7 October 2009

Not so clever after all…

The 1969 Anglo-Irish War

4 September 2009

This week a recently-released documentary on RTE, the Irish national television station, made a rather stunning claim: that at the height of the Troubles an Irish plan to invade and seize the North was seriously meted by the government of then-premier Jack Lynch.  The documentary, If Lynch Had Invaded…, suggests that the incursion would have had dramatic consequences, including Irish ostracism at the UN and the likely decimation of the invaders by responding British forces.

The Irish Times saw a copy of the military report, vaguely entitled “Interim Report of Planning Board on Northern Ireland Operations.”  (I could only find the introduction, which the Times ran four years ago, here.)  It assumed an Irish attack without warning or declaration and that even a total commitment by the understrength Irish Army would be violently checked by the British.  (At the time the entirety of the Irish Army was only a bit more than double the size of the British forces in Northern Ireland at the time, themselves a small fraction of the British forces available for home service.)

Though the veracity of the claim that Irish ministers actually pushed for war has been challenged, the fact that the ministers concerned were forced out or resigned shortly thereafter for covertly selling arms to the IRA doesn’t lend me much room for doubt.   Either way it’s an interesting description of how far the benighted “Irish Question” has come, considering that a threatened British withdrawal from the North five years later was met by furious opposition from the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister.

[UPDATE: Someone has posted the documentary in full on YouTube.  First part is here.]


Apocalypse later

6 August 2009

The usual cottage industry of predicting the demise of all-that-we-know in the face of difficult times is once again in full swing.  Check out this index of American doomsdays from Slate.  And then you can read about a well-educated Russian who actually believes it.  Granted he’s not the only one – but he is the most specific I’ve seen.  As such he’s the most wrong.

Courtesy RealClearWorld.

He should nuke the fuckers

He should nuke the fuckers

A couple of brainiacs on the nerd patrol, operating under the ridiculous misapprehension that lessons about global politics can be derived from popular culture, decided to do a study about the clash of powers in the rap world and the parallels between challenges by smaller and middle powers towards hegemonic figures.

Ridiculous, as I said. Rappers actually earn their social positions.

I stole the link from my friend Alison. Kudos.

Came across an article today from a fellow at the Cato Institute lauding the latest piece of bizarre politics to come out of that funniest Commonwealth – Australia’s Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is proposing a massive increase in defense spending as part of its May White Paper envisioning a “Force 2030“.  Wasn’t so long ago that Force 2010 was the target of wishful thinking.  2010’s a bit grittier than expected.

A lot of white papers have come out of various Western governments in the past few years as their militaries fight dramatic postwar cutbacks.  Australia’s is interesting because it proposes re-armament, perhaps for the first time.  (America has certainly been “rearming,” but then we’ve been busy.)  However the Cato article takes a tone that is at once too sanguine and loses something of the broader strategic picture.  I’ll get there.

The defense white paper, like the Cato write-up, assumes a resurgent Japan a domineering China and an increasingly-disengaged, if not declining, United States.  All of these assumptions, like most such strategic considerations, are pretty badly flawed.

Despite the CATO author’s brushing by Article IX in fairly brusque terms as an American invention – which it fully was – he fails to realize that it is in fact a deeply-ingrained assumption in Japanese politics and the Japanese psyche that the Second World War won’t happen again.  And no mention is made of an economy deep into a ten-year recession with a 0% interest rate, a declining population and ballooning elderly demographic.  Where, precisely, does such an economy find the money for a broad rearmament program?  Where does it find money for something incremental?  This would perhaps be less pressing if the long-term, pro-US Liberal Democrat government wasn’t about to be turned out.  (Though, stay tuned.)

Now in terms of China there isn’t yet any evidence to back up the supposition that they are going to be flexing their strategic muscle.  The Taiwan problem has been left to wither on the vine as a succession of internal uprisings grips the country (which the author does mention) and most importantly China’s power projection capability is not yet serious.  Even with the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force it’s not clear that their main fleet could seriously challenge America’s local naval forces, much less any major American task force.  Assuming they did so successfully, and the conflict remained non-nuclear (as it almost surely would, at least as long as China’s strategic forces are puny compared to the United States’), the United States could quite simply dispatch a new fleet.

(Would this be likely?  Maybe not, but I can’t really forecast the effect of a Chinese victory over American policy.  My sense is that there would be no other choice – and the defeat of Third Fleet’s single carrier battle group would merely unleash Seventh Fleet’s five, assuming no chance to deploy them sooner.)

This might seem a bit insane.  The Chinese Air Force, and Navy, against a single American carrier?  But consider the context.  Any flashpoint would be over Taiwan, Japan or the Koreas.  This would mean the benefit of local assistance (and the fleet Japan and South Korea do have is of high quality, while Taiwan’s is entirely American product) and most importantly local air support.  The Chinese would have to fly out over the South China Sea and risk the loss of downed pilots.  A significant portion of their Air Force is either old or not particularly suitable for a fleet engagement, and their Navy – such as it is – is home to only a few native designs and a lot of old Russian hardware, including the Kusnetsov, if memory serves.  (Close.  Ironically, it has purchased several carriers to study various designs.  One of them?  The British-built HMAS Melbourne. Australia no longer operates a carrier.)

