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October of Broken Dreams

[ 38 ] November 2, 2013 |

The LGM archive of October 2004 amounts to a grim tale of woe, punctuated by busted predictions, forlorn hopes,  and dawdling over irrelevancies.

Re-posting the first few days of November 2004 is going to be a struggle.

China, IP, and Innovation

[ 5 ] November 1, 2013 |

In this week’s Diplomat column, I muse a bit on China, technological innovation, and IP law:

recent report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) gives some advice with respect to retaining America’s technological advantage in an era of disruptive technological innovation and diffusion. The authors, like Huang, worry that the U.S. government is not making sufficient investments in technologies with great potential, such as directed energy weapons, advanced unmanned aerial vehicles, and human modification. The report paints a grim picture, suggesting that the consequence of falling behind in any or all of these technologies could be the unsettling of the existing Pacific balance of power.

Unfortunately, the report fails to mention the legal environment in which scientists and engineers pursue technological innovation.


Airpower Movie of the Week: Sky Fighters

[ 34 ] November 1, 2013 |

Ever imagine what Top Gun could have been if Iceman were the hero and everybody was Chinese?  Find out tonight when we screen Sky Fighters, a 2011 knockoff of the 1986 sexy beach volleyball classic. If Kyle Mizokami’s review doesn’t make you want to watch this movie, nothing will. We’ll be starting tonight at 9pm EDT, hashtag #airmovie. I’ll be tweeting from the GroundedUSAF account. The film is available from several sources, but I’ll probably be watching on Youtube:


[ 30 ] October 31, 2013 |

You can find the latest edition of the Grounded argument over at Medium: War is Boring:

And so, in effect, we argue that the conflation of air and space is wrong; when properly conceived of as a commons, space is more like the sea than like the air. Military culture structures how an organization envisions its role, and its relationship with other organizations, and the cooperative, commerce oriented framework in which the Navy conceives of the commons makes more sense in application to space than the Air Force’s militaristic “dominance” approach.

Moving from the abstract to the concrete, the organizational assets that currently find a home in the Air Force can easily be shifted to the Navy. We won’t miss the Air Force; indeed, our space policy may improve in its absence.

Essentially, the argument combines the work of Alex Vacca with some of the more interesting stuff on maintenance of the commons. While space has effectively defaulted to the Air Force (one of the first questions I get is “What about space?”), when we think about how the services approach the commons, it turns out that the Navy’s way of thinking makes more sense than the USAF’s approach. My co-author (Max Lord, a student of mine), put the argument together in a term paper at the end of last year; this is the distillation of the case.

See also an argument that we should create a “Coast Guard” for space, and this account of the role played by the escort carrier USS Croatan in space exploration.

Wednesday Morning Linkage

[ 16 ] October 30, 2013 |

To help start off your Wednesday right…



Repudiate! Refudiate!

[ 151 ] October 28, 2013 |

Via Mr. Bogg, Conor Friedersdorf is very concerned about the future of the Democratic Party.

During President George W. Bush’s tenure, most Republicans felt that criticizing him would just help Democrats. Only the end of his presidency freed them to see its flaws clearly. Staunch conservatives who voted for him twice suddenly found themselves swept up in a Tea Party rebellion against his team’s approach to governing. They felt chagrin at the ways he had transgressed against their values, and they resolved to change the GOP so that the same mistakes would never recur.

Will some Democrats behave similarly when President Obama leaves office? Right now, most feel that criticizing the White House can only help House Republicans. But one day soon they’ll be able to look back at Obama’s two terms with clearer eyes. How many will feel chagrin at policies that transgressed against their values? How many will pressure their party’s establishment to change?

We may start finding out during the Election 2016 primaries….

Hillary Clinton is poised to be the candidate of continuity. Like Bush and Obama, she would govern as an executive-power extremist, is implicated in the civil-liberties transgressions of recent years, and would almost certainly seek to expand rather than rein in post-9/11 powers given to the national-security state.

Will she be acceptable to liberals and progressives?

