Monday, January 3, 2011

Blue Screen of Death

One thing we seem to keep returning to at MilPub, as a dog returneth to his vomit, is the apparent inability of the United States - both its people and its governing classes - to either formulate, or even discuss intelligently, any sort of geopolitical or military strategy.

A formula or discussion, that is, that doesn't involve someone shrieking "911! Scary! Brown! People!" at some point, usually early in the process after which all ratiocination flies out the window.

I am one of those who suspects that this is a feature, not a bug, of American society. And pat, like the Fairy Queen in pantomime, comes David Ignatius on the front page of my daily newspaper's editorial section, to remind me of why I think this.

The point of Ignatius' little screed seems to be to whip up worry about the nefarious plans of the Yellow Reds, who seem to be intent on developing a Chinese Commie Space Death Ray (read " weapons, lasers, pulses and other directed-energy beams") along with cunningly oriental "cyberattacks" and electromagnetic disruption aimed at knocking out our precious bodily fluids PCs and related digital command and control systems.According to Ignatius
"The nature of warfare is nearing another "hinge point," due to the advance of technology. Just as gunpowder, cannons, airplanes, rockets and nuclear power changed the face of combat, so too will a new generation of weapons that are on the drawing boards -- not just in America, but in China, India and other advanced technological nations."
Um. Well. Gee.

In a sense this is nothing new. Every generation of wonder weapons is supposed to "change the face of combat"; the arquebus, the machinegun, the aircraft, the nuclear weapons, the tank, the freeze-dried combat ration...all were supposed to do some magical thing that would make warfare...different. Replace infantrymen with tanks. Replace tanks with aircraft. Make war at sea a hidden duel of submarines.

But in another sort of sense this is depressing. Ignatius, while certainly an idiot about militaria, is a well-respected idiot, a fully-paid-up idiot member of the Beltway punditocracy. If Ignatius is saying stuff like this, then it goes a long way to suggesting that this sort of thinking is not an aberration amongst the political classes in our nation.

And this is nonsense, of course. A "beam weapon" is a gun. A cool, high-speed, low-drag, Buck-Rogers-space-ranger-slicky-boy gun, yes, but a gun. It exists at Point A and it's task is to project destruction to Point B, which is essentially the same function as the first gunpowder weapon.

It has one significant advantage; it's "projectile" can move from A to B at the speed of light, obviating the need for complex ballistic computation and negating the target's evasive maneuvers. But it has several offsetting disadvantages. The old-school ballistic projo carries a self-contained source of energy that is used and expended at the beginning of the fire mission; the beam weapon requires an external power source that must be both several orders of magnitude more powerful and must be kept online for the entire mission. Unlike the ballistic projectile, the beam weapon can be dissipated by smoke, fog, or particulates, or reflected by a simple mirror.But the bottom line is; it's a gun. It has no more chance of "changing the face of war" than the rifled musket, the machinegun, or the mortar. Possession will remain 9/10ths of the Law of War, and a man or woman with a gun, standing there, will remain the bailiff's process servers.

He has a minor point, and a point I've talked about previously, in his comment about "...aircraft-carrier battle groups -- that will soon be vulnerable to the new weapons." But he misses the point that we're already several generations into an OLD weapon - the supersonic sea-skimming missile - that proved highly dangerous to large conventional hulls in the Falklands almost thirty years ago and may pose a significant threat to our carrier decks. Unlike Ignatius' silly Star Wars scenario with the Red Chinese Death Stars beaming destruction on our fleet carriers from space, all these nefarious Asian rascals may need is better stealth technology for their submarine fleet.

If they can feel confident about their ability to get inside the ASW screen to launch a massive volley of antiship missiles they won't need some ginormous low-orbit satellite system that would be almost immediately knocked down by USAF antisatellite systems within minutes or even seconds of the first faint click of war drumsticks.

And EMP? Christ, we've been dealing with this stuff since the first radios died at Bikini Atoll, Dave. We harden our digital systems. They develop new means to scramble them. We harden them again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Making this into a major point of defense policy is like getting hysterical because of reports of Al Qaeda developing a giant mutant clothes moth to devour our troops' uniforms and make them fight naked.