There is also a question of experience.  Much of America’s naval aicorps have seen some sort of action in their careers, the benefit of constant engagement in so-called “brushfire wars.”  The PLAAF has had little of the same experience.  Many of the pilots involved in an attack (not to speak of the seamen, if China were foolish enough to even introduce their fleet) are likely to be fairly green, if not totally inexperienced, and pound-for-pound their hardware is not going to offer them an advantage.

I generally think the abilities of an air force are somewhat overstated as against a modern fleet.  The victory of the British in the pre-AEGIS era Falklands War, using relatively antiquated vessels and equipment but superlative training against a relatively well-equipped but inexperienced Argentine Navy and Air Force, should be taken as a warning against alarmism.  The US Navy would have all of Britain’s advantages, but enhanced, and China all of Argentina’s handicaps magnified.

That introduces the element of America.  We’re really not going anywhere.  Even if Australia, Japan and South Korea all wanted us gone, we probably wouldn’t do.  (How many American forces are still in Germany?)  In its deployments after World War II American policymakers were actually subtly, sublimely clever – they knew where the new threats would come and laid the groundwork for what were essentially long-term watchtowers.  Since we were the ones responsible for kneecapping the British and French, we knew too when and how to react to the ebbing of their power.  (Judging, at least, by the relative lack of American interest at Britain’s withdrawal from the East of Suez and later Hong Kong.)  America’s interests are not necessarily strategically malevolent, but the message is clear: if there’s a war it will be far away, even at the risk of making it harder.

At the moment, as I said, China seems not to mind this.  It’s getting rich.  Its leaders’ foresight rivals their advanced age and they realize that a major rearmament would unnecessarily drag down their breakneck development.  The military advances you’re seeing out of China are not directed really at anybody – they’re directed at putting China properly in the frame at a level appropriate to their size, economy and geopolitical importance.  (As opposed to ours, which are dedicated to locking in an inflated and ossified geopolitical status.)  They are not Germany in 1910 (or indeed in 1936) – they are not bedazzled by the impression that in a few short years they could outbuild, outcrew and outgun the US.  In a land war – well, okay.  But the land war won’t matter.  It didn’t in Europe and it didn’t in Asia.

So to Australia.  Australia is like China in one key way (similar to Japan, South Korea, and indeed local powers like Singapore): their military power is undersized.  Despite a small population they’re relatively prosperous and their military deployments have been increasingly-robust and generally successful.  (Especially as they develop an Italian-style immigration issue.)  So what do they plan to do?

Not much, actually.  Heavy vehicles for the Army; costly fighters and fighter upgrades for the Air Force; and new-generation submarines.  These aren’t bad ideas in and of themselves, but if we’re to suppose they’re enhancing their power-projection capabilities, as the Cato editorial does, it’s a puzzling set of choices.  Australia has a very limited sealift capability, so its ability to get its new heavy vehicles anywhere is going to be tricky.  (And this despite the white paper’s assurance that “it is not a principal task for the ADF to be generally prepared to deploy to the Middle East… in circumstances where it has to engage in ground operations against heavily armed adversaries.”)

By the time Australia would ever need them, its expensive new F-35s (total cost something like $15 billion US) may be antiquated, while the F/A-18F is a capable and cheap platform but lacks the range necessary to cover Australia without large numbers, much less project power.  Even the government admits these will probably only get 10 years or a bit more out of their life.  In choosing the F-35 they appeared to be looking for a good multi-role platform, which is a fine choice.  But it’s probably going to run $150,000,000 a piece, if not more.  You can get a nice little Saab Gripen for a third of that – or indeed a Eurofighter Typhoon with some cash to spare.  (Buy an F-35 you you’ll know when you get it but not how much it’ll cost.  Buy a Eurofighter and you know what it’ll cost but not when you’ll get it.)  More than anything it’s questionable whether Australia needs an aircraft with the F-35’s capabilities.  By that standard it’s a diplomatic, wishful purchase – not a serious one.

A good ship

A good ship

As for their fleet, submarines with cruise missile capabilities aren’t a terrible idea, but it’s not a “power projection” platform so much as a “sea denial” one.  (Submarines don’t really “hold” an area.)  The money might be better invested in the Anzac-class frigate platform, which can better project Australian power, engage in peacekeeping tasks (which the white paper predicts will be crucial in the short- and medium-term) and best of all avoids a costly new design program.

The upshot is this: you can plan for the future or plan for today.  Australia is attempting to do a little of both.  It’s unsurprising – democracies always try to split the difference.  We’re doing the same thing, but we have enough money and defense research establishments to pull it off.  Australia and the nations the Cato Institute is encouraging to up their game don’t.  So they can either decide that China is going to be a problem and arrange for that or they can engage in a realistic military assessment and build or buy weapons platforms that are useful today and whose obsolescence isn’t immediately foreseeable.  Australia is doing neither, and encouraging this sort of schitzophrenia in its policy-making will not help them become self-sufficient or build them up vis-a-vis emerging threats.  It will leave them even more reliant on American technology and support.  This outcome is the worst of all worlds.

