Archive for the ‘Grand Strategy’ Category


Geopolitics makes strange bedfellows

July 3, 2014

The steady success of ISIL in carving out a secure territory in Syria and Iraq is upsetting some old geopolitical equations.  Iran, seen by some as the likely “savior” of Iraq (or, at least, of its current government), is lobbing threats at the Kurds.  Turkey, meanwhile, long fearful of a Kurdish state, now considers embracing an independent Kurdistan to serve as a buffer against Iraqi violence and Iranian power.   The offshore power broker – the US – does not know what to do, because what might turn out to the best choice is also unthinkable:  Iran is currently the greatest threat to American interests in the region, and the force most likely to take the fight to the Iranians and to halt their geostrategic progress is, in fact, ISIL.  ISIL is closely (if complexly) affiliated with the al Qaeda organization with which the US has been at war since 9/11/2001 (and, arguably, for much of the decade prior to that as well).  It would be a nearly impossible sell to the American public – especially to the veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much for the last decade and a half – but at some point it may well be in America’s best interest to throw its support behind ISIL in order to thwart Iran.


How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015

April 9, 2014

That is the title of a 2010 journal article by James Kraska:

By 2015, U.S. command of the global commons could no longer be taken for granted. The oceans and the airspace above them had been the exclusive domain of the U.S. Navy and the nation’s edifice of military power for seventy-five years. During the age of U.S. supremacy, the Navy used the oceans as the world’s largest maneuver space to outflank its enemies. Maritime mobility on the surface of the ocean, in the air and under the water was the cornerstone of U.S. military power. The United States was able to utilize its maritime dominance to envelop and topple rogue regimes, as it demonstrated in Grenada and Panama, and use the maritime commons to ferry huge ground armies to the other side of the world and sustain them indefinitely, as it did in Vietnam and twice in Iraq. The unique capability to project decisive power rapidly in any corner of the world gave the United States deterrent power and unrivalled military influence.

All that changed in 2015, when the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, sunk to the bottom of the East China Sea. More than 4,000 sailors and airmen died and the Navy lost eighty aircraft. A ship that would take seven years and $ 9 billion to replace slipped into the waves. The incident upset not just the balance of naval power in Asia, but ushered in a new epoch of international order in which Beijing emerged to displace the United States.

If you have never read Kraska’s article, read it now.  If you have, read it again.  And ponder it while listening to senior US and Chinese officials trade tough talk over maritime disputes in the Western Pacific.


The Obama Doctrine: Nixon Doctrine redux?

April 7, 2014

James Kitfield with a very alarming piece of analysis for Breaking Defense:

Spiral of Decline

Indeed, to grasp the perils of this era of retrenchment after the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s important to understand how at some invisible point the Nixon Doctrine of retrenchment became a de facto strategy of managing military decline, with disastrous results by decade’s end. A balky Congress weary of the Vietnam conflict and of Nixon himself withdrew air support from South Vietnamese forces, leading to the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam in 1975. Reductions in defense spending cut too deep for too long, infamously leading to the “hollow Army” of 1980. The Shah of Iran, the United States’ top client in the Middle East, was overthrown by an Islamist revolution that heralded three decades of enmity between Washington and the Islamic Republic.  Sensing our strategic weakness, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime in 1979, putting Soviet forces on the doorstep of the Persian Gulf, America’s energy breadbasket.

What’s remarkable about the current era of retrenchment is how fast evidence is gathering of a similar spiral of decline. By conspiring in the imposition of “sequestration” spending caps, the administration and Congress have already caused a military readiness crisis, and if the caps are not lifted the Pentagon says it will have to cut U.S. ground forces to 420,000 troops, far below the 450,000 planned under the recently released defense budget (a level already down from the wartime peak of 570,000). Congress also plans to blunt the tools of statecraft, with a recent House Appropriations Committee spending bill proposing a $4.3 billion spending cut from the State Department’s $49 billion budget.

Read the whole thing.

I readily admit that I endorse a similar pattern – beggar the Army to the benefit of the Navy and the Air Force – but sequestration is a too blunt instrument, and the change is not being done with an eye toward a coherent embrace of any strategic framework, such as Offshore Balancing.   And the Obama Doctrine is not a product of sequestration, it was well in effect before the budget battles that led to sequestration.  But, for all the pre-positioning we read from the myriad potential presidential candidates, none are offering any sort of clear strategic vision for the US from 2017 onward.



Security Scholars vs. the US Air Force

January 13, 2014

Max Lord and Robert Farley have been advocating for an abolishment of the US Air Force, with its functions given over to the Navy and the Army (as they were when air power first developed until reorganization after World War Two).  Their arguments have not gained much traction, but they are back with a modified call to eliminate Outer Space from the Air Force realm of operations.   Their argument here makes a little more sense:

Like the sky and the sea, space is a commons; no state has a right to exclude others. Both the Navy and the Air Force have developed conceptual approaches to this commons.

Air Force space doctrine pre-emptively militarizes space. “Due to its speed, range, and three-dimensional perspective, air and space power operate in ways that are fundamentally different from other forms of military power,” the flying branch has stated. “Thus, air power and space power are more akin to each other than to the other forms of military power.”

But we argue that the Navy’s cooperative concept of the commons is more applicable to space than the Air Force’s concept, that the responsibility for space would fit more comfortably in the Navy than in the Air Force, and that, consequently, American pre-eminence in space can survive the end of the USAF.

