Newsletter

The Bunker: Turning Point in Ukraine?

The Bunker Header 1150

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: as Kyiv gains the upper hand in Ukraine, the moment of maximum desperation looms for Vladimir Putin; what we didn’t learn from the official probe into a fatal F-16 crash; bargain base-name bleaching; and more.

A RUSSO-UKRAINIAN ENDGAME?

The shift in momentum is palpable

As Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the debate swirled around how long it would take Moscow to win. Seven months later, we’re wondering how long it could take Russia to lose. Even more important: what the consequences of such a humiliating defeat might be. While the finale remains in doubt, Ukraine is faring far better than even its advocates would have dared believe two months ago. The Ukrainian military has swept Russian forces out of the northeastern part of the country and amassed weapons and ammo abandoned by the Russian Army in its race to retreat.

Make no mistake about it: the U.S., through its military provisions and intelligence, has been the catalyst for Kyiv’s progress. The bad news from the front makes Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly desperate to salvage something out of a war he started that is turning into ashes before his eyes.

At the Pentagon, they’re betting Putin will increasingly punish everyday Ukrainians with strikes on civilian targets. (He has already forced the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor offline, cutting 20% of Ukraine’s electricity as winter looms; a second nuclear power plant at Pivdennoukrainsk came under attack September 19.) He could also punish Russian citizens by forcing more of them into uniform — a tactic that will backfire because it makes clear how poorly his “special military operation” is going (so far, he’s been counting on prisoners to join Russian-backed forces in exchange for their freedom).

“At the dark end of the spectrum, the use of tactical nuclear weapons — while highly unlikely — cannot be ruled out, and would probably bring NATO into the conflict with the creation of a no-fly zone,” warns retired U.S. Navy admiral and NATO chief James Stavridis. “Our job in the West is to put the right weapons in the hands of the Ukrainians so that they can achieve the best results on the battlefield and the strongest position at the negotiating table, which is probably still months away. But the danger of a widening conflict is rising, and we will clearly have a dangerous autumn ahead of us.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to give more of those “right weapons” to Ukraine. On September 15, the Pentagon announced $600 million in additional military aid for Kyiv, pushing the total to more than $15 billion since Russia invaded. But the U.S. has refused — so far — Ukraine’s request for the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), fearing its 190-mile range risks a wider war. “If Washington decides to supply longer-range missiles to Kyiv, then it will be crossing a red line, and will become a direct party to the conflict," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

The Biden administration is walking a tightrope — it wants to keep Russia from winning, but is leery of enabling a Ukrainian victory that could spark a wider war. Its policy is simple: bleed Russia badly enough, for long enough, until Putin is compelled to sue for peace. But if Ukraine continues to batter Russia, Putin may believe he is mortally wounded — and then, all bets are off.

THE REST OF THE STORY

What was MIA in an F-16 crash report

Two years ago, The Bunkerwrote about the snafu-ridden night-time crash of an F-16 fighter in South Carolina that killed 1st Lieutenant David Schmitz:

As Schmitz, strapped into his seat, blasted from the aircraft, “a critical failure of the [ejection computer] occurred, resulting in its failure to sequence or control all subsequent actions.” The six explosive devices that should have separated the pilot and his parachute from the seat didn’t detonate.

The 43-page official investigation(PDF) into the June 2020 crash blamed pilot error. But it didn’t report that Air Force investigators suspected that key components of the ejection seat failed because they were counterfeit, according to a federal lawsuit(PDF) filed by the lone pilot’s widow.

Valerie Schmitz’s legal team obtained the information via a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition to suing the makers of the F-16 (Lockheed) and the ejection seat (Collins Aerospace, owned by Raytheon), she is suing Teledyne Technologies, which made the ejection-seat sequencer that failed during the crash.

“While the Air Force suspected parts of the seat were counterfeit, it buried the information in a nonpublic section of its accident investigation report,” the Air Force Times reported. Investigators, the suit contends, found the faulty ejection seat contained “six suspected counterfeit” transistors, “three suspected counterfeit serial flash memory chips, and a suspected counterfeit parallel flash memory chip.” The six transistors, it adds, “had no conformal coating, were heavily gouged, had arcing scratch marks, [and] were considered obsolete.” Schmitz lived for at least seven seconds after ejecting — experiencing “fright, terror, and mental and emotional pain,” according to the lawsuit — before he slammed into the ground, still strapped into his ejection seat.

When Valerie Schmitz’s lawyers filed another FOIA request to try to determine if the parts actually were counterfeit, the Air Force refused to release any documents. “Any responsive documents to your request are not releasable to you at this time,” the Air Force said, because such documents are “expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

Pilot terror, indeed.

FINAL TALLY

$62 million to remove Confederate stains

The congressionally-mandated Naming Commission completed its work(PDF) September 19, issuing the last of three reports(PDF) detailing just how deeply the Confederacy has been honored across the U.S. military. The panel said it will cost the nation $62,450,030 to remove rebel names from more than 1,100 U.S. military assets.

They included Army posts, monuments, and buildings and streets on U.S. military installations. The commission is recommending the Navy rename two ships: the cruiser USS Chancellorsville, commemorating a Confederate Civil War victory, and the ocean-surveillance ship USNS Maury, named for a Confederate naval officer.

Congress authorized $2,328,502 for the Naming Commission to do its job over two years. The commission said(PDF) it spent only $612,502, or about 25% of what it was allotted. “We’re pretty proud of that,” Commissioner Ty Seidule said. Maybe the eight commissioners should run the Pentagon, with orders to cut its $800 billion annual budget to $200 billion.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

The Forever War

It’s long past time for Congress to repeal the 2002 blank check it gave the White House to invade Iraq, Reid Smith argues in The American Conservative September 13.

Abortion and national security

The Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down Roe v. Wade will drive women from the U.S. military and make recruiting even more difficult than it is now, according to a Rand Corp. September 13 study.

And speaking of Ukraine…

Andrew Bacevich wonders why Russian military failures in Ukraine generate “smug commentary” from U.S. defense analysts, while similar U.S. snafus garner only shrugs, in Responsible Statecraft September 17.

Thanks for curling up with The Bunker this week. Please send this along to right-and-wrong-thinking pals so they can sign up here.

-30-