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Twice lucky, or thrice? On dodging nuclear fireballs

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two Russian secular saints — and an Australian ]

It seems we’ve been lucky twice —


Read their two stories, and weep.


27 October 1962

Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war

If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China. [ .. ]

The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor.


September 26, 1983

The Man Who Saved the World by Doing Absolutely Nothing

It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union’s early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began sounding. One of the system’s satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word ‘LAUNCH.'”

That the U.S. would be lobbing missiles toward its Soviet counterpart would not, of course, have been out of the question at that particular point in human history. Three weeks earlier, Russians had shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space. NATO had responded with a show of military exercises. The Cold War, even in the early ’80s, continued apace; the threat of nuclear engagement still hovered over the stretch of land and sea that fell between Washington and Moscow.

Petrov, however, had a hunch — “a funny feeling in my gut,” he would later recall — that the alarm ringing through the bunker was a false one. It was an intuition that was based on common sense: The alarm indicated that only five missiles were headed toward the USSR. Had the U.S. actually been launching a nuclear attack, however, Petrov figured, it would be extensive — much more, certainly, than five. Soviet ground radar, meanwhile, had failed to pick up corroborative evidence of incoming missiles — even after several minutes had elapsed. The larger matter, however, was that Petrov didn’t fully trust the accuracy of the Soviet technology when it came to bomb-detection. He would later describe the alert system as “raw.”

But what would you do? You’re alone in a bunker, and alarms are screaming, and lights are flashing, and you have your training, and you have your intuition, and you have two choices: follow protocol or trust your gut. Either way, the world is counting on you to make the right call.

Petrov trusted himself. He reported the satellite’s detection to his superiors — but, crucially, as a false alarm. And then, as Wired puts it, “he hoped to hell he was right.”

He was, of course. The U.S. had not attacked the Soviets. It was a false alarm. One that, had it not been treated as such, may have prompted a retaliatory nuclear attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies. Which would have then prompted … well, you can guess what it would have prompted.


Oh, and the Australian. I came by this topic via an article about this man, Professor Des Bell:


A strategist with books — he’s the sort of chap this blog thrives on! And he, too, seems to have saved us from a fiery furnace of our own devising:

Des Ball: the man who saved the world

THAT America could launch a limited nuclear strike against Russia was a fashionable belief in US strategic theory of the 1970s. Policymakers thought that if Cold War tensions boiled over, they could hit selected Soviet targets in a way that controlled further escalation and forced Moscow to back down.

It took the iconoclastic Australian security scholar Des Ball to point out that the theory was bunkum. In his influential essays of the early 1980s, Ball argued that reasoned strategic theory was likely to go out the window once the missiles started flying.

Among the first targets would be the other side’s command and control centres – its eyes and ears. Once blinded, a superpower – consisting of real people responding with human instincts – would not distinguish a ”controlled” strike from a full-scale attack and would retaliate with everything it had.

Thrice lucky? I prefer to call it grace.

Manea interviews H.R. McMaster at SWJ

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Octavian  Manea sits down with historian, military futurist and veteran of 73 Easting and Tal Afar,  LTG H.R. McMaster at Small Wars Journal.

Future Missions Through the Lens of the US Army Operating Concept

Q: Let’s revisit your Tal Afar experience with an eye to the future operational environment where (mega)cities, urban slums and operating among populations is becoming the new normal. What are some of the personal lessons that you see relevant for this not very distant future?

