Geopolitics is the struggle not to control territory but to create the territory

Monday, April 25th, 2022

As J.R.R. Tolkien would put it, the superpowers are trying to build a secondary world that everyone else can inhabit:

Inside it, what the world contains is true: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The great game is indeed a game, but a game with a purpose of creating the rules of the game.

Think about it as a clash between two versions of the world. Or, more graphically, imagine a simulated landscape in which two or more computer programmers are fighting to redesign what appears on the monitor. The pixels keep changing from moment to moment. One second, the landscape looks like a mountain scene; then the mountains grow smaller and smaller until the landscape becomes a grassy plain. Some back and forth ensues until one of the programmers gives up and the other vision wins. Geopolitics is the struggle not to control territory but to create the territory.

[...]

In his recent book, Jacob Helberg writes that the new wars are now less about who controls some piece of territory in Europe or East Asia than about who “controls the information networks and communications technologies that shape the distribution of world power by shaping the daily lives of billions of people.” He fails to draw an obvious but fascinating conclusion: what changed was that technology has rebuilt the world to such an extent that these networks are now the territory.

[...]

Just as new technologies slowly raised the destructive potential of direct conflict, a new avenue was opened: states can now fight one another not by winning in a direct battle but by setting the rules under which other states must operate. Call it a form of indirect government: perhaps your opponent will even assume the rules are natural or given—but in reality, you have moved one level up in the great game. Your opponent is playing a video game. You are coding it. I would reserve the term superpower for those states engaged in a battle to shape the rules. Everyone else is competing under the rules.

Listen to Russian president Vladimir Putin or any of the thinkers orbiting the Kremlin and all you hear is the same geopolitical dread: will Russia be forced to play by Western rules, or can it rise to the role of world-builder? Putin seems to believe that an independent and Westernized Ukraine would reduce Russia to a subordinate status. His is the classical gamble of someone who attempts to change the rules of the game but risks achieving no more than being punished under the existing order. The danger for the Western order is that the tools used to punish and constrain Russian power will erode the legitimacy of that order.

The Ukraine war is a revealing moment in the history of world-building. The global system suddenly appeared as a tool of power rather than a neutral framework of rules. There is some danger in this moment of revelation because a number of state actors in the developing world may themselves stop playing by the existing rules or even start looking for alternative systems of play.

The missile attempts to keep itself inside the beam

Thursday, April 21st, 2022

Most MANPADS fire heat-seeking missiles, but the British Starstreak does not, as I mentioned when they started shipping them to Ukraine:

In contrast, the Starstreak uses laser-beam-riding guidance, in which the operator fires the missile as soon as a target is detected in the optically stabilized sight. Line-of-sight is then maintained throughout the engagement process. The aiming unit projects two laser beams onto the target, with sensors on the missile calculating the relative positions until impact. The intensity of these laser beams is low enough that, the manufacturer claims, the targeted aircraft won’t be able to detect them.

Overall, this guidance method is more accurate than traditional laser guidance, in which the target is ‘painted’ with a single beam. The twin-laser approach is more resistant to maneuvering targets that could otherwise break the laser lock. At the same time, unlike infrared-guided MANPADS, the Starstreak cannot be spoofed by flares or other heat sources. Unlike most air defense missiles, it’s effectively immune to countermeasures, including the latest L-370 Vitebsk (exported as the President-S) directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) found on many Russian Aerospace Forces helicopters.

Another advantage is that smaller targets can be engaged (as long as the operator can see them through the sight), including those with infrared signatures that might be insufficient for a heat-seeking missile to track.

Its laser-beam-riding guidance evolved from earlier radar beam-riding guidance:

Beam riding is based on a signal that is pointed towards the target. The signal does not have to be powerful, as it is not necessary to use it for tracking as well. The main use of this kind of system is to destroy airplanes or tanks. First, an aiming station (possibly mounted on a vehicle) in the launching area directs a narrow radar or laser beam at the enemy aircraft or tank. Then, the missile is launched and at some point after launch is “gathered” by the radar or laser beam when it flies into it. From this stage onwards, the missile attempts to keep itself inside the beam, while the aiming station keeps the beam pointing at the target. The missile, controlled by a computer inside it, “rides” the beam to the target.

[...]

By placing receiver antennas on the rear of the missile, the onboard electronics can compare the strength of the signal from different points on the missile body and use this to create a control signal to steer it back into the center of the beam. When used with conical scanning, the comparison can use several sets of paired antennas, typically two pairs, to keep itself centered in both axes. This system has the advantage of offloading the tracking to the ground radar; as long as the radar can keep itself accurately pointed at the target, the missile will keep itself along the same line using very simple electronics.

The inherent disadvantage of the radar beam riding system is that the beam spreads as it travels outward from the broadcaster (see inverse square law). As the missile flies towards the target, it, therefore, becomes increasingly inaccurate.

[...]

Another issue is the guidance path of the missile is essentially a straight line to the target. This is useful for missiles with a great speed advantage over their target, or where flight times are short, but for long-range engagements against high-performance targets the missile will need to “lead” the target in order to arrive with enough energy to do terminal manoeuvres.

[...]

