Monday, June 27, 2011

Martin van Creveld: Keepin' it real

Over the weekend, SWJ ran an interview of Martin van Creveld (pdf) on the subject of his new book: airpower (including its often unmentioned limitations). His response to a question about "ugly victory" was particularly outstanding, and reminds us that even the "cleanest" victory in war is still ugly.
I am not sure what an "ugly victory" means. After all, what we are talking about is war; the most terrible activity known to men, in which people are deliberately perforated by bullets, crushed by overpressure generated by shells and bombs, shredded by flying metal fragments, buried alive under debris, burnt to cinders, asphyxiated (when chemical weapons are employed) and killed and wounded in a whole variety of other interesting ways.
I try always to stay aware of the horrific atrocity at the root of everything we talk about here, but it's good to be reminded. "The most terrible activity known to men." Don't forget that.

In a related story, today is National PTSD Awareness Day. Check out the link for the Veterans' Administration's list of ten ways to help increase awareness, and have a look at this eight-page pdf called "understanding PTSD."

Spectacularly Stupid Quote o' the Weekend

Yesterday Jim Webb was on Meet the Press. In trying to make a very reasonable point about the many security concerns America faces beyond south Asia, he said this:
We are at a point in the South China Sea right now where we are approaching a Munich moment with China, and it's not being discussed.

Contestant number 2 this week: the Washington Times editors. In a piece by Rowan Scarborough they've entitled "Gates leaves legacy of major achievements, contradictions," the article's second section outlines what is seen to be the positive side of the Secretary's tenure. The sub-hed reads as "Liberal media love him" (guffaw)... and then Scarborough proceeds to extensively quote one source: the decidedly non-liberal, non-media member Loren Thompson.
Mr. Gates, a former CIA director who reluctantly returned to Washington to replace the beleaguered Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2006, has many fans in town. 
The liberal media have lavished praise for his support of repealing the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military and for not being Mr. Rumsfeld, who regularly chided the press. 
It was Mr. Gates who oversaw the daring Navy SEAL mission that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. “He probably gets the highest rating of any defense secretary in living memory,” said Loren B. Thompson, who directs the pro-business Lexington Institute. 
“I think Gates is probably as good as it gets. The single most important thing is he presided over a reversal of strategy in Iraq that averted defeat. Now many people will tell you Gates should not get all or most of the credit saving America in Iraq. But the fact of the matter is when he showed up, we were losing.”
Hilariously ironic.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Is COIN dead?

That's the contention of this piece in The National Journal, which runs with the subtitle "It isn't just people who are dying in Afghanistan. So is an entire concept of war." Michael Hirsh and Jamie Tarabay give a thorough accounting of the way the so-called "COIN narrative" has played out in policy discussions, but they fail to prove the contention that counterinsurgency's time has come and gone.

I'm not going to go into this in depth right now, because I'm on vacation (at least for 36 more hours). I've stayed away from Twitter and blogs for a week, and I didn't even listen to the president's speech on Wednesday. But consider for just a second what COINdinistas Dave Barno and Peter Mansoor's very different arguments tell us about counterinsurgency's place in America's future approach to warfighting. Here's Mansoor:
[T]here's not going to be any stomach in the United States for this kind of thing going forward... We're going to shy away from regime change or these really large-scale counterinsurgency conflicts. That's why you see, in Libya, the reluctance of the Obama administration to do more than what they're doing.
And here's Barno:
You're never [going] to see a conventional war ever again that doesn't not [sic] have a very robust irregular component to it. [Nice editing, NJ.]
What's missing from both men's vision of the future is any discussion of regime change -- narrowly-focused conventional warfighting missions -- absent a post-war cleanup: stability operations and counterinsurgency. The debate about Libya has been characterized by a decided reluctance on almost all sides to commit American military power to the acknowledged aim of ending Qaddafi's rule. Why should this be so? We have the tools at hand to kill Qaddafi, to destroy his army, to target the regime's resources and infrastructure and to make life very, very difficult for what remains of the government in Tripoli. Why won't we use them? The answer is simple: because we can scarcely conceive of using force to achieve our military objectives without then making an effort to shape outcomes in the postwar period. (I know of no individual, even among proponents of regime change, who believe that U.S. involvement should or can begin and end with the regime's destruction.) We can't even imagine a world where breaking it does not mean also buying it.

