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Bin Laden Dead

May 2011


Osama bin Laden is dead. This is not something the President of the United States talks about lightly, and reports suggest that his body is in U.S. hands following a firefight involving U.S. special operations forces in Abbottobad, Pakistan.

We used to hang on every word bin Laden uttered and every indication that he was still alive. It long ago became of passing importance. That is the single most important thing about him and is a measure of how history has changed since 2001. Certainly the events that bin Laden put in motion continue to resonate — from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to expensive and intrusive efforts at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. and allied response that began on Sept. 11 goes on, but bin Laden himself had become essentially an onlooker and commentator.

That was the result of a real success by U.S. and allied intelligence. Their ability to attack and destroy bin Laden’s immediate network isolated him from new recruits, training and planning. Bin Laden and his immediate associates lost the ability, in three years or so after 9/11, to mount operations outside the Islamic world, and, to a great extent, operations inside the Islamic world might have been carried out in his name but not with his participation.

As STRATFOR once put it, Osama bin Laden once made history. He then made videos. He was eventually reduced to audio tapes — a testimony to the one part of the war that worked for the United States. But both the ideological and physical struggle against grassroots jihadists and transnational extremism continues.

After what appeared to be a headlong advance towards Sirte, Libyan rebels have been beating a hasty and chaotic retreat in the face of Gadhafi’s loyalist forces. It should hardly be much of a surprise at this point that the rebels are no match for Gadhafi’s forces — even with top cover from coalition aircraft. The problem was never that Gadhafi had an air force and the rebels did not. The Libyan air force conducted limited, harrassing attacks on opposition strongholds. It was — and continues to be — Gadhafi’s vastly superior ground combat forces.

Airpower alone is insufficient and inappropriate for the task of removing loyalist forces already ensconced in built-up urban areas and sheltered amongst the civilian population (with even some reports of loyalist civilians voluntarily serving as human shields). But the western coalition has balked at any hint of applying the appropriate tool — committing ground combat forces of its own (other than the special operations teams that are likely on the ground even now, at least.) Hence the talk of providing arms for the rebels. If the west is unwilling to provide the right tool for the job, then the idea is that the rebels might serve that role.

But the rebels’ problem isn’t lack of arms. They have broken open Libyan military arsenals and seized equipment abandoned by loyalist forces. At one point, they were openly calling for anyone able to drive a T-55. Could they be better armed? Of course. But arming them misunderstands the problem and looks disconcertingly like desperately searching for any solution.

The rebels have shown almost no sign of meaningful leadership, of planning before or command and control during operations, of any battlefield communication at all, or the ability to proficiently employ the weapons already at their disposal. A typical video will show, for example, a rebel firing a recoilless rifle or light machine gun into the air. Reports early in the conflict suggested that a rebel may have used an SA-7 MANPADS (perhaps one of the most frightening developments of the entire conflict has been the extent to which MANPADS have been ) to shoot down a rebel-flown aircraft.

When rebel forces scavenged for the last drop of gasoline in Ras Lanuf, it was all too clear that they had no idea where their next tank of gasoline would come from. Rebels continue to empty entire magazines of ammunition into the air without any sign of more being moved forward from strongholds in the east.

In short, this is not the Northern Alliance. These are not basically proficient, battle hardened fighters. It is not simply a matter of inserting some special operations teams to assist with planning, advise on warfighting, disseminate intelligence and to call in close air support. There is every indication that the Libyan rebels are a rag-tag rabble incapable of employing the weapons they do have in even a basically-trained manner. And however this ends, the weapons they have broken out of Libyan military stockpiles will be proliferated around the region and popping up in conflicts from North Africa to Yemen for years to come.

The danger is that as the air campaign increasingly approaches a predictable stalemate, that the desperation for a solution will lead to decisions that are not simply imperfect but that do nothing to further the ill-defined aims of the campaign in the first place.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 9 Comments

Libyan rebels appeared to make marked progress Mar. 27, driving westward from the long-contested town of Ajdabiya to small towns west of Ras Lanuf. In so doing, the rebels have consolidated control over almost all the energy infrastructure on the Gulf of Sidra.

