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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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Israel / Palestine: some delicate balancing acts

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- what does it mean to give a balanced view of an asymmetric conflict -- when the asymmetry may be as much moral as material, pragmatic as idealistic, as viewed from either side of the fray? ]
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The phrase “a fair and balanced view” rolls off the tongue easily enough, but what if truth and balance are, shall we say, asymmetric?

Is that balanced?

How about this one?

I can’t speak for Wajahat Ali. I’d prefer 0 : 0 myself, but do those two tweets balance — or cancel — each other out?

**

There are arguably other asymmetries that balance the hugely asymmetric ratio of Palestinian and Israeli death tolls, whether or not you think Zach Novetsky‘s comment is a valid one — how about this one (with a hat tip to Lex)?

Is that a rebuttal of Wajahat Ali’s asymmetry, essentially erasing it — or a voice in counterpoint to it, providing balance?

What about John Robb‘s assessment this morning?

Isreal just shot down a drone using a Patriot missile. ROI on that “attack” was ~100 to one. At $100 a drone, a solid strategy would be to launch them 24×7 to grief the air defense system.

Here’s a Washington Post blogger’s attempt to preface what the headline terms “The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts” with a balanced and balancing first paragraph:

In the current conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, both sides have attempted to harm the other. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Palestinian territory with the aim of harming Israeli civilians, while Israeli military strikes have hit hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip.

**

It’s pretty clear by now that I consider juxtaposition a singularly powerful device for raising questions — but part of the purpose of such questioning is to discover the ever deeper nuances of a situation. Consider, for example, this somewhat more nuanced analysis of the same events:

Israel’s astonishingly effective Iron Dome air defense has prevented Hamas from killing Israeli Jews and spreading terror in the civilian population. Ironically, though, the better Iron Dome works, the less sympathy the rest of the world has for a nation that remains under rocket attack.

There’s something close to the “simple twist of fate” Jung called enantiodromia going on there — although the reversal of polarities involves a switch from the “hard power” to the “soft power” realm in this case, there’s still a blowback effect.

**

Far preferable from my own point of view to the various asymmetries and imbalances we see in the real-time playing out of hostilities is this example of a symmetry of grief, recognized in a symmetry of compassion:

That’s a different — though related — conflict, of course.

Here’s a similar one, which I like because it ends “I defend ppl” — and one hopes in a 160 character parallel universe, Taslima would ineed have added “And vice versa” before that final remark, as her tweet surely implies:

**

And I’m always happy to see Christians and Muslims united in search of peace, but when two parties in a three-way tug-o-war make common cause — as in the case of Palestinian Christians and Muslims making common cause against Israel —

— should that be celebrated as a gesture of unity in the face of “crusade vs jihad” rhetoric across a wide swathe of the world, or viewed as an example of polarization, “Palestinians vs Israelis” — or both?

**

Those are some of the symmetries and asymmteries I have run across in commentaries on the situation — but how do participants view the situation? To anchor us in some of the political realities and ambiguities, here are some comments posted this week by two Israelis with close experience of the situation.

Yuval Diskin, Shin Beth chief 2005-2011, offered considerable nuance on his FB page:

I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.

PM Netanyahu speaking two days ago offered this blunt assessment, as reported in The Times of Israel under the header, Netanyahu finally speaks his mind:

He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. [ .. ]

Netanyahu has stressed often in the past that he doesn’t want Israel to become a binational state — implying that he favors some kind of accommodation with and separation from the Palestinians. But on Friday he made explicit that this could not extend to full Palestinian sovereignty. Why? Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan.

More explicitly:

Netanyahu didn’t say he was ruling out all territorial compromise, but he did go to some lengths to highlight the danger of relinquishing what he called “adjacent territory.” He scoffed at those many experts who have argued that holding onto territory for security purposes is less critical in the modern technological era, and argued by contrast that the closer your enemies are, physically, to your borders, the more they’ll try to tunnel under those borders and fire rockets over them. It had been a mistake for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, he added — reminding us that he’d opposed the 2005 disengagement — because Hamas had since established a terrorist bunker in the Strip. And what Hamas had been doing in Gaza — tunneling into and rocketing at the enemy — would be replicated in the West Bank were Israel so foolish as to give the Islamists the opportunity.

