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The Bunker: Provocative Misbehaviors

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: aggressive actions against the U.S. by China and Iran run the risk of spiraling out of control; ballooning price tag on a new fleet of Navy submarines; for usability’s sake, the Pentagon is buying new and bigger nuclear weapons; and more.

PROVOCATIVE BEHAVIOR

That thin line between peace and war

The world seems like a tea kettle, already furiously boiling and seemingly on the verge of exploding. Much of the world's attention is focused on wars in Israel and Ukraine, but just offstage China and Iran are loudly rattling sabers, and Tehran’s proxies are actually wounding U.S. troops. Where to draw the line?

A Chinese J-11 fighter came dangerously close to a B-52 bomber, the Pentagon said October 26. China didn’t deny the charge, which the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said took place in international airspace. Beijing blamed U.S. warplanes that “traveled thousands of miles to China’s doorstep to flex muscle” for the near crash. Meanwhile, a pair of U.S. F-16s and an F-15 attacked a pair of ammo depots in Syria used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Tehran proxies. The warplanes struck October 27, following recent rocket and drone strikes that left 19 U.S. troops (out of more than 40,000 in the region) with traumatic brain injuries.

The U.S. is trying to keep both conflicts from escalating. This has been the challenge faced by the U.S. ever since World War II. Real provocations by other nations have triggered U.S. wars — think of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, or North Korea’s plunge into South Korea in 1950. Unfortunately, imagined provocations by other nations — the phantom sea battle in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam’s coast in 1964, and the 2003 myth of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction hidden inside Iraq — led the U.S. into the wrong wars, for the wrong reasons.

Whatever tomorrow brings, let’s hope we’ve learned our lessons from yesterday.

FISCAL INANITY

Yet another costly weapon gets moreso

You know what The Bunker would like to see, for a change? A report by the bean-counting brigade over at the Congressional Budget Office with a lower estimate of a future weapon’s cost than the Pentagon’s projection. Sorry, ain’t gonna happen this week.

The latest example surfaces in an October 26 CBO report into the costs of buying 12 new “boomer” submarines capable of lobbing long-range nuclear-tipped missiles. “CBO’s estimate for the Columbia class program(PDF) reflects current industry conditions and is therefore 19% greater than the Navy’s,” the watchdog agency said (the creator of the phrase “cheaper by the dozen” obviously wasn’t an admiral). Those “current industry conditions” include poor performance by the shipyards building the subs and a fragile supplier network. The subs are part of a potential $1.5 trillion investment to replace the nation’s existing nuclear triad with new subs, bombers and ICBMs.

The first sub in the class, the USS District of Columbia, will cost an eyewatering $17.5 billion when delivered in 2027, the CBO projects. That’s $1.7 billion more than the Navy estimates. Subs number two through 12 will cost an average of $9.2 billion apiece — $1.5 billion more than the Navy’s SWAG. That’s a $1 billion+ overrun — for each boat, as sailors call submarines — not for the program as a whole. “A billion here, a billion there,” Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) apparently never said, but The Bunker likes to think he did, “and pretty soon you're talking real money.”

Invariably, CBO estimates, based on historical patterns, are closer to the mark than the military’s, based on wishful thinking. Which leads to this unsurprising P.S. in the CBO report: “Costs for the Columbia class submarines could, however, exceed both the Navy’s and CBO’s estimates.”

“NEW & IMPROVED!”

Introducing the nation’s newest nuke

U.S. nuclear bombs are a lot like iPhones — got to get the latest to keep up with all the trends being embraced by the cool kids. But when it comes to A-bombs, it’s not about a bigger screen or better camera. Nope, the new B61-13 bomb(PDF), with its increased accuracy and bigger boom than the ones it is replacing, will give presidents “additional options against certain harder and large-area military targets,” the Pentagon said October 27. The new bomb will be built from the nuclear guts of older bombs, meaning the new bombs will not, um, yield an increase in the number of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The Bunker has always gotten a kick out of how the Defense Department justifies its atomic ardor. “The B61-13 represents a reasonable step to manage the challenges of a highly dynamic security environment,” John Plumb, assistant defense secretary for space policy, said. The Pentagon’s purported rationale is to make its nuclear arsenal so scary that no foe will challenge it — assuming such a foe is rational, that such thermonuclear tweaks will make a difference, and that mistakes go unmade.

Unfortunately, the dark art of nuclear deterrence has calcified into dogma. Neither atomic hawks nor doves are satisfied with the new weapon. Top Republicans on the House and Senate armed services committees were not impressed. “While we welcome the step of creating a variant of the B61, which will better allow the Air Force to reach hardened and deeply-buried targets, it is only a modest step in the right direction,” Rep. Mike Rogers (AL) and Roger Wicker (MS) said in a joint statement. “Dramatic transformation of our deterrent posture — not incremental or piecemeal changes — is required to address this threat.”

Likewise, color the anti-atomic crowd skeptical. “Although government officials insist that the B61-13 plan is not driven by new developments in adversarial countries or a new military targeting requirement, increasing the accuracy of a high-yield bomb obviously has targeting implications,” Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists point out. “Detonating the weapon closer to the target will increase the [probability] that the target is destroyed, and a very hard facility could hypothetically be destroyed with one B61-13 instead of two B61-12s.”

Yep, sounds just like the new iPhone — the iPentagon plans on doing more with less.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

 Sneak Peek

Colleague Dan Grazier here at the Center for Defense Information got a copy of a tightly-held Pentagon report pitting the F-35 fighter against the A-10 close-air-support warbird. Originally classified SECRET, his October 30 piece reveals that the F-35 is hardly the wonder weapon originally peddled when it comes to protecting ground troops.

 Collateral damage

Francis P. Sempa reviewed retired Army Major General Gregg Martin’s book on his battle with bipolar disorder, which Martin believes was triggered while serving in Iraq, October 25 at Real Clear Defense.

 Ties that bind

Google and Microsoft are making major investments in underseas cables and cloud computing in a push to knit Australia and Pacific island nations closer to the U.S. instead of China, Colin Clark reported October 26 at Breaking Defense.

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