RMA: Radical and Moderate

What I’m writing about in that last post without ever typing the words is Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). And I may read like an outright detractor, but I actually consider myself an RMA enthusiast. In any revolution you have the radicals and the moderates. The radicals want the revolution to sweep away all previously existing forms and practices. The moderates are more or less satisfied with the status quo, but advocate some non-routine revisions. I consider myself to be in the moderate camp. I don’t think things like heavy armor, large units, piloted planes, aircraft carriers and such are going to go away. I am in favor of RMA being bent towards the purpose of improving these weapons systems and adding capabilities around the margins. I think the U.S. has done a pretty good job pushing RMA so far, would be in favor of perhaps a more aggressive agenda in the near future, but would also advocate a critical examination of some of the recent advances in RMA with an eye to possibly bringing back some older practices. Perhaps I’m just in favor of Evolution in Military Affairs, or, to retain but overload the acronym, Reformation in Military Affairs.

My moderation in my enthusiasm for RMA comes from my sympathy for the sort of institutional conservatism that’s entirely appropriate to the special circumstances of the military. It’s a conservatism and a ponderousness born of some of the most gruesome experience in the human record and it should not be taken lightly.

In, say, the economy or a federal policy environment, experimentation can be freely encouraged and pursued. Owing to the redundancy and parallelism of market economies, one or even many suppliers or consumers can fail without much perturbation to the system as a whole. There is no single point of failure. Owing to the security monopoly of the state and the extremely high stakes, a similar experimentalism would be unwise in the extreme. Here there is but one point of success or failure: make a mistake of sufficient consequence and the security of the state is lost. Even in cases of less than catastrophic miscalculation, the lives of thousands of young people are at stake.

I think a NASA-like caution is warranted here, with modifications to tried and true systems only taking place in the tiniest, most sure-footed steps, each one of them being subjected to the most rigorous stress testing and a period of learning before proceeding to the next modification.

But to make perhaps a more trenchant critique of RMA, most RMA thinking comes out of the Air Force. Some comes out of the Navy as well, though many RMA proponents see a lot of the Navy’s heavy metal as ripe for the pruning too. But as often as not Navy heavy metal is viewed as a platform rather than a legacy system, e.g. submarines with their element of stealth are considered sexy platforms; aircraft carriers are more in the sitting duck category. The Army is often perceived as and feels itself the target of RMA. It’s heavy metal is in that sour spot of just the wrong size: too small to be platform, to big not to be target.

But arguably there is a service-parochialism to all RMA thinking to date.

The Air Force, and to a lesser extent the Navy, just work differently than the Army. They operate with much more narrow margins of error. A large air force might consist of only a few hundred planes and pilots. The U.S. only has 21 B-2 bombers. At the height of the Cold War it only planned to purchase 132 of them. Present plans only call for the purchase of 183 of the F-22. A lot of this is true of the Navy as well. A powerful navy in today’s world could be comprised of a few score blue water ships. In addition to the narrow margin for an air force overall, the individual units of an air force typically run on fairly narrow margins of error as well. Most planes are capable of sustaining only very little damage before they are totally inoperable — typically they sustain a little damage followed by total loss when they hit the ground or go down behind enemy lines. Under these pressures, when air forces operate, they execute a mission, then return to safety behind friendly lines or on an aircraft carrier, where they are closely monitored and restored to 100 percent functionality. When something breaks, that’s often the end of the line.

The Army is different. It operates in considerably more punishing circumstances and at much lower levels of function. The Army expects supply lines cut, radios to fail, communication cut off, equipment to be waterlogged and jammed with sand, mobility impeded by mud or weather. The Army is often expected to operate deep in hostile territory for months at a time (think counterinsurgency or Vietnam), with no option of a quick jaunt back across friendly lines to be restored to full capacity. As a result, it has built in considerably higher fault tolerance. In fact it is just these built-in margins of error that today make it a target for the RMA revolutionaries.

Another way to think about this is to say that RMA is heavily plan-oriented — though this is often invisible because in RMA-type systems the plans are ubiquitous owing to the intangibility of coordination and the instantaneousness of computation. The plans are invented on the fly for actually existent situations, rather than plotted well in advance for situations projected a priori. But this is not the Army way. As the maxim goes, even the best plans never survive the first encounter with the enemy. Too much goes wrong on the battlefield for anything but the most improvisational micro-strategies to be workable (on the other hand, maybe the best of RMA is just the systemization of improvisation).

