The Bunker: Where’s the Sweet Spot?

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.

Yawn (rubs eyes). We’re back? Did we miss anything? Actually, in The Bunker’s absence, we got to see the U.S. military rebuff President Trump & Co., and Congress override one of his vetoes for the first time…


Dusting off an old military term

The Pentagon used to have these things it called “war reserve spares kits,” which were batches of critical weapons parts that would be eaten up quickly if war came. They weren’t to be used in peacetime (supposedly), but were reserved for war, when demand would skyrocket. It was the drudgery of logistics—and boring until needed, when they instantly became vital.

The Bunker recalls that long-ago lingo as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to confirm Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. And to thank God that while the military was diligently planning for its military needs during wartime, it was just as assiduously readying for the day it might require a democracy reserve spares kit.

Those of us who have covered the military for a long time used to roll our eyes when the brass would warn their subordinates against tainting their duty with politics. “A professional armed force that stays out of the politics that drive our policies it is sworn to enforce is vital to the preservation of the union and to our way of life,” Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the U.S. military in a famous 2008 marching order(PDF). That came as retired officers called for the ouster of then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and wrote a flurry of books critical of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Mullen’s missive helped create the pol-mil firebreak the nation has seen these last several months.

Last spring, President Trump played Geppetto to Pentagon Pinocchios Mark Esper, then the defense secretary, and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He strung them along on that recon patrol across Lafayette Park so Trump could brandish a Bible. Once burned, the Marks vowed it wouldn’t happen again.

But that doesn’t mean some didn’t try. On December 17, Mike Flynn, a retired Army three-star general and Trump’s first national security adviser, suggested that the U.S. military could “basically rerun” the 2020 presidential election in the battleground states Trump lost to return him to the White House for a second term.

The next day, the civilian and military leaders of the U.S. Army pronounced Flynn’s anti-democratic notion dead before arrival. “There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff General James McConville declared. On January 3, all 10 living former defense secretaries—including Esper and Jim Mattis, who also served under Trump—warned the Pentagon’s current occupants against tinkering with the peaceful transition of power.

Fingers crossed, the message seems to have been delivered. That may be why the president made that craven January 2 call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s top elections official. Trump implored him to “find” 11,780 additional Trump votes that would put him over Biden in the Peach State by a single ballot. Fellow Republican Raffensperger resolutely refused.

Can you believe we are even having this conversation?

The Bunker has long criticized the U.S. military for snafus that have cost the nation blood, treasure, and international standing. But it sure is bracing to see the armed forces stand up to a deluded commander-in-chief and the sycophants surrounding him who would no doubt choose to derail democracy if they could enlist the U.S. military in their vile act.


Veto override is hardly a profile in courage

Unlike the U.S. military, which is trained to follow orders, the U.S. Congress is trained to follow the ever-shifting political winds. That’s why it finally thwarted President Trump following the commander-in-chief’s veto of the 2021 defense authorization act. It marked the first time it nine tries that it overrode Trump’s veto pen, and highlights Trump’s loosening grip on power. It wasn’t even close: the Senate voted 81-13 to override; the House 322-87, both well above the two-thirds needed.

The president vetoed the bill December 23, citing its language allowing the renaming of 10 U.S. Army bases that now honor Confederate officers, and its failure to remove legal protection (which has nothing to do with the military) for social-media outfits like Facebook and Twitter. Lawmakers were furious that Trump vetoed the bill, with a 60-year tradition of bipartisanship, on Christmas Eve eve, after they had spent months resolving their conflicting versions.

The legislation has wins for troops and taxpayers. It shines a pair of much-needed spotlights into the dark corners of government contracting. The Corporate Transparency Act requires certain companies to report their true owners, barring shell companies with unknown ones. A second provision requires that federal contractors detail any ownership stakes they have in a public database. “This is an enormous step forward in the fight against corruption,” said Zoë Reiter, director of civic engagement and rabble-rousing at the Project On Government Oversight.

