21 April 2013
How long does a weapons system last?
Recently I had a comment on my post The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier which started me thinking about the life span of weapons system. This is a surprisingly interesting way to think about weapons systems, which contextualizes them within the civilizations that design and build weapons systems.
I have approached this contextualization of weapons systems previously in several posts, as in The Nature of Viking Power Projection and The Byzantine Superweapon. A great many technological innovations and ideological assumptions are built into sophisticated weapons systems, and the most sophisticated among them require an entire civilization to design, build, and field them.
Contextualization can be take diachronically of synchroncially. If we contextualize a weapons system diachronically, we understand it in terms of its historical ancestors and successors, thinking in terms of the evolution of the weapons system in parallel to the socioeconomic system that makes it possible. If we contextualize a weapons system synchronically, we understand it in terms of the infrastructure and institutions (the technological and doctrinal context) that jointly make that weapons system possible, and make it what it is when brought to bear in armed conflict.
The life span of a weapons system is thus a diachronic historical inquiry, but it is only through a synchronic understanding that we see how the elements of a contemporary weapons system stands in relation not only to military function it is supposed to serve, but also in relation to the wider society and designs, builds, and operates the weapons system in question. As in all historical inquiry, the diachronic and synchronic perspectives are bound up in each other. Moreover, there is a parallel synchronic inquiry that would concern itself with the scope of application of a weapons system. This is a crucial and often-overlooked question, which we find we must asked ourselves when a political entity possesses a weapons system that it does not use when engaged in armed conflict. This is another sense of the “lifespan” of a weapons system.
To clarify our terminology we need to indulge in a little informal philosophical logic, since in this context the generality of our assertions will make an important difference. We have to be able to distinguish not only between weapons systems but also the fine gradations in the generations of weapons systems. The F-16 block 60 fighter aircraft operated by the UAE are a more advanced fighter aircraft than the F-16 block 50/52 operated by most USAF squadrons, but we would only distinguish them in a very fine-grained account of weapons systems.
The various “block” upgrades I will count as the “same” weapons systems, even when they have different capabilities, while I will count fourth generation fighter aircraft and fifth generation fighter aircraft as distinct weapons systems. Therefore the F-16 and the F-22 will count as different weapons systems. However, at a higher level of generality, the F-16 and the F-22, as both being supersonic fighter jets are, in a sense, the “same” weapons system. At an even higher level of generality, all fighter aircraft, from the Sopwith Camel to the F-22 are essentially the same weapons system: an aircraft mounting missile weapons to be employed in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat.
All of these distinctions are useful, and we have to keep them in mind so that we avoid comparing apples to oranges and therefore avoid vitiating our point. Furthermore, we need to distinction between what I will call perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems.
● perennial weapons systems are weapons systems based on perennial technologies. A knife is a perennial weapons system. There will always be knives, pistols, and rifles. These are now perennial weapons systems. Similarly, there will always be missile weapons of some type, but this is already a move to a higher level of generality, since “missile weapons of some type” include pistols and rifles (and knives, too, when thrown). It is at least arguable that a perennial weapon is not really a weapons system, since perennial weapons in their stark simplicity may be found in isolation from a doctrinal or technological context, but in this case I don’t think that this distinction matters all that much, so I will allow myself the leeway to call perennial weapons “perennial weapons systems.” (Also note that the generalization of a the idea of a weapons system is distinct from the idea of perennial weapons systems.)
● sempiternal weapons systems are weapons systems that in their complexity transcend the simplicity and directness of perennial weapons systems. There is no clear dividing line between perennial weapons systems and sempiternal weapons systems, but I introduce the term “sempiternal” to imply that they are clearly invented at some point in time and, once invented, they are here to stay. It would be difficult to say at what time knives were invented, so knives are clearly perennial weapons systems — it is possible that a knife was the first stone tool produced by human ancestors. I count general categories of weapons systems (the highest level of generality mentioned above, that conflates the Sopwith Camel and the F-22) as sempiternal weapons systems: ships purpose-built for warfare, fixed wing fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and so on. Once the idea of fighting from a flying platform was implemented, it is going to be with us as long as our civilization lasts. That makes such ideas and their implementations (which change radically over time) sempiternal.
● properties of weapons systems are distinct from general kinds of weapons systems, as in sempiternal weapons systems. Under a sufficiently general conception of a weapons system, Hittite chariot archers, Mongol horse archers, main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, and helicopter gunships all count as mobile fire weapons systems. Yet mobile fire is not itself a weapons system, but a property of some weapons system, a property that might be possessed to a greater or a lesser degree. An aircraft carrier is a mobile fire weapons system, but is much less mobile and much less maneuverable than a helicopter gunship. An arrow, a spear, and a knife when thrown are all examples of missile weapons; any of these missile weapons when employed from a mobile platform constitute mobile fire weapons systems, just as an Apache helicopter gunship constitutes a mobile fire weapons system, but all of these weapons systems are profoundly different each from the other.
Given these distinctions, it should be obvious that perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems have no life span: once they are introduced, they are with us forever. If some treaty establishes their abolition, we will still have the idea that such a thing is possible, and if it becomes seen as militarily necessary, they will be built regardless of treaties or abolition.
This is not true, however, at lower levels of generality than that contemplated by the bare idea of sempiternal weapons systems. There will always be missile weapons, but this is a highly general concept of a weapons system. In the same way that there will always be missile weapons, there will always be ships and submersibles, and there will always be aircraft. While there will always be fighter aircraft, particular generations of fighter aircraft become obsolete. No one would build a Sopwith Camel today for combat, although they might build one as a project of historical reconstruction (i.e., as an exercise in experimental archaeology).
What applies to generations of fighter aircraft also applies to generations of naval technologies. To take one example, no more ships of the line are built for contemporary navies (except to train cadets). In other words, the ship of the line, with multiple decks and multiple masts, optimized to fire the greatest number of cannon as broadsides against other ships of the line, is obsolete, were it was once the state of the art in naval architecture. The ship of the line had a definite life span, and that life span came to an end more than a century ago.
This post began as a response to my post on The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, in which I speculated on the lifespan of fixed wing aircraft carriers and explicitly stated that no weapons systems will last forever; the aircraft carrier will eventually go the way of the ship of the line, but not until something better comes along. A comment was recently made that aircraft carriers may last another hundred years on the earth’s oceans, and I do not dispute this. Nevertheless, it is still a matter of time.
With the above distinctions in mind, I will revise this a bit, and assert instead that the aircraft carrier simpliciter is a sempiternal weapons system, and I acknowledged this implicitly in my earlier post when I stated that there will be helicopter carriers in the future, which are a kind of aircraft carrier, but once fixed wing hypersonic aircraft become a reality, and it is cheaper and more effective to base fighter aircraft deep within the home territory of a nation-state, given that hypersonic aircraft could show up anywhere in the world in less than an hour, then fixed wing aircraft carriers will become obsolete. But helicopters will continued to be needed on the battlefield, and they cannot be made hypersonic, so there will be a need for helicopter carriers beyond the time when fixed wing aircraft carriers have become obsolete. Also, since I have predicted that helicopter gunships have not yet been fully exploited on the battlefield, the future of helicopter carriers is bright; helicopters will be needed more than ever on the future battlefield.
The fixed wing aircraft carrier is not the only high technology weapons system the obsolescence of which can be projected. It could be argued that the life span of the land-based ICBM is essentially expired, given that precision weapons system and guidance systems have effectively rendered ICBM silos vulnerable. Even if no nation-state has chosen to build nuclear-tipped hypersonic precision-guided cruise missiles with the intent of neutralizing a ground-based ICBM threat, this is nevertheless clearly a weapons system that is within the capability of the advanced industrialized nation-states to build at the present time. (We have the idea of such a weapons system, and the idea cannot be banned or “unthought.”) Effective obsolescence, then, may be distinguished from obsolescence in fact.