Beam riding guidance became more popular again in the 1980s and 90s with the introduction of low-cost and highly portable laser designators. A laser beam can be made much narrower than a radar beam while not increasing the size of the broadcaster.

If the Russian Army was tactically skilled, then the Javelin and other ATGMs would be suppressed by artillery or air support and their surviving crews would be swept up by Russian infantry

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

The question before us now is whether the tank is the modern equivalent of the battleship or the horse:

The U.S. Navy was able to accommodate both the battleship and aircraft carrier in World War II, although the battleship mostly was relied upon to provide fire support, rather than crossing the T against an enemy battleline. The horse, however, was a different kind of problem for the Army. Herr was an obstacle to modernizing the Army with tanks, insisting that he would accept no increase in armor at the expense of horse-cavalry strength. There could be no accommodation. Accordingly, Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall used his executive-order authority, given after Pearl Harbor, to get rid of all the horses in the Army — and Herr.

What is the point to these anecdotes? There are two. In the case of the battleship, the platform may change, but not the function. The last U.S. Navy battleships were in active service until 1990, when the costs to maintain them clearly outweighed their utility. The naval gunfire mission persisted, however, albeit from smaller vessels. In the case of the horse cavalry, the role has ended. And the weapon needs to be retired, perhaps to a nice stud farm where it can recall the glories of the past.

[...]

What the officers of the German General Staff eventually realized was that man and animal power could not negotiate the distances required for strategic victory before France, Britain, and the United States, blessed with interior lines, could bolster their defenses and thwart the strategic objectives of the German plans. Quite simply, an army cannot walk to Paris fast enough to keep the enemy off balance.

The solution to this mobility-at-distance problem was the internal combustion engine. Tanks would provide lethal and protected mobility that would give the German army longer reach. To solve the problem of fire support to support the blitzkrieg, Germany looked to the airplane. To connect the two weapons, it employed new radio technology. Although history has frequently credited this innovation to Gen. Heinz Guderian, in reality, the blitzkrieg was an institutional response to solving the strategic problems encountered during World War I.

Only Germany took this approach of combining the tank and the airplane into a combined arms force between the two world wars, even though all the combatants on the Western Front had direct experience with these technologies. This provided Germany with an elegant potential solution to the vexing problem Germany had faced since unification: how to avoid a two-front war in the west and in the east? Rapidly defeating the adversary in the west, before turning east had always been the objective. The blitzkrieg, enabled by mechanization and motorization, provided the means to achieve the strategy. Others (the U.S. and French armies) continued to view the tank largely as an infantry support weapon or alienated their militaries with demands for ascendancy (British Army).

[...]

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was the first conflict since World War II that saw the large-scale employment of tank formations on a mobile battlefield. The resounding Israeli victory in this conflict solidified the view in most state militaries that the tank was the dominant force on the battlefield.

[...]

In less than ten years, the same battlefields in the Middle East that had validated the main battle tank as the dominant force in modern combat betrayed the tank’s first major vulnerabilities. Between 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, two technologies appeared that seemingly changed everything. The development of the Sagger and other anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) gave infantry the capability to destroy a tank at long range for the first time. Similarly, the other key component of the Israeli defense establishment — air power — was put at risk by mobile surface-to-air missiles. For the first time ever, the ascendancy of the air-armor team was in doubt. The two key components that were the basis of the blitzkrieg and combined arms maneuver warfare — tanks and airplanes — had failed dramatically.

[...]

The solution was mainly tactical: combined arms operations, with particular attention paid to suppressing these ATGMs. The Israel Defense Forces also made a technical improvement, installing mortars on their tanks, a practice that continues to this day with the Merkava main battle-tank series. Finally, smoke-cannister dischargers were mounted on the combat vehicles in every army to screen them from fire. This was not a new practice, having been used on German tanks during World War II.

In combat, when a tank crew detected a Sagger, it immediately began suppressing it with mortar fire. That fire would soon be joined by larger mortars and field artillery. Furthermore, a practice evolved in the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. Army where artillery units would have guns laid on potential Sagger locations so they could rapidly engage them with immediate suppression missions. This technique was particularly effective against the Sagger, which required the dismounted gunner to track the missile all the way to the target. Making him flinch — which high explosive rounds near one’s position tend to do — would break his lock on the target and cause the ATGM to miss.

The most important technical improvement in response to ATGMs was, however, the development of improved armor to replace the World War II-era rolled homogenous steel that was used on tanks. The demand was for a new armor that would protect the tank against the shaped warheads of the Sagger and other anti-tank weapons. Here, the British led the way, developing and fielding Chobham armor that protected against both shaped warheads and kinetic energy penetrators. Other solutions soon followed, e.g., explosive reactive armor.

Furthermore, given that the Israel Defense Forces relied heavily on air-ground operations, it had to solve the SAM challenge to air superiority. It learned that suppression by artillery fire was the tactical solution to neutralizing enemy missiles as well.

[...]

The next indication that the tank faced a significant, and perhaps mortal, new challenge came during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Again, the challenge was the ATGM. But, the 9M133 Kornet had a much longer range than the Sagger (5,000 meters vs. 3,000 meters), a tandem warhead that can defeat all known armor, even frontal, and — most importantly — it has a laser-beam guidance system that is simple to operate.

