Threat Inflation

According to this calculator, one 1989 dollar is the equivalent of nearly two dollars in 2012 money ($1.82, to be precise). What had an intrinsic worth then seems to be even more nowadays. But what are you getting for your money?

That’s a really unsubtle preamble to a simple concept: that of threat inflation since the end of the Cold War (man, the Cold War has apparently been on my mind a lot lately). We talk about the threats posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and non-state actors and rogue states and the possibility of state-on-state violence arising once again. But except for wars of choice, the latter two have certainly not materialized, and the more effective parts of our counterterror and counter-VEO strategies have involved a light footprint. A base in Djibouti, an airstrip in Saudi, and you’ve got the makings of a regional proactive defense (the merits of the “SOF-n’-drones approach” are, of course, debatable, but that is a separate issue).

While small, covert actions might point towards a way forward, the simple truth is that these threats in no way pose anything like the existential one represented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If you were to make a ranking with relative numbers for budgetary purposes with say, a notional ranking of the hierarchy of threats faced by the United States and the dollar amounts needed to counter them, a Cold War version might have looked something like this (obviously this is really, really crude, but bear with me):

  1. Soviet Union: $50 billion
  2. Soviet Union: $40 billion
  3. Soviet Union: $35 billion
  4. Soviet Union: $30 billion
  5. Soviet Union: $25 billion
  6. Third-world nations: $2 billion
  7. Nuclear proliferation: $1.5 billion
  8. Terrorism/non-state actors: $500 million

By 1992, the top five lines were all wiped out. Or at least, the entry in the threat column was. The sensible thing to do might have been to just lose that funding entirely, much like the how the current DoD hiring freeze is preventing new blood from circulating throughout the Pentagon (when someone retires now, more often than not that billet is lost entirely, rather than being re-filled). No threat = no money necessary to counter it.

To put it another way, what was a $2 billion threat during the Cold War was probably also more or less a $2 billion threat afterwards (in relative terms).

But rather than just wipe out the top five items, budgeted dollars and all, what we get instead is an upwards shift of the bottom-tier threats. What was #6 becomes #1 and so forth – including all the funding commensurate with such a position as a dire threat to the nation.

But of course, neither terrorism nor Iran nor cyberwarfare pose an existential threat to the United States. And that’s really an impediment to policymakers these days. I will grant, that out of all the banal clichés used to describe our modern threat environment, that “complexity” is in fact the case, and is in fact a difficult problem to surmount. The sheer number of threats might have increased – what was once a two-item list of 1) the Soviet Union and 2) everything else has now dramatically expanded – but the relative threat they pose is far, far lower.

DNI Clapper’s opening statement to Congress introducing this year’s Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Report included the line: “I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Sure, the sheer number looks a little daunting. But that hardly signals the imminent end of the Republic.

Like last year’s report, the 2014 edition singles out cyber as the most critical threat to US national security, and specifically mentions the financial and health care sectors as vulnerable, as well as industrial SCADA, 3D printing, and “smart objects” as potential targets. Which, as they’re new, must be feared.

What are we defending ourselves again? Our life and liberty seem increasingly assured in the face of terrorism (even the Boston bombings have not done injury to the American psyche at large), and our longstanding freedom from invasion remains unchallenged. But what is the business of US national security becoming? Unless the defense establishment of the United States of America wants to embrace a role as digital security guard for Big Finance, or as the ultimate arbiter of just what Americans – that wellspring of ingenuity and innovation – can use a computer to manufacture from the comfort of their home, it seems that grasping for something to defend the nation against has reached increasingly dubious conclusions.

We’ve defined threats in order to match budgets and huge dollar flows, and it’s fairly clear that we’re boxing with shadows and posturing against dreams.  Patrick Porter recently wrote something to this effect for War on the Rocks (his article deals more with the “small world” of globalization and its unintended consequences, but there is a degree of overlap). As usual, Porter’s entire piece is worth reading, but especially:

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Porter’s piece concludes that this trend “makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think.” And if this is the case: what are we all so afraid of?

