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The Bunker: Putin’s Hollow Nuclear Saber-Rattling

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: Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons offers a lesson to the world’s atomic powers; U.S. troops get financial aid; latest Pentagon weapons-cost report missing weapons cost; and more.

NUCLEAR F/UTILITY (With the emphasis on the “F/U”)

Atomic arms are over-rated

The last time an atomic weapon was used in war was August 9, 1945. That was nearly 30,000 days ago. It succeeded in halting a world war. But as Vladimir Putin’s veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in or around Ukraine makes clear, that may be the last time they worked.

The “Little Boy” that destroyed Hiroshima, and the “Fat Man” that wiped out Nagasaki three days later were unique because the U.S. had an A-bomb monopoly. Plus, they worked. As World War II drew to a close, nuclear bombs were wonder weapons. But today they’re wonder-why-we’d-ever-use-them weapons. Mutually Assured Destruction worked for the U.S. and Soviet Union because they were the two lone nuclear superpowers and were led by rational actors. Both linchpins have rusted way.

Nothing illustrates that better than the futility of Putin’s nuclear threat. He could use nuclear weapons in two ways. Putin could bomb NATO supply hubs in Poland and Romania into oblivion, choking off the vital IV transfusing arms into Ukraine from the U.S. and its allies. But assuming he’s not suicidal (admittedly, an increasingly weak assumption), he won’t do that. Secondly, he could strike targets inside Ukraine. But he won’t gain anything by doing that, either. Turning Ukrainian cities and/or military depots into smoking cinders hardly comports with Putin’s claim that Ukrainians want to join Mother Russia. Such strikes could also poison Russians as atomic fallout drifts east. Beyond that, using nuclear weapons to prevail in a war that could not be won conventionally would sear a dangerous precedent into realpolitik. And Putin believes that so long as he keeps his nuclear weapons in their holsters, the West will cut him slack.

Going nuclear would doom Putin and his country to global opprobrium that would envelop a post-Putin Russia for decades. While Putin may be growing increasingly delusional, it’s unlikely every link in his chain of command, and the Russian government, are. “He is a psychopath and does not care what happens to us all, to our economy, to our future,” Anton Shalaev said after he and his IT colleagues fled their comfortable Moscow life to set up shop in Armenia. “My only hope,” he toldThe Atlantic, “is that he has some instinct for self-protection that will stop him from nuking us all.”

Nuclear arms also have been eclipsed by ever-more accurate conventional weapons. “In World War II it could take 9,000 bombs to hit a target the size of an aircraft shelter. In Vietnam, 300,” an Air Force official said in 1991(PDF).“Today we can do it with one laser-guided munition.” Even the U.S. military’s dumb bombs can be smartened by bolting GPS-guided fins on their tails to guide them within yards of their targets. Beyond Armageddon, nuclear weapons have no real military utility.

All of this renders huge nuclear stockpiles (Russia with 6,257; the U.S., 5,550; and China, 350; top the list) stupid and dangerous. The Great Powers will never engage in nuclear war (if they do, Heaven help us). Yet the more nuclear weapons there are, overseen by nations and nuts, the greater a chance of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. Put bluntly, there will be no winner if heavily armed nuclear states launch an atomic war. Their luck at dancing along the nuclear tightrope cannot last. And smaller states need to be put on notice that they will cease to exist if they use nuclear weapons.

Given that the best that can be hoped for is a showdown that ends in a standoff, either dead or alive, the U.S., China, and — yes — Russia should shrink their nuclear stockpiles toward the vanishing point. If, in the final fissile analysis, the world is going to be consumed by atomic fire, there’s no need to put a blowtorch to the conflagration.

PENTAGON SPENDING, PART 1

Troops crushed by inflation getting reinforcements

The world’s most costly military isn’t paying its troops enough, according to the Pentagon. That’s why the Defense Department is rolling out a bevy of expanded benefits for some U.S. troops and their families. U.S. military personnel, depending on how much they earn, where they live, and how big their families are, will pocket up to $30,000 more each year.

“You’ll see prices drop by 25 percent” at the Defense Department’s 236 on-base grocery stores, compared to off-post outlets, Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said September 22. “Families who spend $200 per week at the commissary can expect to save $50 on the most commonly purchased groceries,” a Pentagon fact sheet said(PDF).

Troops are worth every penny. But the average enlistee already makes more than 85% of their civilian counterparts.

PENTAGON SPENDING, PART 2

Bottom line MIA

Unlike the hoopla surrounding the increased troop benefits — a pair of press conferences, fact sheets, a memo(PDF) from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — the next day only silence greeted the Pentagon’s announcement of how much its weapons cost. Part of that was because the Defense Department posted its newest Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs) late Friday, September 23 — the perfect moment for generating no news.

Tracing weapons’ costs has never been easy, and now it’s getting harder. The Bunker recalls lengthy SARs being issued quarterly decades ago. It can’t confirm that recollection because so much of what the Pentagon produced beyond the recent past — including press releases, transcripts, reports — isn’t available online. The cynical Bunker thinks this is a plot; the sunshiny Bunker knows it’s mere complacency.

Anyway, the Defense Department now issues SARs only once a year. And this newest one doesn’t offer taxpayers the total cost of the weapons the Pentagon is buying — unlike those issued in 2019 ($2.02 trillion), 2017 ($1.75 trillion), 2015 ($1.64 trillion) and 2013 ($1.62 trillion).

Of course, you can haul out your nuclear-powered calculator and add them up yourself. But here’s a safe bet: unlike military groceries, they’re not 25% cheaper.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Moon Shot

The U.S. Army was trying to figure out how to win a war on the Moon, even as it was preparing to lose one in Vietnam, Nicholas Slayton wrote September 24 at Task & Purpose.

“Tailhook” happened 31 years ago

Despite decades of efforts, the Navy says sexual assault in its ranks continues to grow, which is why it is hiring 225 new sexual-assault prevention workers, the USNI blog reported September 22, more than three decades after widespread sexual assaults at a Navy aviators’ convention in Las Vegas.

Newest service gets song

The U.S. Space Force has produced its official song, “Semper Supra” (it starts at 1:45 in the video linked above). Reviews have been mixed, as The Guardiannoted September 20.

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