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The Bunker: Star Creep

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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: polishing the Pentagon brass—and there’s lots of it; the U.S. public’s confidence in the military slides post-Afghanistan; the services seek missions and money to deal with China; and more.

BRASSO

Inflation in the officer corps

It was great that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) looked into the makeup of those who wear the U.S. military uniform. But it issued a pair of stand-alone reports, basically a census of the Pentagon’s officer(PDF) and enlisted(PDF) ranks, without comparing them to each other (enlisted troops are 82% of those in uniform; officers are the other 18%).

So contrasting those numbers falls to The Bunker. Each report tallies up how many personnel, and at what rank, each service had as of September 30. It’s another opportunity to see just how top-heavy the U.S. military is.

The number of enlisted troops commanded by a single officer has dropped steadily since World War I. Back then, an Army officer led 14.3 soldiers (not literally, of course; these are averages). By World War II, that fell to 10.6. A Cold War Army officer had 6.7 grunts under him; by 2000 there was one officer per 5.2 soldiers. That number has continued to slide, dropping 35% over the past 30 years.

As of September 30, thanks to that pair of CRS reports, we know that an Army officer now commands 4.2 troops. The current ratio in the Navy is one officer per 5.1 sailors; in the Air Force it’s one officer for 4.1 enlisted Air Force personnel; and the Marines have one officer per 7.3 grunts. The ratio is higher in the Marines because its hierarchy is the flattest (i.e., fewer commanders) and its members are the youngest, with many serving only a single term of enlistment. The Navy and Air Force sail and fly advanced weapons, which boosts the number of officers (Air Force pilots, for example, must be officers). And the Army—easily the biggest service—has the infrastructure common to any gargantuan bureaucracy. That includes plenty of bosses. Across all four services, each officer commands an average of only 4.7 enlisted troops.

It's even worse when you focus on generals and admirals, as a Marine colonel did in the Pentagon’s own Joint Forces Quarterly publication. But his observations apply just as well to all officers. “This development represents ‘rank creep’ that does not enhance mission success but clutters the chain of command, adds bureaucratic layers to decisions, and costs taxpayers additional money from funding higher paygrades to fill positions,” Gregory McCarthy wrote in 2017 while deployed to Africa. “Although historical numbers are inexact guides and future threats could radically change circumstances, the case for reduction is strong.”

Even Bunker boss Danielle Brian thinks the officer ranks are flabby. “The Pentagon uses officer inflation as one way to justify a bloated defense budget,” she said. “We have more officers than we need—and we're running the risk of creating a military force of bureaucrats rather than warriors.”

She said that in…1998, three years before we invaded Afghanistan. That 20-year war ended, in humiliating defeat, for a U.S. military larded with far more pencil-pushers than trigger-pullers.

DEFEATS HAVE CONSEQUENCES

Public confidence in U.S. military keeps dropping

Everyone loves a winner. That undoubtedly plays a role in a new survey of more than 2,500 Americans showing their confidence in the U.S. military has taken a drubbing since the U.S. left Afghanistan last summer. In November, only 45% said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the U.S. military. It’s the lowest point in a steady slide that stood at 70% in November 2018, 63% in October 2019, and 46% in February 2021. That 25-point drop from 2018 to last month translates into a 36% decline in those with great confidence in the U.S. armed forces.

The grim results come from the latest National Defense Survey(PDF) from the Ronald Reagan Institute (not necessarily a neutral arbiter, mind you). “For the first time in our survey, a minority of Americans—only 45%—report having a great deal of trust and confidence in the military,” it said in a summary of its findings(PDF). “After 20 years of American involvement in Afghanistan,” it added later in the report, “almost 6 in 10 (59%) believe the war there was a failure, up almost 10 points since February.”

But the Pentagon is hardly alone. The survey shows that over the same three years, Americans with a “great deal” of confidence in the police, the presidency, the press, and the Supreme Court also fell. But none fell as far as the military. That’s because, even in the latest data, the military ranks far higher than any of those institutions. One bit of good news: the share of those surveyed expressing a “great deal” of confidence in the U.S. Congress jumped by 20%...from 5% to 6%.

