The Redoutable at Trafalgar (1805) by Auguste Etienne Francois Mayer (1805-90)

The Redoutable at Trafalgar (1805) by Auguste Etienne Francois Mayer (1805-90)

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Byzantine Superweapon

9 January 2013


In many quarters “Byzantine” and “Byzantium” are ciphers for stagnation, decadence and civilizational decline. Hegel certainly thought so. I have elsewhere quoted Hegel on his opinion of the Byzantine Weltanschauung: “…a disgusting picture of imbecility.” Yet, as many authors have pointed out, the Byzantine portion of the Roman Empire outlasted the Western portion of the Roman Empire by a thousand years, which is no mean accomplishment. Here is a contemporary scholarly perspective on the apparent hostility of Byzantine civilization to innovation:

“The widespread modern evaluation of Byzantium as anti-innovative could be proven wrong by the study of various innovations in Byzantine architecture (one should need no more than studying the pendentives of Hagia Sophia), military techniques and practices (the Greek fire being a very good example, even if not the only), technology (see for example the fifth century mechanical sundial treasured today at the British Museum of Science, or the famous tenth-century hydraulic systems of the imperial palace described by Liutprand of Cremona), painting (the narrative icon), theology (see above, on Iconoclasm and Hesychasm), or music.”

“Was Innovation unwanted in Byzantium?” Apostolos Spanos, University of Agder, working paper, to be published in: Ingela Nilsson & Paul Stephenson (eds.), Byzantium Wanted: The Desire and Rejection of an Empire, Uppsala, 2013, Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, vol. 15

Spanos mentions as an example of Byzantine technological innovation “Greek fire,” said to have been invented by the Syrian military engineer Callinicus of Heliopolis (himself a refugee from conflict), and which was famous throughout late antiquity as a fearsome weapon. I have been listening to Professor Jeffrey Burds’ Modern Scholar lectures, The Second Oldest Profession, Part 1: A World History of Espionage, and in the last part of the second lecture, “Espionage Among the Ancients,” Professor Burds goes into some detail concerning Greek fire. Interested as he is in espionage, Professor Burds focuses on the legendary secrecy which surrounded Greek fire — which secrecy, it should be pointed out, contributed to its aura as a mystery to be feared. So secret was Greek fire that the exact nature of it has not survived into modern times. We have a pretty good idea of the chemical composition and delivery system, but we don’t have the exact ingredients or a surviving Greek fire device (one cannot help but wonder if a Greek fire delivery system will be dug up some day).


The Byzantine use of “Greek Fire” must be understood as a “weapons system” in the modern sense of the term, with several integrated technologies employed together according to an established military doctrine. The Byzantines left several famous military manuals to posterity, but unfortunately there is not surviving manual on the use of Greek fire in combat. Yet I strongly suspect, given its employment over a period of several hundred years, that Byzantine admirals had a Greek fire doctrine.


It should be kept in mind that any technology sufficiently robust to employ as a weapons system in combat operations has reached an impressive level of sophistication, and with this in mind we should grant the sophistication of the Greek fire weapons system in Byzantium, which involved several different components — ships, kettles for heating the chemical mixture, pumps, pipes, the delivery nozzle — which were separately constructed and only later assembled (Professor Burds credits this compartmentalization of the production and operation of Byzantine Greek fire for it being successfully kept secret), trained crews in the operation of the weapons system stationed on the ships, and, last of all, the secret chemical ingredients of the flammable mixture combined and loaded on to the ships by a representative of the Byzantine royal family.


This Byzantine superweapon exploited the technological capabilities of classical antiquity, engineering them into an effective weapons system that served state interests for hundreds of years before the secret was lost to posterity. In a sense, then, Greek fire represented the science, technology, and engineering of an entire civilization. Classical antiquity was capable of producing machinery of a high degree of precision when so desired — I have in particular cited a Roman water pump I saw in a museum in Madrid, and of course there is the famous Antikythera mechanism and the clock in the Tower of the Winds in Athens, inter alia — but given the overwhelmingly agrarian character of ancient civilization there was little motivation to systematically exploit mechanical and industrial technologies.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

In classical antiquity, technology was pervasively present, but not systematically exploited for the purpose of improving the human condition. Under the circumstances of immediate military threat, when regime survivability was put into question, we do find the systematic exploitation of science, technology, and engineering — not only the Byzantine superweapon, but also there is the famous story of Archimedes producing war machines for the defense of Syracuse, and there are ancient books on the construction of siege engines, e.g., Siegecraft by Heron of Byzantium, which suggests a level of system brought to this military knowledge. Once the military threat was removed or neutralized, however, the motivation to exploit technology for practical purposes seems to vanish. With an economy based on slave labor, there was little motivation to produce labor-saving devices.

Bitonis, De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum: folio 10 recto: detailed image of portable siege tower. Heron of Byzantium probably designed similar structures.

Bitonis, De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum:
folio 10 recto: detailed image of portable siege tower. Heron of Byzantium probably designed similar structures.

In my post on anonymization I observed that industrial production in classical antiquity rose to the level of routine, and employed economies of scale, but it never rose to the level of anonymous mass production. So too all the high technology of the ancient world was hand crafted. And not only did the production remain unsystematic, but the knowledge itself remained unsystematized for the most part. Since the context of knowledge was not made systematic, knowledge was more easily lost. In contemporary industrial-technological civilization — in which such technological devices are not merely peripheral to the civilization, but which are rather constitutive of the civilization — the context of knowledge is made as systematic as the escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering.

Steam turbine after the design of Hero of Alexandria.

Steam turbine after the design of Hero of Alexandria.

We can see, in retrospect, countless ways in which the ancient world failed to “connect the dots” of technology in terms of fully exploiting innovations, scaling up, and engineering a technology into an industry. Time and again there are missed opportunities to substantially improve the material context of life by even a modest extrapolation of existing techniques and technologies. For example, Hero of Alexandria — the same Alexandria famous for its library, which Carl Sagan characterized as a research institute of classical antiquity — invented a steam turbine, the Aeolipile, among many other devices. But rather than being harnessed for work, Hero’s steam engine was treated as a curiosity. In Historical Disruption I noted how Tamim Ansary mentioned that Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine failed to be more than a novelty in its social context. Exactly the same thing was true of Hero’s steam turbine.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath. Like Hero of Alexandria, his inventions remained mostly curiosities.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath. Like Hero of Alexandria, his inventions remained mostly curiosities.

