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Heavy Metal: When Irregulars Go Armored

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

If the symbol of the 20th century insurgent was the AK-47 and a red banner, his 21st century counterpart may someday be recognized by the suicide belt and the “homemade tank”. Irregular fighters have always used light arms, civilian passenger vehicles and armor captured (or donated by) from conventional armies, but the ability to produce serviceable fighting armored cars is a new wrinkle. They could not stand up to an American or Russian tank company, of course, but they are not meant to do so.

Most prevalent and evolved in Mexico’s narco-insurgency where cartels use these “monsters” converted from SUVs and various types of light and heavy trucks to battle one another and as “troop carriers” but these DIY armored vehicles have also appeared in the recent Libyan and ongoing Syrian civil wars. Where heavy anti-tank weapons, air power and real tanks are scarce, these narco-tanks are useful additions to irregular combat power and convey an intimidating image to lightly armed police and the public.

Dr. Robert Bunker and Byron Ramirez, with the support of Small Wars Journal, Borderland Beat.com and the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, have a new scholarly compilation on the subject of irregular use of DIY armor in Mexico:

Narco Armor : Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicles in Mexico

….The wave of violence that has left thousands dead began in early 2005, when former Mexican
president Vicente Fox sent government troops to Tamaulipas to fight the cartels. For the past
seven years the government has ordered its military to fight the cartels directly, which, in turn,
has led drug cartels to improvise and develop their own methods of warfare to combat both
government troops and other competing cartels.

The extreme rivalry among various Mexican drug cartels for regional control of the drug trade
market has yielded an arms race. The following collection of articles and images addresses a
segment of the military technology utilized by violent non-state actors during this period: “narco armor” or, more accurately, improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFV).

….Mexican cartel use of IAFVs and armored sport utility vehicles (ASUV) may yield some
important lessons for military counter-criminal insurgency efforts. Still, many unanswered
questions exist concerning the fielding of narco armor in Mexico. Reports of these vehicles
being fielded span roughly from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012, with a spike in activity 5
surrounding them taking place around mid-2011. These vehicles had predominantly been utilized

in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in engagements between the Zetas and Gulf cartels and in a
few other locales (see Map Locations). While it has been said that the Mexican government has
seized well over one hundred of these vehicles, only about two dozen photographic examples
exist per our research (see Picture Gallery).

….Given the apparent cessation of the fielding of narco armor since early 2012, quite possibly these vehicles have reached an evolutionary dead end, with more emphasis once again placed by the cartels on fielding more stealth-masked armored vehicles, such as armored SUVs, that better blend in with civilian cars and trucks so as to eluded identification and targeting by Mexican federal forces. Still, given the ever changing conflict waging in Mexico among the cartels and against the Mexican government, future resumption of IAFV employment will always remain a potential. 

Read the rest here.

During the Russian civil war (1917-1922), armored trains complete with heavy machine guns and artillery were used by both Bolshevik and White armies across the vast expanse of the Eurasian steppe and the armored train subsequently made spotty appearances in civil wars in China and Spain before fading away. This less likely to happen with homemade armor which is smaller and infinitely more mobile and can be created in a sufficiently large garage with time, elbow grease and a supply of scrap metal.

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Dawn and Decadence, Innovation, & The Face of Battle — top 3

Friday, October 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun

In a year where I’ve not been able to read as much as normal and with 89 days remaining in 2013, these three titles are the best so far. I’m not finished with Dawn, but it seems like the late Professor Barzun is an old friend (here is a video from 2010). Barzun’s opus was published when he was 93 and was almost ten years in the making. Dawn has been sitting on my shelves for four or five years and I’d started it two or three times only to get bogged down and lose interest. Well over half way finished and I’m pretty sure I’ll be rereading this title for years to come (co-blogger Lynn Rees reports he’s read it four times). Barzun’s scope covers the gamut: religion, literature, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, philosophy, and the aristocracy/life at court. Since many of these topics are interconnected he uses an ingenious method to assist the reader in keeping up. He uses this: (<page number)(page number>) to direct the reader to something previously discussed or something he will cover later. In the text, he will recommend “the book to read is” “the book to browse is” in brackets. I’ve found this method distracting as I’ve read three books he referenced since I started… Barzun also provides generous lift quotes in the margins to give the reader a flavor for a particular writer or idea/example. If the book had a traditional bibliography, I dare say it would cover a couple hundred pages–at least. Dawn has been a pleasure I’ve been taking in small doses and am in no hurry to finish. This is the best book of the genre that I’ve read.

