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[ 9 ] October 24, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat tries to explain the Republic of Korea Navy:

Last week, Kyle Mizokami argued that the Republic of Korea Navy is “Impressive … and Pointless.”  Mizokami makes the nutshell case against South Korea’s shift to the sea: ”In the country’s rush to embrace its destiny as a seagoing nation, South Korea has prematurely shifted resources from defending against a hostile North Korea to defeating exaggerated sea-based threats from abroad. Seoul is in the midst of a strategic shift that has shorted defenses against the North and put its forces in harm’s way.”

There’s no doubt something to this argument.  The largest ships of the ROKN can, in context of the current state of disengagement between North and South Korea, look like little more than floating targets. South Korea treated the sinking of the Cheonan with admirable restraint.  Imagine, however, if an over-excited North Korean sub skipper decided to try to torpedo Dokdo or Seojong the Great?  It’s difficult to imagine that Seoul could avoid aggressive retaliation under those conditions, even given uncertainty about the North Korean response.

But navies serve multiple purposes.


Airpower: Culture Plus Institutions

[ 14 ] October 23, 2013 |

Mojo asks a good question:

The fact that the major example of a country which follows your prescription to subordinate air forces to the Army failed completely at performing core ground support roles certainly seems relevant to your thesis. Blaming failures of independent air forces on that independence while blaming failures of subordinate air forces on incompetence seems arbitrary.

I have two ways of answering:

First, the empirical; the description I gave of the PLAAF was, because of the constraints of space, incomplete. Factors independent of both institutional culture and institutional design made it very difficult for the PLAAF to contribute to the war. The drawbacks of the PLAAF were dramatic, perhaps unique among modern air forces.  The break with the Soviet Union closed China off from foreign technology, while the Cultural Revolution adversely affected both engineering innovation and pilot training. Chinese pilots were flying obsolete machines, and weren’t flying them long enough to develop the degree of mastery that would have allowed them to competently conduct close air support, interdiction, or other kinds of strike missions. Moreover, Vietnam in 1980 was hardly a slouch in terms of air defenses.  The network that could shoot down 16 B-52s in eleven days could have caused the relatively primitive PLAAF a great deal of trouble.

However, that doesn’t fully explain why the PLAAF was incapable of carrying out missions that air forces have undertaken since World War I. Combined with the technological obstacles, the PLAAF faced a virtually unique set of problems with respect to ground forces.  The PLA had achieved victory virtually without airpower, and with very few commanders who possessed any degree of formal education.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but general officers who relied primarily on experiential learning during the civil war were unlikely to hold the potential joint contribution of air and ground power in any high regard.  Rather, the Chinese air force was tasked primarily with air defense, both of Chinese air space from American and Soviet bombers, and of the airspace above PLA ground forces from enemy attack aircraft.  Denying the use of the air, rather than taking advantage of air superiority, was its responsibility.  Designed mainly for these defensive tasks, the PLAAF was ill-prepared to deal with a situation in which it had the opportunity to take advantage of control of the air.  To the PLA’s credit, it understood this problem well enough to refrain from grinding the PLAAF to dust against PAVN air defenses.

And so with respect to the Sino-Vietnamese War, you have a nearly unique combination of a) an air force weak in technological and human capital, which b) had little influence over its own development, in context of c) senior ground officers whose attitudes towards airpower would have been considered retrograde and antiquated by the standards of the Western Front in 1915.

Second, the theoretical; the problems with the USAF involve both institutional arrangement and culture.  I focus on institutional arrangement because I think that, unbelievably enough, that problem is easier to solve than the cultural issues. I argue (not uniquely) that the structure of national security institutions privileges certain approaches to warfighting at the expense of others, and in particular that independent air forces, due to the inherently three dimensional nature of modern warfare, tend to breed destructive interservice conflict.  But these are only tendencies; there are examples of air forces that do very well (in terms of accomplishing national objectives) despite independence; the Luftwaffe, although it suffered from a variety of problems, was an extremely successful force (notwithstanding the influence of Herman Goering). There are also cases of subordinate air forces that nevertheless embark on strategic flights of fancy; see the IDF Air Corps (in the Second Lebanon War) and the US Army Air Corps, for example

But the second part of the argument is cultural.  I’m hardly the first to argue that the USAF’s long struggle for independence has produced a persistent paranoia about organizational autonomy; see Carl Builder, the other Carl Builder, David Johnson, Colin Gray, Tami Davis Biddle, etc. Combined with institutional independence, this paranoia and insecurity produces a service that is perpetually concerned about fending off threats to its autonomy and that has the institutional capacity to wage those fights. This makes the inter-service conflicts described above more frequent and more destructive.

