TIME South China Sea

The South China Sea’s Ticking Time Bomb

Still image from United States Navy video shows a U.S. Navy crewman aboard a surveillance aircraft viewing a computer screen purportedly showing Chinese construction on the reclaimed land of Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands
Reuters from U.S. Navy A sailor aboard a P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane points out claimed Chinese construction on Fiery Island Reef during a flight last week.

Beijing is bulldozing sand into the eyes of the world

When it comes to international relations, there are many ways to change the situation on the ground. But the Chinese are trying a new one far off their coast: they are creating new ground.

It’s part of Beijing’s plan to extend its claim to 90% of the South China Sea, and now the Chinese government is ordering the U.S. and other nations to steer clear, or at least to seek permission before visiting the neighborhood.

Sure, it’s not a whole lot of land. China has dredged about 2,000 acres of once-submerged sand to enlarge five islets in the Spratly Islands between Vietnam and the Philippines. That’s a 0.00009% increase in the country’s total land mass of 2.3 billion acres or roughly three times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

But if China continues on its present course—and the international community doesn’t back down—military confrontation seems likely. Luckily, China must reinforce its military claims to the disputed islands before such a showdown, which gives each side time for negotiation.

China said Monday that it had formally complained to Washington about its “provocative behavior” following the flight of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the region last week. The Chinese had warned the a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane eight times to leave Chinese airspace as it flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. The Navy plane refused.

“We urge the U.S. to correct its error, remain rational and stop all irresponsible words and deeds,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday. “Freedom of navigation and overflight by no means mean that foreign countries’ warships and military aircraft can ignore the legitimate rights of other countries as well as the safety of aviation and navigation.”

China’s claim of extended sovereignty is upsetting its neighbors, including the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as Washington. But their denunciations will be little match for the changes coming to the South China Sea sandscape. Unlike U.S. and allied rhetoric about international law, the Chinese are literally making concrete claims in the Spratlys.

“They have manufactured land there at a staggering pace just in the last months,” U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, who becomes commander of U.S. Pacific Command on Wednesday, tells Time. “They’re still going,” he adds. “They’ve also made massive construction projects on artificial islands for what are clearly, in my point of view, military purposes, including large airstrips and ports.”

So far, beyond words of warning to those getting too close to what China contends is its territory, it has only dredging gear, bulldozers and graders to enforce its claim. So the U.S. is ignoring it. But that, Pentagon officials believe, is all but certain to change. And as it changes, the stakes, and resulting tensions, will grow.

The U.S. Navy is weighing dispatching additional warships to the region to buttress its claim that these are international waters. Washington insists that contested sovereignty claims must be resolved through diplomacy and not dredging.

The Chinese digging is happening atop “submerged features that do not generate territorial claims,” David Shear, the Pentagon’s top Pacific civilian, told a Senate panel May 13. “So, it is difficult to see how Chinese behavior in particular comports with international law.”

Such legal niceties are not deterring Beijing. China is building built a long airstrip and has deployed an early-warning radar on the Spratly’s Fiery Cross Reef. That will give the Chinese improved detection of what it claims are intruders into its national airspace.

U.S. Government

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed China’s claim of sovereignty further out into the South China Sea, where it conflicts with claims of local U.S. allies like the Philippines. The U.S. says it can fly within 12 miles of a nation’s coast, while China says its permission is needed for any flights coming within 200 miles.

The early-warning radar, U.S. officials believe, is only the first step in China’s quest to control one of the world’s most vital waterways. More than $5 trillion in goods passes through the South China Sea every year. It contains rich fishing grounds, and potentially great reserves of oil and other natural resources.

The sea is speckled with more than 30,000 islands, making conflicting territorial claims common. The Spratlys consist of some 750 islets and atolls. While spread across 164,000 square miles—the size of California—they total only 1.5 square miles.

The Chinese are likely to bolster their early-warning radar on Fiery Cross Reef with air-defense radars, U.S. Navy officials believe. Once early-warning radars detect incoming aircraft, they will hand off that information to the air-defense radars, which would allow the Chinese to track—and target—any incoming aircraft.

But air-defense radars and the blips they reveal on China’s radar screens are worthless without anything to back them up. So the air-defense radars, U.S. officials believe, ultimately will be tied into a network of air-defense missiles. They’ll be capable of shooting down any interlopers.

