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The decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan has pulled on the six heartstrings of Toby Keith fans everywhere. 

Beyond punitive justice, is there a scenario in which the Taliban can peacefully coexist with a Western-aligned, democratically-elected government in an economically prosperous, corruption-free Afghanistan?

In some ways, the nation-building in Afghanistan was like throwing beer money at a penny stock that showed a glimmer of hope, only to spiral downward.

Sunk cost fallacy takes over and causes the emotional investor to double down on a company on its way to bankruptcy. In this case, it was a 20-year soirée that was always only a couple of hearts and minds away from really taking off. Even now, there are some advocates calling to stay the course — they probably have their own subreddit too (#stonks).

These arguments range from
debts of honor to the threat of rancid terrorism that is somehow only exclusive to Afghanistan. Looking beyond the graveyard of empires, there is a possible alternative future for Afghanistan — and one that may not necessarily be beneficial to the US.

Where some see a worthless stock, others see a bargain.

China is
considering sending a “peace-keeping” force to Afghanistan upon the US withdrawal. Their rationale is to prevent the spillover of violence in China’s Xinjiang province.

So, how could this play out? Let’s say China plots a different course for Afghanistan, one that reinforces a strong authoritarian regime (i.e. Taliban) and enables a greater police state with high-tech surveillance, biodata, etc. This Chinese brand of party-techno-fundamentalist could be attractive to the Taliban and represent a win-win for China.

Or, China could simply placate the Taliban long enough to exploit natural resources.

OBTW, there are roughly $3 trillion in natural resources buried in Afghanistan, including one of the world’s largest lithium deposits (a key element for all modern batteries).

What Now
Ignoring the way they may accomplish it, what if China could build a more stable Afghanistan? The message would be a shot to the traditional Western foreign policy zeitgeist.

However, China isn’t the only country considering the temperature of the water in Afghanistan. India, Pakistan, and Russia
have all expressed some type of interest in exerting influence.

The key now is for the US to consider how to manage this whirling dervish to align with US interests — or not. Perhaps time will take care of everything.

Just sit back and enjoy the show as China "fast-follows" the US into the graveyard of empires.
In That Number
$1.98 trillion

No, it’s not another government stimulus package. This is the amount of global defense spending in 2020.
Trivia: What is a tire made of and what does it have to do with the defense industry? Hint: it’s not rubber.
On the Radar
The 4-star in charge of the National Guard is pushing back on proposed cuts to the C-130 fleet, telling Congress to “retain every single one of those flying squadrons.” His defense included a proud declaration that 75 different Guard C-130s were used to conduct more than 600 missions last year. Um, that’s not the strongest argument given the Guard has roughly 140 C-130s assigned to them.

The Air Force’s Skyborg autonomy core system ( ACS ) prototype makes its first flight. Most people confuse AFRL’s Skyborg project as a drone since it was often connected to Kratos’ XQ-58 Valkyrie , but it’s actually platform-agnostic. In this case, it was flown on a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako. Expect a ton of press on this initiative in the next year as multiple contracted vendors deliver their unmanned vehicles to test Skyborg.
Word of the Week
Intermediate Level Maintenance: As the name implies, intermediate maintenance is the maintenance level between the most extensive maintenance (depot) and the least extensive (but usually the most common) maintenance — organizational. 

Think “O” for outside (flight line), “I” for inside (back-shop in Air Force speak, AIMD in Navy lingo, MALS in Marine crayon), and depot for mailing it off to a factory for refurbishment.

Why it Matters:
Early on in the F-35 program, the decision was made to eliminate the intermediate level maintenance in order to save costs. Now, the program is giving it another look.
Because there is no intermediate level maintenance, all F-35 parts that cannot be fixed at the local squadron are sent to the depots. For years, Congress funded more aircraft than the services requested….at the expense of the parts depots to sustain them.
Accelerating production on a foundation of sand will only create more F-35 headline fodder. For perspective, right now
only 32 of the planned 68 F-35 part depots are up and running and only about 12 are fully operational.
They Said It
“Dragon, on behalf of the NASA and SpaceX teams, we welcome you back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX. For those of you enrolled in our frequent-flyer program, you have earned 68 million miles on this voyage."

"SpaceX, Resilience. It is great to be back on planet Earth. And we'll take those miles. Are they transferable?"

"Dragon, we'll have to refer you to our marketing department for that policy."
– An exchange between SpaceX mission control and Crew-1 commander Mike “Hopper” Hopkins moments after the Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico last Sunday.
Zoom In
You may have heard about last years’ quick war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. You may have also heard that Azerbaijan used Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and Israeli-made Kamikaze drones to decimate Armenia’s tanks.

But you probably didn’t know how: Azerbaijan converted WWII-era Soviet Antonov An-2 crop-duster biplanes into “bait drones.” Zoom in to read more.
Saved Rounds
  • Air Force B-52s demoed the first long-range hypersonic kill chain.
  • The Army is working with the University of Nebraska to develop a method for teams of autonomous robots to accomplish their missions without conflict or duplication of efforts—without being able to consult with one another.
  • Loft Orbital wins a Phase 2 SBIR Space Force contract to develop edge computing in space.
  • The Air Force threw its brand-new F-15EXs into deep-end testing at Northern Edge.
  • Raytheon receives a $228 million contract to continue to develop the next software for the maligned $6 billion GPS satellite ground system known as OCX.
  • Collins Aerospace wins Milestone C approval for a P-5 pod replacement called Tactical Combat Training System Increment II (TCTS II) (open architecture, encrypted, multi-domain, and multiple-level security).
  • A DARPA-funded team at the University of Central Florida demonstrated an AI-powered sarcasm detector for text. 
  • India is approved to buy six more Boeing P8I Neptune (it’s like the P-8A, but aft-facing radar and magnetic anomaly detection).
  • Bell gets tapped by the Air Force to research a High-Speed VTOL (HSVTOL) aircraft to leap past the V-22 and V-280 (think dual-propulsion with swept rotors as sail blades).
  • BETA Technologies receives airworthiness approval from the Air Force for its manned electric aircraft.
  • The Army wants a say for where its Army-built ISR payloads that are hosted on NRO and/or Space Force satellites are pointing.
  • Wilder Systems adapts its line of robots to autonomously wash F-16s at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
  • Turkish Aerospace Industries converts its Simsek high-speed training target drone into a kamikaze drone—that is launched from another, larger drone.
  • Palantir won a $32.5 million Space Force Data-as-a-Service (DaaS) contract to consolidate information from three different mission areas into a single platform.
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The 5 Second Debrief
Trivia Answer: Modern tires only contain 19% rubber ; most of the material is synthetic rubber (polymer and fillers).

Thank World War II for that. By 1942, the Axis powers controlled nearly all the world's limited supplies of natural rubber. So, the US launched a massive industrial campaign and was soon producing twice as much rubber as the entire world's pre-war output.