Every so often, like clockwork, this question comes up and not much gets moved. I call ’em “36M-4R questions”, questions like “bring back the battleships”, women on subs/in combat/aboard ship, the draft, when two carriers overlap in Gulf deployments and somebody every time gets convinced we’re about to invade Iran, et cetera. These questions come up but don’t do much more than feed a bull session. I’m not much changed from my 2004 take on the diesels question, except to note the price of ASDS, we still say we’ll make things up in the outyears, and Taiwan still without new boats. Part of that post:
That cost-vs-capability drives us to a prisoner’s dilemma logic. If the less capable thing is six and a half bucks, the more capable thing is ten bucks, and you have eleven, you always pick the more capable thing. This is, however, a short term logic–if you figure out that the national value of six SSKs is more than the national value of four or two SSNs over the long term, then you make another decision. (Note that I say “national value” here, not “equivalence”–comparing the two directly may not be the correct measure to make.) Add in other things like a different structure for a different kind of ship, too.
Buying SSN vs. SSK requires a decision bigger than the first couple years of budget–and nothing that is in the POM outyears is recognizable by that time. When the Navy buys a gadget, they put a request in the budget that goes via the President to Congress, in a Politburo-style Five Year Plan. The next year’s money gets approved, and the “out years” at the end of that plan aren’t necessarily what happens the next year when we send another budget up to Congress again. So here lies another conundrum. We always say we make up the shortage in the out years, but there isn’t really a hammer to force a service to do so–and that’s probably not all bad, since it’s too long to react to changing technology or strategic situation.
A diesel sub can’t drive at ahead flank for two weeks, then spend three months sitting off the coast of
mumblewith no support. A nuclear-powered boat can. With thousands of miles between home port and your destination, that makes sense. Our diesels, before they got paid off, were forward deployed to save that time and gas–but it was still harder for them. Nuke aircraft carriers like having the sub sprint ahead. Diesels can’t do that well. With this lower capability, coupled with the prisoner’s dilemma, we stopped building diesels.
Taiwan wants subs, as their WWII U.S. handoffs (Guppy conversion, actually) are old old old, and they realize that an asset in the strait is better for them than a promise of a carrier later. They got a massive case of sticker shock…and then found out that several previous attempts at building non-nuclear subs in the US have been killed off.
So let’s say you’re not a submariner or a strategy guy and haven’t thought of this question before. Alternatively, you weren’t swayed by the inevitability of my deathless prose and want to work through this on your own. Here’s how I’d frame thinking about the question: by asking other questions.
—What strategy does this support? What mix of the rest of the Navy and DoD determines this choice?
–What do you want to do with the SSKs, since you can’t steam one at flank across the Pacific and sit off the coast of mumble until the food runs out?
–If these boats are for the USN, how many ships or other boats don’t get built due to the resource move to diesels, since diesels cost a lot more than people assume–and you have to add in the cost of tenders, replenishment and forward basing since we need the offensive capability to move forward, which requires infrastructure. This hidden cost outside the hull’s cost can get appropriators into trouble. So can first-of-class costs. See the Collins price tag, or the reaction of the Taiwanese government when the cost to them became clearer. Also, the build cost of an SSN includes the fuel–a huge factor and a completely different way of looking at resource allocation. How many surface ships don’t sail as scheduled because the quarter’s gas money ran out for that group? How would it be done differently if you planned fuel cost over decades instead of months?
–Are you really saying “should we allow US yards to make diesel boats to rival the HDW export program”? If so, to whom and why?
An SSK is like an intelligent mine; a trump card, but tied to the supply chain and its need to recharge. An SSN is able to drop everything, race to station, carry more stuff, stay longer and move farther…and the comparison is essential because money is not unlimited and the missions aren’t as different as they would be if you were arguing more about an overall hi-low mix for the Navy ships.
Some previous discussions of the issue, which have useful comments:
- Bubblehead on Joe Buff’s Proceedings article
- Posing the question in 2006, CDR Salamander, and replies from Bubblehead and DCS Sec
The Arms Control Wonk is excited about new overhead sensor photos, including a Delta launch. He brings up the point that these photos would have been very secret at one point in time; they certainly aren’t now.
The Army is in the midst of a cultural change, that of thinking that the culture of others is important in warfighting–and not merely in COIN. Here’s a slide show I found on LinkedIn (a social networking site) that may be of interest. It’s not a short presentation, and focused on Iraq/Middle East, but the general principles it uses to get to that point are more universal. Click this link for the presentation. (Here’s a sample slide; I would have put it inline but it’s too hard to figure out how to get around the CSS on this site. Little help?) There’s also a related book and a website here for author LTC Wunderle.
