S-300 SAM on the back of a mobile launch platform.

Yesterday I spent a portion of my day reading news stories about Russia’s admission of basing S-300 missile batteries in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, itself a former Soviet Socialist Republic (and therefore also, in a sense, a breakaway region). I first encountered this on the BBC (Russia ‘deploys missiles’ in breakaway region of Abkhazia), and once I went looking I found a lot more stories. Strategic Forecasting had quite a few pieces on the story, including some great pictures (copyrighted, so I’m not going to reproduce them here) of the mobile launch trucks for the S-300 at the Gudauta Airbase. There wasn’t really much in the way of content or analysis from Strategic Forecasting this time. (Also, I am more than a little miffed with Stratfor now, since I paid for a three year membership, and midway through my membership they closed their archives so ordinary subscribers like me can only read stories up to two weeks old. That’s a changed condition, and I think they should return my money, but they apparently believe themselves to be entitled to take this step. Only a business that is doing very well can afford to treat its customers so shabbily.)

The S-300 SAM tilted up and ready to fire, with the radar array also visible on its own mobile platform.

The S-300 is one of the world’s most respected surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, used by many nation-states. It is big and expensive, so it is not used by non-state actors so far as my knowledge goes, but it is in the possession of many nation-states unkindly known as “rogue regimes,” but that is another matter and I will not go into it at present. There is an excellent Wikipedia article on the S-300 weapons system, which I encourage the interested reader to peruse, and which details some of the many variant versions of the missile system. (Probably Janes’ has a much better treatment of this weapons system, but I don’t pay for access. If, in the interests of scholarship, some well-heeled reader would like to subscribe for me, I would not refuse such largess…)

Abkhazia is legally a part of Georgia but it able to assert its independence because Russia is more than happy to have a stick to poke in Georgia's eye.

It is now apparent that the S-300 has been in Abkhazia for some time, and has only now been revealed publicly, on the two year anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. At the same time that Russia won this war, it also recognized the independence of Abkhazia (also recognized by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, South Ossetia, and Transnistria) which is legally and formally still a part of Georgia, but Georgia is not in a position to militarily enforce its rule in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia, not least because Russia is unhappy about Georgia pursuing links with the West and wants to punish Georgia for this. One way to punish Georgia, besides simply defeating them in a very one-sided war, is to provide aid and comfort to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The flag of the Republic of Abkhazia, indulged in its desire for independence from Georgia by Russian miliary power.

Given the way that the US media treats events — a region is invisible until some event occurs, and then there is a sudden shift from invisibility to saturation coverage based entirely on the most superficial elements of the crisis that propelled the region into the news — all historical context was lost, and I recall there being a great deal of confusion over exactly what was going on and why. To put it bluntly, most people didn’t know which side they should be rooting for, as the end of the Cold War marked the end of simplistic us-against-them foreign policy as dozens of “new” nation-states emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and it was not clear who stood for what in this welter of nationalisms.

Even recent history, the series of events leading up to the 2008 war, was poorly reported if at all. But it’s really not that difficult to grasp. Russia wanted to, and still wants to, assert its authority within its “sphere of interest,” and since Georgia is in Russia’s “near abroad” it falls decisively within what Russia believes should be its sphere of interest. But Georgia didn’t play by Russia’s rules (unlike other very small countries in the Caucasus such as Armenia). Georgia made nice with the US and Western Europe, and even asked about joining NATO. This was too much for the Russians. The Russians knew that the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians did not want to be part of Georgia, so the Russians supplied them with arms and expertise, and prior to the 2008 war a series of border provocations by the South Ossetians (though almost certainly instigated by the Russians) baited Mikheil Saakashvili into a war he could not win. This much is obvious. What is not obvious is why Saakashvili allowed himself to be so baited, and, allowing himself to be baited, why the first objective of the Georgian military was not securing the Roki tunnel, which is the only road passage between North Ossetia and South Ossetia in this area. The proactive measure would have been to secure (or close) the Roki tunnel before any military adventures were undertaken. We will not consider this further at present.