The entire article is like this. No questions about the global geopolitical strategies, goals, needs, or wants that might dictate the allocation of military funds or the composition and capability of military forces, but lots of bloviating about "legacy systems", "innovation" and silly formulations like the U.S. as "IBM, running big, clunky mainframes, at the same it's trying to be an Apple-like innovator. We can't afford to do both."

Of course we can, Dave. That's what armies have done throughout history. You don't think that the Europeans threw away their swords when the first handgunner showed up on the battlefield, do you? Or the invention of the automatic rifle caused every trooper to throw away his pistol?

I have no idea how many people inside the Beltway are reading Ignatius and pulling their chins sagely. I hope it's no more than a handful. Because if there's any clearer evidence that this ridiculous piece that, at least in Ignatius' case, on the questions of military policy the entire CPU is toast, I have yet to see it.Makes you want to do a hard boot on Ignatius' brain and see it the damn thing makes more sense afterwards.


  1. Chief,
    I don't read Ignatius anymore b/c it's always the same.
    We fear the Chinese militarily, but trust them economically.

  2. I sense it's about time for some shameless blog promotion:

  3. jim: I normally ignore the guy, too, but this was just too ridiculous to pass over. Who the hell does he have fact-checking his stuff, Bozo the Clown?

    Sven: Yep, that was kind of my point. All of this stuff is a "OMFG, the Chinese have invented rocket science!" sort of thing. Ignatius is whooping up fantastic science fiction weaponry while ignoring the simpler problems we're either running from or not recognizing this very minute. Either way, it's a pretty ugly glimpse into the mindset of the chattering class in D.C.

  4. Oh, and I was fascinated by the French rifled mortar. 4.2" much? Talk about an old and tried technology...

  5. This is appropriate, and also tells us why our best soldiers are liberal-oriented.

    Tried and true "booga booga booga" from the BeltWay.


  6. I see a consistent pattern to strategy inside the beltway. It follows the money. And to get the money, you need a politically marketable story.

    Reality need not intervene.

  7. If you want to see some REAL works of fantasy, go look at the right-wing Republican plans for the budget. They are the most amazing combination of naivety, brutal (but not intelligent) political calculation, and arrogance I've ever seen out of Washington. And that says a lot.

    As AEL says, reality need not intervene. For now.

  8. Who is going to pay for all these new toys? I'm going to have my hands full paying for the Boomer's retirement and health care, plus the 14 trillion (soon to be 20) in debt they've racked up over the past few decades, not to mention my own retirement, kid's education, etc.

  9. Ignatius writes:

    "The puzzle to ponder in 2011 and beyond is how the United States can retain the "legacy power" benefits that come from conventional fleets and bases around the world while transitioning to the new realities of military power. We don't want to be the national equivalent of a train company at the advent of air travel, or a radio network trying to protect its old programming in the age of television.

    I come back to Shen, the Chinese analyst. He says that he's grateful that the United States is willing to spend so many billions of dollars to protect the sea lanes on which China depends for its global commerce. But instead of competing to build ships and tanks, he says, China will focus on the weapons that can cripple them. Somehow, we need to stop being the suckers when it comes to defense."

    Obviously lots of military spending is the answer as well as "protecting the sea lanes" from . . . from whom exactly?

    Do you get the feeling that the Chinese are playing us like we played the Sovs back in the 1980s? Of course the Sovs were - in spite of being far too focused on their deteriorating, but still highly vaunted military power - smart enough to see through a lot of it, but were in such an economic mess as to be unable to use this realization to any advantage . . . The notion of American Exceptionalism will be our undoing . . .

  10. seydlitz: the thing about that Ignatius para. where he quotes the evil Doctor Fu Manchu Shen thanking us while boasting about how he's working on plans to (maniacly evil laugh here) cripple our warships is how utterly devoid of naval strategic sense it is.

    The U.S. is currently a global maritime power. While at times I think our commitment to global blue water hegemony is antiquated - our merchant fleet is, what, four RORO ships and an old surplus fleet oiler? - its a mission we've chosen to take on. We have also chosen to act as a power-projecting imperial nation (in the sense that we engage in conflicts not directly related to defending our own territory) and that requires a blue-water navy.

    As always, the "what" determines the "how", and blue-water navies include large surface vessels; "conventional fleets and bases around the world". You can argue whether we have too many fleet carrier decks, but not that a power-projecting, global blue water hegemony naval power doesn't need conventional fleets and bases.