On a level of greater generality — greater even than the generalization of all weapons systems — and therefore of even greater potential theoretical interest, it may be that in our own time that symmetrical conflict between peer or near-peer military powers has become obsolete. I don’t assert this with any dogmatic degree of confidence, and the coming century may yet see a peer-to-peer conflict in the Pacific if China is able to tool its industrial plant to the point of producing a rival carrier fleet to that of the US. Nevertheless, it is at least possible that peer-to-peer conflict has disappeared from the world, to be replaced by chronic, low-level insurgency and asymmetrical operations.
If we rigorously limited ourselves to a single level of generality (again, avoiding the comparison and apples and oranges) we could probably calculate for a given weapons system an average lifespan. If we could do this (i.e., if someone took the time to do this in a rigorous way) I will make a prediction about the lifespan of weapons systems:
Prediction: even as perennial weapons systems endure in their usefulness, the lifespan of large, technologically sophisticated weapons systems will gradually shrink in length unless industrial-technological civilization reaches a (near-)permanent plateau of development, spelling the end of the technological innovation that drives weapons systems development.
The ship of the line arguably endured for centuries as a viable weapons system. The ICBM seems to have lasted only about 50 years as a viable weapons system. Some high technology weapons system seem to be obsolete as soon as they are designed and being prepared for actual use. The most notorious examples of this would include the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer and the M247 Sergeant York self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.
The same forces that drive industrial-technological civilization forward — science creating technology engineered into industries creating new tools for science — also drive industrialized warfare forward, and as technology improves exponentially, weapons systems must also improve exponentially. This means shorter lifespans for the most advanced technological weapons systems, even as perennial weapons systems retain their efficacy in ongoing asymmetrical conflicts in which the full force of industrialized warfare cannot be brought to bear in any meaningful way.
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16 April 2013
The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China has just released a white paper on China’s military posture, which can be read in its entirety online: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. This document is remarkable not for its insights into Chinese strategic thinking or its application of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war or even “strategy with Chinese characteristics” but only for its resemblance to military white papers from western nation-states, which idiom (and acronyms) it has thoroughly adopted.
This use of the idiom of contemporary western military professionalism is doubly interesting, since public statements of the Chinese government often continue to be jargon-laden pieces of communist theory — sometimes to the point of impenetrability. Some time ago in What is Strategic Trust? I mentioned an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars, which very effectively poked fun at the irony of the Chinese leader’s formulaic use of communist nostrums in the attempt to urge his fellow Chinese to improve the quality of their cultural production.
It is precisely this absurd communist jargon that is missing from the just released report The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Instead, the report indulges in the western parallel to this: the absurd jargon of western bureaucratic military jargon and acronyms. There is a pattern here of rigidly formulaic thinking. Of course, such patterns are to be found in the official documents of all nation-states, but the question is whether it is believed by those who use this language, or whether such language is used merely out of a misplaced sense of bureaucratic necessity.
It was interesting to note that the report mentions the “three evil forces” which have been a talking point for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and I recall when I last wrote about this I remarked on how the press releases of the SCO read like those of any western military exercise. And while the report mentions the three evil forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese are most likely to encounter these forces, are only mentioned peripherally in this report (in relation to rivers and schools in the section titled “Participating in National Development”), as the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) are mentioned only once.
At the same time that the Chinese were releasing their official version of China’s military posture, Focus Taiwan published a short piece, China yet to deploy 094 sub, JL-2 & DF-41 missiles: security head, mostly about China’s failures to fulfill its military ambitions for weapons systems commensurate with the technologically advanced weapons systems of western nation-states. The article was concerned with the trouble China continues to have with their latest submarines and ICBMs.
It is easy to focus on Chinese ambitions to join the club of nation-states operating aircraft carriers or fifth generation fighters, but it is also important to recall that China has had difficulty in tooling its industries to design and build world-class weapons systems. The Chinese have long had difficulty building missile boats (as with the above-noted difficulties with the 094 Jin-Class submarine and the JL-2 ballistic missile), for example.
The Chinese still buy the jet engines for the most sophisticated fighter jets from Russia, which despite its decrepit communist economy was able to create and sustain an industrial plant nearly equal to that of western powers during the Cold War (including supersonic jet turbines and missile boats). This came at a price for the Soviet Union, of course, and it would come at a price for China. So is it the case that the Chinese are unwilling to pay the price for a world-class defense industry, or that they would be willing be to pay the price, but are simply unable, as yet, to design and build the hardware? It would take a China specialist to give a definitive answer to this question, but it is a crucial question, because to answer this question would be to determine whether China’s military posture is voluntary or involuntary.
If China’s present military posture really is voluntary, that means that China’s leadership really does believe in their own “peaceful rise” and in “strategic trust.” If, however, China’s present military posture is involuntary, forced upon it by circumstances beyond the control of China’s leadership, then that means that “peaceful rise” and “strategic trust” really are the formulaic platitudes that they appear to be. We must be prepared to entertain either of these hypotheses, as, at present, they are empirically equivalent theories.
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23 March 2013
In Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Axes of Historiography I discussed the differences between synchronic and diachronic approaches to historiographical analysis (and in much greater detail in Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography). The synchronic/diachronic distinction can also be useful in futurism, and in fact we can readily distinguish between what I will call synchronic extrapolation and diachronic extrapolation.
If we understand synchrony as, “the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction” (as I formulated it in Axes of Historiography), then synchronic extrapolation is the extrapolation of a broadly construed present across its interactions. This may not sound very enlightening, but you’ll understand immediately what I mean when I relate it to chaos and complexity. Recent interest in chaos theory and what is known as the “butterfly effect” has led some to think in terms of synchronic extrapolation since the idea of the is of a small event the interactions of which cascade to produce significant consequences.
As a form of futurism, synchronic extrapolation is not familiar (probably because it doesn’t take us very far forward into the future), but we need to keep it in mind in order to contrast it with diachronic extrapolation. Diachronic extrapolation is one of the most familiar forms of futurism today, especially as embodied in Ray Kurzweil’s love of exponential growth curves, which are usually diachronic extrapolations. One of the reasons that I remain so skeptical about the claims of Kurzweil and other singulatarians (even though I have learned a lot about them recently and have a less negative picture overall than initially) is the heavy reliance on diachronic extrapolation in their futurism. I frequently cite specific examples of failed exponential growth curves or technologies (like chemical rockets) that seem to be stuck in a technological rut (what I have called a stalled technology), experiencing little or no development (and certainly not exponential development), and I do this because readers usually find specific, particular examples persuasive.
I have discovered over the course of many conversations that most people tune out extended theoretical expositions, and only sort of wake up and pay attention when you give a concrete example. So I do this, to the best of my ability. But really, the dispute with diachronic extrapolation (and particular schools of futurist thought that employ diachronic extrapolation to the exclusion of other methods, such as the singulatarians) is theoretical, and all the examples in the world aren’t going to get to the nub of the problem, which must be given the theoretical exposition that it deserves. And the nub of the problem is simply that diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.
Diachronic extrapolation may be derailed by historical singularities, but it is far more frequent that nothing so discontinuous as a singularity need happen in order for a straight-forward extrapolation of present trends fail to be be realized. I specifically single out diachronic extrapolation in isolation, because the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time. This simultaneous synchrony and diachrony resembles a chain reaction of ever-growing consequences from the initial point of departure.
In my two immediately previous posts — Addendum on Automation and the Human Future and Bertrand Russell as Futurist — I dealt obliquely with the problems of diachronic extrapolation. Predicting technogenic unemployment on the basis of contemporary automation, or predicting a bifurcation between annihilation or world government, is a paradigm case of diachronic extrapolation that fails to sufficiently take into account future interactions that will become as important or more important than the diachronically extrapolated trend.
This was the point that I was trying to make in Addendum on Automation and the Human Future when I wrote:
I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date.
