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The Bunker: The Show's On!

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 STAGE IS SET

What might November’s election mean for national security?

Republicans and Democrats have formally nominated current President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden as their standard-bearers. So what’s that going to mean for U.S. national security? Certainly, continued unilateralism by the U.S. if Trump prevails, or a return to greater multilateralism if Biden comes up on top.

But the crude proxies we often tally when assessing the U.S. military—dollars, troops and weapons—aren’t likely to change dramatically. While Trump never stops boasting of how he has “rebuilt” the U.S. military, most of what has happened on his watch stemmed from decisions taken by his predecessor, who just happened to be Biden’s boss. Like aircraft carriers, defense production or force structure can’t turn on a dime.

Where Trump has made a difference is in tone—criticizing the NATO alliance and allies for not spending enough while cozying up to autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, China’s Xi Jinping (at least until that deadly pandemic cooled their relationship), and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. It seems like the only enemy shared by Trump and Obama was Iran (and for good reasons, mind you, although Trump leapfrogged ahead in animosity when he pulled out of the multinational 2015 accord with Iran designed to crimp its nuclear-weapons ambitions in 2018, and ordered the killing of Qasem Soleilami, Tehran’s terrorist-in-chief, in January).

More than 70 GOP nat-sec sages recently signed a letter saying they will vote for Biden over their party’s nominee. There was a similar letter in 2016, but it seemed to have had little impact. Many Trump backers seem so ticked at what passes for the Republican establishment these days—and after their flawed invasion of Iraq and nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, who can blame them?—that they’ll do the opposite, just out of spite.

But not all non-Trumpian Republican heavyweights are in Biden’s corner. In Duty, his 2014 memoir, former defense Secretary Robert Gates said Biden had “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Given a chance to reconsider that appraisal last year, Gates demurred: “I think I stand by that statement.”

If Trump wins re-election, The Bunker is betting that war with Iran becomes more likely even as he pulls more troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. China remains the big unknown, regardless of who is in the White House come February. One military mistake in the South China Sea, next door to the Gulf of Tonkin, and all bets are off.

TRIAD AND ERROR

But on the nuke front…

…there could be significant change. First of all, President Trump seems to have failed to cajole China to join with the U.S. and Russia in drafting a new three-way nuclear-arms accord. That makes it likely that the Trump administration will let the existing New START treaty between Washington and Moscow expire with nothing to replace it. It could be extended by five years if both the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to do so. It is the last nuclear arms-control pact still standing between the two countries. Pentagon officials favor extending the treaty, due to expire February 5, 2021, two weeks after the next U.S. presidential inauguration.

There is concern that its demise could trigger a renewed nuclear arms race. The Bunker, atomic amateur that he is, has never understood the need for the 5,800 warheads now in the U.S. nuclear stockpile (New START limits caps each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads apiece, but thousands more can be stockpiled). How many times can you destroy your enemy?

Resuming the arms race could be a costly proposition, according to an August 25 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report (PDF). “If the New START treaty was allowed to expire, the size of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia would be without limits for the first time in decades,” the CBO says. “The transparency and confidence-building procedures included in New START and previous treaties would cease, in which case both parties would lose the means to have direct knowledge of their adversary’s capabilities. In the absence of on-site inspections, data exchanges, and limits on the encryption of flight text data, uncertainty about each other’s forces would grow over time.”

The lack of a U.S.-Russia anti-ballistic-missile treaty, which the U.S. pulled out of in 2002, would further complicate matters. “If the United States chose to increase its forces in response to the expiration of the treaty, modest expansions could be relatively inexpensive and could be done quickly,” the CBO says. “Larger expansions could be quite costly, however [up to $439 billion, triple current nuke-spending plans], and could take several decades to accomplish.” Don’t look now, but U.S. spending on nuclear weapons has jumped by 50% since Trump took office.

President Biden has already said he will extend the New START deal. Beyond that, he could push to trim the Pentagon’s nuclear triad of bombers, submarine-launched missiles, and fixed land-based ICBMs by killing its easily-targetable ICBM leg. Such a move would take a step back from the atomic abyss while preserving the mobile and far more survivable sub and bomber legs.

But defense analysis Loren Thompson is betting Biden won’t push for such a nuclear dyad. “Joe Biden is a common-sense centrist who respects the views of experts,” says Thompson (no relation), whose Lexington Institute think tank takes funding from defense contractors but who nonetheless is a keen observer of internal Pentagon politics. “He will find few if any experts in the nation’s nuclear establishment who think phasing out ICBMs would make us safer.” That, of course, is the ultimate Catch-22: When it comes to “experts” in this field, nearly all have been nourished by the billons the Pentagon has spent on nuclear weapons, along with the think tanks, academic outfits, and contractors it has succored.