What’s Scots for “Nuclear Weapons?”

No Cross of St. Andrew here

This is the year. 2014 will mark the historic referendum in which Scotland, yet again, votes whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Having read Halting State, Charlie Stross‘ fantastic novel set in the nation of Scotland in 2018, there’s a whole realm of aesthetic and imagination and possibility associated with the prospects of an independent Edinburgh. Others are just as interested: Tyler Cowen makes one of the economic arguments against Scottish independence, and Tom Ricks asks all the questions, But part of my interest lies in more prosaic matters: namely, where do the nukes go?

Scotland’s defense policy would likely align much more closely with those of Norway and Denmark than with its southern neighbor. Between North Sea oil and Arctic issues, Holyrood’s posture and attention would be directed entirely upwards. And of all the realms in which nuclear weapons might not have such great utility (especially not as large submarine-borne countervalue weapons), the Arctic is probably #1. If NATO plays it cool and avoids major engagements, then a single brigade might just cut it. But otherwise that might be wishful thinking.

The Firth of Clyde is of major importance to the Royal Navy. But the shipbuilding contracts there are likely to depart along with UK forces. These could be repurposed by Scotland for new construction to augment its few unarmed fishery protection vessels (this, of course, depends on what Edinburgh is able to successfully wrest away from London). But more importantly, the Clyde is the heart of the British nuclear deterrent.

Right now, the UK’s four Vanguard-class Trident SSBNs are based at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in the Clyde, with additional support coming from RNAD Coulport. And this is no abberration; Scotland has been critical to the UK deterrent from its inception. In 1963, when the Royal Navy was looking into acquiring Polaris from the United States, it drew up a short list of ten candidate sites for basing nuclear submarines. Of the ten, six were in Scotland. But what about the others? Would they play host to an atomic arsenal in the 21st century?

Continue reading

Pilots Are Special and Should Be Treated That Way

In the Secretary Gates v. General Moseley spat, the general’s comments on a place for manned and unmanned platforms jumped out (emphasis mine):

Moseley said there is no intentional bias against unmanned aircraft in the Air Force. There is a place for both manned and unmanned, he said. “Secretary Wynne got tired of hearing me say this when we were beaten up about not going all unmanned.” The reality is that there are few instances when the use of unmanned aviation is imperative. “One is when you believe the threat is so terrible that you’ll lose the human,” he said. “I believe the Air Force has never found that threat. We will penetrate any threat. We haven’t found a place we won’t go. So I don’t buy that one.

The other is when human pilots are the limiting factor to the persistence of the machine. “I got that one,” said Moseley. “You leave the plane out there for 30 hours on a reconnaissance mission. That’s a valid one.”

Isn’t that backwards? In this era of declining budgets, a need for persistence (in general), and an almost total lack of contested airspace, isn’t the onus on the Air Force to prove a need for the use of human pilots? Why are we still considering manned aircraft the default, and only operating them remotely in particular circumstances?

I guess it seems as if there’s no overwhelming rationale for maintaining pilot primacy with the vast majority of missions. And I’m the first to admit I would try and have it both ways: if the airspace is too dangerous, then of course we’d want to minimize pilot risk and maximize unmanned platforms. If  airspace is uncontested, then it would seem that the skill and reaction time of a human pilot is unwarranted.

Obviously, manned flight isn’t going anywhere, but to declare the Air Force as essentially a force of human-piloted aircraft, except for a few instances, seems to be ignoring the larger trends and gains to be had from unmanned aviation.

(Original link h/t Rich Ganske).

Andrew Marshall on Learning Lessons

There seems to be a tendency for organizations to learn and to institutionalize, in one way or another, lessons from the past. The difficulty is that so often the lessons learned from the past are in fact unwarranted generalizations from some particular episode in the past, very often of a particularly pleasant or unpleasant sort. Moreover, there is a tendency to simplify decisionmaking by eliminating alternatives, alleging they are impossible or infeasible.