In other words, a diachronic extrapolation of current employment trends — technogenic unemployment, new jobs created by new industries, and perennial problems of unemployment and underemployment — is helpful in so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in capturing the different world that the future will be.
Similar concerns hold for Russell’s failed futurism that I reviewed in Bertrand Russell as Futurist: Russell took several trends operating at present — war, nuclear weapons, anarchic competition among nation-states — and extrapolated them into the future as though nothing else would happen in history except these closely related group of strategically significant trends.
In my post on Russell’s futurism I cited his essay “The Future of Man”, but Russell made the same point innumerable. times. In his first essay on the atomic bomb, “The Bomb and Civilization,” he wrote:
Either war or civilization must end, and if it is to be war that ends, there must be an international authority with the sole power to make the new bombs. All supplies of uranium must be placed under the control of the international authority, which shall have the right to safeguard the ore by armed forces. As soon as such an authority has been created, all existing atomic bombs, and all plants for their manufacture, must be handed over. And of course the international authority must have sufficient armed forces to protect whatever has been handed over to it. If this system were once established, the international authority would be irresistible, and wars would cease. At worst, there might be occasional brief revolts that would be easily quelled.
And in his book-length study of the same question, Has Man a Future? Russell made the same point again:
“So long as armed forces are under the command of single nations, or groups of nations, not strong enough to have unquestioned control over the whole world — so long it is almost certain that sooner or later there will be war, and, so long as scientific technique persists, war will grow more and more deadly.”
Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 69
We have seen that armed forces continue to be under the command of individual nation-states, and in fact they continue to go to war with each other. Moreover, scientific technique has markedly improved, and while the construction of weapons of mass destruction remains today a topic of considerable political comment, the availability of improved weapons of mass destruction did not automatically or inevitably lead to global nuclear war and human extinction.
In the same book Russell went on to say:
“…it seems indubitable that scientific man cannot long survive unless all the major weapons of war, and all the means of mass destruction, are in the hands of a single authority, which, in consequence of its monopoly, would have irresistible power and, if challenged to war, could wipe out any rebellion within a few days without much damage except to the rebels.”
Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 70
In writing these comments, we can now see in hindsight that one of the major strategic trends of the second half of the twentieth century that Russell missed was the rise in the efficacy of asymmetrical resistance to irresistible power. Russell does not seem to have recognized that authorities in possession of de facto irresistible power might choose not to annihilate a weaker power because of global opinion and the hit that such an actor would take to its soft power if it simply wiped out a rebellion. Moreover, the wide distribution of automatic weapons — not weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a disruptive force in global political affairs by providing just enough friction to the military operations of great powers that rebellions could not be wiped out within a few days.
The rise of twentieth century guerrilla resistance and rebellion was an important development in global affairs, and a development not acknowledged until it was already a fait accompli, but I don’t think that it constituted an historical singularity — as it is part of a devolution of warfare rather than a breakthrough to a new order of magnitude of war (which seems to have been what Russell feared would come about).
It has been said (by L. P. Hartley, a contemporary of Russell) that the past is a foreign country. This is true. It is also true that the future is a foreign country. (Logically, these two claims are identical; every present is the future to some past.) We ought to make no pretense to false familiarity with the future, since they do things differently there.
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5 October 2012
In the film Apocalypse Now the protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is sent up the Mekong to Cambodia to kill Colonel Kurtz, who has gone rogue and is leading a group of native combatants who follow him unquestioningly. There is a scene on the boat going upriver when Willard is reading Col. Kurtz’s dossier, including a report that Kurtz is supposed to have written to the Pentagon after an early tour in Vietnam. The report is called “Commitment and Counterinsurgency” and it includes the following:
“As long as our officers and troups (sic) perform tours of duty limited to one year, they will remain dilletantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. As long as cold beer, hot food, rock and roll and all the other amenities remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will gain only impotence. The wholesale and indiscriminate use of firepower will only increase the effectiveness of the enemy and strengthen their resolve to prove the superiority of an agrarian culture against the world’s greatest technocracy… The central tragedy of our effort in this conflict has been the confusion of a sophisticated technology with human commitment. Our bombs may in time destroy the geography, but they will never win the war… We need fewer men, and better; if they were committed, this war could be won with a fourth of our present force…”
Everyone knows that Apocalypse now was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I think it would probably be better to say that Apocalypse Now was inspired by Heart of Darkness — or we could use more contemporary terminology and say that Apocalypse Now is a re-imagining of Heart of Darkness.
Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, and counterinsurgency have all become eerily relevant again as the US seeks to disengage from Central Asia after a ground war that has stretched over more than a decade with no resolution consistent with original aims seeming to be in sight. I’ve written about counterinsurgency, or COIN, several times recently as a result of these all-too-familiar events.
Despite the firm intentions of both US military and civilian leadership that the US not be involved in another unwinnable counterinsurgency operation in a distant part of the world, this is exactly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that history repeated itself in this way, despite the conscious efforts of military and civilian leaders to avoid such a repetition, says much more about the international system and the imperatives of contemporary political organization than it says about the US.
I would argue that any global hegemon at the present moment in history — whether that global hegemon happened to be the US, Russia, China, Brazil, or the British Empire — would find itself more or less forced by circumstances to engage in counterinsurgency operations in widely disparate parts of the globe. Such interventions are systemic rather than opportunistic and episodic.
In the past week US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan have come under scrutiny again after the death toll of US soldiers passed 2,000 as widely-reported “insider attacks,” also called “green on blue” attacks, continue to take the lives of US soldiers.
We quantify wars in terms of deaths, injuries, damage, and dollars. It is a dissatisfying measure to all involved — to the families of dead soldiers a single digit in a statistic scarcely captures the loss, to the families of dead civilians, and those whose lives have been disrupted beyond salvaging, similar considerations hold, while for the war planner the commitment in blood and treasure to the fight does not accurately represent the ultimate effort that was made under adverse circumstances.
Nevertheless, there must be some measure, and certainly blood and treasure constitute the fundamental calculus of commitment in war, apart from that intangible commitment that the fictional Col. Kurtz attempted to communicate to his superiors. It may well be that this intangible commitment of — what? — is precisely that unmeasurable element of the equation that results in victory or defeat, but until we have a theory to account for it, and a language in which we can formulate it, we cannot say anything coherent about it.
It is admittedly difficult even to speak coherently of quantifiable measures like blood and treasure because estimates of death in war are always contested, and because they are contested the numbers employed are almost always the result of a political decision. Some will argue for higher numbers and other will argue for lower numbers. In a war like the Second World War, when entire cities were destroyed and millions were buried under the rubble, estimates on casualties may be off by millions, and at very least off by hundreds of thousands.
In long-term counterinsurgencies like the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan, or the US in Afghanistan, estimating civilian deaths is difficult not so much for the absolute numbers involved but because in such conflict it will be inherently controversial who is and who is not a civilian, as it will be controversial as to who is blame for atrocities carried out far beyond the reach of investigating authorities, and for which each side blames the other.
Casualty counts, then, are inherently controversial, but estimates are made; each estimate represents a particular methodology, and each methodology embodies certain assumptions. Despite all the hazards involved, I am going to give some numbers comparing three different wars — World War Two, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In all cases I have picked the high estimates, even when these estimates have been contested. Dates, and rates derived from dates, are also numbers that can be contested. So what follows is very rough, but still indicative of a trend.
The Second World War — not in any sense a counterinsurgency — lasted about six (6) years and resulted in about 25 million military deaths and 52 million civilian deaths. This occurred in a total global population of 2,300 million, so that the war consumed about 3.3 percent of world population. This isn’t much compared to a demographic event like the Black Death when it first swept across Europe in 1348-1349, but it is still a very high number for deaths from war. The military casualties of more than four (4) million per year work out to about 475 per hour for each hour of the war, while civilian casualties of more than eight (8) million per year work out to about 988 per hour for every hour of the war.
