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.)

Earning It

Prolonged American deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan have crippled the country’s ability to quickly respond to emerging threats and situations elsewhere in the world. Sheer logistics aside, the same stubborn logic that has maintained an American presence in Afghanistan would also preclude its redeployment on the grounds that American troops are vital to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan War.

But what happens when that might mean missing a genuine opportunity? The regime of Muammar Gaddafi, longtime sworn enemy of the United States, is in the midst of a particularly brutal crackdown against what appears to be a genuine democracy movement in that country. He has vowed to die a martyr, and what were peaceful protests have spread into legitimate civil war throughout the country.

The arguments against intervention in Libya are many, and are valid concerns. American officials – Robert Gates most prominent among them – have been offering constant reminders that establishing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace would be more complex and dangerous than is casually thought, and the next steps – the exit strategy – have yet to be fleshed out. (The question of international law seems somewhat less damning as Patrick Porter suggests – the Arab League and Libyans themselves have called for such a step to be taken.) But unlike the Bush-era misadventures in Central Asia, commentators are actually thinking about those issues now. Such a commitment as the United States might undertake in Libya requires careful thought. But it requires more than just talk, too.

Who would such an intervention be supporting, exactly? What if the rebels lose the civil war? Will the presence of ground troops be established? These are all questions that need answering. But here’s the other crucial difference between the catastrophic error in Iraq, the open-ended disaster in Afghanistan, and this situation – Libyans are asking for it. Libyan officials who have dissolved ties with the Gaddafi government – including Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Younis, and the Ambassadors to France, India, Poland, Sweden, the EU, the UN, the Arab League, and the United States – are echoing calls for a no-fly zone. The governments of Britain, France, Portugal, and the Arab League have all recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing body of Libya.

Who’s more deserving of American military backing: an Afghan government that enjoys the support of neither its people nor the United States, in a country filled with people just waiting for American troops to leave, or those revolutionaries trying to overthrow Gaddafi in their quest for democracy? Even if the United States were to adhere to the coldest realpolitik calculation, in this case the devil we know is diabolical indeed. Gaddafi is responsible for the Lockerbie bombings, for attempting an enrichment program, and is guilty of the most horrific crimes imaginable against his people. It would be difficult to find an even worse devil. And even in that case, isn’t it time to pick the one that actually matters: democratic or US-friendly? By not articulating – or proving through its own actions – just which one is the driving force behind American foreign policy, the United States continues to look weak, ineffectual, indecisive, and hypocritical to the rest of the world. And it’s that kind of ‘soft power’ that it can ill-afford to lose.

Then again, the most justified intervention would probably be in Cote d’Ivoire to remove Laurent Gbagbo. That country, after all, has already held free and fair elections that ousted Gbagbo from the presidency. But Gbagbo has refused to step down, precipitating a civil war. It’s apparent that things have gotten out-of-control bad when refugees are fleeing into Liberia.

Limited resources require prioritization. And it would appear as if America is focusing all its time and energy, its  blood and treasure, on precisely the wrong theaters. Even when Afghans aren’t actively hostile to the American presence in their country, they’re not enthusiastic about it either. The waiting game is on. Whether the United States pulls out of Afghanistan in six months or six years, the situation there won’t change. Only the cost will.

Those who aren’t asking for help don’t need or want it. Those crying out for it surely do.

The Talking Pictures

So, a little while back, I managed to sit down and interview Noah Shachtman of Danger Room and Brookings fame for that wonderful venue known as Fortnight. Part of the structure of the journal includes “luminary responses,” in which an established figure in the author’s field engages with the author in some sort of dialogue or response piece. I was one of the lucky ones to receive such a response, and my luminary was Noah Shachtman.

My interview has finally gone live. You may have already gotten the official email; if not, my apologies for the omission. In the end, it’s even better than I hoped it would be. Shachtman is awesome. We covered a wide range of topics, from writing while trying to break into the field to America’s need for/lack of an overarching grand strategy to the future of navies. Please, check it out for yourself.

