Diamond in the Techno-Thriller: The Value of Speculative Fiction

A few years ago, some sort of switch got flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I became far more capable of and willing to plow through half a dozen novels in a single stretch than to finish a single non-fiction book. Recently, equilibrium has been at least somewhat restored, but I continue to find myself immersed in fiction in a way that I rarely was before.

Some recent reading has included a pair of Larry Bond novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vortex and Cauldron. Larry Bond is most famously, of course, the man who helped Tom Clancy game out many of his books’ wartime scenarios (and Bond co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy). I hadn’t known Bond as an author in his own right, but recently read those two works of his in succession.

What’s wonderful about books like these is generally not their literary qualities, but nor is it even the conduct or proposed sequence of events in particular conflicts. Rather, it’s that such books serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were written. Much of the “valued added” from this is detailed (at times overly so) descriptions and explanations of the weaponry, arms systems, and military organization of the era. But furthermore, while not predictive in any meaningful way, these novels can help widen the Overton Window of the imagination, to at least consider a divergent future drastically different from our own.

With books set in the future, but now a dated future, it’s almost like reading alternate history. As of this writing, I’m reading The Third World War: August 1985, which is an account of World War III written in the past tense as a historical survey from the point of view of two years later (e.g., 1987). Of course, the book was actually published in 1979, along with a followup, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which was published two years later and dives deeper into specifics of nuclear postures, the war in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Solidarity’s effect in Poland, and other issues. It is a look at a world that never was, but seemed frightfully close to being so. And from that perspective, it’s a chilling look at the prospective war facing the world of the past.

Obviously, these never came to pass, but when one considers what might have been, that can seem a blessing.

Vortex, published in 1991, is an account of a war in which the truly radical hardcore racists in the Afrikaner government launch a coup by allowing an African National Congress (ANC) plot to destroy the Blue Train carrying much of the senior South African leadership to proceed without interference. Immediately the South African Defence Forces launch an incursion to retake Namibia; meanwhile, Angola and its socialist allies – most notably, the Cubans – begin streaming into Namibia and South Africa to repel the SADF invaders. Also, a civil war breaks out and a heroic American journalist (a white guy, of course) finds himself in the middle of things.

Obviously, reading this book in a post-Apartheid world is a rather different experience than that envisioned by the author. In one set-piece, US forces lead a raid on the Pelindaba nuclear facility; it was a surprise to me how much was known or suspected about South Africa’s nuclear program before the era of Reconciliation. But if nothing else, Vortex lays out in good detail the military forces and equipment available to these regional combatants in the era. Even from a distance, Vortex can also help illuminate the far-off divisions and sectarian struggles of the day – reading about the role of dissatisfied Afrikaners and white Anglophone South Africans in fomenting an anti-right-wing separatism (as well as the differences between the two) points to a split that might have been unknown to the casual reader.

Ralph Peters’ The War in 2020, which I’ve not yet read more than the jacket of, offers a wonderfully ludicrous late 1980s perspective of future war (and I can guarantee that in five years’ time its predictions will not come to pass). The original blurb from Publishers Weekly says it all: “America’s Seventh Cavalry, armed with a surprise electronic weapon, rushes to the aid of the Soviet Union, overrun by a Japanese-supported Islamic army.” So there’s that vision of the future.

Tom Clancy’s relative moderation has still resulted in some geopolitically hilarious post-Cold War plots. The idea of hastily bringing Russia into NATO so as to ship American M1A1 Abrams tanks down the tran-Siberian railroad in order to jointly fight the invading Chinese is perhaps a little outlandish given present geopolitical realities. The merging of Iran and Iraq into a Unified Islamic Republic, following the assassination of Saddam Hussein, at least points out that an Iraqi power vacuum might indeed be filled by Tehran, but the similarities with reality end there.

On the other hand, some of the crazier ideas from the depths of the novelist or screenwriter or video game designer are useful indeed. Clancy is instructive here again. He’s not the only one to have thought it, but was by far the most mainstream author to feature a widebody aircraft used to strike a building, in Debt of Honor. Clear and Present Danger captured, even if unintentionally, the self-defeating nature of US counter-narcotic operations in Latin America. And The Sum of All Fears led to a recasting of the part of Jack Ryan (“just kidding,” says this Harrison Ford partisan).