The involvement of the US in the Vietnam War, a classic counterinsurgency, lasted about ten (10) years from 1965 to 1975, with 58,220 US military deaths and as many as 2,500,000 civilian deaths spread across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This works out to 5,822 military deaths per year, or 0.055 US military deaths for every hour of the war, and 250,000 civilian deaths per year or 2.3766 civilian deaths every hour for the duration of the US involvement in Vietnam (I am here choosing not to include the ten years of French involvement from 1955-1965, although the civilian casualty numbers include at least part of this period — as I wrote above, I took high numbers, and the numbers themselves are inherently controversial).
The involvement of the US in Afghanistan, another counterinsurgency, has lasted almost eleven (11) years from 2001 to 2012 with 2,000 US military casualties. I found it rather difficult to come by estimates of civilian casualties, which varied widely, but, again, taking the high numbers, I found about 34,008 civilian casualties, or about 3,092 per year, which works out to 0.029 per hour for every hour of the war. US military deaths averaged 182 per year or 0.0017 per hour for every hour of the war.
It is interesting to note that during the Vietnam War global population increased by almost a billion persons from 3,345 million to 4,086 million, and during the Afghan War global population again grew by almost a billion, from roughly 6 billion to 7 billion. With these much higher total global population figures, and the far lower casualty totals, whether military or civilian or both, the war deaths from these protracted conflicts don’t even register as a demographic rounding error.
These “big picture” statistics of course hide a lot of details, but they are still the big picture and they tell us something. They tell us that both military and civilian casualties of war are at historic lows, which is something I wrote about in the early history of this blog in The Lethality Peak. Another way to look at the lethality peak is to understand it as societies investing far less in armed conflict than was the case even in the recent past, i.e., there is a lower level of commitment in terms of blood; a lot more statistical analysis would be required to reveal the relative expenditure of treasure.
Yet another way to interpret these numbers is that the great infringements upon human life and human society in our time do not come about from wars and from outright deaths caused by war, but from what I have called non-atrocites, that is to say, depredations upon human populations and human communities that are maintained below the threshold of atrocity.
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6 June 2012
A week or so ago the New York Times published at article about the split at West Point between those who see value in counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrines and those who see no value in these doctrines, West Point Is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate, by Elisabeth Bumiller. At West Point the doctrinal dialectic is being played out between Col. Gian P. Gentile, COIN skeptic, and Col. Michael J. Meese, COIN defender. Now George Friedman of Strategic Forecasting has published The End of Counterinsurgency and the Scalable Force on the Stratfor website (this is one of Stratfor’s free offerings, so you can read this if you don’t have a subscription), giving his perspective on the COIN debate. Not surprisingly, with a portentous title like “The End of Counterinsurgency,” Friedman’s position is not very enthusiastic about COIN.
I discussed some of Gentile’s views in Maintaining the Distinction Between Strategy and Tactics, where I reviewed Jason Fritz’s take on Gentile’s slogan that, “COIN is a strategy of tactics” (or SoT) and I said that this view entailed the idea that, “COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.” But there is a missing distinction here. COIN certainly can be approached as a mere SoT, blind to larger concerns, or it can be formulated precisely to avoid a muddled collection of tactics that may well be at cross purposes to each other. History affords examples of both.
In regard to the NYT article, Thomas E. Ricks noted on the Foreign Policy magazine website that another obvious distinction should be made:
“…contrary to what the reporter seems to think, one can easily believe a) we should not have gone to war in Iraq, b) that COIN worked, and c) but that nothing was gained in that war.”
This isn’t the only distinction that should be observed. There is an obvious distinction to be made between the fact of COIN operations, which are often the result of historical accident piled upon historical accident — in other words, stumbling into COIN, not making an explicit strategic choice to pursue COIN over other alternatives — and a military doctrine that makes COIN operations central. The NYT article includes this:
“Colonel Meese’s opposing argument is that warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions — the view advanced in the bible of counterinsurgents, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was revised under General Petraeus in 2006. Hailed as a new way of warfare (although drawing on counterinsurgencies fought by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, among others), the manual promoted the protection of civilian populations, reconstruction and development aid.”
Clearly, to re-write a central document of military doctrine as though counterinsurgency were a new way of warfare that is to be the wave of the future is to make a strategic decision that this new way of warfare is of crucial importance now, will continue to be a crucial importance, and needs to be the focus of ongoing efforts. This is something very different from being caught in an insurgency being forced to fight it.
There are certainly good reasons for believing that COIN is the wave of the future, or, at very least, part of the wave of the future. I noted in The Security Paradox that “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) of necessity now play an increasing role in military thought and practice because of the reduced opportunities for peer-to-peer conflict.
George Friedman takes up the COIN debate in relation to peer-to-peer conflict in several points in his recent piece:
“…many within the military have long opposed counterinsurgency operations. Others see counterinsurgency as the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. The debate is between those who believe the purpose of a conventional military force is to defeat another conventional military force and those who believe conventional military conflicts increasingly will be replaced by conflicts more akin to recent counterinsurgency operations.
If MOOTW come to predominate over peer-to-peer conflict, then COIN certainly will be part of the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. That means that if a military force is built for conventional military conflicts, it will be underutilized while non-conventional conflicts go unaddressed because there is no force available to fight them. It is often said that, “The enemy gets a vote.” This unavoidability of non-conventional conflict is a result of the enemy’s voice. Regardless of the kind of military establishment that the U.S. builds, it does not get to choose its enemies unless is launches a preemptive or preventative war. And, as we have seen, even a preemptive or a preventative war can be transformed into unconventional, asymmetric warfare.
George Friedman addresses the growing role of asymmetric warfare indirectly, by denying that COIN is a type of warfare:
“Understanding this debate requires the understanding that counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare; it is one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”
To assert that “counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare” is to cut the Gordian Knot; moreover, it is not very helpful. The unique position of the U.S. in the contemporary international system — like the unique position of Rome in classical antiquity — means that the U.S. is held to different standards than other nation-states and very different standards than non-state actors. The unavoidable Clausewitzean equation of war and politics means that wars become political and politics sometimes forces a nation-state into wars against its better judgment. These realities cannot be wished away.
Similarly, the complexity of war (including mission creep) cannot be wished away. Friedman envisions a light, mobile, flexible force of Marines who can suddenly descend upon hostiles in a violently effective surgical strike, only to disappear as the sun begins to peek over the horizon. There are many who would like see this as the central scenario of U.S. conflict involvement. I will avoid arguing the obviously cheap shot that, “commando raids are not a type of warfare; they are one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”
After ten years plus involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, military thought in the U.S. is being affected by a psychological attrition that is not at all unlike what happened after ten years plus of involvement in Viet Nam. This fatigue also affects the security professionals who study the same problems and think about the same dilemmas day in and day out, year in and year out. Military and security professionals know that military casualties are at historic lows, but the deaths affect them personally even if they come at lower rates than in any other previous conflict (less than a tenth of the deaths in Viet Nam, to take the obvious comparison). This phenomenon has a precise analogy in the civilian sphere. The reporters know that civilian casualties are at historic lows, but competition for dramatic photographs and interviews drives every story of civilian casualties onto the front page and gives the impression that the deaths are disproportionately high when they are in fact disproportionately low.
In short, almost everyone has lost their objectivity, and the quality of thought and judgment is wavering or seriously compromised as a result. It is probably not possible for any democratic society to wage quasi-imperial wars, even with the best of intentions, without suffering cognitive dissonance at a level proportionate to the length of the conflict. And the erosion of thought and objectivity is a side-effect of this cognitive dissonance. Give the US another twenty years to engage in soul-searching, hand-wringing, and much-publicized recriminations, and the spirit of reckless adventurism will return, for better or worse. This, too, is the result of a decline in the clarity and objectivity of thought. We can only hope that, in the long term future, counter-cyclical forces will emerge that will temper both the highs of adventurism and the lows of defeatism.
