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The Bunker: The Pentagon’s Favorite Crowbar

This week: wondering about the logic of the document that sizes the U.S. defense budget; failing in Afghanistan; the Army’s anti-protester ops over D.C. last June; and suicide remains a scourge in the ranks.

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: wondering about the logic of the document that sizes the U.S. defense budget; failing in Afghanistan; the Army’s anti-protester ops over D.C. last June; and suicide remains a scourge in the ranks.

THE LONG POLE IN THE TENT

Is the U.S. National Defense Strategy right-sized?

The Pentagon’s blueprint for building U.S. military might is the nation’s National Defense Strategy (NDS), last updated(PDF) in 2018. It’s always been, as most such documents are, a buzzword barrage that tends to avoid the hard choices that dollars impose. It is, as they like to say around the Defense Department, the “long pole in the tent” that drives policy and procurement choices.

It has become the go-to lever to crowbar money from the U.S. Treasury to the U.S. military: “I want to see a 3-5% increase over last year’s level after inflation consistent with the National Defense Strategy,” Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said(PDF) last month. “That is my number one, number two and number three priority.”

The nation’s defense-industrial base “is critical to ensuring our Army can provide the responsiveness, the depth and the capability demanded of us in the National Defense Strategy,” said Lieutenant General Duane Gamble, Army deputy chief of staff for logistics.

Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command has drafted a “Regain the Advantage(PDF) report based on “our strategic initiatives to implement the National Defense Strategy.” This includes “enhancing our force design and our force posture in the region, strengthening our network of allies and partners, and advancing our exercises, our experimentation and our innovation,” he added(PDF). “Consistent with our National Defense Strategy, the United States Space Force will ensure we compete, deter and win from a position of strength, securing our way of life and our national security,” said Air Force General Jay Raymond, chief of U.S. Space Force.

But is the NDS a true strategy, or merely a combat chimera? Representative Adam Smith, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, finds its goals of winning an “all-out” war with China, thwarting Russian aggression, deterring Iran and North Korea, bolstering nuclear weapons and missile defenses, and dealing with terrorism little more than a wish list. “When you read the National Defense Strategy, the goals that it lays out are basically unachievable,” he said April 13. “This has led to a very difficult situation within the defense budget: we can never possibly do what we are being told we have to do.”

That’s the bottom line: keep pretending you can do it all when we can’t even defeat a band of Afghan insurgents after an investment of 20 years—and more than $2 trillion. It’s long past time for the nation to develop a realistic and affordable defense strategy grounded in reality.

AFGHANISTAN AGONISTES

What we should have learned…

Speaking of Afghanistan, The Bunker was at the Pentagon when the U.S. invaded on October 7, 2001, and has churned out tens of thousands of words about the war over the nearly 20 years since. For one attending high school and college during Vietnam, The Bunker is left with a simple question: how could we make the same mistake twice in a lifetime?

The Afghan hawks and doves in and around the U.S. government will be debating the topic until well after the last American soldier takes off for home from Bagram airport outside Kabul on or before September 11. But the answer is pretty simple. We thought we could push the Taliban out of power and remake Afghanistan.

The brass was giddy after the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in December 2001. “When I took this job I had a visit with the president shortly thereafter, and we talked about the situation that a lot of the people in the world had come to conclude that the United States was gun-shy,” Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld toldThe Bunker two months after the U.S. invasion. “I wanted him to know, and we discussed it, and he and I concluded that whenever it occurred down the road that the United States was under some sort of a threat or attack, that the United States would be leaning forward, not back.”

The day after that interview, Army General Tommy Franks, who as chief of U.S. Central Command was overseeing the conflict, attended Hamid Karzai’s inauguration as Afghanistan’s first post-invasion president. “One of the opposition group leaders, with whom we had worked earlier in the fight, walked up to me from across the room, hugged me and said, ‘Who do you want me to fight now?’” Franks toldThe Bunker in February 2003. “That’s instructive, because there’s a lot of that inside Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately, there still is.

The war dragged on for so long because everyone responsible subcontracted their responsibility to others. Congress refused to declare it. It preferred to shift responsibility—or blame—onto President George W. Bush with an authorization for the use of military force fig leaf. Without a draft, 99% of the nation had no skin in the game, preferring to subcontract it out to a professionalized military cadre so civilians could ignore it. The Pentagon, eager to keep troop numbers down, doubled its in-country workforce by employing private contractors to handle many of the rear-echelon tasks that soldiers used to do. Much of the money needed to fight the war has been borrowed, shifting that burden from today’s taxpayers onto tomorrow’s—our kids and grandkids.

The war’s boosters argue that it prevented “another 9/11,” but that’s a claim that can’t be tested. Common sense airline security would have prevented the first 9/11. What’s striking about the U.S. experience in Afghanistan is that the world’s most costly weapons and the best-trained troops are no replacement for will. And, just like the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were armed to the teeth with will. And we weren’t.