It was clearly within the technological competency of ancient engineering to harness Hero’s steam turbine to do mechanical work — it could have been used to operate a water pump for mining or agricultural irrigation, to power an air pump for bellows, to turn a potter’s wheel or the spindle of a lathe, or to actuate a reciprocating saw. None of these things happened — or, if any of these applications were attempted, none were adopted on a scale that would have made a difference to way people lived.

Throughout his Cosmos television series, Carl Sagan refers back to Greek science and technology, and at one point imagines what the world would be like today if science and technology had progressed steadily from that time to the present day. It is an enjoyable exercise in counter-factual history, but it doesn’t really reflect what was going on in the ancient world. There was no social infrastructure in place to exploit technological innovations. Sagan was closer to the truth when he mentioned in the last episode of Cosmos that ancient scientists never questioned the social institutions of their time, and Sagan particularly singles out slavery.

Slavery almost certainly retards the advancement of civilization, and for this reason if for no other must be considered a retrograde institution. It is all-too-easy for the empowered and privileged classes to sit back and let the slaves to the work, even when everyone’s life could be improved through the most basic technological innovations and their exploitation in labor-saving devices. It was a lack of interest, and not a lack of ability, that nipped an ancient industrial revolution in the bud. Perhaps slavery also retards the moral progress of civilization, and there is a systematic relationship between moral progress and technological progress. This would be a highly controversial thesis to maintain, but one can at least see the glimmer of an argument here.

With this in mind, it is possible, then, that the collapse of the Roman Empire ultimately laid the foundations for the growth of industrial-technological civilization, because the historical discontinuity between antiquity and medievalism assured that ancient institutions were abandoned and new institutions were established in place of them. Slavery went the way of the Homeric gods, sacred prostitution at temples, and — unfortunately — bathing. For all its faults, one of the great achievements of medieval European civilization was its abolition of slavery, even if the condition of peasants was little different from that of slaves. This makes it all the most puzzling how, once Western civilization eliminated slavery once, it made a comeback in the early modern period, only to be eliminated again in the nineteenth century. it would be a worthwhile topic for historical research to attempt to understand why Western civilization had to twice rid itself of slavery.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In yesterday’s post on China’s Military Aviation Ambitions I discussed some of the early difficulties in jet propulsion, and how the most advanced jet engines of our time continue to be a technical and engineering challenge. China, as I mentioned, buys its most advanced jet engines from Russia and the Ukraine, who apparently possess industrial plant tooling and technical expertise superior to what the Chinese are currently capable of matching.

I expect that this technological hurdle will continue for some time, since despite the fact that jet propulsion technology is older that the technology of nuclear weapons (which I have elsewhere called a mature technology), there is still a great deal of technological and engineering work to go on jet propulsion.

In the past few decades jet propulsion technological research has focused on higher efficiencies, and this research has resulted in passenger jet service that uses significantly less fuel than the first Jet Age when, in the 1960s, passengers jets first began to routinely offer international travel. But I have also noted that the then-expected transition to supersonic jet travel didn’t happen; supersonic jets were loud and expensive and used a lot of fuel. The time saved by supersonic travel was not at that time, and has not up to this time, been enough to offset the disproportionate costs of supersonic passenger travel (although supersonic military jets are now entirely routine, with the newest fighter jets possessing supercruise ability).

But that isn’t the only thing that slowed down the advent of the age of supersonic jet travel. Supersonic jets are a difficult technology to master, and require substantial engineering and technological resources. We still have a long way to go (and therefore many opportunities yet in the future — even the near future) in terms of routine and cost-effective supersonic travel. Since supersonic jet travel has been stalled for some time, it is beginning to feel like fusion power — an engineering challenge just beyond our current reach — always another thirty years in the future.

On my other blog I wrote about tests this past spring on the essential systems of the REL SABRE engine (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine — an illustration of which is pictured above), which is of the greatest interest for future jet propulsion technologies. This is an engine that can take us into space, and is therefore the future and an important technological milestone. The SABRE engine (you can see an animation of its operation both on the REL website and at Vimeo) is designed for SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) and HOTOL (HOrizontal Take Off and Landing) operation — in other words, this is the engine for the kind of spaceships that you see in the movies, that take off from the ground under their own power, like an airplane, and are able to keep accelerating all the way through the atmosphere and then into space.

Maybe I sound like a booster for REL — their website calls the SABRE engine, “a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide” — but it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this propulsion technology, not just for the business of space launch, and not just for any particular industry, but for the human species. If we stay on the earth, we are doomed; we will only propagate our civilization if we become a spacefaring civilization, and an SSTO spacecraft is an essential element in becoming a spacefaring civilization.

When I was reading about the SABRE engine I was surprised that the crucial technology was simply a cooling system. Air traveling at hypersonic speeds gets very hot, and it needs to be cooled down to very low temperatures even while continuing to flow at very high speeds. Also, the moisture has to be extracted from the air, since ice coming into a hypersonic jet could cause serious problems. These are the problems that REL has so far been tackling successfully.

The REL SABRE engine is one solution for an engine that runs as a jet through the atmosphere and then turns itself into a rocket for extra-atmospheric flight. I assume that there are other possible solutions to this technological and engineering challenge, but as far as I know, REL is the only enterprise at present engaged in this kind of research and development. Of course their are always rumors that such things are being developed for the military in “black” programs of which the public knows nothing. It seems to me that if the Skunk Works could build the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s, by now they certainly ought to be able to build an air cooler that can aspirate a jet engine to the edge of the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Certainly I hope that such research is taking place, since the future of civilization is at stake.

There would be very obvious military advantages to a SSTO fighter, which would also be the first space fighter. Because of the ascendancy of the drone industry in recent years, several military hardware commentators have ventured that the current crop of fifth generation fighters (and 5.5 generation fighters) will be the last of the manned combat jets. I think it is much more likely the the F-22, and F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA and the J-20 will be the last generation of atmospheric-only military fighter craft, as the next obvious step is a fighter that takes off from the runway on the ground and flies directly into space, there to defend space-based military assets and to attack and disable the space-based assets of rival military powers.