An example RMA proposal that I think founders on this Army-Air Force distinction is Future Combat Systems (Wikipedia | Global Security.org): the idea that the Army trade in its heavy tanks for lighter, faster vehicles. They would rely on surveillance, communication and maneuver instead of armor to avoid losses: a military doctrine version of “best block no be there.” The idea is that in essence, the information technology becomes the armor. To the extent that enemy forces needed to be destroyed, that would be handled by air power, long range munitions and stand-off weapons.

To some extent this tactic was employed in Iraq using existing vehicles. The invasion could happen so fast because U.S. forces deliberately avoided time consuming confrontations with Iraqi forces and simply drove around them to make hast for the (perceived) more important objectives of the command, control and communication nerve centers of the regime. As was pointed out at the time, the logistics tail couldn’t keep up with the invasion force.

As altogether too many a Humvee convoy in Iraq has found, dispersal, concealment, surveillance and stand-off attack are not tactics exclusively available to the U.S. And when these tactics fail, a lot of metal is plan B. In the Air Force a few square yards of nylon, namely a parachute, is plan B. In the Army, plan B doesn’t fit in a knapsack.

To criticize the Army on the basis of the standards of the Air Force and the Navy is to make an operating environment-category error. The Army faces its own set of problems, has identified its own relevant learning experiences and brings to bare its own set of institutional methods. It should not be immune to criticism in these — fresh thinking and an outside perspective are often useful. But for the Air Force to criticize the Army for employing too much heavy armor and relying too much on mass would be like the Army criticizing the Air Force for constructing their planes out of excessively light weight materials.

The Army needs to develop its own version of RMA. Obviously it has done some of that to date. It recognizes that every pair of boots on the ground is also a pair of eyes on the ground. It long ago adopted a doctrine of maneuver and plans to get much more aggressive in this regard: through heads-up displays on soldiers and in vehicles it is building a sort of military surge-mob model. With a renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency and perhaps a new found enthusiasm for state building it will end up with a skill set more relevant to the foreign policy problems of the next century than that of the Air Force.

Appearance and Reality in World Power

I can’t recall the last time I marked up an article as heavily as I did Parag Khanna’s gloss on his forthcoming book (“Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” New York Times Magazine, 27 January 2008). Among the comments I wrote, one was to object to Mr. Khanna’s observation that “America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline,” by noting that the apex of U.S. power was in 1945 and it has been in relative decline ever since.

Matthew Yglesias had the same thought (“Fare Thee Well, Hegemony,” TheAtlantic.com, 31 January 2008) and it prompted a response from Daniel Drezner (“Hegemonic Decline, Revisited,” 31 January 2008):

Yglesias is completely correct that the U.S. had nowhere to go but down after 1945 — a year in which we had the nuclear monopoly and were responsible for 50% of global economic output. Nevertheless, the U.S. resurgence in the nineties was not an illusion. The simple fact is that all of the potential peer competitors to the United States — Germany, Japan and the USSR — either stagnated or broke apart. At the same time, U.S. GDP and productivity growth surged. The revival of U.S. relative power was not a mirage.

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money has an interesting follow-on as well (“A Momentary Lapse of Hegemonic Decline,” 1 February 2008).

Was there really a breakout in U.S. power in the 1990s? Or was that just how it felt inside the United States, subject as we were to so much triumphalist propaganda? I don’t think that it was a perception limited to the United States. A lot of the world freaked after the U.S. managed to topple the Taliban in a month without breaking a sweat and then topple the Iraqi regime in three weeks. Breadth of perception aside, the question remains, was it any more than that: mere perception?

It strikes me that power can be illusory. As I have been reading about the Cold War and nuclear strategy, it has struck me that perhaps the Cold War was a massive illusion, that one state, the Soviet Union, was in fact a hollow power all along. We tend to think very pragmatically of power and its perception as somehow conjoined. But it’s hardly unproblematic. If power cannot be illusory — both hidden and exaggerated — than for what have we been spending the untold billions that we have on the National Intelligence Establishment?