All of the above is prelude. What I want to do is to use the pretext of the admission of S-300 SAMs in Abkhazia to examine the culture of war. The Russian military presence in its near abroad is an expression of the culture of war that has emerged from Russian history. I have previously quoted G. K. Chesterton to the effect that, “…for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.” (Would you rent a room to a speculative realist?) More than a year before that I remarked on ritualized forms of warfare in Civilization and War as Social Technologies. Allow me to quote two paragraphs from that early post:

Both civilization and war arise from and require in turn extensive social organization, that is the say, the implementation of intelligence in the organization of human activity as well as the creation of special institutions devoted to particular purposes. This makes them social technologies. Moreover, two social technologies in coevolution are two sets of practical implementations of intelligence with their histories intertwined. The coevolution of civilization and war together constitute human history.

One practical consequence of this observation is that civilizations will make war based upon the assumptions, presuppositions, meanings, values, and purposes of that civilization. In other words, war is a cultural expression. We find this most obviously exemplified in highly isolated civilizations and the forms of ritualized (if not stylized) violence that they have perfected when spared the immediate pressure of an external enemy (I am thinking, inter alia, of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance). However, even in cases in which an external enemy demands a strictly utilitarian approach to warfighting, a given civilization’s way of making war is still profoundly specific to its culture.

Russian civilization (what Samuel Huntington called Orthodox Civilization) has been in coevolution with the warfare that has defined its history, just as the same has happened in Western Europe and the same has happened in North America. But in each case the history in question is different because it supervenes upon different geographical facts, and the geographical facts not only govern things like where you can build a road, where you must have a bridge (or a tunnel), or how quickly an army can pass through a given territory, but also more subtle manifestations of culture that emerge from the way that a given people make a life for themselves within a given landscape.

For the Russian people, the overwhelming fact of their land is the vast Central Asian Steppe. There are few natural borders or natural obstacles, and virtually no obstacles to the passage of an army. In much of Russia, you don’t even need a road. A tank can just as well pass over the rolling farmland as drive down the road. The road would be a little quicker, but not all that much quicker. This vast space is Russia’s weakness, the Russian Achilles’ heel, but it is also a source of strength and of defense. The more space you can put between yourself and your enemies, the more you can wear them down before they get to you. The vast spaces of Russia are a buffer zone, and it is a buffer zone that the Russians have always sought to increase.

When the Germans staggered Stalin by invading despite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Russians retreated into their vast interior, leaving scorched earth behind them and rebuilding their entire war industry in the east. Some who lived through this said that it was as though the entire land lifted up, tilting inland, and everything rolled to the east. It was the sheer vastness of the Russian Steppe that made this possible. But it is also a vast territory to defend, and it is extraordinarily difficult to defend. Space is the Russian’s friend and the Russian’s enemy.

Alfred von Schlieffen spent his military career preparing for a great war, and his last words are said to have been, “Keep the right strong.” But he died a year before the outbreak of the First World War, and von Moltke weakened the right and lost the war.

In the West, where the development of industrialized civilization has moved very rapidly, where we have accepted that change is the only constant in life, and we say that “time is money” because we value both, it is time that is the West’s friend and time that is the West’s enemy. The Germans, however German they are, are also Westerners, and they understand this about time. The whole Schlieffen Plan for the war that became the First World War was predicated on precise timing. France was to be defeated by going through Belgium, taking Paris, and obtaining the French surrender in time to put the troops on trains to the eastern front in time to meet and defeat the vast but presumably slow-moving “Russian Steamroller.” The problem with plans based upon precise timing is that when the timing goes awry the whole battle plan also goes awry, which can lead to the loss of a war (as it did with the Germans).

