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.

Today’s* Unsurprising News

This should come as a shock…to just about no one:

A top Chinese military official has confirmed that Beijing is building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s secretive armed forces.

[…]

Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA’s general staff, told the newspaper that the carrier would not enter other nations’ territories, in accordance with Beijing’s defensive military strategy.

“All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers – they are symbols of a great nation,” he was quoted as saying.

Of course, the Chinese carrier will primarily be used for “training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship.” If the sister ship Admiral Kuznetsov is any indication, the former Varyag will not be a particularly reliable platform for power projection abroad – Kuznetsov has been at sea for approximately 12 months in total since the year 2000. Along a similar tack as the Chinese, Kuznetsov has remained operational primarily “to preserve its school of deck aircraft pilots.”

Still, any kind of operational Chinese naval aviation platform is an interesting development, even if it has been a long time coming. But for real blue-water capabilities, the world will almost certainly have to wait for China to produce its first domestic carrier.

*It has come to my attention that the Defense News article is actually dated June 8, so not exactly today, per se. Blame Google Reader, I suppose.

A “Historic Moment of Choice”

Chinese Minster of Defense General Chen Bingde delivers remarks at the National Defense University, May 18, 2011.

The most difficult part about watching an official speech – be it on policy or otherwise – is to separate the platitudes from the substance, assuming there is any of the latter. The meat of public remarks can often be found in soundbite form, or on a single slide of a powerpoint presentation. It is also equally possible to sit through an entire thirty minute speech and to hear absolutely nothing that hasn’t been said before.

Fortunately, that was not the case when Chen Bingde spoke at the National Defense University last week. While granted, much of the talk consisted of appeals to American sensibilities and national interests, there were some moments of real substance in it.

General Chen opened by declaring this to be an “official goodwill visit,” and that the Chinese sought mutual respect and benefits for both parties in Sino-American relations. He reminded us that the Chinese name for the United States translated to ‘beautiful country’. Continue reading

Lines Drawn, Sides Chosen

One of the more interesting results of last night’s UNSC vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya was the voting pattern of the Council. More specifically, the abstentions.

Look at the countries that decided not to vote:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Germany
  • India
  • Russia

Two things jump out: all four of the BRIC countries abstained from a vote, and of these five countries, the three which are not already members of the P5 are heavily discussed candidates for membership should the council expand. Do they too see themselves as a bloc? Or was it just coincidence?

So it’s interesting to try and ascertain where this reluctance comes from. One can just throw out some crude snapshots: Germany is wary of overseas military operations. China and Russia see any intervention as an ominous precedent and a threat to their own national sovereignty. India and Brazil don’t want the responsibility, perhaps, and see a vote on Resolution 1973 as a distinct voting record that could come back to haunt them (much like the conventional wisdom explaining why a United States senator would never be electable as president).

Also interesting are the military capabilities of these five countries. All, with the possible exception of Brazil, have formidable land armies, but lack a great deal of expeditionary capacity or any meaningful power projection. China has been making the greatest strides in this area with their naval armament program, but is still a long ways off from being able to physically support operations like a Libyan intervention. Much the same goes for Russia, even if the recent Mistral purchases were an attempt to provide new command-and-control capabilities that would make such a deployment easier.

Despite NATO’s series of capability commitments, developing a true airlift capacity remains stuck. Germany is the European leader of strategic lift, and yet still only operates the woefully outdated C-160. Its replacement, the A400M, has nearly three times the weight capacity – but has been delayed yet again and will not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. So even discounting moral reservations, Germany might have some legitimate tactical concerns about intervention in Libya.

Of course, to have to write something like this implies a great deal of cynicism on the part of the international community. The ‘clean voting record hypothesis’, in particular, is a rather damning indictment of why nothing gets done politically either in the international or domestic realm. No matter the reason, though, it appears as if the BRIC countries are their own power bloc, and they’re not going to help if they don’t want to. Which perhaps then begs the question of why the West has to intervene whenever a dictator starts murdering his own people.

(Of course, as I’m writing this, this article pops up in my Twitter feed.)

Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117’s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20’s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

More Island Chains

Courtesy of The Globe and Mail (and via Information Dissemination) comes this infographic of the range of Chinese naval operations:

Now, if both this map and the “Island Chain Theory” of Chinese strategy are accepted as true, then perhaps China is not as far along as recently thought. China has uncontested control of neither the South China Sea nor the Luzon-Okinawa-Kiyakyushu chain. But is that slow progress the result of capabilities or intent?

The PLAN has grown more than was previously thought, but much of that growth has come from additional submarines – not the most effective offensive weapon to claim and hold territory. Still, it would not be especially difficult for China to assert themselves more unilaterally in the South China Sea especially – the other ASEAN nations have virtually no navies and little recourse to international fora to decry Chinese expansionism.