Another bright light will come in the part of the law mandating that the Pentagon publicly disclose its legislative goals, something the Defense Department had done as a matter of course until two years ago. It keeps the sharp-eyed office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction up and running. The law also restores funding for the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper, and requires all federal forces to wear uniforms making clear who they are.

But it isn’t all peaches and cream. The bill dropped provisions to address possible abuses of the Insurrection Act, actual abuses of the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations accounts, and prolonged Inspector General vacancies.

Nonetheless, in a year marked by defining deviancy down, it was refreshing to see at least some good-government goals achieved.


Looking for a new challenge?

As a public service, The Bunker links here(PDF) to the 18 DOD pages of the federally-published tome of Policy and Supporting Positions, affectionately known as the Plum Book. That’s the 221-page list of thousands of politically-appointed jobs open when a new administration takes over.


Where’s the sweet spot for those in uniform?

How much should the nation pay its sons and daughters who willingly risk their lives to serve in its armed forces? It’s never enough, but actually it’s too much. If that sounds like little more than government gobbledygook, you have no future overseeing the U.S. military.

Since abandoning the draft nearly 50 years ago, the Pentagon has strived to seek a pay-and-benefits package that will fill the ranks of the U.S. military without sticking it to taxpayers. For the past 20 years, Pentagon advisers have pegged that sweet spot at about the 70th percentile compared to civilians of the same age, education and experience. In other words, GI Jane should make more money than 70% of her civilian counterparts, and less than 30% of them.

Rand Corp. experts are out with a new report concluding that military pay “far exceeds the 70th percentile and has done so for quite some time.” There are two basic reasons for this, according to Rand: “the relatively fast military pay growth from the late 1990s to 2010, as well as a downward trend in real civilian wages.” Today’s enlisted troops are in the 85th percentile when it comes to pay, and officers are at the 77th percentile, Rand reports.

What should be done? Rand’s experts “find that current military pay may be too high, since recruit quality today exceeds DOD's stated requirements, and, further, quality and retention both exceed the levels observed during the late 1980s and mid-1990s, when the 70th percentile was established,” a summary of their findings says. “However, the 70th percentile may be too low a benchmark, because there are reasons to believe that the recruiting environment is more difficult than it was in earlier periods.”

Thanks for the clarification, guys. Truth is, setting uniformed pay and benefits is a tough call. That’s especially the case for an all-volunteer force, where guilt among those who have never worn the uniform may play a role in boosting compensation (that same trend can be seen in the nation’s treatment of its veterans, especially since 9/11).

Rand’s recommendation? Raise the target for the average military paycheck to at least the 75th percentile. With average civilian wages flat or falling in real terms, this is unsustainable, especially in a democracy.

At least don’t push for a raise until you’ve won a war.


Defense contractors continue to migrate to D.C.

It was a striking passage in a Christmas Eve Washington Poststory about a company that helps small businesses get contracts from nearby big corporations. “These small suppliers have been heavily reliant on the health of big companies in their regions,” it read. “If you are in Houston, your business lives and dies with oil and gas. In the Midwest, it’s automotive. Boston caters to medical device companies. Washington is well known for its aerospace and defense.”

Well, it may be well known now, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Defense-contractor headquarters tended to be where the factories were, far away from the decision-makers in D.C. Lockheed and Northrop were in California, for example, and General Dynamics was in St. Louis.

But General Dynamics moved to D.C.’s Virginia suburbs in 1991. “Winning contracts is not just a function of providing the necessary aircraft or submarine,” a St. Louis-based defense industry analyst said when the move was announced. “There also, sorry to say, are politics that get involved in a lot of these decisions. It's something that's difficult to quantify, but you know it does have a place in these decisions.”

Lockheed shuttered its California headquarters in 1995 after it merged with Martin Marietta. The deal reflected “Southern California’s dwindling role as a mainstay of the U.S. aerospace industrial complex,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. “Lockheed Martin chose Martin Marietta’s home of Bethesda, Md., for its headquarters, formally ending Lockheed’s long domicile in the San Fernando Valley.”

