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2014 VICE News Awards: The Three Biggest Pentagon Absurdities

A short list of the most absurd, insane, and unlikely madness to come out of the defense sector in the last year, including North Korean missiles, a bombing campaign, and a buzzword.
December 24, 2014, 10:15am
Image via VICE News

**Check out more of the 2014 VICE News Awards here. **

I've been racking my brain to figure out what rates as the most absurd, insane, and unlikely madness to come out of the defense sector in the last year. I ain't gonna lie: It's not an easy choice.

Look, warfare is already a kind of highly specialized insanity in and of itself. Picking 2014's most screwed up happening in the world of professionally planned and organized violence is like choosing the skankiest, least-savory dive in Tijuana. At some point, the competition gets so tough that comparing the pros and cons of every particular aspect of absurdity gets pretty philosophical. Theological, even.

But I really don't want to get into the business of trying to deduce the number of acquisition regulations that can dance on the head of a pin, so I'm sticking to a very specific kind of topic: things that are more or less insider absurdities that should be recognizable — or at least debatable— for any defense watcher, not things that require huge, overly technical explanations.

Anyhow, enough with the introduction — here's number one:

Most Absurd Buzzword: Innovative
Once the machinery of the military-industrial PowerPoint complex has sucked a buzzword into its greedy maw, the word undergoes a transformation. It ceases being a means of communication and becomes an incantation.

In normal, human English, the word "innovative" means, roughly, things that are new, aren't completely obvious, and are at least kinda useful. But now "innovation" has become an official DoD buzzword, and has largely lost its former Muggle meaning.

In 2014, proponents of the "Third Offset Strategy" — a nifty new plan that will, theoretically, ensure that the US continues to be an apex predator of warfare — wrote articles and gave briefings about their whole scheme. These pitches usually referenced a lot of historical anecdotes to sketch out a plan that really amounts to "You know that really cool thing we did that time? We should totally do that again."

Of course, they don't say it that way. The specific verbiage usually consists of solemn pledges to be very "innovative" and develop "innovative solutions" and generate "innovative capabilities."

Innovative innovations innovating innovatively! Whee!

You might ask: How is "innovative" any different from "new" or "better"? And that would be precisely the right question to ask. Because it turns out policy wonks can't actually agree on what innovation is, exactly.

So not only has "innovation" been elevated to the status of a semi-mystical programmatic "killing word," it's actually coming unmoored from any sort of actual, meaningful definition. It has become an expression of hope that someone down the pike will get a sudden attack of blinding, creative genius and figure out how to solve problems nobody else has solved.

And that's what makes "innovation" magical.

Most Absurd Threat: KN-08
In the hierarchies of nuclear missile threats, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are well into the category of for-real, no-kidding threats. Even primitive systems like the Scud caused the US huge problems during the 1991 Gulf War.

Not too long ago, China sold North Korea a number of big, bulky off-road vehicles, ostensibly for logging and whatnot. But these trucks aren't that different from the kind of vehicles that China and Russia use to carry road-mobile ICBMs. We already know that North Korea has missiles —of a sort — and nukes — after a fashion — so clearly that means North Korea has road mobile ICBMs, right? They've even gotten a formal designation by the US intel community: the KN-08.

Except, no, there's just no damned way that North Korea has an advanced road-mobile missile. This isn't because the North Koreans are dumb, and it's not intended to downplay the many, varied ways in which the country could kill/piss off millions of people at the drop of a hat. But no, there is no working KN-08.

Decent road-mobile ICBMs are not an entry-level capability; it's a mobile suborbital launch system with a miniature staged nuclear warhead. Unless a future North Korea has a time machine and has sent itself missile technology from the year 2114, it's safe to guess they haven't skipped all the way to a graduate-level nuclear capability.

It's about as likely as Kim Jong-un snorting two and a half kilos of pharmaceutical-grade "innovation" all by himself and slapping together the KN-08 using some Soviet-era scrap, a Chinese logging truck, and some chicken wire. Complete bullshit.

Most Absurd Strategy: The Air Campaign Against the Islamic State
To be fair, the airstrikes may super helpful in blowing up bad guys at the right place and time to help the Kurdish and Iraqi government fighters on the ground. It's probably even been helpful for some of the Good Syrian Rebels the US is so fond of talking about.

But is it really an air campaign, exactly? Campaigns are big, epic endeavors; this is more of a bombing drizzle. Closer to "Cloudy, with an early morning chance of missiles."

The numbers show that 20 percent of the attack sorties have actually involved releasing a weapon. And they're not running a ton of sorties. Even if adding in all the refueling, air drop, reconnaissance sorties to the total number of flights classified as "general meandering around Iraqi airspace with bombs, looking for trouble," you get to around 100 sorties per day. Compare that with the 70 to 90 sorties per day that a single aircraft carrier can generate on a sustained basis.

Just taking the flights that involve actually trying to use a weapon to blow something up, you're looking at about 10 sorties per day, each releasing an average of about four weapons. In other words, this ain't shock and awe. Compared to the major US air campaigns of the last two or three decades, it barely rates above "farting in their general direction."

Secondly, the mishmash of fighters and weapons means that there's a distinct possibility that we might very well end up seeing Iranian pilots flying US-made planes against North Korean-made tanks crewed by an international band of IS members — all to support Hezbollah fighters defending Baghdad.

Add to that the fact that the US campaign includes air strikes on US tanks, vehicles, and artillery that the Islamic State managed to nab from the Iraqi Army. As a result, the US and coalition pilots are on the lookout for bits of the US military-industrial complex that have gone feral. This could result in a scenario where US commanders are directing UAE combat aircraft to hit a US tank full of foreign jihadists fighting somewhere in Iraq against Kurdish Peshmerga. Wacky, right?

The third element of the Islamic State insanity involves supplying those same Kurds (along with Danish bikers and whoever else wanders in) in their fight against the militants.

Some of these weapons are not US-made, but are of Russian and Soviet heritage, since that's a lot of what the Kurds already have. So the US is supplying Kurds with Russian weapons to use against feral US equipment.

Plus, on at least one occasion, the US supplied the Islamic State with more weapons. Back in October, during an attempted resupply mission, a high-tech US airdrop kit went on the fritz, leaving the militants with a great big care package.

When you add all three of these things together, it's hard to escape the impression that you could create a plausible account of small-scale combat by just using a list of randomly chosen countries to fill in the blanks: ISIS fighters from [_____], using [_____]-made weapons obtained from [_____], fought against Iraqi government and Kurdish forces (including volunteers from [_____]) with air support from [_____] using [_____]-built jets. Kurdish and Iraqi forces were supported by advisors from [_____] and supplied with new [_____]-made weapons from [_____], delivered by [_____].

An intel report Mad Lib? In hindsight, that might be the most absurd innovation of 2014.

_Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: _@Operation_Ryan