From “Problems of Estimating Military Power,” August 1966.

How does the rampant lunacy of reshaping the Middle East by force fit into this?

The Perils of Incrementalism

Where many wanted universal health care, the United States instead got a half-hearted attempt at health reform in the Affordable Care Act. Instead of any significant reduction in scope of the F-35 program, 550 other aircraft will be scrapped, 25,000 personnel RIFed, and a whopping four F-35s cut from the total order. Instead of wholesale change, we tinker around the edges with a broken system.

This is just the latest in a long string of “government failures” and the inadequacy of a 20th-century bureaucracy to cope with the challenges and tasks for a 21st-century nation. Federal Acquisition Regulations, the inability of Congress to do much of anything except let programs and infrastructure collapse (much less show up to work or let anyone else do so), the debacle – these are truly examples of areas in need of much greater reform than additions and edits (and areas in which only the federal government has the scale and the purchasing power to effect change on a national scale). The “system,” such as it stands, is crying out for a full-on rewrite, for bold thinking, vision, and more than anything, action.

I often find Matt Yglesias insufferable, but he’s on point here:

For conservatives, the myriad problems consumers had using the federally run exchanges was just another reason to abandon the goal of universal health insurance. The website issues have been viewed optimistically—almost gleefully—since if the site is sufficiently terrible, it may be impossible for a critical mass of people to sign up and the program will have to be substantially scaled back. Conversely, progressives had been hoping to build a system that didn’t just meet some bare standard of functionality but actually persuaded people that a larger state role was a good idea. After all, the user experience of private health insurance is hardly the greatest thing in the world. Building a great was supposed to be part of a campaign to persuade people that government should be involved in areas that are more contentious than garbage pickup.

This is, of course, the culmination of a decades-long quest to not just shrink the federal government to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For the modern Republican Party, proves that their attempts to render the government dysfunctional have rendered the government dysfunctional. Pure “government terraforming.”

Bigger solutions sometimes are better solutions, and small plans do little to change an essentially broken system. What we have now is the result: a loss in faith that the government can do anything for anyone. Even among a younger, less rabidly anti-government generation, misguided dreams of a technological utopia separate from the clumsy hand of paternal governance abound. Who has faith in the US government to mail a social security check or help a city buy a single car for their subway?

The argument has often been among those who would seek to destroy domestic national governance that where federalism makes sense is in providing for the common defense and representing the collective states in foreign affairs. But now, of course, the government can’t even be trusted to do that. From a new Pew poll:

The most striking poll result is the share of Americans who believe that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” For the first time since Pew began asking in 1964, more than half of respondents say they agree with that statement, a staggeringly high 52 percent. That number has historically ranged between about 20 and 40 percent.
These poll numbers reflect American public attitudes that are widely and strongly enough held that they could indirectly steer the White House, thus affecting U.S. foreign policy and perhaps the world itself. Obama already ran into this problem, for example, with his plan this fall to launch limited strikes against Syria as punishment for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Overwhelming public opposition and overwhelming Congressional opposition fed into one another, ultimately killing the plan. Even though the strikes would have been modest compared to almost every other U.S. military action of the last 10 years, they were opposed far more vociferously, and that mattered.

This isn’t to say that the President should have advocated for a full-scale invasion of Syria. But it does reflect that the government isn’t trusted by a majority of its own population to do much of anything abroad or at home.

And so it’s hard to not conclude that at least for now, the Do-Nothing Party is winning.

Man Tell Joke

I saw this a while back in LTC Robert Bateman’s excellent Esquire article on the Civil War. But I only just now decided it deserved to stand on its own. Without further ado…

You are standing there, as the superior officer, and you have one Marine Officer, one Army Officer, one Naval Officer, and one Air Force Officer. You peer down the street, point to a building in the distance, and say, simply, “Secure that building.”