A: Most importantly, we need to generate, develop and maintain understanding in these very complex environments. We need to understand our enemies and we also need to understand the populations among whom these wars are fought. We need to understand the political, tribal, religious, ethnic dynamics that often affect the missions and the security situation. The cultural, social, economic, religious, and historical considerations that comprise the human aspects of war must inform wartime planning as well as our preparation for future armed conflict. In Iraq in particular and across the Middle East if we look at Daesh; they are able to use violence and propaganda to excite historical grievances, magnify sectarian identities, and pit communities against each other and then portray themselves as patrons and protectors of an aggrieved party. Once they are in those communities they establish control mainly through intimidation and coercion, and also through a broad range of other incentives and disincentives they apply among the populations. They use that control of territory to mobilize resources in order to perpetuate and accelerate the conflict usually by committing mass murder and mass rape and mass child abuse.  Daesh directs violence against the other community in order to incite retribution which then fuels the cycle of violence. The cycle of violence creates chaos and Daesh use that chaos to establish control over territory, populations and resources. We need to understand the fear, the sense of honor, and the interests of communities that are party to that conflict.  What Daesh does is they essentially use ignorance to perpetuate hatred, hatred to justify violence, and violence prevents education and perpetuates ignorance, and it becomes a cycle. This is perfect for them. They will have a population that is undereducated, largely illiterate, and susceptible to demagoguery. The cycle has to be broken by defeating the enemy physically and then by consolidating gains to protect populations and territory. What it is equally important is to consolidate gains psychologically by addressing the fear, sense of honor and interests of the communities that are in conflict. This was what was critical in Iraq especially between 2007 and 2010 where we were able, along with Iraqi leaders, to forge what turned out to be a very fragile political accommodation between the parties in the sectarian civil war. I think it is clear in retrospect that we didn’t do enough to sustain that fragile political accommodation and as a result there was a return of large scale communal violence that set the conditions for the ISIL/Daesh to establish control over territory in Iraq and create this horrible situation. The lesson is that we have to understand these complex environments and we have to address what is driving the conflict.  And ultimately what is necessary is mediation between the parties that were in conflict to remove support among the population for murderers and extremists on all sides of the conflict.

 [Emphasis in the original]
Read the rest here.

Small Wars and Big Thoughts

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

U.S. Marines display captured flag of Nicaraguan rebels led by Augusto Cesar Sandino

While pop-centric COIN may be dead, small wars and irregular warfare will always be with us. We might say they are in the fourth or fifth generation; are an open-source insurgency; or have become “hybrid“; or exist in some kind of mysteriousgray zone“. Whatever we call them, small wars are here to stay.

Two recent publications explore the topic.

The first is a taxonomic work from Robert Bunker at the Strategic Studies Institute:

Old and New Insurgency Forms

….Blood Cultist (Emergent). Strategic implications:  Limited to moderate. This insurgency form can be viewed as a mutation of either radical Islam and/or rampant criminality, as found in parts of Latin America and Africa, into dark spirituality based on cult-like behaviors and activities involving rituals and even human sacrifice. To respond to this insurgency form, either federal law enforcement or the military will be the designated lead depending on the specific international incident taking place. An all-of-government approach will be required to mitigate and defeat this insurgency form, which has terrorism (and narco-terrorism) elements that represent direct threats—especially concerning the Islamic State—to the U.S. homeland […]

I strongly agree with Bunker’s “dark spirituality” angle present in deviant religious-military movements. For example, ISIS, for all its protestations of ultra-orthodoxy in its Salafism exudes a spirit of protean paganism in its words and deeds.

The second is a book, Clausewitz on Small War by Christopher Daase and James W. Davis (Hat tip to Nick Prime). From a book review at the London School of Economics:

….The current generation’s trend in understanding Clausewitz is that of moving beyond On War – an analysis which Clausewitz himself considered incomplete and which was published posthumously. As part of this shift, 2015 alone saw the publication of a new account of his life, together with a biography of his wife and a comparison between Napoleon’s and Clausewitz’s ideas on war, to name a few.

Through Clausewitz on Small War, Christopher Daase and James W. Davis make a significant contribution to such efforts of contextualisation. Yet theirs is quite distinct from other works, in that they translate into English writings that were thus far accessible only to those with a reading knowledge of German. This is precisely where the value of the book lies, as well as being the editors’ primary aim: opening up Clausewitz through translating his own words, rather than in interpreting them. In doing so, they offer the tools through which future analyses can be better informed.

The editors nonetheless do set out a case in the introduction: Clausewitz’s writings on ‘Small War’ are testimony to his continuing relevance. To illustrate this, they offer four chronologically arranged texts – a journey of how his thinking on Small War evolved. Each text was written with a different frame of mind. The first is comprised of lecture notes on small-unit warfare that are informal and rather technical; the second and third are memoranda distributed to military reformers and through which Clausewitz passionately makes the case for militias; and the final is a chapter from On War, again on the arming of the people.

I would add that ZP contributor, Lynn Rees, also had a recent post on the role of Marie von Clausewitz in shaping “Clausewitz” and Clausewitzian thought.

That’s it.