Count Alfred von Schlieffen said, “Let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

The continuous development of small unit tactics that began with German Blitzkrieg and which culminate in today’s Western military doctrine has also continued its emphasis upon the strategic mastery of time. Early formulations of Blitzkrieg emphasized the speed of the assault. Contemporary formulations in terms of the “Boyd cycle” (so named for USAF Colonel John Boyd, who developed the doctrine), which postulates a decision loop of observation, orientation, decision and action, focus upon completing the cycle as quickly as possible. Boyd is quoted as having said, “In order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries.” This is wonderful idea, and it can be developed with great depth and richness, but when one is fighting against a guerrilla force whose entire strategy is about waiting and patience, because they know that a democratic political system cannot sustain combat operations over the long term, and they can sustain combat operations over the long term, the idea reveals certain limitations.

Flow chart of the OODA loop developed by John Boyd: a cycle of observation, orientation, decision, and action.

Enforcing Soviet military control over central and eastern Europe was one way for Russia to provide itself with a larger spatial buffer zone — indeed, a buffer zone that was not part of Russia proper and therefore, in a sense, expendable — but this was only one feature of the Russian strategic control of space among many. Another feature that became familiar to those who studied U-2 spyplane photographs, and later satellite imagery during the Cold War, was the Russian propensity for spatial depth in security. Photograph analysts knew that they had found a high value site when they found concentric rings of fencing around a site. For its highest security installations, the Russians would build concentric rings of fences, sometimes six or more deep, in their quest for the control of space.

Another obvious form of the strategic control of space is the idea of defense in depth. The US DOD defines defense in depth in this way: “The siting of mutually supporting defense positions designed to absorb and progressively weaken attack, prevent initial observations of the whole position by the enemy, and to allow the commander to maneuver his reserve.” Every military the world over is familiar with defense in depth, and during the First World War, when the defense was preeminent, there were rows upon rows of trenches so that if the first trench did not stop an enemy advance the next would, and so on.

The Russians have gone much farther with the concept of defense in depth and during the Soviet period developed a body of doctrine known as Deep Battle. This deserves our attention both because it highlights the Russian philosophy of war and also because it is one of the few genuinely distinctive military philosophies that does not fall under the family of what we may generally call Blitzkrieg doctrines. Blitzkrieg is much more than the German advance over Poland and France during the Second World War; it has, since that time, developed into a comprehensive body of military doctrine that is the basis of military tactics all over the world. I have written about this on several occasions (for example in The Dialectic of Stalemate and The Power of Mobile Fire). It is also my personal view that the apotheosis of Bliztkreig will be found in the developing idea of swarm warfare — the ne plus ultra of mobile fire — but more on that later.

Deep battle is something very different from Blitzkrieg. If Blitzkrieg is something like getting a head start and running right over the top of your enemy before he knows what hit him, then deep battle is something like seizing your enemy by the throat, holding him as far away from you as you can, and pummeling him until he surrenders. If Blitzkrieg aspires to be an unstoppable force, deep battle aspires to be an immovable object, and it was always been one of those pseudo-philosophical nonsense questions as to what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object (sort of like, “How high is up?”).

Deep battle is obviously an idea that emerges primarily from operations on land — and, if we may also say, operations on the vast Russian Steppe. I have no doubt that Russian theorists have developed deep battle doctrines for air and sea forces, and it is not difficult to imagine their broad outlines, but this is secondary to the land-based operations that would or could secure the borders of Russia. Indeed, since deep battle emphasizes combined arms operations to a greater degree than the Blitzkrieg family of military doctrine, one might suggest that in absorbing air and naval operations as part of combined arms operations that they have been made auxiliary to land forces. Compare this to the centrality of maintaining air superiority as it figures in US and NATO operations.