Of course, preventive or punitive raiding will always be a part of the spectrum of possible response to threat and provocation, but this has meaningful consequences: we must either accept that the security challenges of the future will be less amenable to solution with the military instrument, or we must struggle to retain (or one day regain) our appetite for expensive, time-consuming, manpower-intensive irregular conflict.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This ain't Sudoku: the Afghanistan numbers game

The past few days have been full of discussion on the timeline for troop numbers in Afghanistan: how many are coming back and how fast? The next few days will be more of the same. Conventional wisdom prior to the President's speech tonight is that we'll see 30,000 troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2012. This isn't the number that General Petraeus was shooting for apparently, nor Senator Levin, and is more of a "middle ground." This is obviously a political maneuver aimed at domestic and foreign audiences with some thought for the implications in Afghanistan. That statement isn't to chide the President on the decision - he is a politician after all - and is merely an observation.

Here is an opinion for you, though: I don't care what the total troop numbers are, I care about where they are and what they're doing and how they fit into a greater strategy. First of all, 100K troops does not mean 100K saturating the Afghan landscape. It includes other essential military personnel on both big FOBs and patrol bases: logisticians, communications specialists, headquarters staff, lift and attack aviators, chaplains, mailmen, etc. It also includes those people who do things on big FOBs in the modern age: guards for TCN workers, the guy running the gym, the kid on duty in the MWR tent, military police, etc. The remainder are the guys out on patrol bases, conducting operations and training Afghan security forces.

What I'd like to know is how many fall into the last grouping. I'd like to know where they're positioned throughout Afghanistan. I'd like to know what they're doing. Then I'd like to know how they're doing. We should be able to tell if we need another battalion or company in a certain district or province at this point based on this type of information. I get that most of the Afghan campaign is an exercise in economy of force, but I want better discussions than 10K troops here and there in the whole country. I also understand that a lot of that is classified and will not be publicly released, but for all I know, the first 10K getting pulled out are the tower guards at Bagram and Kandahar and are being replaced by private security contractors (I know this isn't the case, I'm using hyperbole to make a case...). I don't need to know that the 69th Infantry Regiment is going to Village X to do Y. Just a simple troops-to-task layout.

I hope this type of analysis is going on in Afghanistan and here in DC. I suspect it is to an extent. Those of you who have been reading my recent writing on Afghanistan of late have probably noticed my pessimistic attitude towards this endeavor. I have this attitude because I don't feel that we have a strategy there. I feel that we had much better information on what was going on in Iraq when we were having similar discussions about that country a few years ago. How does this draw down compliment a political strategy? How does it tie in to negotiations with the Taliban? Or even some kernel of "we stand down when they stand up"? We don't seem to have strategies or plans for any of these and that's what gets my goat about Afghanistan. Maybe there is one that's classified, but if there is there aren't many indications that it's being used.

The draw down is as much a political decision as it is a strategic decision. But I'm seeing a whole lot of politics and not a whole lot of strategy. Or at least of the ends and means variety. So to those involved in this and those that comment on it: please, please, please tell us what the plan is. Please tell us the strategy. Please tell us how this ranks in our global national interests. Tell us why we're sending our men and women there by explaining how they're going to fix things. Tell us what we're spending our money on. And skip the bromides and quotable platitudes. Because this isn't a numbers game. These are people's real lives - both ours and Afghans.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

U.S. peacebuilding in Afghanistan: not setting ourselves up for long-term success

A few months ago, I was asked, through a friend who couldn't do it but was originally asked, to write and present a paper on U.S. peacebuilding in Afghanistan. It was one case study for an Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis workshop (in conjunction with the Osaka School of International Public Policy) on examining the current U.S.-Japan relationship when it comes to peacebuilding. Papers were presented on the U.S. and Japanese governments in the larger sense, Afghanistan, and Sudan, with a paper written from each perspective by academics and practitioners from both the U.S. and Japan. The idea was to look at what both nations have done and hope to determine the possibility and mechanics for a whole-of-alliance (in the bilateral sense) approach to peacebuilding. All in all, it was a very interesting workshop.

I looked at three aspects of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan: ANP development, ANA development, and DDR. Our readers are probably familiar with most of the challenges involved with these programs, but if you're not I laid out the very basics of them. The bottom line to all three of these programs, though, is that we're focusing on short-term gains in a counterinsurgency context at the cost of long-term stability and peace building. And all of this in spite of a growing set of knowledge of best practices in similar situations. One of the reasons I suggest this is the case is that the U.S. military is the biggest foreign player in the country (in personnel and money) and without other guidance is attempting what it is trained to do: win wars. Of course, without setting the conditions for a lasting peace, it will be hard to "win" the war. And this paper doesn't even get into other things like economics or politics.

I recommend reading through all of the papers - all of them are informative. Professor Yuji Uesugi, from the Hiroshima Peacebuilders Center, wrote about Afghanistan from a Japanese perspective and came to similar conclusions as I did (huzzah for validation!), but from a different and very interesting angle. I know virtually nothing about Sudan, but those papers are pretty interesting as well. The first paper by Weston Konishi and Charlie McClean is a winner, too. And thanks to these two guys - they did a great job putting this workshop together.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fear the Chinese/Russian condominium!