Once an air-defense network is in place, China will probably reinforce its claim to what it views as its growing archipelago by basing fighter aircraft there.

Shear, the Pentagon official, noted that China’s land grab is different than Russia’s now underway in Ukraine. “China is not physically seizing territory possessed by or controlled by another country,” he said. “They’re not evicting people from contested land features. They’re not nationalizing territory.”

But they are building an aircraft carrier some 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland. No one knows better than the U.S. Navy the value of an airfield in the middle of an ocean.

Sure, it won’t be moveable. But it also won’t be sinkable.

TIME Military

Pentagon Rhetoric About Ramadi’s Fall Risks U.S. Credibility

IRAQ-CONFLICT-ANBAR
Sabah Arar—AFP/Getty Images Ramadi residents flee their city after ISIS fighters took control of it on Saturday.

Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet if you're not winning

When generals start playing with syntax, hold on to your wallets. “The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) was not driven out of Ramadi,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. “They drove out of Ramadi.”

That grammatical shift from the passive to the active voice—Dempsey boasts a master’s degree in literature from Duke, after all—highlights just how badly Iraq’s U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now going.

“We saw this movie—it was called Vietnam,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who began his career in that country in 1967, advising South Vietnamese marines. “They are losing credibility. We went through this in Vietnam where we touted pacification and winning all these battles while strategically losing the war.”

The growing disconnect between what’s happening on the ground, and what U.S. military leaders say is happening on the ground, has consequences. “For the last 13 years, even though we have not done well in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the American people have stayed with the military,” Bing West, a one-time Marine infantryman and former assistant defense secretary, says. “But if the American people now see a gap between the reality and what the military is telling them, then you end up with the corrosiveness that we saw in Vietnam.”

Dempsey’s verbal twist—implying that ISIS didn’t force some of Iraq’s best troops out of the city, but, thanks in part to American training, they left in a crafty and bold military move—comes on the heels of a Friday briefing at the Pentagon that Saturday revealed to be close to fiction.

“We firmly believe [ISIS] is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” Marine Brigadier General Thomas Weidley told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from the region. “The Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress,” Weidley, chief of staff of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS operation, added. “The coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they conduct operations in Ramadi.”

The next day, after a series of bombings, ISIS fighters took over Ramadi after Iraqi troops fled, collecting a half-dozen U.S.-provided tanks and 100 vehicles abandoned by the Iraqis in their rush to drive out of the capital of Anbar province. ISIS forces killed an estimated 500 Iraqi troops and civilians, while 25,000 residents fled the city. In addition to Ramadi, they now occupy the major Iraqi cities of Mosul and Fallujah.

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Pentagon officials argue that the long-term U.S. strategy—stepped-up (re)training of Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. and allied air power—ultimately will prevail. They note that they have said from the start that the anti-ISIS campaign could take three years. The U.S. joined the fight last August, and has been flying nearly-daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. There’s a push “for a narrative about success, and that the strategy is fine, that influences different echelons of our government and military to not go outside that narrative,” says Derek Harvey, a one-time Army intelligence officer now at the University of South Florida. “That disconnect risks undermining their credibility.” The retired colonel, who worked for Army general David Petraeus, believes the U.S. focus on vehicles destroyed “measures progress by elements that are irrelevant and meaningless.” The U.S.-led effort is additionally handicapped because it has been done half-heartedly. “A bad strategy that is not properly resourced has a zero chance of success,” he says.

The Pentagon has deployed about 3,000 U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces, although President Obama has restricted their efforts to areas well behind the front lines. That means they can’t call in air strikes and gather front-line intelligence that could give Iraqi forces a critical advantage. Zinni contends a relatively small U.S. combat force on the ground inside Iraq could destroy ISIS, but Obama’s aversion to casualties has ruled that out. “Everybody with any kind of military experience in the Pentagon knows damn right well that this strategy isn’t going to work because you’re counting on breaking his will and there’s no sign of that happening,” he adds. “This strategy has got to bring up Vietnam, where they were saying, `Give us time, we’ll kill enough of them and hit a tipping point.’ The problem is they have not found the tipping point.”

The American people, following more than a decade of war, may not be in the mood for another two years of fighting with an unreliable ally. The Pentagon is doing what it can despite the restrictions the White House has imposed. But the over-selling of military progress in battling ISIS is the first step in a treacherous march toward disillusionment that the U.S. military has now begun.

