficiency, inane ideas, and pie-in-the-sky fantasies (not all of which fly). But these games of chicken now playing out on Capitol Hill are beginning to make the Department of Defense look like a finely crafted Swiss watch.

THE DEBT CEILING DEBATE

Hurting troops; helping foes

Pentagon officials say a U.S. default will hurt U.S. troops and help China. “This will affect the livelihood of our troops and our civilians, and we won’t be able to pay people like we should,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee May 11. “China right now describes us in their open speeches, etc., as a declining power,” Armly General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, added during the same hearing. “Defaulting on the debt would only reinforce that thought and embolden China and increase risk to the United States.”

The debate has led both the House and Senate to put their work on the Pentagon’s 2024 spending authority legislation on hold. “There is no way to make the substantial cuts to discretionary spending the Republican majority is vaguely proposing without doing great harm to the defense budget and the national security of this country,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said May 10. “Speaker McCarthy delayed the markup of the defense bill because reality has come crashing in on this ridiculous, hypocritical fantasy.”

ABORTIONLOGJAM

Lone senator puts top Pentagon promotions on ice

Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) has halted the promotion of 196 senior military and civilian Pentagon officials over the Pentagon’s plan to let pregnant service personnel travel to get abortions (that number could rise to 650 generals and admirals by year’s end). The Defense Department implemented the policy(PDF) after the Supreme Court ruled states could bar the procedure last June when it struck down 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. The Pentagon says the change was needed to assure abortion access to troops (and their dependents) who live in states where the procedure is severely restricted or banned. That’s where 40% of U.S. servicewomen are serving in the continental U.S., according to a September study from the Rand Corp. They include those serving at six bases in Tuberville’s state of Alabama, which has laws barring abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

Tuberville says the policy violates the federal government’s ban on financing abortions (on another topic, when recently asked about white nationalists serving in U.S. military uniforms, he said “I call them Americans”). “The Biden administration has done everything possible to turn our military into just one more institution for left-wing social engineering,” he said May 11 after blocking the promotions on the Senate floor for a fifth time. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he opposes Tuberville’s move.

Austin detailed the impact of Tuberville’s cork in a May 5 letter(PDF) to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who chairs the armed services committee’s personnel panel. “This indefinite hold harms America’s national security and hinders the Pentagon’s normal operations,” Austin said. “The longer that this hold persists, the greater the risk the U.S. military runs in every theater, every domain, and every Service.” His uniformed counterpart concurs. “I think holding up commissioned officers’ confirmations on anything other than their own personal talent and skills further politicizes the military,” Milley said May 11. “It drags the uniformed military right in the middle of a political argument.”

Milley should know. He is due to retire in September. But he may have to hang around if his successor (reportedly Air Force General C.Q. Brown) can’t get confirmed because of Tuberville’s holds.

A BETTER WAY

Lawmakers should focus on the real issues

There’s no doubt the Defense Department needs rampant reforming. But the stinkmanship over the debt ceiling and abortion is like poking a stick into a speeding bike’s spokes — nothing good can come of it. Instead, lawmakers should do their real jobs: keep the Pentagon’s shiny-weapons lust in check, curb the desires of its combatant commanders (backed by their civilian overlords) to have U.S. forces pretty much everywhere all the time, and debate whether — or not — to declare war, something they haven’t done since 1942(PDF).

That kind of congressional oversight would lead to a better U.S. military. And a better U.S. Congress.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Beyond bullets and bombs(PDF)

The post-9/11 wars, largely led by the U.S., have directly and indirectly killed an estimated 4.5 million people, primarily due to disease, economic ruin, and shattered infrastructure, the Costs of War project at Brown University reported May 15.

Defense-budget building blocks

Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Reagan now at the Center for American Progress, details the 10 questions the Pentagon had to answer in drafting its 2024 budget request, in The National Interest May 11.

Hyperconflict of interest

The Pentagon hasn’t spent enough money to achieve its hypersonic weapons goals, according to a report by the Emerging Technologies Institute, an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association, a leading defense industry trade group, according to a May 11 report in National Defense, the National Defense Industrial Association’s magazine. 

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