The Bunker is gob-smacked that those surveyed now believe that the biggest danger the U.S. faces comes from their fellow citizens. “When asked if they think the greatest threats we face come from outside of the country or from within the country, 41% think they come from within, which is up 5 points since February 2021,” the poll summary said. “Another 30% believe we face equal threats at home and abroad, which is also up 5 points since February. Only one in four (25%) think the greatest threats come from outside the country, which is down 10 points since February.”

“Only one in four (25%) think the greatest threats come from outside the country.The Bunker has always believed the people are ahead of the politicians.

According to the survey, the public is evenly split on whether the U.S. is spending the right amount of money on its military: 26% say the U.S. is spending too much; 27% say the U.S. is spending too little; 39% say the U.S. is spending about the right amount.

A lot of that support for increased high levels of defense spending comes from the China closet. Asked what nation they see as the “greatest threat” to the U.S., it’s no surprise, given the Pentagon’s PR push, that Beijing comes out on top. It is rising steadily up the charts, from 21% in 2018, to 28% in 2019, to 37% in February, to 52% in November.

No. 1 with the bullets, you might say.

FIGHTING CHINA

U.S. services ready for war

Speaking of China, all four U.S. military services are doing their due diligence when it comes to what they increasingly see as an all-but-inevitable war with the rising superpower. Given the vast distances of the western Pacific—where the Navy and Air Force would do most of the fighting—the ground-pounding Army and Marines are busy reinforcing their relevance.

“China's focus on modernizing its military capabilities will strengthen its ability to coerce Taiwan and rival claimants in territorial disputes, project power globally, and counter interventions along the PRC's (the People's Republic of China) periphery,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said December 1. “They have missiles that can reach U.S. bases in Japan and Guam, exposing our planes and runways to attack.”

She says one of her service’s key roles would be to thwart such attacks. “The Army will establish, build up, secure, and protect staging areas and joint operating bases for air and naval forces in theater,” she said. In other words, the Army will serve as the supporting “tail” to the Air Force’s and Navy’s fighting “teeth.” But the Army will bring some of its own teeth to the fight. “Using our long-range hypersonic weapons, mid-range capability and precision strike missiles—all of which we will begin fielding in fiscal year 2023—we will be able to interdict fires across sea lines of communication, suppress enemy air defenses and provide counter fires against mobile targets,” the Army’s first female civilian leader said. Color The Bunker skeptical on two counts: that war will come and, if, God forbid, it does, that such weapons will perform as advertised.

The very same day, the Marines issued a blueprint for what it calls “Stand-in Forces” (SIF), highlighting the corps’ value “below the threshold of violence.” SIFs “are small but lethal, low signature, mobile, relatively simple to maintain and sustain forces designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area as the leading edge of a maritime defense-in-depth in order to intentionally disrupt the plans of a potential or actual adversary.” And who might that be? “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the pacing challenge for the joint force,” the Marines say(PDF). “The PRC seeks to apply its growing strength, recognizing the fallacy of consensus and using coercion to compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences, including its claims over disputed territory and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan.”

The Air Force and Navy don’t have to work so hard to justify their role in any Chinese war, given what would be their central role in any such conflict. “If it doesn’t threaten China, why are we doing it?” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall asked December 4. He urged lawmakers to stop thwarting the service’s desire to retire “old iron” like A-10 attack planes and MQ-9 Reaper drones to free up funding for more advanced warplanes like the F-35.

For its part, the Navy is doubling down on the value of its $20 billion aircraft carriers (including planes) for any confrontation with China. That sails pitch comes even as Beijing has developed carrier-killing missiles that threaten the big ships’ role in the region. U.S. Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, chief of the U.S. 7th Fleet, said November 30 that the U.S. and its allies should double their flattop fleet in the western Pacific if push comes to shooting. Four carriers, including two from the U.S. and one each from Britain and Japan, participated in a 10-day exercise off the Chinese coast. The flotilla represented “an incredible amount of power,” Thomas told the Wall Street Journal after the war game ended. But the three-star officer said it isn’t sufficient. “When we think about how we might fight, it’s a large water space, and four aircraft carriers is a good number, but six, seven or eight would be better.”