And that, in an extraordinarily compact nutshell, is the argument of Grounded. Also toss in some Clausewitz for seasoning.

Tuesday Linkage

[ 27 ] October 22, 2013 |

I have virtually no interest in the Cardinals-Red Sox World Series, and my fantasy football team has coasted to 1-6.  This means that if it’s not Saturday afternoon, the only things I have to devote my time to are work and family.  And that’s tragic.


(Late) Sunday Book Review: A History of Air Warfare

[ 13 ] October 21, 2013 |

John Andreas Olsen’s A History of Air Warfare is the companion volume to his Global Air Power, and is by far the stronger of the two volumes. The collection includes chapters on air warfare in World War I, the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Falklands, Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lebanon, as well as a conclusion of three “Perspectives” chapters.  Most of these chapters are quite good, and even the disagreeable ones are useful.  As a volume, it represents a useful contribution that can be enjoyed by audiences with various levels of expertise.

Richard Overy and Richard Mueller turn in workmanlike accounts of the air wars in Europe and the Pacific in World War II; the pieces are well-written and don’t miss much, but won’t surprise specialists in the field.  The Stephens and Thompson chapters on Korea and Vietnam strike similar notes.  Lawrence Freedman’s chapter on the Falklands War strikes the appropriate balance between the air contributions of the RAF and the Royal Navy, while also discussing the problems and opportunities faced by Argentine air power.

Perhaps most importantly, the essays include a variety of different, often antagonistic perspectives on the history and future of airpower.  Martin Van Creveld, for example, contributes “The Rise and Fall of Air Power,” which is notably negative with respect to the impact that airpower has had on twentieth century warfare.  Richard Hallion’s “Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating,” has an unsurprisingly different take on the relation between airpower and the future of warfare.  Williamson Murray’s chapter on air employment in Operation Iraqi Freedom is altogether hostile to the Air Force as an institution and airpower as an intellectual construct, while John Andreas Olsen’s appraisal of airpower in the Gulf War is optimistic to the point of being apologetic.  These differences of opinion on some of the foundational disputes over the history of airpower are a strength; they give a strong sense of intellectual vibrancy, rather than of cheerleading.

Moreover, many of the essays leave the reader something to engage with.  Itai Brun’s detailed discussion of Operation Cast Lead leaves much to be desired, completely missing the point of how tactical operations targeting dual-use national infrastructure have, in effect, become strategic bombing. Brun details the strategic effects that the IDF Air Force sought to accomplish, but seems to think that because it tried to achieve those aims through the use of tactical assets, and in combination with a ground offensive, that no strategic campaign occurred.  As Brun himself notes, this would be very surprising to the people who lived near the vast array of infrastructure, political, and communications targets that the IDF struck in Lebanon. Brun also lays the blame for the war squarely on Israeli civilian policymakers, which is, in fairness, about half right. On a related subject, Shmuel Gordon’s essay on the history of  IDF air superiority operations against Syria and Egypt is genuinely outstanding.

This is an exceptionally useful work, and I suspect that I will assign it again to my graduate Airpower course, although I doubt I’ll bother with the companion volume.  For specialists it’s a convenient “go to” for a number of well-known, important conflicts. For less committed audiences, it provides interesting, readable accounts of most of the major air wars of the twentieth century, delivered with just enough grit to generate a degree of disagreement and debate.  As one other review notes, the volume falls short primarily in terms of discussion of the intellectual history of air power, but this is a flaw that’s easily remediable with a bit of supplementary reading;  I might recommend Philip Meilinger’s edited volume Paths of Heaven (free here)  as a suitable companion, if you have the time.

Counter-Besmirchment Team, Go!

