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Not Checkers, not Chess, no Go, Gen Perkins — it’s Calvinball time

Friday, July 7th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — on changing our very notions of game and challenge — or unanticipating the unanticipated ]

Reading David Perkins, Big picture, not details, key when eyeing future from last year, and thinking:


It’s scary to read Gen. Perkins — the head of TRADOC — disagree with him, sometimes quite sharply along the way and particularly when he talks about games — and then wind up agreeing with the second half of this, his closing sentiment:

So now that we know what game we are playing and assumedly what is required to win it, we can employ these insights to lay out a path toward building the Army our country will need in 2025 and beyond. It is our duty, and our country depends on us to get it right.

We don’t know what game we are playing, nor — love that word “assumedly” — what is required to win it. And if I’m right about this, how can our potentially mistaken insights help us “lay out a path toward building the Army our country will need in 2025 and beyond” — when “getting it right” is liable to be an emergent property, only recognizable as such in retrospect?

Let me cut to my main objection, for which Gen. Perkins’ checkers and chess games are analogies. Of the two games, Perkins said:

Checkers and chess are played on the same style board, but the games are far from similar. For a long time, the Army has designed forces based on a “checkers-based” world outlook. Today, we’re switching to a “chess-based” appreciation of the world.

I’ll come back to this game metaphor in time, but the paragraph I first halted at, for which the games paragraph I just quoted is a metaphor, is this one:

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we lived in a “complicated” world, but one with a single defining enemy for which we could plan against. In today’s “complex” world, there is no single defined future foe with relatively known capabilities, doctrines and intent. This is not a minor point, as designing and building the future Army rests upon what kind of world we expect to see.

I’m not at all sure jointness will mean anything at all like “cross-service cooperation in all stages of the military processes, from research, through procurement and into operations’ — whether the services be Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, or also include the National Guard, whether we think in terms of Land, Sea, Air, and Space, or throw in Cyber. What if jointness is better conceived of in terms of heart, mind and soul?

Our command structure isn’t structured along those lines, so we can’t put the Chief of Staff of the Heart, the Commandant of Minds, and the Chief of Soul Operations under the Chairman and Vice-Chairman and call them the Joint Chiefs — the very absurdity of the phrasing makes the whole idea almost ridiculous.

And yet heart, mind and soul — or for that matter, the Buddhist body, mind and speech — are the fundamental building blocks of a full and sane human personhood, and their social equivalents the equivalent bases of a full and sane human society.

Maybe heart, mind and soul are more basic than land, air and sea?

Did we ever think of that?

What I’m suggesting here, in fact, is that the challenges we face may differ from previous challenges in this: that they won’t fall into the expected mold, they won’t look to us like challenges at all, we won’t categorize or react to them as such — in short, that they will be oblique to our assumptions and expectations.

One other point of disagreement, briefly:

by 2005 we confronted a well-understood problem in Afghanistan and Iraq, and began optimizing much of the Army to meet that current threat

Oh really? You could have fooled Zarqawi!


Getting back to games, we have some very nice comparisons and metamorphoses already “in play” in the strategic literature. Perkins’ “Checkers to Chess” is one, “Ghess to Go” is another and more sophisticated example — Scott Boorman‘s The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy is the classic here — “Chess to Star Trek’s 3-D chess” is another one worth considering, or “Chess to Mjolnir’s Game” for that matter, “Go to Buckminster Fuller‘s World Game” yet another, while “Go to the Glass Bead Game” is clearly one which would fascinate me personally..

But I’m convinced, as I’ve said before, that the game we need to understand is the one known as Calvinball:

Calvinball — Calvin and Hobbes‘ favourite game to play. There is only one main rule in the game — that you can’t play it the same way twice.

Now that game idea is an audacious one, rivaling and perhaps even surpassing Peter Suber‘s awesome game, Nomic:

in which the rules of the game include mechanisms for the players to change those rules, usually beginning through a system of democratic voting. Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move.

When I meantion Calvinball, I not infrequently quote the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net.

Now that’s talking!

And Roland Barthes:

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

Switching games?

We’re blurring game-boards in real time, according to CTC Sentinel editor-in-chief Paul Cruikshank:


Okay, here’s another mind in the Natsec arena, that switches the playing field from “game as cricket or chess” to “game as zero-sum or non-zero sum” — President Rouhani of Iran, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post — Iran, mark you, in WaPo — who says:

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

Rouhani is pretty conservative in Iranian terms, though we sometimes consider him a reformer — but very “other” in his thinking, compared to ours. And if we wish to game him, our Red Team must be able to think as ably and otherly as he does.

How would TRADOC suggest we adapt to a shift in games of that sort?


H/t The Strategy Bridge.

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.

In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

Friday, December 13th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.


Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.

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