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The Bunker: U.S. Arms for Ukraine — Supply Line or Tripwire?

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: U.S. weapons stocks shrink as the Pentagon sends more arms to Ukraine, risking a wider war with Russia; “The sky is falling,” the Pentagon warns about space warfare; micro-nuke reactors for the battlefield; and more.

FROM SUPPLY LINE TO TRIPWIRE?

U.S. aid could trigger a wider war

Logistics wins wars. A non-stop flow of everything from bullets to howitzers is a key to prevailing on the battlefield. As Ukraine continues to surprise the world with its bloody showdown with Russia, it has become increasingly clear that U.S.-provided gear is the oxygen fueling Kyiv’s fight. Russia, at long last, has figured this out, too, and warned — get this — of “unpredictable consequences” if the U.S. doesn’t shut off its weapons spigot.

Instead, the U.S. and its allies are cranking it open even more. Russia’s reaction to its unprovoked invasion is like that of a schoolyard bully, just like its threat to move its nuclear weapons closer to Finland and Sweden if they decide to join NATO. Those of The Bunker’s age, who recall U.S. frustration with the Vietnam war’s Ho Chi Minh trail that kept Viet Cong kitted out for conflict, can only wryly smile now that the combat boot is on the other foot.

It’s a near-perfect war from the perspective of the U.S. military-industrial complex: no U.S. troops at risk, but the prospect of U.S. defense contractor profits as the Pentagon nervously eyes the arms depots being drained as the U.S. ships billions of dollars in weapons to Ukraine. Cynical, but true.

After two months of war, the U.S. military is running a far smoother trans-Atlantic logistics pipeline into Ukraine than the next-door Russians have been able to mount (Exhibit A being Moscow’s 40-mile supply convoy mired early in the conflict). Virtually all of the $2.6 billion in U.S. weapons shipped to Ukraine since the February 24 invasion have come from the Pentagon’s own depots (there have been only two Pentagon-Ukraine contracts: an April 12 Puma spy drone deal (PDF) for $20 million, and a February 28 Javelin anti-tank missile contract (PDF) for $20 million split among Ukraine and 14 other nations).

The U.S. has tapped into its own arsenals seven times since August to ship weapons to Ukraine, something a U.S. president can do unilaterally(PDF) when facing an “unforeseen emergency.” They include 1,400 Stinger aircraft-killing missiles; 5,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles; 700 Switchblade kamikaze drones; 7,000 small arms; 50,000,000 rounds of ammunition (roughly 300 slugs per Red Army soldier inside Ukraine); 18 155mm howitzers with 40,000 rounds; 16 Mi-17 helicopters; 200 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers; and hundreds of armored Humvees.

Ukraine has made no secret that it wants bigger, badder weapons to battle the Russians, including fighter jets and tanks. Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe from 2014 to 2018, fears the U.S. and its allies are playing for a tie. “This is about us being the arsenal of democracy,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation April 17. “I would really like to hear the administration talk about winning and having a sense of urgency on getting these things there.” Moscow issued a démarche — basically, a curt diplomatic message declaring how dare you! — April 12 saying the U.S. and its allies are shredding “rigorous principles” governing arms flows during wartime, and ignoring “the threat of high-precision weapons falling into the hands of radical nationalists, extremists and bandit forces in Ukraine.”

Growing Pentagon concern over dwindling weapons stockpiles is why the U.S. military brass huddled behind closed doors April 13 with its biggest suppliers (BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics Huntington Ingalls, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman). “Military planners are likely getting nervous,” Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warns. “The United States maintains stocks for a variety of possible global conflicts that may occur against North Korea, Iran, or Russia itself. At some point, those stocks will get low enough that military planners will question whether the war plans can be executed. The United States is likely approaching that point.”

But the biggest danger isn’t to U.S. stockpiles. Instead, it’s how Russia reacts to the increasing flow of ever-more-deadly U.S. weapons into Ukraine, and to the U.S. troops training Ukrainian soldiers at European bases in their use. Pentagon officials fear Moscow might lash out, attacking supply routes or depots in NATO nations bordering Ukraine. That could turn these humming supply lines into tripwires, instantly triggering a wider war.

Make no mistake about it: the U.S. is poking the Russian bear with its burgeoning arms shipments, from safely outside the cage. For now.