The Marine officer takes his unit and places 1/3 of it in a support-by-fire position with a plethora of machineguns. He suppresses the building with concentrated machinegun fire while he brings in two F/A-18s to drops bombs on the building and uses his mortars to place smoke rounds between his assault element which is at 90-degrees from the support-by-fire element. The assault element Marines enter the building as the support element Marines shift their fires to close any escape routes. The assault element moves ever upward, clearing each room with a fragmentation grenade and a burst from an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon. Finally, they reach the top, clear the roof, and hoist an American flag. They call you on the radio and say, “The building is secured.”

In the same scenario, the Army officer raises his binoculars and sends out scouts. He determines that the building is actually empty. He then sends forward his whole unit. Upon arrival he sends 1/3 of his men outward, to secure the outer area. Then, for the next 24 hours, his men work like beavers on amphetamines. They fill and place sandbags in all of the windows, they reinforce vulnerable sections of the structure, they emplace triple-strand concertina barbed-wire well outside, and place directional command-detonated mines at the vulnerable points. They pre-register artillery concentrations on the possible routes to the building and call for pre-planned jet and helicopter support to the parts they think most vulnerable. At the end of 24 hours they can repel 400-800 enemy forces, and the commander calls you and says, “The building is secure.”

The naval officer, in the same scenario, walks down the quiet street to the building. He enters and goes to the top of the building. Then he methodically enters each room and office, spins the dials on any locks/safes that he finds, ensures all the computers are turned off, turns off the lights, and locks the door. He does this for every single room as he moves down through the structure. As he exits the front door he calls you from his Blackberry and reports, “The building is secure.”

The Air Force officer looks at you with mild disdain, as if to say, “Dude, can’t you do this yourself?” He shades his eyes and looks down the street towards the building. Then he opens his iPad 7.0 (not available to the public), and after he confirms the address he also finds he has a crappy connection by his standards (“Under 1GB/sec is sooo oughts.”) So he walks in the opposite direction to the nearest coffee house with free high-speed Wi-Fi, looks up the closest Real Estate agent, and commits to a 6-month rental with an option to buy. Then he sends you a text confirming informing you that, “The building is secure.”

No hard feelings, right, USAF?

Flat Tops and Short Decks


Izumo’s commissioning on August 6, 2013

Japan unveiled its biggest warship since World War II on Tuesday, a $1.2 billion helicopter carrier aimed at defending territorial claims.

The move drew criticism from regional rival China, which accused its neighbor of “constant” military expansion.

The ceremony to showcase the 248-meter (810-feet) vessel came as Shinzo Abe’s conservative government, which took office last December, considers ditching the nation’s pacifist constitution and beefing up the military.

Japan plans to use the helicopter carrier, named Izumo and expected to go into service in 2015, to defend territorial claims following maritime skirmishes with China, which has demonstrated its own military ambitions in recent years.

This is via Nick Prime, who points out the theoretical possibility of fielding the F-35 on these. (Here’s another story).

Which, honestly, is what I thought was basically the only thing keeping the B variant alive. It’s not just the USMC that needs a VTOL-capable aircraft (or in the case of the JSF, “aircraft”), but a lot of our allies and partners in the region who have been investing in flattops like these (see: HMAS Canberra, ROKS Dokdo, etc.) with the possibility of flying such planes off of them. Even the Europeans are getting in on it – the French have a pretty good platform in the Mistral class, hence the brouhaha over the Russian acquisition of four of them.

And in that case, there had better be an aircraft that can use the short-decks. I mean, helicopters are great and all, but if we’re going to at least play bluewater navy and accept that power projection via the aircraft carrier is still a) relevant, and b) desirable, then doing it on the cheap is probably the best compromise. At this point you might as well assume that you’re going to lose them, so why not go for the more basic version? The Marines probably aren’t thrilled about a CAS aircraft that’s only 80% better than its predecessor (though certainly more than 80% more costly), but the key is that it’s not just for them. Our friends are getting in the game, and that’s not a bad thing.