Some 100 miles of advance is certainly noteworthy, but by almost all indications it was not a matter of Gadhafi’s forces being defeated by force of arms so much as a deliberate decision to pull back, possibly to Sirte (the Libyan leader’s hometown and a loyalist stronghold).

There is a logic to this. Gadhafi was on extended lines vulnerable to airpower. He was on the verge of taking Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, when the coalition began to bomb targets in Libya, but the vast stretches of open territory between these towns leave readily identifiable armor and artillery vulnerable to attack from the air. By pulling back to strongholds like Sirte, not only does Gadhafi reduce the extension of his own lines and force the rebels to extend theirs, but he falls back onto stockpiles of his own in more built-up areas where it is far more difficult to attack targets from the air for fear of inflicting civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, the rebels in the east never actually conquered much territory through conquest in the first place, rather enjoying the accumulation of territory ceded to them by either the abandonment or defection of the military and security forces responsible for it. Even now there is little sign that they have coalesced into a meaningful military force (much less one with the logistical wherewithal to fight on extended lines), even as they have charged westward into territory vacated in the course of Gadhafi’s retreat. In fact, there is a risk that they will overreach themselves, riding the momentum of their westward advance directly into prepared defensive positions by more competent loyalist forces.

In any event, the tactical problems that define the attempt to change the reality on the ground in Libya through the application of airpower alone remain considerable. The open terrain between Gadhafi’s strongholds in the east and the rebel strongholds (even Ras Lanuf) remains a considerable challenge for either side to sustain combat operations across. And it remains far from clear that even with air support directed by western special operations forces that the rebels will be able to dislodge loyalist forces from prepared defenses in built-up urban areas.

Posted by nhughes in Strategy, Tactics | 5 Comments

Libya – Now What?

March 2011


The U.S. and its NATO allies are now through three full nights of the air campaign over Libya, and approaching their fourth. They have once again demonstrated that given uncontested access to regional air bases that they can conduct a coordinated, complex air campaign to suppress enemy air defenses; target command, control and communications nodes and take out military vehicles in the open. But now that this has been achieved, and as the United States prepares to hand command of operations over to its European allies, the apparent lack of a consensus on military objectives or wider political goals begins to evolve very quickly from abstract down-the-road issues to more tangible and pressing questions of ‘now what?’

CDRSalamander laid out these questions out on Sunday. With the air campaign now well underway, we’re beginning to see additional indications relevant to some of these questions. Most stark regards the opposition forces in the east, which even before the announcement of a NFZ never proved capable of mounting a coherent military opposition to the advance of Gadhafi’s forces — their defensive lines collapsed as he drove eastward. Even now, after three days of air strikes against his positions between the rebel capital of Benghazi and the town of Ajdabiyah, the rebels proved incapable of retaking the town and again had to retreat under fire from Gadhafi’s forces. There is little indication thus far that their problems are advanced enough that even close air support coordinated by western special operations teams can make a difference. They lack the basic cohesion and organization as well as competency and proficiency in basic military operations — much less the ability to organize logistical support for a sustained push across the country. What it would take to get these forces to the point that they could defeat better-trained forces loyal to Gadhafi that have proven committed and capable (in a way that was never dependent on the limited harassment of what remained of Gadhafi’s air forces) and are now dug in and taking shelter in built-up urban areas. This is simply not something airpower alone is capable of resolving while at the same time doing its best to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

This raises an even more important point. Not only has the west intervened in a civil war — with all the attendant uncertainties that CDRSal identified, as well as the likely attendant further deterioration of the humanitarian conditions on the ground without forces in place (or even the political consensus to be ready to deploy those forces). But it has stepped into a very messy situation where all manner of Libyan tribal, societal and personal divisions are boiling to the surface all at once as Gadhafi’s four-decade control over the country is finally eroding. That intervention entails picking a side, and we did not pick the side that is capable of unifying the country militarily with minimal support.