What’s missing here seems to be an understanding of how the 2008 Republican primary actually played out.  To my recollection, the only candidate that ran on an explicit repudiation of Bush administration security and economic policies maxed out at 24.57% of the vote in the meaningless Montana caucus, and averaged well below 10% for the bulk of the campaign despite his aforementioned monopolization of the anti-Bush position.  And in 2012, that same candidate rocked all the way to an average of 11% of the GOP primary vote, despite again monopolizing the “repudiate Bush” position. And so, if Democrats in 2016 repudiate Obama to exactly the same extent that Republicans in 2008 repudiated Bush, they’ll likely select… wait for it…  a candidate who supports policies that are virtually indistinguishable from the incumbent President.

Perhaps more importantly, the Tea Party reaction, such that it has been, was only incidentally about Bush, and entirely about Barack Obama.  I know it bothers Conor to think about his political allies as neo-confederate fanatics largely animated by racial animus, but you go to war with the friends you choose, not the friends you… uh, choose, I guess. And of course, you can tell how much Republicans hate George W. Bush based on the 84-15 majority that thinks he was a good President.

I’ve said it before and (sadly) I suspect I’ll have to say it again:  I can appreciate why Conor Friedersdorf takes himself very seriously, but I can’t understand why any progressives take him seriously at all.

Mirror Imaging?

[ 138 ] October 28, 2013 |

From the Lowry-Ponnuru summation of the debt ceiling/shutdown fight:

It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.

It’s an interesting passage because it makes me think of intra-progressive divides, and how similar differences play out within (what amounts to) the progressive coalition. Some of the same dynamics apply; fire focused on other progressives as much as conservatives (turns out the hippies can also throw a punch), satisfaction taken in complete loss on supposed principle, dismissal of avoidance of worst outcomes, etc. The biggest difference seems to be that left-progressives (or whatever other term you prefer), either lack the strength and interest to take control of any institutional veto points, have been shut out, or (most likely) some combination of the two.


One by One, Our Old Friends Are Gone…

[ 22 ] October 26, 2013 |

Abu Muqawama closes up shop. Six and a half years is forever in blog time.

On a separate issue, last night’s Airpower Movie of the Week simul-tweet was a rousing success, at least by the modest metrics I established for the event (stayed awake, made it to the end of the movie). Any ideas for next week?

And Now for Something Different

[ 32 ] October 25, 2013 |

Tonight, several comrades and I are going to “simul-tweet” an airpower film. The project is a touch more complicated than it sounds, but effectively it boils down to selecting a film, selecting a time to press “play” simultaneously, and then tweeting under the hashtag #airmovie.

Tonight’s film will be the Battle of Britain (available on Netflix Instant), a star-studded 1969 extravaganza with a series of surprising twists and a shocking ending. No spoilers, please! We will be starting at 9:30pm EDT.  Anyone is welcome to join; I will be tweeting under the @GroundedUSAF handle. If it works out, we may try Firefox next weekend.

“It’d been worth him doing it just so I could’ve caught him …”

[ 25 ] October 24, 2013 |


In the movie, Vincent despairs to drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) that some “dickless piece of shit” keyed his car, but we never find out who did the deed. The screenplay, which contains (as most do) scenes that didn’t make the final cut, suggests an answer: it describes Vincent arriving in his Malibu at the strip club for his meeting with Marsellus, and parking it right next to Butch and Fabienne’s Honda — raising the possibility that the car was keyed by Butch (with whom Vincent would have just had the “you ain’t my friend, palooka” confrontation).

Funniest thing; I was thinking just yesterday about the mysterious key-er, for reasons that I can’t recall. Of course, in the final cut it’s not at all clear that Vincent drives the Malibu to the club, as he and Jules enter together after (I had presumed) a cab ride from Hawthorne Grill, but I suppose that they might have taken the cab to Vincent’s place to pick up his car. Of course, that makes it unclear why he’s still dressed in Jimmie’s clothes, but maybe they were in a hurry…


[ 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.