Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Robert Farley

rss feed

BSG Blogging IV: The Cylon Way of War

[ 0 ] January 20, 2006 |

BSG Blogging I

BSG Blogging II

BSG Blogging III

In PLA conversations, the phrase shashoujian has come to represent a set of strategies designed to defeat the United States. Specifically, these strategies concentrate on the idea of using the inferior to defeat the superior. In the context of war against the United States, this means either neutralizing or reversing the advantages of the US military. In practice, this can mean anything from concentrating on low cost options for destroying capital intensive US weapons like aircraft carriers, to disrupting American computer and information systems with the purpose of leaving US forces surprised, confused, and helpless.

Shashoujian essentially represents a type of asymmetric warfare, one that is available to mid-level powers, if not to terrorist or guerilla groups. The structure of the international system invites asymmetric warfare, as it will be some time before a peer competitor emerges who could fight the United States on the same level and win.

What does this have to do with Battlestar Galactica? Apropos of recent discussion abotu network centric warfare, BSG (2003) takes a position on the role of advanced warfare technology unnervingly similar to the position adopted by the People’s Republic of China. In essense, the Cylons win by turning Colonial military technology against itself. The Cylons act as both a peer competitor state and a terrorist organization, and win through a combination of conventional assault and unconventional subversive warfare. In a sense, the Cylons manage to represent both China and Al Qaeda at the same time; they are both the inscrutable yet powerful peer competitor, and the tiny, bodiless terrorist organization.

We have no idea of the actual military strength of the Cylons. They have some number of capital ships (basestars), but there is no indication of how many. Two, at least, have been destroyed by the Colonials. We can surmise, however, that Cylon military capacity is not overwhelmingly superior, in terms of numbers of ships, to that of the Colonies prior to the surprise attack. If the Cylons had possessed massive superiority, they would likely not have waited as long to attack. Also, we are led to believe that the Cylons possess only one world, compared to the twelve Colonies. We know that the Colonial Fleet possessed roughly 120 battlestars at the beginning of the war. We have reason to believe that an individual basestar is superior in combat to Galactica, but Galactica is one of the oldest and weakest of the battlestars. We don’t know, for example, whether the gap between Galactica and Pegasus (a newer battlestar) is better described as the difference between Michigan and Iowa, or as the difference between Arkansas and California.

This didn’t mean all that much, because the Cylons undertook a mission of subversion and infiltration that successfully rendered much of the Colonial Fleet useless. Specifically, the Cylons infiltrated Colonial computer systems, with the impact of both giving the Cylons complete information dominance on the battlefield and directly undercutting the effectiveness of those Colonial military vessels dependent on advanced computer technology. The Galactica survives only because of its aging technology and curmudgeonly Commander.

The disruption of conventional Colonial forces through subversion and Fourth Generation Warfare is followed by a very conventional and brutal high intensity assault against Colonial military and civilian targets. The Cylon attack is both conventional and terrorist, and it does not discriminate between civilian and military targets. It is also quite genocidal. The primary weapons for destroying both civilian and military targets are nuclear weapons, adding an additional dimension to the Cylon threat portfolio.

In short, the Cylons manage to encapsulate all of the potential forms of threat that the United States might face. They are terrorists who look and act like us. They are a peer competitor capable of matching and defeating us in open battle. Finally, they succeed in upending our advantage where we hold it most dear; in our advanced technology. In the BSG miniseries, the failure of technology is reacted to with a sense of stunned betrayal; in this, if nothing else, we feel ourselves secure.

…I can’t say that I cared for tonight’s episode, though.


[ 0 ] January 20, 2006 |


[ 0 ] January 20, 2006 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Sophie, Midnight, Snowball, Frankie


[ 0 ] January 19, 2006 |

Portsmouth was worth the trip.

HMS Victory was in excellent condition.

As was HMS Warrior, at least on the outside.

HMS Illustrious was in for a refit.

And Lord Nelson remains confident.

Rob was pleased.

Book Review: The Fall of France

[ 0 ] January 19, 2006 |

On the plane ride from London I finished Julian Jackson’s The Fall of France. While I was disappointed with the first chapter, I was very pleased with the volume as a whole.

It is common to assert that France fell because of inadequate tactical and operational doctrine. The story goes something like this; bright young German officers read a really smart pair of Britons named JFC Fuller and BH Liddell Hart, came to appreciate the importance of tanks, concentrated their relatively small number of tanks into Panzer Divisions, and used those divisions to smash holes in the lines of the idiot French, who felt that tanks should be distributed in support of infantry. This is the line that you most often hear on the History Channel, for example.

