The Bunker: The Pentagon Abhors a Vacuum

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

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 Threat Thread—threats, more threats, and missed threats (the yeast of our worries); defense contractors shifting focus from slow wars to fast weapons; no Bunker next week; and more.


The latest fire drill

It has been a bad week for military threats against the United States:

  • Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says China’s recent hypersonic-missile test is “very close” to a new “Sputnik moment.” A 4-year-old Bunker recalls that Russian satellite flying over his front yard, generating fear across the U.S.
  • Terror groups in Afghanistan could attack the U.S. next year, following the recent U.S. defeat there in the longest war in American history, a top Pentagon official told Congress October 26.
  • Iran was behind an October 20 drone attack on a U.S. base in Syria (we have a base in Syria?), U.S. officials have concluded, signaling a fresh escalation in Tehran-Washington tensions.
  • And, back to the Pentagon’s threat-du-jour, there is apparently little the U.S. can do if China tries to seize a small string of islands in the South China Sea currently administered by Taiwan, according to a war game (don’t you love that phrase?) conducted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “Such a scenario could be a prelude or pathway to war involving China, Taiwan, and the United States,” CNAS warns in an October 26 study.

You knew this was going to happen as soon as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sputtered out; the Pentagon abhors a vacuum. But here’s the thing: there will always be threats. It will always be in someone’s interest to inflate those threats. And there will always be those in the grandstands cheering them on, convinced that military might is synonymous with greatness. Much of America is infatuated with the chest-beating that comes with spending trillions on shiny ships, warplanes and tanks, and the sharp-stepping troops who operate them.

The press is hardly immune. Defense One’s daily news briefing appears under a THREATS heading (that story category comes first across the top of its homepage, along with others including POLICY, BUSINESS and SCIENCE & TECH). The biggest news radio station in D.C. has a weekly national security podcast called TARGET USA that’s routinely promoted over WTOP’s airwaves (“Whether its terrorists, anarchists, cyber criminals or nation states, America has a target on its back,” the station says). The staid New York Times’ website dedicated to military matters is called AT WAR (“News related to current conflicts, civil unrest and military action around the world,” the old gray soldier says). Even The Bunkerisn’t immune.

Hey, everybody: Relax. We need to stop mindlessly adding yeast to all these potential threats to make them rise. We need unleavened threats, not those puffed up with gaseous exaggerations.

New Chinese weapons are always hyped, with scant attention paid to China’s growing economic and demographic woes. Beyond that, China’s latest hypersonic breakthrough isn’t all that significant. “The technology is far less dangerous than it is often portrayed,” Stanford University nuclear weapons expert Sanne Verschuren writes. Fareed Zakaria agrees. “The Chinese test has nothing in common with Sputnik,” he says, “and claiming that it does feeds a dangerous paranoia growing in Washington these days.”

Don’t count on such sanity prevailing. In that same Sputnik interview, Milley made clear what the Chinese test means to him and his comrades: “We’re going to have to adjust our military going forward.” That’s Pentagon code for—wait for it—more money. After all, this new Wonder(Bread)(PDF) weapon could render the $400 billion the U.S. has spent on missile defenses impotent and obsolete(PDF).

Less yeast, please.


Return on investment AWOL

“Pentagon Allotted $23.3 Billion to Military Intelligence in 2021”

      — Headline atop a Bloomberg news story about this item, October 27

“Four U.S. Intelligence Agencies Produced Extensive Reports on Afghanistan, but All Failed to Predict Kabul’s Rapid Collapse”

      — Headline atop a Wall Street Journalnews story, the next day


“We’ve decided that failure is bad”

It’s always interesting to hear what senior U.S. military officers say as they get ready to hang up their uniforms after decades of service. In 1994, Air Force general Charles Horner, who oversaw the air campaign in the 1991 Gulf War, generated military heartburn when he said it was time to get rid of nuclear weapons. Two years later, recently retired Air Force general Lee Butler, once in charge of all U.S. nuclear forces, said the same thing.

That kind of attitude is pretty much MIA from the current brass. Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once held the same job as Butler. He’s leaving office November 20. But Hyten dropped no bombshells, nuclear or otherwise, during his October 28 exit interview with reporters.

He predictably denounced the Pentagon’s plodding procurement process and its excessive classification. But when it came to weapons, he, also predictably, turned his focus to that Chinese hypersonic missile test. “A test did occur. It is very concerning. But I can’t walk you through the specifics because all I know is the intel information,” he said. Over the past five years, the U.S. military has conducted nine hypersonic-missile tests while China has done hundreds. “Single digits versus hundreds,” he warned, “is not a good place.”

