Perspective on the Lost Reaper Drone

Our Defense Department leadership doesn’t have a larger long-term strategy to deal with Russia, the war in Ukraine, or any of our other major challenges.

by Newt Gingrich

As you watch the newly released, declassified video of Russian pilots harassing and colliding with a U.S. Reaper drone over the Black Sea – and the dire media reports warning the U.S.-Russia conflict could heighten – it’s important to keep things in perspective.

This incident is an expensive but minor challenge in a long-term, nuanced contest with Russia, whose leader is still operating with a Cold War mentality. At the end of the day, we lost an unmanned aircraft. It was valuable (in terms of monetary cost to produce, information gathering, and technological capabilities) but it is not something to go to war over.

This is especially true when you consider the more than 200 U.S. airmen who were shot down and lost while surveilling the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s and 1960s. These were patriots who risked – and ultimately gave – their lives so that we could have a better understanding of Soviet radar and nuclear capabilities. Many were killed in combat, some were likely tortured and interrogated by KGB operatives, others were sent to Soviet labor camps in the hinterlands of Siberia. Some of their families didn’t even learn of their deaths or whereabouts until the 1990s. In many other cases, families never learned the fates of their loved ones. If you are unfamiliar with the sacrifice these brave patriots made, Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent feature on their service. 

So, the downing of an expensive piece of spy equipment does not concern me too much.

I am far more concerned that our Defense Department leadership doesn’t have a larger long-term strategy to deal with Russia, the war in Ukraine, or any of our other major challenges. Further, I’m concerned that they don’t have a real grip on what’s happening in the present.

Remember: More than one year ago, our top military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, publicly said Russia would take Kyiv in three days. This is the same general who said the Afghan military could potentially withstand the Taliban’s takeover of the country after the U.S. surrender. (Set aside the moronically disastrous decision to give up Bagram Airfield as our primary eyes on Chinese activity).

After these two decisive failures, I am amazed Milley has not been retired. What must our adversaries think about the United States’ quality of intelligence? How does this repeated, demonstrable incompetence impact Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s plans for Taiwan? What if we are as wrong about the Chinese threat to Taiwan as we were about the Taliban’s threat to Afghanistan or the Russian threat to Ukraine?

I am picking on Gen. Milley, but in some ways he’s a symptom of a much bigger problem. We have 18 intelligence agencies. Apparently, they were all wrong. My suspicion is they were wrong not because they have bad personnel but because they are part of a large bureaucratic system which rejects new ideas, punishes dissent, and is primarily concerned with protecting itself rather than American interests.

The impact is these high-educated professionals bury their heads in the sand. They favor what they learned in graduate school – and what their peers say at cocktail parties – over what is really happening in the world. Our political leaders then get briefed on ideological rather than pragmatic intelligence. Consider that fewer than five years ago, many people in the Washington establishment did not think China posed a significant threat. In 2019, then-candidate Joe Biden brushed off concerns over competition with China saying, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!” About two years later, he said exactly the opposite.

Bureaucratic incompetence is the biggest risk to America’s safety.

Congress needs to get serious about modernizing our defense systems. You could likely reorganize our 18 intelligence agencies into about six. I often tell audiences that the Pentagon could be turned into a triangle and become much more efficient and effective at defending American interests.

With regard to the war in Ukraine and the long conflict with Russia, we need to learn from the failures in Afghanistan. Democracies don’t fight long wars well. We need to develop and successfully implement a strategy that results in the fastest, most decisive Ukrainian victory possible.

From China, to Iran, to South Korea, our adversaries are watching. America must not continue to fail.

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