On June 15th, in a sign of strengthening ties between rising Eurasian powers, the six defense ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization issued a joint communique slamming U.S. plans to revise the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty.

Oh, no, wait, just a second... that communique was issued on June 15th, 2001. Yeah, ten years ago. And here I was prepared to acknowledge that this powerful signal of cooperation between Beijing and Moscow constituted a "mile marker on the road" to "a China-Russia entente [that could soon dominate] the international distribution of resources and [will be] ascendant economically"!

That would be pretty stupid, though, seeing as a decade has passed without giving any real indications that this sort of anti-American balancing coalition had even the most remote chance of materializing (or that if such a coalition did form, it wouldn't be similarly balanced against by the presumably predictable anti-hegemonic behaviors of other states).

Seriously, though, this particular SCO declaration, the one that happened this week, where Russia, China, and their Central Asian little brothers declared opposition to U.S. plans for theater ballistic missile defense... this one is definitely foreboding. Way more foreboding than that other outraged communique from a decade ago. Especially since the U.S. did in fact withdraw from the ABM treaty, which surely pissed off the Russians and Chinese even more, further solidifying the bonds of anti-hegemonic cooperation. Surely.

(In case you're wondering, the SCO also issued a declaration expressing the member states' collective belief that armed conflict in Libya should come to an end. I wonder why that one's not a mile marker. Or the SCO Antiterrorist Strategy that was just published. Or any of the several UNSC resolutions on which Russian and Chinese votes have been cast in lockstep. Is it because it's even more difficult to make the absurd allegation that these developments represent some kind of anti-U.S. balancing instead of routine, pragmatic cooperation and the coincidence of interests?)

So yeah, dude, Eaglen and McGrath are nuts. (Or just playing around, "creat[ing] a framework for thinking, not ... a prediction of the future," depending which day it is.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ISAF Accentuating the Positive - To its Own Detriment

You know what depresses me? That after all of these years, chock full of debate and writing on counterinsurgency, that a guy with operational experience and as a media adviser to ISAF's Counterinsurgency Advisory & Assistance Team can be as wrong on counterinsurgency as this. Wow. It is a cheer-leading piece with poor understanding of counterinsurgency, the use of output metrics, and just really bad argumentation. McLaughlin is hardly the first to write such a post or make such statements, but he has me wondering why ISAF personnel and supporters keep doing this? How can they be so distant from reality and logic?

This topic relates to a post I had written a while ago on why senior military leaders have a propensity to infringe on civilian leaderships' roles and responsibilities. That is: a can-do attitude. But looking at the past as the author of the above-linked post did requires more than a can-do attitude. It requires an odd analysis of what has happened and what is happening to look at that data and say "hell yeah, we're going to be just fine." The only way I can explain it (and of course I may not be at all, but I'm sure as hell going to try) is that ISAF has adopted positive psychology in lieu of a strategy.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this relatively new field of psychology (and I'm only tangentially aware of it, not being a psychologist and all), it focuses on an individual's strengths and virtues to increase resiliency and functioning. The Army has embraced this theory in its counter-PTSD programs, so it isn't that much of a stretch to think that it has pervaded other aspects of the war effort. Begun at the University of Pennsylvania by Marty Seligman, positive psychology has patients just look at the good things (according to the website above, positive emotions, traits, and institutions) but makes no mention of any negative emotions, traits or institutions.

McLaughlin's piece is a great big positive psychology stream of consciousness. Look at all of the great stuff we've done! We've killed lots of bad guys! We've trained lots of Afghan security forces! They get together in front of an American's camera and talk about how much they want to change Afghanistan for better! Kabul is rebuilding itself! Canals! Progress! The future! Indeed, the Sun itself is rising on Afghanistan. This might work very well for soldiers to combat PTSD symptoms, but it's a shit way for a theater command headquarters to think about anything.

Military history is replete with stories of commanders and forces that did not understand their own weaknesses, when it is as important to understand weaknesses as much as strengths. I understand that it's hard for ISAF to look at its own weaknesses; especially as its greatest weakness - the inability to bring about a political solution to the war - is essentially out of its hands. Let's face it, without significant changes to the underpinning conditions (economic, political, geo-political, etc), ISAF can't stabilize Afghanistan on its own, if stability in the Western sense is possible at all.