I have some strong opinions about how the Navy deals with knowing the other guy in terms of language and culture. When I was a lieutenant and a liaison to another country’s counterpart force, the guys on the ground who were the Navy’s experts on that style of warfighting, culture and those personal connections tended to be guys who their communities thought they could afford to lose rather than who they wanted fast tracked. The guys in that position were good and competent, but as soon as they were done with that billet they got sent home, losing all that knowledge and not integrating the knowledge and personal leverage into the rest of the Navy. The Navy FAO community was among other things created to address this shortcoming.
Over the last four or five years I’ve seen some big muscle movements, particularly with regard to the team that built, evangelized and implemented the COIN manual principles. I’ve also seen a smaller but also important group of individuals furthering the idea that knowing how the other guy thinks–be he enemy or friend–is useful and worth perpetuating. As John Nagl pointed out in the reissue of a WWII Army instructional book on Iraqis, we knew some of this stuff at one point and forgot it. (Here’s a random list of Iraq-centric books from Amazon here that discuss culture and language awareness in that war, by the way. Does USNI have an Amazon store link I should be using?)
Navy has a few people who get this idea deeply, although it’s foreign to many people with a more immediate focus. Some know more about the faith aspect of opponent thinking, some know more about tribal links and educating deployers on cultural mores, a few think about conflict of ideas in warfare and how war changes based on the ideas. I don’t think those people are strongly connected, and haven’t exactly hit flashover point. They might yet one day, though.
Stealing his thunder…
This is a good time to abuse the privilege and get something straight, just to keep people from looking like they just came from the Lawrence Welk concert. Okay, look here, senior people, you guys with the VCRs at home flashing “12:00”. The whole website here, that thing you clicked on to get here? That’s a blog. This article-looking passage? That’s a post. Anybody writing little blurbs after the post is written? Those are comments. Don’t be like that guy, please?
Might be worth noting that the last couple of years (late Clark era forward) until now has been time of more comity between the sea services than historically. I mean, you have to take it through the filter that every service sees the resources game as zero sum and some guys see opportunities in bashing the other guys to try to leverage the 25/25/25/25 split, especially when it feels appealing to root for the home team that way.
One bashing article doesn’t make a summer. I’ll believe it when I see bigger muscle movements. But it would be interesting to see what the USMC really thinks about maritime strategies…
I’ve gotten invited to the party by accident, I think. Name’s Chap. Nice to meet you all.
I looked through the good Admiral’s call for more professional writing the other day. That was in the August Proceedings issue. He mentions:
Let’s face it, sometimes mentors even advise people against publishing, because it is perceived as a “career risk.” Don’t be afraid—have the moral courage to vet your ideas responsibly and sensibly. In virtually every case of which I am aware, even the most controversial articles (and I’ve written my share) are respected as attempts to contribute and respected as such.
CAPT (ret.) Bill Toti, another sharp guy, responded with a “yes, but” in the same forum a couple of months later.
Having just finished reading Admiral James Stavridis’ article in the August 2008 issue of Proceedings, I felt compelled to follow his advice and write. Admiral Stavridis is a friend and a former mentor, so it won’t be surprising to learn that I agree with him about the merits of publishing. His admonishment to think great thoughts and be bold enough to share them, is right on target.
However (and this is a big caveat), it is important that any prospective military author understand the very real risks associated with writing. It’s a fact that the prospective author’s military boss is still a human being, subject to the same human foibles as the rest of us.
Both articles have good points and are worth reading. I note that USNI actually has those articles available as links; I would argue that having both articles available on the net is a good thing and different from my experience of their past practice. I’d also note that the first article was published in August and the second in December…and that’s a heck of a long turnaround nowadays.
Blogging’s a lot faster, more visceral, more ephemeral. Its pitfalls are different from ones you may be used to in other venues.
Some Blog-Specific Pitfalls (updated below)
Blogging ain’t professional journal writing, unless you’re Steven den Beste, and even he’s left that gig due to the hassle. Blogging has its own tone, its own etiquette, and its own tolerance–or lack thereof—for foibles of behavior.
Occasionally a blogger can overcome a lapse and still do well. Back in ’03, a blog called the Agonist run by a fellow named Sean Kelley apparently got into trouble because his accurate, timely, exclusive reports on the war looked a lot like those sent out by STRATFOR for a fee (roundup here). The Agonist is still on line and with many more hits in a day than I would get all month. (Come to think of it, so is the New Republic and NYT, both with recent scandals of reportage.) With exceptions like the Agonist, blogging is a reputational enterprise and what you do when writing reflects on you whether you want it to or not. Due to the small pool of people who do what we do, our reputation is made in a much smaller environment than the Agonist’s and harder to repair even if the lapse is merely of politeness or tone rather than ethics. I’m assuming here you already know the common sense basics such as not plagiarizing, linking to sources, and acknowledging error quickly and clearly.