Instead it appears to have intervened based on the west’s perception of the unrest that has wracked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. This perception is based on an idealized but flawed narrative of what has happened in the region, a narrative that suggests that these strong men — from Gadhafi to Mubarak — are the only thing standing between liberal masses yearning to be free and democratic countries that share basic western values. In reality, it is often far from clear that the opposition to these regimes has much at all unifying it other than opposition to the regime itself and there are strong illiberal, non-secular and conservative strands that underly many of the demographics and political forces at work.

The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University hosted a small working group on U.S. Space Assets on Monday that focused on resiliency, rules of the road and deterrence. As with many other discussions of American strategy these days, if there was one consensus, it was probably that the status quo and current institutions are woefully insufficient to support and pursue long-term American national interests — in this case, in space.

Much of the debate on Monday would be readily familiar to anyone who has discussed strategy in space recently – problems with the verifiability of many potential or proposed international regimes, the importance of freeing American aerospace industry from the constraints that sap their global competitiveness, the lack of a coherent, long-range national policy, etc. But while much of the agreement and disagreement over what ‘should be’ would might have been readily familiar to those who involved with longstanding debates on the subject, one question stuck out.

The policy, think tank and defense circles in Washington, D.C. in particular can all too quickly devolve into echo chambers where the same old debates only intensify. But an advisor to a key policy maker asked a different question: what is the first step? He wanted to understand not just where the U.S. should be (like the rest of us, he had his opinions on that), but rather what was the first step to getting there? It is a practical questions grounded in the realities of current constraints. Fiscal austerity is now extending into a long-bloated and insufficiently disciplined defense budget. And in an era of fiscal austerity, which programs do we take money from? How do we transition in practical terms to a new paradigm of thinking, requirements and acquisition? Such periods are dangerous for longer-term capabilities of strategic value because entrenched, established interests exert disproportionate influence on budgetary choices.*

In my short time here, perhaps the one theme I have harped upon is the lack of American strategic and grand strategic thinking — specifically the concise, coherent, consistent and efficacious voice that those interests lack in national policy and decision making. This is a point that is perhaps all too easy to raise and all too hard to translate into pragmatic advice for a policy maker. So I open the question up to the readers of this blog: if one were to be limited to a single, concise and salient point, what is the one piece of advice that one would choose to elevate to policymakers as a pragmatic first step to facilitating bureaucratic, institutional, organizational and budgetary change more consistent with American national interests in space? The emphasis here would be on institutional evolution to be both more rapidly responsive and agile and also governed by consistent principals in the long term. These may initially seem like contradictory concepts, but the question that was posed is how do we bring acquisition and decision making into line with timetables consistent with commercial timelines (the Pentagon is far too slow in this regard today – and this is true far beyond the realm of space acquisition and policy) and at the same time have these decisions grounded in consistent, long-term strategic and grand strategic thinking (as was the case with, for example, War Plan Orange)? What is the first step to effecting real change and evolution in the bureaucracy?

*As before, I highly recommend David E. Johnson’s Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 for a historical example of two different potential dangers in the effective management of emerging capabilities: on one hand, neglecting it as the tank was or effectively drinking one’s own kool-aid as was the case on the other hand with the Army Air Corps and strategic bombing.


The Unintended Empire

February 2011


“Those who question us now owe the country an explanation of how they would have acted differently given the stakes, the opportunities and the dangers.” – John Poindexter

There seems to be a rather startling lack of dispute of the idea that the United States lacks a strategy or a grand strategy. This lack of dispute makes the deficiency all the more alarming. Clearheaded, well-grounded strategic thinking is difficult – particularly in an era of newfound uncertainty. But it can be grounded in well-founded and well-understood geopolitical principals and history. The importance of the writings of CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan and the value of history are two examples that need little further clarification at this blog. War Plan Orange is another.

The question of how we got to this point is an important one for understanding how to regain the long-range strategic perspective that has served this country so well in the past (while avoiding the far less productive Monday morning quarterback or Captain Hindsight discussions – hence the Poindexter quote). And even more pressing is where we should be now, but are not.