“THE NATIONAL GUARD’S D-DAY”

(Oops…)

The Army released its investigation(PDF) into the D.C. National Guard's use of helicopters for crowd control over the nation’s capital last year on April 14. Unfortunately, it features Army Brigadier General Robert Ryan rallying his forces by calling their mission “the National Guard’s D-Day,” one Army officer recalled. Comparing U.S. civilians protesting police brutality to Nazis occupying Europe may not have been the smartest use of rhetoric. That phrase “perhaps framed the mission from there on,” the unidentified operations officer added.

Army investigators did not fault the pilots who flew one UH-72 Lakota helicopter roughly 45 feet over protestors. But they did take issue with the fact that four of the five helicopters were medical choppers. That barred their non-medical use without specific authorization, which was never sought. Pilots were also confused about whether they were there simply to observe, or to aggressively disperse crowds, POGO colleague Jason Paladino reports. The investigation showed that the low-flying choppers upset D.C. Metropolitan Police because they blew away their tear gas. And it gave General James McConville a line right out of a bad-action movie, according to Ryan: “The White House will not burn,” McConville said, “while I’m chief of staff of the Army.”

SUICIDE WATCH

Grim toll jumped in the last quarter of 2020

The number of U.S. troops who killed themselves spiked a shocking 25%during the final three months of 2020 (156 suicides), when compared to the final three months of 2019 (125). The National Guard had the biggest hike, going from 14 in 2019, to 39 in 2020. Active-duty suicides actually fell, from 100 to 99, according to the latest quarterly report(PDF) from the Pentagon’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office.

The Bunker has covered far too many such deaths among those in uniform, and Guard suicides particularly hurt. That’s because these so-called “weekend warriors” don’t get the mental-health support found on military bases. When their tours end, too often they head back to hometowns lacking such care. It was 10 years ago this month The Bunker wrote “A Soldier’s Tragedy” for Time magazine about a National Guardsman who served in Iraq and took his own life—after killing his wife and two daughters.

Suicide has been a fact of life in the U.S. military for too long. Back in 1995, the Coast Guard’s top spokesman took his own life after making some off-color remarks at an official dinner. Five years later, an Air Force mechanic killed himself after the service charged him with criminally negligent homicide for the death of an F-15 pilot due to a snafu the service ignored for years. Then, of course, the suicide rate climbed after 9/11: among Army recruiters, an Army psychologist, and a pair of Army officers—one an Apache helicopter pilot, the other a doctor—who took their own lives on March 21, 2012. Many blamed the post-9/11 wars for the spike, but evidence of that was mixed and murky. Now Pentagon officials are citing COVID-19 as a possible cause. What is clear is that suicide remains a vexing issue for the U.S. military and is not going away.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Deep statecraft

David Ignatius had an engrossing tale about the rise of the Trump administration’s Kash Patel and his efforts to wrest control of the nation’s intelligence community. Patel is now being investigated for improperly divulging classified information, Ignatius reported in the April 16 Washington Post.

Gender lines…

The Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court not to hear a challenge to the all-male military draft, the Washington Post reported April 15. That’s because Congress may soon make it a moot point by requiring women to join men in registering for the draft when they turn 18. “Warfare today requires intelligence and communication specialists, linguists, logisticians, medical personnel, drone and cyber operators, and more,” retired generals pushing for the expanded registration requirement told the high court in a brief. “Noncombat positions comprise nearly 80 percent of today’s military occupations.” Meanwhile, Marine Corps Timesreported the same day that the first male Marine recruits have graduated from a previously all-female boot camp battalion. The Marines are the last of the four services to integrate entry-level training. Finally, the U.S. Army is getting used to having a female in charge for the first time, Tara Copp, in her new gig at Defense One, reported April 18.

Happy Earth Day!

Who knew that a World War II Army vet played a key role in creating Earth Day, celebrated each year on April 22? “We didn’t know April 22 was Lenin's birthday, so we caught hell for that,” William Cherkasky, 96, told the April 19 Appleton Post-Crescent in Wisconsin. “Everybody accused us of being communists.”

Memorializing the “war to end all wars”

The nation has opened a World War I memorial in Washington, D.C., the New York Times reported April 16, the day it was dedicated. The Bunkeris no fan of cramming memorials in and around the National Mall (the new one is just north of it, close to the White House). But it sure would have been nice if it had opened while at least some of the doughboys were still around to appreciate it. “I think it's an excellent idea,” one-time Army corporal Frank Buckles told a Senate panel in 2009. “There should be no question about it.” The last surviving U.S. veteran of the Great War, Buckles died February 27, 2011.

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