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 Military-Industrial Complex’s China con; the resulting Army push to remain relevant in the Pacific; lawmakers politicizing dissent in the ranks; green pilots killing greener pilots; & more.
THE PENTAGON’S CHINA SYNDROME
Spending for a war that never will be fought
Storm clouds are rolling in over the western Pacific, where both the U.S. and China are hinting at war over the democratic island of Taiwan. Communist Beijing deems it to be a renegade province—and one that Washington has kind of, sort of, suggested it might defend if China moves to retake it.
Both nations, of course, have robust nuclear arsenals. Any war between the U.S. and China could quickly go nuclear, accidentally or otherwise. So is there a chance of a nuclear war breaking out over Taiwan’s fate? Of course not—to do so would jeopardize the world’s two biggest economies, not to mention killing millions (The Pentagon did argue for atomic strikes on China 63 years ago, but this was conveniently six years before the mainland got its own A-bombs).
This is part of a Pentagon pattern. The U.S. waged the Cold War against an inflated Soviet threat for nearly a half-century until it collapsed. Then it exaggerated the war on terror for 20 years. Now, the Pentagon is focusing on China to ensure its continuing fiscal fortunes, even as both sides’ nuclear arsenals act as a brake on war. Frankly, if they don’t, we’re toast. Literally. That’s the focus of The Bunker’slatest Military-Industrial Circus.
Be careful about making too much of that new intelligence report on China’s nuclear-tipped hypersonic missile. China denies it (probably not true) and a U.S. lawmaker quoted in the piece says it shows the U.S. is on track to “lose the New Cold War with Communist China within the decade” (definitely not true). Besides, who you gonna believe: the Military-Industrial-Inferiority Complex, or The Bunker?
SPEAKING OF CHINA
The Army Turns Pacifist…umm, Pacificist
“Follow the money,” became a catchphrase in U.S. politics during the Watergate scandal nearly a half-century ago (yep, hard to believe for those of us like The Bunker who lived through it). It meant that political corruption can be sussed out by studying the flow of dollars among candidates, companies, and crooks. The same thing happens in the U.S. military. But it’s a double-bank shot when it comes to defense money: to follow the money, you have to follow the threatened threats.
Exhibit A is the U.S. Army’s push to play a major role in the possible coming Pacific war with a major Country Historically Instigating Naked Aggression. It was on full display during the recent annual confab of the Association of the United States Army, a nonprofit pro-Army outfit dedicated to ensuring the Army doesn’t get overly-snookered by the Marines. “One pacing challenge stands out above all, China, and we must transform to meet that challenge,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said during the conference’s first day October 11.
China has been following “an incremental and insidious path because of the actions and behaviors that they continue to pursue, and some of the destabilizing activities that they're involved in, in the region,” Army General Charles Flynn, the Army’s top officer in the Pacific, said the next day. But isn’t the Pacific, like, mostly water? “There is, when you look at a map, an awful lot of sea [NAVY ALERT!] and air [AIR FORCE ALERT!] in that part of the region. But I don't want to miss the fact that more than half the globe's population lives in that region,” Flynn said. “And when I say that those people, they live on the land.”
Land, of course = Army.
Think of it as the Pentagon’s version of Earth, Wind and Fire.
The show featured dozens of new weapons designed to counter China, arrayed in Washington’s largest convention center. “It’s only 41 days since the last U.S. soldiers left Afghanistan, but walking around the exhibit hall at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, it’s abundantly evident the Army and hundreds of its arms makers have already put two decades of counterinsurgency behind them and are largely preparing for a completely different type of conflict,” Marcus Weisgerber, Defense One’s business editor, observed. “Gone are the robots designed to disable roadside bombs; here instead are long-range missiles, fast-flying hypersonic weapons, robotic tanks, and next-generation aircraft.”
Follow the money, indeed.
GOOD ORDER AND DISCIPLINE
Is politics breaking it down?
Autumn’s here, and winter’s coming. That’s bad for your house, where water can enter crevices and quickly turn into ice, splitting things apart. Same holds true over at the Pentagon. The latest example is the case of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller, who posted videos denouncing his chain of command after it fumbled the August withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Historically, military commanders worried about the impact on morale if those in uniform begin challenging their leaders publicly.
They’re likely dismayed to see some members of Congress embrace Scheller’s comments as handy weapons to bash the Biden administration. That embrace may continue to have a corrosive impact on maintaining an apolitical force, whose foundation is that sacred military phrase “good order and discipline.”
