On Decapitation

Warsaw skyline, Saturday, April 3, 2010.

Sunday’s plane crash that wiped out much of the upper echelon of the Polish government was truly tragic, indeed. I hesitated to write this just because of the proximity of the accident, but I don’t think anyone will be too offended (and if you are, my apologies in advance).

The crash was a prime example of a decapitation strike. While those who perished are not exactly comparable to “Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, Christopher Dodd, Rahm Emanuel, [and] the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it’s awfully close (and that probably understates the breadth of the victims).

A better example might be Barack and Michelle Obama, Rahm Emanuel, James Jones, Ben Bernanke, Dick Durbin, Steny Hoyer, Admiral Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs, Tim Kaine, Jacob Lew, David Ferriero,  plus an incredible number of dignitaries, cultural icons, and legendary figures. I don’t think the United States has public citizens comparable to the epic Ryszard Kaczorowski or Anna Walentynowicz.

But the moral of the story is that essentially, the casualty list didn’t matter. The government continues to function; the Polish government’s continuity has continued unbroken. Luckily, that order is fairly simple. The Speaker of the lower House, Bronislow Konorowski, is acting president and must call elections, which will be held by the end of June. So far, everything is proceeding as it is supposed to.

This doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be such a smooth process if say, the Tu-154 had crashed due to Russian sabotage or terrorism. But with crazy accusations of Russian culpability being hurled around (thankfully, not by anyone in a position of power) and Poland still continuing to function like a normal country, it seems to point at a rational, calm transition of power even if a future accident was caused by something more sinister.

The continuity in the Polish government makes an article linked to from Abu Muqawama, Jenna Jordan’s “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation” (pdf) even more relevant. Her conclusion?

Decapitation is not ineffective merely against religious, old, or large groups, it is actually counterproductive for many of the terrorist groups currently being targeted. In many cases, targeting a group’s leadership actually lowers its rate of decline. Compared to a baseline rate of decline for certain terrorist groups, the marginal value of decapitation is negative. Moreover, going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.

I feel like the system most vulnerable to a decapitation strike is the particularly complex one of the United States, but perhaps the fact that it cannot really be planned for (or at least isn’t planned for) in any sort of detailed sense explains our current strategy: ensure the survival of the system.

So it probably wouldn’t work in the United States, either. It won’t work on sub-state actors.It won’t work on non-state actors. It won’t work on state actors. Isn’t it time to call decapitation strategy faulty and scrap it for something more productive?

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.

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.

Continue reading

A Peaceful Rise at Home?

From World Military Forum:

BEIJING – A stronger Chinese navy will not seek to build military bases overseas, a retired senior officer has said amid media reports that the country harbors such “ambitions”.

Zhang Deshun, who was till recently the deputy chief of staff of the PLA navy, said a naval force with advanced armaments and enhanced capabilities will contribute more to UN-led anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster-relief missions.

A larger navy with a greater reach does not mean it will seek to play the role of “world police”, said the retired rear admiral, who is a deputy to the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress.

I don’t know how to read this. I see several possibilities, not all of which ascribe ulterior motives to the Chinese. But most of them do. The first would be that they’re serious about this, and genuinely believe that if not now, then in the very near future Chinese naval capabilities will be such that they don’t require any overseas support facilities.

If that is true, their public admission of this could serve a twofold purpose: downplay concerns of a Chinese global power play, and at the same time serve notice to the United States and other maritime powers that China is advanced to this degree. After all, the U.S. operates a network of naval facilities around the world – perhaps Beijing is so powerful it doesn’t have to?

Alternatively, China could be using this to distract from the ‘three island chain’ plan.

The 'second island chain' of Chinese maritime strategy.

By eliminating the ‘third island chain’ – global, blue-water power projection – China’s ambitions of regional hegemony seem much more restrained and reasonable in comparison. But keep in mind that even the ‘second island chain’ in the strategy is demarcated by a line running from southern Japan to Guam through the middle of Indonesia and terminating at Australia. It’s still quite a bit of space.

Am I just being paranoid?