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The Bunker: Who Will Survive?

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.


PENTAGON PURGE

Lickspittle loyalty increasingly required

There used to be a saying in the national-security community that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Back in those days, that referred to the pounding waves of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But lately, it means the gently-lapping ripples of the Potomac River. On its south bank sits the Pentagon. Two miles away, on the other side, is the White House, which is steadily eroding the Defense Department’s apolitical nature. The Trump administration is roiling those waters as it increasingly purges senior officials deemed not sufficiently loyal to the commander-in-chief.

There is something to be said for fealty to one’s boss, of course. But problems arise when loyalty tests, implicit or otherwise, end up narrowing the field of prospective candidates for top posts. That’s particularly true when it comes to civilian leaders of the U.S. military, who need across-the-aisle, coalition-building skills to get anything done in either war or peace. As more partisan and ideological players come aboard (SECDEF Mark Esper’s first post-military job was a top spot at the hard right Heritage Foundation), their relationships tend to be narrower and more brittle. That leads nowhere good when war, or other dangers, threaten.

Four top officials have bailed from the Pentagon since February, including two last week, ever since the White House installed a new personnel manager charged with vetting appointees’ willingness to lick the president’s boots. “The moves are sending a clear signal to the Defense Department leadership that those who aren't viewed as completely on board with the president will either be ousted or passed over for higher positions,” Politico reported June 18. They are:

  1. Kathryn Wheelbarger, the department’s top acting official overseeing international security affairs, who quit June 18 after her nomination was pulled to serve as the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian intelligence official. She got crossways with the White House supposedly because of her ties to former defense secretary James Mattis and the late Senator John McCain, both detested (last time we checked) by the president.
  2. Two days earlier, Elaine McCusker, the acting comptroller, resigned after her already-announced promotion to comptroller (the Pentagon’s chief accountant) was derailed before her Senate confirmation hearing. She had raised questions about the legality of Trump’s decision last year to freeze U.S. military aid to Ukraine, a key element of Trump’s impeachment last December. “This administration needs people who are committed to implementing the president’s agenda, specifically on foreign policy, and not trying to thwart it,” a White House official told The New York Post. Her fate was sealed a week after the impeachment trial ended.
  3. Glenn Fine, the Pentagon’s principal deputy inspector general, left in May after Trump kept him from a key role overseeing $2 trillion in coronavirus funding.
  4. John Rood, the Pentagon’s policy chief, resigned in February after concluding Ukraine had made the anti-corruption changes necessary to receive $250 million in U.S. military aid, contrary to Trump’s position. “It is my understanding from Secretary Esper that you requested my resignation,” Rood said in the letter to the president. “Therefore, as you have requested, I am providing my resignation effective February 28, 2020.”

Three of the four were serving in an acting capacity, a designation Trump prefers. “I like acting,” he said last year. “It gives me more flexibility.” Or he can simply block promotions, as concern mounted last week that he may deny Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman promotion to full colonel. Vindman is a highly-regarded officer and decorated Iraq war veteran. But he ran into trouble while serving at the White House, when he raised a red flag over Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son.

This crud isn’t limited to the Pentagon. Last week, Trump fired the federal prosecutor in New York who had put his former personal lawyer behind bars and had Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s current lawyer, in his sights. And Trump’s pick to run U.S.-funded international broadcasting outlets pushed out those running several of them and their boards last week, raising concern that respected agencies like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are turning into Trump megaphones.

BUT WAIT!

One Trump loyalist is in trouble…

President Trump nominated retired Army brigadier general Anthony Tata to take Rood’s position at the Pentagon on June 11. A vigorous defender of the commander-in-chief on Fox News, his nomination started taking on water last week as his tweets began surfacing. Assorted generals and Democratic senators now oppose his nomination.

Tata has accused former President Obama of being a “terrorist leader.” He told former CIA chief John Brennan in a May 2018 tweet that it “might be a good time to pick your poison: firing squad, public hanging, life sentence as prison b*tch, or just suck on your pistol. Your call. #Treason #Sedition #crossfirehurricane #Obamagate.” (Tata now says he “deeply regrets” the tweets.)

Not sure which is worse: a retired Army general broadcasting such language, or a commander-in-chief who thinks that qualifies someone to become the Pentagon’s No. 3 official. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: remember, Trump tapped retired Army lieutenant general Mike Flynn to be his first national-security adviser after he led chants of “Lock her up!” about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

And politics has nothing to do with it. If you think it does, you’re part of the problem.

OF SHIPS AND SPACE

It’s all about priorities

Building and maintaining the U.S. military is all about making judgments: which threats are real, which wars to wage, how to recruit young Americans to fight them, and which weapons they should have. Leaven all of that with the level of risk the nation is willing to accept, and you can sense a blueprint for the U.S. military emerging, like a Polaroid photograph developing before your eyes.

That thought struck The Bunker as the U.S. military launches a full-fledged Space Force while continuing to short-change its Navy. The U.S. Space Force is a creation of Congress and President Trump, and the Pentagon is getting behind his push, after its initial lukewarm reaction. But the concern here is that the Pentagon’s emphasis on space is going to hurt efforts to keep the military on the ground, and sea, in fighting form. The same thing happened with President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka the “Star Wars” missile shield.