It is hard to imagine that such developments are not taking place far from the eyes of the public. Hopefully my friends over at Open Source GEOINT will spot something like this soon.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The first jet-powered fighters and bombers became operational before the end of the Second World War. Under the pressure of war, the Germans developed the ME-262 fighter jet and the Arado Ar 234 bomber, while the British developed the Gloster Meteor fighter. The Germans adopted a more elegant and efficient engine design (an axial flow turbojet, in contrast to a centrifugal compressor), but the design required components that were at the very limits of the materials and manufacturing technology of the time. Some of these early jet engines had a service life of only 25-50 hours. The early British jet engines with a centrifugal compressor had a longer service life as the engine components were not subject to operating temperatures as high as that of axial flow engines.

The technology to design and produce cutting-edge fighter jet engines continues to this day to limit the ambitions of air forces and the industrial concerns that produce their jets. In a special Aerospace supplement to today’s Financial Times, a detailed article by Kathrin Hille, China: Doing it all yourself has its drawbacks, discusses China’s military aviation ambitions, which include not only the now well-known J-20 stealth fighter in development, but also a lighter weight stealth fighter, the J-60. Experts cited in the article emphasize that at least ten years of trials and testing were required for the F-22 to be put in the service, and still today the F-22 has problems. The less experienced Chinese air force will experience at least comparable development horizons for its fifth generation fighter.

Despite China’s obvious military aviation ambitions, which now must include carrier aviation as well, and despite all the accounts in the popular press of Chinese engineering prowess (presumably as revealed by new buildings and high speed trains), the Chinese cannot yet build the engines that power their most advanced fighter aircraft. According to the FT article cited above, the Chinese rely on Russian and Ukrainian sources for their engines. The Chinese J-10 and J-11 use the Russian-designed Salyut AL-31 FN engine. According to AIN Online, in Ukraine Wins Engine Contract for Chinese L-15 Jet Trainer Production, “China has ordered 250 AI-222-25F turbofans from the Ukraine to power production versions of the Hongdu L-15 advanced jet trainer.”

When one thinks of the public perception of the relative industrial plant of China and the Ukraine, one would not think that China needs to go to the Ukraine to purchase its most advanced jet engines, but this is the case in fact. The whole of China’s industrial plant is not yet capable of producing the materials and manufacturing technology necessary to the production of the kind of engine needed for the fifth generation stealth fighter (or even its training aircraft), and without the engine the jet is an empty shell.

In the long term I don’t think that there is any question that China will be able to tool its industrial plant up to the quality necessary to produce the engines that its jets require, but the fact that it is not yet at that level points both to the achievement of Soviet bloc manufacturing centers during the Cold War, as well as the extent to which China was more or less completely left out of the Cold War competition that drove military technological advances in the second half of the twentieth century. Russian-based industrial concerns are continuing to refine and improve the capacities they acquired during the Cold War, even if they lack the funds and the ambition to participate on the same level as China in global military arms procurement.

Of course, the Russians are developing the Sukhoi PAK-FA in cooperation with India, and this is certainly a global player in the fifth generation fighter competition, but I think that there is an accurate sense that Russia simply does not possess a sufficiently robust economy to follow up on its technological skills. It can produce the PAK-FA, but its ability to afford several squadrons seems questionable at best, whereas there isn’t much question that China can afford several fifth generation squadrons, but it doesn’t quite yet have the expertise to produce them on an exclusively domestic basis. This gives the Russians a certain power over China in the short term, even if the Russians choose not to use this lever. In fact, the Russians might well like the idea of a fifth generation fighter arms race between the US and China, because this occupies the US and leaves less strategic attention left over to focus on Russia’s near abroad. In the short term, again, the Russians may see it in their interest to facilitate Chinese military aviation ambitions, though it is unlikely that the Russians will see this as a long term strategic interest.

The Russians and the Chinese share a fairly long border, and even during the Cold War when the East was supposedly monolithically Red, they went to war over that border (cf. Sino-Soviet border conflict). This happened during my lifetime, and I am sure that it has not been forgotten either in China or Russia. That being said, former rivals sometimes become the best of allies, as was the case with NATO. While I do not think that this is at all likely, it is possible that the SCO could come to play a role in uniting former rivals and enemies in the face of the perception of a greater threat (presumptive US dominance over East Asian affairs).

Again, I do not think that this is at all likely, but it would certainly be strategically interesting if the SCO replaced NATO as the central strategic entity in the coming century. Since NATO no longer has a mission after the end of the Cold War, and the Western powers are essentially casting about either for a replacement role for NATO or for some alternative institution to give strategic focus and direction to Western interests, there is a kind of strategic void in the world today (and consequent strategic drift). In the West, we assume that this void will eventually be filled with a Western institution, but this is not necessarily the case. The SCO is an non-Western institution that could, in theory, fill this void.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Recently I have become fascinated by the development of early bombers during the First World War. Driven by the exigencies of the world’s first large-scale industrialized war (the Russo-Japanese War was an industrialized war, but not on the scale of the First World War), aircraft developed rapidly. I have focused on the same rapidity of technological development previously emphasizing the modernity of weapons systems during the Second World War. In The Dialectic of Stalemate I wrote:

“When the Second World War ended, there were operable jet fighters, ballistic missiles, electronic computers, and atomic weapons. None of these existed when the war began.”

True enough, but the essential ideas behind these weapons systems were already in play. An idea can be implemented in any number of ways (admittedly some more efficacious than others), and exactly how an idea is implemented is a matter of technology and engineering — in other words, implementation is an accident of history. As soon as the idea has its initial implementation, we are clever enough to usually see the implications of that idea rather quickly, and thus technology is driven to keep up with the intrinsic potentiality of the idea.

Once the proof of concept of heavier-than-air flight was realized, the rest fell into place like pieces of a puzzle. Aircraft would be armed; they would seek to destroy other aircraft, and prevent themselves from being destroyed; and they would seek to destroy targets on the ground. Hence the idea of aircraft in warfare rapidly moves to fighters and bombers. The pictures above are of the Zeppelin-Staaken — not the first enclosed bomber, but among the first (the Russians, I believe, made the first enclosed bomber, the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets).

