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The Bunker: Playing Peek-a-Boom

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: Cutting a trillion by giving the Pentagon a new to-do list; are the four horsemen of the apocalypse running wild inside the U.S. military?; tweets can be bad for your Pentagon career; and more.

CUTTING A TRILLION?

“Been there, done that”

The Congressional Budget Office has published a study spelling out three ways the Pentagon could cut its budget by $1 trillion over the coming decade—and still be spending more money than it did at the height of Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup in the 1980s. “The options in this report represent only a few possibilities for achieving a $1 trillion budget reduction,” Capitol Hill’s green-eye-shaders said October 7. In other words, there’s more than one way to skim the fat.

Big deal—The Bunkerdid the same thing(PDF) a decade ago in Time magazine. “How to save a trillion dollars,” the headline read.

Here’s the key, according to both: despite what you may have heard, or believe, it’d be next to impossible to cut $1 trillion over a decade—a 15% trim between now and 2031—and continue business as usual. Eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse (WF&A) won’t get you there, either, unless you’re one of those outliers who deems pretty much the entire $750 billion annual defense budget is WF&A.

Nope, a major haircut like that is going to take a fresh sheet of paper with new calculations to decide just what the U.S. military should do. As it now stands, the Pentagon slices the world like a giant pizza, with toppings ranging from bullets to boats to B-52s. Every slice—Africa Command, Central Command, Cyber Command, European Command, Indo-Pacific Command, Northern Command, Southern Command, Space Command, Special Operations Command, Strategic Command, Transportation Command—demands its share of the pie, with predictable results.

That’s why the military’s requirements must be retooled. “Proposals for reducing defense budgets raise concerns that the resultant force would not meet the requirements of the National Security Strategy (NSS),” the CBO said. “But it is also possible that the NSS or the military’s approach to implementing it might be changed to reduce the need for military forces and weapons.”

Bingo!

“The U.S. military is stretched too thinly around the globe to perform its many missions,” The Bunker said back in 2011. “Leadership is all about making choices, and it’s past time for Washington to recalibrate its rusty risk meter. Only by trimming missions can forces be cut, because that’s where the real money is: payroll and procurement.”

That CBO quote is the key: “the NSS or the military’s approach to implementing it might be changed.” Outsiders think that the Pentagon’s rules for defending the country are ironclad, but they’re not. In fact, they’re far more like plastic. We use plastic today to mean a “synthetic product made from oil derivatives.” But it used to mean something “capable of change or of receiving a new direction” (1791), or “remedying a deficiency of structure” from 1839 (think plastic surgery). The Pentagon desperately needs both.

The national-security establishment has been playing peek-a-boom with its so-called requirements pretty much forever. Every once in a while we get a glimpse at the fiction involved. The Navy, for example, was able to carry out only 44% of the missions the Pentagon’s commanders wanted it to do in 2015. Bottom line: is the Navy too small, or is its mission list too long? The Navy said meeting each such “combatant commander demand” would require a fleet roughly 50% bigger. That’s manna from Heaven for admirals eager for a bigger fleet (pardon the redundancy). It’s just that the flip side also has merit: one way to boost that 44% mission-accomplished rate is to sail fewer seas.

And besides, the whole notion of military requirements is shot through with semantics, as then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates explained in 2010. “The problem is, ‘requirement’ has a particular military definition in terms of something that is required to accomplish a certain mission. And it’s a little bit like one of the things I go back and forth with on the services is their assessment of risk,” he said. “The risk isn’t in terms of whether you can accomplish the mission; the risk is in terms of whether you can accomplish the mission in the timeline that the plan calls for. So, the risk is to the plan, not getting the job done.”

Like so many fascinating Pentagon comments (and data!) over the past two decades, Gates’ words have gone MIA from the Defense Department’s website. Thankfully, they have been preserved by the Air Force Association, a trade group representing Air Force interests. It’s no wonder such insights are so rare when the military has to rely on its industrial complex to keep track.