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Note added 08 June 2012: On the same day that I posted the above, Thomas E. Ricks posted a longer and much more detailed piece on COIN, No matter what Gentile and others wish, counterinsurgency just isn’t going away, by Col. Robert Killebrew. I agree with almost all of this.
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22 May 2012
The Pacific Ocean is the largest unified geographical area on the surface of the planet. Covering more than a quarter of the globe, it is, “almost equal to the total land area of the world” (according to the CIA Factbook), and is twice as large as the Atlantic Ocean. This vast realm of water has recently been the object of elevated strategic interest since a “strategic pivot” toward Asia was announced by the current US administration, perhaps heralding the first signs of a shift toward a Pacific-centered world order.
The strategic pivot to Asia has been accompanied by admirably clear strategic guidance for the current US Pacific Command (Pacom) commander. The admirably succinct (3 page) UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, authored (or at least signed by) outgoing Pacom Admiral Robert F. Willard, mirrors the January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (almost as succinct as the former at 16 pages, including several title pages and introductory material, which narrows the content to a mere 8 pages).
There was an interesting story on the DOD website from the American Forces Press Service about the United States Pacific Command incoming Pacom Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III — Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance (which I previously wrote about on Tumblr). Admiral Locklear was quoted as saying, “…the president and the secretary of defense have given me through their strategic guidance clear direction on what they want [and] what they expect to see.” Every commander should be so fortunate.
This strategy is as much a political strategy as a military strategy, though in the present case implemented by the military forces of the US (as no Clausewitzean would be surprised to hear, given the fungibility of political and the military exertion). Both the strategic guidance referenced above and Admiral Locklear himself (as quoted in the above-linked article) prominently discussed developing military-to-military cooperation between the US and Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore. The Pacom website has an article and many pictures from recent joint Royal Thai Navy and US Navy exercises. China, of course, gets a section of its own in the strategic guidance. Here is what the UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE says about China:
2. Mature the U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relationship
i. Sustain a consistent military-to-military relationship to prevent miscommunication and miscalculation.
ii. Pursue opportunities for increased military cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
iii. Monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly.
Some time ago on Tumblr I wrote in The Pacific Theater, Then and Now that, “It would be difficult to imagine the US and Japanese military forces gathering in the late 1930s for defense consultative talks.” The US and China, however, have held Defense Consultative Talks. Of the DCT gathering in Beijing in 2011 I wrote:
“One cannot but wonder at the feeling and atmosphere of the room at such meetings. It has become a parlor game among strategists to play off the US and China in a confrontation, with the US being the world’s only superpower and China being the superpower presumptive, however far it is from actual superpower status. Also, much can happen in the period of time that need to elapse for China to bring its military forces even roughly to par with those of the US.”
It is certainly a good thing that these two powers are at least talking to each other, however little comes from such meetings. These two powers — the two largest economies in the world — face each other across the North Pacific, and they are vulnerable to what the strategic guidance document diplomatically calls “miscommunication and miscalculation.”
As the two largest economies on the planet, and the two great powers on the Pacific, the US and China will have interests in common (“areas of mutual interest”) and interests in conflict. This is inevitable. Great powers have a bias to stability, and while China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community is actually a form of instability in the international system, it is an instability with a bias toward a future bi-polar world order with China and the US both desiring to preserve their status while not greatly disturbing the other through “miscommunication and miscalculation.” The Chinese are as eager as the US to keep the sea lanes open to international trade, as China’s burgeoning trade with the world is the lifeline of its resource-hungry, export-led economy.
But there is a fly in the ointment, and that fly is Taiwan. The US officially maintains a “One China” policy, but it also gives Taiwan security guarantees (though it remains coyly ambiguous about whether the nuclear umbrella covers Taiwan) and occasionally sells the Taiwanese advanced military hardware when it feels like poking a stick in the eye of the Beijing regime. For its part, China has floated its first aircraft carrier, rumored to be named the Shī Láng (施琅, formerly the Admiral Kuznetsov-class Varyag), and I do not think that it is merely coincidental that Shī Láng was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681.
The Pacific Ocean has the distinction of being the only ocean on the globe to host the only major aircraft carrier engagements in planetary history. Aircraft carriers have been deployed in all the world’s oceans, but only the in the Pacific during the Second World War were there major military engagements between peer or near-peer fleets of multiple aircraft carriers. In The Pacific Theater, Then and Now I wrote, “Anyone who wants to understand carrier operations and carrier warfare studies Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. These are the only examples that we have.” I have moreover elsewhere stated that aircraft carriers are the premier instruments of force projection in the world today, and in light of this the entry of China into the lists of those nation-states operating aircraft carriers (a list about as short as the list of nation-states possessing nuclear weapons) suggests a re-run of historical naval arms races. Starting in 1922 with Hōshō (the first purpose-built aircraft carrier), the Japanese rapidly built a carrier fleet that was prepared to take on the US in the Pacific by 1941. That was a period of less than twenty years.
The Pacific Ocean is a relatively well-defined region that is not a nation-state. As such, it perfectly exemplifies that I recently wrote about in regard to regionalism. After posting my initial formulations of regionalism I realized that one way to define a region would be as a geographical area isolated from other geographical areas by choke points. The choke points of the Pacific Ocean are surprisingly few for a geographical region of this extent.
In the map above (if you click on it, it should get bigger) I have attempted to outline in red some of the obvious choke points that connect the Pacific Ocean to the rest of the world. The Bering Sea is the choke point for access to the Arctic Ocean; the Panama Canal and the Straight of Magellan are the choke points for access to the Atlantic Ocean. There is a particularly interesting buffer of southeast Asian islands interposed between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. One could regard this as a series of closely spaced choke points, or as something strategically distinct from a choke point, reticulate in nature, like a permeable barrier. Such an area would be difficult to transit in large capital ships or a fleet, but affords numerous hiding places (and re-supply opportunities) for small vessels that can safely negotiate the shallow seas and narrow straits of these islands.
Should the world begin to approximate a Pacific-centered world order, this world order would be at the mercy of the choke points noted above. In an A2/AD world, these choke points would dictate the dissemination of Pacific commerce to the rest of the world. Any power wishing to dictate terms to the world would seek to control these choke points, since by controlling the choke points, the entire Pacific Ocean becomes the subject of anti-access and area denial. One CSG per choke point would go a long way toward control of the Pacific. Whose carriers will it be?
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21 April 2012
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday, 12 April 2012. In his speech he formulated what he called a security paradox. I was made aware of this by a piece in Foreign Policy magazine, This Week at War: The General’s Dystopia by Robert Haddick.
The chairman’s formulation of one of the central strategic dilemmas of our time in the form of a paradox gives us a concise motif for the discussion of this dilemma. Here is the passage of the speech that first formulates the paradox:
…I believe I’m chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it’s actually more dangerous. That’s the essence of what I describe as a security paradox. Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries. Highly accurate ballistic missiles are prevalent in every theater. Bombs made out of fertilizer can defeat and destroy our toughest mine-resistant vehicles. A cyberattack could stop this society in its tracks. And these are real threats that we face today.
What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They’re proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they’re proliferating vertically, down to nonstate actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that’s the security paradox.
The international system is more stable than at any time in the past, and there is less peer-to-peer war than throughout much of history, but the possibility of technologically sophisticated violence is more pervasive than at any time in the past. This summarizes the paradoxical coincidence of two of the most important strategic trends of our time. we have long known that major peer-to-peer wars are becoming less frequent in the international system, and we have long known that rapidly technological process is democratizing advanced technological capabilities. It is the virtue of the Chairman’s security paradox to bring these two strategic trends together.