The Zeppelin-Staaken was an enormous craft with a wingspan almost equal to that of a B-29 and a crew of many men. In fact, these early German bombers were called Riesenflugzeug (or R-planes) — gigantic aircraft. An early testimonial from a Zeppelin-Staaken crew member vividly conveys the sense of flying the R-planes:

“Inside the fuselage the pale glow of dim lights outlined the chart table, the wireless equipment, and the instrument panel. Under us, the black abyss.”

Trenches: Battleground WWI, episode 5, “Fight On, Fly On”

The technology and engineering of flight during the First World War was not sufficiently advanced to make a decisive strategic difference, but they had the idea of what was possible, and they attempted to put it into practice. The idea of bombers, coordinated by radio, executing a strategic precision airstrike was already present during the First World War.

During the Second World War, the technology had advanced to the point that strategic bombing was decisive, and, in fact, it was at one point the only possible war that the UK could wage against Germany. The evolutionary development continues to the present day. Contemporary precision munitions are finally beginning to converge on true precision air strikes that were first imagined (and attempted) during the First World War.

The point here is that, once the idea is in place, the rest is mere technology and engineering — in other words, implementation. The corollary of the essential idea coupled with with contingent implementation is the fact that the wars of industrial-technological civilization, there are no secrets.

William Langewiesche in his book Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor emphasized that the early atomic scientists knew that there were no “secrets” per se, because the atomic bomb was the result of science, and anyone who would engage in science, technology, and engineering on a sufficiently large scale can build a nuclear weapon.

This thesis should be generalized and extrapolated beyond the science of nuclear weapons. Precision munitions, aviation, targeting, and all the familiar line items of a current military budget are refined and perfected by science and technology. For all practical purposes, all war has become science, and science is no secret. Any sufficiently diligent and well-funded people can produce a body of scientific knowledge that could be put into practice building weapons systems.

One might suppose, from the regimes of state security that have become so prevalent, that secrecy is of the essence of technological warfare. While this impression is encouraged, it is false. Secrecy is no more central to competition in technological warfare than it is central to industrial competition. That is to say, secrecy has a role to play, but the role that secrecy plays is not quite the role that official secrecy claims might lead one to believe.

Wittgenstein in his later work — no less pregnantly aphoristic than the Tractatus — said that nothing is hidden. And so it is in the age of industrial-technological civilization: Nothing is hidden. Everything is, in principle, out in the open and available for public inspection. This is the very essence of science, for science progresses through the repeatability of its results. That is to say, science is essentially an iterative enterprise.

Wittgenstein also said in his later period that philosophy leaves the world as it is. That is to say, philosophy is is no sense revolutionary. And so too with the philosophy of war, which in its practical application is strategic doctrine: strategic doctrine leaves the world as it is.

The perennial verities of war remain. These are largely untouched by technology, because all parties to modern, scientific war have essentially the same technology, so that they fight on the same level. Military powers contending for victory seek technological advantages when and where they can get them, but these advantages are always marginal and temporary. Soon the adversary has the same science, and soon after that the same technology.

The true struggle is the struggle of ideas — the struggle of mind against mind, contending to formulate the decisive idea first. As I said above, once the idea is in place, everything else follows from the idea. But it is the idea that is the necessary condition of all that follows.

War, then, is simply the war of ideas.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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F-16 Fight Falcons operated by the PAF.

In the discussion that resulted from my post Air Superiority in South Asia, one comment posted brought my attention to rumors that Pakistani F-16s had humbled Eurofighter Typhoons at the Anatolian Eagle Exercises. After receiving the comment I did some reading about this, and in my response to the comment tried to sum up what I had discovered. At that time, I regarded the issues raised by the comment and what has been written about the episode as an open question, and to a certain degree matters like this will always remain an open question. However, I have learned a few things since I last wrote about this, and what I have learned reveals a pattern. While a single incident can always be an outlier, a pattern reveals reveals something more than this. One expects a pattern to repeat. If a pattern repeats, measures can be taken ameliorate the repetition if desired. On the other hand, if we discern a pattern and fail to take action, we are culpable for the consequences of such repetition if it is unwelcome.

The incident in question was at Exercise Anatolian Eagle 2008. Anatolian Eagle exercises have been taking place for ten years now, several times per year, at Konya, Turkey. The website for the exercises bills them as the “#1 Tactical Training Center of the World.” After the 2008 exercises a PAF (Pakistani Air Force) pilot was quoted as follows:

“NATO pilots are not that proficient in close-in air-to-air combat. They are trained for BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements and their tactics are based on BVR engagements. These were close-in air combat exercises and we had the upper hand because close-in air combat is drilled into every PAF pilot and this is something we are very good at.”

Much has been written about this since, and there has been no definite identification of whose Eurofighter Typhoons the Pakistanis engaged. Originally they were reported to be RAF jets, then Italian jets, and then others. And it has been claimed that there were no times when the Pakistanis engaged any of these Eurofighter Typhoons. I am not in a position to settle the various accounts that are to be found on the internet, but other matters can shed some light on the reported incident.

I previously cited The DEW Line blog, which included a comment that sought to place the Pakistani claim in context:

“The PAF and RAF aircraft were conducting DACT – Dissimilar air combat training. PAF were the Blue force. RAF were the Red force. Red force was meant to die and was representing a particular threat for the purposes of the exercise, this threat was not the RAF and the Eurofighter’s full capability or even their tactics.”

And another comment reiterated some of the points of the earlier comment:

“Just to build on Aussie Digger’s comments, a well-placed source has told me the following: ‘None of the RAF Typhoon pilots involved in Ex Anatolian Eagle recalls undertaking Basic Fighter Maneuvers with Turkish air force F-16s flown by Pakistan exchange pilots.’ So if a ‘kill’ is claimed, it took place under exercise conditions where it was supposed to happen, and from distance but within visual range; not dogfighting!”

These seemed like reasonable claims to me, but there is a larger context that I mentioned above, which suggests a pattern. That pattern is a tension between technology and training. Although in historical terms, jet fighters are very young, with only about sixty years of operational experience, the design and operation of fighters has already gone through several cycles. At one point in the cycle, technology is emphasized, and at another point in the cycle real-world experience in training is emphasized.