If you think that last statement is correct - and I would guess that most serious analysts do think it's correct - then one can understand why ISAF has a positive psychological view of what it's doing. And I don't mean approve of this view, just understand. One hundred thousand troops are sent to a war they can't win (or at least have a marginally thin chance of it) - how do you keep the morale up? How do commanders substantiate the futility of what they're doing (futility in a strategic sense - not in the small actually positive things that do occur in Afghanistan)? The accentuate the positive. They look at the great things they've done, what is great about their organization and their values. The U.S. military did this in Iraq, too, in the dark days. It was hard to stomach, but one had to focus on something to substantiate why one was putting his or her life on the line for dubious and nearly impossible to reach objectives. So yeah, I get it - I understand why this is positive psychological worldview is pervasive at ISAF.

The biggest problem is that this positive outlook compounds the problems on the ground. It's one thing to accentuate the positive and it's another to ignore your problems. If you're in a nearly-to-totally hopeless situation (again, at the strategic level) on the ground, ignoring your problems leads to more problems. For example, it leads to horrible planning assumptions that we've seen and dissected at great length. It leads to counterproductive operations - such as razing villages or building roads for their own sake. It leads to plans and operations that focus on positive tactical gains that can be listed as successes at the cost of long-term, strategic success (this was the topic of a paper I wrote a few months ago that I'm waiting to be published soon.).

So ISAF - I get you're doing some great things - that may or may not be great in the bigger picture. But until you start telling me how things are going badly and what that means and how you're addressing it, your positive view of the war isn't helping anyone and is most likely hurting and killing more people than it's helping. Get a better sense of your problems, of your organization, and what you're doing and start talking about that. Dump this positive psychology stuff in conducting wars and embrace reality instead.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Does the U.S. Navy really need diesel submarines?

Here's another post from my brother the naval officer, who I'm going to go ahead and start referring to here as Ramius, because it's hilarious to imagine his reaction to being nicknamed for a fictional Scots-Soviet sub-driver. He'd also like me to remind you that he, like the rest of us, is all disclaimered-up: he doesn't speak for his wife, his kids, other dudes who work in, on, or around water, and most especially not the U.S. Navy or any other part of the government. So there's that cleared up. Today he takes on the subject of diesel submarines and the U.S. fleet. Take it away, Ramius (LULZ)!

So I was all geared up to write about the Chinese aircraft carrier when I ran across this article in which the American Enterprise Institute’s Gary J. Schmitt and Richard Cleary argue that the United States needs to build diesel submarines. Submarines being a topic near and dear to my heart, I couldn’t help but dash off a few paragraphs about how they’re completely wrong.

First, their premise is faulty.
The U.S. Navy faces a fundamental dilemma: It needs more submarines, but the overall defense budget required to build those submarines is headed south.
The U.S. Navy doesn’t just need more submarines; it needs more of the type of submarines we’ve already got. Submarines perform a whole range of missions for the fleet and combatant commanders, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), battlespace preparation, sea control, and land attack. The CNO tells me that they’re critical to our ability to project power ashore in the face of area denial and anti-access weapons. So if all submarines are good at all these things, then more of any submarines = more good things, right? Well, no. What Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Cleary don’t tell you is the dirty little secret about diesel submarines: they’re really just mines that can move a little.

A little explanation is in order here. The great advantage of a nuclear submarine is its inexhaustible (in the short term) power supply. A nuclear reactor can provide all the electrical and propulsion power you need, and then some, for as long as you want it (well, for at least double-digit years between refuelings). So a nuclear submarine can run around at max speed all the time. A LOS ANGELES-class SSN can get underway from San Diego and run at 25 knots to the Taiwan Strait with nary a thought for fuel consumption. It has atmosphere control equipment that disposes of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and makes oxygen from water; it can go weeks without exchanging its atmosphere. The submerged endurance of a nuclear submarine is limited only by how much food it can carry for the crew.

A diesel submarine, on the other hand, lacks the inexhaustible power supply provided by a nuclear reactor. It has two very different modes of operation: battery power and diesel engines. A diesel engine requires a continuous supply of air to operate; hence, the diesel SSK can only snorkel (operate its diesel engine) while surfaced or at periscope depth (submerged to just below the surface with a snorkel mast raised above the surface to supply air to the engine). When snorkeling, a modern diesel submarine typically uses the electrical power provided by the diesel generator to charge the battery and power electric motors for propulsion. While submerged below periscope depth, all electrical and propulsion power is provided by the ship’s battery. The battery can only be charged while snorkeling. Significant propulsion loads – i.e. going fast – discharges the battery terribly fast. A modern SSK may be able to spend a week at 2 knots on one battery charge but only hours at 20 knots. As a result, a prudently-operated diesel submarine will spend the vast majority of its time operating at very slow speeds – about the speed at which a man walks.

Yeah, yeah, I know: AIP. Air-independent propulsion does not make a diesel submarine into something else; it makes it better at being a diesel submarine. It allows the SSP to provide propulsion power from a source other than the battery while submerged, but the power capacity is so low that it is still limited to very slow speeds unless it disregards battery discharge rate.

