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: spending like drunken sailors; the unnerving rise in nuclear weapons spending; a proposal to build three national missile-defense systems; the Pentagon’s disinterest in the Yemen war; and more.
WHEN IN DOUBT, SPEND MORE MONEY
Fighting the budget war just like the Afghan one
During The Bunker’s years at Time Magazine, we’d only launch a trend story once we had three data points to confirm what we thought was happening was actually taking place. Turns out such trios lurk around the Pentagon, too. The nuclear triad is the most well-known. Created by happenstance following World War II, its three legs — bombers, submarines, and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, all outfitted with atomic weapons — were designed to deter nuclear war with the Soviet Union. This reheated Cold War relic has been given a new veneer of relevance(PDF) to justify its continued existence and expensive expansion. But it's not the only one…
The Senate Armed Services Committee decided June 16 to pump an additional $45 billion into President Biden’s proposed 2023 U.S. military budget, pushing it to an eye-watering $857.6 billion(PDF). The lawmakers say the extra money is needed because of: 1) inflation, 2) the Russo-Ukrainian war, and 3) military needs unmet by the Pentagon in its request. (Congress may not be able to declare war — it hasn’t done so since 1942 — but it sure knows how to declare pork.)
Let’s call this the Numoney Triad.
The U.S. continues to act as if we’re amid World War II’s afterglow, trying to force-feed democracy and free trade in places ill-suited for them. Its military buys weapons it can’t sustain and pledges to protect sea lanes it can’t defend(PDF), despite spending nearly $1 trillion annually on defense (and significantly more than that if veterans’ care is included).
As the world falls apart around us — recession looming, Eurasian war raging, pandemic persisting, climate changing, a former president couping — throwing more money at the U.S. military is a reflex untethered to the nation’s true needs. It only offers a benighted sense of control.
All conflict pales alongside a growing nuclear threat
Let’s take a look at the prospect of nuclear conflict. The Bunker has been on this beat for more than 40 years, and never has the chance of nuclear war — deliberate or accidental — seemed higher. It eclipses every other national security threat facing the U.S. — and the world. Like those wildfires now scarring the western U.S., whatever spark might ignite a “local” nuclear conflict (as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hinting) could quickly turn into an intercontinental conflagration.
The leading indicators are dire, as the latest annual report (PDF) from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute makes clear. Nuclear weapons stockpiles, which have been shrinking since the Cold War ended 30 years ago, will soon begin growing again. “All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals, and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies,” Wilfred Wan, Director of SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Program, said upon the report’s June 13 release. “This is a very worrying trend.”
The following day — Flag Day, in the U.S.— the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons released its third annual audit(PDF) of world spending on nuclear weapons. Global spending, ICAN reported, went from $76 billion in 2020 to $82.4 billion in 2021. Last year, the U.S. ranked #1 (with a warhead!), accounting for 54% ($44.2 billion) of the total. That worked out to $84,042 per minute. “After digging through thousands of contracts, annual reports and lobby disclosures, the report shows a dozen companies got $30.2 billion in new contracts to work on nuclear weapons,” ICAN reported. The Pentagon’s top five contractors — Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Northrop, and Raytheon — all made the list. “Those companies then turned around and spent $117 million lobbying decision makers to spend more money on defense,” ICAN added. “And they also spent up to $10 million funding most of the major think tanks that research and write about policy solutions about nuclear weapons.” It’s part and parcel of the Pentagon’s perpetual commotion machine.
Putin’s loose nuke talk since he invaded Ukraine in February will surely boost spending on nuclear weapons. The U.S. already is planning to spend an estimated $634 billion through 2030 to rebuild all three legs of its strategic nuclear forces.
This is, of course, the Original Triad.
But that investment isn’t sufficient, according to a pair of retired Air Force generals. “The United States must have systems capable enough to deter and stop atomic extortion,” Dan Leaf and Howard Thompson warned June 18 at Real Clear Defense. “That will require significant investment in missile defense.” They call for developing three separate national missile-defense systems. Beyond the nation’s current leaky shield to defeat old-fashioned ICBMs, they want a second to protect against cruise missiles, and a third to shoot down hypersonic weapons. “Unfortunately,” they add, “there is no single `silver bullet’ solution to these challenges.”
Think of this as the Nomoney Triad.
Sometimes the U.S. bombs from the shadows
“Stealth fighter” is Pentagon shorthand for a radar-eluding warplane. But it also could be used to describe the critical role played by the U.S. in enabling Saudi Arabia’s air war against Yemen. The seven-year war has killed about 9,000 civilians and is, according to the United Nations, “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The U.S. is a willing accomplice to this slaughter. “A substantial portion of the air raids were carried out by jets developed, maintained and sold by U.S. companies, and by pilots who were trained by the U.S. military,” a joint investigation by the Washington Post and the Security Force Monitor at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute concluded June 4. Human rights groups and a UN panel have documented more than 300 air strikes on hospitals, markets, a crammed school bus and a funeral home that are likely war crimes.
It's a good thing the newspaper and school dusted Yemen for U.S. fingerprints, because — as hard as this may be to believe — neither the Pentagon nor the State Department knows if U.S. weapons were used in the attacks. “There have been reports of extensive civilian harm in Yemen,” the Government Accountability Office reported June 15. “However, DOD has not reported and State could not provide evidence that it investigated incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia...”
You can think of this as the Pentagon’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, Triad.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
The ready-for-war rate of eight kinds of U.S. military aircraft declined between 2015 and 2021 despite record levels of defense spending, the Government Accountability Office reported June 15.
Following a rash of recent military aircraft crashes, the Pentagon has yet to set up the safety panel it conceded was needed when an outside group recommended its creation in 2020, Tara Copp reported at Defense One on June 10.
The U.S. has been engaged in non-stop conflict since 9/11 “with ambiguous boundaries of chronology, geography and purpose,” Bonnie Kristian of Defense Priorities wrote June 20 in the New York Times.
To maintain its military edge over Beijing, the U.S. needs to continue its “generative” — innovative — strategy, while blunting China’s “absorptive” — copycat — approach, Dan Ward and Matt MacGregor argue in a June 17 report from the Mitre Corp.
The Navy is taking, ahem, a deep dive into data in an effort to prevent at-sea collisions like those that killed 17 sailors, Megan Eckstein reported June 16 in Military Times.
BWXT Technologies won a $300 million Pentagon contract for a portable nuclear reactor, Defense News reported June 9. The Bunkerwaved a Geiger counter around the idea of such battlefield power sources three years ago.
The readiness rate of the Air Force version of the F-35 fighter slid from 76% in 2020 to 69% in 2021. But the service apparently has enough of them still flying to stand up a F-35 squadron to replicate enemy fighters, “due to the growing threat posed by PRC [People’s Republic of China] fifth- and sixth-gen fighter development,” Air Force General Mark Kelly said June 9.
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