“Great-Power Rivalry” Is Back

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A carrier strike group is an enormous investment in ships, money, and manpower.  Its chief aim is sea control and power projection.  As its name suggests, it’s primarily an offensive force. (US Navy illustration)

W.J. Astore

Should we have a Department of Offense in place of a Department of Defense (DoD)?  Wouldn’t “Offense” be more accurate?  Perhaps in more ways than one?

Consider the revival of “great-power rivalry,” meaning China and Russia as America’s main rivals.  (Terrorists may be trouble, but you don’t necessarily need nuclear-powered carriers and stealth bombers to neutralize them.)  The new “cold war” is all the rage within the DoD, even though China and Russia are regional land powers, having little of the arsenal of global power projection in which the U.S. takes so much pride.

On this subject, the following snippet on Russia’s navy, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy, is eye-opening:

The Russian military is considering decommissioning its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet era ship that has been beset by maintenance problems and whose reliability is so questionable that a tug boat follows it around on deployments.”

A sputtering and antiquated aircraft carrier that needs tugboats to get around: not much to fear there, America.

Like Russia, China has a single aircraft carrier, though there are plans to build one or two more.  Even if China does, the U.S. will still maintain an enormous lead on its “great-power” rivals.  Some rivalry!

The U.S. Navy currently has eleven fleet aircraft carriers, with two new ones under construction and a further two on order.  Indeed, to make space for all these new carriers, the Navy has plans to retire CVN-75, Harry S Truman, 20 years early, an idea even Congress finds silly.

But give the Navy credit.  They knew Congress would balk at early retirement for the Truman, which doesn’t mean they’re backing off on new carrier orders.  Instead, the Navy wants it all: two new carriers and a refurbished and refueled Truman.

Consider the following exchange between a senator and an admiral:

“If we were to give you more money, you’d keep the Truman in place, wouldn’t you? Would that be your druthers?” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked.

“Our druthers would be to not surrender a carrier that has 50-percent of its life remaining, but we would like to not do that at the expense of moving out on these other technologies that every assessment has told us” the Navy will need in the future, [said] Vice Adm. Bill Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

“So basically we should consider giving you more money, right?” Hirono asked.

Replied Merz, “yes, ma’am.”

You just have to love these admirals and generals.  The answer is always more money!

U.S. “defense” experts have always been most expert at getting the biggest slice of the federal budgetary pie.  That, and threat inflation.  Hence the appeal to a new cold war with China (primarily an economic juggernaut) and Russia (an energy giant with lots of nukes), even though the U.S. military clearly outclasses both countries in global dominance and “defense” spending.

The world of “defense” is just getting too absurd for me.  What next?  A U.S. carrier strike group deployed off the coast to defend our border with Mexico?  Our president did say we’re being invaded.  You heard it here first.

Are Drone Strikes Cowardly?

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Heroic warriors?

W.J. Astore

A recent article in The National Interest captured an open secret: Donald Trump has been using drone strikes far more than Barack Obama ever did.

The Pentagon likes to depict such strikes as incredibly accurate, with few or even no innocents killed.  Such a portrayal is inaccurate, however, since “precision” bombing isn’t precise.  Intelligence is often wrong.  Missiles don’t always hit their targets.  Explosions and their effects are unpredictable.

Recognizing those realities, are drone strikes also cowardly?

America likes to fancy itself the “home of the brave,” a land of “heroes” and “warriors.” But how heroic is it to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone, without any risk to yourself?  Aren’t warriors supposed to be on the receiving end of elemental violence as well as being the inflictors of it?

Experiencing violence, even reveling in it while enduring war’s passions and horrific results was part of what it meant to be a warrior.  Think of Achilles versus Hector in ancient days, or knights jousting with knights in the Middle Ages, or men not firing until they saw the white of the enemy’s eyes at Bunker Hill.  Even when machines intruded, it wasn’t just T-34 tanks versus Tigers at Kursk in 1943, or B-17 bombers versus Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Berlin in 1944: it was the men operating those machines who mattered — and who demonstrated heroism and warrior spirit.

But when war becomes robotic and routine for one side, action at a great distance and indeed at total remove from violence and its effects, can that be heroic in any way?  Isn’t drone warfare a form of denatured war, war without passion, war without risk to U.S. drone operators?