    China, OTOH, is today what it has always been; an Asian continental power. Its maritime power projection is limited to its immediate "near abroad", places like the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. It doesn't need or want large conventional naval forces for that. Instead, it needs just what Chen says it needs; the ability to disable or deter a global navy from encroaching on those littoral areas.

    Ignatius makes this sound like some nefarious yellow Red plot, when it's a simple A and not-A situation. The U.S. has certain maritime strategic needs and those needs dictate a certain naval force structure. China has very different needs, and can accomplish those with a very different force structure.

    This does NOT mean that the dastardly cunning chinks are sneaking around out there rubbing their hands at the prospect of sinking a bunch of fleet carriers while we bumble along with the 21st equivalent of the HMS Dreadnought, which is the way the Ignatius article makes it sound. And I don't think the Chinese/Shen are playing us. They're stating the simple reality of naval strategy; we don't care about the fucking Molucca Strait or the Somali pirates. We want the oil in the South China Sea, and all we need to defend that is enough patrol boats and submarines to sink one of your fleet carriers to make it unprofitable enough to deter you from challenging us. Ain't no rocket science - or eeeeevil Chinese mad doctors - there.

    Now - I do want to argue that the U.S. problem at sea is much the same as it is on land; that our exaggerated notions of what we "should be" doing globally have led us into a money pit where we practically invent reasons to spend money on missions we have previously invented.

    But more on that in a separate post.

  11. Well, yes, assumed capability guiding strategy instead of threat assessments . . . but that's been the case since 1992. What we need today is a global strategy which fits the current US reality, not establishing new boondoggles for the various elite politico-economic interests, but this is the same problem we've been addressing on my thread . . .

    Brzezinski writes in the NYT:

    "The worst outcome for Asia’s long-term stability as well as for the American-Chinese relationship would be a drift into escalating reciprocal demonization. What’s more, the temptations to follow such a course are likely to grow as both countries face difficulties at home.

    The pressures are real. The United States’ need for comprehensive domestic renewal, for instance, is in many respects the price of having shouldered the burdens of waging the 40-year cold war, and it is in part the price of having neglected for the last 20 years mounting evidence of its own domestic obsolescence. Our weakening infrastructure is merely a symptom of the country’s slide backward into the 20th century."

  12. Herr Seydlitz:

    Brezinsky????? You're quoting Brezinsky's admonition not to demonize countries?????

    He's the Sumbitch what demonized the Rushhens when they had the unending bad taste to invade Afghanistan Bananistan. He's the character that arranged for the Paks and the wogs that were all fucked up on Allah to Vietnamize the Sovs' Enviro in said shithole. How well that all worked out. What goes around comes around. He's counting on people outside the Beltway Bob Beltway not having any institutional memories of what he and his ilk stood for.....err, pretended to stand for. He and his hussy daughter are Polish Jokes.

  13. It's 1964 or so, I'm home on leave and having dinner in NY's Chinatown with my friends Victor and Lily Chang. Victor was born in Hong Kong to a prosperous business family, Ivy League educated and working as an international economic analyst for whatever Chase Manhattan Bank was called back then.

    The Cold War was in full swing. Victor thinks Kenner's "Containment" will do the trick in terms of the USSR, if we are patient enough. He sees no armed conflict with China - ever. I quote him as closely as possible:

    "China has no need to enter into armed conflict with the US. They will achieve dominance in a more classically Chinese fashion. First, the Cold War and "Containment" will be a significant economic burden on the US. Second, once China learns the immense power of a controlled economy that has hundreds of millions of laborers available at low cost, she simply will become the world's main producer of low cost goods, amass huge reserves of foreign currency, hold equally amounts of foreign debt and rise to a position where they can effectively 'purchase' the US. They won't need 'Park Place' and 'Boardwalk', as they will virtually own or hold the lien everything else."

  14. Fasteddiez-

    Ya got to go with what ya got. Mr. B's about the best strategic thinker in the US establishment at present, at least since the passing of General Odom.

  15. FDChief, Al, all, what do ya'll think about this?

    There's more about it on Zenpundit's blog . . .

  16. Seydlitz,

    This perhaps isn't the best analogy, but here's my interpretation of things:

    The US won the Cold War and found itself "King of the hill." For the past two decades we've been trying to keep this position and so view any movement by others toward the top as a "threat" which must be countered in some way.

