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T. Greer on the Geopolitics of Rising India

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Friend of zenpundit.com, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on the implications of Indian power relative to an increasingly aggressive China. It’s one of the better pieces I have read on the topic in some time.

Leveraging Indian Power The Right Way

Now that the affair in Doklam has come to a close, analysts of various stripes are trying to make sense of what happened and what lessons can be learned from the episode. One of the smartest of these write ups was written by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore for War on the Rocks. They’ve titled their piece “Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam,” and as their title suggests, Dr. Mastro and Mr. Tarapore believe the strategy employed by the Indians in Dolkam can be generalized and should be deployed to defend against Chinese coercion in other domains. They make this case well. I agree with their central arguments, and urge you to read the entire thing without regret.

However, there is one paragraph in their analysis that I take issue with. It is really quite peripheral to their main point, but as it is a concise statement of beliefs widely held, it is a good starting point for this discussion:

Over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power. [1]

From the perspective of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and the other redoubts of freedom that string the edges of the Pacific rim, the rise of the Indian republic is a positive good. We should do all we can to aid this rise. Here both the demands of moral duty and the exacting claims of realpolitik align.

I’ve phrased these ideas with more strength and moral clarity than the dry and jargon laden language of professional policy normally allows, but the sentiment expressed hits close to how most D.C. politicos think about the matter. The rightness of a rising India is a bipartisan consensus. Far less thought is given to what shape that rise should take. This is not something we should be neutral on. The contours of India’s rise matter a lot—not only for them, but for us, and ultimately, for all who will inherit the world we will together build. It might seem a bit grandiose to claim that the future of Asian liberty depends on the procurement policies of India’s Ministry of Defence… but this is exactly what I am going to try and convince you of.   

Read the rest here.

Greer gives very pragmatic advice to American policymakers courting India as to reasonable expectations and to the Indian defense establishment as to where Indian defense dollars would give PLA generals the greatest fits. This is sensible as both groups are likely to overreach: America too quickly pressing India for defense commitments it can neither afford nor politically digest and India seeking a naval contest with China for nationalist prestige at the expense of other critical defense needs.

China will build its own cordon sanitaire against itself by the relentless bullying and interference in the internal affairs of all its major neighbors in the Pacific Rim, friendless other than for two rogue state clients, Pakistan and North Korea and impoverished Cambodia. Our job is to assist China’s neighbors, including great powers India and Japan, in accelerating their acquisition of the military capacity to resist Beijing’s coercion; if it is less than an East Asian NATO, that’s fine. What matters is a robust counterbalance that has to be reckoned with in Beijing’s calculus.

Tommy the Russkie Tank-tank

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — A Russian tanker-toy saga ]

Another contribution to the maxcro / micro, war / games displays in my mental cabinet of wonders:

I’m sorry, this was about the only screen-grab I could manage that showed both the toy tank and its war-fighting seniors. In the children’s story, the toy tank gets left at the tank museum overnight, and is shocked and awed by the realities of which it is but a simulacrum — the OT 76, T 72, and most particularly the T-14 Armata super-tank.

The equation war : war games :: T-14 : toy tank eiher understates the significnce of the T-14 or exaggerates that of the toy — but equations between simulacrum and reality lie at the heart of such philosophical excursions as Baudrillard‘s Simulacra and Simulations, with its phony epigraph, a simulacrum of a quote from Ecclesiastes:

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.

In the case of this children’s book, we can postulate another equation: Russia : propaganda :: factory : advertising.

But see for yourself, some of the details are hilarious:

Boy general, boy bishop

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — children raised to high office, not a bad idea ]

The Make-A-Wish Foundation, with the help of Camp Pendleton, recently treated a young boy suffering from retinoblastoma – “a rare cancer of the eye” — to a day of Marine exercises. Brig. Gen. Vincent A. Coglianese temporarily assigned him the rank of general.

Which reminds me..

Hereford Cathedral’s account of the ceremony of the making of a boy bishop gives us a clue to the theology behind that medieval ceremony, recently revived:

This annual ceremony is a successor to a service that developed sometime in the thirteenth century. The climax of the ceremony takes place during the singing of the canticle Magnificat. As the choir sings the words He hath put down the mighty from their seat, the Boy Bishop displaces the Bishop of Hereford from his episcopal chair. This dramatic moment is charged with spiritual meaning.