Men, Machines and Modern Times, by Elting Morison

Elting Morison’s Men, Machines is reviewed at Amazon by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “purely and simply one of the best books ever written on the process of innovation and the interaction of technology, culture, systems, and individual personalities.” I could not agree more. Morison’s book is a collection of essays dealing with change and man’s inherit but paradoxical reaction to it:

Yet, if human beings are attached to the known, to the realm of things as they are, they also, regrettably for their peace of mind, are incessantly attracted to the unknown and things as they might be. As Ecclesiastes glumly pointed out, men persist in disordering their settled ways and beliefs by seeing out many inventions…Change has always been a constant in human affairs…

From gunnery at sea to 19th Century railroads, Morison provides illustration after illustration of man, his institutions, and the almost universal resistance of both to change. Morison observes of inventors (real “disruptive thinkers’) [this was written in the early 1950’s]:

I once collected evidence on the lives of about thirty of these men who flourished in the nineteenth century. A surprising number turned out to be people with little formal education, who drank a good deal, who were careless with money, and who had trouble with wives or other women.

Morison devotes one essay to the characteristics and ills of a “bureau.” He describes the difficulty of getting anything accomplished within an average bureaucracy—largely because bureaucrats live for process and harmony. He says:

Taken together, a set of regulations provides a pattern of behavior for the energies bureaus are set up to regulate….Regulations are a way of keeping a system of energies working in harmony and balance…First it is easier to make a regulation than to abolish it.

Morison’s eighth and concluding essay provide Some Proposals for dealing with change and newness—in a word, solutions to many of the problems identified earlier. That said, only the most dedicated reader will complete the seventh (and longest) chapter, according the Morison, originally intended to be a book about the history of 19th Century American railroad innovation. Overall, I concur with Speaker Gingrich and highly recommend this title.

The Face of Battle, by John Keegan

A title needing no introduction at Zenpundit, I’ll only offer this title as one of the best books of the genre I’ve read. Keegan covers three battles across 500 years of history, Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme. In each, he brings alive the battlefield and provides the conditions faced by combatants—often up close and personal. Keegan’s scholarship, insight, and importantly, his humility in addressing a topic he admittedly had no first hand experience make this a must read for anyone in the profession of arms, and recommended for anyone seeking more insight into how we fight.

That’s a wrap, be back soon! 

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New Book: America 3.0 is Now Launched!

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century – why America’s Best Days are Yet to Come by James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus

I am confident that this deeply researched and thoughtfully argued book  is going to make a big political splash, especially in conservative circles – and has already garnered a strong endorsement from Michael Barone, Jonah Goldberg, John O’Sullivan and this review from  Glenn Reynolds in USA Today :

Future’s so bright we have to wear shades: Column 

….But serious as these problems are, they’re all short-term things. So while at the moment a lot of our political leaders may be wearing sunglasses so as not to be recognized, there’s a pretty good argument that, over the longer time, our future’s so bright that we have to wear shades.

That’s the thesis of a new book, America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity In The 21st Century.The book’s authors, James Bennett and Michael Lotus, argue that things seem rough because we’re in a period of transition, like those after the Civil War and during the New Deal era. Such transitions are necessarily bumpy, but once they’re navigated the country comes back stronger than ever.