Don’t get me wrong.  Drone warfare has its pains for its “operators.”  PTSD exists for these men and women who pilot the drones and launch the missiles; watching other people die on video, when you’re responsible for their deaths, carries a cost, at least for some.  But is it not all-too-tempting to smite and kill others when they have no way of smiting you back?

Back in 2012, I wrote an article on the temptations of drone warfare.  I suggested that, “In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General [Robert E.] Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.”

That the Trump administration is turning so fondly to drone strikes (following the example of Obama, for once proudly) is yet another sign that America is far too devoted to war.  Is it not because war is so profitable for a few, and so painless for the rest of us?

There is no direct pain to America from drone warfare, but there’s also little recognition of war’s horrific costs and the need to end them; there is no immediate risk, but there’s also little recognition that there are ways to triumph other than simply killing one’s perceived enemies.

A final, heretical, question: Are Americans so eager to celebrate their warriors as heroes precisely because they so often practice a form of warfare that is unheroic and even cowardly?  If Americans were routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes by a distant foreign power, I think I know how we’d answer that question.

America’s Mad Nuclear Weapons Surge

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Trident II D5 Missile Launch.  No matter how “small” the warhead, you never want to see one of these launch under “real world” conditions

W.J. Astore

As a young captain in the Air Force, I visited Los Alamos National Lab in 1992. The mood there was grim. What use for a lab that develops and tests nuclear weapons when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was over and America was downsizing its nuclear forces? The people I talked to said the lab would have to reinvent itself; its nuclear physicists and engineers would have to adapt. Perhaps they might move to more commercial applications of technology. Better that than closing down the lab, they said.

Who knew that, 25+ years later, nuclear weapons would make their own “surge” and that the U.S. would plan to “invest” more than a trillion dollars in nuclear modernization, beginning with smaller, more “usable,” low-yield nuclear warheads for the Navy’s Trident missiles, as James Carroll wrote about yesterday at TomDispatch.com.  Even “small” warheads have genocidal implications, however, for once you start launching nuclear-tipped missiles, no matter how “small,” escalation is likely to follow.

That sunny day in New Mexico in 1992, I could not have imagined a new American surge in nuclear weapons, beginning with the Obama administration and now championed by men like Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton.  That day, it seemed the end of the era of MAD — mutually assured destruction — the end to fears of nuclear war.  Soon even conservatives like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz were calling for  the elimination of nuclear weapons.

But that was 2007-08, and this is now.  The madness is back, America.  I urge you to read and heed James Carroll’s warning at TomDispatch.com.  If we want to save ourselves as well as our planet’s biosphere, we need to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them.

American-Style Drone Warfare and How and When Humans Count

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Most drone-strike images show technology, e.g. drones, missiles, or targeting crosshairs with foreigners appearing as ant-like creatures in infrared cameras.  Rarely do we see damage, and, rarer still, the shredded and blasted bodies of innocents

W.J. Astore

When do humans count in drone warfare, and when do they not?

I thought of this question as I read Christopher Fuller’s “See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program.”  Revealingly, U.S. pilots and crews who operate these drones, such as Predators and Reapers, reject the terminology of “drones” and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system).  They prefer the term RPA, or remotely piloted aircraft.  They want to be known as the essential humans in the loop, they want to stand out, they want to count for something, and in fact the Department of Defense at various times has suggested a new “drone medal” to recognize their service.

Whereas American pilots want to stand up and be recognized as the pilots of their “remote aircraft,” the Pentagon doesn’t want to think about the targets of these drones as human beings.  Civilian casualties are grouped and shrouded under the term “collateral damage,” a nasty euphemism that combines a banking term (collateral) with the concept of damage that hints at reversibility and repair.  But collateral damage really means innocents blown up and blasted by missiles.  Shouldn’t these humans count?

Another term that Fuller discusses is “neutralization.”  The U.S. counterterrorism goal is to “neutralize” opponents, meaning, as Fuller notes, “killing, rendition, and imprisonment.”  Again, with a word like neutralization, we’re not encouraged to think of those being attacked as humans.  We’re just “neutralizing” a threat, right?  A terrorist, not a fellow human being.  Right?