Anyways, it is nice to see the JMSDF get a new flagship (that’s how they determine them, right? The biggest?). And one whose name has an interesting history, too.


UPDATE: Kyle Mizokami, as usual, has written excellent words on the Izumo. Short version: Japan’s going to have to go big or go home.

On Boston

What happened at the Boston Marathon is something I can’t even put up into words. The last thing anyone needs is another prognostication on the tactics or techniques or perpetrators. So I just have my thoughts.

I was born in Boston and lived there until my family moved out to Concord when I was six. Work and school called me away, but that siren song of Winthrop’s shining city on a hill has never diminished. I grew up attending the yearly reenactments of the Battles of Concord and Lexington, with local folk playing the roles of Redcoat and Patriot in full costume and with the one cannon still belonging to the Concord Battery firing away. One of my proudest days was getting to march as a flagbearer along with the Fenn School Marching Band in the annual parade. Patriots Day is the coming of Spring. It’s the earliest baseball game in all of MLB. It’s Marathon Monday, and despite the fact that records set there never seem to count for anything in the eyes of the IAAF, we all know that it’s the best and most important marathon in the world. Boston is the Hub of the Universe, and Patriots Day is our coming-out party every year. Growing up in that environment – steeped in history and patriotism and pride – means that to commit an act of terror on Patriots Day, of all days, is especially cruel. I fear it will never be the same.

I fear that Patriots Day, one of the brightest spots in the third week in April, a week otherwise marred by remembrances and anniversaries of Waco and Columbine and Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City and Hitler’s birthday and Tax Day, will join that long list as another sad anniversary.

So Monday hit me in a way 9/11 never did.

I don’t know if it’s just that I was too young or too geographically removed from New York and Washington to understand, but aside from a sort of numb feeling, it was like watching a disaster movie happen to someone else. Only the consequences were far too lasting. And in the years since, when has Boston been a target outside of Fringe episodes and the occasional police procedural? It’s unthinkable.

But at this point I think my generation is much more capable of realizing the impact of Monday’s terrorism, and is in more of a position to respond. I also think, and hope, that we’re better equipped to channel our emotions – our sadness and anger and need for vengeance and utter despair – into more productive avenues than we did in September of 2001. I understand the reaction we had then. I get how overwhelmed and powerless we must have felt then, because lord knows I feel it too. From removing trash cans from streets to invading unrelated countries, I hope that we’re ready to not repeat our mistakes. I think we’ve learned from them. I think we’ve spent the last ten years asking if there was anything we should have, or could have done differently. And I think that that, if anything, that could be the one silver lining in this cowardly act of terror.

There’s too much to say, too much to feel, even a couple days removed from the bombing. And really, there’s only so much I can say. For everything else you should read this piece by Caitlin Fitzgerald, a true Bostonian if ever there was one and who says all the things I can’t find the words for.

I’m not a praying man, but I pray for Boston just the same. And I’ve never been more glad to be going home for the weekend.

The Means of Consumption

PC sales are down. Way, way down.

What’s to blame? Zero Hedge says that in addition to lackluster sales and poor reception for Windows *, we are, after all, still in a pretty severely depressed economy and that there’s just no end-user demand for new OSes or new computers in general. None of which is wrong. Windows 8, in particular, severly hamstrings Windows as an operating system, forcing it to suffer from the same limitations as a phone (which is just silly, especially when Windows 7 was a solid OS).

But the comments point out that we’ve really reached a point in modern computing power where most people just don’t need it. The rise of mobile and tablet devices has only compounded that. If the average person uses a machine just to tweet or surf the internet or check email or even just watch a movie, what’s the point of having several cubic powers worth of CPUs and RAM capacity greater than that of hard drives less than a decade ago? The smaller devices speak to that and obviate a need for real “computing” devices.

But two comments in particular caught my eye. The first:

[M]ost people don’t do physics simulations, train neural nets, backtest stock trading strategies and so on.

