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The Bunker: The Epitaph That Will Endure

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.

The Bunker takes a single week off to celebrate Independence Day and things start going haywire. First, we have the tragedy befalling Afghanistan as Donald Rumsfeld, who oversaw the first five years of that war, departs. Second, new satellite imagery suggests China is building more than 100 new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos. Finally, U.S. civil-military relations are heading to hell in a handbasket. All are signs of a tattered and tired U.S. national security state of confusion and befuddlement.


Afghanistan and Rumsfeld

The Bunker remembers traveling with then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld to Afghanistan early in 2002. It was shortly after the U.S. military had toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban government for sheltering Osama bin Laden as he plotted the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It felt good to be in “free Afghanistan,” Rumsfeld told cheering U.S. troops at Bagram air base. Nineteen years later, it is the U.S. that is finally free of Afghanistan.

The Americans abandoned that Bagram base last Thursday, July 1. Two days earlier Rumsfeld, 88, succumbed to cancer. The Taliban are roaringback.

Wartime defense secretaries generally don’t get formal epitaphs (although their eulogies range from negative to positive). For good or for ill, the wars they led become their legacy. And that puts Rumsfeld on the negative side of the ledger. He was convinced that new U.S. military technologies could lead to quick and easy victories on ancient battlefields. Despite Rumsfeld’s wishful thinking, it didn’t turn out that way. Sure, reporters enjoyed sparring with the bespectacled, bantam-like Rumsfeld during his second Pentagon tour from 2001 to 2006 (he served President Ford in the job for a year in 1976). But as the stalemated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ground on, President George W. Bush unceremoniously canned him after Democrats swept the 2006 midterm elections.

Before he crashed and burned, Rumsfeld blowtorched all who stood in his way—ranging from a pliable president to a soldier who just wanted to live. “You go to war with the Army you have,” Rumsfeld famously told that grunt, who complained of so-called “hillbilly armor” in Iraq in 2004, “not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It was vintage Rumsfeld: cutting, but also irrelevant. His successor, Robert Gates showed that by spending nearly $50 billion on 24,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles and ordering them rushed to the front lines to save U.S. lives. That’s a lot of money…unless it’s your kid.

The Bunker interviewed both Robert McNamara (defense secretary during the Vietnam war) and Rumsfeld. McNamara famously issued a book-length mea culpa for his role in backing the Vietnam war as defense secretary for JFK and LBJ. “I don't think the country has yet learned the lessons," he said when In Retrospect was published in 1995. “If it had, I wouldn't have written the book.” Rumsfeld apparently never picked up McNamara’s book and took a different tack. In his 2011 memoir, Known and Unknown, he shirked responsibility for the quagmires that both Afghanistan and Iraq had become on his watch. “The 815-page doorstop reminds me a lot of its author,” The Bunkerwrote when it was published. “It’s got an authoritarian edge and don’t-blame-me refrain to it that wears pretty thin, just as Rumsfeld did when he was running the Pentagon.”

Rumsfeld felt that if he spoke with conviction he could turn wishful thinking into reality. As the Afghan and Iraq wars dragged on, much of the military grumbled privately. But most saluted, while keeping their heads down—at least until they took their helmets off. While U.S. wars raged in far-off lands, what Americans learned about them came largely from the Pentagon podium. “This is the Donald Rumsfeld show,” The Bunker was quoted as saying in 2005.

Unfortunately, what began as “the Donald Rumsfeld show” in 2001 is now closing in Afghanistan to poor reviews. If Rumsfeld had declared victory that day, and brought the U.S. troops in Afghanistan home with him, he would have saved roughly $2 trillion and 2,000 American lives. Afghanistan could hardly be worse off than it is in 2021. Rumsfeld did much the same in Iraq. Now it increasingly appears that all that blood and treasure has been wasted.

That is the epitaph that will endure.


The start of a new nuclear arms race?

Last week U.S. analysts reported that China appears to be building more than 100 ICBM missile silos in a desert just south of Mongolia. It could represent a major increase in Beijing’s nuclear arsenal—and may bring Beijing into what had been a bilateral Cold War arms race.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has reigned as the world’s lone superpower for nearly three decades. But the U.S. didn’t seize the initiative stemming from that position of strength. Instead, it frittered away its standing with modest arms deals with Russia, a pair of failed wars, and an irrational lust for a missile defense system that has kept the military-industrial-complex pot boiling deep into the 21st Century.

But China has grown up, and it’s increasingly willing to throw its throw-weight around. Its economy will eclipse that of the U.S. in 2028, according to a recent analysis. While its nuclear arsenal remains far smaller than that of the U.S. and Russia, it is bound to keep growing (and it doesn’t take many nuclear blasts to ruin your entire day). Any nation threatening China “will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people," Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China and head of the nation’s Central Military Commission, said July 1. “We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will,” he added, a clear shot at the U.S. (while overlooking the Uyghurs of western China and residents of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet).