Interestingly, the whole idea of terrorism is something they do, not us.  Why?  Because the U.S. defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  Note that word: subnational.  By this definition, nations do not commit terrorism, which is handy for the U.S., which presents its drone attacks as defensive or proactive or preemptive.

Finally, the Pentagon and the CIA are at pains to assert they take the utmost care in reducing “collateral damage” in their “neutralization” efforts.  Yet as Fuller notes in his book (page 214), “the U.S. government did not always know the identity or affiliations of those killed in its drone strikes.”

So who counts, and who doesn’t?  Whose humanity is to be celebrated (pilots of RPAs?), and whose humanity (innocent victims) is to be suppressed?

Addendum: On how the U.S. seriously undercounts civilian deaths in its air strikes, see this article.

Billions and Billions for the B-21 Stealth Bomber

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Conceptual drawing of the new B-21 stealth bomber

W.J. Astore

In a new article for TomDispatch.com. I tackle the Air Force’s latest stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.  The project will likely cost $100 billion, and possibly much more than this over its lifetime.  Is this truly what we need for our national “defense”?

By their nature,  bombers are not defensive weapons. They’re designed to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming destructive force. In other words, the B-21, strictly speaking, is not for national defense: it’s for national offense. That’s why the U.S. Air Force speaks so proudly of “global strike” against “any target.” It’s the empowerment as well as the enshrinement of a vision of violent and disruptive action by the U.S. military anytime, anywhere, on the planet. If we weren’t Americans, we’d recognize this vision for what it really is: a form of militarism gone mad.

Here is an excerpt from my article at TomDispatch.

The Air Force’s Strange Love for the New B-21 Bomber
The Military-Industrial Complex Strikes (Out) Again
By William J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. Air Force is working on a new stealth bomber? Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t, since the project is so secret that most members of Congress aren’t privy to the details. (Talk about stealthy!) Known as the B-21 Raider, after General Doolittle’s Raiders of World War II fame, it’s designed to carry thermonuclear weapons as well as conventional missiles and bombs. In conceptual drawings, it looks much like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, all wing and no fuselage, a shape that should help it to penetrate and survive the most hostile air defense systems on Earth for the purposes of a “global strike.” (Think: nuclear Armageddon.)

As the Air Force acquires those future B-21s, the B-2s will be retired along with the older B-1B bomber, although the venerable B-52 (of the Cold War era), much modified, will remain in service for the foreseeable future. At $550 million per plane (before the inevitable cost overruns even kick in), the Air Force plans to buy as many as 200 B-21s. That’s more than $100 billion in procurement costs alone, a boon for Northrop Grumman, the plane’s primary contractor.

If history is any judge, however, a boon for Northrop Grumman is likely to prove a bust for the American taxpayer. As a start, the United States has no real need for a new, stealthy, super-expensive, nuclear-capable, deep-penetrating strategic bomber for use against “peer” rivals China and Russia …

Here’s the nightmarish reality of actually bringing such weapons systems online: when the U.S. military develops a capability, it seeks to use it, even in cases where it’s wildly inappropriate. (Again, think of the massive B-52 bombings in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in a counterinsurgency campaign classically meant to win “hearts and minds.”) Fielding a new strategic bomber for global strike, including potential thermonuclear attacks, will not so much enhance national security as potentially embolden future presidents to strike whenever and wherever they want in a fashion devastating to human life. The B-21 isn’t a force-multiplier. It’s an Armageddon-enabler.

Flying High in our B-21s

Having marketed himself as a savvy military critic, is there any possibility that Donald Trump will have the smarts of Jimmy Carter when it comes to the B-21 program? Will he save America at least $100 billion (and probably far more) while eliminating yet another redundant weapons system within the Department of Defense? Fat chance. Even if he wanted to, The Donald doesn’t stand a chance against the Pentagon these days.