“If we were to pull out of Judea and Samaria, like they tell us to,” he said bitterly — leaving it to us to fill in who the many and various foolish “theys” are — “there’d be a possibility of thousands of tunnels” being dug by terrorists to attack Israel, he said. There were 1,200 tunnels dug in the 14- kilometer border strip between Egypt and Gaza alone, he almost wailed, which Egypt had sealed. “At present we have a problem with the territory called Gaza,” the prime minister said. But the West Bank is 20 times the size of Gaza. Israel, he said flatly, was not prepared “to create another 20 Gazas” in the West Bank.

And finally:

Beyond Israel’s direct current confrontation with Hamas, and the eternal Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu also addressed the rise of Islamic extremism across the Middle East — covering the incapacity of affected states to resist it, and Israel’s unique determination and capacity to stand firm. He said Israel finds itself in a region “that is being seized by Islamic extremism. It is bringing down countries, many countries. It is knocking on our door, in the north and south.”

But while other states were collapsing, said Netanyahu, Israel was not — because of the strength of its leadership, its army and its people. “We will defend ourselves on every front, defensively and offensively,” he vowed.

And in a passage that was primarily directed at Israel’s Islamist enemies, but might equally be internalized by those he plainly regards as Israel’s muddle-headed self-styled friends, he added: “Nobody should mess with us

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War on the Rocks: A New Nixon Doctrine – Strategy for a Polycentric World

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

I have a new piece up at the excellent War on the Rocks site that is oriented towards both history and contemporary policy Some Excerpts:

A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

….Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end [....]

….China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance. [....]

….What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. [....]

Read the article in its entirety here.

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A Low Visibility Force Multiplier – a recommendation

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Low Visibility Force Multiplier, Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, Jingdong Yuan

Through an interesting turn of events I was able to attend an event at the Center for a New American Security today where Dennis Gormley and Andrew Erickson discussed their new book, A Low Visibility Force Multiplier. A colleague with CIMSEC posted a link to a Wendell Minnick story in Defense News which led to the National Defense University pdf. I managed to read a large chunk last night/this morning—for a document that was written using open sources, the authors make a pretty compelling case that China’s Anti-ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), the so-called “carrier killer” isn’t the only missile in the PLAN arsenal U.S. Navy planners need to factor in.

From the Executive Summary:

Assessment

China has invested considerable resources both in acquiring foreign cruise missiles and technology and in developing its own indigenous cruise missile capabilities. These efforts are bearing fruit in the form of relatively advanced ASCMs and LACMs deployed on a wide range of older and modern air, ground, surface-ship, and sub-surface platforms.(9) To realize the full benefits, China will need additional investments in all the relevant enabling technologies and systems required to optimize cruise missile performance.(10) Shortcomings remain in intelligence support, command and control, platform stealth and survivability, and postattack damage assessment, all of which are critical to mission effectiveness.

ASCMs and LACMs have significantly improved PLA combat capabilities and are key components in Chinese efforts to develop A2/AD capabilities that increase the costs and risks for U.S. forces operating near China, including in a Taiwan contingency. China plans to employ cruise missiles in ways that exploit synergies with other strike systems, including using cruise missiles to degrade air defenses and command and control facilities to enable follow-on air strikes. Defenses and other responses to PRC cruise missile capabilities exist, but will require greater attention and a focused effort to develop technical countermeasures and effective operational responses.