Almost immediately, the end of the tank was proclaimed, but this time at the hands of even sub-state actors.

[...]

The technical solution the IDF fielded in response to the new generation of ATGM was the Trophy active protection system. Briefly, the Trophy uses a sophisticated radar-directed weapon, mounted on the tank, to shoot down an incoming ATGM. It also has the benefit of providing the crew and other networked systems with the location of the ATGM launcher.

Trophy soon proved its worth in Israel’s operations against Hamas in Gaza, essentially neutralizing the ATGM and rocket-propelled grenade threats to vehicles equipped with the system. The United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom have all fielded Trophy. Other states have developed both soft- and hard-kill active protections systems, e.g., the Russian Arena and Afghanit and the German MUSS.

Most active protection systems were designed to defeat ATGMs attacking the front or sides of a vehicle. This was the plane in which ATGMS like the Sagger, Kornet, and the U.S. TOW were employed because the front and sides are the most heavily armored areas of a tank, given that is generally where enemy weapons hit. Top-attack weapons aim at the much more lightly armored tops of vehicles. These include ATGMs, e.g., the U.S. FGM-148 Javelin, an increasingly wide variety of artillery projectiles, and drones. These weapons have all complicated the active defense challenge that Trophy originally addressed.

[...]

The Russian Army has shown that it is not competent in combined arms fire and maneuver. Where is the accompanying infantry with the tank formations, who are supposed to bust the ambushes executed by Ukrainian forces? Where are the suppressive mortar, artillery, and close air support fires? If the Russian Army was tactically skilled, then the Javelin and other ATGMs would be suppressed by artillery or air support and their surviving crews would be swept up by Russian infantry.

[...]

Is there a continued role for mobile, protected lethality on the battlefields of the future? If the answer is yes, or even maybe, then the next act in the ongoing drama of how to protect the tank is to enable it to do what only it can do.

Boxing and jiu-jitsu have always seemed more important than any training in marksmanship

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

I stumbled across an MSNBC opinion piece arguing that fitness-fascists have been recruiting and radicalizing young men with neo-Nazi and white supremacist extremist ideologies. I rolled my eyes, but I was legitimately surprised by this bit:

In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler fixated on boxing and jujitsu, believing they could help him create an army of millions whose aggressive spirit and impeccably trained bodies, combined with “fanatical love of the fatherland,” would do more for the German nation than any “mediocre” tactical weapons training.

I’m honestly shocked that I did not know this, since I’m interested in both military history and martial arts. Here’s the offending passage (from 1925):

Now if the SA could be neither a military combat organization nor a secret league, the following consequences inevitably resulted

1. Its training must not proceed from military criteria, but from criteria of expediency for the party.

In so far as the members require physical training, the main emphasis must be laid, not on military drilling, but on athletic activity. Boxing and jiu-jitsu have always seemed to me more important than any inferior, because incomplete, training in marksmanship. Give the German nation six million bodies with flawless athletic training, all glowing with fanatical love of their country and inculcated with the highest offensive spirit, and a national state will, in less than two years if necessary, have created an army, at least in so far as a certain basic core is present. This, as things are today, can rest only in the Reichswehr and not in any combat league that has always done things by halves. Physical culture must inoculate the individual with the conviction of his superiority and give him that self-confidence which lies forever and alone in the consciousness of his own strength; in addition, it must give him those athletic skills which serve as a weapon for the defense of the movement.

Naturally, anyone recommending physical fitness or martial arts is basically Hitler. (Same with vegetarians, of course.)

They are difficult to defend against due to their speed, maneuverability, and flight path

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

Iain Boyd, University of Colorado Boulder, explains how hypersonic missiles work:

These new systems pose an important challenge due to their maneuverability all along their trajectory. Because their flight paths can change as they travel, these missiles must be tracked throughout their flight.

A second important challenge stems from the fact that they operate in a different region of the atmosphere from other existing threats. The new hypersonic weapons fly much higher than slower subsonic missiles but much lower than intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. and its allies do not have good tracking coverage for this in-between region, nor does Russia or China.

[...]

Describing a vehicle as hypersonic means that it flies much faster than the speed of sound, which is 761 miles per hour (1,225 kilometers per hour) at sea level and 663 mph (1,067 kph) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) where passenger jets fly. Passenger jets travel at just under 600 mph (966 kph), whereas hypersonic systems operate at speeds of 3,500 mph (5,633 kph) — about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) per second — and higher.

[..]

All of the intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world’s nuclear arsenals are hypersonic, reaching about 15,000 mph (24,140 kph), or about 4 miles (6.4 km) per second at their maximum velocity.

ICBMs are launched on large rockets and then fly on a predictable trajectory that takes them out of the atmosphere into space and then back into the atmosphere again. The new generation of hypersonic missiles fly very fast, but not as fast as ICBMs. They are launched on smaller rockets that keep them within the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

Three types of hypersonic missiles

There are three different types of non-ICBM hypersonic weapons: aero-ballistic, glide vehicles and cruise missiles. A hypersonic aero-ballistic system is dropped from an aircraft, accelerated to hypersonic speed using a rocket and then follows a ballistic, meaning unpowered, trajectory. The system Russian forces used to attack Ukraine, the Kinzhal, is an aero-ballistic missile. The technology has been around since about 1980.

