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The Bunker: Snipping Trade Ties to Tame Tyrants

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: Trying to tame (some) bullies by cutting trade ties with them; the Marines complain the Navy wants to mothball the ships it needs to patrol the seas; after years of debate, those Army posts named for Confederates will soon be history; and more.

DISENTANGLING ALLIANCES

Trying to tame war machines through trade

Even as shards of the Kerch Bridge, Vladimir Putin’s vital link between Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, fell into the Black Sea October 8, the U.S. was blowing up connections between itself and assorted sordid suppliers.

The Pentagon branded Chinese drone-maker DJI a “Chinese military company” on October 5, which could lead to curbs on its U.S. trade. The company, founded in 2006, accounts for more than half of the drones sold worldwide. “The Department is determined to highlight and counter the PRC Military-Civil Fusion strategy, which supports the modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by ensuring its access to advanced technologies and expertise are acquired and developed by PRC companies, universities, and research programs that appear to be civilian entities,” the Defense Department said. DJI (surprise!) disputed the charge. The Secret Service and FBI have bought DJI drones, which the Pentagon said last year “pose potential threats to national security.”

Of course, DJI isn’t just another drone builder. “DJI is undoubtedly the most famous drone brand today and has a dominant role in the global drone market,” according to a March analysis of the drone biz. “It is also one of the most globally influential Chinese companies and a representative of the tech industry in China.”

Two days after the Pentagon’s DJI announcement, the U.S. imposed significant new curbs affecting China’s microchip production, kneecapping its ability to fabricate supercomputers and the weapons they require. “Our actions will protect U.S. national security,” the Commerce Department said as it released the new restrictions (PDF).The same day, a new cobalt mine opened in Idaho, marking the first U.S. source of the key element for electric vehicle batteries in 30 years. “Most of the cobalt mined in the world today comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are widespread child labor and other human rights problems,” NPR reported. “Most of its production goes to China, which also controls most cobalt refining globally.”

Severing such commercial transactions can lead to a healthier, less combative world — unless it cleaves the globe into warring camps that eventually will lead to bigger wars. It's like the flawed U.S. forest fire-fighting policy that for decades has sought to extinguish small forest fires, eventually allowing dead trees and kindling to build up and fuel monstrous conflagrations.

Of course, some trade seems sacrosanct. Vladimir Putin pushed for a production cut as a way of boosting the price of oil, a major source of funding for his war in Ukraine. After Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined their OPEC partners October 5 in slashing oil production by 2 million barrels a day — about 2% of global petroleum production — three Democratic lawmakers proposed yanking (PDF) U.S. troops and missile-defense systems from the Middle Eastern nations. Other lawmakers are pushing to cut U.S. arms shipments to Saudi Arabia. (Washington provided the kingdom, its biggest foreign customer, with 73% of its imported weapons between 2015 and 2019.) And on October 10, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared that “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including any arms sales and security cooperation beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend U.S. personnel and interests.”

But unlike that damaged span between Russia and Crimea, such proposals — being weighed by President Biden — are likely simply a bridge too far. China is a threat, after all, while Saudi Arabia is just a gas pump willing to spend billions on U.S. arms.

THE MARINES’ UBER FLEET

Leathernecks upset over Navy mothballing plan

While the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier keeps a watchful eye off the coast of North Korea as Pyongyang launches barrages of missiles into the Pacific, the U.S. Marines are going to war with the U.S. Navy. That’s because the Navy is rushing to decommission a fleet of amphibious ships the Marines say they need to ferry troops to global hotspots, Megan Eckstein reported in Defense News October 4.

Even though some of the 10 Amphibious Dock Landing ships have more than a decade of life left, the Navy wants to retire them prematurely and use the savings for higher-tech weapons to battle prospective foes like China. Each amphib, operated by 400 sailors, patrols the world’s oceans with its cargo of 400 Marines, primed for action.

“These legacy ships are in poor material condition due to their age and require significant resources to continue to maintain and operate them,” the Navy says. “Shifting resources to other capabilities better supports the amphibious fleet, and provides more operational capability to the Navy and Marine Corps in support of the National Defense Strategy.”

That language comes from an internal budget memo. Any Pentagon old salt can read between the lines: legacy weapons are bad (although that describes most of what the Pentagon buys) and National Defense Strategy is good (although the Biden administration has yet to release one). Unfortunately we are already spending nearly $300 million to upgrade and revitalize one of those amphibs, even as the Navy proposes getting it ready for mothballs.

DIDN’T HURT A BIT

No more Confederate names for Army posts

With a scrawl of his pen (PDF) October 6, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assigned more than 1,000 names honoring rebel traitors on U.S. military bases to the ashcan of history. After years of debate and scrutiny by a congressional commission, Austin approved the panel’s recommendations and ordered the military to change their names by 2024. While most of the names are emblazoned on streets and buildings, the most significant are the nine Army forts named in honor of Confederate military officers: A.P. Hill, Benning, Bragg, Gordon, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk, and Rucker.

“The names of these installations and facilities should inspire all those who call them home, fully reflect the history and the values of the United States, and commemorate the best of the republic that we are all sworn to protect,” Austin said.

Good riddance.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Back to the future…

The Pentagon is eyeing blimps, balloons, kites and (solar-powered) gliders to spy on the bad guys in the Middle East, Howard Altman reported at The War Zone October 10.

Retired general Michael Flynn…

…is a good reason to maintain that wall between church and state, according to this October 7 dispatch from the Associated Press (and maybe add some barbed wire on top).

Shopping list

Before heading out of town to campaign for re-election, senators added more than 900 amendments to next year’s pending defense policy bill. They’d add more than $100 billion to the Pentagon’s 2023 budget, Responsible Statecraft reported October 10. Only one amendment proposes major cuts.

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