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Friday, March 4th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

In writing The Strategist, Bartholomew Sparrow has demonstrated that his talents as a biographer match his skill as a scholar. Cautious and careful, in telling the life and national security career of the highly regarded Brent Scowcroft, Sparrow never slips into hagiography, or gives Scowcroft a free pass in situations where it would be easy to do so. In retaining his critical eye, Sparrow has consequently permitted Scowcroft’s selfless character and frequently wise judgement to shine on their own merits in the historical record. The result is that The Strategist is a biography of remarkable power, like a great river, there are deep currents of insight below the gently moving surface.

At a sprawling 716 pages, Sparrow had room to investigate Brent Scowcroft’s family heritage in Mormon Utah, his journey at West Point from student to professor, his intellectual and professional mentors (Herman Beukema, William T.R. Fox, George Lincoln, Richard Yudkin, Andrew Goodpaster) and Scowcroft’s unfailing devotion to his wife Jackie, who became an invalid in the years when Scowcroft’s career embraced its largest burdens. It is this context that helps explain the strong ethical core that Scowcroft demonstrated time and again as a military officer, strategist and statesman as he handled brilliant but brittle personalities at the center of national security and foreign policy.

What Sparrow makes clear, time and again, was that it was Scowcroft’s unusually high emotional intelligence coupled with an amazing work ethic that provided Scowcroft with the high opportunities that allowed him to bring his talents as a strategist and manager of national security to bear. Quite simply, Scowcroft connected with people and his relentlessly consistent integrity in dealing with everyone – literally from interns to journalists to Presidents of the United States – was such that his word was regarded as being as good as gold. His equanimity too was almost as legendary as his ethics. ” I never heard Scowcroft get angry” is a frequent refrain of former colleagues. His detractors are few: Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President had a bitter break with Scowcroft over the Iraq War, had nothing but praise to say of his former friend’s integrity and judgement.

Not only did Scowcroft forge an unusually close strategic partnership with two presidents (Ford and Bush I) but he managed to win the respect and trust of so paranoid and aloof a figure as Richard Nixon (it is far less clear that Scowcroft trusted Nixon). Scowcroft’s secret was that inside a Beltway where politics and personalities trended Machiavellian, he operated in a zone of trust. Even the Clinton and Obama administrations sought Scowcroft’s counsel because they were assured of his absolute discretion and impartial judgement.

Asked to compare himself with his former boss, Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft demonstrated that he knew his strengths and his limitations. Sparrow writes:

“….Scowcroft had his own well-developed sense of military strategy and world history. He was also brilliant at questioning and evaluating the merits of his new ideas and policy options as well as a superb bureaucratic operator who knew how to put concepts into practice. But unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft said he was better at reacting to and evaluating ideas than he was dreaming them up; that was why he liked to hire people smarter than himself. ‘I don’t have a quick, innovative mind’ he claimed. ‘I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do better is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Was Scowcroft a good strategist?

The first problem in answering this question, at least from reading Sparrow, is that Scowcroft’s rarely equaled skill as a manager of the NSC decision-making process tends to greatly overshadow and blur his record as a strategist.  Scowcroft’s National Security Council, which worked well under Gerald Ford when the greatest of Washington prima donnas, Henry Kissinger, reigned as Secretary of State, hummed like a machine under George H. W. Bush. One would have to go back to Eisenhower to see such a comparable example of smooth national security decision making. The key was the absolute trust Scowcroft established, as Sparrow records:

“Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and other senior administration officials were able to establish relationships based on trust. ‘One of the reasons why the system worked was that Baker and Cheney totally trusted Brent to keep them informed and to fairly represent their views to the president,’ Gates said. ‘He was the only national security adviser in my view that was ever so trusted by the two other principals’ – and Gates had served under six US presidents at the time he wrote the above, before his time as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Scowcroft’s management of the NSC process also worked well because of his creation of other interagency groups to expedite decision making. One of his key innovations (retained by subsequent presidential administrations) was the formation of the Principals Committee which included the Vice-President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the national security adviser – all meeting without the president.”

Scowcroft achieved the holy grail of natsec policy – “whole-of-government” planning and execution. Part of the reason was that Brent Scowcroft was extraordinarily close to the elder President Bush, far closer than in the dysfunctional yet highly successful partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. That accounts for some of it, but Condi Rice was just as close to George W. Bush as Scowcroft had been to Bush’s father yet her tenure as national security adviser is given low marks, not least for being completely unable to rein in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Vice-President Dick Cheney who was virtually the prime minister of the administration in its early years. The difference may have been that Scowcroft could not only speak with the President’s unquestioned authority, he knew better when to do so than Rice and consequently, seldom needed to do it at all.