And still, while Chinese leadership seems to disdain international standards and mores, there is some respect for general global sentiment towards the country. Isolated instances of repression, jailing dissidents, and other such common phenomena in the People’s Republic barely make it to the A section of major newspapers, and usually just as a sidebar item. Most people would hardly notice unless they were looking for it.

But if a major operation were launched – like one to take and secure the Paracels and the Spratlys, and to start building on them – you can be sure the international outrage would be deafening. And that seems to be what CCP leadership hates the most. Not necessarily being lectured or talked to about human rights, but being yelled at. Regardless, the Chinese position vis-a-vis the first island chain should be seen as soft. It may look underdefended and contested, but the PLAN could easily seize key points along it in a heartbeat. For the moment, at least, there is just no need to do so.

Size Matters

It’s really difficult to envision just how massive Chinese cities are. From Chinfographics comes this chart of the 60 largest with a population of over 1 million (and including some in Taiwan). Alongside for comparison are other famous world cities – but as you may notice, the population counts there look a bit large. They’re using the metropolitan area population, so New York gets 21.3 million instead of the usual 8.3 million, Boston gets 5.2 million instead of the usual .5-1.3 million, et cetera.

But it is rather mind-blowing just how enormous China is.

Via Slate.

Chinese Knifefight

China’s bizarre wave of elementary school knifings continued yesterday, with 28 children, two teachers, and a security guard all wounded by a deranged 47 year-old, and the next day five more were wounded by a 45 year-old with a hammer before he set fire to himself.

Sadly, these are surprisingly frequent events in China. And they’re just so odd – no connection to the victims, no clear motive, et cetera. So why are they lashing out?

What we’re witnessing, I think, is the first pangs of this severely male-heavy generation. by 2020, the male-female imbalance in China is expected to reach 24 million, thanks to the one-child policy and other social engineering measure of the Communist regime. This is one of the major destabilizing factors that Gordon Chang thinks will limit China in the twenty-first century. The Era of China, indeed.

But basically, we’re about to see a massive wave of angry, frustrated young men with little-to-no marriage prospects, traditionally one of the drivers of men beyond adolescence and into maturity. The best we can expect is an emotionally stunted class of mental dwarfs, but far more likely is a cohort coming to power and lashing out. Or the whole edifice crumbling around them.

Forgive the rambling; it just seems like a such a fundamental weakness in the character of a nation (and a more-than-likely explanation for the spate of knifings). It can only end poorly.

Resource Wars

In a not-so-hilarious version of the California and American West water wars, China has announced its plans to dam the Tsang Po River – also known as the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh. The dam is to be “massive,” and could potentially “disrupt fresh-water supplies and agriculture for tens of millions of South Asians living downstream.”

David Axe says this could be “tantamount to a declaration of war.” And I personally believe it’s a sign of things to come. With much of the region militarizing (even South Korea is getting in on the mini-carrier game), major destabilizers like this will become only too frequent. But when you’re talking about the two most populous nations on earth… you really only need one of these events to provoke a full-out catastrophe.

The Next Island Chain

All too often, a newspaper’s article about an aspect of the Chinese military uses an alarming headline, builds up the “threat,” and then contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. This time, it’s the New York Times in an article titled “China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates.”

YALONG BAY, China — The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say.

Well, OK, so far so good. Nothing there that we didn’t know already.

The strategy is a sharp break from the traditional, narrower doctrine of preparing for war over the self-governing island of Taiwan or defending the Chinese coast. Now, Chinese admirals say they want warships to escort commercial vessels that are crucial to the country’s economy, from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, and to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

Yeah, that’s also nothing new. The ‘three island chain plan‘ has been around for decades; this was just the logical next step. They’re in the Gulf of Aden already conducting anti-piracy operations.

The overall plan reflects China’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. China’s naval ambitions are being felt, too, in recent muscle flexing with the United States: in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea, said a senior American official involved in China policy.

Well, seeing as the South China Sea is a part of the first island chain – an arena China’s been capable of defending and projecting itself into for some time – this doesn’t change anything, really. Much like the United States will brook no interference in its own territorial issues. I’m not even sure what the problem is here that Wong sees…

The naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval hegemony in the near future, and there are few indications that China has aggressive intentions toward the United States or other countries.

Oh, there it is. Thank you, Edward Wong, for leading us on with five paragraphs about the growing menace of the Chinese Navy and abruptly telling us “oh, you know what? Don’t worry about all that stuff I just said. It doesn’t matter.” Sea denial has been the constant refrain of the Chinese for a decade; the fact that we’re just catching on now is the alarming part. That’s why China’s focus is on asymmetrical naval warfare – not carriers to fight our carriers, but land-based missiles to sink our carriers.

Continue reading