American submarines spend much of their time forward-deployed, operating covertly. Instead of the two weeks required for an SSN to transit from the West Coast to the Western Pacific, a diesel submarine would take a month and a half. In a standard deployment cycle, in which a submarine spends six months out of every year and a half on deployment, less than three months would be available for operations. Diesel submarines do not lend themselves well to covert operations in opposition-held littoral areas; an SSK will typically run its diesel engine – rather a noisy evolution – daily during nighttime hours to recharge its batteries.

The authors claim that “diesel submarines are smaller, stealthier and more maneuverable in tight spaces than nuclear submarines.” I can’t argue with all of that. They are smaller. As for maneuverability in tight spaces… I’m not sure what that does for you. The ocean doesn’t have many tight spaces, and a nuclear submarine performs just as well in the shallow waters of a littoral environment as does a diesel boat. Regarding stealth, Mr. Scmitt and Mr. Cleary are once again laboring under a misapprehension. It is generally true that a diesel submarine operating on the battery is quieter than a nuclear submarine; the support systems required to be run continuously to keep a reactor operating generate some noise and a diesel submarine does not have similar equipment. However, effective incorporation of acoustic quieting technologies and sound silencing programs has minimized noise levels from American nuclear submarines. While the same cannot be said for many other countries’ SSNs, an SSK enjoys no stealth advantage over a LOS ANGELES- or VIRGINIA-class boat.

It is true that the U.S. Navy is struggling to improve its Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities. This problem isn’t confined to diesel submarines, though their low radiated noise levels do exacerbate the problem. Here’s the thing: finding a quiet submarine in a big ocean is hard. If that submarine can get up in your business and mix things up, it’s a hell of a lot harder. But an SSK really can’t do that. Because it will always suffer the speed limitations imposed by battery operations, a diesel submarine is little more than a mine with legs. It can park in a spot and wait for the good guys to drive by – and don’t get me wrong, that can be a hugely useful capability when you’re talking about choke points like the Straits or Hormuz, Malacca, or Luzon – but that’s about it. An SSK can’t charge from Hawaii to the South China Sea in days or chase an aircraft carrier in the open ocean. This is the fundamental problem with the suggestion that the U.S. should build diesel submarines. The diesel submarine is an outstanding weapon for its purpose. The diesel submarine is essentially an anti-access/area-denial technology. It’s a mine that can shoot an anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) with a range of 100 nm instead of an encapsulated torpedo with a range of 1 nm. It’s a useful tool for the Chinese to keep our aircraft carriers out of the area east of Taiwan or to block the Luzon Strait, or for the Russians to choke the routes into their SSBN bastions and their territorial waters. It’s not useful for the things that the United States wants from its submarines.

On top of which, there’s logistical, manning, training, and industrial base concerns touched on nicely here, but after a rambling 1200 words I figure you deserve a break.

G: Little does he know I make you guys read about acquisition all the time...

Monday, June 13, 2011

It doesn't take a library: TTPs for pre-deployment reading

If there's one thing the military blogosphere loves, it's reading lists. Pre-deployment reading lists. Commander's reading lists. Professional reading lists. Lists of reading lists. This post is going to focus on the first. All of the pre-deployment lists out there provide for some good, interesting, and useful reading. But let's face it - you only have so much time when you're getting ready to deploy. You don't need to read 10 books on counterinsurgency, for instance, when one or two will do. So here are some recommendations on how to focus your reading in that limited time for those of you getting ready to go anywhere for any reason. It's not so much a list, per se, but a guide to manage all of that reading by genre.

Books on the country/region. Don't get bogged down in this too much. Pick two or three from the reading lists that already exist. Try to find those that are at the top of most lists. I say don't get too bogged down, because it's important to get the top view of the country, its culture, and its history. But once you have that, it's important to remember that no book will give you the feel and taste of a place - you can get that on the ground once you've done your basic homework - and you have a lot to read.

The latest doctrine. Military types need to make sure they're up on their doctrine. If you know what your mission is generally going to be, bone up on it. Re-read those manuals you haven't touched since your basic course, read the latest updates, SOPs and AARs from units who have just left where you're going, and articles that talk about doctrine. Since this is work-related, feel free to do this on company time (it worked for me at least). [If your boss gives you a rash about doing this, tell him/her you're doing it for an OPD/NCOPD - and then do the PD.] Spend plenty of time on this.

Technical/User Manuals. If you think you're going to go outside the wire at all, read your dash 10s on your vehicles, radios, and weapon systems. You never know when this refreshed knowledge will come in handy and save your life or the life of someone else - this may be one of the most important things you can do and it's often the most neglected because it's bloody boring. Know how to take care of your stuff and keep it working. And don't forget gunnery and weapons manuals. [Run out of smoke grenades? There's a great section in the M240 manual on starting brush fires with tracer rounds.] This is probably reading best done during your time enroute to your destination (such as in Kuwait) when you have ready access to your equipment.