“If the battle is going against you—and it is—do not put yourself in the position where the credibility of the U.S. military is undermined,” West says of Dempsey’s drive-time comment. “If it doesn’t look good, say nothing.”

TIME Military

How the U.S. Would Destroy Iran’s Nuclear Program

DoD The Massive Ordnance Penetrator hits a test target.

'Massive Ordnance Penetrator' would be tapped for mission

The U.S. military has been getting ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities to smithereens even longer than Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to negotiate them away. And while Thursday’s “framework” between Tehran and the U.S. and five other nations could lead to a peaceful accord this summer, the Pentagon is ready if it doesn’t.

Iran has been conducting much of its suspected nuclear-weapons work for years in underground labs and research facilities thought to be able to survive attacks by earlier generations of U.S. military bunker-busters.

So the Defense Department has spent just as much time procuring a bigger punch.

“In October 2014, the Air Force successfully completed one weapon drop from the B-2 aircraft on a representative target,” the Pentagon’s top weapons-tester reported in January. “The test, conducted at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, demonstrated weapon behavior after planned enhancements were incorporated.”

In late 2009, the Air Force quietly circulated a solicitation seeking a “Quick Reaction Capability” to “defeat a specific set of Hard and/or Deeply Buried Targets.” The weapon, the service said, would “maximize effects against Hard and/or Deeply Buried Targets (HDBTs), while minimizing time over target.” The Air Force said it needed the weapon to meet “Urgent Operational Needs requirements”—generally a plea from a battlefield commander who doesn’t think he has the weapons he needs to accomplish a mission assigned to him.

“The system will hold at risk those highest priority assets essential to the enemy’s war-fighting ability, which are heavily defended and protected,” the Air Force elaborated in February 2011 budget documents, “providing a critical global strike capability not currently met by inventory conventional weapons.”

The $15 million GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator weighs in at about 30,000 pounds, six times the heft of the existing GBU-28 bunker busters and nearly five tons heavier than the 22,600-pound GBU-43, once known as the “mother of all bombs.” The Pentagon has spent more than $300 million for 20 of GBU-57s.

Guided to its destination by GPS-guided lattice-type fins, the GBU-57’s alloy steel hull—some 80% of its weight—is designed to remain intact as it drills through rock or reinforced concrete before setting off its 5,300-pound warhead. Air Force officials have said it represents a “bridge” capability between existing bunker busters and nuclear weapons themselves.

After several upgrades, the Air Force has let it been known that there’s an operational stockpile of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. They’re not far from the B-2 bombers now ready to carry them 7,000 miles to Iran.

BoeingA mockup of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
TIME Military

Saudi Air War Over Yemen Leaves U.S. on Sidelines

Saudi-led coalition launch airstrike in Yemen
Sinan Yiter / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Houthis in the Yemeni city of Saana fire anti-aircraft weapons in the general direction of Saudi-led attacking warplanes March 30.

But former American commander says it’s about time

When it came time to bomb Libya—both times, in fact, in 1986 and 2011—American airpower led the way. When Iraq was in the crosshairs—all three times, in 1991, 2003 and 2014—the stars and bars of the U.S. Air Force led the charge. Same thing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and even Iran (against oil platforms and small boats in the Persian Gulf in 1987-1988).

That history makes it almost relaxing for the U.S. military to be sitting out the latest air war launched by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels now occupying a growing chunk of Yemen. The kingdom, which kicked off aerial attacks March 25, is nervous about the Iranian-backed rebels along its southern border. But Riyadh’s hardly flying solo: it has been joined by Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

Washington shouldn’t feel left out, according to Anthony Zinni, the retired four-star Marine who headed U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region, from 1997 to 2000. “Ever since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, we’ve been pushing to get some sort of alliance in the region,” he says. “We wanted them to come together and basically find a way where we could support them but not have to lead them all the time.”

Zinni says the Saudis have acted because they hate the Houthis, hate the Iranians, and hate the idea of an ungoverned state next door. “They will not tolerate a Houthis-led Yemen on their southern border,” he adds. “And they’re pissed that the Iranians support them.” Saudi Arabia has attacked the Houthis before, he notes, but never this extensively.

