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Archive for May, 2010

Some Anglospheric Multimedia

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

A BBC podcast on Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War. Perhaps the most sublime work on strategy of all time ( Hat tip to The Warlord)

Next, and unrelated: 

Via blogfriend Robert Paterson, a new talk by educational and creativity thought leader, Sir Ken Robinson. The ritual TED bowing to Al Gore notwithstanding, if you are interested in education issues, this is a must see video.

The Desert of American Strategy

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

“Welcome to the Desert of the Real….”

Dr. Thomas Rid, at the excellent Kings of War blog, had a sharp historical observation:

The State of Strategy

Who produced the greatest strategists of all time, dead and alive? America or Europe?

Before wading into that minefield, we need some criteria, some points of orientation. The key should be a body of strategic theory, writings of general nature. Just making history or writing about it doesn’t count here. That excludes two sets of people who might otherwise be considered strategists or military writers: great military historians – like Hans Delbrück or Douglas Porch – and exceptionally gifted commanders, such as Napoleon or perhaps Petraeus.

First the old strategists of Europe. Most would go by one name only: Clausewitz, Jomini, Ardant du Picq, Hubert Lyautey, Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, Frank Kitson, Basil Liddell Hart, Robert Thompson, C.E. Callwell, Roger Trinquier, André Beaufre, David Galula, T.E. Lawrence, Giulio Douhet, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Helmuth von Moltke, Engels, Lenin – to be fair in this little contest, we should not include those thinkers who predate the United States, such as Thucydides or Machiavelli.

Contrast this with America’s greatest classic writers of strategy: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, and Samuel Huntington. (I hesitate to count John Boyd; he really didn’t write enough.)

….So how about living strategists? Given that America eclipsed Europe in terms of geostrategic weight some time in the first half of the 20th century, and given that the United States attracts the best brains in all fields, you would expect strategic tomes adorned with stars and stripes all over the place. But no.

….But whatever the metric, Europe is doing pretty well, then and now. Although it clearly seems we’re past our prime. The same cannot be said about the United States, which is probably still near the height of its power. For that, the strategic record is surprisingly thin

Let’s set aside the question of Sun-Tzu, Musashi,  Kautilya and other Asian strategists. Also the subject of John Boyd as Col. Boyd did not lack for kind words in the KoW comments section. We’ll just concentrate on Rid’s query of “Why so few American strategists of great stature?”. It’s a very good historical question.

I think there are a number of possibilities:

  • DEFINITION: Rid is talking about military strategists, however that is not the only domain in which strategic thinking can take place. If you look at strategic thinking in politics ( which fits well with including Machiavelli as a strategist), diplomacy or business then the claim for American strategists becomes much stronger. For most of our history, our standing Army was small and poorly trained, so our natural strategic genius found outlets elsewhere as captains of industry and statesmen. Hard to see Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller, Mark Hanna, J.P. Morgan, John Hay, Frederick W. Taylor, FDR, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker, Kevin Philips, Richard Nixon and Bill Gates as lacking in a capacity for strategic thinking.
  • ABUNDANCE vs. SCARCITY: American conditions in terms of geography, political economy, population density and governance were historically radically different from those prevailing during most of European civilization. Strategy fundamentally involves choices and material abundance – such as a frontier with free or exceptionally inexpensive land- mitigates the need for hard choices. The US, for example, in contrast to European nations or Russia, never experienced real famine, shortages of vital raw materials or a stark dependency upon export markets for survival. If anything, material abundance presents too many rather than too few options, leading to a willingness to compromise on a mutually agreeable rather than a “best” choice because the sense of existential threat is absent.
  • IRREGULAR WARFARE: The Indian wars took 300 + years of tribal insurgency to subdue Native Americans. Conventional battle, by comparison was a relative and episodic rarity in American history until the 20th century.
  • DEMOCRACY vs. ARISTOCRACY-OLIGARCHY: American military history, until WWI at least, is dominated by a political cult of military amateurism, state and local militia as a safe “democratic” alternative to potentially “tyrannical” professional standing armies. European strategists were usually aristocrats enjoying rentier positions as absentee landlords or the patronage of court sinecures, which permitted them the luxury of unearned or nominally earned income on which to study and write. American officers were not so lavishly funded by Congress and many of our best military officers, at least in the antebellum period, were Southerners who were the sons of planter gentility. Postbellum military thought is not much to brag about until Mahan.