China has opted to try and fail when it comes to testing new arms, while “we’ve decided that failure is bad,” Hyten said. That supposed aversion to flunking, he added, has slowed defense procurement to a crawl. Apparently, that memo was missed by the Defense Department’s war-fighters, and developers of the multi-service F-35; the Navy’s Ford-class carrier, the Littoral Combat Ship, and the Zumwalt-class destroyer; the Marine’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle; and the Army’s Future Combat Systems, Bradley replacement, and Crusader howitzer.

“Nope, failure’s just part of the learning process,” Hyten explained. “And if you want to get back to speed, you better figure out how to put speed back into everything again. And that means taking risk, and that means learning from failures, and that means failing fast and moving fast. But we have not done that. This country better do that, or eventually–even though they’re behind–China will pass us.”

Pass the yeast, please.


Post-Afghanistan, defense contractors shift focus

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan is hurting the bottom lines of U.S. military contractors. “The pullout in Afghanistan, there's about a $75 million impact to full year revenue, not huge but meaningful,” Raytheon ($20.2 billion in defense contracts in 2020, #4 on the list of the Pentagon’s biggest contractors) CEO Greg Hayes (2020 compensation: $21 million) said October 26. “That will not recover, obviously. Those are services that we were providing to the U.S. government or the Afghan government prior to the pullout.”

Over at Lockheed (#1 on the Pentagon list in 2020, with $72.9 billion in contracts), sales declined due to “shifts in customer priorities driven by recent events, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan,” CEO James Taiclet (2020 compensation: $23 million) said two hours later. “The primary impact to us is in a contract of a special ops logistics support program…In total, it's about a $200 million year-over-year headwind.”

But don’t worry. That Chinese hypersonic test merely points the way to the Pentagon’s latest gold rush. “We are currently performing on six hypersonic programs across the company,” Lockheed’s Taiclet said. “And following the successful completion of ongoing testing and evaluation activity, multiple programs are expected to enter production between 2023 and 2026.”

Raytheon’s scramjet-powered Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) “successfully sustained hypersonic speeds, offering faster time on target and greater maneuverability,” Hayes said. “The successful test puts us on track to deliver a prototype system to the U.S. Department of Defense.”

Big defense contractors may not be able to speedily design agile and efficient weapons, but when it comes to profit, they’re as nimble as pirouetting pachyderms.


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

Gee, thanks…

The White House announced October 28 that U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly a half-billion-dollars in 2021 (so far) to deal with the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Afghanistan. It added that the sum is “the largest amount of assistance from any nation.” Well, we started it.

Dereliction of duty. Again.

H.R. McMaster achieved notice in defense circles in 1997 when, as an active-duty Army officer, he published Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam about how the U.S. got sucked into the war in Vietnam. He went on to become a three-star general and President Trump’s second national security adviser (he departed after the two clashed). Now he’s writing about Afghanistan. “The lost war in Afghanistan evokes memories of the lost war in Vietnam,” he said in National Review October 28. “The stain of a lost war that ended in ignominious surrender to a terrorist organization is an affront to the honor of those who fought in Afghanistan.”

Why we like Ike…

Four presidents fumbled that just-ended U.S. war in Afghanistan. But they had plenty of help from the military-industrial-congressional complex, as Marine vet and POGO colleague Dan Grazier explains in this November 1 piece. “The defense contractors, the military leaders who wanted to work for them, and the members of Congress who took campaign contributions from them were all just as much responsible for creating the conditions that led to our defeat as any occupant of the Oval Office,” he writes. Turns out President Eisenhower’s warning about their “unwarranted influence” is as true today as it was when he said it 60 years ago.

Tattoo fi

The Marines have scrapped their 15-year ban on sleeve and other tattoos, Marine Corps Times reported October 29. The corps said it acted after concluding its existing, more restrictive regulations that barred the arm-covering inkings “were believed to have an adverse effect on retention and recruiting efforts.”


Sixty years ago, when the Soviet Union detonated the true mother-of-all-atomic-bombs—3,333 times more powerful than the one that leveled Hiroshima—President Kennedy faced a grave choice: counter or cooperate? “He chose not only to ignore the military’s appeals for deadlier arms, but to sponsor and sign an East-West treaty that precluded more superweapons,” William Broad wrote in the October 30 New York Times. There are lessons there for dealing with today’s near-Sputnik moment.

On that hopeful note, thanks for reading The Bunker. We’re taking next week off, so we’ll take this opportunity to also thank all the nation’s veterans, who we’ll honor on November 11. See you in two weeks.