LOST IN SPACE…

And losing apparently everywhere else, too

The Defense Intelligence Agency just looked up and doesn’t like what China and Russia are doing in outer space. “Both nations view space as a requirement for winning modern wars, especially against Western nations, and look to prove themselves as world leaders,” John Huth, the Pentagon’s top space spy, said April 12. “Since early 2019, competitor space operations have increased in pace and scope across nearly all major categories — communications, remote sensing, aviation and science and technology demonstration.” On April 18, the Biden administration said it would no longer test satellite-killing weapons, and encouraged other nations to do the same.

Huth spoke as the DIA released Challenges to Security in Space(PDF), the latest addition to its growing Military Power Publications bookshelf. They all carry echoes of those Soviet Military Power(PDF) reports launched by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger during the Reagan administration. And those were pretty much carbon copies of prior U.S. claims that the Soviets had more bombers and missiles than the U.S. The latest volumes focus on North Korea (subtitled “A growing regional and global threat”), Iran (“Ensuring regime survival and securing regional dominance”), China (“Modernizing a force to fight and win”), and Russia (“Building a military to support great power aspirations”).

There is a kernel of truth in these reports. But they exaggerate what potential U.S. foes can do and discount U.S. efforts. It might be easier to take such pamphleteering more seriously if Ukraine hadn’t just sunk Russia’s Black Sea flagship with a pair of homemade cruise missiles. Even if you believe the Russian yarn that the Moskva (Russian for “Moscow”) sank following an accidental fire on board, the fact that its crew couldn’t save it doesn’t say much for what the DIA calls Russia’s “great power aspirations.”

Just something to keep in mind when you look skyward.

MILITARY POWER

Micro-nuke reactors for the battlefield

Shortly after the U.S. demonstrated the killing might of nuclear power on a pair of Japanese cities to end WWII, the Pentagon began longing for portable nuclear power generators to produce electric power, on battlefields or elsewhere. On April 13, 2022, it took a, um, critical step toward that goal when it launched a competition to build deployable microreactors.

“The DoD uses approximately 30 terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day — levels that are only expected to increase due to anticipated electrification of the non-tactical vehicle fleet and maturation of future energy-intensive capabilities,” the Pentagon said. “A safe, small, transportable nuclear reactor would address this growing demand with a resilient, carbon-free energy source that would not add to the DoD’s fuel needs, while supporting mission-critical operations in remote and austere environments.” Embracing the environment — a “carbon-free energy source” — when figuring out how to wage war is always a nice touch (e.g.,green ammo”).

On the plus side, such reactors would cut down on the vulnerable fuel convoys required for combat (they accounted for more than half of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2010). But on the flip side are the dangers inherent with nuclear reactors in war zones, as The Bunkerdetailed in 2019. While the U.S. military wants them as power sources, foes will want them as targets.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Stealthy influencers

The Lever website pointed out April 12 that many of the retired Pentagon officials opining on the Russo-Ukrainian war have undisclosed conflicts because of their defense-industry connections.

Handy nuclear guide(PDF)

As Moscow makes unnerving comments and takes unnerving actions about its nuclear weapons amid war with Ukraine, the Congressional Research Service updated the particulars of Russia's atomic arms and the doctrine for their use April 18.

Don’t drink the water…

The Pentagon’s newest hospital, a $1.3 billion facility at Fort Bliss, Texas, is apparently plagued with faulty plumbing that makes its water unsafe to drink, Military.com reported April 13.

Smart enough for the Army?

The U.S. Army has been quizzing prospective recruits over at BuzzFeed since March 30 to see if they have enough gray matter to wear Army green. Typical Question: “TRUE OR FALSE: Soldiers in the Army receive more paid vacation days than the average American.”

The I.C.B.M. next door

Eli Saslow of the Washington Post wrote April 17 about one Montana’s couple closest neighbor — an Air Force Minuteman III missile tipped with a warhead 20 times the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima.

Remote-control killing

They may not be on the literal front lines, but U.S. troops flying and firing drones over faraway battlefields can suffer the same mental anguish as those who are, Dave Philipps reported in the April 15 New York Times.

Helicopter-Gunships- ‘R’-Us

The U.S. has approved the sale of 12 AH-1 attack choppers and 2,000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems to Nigeria for $1 billion, Defense News reported April 14, despite this damning paragraph(PDF) in the State Department’s annual human-rights report released two days earlier.

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