Back in May, a television interviewer asked Defense Secretary James Mattis what kept him awake at night. He answered, “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.” Well, that wasn’t quite correct.
Mattis wrote an October 17 letter to the four people whose actions are giving him insomnia: the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Known in Hill parlance as a “heartburn letter,” Mattis argued for corrections to aspects of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that the Pentagon can’t live with.
Of the nine points Mattis raised — none of which can be argued with sensibly — three stand out as monuments to congressional stupidity.
Last week, the Senate passed a budget resolution that paves the way for a tax reform bill. So far, so good. But what’s not so good is that the bill keeps defense spending at the same level it was in 2017 — maintaining the “sequestration” cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Mattis’s letter says:
The defense caps mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) are my primary concerns. As I have testified to your committee[s], no enemy in the field has done more to harm the warfighting readiness of our military than sequestration. Current caps continue to unnecessarily defer critical maintenance, limit aviation ability, delay modernization and strain our men and women in uniform.
Mattis is hitting the high points. We know that military aviation, to cite one critical example, has hit a dangerously low point. Late last year, about 70% of Marine F-18 aircraft were unfit to fly in combat. Earlier this year, reports from Air Force sources said that about 30% of the entire Air Force fleet of aircraft was in the same sad shape. The Navy is suffering about as badly as the other two services.
The Air Force is about 1,500 pilots short of mission requirements. It lacks the aircraft, fuel, and senior pilots to train new pilots quickly enough. On Friday, President Trump signed an executive order allowing the Air Force to recall to active duty up to 1,000 pilots who had either retired or separated from active duty. Before that order only 25 could be recalled each year. This is going to be hard on those recalled, who may have to leave high-paying civilian jobs, but it’s obviously necessary.
Paying those pilots, and funding their operations, is going to cost a lot of money that — because sequestration spending levels are maintained — will have to be robbed from other operations, maintenance, and training.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported last week about the Russian submarine that fired missiles at ISIS positions in Syria last summer. The Krasnodar evidently slipped out of its base in May and a U.S. carrier group tried, often unsuccessfully, to track it.
The Krasnodar is a relatively new (we think) diesel-electric submarine. The Russians are spending a lot of rubles to create new missiles, submarines, aircraft, and the like. The Chinese are doing the same. Us? Not so much.
One of the biggest promises Trump made in his campaign was to rebuild our military, raising it up from the Obama-imposed dismal depths of incapacity. Congress obviously hasn’t gotten the message. Mattis is entirely right: sequestration is killing our forces. Congress is doing precisely nothing to fix the problem.
Another example of what gives Mattis insomnia is truly amazing. His letter says:
I am troubled by the conventional approach applied to an unconventional problem in Senate Section 1621 dealing with military cyberwar organization and capabilities. The nature of cyber-attacks is ever evolving, and we need to maintain our ability to take decisive action against this increasingly dangerous threat. Section 1621(f) is particularly concerning as it would require the US to notify foreign governments before we take steps to defeat certain cyber threats. We request removal of this section during conference.
Mattis is arguing against something that is so spectacularly stupid, only Congress could have come up with it.
Cyberwar, as anyone who has enough IQ points to rub together to make a synapse fire could tell you, is conducted entirely in secret. Nations — including the most obvious perpetrators such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea — spend billions of dollars every year to attack our cyber networks for the purposes of espionage and sabotage.
We do some of the same to them but not nearly enough. Our actions have, with few exceptions, been taken on purely defensive bases. As of late last year (which is my most current information) the U.S. hadn’t developed a doctrine for offensive cyberwar far less institutionalized it.
Now we have Congress telling DoD that in order to attack a foreign network we have to first notify the nation from which it operates. Warning a cyber-aggressor before we counterattack or otherwise deal with its aggression does several things.
First, it tells the enemy that we know of their attack. That means we tell the enemy that we have the means of detecting what is certainly a top-secret operation and thereby surrender the advantages of knowledge and surprise.
Second, notification gives the enemy time to defend against our counterattack, perhaps enough to defeat it or protect its cyber assets with which the attack was made. A counterattack would be aimed at destroying (at least) those assets and others connected to them.
And, third, notification gives the enemy the opportunity to deny its action and portray us to the media as the aggressor.
Why on earth would anyone want to hobble our defenses that way?
We should, in secret, be developing a cyberwar doctrine — both offensive and defensive — that would do several things, including programming our networks to counterattack automatically, within microseconds, before the attacker has any knowledge that we have detected its attack.
The proposed legislation comes at a time when Western intelligence agencies (including ours) are still recovering from their purchase and use of Russian “antivirus” software from Russia’s Kaspersky Lab which anyone in the intel biz could tell you may as well be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the FSB. (The FSB is the old KGB with a new sign on the door.)
The Kaspersky software package wasn’t designed to protect computers. It was designed and includes spyware that enables the FSB to identify and copy top-secret information. That led to FSB copying the software NSA uses to invade foreign computer systems, a breach of security as serious as the Snowden leaks of top-secret NSA programs.
Mattis also opposes Alabama congressman Mike Rogers’s idea to create a separate “space corps” within the Air Force to manage and operate our assets in space. It’s an idea whose time should never come.
Rogers argues that the Air Force is giving too little emphasis to space operations. His reasoning, such as it is, insists that “Space must be a priority, and it can’t be one if you jump out of bed in the morning thinking about fighters and bombers first.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein counters that, well, we’re at war so we have to think about space and air assets at the same time. Goldfein said, “Anything that separates space and makes it unique and different, relative to all of the war-fighting missions that we perform that are reliant on space, I don’t think believe that will move us in the right direction at this time.”
That’s precisely right. Space assets — satellites — are relied on for everything from missile launch warnings, navigation, and intelligence gathering to secure communications. All of those things are woven into our strategies and tactics.
Mattis’s letter points out that adding layers of new bureaucracy at a time when all of the armed forces are “…focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions” is a bad idea.
We’re at war now, and as both Mattis and Goldfein pointed out, the greatest emphasis has to be on joint — i.e., multi-service, multi-platform — approaches to warfighting. One of Goldfein’s most important initiatives is to create a seamless, secure web of information available to all warfighters — information gathered by satellites, by aircraft, ships, and soldiers on the ground — and their commanders. That seamlessness promises to give us a technological advantage over less integrated forces. It shouldn’t be endangered by imposing another layer of bureaucracy.
Goldfein and Mattis are precisely right, but one more point needs to be added. Time and money.
It would take about a decade and billions of dollars — neither of which we can afford — to create a new service. There is every reason not to create a “space corps” and no reason to do so. Mr. Rogers should go back to minding the rest of his own neighborhood.
Every element of Mattis’s letter should be agreed to and acted upon by the armed services committees forthwith. Given the fact that the members of the HASC and SASC aren’t descendants of Werner von Braun, I’d bet against it.
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