Flush with billions and billions of new taxpayer dollars, including funds for those F-35s and for new nukes from a bipartisan coalition in an otherwise riven Congress, America’s military services will fight for any and all major weapons systems, the B-21 included. So, too, will Congress, especially if Northrop Grumman follows the production strategy first employed by Rockwell International with the B-1: spreading the plane’s subcontractors and parts suppliers to as many states and Congressional districts as possible. This would, of course, ensure that cuts to the B-21 program would impact jobs and so drive votes in Congress in its favor. After all, what congressional representative would be willing to vote against high-paying jobs in his or her own state or district in the name of American security?

So here’s my advice to young model-builders everywhere: don’t blow up your B-21s anytime soon. Rest assured that the real thing is coming. If the Air Force wants to ensure that it has a new bomber, in the name of blasting America’s enemies to oblivion, so be it. It worked (partially and at tremendous cost) in 1943 in the flak- and fighter-filled skies of Nazi Germany, so why shouldn’t it work in 2043 over the skies of who-knows-where-istan?

Why does “your” Air Force think this way? Not just because it loves big bombers, but also because its biggest rivals aren’t in Russia or China or some “rogue” state like Iran. They’re right here in “the homeland.” I’m talking, of course, about the other military services. Yes, interservice rivalries remain alive and well at the Pentagon. If the U.S. Navy can continue to build breathtakingly expensive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (like the much-troubled USS Gerald R. Ford) and submarines, and if the Army can have all its tanks, helicopters, and associated toys, then, dammit, the Air Force can have what truly makes it special and unique: a new stealthy strategic bomber escorted by an even newer long-range stealthy fighter.

And don’t just blame the Air Force for such retrograde thinking. Its leaders know what’s easiest to sell Congress: big, splashy projects that entail decades of funding and create tens of thousands of jobs. As congressional representatives line up to push for their pieces of the action, military contractors are only too happy to oblige. As the lead contractor for the B-21, Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, has the most to gain, but other winners will include United Technologies of East Hartford, Connecticut; BAE Systems of Nashua, New Hampshire; Spirit Aerosystems of Wichita, Kansas; Orbital ATK of Clearfield, Utah, and Dayton, Ohio; Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; GKN Aerospace of St Louis, Missouri; and Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley, Washington. And these are just the major suppliers for that aircraft; dozens of other parts suppliers will be needed, and they’ll be carefully allocated to as many Congressional districts as possible. Final assembly of the plane will likely take place in Palmdale, California, integrating components supplied from sea to shining sea. Who says America’s coastal enclaves can’t join with the heartland to get things done?

Even if President Trump wanted to cancel the B-21 — and given his recent speech to graduates of the Naval Academy, the odds are that there isn’t a weapons system anywhere he doesn’t want to bring to fruition — chances are that in today’s climate of militarism he would face enormous push-back. As a colleague who’s still on active duty in the Air Force puts it, “What makes today worse than the Carter days is our flag-humping, military-slobbering culture. We can’t even have a discussion of what the country’s needs are for fear of ‘offending’ or ‘disrespecting’ the troops. Today, Carter would be painted as disloyal to those troops he was consigning to an early death because every procurement decision centers on a ‘grave’ or ‘existential’ threat to national security with immediate and deadly consequences.”

And so the Air Force and its flyboy generals will win the fight for the B-21 and take the American taxpayer along for the ride — unless, that is, we somehow have the courage to pry the control sticks from the cold, dead hands of hidebound military tradition and lobbying firepower. Until we do, it’s off we go (yet again), into the wild blue yonder, flying high in our B-21s.

Read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

Technology Substitutes for Strategy in U.S. Military Operations

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Yet more weapons: The JASSM

W.J. Astore

Once again, the U.S. military has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, as well as a new weapon called the JASSM-ER, described as “a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, the latter weapon is “likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.”  In short, the U.S. military demonstrated a new weapon for an ally and potential client while striking a country (Syria) that has no way of striking back directly at the U.S.

Here’s a report from Defense Industry Daily on the weapons used:

April 16/18: JASSM-ER makes its combat debut The USAF has fired Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile in combat for the first time. 19 such missiles were launched from two B-1B Lancer bombers during last weekend’s sortie against Syrian chemical weapon research and storage facilities, and were joined by 57 Tomahawk missiles launched from US naval assets, as well as Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles from British and French warplanes. While Russian sources in Syria claim that Russian and Syrian air defenses managed to down 71 or the total 105 cruise missiles launched during the Friday night operation—claims Washington refutes—a report on the mission by the Aviationist reckon the newer missiles—in particular the JASSM-ER, SCALP and Storm Shadow—would have been highly effective against their targets. 