This is a central theme of Dr. George Friedman’s new book, The Next Decade. He argues that the United States oversees an “unintended empire,” that it is neither institutionally organized nor intellectually prepared to make the strategic choices and direct the various elements of national power in a coherent and integrated manner in pursuit of its long-term national interests:

Under both President Bush and President Obama, the United States has lost sight of the long-term strategy that served it well for most of the last century. Instead, recent presidents have gone off on ad hoc adventures. They have set unattainable goals because they have framed the issues incorrectly, as if they believed their own rhetoric. As a result, the United States has overextended its ability to project its power around the world, which has allowed even minor players to be the tail that wags the dog.

The overriding necessity for American policy in the decade to come is a return to the balanced, global strategy that the United States learned from the example of ancient Rome and from the Britain of a hundred years ago. These old-school imperialists didn’t rule by main force. Instead, they maintained their dominance by setting regional players against each other and keeping these players in opposition to others who might also instigate resistance. They maintained the balance of power, using these opposing forces to cancel each other out while securing the broader interests of the empire. They also kept their client states bound together by economic interest and diplomacy, which is not to say the routine courtesies between nations but the subtle manipulation that causes neighbors and fellow clients to distrust each other more than they distrust the imperial powers: direct intervention relying on the empire’s own troops was a distant, last resort.

Adhering to this strategy, the United States intervened in World War I only when the standoff among European powers was failing, and only when it appeared that the Germans, with Russia collapsing in the east, might actually overwhelm the English and French in the west. When the fighting stopped, the United States helped forge a peace treaty that prevented France from dominating postwar Europe.

During the early days of World War II, the United States stayed out of direct engagement as long as it could, supporting the British in their efforts to fend off the Germans in the west while encouraging the Soviets to bleed the Germans in the east. Afterward, the United States devised a balance-of-power strategy to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe, the Middle East, and ultimately China. Throughout the long span from the first appearance of the “Iron Curtain” to the end of the Cold War, this U.S. strategy of distraction and manipulation was rational, coherent, and effectively devious.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the United States shifted from a strategy focused on trying to contain major powers to an unfocused attempt to contain potential regional hegemons when their behavior offended American sensibilities. In the period from 1991 to 2001, the United States invaded or intervened in five countries— Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia, which was an extraordinary tempo of military operations. At times, American strategy seemed to be driven by humanitarian concerns, although the goal was not always clear. In what sense, for example, was the 1994 invasion of Haiti in the national interest?

But the United States had an enormous reservoir of power in the 1990s, which gave it ample room for maneuver, as well as room for indulging its ideological whims. When you are overwhelmingly dominant, you don’t have to operate with a surgeon’s precision. Nor did the United States, when dealing with potential regional hegemons, have to win, in the sense of defeating an enemy army and occupying its homeland. From a military point of view, U.S. incursions during the 1990s were spoiling attacks, the immediate goal being to plunge an aspiring regional power into chaos, forcing it to deal with regional and internal threats at a time and place of American choosing rather than allowing it to develop and confront the United States on the smaller nation’s own schedule.

After September 11, 2001, a United States newly obsessed with terrorism became even more disoriented, losing sight of its long-term strategic principles altogether. As an alternative, it created a new but unattainable strategic goal, which was the elimination of the terrorist threat. The principal source of that threat, al Qaeda, had given itself an unlikely but not inconceivable objective, which was to re-create the Islamic caliphate, the theocracy that was established by Muhammad in the seventh century and that persisted in one form or another until the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Al Qaeda’s strategy was to overthrow Muslim governments that it regarded as insufficiently Islamic, which it sought to do by fomenting popular uprisings in those countries. From al Qaeda’s point of view, the reason that the Islamic masses remained downtrodden was fear of their governments, which was in turn based on a sense that the United States, their governments’ patron, could not be challenged. To free the masses from their intimidation, al Qaeda felt that it had to demonstrate that the United States was not as powerful as it appeared—that it was in fact vulnerable to even a small group of Muslims, provided that those Muslims were prepared to die.

