In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again

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Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.

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Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

What is “Systems Analysis”?

“Systems analysis,” as a concept, can be difficult to define and pin down. For much of my life, I assumed it was some sort of generic back-office IT function (see, for instance, the hundreds of man-on-the-street “American Voices” interviews in The Onion, which describe respondents in equal measure as ‘unemployed’ or ‘systems analyst’). But given the complexities of almost, well, everything in the modern era, an understanding of the logical underpinnings of systems analysis is critical.

Essentially, single variables cannot be considered in isolation. A new weapons platform or technological development or re-basing movement must be thought of in the context of existing technology, logistics capacity, weather, enemy reaction, enabling capabilities, fixed facilities, power projection, and so on, down an otherwise infinite fractal list of factors.

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Dr. Bernard Brodie, RAND Corporation (Wikimedia)

But all this is a long-winded introduction to Bernard Brodie’s hypothetical systems analysis example in Strategy in the Missile Age is one of the best,  most succinct ways of describing just how complex this interplay is. Brodie, of course, had a front-row seat to this effort, as the RAND Corporation was the earliest home to a methodological approach to the field. Beginning on page 381 in the 1967 edition:

Let us consider, for example, the problem of choosing between two kinds of strategic bombers. Each represents in its design an advanced “state of the art,” but each also represents a different concept. In one, which we shall call Bomber A, the designers have sought to maximize range. They have therefore settled for a subsonic top speed in a plane of fairly large size. The designers of Bomber B, on the contrary, have been more impressed with the need for a high dash speed during that part of the sortie which involves penetration of enemy territory, and have built a smaller, shorter-ranged plane capable of a Mach 2 dash for a portion of its flight. Let us assume also that the price of the smaller plane is about two-thirds that of the larger.

Perhaps we can take both types into our inventory, but even then we should have to compare them to determine which we should get in the larger numbers. Let us then pick a certain number of specific targets in enemy territory, perhaps three hundred, and specify the destruction of these targets as the job to be accomplished. Since we know that both types can accomplish this job with complete success if properly supported and handled, our question then becomes: which type can do it for the least money?

We do not ask at this stage which type can do it more reliably, because within limits we can buy reliability with dollars, usually by providing extra units. Some performance characteristics, to be sure, will not permit themselves to be thus translated into dollars-for example, one type of plane can arrive over target somewhat sooner than the other type, and it is not easy to price the value of this advantage but we shall postpone consideration of that and similar factors until later.

Let us assume that Bomber A has a cruising range of 6,000 miles, while Bomber B is capable of only 4,000 miles. This means that Bomber A has to be refueled only on its post-strike return journey, while Bomber B probably has to be refueled once in each direction. This at once tells us something about the number of “compatible” tankers that one has to buy for each type (“compatible” referring to the performance characteristics which enable it to operate smoothly with a particular type of bomber). Up to this point Bomber B has appeared the cheaper plane, at least in terms of initial purchase price, but its greater requirement in tankers actually makes it the more expensive having regard for the whole system. In comparing dollar costs, however, it is pointless to compare merely procurement prices for the two kinds of planes; one has to compare the complete systems, that is to say, the weapons, the vehicles, and the basing, protection, maintenance, and operating costs, and one must consider these costs for each system over a suitably long period of peacetime maintenance, say five years. These considerations involve us also in questions of manpower. We are in fact pricing, over some duration of time, the whole military structure required for each type of bomber.

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A B-36 Peacemaker, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-58 Hustler from Carswell AFB, TX en route to the former’s retirement in 1958. The B-52 would long outlive the more advanced Hustler. (Wikimedia)

Now we have the problem of comparing through a process of “operations analysis,” how the two types fare in combat, especially the survival expectancy of each type of plane during penetration. In other words, we have to find out how much the greater speed (and perhaps higher altitude) of Bomber B is worth as protection. If the enemy depends mostly on interceptors, the bomber’s high speed and altitude may help a great deal; if he is depending mostly on guided missiles, they may help relatively little. Thus a great deal depends on how much we know about his present and projected defenses, including the performance characteristics of his major weapons.