The authors speculate that China has done the calculus and determined they can’t match us (or perhaps have no desire) in platforms, but rather are choosing a lower cost alternative: omassive missile barrages—so massive ship defense systems are overwhelmed. Numbers matter; as the great WayneP. Hughes, Jr. (CAPT, USN, Ret) points out in his seminal Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, naval warfare is attrition warfare. With that in mind, this paragraph illustrates the gravity (emphasis added):

Cruise Missile Ratios

DOD transformation assumes that by shaping the nature of military competition in U.S. favor, or “overmatch,” rivals will continually lag in a demanding security environment. What if this is a false assumption? In other words, China may be choosing to com- pete in a traditional or conventional maritime environment in which transformed U.S. forces are structured and equipped in a significantly different way. As analyst Mark Stokes has reported, some Chinese believe that, due to the low cost of developing, deploying, and maintaining LACMs, cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over the expense of defending against them. (103) The far more important—and difficult to estimate—ratio is that of PLA ASCMs to U.S. Navy defense systems. Numbers alone will not determine effectiveness; concept of operations and ability to employ cruise missiles effectively in actual operational conditions will be the true determinants of capability. Even without precise calculations, however, it appears that China’s increasing ASCM inventory has in- creasing potential to saturate U.S. Navy defenses. This is clearly the goal of China’s much heavier emphasis on cruise missiles, and it appears to be informed by an assumption that quantity can defeat quality. Saturation is an obvious tactic for China to use based on its capabilities and emphasis on defensive systems. PLAN ASCM weapon training, production, and delivery platform modernization continues to progress rapidly. Scenarios involving hostile engagement between PLAN and U.S. CSG forces could be quite costly to the latter due to the sheer volume of potential ASCM saturation attacks.

Dr. Erickson pointed out in today’s meeting that the Mark Stokes estimate may be an overstatement, but certainly illustrative of economics involved.

This is an important contribution and the challenges facing our Navy and Allies in the South China Sea/East China Sea lead me to conclude with hope that policy makers read and heed.

Strongest recommendation.

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Grinberg on Defense Industrial Base:Personal Theories of Power Series at The Bridge

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Mikhail Grinberg tackles a topic too often neglected in defense thinking, one that obsessed commissars and worried kaisers, translating economic production into military power and geopolitical influence:

Defense Industrial Base: A Personal Theory of Power

….The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) changed the scale of conflict and the materiel required to conduct it. At last there were “large-scale profits to be made” from the “business of war”.[v] In Genoa, Hamburg, and Amsterdam centers comprised of weapons manufacturers emerged alongside merchants that specialized in capital, financing, and market access. A multinational arms industry was born that “cut across not just national, but confessional, and indeed military boundaries.”[vi]

Berlin based Splitgerber & Daum was one firm born from this system. Formed in 1712, its two proprietors began as commissioned agents. They raised capital to supply munitions first to local arsenals in Saxony and eventually the Prussian army itself. Their growth can be attributed to an early observation: that success in their business “could be achieved only within the framework of a strictly organized mercantilist economy.”[vii]Patriotism became a marketing tool.

By 1722, Splitgerber & Daum was manufacturing “gun barrels, swords, daggers, and bayonets” at Spandau and assembling guns at Potsdam.[viii]By mid-century it was a conglomerate. Frederick the Great, unlike his grandfather the “mercenary king,” was not an admirer of contractors. But after the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763 he guaranteed the company a “regular flow of government orders” as long as it remained loyal to Prussian interests.[ix] He understood that in order to “raise Prussia to the status of great power required the services of merchants, manufacturers, and bankers.”[x] 

….World War II stretched this logic to its absolute; all state resources were translated into the machinery of war. In 1940 the US only built 2,900 bombers and fighters; by 1944 it built 74,000 on the back of industry. From 1941 until the war’s end 2,711 Liberty ships were built; welded together from 250,000 parts, which were manufactured all over the country. And from 1942 to 1946, 49,324 Sherman tanks were built by 11 separate companies such as Ford and American Locomotive?—?built by the “arsenal of democracy.”[xiv]

After the war, all countries began to balance national security objectives with resources via defense industrial base policies. A country’s industrial base capability could be measured as a combination of its scope (how many different cross-domain technologies it could develop), scale (at what quantity), and quality (battlefield performance).

Read the rest here.

Grinberg concludes his essay with very wise advice that I fear is doomed because it runs contrary to all present irrational defense acquisition incentives.

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