Northrop moved to Falls Church, Va., in 2010. “We think we’ll be able to do a better job for our customers and our company by having our corporate office there,” Northrop chief Wes Bush said back then. It’s hard to prove, but The Bunker believes such mergers and geographic groupthink have helped wring innovation out of the defense business. “As the defense industry has shrunk, all of the contractors began to look more and more alike,” Politico reported after Northrop announced its move.


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

Moving past “America First”

President Trump has been a big booster of the term, despite the isolationist, pro-Nazi echoes of the America First Party of the 1940s. But former defense secretary Jim Mattis is no fan, according to a transcript posted December 24 by West Point’s Modern War Institute. “I’d recommend the new administration”—quitter!—“take out of the National Security Strategy at the White House anything about ‘America First,’” Mattis told Stanford students. “I don’t care how well it was intended. It did not work well. I didn’t like it in the beginning. I like it less now.”

Über artists

Visit one of the world’s largest collections of Nazi art and propaganda, hidden for decades in a climate-controlled Army warehouse in Virginia, via Dexter Filkins in a January 4 New Yorker article.

Straight line between strength and security?

Is there a linear relationship between U.S. military might and U.S. security? Stephen Wertheim, the deputy director of research and policy at Washington’s Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, doesn’t buy it. “Far from contributing to American security, the plan of global military superiority has made America—and Americans—less safe,” Wertheim argues in a December 29 Vox interview.

Moving deck racks on the Titanic?

Lack of sleep played a role in the pair of 2017 U.S. Navy warship collisions that killed 17 sailors. So the Navy has come up with a new plan designed to let its crews get more uninterrupted sleep before standing watch. “Under the updated Comprehensive Fatigue and Endurance Management Program (CFEMP) issued Dec. 11, commanders are instructed to arrange shipboard schedules as best they can to allow sailors to work, eat and sleep at the same time each day,” reported December 31. Theoretically, scheduling watches and sleep at the same time should make sailors standing watch more alert.

Unhealthy troops(PDF)

There’s a link between troops “with high weight and body fat and lower job performance in some military occupations," the Congressional Research Service reported December 22. This actually costs to the military over $1.2 billion annually, researcher found, due to "higher healthcare spending and lower productivity." And even those recruits who slim down to meet military standards, or get a waiver to enlist, are no bargain for taxpayers because they’re rarely retained. Researchers have found “that of the recruits who exceeded the weight-for-height standards but subsequently entered the military because they passed the standards later or received a waiver, 80% left the military before completing their first term of enlistment but after the expenditure of training costs.”

Ticking cyber bomb

The months-long hack into federal government computers (launched by Russia, according to experts, although President Trump suggests China may be to blame) continues to haunt U.S. cyber warriors inside the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies. Two outstanding and distressing questions remain, according to a December 27 piece at C4ISRNET: are the bad actors still inside U.S. computer systems? But even if they’re gone, did they limit their damage to destruction—or did they change data? “You have data, but you don’t know if it’s really the right data in your network,” warns Jan Tighe, former commander of 10th Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command and deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare. “Depending on what aspect of the DOD you’re in, that could be very damaging.”

Final roll call

Thankfully, 2020 was pretty peaceful for American troops sent overseas. Only 12 died in combat zones. But that doesn’t matter to their families. Each family’s loss is as deep and as lasting as those suffered by American families during the Civil War or World War II, the nation’s bloodiest conflicts. In fact, the fact that many Americans are unaware we are at war can leave survivors feeling isolated.

Stars and Stripes told their stories on January 2. Here are their names:

Henry J. Mayfield Jr.
Walter Lewark
Nick Bravo-Regules
Alexander Blake Klass
Ian McKnight
Jason Khai Phan
Ronald J. Oulette
Seth Vernon Vande Kamp
Dallas Gerald Garza
Marwan Sameh Ghabour
Kyle Robert McKee
Jeremy Cain Sherman
Kelliann Leli

Thank you.

And thank you for reading The Bunker. Here’s to a better 2021.