Three Republican House members—Louie Gohmert of Texas, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Ralph Norman of South Carolina—testified on Scheller’s behalf at his recent court-martial (he received a letter of reprimand and a $5,000 fine; Scheller has agreed to resign after 17 years of service). Greene testified that Biden should be impeached over the withdrawal; Gohmert focused on Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his clash with then-President Trump, Dan Lamothe reported in the Washington Post. Both, of course, had nothing to do with the charges brought against Scheller.
This seems to The Bunker to be a relatively recent phenomenon. There has always been healthy public political discord on Capitol Hill over military policy and operations. But it became a baldly partisan political weapon in 2012 when Libyan rebels stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. President Trump poured fuel on the fire in 2019 when he sabotaged the Navy’s prosecution of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher in connection with the death of an insurgent in Iraq two years earlier. And now we have lawmakers politicizing an active-duty Marine’s criticisms of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
An Air Force investigation(PDF) released October 7 found the crash of an Air Force T-38 trainer earlier this year was caused by a rookie pilot and his rookie instructor pilot. Both died in the crash. It turns out the instructor pilot was a First Assignment Instructor Pilot—a so-called FAIP. In other words, his initial assignment after training was to train even newer pilots. The Air Force believes this makes sense. But critics weighed in after Stephen Losey wrote about the accident at Military.com:
-- “1st Lt's should not be Instructor pilots. They have not the maturity nor experience to perform this job as safely as more experienced pilots.”
-- “I never thought much of the FAIP (first assignment instructor pilot) program. It is asking a lot for pilots that have just finished flight school to turn around and instruct brand new students.”
-- “It worked when there was a wartime pilot shortage, but we ain't in WWII anymore. All the other services dropped FAIPs. Except the Air Force.”
Flying—especially military flying—is a dangerous business, as The Bunker has reported on for years. But it’s hard to understand this kind of training, given the military’s repeated pledges to do all it can to keep its people alive.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
What’s the possible downside of speeding up decision-making regarding the use of nuclear weapons in our new digital world? Inter-connectedness is not necessarily a good thing, James Johnson, a professor of strategic studies at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, wrote in an October 13 piece at West Point’s Modern War Institute website. “Sowing public fear, creating distrust in the robustness of nuclear launch protocols, and threatening a rival leader’s reputation as a strategic decision maker risk escalating the likelihood of war,” he said. “Ultimately, states’ willingness to engage in nuclear brinkmanship will depend on intelligence, mis- or disinformation, cognitive bias, and perception of, and the value attached to, what is at stake.”
An airman at Little Rock Air Force base in Arkansas faces a $19,000 bill after one of the base’s emergency barriers popped up while his car was driving over it, Task & Purpose reported October 18. Same thing happened at the Pentagon—twice—20 years ago. It’s a safe bet U.S. taxpayers footed the bill for damage done to those two cars, carrying the German and Japanese defense ministers.
Melissa Hemphill was a pregnant third-year cadet at the Air Force Academy in 2009 facing a tough choice if she wanted to stay in the Air Force: terminate her right as a parent, or terminate her pregnancy. She and her now-husband spent nearly $20,000 in legal fees to save their child and Air Force careers. They severed their parental rights, then adopted their own child after Hemphill took a year-long leave to give birth to their son, Oliver. “At the time, the shamed and critical voice in my head told me I deserved this treatment,” she wrote in the Washington Post October 15.” It felt like penance for having conceived a child both prior to marriage and while attending a military academy. What I have learned since then is that no one deserves the outcomes of this policy.” The policy remains in place. Senators Ted Cruz, R-TX, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, are seeking to terminate it.
Colin Powell and Megan Rice fought for their ideals. Powell, the brass-breaking first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser, and secretary of state, came up with the so-called Powell doctrine, as this editorial in the October 19 Washington Post notes. It demanded war as a last resort, and only when the U.S. had a clear, achievable, objective. It’s too bad the retired four-star Army general helped fumble the U.S. into invading Iraq under false pretenses, with no clear endgame. He was 84 when he died October 18.
Rice was a Roman Catholic nun who went to prison for two years after breaking into a U.S. nuclear-weapons facility to protest the existence of such weapons. She died, at 91, on October 10, per her obituary in the New York Times. Those, briefly put, are the lessons of their well-lived lives. We ignore their legacies at our peril.
Thanks for flying with The Bunker this week. Please forward on to those who you think it might drive up the wall.