Military History. Most military types do this anyway. My recommendation is to read a couple of books in this genre that are about the country you are going to and/or within two echelons of your rank (on both sides). You know what doesn't help you prepare that much for a deployment as a platoon leader in Iraq? Reading Patton's memoirs. Officers should already have a bunch of these great captains histories under their belt - focus on books that you can relate to.

Books that increase your understanding of the world. Other than field manuals and TMs, the books I got the most out of before a deployment were not specifically related to my upcoming deployment. I was big on reading philosophy: Nietzsche, Plato, Hobbes, Saint Augustine, etc. I doubt that these are everyone's cup tea, but reading anything that expands how you see and understand the world will do. Psychology, politics, non-military history, religion, or novels. Whatever it is that you would enjoy and would still learn from. Spend plenty of time on these - and I'd recommend bringing plenty of these along with you to read during the deployment.

If things haven't changed much in the past couple of years and unless you're an exceptionally voracious reader, I assume you have time for about 12 books in the 8 months to a year between deployment notification and getting on a plane. Assuming your boss will let you read FMs and TMs on the clock, I'd divvy these up as follows: 3 books on the country you're going to, 3 books on military history, and 6 about the world at large. This is where those reading lists come in handy - to help you determine how to whittle down to those dozen books you actually have time for. If you read that fast that you can get through 3 or 4 book lists, then great. But for the rest of us mortals who also have other things to do before going away for year, prioritization is key. And this is how I did it.

Gulliver? More like Dulliver! Exciting expert guest-post analysis of, uh, submarine stuff

Gulliver here: As some readers may know from past allusions, my brother is an active-duty line officer in the U.S. Navy. He's just as wonky and opinionated as I am, but less obnoxious; most importantly, he's almost certainly possessed of more useful technical knowledge than I. It frequently happens that I read something about shipbuilding or maritime security or China's naval buildup and write him to say "man, I can tell this is wrong, but I don't know enough to really say why, so fill in the substantive rationale for my pre-formed analysis, please." He finally took me up on one of my repeated invitations to write something for us, and I hope he'll continue to do so from time to time in the future. I've edited him slightly (which will surely infuriate him) and added a few bracketed comments to de-wonk just a little bit, provide context, and make it more suited to a general audience.

Has China built a new stealth special operations submarine?

A few weeks ago, Galrahn at Information Dissemination published some recent pictures of a new PLAN submarine. It’s clearly the same boat launched at Wuhan Shipyard in September, somewhat hilariously postulated here to be a “Chinese stealth submarine.” I’d like to address a few of Galrahn’s hypotheses.

The thing I have the least trouble agreeing with his initial reaction: that it’s reminiscent of a GOLF SSB. The long sail is the strongest clue for me that it is, in fact, a GOLF SSB replacement – most likely intended as a one-off submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test platform. There’s simply no reason for a sail to be that big unless you’ve put something inside it. [To clarify, what he means here is that it's plausible that the sail is so big because it covers ballistic-missile tubes.] The sole purpose of the sail is as a fairwater to cover the access trunk to the bridge hatch, the masts and antennas, and any other installed equipment. The American LOS ANGELES SSN sail contains an access trunk, 5 masts and two periscopes. It’s just big enough to cover these things. 

Galrahn speculates that the larger sail could be a storage area for “special operations equipment,” but there’s no reason this equipment couldn’t be stored inside the pressure hull. Either the equipment there would be exposed to the sea or the whole sail would have to be hardened to withstand submergence pressure. I’m not sure what the point would be, especially if the vessel's hull was purpose-built for specops and not simply an older design modified to that end. The sail would have to be opened while at sea, probably while submerged, to access whatever equipment was stored there. This introduces new complications. If the purpose is to stow equipment protected from the elements, then the opening would need to be above the water line when you open it – so you can’t do it submerged and covert. If it’s open to the sea, what are you putting in there?  Rubber boats? A little teeny self-propelled spec ops delivery vehicle?  This is how U.S. boats carry their spec ops equipment. The large sail hatch to which he refers is just what it looks like: an access hatch. It’s in the free-flood area of the sail and is used for personnel and equipment to access the masts and antennas that are housed inside. ["Free-flood" means that water fills this portion of the sail when the submarine goes to depth -- it is not protected from seawater.] The whole “special operations SSK” idea just doesn’t make sense.