    You look at the overwrought concern in some circles that increasing Chinese capabilities will mean that the US will not be able to operate with impunity in the Chinese littoral. This group sees that capability as a stepping-stone to China eventually pushing the US off the top of the hill.

    This is symptomatic IMO - In so many ways our country is trying to either maintain the status-quo ante or return to some mythical point in history where we were the "best." In terms of foreign policy there is not only the "king of the hill" syndrome, but also the belief that we are still the "necessary" country. It doesn't help that a lot of our allies share this belief and even encourage it. Domestically the government spends a huge amount of time, effort and money trying to preserve dying and established industry instead of promoting new industry and innovation and our political elites subscribe to ideologies of limited relevance to today's problems.

    Ask some Americans where they see the US in 20 years and what America's place in the world should be and, at least in my experience, the answer is usually some form of the status quo. To me we appear, as a nation, to be coasting through the fog after winning the race. By contrast the Chinese know exactly where they want to go and where they want to be.

  17. The thing is, I don't see a real reason for the Chinese and the U.S. to end up butting heads.

    China has always been an Asian continental power. It is pursuing its extraterritorial ambitions as it always has, through trade and influence. The PLA/PLAN/PLAF shows no signs of being tailored for global power projection; Mao was a "revolution in one country" communist and his successors show little if any signs of wanting to change that. This is NOT the USSR.

    Meanwhile we need to get over this notion that we MUST be capable of muscling in everywhere. It's makes us stupid in that it lets us use a pound of muscle where an ounce of brains would work better, its bad for the rest of the world, which either looks at us as the hired thug or fears us...and the hired thug.

    If the PRC wants to be capable of defending its interests in the South China Sea, so what? It's the regional power there. Trying to insist that we have both the right and the power to negate that at will is to continue this silly trend of picking fights with every regional power that doesn't suck up to us. That's not global power politics, that's walking around with a chip on your shoulder. If we can't accept that there are and will be powers that don't want to get all sexytime with us we're going to spend a pantsload of blood and treasure across the globe in the next century, and for what..?

  18. "Domestically the government spends a huge amount of time, effort and money trying to preserve dying and established industry instead of promoting new industry and innovation..."

    The problem as I see it, Andy, is that "new industry and innovation" is:

    1. easier to promote if you DON'T have a large legacy infractructure/industries, and

    2. often based on productivity and machanization rather than employment

    So the U.S. has a fairly high hurdle to overcome; it is burdened with legacy industries that, if it abandons, will collapse with the resulting massive unemployment that is unlikely to be absorbed into the "new industry".

    I think we're heading rapidly for a significant crisis in the First World, where increasingly our productivity is directly related to fewer jobs. In a perfect world, this would lead to smaller societies as populations would shrink to match the actual amount of work available.

    In practice this won't happen, so there will be large-scale, long-term unemployment. When this happened to Rome (as the slave-worked latifunda put the Roman smallholders out of work and swelled the urban poor) the results were really ugly.

    The other reality is that war is still a labor-intensive industry. So the one place for those bodies to go is into armies. And thus the country that is wise enough to fit its population to its employment risks being swarmed over by the one that doesn't and instead uses its wealth to turn its spare bodies into soldiers.

    And, frankly, I have no idea how you solve this problem...

  19. Seydlitz:
    I proffer no argument as to Brezinski's intelligence. Rather, I paint him as a warhawk, like Condi, Halbright and Clinton. To be sure, he's making like a peacenik soothsayer now, but he's giving his advice in terms of US vs China policy. He knows the US would not benefit from a military engagement (no matter how small), with the Chinese.

    He favors a muscular US that can shove its might down the throats of peasant nations so as to impress more worthy foes and feckless allies alike. As a consequence, he favors parking US forces in geographically, strategic dungheaps as to intimidate neighbors, access buried wealth (if possible), and kick the dogshit out of neighboring shitholes if the Likudniks and their bought and paid for congresscritters green light the project........Why?...He's probably bought and paid for hisself. Last but not least, the Euros have to witness this three card Monte sleight of hand in order for them not to get too friendly with the Russkies, and addicted to their Petro products. Odom, his strengths were not as diffuse, I think.