Precise details about what each country allied in the battle against the Houthis is doing remain murky. But it’s obvious a lot of the air attacks on Houthi sites, in what Riyadh has dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, involve U.S.-built warplanes dropping U.S.-built bombs.

Much of Saudi Arabia’s air force consists of U.S.-built warplanes. It says it has dedicated 100 to the fight, and lost a St. Louis-built F-15 involved in the campaign March 26 (both pilots rescued by a U.S. helicopter from the Gulf of Aden). Bahrain has earmarked up to 12 Fort Worth-built F-16s, with Jordan and Morocco contributing six apiece. Kuwait reportedly has dispatched 15 St. Louis-built F-18s to the battle.

But the U.S. role is decidedly limited. “Our current position is that we will help the Saudis with intelligence and logistics and planning support,” Army General Lloyd Austin, Zinni’s successor as chief of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 26. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the U.S. has been selling weapons and providing training to many nations in the region for decades. Most Americans have no interest in wading into another war. President Obama—with his pledge not to deploy U.S. ground combat troops in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria—shares their view (although the U.S. has been bombing ISIS since August).

While U.S. intelligence has begun flowing to the Saudis, logistical help remains largely in the planning stages, U.S. officials say. U.S. intelligence is being funneled to the Saudis through the Combined Air and Space Operations Center at the major U.S. al Udeid air base in Qatar—the same base conducting the daily air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria. “Right now it’s almost exclusively intel—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” a U.S. military officer says of the American aid.

“Log[istical] support hasn’t really kicked in yet,” he adds. “When it does it will be mostly refueling and spare parts. It’s not clear yet where the [aerial refueling] tankers would one from. Presumably al Udied.”

Without the U.S. in the lead, Washington can’t start and stop bombing. But it retains some control: it can control the flow of spare parts for the warplanes it built and the bombs they drop.

Of course, one of the advantages of being in charge is calling the shots, and knowing why they’re being called. When it comes to the Saudi effort against the Houthis, Austin acknowledged at that armed services committee session that he’s all but clueless. “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign,” Austin said. “I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.”

When you’re out of the loop, you also don’t know what’s going to happen next. The Saudi defense chief informed him of the impending strikes “the day of the attacks,” Austin said, “so it was not much before that they actually started the attacks.”

Read next: Al-Qaeda Group Frees Hundreds of Inmates in Yemen

TIME Military

U.S. Resumes Weapons Flow to Egypt

An Egyptian Air Force F-16 fighter jet flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir square in Cairo
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters A U.S.-built Egyptian F-16 flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters in Tahrir square in Cairo in January 2011.

But the White House announcement wasn't only about weapons

President Obama on Tuesday lifted his nearly two-year ban on shipping American weapons to Egypt, a restriction imposed after its military kicked out its elected government in 2013.

Obama relayed news of the move in a telephone call to Egyptian President (and former Army general) Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. It will allow for the shipment of 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M-1 Abrams tank upgrades. The White House added that the Administration will continue to ask Congress to approve $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

CRSU.S. aid to Egypt is overwhelmingly for new weapons, designated “FMF” (“Foreign Military Financing”).

The resumption of arms shipments to Egypt is in keeping with the growth of U.S. arms sales abroad. Major American weapons exports grew by 23% between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said on March 16. “The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool,” Aude Fleurant, of SIPRI, said when the group released its annual arms-sales accounting. “But in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure.”

The White House announcement wasn’t only about weapons. “President Obama also reiterated U.S. concerns about Egypt’s continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials,” it said in a statement. And, as the Administration drafts proposed legislation to resume military aid to Egypt, it “will not make the so-called ‘democracy certification’ in that legislation,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

In other words, Egypt remains little more than a military junta now wearing civilian clothes, and the White House won’t pretend otherwise.

All this is what diplomats call a return to the status quo ante—the way things were before. Obama is eager to defeat the militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, defeat Islamic fundamentalist uprisings in Libya and Yemen and tamp down Iran’s ambitions—nuclear and otherwise. If he, and the U.S. government, have to cozy up to coup-plotters to achieve that goal, that’s realpolitik.

Cairo has recently suggested it may send ground troops into Yemen to bolster air strikes being carried out there by Saudi Arabia against the Iranian-backed Houthis rebels. Obama is now willing to resume the arms flow to Egypt in hopes of improving relations between the two nations as they join with other countries in a bid to restore stability to the war-racked region.