What other reasons do you see ?


Monday, May 24th, 2010

WAR by Sebastian Junger

Received a courtesy review copy of WAR yesterday from the publisher, due entirely to the kind offices of Kanani.

Read the first 50 pages this afternoon and found it it interesting because as a book, it exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from Mackinlay and Kilcullen. Where the former are giving a panoramic or telescopic view of COIN as strategic-operational-grand tactics, the author of WAR, journalist Sebastian Junger, is using a microscope to show COIN in the Korengal valley, Afghanistan as seen by an Army platoon, squad and individual soldier. Maybe an electron microscope would be a better analogy. Gritty.

Will write a full review when I am finished. If any active duty or veteran readers were in Korengal or Afghanistan or have read WAR and care to sound off in the comment section, you are cordially encouraged to do so.

Junger is also part of the documentary film project, RESTREPO, which he personally financed.

Recommended Reading

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Top Billing! BBC‘Artificial life’ breakthrough announced by scientists

Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. The researchers constructed a bacterium’s “genetic software” and transplanted it into a host cell. The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species “dictated” by the synthetic DNA. The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.

This is a seminal scientific breakthrough with staggering downstream implications. John Robb commented on a few of them:

Now that we have a self-replicating biological platform (yeast — likely one of many different platforms that will be floated over the next couple of years) that can accommodate a completely synthetic genome, the race in on:   towards an abundance in nearly every material or process that can be enabled via biological means.

Nagl vs. Galbraith at The Economist….. 

Coming Anarchy (Curzon) – Education will not save us, Part 2

….To all of this, I can only repeat my Robert D. Kaplan-esque conclusion from my previous post-education will not save us. The long-term battle against Islamist terror is actually fueled by the promotion of education. Whether it be 19th century France, 20th century Russia and China, or 21st century Islamic World, education is not the cure for political extremism but often the catalyst to violence. Pursuing the mass education of the poor as policy to counter the spread of extremism, is misguided.

SWJ BlogOn the DNI

An excellent media round-up on the resignation of Admiral Dennis C. Blair  as DNI

Eide Neurolearning BlogThe Creative Advantage: How Vivid Memories of the Past Help Predictions for the Future

When researchers looked at the brain regions involved in looking at the past, they found many of the same regions activated in response to prompts to imagine events in the future.

….But because personal memory is so closely linked to future prediction pathways, shouldn’t we think about the implications for education? There’s a lot concern these days about American students not being prepared for the new millennial global workplace. Perhaps we spend too little time cultivating rich personal experiences, the development of spatial intelligence, and future thinking.

The Atlantic (Marc Ambinder)The Secret Pentagon Spy Ring

The CIA doesn’t think STRATCOM should play in this lane. But neither does Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, or the State Department, or the National Security Staff. Information Operations involves five fields: deception, psychological operations, computer network operations, electronic warfare and operations security. When you hear these terms, you think military, war, penetration of secret bunkers and the like. The State Department and the others want to make sure that Information Operations don’t conflict with what they call Strategic Communications — getting the message out that the US isn’t fighting against Islam, that the Afghan military is a credible institution. State sees IO from the perspective of an ad agency: what does the customer need? STRATCOM sees IO from the perspective of a military targeter: what’s the target, and how to we use all resources to manipulate it.

The problem is that the main thrust of the current administration’s strategy for combating terrorism involves strategic communication, State Department-style. There is room for both approaches, of course, but there isn’t room for an entity like STRATCOM to make unilateral decisions about how to influence the adversary. 

Schmedlap – Why do Good Citizens Suddenly Become Terrorists?

I am not proposing a cause for their shift in behavior. But I am asserting that nobody should be shocked or befuddled. Affluence, integration, and apparent moderate viewpoints do not provide any kind of moral or spiritual guidance. They are not a foundation upon which happiness is built. They are only indicators of past performance, not indicators of future performance. The real head-scratcher is that anyone would measure someone’s success in life by these worldly, materialistic standards.