America 1.0, in their analysis, was the America of small farmers, Yankee ingenuity, and almost nonexistent national government that prevailed for the first hundred years or so of our nation’s existence. The hallmarks were self-reliance, localism, and free markets.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, people were getting unhappy. The country was in its fastest-ever period of economic growth, but the wealth was unevenly distributed and the economy was volatile. This led to calls for what became America 2.0: an America based on centralization, technocratic/bureaucratic oversight, and economies of scale. This took off in the Depression and hit its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when people saw Big Government and Big Corporations as promising safety and stability. You didn’t have to be afraid: There were Top Men on the job, and there were Big Institutions like the FHA, General Motors, and Social Security to serve as shock absorbers against the vicissitudes of fate.

It worked for a while. But in time, the Top Men looked more like those bureaucrats at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and the Big Institutions . . . well, they’re mostly bankrupt, or close to it. “Bigger is better” doesn’t seem so true anymore.

To me, the leitmotif for the current decade is supplied by Stein’s Law, coined by economist Herb Stein: “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.” There are a lot of things that can’t go on forever, and, soon enough, they won’t. Chief among them are too-big-to-fail businesses and too-big-to-succeed government.

But as Bennett and Lotus note, the problems of America 2.0 are all soluble, and, in what they call America 3.0, they will be solved. The solutions will be as different from America 2.0 as America 2.0 was from America 1.0. We’ll see a focus on smaller government, nimbler organization, and living within our means — because, frankly, we’ll have no choice. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. If America 2.0 was a fit for the world of giant steel mills and monolithic corporations, America 3.0 will be fit for the world of consumer choice and Internet speed.

Every so often, a “political” book comes around that has the potential to be a “game changer” in public debate. Bennett and Lotus have not limited themselves to describing or diagnosing America’s ills – instead, they present solutions in a historical framework that stresses the continuity and adaptive resilience of the American idea. If America”s “City on a Hill” today looks too much like post-industrial Detroit they point to the coming renewal; if the Hand of the State is heavy and it’s Eye lately is dangerously creepy, they point to a reinvigorated private sector and robust civil society; if the future for the young looks bleak,  Bennett and Lotus explain why this generation and the next will conquer the world.

Bennett and Lotus bring to the table something Americans have not heard nearly enough from the Right – a positive vision of an American future that works for everyone and a strategy to make it happen.

But don’t take my word for it.

The authors will be guests Tuesday evening on Lou Dobb’s Tonight and you can hear them firsthand and find out why they believe “America’s best days are yet to come

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Book Mini-Review: Makers: the New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 

This is a fun book  by the former editor-in-chief of WIRED , author of The Long Tail and the co-founder of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson. Part pop culture, part tech-optimist futurism and all DIY business book, Anderson is preaching a revolution, one brought about by the intersection of 3D printing and open source “Maker movement” culture, that he believes will be bigger and more transformative to society than was the Web. One with the potential to change the “race to the bottom” economic logic of globalization by allowing manufacturing entrepreneurs to be smart, small, nimble and global by sharing bits and selling atoms.

Anderson writes:

Here’s the history of two decades of innovation in two sentences: The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world.

This book is about the next ten years.

….Why? Because making things has gone digital: physical objects now begin as designs on screens, and those designs can be shared online as files…..once an industry goes digital in changes in profound ways, as we’ve seen in everything from retail to publishing. The biggest transformation, but in who’s doing it. Once things can be done on regular computers, they can be done by anyone. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening in manufacturing.

…..In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics,  all of which I’d argue are transformative:

1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (“digital DIY”)

2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities.

3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content.

Nations whose entire strategy rests upon being the provider of cheapest labor per unit cost on all scales are going to be in jeopardy if local can innovate, customize and manufacture in near-real time response to customer demand. Creativity of designers and stigmergic /stochastic collaboration of communities rise in economic value relative to top-down, hierarchical production systems with long development lags and capital tied up betting on having large production runs.

Interesting, with potentially profound implications.

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Congratulations!!

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

To Lexington Green and James Bennett, for finishing their new book, America 3.0 – due out (I think) in 2013 published by Encounter Books.

A political vision for an era desperately short on imagination and needing statecraft of inspiration.

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