Also, “underemployed” seems to be one of those words that will now be permanently affixed in front of my name, like “Doe-eyed Athena.” I am a much bigger fan of “millennial combat scholar.” One for the business cards, perhaps?

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.

Reagan, Thatcher, and the ‘Tilt’

The British election has decided in favor of no one in particular. The possibilities seem confined to a Conservative minority Government or a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition one. With so much going wrong for Britain (just look at the accidental disenfranchisement), the last priority of whatever the new British Government is will be their friend across the pond.

At the same time, Rockhopper has claimed to have discovered oil in the area of the Falkland Islands, reversing the disappointment felt by Desire Petroleum earlier this year. With these two events in mind, it seems like a perfect moment to look back at the last time the special relationship really came to the fore, while the Falklands were in the news.

 

The Falkland Islands

One of the last vestiges of British empire, the likelihood that the Falkland Islands would ever become a household name – let alone the site of a major twentieth century conflict – seemed slim at best. Yet when the military government of Argentina dared to invade in April of 1982, the successful British retaking of the Falklands entered into the realm of legend and revitalized both Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government and Great Britain as a whole.

The extent to which American assistance was a crucial part of the British war effort is still debated. Paul Sharp claims that “Britain’s success in the Falklands War…would not have been possible without US support.”[1]Then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger downplayed the role of American aid, characterizing himself as a mere “assistant supply sergeant, or an assistant quartermaster.” He placed the glory of victory solely with the British:

Some said later that the British could not have succeeded if we had not helped. This is not so – I think the decisive factor was Mrs. Thatcher’s firm and immediate decision to retake the Islands, despite the impressive military and other advice to the effect that such an action could not succeed.[2]

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's cabinets meet at the White House, 1981.

While the revival of the wartime Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ did not necessarily ensure a British victory, the effects that American support had on British and Argentinian morale and indeed, world opinion, were significant. As Sharp explains, “had the Americans decided to oppose Britain’s recovery of the Islands, then the war would have been impossible and Thatcher’s political demise all but assured.”[3]

The sophisticated weaponry supplied by the Pentagon, such as the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missile, helped to minimize British casualties. Especially crucial was US intelligence. That support was all the more surprising as it constituted a near-complete reversal of the centuries-old Monroe Doctrine demarcating the western hemisphere as an entirely American preserve.

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Whither the Special Relationship?

There’s an interesting debate going on over at Harry’s Place as to which British political party has been and would be most conducive (or accommodationist, if you like) to the ‘Special Relationship’. “Norflondon’s” article, in particular, claims that Labour is the “true Atlanticist party.” I would have to disagree.

If you take the three major personal relationships throughout the twentieth century, you have FDR and Churchill, Jack and Mac, and Reagan-Thatcher. All three Prime Ministers were Tories and two of three Presidents Democrats.

This is not meant to imply that the most fruitful partnership would necessarily be Obama-Cameron (i.e. a Democrat and a Tory), but rather that Labour has until recently never been a particularly stalwart half of the Special Relationship. Indeed, America was rather fearful when Clement Attlee and Labour came into power – they were seen as ‘red’ socialists, and socialism was naturally a bad thing (a contemporary cartoon by David Horn in the Evening Standard showed Attlee surrounded by a circle of U.S. Congressmen all asking themselves “no hooves? No tail”)?

The article mentions the Major Government and divides over the Balkans , but considering that was a highly contentious debate within the Clinton Administration itself – not to mention a low-risk bombing campaign – the absence of British support wasn’t seen as a low blow in the same way that say, the Wilson Government’s silence was in Vietnam. Then, of course, there’s Major’s wholehearted British contribution to the first Gulf War.

The change could be pinned on Blair and New Labour, but also keep in mind the nature Blair-Clinton relationship: new center-left incarnations of their old selves.