A hypersonic glide vehicle is boosted on a rocket to high altitude and then glides to its target, maneuvering along the way. Examples of hypersonic glide vehicles include China’s Dongfeng-17, Russia’s Avangard and the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system. U.S. officials have expressed concern that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle technology is further advanced than the U.S. system.

A hypersonic cruise missile is boosted by a rocket to hypersonic speed and then uses an air-breathing engine called a scramjet to sustain that speed. Because they ingest air into their engines, hypersonic cruise missiles require smaller launch rockets than hypersonic glide vehicles, which means they can cost less and be launched from more places. Hypersonic cruise missiles are under development by China and the U.S. The U.S. reportedly conducted a test flight of a scramjet hypersonic missile in March 2020.

The primary reason nations are developing these next-generation hypersonic weapons is how difficult they are to defend against due to their speed, maneuverability and flight path.

The result is a Russian military designed to win land wars while avoiding a rout from the air

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Back at the start of March, Samo Burja wrote about observers puzzled to see Russian troops advancing into Ukraine without attaining air supremacy:

On the first morning of the attack, Russia disabled many Ukrainian airfields with a barrage of missiles. Since this was evidently insufficient to stop the Ukrainian air force from fighting back or launching air-to-ground attacks on the Russian army, Russia has, at best, achieved only air superiority over Ukraine: it can operate advantageously in Ukrainian skies, but it lacks the total dominance at which effective interference is no longer expected.

From the U.S. perspective, Russia’s decision to pursue a ground invasion when the skies remain contested seems foolhardy. The American military strongly favors establishing air supremacy before committing ground troops to battle. In the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States led a coalition force to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, an air campaign that lasted 42 consecutive days and nights preceded the first major ground assault. Over 100,000 sorties flew, using stealth bombers and laser-guided munitions to incapacitate the Iraqi military from above. When coalition forces invaded Iraq again in 2003, they did not first wait for an extensive air campaign—not because of a fundamental change in doctrine, but because the U.S. and its allies had continuously maintained air supremacy over Iraq for the previous 12 years. At the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. and allied militaries declared and enforced no-fly zones over most of Iraq, periodically striking Iraqi aircraft and air-defense systems, among other targets.

Since World War II, the United States has used airpower to great success. But airpower has another benefit beyond the strictly military advantage of being able both to see and strike any target in a theater of war: it is politically feasible. Air campaigns can inflict tremendous casualties on an enemy while sustaining few losses of their own. This prevents the bad public relations and loss of morale that afflicted the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in later years, while bypassing the onerous bureaucratic and logistical capacity needed to field an effective army. It’s unlikely that the U.S. ever would have launched conventional ground invasions of Yugoslavia in 1999 or Libya in 2011, but overwhelming airpower proved sufficient to achieve U.S. goals in both cases.

This extremely successful track record, however, has eclipsed the reality that orientation around airpower is not the only potent military strategy for a major power. Russia’s military is instead built around ground-based heavy artillery. Much of the Russian force now invading Ukraine consists of “Battalion Tactical Groups” (BTGs). These formations of less than 1,000 men operate as much artillery as a U.S. armored brigade—a formation of about 4,500 troops—as well as air-defense, anti-tank, and multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries. Russia’s Soviet-era artillery has been modernized and much of it is brand new. In addition to large quantities of self-propelled artillery, many of Russia’s active artillery systems substantially outgun and outrange their Western equivalents, partially thanks to a domestic defense industry that specializes in this niche. Unlike many European countries, Russia still employs cluster munitions that can saturate an area of 40,000 square meters with explosives. In Western doctrine, tanks are typically supported by artillery fire when seizing contested ground. Russian doctrine is the other way around: tanks are used to seize favorable positions for artillery, which then finishes off an enemy force. Surprisingly, the Russian military currently does not even operate any armed drones but uses a 2,000-strong fleet of reconnaissance drones to help locate artillery targets.

This artillery-centric army would be nevertheless highly vulnerable to air strikes in the absence of air defenses, a weakness of which Russian military theorists have been aware since the last years of the Soviet Union, and which modern Russia has taken pains to address. In the 1980s, Soviet marshal Nikolai Ogarkov proposed—among many other reforms—the creation of a unified aerospace service with combined responsibility for both airpower and air defense. The Soviet military proved too rigid for reform before the USSR’s collapse in 1991, but Putin’s Russia inaugurated the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015. This followed a major period of military reform from 2007 to 2012 under Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a civilian and career tax official who relentlessly purged Russia’s bloated defense bureaucracy and worked to modernize equipment, tactics, and administration. Today, Russia operates some of the world’s densest and most sophisticated air-defense systems. The infamous S-400, which has been purchased by China, India, and Turkey, is one example, but progress has also been made in linking up older air defenses to modern target-acquisition systems. Every BTG also operates its own short-range air-defense systems.

The result is a Russian military designed to win land wars while avoiding a rout from the air. Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine without air supremacy simply because its army was designed to operate without it. Moreover, Putin’s authoritarian Russia is far more politically willing to absorb casualties than Western democracies.