An equally dramatic moment is recorded in the Gospels, when our Lord was asked by his disciples, who is the greatest in the kingdom of God? Much to their surprise Jesus gave them a memorable lesson, which still haunts the human imagination. Jesus took a little child ‘and set him in the midst of them’ (Matthew XVIII, 2). Deep in Christianity there has always been the teaching that children are nothing less than the measure of our humanity, and that no one will enter the kingdom of God ahead of them. This child-centred teaching about membership of God’s kingdom always comes as an affront to adult pride and invites grown-ups to think new thoughts and adopt new perspectives. Very appropriately, in one of the few surviving sermons preached by a Boy Bishop during the middle ages, the choice of text was ‘Except you will be converted, and made like unto little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

Let me start by saying it is an honor to be able to comment on such a classic work of strategic thought in such a forum as this.  I thank Mark/zen for this opportunity and hope that I am able to do justice to this subject.

I approach Thucydides’s work from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective. The book can be seen as perhaps the earliest attempt in Western literature to come up with a theory of grand strategy.  There is a lot to be said for this approach.  If we consider that Clausewitz’s general theory of war could be part of a larger general theory of strategy, or grand strategy, then a relationship between the two classic works, that is Clausewitz’s On War and Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War becomes clear.

This could come across as questionable for many, since at first glance the two books are quite different.  Clausewitz discusses various types of theory in his book providing military historical examples to make his point.  Thucydides gives a detailed history of a specific conflict from various perspectives; provides a intricate view of political relations, including narratives of the time.  Raymond Aron came up with an interesting comment on the two authors which puts these distinctions within a common context:

It seems that we owe the great books on action to men of action whom fate deprived of their crowning achievement, men who arrived at a subtle blend of engagement and detachment which left them capable of recognising the constraints and shackles of the soldier or the politician and also capable of looking from outside, not indifferently but calmly, at the irony of fate and the unforeseeable play of forces that no will can control.  Philosophy presents an image of pessimism.  For what, may one ask, makes victories precarious and the state unstable?  Whoever devotes himself to the state chooses to build sandcastles.  There remains for him only the hope  of Thucydides or that of Clausewitz: “My ambition was to write a book which could not be forgotten after two or three years, but which could be taken up several times when required by those who take an interest in this subject.”   Clausewitz, Philosopher of War, p 12.

Book 1 of The Peloponnesian War offers various points for consideration from a Clausewitzian perspective.  The conflict is rooted in the political relations of the various communities involved (see “War is an Act of Human Intercourse”, Book II, Chapter 3).  Sparta initially uses a Strategy of Annihilation, whereas Athens a Strategy of Attrition, to use Hans Delbrück’s terminology.  Both sides display various stages and types of moral and material cohesion which varies as the conflict progresses.  All three of these would warrant comment from this perspective, but there is an additional aspect which I intend to introduce here and deal with in future posts.  This is the concept of strategic narrative.

One of the advantages of Clausewitz’s general theory of war is that it is compatible with a wide range of other strategic thought which is not limited to the military.  Such different (non-military) thinkers as Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King approached social action and community perceptions from a distinctly Clausewitzian outlook.  All would understand the importance of strategic narrative.

In his book, War From the Ground Up, Emile Simpson not only defines strategic narrative, but links it to Clausewitz:

‘Strategic narrative’ is a contemporary term, but is a formalisation of a concept that has been present in all conflicts.  Strategic narrative is the explanation of actions.  It can usually be detected chronologically before conflict starts, in some form, as the explanation for participation in, or initiation of, the conflict; strategic narrative also operates as the explanation of actions during and after conflict.

Strategy seeks to relate actions to policy.  A policy outcome is ultimately an impression upon an audience.  It can be a physical impression, which in war would typically be defined in terms of death and destruction.  It can simultaneously be a psychological impression, typically defined in terms of an evolution in political alignment, not necessarily by consent.  For strategy to connect actions to policy it must therefore invest them with a great meaning in relation to its audiences, both prospectively and retrospectively. page 179-180.

This narrative should be realised in a coherent set of actions which give it expression . . . strategic narrative is not just concerned with audiences exterior to one’s side, or coalition.  One of the key functions is to achieve unity of effort, ideally to give coherent expression to that side’s will, as Carl von Clausewitz would put it.  page 182.