In response to al Qaeda’s assaults, the United States slammed into the Islamic world—particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The goal was to demonstrate U.S. capability and reach, but these efforts were once again spoiling attacks. Their purpose was not to defeat an army and occupy a territory but merely to disrupt al Qaeda and create chaos in the Muslim world. But creating chaos is a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. The United States demonstrated that it is possible to destroy terrorist organizations and mitigate terrorism, but it did not achieve the goal that it had articulated, which was to eliminate the threat altogether. Eliminating such a threat would require monitoring the private activities of more than a billion people spread across the globe. Even attempting such an effort would require overwhelming resources. And given that succeeding in such an effort is impossible, it is axiomatic that the United States would exhaust itself and run out of resources in the process, as has happened. Just because something like the elimination of terrorism is desirable doesn’t mean that it is practical, or that the price to be paid is rational.

Recovering from the depletions and distractions of this effort will consume the United States over the next ten years. The first step—returning to a policy of maintaining regional balances of power—must begin in the main area of current U.S. military engagement, a theater stretching from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. For most of the past half century there have been three native balances of power here: the Arab-Israeli, the Indo-Pakistani, and the Iranian-Iraqi. Owing largely to recent U.S. policy, those balances are unstable or no longer exist. The Israelis are no longer constrained by their neighbors and are now trying to create a new reality on the ground. The Pakistanis have been badly weakened by the war in Afghanistan, and they are no longer an effective counterbalance to India. And, most important, the Iraqi state has collapsed, leaving the Iranians as the most powerful military force in the Persian Gulf area.

The entire introduction is available for free.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 7 Comments

The Jamestown Foundation hosted a packed event on Chinese defense and security on Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The event opened strong, with some important points being made in the introduction and by the first panel. These six points are theirs,* but they are worth juxtaposing. They are paraphrased here.

  • The Chinese lack a depth and breadth of foreign affairs and diplomatic expertise.
  • Much Chinese strategic thinking revolves around the imperative to become the global power, the number one nation. While there is no shortage of abstract talk about a peaceful rise and a harmonious world, there is a zero-sum aspect to some of this thinking. If they do not seize the initiative in what they see as a ferocious global competition, they worry about being left behind.
  • The Chinese have a culture of strategic thinking. They favor clever stratagems and conceive of shaping the use of force in such a way that the actual application of it is almost instantly decisive. But these clever stratagems can often be highly optimistic and not particularly sophisticated. By comparison, there is very little writing on long, attritional warfare or scenarios.
  • The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is largely untested in combat. This point was made multiple times throughout the day. They have little practical operational experience with which to test new concepts and capabilities – new concepts and capabilities that are the product of a doctrinal and technological revolution that has been so rapid and so profound in the last decade that it is difficult to overstate. We are familiar with the uncertainties that this creates in our own warplanning, but this also leaves enormous potential for the PLA itself to not have a clearheaded, well-grounded sense of its own capabilities and limitations.
  • There has been considerable emphasis on concealing these capabilities.
  • The PLA itself operates without meaningful oversight.

It has long been clear that Washington does not have nearly as good a sense of the Chinese, what they are thinking and how they are thinking about it, as it did with the Soviets. While Moscow is not exactly European, its experience in foreign affairs and diplomacy was shaped by Europe for centuries, which provided common foundation. This is a tradition with which the Chinese not only lack expertise, but that they don’t necessarily buy into. They’re going to play the great game, but they bring a fundamentally different perspective to the table. And China is extraordinarily new to the world stage, and its prominence on that stage has grown extraordinarily rapidly. In other words, China is both a neophyte and one that sees the world and the rules that govern it from a fundamentally different and unique perspective. And the PLA’s role in the political apparatus is strong and growing, adding additional uncertainty.

