Boot Camp or Fat Camp?

The current debate raging across the internet’s tubes is whether America’s obesity epidemic poses a threat to national security. A mysterious “group of retired officers” commissioned and released the report, which says:

9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too fat to join the military. The retired officers were on Capitol Hill advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation’s school lunches healthier.

Daniel Engber analyzes the numerical claims made in the study, and explains how their numbers are entirely misleading:

The Pentagon’s director of accessions, Curtis Gilroy, presented the same numbers to the House Armed Services Committee last March. He said that 35 percent of potential recruits are disqualified for medical reasons, with obesity being a major factor. Another 18 percent have drug or alcohol problems, 5 percent have criminal records, 6 percent have too many children; and 9 percent score in the prohibitive category V on the Armed Forces Aptitude Test.

It’s true that if you add those numbers, you’ll get something close to 75 percent. But that assumes no two of the above-listed groups are overlapping.

[…]

In the new report, the retired generals focus on just one sector of the pie chart—the 9 million young adults who are too heavy for military service. This number comes from the Census Bureau, and once again seems to discount the possibility that some fat people might be too stupid, morally corrupt, drug-addled or burdened by family to enlist in the armed forces anyway. As such, it’s a distortion of the facts to imply that every one of them might be in uniform, were it not for their excess weight.

While obesity may be the most obvious cause for rejection, the Army maintains a litany of potential disqualifications; aside from the usual asthma and heart conditions, ingrown toenails (if infected) and extra digits are also cause for rejection. The Army’s medical guidelines are no less than 148 pages long.

What the survey fails to consider is that some fat people have ingrown toenails, and some asthmatics also have weight problems. While it would be premature to declare obesity no problem for the military, it’s much less of a problem than it’s cracked up to be. With all branches currently exceeding recruitment goals, both in quantity and quality, there are presumably more important problems to worry about (not to mention that obesity rates might be leveling off).

Personally, I’m 6′ 8″ (just at the cusp of qualifying), weigh 330, and have ADHD and asthma. Three disqualifications right there, though Theodore Roosevelt is a good role model to emulate – the man beat his asthma, after all. But I’m disqualified from serving, much as I’ve been pondering the idea, as are vast swathes of the country.

Starbuck would like your thoughts – got any?

“A Small Thermal Exhaust Port…”

Its defenses are designed around a direct large-scale assault. A small one-man fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defense.
[…]
The Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense.

General Dodonna

Some good news for the US Navy:

Military experts say the Fifth Fleet has come a long way since Iranian gunboats crippled it within hours in a notorious war game five years ago.

In fact, says John Pike, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Security Web site, the Navy was well on its way to solving the challenge of fending off the swarming swift boats before the war game began.

In that test, an enemy “red team” headed by retired Martine Corps Gen. Paul Van Riper deployed the gun boats and propeller-driven suicide planes to paralyze the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

It took Riper less than two hours to knock it out of commission.

Key to the shocking result was Van Riper’s strategy of neutralizing the American advantage in big guns and cruise missiles by getting in close before hostilities began.

But the Navy now has the MK 182, “the mother of all shotgun shells,” fired by 5-inch guns deployed on every major ship in the fleet, says Pike.

Nice to see the USN thinking small, fast, and swarming. Even if it’s just a defensive strategy, the vulnerability of the navy as is to asymmetrical threats – be it dinghies or land-based anti-ship missiles – is pretty damning. Clearly a step in the right direction.

Of course, as Norman Polmar insists, “it always depends on how it starts.”

Nodes, Swarms, and the Risk Society

Christopher Albon takes on John Arquilla and addresses “The Limits of Netwar” in Current Intelligence:

Arquilla is correct: a netwar-enabled military would be powerful. Swarms of small American units could be perfectly suited for dismantling irregular terrorist networks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, America will never have a netwar military. Why? One reason: the political cost of casualties.

While a network of small swarming units represents substantial capacity, it also increases the risks to individual units on the battlefield. Operating quasi-independently and at speed, netwar’s small units are vulnerable to being flanked, isolated, and overrun. The network is resilient, but individual nodes are exposed.

Albon also cites the Battle of Wanat – with an American contingent of the same  ‘small unit’ size advocated by Arquilla – as an example of how this particular conception of ‘netwar’ is in fact precisely wrong for waging war in a democracy.