    The man is like Tom Friedman (albeit a little less oily), in that he can backtrack on a might makes right policy as it inexorably goes down the Turlet (Friedman..You have to throw a nation against the wall every now and then...not exact quote). They become oh so reasonable and cite the complexities, the wrong people in important places, wrong military approaches, ad infinitum, ad nauseam; this to squirm out of their previous, straight from Olympus prognostications. Well, enough on him. No Kennan they. cont'd later in the day.

  20. Fasteddiez-

    Mr B. like Friedman!? Too cruel! The article I linked panders a bit to the military power crowd but he's saying that we should concentrate at home, which is something some of us were saying back in 1990.

    Reading the proposed executive agreement I linked to, what comes across to me is that China sees the US as the unstable power, attempting to upset the current status quo with unilateral military action. This is a strange way for a stable hegemon to act, or is it the simple fact that no hegemony is ever permanent and deep down we know that?


    To compare to Andy's, I'll offer another, but different analogy: Aging Prom Queen. Fifty something and bloating fast, yet convinced that constant plastic surgery, new clothes, new accessories and excessive spending will somehow turn everything around and produce a miracle. The whole focus for her and those around her becomes this mania. The expensive trinkets have no purpose other than providing the wearer with the illusion of youth, power, virility - they have no other function, and to outside observers they look ridiculous. Total collapse is the end station, but it will not be recognized as such till immediately before the crash.

  21. Chief,

    So the U.S. has a fairly high hurdle to overcome; it is burdened with legacy industries that, if it abandons, will collapse with the resulting massive unemployment that is unlikely to be absorbed into the "new industry".

    Well, that is a self-licking ice cream cone. I mean, if we had government directly subsidizing coopers there would be, theoretically, more employment. We'd have all those guys making barrels all day and probably a lot of regulation and tax incentives that would encourage or force people to use them. How long can you keep that up? At some point an industry that becomes irrelevant or can't stand on it's own is going to have to take some medicine.

    Look at where we've spent money the last couple of years: Finance, car manufacturing and construction. Those are three areas of the economy where there is a tremendous over-capacity. We've directly subsidized them in the vain hope we can return to the status quo ante of the bubble years. That's not going to happen. Not only that, car manufacturing, finance and construction are not going produce a lot of new jobs.

    Instead of pouring government money into those corporate coffers, we should be investing in areas where there is some prospect for future job growth and then spend money on programs to transition workers to the new jobs as well as a safety net for those who can't.

    In short, we need to invest in the future and not the past. Unfortunately, everyone's trying to defend their own piece of the pie.

  22. Andy: Here's the problem I see with your idea - it's a nice idea, I want it to be true, and yet, if you look around, the "areas...(of) future job growth" are in those same areas you talk about as tapped out; finance, construction, manufacturing.

    We still lead the world in "new industries" like software design and digital imagery. But how many jobs are these businesses going to offer the average Joe and Mary Lunchpail with a high school diploma? How are you going to get the middle-of-the-class schmoe to become an engineer, an architect, an accountant, a finish carpenter, or an artisanal brewer?

    The U.S. was largely built on our mechanical skilled labor. Those jobs are either going or gone, to places where the work is done cheaper and more dangerously - much as it was done in Pittsburgh in the Thirties or Detroit in the Fifties.

    I'm with Bob Reich; the real problem isn't that the U.S. is trying to keep its old industries on life support (and what is the difference between that and the dole for "those who can't"? At least with the giv't support they have jobs, even if the jobs are, in effect, welfare.) but that we honestly don't have any idea what the "next economy" will be. But right now it doesn't look good. Wall Street, the banksters, and the financial gamers are back in business, bonuses are back in the stratosphere, but Main Street is still looking pretty hung down.

    So I'm all for investing in the future. But I think the dual problems are that we don't have any real idea what the future is, and the country is kind of tapped out about "the future". Look at how hard it is to raise the money just to fix things like bridges and viaducts and levees we KNOW are in danger of collapse?

  23. Chief,

    I'm not sure where you are getting the idea that finance, construction and manufacturing (especially autos) are growth areas for jobs. They are shrinking today because they grew during a bubble economy - that growth wasn't sustainable. The subsidies ultimately won't work and won't protect jobs, though they will be great at padding the bottom line, boosting profits and ensuring executives "earn" their compensation. You said it yourself - look at the finance sector. They're not hiring and they've laid off a ton of people in the past couple of years despite the bailouts. So no, corporate welfare is not the same thing as individual welfare.