One thing is certain: business is booming yet again for Lockheed Martin.

Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a substitute for it.  It amazes me, for example, how the U.S. military threw technology at the “problem” of Vietnam in an attempt to “win” that war.  Everything short of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Southeast Asia, yet those brave people refused to surrender.  U.S. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon were always sending messages through airpower and other forms of destructive technology, but the Vietnamese couldn’t have cared less about those “messages.”  They had one goal: expel the invader, unify the country, and they stuck to it despite all the high explosive, napalm, defoliants, electronic fences, and everything else inflicted upon them.

Americans tend to see technology as a panacea.  Even deadly technology.  So, for example, what’s the proposed solution to gun violence in the USA?  According to the NRA and our president, it’s more guns.  What’s the solution to violence in Syria?  According to the military and our president, it’s more bombs and missiles.  One clear winner emerges here: those who produce the guns, bombs, and missiles.

Tomahawks and drones and similar weapons are all about action at a distance. They incur no risk of harm to U.S. troops.  As a result, America’s leaders use them liberally to send “signals” and to add to the body count.  They strike because they can and because it’s relatively easy.  Action serves as a substitute for thought.  The only strategy is to keep blowing things up.

The U.S. strategy, such as it is, is defined and driven by Tomahawks and drones and related weaponry.  These weapons make possible “global reach, global power,” but they do not facilitate global thinking.  Promising decision or at least quick results, they lead only to more bodies and deeper quagmires.

The U.S. keeps getting bogged down in wars in part because of the faith the government places in technology.  So much is invested in military weaponry that it becomes a substitute for thought.

But there are no missions accomplished: there is only more destruction.

It’s a Free Country, and the Future of War

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German V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” an early, unguided cruise missile

W.J. Astore

Two more anecdotes from my dad’s war letters involve the nature of military life and the future of war.  In June 1945 my dad wrote about female nurses assigned to his post at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  He noted that:

“The nurses on the Post have been going out with enlisted men.  They [the authorities] are trying to stop it by breaking an enlisted man that has a rating & the nurses get fined $75.00.  Nurses are commissioned officers & they [the authorities] don’t like officers going with enlisted men.  [The] United States is supposed to be a free country so you can see how the Army is.  I don’t think the nurses would break the regulation if there were more male officers on the post.”

$75.00 was a lot of money in 1945 (two weeks’ pay, roughly, for the nurses).  And busting an enlisted man was a serious punishment as well.  Even with the war won in Europe and demobilization already starting, the Army was not about to look the other way when its nurses engaged in almost trivial fraternization.

The second anecdote involves my dad’s speculation about the future of war.  In March 1945 he watched a short movie on the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” an unguided cruise missile.  My dad wrote that:

“In a movie short they showed the German V-1 robot, jet-propelled bomb.  It’s really uncanny how the darn thing goes through the sky.  Also showed the damage they caused, which is really terrific.  If they have another war, after this one is finished, the United States won’t have to worry about sending troops overseas.  With the progress that they could make in 20 years all we’ll have to do, also the attacking country is to send the flying bombs over the oceans and on to the targets.  As long as the Allied nations stick together there shouldn’t be any more wars.”

Of course, the Allied countries didn’t stick together, and we’ve had plenty of wars since 1945.  But my dad was partly right about war’s future.  Think about how the U.S. has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against various enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.  The Tomahawk is essentially a much more sophisticated and guided version of the unguided V-1 cruise missiles pioneered by the Nazis in World War II.

A final comment: I like the way my dad assumed the U.S. would be the defending country in future wars.  Note how he writes “also the attacking country” would use flying bombs.  Sadly, the U.S. nowadays is usually the aggressor, even as the government couches its acts in terms of defense.

Today, America’s wars are endless, the troops are still overseas, but at least we live in a free country, right?  And now America has the best flying robot bombs as well.  The Nazis called these “vengeance” weapons; isn’t it wonderful today that the U.S. leads the world in making such weapons?