Add to this lack of understanding the six points above. Taken as a whole, they point to a considerable risk of miscalculation by the Chinese, either in a preemptive scenario or an escalating crisis. And this is another problem with the ‘transparency’ discussion. Obviously, increased transparency is a good thing but it is in many ways rhetorical and plays far too prominent a role in our discussions with and about the Chinese. On the one hand, it is based partially on the idea that that China’s national interests are not already fairly clear, when they are. On the other, excessive emphasis on Chinese transparency glosses over the far more worrisome reality that beneath the opaque veil there is not a single answer. There is absolutely room to reduce the uncertainty in Chinese thinking, but these six points are a reminder that a degree of confidence even approaching the U.S.-Soviet understanding may not be a realistic goal at the current time, and as such, there are potential hidden dangers in putting too much emphasis on transparency — especially since what the Chinese choose to reveal is itself likely to be intended to shape U.S. perceptions to the Chinese advantage.

*I’m not sure about the attribution policy of the event but I’ll be happy to add names if the individuals wish.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 3 Comments

By George Friedman

The events in Egypt have sent shock waves through Israel. The 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel have been the bedrock of Israeli national security. In three of the four wars Israel fought before the accords, a catastrophic outcome for Israel was conceivable. In 1948, 1967 and 1973, credible scenarios existed in which the Israelis were defeated and the state of Israel ceased to exist. In 1973, it appeared for several days that one of those scenarios was unfolding.

The survival of Israel was no longer at stake after 1978. In the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the various Palestinian intifadas and the wars with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza in 2008, Israeli interests were involved, but not survival. There is a huge difference between the two. Israel had achieved a geopolitical ideal after 1978 in which it had divided and effectively made peace with two of the four Arab states that bordered it, and neutralized one of those states. The treaty with Egypt removed the threat to the Negev and the southern coastal approaches to Tel Aviv.

The agreement with Jordan in 1994, which formalized a long-standing relationship, secured the longest and most vulnerable border along the Jordan River. The situation in Lebanon was such that whatever threat emerged from there was limited. Only Syria remained hostile but, by itself, it could not threaten Israel. Damascus was far more focused on Lebanon anyway. As for the Palestinians, they posed a problem for Israel, but without the foreign military forces along the frontiers, the Palestinians could trouble but not destroy Israel. Israel’s existence was not at stake, nor was it an issue for 33 years.

The Historic Egyptian Threat to Israel

The center of gravity of Israel’s strategic challenge was always Egypt. The largest Arab country, with about 80 million people, Egypt could field the most substantial army. More to the point, Egypt could absorb casualties at a far higher rate than Israel. The danger that the Egyptian army posed was that it could close with the Israelis and engage in extended, high-intensity combat that would break the back of the Israel Defense Forces by imposing a rate of attrition that Israel could not sustain. If Israel were to be simultaneously engaged with Syria, dividing its forces and its logistical capabilities, it could run out of troops long before Egypt, even if Egypt were absorbing far more casualties.

The solution for the Israelis was to initiate combat at a time and place of their own choosing, preferably with surprise, as they did in 1956 and 1967. Failing that, as they did in 1973, the Israelis would be forced into a holding action they could not sustain and forced onto an offensive in which the risks of failure — and the possibility — would be substantial.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 8 Comments

One annual tradition of the West conference in San Diego is an evening of dinner and drinks aboard the USS Midway (CV-41), now a floating museum on the downtown waterfront. I’m no naval historian – certainly not by the standards of this blog. So I look forward to historical clarifications and insights. But the long history of the Midway makes for a rather marked counterpoint to many discussions here ranging from a still-heated debate about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program to shipbuilding in general.

The Midway class was designed and built in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Designed to carry prop-driven combat aircraft, she had a straight deck and was so heavily armed (including eighteen five inch guns and almost 30 40mm Bofors quad mounts) and armored that she was originally designated a CVB – a battle carrier. By the time she was decommissioned in 1992, Midway had an angled flight deck and had launched fighter jets in support of Operation Desert Storm. When built, she displaced 45,000 tons. By the time she was decommissioned, 75,000 tons. The spectrum of aircraft that have flown from her deck is truly impressive, and she maintained operational relevance across multiple and very different eras of naval aviation.