And this brings us back to Abkhazia. The Russians have S-300 missile batteries in Abkhazia. They also have them right across the border in Russia, and they have them in Armenia, and probably elsewhere as well. In the Caucasus, the Russians could pretty much count on control of the air. There are few places that they could not reach in the region. The S-300 later variants have a 200 mile radius. The S-400 missiles have a longer range, though these assets are all within Russian territory proper (I don’t think they’ve sold the system yet, but I could be wrong on this). This is not the kind of situation into which the US or NATO would want to insert itself. In its recent engagements, the US and NATO have possessed overwhelming air superiority, and they have used it. Russia has denied the possibility of unchallenged air superiority in its near abroad, and in doing so has extended its security buffer zone and given itself a little more depth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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More on Clausewitz

25 May 2009


tomb of the unknown soldier

A Clausewitzean Meditation on Memorial Day

As a day of remembrance that often highlights the sacrifices of the military, there is a sense in which it is eminently appropriate to write about Clausewitz today. In yesterday’s Another Book that Changed the World I discussed Hew Strachan’s Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography. Today I should like to further pursue some Clausewitzian themes.

Clausewitz - front

In Anatol Rapoport’s Introduction to the widely available Penguin abridgment of On War, Rapoport distinguishes three philosophies of war which he calls the political, the eschatological, and the cataclysmic. I would rather call these three conceptions of war — conceptions that can be illuminated by philosophical analysis — but I won’t quibble over this at present. Rapoport gives Clausewitz as the paradigmatic representative of political war, characterizes eschatological war as a messianic conception with both sacred and secular variants, and describes the cataclysmic conception of war as something akin to a natural disaster like a fire or an epidemic.

Anatol Rapoport (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Рапопо́рт, 22 May 1911- 20 January 2007)

Anatol Rapoport (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Рапопо́рт, born May 22, 1911- January 20, 2007)

Rapoport cites no figures comparable to Clausewitz as philosophers of war who have formulated an eschatological or cataclysmic conception of war, though for the latter it is not difficult to find a reference. In the letter I quoted yesterday that W. T. Sherman sent to the City Council of Atlanta on 12 September 1864, Sherman wrote:

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

The comparison of war to the inevitability of a thunder-storm classes Sherman amongst the cataclysmic philosophers of war.

Clausewitz - back

In Rapoport’s exposition of these three philosophies of war, war appears as an event that “happens,” interrupting the “ordinary” and “normal” condition of peace that prevails, or ought to prevail, and it is clearly implied that something must be done to “explain” the outbreak of war. Why not rather explain the outbreak of “peace”? In what sense can we consider peace to be a norm that is shattered by the outbreak of war? In fact, it is not. War is no less the norm than peace.

Such assumptions are foreign to Clausewitz’s theoretical framework. The famous aphorism that is associated with Clausewitz, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (Book I, Chapter I, 24) proposes a continuity between state policy and war, and this is as much as to propose a continuity of war and peace. There is not only a continuity of the genesis of war of peace, but a continuum that bridges the apparent gap between war and peace, and the actions and policies of most nation-states can be located somewhere along this continuum while only rarely would it be accurate to say that they unambiguously should be classed at one extreme pole or the other of a smoothly graduated continuum.

Clausewitz wrote (On War, Book I, Chapter I, 3):

“If the Wars of civilised people are less cruel and destructive than those of savages, the difference arises from the social condition both of States in themselves and in their relations to each other. Out of this social condition and its relations War arises, and by it War is subjected to conditions, is controlled and modified. But these things do not belong to War itself; they are only given conditions; and to introduce into the philosophy of War itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.”

Clausewitz was wrong about war being crueler among savages; anthropological research since his time has shown definitively that war is far more costly in lives and materiel among so-called “civilized” peoples, but the important idea here for Clausewitz is that war is subject to, and shaped by, social conditions (something that I discussed in Civilization and War as Social Technologies).

Clausewitz makes the point again (On War, Book I, Chapter III, 3):

“…War belongs not to the province of Arts and Sciences, but to the province of social life. It is a conflict of great interests which is settled by bloodshed, and only in that is it different from others. It would be better, instead of comparing it with any Art, to liken it to business competition, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities; and it is still more like State policy, which again, on its part, may be looked upon as a kind of business competition on a great scale. Besides, State policy is the womb in which War is developed, in which its outlines lie hidden in a rudimentary state, like the qualities of living creatures in their germs.”