That is what truly determines the US military’s ability to conduct prolonged operations in a given theater: public support. And the easiest way to undermine it is to kill lots of American soldiers, preferably all at one time. This strategy is particularly effective within the node-centric system Arquilla calls for:

The attack left nine U.S. soldiers dead and the outpost was quickly abandoned. If the Taliban’s attack had been successful, the loss of this one node would have had little detrimental effect on an Arquillan network of small units.

Still, the military already seems to be considering the idea, with exercises scheduled for this summer to determine the feasibility of a company-sized Marine landing team. Of course, then logistics become the primary problem (plus the lack of battalion C3I, etc), which in turn leads to more deaths, which of course is the whole point for the enemy.

Leaving aside the issues of media control and information handling (because I still keep the faith), how then could a node-centric strategy utilizing smaller units actually function? Obviously, one key component to coming wars is UAVs and other unmanned weapons platforms. Most of these systems are currently more mobile than needed to be effective in a node-centric system. Automated sentry guns and the like, coupled with appropriate surveillance equipment and on-call air support – manned or unmanned – would be enough to maintain a network of observation posts without risk to American lives.

Then again, perhaps it’s the concept of nodes as they currently stand that needs to be addressed. Obviously not all OPs could be replaced by drones and remote-controlled camera, but presumably some could be. The further goal of the OP; that is, contact and interaction with the native population, could just as easily be accomplished through means other than an isolated post. Albon might overstate the case for maintaining centers of gravity (“There is power in small, networked units, but there is security in massed forces and large fortress bases, both for servicemen and politicians”), but he certainly grasps the risks of not doing so.

Presenting an American war effort to the public, then, is a two-part project. One is to convince them that both the overall and the specific causes are just (why are we in Afghanistan? And why do we maintain a network of isolated observation posts)? Two is to make sure that American casualties are in line with the perceived goal of it. Perhaps nothing more than a good PR strategy is what’s needed, but I think the issues with netwar run a bit deeper.

More on Clausewitz

Patrick Porter takes on Admiral Mullen’s classification of Kandahar as the enemy “center of gravity” in anticipation of the upcoming offensive there:

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

This isn’t the first time a major operation has been launched to strike at an enemy “center of gravity.” In fact, it happened fairly recently, and as I then pointed out, the military’s insistence on a) clinging to the term and b) if applicable, attacking that center of gravity is just irresponsible.

But more generally, this seems to be a movement lacking any important centers of gravity. That’s the whole problem with counterinsurgency; there’s no decisive point at which to apply pressure. It’s trying to tighten your grip on a handful of sand. Obviously I’m not saying give up the ghost, but I am suggesting that perhaps the whole concept of a large offensive whilst fighting an insurgency is an anachronism.

Kandahar probably is where we need to be, but if we’re doing so for these Clausewitzian theories… then we’re just missing the point.

Operation Tannenbaum, Part IV

It is now November 9 1940. The bitterness of the Battle for Switzerland is something that will live with all Swiss and those German soldiers who participated. Out of the 800,000 Swiss under arms on September 24, 120,000 did not reach the redoubt. Only 15,486 of these soldiers were taken prisoner. In fact, there are more French and Polish prisoners in the German laagers then there are Swiss!

The Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland.

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Heeresgruppe C.

Guisan and his staff are secure in the Redoubt, with the Germans unable to penetrate the massive defense works. However, the Germans are rather unwilling to commit so many forces to the strategically irrelevant alpine region. In the areas at higher altitude, the first snow has fallen, tabling any large offensives until the spring of 1941.

No less than 20 divisions are in occupied Switzerland, and tensions between occupier and occupied are running extremely high. Just as in Czechoslovakia, all popular gatherings have been banned. Weapons and wireless sets owned by private citizens have been ordered to be turned into authorities, including hunting rifles.[1] Heeresgruppe C has not been redeployed to the eastern front for a Russian offensive, and Wilhelm von Leeb has established his headquarters in occupied Bern for the winter.

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Operation Tannenbaum: Hitler’s Invasion of Switzerland

The military picture on the Franco-Swiss border, June 26, 1940.

France was defeated. So too were Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Austria and Czechoslovakia had been incorporated into the Greater German Reich. Great Britain stood alone in her ‘splendid isolation,’ and the fascist regime of Francisco Franco held sway over the Iberian Peninsula. In June of 1940, all that remained, surrounded by enemies, was the Swiss Confederation.