But this is all a very long-winded introduction to talking about the other Bond novel, Cauldron. In this, a post-Cold War European Union is stillborn as the Western powers turn inwards and establish restrictive tariffs and other fiscally illiberal measures. Somewhere along the way, NATO collapses and is dissolved. Instead, a joint Franco-German diktat names itself “the European Confederation (EurCon)” and begins calls the shots in Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, where cut-rate EuroCopter plants are established with the DGSE running things from behind the scenes. All this comes to a head when a few nations – particularly Poland – refuse to join EurCon, and in response, EurCon cuts off gas shipments in coordination with Russia (hmmm…). The United States commits to supplying Poland, EurCon attempts to stop them, and before you know it, German tanks are yet again rolling towards Gdansk. Only this time, under supreme French command

The Franco-German leadership of Europe is a reality even today. But the tables are turned, with relative hardliners in Germany threatening the sanctity of the European project for…what, exactly? Euros? To “send a message” to those spendthrift Greeks? In Cauldron, France is the military power and Germany the economic one (relatively). Bond certainly nailed that reality, only he underestimated the primacy of the dollar/deutschemark/euro in the free trader’s paradise that is today.

We live in one of many possible worlds; it could always be worse. Or better.

I am reminded of a story from a previous job (and which predates my work there), in which wargames were being pitched to a customer along the lines of a number of scenarios. One stood out, which had had a lot of thought put into it, but was rejected as being “too outlandish.” That scenario? A Crimean War Redux in which Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula.

Thinking the unthinkable is truly a job for not just the fiction writer, but for everyone. And there is a wide swath of good thinkers producing interesting novels today. Daniel Suarez’s Daemon series, Pressfield’s The Profession, the inescapable Ghost Fleet by August Cole and P.W. Singer (and if reviews of the latter are any indication, it is indeed a must-read) – all at the very least encourage their readers to grapple with the ideas within, even if just to call “bullshit” on them.

The worst mistake we can make is assuming that trends will progress unabated, and that the world of the future will look like now, only slightly more advanced. That’s an easier scene to envision. It’s harder to conjure up or flesh out those moments and events and technologies that will throw us off our current trajectory. And what’s even more difficult is trying to predict where we then might land.

The important thing, though, is to try.

Nike’s Revenge: The Return of Urban Missile Defense

News last week that the US is contemplating area cruise missile defense – around US cities – against Russian missiles, no less – was enough to fill me with a certain sort of  glee.

Given the problems we’ve had with defending against ballistic missiles and their far more predictable (and detectable) trajectories, the technological barriers to implementing an effective urban cruise missile defense are likely to be high. (On the other hand, if the Russian ICBM threat is as overhyped as State is playing it, then we’ve got some breathing room to develop such a system.) Of course, this wouldn’t be our first iteration of urban aerial defense.

Nike Hercules missiles on alert, 1970s.

The Nike program from the early Cold War was the US attempt to thwart Soviet nuclear attacks by shooting down bombers (at first, with Nike Ajax), and eventually expanding to target ballistic missiles (Nike Hercules/Zeus). Surface-to-air missiles versus aircraft, essentially. By the 1970s, the threat of a massive, overwhelming ICBM salvo led some missiles had begun to be armed with nuclear warheads, most notably those of the separate SENTINEL/SAFEGUARD program with its 5 megaton W71. But the last of the Nike sites was decommissioned in 1974, and Safeguard only lasted a few months before being shut down in 1975. An excellent overview of all this has been published, of course, as an Osprey book.

Raytheon/Kongsberg HAWK-AMRAAM mobile launcher.

The proposed system is a little different – new active electronically-scanned area (AESA) radars would enable F-16s to shoot down the cruise missiles, rather than relying on a ground-based interceptor. The fighters would be networked with some sort of barrage balloon-type airships carrying sensors, as well as radars and sensors at sea (too bad Washington must bid adieu to USS Barry – would that it might gain a second life from this effort). However, Raytheon is considering land-based versions of both the SM-6 and the AMRAAM, which would require some degree of construction for basing.