THE 4 HORSEMEN OF DOD’S APOCALPSE

Why are they all showing up now?

True, the Pentagon pretty much gave up horses on the battlefield in World War I. There have been exceptions—the last U.S. Army cavalry charge took place in the Philippines against the Japanese in 1942, and U.S. Special Forces rode them in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. But biblically speaking, the Old Testament’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—often described as the sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague—now seem to be swirling around the Pentagon:

The Sword: That would be the Air Force’s October 4 announcement that the F-35 fighter can now carry nuclear weapons. “Having a 5th Generation…fighter aircraft with this capability brings an entirely new strategic-level capability that strengthens our nation’s nuclear deterrence mission,” the chief of Air Combat Command Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration said.

The Famine: That would be the latest congressional effort “to end hunger in the military,” according to a September 30 piece by John Donnelly in CQ Roll Call. “The problem never went away, and even worsened due to the pandemic as many military spouses lost their jobs.”

The Wild Beasts: The Defense Department has enrolled all 3.6 million troops, Pentagon civilians, and its contractors with security clearances, in its “continuous vetting program,” it announced October 5. That’s designed to detect insider threats and other ne’er-do-wells in the ranks 24/7, instead of the traditional security reviews (once every five years for those holding a Top Secret clearance; once a decade for those with a Secret clearance). “Screening troops’ and DoD employees’ social-media posts for extremist views or behavior will become part of the vetting,” a Pentagon official toldDefense One.

The Plague: Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops have not yet complied with the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, even as the various deadlines for the shots draw near. While 90% of the active-duty Navy is vaccinated, only 72% of Marines are, even though both services have a November 28 deadline. “Deaths attributed to COVID-19 have soared in parts of the force as some services struggle to inoculate their troops,” Alex Horton reported in the October 11 Washington Post. “In September, more military personnel died of coronavirus infections than in all of 2020. None of those who died were fully vaccinated…”

Whew…maybe the End Times are just around the corner.

SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE MOUTH

Tweeting can be dangerous

Politically active nat-sec nerds eager to work in the Pentagon when their party returns to power used to have to be satisfied writing dry thumbsuckers (now there’s an oxymoron) in the late Armed Forces Journal or Strategic Review. Plus, they had to get their copy through editors (believe The Bunker when he says trying to slip something through that crowd is tougher than getting a warhead, surrounded by a flock of decoys, through any missile-defense shield). But that’s no longer the case: now you can wound your political future, perhaps mortally, with tweets all by yourself.

Brenda Sue Fulton made that clear during her bruising October 7 Senate hearing to become the Pentagon’s top personnel official. Fulton, a 1980 graduate of West Point, was the first openly gay member of the academy’s advisory Board of Visitors. A series of tweets from a few years ago are coming back to haunt Fulton as she seeks to become assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs.

“It’s not a political statement to say the GOP is racist; it’s a moral statement, and one backed up by an increasing mountain of evidence,” she tweeted back in 2018. It’s understandable that someone might think this but broadcasting it far and wide could turn it into a 280-character kamikaze flight. Such declarations by Fulton did not go over well with Republican members of the panel. “Do you believe every Republican in the GOP—are they all racist?” Dan Sullivan of Alaska asked.

20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. “I want to take the opportunity to apologize to you, and to all the members of the committee, for that tweet,” Fulton said. “My intent was to say that racism isn't Democratic or Republican, that it's not a political issue, it's a moral issue. But I went about it all wrong. The words are muddled and confused, and I deeply regret them.”

But Fulton tweeted other thoughts that upset GOP senators, ranging from women in the Marine Corps to religion. “The vast majority of white evangelical leaders are utterly unmoored from the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she tweeted in 2017. “So tired of #USMC women fighting to keep combat ban b/c they want so badly for the male Marines to love them. #CoOpted #StockholmSyndrome,” she tweeted in 2016. Several Republican lawmakers said they will oppose Fulton’s appointment. With the Senate evenly divided, a Democratic defection could doom her nomination.