How Harpoon V would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

Ian B. of the Rocky Mountain Navy looks at how the latest version of the table-top Harpoon war game, Harpoon V, would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva:

Given that Moskva is a major combatant with a wide assortment of radars and defensive systems, the result of the attack/accident seems almost implausible. On paper this is a Ukrainian David vs. a Russian Goliath. Alternatively, how could the Russian Navy lose a ship to a fire? A closer examination of a plausible “engagement” using the Harpoon V rules reveals it’s not as lopsided as one might think.

If reports are to be believed, Moskva was struck by by two RK-360MC Neptun (Neptune) anti-ship cruise missiles. Neptune is generally reported to be a Ukrainian version of the Russian Kh-35U but with a longer body, more fuel, and a larger booster. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use the Kh-35U which is listed as the Uran (3M24) [SS-N-25 Switchblade] in Annex D1 of Russia’s Navy: Soviet & Russian Naval Vessels, 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021). The most important data element is perhaps the damage caused by the 150kg warhead which Harpoon V rates as “35+D6/2” or 36-38 damage points. Admittedly, this number may be a bit low given the Neptune has more fuel and is larger, factors which lead to more damage in Admiralty Trilogy models.

Moskva is (was?) the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class. To Cold War Grognards like me it’s perhaps better known as a Slava-class guided missile cruiser. The lead ship, Slava, entered service in 1983 and eventually was renamed Moskva in 1995. This particular ship was overhauled between 1991-2000 and was to be overhauled again in 2016. Reports indicate the overhaul stalled for lack of funds and the ship reentered service in 2019 with few—or none—of the planned upgrades completed. Full details for Moskva are found in Annex A of Russia’s Navy. Of particular concern to this analysis, Moskva is rated at 341 damage points.

There are many unanswered questions about how the Ukrainians may have hit Moskva with two ASCMs. In Harpoon V one can play out the detection, engagement, and damage results. While many pundits are saying that Moskva “should” have seen—and defeated—the inbound missiles, Harpoon V helps us understand why this may have not been an “automatic” thing.

[...]

The defensive model in Harpoon V assumes ships are at General Quarters with all sensors and weapons at the ready. General Quarters is also very hard to maintain with watertight doors secured and people constantly on edge. It is more likely that Moskva was operating in some lesser readiness condition. This of course means sensors and weapons may not have been ready (extending the Reaction Time) and watertight integrity/damage control teams may not have been set to immediately deal with damage.

[...]

The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) in his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) shared a study showing the number of Exocet equivalents (approximately equal to one 3M24) it would take to cripple or sink a warship (see Fig. 6-1, Exocet Missile Equivalents versus Full-Load Displacement for Ships Out of Action and Sunk, p. 160). The table goes up to 7,000 tons but extrapolating the data to ~10,000 tons (Moskva is 9,380 tons standard displacement) indicates that two hits are very likely enough to put Moskva out of action and four or five hits would be sufficient to sink the ship. Assuming two missiles and maybe one sympathetic detonation of ordnance that’s already three hits…with maybe a fourth from fire and flood damage. In many ways the surprise should not be Moskva sinking but if the ship somehow survives.

It’s bad enough losing a ship, but worse not losing it in combat:

At this point the Russian need to claim the ship was saturated with dozens of missiles and they heroically downed all but the last two. The story will be the Captain stood on the bridge with his middle finger raised and said, “F*ck you, Ukrainian missile!”

Tom Clancy used an earlier edition of Harpoon to game out The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising — which he did with Larry Bond, the US Navy officer who developed the game. A Forbes piece from a couple years ago describes the origin of the game:

In July 1976 a young naval officer made the short walk from his warship to a destroyer tender docked nearby. Lieutenant (JG) Larry Bond returned to the USS McKean with a precious copy of the NAVTAG wargame. And because it was a Secret document, he promptly signed it in to his ship’s classified material locker. NAVTAG (Naval Tactical Game) was an official war game used to train U.S. Navy officers how to fight with their ships. It was a great training aid, but its classified status created a bureaucratic barrier to playing it, so it rarely came out of the safe. What Bond thought was needed was a non-classified version which could be played more easily. It was the beginning of the now famous Harpoon wargame lineage.

[...]

When Bond released the first version in April 1980 it was an instant success, even winning the H.G. Wells award in 1981. Bond knew all about wargames, being an associate of Dave Arneson of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Arneson’s company even publish the first two editions. While it was popular with the civilian audience, it was also a hit with professional war fighters. It was easier to play than NAVTAG, and free from classified material, but retained the realism needed in a navy setting.

Arneson was not the only famous person associated with the game. Upcoming author Tom Clancy bought a copy of Harpoon and began corresponding with Larry Bond. Clancy used the game during his research for his first novel, The Hunt for Red October. His second book, Red Storm Rising, was based on scenarios tested out playing Harpoon. The bona fide wargaming gave the book a level of realism and credibility which sets it apart from many other Techno Thrillers. Bond was also Clancy’s co-author on the book.

Red Storm Rising was essentially a Soviet Invasion of Europe war game written as a story. It was a scenario familiar to naval planners. So if you have ever wondered why Russia’s Tu-22 Backfire bombers featured so prominently, it was a real-world concern of NATO navies. Armed with powerful supersonic missiles, these could overwhelm all but the latest warships. It was the threat that AEGIS and the F-14 Tomcat were primarily intended to counter.