What’s most interesting to me is where exactly such systems might be deployed. In addition to the major SAC bases, various Nike anti-air batteries defended major industrial and population centers.

Nike sites in the continental United States

Reading a list of the 40″defense areas” from the 1950s is like a snapshot of US heavy industry at its peak: Hartford, Bridgeport, Chicago-Gary, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Niagara Falls-Buffalo, Cincinnati-Dayton, Providence, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee (among others) were all deserving of their own ring of air defenses. But what would the map look like now?

It’s both a rhetorical and a practical question. The importance of place has changed, and in some ways the country as a whole is more sprawling than it was during the Cold War. More places to defend but also more targets for an enemy. As the JCS Vice Chairman Sandy Winnefeld is quoted, “we probably couldn’t protect the entire place from cruise missile attack unless we want to break the bank. But there are important areas in this country we need to make sure are defended from that kind of attack.” One can already imagine the hearings and horsetrading that would accompany any discussion of which cities are worthy of protection – picture the East Coast interceptor site debate multiplied a hundredfold.

Hopefully SM or AAMRAAM is a part of it, but if the new system of sensors and radars is indeed confined to mobile platforms – fighters, ships, balloons – we’ll be deprived of Nike’s wonderful legacy of ruins. Only one Nike site, that of Fort Barry in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, has been preserved and is open to the public. Others make for a nice, if haunting walk. Others have found new purpose – it was only in recent years that I learned Drumlin Farm, a wildlife sanctuary run by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and frequent field trip destination as a kid, was once home to  the control site of Launcher B-73 and its Ajax and later Hercules missiles.

Radar dome of Nike site Mike near Eielson AFB, AK.

Without the permanent physical infrastructure of a Nike-type program, our cruise missile defense initiative will be sorely lacking any vestiges for future generations to explore. Although how ironic is it that one of the better reasons to support a missile defense initiative is in anticipation of its eventual decommissioning? At any rate, it’s likely that any modern system would leave a smaller footprint than Nike, with presumably fewer control sites having command of multiple, if not all launch sites in a given area.

The land-based component might never be constructed. But at least with balloons in the skies overhead, we all might wake up one morning and wonder if we’ve been transported to some kind of alternate reality.

“Manhatan” (as it appeared on Fringe).

Population, Climate, and the Ethics of the Future

The Economist had a piece today about rapidly falling mortality rates worldwide, particularly in poor and low-income countries. Health professionals writing for The Lancet “advocate the establishment of a global ‘sustainable development goal,’ in which countries aim to reduce the number of premature deaths by 40% by 2030,” a very laudable goal to increase lives.

A few days ago, there was a somewhat widely-publicized article in Science, which showed that contrary to popular belief, world population would not in fact peak at 9 billion in 2050, but rather continue to grow, reaching 11 billion by the end of the century. This rather sharply throws into relief the need for better family planning, sanitation, and water management.

And today, in the wake of yesterday’s climate change protests on Wall Street, is an article decrying the strain of thought that exhorts one to act “for the children” and only for the children who will inherit the earth. When we focus only on future generations, we continue to encourage waiting-for-the-last-minute.

Humanity, as a whole, doesn’t know what it wants. We fear inexorable population growth, stripping the planet of its every natural resource; yet we try as best we can to halve the global death rate. We talk about saving the future through climate change action and legislation for children whose very existence might exacerbate the conditions leading to that very global warming. We are walking, talking, breathing contradictions.

What’s the right course of action? We banned CFCs to preserve the atmosphere, which in turn gave pharmaceutical companies the opportunity to design new, patented, trademarked asthma inhalers – which could, of course, then be sold for obscene amounts of money. The world gained, a subset of people suffered.

We’re saving people today, but we’re not sure about the future. We don’t know who will exist, who our children will be or how many children they’ll have; our progeny remains mystery. We’re establishing a global existential rent control: saving today’s lives, very possibly at the expense of tomorrow’s. Making it easier for the people who exist now to keep on existing as they are, while making future existence more tenuous and a little meaner.