That same day, the U.S. Air Force announced a $2 billion contract to Raytheon to develop a new air-launched nuclear missile. That program, analysts warn, could make nuclear war between the U.S. and China more likely. And the trigger could be the tightening tug-of-war over Taiwan. On July 2, conservative columnist George Will said the U.S. should abandon its murky policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Instead, it should declare its willingness to go to war to defend the island nation, which mainland China sees as a renegade province.

The Bunker, perhaps like you, has been reading horrifying stories about the June 24 collapse of that condominium tower in Florida. Many of them detailed warning signs that could have averted the tragedy, if only they had been acted on promptly. The fear here is that we are moving toward a similar, albeit nuclear, outcome, mistakenly believing that yesterday’s policies will be good enough for tomorrow.


The National Guard’s two masters

Private interests are paying to dispatch South Dakota National Guardsmen to the southern border, as if they were rent-a-cops available to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, the National Guard as a whole is having trouble being paid the $521 million it says it spent defending the Capitol following the January 6 attack.

Technically speaking, this is what the poli-sci crowd terms “nuts.”

South Dakota GOP Governor Kristi Noem accepted private money—$1 million, reportedly from a Tennessee billionaire—to dispatch up to 50 Guard troops to the border. Texas Governor Gregg Abbott, also a Republican, sought such help to deal with non-U.S. citizens illegally crossing the nation’s southern border. GOP governors from Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio have also pledged to send troops to Texas. “This is unbelievably dangerous to think that rich people can start using the U.S. military to advance their objectives, independent of what the commander in chief and the secretary of defense think they ought to be doing,” Representative Adam Smith, D-WA, chairman of the armed services committee, said June 30.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, having each state decide how to defend a national border makes about as much sense as pitting each state against the other 49 for needed supplies during a pandemic.

Meanwhile, the chief of the National Guard said that his forces may not be able to respond to hurricanes and other disasters in August and September. It’s waiting for Congress to reimburse the Guard for the $521 million(PDF) it spent defending the Capitol after insurrectionists stormed it to protest Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. That half-billion-dollar shortfall “will have a very significant impact on National Guard readiness if we're not able to resolve that in a timely manner,” Army General Daniel Hokanson said June 23.

The National Guard serves state governors as well as the president. But when it becomes a political football, it serves no one.

So, just to sum up:

This perverse trifecta highlights just how adrift U.S. national security has been, and continues to be, since the Cold War ended 30 years ago. Political polarization and Cold War templates have sidelined imagination and grand innovations from the playing field. Too bad, it should go without saying, that this isn’t a game…


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

A lowered bar…

President Biden has eased rules on unilateral U.S. military strikes, the Washington Post reported July 1: “The U.S. will respond forcefully even if no American personnel are killed or injured, a lower bar for retaliation than was employed by the Trump administration, U.S. officials said.”

(National) Guard duty

Some National Guard troops want to keep what once were called “weekend warriors” on the sidelines in future U.S. wars—unless Congress declares war. Since 9/11, nearly half the U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan and Iraq have come from the reserve ranks, the PBS NewsHour reported July 5. Reserve forces have gone from being a “strategic reserve” for active duty units to a vital cog in the U.S. war machine over the past 20 years. Backers of curbing the Guard’s role in future wars seek “to obligate the federal government to obey the U.S. Constitution before sending our sons and daughters to fight more endless wars.”

Changing times?

The Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services may be history, Hope Hodge Seck of noted June 24. The panel—informally called “DACK-oh-witz” because of its acronym—has been around for 70 years to address the ever-growing role of women in the military. Its possible demise, possibly into a broader diversity group, attests to the integration of women in the ranks. But some fear it’s too early to abandon such a female-specific group.

The B-52 Centurion

New B-52 engines could keep the venerable bomber flying for a century, Tara Copp reported June 30 at Defense One. “It was designed with a lot of structural margin,” a Boeing official said. The Bunker thinks that should be built into a lot more weapons.

New flight rules?

Pilots can fly using Visual Flight Rules (VFR) when the weather is nice, or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), when it’s not. Unfortunately, an Air Force pilot chose to fly using SOTPFR (Seat-of-the-Pants Flight Rules) when he crashed his T-38 trainer, Greg Hadley of Air Force Magazine reported July 1. The February accident happened at a California airport when the pilot relied on his “‘seat of the pants’ feeling” to determine if his T-38 was airborne after a “touch-and-go” maneuver. That’s when an airborne plane’s landing gear briefly touches down on the runway before zooming back into the air. Unfortunately, the pilot prematurely retracted the landing gear “prior to checking the engine instruments,” the official investigation into the crash concluded. That ultimately led the plane to skid on its belly along the runway for more than half a mile and triggered a hydraulic fire, that caused $3 million in damage. Both pilots safely escaped, pants and all.

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