It might sound a bit odd to say that war has been made less frequent by the contemporary international system, since there are seemingly interminable conflicts all over the world, and this is partly a semantic question of how “war” is to be defined. If we place the threshold of war rather low, and include non-state actors, we can say that war is pervasive in the world today. But if we place the threshold high, and disallow non-state actors are participants in war sensu stricto, war can be seen as rare. In fact, if we define war as peer-to-peer conflict between major military powers, there has not been a war since 1945. Subsequent larger conflicts have been proxy wars between Cold War adversaries that did not rise to the level of peer-to-peer (or near-peer) conflict.
I have expressed this strategic trend of the decreasing frequency of all-out war as the devolution of war, noting that this devolution involves the weaponization of eliminationism, which keeps depredations below the threshold of atrocity in order to forestall international intervention (and thereby avoid a “war”).
Another way to express this is to employ the acronym OOTW, which stands for “operations other than war” (also MOOTW, military operations other than war). Chapter 9 of Field Manual 100-15 – War and Operations Other Than War details military operations other than war, which may include (but are not necessarily limited to) arms control, attacks and raids, antiterrorism, counterterrorism, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, security assistance, foreign internal defense, COIN, noncombatant evacuation operations, peace operations, and recovery operations. It is no secret that the military forces of major powers have been much more involved in OOTW than war itself for some time, although all of these OOTW can escalate into conflicts indistinguishable from war.
I don’t know of any acronym that sums up the devolution of technology as neatly as OOTW sums up the devolution of warfighting powers to conducting operations other than war, but the historical phenomenon of technology becoming less expensive and more widely available is familiar to all. I dealt with the technological devolution after a fashion in Power to the People, in which I discussed the electronic intelligence possibilities now available to non-state entities and indeed to individuals. Anyone today using Google Earth knows what it is like to have available on their desk top satellite intelligence once reserved for a handful of nation-states capable of launching a satellite into earth orbit.
We have every reason to believe that major military engagements will continue to be avoided in favor of military operations other than war, and we similarly have every reason to believe that advanced technology, including the technology of weapons systems, will continue to disperse more widely and cheaply. Thus the security paradox will not only continue to describe the global security situation, it will likely be exacerbated by high technology weapons systems devolving further down the continuum of actors and agents.
These developments are not smooth and continuous; there continue to be some technologies like nuclear weapons that require the resources of a nation-state to develop and to deploy (although, I might point out, not to steal). Computer technologies are very widely available, and wherever computer technologies inform weapons technology, we can expect such high technology weapons systems to eventually devolve to the level of the individual. Ideologically motivated groups, like terrorist groups, making a concerted effort to acquire such high technology weapons systems, will have them much sooner.
How are we to manage a world in which high technology weapons systems are in the hands of strongly ideologically motivated groups who are willing to kill in order to attain their objectives? That is the question that will shape security thinking for the remainder of the twenty-first century and beyond.
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21 March 2012
After the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, the most formidable instrument of force projection to emerge in Western Europe was that of Viking Civilization. The naval force projection capabilities of the Vikings were unique in the historical period, and this achievement counts alongside the great instruments of force projection in human history. The next great instrument of force projection to emerge in human history — the Mongol horse archer — was neither naval nor Western European. (I wrote about the Mongol instrument of force projection in The Power of Mobile Fire.) The next capable naval instrument of force projection in Western Europe did not emerge for another five hundred years, as Western Europe fell into the lassitude of an inland and almost purely agricultural civilization.
As with the Mongols, whose power projection abilities grew directly out of a way of life of nomadic pastoralism that involved horsemanship from an early age, the Norse power projection ability also grew directly out of a way of life, that of a people dependent upon shipping. Life in Scandinavia is difficult. If you can imagine the difficulty of life in early medieval Europe, and then multiply this difficulty by colder temperatures, shorter growing seasons, and more difficult overland transportation, you get an idea of the difficulty of life in early medieval Scandinavia. The coastline of what is today Norway in rocky, bleak and cold, and it faces the inhospitable North Sea, but it is deeply indented by fjords. What is a fjord? A fjord is a sunken mountain range whose valleys are filled with frigid waters and whose peaks tower above the narrow waterways. What little farming there is in Norway takes place on a very narrow strip of alluvial deposits between the water’s edge and the steeps sides of the walls of the fjords.
This is a hard land in which to make a living, and people here would have been unimaginably poor were it not for waterborne commerce — raiding and trading by ship gave the medieval Norse peoples what little wealth they possessed. Without shipping, the peoples of Scandinavia would be limited to what little produce can be coaxed from their northern soils. With shipping, the Vikings made themselves a power to be reckoned with, whose influence stretched from the British Isles to Constantinople, where Swedish Vikings became the Varangian guard who were the special detail of the Emperor of Byzantium.
The geography of the fjords was the key to Viking power projection in the same way that the grasslands of Central Asia, capable of pasturing horses but not suitable for settled agriculturalism, were the key to Mongol power projection. The fjords open directly onto the North Sea, but they are not mere harbors. The waterways of the fjords penetrate deep into the interior of the Scandinavian landmass, and these waterways are lined with trees that cover the sides of the fjords. Since a fjord is a sunken mountain range, the tops of the mountains (at least at the coast) do not rise above the timberline. (It is quite beautiful to see Norway in the fall since the autumn colors reach to the top of the walls of the fjords.) Deep waterways plus lots of timber plus quiet inland spots long the fjord far from the storms of the North Sea mean that you can build a boat virtually anywhere along the edge of the fjord.
Shipbuilding technology, while sophisticated, is a skill that one man can acquire from participating in a few projects, after which the experienced shipwright can set himself up at the quiet end of a fjord. His family homestead can supply him with enough to eat while he builds a ship, and once the ship is built the neighbors can all jump on board, leaving their wives at home to care for the farm. Since there were no raiding parties coming from elsewhere in Europe, probing the coast of Scandinavia for unguarded farmsteads, these farms would be safe for the weeks or months that a raiding party was away. Also, there was little wealth here for any foreign raiders to steal. Like the Vikings, they would be attracted to soft targets that had something worth taking and little ability to defend it — like monasteries.
At this point in European history, there was little competition for raiding and trading. The Vikings mostly had the sea lanes to themselves; their free hand on the water meant many opportunities, and the many opportunities lured the ambitious and the adventurous to improve their lot, in the course of which they improved their knowledge of seamanship and the communities upon which they preyed. Communities were isolated. Communications were poor. There was no strong central authority that could be mobilized to systematically counter the Viking threat. Little changed. A soft target might well remain a soft target for generations.
The farms along the fjords were a base and a supply depot; the inhospitable terrain functioned like a natural citadel in which these bases of operations remained safe for generations; the same terrain necessitated shipping as a way of life, and the knowledge of shipping meant a people intimately familiar with life on the water. Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia. The success of raiding and trading was a strong incentive for others to iterate the successful model, drawing upon the same knowledge rooted in the same way of life. Moreover, the mythology of the Norse peoples before Christianization was remarkably similarly to the Homeric ethos celebrating the life of the warrior, in which battle is honorable and honor more important than life, and this mythology was the source of a vigorous tradition of poetry that was equally part of the lifeway of the people. One suspects that famous lines of Skaldic poetry were repeated under the breath of Vikings as they approached their targets and prepared themselves to loot and pillage, or perhaps, in the spirit of the genre, lines were improvised as the men went about their brutal work.
Power projection before the industrial revolution was always about a way of life. Some ways of life lent themselves more effectively to power projection than others. Many peoples led peaceful histories in so far as their neighbors would allow them to live in peace without taking up arms, but in an age that respected strength and the right of conquest, the narrative of armed conflict was socially necessary and leaves the impression that all peoples were equally warlike.