The USAF has long emphasized technological solutions to combat problems, and this is to be expected because US technology gives the USAF an advantage over other forces. However, this advantage admits of exceptions. USAF desire to push the technological envelope led to the F-4 being fitted with missiles (the Sparrow and the Sidewinder) and no gun at all when air-to-air missile technology was still rather new and not yet robust or entirely dependable, especially when you are depending upon it for your life. These F-4s fought against Soviet MiGs of the North Vietnamese air force and often found themselves at a disadvantage in dogfighting as a result of their lack of guns. Part of the problem were rules of engagement that required visual identification of targets, which defeats the purpose (and advantage) of non-line of sight missile technology.

There is a detailed monograph on this by Steven A. Fino, formerly available on the internet, but now unaccountably unavailable. Fortunately, I downloaded it while it was available (I don’t always remember to do so). I will only quote a few sentences, but the whole document is a revelation:

As MiG activity increased during the remainder of April and May 1966, several American pilots continued to follow the Feather Duster advice and tried to avoid entering a turning engagement with the MiGs. Sometimes, though, they could not; during the course of an engagement, multiple MiGs could often force the F-4 to turn to defend itself, forcing the Phantom crews to discard their approved combat solution. Despite this emerging combat reality, many pilots let their faith in missile technology and published tactics unduly influence their opinions of air-to-air armament. Most continued to categorically dismiss the potential value of a gun on the F-4.

And a page later:

Because the F-4C did not have a gun, nor were there any plans to add a gun to the platform, the Air Force focused its efforts on improving the “poor” performance of the F-4‘s missile armament. The substandard results were difficult to ignore. From April 1965 through April 1966, the primary armament of the F-4, the AIM-7 Sparrow—the weapon that had guided the aircraft‘s design and development—had accounted for only one kill, downing a MiG-17 on 23 April 1966. To address the problem, the Air Force appointed a special team of USAF and F-4/Sparrow specialists to travel to Southeast Asia to personally review the weapon system‘s combat performance and “recommend the required actions necessary to enhance success of future Sparrow/Sidewinder firings.”


Fino isn’t the only one to cover this ground. Fino cites Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972 by Marshall L. Michell III. I first learned of this indirectly from Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice by Fred Burton and John Bruning. This book also cites Marshall L. Michel’s book.

Burton and Bruning also tell the fascinating story of lack of US success against Soviet MiGs, and the skullduggery involved in transporting a captured MiG-21 from Israel to the US for study. The disproportion in kill ratios was so great that there was very real fear that the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe would be lost by NATO because of the apparent impunity with which Soviet MiGs defeated the best technology of the US. While both the USAF and USN did rather poorly against MiGs initially, USN aviation opened their Top Gun school, made changes to pilot training and began to score significantly better kill ratios against Soviet MiGs than the USAF. A mission by the USN to “help” the USAF failed miserably due to inter-service rivalry.

At about the same time as the USAF was doing miserably against Soviet MiGs in southeast Asia, the Israelis were doing quite well against Soviet MiGs operated by Egypt, Iraq, and Syria — Soviet client states in the region armed with the latest and greatest MiG-21s. The same MiGs that were disproportionately killing USAF jets in SE Asia were in turn being disproportionately killed by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) mostly operating French Mirage III fighters.

Dassault Mirage III at the Israeli Air Force museum.

I can’t do justice to this interesting story here — the reader is encouraged to follow my references and get the details for yourself — and we can’t narrow the complexity of these diverse situation to a single cause, but there is a common thread that distinguishes the successful forces in air combat, and this is (not surprisingly) doctrine that emphasizes air-to-air combat and pilot training that puts this doctrine into practice. This may sound too obvious to even to say, but at this crucial time (late 1960s to early 1970s) in the development of the supersonic fighter jet, US pilots were being taught and trained to depend on missiles, and their jets didn’t even have guns to engage enemy fighters in close air-to-air combat.

The F-4 with its weapons load: lots of bombs and no bullets.

Disproportionate fighter kills, moreover, are not historically unprecedented. In fact, fighter kill ratios can be so one-sided that it is shocking to see the numbers. If you look at the list of fighting aces from the Second World War, it would be rather understating the obvious to note that it is dominated by Germans. The number one fighting ace of all time, Erich “Bubi” Hartmann, had 352 recorded kills to his credit. The highest scoring US Ace of the war, Richard I. Bong, had 40 kills.

While part of the German dominance of fighter aces in the Second World War may be due to engagements on the Eastern Front, where it could not be expected that what remained of Soviet industrial plant could produce anything close to the technical mastery of German fighter planes, but this cannot be the entire explanation. German fighters were also engaged on the Western Front. it would be an interesting project to break down kills ratios on the Eastern and Western Fronts. Probably someone has already done so.

An interesting footnote to Erich “Bubi” Hartmann’s career, after he spent ten years in Soviet gulags after he refused to fly for newly communist GDR, coincides with the period discussed above. Hartmann opposed the adoption of the US F-104 Starfighter by the Bundesluftwaffe and was forced into retirement in 1970. His warnings about the F-104 technology proved to be well-founded, as it killed 115 German pilots in non-combat missions. Again we see a pattern: US hubris over its technological advantage turns to tragedy with the same sad inevitability that upotian dreams result in dystopian nightmares when put into practice.

With these lessons and examples in mind, I have a completely different perspective on the statements made by the unnamed Pakistani pilots. Western air forces, with the money for new jets and their technological advantage, continue to rely disproportionately on this advantage, while other air forces invest in their human capital, not least because that is their advantage, and that is what they can do given their financial limitations.

Much has been made of the on-board technology of the F-35, which promises to be the most technologically advanced fighter ever built. It is especially proficient in delivering precision weapons to a distant target beyond line of sight. But we have seen this before. The USAF does not have a good record in preparing close in air-to-air combat doctrine and training its pilots to engage in such combat, and US pilots have not distinguished themselves in the disproportionate ways that some peoples have distinguished themselves in close air-to-air dogfighting. One suspects that the familiar pattern is being repeated.