Colin Kahl, who President Biden tapped as the Pentagon’s policy chief, was confirmed in April on a 49-to-45 party-line vote, despite some controversial tweets. But that’s not a mandate that gives the Defense Department’s #3 civilian much clout, either around the world—or around the Pentagon.

Fulton’s tweets, like those of a certain former president, from the other side, generate more heat than light. This is really a shame. Politics have become so rancid—even in the national-security realm— that it’s probably wise for Pentagon wannabes to keep certain comments to themselves. Otherwise, they will open themselves up to the kind of scrutiny Fulton is facing, and see their chances torpedoed for something as fleeting as a tweet.

The Bunker’s mom always said that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should say something. Especially if your aim is to serve the nation in a position where you have to be sensitive to those who view things differently than you do. Armor and stealth are two key military attributes. Pentagon wannabes would be well-advised to deploy both of them in public and save the gratuitous slams for private chats with The Bunker.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Spending, by definition

Why do we call it the defense budget? “The misleading first name of the Defense Department doesn't justify using ‘defense’ as an adjective for its budget,” progressive activist Norman Solomon wrote in Salon October 11. “On the contrary, the ubiquitous use of phrases like ‘defense budget’ and ‘defense spending’ — virtually always written with a lower-case ‘d’ — reinforces the false notion that equates the humongous U.S. military operations with defense.” All those in favor of replacing Department of Defense with Department of War—its original name—raise your weapon.

Penny-wise

The U.S. Navy has sold to a ship-breaking company a pair of aircraft carriers for one cent each, The Drive reported October 6. The deal saves the Navy the cost of dismantling the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS John F. Kennedy, the last pair of non-nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carriers. In exchange, the ship-breaking company will profit from the sale of their scrap. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Enterprise, remains in limbo nine years after its decommissioning. In April, the Navy awarded Newport News Shipbuilding a $7.5 million contract to store the Big E (new official name: Ex-USS Enterprise) until early next year. It’s awaiting its fate not far from where Newport News is building the USS Gerald R. Ford class of carriers. The Bunker, who wrote the Big E’s obit in 2013, thought she’d be long gone by now.

“How about more F-16s, then?”

Turkey has been booted out of the F-35 fighter program because it insisted on buying Russia’s S-400 air-defense system, as The Bunkernoted last week. Now comes word, via an October 8 piece in Al-Monitor, that it wants to buy 40 more F-16 fighters for its air force. Either way, Lockheed—which builds both planes—comes out a winner, if the Biden administration approves the F-16 deal.

Hunter-killer

Ian Fritz is an Air Force vet who guided drone strikes from far above Afghanistan, and played a role in killing “123 insurgents EKIA” (enemy killed-in-action). “As far as I know,” he wrote in the Atlantic on October 6, “none of them was a child.” But he goes on to detail the mindset that killed seven unfortunate kids in that woebegone U.S. drone strike in the final hours of the Afghan war.

And speaking of dead children…

In 1951, the three-man crew aboard a crippled B-25 bomber bailed out over the Maryland countryside. They survived, but their abandoned plane smashed into a house. Three occupants died, including two kids. That led to an Air Force edict requiring pilots to steer their wounded aircraft toward the Atlantic Ocean before parachuting to safety. Two years later, during a training mission out of Andrews Air Force Base, the hydraulic system aboard Captain Francis Evans’ F-86D fighter failed—as did the backup system. Eyewitnesses insisted that Evans stayed with his stricken plane as it nose-dived toward Forestville Elementary School. They believed he pushed it beyond the 200 kids swarming the schoolyard shortly after the dismissal bell. His Sabre jet crashed 200 yards past the school. Evans bailed out at the last possible second—too low for his parachute to fully open, according to this October 9 account in the Washington Post. Forestville Elementary School, now known as the Francis T. Evans Elementary School, is about a mile from Andrews. What happened at Andrews doesn’t excuse what happened in Afghanistan. But it does help us keep things in perspective.

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