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The Bunker: The Big “D”

This week in The Bunker: The amorphous elixir that fuels defense spending; the amorphous crowd that puts its pedal to the metal to make it happen; the latest non-amorphous cry for more, more, more; and, of course, more. 

The Bunker logo, done in military stencil, in front of the Pentagon building

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: The amorphous elixir that fuels defense spending; the amorphous crowd that puts its pedal to the metal to make it happen; the latest non-amorphous cry for more, more, more; and, of course, more.


A gravitational force for more spending

Humans can be so stupid when it comes to conflict. Few Pentagon concepts are as filled with gibberish jargon as “deterrence.” Air Force General Charles Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked March 28 about the U.S. military’s ability to deter war. “I’d say it’s pretty good, but I do believe it’s something we’ve got to continue to improve upon,” he said (PDF). “When you think about deterrence theory and the theory of deterrence, do we have the depth of knowledge that we had during the Cold War where you had people that really focused on deterrence? You’ve got to think about deterrence as a cognitive aspect. You're trying to convince somebody. And if you don’t understand how they think and operate, it’s hard to determine … You can’t deter what you don’t understand.”

O … kay.

This notion of deterrence is the, um, crystal-clear foundation upon which the U.S. military perpetually pushes for more money. The Army wants more deterrence, and so does the Navy. “Enhance Naval Deterrence, Near and Far,” Frank Pandolphe, a retired Navy vice admiral, writes in the latest Proceedings, an independent naval journal. “The United States has the technology, industrial power, and foreign partners needed to protect the peace,” he adds. “The question is whether it will move fast enough to raise the bar of deterrence before it is too late.”

Deterrence often refers to nuclear war. A-war theoreticians spin elaborate webs of what-ifs and now-whats to game out the chances of nuclear conflict and how to discourage it. “Weapons that leaders can employ selectively, both in number and physical effects, will be more likely to support deterrence signaling in crisis and limited conflict scenarios than weapons that are less discriminate,” ex-Pentagon nuclear official Matthew R. Costlow (you can’t make up these Dickensian names) wrote April 3 for the hawkish National Institute for Public Policy. “If the goal is to identify an adversary’s potential reasons for restraint and send deterrence signals tailored to reinforce those reasons for restraint, then U.S. leaders will be better served by a more diverse set of weapon types and characteristics.”

Bottom line: we need smaller nuclear weapons — like a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile — to credibly threaten adversaries with smaller nuclear wars.

All of this is way too forward looking. Far better for would-be-aggressors to check their rear-view mirrors and see how nations fare when they go to war. If recent examples — Russian invading Ukraine, and Afghanistan; Israel invading Gaza; Iraq invading Kuwait; the U.S. invading Afghanistan, and Iraq — don’t deter countries from going to war, nothing will. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.

Humans can be so stupid.


Where deterrence takes us

Even as U.S. defense spending, narrowly defined, approaches $1 trillion annually, some in Washington want more. For deterrence’s sake, of course. While the Pentagon spends more than the next 10 biggest militaries combined, there are those who believe that it’s insufficient. It’s helpful to think of military spending as a gateway drug for a certain kind of Washington denizen. You can’t become a member in good standing of The Blob (a Military-Industrial Complex in-law) without a roster of threats requiring ever more money to battle to a tie.

So what is The Blob (now a recurring phrase in national-security debates)? It could be a typical Defense Department acronym for the Pentagon itself: Big, Loud, Overbearing Bureaucracy. But it’s not. Political scientist Christopher Fettweis says The Blob has six major beliefs:

  • “The United States is the indispensable nation. It must lead the world.”
  • “The world is dangerous.”
  • “Our rivals are realists.”
  • “Robust U.S. engagement mitigates global turmoil.”
  • “Credibility is a valuable asset worth fighting for.”
  • “Dictators should not be appeased.”

These are, Fettweis says, “a set of widely held yet underexamined beliefs.”

Yet these are the tenets that have driven U.S. military spending since World War II. “U.S. policymakers for the last several decades have chosen to pursue, as a key element of U.S. national strategy, a goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia,” Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service says in a March 19 update (PDF) of his Defense Primer: Geography, Strategy, and U.S. Force Design (basically, a primer on why U.S. defense spending keeps climbing). “That U.S. policymakers for the past several decades have chosen to pursue, as a key element of U.S. national strategy, a goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia does not necessarily mean this goal was a correct one for the United States to pursue, or that it would be a correct one for the United States to pursue in the future.”

As Fettweis said, these are “underexamined beliefs.”


How much defense spending is enough?

So basically, the U.S. is building an armored house of cards. What’s amazing is how a growing slice of the Republican Party is now bowing before Russia, which drove U.S. defense spending between 1949 and 1991. At the same time, it’s calling for more defense spending. The Heritage Foundation wants to triple the rate of increase in the 2025 defense budget from President Biden’s proposed 1% hike to 3%. “While paying lip service to the concept of China as the primary challenge for the United States, the official request fails to align spending with strategy,” the conservative think tank said April 2. “Most egregiously, the request fails to procure the ships, aircraft, and munitions the military needs to deter China in the Indo-Pacific. It is, in a word, insufficient to keep the American people safe.”

The Bunker has no wisdom to impart on how to deter war. But it knows that the current path is globally unsustainable (PDF). And that we’re betting beyond common sense that nuclear war will never happen. Or, if it does, that the other side will be destroyed, more than we will be.

What we really need is something, or someone, to deter The Blob. Both at home, and ablob.


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

An offer the U.S. shouldn’t refuse

China has invited the U.S. and other nuclear states to hammer out a treaty pledging they would never use atomic weapons first against one another, W.J. Hennigan reported April 15 in the New York Times.

“Strategic narcissism”

The U.S. keeps “declaring victory, even though our enemies have not relented,” Will Selber wrote of what was once called the Global War on Terror in The Bulwark April 10.

“Can you hear me now?”

The Navy is now allowing recruits to use their own cell phones to call family and friends instead of Navy-provided pay phones, Heather Mongilio reported April 3 at the U.S. Naval Institute website.

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