However, when it comes down to it, does the United States really want a Blairite United Kingdom as part of the special relationship? Patrick Porter has made this point much more eloquently than me; he reminds us of Britain’s pretensions to Great Power status, but then points out the absurdity of Britain trying to do so much:

Geography comes up in the Strategy, but only in a perfunctory and generalised way. It asserts that Africa matters wherever there is extremism or violence, not a very discriminating test; Eastern Europe matters because Britain is engaged there; the Middle East matters because it is central to security and ‘totemic’ to extremists, and Afghanistan-Pakistan for its links to domestic terrorism. Central Asia, Eastern Europe, large chunks of Africa and the Middle East: these four spheres would strain a superpower, let alone Britain.

If at least a portion of an alliance is for figuring out what’s best for an individual country, isn’t the New Labour approach of ‘America first, British national interest second’ pretty bankrupt at this point? Prime Ministers in the past have easily subordinated their Atlanticism to the national interest of the United Kingdom – Thatcher being a notable example – but the times the call for spartan budgets and austerity measures, and those will have to translate into defense cuts as well.

Sadly, I don’t know which prime minister would be the most healthy combination for the Special Relationship and the United States. Perhaps Britain itself must reduce it to no more than a ‘special partnership.’

The Mask of the Bear: Soviet Deception in Operation Bagration

German columns advance past immobilized Russian tanks, July 1941.

From the moment the first Wehrmacht tank crossed the Soviet border in 1941 until the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, German victory in World War II seemed inevitable. The fighting on the Eastern Front took place on a scale never seen before or since, a colossal undertaking that consumed three-quarters of all combat forces in Europe, and cost the lives of over twenty-five million Soviet citizens.[1] The war could not have been won without the Soviet front, and even after the Red Army had successfully defended Moscow and Stalingrad, while holding out in besieged Leningrad, victory was far from certain.

The summer offensive of 1943, culminating in the Battle of Kursk—the largest tank battle ever fought by man—finally pushed the Germans onto the defensive. It was not until Operation Bagration, the 1944 summer offensive, that the German ability to conduct offensive operations was curtailed once and for all.

Operation Bagration won the war in the east, and that victory can be attributed to a practice at which the Red Army excelled—deception. The Soviet practice of maskirovka literally translates to ‘camouflage,’ but in the context of military doctrine has a wide variety of definitions covering everything from strategic disinformation to the effective  masking of an individual soldier’s foxhole. The official Soviet definition for maskirovka was:

The means of securing combat operations and the daily activities of forces; a complexity of measures, directed to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, various military objectives, their condition, combat readiness and operations, and also the plans of the command … Maskirovka contributes to the achievement of surprise for the actions of forces, the preservation of combat readiness, and the increased survivability of objectives.[2]

The Soviets invented the art of maskirovka, and perfected it over the course of World War II. By the summer of 1944, it was second-nature, and the operational planning reflected this. In absolute secrecy, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) managed to position over 2.3 million men and the necessary supplies, all the while deceiving the Wehrmacht as to the actual objectives of the offensive.

It is no stretch to say that Operation Bagration would have unfolded far more poorly without the extensive deception operations, and as it marked an end to any chance of a German victory, the maskirovka so skillfully executed in the summer of 1944 in fact shortened World War II by a substantial amount.

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Urban Jungle Warfare

An American solider in Sadr City, Iraq, 2008. Photo: Zoriah.

Geoff Manaugh at the ever-fantastic and always impressive BLDGBLOG has a post up about Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism and urban warfare in general.

The city is obviously going to be the defining social construct of the 21st century, but whether that happens in the benevolent, ‘new urbanist’ way that’s all the rage these days seems increasingly unlikely. From Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums:

The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

One is reminded of John Robb’s take on cities and the coming urban warfare, along with his prescription against urban conglomerations. Cities are immensely important nodes in a country’s system, and taking them down is easier, more profitable, and much more effective than as was practiced in the first half of the twentieth century.The will to besiege a city that continued up through the World Wars at Leningrad, Liege, and Namur is no longer there, but that brute force method is no longer needed. And the material rewards – not to mention the political and social effects of urban devastation – are more promising than ever.

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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.

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