It now seems to be entirely creditable to me that the Pakistani pilots, drilled in close air-to-air fighting were entirely capable of humbling western fighter pilots whose training and equipment has diverged from the nitty-gritty of air combat. Of course, none of this would matter if you could engage and destroy your target when it is still over the horizon and you never have occasion to engage in close air-to-air combat. But can this be done so reliably that air-to-air combat can be consigned to history, like chariot races?

The question now becomes precisely parallel to the question I asked when considering the vulnerability of carriers given the developments in carrier technology and doctrine since the great carrier engagements of the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. In that case I answered that developments in carrier technology have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, so that while the accidents (and I use this term in the sense of Aristotelian metaphysics) of combat engagement between carrier strike groups will change over time, the essence of such conflict nevertheless has remained invariant over time. Since carriers were vulnerable then, if the essence of the combat situation is invariant over time, carriers are vulnerable today. Q.E.D.

I make the same judgment here: the changes in fighter technology from the introduction of fighter aircraft in the First World War to their current iteration today has been a gradual and evolutionary development without revolutionary breaks in technology, despite the naming of fighters in “generations” which contributes to an image of revolutionary technological change with each new generation of fighter aircraft. Because of the evolutionary development of fighter technology, tactics, and doctrine, accidental features of air combat (like air speed) will change, but the essential features of air-to-air combat will be retained despite accidental change.

For the record, I do not deny the possibility of a game-changing technology that would result in revolutionary change and an essential change in air combat, and I will go so far as to say that precision weapons systems are close to attaining this status, but they are not there yet. Any air force that relies on technology to the detriment of drilling in close air combat will find itself at a disadvantage despite its technology.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, concludes his multi-hour documentary with a reflection on moral psychology, although he does not call it that. He particularly mentions the rise of humanitarianism. This sort of thing would not go over well today, some forty years later, as it would be seen as rather too credulous, and smacking of progressivism (which, we are given to understand, is a terrible thing). But listening to Clark it is obvious that it is already in his time becoming dangerous to say such things — dangerous, because one is liable to be thought a simpleton. Clark himself calls himself a “stick-in-the-mud.”

I do not disagree with Clark, and I am not so dismissive of progress as has become common today, but this is a point I will not argue here. I simply tell you my prejudices so you know that I agree with Clark on this point. This is significant because, even if we recognize the emergence of a humanitarian consciousness in the nineteenth century, we must recognize at the same time the earlier wisdom of Hamlet, viz. that we often discover that we must be cruel to be kind.

One might consider it a kindness that the First World War was ended by agreement with an armistice, and that this spared lives and property by not necessitating an invasion of Germany itself, but the very fact that the defeat of Germany was not made absolutely manifest on the home front in an age of popular sovereignty meant that the armistice did not settle the war. As Foch said, and was proved right, “it is not peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

Would it have been a “kindness” to push on an defeat the Germans on German soil, taking the lives of more soldiers and destroying the infrastructure of Germany in the teens? This would possibly have changed subsequent history, and it might not have been necessary to level Germany twenty years later with a strategic bombing campaign. And it would have been primarily soldiers who were put at risk of life and limb. During the First World War, more soldiers died than civilians. During the Second World War, more civilians died than soldiers. This is a portent that says something truly horrific about our time.

Such horrific choices have faced us repeatedly throughout our history, and still face us today. Because these choices are hideous, the way that each of us comes down on one side of the question or the other is often used against us, when the most unflattering construction is placed on our preference. This is disingenuous, because either side can smear the other side with the unsavory and unavoidable corollaries of a forced choice. And history forces us to make such forced choices — or forces us to avoid making a choice and, as we say today, kicking the can further down the road — time and again. We should not conceal this from ourselves.

Here is a semi-contemporary example. I have read interviews with one of the scientists who was involved in the design of the neutron bomb. He had served as a solder in Korea, and he had seen the devastation wrought in Korea by conventional weapons. Many cities were annihilated, not unlike the German cities subject to strategic bombing during the Second World War. This vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale was an inspiration to this scientist, and was part of his experience that contributed to the design of the neutron bomb. For this man, the neutron bomb was a more humanitarian weapon — not unlike the guillotine, which when first invented by a doctor, was conceived as a humane form of execution.

After it become possible to build a neutron bomb, and some nation-states considered adding it to their arsenals, the very idea of the neutron bomb was held up as something ghastly and ghoulish, as though it had been designed with the intent to killing people while “saving” their property, which latter might be expropriated by others who would simply move in to a depopulated urban area. Anti-neutron bomb activists put the worst possible construction on the intention of the neutron bomb. For them, it was apparently more “humanitarian” to keep war so horrible that it would remain unthinkable. From this point of view, mutually assured destruction is a good thing. And I certainly understand this argument, but at the same time as I understand the argument, I know that, for some people, mutually assured destruction is one of the great moral obscenities of our time, and our civilization should be ashamed of itself for having made such a conception possible, not to mention the very foundation of the international order during the Cold War.

What is more “humanitarian”: the threat of a nuclear genocide of a significant proportion of our species, or the threat of a lesser degree of destruction that might settle a war at a lower cost? I think that if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that each alternative is a moral horror. That does not mean that I regard the argument between the two as indifferent. On the contrary, I believe that rational arguments can be made on both sides of the question. All I am saying here is that the irrational thing is to believe that moral horror is exclusively on one side or the other.

This is certainly not the only paradox of humanitarianism, but it is certainly one of them.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It has been widely reported that Public Intelligence has released a 108 page document from the U.S. Department of Defense Non-Lethal Weapons Program, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), titled Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) Reference Book and published in 2011. There isn’t much shocking or surprising in the document, and anyone who follows these things will recognize most of these NLWs as programs that have been under development for some time. However, the document is interesting to look through as an overview of such weapons systems, as it is heavy on pictures and descriptions and without much detail.

The document defines NLWs as:

“Weapons, devices and munitions that are explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property in the targeted area or environment. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have reversible effects on personnel or materiel.”