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen (Rufus F.)Plato, “Crito”, and should we obey bad laws?

There was Socrates and then there was Plato’s Socrates.


Authors @Google – Dr. David Kilcullen ( Hat tip NYRKinDC)

Missile Defense Defense

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I begin by stating I do not have the technical competence required to make an independent assessment here.

Recently, the NYT published an article quoting leading missile defense critic,  MIT Professor Ted Postol:

Review Cites Flaws in U.S. Antimissile Program

Mr. Obama’s announcement of his new antimissile plan in September was based on the Pentagon’s assessment that the SM-3, or Standard Missile 3, had intercepted 84 percent of incoming targets in tests. But a re-examination of results from 10 of those apparently successful tests by Theodore A. Postol and George N. Lewis, being published this month, finds only one or two successful intercepts – for a success rate of 10 to 20 percent.

Most of the approaching warheads, they say, would have been knocked off course but not destroyed. While that might work against a conventionally armed missile, it suggests that a nuclear warhead might still detonate. At issue is whether the SM-3 needs to strike and destroy the warhead of a missile – as the Pentagon says on its Web site.

“The system is highly fragile and brittle and will intercept warheads only by accident, if ever,” said Dr. Postol, a former Pentagon science adviser who forcefully criticized the performance of the Patriot antimissile system in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Naturally, the Pentagon disagreed with Dr. Postol, but their response was unusually blistering this time (and ignored by the Times):

Missile Defense Agency Responds to New York Times Article

….This sea-based interceptor missile is designed to intercept and destroy short to medium-range ballistic missiles using “hit to kill” technology, which means that the interceptor collides directly with the target missile or warhead, and destroys the target using only the force of the collision.  The allegation that target intercepts were reported as successful when they were not successful is wrong, and the data presented by the authors in the article is flawed, inaccurate and misleading.

In each successful intercept test the target missile was destroyed by the Aegis BMD/SM-3 system due to the extreme kinetic energy resulting from the “hit to kill” intercept.  In each instance, the mission objective of “hit to kill” of the unitary or separating target was achieved. 

Postol and Lewis apparently based their assessment on publicly released photos gleaned from a sensor mounted aboard the SM-3 and postulated what they perceived to be the interceptor’s impact point although they had no access to classified telemetry data showing the complete destruction of the target missiles, or subsequent sensor views of the intercept that were not publicly released so as not to reveal to potential adversaries exactly where the target missile was struck.

Actually, the publicly released videos, which can be seen at www.mda.mil/news/gallery_aegis.html, and from which the still photos were extracted, show infrared images from both interceptor and airborne sensors demonstrating the complete destruction of the target missiles.

All of the tests cited by the authors as “misses” were tests involving short-range unitary targets, when the warhead remains attached to the booster rocket.  These tests were correctly described by the Missile Defense Agency as successful intercepts, because they successfully intercepted the target.  Post-test analysis from collected telemetry showed that the interceptor’s kill vehicle impacted the target body or warhead within inches of the expected impact point that was calculated to maximize damage against a variety of warhead types.

….The authors of the SM-3 study cited only tests involving unitary targets, and chose not to cite the five successful intercepts in six attempts against separating targets, which, because of their increased speed and small size, pose a much more challenging target for the SM-3 than a much larger unitary target missile. They also did not mention the fact the system is successfully intercepting targets much smaller than probable threat missiles on a routine basis, and have attained test scores that many other Defense Department programs aspire to attain.

I mention all this because my amigo Shane Deichman, who like Postol, is a physicist and a former scientific adviser for the DoD (Postol for the Chief of Naval Operations, Deichman for JFCOM) and is currently working at the National Missile Defense Agency, felt that the rebuttal scored a direct hit on Postol’s claims about the system tests ( which might explain why it did not get cited by the NYT, though in fairness, the Times did quote the agency spokesman). I trust Shane’s judgment but I’m not able to expound on it, so he is cordially invited to add any comments here that he might wish that might further the reader’s (and my own) understanding.

Comments are, of course, open to all.

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