As for the suggestion that it could be intended as a mobile DF-21 [anti-ship ballistic-missile] platform, I initially reacted with skepticism. Surely the missile’s too big, right? Nope – the DF-21 turns out simply to be a land-based version of the submarine-launched JL-1 SLBM, so it's small enough to be taken to sea. But what would be the point? Well, extending the range of the “access denied” area for U.S. forces seems like a pretty good goal, if a little gratuitous. The point of anti-access weapons is to keep opponents away from your stuff – most importantly, to keep an aircraft carrier out of its aircraft’s effective combat radius from Taiwan.  Keeping American carriers out of the western Philippine Sea is one thing; parking a sea-mobile DF-21 east of Taiwan and pushing the carriers further east seems to be a wasteful expenditure of resources. Another important aspect of anti-access weapons generally and the DF-21 specifically is that the Chinese are going to want us to know that it’s there. They’d much rather we just stay out because of the prospect of a carrier getting shot than that they actually have to shoot at a carrier and then we stay out, wouldn’t you think? SLBMs as an assured second-strike ICBM capability: great idea. SLBMs as a hidden anti-access weapon make less sense to me.

It’s not really plausible that this could be initially intended for JL-2 tests and then to carry a seaborne DF-21: the sizes of the missiles are too different. The JL-2 is 2m in diameter and 13m long, while the JL-1 is just 1.4m/10.7m. Based on the size – it’s significantly larger than the YUAN SSK also visible in this picture – it seems likely to me that it’s designed for the bigger missile and will be a SLBM test ship.

Unrelated note: There’s been some recent fuss about the Chinese aircraft carrier and whether it’s a big deal or not. I hope to address this debate in an upcoming post. Teaser: it’s not a big deal, but it’s not the Chinese naval capability that matters to us.

Gulliver again: Personally, I think it's my responsibility to assure you that all of the speculation above is nonsense. The hatch in question is really a bay door for the sophisticated caterpillar propulsion device, a fact that was revealed through consultations with a subject matter expert during hours of imagery analysis, shown here.

Our long national nightmare is over

Two long-awaited pieces of news to report to you today:

1. The Dallas Mavericks are the NBA Champions, vanquishing LeBron James' carefully-constructed (ha!) super-team and wiping clean the worst moment of my sports-fan life.

2. The Army plans to discontinue the wear of camouflage pajamas in the professional office setting of the Pentagon. A story headlined by the announcement that patrol caps, rather than berets, will become the standard ACU headgear has this little nugget buried near the end:
A more localized uniform decision will affect Soldiers assigned to the Army's headquarters at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. There, Soldiers had been wearing the ACU as their daily uniform. By as early as October, those Soldiers will show up to work in the Army service uniform, Chandler said.

"Our perspective is that this is the corporate part of the Army," he said. "The business-part of the Army is done in the Pentagon, and as a professional there are certain standards of attire associated with certain activities. For the business aspect of the Army, it is the Army service uniform."
Yeah, dude. Yeah.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thoughts on Gates

As Bob Gates readies himself for retirement, you're going to see a whole bunch of valedictory profiles and sum-up pieces in defense media and mainstream outlets alike. One of the first ran today in Politico under the byline of Mike Allen, who is, for me, the best in the political news business. (He's an incredibly curious, interesting, and genuinely nice guy, to boot. I once had a half-hour conversation with him -- at his insistence, honest! -- about what defense blogs he ought to be reading. Alas, it was pre-Ink Spots.)

It's been interesting to track the evolution of both Gates's personal views and of the media's coverage of those views over the course of the last several years. I have no doubt that many journalists will seek to tie a neat little bow on the SECDEF's tenure with lessons learned and best-of/worst-of listicles; even your humble Playbooker fell victim.
As Gates heads out of the nation’s capital for the last time, his reminiscing included several tips for D.C. success:  
*Don’t condescend: “At Texas A&M [G here: whoop! Other brackets in this quote-block are Allen], I would … go in front of the student senate for an hour, hour and a half, and answer questions. And I treated those kids as though they were peers – as though they were state senators. And if they asked a foolish question, or a question that was kind of off the mark in some way, I’d try and figure out what they were getting at, and answer that question respectfully.”  
*Sometimes the press is right: “Giving credit where credit’s due never hurts … The Walter Reed wounded [The Washington Post’s expose on scandalous conditions at the military hospital] is the first example of that. The MRAPs [USA Today coverage of a shortage of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in Iraq] is a second.”  
*Be blunt: “Even when I was at CIA, I’d go to visit foreign leaders and I’d say, ‘You know, I’m not a diplomat. I’m just an old CIA guy. … I said, ‘If I wanted to be diplomatic, I’d have been a diplomat.’ ”  
*But not too blunt: “When I have my preparatory sessions [before Hill testimony], I answer the questions the way I’d like to answer. And then I get it out of my system.”
If you've paid any attention to what Gates has said and written over the last four and a half years (or really over the last 25 or so), then you can likely add another: tell your boss the truth, even when you know it's not what he wants to hear.