This possibility first struck me in the early 2000s some rich guy snapped up a decommissioned former Soviet submarine and parked it on the waterfront in Seattle (it is presently on display at the Maritime Museum of San Diego). The day I went on the tour, there were two sailors onboard the submarine: one a salty, retired old U.S. diesel submariner, the other a sailor on loan from a Los Angeles class attack submarine (I thought he said it was the USS Indianapolis, but the years don’t line up) in for maintenance at Puget Sound Naval Ship Yard. They plowed us with the stories of two generations of submariners as we stood in the control room. The older gentleman told us of ruptured eardrums when they blew the tanks. The younger kid got all worked up contrasting this Soviet boat with his own. The two were laid down and commissioned within two or three years of each other, yet the Soviet model was a design still based on captured German U-boat plans, was diesel powered, could only remain submerged for a few days and had to surface to recharge its batteries. The Los Angeles class submarines are nuclear powered and routinely remained submerged for the entire duration of months-long tours. And the Soviet submarine was tiny: it displaced 2475 tones submerged versus 6927 tones for the Los Angeles class. The illusoriness of Soviet power didn’t strike only me. This young sailor seemed quite impressed by it as well.

Of course, this submarine did go out to sea with 22 torpedoes, two with nuclear warheads, which would have been more than adequate to take out a carrier battle group, provided this tin can could get close enough to actually fire them.

Nonetheless, I walked out of the tour flabbergasted. This was the enemy that we spent trillions to deter? The U.S. was silently cruising the oceans in state of the art nuclear submarines while the Soviet Union was hard-driving two generations obsolete models based on designs stolen at the end of the Second World War!? Was the idea that a Cold War had been joined a huge ruse managed by a Soviet Union never really a peer competitor?

Sure, they managed to deploy 40,000 nuclear weapons — a real threat — but some have suggested that this staggering number was in part because the Soviets never decommissioned a weapon and that many were undermaintained, unlikely to detonate were they to reach their target, sitting atop rockets that may never have got off the pad if the order were given. Further, this too may have been the wrong proxy for real military power. The thing about nuclear weapons is that once the initial hurdle has been passed, they are relatively cheep. In fact, it is one of the theses of William Langewiesche’s book The Atomic Bazaar is that in the Twenty-First Century nuclear weapons may become the weapon of the poor. A state that can’t field a respectable army may still command a few dozen nuclear armed missiles.

Looking past nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower administration assessed U.S. forces superior to those of the Soviet Union on a unit basis, but adopted its policy of massive retaliation nevertheless because it believed the United States and the NATO powers incapable of fielding conventional forces in numbers capable of meeting those of the Soviet Union. Despite increases in the quality of Soviet forces through the 1970s, by the 1980s U.S. military planners were figuring that the United States would be able to defeat the Soviet Union in Europe without resort to nuclear weapons. The Wohlstetter-Iklé committee report, Discriminate Deterrence (1988) included the confident but controversial recommendation that in an era of smart bombs and cruise missiles, the United States could afford to move away from nuclear toward conventional counterforce.

But the Soviet Union is only a more genial example of the possibility of illusory power. What of the breakout of 1990s? If there was a breakout, it was, as Mr. Drezner points out, both economic and military.

When the histories of the 1980s and 1990s finally get written, those periods may go down as a time when ebullient ephemera obscured a deepening crisis of economic fundamentals, a period of various asset bubbles distracting analysts from increasing instability. If the United States were to be subject to a massive and sudden correction in exchange rate and interest rates were to come to represent the real risk that institutions are taking when investing in the U.S. economy, then the story of the 1990s would be rewritten to be more like that of the 1920s: one of lawlessness, decadence and pride before the fall. The story of the 1990s will probably even have to be reconsidered in light of monetary policy finding itself, as it increasingly is, caught between the pincers of flat economic growth on the one side, but a significantly increased propensity to inflation on the other, namely to say that there was no increase in productivity, that we were merely exporting our inflation.

A certain portion of the boom of the 1990s may have been real, but recall that the great mystery of those decades is if there really was an up-tick productivity, why did it not register in the statistics? It seems just as probable to me that the productivity miracle of the 1990s may just as well have been built upon the collapse of the 40 hour work week under Exempt status creep, underreporting of actual hours and the “disciplining” effect of the tacit threat of outsourcing. If there were any increases in productivity, its fruits were all captured by the ultra-rich. Average wages have been nearly flat for thirty years now whereas it has been adequately demonstrated at this point that during the 1990s real income growth only came for the top fractions of a percent of U.S. households.