If our Bomber A is relying mostly on a low altitude approach to target, which its longer range may just make possible (we are probably thinking in terms of special high efficiency fuels for wartime sorties), it may actually have a better survival expectation than its faster competitor. Also, we know that penetration capability is enhanced by increasing the numbers of bombers penetrating (again, a matter of money) or by sending decoys in lieu of extra bombers to help confuse the enemy’s radar and saturate his defenses. Perhaps we find that the faster plane would outrun the decoys, which again might tend to give it a lower penetration score than one would otherwise expect. But decoys are expensive too, in acquisition costs, basing, and maintenance, and involve additional operating problems. The faster plane may be less accurate in its bombing than the other, which again would involve a requirement for more aircraft and thus more money.

We have given just barely enough to indicate the nature of a typical though relatively simple problem in what has come to be known as “systems analysis.” The central idea is that no weapon can be considered independently of the other weapons and commodities that are used with it, that all endure through some period of time and require men to service them and to be trained in their use, that all these items involve costs, and that therefore relative costs of different systems, as considered against some common standard of function, are basic to the problem of choice between systems. Systems analysis, which brings what is modern to present-day strategic analysis, is mostly a post-World War II development.

The challenges herein are immense, which in part explains the explosion not only of defense research and development but also of the defense bureaucracy as a whole. It’s a sprawling, tangled mass that can in many ways only be understood in relation to itself. But systems analysis is at least an attempt to build that into other assumptions and considerations.

Using this technique is not only a way to compare technologies with like missions; it’s an excellent tool for use in wargame design. This too is in fact an iterative process, as the insights from a wargame itself might reveal further interrelationships, which might then be used to craft a more complex operating environment (or refine the mechanics used to select force lists), and so on ad infinitum.

Practicality aside, Brodie’s writing serves as an excellent primer to what systems analysis entails, and more broadly, to the change in strategic thought and analysis since the end of World War II.

Ghost Fleet: A Review

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I was a bit late in getting to it, but I was pleasantly surprised by P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet. It took a bit of effort to get into it, but the temporal leap the novel takes into years after a second Pearl Harbor attack allows for some very interesting worldbuilding. The United States has been taken down a peg and enjoys little to none of its previous dominance. What does the post-hegemonic era look like for America? How, in the fabled era of “degraded ISR,” can American armed forces operate and conduct operations? While we’re living through that transition now, Singer and Cole explore what that future might actually resemble.

Riddled throughout with trenchant criticisms of the current political-military-industrial complex (such as a “Big Two” defense contractors, numerous references to the failings of the F-35, and the Air Force’s institutional resistance to unmanned air-to-air platforms), the vision fleshed out in Ghost Fleet is not a flattering one to our current state of affairs. At times the references are a bit on the nose, but the degree of underlying wit makes up for it.

If nothing else, the opening sequence helps explain even to the layman the importance of sensor platforms and space-based assets, the US military’s dependence on them, and their exquisite vulnerability. Finite quantities of ship-launched missiles and other material become apparent in a way that can be challenging to discern in real-life operations. Our reliance on Chinese-produced microchips and other advanced technology becomes a easily-exploitable Achilles’ Heel, in a manner all too reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica pilot miniseries.

A new techno-thriller is, of course, cause for comparison to Tom Clancy, and where this far outshines him is in its willingness to critique technology and current trends in military procurement rather than lauding it unreservedly, while crafting somewhat multi-dimensional characters (some of whom are even not white!). And as I’ve written before, even if wrong in the details, fiction like this helps broaden the aperture a bit and convey the potentialities of future conflict. If not China, then Russia; if not the F-35, then perhaps the long-range strike bomber: things will go wrong, technologies will fail, and the United States may well be caught unawares. Hopefully, with novels such as Ghost Fleet illustrating the cost of unpreparedness, it will be possible to forestall the future it envisions.

The “Utility” of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The B61 family of modifications

The B61 family of modifications

An article in the New York Times made the rounds last week, asserting that the new modification (“mod”) of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb was of a lower yield than its predecessors, and arguing that lower-yield, precision weapons are destabilizing to nuclear strategy and that their relatively limited destructive capabilities in turn render them more likely to be used than the multi-megaton, Cold War-era city-busters. It was also proclaimed that this was the death knell for the Obama Administration’s disarmament and arms control efforts, and represented a “new arms race” between nuclear powers.