In Red Storm Rising — spoiler alert — the Soviet Navy achieves a decisive early victory against a US Navy carrier group by using air-launched decoy drones to draw the carrier’s air patrol far away, while Tu-16 Badger bombers attack from another direction, causing considerable damage. Apparently the Ukrainians pulled off this trick against the Russian Moskva, with their Turkish drone.

Another tactical lesson from the book seems to be playing out, too. Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before the enemy can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away.

(The Harpoon V Jumpstart rules are free to download.)

The Pentagon builds its budgets in five-year plans, much as the Soviet Union once did

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

The Pentagon builds its budgets in five-year plans, Christian Brose notes (in The Kill Chain), much as the Soviet Union once did:

Once the Pentagon starts paying for people, places, and things, it has to keep paying for them. This means that the majority of the money that the Department of Defense plans to get in future years has already been obligated by past decisions. And once those programs get started, it is incredibly difficult to stop them, because of how many stakeholders in and out of our government benefit from continuing them at all costs.

[…]

Of the limited future money that remains unspoken for, the process to plan how to spend it begins nearly two years before the Pentagon actually receives a dollar of that money from Congress.

[…]

In that gap of time, entirely new technologies are developed. Brand new companies are founded. And the Pentagon cannot plan to take advantage of any of them, so it programs its future money toward capabilities and technologies that it knows about now, which makes it exceedingly difficult to be dynamic, adaptive, and responsive to unforeseen conditions.

[…]

What’s more, if the Pentagon wants to shift, or “reprogram,” any of this funding for other purposes, it often requires permission from four different congressional committees, and the total amount of money that the Pentagon is allowed to reprogram in a given year is roughly .5 percent of its budget.

[…]

As each layer of bureaucracy was added to govern the sprawling defense enterprise, some power shifted to the top. But much of this was power on paper. In reality, most power still remains at lower levels, concentrated ironically in what are known within the largest non-democratic institution in America as “communities of interest.”

[…]

What this means, in practice, is that countless decisions affecting enormous amounts of defense spending are made by entrenched parochial interests spread around the Department of Defense that have neither the authority nor the incentive to make bold moves that change America’s defense program. This leads the Pentagon’s many communities of interest to view their senior leaders, who come and go every few years, as tantamount to part-time employees who are not around long enough to really matter—or, as a friend in one of those communities once put it to me, “the Christmas help.”

[…]

Military servicemembers are only in a given job for a few years before they rotate to another one. In that short time, they are rarely rewarded for rocking the boat or raising problems up the chain, least of all when their complaints regard the failure of their own institutions to do new things or adopt new technologies for which few people as yet see a need. Such disruptions are more often viewed by the powers that be, who manage military careers, as a reason to doubt whether a person is a team player who deserves a top job in the next promotion cycle. Those who are rewarded are people who shepherd the existing programs of their respective communities of interest through the budget process with as little change as possible.

[…]

The Navy fixates on “ship count.” The Air Force fixates on its number of squadrons. The Army fixates on its “end strength,” the number of soldiers in its ranks. And the Marine Corps has traditionally fixated on amphibious ships.

[…]

For example, despite decades of progress in unmanned aviation, both the Navy and Air Force are planning to spend billions of dollars to develop new, manned fighter jets that they expect to deliver to the force many years from now.

[…]

Both services are also developing autonomous aircraft, but they are limiting them to missions centered around traditional, manned fighter jets—refueling them, in the case of the Navy, and defending them, in the case of the Air Force.

[…]

The truth is that Congress has considerable power to correct the failings and oversights of the Department of Defense and the defense industrial base, but Congress too often uses its awesome powers for things that just do not matter that much to the future effectiveness of our military. It is hard not to think that this is related, in some way, to the significant reduction in the number of members of Congress with military experience, which is roughly half of what it was thirty years ago, which contributes to a growing unfamiliarity with the US military among the very people charged with overseeing it.

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The only possible victory would be local but total

Saturday, April 16th, 2022

Discussing Elon Musk potentially buying Twitter, Curtis Yarvin (Mencius Moldbug) says, “I rarely think anything is meaningful. But I think this is.”

Action in a conflict is strategically positive if it makes further action easier. For example, in a shooting war, a battle is won if the result of the battle is to make the next battle easier. The same is true of a political confrontation.

The occupation of Ottawa was a defeat, not a victory (which should be easier to see now that it is not the Current Conservative Thing), because it left the powers that be stronger, and the powers that would be weaker. The regime fortified itself against any future clever democratic uses of eighteen-wheelers, and field-tested new tools of financial suppression. The participants and organizers were left with legal problems.

[...]

Almost every conservative action is a defeat by this standard, which is why only losers are conservatives. For instance, traveling in Austin, I noticed that the streets had been largely cleared of homeless encampments (which have been pushed into the nearby forests). Most people take this as a conservative victory. It is actually a defeat.

It is a victory in the ordinary sense of the term — an action which gets what the actors want. It is a tactical victory — but a strategic defeat. At a party the other day, I spoke to one of the people who orchestrated this “victory,” and explained why I saw it this way.