The Defense Department rolled out its new space policy June 17. It was heavy on winning but decidedly light on how to do that. “Space is now a distinct warfighting domain, demanding enterprise-wide changes to policies, strategies, operations, investments, capabilities, and expertise for a new strategic environment,” the Defense Space Strategy reads. “This strategy identifies how DoD will advance spacepower to enable the Department to compete, deter, and win in a complex security environment characterized by great power competition.”*

Bottom line: We’re gonna need lots of new money to do this right (actually, we’re going to need a lot of money to do this, whether it can be done right or not).

But there’s a whiff of the long-ago bomber and missile gaps here. It recalls exaggerated claims of Soviet domination in those realms that turned out not to be true, something we only learned after spending billions to catch up.

Meanwhile, the Navy continues to struggle. While the Pentagon’s goal is to build a 355-ship Navy by 2030 (it currently has 299), it is seeking $20 billion for shipbuilding next year. That’s $4 billion less than it is spending this year. It’s also refusing to provide Congress the information on how they’re going to meet that goal.

Part of the perverted pleasure of covering the Pentagon for so many years is watching how the services fight one another for a bigger piece of the budget pie. It’s up to all of us to make sure the pie is no bigger than it needs to be. But it’s just as critical to ensure each slice is proportional to what’s needed without frittering funds on the final frontier.

* - “Great power competition” is the Defense Department’s newest buzzphrase. It replaces the “Global War on Terror” as a way to increase budgets without actually having to do anything.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Man overboard!

Looks like Navy Captain Brent Crozier won’t return to command the USS Theodore Roosevelt following the coronavirus outbreak that swamped his carrier back in March. His case has generated a lot of heartburn among sailors, and this latest Navy decision isn’t going down well, as this June 20 piece from Task & Purpose makes clear.

Breaking ceilings left and right

Last week we noted the promotion of General Charles “CQ” Brown to head the Air Force, making him the first Black to command a U.S. military service. Days later, on June 19, the same service tapped Chief Master Sergeant JoAnne Bass to become the first female to ever serve as a military service’s top noncommissioned officer. Well, strictly speaking, it wasn’t the service who tapped her. General Brown did. Funny how that works.

But still a long way to go…

Even as the Air Force promoted a woman to its top enlisted job, Military Times posted a chilling tale June 16 about the sex trade in Bahrain…championed by U.S. sailors.

Flying on autopilot

A trio of scholars at the libertarian Cato Institute let the Senate Armed Services Committee have it June 17 over at Defense One for proposing a 2021 military budget that slights the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. national security. No doubt that’s because possibly fighting the Chinese military in the future is so much more lucrative, for all involved, than actually fighting the—per the president—Chinese virus today. Apparently, the SASC missed The Bunker’scall for such a shift two months ago.

Why only one finger on the U.S. nuclear button?

President Trump, all by himself, can order a nuclear war—“the equivalent of more than 10,000 Hiroshima bombs” within minutes. That’s according to a June 22 column in the New York Times by former defense secretary Bill Perry and Tom Collina of the Ploughshares Fund. Why do we tolerate this? It’s a leftover Cold War fear of a Russian first strike, they say. Hell of a way to run—and maybe ruin—a planet, 30 years after the Cold War ended.

Families to be MIA in the Middle East

The Pentagon has quietly changed the deployment rules for troops based in Bahrain and Qatar. Those two nations are in the middle of the Persian Gulf, just a short missile launch from Iran. Until now, U.S. troops have been allowed to bring their families with them for their two-year tours. But on June 2, the Pentagon said that is ending, and U.S. troops will head there for single-year postings without their families. This is happening amidst allegations of Iranian military mischief on the rise in the region. Of course, that same logic could apply to North Korea, where families of U.S. troops continue to be allowed. Must be because of the warm relationship President Trump and NoKo dictator Kim Jong-un share.

Pushing the envelope

Military aviators have been experiencing so-called “physiological events”—ranging from headaches to difficulty breathing to loss of consciousness—in recent years. The Navy, following a $50 million, three-year study, has concluded there is no single “silver bullet” causing the problem. “Despite early theories, the PEs weren’t caused by contaminated air, a lack of oxygen or systems not designed well enough to keep humans safe in harsh environments,” a June 18 U.S. Naval Institute report said. Instead, they’re triggered when several conditions—including changing cockpit temperatures, pressures and vigorous maneuvers—occur simultaneously. This sounds like the military is asking its pilots to do too much, given their bodies’ limits. The Bunker looked into this issue two years ago.

Let me call you “Forces’ Sweetheart”

Vera Lynn, whose ballads lifted the hearts of the British people during the 1940 German blitz and throughout World War II, died June 18 at 103. Dubbed the “Forces’ Sweetheart,” she was known for singing “We’ll Meet Again” and “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover.” 1917-2020. R.I.P.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading The Bunker, and try to stay sane out there…