What we should do and what we must do and what we ought to do seem radically opposed to one another. Are we preserving lives now that would be better off lost? Are we permitting future humans who might be born into cruder conditions than their parents? Is that immoral? Is the uncertainty and doubt of an ominous future reason enough to worry about current and future populations?

We obviously don’t have any answers individually or as a society. Inertia, momentum, myopia prevent us from taking a longer view. But for now that might be okay – I’m not sure we’d like what we see up ahead.

What-If, What-Could, What Might-Have-Been

Cass Sunstein has a review in The New Republic of Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Evans is, to put it mildly, not a great fan of the counterfactual exercise in history, particularly as engaged in by historians.

With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally uselesspossibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

There is a long and treasured strand of anti-counterfactual history in the academy, the most eminently quotable example of such being E. H. Carr’s famous dismissal of alternate history as a mere “parlor game” in What Is History? Of course, Carr himself was a determinist who was solidly convinced that history could not have unfolded any other way (the “Morpheus school” of events, perhaps). Evans, on the whole, seems to fall into that camp as well, though as Sunstein points out, he “seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject.”

Part of Evans’s unease with counterfactual history is that in a way, it is itself overly deterministic. That is to say, a single changed historical variable might produce a wildly different result, and that history is contingent on the “great man” or, to quote a number of books, on that one fateful day, be it June 28, December 7, or September 11.

In his account, historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.”

But to consider history in any form is essentially to allow for the fact that events occurred instead of another subset of events. After all, if there was only one set of possibly outcomes, why would we still care or study such events today? Famed World War II historian Richard Overy wrote a book that outlined the conditions that led to Allied victory in the war. But even while attempting to show the precariousness on which the Allied cause rested, he racks up an impressive string of advantages: some significant economic superiority (more specifically, the “sheer speed and scale of American rearmament”), unity within and among the Allies, a demonstrable sense of moral righteousness, and even organizational differences (e.g., an Axis inability to make full use of their own resources and production capacity). The gulf between Axis and Allies, particularly by the end of the war, was massive. But to look solely at that ignores the vast struggle that led to that balance of power, and belies the fact that this large number of factors in the Allies’ favor still required several years just to regain the strategic initative, much less win the war.

History, of course, has a lively following today, and so too does counterfactual history. My undergraduate professor, Fred Smoler, has periodically taught a class since my senior year called “The Music of What Happens” (PDF, p. 72), which is an exploration in both historical and literary terms of the alternate histories that have been and are being written today. This is also a roundabout way of saying that not all counterfactual works lie squarely in the realm of “history” as we know it and statistical analysis. Often, the outlandish settings of alternate history fiction are merely a backdrop for some other story (but which serve as way to explore that setting). Robert Harris’s Fatherland and works of literature like Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union feature a noir-esque, hard-boiled detective narrative as a familiar means of operating in an otherwise-unfamiliar world. (Even other world-building fiction like China Miéville’s The City & the City use a detective story as the foreground plot.)

I will admit, though, that in an article of this length I was surprised not to find any reference to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which still stands as one of the great reasons for alternate history to exist. “Whig history” is the protestant/progressive tendency to view the present as a logical extension of the past, inexorably moving forwards towards a bright future, which represents merely another point on the same continuum.To quote Butterfield:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present … Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

The real problem with the whigs and the determinists is that they have denied the past any chance of their own agency. Instead, they characterize history as a series of preconceived steps that of course have brought us to this very moment. But the strength and appeal of counterfactual history is that it can restore a sense of contingency to historical actors, and to better understand the world as it was (and is): it was a series of choices to make, and the present is the result of those actions not chosen.

Different scenarios will have different utility to different thinkers: whether one cares about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or an Al Gore victory in 2000 or an industrial China in the sixteenth-century depends greatly on one’s interests and research and career and available free time. But as it sounds like Richard Evans eventually comes around to thinking, albeit unwittingly, even just by disagreeing with a counterfactual, you lend the scenario some degree of credence: things might have happened very differently, indeed. And while this likely is not the best of all possible worlds, one can easily imagine a world much worse.


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?

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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 healthcare.gov 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 healthcare.gov 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, healthcare.gov 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?