All of this makes perverse sense if you think a war with China is coming, and that it’s going to be like past wars. Alas, that rarely proves to be the case, but the U.S. military refrains from original thinking until it’s too late (cf., Afghanistan). “Like most entrenched institutions, the U.S. military and its adjuncts, the think tanks and university research institutions, form a fraternity that protects its own credibility,” analyst David P. Goldman wrote in the December 6 Asia Times. He also might have added a too-credulous press to his list of accomplices.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Arms ‘R’ All of Us

The COVID-19 pandemic might have been bad for lots of businesses, but the global arms trade continued to hum along even as 5 million perished due to the virus. “Sales of arms and military services by the industry’s 100 largest companies totaled $531 billion in 2020—an increase of 1.3 per cent in real terms compared with the previous year,” the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported December 6. Since 2018, SIPRI reports, the top five arms sellers have all been U.S. companies.

Taking the Hill…

Confusion continues to swirl about the role and responsiveness of the U.S military to that unpleasantness on Capitol Hill January 6. “A former D.C. National Guard official is accusing two senior Army leaders of lying to Congress and participating in a secret attempt to rewrite the history of the military's response to the Capitol riot,” Politico reported December 6. They say battle plans never survive contact with the enemy. Sometimes, it turns out, neither do the ensuing accountability tug-of-wars. The fact that neither Congress nor the press can hammer out the truth on an anvil of objectivity is mighty distressing. The Bunker has no idea why we tolerate such balderdash.

Culture war

The Navy’s traditional “can-do” culture can’t, Navy Lieutenant Jeff Zeberlein argues in the December issue of Proceedings, the independent naval journal. “The Navy cannot continue the status quo of a can-do culture that constantly appeals to a sense of patriotism and duty for short-term needs,” the F-18 pilot says. The Bunker couldn’t have said it better itself. Well, actually it did, last year, when we noted the poor performance of the Navy’s four shipyards: “Part of the problem is the military’s can-do culture. When it comes to the Navy, sometimes admirals have to simply say ‘no.’”

About time

The Army and its industrial partners “have faith” that their latest try to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle is going to pay off, National Defense reported December 3. “Rather than forcing contractors to meet a list of requirements, the Army is simply asking defense companies to bring their capabilities to the table,” the magazine, published by and for the defense industry, said (sounds ominous, no?). Well, it can’t come a moment too soon. Last year The Bunkerdetailed the snafus and screwups that doomed the first three tries since 1999 to build a new infantry fighting vehicle.

Feeling safer now?

The Pentagon’s newest nuclear bomb has entered production, Aaron Mehta of Breaking Defense reported December 3. Well, technically the $8.4 billion B-61-12 program is merely an “upgrade,” to keep arms controllers, opposed to a brand-new nuclear weapon, less unhappy than they would otherwise be. “We’re delivering a system to the Department of Defense that improves accuracy and reduces yield with no change in military characteristics, while also improving safety, security and reliability,” Jill Hruby, who oversees nuclear-weapons production, said. If that described a car, you can bet it would be sold as a new model.

Taps…

As the nation observed the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, the Pentagon ended its effort to name unidentified sailors who perished aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma. The six-year program identified nearly all of those who had been buried anonymously in Hawaii. Only 33 of the 429 killed that day remain unknown but to God, and they were reinterred on December 7 in Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the “Punchbowl,” Michael E. Ruane reported in the Washington Post that day. It may be just a coincidence, but The Bunker wonders if the Pentagon delayed its announcement until after the December 5 death of World War II soldier Bob Dole at 98. Grievously wounded in Italy in 1945, Dole went on to serve as a Republican senator from Kansas from 1969 to 1996, as the GOP’s 1996 presidential candidate, and as a driving force to build the World War II memorial on the National Mall. Well done, Lieutenant Dole.

On those apt but solemn notes, The Bunker wraps up for the week. Forward on to your friends, and sign up here for email delivery.