The SECDEF's consistent refrain on this point is why I've found one of the recent staples of the Pentagon rumor mill so troubling and difficult to imagine: that Gen. Cartwright's candidacy for Chairman was submarined by Gates and Mullen over the Marine general's "refusal to be a team player" on Afghan escalation. Here's a bit from an AP interview story on Wednesday:
Gates was adamant that news reporting on the process for selecting a successor to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was flawed. He cited specifically reports that Marine Gen. James Cartwright - long considered the leading candidate to replace Mullen when he retires Sept. 30 - was damaged by offering independent advise [sic] to Obama during a decisive review of Afghan war policy in late 2009.  
"I will tell you that some of the negative things that have been reported as influencing the decision - for example the Afghan piece - are completely wrong," he told reporters traveling with him from Hawaii to Singapore, where he will attend an Asia security conference Friday and Saturday.
This made me think back to one of the many times when Gates advised young and aspiring leaders to do exactly what he's accused of punishing Cartwright for: giving an honest assessment o the facts as you see them, then trusting those senior to you to make the correct decision. This article in a 2008 issue of Parameters (pdf), entitled "Reflections on Leadership," was adapted from a speech the SECDEF made at West Point in April of that year.
[I]f as an officer one does not tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then they have done themselves and the institution a disservice. This admonition goes back beyond the roots of our own republic. Sir Francis Bacon was a seventeenth-century jurist and philosopher as well as a confidante of the senior minister of England’s King James. He gave this advice to a protégé looking to follow in his steps at court: “Remember well the great trust you have undertaken; you are as a continual sentinel, always to stand upon your watch to give [the king] true intelligence. If you flatter him, you betray him.”
Does this seem like the sort of man who would pass over an otherwise qualified candidate for being too candid?

What Allen called "the secretary's newsiest, and most introspective, comment" came when Gates' averred that "one of the reasons it's probably time for me to leave is that sometimes too much experience can get in the way, and you can get too cautious... It may be making me more cautious [than] I ought to be." Maybe. But it's also worth noting another excerpt from the same Parameters piece of three years ago before we grant Gates' self-effacing criticism:
That one should only go to war as a last resort has long been a principle of civilized people. We know its horrors and costs. War is, by its nature, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Winston Churchill wrote in January 1942: “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter . . . . Once the signal is given, the statesman is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
Robert Gates has made mistakes during his tenure, just as every Secretary of Defense before him has done and as every successor will do. He promises to recount some of them with the benefit of hindsight in a forthcoming memoir (just not before the next election), and I'm looking forward to that. But I feel confident that Gates's measured blend of decisive action and thoughtful restraint -- Afghanistan 2009 aside, and that is a big one -- will be largely vindicated, and that history will look back on his time in charge of the Pentagon more charitably than will the man himself.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Am I missing something here? (More on development and security)

In an essay on Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, Nancy Birdsall and two colleagues from the Center for Global Development argue for a new American approach to Pakistan assistance. They argue that a focus on security, failure to articulate clear objectives, and lack of transparency about how money is being spent have doomed the U.S. aid program there to failure. Indonesia is held out as an example of what Pakistan might become with more effective U.S. engagement.
Now, that nation is mentioned in the same breath as Brazil and India as an emerging power on the world stage and a force for regional security. Fundamentally, few threats to American interests and American lives now emanate from Indonesia. That is the hope and the promise of development in Pakistan, a promise the United States has a role to play in fulfilling. [emphasis added]
To which I can only respond: uh, what? Surely Birdsall and her colleagues are familiar with Jemaah Islamiyah, right?

Development and democracy haven't solved the problem of extremist violence in Indonesia, and it seems unlikely they'll do so in Pakistan. But viewing these two countries solely through the lens of terrorism misses the point. Birdsall et al are correct to write that "Pakistan's stability and prosperity are intertwined with the United States' own," and to note that this linkage is tighter than that with other countries. This isn't about terrorism, though -- it's about Pakistan's status as a nuclear weapons state, a seriously flawed democracy, and a nexus of fundamentally revisionist (that is, anti-status quo) Islamic extremism.

Pakistan can pose a threat to the U.S. both by being too strong and too weak, something that doesn't hold for Indonesia. It's not clear that state weakness is the cause of the "threats to American interests and American lives [that] now emanate from" Pakistan; policymakers should be cognizant of that reality before they spend money trying to replicate the Indonesian model (which, lest we forget, was achieved with minimal U.S. assistance).

This is yet another example of the sort of absurdities we're driven to by the insensate state-strength-as-security paradigm: the goofy quasi-assertion that with just a bit of well-targeted aid, we can make Pakistan as unthreatening to American interests as Indonesia.