In general, victory on an issue-based political rebellion is a strategic defeat, because it reduces the energy of support. Aristocratic support is crucial for any serious rebellion. Severe disorder in aristocratic cities produces rebellious thoughts among aristocrats, who start to question truths they had previously held sacred.

The first stage of these rebellious thoughts is the “unprincipled exception.” In the 1980s, it violated the principles of many aristocratic New Yorkers to vote for “tough on crime” Republicans. Seeing the results of their own principles in their own lives, they did not react by becoming Republicans — they reacted by voting for a Republican. They did not change their principles — they created an exception to those principles.

There are three fates for such an exception. It can stay what it is; it can go away; or it can expand to become a genuine change in principle. Because electing a Republican mayor created a tactical victory that gave the voters what they wanted, the exception went away — its troubling cognitive dissonance was no longer needed. Had the issue persisted, the exception would have stayed as it was or expanded.

Instead, thirty years, the progressive citizens of a mostly-safe, mostly-orderly New York looked at themselves and asked why they tolerated such unprincipled policing. Finding no answer, they rolled it back. Inertia no longer protected the consequences of the exception — and the conservative boomers in Queens and Staten Island who had allied with the exception were moving out and dying off. And the new consciousness was specifically programmed against “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk.” In the end, the tactical victory was lost and became near-impossible to repeat. Finem respice.

The general lesson we learn from this is that, for a rebel, all true victories are total. He who makes half a revolution digs his own grave.

The only possible victory would be local but total:

These are the only kinds of incremental wins that rebels should shoot for — “niche coups” which completely and irreversibly capture a part of the whole.

Victory is only achieved if Musk completes his whole plan — buying Twitter and taking it private. This is because, as Musk fully recognizes, compliance with power is economically optimal. It is easy for power to control a public company — since a public company must be managed to maximize profit and serve the shareholders, just set up incentives which ensure that compliance is profitable. If there is only one shareholder and he has ulterior motives beyond profit, this control mechanism ceases to work. In any other situation, the management has a fiduciary responsibility to comply.

Would it be a strategic victory? Again, a strategic victory is a victory that makes other victories possible. It goes without saying that a monopoly social-media platform not beholden to the prestige media and its single synoptic perspective would be a source of enormous power that could create all kinds of tactical and strategic victories.

Strike rapidly, consolidate gains, harden victory into a fait accompli

Friday, April 15th, 2022

Christian Brose explains (in The Kill Chain) how our near-peers plan to win a future war:

Indeed, that is exactly how China plans to win a future war in Asia and how Russia plans to prevail in Europe: strike rapidly, consolidate their gains before US forces can respond effectively, harden their victory into a fait accompli, and force the United States to escalate the conflict to attack and dislodge their forces. This kind of rapid aggression will only become easier when future war is moving at the speed of hypersonic weapons and intelligent machines.

To deter this kind of conflict, the United States must have nearly all of the military forces required to defend against great-power aggression right where war might occur.

This necessitates positioning large numbers of new military forces, especially autonomous systems, advanced missiles, and electronic attack systems, in Europe and Asia.

It will also require the eventual forward deployment of advanced manufacturing and other means of production that could rapidly generate vast quantities of replacement forces in the event of conflict, where losses would be significant.

In Kyiv, exactly the same thing happened, but in reverse

Friday, April 15th, 2022

In the old days, Edward Luttwak notes, a CIA officer appointed to serve in a foreign country whose language he did not know would apply himself furiously to learn as much of it as possible:

But now, very few CIA officers speak any foreign language. Their superiors do not demand that they learn them, and they themselves are too busy chatting with each other to talk with the locals — other than with English-speaking local counterparts who mostly tell them what they want to hear.

This is why Biden paid a high political price for the effortless Taliban conquest of Afghanistan and the rapid fall of Kabul: the CIA told the White House that the Afghan army would hold out on its own for much more than a decent interval, for years perhaps, and said nothing at all to suggest that it might crumble without a fight. Not knowing Tajik, Uzbek, or any Pathan dialect, the CIA officers who uselessly served in Kabul from their offices did not overhear the jokes on the street about the Afghan army, or hilarious accounts of how incompetent fools could become instant officers by paying a modest bribe.

Because American generals, including media-star David Petraeus, flatly refused to call upon the regiments of Pathans, Tadjiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who might fight out of ethnic solidarity, instead creating a mythical national “Afghan” army, the result was a fraud from day one. When the time came, they did not fight or even flee: they handed over their US-supplied weapons to the Taliban.

In Kyiv, exactly the same thing happened, but in reverse. Just as in Kabul, we had CIA officers with no situational awareness. They did not listen, or understand, or even speak Ukrainian — they proclaimed it unnecessary “because everyone speaks Russian”, before sheepishly admitting that they themselves did not. Hence the CIA told the White House that Zelenskyy would flee, that the government would dissolve, that the Ukrainian army would not fight, and that the Russians would control Kyiv in 24 hours.