[UPDATE: It appears that my numbers were wrong about the cost of the F-35 – by almost twice what it actually costs on a per-unit basis. It may be more when the cost of the concept, design and initial construction is taken into account, but the actual cost is actually $83,000,000, which is competitive with the Eurofighter Typhoon. I think the point stands but it’s worth correcting the error. – 21 July]

The logic of war

12 July 2009

I came upon this video on “The Best Defense,” a blog on Foreign Policy‘s website dealing with defense issues.

Briefly a New Zealand physicist (with a background in conflict studies, faintly bizarrely) was curious whether there were any statistical patterns in the Iraq war based upon available information on insurgent attacks.  He hit upon culling such information from various sources, including the news media, open source websites, etc. of both the number and lethality of each attack, and ran the data.  He discovered a very telling movement:  conflicts such as Iraq, Colombia, Afghanistan and Senegal (where I didn’t even know there was a war) all exhibited virtually the same pattern: an inverse relationship between the number of attacks and their size (or death toll).  All of the insurgencies studied possessed slopes which clustered around alpha=2.5 – that is for every 2 1/2 fewer attacks the death toll (or scope of the attack, if you like) increased by one.

From this the team inferred that an insurgency that’s successful as an insurgency sticks pretty close to the alpha score (or slope) of 2.5.  From this they extrapolated a score for the likelihood of an attack, which I don’t quite follow and which, in the event, doesn’t strike me.  What does is the application for the understand of insurgency generally.  The team theorizes that moving this alpha score away from 2.5 – in either direction – erodes the insurgency.  This means that as the ratio of number of attacks to deaths either increases or decreases (this being the effective scope of the insurgency), that it tends to erode. In the case of an increase it evinces an insurgency being split, fragmented, and devolving essentially into apolitical gangs: they might engage in a lot of violence but it will not be potent or organized.  In the case of a decrease it’s evidence of an insurgency coming out from underground: they will engage in relatively few attacks but these will be large and deadly.

This is why insurgencies will conclude if pushed away from their norm, and I think this is the real methodological innovation of the study.  (I haven’t found an actual working paper or anything yet – if you see one, let me know.)  Saying “attacking an insurgency erodes it” or “bigger insurgent groups mount bigger and deadlier operations” is hardly revolutionary.  But the operating assumption of many, especially in America after Vietnam, is that an insurgency is a robust operation and the onus is on an occupying force to “break” it.

This is not terribly well-founded. It is as difficult to run an insurgency as it is to fight it.  (Ask our own Founding Fathers – or for that matter Ho Chi Minh.)  Redefining a successful insurgency in terms of an effort to tack close to an established mean – and avoid either fragmenting or prematurely ballooning – puts it in proper perspective.  Insurgencies are not long lasting because they are so easy, or because they’ll keep cropping up because you’re an occupying power.  They won’t.  Rather it’s just exceedingly rare that a nation has the moral fiber, sound judgment and discipline necessary to put one down.

The group applied their model to the Iraq War, and found an interesting historical movement.  Through 2006 the insurgency was stable until the elections and the bombing of Samarra, at which point the insurgency fragmented.  (That is attacks became larger in number involving a more diverse set of groups but less deadly individually.)  The surge was an operation designed to reinforce this: their data suggests that it did not succeed, but rather shifted the momentum in the diametrically opposite direction.  (Fewer, more deadly attacks by fewer groups.)  This pushed past the equilibrium until the surge began to wind down, at which point fragmentation pushed the insurgency back above the mean into smaller, fragmented groups.

As the data was new the group had no explanations as yet.  I can’t speak with any authority, but if the data holds I’d say this: pre-surge, the insurgency was already in decline.  Its fragmentation and the downswing in attacks the research found support this.  My guess would be a combination of elections (though assholes like me always overvalue their peacebuilding value), the new agreement on the use of US forces in Iraq, the completion of training and deployment of the Iraqi Army and the consequent erosion of insurgent groups.  (Insurgent groups face the same manpower problems as anybody – after enough time in combat, experienced people die.)  The surge was supposed to reinforce this trend.

Instead, it reversed it.  The surge was successful in putting pressure on insurgent groups – so successful, in fact, that the smaller fragments either collapsed or were forced to merge into larger and more advanced units to survive.  A piece of research I read awhile back makes clear (along the lines of the fragility of insurgent groups) just how rare the technical skills required for IEDs are.  Lose your technician and the group loses its strongest player.  Along those lines, the imminent threat of the surge forced insurgents to shift their tactics, rearm and join forces.  This begs the question why they hadn’t before: perhaps they weren’t actually on the decline, but rather became complacent and morphed into street gangs when the Army wasn’t going after them and they discovered the government could be bought.  In the event the end of the surge has refragmented them as the lack of pressure allows power and ideological struggles within the groups to come to the fore.

Food for thought, anyway.  Feel free to throw in various denominations of change.