After nearly 40 years of such aid, the record is not reassuring. “Since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the United States has provided Egypt with large amounts of military assistance,” the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this month. “U.S. policy makers have routinely justified aid to Egypt as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and on sustaining the treaty—principles that are supposed to be mutually reinforcing.”

TIME Military

The Budget Trick That Made the Pentagon a Fiscal Functioning Alcoholic

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Erik Simonsen / Getty Images The Pentagon's $391 billion, 2,443-plane F-35 program is the costliest in history.

Bookkeeping gimmick creates a `co-dependency'

If the Pentagon needs more money—and that’s debatable—the Republicans have chosen the worst possible way to do it in the budgetary roadmaps both the House and Senate have recently approved.

That’s because they’ve kept in place the budget caps in place for defense and domestic discretionary spending for the proposed 2016 budget. While that keeps domestic spending in check, they’ve opted to fatten up the Pentagon’s war-fighting account by about $90 billion, which isn’t subject to the budget limits. Even President Obama, under heavy pressure from the Joint Chiefs, has blinked and said military spending should be boosted above the caps set in 2011. But he wants domestic spending increased as well.

The idea of special war-fighting budgetary add-ons makes sense, because while the Pentagon’s base budget trains and outfits the U.S. military, it doesn’t pay for it to wage war. But such Overseas Contingency Operations accounts are supposed to go away when the wars end, as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq (the current U.S.-led small-scale air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, like the 2011 air war over Libya, can be funded out of the base budget). But the Republicans have basically perverted a responsible approach to funding the nation’s wars into an annual, multi-billion-dollar slush fund subject to even less congressional scrutiny than regular military budgets get.

CSBAThe Pentagon budget increasingly is being inflated with war funding that has little to do with funding wars.

“There’re a lot of different opinions about whether there should be an overseas contingency account or not, and whether it’s a slush fund or not,” then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel said last September.

The account, whatever it’s called, has become a rhetorical device: pump it up, defense hawks say, or risk crippling national security. Of course, that’s flat-out wrong. If the nation believes it needs to spend more on the military, it should hold an honest debate on the topic and then vote accordingly, without budgetary chicanery.

Hagel’s successor, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, is warning that the military needs more money beyond the $499 billion permitted by the 2011 law. But he says that force-feeding the Pentagon like a foie gras goose doesn’t solve the problem. “Current proposals to shoe-horn DOD’s base-budget funds into our contingency accounts would fail to solve the problem,” he said Thursday, “while also undermining basic principles of accountability and responsible long-term planning.”

So as the defense-budget debate continues, here are some facts to keep in mind:

1. With the Pentagon’s base-budget caps in place, its funding would rise slightly in coming years. Accounting for inflation basically makes for flat spending through 2024. The U.S. military budget today, under those caps, is higher than the Cold War average. That’s because even as the U.S. military shrinks, the cost of each remaining weapon bought and troop recruited has soared.

2. The reason the Pentagon is having trouble living within those levels is that it has grown used to pilfering its war-fighting accounts to fund normal operations, including purchasing weapons. A recent congressional report said that the Pentagon spent $71 billion of its war accounts on non-war spending from 2001 to 2014.

3. The war-fighting accounts have accounted for 23% of Pentagon spending over the past decade. Like a functioning alcoholic, the U.S. military has gotten used to the constant buzz, and is petrified of being forced to put the bottle away.

But here’s why it should stop cold turkey and get back to basic budgets:

1. Without standard congressional scrutiny, the money will be spent with even less oversight than normal Pentagon spending.

2. Because it is an annual appropriation that has to be renewed each year, there is no way the Pentagon can wisely budget for it in advance, and spent it smartly when and if it gets it.

3. Finally, counting on such a loophole sends the wrong signal. Troops are being paid and weapons bought, in part, with the equivalent of payday loans.

It also leads allies to question U.S. commitments. “We’re putting things in the Overseas Contingency Operations fund like the European Reassurance Initiative,” says Todd Harrison, a defense-budget expert at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank. “If we’re really trying to reassure our European allies in the face of a more-assertive Russia that we’re going to be there for them, why are we putting that into an account that’s only one year at a time?”