The calculus of power projection has not necessarily changed with the advent of industrialization. Still, some things have changed. Earlier, in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement, I identified a technological threshold, marked by the Industrial Revolution, that is crucial to the development of power projection:
Before the revolution in mechanical technology — of which the Industrial Revolution was a moment within a larger development — the contests between peoples could be decided by vigorous exertion. Virtually any people could establish an empire by expending sufficient effort. This is parallel to the fact that before the Technological Revolution the interest prohibition was no great impediment to peoples or individuals, since most of that to which peoples or individuals aspired could be secured through sufficient effort (i.e., largely independently of any technical expertise in finance). This is no longer true. In those regions of the world most affected by the Technological Revolution, the age old calculus of ambition has been utterly transformed. Will, effort, and exertion alone are not sufficient for a people to found or expand an empire or for an individual to attain social status.
While I still agree with this, I would point out now that, although ambition and effort could tip the balance in a contest between peoples, as a matter of historical fact the great instruments of power projection have been rooted in the lifeways of a people. This is less about imperial ambition than about the ordinary business of life. The difference for power projection, then, between before and after the Industrial Revolution, is that before the Industrial Revolution an Ozymandian figure could cajole his people to imperial conquest through sheer feats of will, whereas now this is probably no longer possible.
Perhaps it could be said that the essence of power projection has not changed, but certainly its appearance has changed. And here is the sense in which the essence of power projection has not changed, despite the technological threshold: those peoples most adept at the lifeways of industrial-technological civilization are those that can most effectively wage industrialized warfare, and which will then be most effective in industrial age power projection.
It sounds odd to speak of the “lifeways of industrialized peoples,” but it is necessary to begin to think in such terms if one is going to be able to make sense of contemporary history in the same spirit that one brings to the understanding of earlier history. The lifeways of industrialized people do not at all appear similar to the lifeways of pre- and unindustrialized peoples, but the relation of these lifeways to effective power projection remain essentially unchanged.
The first great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was that of the British Navy, in service to the worldwide British Empire, and with its coaling stations around the globe. Ships crewed by hundreds or thousands of men required coal, fresh water, and food; an entire global infrastructure was necessary to support such a navy. Thus the Royal British Navy both made the British Empire possible as well as the infrastructure created by this Empire made the global reach of the Royal Navy possible.
The second great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the success of German land forces during the First and Second World Wars (and the Luftwaffe as well, in so far as it participated in combined arms operations by providing air support For the Wehrmacht’s armored advance). The German mastery of industrial-technological lifeways was apparent in the excellence of German military hardware (both in terms of design and construction), the care and expertise with which German soldiers employed this hardware (British soldiers in North Africa reported that the Germans always made an effort to recover as many of their tanks as they could after dark), and the ability of the German economy to continue to supply its war machine despite the pressures of fighting a two-front war.
The third great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the nearly seamless US replacement of the British Navy after the end of the Second World War. The world’s oceans, once patrolled by the Royal British Navy, are now patrolled by the US. The totality of US global control of the sea lanes is nearly unprecedented in history; it continues to this day, though it is under threat (cf. U.S. Confronts an Anti-Access World), and it has played no small role in the growth of global commerce. The Pax Americana has held on the world’s oceans if it can be said to have held anywhere.
The forth great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was and remains overwhelming US air superiority, with its global infrastructure of airbases (analogous as they are to coaling stations). An air force must have fuel, spare parts, mechanics, and must meet the needs of aircrews. It takes the largest economy in the world to support this infrastructure. And, as with the symbiosis of the Royal Navy and the British Empire, US global influence makes worldwide airbases possible, while the worldwide airbases make US global air superiority possible, and thereby secure continuing US global influence. Continued economic productivity is necessary to support the upkeep and operations of such a force. Should the US economy seriously falter, the US would prove itself unable to remain a competitor in industrial-technological power projection. The fact that the US has managed to maintain and expand its global network over a period of almost seventy years, through good economic times and bad, and has at present no peer force to challenge it globally (though it can be challenged locally), demonstrates the US ability so far to maintain its dominance. Neither more nor less. We cannot extrapolate this dominance into anything beyond the immediate future because there are too many unknown parameters.
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10 March 2012
What is called “losing” in chess may constitute winning in another game.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a discussion of Gödel’s incompleteness proofs
I have for quite some time been intending to wade into the COIN debate (that’s “counter-insurgency,” for those among you without an absolute command of inherently ambiguous acronyms), and while this post is not going to be that post which takes COIN as the leitmotif, I will here approach COIN indirectly by taking a bit of the debate on the margins of COIN. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s well known remark about Gödel — “My task is, not to talk about (e.g.), Gödel’s proof, but to pass it by.” — I can say that, in the present context, my task is not to talk about COIN, but to pass it by.
And I will pass by COIN by way of a detour through SoT. Now we have another acronym, so I must tell you that “SoT” means “strategy of tactics.” I found this on the Ink Spots blog, in a piece by Jason Fritz titled be-SoT-ted: COIN tactics and strategy through the lens of ends, ways, means. Fritz makes several interesting assertions that I would like to review. Fritz notes that Gian Gentile originated (or popularized) the notion of “COIN is the strategy of tactics,” implying that COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.
Fritz links to several interesting pieces by Gian Gentile, who has written an excellent essay on this idea. Here are a couple of excerpts from Gentile:
Nation-building using population-centric COIN as its centerpiece should be viewed as an operation. It should not be viewed as strategy, or even policy for that matter. But what is occurring now in Afghanistan, for example, at least for the American Army, is a “strategy of tactics.” If strategy calls for nation-building as an operational method to achieve policy objectives, and it is resourced correctly, then the population-centric approach might make sense. But because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.
…the most damaging consequence to the American Army from the new zeitgeist of COIN is that it has taken the Army’s focus off of strategy. Currently, US military strategy is really nothing more than a bunch of COIN principles, massaged into catchy commander’s talking points for the media, emphasizing winning the hearts and minds and shielding civilians. The result is a strategy of tactics and principles.
GIAN P. GENTILE, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2009
Of Gentile’s dismissal of COIN as a “strategy of tactics” Fritz has this to say:
My main beef with COIN as a strategy of tactics (I’m going to go ahead and call it SoT from now on) is that all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics. In the ends-ways-means calculus of strategy, a large chunk of the “ways” section is the aggregation of tactical actions based on operational concepts and/or TTPs… This is an elegant way of saying it, but all military strategies are in part SoT, in a non-pejorative sense. You can’t have strategic success without tactical successes. COIN, IW, UW, maneuver warfare are all common in this regard.
…for now I disagree that COIN is inherently a strategy of tactics any more than any category of tactics can be labeled a strategy. Those tactics may be part of a military strategy that logically connects ends, ways, and means. On the other hand, COIN tactics may be the commander’s ways in an illogical or inaccurate strategic equation and thus we may see COIN as a SoT.
While I am in complete agreement that you cannot have strategic success without tactical successes, it is important to point out that tactical objectives can be antithetical to strategic objectives, so much so that a “successful” tactical move may involve a local defeat in the interest of a global strategic victory (and here I mean “global” not as “worldwide” but simply as a contrast to “local”). If your skirmishers can flush out an ambush before that ambush can be sprung on the main body of your troops, the skirmishers may lose this engagement but in so losing they may have saved the day for the force on the whole. What is called “losing” in tactics may be called “winning” in another game, namely, the game of strategy.
Still, both Gentile and Fritz are on to something (though they seem to take distinct positions) in the analysis of a collection of tactical methods and principles that are thrown together as an ad hoc strategy without the benefit of what might be called strategic vision (for lack of a better term). Gentile is somewhat dismissive of a “strategy of tactics” cobbled together on the local level, while Fritz seems to suggest that all strategies are ultimately strategies of tactics, since, “all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics.”
The problem here (if there is a problem) can be neatly illuminated by interpolating a distinction into this discussion, so I am going to make a distinction between formal and informal strategy, or formal and material strategy (either set of terms will do). Although I am introducing my own terminology, the idea is not at all new.
Actually, I’m going to make two distinctions. Among strategies of tactics we can distinguish those that add up to more than the sum of their parts, and those that fail to add up to anything. A number of tactics thrown together in an operational context may only apparently have little or nothing to do with each other, but it emerges in time that they do in fact function coherently as a whole. This whole turns out to be a strategic whole. This is when tactics add up to more than the sum of their parts, and this is what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” and what Hegel called the “cunning of reason.” Sometimes, things get done quite without our knowing how they get done.