In the military column, a lot of the technologies and systems that are synecdoche for U.S. power in the 1990s and 2000s are the culmination of fairly old developments. The first laser-guided bombs were dropped at the tail end of the Vietnam War. The first experimental satellites in the NAVSTAR GPS constellation were launched in 1978. Debates about whether to proceed with the development of the Tomahawk cruise missile peaked under the Carter administration. The contract for the F-117 was awarded in 1975 and the first one entered service in 1983. The B-1 bomber was actually deployed in the early 1980s to fill a gap between the phase-down of the B-52 and the eventual deployment of the planned B-2 stealth bomber that was then experiencing development difficulties (it eventually entered service in 1993). The Patriot missile was developed in the late 1970s and first deployed in 1984.

These systems came together impressively first in the war with Panama and then most memorably in the First Gulf War. But it would be hard to argue that this was a sudden development of the 1990s. More plausibly, the 1990s represent a continuum of increasing U.S. military capability. Continuity hitherto is, of course, hardly an argument against the existence of a subsequent discontinuity. But whether capabilities on paper can be translated into real power on the ground is another question and in Iraq and Afghanistan we are finding out the bloody and expensive way that all our hardware has done very little to ameliorate the problems of bringing about a desired political objective through force. While effective against asset-heavy, bureaucracy-dependent modern states, in an era of net-centric, open source and guerrilla warfare such assets are quite nearly useless. This was already on display in the Vietnam War but with the United States now unable to subdue Iraq, a country with a tenth its population and four tenths of one percent its economy — with the actual enemy comprising three orders of magnitude less than that — one has to wonder how much of a breakout in global power the 1990s actually were for the U.S. As the constant waffling of U.S. strategy in Iraq back and forth between over-reliance on air power attacks and the Petraeus plan of small operations demonstrates, no precision munitions are accurate enough, no surveillance technology sensitive enough for counterinsurgency warfare and there is no substitute for the old, labor-intensive ways of the Army (and blood-intensive, least anyone be confused about what “labor” is a euphemism for here). And there, growth in relative strength has been much closer to linear, if it has grown at all (no discontinuity). In fact, as I suggested in a previous post (“Iraq and Vietnam; Civil Wars and Asymmetric Conflict,” 5 October 2007), Iraq and Afghanistan may be trend, with usable relative power actually on the decline.

Call it the seduction of the spectacular. Apparently shock and awe has been more effective against us than it has turned out to be against our enemies.

And Humble Too …

We’ve been down for two weeks because our admin’s internet provider, Clearwire, cut off inbound port 80 with no notice. New policy: no internal web hosting. Admin had to switch to Comcast, with all the headache that entails. In case your experience with Comcast has to date been without a hitch then it’s just dumb luck. I have had a number of run-ins with their customer service which is not merely bad, but more in the category of egregious or maddeningly bad or not the sort of thing that a conscionable company desirous of success would do to its customers. But I guess it’s the sort of thing you can get away with when you are a partial monopoly

Anyway, after merely the entry-level runaround, we are back up and hopelessly dated. We’re up a little ahead of anticipation owing to Admin’s genius. As he reports,

It appears that DNS is picking up pretty quickly. (I had proactively dropped the time-to-live for DNS, knowing there would be an IP address change–’cause I’m so fucking brilliant.)


Missouri is the bellwether state. It is currently 98 percent reporting and none of the networks can call it. When it’s that close, even when it eventually falls into one candidate’s column, can it be said to mean anything? I’d say it’s groundhog’s day: it means six more weeks of primaries.

The real headline tonight is on the Republican side. For some time now I have imagined that the Democrats will have a candidate by the end of Super Tuesday and that Republicans will go all the way to the convention with three viable contenders. It has completely reversed. The headline tomorrow should be that Romney is done for. Governor Huckabee seems more viable than him at this point. In terms of delegates Romney only bested Huckabee by thirty. John McCain collected more delegates than both of them combined.

Update, 6 February 2008, 4:35 AM: The opening line from Mike Huckabee’s speech was great (“Mike Huckabee’s Super Tuesday Speech,” Associated Press, 5 February 2008):

You know, over the past few days a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race. Well, you know what? It is. And we’re in it!

The Surge

Real Clear Politics, Democratic primary poll graph, February 2008

In the last few days Barack Obama has been really surging fast. A look at the graph above from Real Clear Politics shows a considerable spike. Talk has been of him closing the gap, but I just got an e-mail alert linking to a Reuters / C-SPAN / Zogby poll showing Senator Obama not only to have closed the gap, but gone up thirteen points (Whitesides, John, “Obama, Romney lead in California on Super Tuesday, Reuters, 5 February 2008).

The problem is that the polls over the last few days have been all over the map. CNN was freaking out last night because they had polls showing that both Clinton and Obama, both McCain and Romney would be winning California. I think that this Reuters / C-SPAN / Zogby poll is probably accurate because it is in keeping with the trend.