JROCM 060-09, Initial Capabilities Document for Counter Personnel Joint Non-Lethal Effects and Initial Capabilities Document for Counter Materiel Joint Non-Lethal Effects

And in the “frequently asked questions” there is this nice summary:

“NLW provide another ‘option’ to the force. In past operations, the effective employment of NLW resolved escalation of force situations. Specifically, the NLW created the right ‘direct effect’ on the personnel/materiel targeted. The use of NLW has also generated positive ‘psychological effects’ on others in the area and helped to contribute to mission accomplishment. The perceptions associated with the use of NLW have been a positive and powerful influence in local communities on ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the local populace. The employment of NLW has helped reduce the loss of life and collateral damage.”

Implied but not explicitly expressed in this document is the danger of NLW being employed in such a way as to cause permanent injury or disfigurement to its targets. From the perspective of public diplomacy, the old “dead men tell no tales” adage holds: while I suspect most people would prefer to be alive even if injured to being killed, the fact remains that bodies are buried and forgotten, while an injured individual would likely enter into the 24/7 news cycle and could conceivably cause more damage to the political image of a nation-state employing NLW than outright killing of targets. The human interest angle here is impossible to avoid.

As interesting as this possibility is, it is not the most interesting thing about NLW. The most interesting thing about NLW is their paradigmatic role in the political constraints on weapons systems that are increasingly driving defense thinking. These political constraints on weapons systems are in turn a manifestation of a fundamental shift in warfighting away from major conventional engagements between peer powers to low-level, chronic unconventional and asymmetrical warfare.

Unconventional and asymmetrical warfare is the new reality for nation-states, and this poses a fundamental challenge to the nation-state system, since the nation-state itself is a consequence of the early modern socioeconomic organization of peoples in order to mobilize military forces for precisely those conventional engagements between peer powers that are now being overtaken by the events of history. There are so many aspects of this shift in warfighting that they cannot be easily summarized.

It is possible that NLW will play an increasing role in unconventional and asymmetrical warfighting (really, fighting that is no longer subject to the warfighting paradigm, to be more accurate about it), and at some time in the future NLW may well dominate military engagements. If you can simply shut down an adversary’s ships, tanks, and planes from a distance, that is both less costly and less dangerous than engaging them with live fire. Similarly, if you can stop a riot by incapacitating the crowd without killing large numbers of people, this is preferable.

One form that this continuum of violence will take is what I have previously called the weaponization of eliminationism, and by the responses of political entities to ongoing depredations kept below the threshold of atrocity.

In this context, warfighting comes to approximate peacekeeping, if not policing. This, too, is a challenge to the nation-state system, as in liberal democratic political theory the distinction between military forces and police forces has been an important one, but as police forces become more robust and military forces become less lethal, the operations of each will approximate the other, and they will tend to meet in the middle.

The pacifist’s dream of a world without war may well become true in the not-too-distant future, but a world without war will not be a world without violence. Instead of peer and near-pear powers engaging in discretely separated wars, there will be a constant backdrop of violence to most political events — a continuum of incident rather than a declaration of war — and the most effective (and most responsible) way to respond to this will be with NLW.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran. (REUTERS)

Recently there has been a debate at the Foreign Policy website about the possibility of a US-led preventative war against Iran, to prevent the latter from becoming a nuclear weapons power. Matthew Kroenig wrote an article for Foreign Affairs advocating a preventative war; Stephen M. Walt wrote a response against Kroenig in Foreign Policy; Kroenig responded to Walt, and Walt wrote another rejoinder. You can read all about it in Why attacking Iran is still a bad idea. I rarely say this, but I agree with almost everything that Stephen M. Walt wrote.

With all this talk of war and Iran, here’s a quick review of what I’ve written about some of Iran’s more interesting capabilities revealed over the last three years:

Speedboat Diplomacy

This was my first post about the much-discussed acquisition by Iran of the Bradstone Challenger, a specialty high speed small sport boat with obvious military implications for building a fast patrol boat.

The Swarming Attack

After discussing the possibility of a fast patrol boat, the question emerges of the possibility of “swarm warfare” involving a large number of small, fast patrol boats going up against a large, lumbering blue water navy in the confines of the Persian Gulf, and most especially the Strait of Hormuz (the latter very much in the news again; cf. US warns Iran over threat to block oil route)

The Political Context of Striking a Carrier

I left a lot of questions unanswered in my post on small boat swarm warfare, so I revisited the topic in this little-read post that attempts to place a US-Iran confrontation in a political context. The Iranians don’t need to sink a carrier in order to score a political victory, and they don’t need to stop all traffic in order to do real economic damage merely by slowing the sixty percent of the world’s oil that transits the Strait of Hormuz.

Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical?

This post was a further elaboration of the problems of swarm warfare, specially asking whether we should regard such weapons systems as tactical (like a tank or a helicopter) or strategic (like a nuclear bomb).

An Iranian Coup

This post followed the announcement by Iran of the indigenous development of a drone UCAV bomber, the Karrar.

Flying Boat Swarms?

This post followed the announcement by Iran of the indigenous development of a flying boat, the Bavar, which I suggested might also be used in swarm warfare, like fast patrol boats.

Political Constraints on Weapons Systems

The central argument of this post concerned the political imperatives that drove the design of the F-35, but I have also observed here that political imperatives have similarly driven Iran’s innovative weapons systems.

Another Iranian Coup

In this relatively recent post I discussed the Iranians taking possession (possibly by hacking and hijacking) a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which may well have things to teach them about their own drone program under development.

I hope that these posts have given the reader an adequate understanding that Iran is well aware of its pariah status vis-à-vis the Western powers, and that it has sought to address its vulnerable position in the world by pursuing innovative weapons systems and developing innovative doctrines for the battlespace deployment of these weapons systems. Iran’s innovations don’t guarantee military success or the efficacy of their weapons systems in combat, but it does suggest surprises in any military engagement that cannot be predicted prior to combat. I have no doubt that every conceivable scenario has been and is being war-gamed by military professionals around the world, but none of this will accurately predict the real thing.

One of the few things upon which I would disagree with Stephen Walt in the arguments he made (as referenced above) is his cautious attitude on whether or not Iran is seeking to become a nuclear power. I not only believe this to be the case, but I believe that it is more or less inevitable, and that the other powers in the world need to get used to the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran. It won’t be the end of the world. Of course, perhaps you will be saying to yourself that the Israelis won’t let it go that far, and will intervene as they intervened with Iraq’s nuclear program under Saddam Hussein. The obvious rejoinder to this is that the Iranians will have learned the lessons of the vulnerability of the Osirak reactor. I am sure that Iran’s nuclear facilities are both hardened and geographically distributed.