TIME Military

Army to Try Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for Desertion and ‘Misbehavior’

Had no option if it wanted to maintain good order and discipline

The Army had little choice other than to charge Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with desertion. Otherwise, it faced an insurrection in the ranks, corrosion of discipline—or both.

“Bowe Bergdahl is a coward,” says Rob Kumpf, a one-time Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a refrain echoed by many active-duty troops, although Bergdahl has yet to tell his side of the story publicly. “While I strongly believe that we, as Americans, are duty bound to never leave one of our own behind,” Kumpf says, “I strongly hope that the government does what it needs to do to punish Mr. Bergdahl for his crimes.”

Bergdahl fell into Taliban hands in Afghanistan in 2009 after he reportedly became disillusioned with the war and walked away from his combat outpost. He was released after five years in captivity in a controversial exchange for five detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Army announced Wednesday that he is being charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. A preliminary hearing could lead to a full-fledged court martial.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, hailed the action. “My Army showed some backbone,” he says. “At least some of our generals have spines.”

The Army’s decision is gutsy, on two counts: first of all, it holds the White House, which celebrated his release with a Rose Garden ceremony featuring President Obama and Bergdahl’s parents, up to ridicule.

President Obama Makes A Statement On Release Of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
J.H. Owen – Pool / Getty ImagesPresident Obama hails Bergdahl’s return home last May with his parents, Jani and Bob.

Secondly, it means the Army could have to explain why it accepted Bergdahl as a soldier two years after he washed out of Coast Guard basic training, normally a red flag for recruiters.

While the desertion charge carries a maximum of five years imprisonment (only in a declared war can it carry the death penalty), the misbehavior charge could lead to a lifetime prison sentence. “The second charge—which is similar to ‘aiding and abetting’ in civilian parlance—suggests to me that we have strong evidence that Bergdahl may have given the Taliban important tactical information, or have otherwise been helpful to them,” Peters says.

While Bergdahl’s legal team didn’t respond directly to the charges in a statement it issued, it asked “that all Americans continue to withhold judgment until the facts of this case emerge.” Pentagon officials suggested a plea deal might avoid a public court-martial.

The Army faced grave consequences if it elected not to pursue the charges against Bergdahl. “The decision to court martial Bergdahl was probably the only one that the Army could make,” says Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel who served as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Any army has to have discipline at its core, and he is accused of deliberately leaving his post which endangered those soldiers who had to go look for him.”

Soldiers have alleged (although the Pentagon has said it can’t confirm) at least six U.S. troops died in clashes with the Taliban while hunting for Bergdahl after he went missing and was seized by the Taliban in Paktika province on June 30, 2009. “Bergdahl’s walking away was a large factor contributing to my son’s death,” Andy Andrews of Cameron, Texas, told TIME after Bergdahl’s release. His son, 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, was killed by an RPG September 4, 2009, while protecting a fellow soldier. They had been on a routine patrol near where Bergdahl vanished, and had been asking locals about him when they were attacked. “Sergeant Bergdahl is not a hero, and my son—who sacrificed himself to save others—was a hero,” Andrews said.

The Taliban released Bergdahl last May in a controversial trade for five Taliban detainees the U.S. was holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized Obama for not informing them of the trade before it happened. Soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit kept quiet about his disappearance until the White House ceremony heralding his return to the U.S.

“I think he abandoned his post while the other four soldiers were asleep,” Greg Leatherman, Bergdahl’s former squad leader, told TIME after Bergdahl returned to U.S. soil (he has spent much of his time since at a San Antonio, Texas, Army post, where his preliminary hearing will be held at a yet-to-be-specified date). “He was a loner, he didn’t like to share much with anyone. Read the Koran quite a bit, which I respected. I saw it as him trying to be a better soldier, learning more about the people we were going to work with,” Leatherman said. “Turns out he was preparing.”

Charles Jenkins’ fate illustrates what Bergdahl might face, if the pre-trial hearing announced Wednesday leads to his eventual conviction at court martial. Jenkins deserted his Army unit in South Korea in 1965 and lived in North Korea until 2004. He ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy. He received a dishonorable discharge, was stripped to the Army’s lowest rank, forfeited all pay and benefits, and was sentenced to 30 days in prison (he got out six days early for good behavior). He now lives in Japan.