I am an Air Force veteran and a member of the Air Force Association.  However, I am also a member of the US Naval Institute and a firm believer in the primacy of the navy as a determinant of US power; if forced to choose, I would privilege the Navy over the Air Force.  However, I would rather see defense reform that drastically shrinks the Army and puts the majority of its resources into the technically focused strategic services, the Navy and Air Force.  This would mean adopting offshore balancing as the strategic foundation of national defense.  I could even see giving all expeditionary land duties to the Marines and reducing the Army to a territorial service, sort of making the Army to the Marines what the Coast Guard is to the Navy.

I can see the argument for making space primarily a domain for the Navy.  But I cannot see doing so as a stalking horse for eliminating the Air Force.  We need services that are focused on advanced technology, as are both the Navy and the Air Force.  Rendering the Air Force duties to the Army would represent a tremendous technological loss at a time when our tech advantage is already diminishing.


US plans ABM base for Guam; should statehood follow?

December 10, 2013

via the South China Morning Post:

The US is planning to station anti-ballistic-missile systems on the Pacific island of Guam, a move ostensibly to defend against unpredictable North Korea, but which analysts say may be intended to counter China.

Within Washington’s defence plans for next year are provisions for siting terminal high-altitude area defence (Thaad) systems on the island territory, combined with the broader realignment of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

Guam is going to be a critical linchpin in US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, and as such it will eventually become a target for China.  As the Chinese are already doing with various islands inside the “first island chain,” they will eventually make similar claims within the “second island chain” and beyond.  I think the US should solidify its claim in the Western Pacific by offering full statehood to Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands territories.  At once, it would undercut likely future claims of colonialism from China and also raise the stakes of any interference in Guamanian waters or air space.


India near to adding two carriers, nuclear sub to naval service

August 12, 2013

India today launched its first indigenously build aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.   The Vikrant will now undergo several years of sea and air trials before full commissioning in 2017.  The Vikrant is one of two indigenous carriers to be produced by the Cochin shipyard.  The other, the Vishal, is expected to be commissioned by  2020, but that is not the second carrier referred to in the title of this post.  Rather, that references news that the Vikramaditya has passed its sea trials and has begun air trials in Russia’s far north White Sea (Vikramaditya is a former Soviet Navy ship that has been refurbished and updated by Russian shipbuilders for the Indian Navy).   The Vikramaditya is due to be delivered to and commissioned by the Indian Navy later this fall.  Thus, the INS expects to add two modern (or, at least, modernized) carriers to its fleet in the next four years.

In addition to its expanding air wing, the INS is also building a modern sub sea component.  Late last week, India announced that the reactor on its first nuclear submarine had gone critical, indicating that the INS Ahirant can proceed to sea trials and could also see commissioning within a year.

To summarize the recent large scale developments in the Indo-Pacific Naval Arms Race:  2013 will close with China and India both having commissioned refurbished former Soviet aircraft carriers; China has begun construction of its first indigenous carrier; India has launched its first indigenous carrier; India has launched an indigenous nuclear submarine.

Also, Japan has launched a new “helicopter carrier” that is actually larger than all the Indian and Chinese carriers under discussion, and which observers say can be quickly converted to a full carrier capable of launching and retrieving F-35s, making it probably the most impressive addition of all.

INS Vikrant

INS Vikrant

INS Vikramaditya

INS Vikramaditya

INS Arihant

INS Arihant

PLA-N Liaoning

PLA-N Liaoning

JDS Izumo

JDS Izumo

President Obama famously ridiculed Mitt Romney’s fears about a shrinking US Navy during last year’s presidential debates.  Obama is correct that today’s naval ships have substantially more fighting power than they did even 25 years ago . . . but Romney was, in my view, more correct in pointing out that more missions for fewer ships obviates that power.   The world is building up while the US is building down.  It’s not critical . . . yet.  But there is an inflection point lurking out there somewhere . . .


Is China “encircling” the US?

June 10, 2013

Such was the claim of an article in the Washington Times last Friday.  Times national security correspondent Bill Gertz includes a long list of nations that have extended diplomatic and commercial ties with China and some that have purchased arms.  However, the full text of the story does not support the title.  Included among the nations are Canada and Mexico – two countries that are deeply linked to the US via trade and culture and which are not under any foreseeable circumstance about to become bases for Chinese military incursion.  He also includes Panama and the Bahamas, in which nations Chinese companies operate port facilities, and Trinidad and Costa Rica which have recently hosted trade missions with China.  A short list of other nations have purchased arms from China – but each has been disappointed with the quality of Chinese arms (Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia).  China does have three serious allies in the Western hemisphere:  Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua (which recently signed a contract with a Chinese firm to develop a cross-isthmus competitor to the Panama Canal).

These allies are virtually useless to China from a military standpoint.  Their militaries are tiny and are focused internally; there is no force projection and there are no bases that Chinese forces could use to project power anywhere in the Americas.  This is not a “counter” to the US Asian Pivot.  The United Stats maintains bases across the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean and has Status of Forces Agreements with numerous nations in the region.  According to the SIPRI Military Expenditures Database (login required), these were the military spending figures for China’s Western allies in 2010 (the last year for which Cuban figures are available; all figures are in constant 2011 US dollars):

Nicaragua  $45.6 million

Cuba  $94.3 million

Venezuela $2.6 billion

and this is the spending by just three US allies in the Western Pacific:

Australia  $27 billion

South Korea $30 billion

Japan $59 billion

all three of the US allies have the ability to sortie offensive platforms in support of US activities; none of China’s allies have the same capabilities.

Even as China grows economically, the military power scale is tipped significantly against them.  It is unsurprising that China is making diplomatic and commercial initiatives in the Western hemisphere and elsewhere, but the idea that they are anything near a military threat is extreme hyperbole.