Here are some hints about how to keep yourself out of trouble on blogs. Consider the following an unpaid Professional Note, worth every penny.
- Yeah, It Really Involves A Network. This is a network of people. If you think of this less as NCW and more as “who you know” networking, then you get the idea. Blogs are the visible half of a communications path that also includes a hidden counterpart, email. Emails among bloggers, emailed tips or ideas, and people who email links to an interesting post build communities behind the scenes that support blogs and keep the ideas going. Communities form from good blogs, too. Popular blogs like Neptunus Lex build communities of people in the comments, in Lex’s case so well that a separate blog was spun off from the commenters. The formal and informal networks associated with a blog can make the blog richer and more interesting.
(Email lists, by the way, can get sort of exclusive and can rankle. One political example was the Townhouse email list. Another exclusive list is the one mentioned in that August issue, the Warlord Loop. I’m not on either–I’m too small a fish, I guess.)
- Nobody knows who you are on the Internet, but they definitely can tell the back end of a horse. Remember how sending emails can be fraught with danger because the guy reading it doesn’t know your body language, can read the email many times and get madder and madder, and can take something you thought innocuous and get really upset? It’s like that. The immediacy of the medium allows intemperate language; the permanency of the medium makes ‘ohnoseconds‘ much more prevalent. Start by assuming that someone will read your comment or post and think about that horse and then rethink it from there.
- The immediacy and intimacy of the medium will seduce you into being a jerk. On my blog a while back, a guy I knew didn’t realize that his normal method of conversation translated into unpleasantness on screen. It got ugly and took a long time to resolve. In another case I saw, a blogger under the rose of anonymity called another serving writer’s fitness to command into question. That’s not kosher, even rhetorically, without thinking hard about it and making sure this is the right thing to do in public (hint: it isn’t). It’s like Heinlein said about arguments in marriage: if you ever find out you’re right, apologize immediately! If you think you shouldn’t publish it, then at the very least sit on the comment or the post for a day, and then be quick on the “discard” button if that’s more appropriate. Anonymity is fraught with danger–especially if you depend on it. It’s effective to protect your career if you’ve got hard truths that need spoken and have thought through why it’s important to be anonymous. Anonymity can also be really effective for being nasty, as seen the week Navy Times published an anonymous letter about CNO Boorda. Mixed bag, eh?
- Argument from authority doesn’t work so well on a blog. “I’m a big ol’ naval officer and I know more than you” doesn’t work for me on blogs and it shouldn’t. Take a tip from the blueshirts in Maneuvering on boats; respect is earned through knowing what you’re talking about. A closed mouth gathers no feet and all that.
- Nobody knows who you are on the Internet…but they will. There are unhinged people on the Internet with Google. The guy who slagged me on my own blog? Forgot about IP logging and wasn’t as anonymous as he thought he was. For the sinister, there are people with time on their hands to dig through records they shouldn’t–look at the news this last couple of months for plenty of examples–to figure out who you are. Publishing personal information is seen by some as a way to be mean to you. Be ready for it. It’s a network of people; this means people interacting in groups, which is politics. Politics ain’t beanbag.
- You can make a difference. My first Instalanche came by accident when I published an “interview” with a Blackwater contractor. Actually, what really happened is that I was on a flight with some dude and we talked story for a few hours and I posted some points about it that seemed interesting given the focus at the time on the company. Turns out that the information was not just valid but changed some people’s minds, and resulted in a better understanding among folks who might not otherwise have been inclined to understand.
Another time, I played hooky from work and went to a meeting that was pretty interesting over at the US Institute of Peace. I typed up my notes from the public meeting (me scribbling furiously while the paid journalists recorded the thing) and published. Emails went around, and all of a sudden I’m getting inquiries and compliments from very senior guys in another service. Turns out that I had information that the service really needed, but they didn’t know, and those journalists didn’t know to focus on the things I did–or thought the meeting wasn’t important. If I can get results from something like that, then you can too.
More importantly, you may come to find that making change in an organization includes changing minds, getting people excited, stopping bad change (the defensive is to the offensive as three to one works pretty well in bureaucratic warfare too), and causing a culture change. Unless you write what change you want to see you may not have thought enough to articulate what it is you want; unless you publish that writing nobody will help you fix the weak spots in your thinking and carry the ball the next few yards. Milblogging had a strategic effect in 2004-2007. If you’re able to write–or able to begin writing–then maybe you should be doing so.
Otherwise, who’s going to guide what change we do get?
Update: How could I have forgotten this little gem? One important caveat for commenters: Don’t try to write things under your name and then under other names. That’s called having sockpuppets and is socially frowned upon. When you get outed, which will happen, people will laugh at you.
Always gotta be someone messing about in the punchbowl.
No matter, I never read that guy’s blog anyway.
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- Bring your voice once more unto the breach