A strategic narrative that is seen as incoherent or contradictory by the various audiences, or becomes incoherent over time, will obviously fail in its purpose.

James Boyd White (“the other Boyd”) devotes an entire chapter to Thucydides in his When Words Lose Their Meaning.  The tight fit between the speeches provided by Thucydides throughout The Peloponnesian War and the strategic narrative then in effect act as an indicator of how these various strategic narratives develop or decay over time.  The words also act as reflections of the loss of moral and material cohesion within the various political communities depicted as the war progresses.  Boyd White describes accurately Thucydides world as related in Book 1:

. . . this was a highly structured world, rich in resources for argument and action.  The very fact that the cities could jockey for position as they did, each seeking to place the other in the wrong, shows that they operated on terms established by a shard and comprehensible discourse and that each was acting in part for an audience, internal or external, who would use that discourse to judge what it did.  Thucydides now gives us the opportunity to learn something about the nature of that discourse, for at this moment Corcyra sends a delegation to Athens to ask for an alliance, and Corinth sends a representative to resist them.  Thucydides presents their speeches in considerable detail.

This is a highly literary moment, of which we can ask: Of all the things that might be said here, what will the speakers choose to say? How will they try to persuade the Athenians to do what they want them to?  To what values will they appeal, for example?  What pleas, what charges, what veiled or explicit threats or promises, will they make?  Will they call on the gods, on compassion or justice, or on tradition of the law?  Will they appeal to the Athenians’ economic or military self-interest, and if so how will they define these things?  Or will they appeal to the Athenians’ sense of their own character, say, as virtuous or brave or generous, and how will they do that?  In what terms will they tell their stories?  page 62

Book 1 fittingly ends with Pericles’s speech to the Athenians (1.140-144), where he lays out clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.  He accurately depicts Athens’s advantage at the onset and rightly fears the potential blunders of his own side over the strengths and strategy of the enemy.  Given her position among the Greeks, Athens has no choice but to fight.

On to Book 2.

Sunday surprise: peering digitally around corners 2: Blade Runner

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — moving from a consideration of Holbein’s Ambassadors to a celebrated scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — and thence, wide-angle, to Kumbh Mela ]

Here’s the Bladerunner scene:

What Ridley Scott depicts is a camera with the ability to see around corners — a fantastic piece of science fictional cinematography, demonstrating a sufficiently advanced technology with a skill amounting to wizardry.


How close, though, can state-of-the-art cameras come to seeing around corners? Here’s what Nature has to say:

Andreas Velten, Thomas Willwacher, Otkrist Gupta, Ashok Veeraraghavan, Moungi G. Bawendi & Ramesh Raskar, Recovering three-dimensional shape around a corner using ultrafast time-of-flight imaging:


The recovery of objects obscured by scattering is an important goal in imaging and has been approached by exploiting, for example, coherence properties, ballistic photons or penetrating wavelengths. Common methods use scattered light transmitted through an occluding material, although these fail if the occluder is opaque. Light is scattered not only by transmission through objects, but also by multiple reflection from diffuse surfaces in a scene. This reflected light contains information about the scene that becomes mixed by the diffuse reflections before reaching the image sensor. This mixing is difficult to decode using traditional cameras. Here we report the combination of a time-of-flight technique and computational reconstruction algorithms to untangle image information mixed by diffuse reflection. We demonstrate a three-dimensional range camera able to look around a corner using diffusely reflected light that achieves sub-millimetre depth precision and centimetre lateral precision over 40 cm×40 cm×40 cm of hidden space.

Here’s another illustrative video:


Okay, seeing is simple, but we’re Zenpundit, so there’s gotta be a military angle we can see around, no?

Here are two possibilities — the first is called CornerShot:

while the second is called ShotView:


We’re still pretty far from Ridley’s Blade Runner, but the idea of seeing / shooting around corners has clearly caught the imagination of others.

Okay, those last two videos are for those interested in matters martial.

Kumbh Mela

For my own sake, and for the possible interest of blog-friend Pundita, let’s take a look at a video of Ramesh Raskar, head of MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture research group and one of the authors of the Nature paper quoted above.

Here Dr Raskar is talking about that most fascinating of Hindu festivals — and largest of human gatherings? — the Kumbh Mela

Talk about wicked problems — and crowd-sourcing solutions — and genius — and the manifold intersections of the secular and the sacred!

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