That’s a hard habit to break. Former defense secretary Bill Perry is one who managed to do so, and he has been calling for scrapping the ICBM leg of the U.S. nuclear triad—“some of the most dangerous weapons in the world”—for five years.

But Perry’s a scientist. Biden is a politician.

POLL-ER OPPOSITES

Survey shows Trump’s support among troops fading

President Trump’s support among military service members has steadily declined during his four years in office. That’s according to the latest survey conducted by Military Times and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. When Trump moved into the White House in 2016, 46% of the troops surveyed had a favorable opinion of him, compared to 37% who had an unfavorable opinion. Since then, the numbers have steadily reversed. Now 50% have an unfavorable opinion and 38% hold a favorable opinion. If the election were held today, 41% would vote for Biden, with Trump getting 37%, the survey reports.

Among the poll’s findings:

-- Only 17% supported how Trump handled intelligence reports earlier this year that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

-- More than 70% opposed Trump’s suggestion that active-duty forces should be used to quell civil disturbances in U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last May.

-- Only 21% of troops view immigration as a major national-security issue, while 48% cite white nationalism as a concern.

The survey of 1,018 active-duty troops, conducted before the recent party conventions, has a margin of error of up to 2%. Those polled were chosen from Military Times’ databases and therefore may not give a representative picture of the military as a whole. The survey appears “to undercut claims from the president that his support among military members is strong thanks to big defense budget increases in recent years and promised moves to draw down troops from overseas conflict zones,” Leo Shane of Military Times writes.

Of course, that undercutting only matters if it’s real. Polling before the 2016 election gave a clear edge to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Missiling in action…

Ballistic missiles follow a predictable path. But they are largely 20th Century weapons. The Aerospace Corp., a military-funded think tank, thinks it is time to retool our missile taxonomy given advances in such weapons, many of which no longer trace the traditional parabolic arc. “Using old classifications, we risk mischaracterizing the threats missiles pose and pursuing incorrect and ineffective ways to mitigate them,” it said in an August 26 report. Lord knows, we’ve been doing that since March 23, 1983.

‘Corporal’ punishment

The Army is reminding its sergeants that ordering soldiers to do push-ups or other forms of physical exercise can make more sense than subjecting them to more formal non-judicial punishment. “Physical exercises are an acceptable form of corrective training for minor acts of indiscipline (for example, requiring the soldier to do push-ups for arriving late to formation), so long as it does not violate the Army's policies prohibiting hazing, bullying, and unlawful punishment,” service regs say. Old soldiers argue that such changes are long overdue. The Bunker traveled to military bases 20 years ago to do a piece called “Boot Camp Goes Soft.” He recalls it getting a lot more cheers than jeers.

A death in the family

The Intercept had a disturbing tale of the suicide of the U.S. intelligence community’s senior military expert August 20.

Marines in green…and white

The New York Times took a deep dive August 31 into the lack of minorities in the senior ranks of the Marine Corps. “Proud and fierce in their identity, the Marines have a singular race problem that critics say is rooted in decades of resistance to change,” Helene Cooper writes. “As the nation reels this summer from protests challenging centuries-long perceptions of race, the Marines—who have long cultivated a reputation as the United States’ strongest fighting force—remain an institution where a handful of white men rule over 185,000 white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian men and women.” This article, and dozens like it in recent months, make clear that rooting out racism from the U.S. military is going to take persistence, time, and a younger generation more inclusive than their elders.

Beam me up!

Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the starship USS Enterprise, is wondering why the new U.S. Space Force isn’t using naval ranks for its members. For those who don’t pay attention to such matters, the Navy ranks carry different labels than those of the Air Force, Army and Marines. What makes it even more confusing is that some labels—like “captain”—are high-ranking in the Navy, but low-ranking in the other services (and you wonder why the military screws up so often?).

“What are you doing to us?” Bill Shatner, who played Kirk on the class Star Trek TV series from 1966 to 1969, asked in an op-ed in Military Times August 24. “There was no Colonel Kirk; not even in the mirror universe (which is what 2020 feels like at times.)” He reeled off a list of captains from the world of entertainment—Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon—and contrasted them with hapless colonels, their equivalent rank in the other three services. “We cannot forget USAF Colonel Steve Austin [ABC’s “The Six Million Dollar Man,” 1974-1978], an astronaut who crashed his ship and severely injured himself that cost taxpayers $6 million to put him back together…there was Colonel Wilhelm Klink of `Hogan’s Heroes [CBS, 1965-1971],’” he noted. “If you want the public to believe in heroes, that you should adopt the Navy ranks as they are the ones the public is most used to being heroes.”

Of course, given Shatner’s Canadian citizenship, The Bunker isn’t sure his push is going to get much support outside of NORAD.