In tight times – why upgrade something that’s already better than most need?  Even I still use some  2 core relative clunkers (that were the hottest thing going when bought).  Because they do their job and are dead-reliable.

And the second:

[E]very manuf [sic] caught the disease it seems.  They don’t give a shit about their installed base, only new sales, and are just slavishly following the migration of most people to crap mobiles – crap if you need any real computing power and flexibility and multi-tasking.

I recently got a Nexus 10 – it’s cute, sometimes handy and so on.  But solve any real problem on it?  You must be joking, it’s just not there.  It’s great for consuming content, sucks for creating anything real – it’s a toy that probably does match the mainstream mentality – the “average guy” who half of people are even dumber than.  That ain’t me.  I’m a maker…I need real tools.

This is just the digital embodiment of a long-time trend. We don’t shape our environments how we used to – we don’t create; we only consume. We refine what exists without thinking bigger. And the sad part about something like the news about PC sales, which could conceivably serve as a wakeup call, is that it won’t matter. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that Windows 7 was fine and why should we bother iterating new versions. But the lesson is that there is at least some segment of humanity that’s trying to create and only needs the proper tools to do it. Possessing the means of consumption allows one only to consume (the Apple model); if we can repopularize “dual-use” technologies that don’t restrict content distribution but also enable its creation, well, now we might see innovation for all the right reasons.

Across the Ether

Forgive the indulgence while I briefly divert along a Geoff Manaugh-type tangent.

The Singapore strategy was employed by the United Kingdom as its dominant  in the interwar years, up until about 1941…when Singapore fell. Of course, the origins of the Singapore strategy arose as a counter to the Japanese and US Navies, the Royal Navy’s original nemesis of the German High Seas Fleet having been scuttled at Scapa Flow.

More importantly, though, was the later role that ghostly, sunken fleet would play: a source for “low-background steel.”

3D model of the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow.

Now, the very concept of low-background steel is one that makes me shudder with excitement. Low-background steel is a necessary component in certain devices, particularly medical equipment and Geiger counters. The latter is of prime interest: nuclear explosions from 1944 onwards raised the worldwide level of background radiation to the point where obtaining a proper control requires quite literally salvaging the past.*

Every ounce of steel that has been produced in the postwar error has been irrevocably contaminated by a natural sin of background radiation levels and radionuclides. Humankind changed the entirety of the natural world. It’s kind of a mind-boggling idea.

What also intrigues me is that thought that a century from now our materials might be useful for similar reasons, as a sort of living archeological project or time capsule that doesn’t just reveal something about the past, but is a necessity; The only available option in the absence of time travel.

We live inside our own time capsules. The coveted “prewar” buildings in New York and Providence and Boston abound, particularly in the latter two, in which close to 40% of their housing stock was built before 1940. Could that too have some relevance to future researchers and laboratory scientists? Housing patterns and living arrangements before the advent of doormen and glass-and-steel constructs? And seeing the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, of sunken cars and drowned tunnels, one wonders if someday the subways and highways of New York might become their own aquatic monument to the past. The DC Metro, “America’s Subway,” submerged beneath the waves.

It is, of course, difficult to hear about low-background steel without thinking of the Fallout 3 series’ “pre-war artifacts.” In that universe, the Great War is when everything changed and hundreds of millions perished in a nuclear holocaust. But a player can still find mementos of a lost era. Pre-war money, steak, and soda can all be picked up – and in the case of the latter, consumed. Even the aesthetic of that bygone age – a heavily saccharine version of a 1950s idyll – remains a coveted item in the form of furniture for your house.

Perhaps, if there’s a unifying theme across all these disparate threads, it’s that war and conflict and destruction serve as a natural line of demarcation, and once crossed, nothing will ever be the same again. What reserve fleets and low-background steel and prewar buildings and all the rest offer us is a tenuous link with that past, and a means of making it tangible. It’s comforting to think that maybe no era is truly lost forever.

*It should be noted that since the advent of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty background levels have dropped worldwide. But they still remain significantly higher than pre-war levels.