The argument is well-intentioned, but misguided.

The article quotes the usual suspects – James Cartwright, Andrew Weber, William Perry – and offers some assertions that are patently false on their face.

David Sanger and William Broad, the authors of this piece, focus solely on US weapons development and policy in a bubble, ignoring the larger context of the world in which nuclear weapons exist. As they and their interview subjects characterize it, the United States is the one upsetting the nuclear balance:

Already there are hints of a new arms race. Russia called the B61 tests “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.” China is said to be especially worried about plans for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile. And North Korea last week defended its pursuit of a hydrogen bomb by describing the “ever-growing nuclear threat” from the United States.

This, of course, ignores the fact that Russia has violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, China has refused to enter into any arms control arrangements and is busy expanding its own arsenal (including the production of new nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles; the former something that the United States still will not do), and North Korea has rejected carrot and stick approaches alike dating back several decades. If the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the aftermath of the Cold War – or the past 30 years of sanctions – were insufficient to dissuade Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation, it’s hard to envision what would. Continue reading

Intelligence Collection and Systems Thinking

 

Methods of intelligence collection

Methods of intelligence collection

Not performing enough human intelligence collection is a standard refrain these days. As the saying goes, “we’ve traded spies for satellites.” A golden age of honeypots and tradecraft and dead drops had been left behind at the dawn of the digital age. This is, purportedly, in keeping with the military establishment’s general overreliance on technology, stretching back to Rumsfeldian “transformation,” the ill-fated “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), and earlier. Conventional wisdom has it that this shift in emphasis was proven correct in the 1991 Gulf War, but it could also be argued that this was the war that the US military—especially the “armor guys”—had been itching to fight since the partition of Germany. Rather than the harbinger of a new era, the Gulf War was instead the last gasp of the Cold War.

But what does this have to do with human intelligence?

Contrary to the emphasis placed on the “spy games” aspect of Cold War diplomacy, intrigue, and espionage, the period between 1936 and 1989 saw a vast increase in technical methods of intelligence and relative devaluing of  human collection (analysis, as always, has remained a predominantly human province). Some of these technical methods and their operators became lore unto themselves—Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 (imagery intelligence, or IMINT) and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) come to mind—but most operated in a behind-the-scenes way. And they certainly continue to do to this day, recent disclosures notwithstanding.

The intelligence community has additionally seen a change in the way it structures its collection and analysis missions. During much of the Cold War, capabilities were duplicated throughout different agencies. Thus, in addition to the Defense Mapping Agency that preceded the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and today’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had its own IMINT people in the form of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the National Reconnaissance Office did its own thing with satellites, and so forth. While all of these organizations persist in one form or another, their functions have been streamlined, such that we have most IMINT running through NGA, much of the SIGINT community operating at the National Security Agency (NSA), et cetera. Gaps do exists, as do split missions, and the joint responsibility of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA for HUMINT is one such example. But in general, we now have standardized methods and practices of intelligence gathering, processing, exploitation, collection, and analysis. The very concept of “all-source intelligence” during the Cold War would have been unthinkable—and still seems a novelty to many analysts in the intelligence community—because it would have meant someone was driving in your lane, and that would be unacceptable. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

Continue reading

A Pretty Prize

This is a portion of a post that had been in the works for some time, but was, as they say, overtaken by events. Today, France announced that it would sell the pair of Mistral-class helicopter carriers/C2 ships to…Egypt. This is one of the more intriguing – though less obvious – buyers, and it’s likely that there was no small amount of Russian lobbying behind the scenes in Paris to ensure that the ships ended up there. But let’s examine how – and why – a pair of Mistrals is headed to Cairo.