There are two interesting things that I see in the Real Clear Politics graph. The first is the real significance of the outcome of Iowa. Senator Obama spikes around 6 January 2008. And it is not a blip. After that he plateaus. The gains he made in Iowa became permanent. This is nothing but speculation, but I presume it was the perceived inevitability of Hillary Clinton that was artificially suppressing Obama support. Once that perceived inevitability had been broken, Obama support broke out and dug in.

The second think I notice is that there are two spikes for Senator Obama. The first spike comes drastically at the expense of Senator Clinton: people were defecting from the Clinton camp to that of Obama — again the end of the inevitability thing. But my second point is the second, more recent jump in support for Senator Obama. It comes at the same time as support for Hillary Clinton is also rising, just not all that much. This second spike suggests an answer for a long standing question: which way will Edwards supporters break after he drops out. The second large spike in Obama support — a ten percent increase compared to only a three percent increase for Senator Clinton — says that the majority went for Senator Obama.

Anyway, stoked by a few such scraps of data, my inclination is to say that tonight will be a big series of upset wins for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton will continue to fight it out all the way to the convention and hoping to win a convention battle. She will be counting on the see-sawing that has gone on to date to continue and this is not an unreasonable expectation considering the primaries to date. In fact, there is probably some dynamic among bleeding-heart liberal voters of sympathy for the loser buying them a few votes in the next contest. I know that I hate it that one of these two is going to have to lose for good at some point. Whatever the case, I suspect that Senator Clinton is going to look like a real weak horse after tonight.

Militarism: Loose It or Use It

Gareth Porter wrote a closely argued book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, a few years ago (2005) making the contrarian argument that it wasn’t insecurity over some domino effect imperiling the United States that got us into the Vietnam war, so much as overconfidence based on known superiority of the U.S. over the Soviet Union and China.

Mr. Porter’s point was that U.S. hegemony today continues to tempt us to further foreign adventures, namely Iraq. Ezra Klein makes the same point in reference to U.S. military spending (“Your World in Charts: ‘We’re #1’ Edition,” The American Prospect, 31 January 2008):

There may, to be sure, be an argument for reducing our expenditures on hardware and increasing them on manpower, but there’s no real argument for increasing our total expenditures. This is particularly true in light of the last few years, where the size and power of our military fueled a vast overconfidence in its capabilities, which in turn helped ease our decision to invade Iraq, thus contributing to a venture that most all security experts agree has dramatically reduced our safety.

Where your money is, there your heart will be too. Or perhaps it’s not just money that burns a hole in your pocket: military power does as well.

Actually, I really doubt these are causal factors. If there was a military buildup during the 1980s that mysteriously persisted past the end of the Cold War, it was in large part owing to the work of people like then Wyoming Representative and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, then Director of Policy Planning Staff Paul Wolfowitz, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, Richard Pearle, then head of the Ballistic Missile Threat Assessment Commission Donald Rumsfeld, as well as the rest of the usual cast of characters — the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for a New American Century, et cetera. As James Mann said in Rise of the Vulcans, one of the narratives that unites this disparate group, it is that of rebuilding the U.S. military and the country’s willingness to use it after the end of the Vietnam War — which brings us back to Mr. Porter’s point. These were people for whom no disaster could induce a measure of caution.

For this ideological coalition, the military buildup was a necessary step in a long-standing plan whereby U.S. hegemony would be preserved and extended through a series of small wars. This project was temporarily blocked by the presidency of Bill Clinton, but resumed once the actors were all brought back into office by George Bush, Jr., promotions all around.

The problem was selling the agenda to the rest of the U.S. electorate. In that regard Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell (“First we are going to cut it off and then we’re going to kill it”) and CNN night vision footage of Patriot Missiles rising from Tel Aviv to meet incoming Scuds during the first Gulf War all went a long way toward reinstilling the invincibility and the righteousness of U.S. foreign interventions into the minds of your average voter. People say that everything changed after 11 September 2001, but in this regard, 11 September is the catalyst added to an ideological concoction that had been brewing for ten years.

The perfect juxtaposition of this point is when, in reference to Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeline Albright asked then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” For a minimalist like Secretary Powell the point of having “this superb military” is so that you don’t have to use it. But it’s a self-defeating proposition because its existence eventually becomes the very argument for its use. And even liberals end up getting over-excited by too much cool military hardware.