Hopes were high for the Snakehead. The innovative underwater drone was meant to save a lot of headaches for the Navy, scouting ahead of fleets and reporting back on potential dangers in the murky depths. Many thought it could also trick enemy radar or even fire torpedoes and missiles — no small feat for a vehicle that would keep American soldiers well out of harm’s way.
But, as practical problems reared their ugly head, the Pentagon decided the state-of-the-art drone was too good to be true. In its budget request for next year, the Navy asked Congress to scrap the program, saying that the move would save more than 500 million dollars over the next five years. The House accepted the request, leaving the Snakehead off its budget authorization bill.
But the Senate Armed Services Committee had other plans. Arguing that the Snakehead "could provide an important capability to the fleet once fielded," the panel allocated 100 million dollars for next year to fund more research on the program.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the committee and namesake of the bill, defended the move as forward-looking in a statement to Responsible Statecraft. "It’s Congress’s job to ensure the Department of Defense doesn’t make pennywise, pound-foolish decisions," Inhofe said. "[Underwater drones] have potential; the Pentagon just needs sound systems engineering and a little creativity."
The situation may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t the Pentagon be the one fighting to keep all of its options open? But experts say that Congress’s incentives can change once programs reach a certain level of development, leading lawmakers to keep projects on life support despite serious concerns about their effectiveness.
“Congress, in general, is reluctant to cancel ongoing programs that are being developed and built,” said Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “Because systems that are being developed and built have a constituency in the form of the contractors and, quite frankly, the political representatives for the areas in which the work is being done.”
Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an expert on Pentagon spending, agrees.
“When Congress steps in to inflate these budgets even more, despite what the defense establishment is saying we need to secure ourselves, then you're looking at congresspeople who are just interested in getting more Pentagon money for their districts,” Pemberton said. “This is completely endemic to the process every single year.”
The Snakehead is still early on in its development, and the Pentagon has not yet awarded a contract to produce the drone, making it unclear which districts stand to gain the most from the program. But experts say the device would most likely be built in Connecticut, which is well-known for its submarine production.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sits on the committee that hopes to save the Snakehead and has previously voted for higher defense spending, did not respond to a request for comment.
A Navy spokesperson declined to comment on the legislation but said that the service’s budget request is “strategy-based, analytically driven, and reform-minded to maximize the value of every dollar entrusted to us by our American taxpayers.”
The Snakehead is far from the first program to get love from Congress despite doubts about its utility. Take, for example, the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Originally meant to focus on shore bombardment, the highly advanced ship earned cheerleaders on Capitol Hill. This support came in no small part from the fact that two separate shipyards — one in Maine and one in Mississippi — would be kept afloat by the project, according to Mark Thompson of POGO.
Costs for the battleships quickly ballooned as contractors worked to outfit the vessels with as much cutting-edge technology as possible. But all of those bells and whistles ended up turning the ship into a disaster. The final version has been riddled with technological issues, famously breaking down in the Panama Canal during the ship’s first trip to its home base in San Diego.
The Navy never asked to scrap the program completely, but it did drop its request for 30 of the destroyers down to just three in the late 2000s. Congress demurred, likely out of hopes that it could squeeze some value out of a program that would now cost almost eight billion dollars per ship.
The Littoral Combat Ship faced a similar path. The vessel has been plagued by mechanical issues but kept afloat by contractors and friendly lawmakers. In the end, the Navy decided to cut its request from 55 ships down to 35, at least four of which have already been retired. The final cost for each LCS was 600 million dollars, a far cry from the initial 200 million dollar estimate.
But even among these recent examples, the Snakehead stands out. Unlike other programs, the Navy was ready to jettison the whole thing — not just cut production down to a fraction of the original proposal. That seems to be a bridge too far for Congress, according to Grazier.
“It's really rare to see a program in development get completely canceled to the point that it doesn't operate at all,” he said.
“The Pentagon isn’t shy”
The first Snakehead prototype was christened in February, raising hopes that the ambitious program was on the right track. But those hopes were quickly dashed due to practical concerns, and the Pentagon asked to scrap it only two months later.
According to the Navy, the problem is simple: There just aren’t enough submarines in service that have the technology to launch the underwater drone. Without enough launch pads, the Snakehead would be a lot less useful than its boosters would have hoped.
With the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Navy at odds about the program, only time will tell if the underwater drone will actually enter into production. The Snakehead revival will face two major hurdles in the coming months. First, it has to clear a floor vote in the Senate, then its boosters will have to persuade House leaders to come around on the program when the bill goes to conference.
Lawmakers should take this chance to jettison the program for good, argues Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“The Pentagon isn’t shy about asking for everything under the sun for weapons systems,” Ellis said. “So when they tell Congress that a system isn’t going to work and isn’t worth further investment, lawmakers should pay heed.”
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
A Snakehead prototype being lowered into the water. (Editorial credit: NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.