Fritz, in suggesting that all strategies may be strategies of tactics comes close to this idea that strategy is emergent from a coherent body of tactics. But this, as we know, is not the only possibility. A number of tactics thrown together for an operation may reveal their essential incoherence by ignominiously falling to pieces under the extraordinary stresses of combat. Tactics combined without any overarching idea of what is to be accomplished may be pursued at cross-purposes to each other and become self-defeating. This would be an instance of tactics turning out to be less than the sum of their parts (what I have elsewhere called negative organicism and submergent properties). This seems to be Gentile’s primary concern.
History provides adequate examples both of strategy emergent from tactics and strategy failing to emerge from tactics, so we can’t really say that Gentile is right or Fritz is right, because they are both right — just in different circumstances. So here’s where we come to formal strategy and material strategy.
A formal strategy is an explicitly formulated doctrine of strategic objectives distinct from the tactical objectives that may be employed to achieve the aims of the strategy. When a formal strategy is formulated, those who are formulating it know that they are formulating it, they know what they want to accomplish, and if any time lines are given for the strategy they will be able to say eventually whether that strategy was successful or a failure.
An informal or material strategy is that strategy that emerges in the absence of a formal strategy. A material strategy may be grasped intuitively or instinctively by military commanders on the ground or by politicians in their negotiations in smoke-filled rooms. It is probably the case that most US strategies are informal strategies, which is why US military forces must so often get by with strategies of tactics, because no one can explicitly formulate exactly what is going on. Even when such an explicit statement of a strategy is lacking, however, we should not sell informal strategy short, because in some cases everyone understands, from the Commander-in-Chief to the foot soldiers slogging through the mud, what it is all about. When men die for freedom and democracy without being able to define either freedom or democracy (or the tactics that are consistent with a free and democratic society) they are dying for an informal strategy.
Given this distinction, then, between formal and informal strategy, the distinction between strategy and tactics is maintained; in other words, it is not the case that all strategies are strategies of tactics, but rather that informal strategies are strategies of tactics when these tactics do turn out to be coherent and to accomplish something. When strategies of tactics fall apart and a fiasco ensues, then there was no strategy at all — not even an informal one.
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16 February 2012
We have all heard the slogans of contemporary diplomacy — “peaceful rise,” “responsible stakeholder,” and the rest — and now it seems that we have a new diplomatic euphemism: strategic trust. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gave a speech shortly after his arrival in the US for an official visit in which he prominently employed the phrase. I have not been able to find a reliable full text of the speech online, but here are some excerpts:
“For us, strategic trust is the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation, and greater trust will lead to broader cooperation.”
“We in China hope to work with the U.S. side to maintain close high-level exchanges. We hope to increase dialogue and exchange of views with the United States by making full use of our channels of communication, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and military-to-military exchanges…”
“By doing so, we can better appreciate each other’s strategic intentions and development goals, avoid misinterpretation and misjudgment, build up mutual understanding and strategic trust, and on that basis, fully tap our cooperation potential.”
And this from Chinese VP calls for deeper strategic mutual trust with U.S.:
“The development of cooperative partnership could be guaranteed only when the two sides view each other’s strategic intention and development path in a correct and objective way, respect each other’s core interests and accommodate each other’s major concerns, avoid making troubles for each other and do not cross over each other’s bottom lines…”
It might be unwise to read too much into these statements, since this was, after all, a highly publicized political speech. There was an interesting sketch of Xi Linping at Foreign Policy, Empty Suit: Xi Jinping is just another Communist Party hack by Yu Jie, that gives some context, and some weeks earlier, also on Foreign Policy, there was this highly entertaining piece, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars by Isaac Stone Fish, in which the author quotes this from Hu Jintao:
“Only if we resolutely follow the guidance of Marxism, and let the advanced culture of socialism guide the way, will we be able to lay the foundation for the cultural development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
And then notes:
“Every year Chinese press wonders why their country can’t seem to win a Nobel Prize in literature or peace; ironically, in most cases banned from mentioning dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, or Liu Xiaobo, who won last year.”
We have, of course, seen this before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Bloc countries placed a great deal of emphasis upon winning medals at the Olympics, since this is politically non-controversial, even while the greatest writers and artists were harrassed, jailed, and sent to gulags. Every authoritarian state that seeks to control expression runs into this same difficulty.
Nevertheless, the idea of strategic trust is interesting on its own merits, whatever Xi Linping may have meant by it. Vice President Linping gave a fairly detailed sketch of how he would go about cultivating strategic trust, and I will certainly agree that maintaining both broad and deep communication over the long term will likely achieve something like this — although one may well wonder how broad and deep communication can be maintained with the Great Firewall of China intervening between the two countries, and with a vigorous Chinese censorship regime empowered to unilaterally delete content (sort of like Twitter has now empowered itself to act).
Some time ago, in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, I examined a conception of grand strategy has a certain amount of currency, and then went on to suggest that one of the functions of grand strategy is to make certain policies and practices thinkable or unthinkable:
Grand strategy, like ethics, not only both forbids and enjoins certain actions and classes of actions, but it also shapes our thinking, making certain options unthinkable while making other options possible. Alternative grand strategies may pick out different courses of action as unthinkable or possible. We recall that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war was often simply referred to as “the unthinkable,” but there were people who did not see things that way at all. Castro is supposed to have urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike, even if it meant the annihilation of Cuba, rather than back down in the Cuban missile crisis. For Castro, at this point in his life, nuclear war as in no sense unthinkable (I have read somewhere recently that he has since changed his mind).
With this sense of grand strategy in mind, we could characterize two distinct nation-states (or, more generally, political entities, whether state or non-state) as sharing a grand strategic vision if they share common conceptions of what is thinkable and that is unthinkable. Another way to put this would be to say that political entities share a grand strategic vision if they share political presuppositions.
Now, it is true that Xi Linping spoke in terms of strategy rather than grand strategy, so we need to take a step own in generality toward greater specificity to do justice to his remarks. I don’t think very many people would suppose that China and the US, representing profoundly different traditions of civilization, would ever substantially share a grand strategic vision on the level of common political presuppositions. Indeed, this is precisely what divides China and the US, and makes communication difficult — not impossible, but difficult, which means that an effort must be made, and even when an effort is made, misunderstanding will persist and can only be address by further communicative efforts.
It is, however, entirely possible (and, moreover, possible by the concrete means that Linping suggests) that China and the US could share substantial presuppositions on a strategic level short of grand strategy: mutual economic growth, rule of law, global political stability, avoidance of catastrophic military conflicts, the restriction of conflict to localized proxy wars conducted below the nuclear threshold, and so forth. All of these same elements were present during detente with the Soviet Union.
Such an arrangement is not only possible, but mutually beneficial. Strategic trust, then, would be a trust of each nation-state in the other that the other recognizes the mutually beneficial condition of shared strategic presuppositions, and will seek to perpetuate this arrangement.
What are the challenges to maintaining such strategic trust? Under the above-named conditions, there will always be a tension between strategy and grand strategy. Part of strategic trust would be trust in your strategic partner to remain focused on strategy and to allow grand strategy to take a distant second place. This is all about maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo, and maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo would be all about de-emphasizing, and perhaps even suppressing, revolutionary movements and macro-scopic social change that could upset the strategic apple cart.
Under these conditions, the US would continue to talk about Tibet and Taiwan, but would take no action beyond its existing commitments to Taiwan, while China would be careful not to use its growing economic influence to push the US out of its established positions of power. Like detente with the Soviet Union, all of this is doable, and perhaps it even represents the most likely short- and medium-term future, but it leaves open certain difficult questions like, for example, the Pacific theater…
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