But Jenkins was 64 when sentenced (Bergdahl turns 29 Saturday) and no one allegedly died trying to find Jenkins after he headed north through the Demilitarized Zone one freezing January night nearly 50 years ago.

The case also poses some risks for the Army itself. Bergdahl was discharged early from the Coast Guard, after only 26 days in boot camp in 2006, two years before he tried to enlist in the Army. The Coast Guard described the action as an “uncharacterized discharge,” which is typical for someone who leaves the service without completing basic training.

Generally such an event would have required a waiver from the Army before allowing such a prospective recruit to enlist. A wide variety of bars to enlistment—including legal problems and health concerns—require waivers because the Pentagon believes such recruits won’t do as well in uniform as those without such warning signs.

In 2008, the year Bergdahl joined the Army, the service granted waivers for about 20% of its recruits, usually for illicit drug use or other legal problems. Such waivers spiked as popular support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sagged and the Army found it more difficult to entice young Americans to enlist.

Read next: The Desertion Charge for Bowe Bergdahl Was Months in the Making

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TIME Military

Afghan President Thanks the Pentagon … and U.S. Taxpayers

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the Pentagon courtyard Monday morning. DoD photo / Sean Hurt

Ashraf Ghani stops by Defense Department to acknowledge U.S. sacrifices

Nearly 14 years after the U.S. military forced the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, the country’s new leader showed up bright and early Monday morning in the Pentagon courtyard to thank American troops and taxpayers for their sacrifices for his country.

Unlike Hamid Karzai, who served as Afghanistan’s president from 2004 to 2014, Ashraf Ghani is far more accommodating to U.S. concerns. He thanked the 2,215 U.S. troops who died in Afghanistan, the 20,000 wounded, and the nearly 1 million who served there.

“You have been in the most remotest valleys, and the highest peaks, and the parched deserts, and beautiful valleys, but also in most demanding situations,” he said. “When you wake up at night, sometimes you’re not sure whether you’re back there or here, but what gratifies me as the president of Afghanistan is what I’ve had the honor to hear repeatedly from American veterans, ‘I have left a piece of my heart in Afghanistan.’”

Ghani is in the U.S. this week to meet with President Obama and seek Washington’s continued help, both military and financial, to strengthening his struggling nation. He is spending much of Monday with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry discussing his nation’s needs at an Obama-free Camp David. Ghani knows how this game is played: he worked at the World Bank, two blocks from the White House, for more than a decade before returning to his homeland in 2002 following the Taliban’s overthrow.

Ghani said he hoped American veterans of the war in Afghanistan will someday return as tourists with their families so that Afghans “will be able to say thank you to each one of you personally, shake your hands, and invite you to our homes.”

Unlike Karzai, who could be taciturn, Ghani was good natured as he praised the U.S. generals who commanded the Afghan campaign. “Let me say these generals hardly get more than six hours of sleep. And thanks to Pentagon, most of the time, because of [overnight] video conferences, they don’t even get that,” he said to laughs from his chilly-morning Pentagon audience.

He praised Obama for his “sense of clarity” in ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan three months ago, and the U.S. role in creating “a proud Afghan security force that has dealt with the best of you and emulates the best of your example.” Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.

Finally, he thanked U.S. taxpayers for making “your hard-earned dollars available” to rebuild his country. The U.S. has spent nearly $700 billion in Afghanistan since 2001. Ghani pledged “to account for every single one of those dollars and pennies.” That will delight the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who has spent years trying to do just that.

TIME Military

Pentagon and Its Allies Begin the Budget Death Watch

House Armed Services hearing with Joint Chiefs of Staff for FY2016
Yuri Gripas / REUTERS General Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Bottom Line: 'The only way to save lives is to boost spending'

War is a nasty business. Soldiers and civilians die. It has been ever thus.

That’s what makes Tuesday’s hearing before the House Armed Services Committee distressing. Unless the Pentagon gets more money next year, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Army’s top general agreed, more U.S. soldiers will die.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, pressed Army General Ray Odierno on the declining readiness rates of his 32 brigade combat teams. Only one in three of the 5,000-troop units is ready to go to war today, short of the Army’s two-in-three target.

“Doesn’t this mean that more people will get injured or killed?” Turner asked the Army chief of staff. “It’s not just an issue of readiness, risk, capability or mission. It’s that more people will get injured or killed. Is that correct?”