The former Vladivostok, now to be purchased by Egypt

While Moscow more or less acquiesced to the cancellation of its Mistral purchase, it continued to try and help select the ultimate buyer (perhaps acknowledging that even if the Mistrals can’t project Russian power directly, perhaps they still can through an not-unfriendly power):

Russian Arabic-language television channel Russia Today quoted presidency spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that his country hopes France, now free to use the ships after settling its dues, would take Russian interests into account when reselling the warships to a third party.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an Egyptian purchase of the two Mistrals seems to have been be countenanced by Moscow. From the DefenseNews article was a suggestion that Russia might precondition French sale of the Mistrals to Egypt, specifically, on the purchase of additional Russian-made Ka-52 attack helicopters, but it’s unclear what legal grounds they might have had to compel this. Nevertheless, Egypt completed a transaction with Russia in late August, in which it will indeed receive 50 Ka-52s by the end of the decade. It now becomes apparent what this purchase was intended for.

However, given the Mistral class’s weakness at point defense and subsequent requirements for adequate escorts, Egypt might have a difficult go of it with its existing fleet.  While the Egyptian Navy is one of the largest in the world by sheer number of hulls, few are relatively modern. The French-built FREMM frigate Tahya Misr, delivered only this past June, is the mostly likely candidate to shepherd one of the Mistrals. However, the remainder of the Egyptian frigate force is of 1970s vintage and primarily consists of American surplus ships. It’s unclear which would be considered adequate to escort the other carrier.

Egypt is something of a natural for the Mistrals given their Russian fittings. The systems and electronics on the ships were done to Russian specifications, which could mean better interoperability with Egypt’s Russian- and Soviet-designed weapons systems (two frigates, almost a dozen missile boats, a handful of minesweepers). It might also be one of the few buyers who could and would be permitted to retain the Russian systems. Integration could prove tricky; however, Egypt has never been a slave to a single procurement source. Egypt sails ships of French, American, Chinese, Soviet, Russian, Spanish, and British origin, and in fact between the Russian fittings on the ships and recent purchases of French and Russian aircraft alike, Egypt would seem to be pursuing its own hybrid interests..

However, in this regard it might also represent a break with current Egyptian procurement trends, as future naval acquisitions on the books include French, German, and American ships. Furthermore, in terms of a command-and-control role, the backbone of the Egyptian Army is the M1A1 Abrams and F-16, and in large part its forces are equipped with American platforms and other western designs. Moscow’s enthusiasm for Egypt’s purchase of the Mistrals can probably be seen as an inroads into the Egyptian defense market, with the Russian-equipped ships a “teaser” introduction into a more integrated, comprehensive military system that would naturally call for the purchase of complementary platforms and systems from Russian industry. Whether Cairo is willing to humor Russia’s intentions remains an open question.

The role the flattops would play in Egyptian strategy and operations seems relatively limited, but it’s likely that one would operate primarily in the Mediterranean, while the other freely transits the Suez Canal (the Mistral‘s draught allows plenty of clearance) to patrol the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The latter could portend a much more active role for Egypt on the Arabian Peninsula – while occasionally marred by disagreement, for the most part Egypt’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are solid, and represent a clear force multiplier for the Gulf states. Having a forward presence in the immediate area – particularly around Yemen – would allow Egypt to play a much more active role in ongoing operations there (unless, of course, it is already).

A Mediterranean Mistral might have been cause for alarm in Tel Aviv, but since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi seems unlikely to ruffle any feathers. If anything, a Mistral here would probably support Egyptian operations in Libya, or possibly to affect events on the ground in Syria – though operations to counter which side remains unclear.

Egyptian Air Base Locations

Cairo’s impetus for acquiring a pair of Mistrals is presumably less about their helicopter-carrying capabilities and more about command-and-control as well as the power projection that a flattop entails. Such capabilities might be especially helpful should Egypt plan to expand its involvement in the various regional anti-Daesh and anti-Houthi campaigns to include a significant ground force presence. In terms of the perpetual struggle for leadership roles in the region, the ability to project power reinforces Egypt’s status as one of the real players, a top-tier regional power that can throw its weight around.

But hey, if it also turns Egypt into an even bigger market for Russian arms, that’s another win, too.

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. Can fiction, in fact, predict the future of warfare? Perhaps, but more interestingly, 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. Continue reading

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.