The second problem in answering “was Scowcroft a good strategist” is that he clearly was not and never aspired to be a grand strategist in the manner of Richard Nixon, George Kennan or Otto von Bismarck.  Scowcroft never approached national security by attempting to reshape the geopolitical calculus despite the regrettable tagline of “new world order”. Instead, Scowcroft’s strategic philosophy was to manage risks as they emerged by peacefully integrating a collapsing rival state system piecemeal into the existing international community status quo at the lowest possible cost of disruption. Maximizing geopolitical opportunities or strategic gains was not his primary yardstick.

This is why as Sparrow, relates, that Scowcroft and the senior President Bush strongly discouraged “triumphalism” in American rhetoric about the Cold War while trying to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to manage the Soviet collapse; and why the break up of Yugoslavia was viewed with such distaste (Scowcroft had served in the embassy in Belgrade under Kennan). Conversely, this is also why  Scowcroft was so eager to use American military force in Iraq, to defend and reinforce post-Cold War international legal norms from Iraqi aggression, but not to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Brent Scowcroft deserved the credit for both his early insight that force would be required to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the wisdom of the Bush administration to wield overwhelming force with restraint and diplomatic finesse.  When the second Bush administration – an administration filled with his former colleagues – opted to march on Baghdad, it would have been a simple matter for Scowcroft to remain silent, but instead he offered counsel. When his advice was rebuffed, Scowcroft did the harder thing and made his case against the Iraq War public even though it cost him friendships and access to the President of the United States. A rare choice in Washington.

Scowcroft is indeed a strategist by any reasonable measure and something greater, a statesman for whom the country and its national interest always came first.

Strongly Recommended.

Manea Interviews Galeotti on Hybrid War at SWJ

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Dr. Mark Galeotti

Octavian Manea has another excellent installment of his interviews with warriors and scholars of war over at Small Wars Journal. In this case, Russian security and transnational crime expert, Professor Mark Galeotti of NYU and In Moscow’s Shadows blog.

Hybrid War as a War on Governance

 As Clausewitz emphasized, we first need to understand exactly the nature of the war/threat that we are confronted with. What are the core features of this Russian approach on hybrid warfare?

I like to use the term non-linear warfare, in part because it means nearly nothing, and doesn’t come with the intellectual baggage of a term like hybrid warfare which, after all, it is a term that was designed to discuss how insurgents fight modern armies. We don’t have yet a proper vocabulary. The key thing is to realize the extent to which we all need to return to the essential – almost Clausewitzian – notion of war. In this context, war is a political instrument. War is one means of making the other side do what you want it to do, such as simply to remain part of your sphere of influence. What this approach is really about, in a way, is about placing kinetic military operations back in the toolbox. For a long time we thought them as entirely separate: diplomacy and politics on the one hand and warfare in the other. In some ways, warfare happens when the other things fail. What this doctrine is saying is no, let’s just appreciate that in fact we are talking about a whole spectrum of capabilities that can range from soft power suasion, to economic pressure, to increasingly tough diplomatic lines to a whole gradation of military operations that can range from sending 10 people into blocking a bridge, to sending a hundred people to help foment a local insurrection, to sending 10.000 people in a full-scale war. These instruments can and should be used together rather than as entirely separate pieces. In a way, the point of non-linear war is to bring war back in to the spectrum of modern statecraft, to appreciate that it is an acceptable instrument in Russian eyes and to make sure that policy-makers and policy executors realize the importance of the political impact. It is not about metrics of casualties inflicted, how many bombing raids you manage to launch, all the things that we often see replacing actual military success as an indicator. It comes back to the political effect and the use of the military as a political instrument.

Is NATO’s Eastern Flank vulnerable to non-linear warfare?

Here is the key thing: if we look at what is going on, none of the current uses of the Russian military power should be considered the standard blueprint. If they do anything direct in the Baltic States – and I don’t actually think that they will – it will not be Crimea 2.0 or Donbass 2.0, but something that will be tailored to the situation there, to their perception of the threats and to what they actually want to achieve.