Some time ago I mentioned how much I unexpectedly enjoyed William Langewiesche’s book Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. Langewiesche concludes his book by mentioning the importance of, “…finding the courage in parallel to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them.” I can imagine someone calling this pessimistic or fatalistic, but it is so sober and so realistic that I admire Mr. Langewiesche for ending on this note. It is precisely this spirit that ought to inform all our endeavors (and adventures). There are some things that can be addressed by the military power of the advanced industrialized nation-states of the West, but there are other things that are beyond the possibility of intervention. Physics and technology must be counted among those things that cannot be stopped by intervention, and physics and technology are what it takes to build a bomb. Deal with it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Another Iranian Coup

11 December 2011


Captured RQ-170 on display in Iran.

More than a year ago, in An Iranian Coup written in August 2010, I discussed the Iranian production of a drone UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) bomber, the Karrar. One of the consequences of developing an innovative weapons systems, in addition to the obvious effort to push technologies as far as they can be pushed, is the development of expertise in design, construction, maintenance, and operations of the weapons system in question. Thus even if Iran’s UCAV Karrar is not terribly sophisticated, simply engaging in production and operation of the drone is fostering a team of experienced UCAV experts.

Iran has now put this expertise to good use, having apparently taken control of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, also called “The Beast of Kandahar,” brought it down to the ground in one piece, and now have put it on display. There is no agreement on exactly how Iran obtained possession of the RQ-170 Sentinel. Many news stories only suggested scenarios of the drone coming down of its own accord on Iranian territory, the result of a “falling leaf” descent, or “flat spin.” I judge this scenario to be unlikely, though I am apparently in the minority on this. I think that the Iranians viewed US drones over their territory as a potential gold mine, like the US trying the recover Soviet submarines from the bottom of the ocean during the Cold War. It is there for the taking, if only you can get your hands on it.

It seems to me by far the most likely story that the Iranians managed to take over the controls of the RC-170 — albeit imperfectly — and guide it down in a less than perfect landing that caused some damage but which left the craft mostly intact. Why should this be more likely that the US losing control of the craft and it coming down of its own accord within Iran? Because of the nature of the technology. I will try to explain what I mean by this using an analogy with a classic situation in which technology changed the battlefield.

One of the most perfect examples in history of changing the classic equation of a battlefield favoring the initiative was the introduction of machine guns and barbed wire during the First World War. Machine guns and barbed wire overwhelmingly favored the defense, and as a result the First World War turned into a standoff in which major operations taking the initiative came at such a great cost for such a small result that any victory was a Pyrrhic victory. This situation was not changed until another technology came along — actually a combination of hardware technologies and social technologies of military doctrine — during the Second World War, when massed mechanized armor was employed according to infiltration tactics and Blitzkrieg was born. The initiative shifted back from the defense to the offense, and the Second World War as in consequence a very different war than the First World War.

The introduction of computer technology to the battlefield is one of those technological innovations that rapidly changes the battlefield equation. Here, it is not that the initiative has shifted from the attack to the defense, but rather that battlefield exploitation of computer technologies has shifted the initiative from regular to irregular forces, or, if you prefer, the overwhelming superiority of conventional military forces can be nullified under certain circumstances so that unconventional forces and unconventional methods of offense can be disproportionately effective.

What are these circumstances in which the initiative goes to irregular forces? Particular individuals with a special genius for programming. That’s all it takes: a clever sixteen year old with a good idea and reasonably current equipment — maybe not cutting edge technology, but pretty good technology, such that is within the grasp of second- and even third-tier nation-states today, as well as within the realm of possibility for well-funded non-state actors — could be sufficient to defeat the institutionalized hardware and software systems of conventional forces.

In the C4ISR networked battlespace of the near future, the weapons systems will be awe-inspiring in their complexity and precision, but all of them, however impressive, with have an Achilles heel, and that Achilles heel will be the network itself and wireless communication within the network. The wireless network is available for all to eavesdrop, and the only thing keeping you out of another’s network is their encryption.

This situation is not new; we have been here before. After the explosion of the first atomic bombs, several of the scientists who worked on the project, and especially Oppenheimer, emphasized that there was no “secret” of atomic weapons. His point was that the bombs were the results of science, physics, and technology. In principle, any determined agent could master the science, the physics, and the technology, producing an atomic bomb for themselves. The same is true of most of our high technology weapons systems: there are no secrets per se, only an incremental advantage of one side having slightly more advanced technology than the other side, and this advantage will be nullified in time. And so it is today with the networked battlespace: the possibilities of radio-frequency transmission are known to all, as are the basic ideas behind remote operation of drones. In this context, the only skill that matters is hacking, and hackers of genius are as likely to emerge in Iran, China, or Russia as in the US, the UK, or Canada.

Encryption is key to the electronic battlefield, and encryption is not 'big science,' but rather idiosyncratic and individual science. At some time in the future, when quantum computers are brought to bear upon encryption this may change, but that is further down the road.

The technology onboard the RQ-170 is likely to be greatly in advance of Iran’s own Karrar, but thanks to the growing expertise the Iranians are cultivating, they have a good chance of exploiting this captured technology and improving their own future UCAV iterations. It would be interesting to know if US UCAVs have some kind of device that destroys their inner mechanisms if they fail to remain in contact with their proper handlers. If they do not as yet have this feature, I suspect that they will have something like it in the near future.

Electronic countermeasures will need to become much more sophisticated, but with their sophistication will come complexity, and with complexity will come weaknesses that can be exploited by an adversary.

In the meantime, the Iranians can be expected to exploit the captured RQ-170 to the limit, as Russia exploited the B-29 that fell into its possession at the end of the Second World War, and as the US exploited its captured MiGs during the Cold War, studying them (and, in the case of the Russians, copying them) in painstaking detail. And the Americans will be working on counter-measures to having their drones hijacked. Encryption will be the key technology in this battle of technologies, with cleverness and innovation figuring more significantly than institutional and organizational rationality.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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