Hitler called it a “pimple on the face of Europe.”[1] In the heady days of victory for the Third Reich, a move against the alpine republic seemed a great possibility – almost inevitable, even. Even before the Fall of France was made official, plans were being drawn up for ‘Operation Tannenbaum,’ the German invasion of Switzerland. Yet Hitler’s attention was soon drawn towards Britain, and eventually the plan fell by the wayside as he began focusing attention on his Bolshevik neighbor to the East.

But…what if? What if Hitler had decided that the conquest of that mountainous pimple was indeed worth the effort and manpower? What if Tannenbaum had been more than just idle words and an OKW plan? If Hitler had embarked on the ultimate folly, the results would have been disastrous for the Swiss – and the Nazis.

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Dragon at Sea: A Brief History of Chinese Navies

The strategic arena of East Asia.

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, American naval supremacy has been unchallenged throughout the world. Even during that massive, global struggle, the Soviet Navy never came close to rivaling the power projection capabilities of the United States (of course, this was never their intent).

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, however, many commentators are declaring it to be “China’s Century,” during which the People’s Republic will finally assume its rightful place as a counterweight to the United States. Despite the financial crisis currently engulfing the world, the U.S.-China trade deficit reached record levels in 2008, with $266 billion against the United States. If the economic sphere were a battlefield, China would surely be winning.

Yet, the crucial trade arena formed by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Western Pacific Rim has gone largely ignored in China as an area of vital strategic importance. Half of the largest container lines in the world are owned and based in Asia, and one-third of the world’s shipping is owned by Asian nations.[1]

It would make sense, then, for China to possess and deploy a strong navy. Since the Communist victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, maritime power has been neglected, but the last decade has seen an ascendant navalist faction in the upper echelons of the Politburo. China has now embarked upon a major program of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and while American superiority in the region is likely to remain for the near future, the rise of the PLAN will pose significant challenges to the United States Navy in decades to come.

While recent history would indicate otherwise, China has a long and storied naval heritage.

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The American Way of War: A Review

After a long while of meaning to, I’ve finished Russell Weigley’s magisterial book The American Way of War. Took longer than it should have, but as a foundational text for understanding not only American strategy, but basic concepts of national strategy itself, this book is unsurpassed. It’s one of the few I can truly call “epic.”

Beginning with George Washington’s “strategy of attrition” during the Revolutionary War, Weigley traces the scope of American strategic thought up to the closing days of the Vietnam War. Structurally, American strategy falls into several phases. Washington eventually gives way to Halleck, who is then replaced by Ulysses Grant. Grant’s approach to war – “a strategy of annihilation” – then serves as the United States’ guiding principle until well into the twentieth century.

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With Open Arms

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I’ve meant to talk about it sooner, but it wasn’t until I saw some particularly egregious arguments that I was spurred to action. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell absolutely needs to be repealed. First announced at the State of the Union address, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen continued to call for it at a press conference later that week. Admiral Mullen’s comments – declaring the current policy as detrimental to the military’s integrity – are particularly noteworthy:

No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution. I also believe that the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change. I never underestimate their ability to adapt.

We would also do well to remember that this is not an issue for the military leadership to decide [emphasis mine].

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The End of COIN?

Maj. General Rick Nash tries his hand at camel riding during a visit to the Sa’adoun tribe confederation land.

Last month, the zenpundit (Mark Safranski) came up with a startling idea: “The Post-COIN Era is Here.” The idea, while revelatory, is definitely worth consideration. The modern timescale for adopting and conceiving new doctrine has shrunk from the decades it used to take to only a few short years – both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side is the ability to shift rapidly from a failed strategy to one which stands a chance of succeeding, saving time and lives that would otherwise be wasted. At the same time, an untested new idea runs the risk of failing, in perhaps even more spectacular fashion.

It was fairly clear, then, that something would have to give way after the abyss into which Iraq plunged the first few years after invasion. Safranski lays down three main reasons for the initial adoption of COIN:

1) The  ”Big Army, fire the artillery, fly B-52’s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.

2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

3) The 2006 election results were a political earthquake that forced the Bush administration to change policy in Iraq for its’ own sheer political survival. COIN was accepted only because it represented a life preserver for the Bush administration.

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