As I noted yesterday, for Clausewitz, war is a form of social organization, a form of social technology, that is integral with other forms of social technology (these are my terms, not Clausewitz’s terms). War is an extension of social custom to violence, but, as Clausewitz and Sherman note, the violence cannot ultimately be limited. To limit the scope of violence in war is to leave open the possibility to another party to the conflict not observing these limits and thus triumphing by default.

We see clearly in the integral nature of war and peace within a political continuum Clausewitz’s dialectical conception of war. The Clausewitzian dialectic is equally present in the interrelation of violence and social custom.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Strachan - front

At present I am listening to Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography, by Hew Strachan. Earlier in this forum I commented on two other volumes in the series “Books that Changed the World” published by Grove/Atlantic and released as a book on CD by Tantor Audio. The other two books were Francis Wheen’s book on Marx’s Das Kapital and Christopher Hitchens book on Paine’s The Rights of Man.

Of these three works, I definitely like this Strachan book on Clausewitz best, and it is the most scholarly and the most carefully focused on the eponymous book that is the pretext of the task of the series. Strachan discusses the textual history of On War and also goes into the details of some of Clausewitz’s terminology and its translation in English, which is both problematic and, because it is problematic, interesting. The above-mentioned books on Paine and Marx did not tightly focus on the textual history and terminology of the works in question but primarily sought to place the books in historical context.

Recently in Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism I said that the industrial revolution came relatively late to war. It could also be said that the Enlightenment came relatively late to war, and Clausewitz is the representative of the Enlightenment for war. Clausewitz stands in relation to bringing the Enlightenment conception of scientific knowledge to war as before him Newton stood in relation to physics, Adam Smith stood in relation to economics, and Gibbon stood in relation to history. After Clausewitz, Darwin similarly stood in relation to biology and Freud to psychiatry.

Strachan - spine

It has been instructive to listen to this book about Clausewitz not long after having listened several times through to Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror. I praised Carr’s book for its thoughtfulness, though I disagreed with much of it (cf. Terrorism and the evolution of technology and Mass War and Mass Man). Carr was highly critical of Clausewitz, and the portrait of Clausewitz painted by Strachan truly brings out many of the features that Carr most strongly criticized, especially Clausewitz’s emphasis upon a “strategy of annihiliation” in war. For Carr, this stigmatizes Clausewitz as “non-progressive.”

I had assumed, when listening to Carr’s book, that there had to be another side to Clausewitz than that criticized by Carr, and now it appears to me that Clausewitz’s “strategy of annihilation” can be interpreted as an aspect of his Enlightenment outlook. Forcing a war or campaign to a decisive battle that settles the outcome of the conflict could be considered the military equivalent of the experimentum crusis in science.

Moreover, Clausewitz rightly observes that if battle is reduced to maneuver, eventually someone will come along and cut off our arms with a sharp sword. The message here, as I understand it, is that war is thoroughly integral with human social organization (I’ll come back to this in a later post), and as such over time it becomes civilized and refined. War becomes just another social technology of organization. But this can only happen in a relatively closed system in which certain social conventions are rigorously observed. When some force comes in from the outside — Mongols or barbarians or what have you — and they do not choose to observe the social niceties that have evolved within the closed civilized system in question, the sheer brutality of the onslaught in likely to crush all before it.

This is also what I take to be the idea behind a famous passage from W. T. Sherman’s letter to the City Council of Atlanta of 12 September 1864 (if my memory serves, Carr quoted this passage with disapprobation, noting its consonance with Clausewitz):

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.”

Thus a nation-state that cultivates war as anything less than a strategy of annihilation courts its own annihilation. Anything so forthright must inevitably be controversial today, and Clausewitz’s concept of a “strategy of annihilation” may sound little different from a “war of extermination.” Indeed Strachan explicitly addresses the terminology that Clausewitz employed for this conception and the possibility of translating Clausewitz in terms of “extermination” instead of “annihilation.” I recommend this discussion to the interested reader.

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Strachan - back

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Grand Strategy Annex

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