The one thing that seems certain is that the ships we conceive of and build today will be employed in ways and both employ and face weapons that we have yet to conceive of. We are already in the process of bringing directed energy weapons and electromagnetic rail guns into operational relevance and can keep things such as future power requirements in mind in ship design and configuration. But when the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) class was designed, the idea that an autonomous, unmanned helicopter would one day fly from the decks of a ship of that class probably never even crossed anyone’s mind – and even if it had, architects and engineers would almost certainly have had so little idea of how they might modify the design to better accommodate it that there would have been zero justification for taking that possibility into consideration for the final design. Hard-kill defensive systems have come a long way, but the problem of an anti-ship ballistic missile was neither an existing threat nor one technology was capable of defending against at the time many of the defensive weapons currently aboard U.S. Navy ships were originally being designed.

One point Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work made yesterday was simply to point at the differences between an early Flight I and a recent Flight IIA Arleigh Burke. Indeed, at the pier at Naval Base San Diego yesterday, on one Perry-class frigate, a crude metal superstructure had been welded over the long-ago sealed off Mk 13 launcher in order to mount a 25mm cannon.

There is, of course, a broad – if abstract – understanding that there will be change over time in any shipbuilding program. But the physical changes alone made to the Midway over the course of her service life are a reminder of the sheer magnitude of how dramatic that change can be. Obviously, the Midway is an extreme example. But it is worth keeping her in the back of our minds when we discuss what we will need in a warship in the future.

Posted by nhughes in History, Navy | 10 Comments

the DF-21 road-mobile ballistic missileAt West 2011 in San Diego today, Adm. Tim Keating, USN (Ret.) and Dr. Xinjun Zhang, a Chinese professor and lawyer discussed U.S.-Chinese relations. A fascinating and well moderated dialog overseen by David Hartman ensued. Adm. Keating, just as current U.S. leaders, continued to emphasize the need for greater transparency, particularly in terms of Beijing’s military intentions. Transparency and mutual understanding (as well as functional hotlines and direct, efficient counterpart-to-counterpart communications – also emphasized by Adm. Keating) are absolutely desirable and important for conflict management and the reduction of both the risk of conflict and the prospects for escalation in a crisis.

But suggesting that the U.S. is unclear about what China’s intentions are with regards to its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile seems like a bit of a red herring. Despite some difficulties in diplomatic and military-to-military dialog, Beijing’s behavior and military efforts are perfectly comprehendible and understandable. China’s longstanding and comprehensive efforts towards anti-access and area denial capabilities are clearly and undeniably directed at the U.S. Navy and its dominance of the world’s oceans. The lifeblood of the Chinese economy and the economic system that forms a key foundation of domestic stability and regime survival in the country is an ever increasing flow of imports – imports of raw materials and energy resources from overseas sources. Beijing, quite naturally, sees this confluence of sea-borne commerce of foundational national significance and the dominance of the world’s oceans by a potential adversary (Adm. Keating succinctly characterized the U.S.-Chinese relationship as one of “strategic mistrust”) as a significant vulnerability.
And this is the heart of the problem. The U.S., with good cause, does not intend to surrender its capability to dominate the world’s oceans – particularly the blue water. The Chinese, even with considerable improvement in relations in the future, will continue to consider the lifeblood of their national livelihood being guaranteed by the goodwill of the United States as a vulnerability and will quite naturally seek to reduce that vulnerability.

Adm. Keating’s “strategic mistrust” is not simply a symptom of a failure to communicate. It is also a symptom of an inherent and inescapable conflict of fundamental national interest. That conflict of national interest need not characterize the larger political, economic and military relationship between Washington and Beijing. But it warrants and requires more open acknowledgement and discussion.

The U.S. tends to see China’s anti-access and area denial efforts in terms of this map:

DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile

But the Chinese see themselves trapped geographically behind the Korean peninsula, Japan (the Ryukyu Islands in particular), Taiwan and the Philippines. And they rightly recognize the raw capability of the U.S. Navy not to close with Chinese shores, but to interdict maritime traffic at the choke points this geography creates from well beyond the First Island Chain, so they see themselves struggling to ensure their ability to protect their own freedom of access and maneuver simply in two battleboxes — much less beyond:

china battle boxes

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