Since the White House still gave credence to the CIA in spite of its long history of incompetence, it ordered the urgent, even panicked evacuation of the US diplomatic mission to Lviv. Had they had any idea at all, they might have noticed that the Russians proposed to invade Europe’s largest country with very few troops — 150,000 compared to the 800,000 sent into far smaller Czechoslovakia in 1968 — and told the White House that with a bit of help the Ukrainians would contain the invasion.

But the CIA is highly professional in its press relations, and sure enough the New York Times promptly published an article that featured “former intelligence officers” highlighting the impossibility of ascertaining “fighting spirit”. It was as neat an illustration as any of why Kabul fell, and why Kyiv could too. Unless the US remedies its CIA problem by emptying out and fumigating the place, before restaffing it with people who care enough about the world to learn its languages, the US will continue to fly blind — and crash into the next Ukraine.

China also lives in a G7 world

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

But by the second day of the Ukraine war, Beijing realised that China also lives in a G7 world, Edward Luttwak notes, with its economy utterly dependent on the daily arrival of bulk carriers loaded with animal and human food:

China’s economy was self-sufficient if miserably poor in 1976 when I first visited, with a population on the edge of malnutrition. But today’s citizens will not grin and bear it without their meat, eggs, or milk. Last year, Xi Jinping’s naval groupies, including the jovial retired Admiral Luo Yuan, suggested that the US could be scared off from defending Taiwan against a Chinese invasion by sinking a US warship or two, perhaps even an aircraft carrier. Now Xi must realise that if a US warship is sunk, the supply of animal feed would end.

The infantry is once again the queen of the battlefield

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

The current war in Ukraine is causing no end of trouble for the staff officers and civil servants working on next year’s budgets, Edward Luttwak remarks:

The infantry is once again the queen of the battlefield, empowered as it is by anti-tank missiles that pursue armoured vehicles until they destroy them, and by portable anti-aircraft missiles that are the doom of helicopters, even if they cannot intercept much faster jets. This means that current combat helicopter and armoured vehicle purchases should be cancelled until they can be redesigned with much better protection; that is active defences that detect and intercept the incoming missiles — a process that might take years. (So far only Israel has active defence systems for its armoured vehicles )

By contrast, killer drones that can reliably destroy armoured vehicles and anything else beyond the horizon are grotesquely underfunded given their demonstrated combat value, largely because they are captive to air force priorities, set by pilots and ex-pilot senior officers. Only with political intervention can the stranglehold of the flying fraternity be overcome — they are today’s reactionary horse cavalry that resisted tanks in the Twenties. But the main thing, of course, is to have more infantry and to train it very well, and that raises the need for compulsory military service which only Sweden has confronted so far — by re-instituting it.

Strategy is perhaps the most abused word in Washington

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

Strategy is perhaps the most abused word in Washington, Christian Brose notes (in The Kill Chain):

Government strategies are more often laundry lists of hopes and dreams that help leaders avoid making choices. They seek to be inclusive of everyone’s priorities and give every kid a trophy, rather than picking winners and losers among priorities that are all competing for finite resources. They say everything — and thus, nothing.

[…]

Instead, we will need to relearn a lesson of history that we largely forgot during our three decades of uncontested dominance: that great powers are capable of limiting one another’s ambitions and rendering many of each other’s goals impractical or unachievable, regardless of how desirable those goals may be for one side or the other.

Great powers force each other to define their core interests, the things each is truly willing to fight over, and then make compromises and accommodations as necessary over the rest, lest competition descend into conflict.

[…]

This is already the reality with China. It is unlikely, for example, that a US president would send an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in a significant crisis with China the way President Bill Clinton did in 1996. US carriers would probably not even operate within a thousand miles of the Chinese coast in the event of a conflict.

[…]

China may be capable of denying dominance to America, but America can do the same to China. And that should be our goal: preventing China from achieving a position of military dominance in Asia, which might be accompanied by a growing global assertiveness that could lead to even more detrimental consequences for the United States and our closest allies.

The Russians assessed Nato as weak because it was weak

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

War is the domain of paradox, contradiction, and boundless surprise, Edward Luttwak likes to say:

For the “post-Pacifist” German mainstream, the most bitter paradox of all is that the Russians might not have attacked Ukraine had they foreseen Germany’s response: that the Bundestag would cancel the new Russian gas pipeline, invest in regasification terminals, send weapons to Ukraine, reaffirm its fealty to Nato, and move to drastically upgrade its armed forces with a €100 billion injection.

The Russians could not possibly have known these things. The day before Putin launched his invasion, the German government declared that the new Russian gas pipeline would be inaugurated no matter what, and that they would send no weapons to Ukraine; it even affirmed it would prevent Estonia’s delivery of 122mm howitzers to Kyiv because those guns had briefly belonged to Germany when the West German army absorbed East Germany’s. Yet more egregiously, Germany also denied overflight permission for British transports delivering weapons to Ukraine. As for Nato, Germany reiterated its refusal to spend 2% or even 1% of its GDP for defence. If there were to be collective defence at all, let it be European, and directed by the decidedly civilian European Commission.

[...]

All this has now slipped into oblivion in today’s Europe, where Nato’s centrality and its US leadership are largely uncontested. The Russians assessed Nato as weak because it was weak, and therefore attacked Ukraine. Yet because they attacked, Nato is stronger than it has been for decades.