“That’s absolutely right, Congressman,” Odierno responded. “It means it’ll take us longer to do our mission. It’ll cost us in lives. It’ll cost us in injuries. And it potentially could cost us in achieving the goals that we’re attempting to achieve, as well.”

House Oversight Committee Hearing On Obamacare Transparency
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty ImagesRep. Mike Turner. R-Ohio, member of the armed services committee

“So, the translation we need is, we can lose, people will die, and people will be injured?” Turner asked again.

“That is correct, sir,” Odierno confirmed.

It became something of a refrain. “Let me now do my plain speaking,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James added. The capped, congressionally-mandated military budget “is going to place American lives at greater risk, both at home and abroad, if we are forced to live with it.”

It’s a craven way to beg. If the nation doesn’t want soldiers to die, it should shelve its military. The question isn’t will soldiers die, but how many deaths is the nation willing to pay for its national defense?

Every pound of armor not added to a tank, every ounce of ceramic plate not added to body armor, means troops could die. So does every compromise baked into the design of aircraft ejection seats, landing craft used by the Marines, and the hull thickness of Navy warships. Decisions like this are made every day inside the Pentagon bureaucracy.

The job of the military and Congress isn’t to reduce the risk of military deaths to zero. It’s to calibrate the threats and set the death rate at what the nation concludes is an acceptable level.

Some lawmakers at the hearing made clear tradeoffs are required. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former Air Force A-10 pilot, warned that the Air Force’s plan to retire its A-10 ground-attack plane seems shortsighted when, sometimes, “only the A-10 can save lives.” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, conceded that there “are circumstances where you would prefer to have an A-10.” But the cost of a warplane like the A-10 that can only do a single mission is unaffordable. “We have priced ourselves out of that game,” he said.

“So it’s a budget issue,” McSally declared—and an added cost that, in her eyes, troops on the ground might have to pay in blood, yet one the Air Force is willing to pay.

Lawmakers’ efforts to save pet programs and bases can have a similar impact, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine, added. “Sometimes when we’re protecting jobs back here at home, we’re putting lives at risk overseas,” he said. Then the four-tour Iraq vet stated the obvious to the military brass arrayed before the panel: “It’s really your decision to make those tradeoffs.”

The military always says one death is one too many. But the troops know that sending young men and women to train, never mind fight, among heavy, fast-moving equipment, often punctuated by explosions and heat, makes death inevitable. There have been many examples of military hardware found to be unduly dangerous, and fixes were made. Not to eliminate death, but to reduce it.

Tough training makes better troops. “The more you sweat in peace,” Army General George S. Patton said, “the less you bleed in war.”

Military training is dangerous. Just ask the families of the 11 soldiers and Marines who died when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed Mar. 10 in Florida amid dense fog. They died not because they weren’t ready, but because the U.S. military had the money to pay for their training.

Hundreds of troops perish, largely unnoticed, in such training accidents every year.

Training also costs money. If budget cuts reduce training, it’s likely that fewer troops will die in training accidents. But that’s no reason to cut training; the nation wants its fighting forces honed to a sharp edge.

So the Pentagon funds drills, exercises and war games designed to prime the nation for war. Just because some troops will be killed in such training is no reason to curtail it.

The same holds for fitting the nation’s military strategy to what the nation has decided to allocate for defense. Hawks argue that you shouldn’t fit strategy to budgets, but that has always been the reality. The public will fund the Pentagon to the degree it thinks is necessary, but no more.

Of course, if money were no object, ready is always better. But the smarter question isn’t about the prospect of additional deaths if only one of every three brigade combat teams is ready for war. The smarter question is why is the target two out of every three?

And that leads to another question, even for the math-challenged among us: the nation, through its messy political process, has decided the Army need to get smaller. That will drive up the readiness rate of the surviving brigade combat teams. If the military had faced reality and adjusted its spending to accommodate the cuts contained in 2011’s Budget Control Act—instead of spending the last four years pretending they were never going to happen—it would be well down that road already.

Neither generals nor lawmakers should use the threat of dead soldiers to bolster their budget arguments. The nation can afford whatever military its leaders decide it requires. Blaming prospective future deaths on budget cuts demeans those now wearing the uniform, as well as those who are dying in peacetime, readying for war.

Those troops are doing their jobs. It’s long past time for Congress and senior military officers to do theirs.

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