Let’s look at the three current uses of the military force. In Crimea the role of the military was to create a fait accompli. The forces were there to act as symbols of Russian statehood. In Donbass, we have forces being deployed with these manufactured local insurrections to create chaos, not because for one moment the Russians are eager for the post-industrial decaying Donbass, but precisely as a way of putting pressure on Kiev. If we look at the Baltic States, the long-range bombers that Russia is flying there are not intended to actually launch a military attack, but to create a constant political as well logistical stress on NATO. Three very different uses of military forces. The military provides a series of capacities within a highly integrated military, political, economic, social media, intelligence campaign to achieve your ends.

Why this evolution towards comprehensiveness?

It reflects a variety of processes, but the most fundamental one is the extent to which traditional war, especially between the most advanced powers, is almost incomprehensible in terms of actual direct costs, in terms of economic and political costs. There is a low-intensity war between Russia and Ukraine, but at the same time I can take a plane in Moscow and I can fly to Kiev. There is trade crossing the border, both legal and very heavily illegal. We live in a world where the old notion of war, war as a binary process, where you are at war or you are at peace, means increasingly less. So on one hand, traditional warfare is much less a usable tool. On the other hand, there is the fact that all societies now are much more casualty-averse. Even today’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union, can’t treat people as ammunition. Old traditional warfare is hardly conceivable unless it is essentially civil war where rational calculations tend to go out of the window. This is less of a new way of war so much as a way of fighting a war in a new world. It is the world that it has changed rather than the tactics and the ideas.

It is in this changed context that everyone is talking about the need to interconnect government agencies and apply a whole-of-government approach. The very reason why they are doing that is that the world has become so heavily interconnected. Of course, at the same time one of the pathologies of complex bureaucracies is departmentalization. In this respect, the Russians have an advantage. Not because they don’t have huge monolithic and often deeply competitive bureaucracies – which they do – but precisely because, at the top at least, Russia remains a pretty authoritarian regime. You have a chief executive who can force coordination in a way that is much harder in a democratic society.

Galeotti has a nice observation about the political and military fungibility of organized crime networks in a globalized environment that I would like to highlight:

….Looking at the underworld shows what happens in voids of governance. Organized crime flourishes where governance fails and because no governmental system is perfect there always will be organized crime. But the scale, the size and the depth of criminal operations depend on the scale of the governance failure. Modern war is increasingly determined precisely by how one seeks to impact the other side’s governability (we see this trend particularly in Ukraine) and also how one can exploit the weaknesses of the other side’s governability. This is not new. One could look at WW2, at the campaign in Italy and the deals struck with the Mafia to provide intelligence and assistance in seizing Sicily. What is new is that what was seen as a disagreeable ad-hoc tactic is becoming the way the Russians are approaching full-spectrum warfare. It is just seen as another perfectly viable, legitimate opportunity. If we look at Crimea. when the “little green men” were deployed there, they were complemented by much less professional, much less uniformly uniformed, thuggish local “self-defense groups.” It has become clear that they were the gunmen of the local organized crime groups, pressed into service as auxiliaries. And when you look at the regime installed in Crimea from the premier down, it is very heavily penetrated by people from within the criminal world. The same pattern happened also in Donbass, where organized crime figures have become local warlords. My belief is also that some of the terrorist actions in the rest of Ukraine were carried out not directly by sympathizers of the rebellion or Russian government agents, but actually by organized crime figures paid by the Russians. Russia is ahead of the curve in global organized crime, where you have a political-criminal-business elite, that is not formed by Tony Soprano-like figures, but from businessmen who have a portfolio of interests that ranges from the essentially legitimate through to the grey and then wholly illegal activities. The boundaries between organized crime, intelligence operations, state-operations have become increasingly unclear.

Read the rest here.

Organized crime has as a strategic objective monopoly control over black market activities (or at least an ability to “tax” other criminals who engage in them) through coercion and force. At times, in an effort to protect these illegal monopolies from rivals or the state, organized crime networks will evolve their capabilities into terrorists, insurgents, political actors and hybrids of any of these. The reverse is also true; insurgencies like the Taliban or FARC can become increasingly “criminalized” as their political context changes or the need to raise revenues increases.

The artificial divisions between crime and war and politics is generally a taxonomic preference of the modern West and its Westphalian state myths. East Asia by contrast, have long had examples of “hybrid” criminal groups – the Green Gang, the Triads, the Dark Ocean Society, the Yakuza, the Binh Xuyen  and so on. It was more or less normal for established criminal groups to be involved in politics or military affairs, at least on the local level. Those that could not manage this were simply bandits.

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