[ 154 ] October 21, 2013 |

JenBob explained:

On the blogs, the fight was particularly fierce. Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp account. Another used an AOL dial-up connection, even in the age of widespread broadband access, on the rationale it would be harder to pinpoint its origins. Old laptops were distributed for these cyber operations. Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked.  [Murdoch's World, pg. 67]

Seems like something LGM should hire of a gaggle of unpaid interns to do…

Nixon, Watergate, and the Credibility Fairy

[ 30 ] October 21, 2013 |


Nixon, in the newspapers that morning, argued that the crisis in the Middle East meant that Watergate had to be put aside; Henry Kissinger, that morning, flew to Moscow to negotiate the tense situation, and Nixon spoke about “those in the international community who may be tempted by our Watergate-related difficulties at home to misread America’s unity and resolve.”

This is a particularly egregious instance of a not-terribly-uncommon way of invoking the credibility fairy. The argument (which is not, itself, wholly insensible) is that domestic dispute produces international uncertainty with respect to American resolve and interest, undermining the credibility of U.S. commitments. The most common manifestation of this during the Bush administration was the effort to quiet Iraq critics by claiming that terrorists and insurgents drew inspiration from American discord. To my recollection we’ve seen a lot less of this particular trope during the Obama administration; while I recall plenty of arguments about credibility during the Syria debate, I don’t remember many claims that domestic disagreement itself undermined US resolve-itude. The closest we’ve come to a domestic-politics-as-credibility-problem lately is the debt ceiling fight, which is more about institutional capacity in the face of domestic political conflict than about resolve per se.

New Frontiers…

[ 62 ] October 19, 2013 |

This is happening.

Sorry, Cougs. Very much looking forward to not having to cheer for Tennessee for strength of schedule purposes, but gotta like this win. Also, what the hell happened to the Huskies tonight? Every time it looks like the UW program is about to turn a corner, it falls on its face.

Foreign Entanglements: Legacy of Clancy

[ 2 ] October 18, 2013 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, I hold very still for 12 minutes while discussing Tom Clancy with Steve Saideman:


[ 243 ] October 17, 2013 |

I think that if I ever heard someone give voice to Calvin or Hobbes in an animated special, I’d never be able to read the comic again. It’s not that I’m bothered by commercialism, but rather that I regard both as perpetually unsettled identities; hearing either would require me to force an age and (perhaps) an ethnic identity onto the character, and I think that would ruin the illusion.

Years ago, you hadn’t quite dismissed the notion of animating the strip. Are you a fan of Pixar? Does their competency ever make the idea of animating your creations more palatable?
The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have zero interest in animating Calvin and Hobbes. If you’ve ever compared a film to a novel it’s based on, you know the novel gets bludgeoned. It’s inevitable, because different media have different strengths and needs, and when you make a movie, the movie’s needs get served. As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it.


[ 17 ] October 17, 2013 |

My Diplomat column today is on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force:

Historically, the pursuit of air force institutional autonomy has focused on providing space for the air force to procure appropriate equipment, manage doctrine and training, and create independent plans for warfighting. Airpower advocates have typically argued that tying air forces to armies or navies produces hamstrung forces that cannot realize the full, independent potential of airpower. However, independence has often put air forces at odds with already existing services. The histories of airpower in the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, are replete with nasty conflicts over equipment, missions and warfighting preferences.

But of course, the PLAAF is *not* an independent service. Indeed, there is a good case to be made that the PLAAF has suffered, historically, as much as any air force from the parochial interests of ground forces. A combination of poor doctrine, mismatched equipment, inadequate training and outdated technology made the PLAAF a non-factor in the Sino-Vietnamese War. Not all of this was the fault of the Air Force, as the tumultuous ideology of the Maoist period and China’s international isolation contributed to constraining the PLAAF’s development.



[ 2 ] October 16, 2013 |

After weeks of dealing with technical problems, the podcasts for my DIP 742: National Security Policy course are finally up. Check them out. Also, the Patterson School’s podcast page is finally fully live and ready to go.

Finally, I’ll be able to post a version of the LGM Brian Frye podcast with much better audio in the next few days.

Well, That Makes Sense

[ 49 ] October 15, 2013 |

Lindsay Graham:

Said Graham: “We won’t be the last political party to overplay our hand. It might happen one day on the Democratic side. And if it did, would Republicans, for the good of the country, kinda give a little? We really did go too far. We screwed up. But their response is making things worse, not better.”