The only difficulty with this is what I call the historical coherence problem. In short, nothing about this story coheres even vaguely with empirical reality. It’s unclear that Guderian and the other important Germans read Liddell Hart and Fuller at all, much less that they were influenced by them in any meaningful way. The central aspects of what came to be known as “blitzkrieg” were worked out in 1917 on the Eastern Front and between 1927 and 1933 at a place called Kazan, in the Soviet Union. While German tanks were concentrated at a divisional level, French armor was, if anything, more concentrated at the battalion level. The initial German break-through, in the Ardennes, was produced almost entirely with infantry, just as the large German breakthroughs in 1918 had been produced. The role of armor was to enhance the ability of the Wehrmacht to exploit those breakthroughs, as armor is particularly effective against unprepared defensive positions (and particularly ineffective against prepared ones). French tanks were deployed and used in a very sensible manner, given the operational decisions made by the French and British high command.

The failure of France in 1940 was caused, essentially, by an operational level error. The Germans found and exploited a particularly weak French sector, punched through, and surrounded the bulk of the French and British armies in Belgium. The German Army of 1918, with no armor at all, would have made the same breakthrough, although it would have been more difficult to exploit and complete the encirclement. The line put forth by BH Liddell Hart is almost entirely wrong, although his self-serving histories of discussions with German generals would suggest otherwise.

Jackson repeats this inacccurate line in the first chapter of his book, which caused me to toss it away in disgust. Having nothing else to do (I was awake at 3am, recovering from jet lag) I picked it up and continued to read. The situation improved considerably, and, in contrast to the content of the first chapter, Jackson ended up giving a brief but sound military history of the campaign. Jackson tends to fall in the same direction as Ernest May regarding the military situation of 1940, although he believes, as I, that May goes to far in painting a portrait of German military insecurity.

In any case, the central value of this book comes in its discussion of the French decision to surrender. This is a question that particular interests me, so much so that I have decided to assign one of the chapters of the Jackson book to my National Security class. France in May of 1940 faced a desperate security situation. German conquest of metropolitan France was inevitable. The French reaction to this problem, however, was not determined. The French government could have moved to North Africa, kept the fleet out of German hands, and continued the war. The French decided instead to conclude an armistice with Germany that neutralized their fleet and colonial possessions. This had very bad consequences, but that’s beside the point; what’s interesting to me is how the French policymakers of the time weighed the question of whether or not to surrender. The German victory laid bare the debate on national values and national interests in France, and all of those values became contingent.

The French example reminds us that their can be patriots on either side of any security question. Petain and Laval were disgusting creatures, especially Laval, but they were both French patriots, as much as Degaulle. They simply understood France and French values in a different way. Laval’s allies believed that the Americans and British were as much a threat to core French values as the Germans were. Rebuilding what was great about France meant rebuilding the France that preceded the Revolution, and discarding the ideals of 1789. This wasn’t all, of course; Laval and Petain also believed that the physical security of the French people could best be protected by accomodation with, rather than resistance to, Nazi Germany. The decision to surrender must be understood in the context of the brutal political divisions that existed in France in the 1930s. Many believed, quite literally, that defeat at the hands of Germany was the only way to solve the political problems left over by the revolutions of 1789 and 1871.

The point isn’t that Petain and Laval shouldn’t be condemned by history; they clearly should. However, they cannot be condemned for a lack of patriotism. This is a lesson that needs to be learned and re-learned by Americans. There is no core value that cannot, in an extreme situation, be traded away. At the same time, what we believe our core values to be deeply informs how we think about securing them.

All Things Iran

[ 0 ] January 19, 2006 |

The Baroness Alexandra and I are having a friendly back and forth on Iran at All Things Beautiful. Check it out.

Germany and Conscription

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |

At Wilton Park, a German general made the case for conscription. Germany is more or less prohibited from maintaining a purely professional military force, so it isn’t really all that surprising that the general would make a virtue out of necessity. Nevertheless, at least one part of his argument was particularly interesting; he suggested that conscription actually improved the quality of the Bundeswehr.

Now, this is not an argument that is typically given on behalf of conscription. Lots of people argue that conscription can help solve shortfalls in recruitment, and the German general echoed this claim, specifically referencing the difficulties that other Western European nations have had in filling recruting quotas. Conscription is usually described as a trade-off between numbers and quality; conscripts are believed to perform at a lower level of expertise and with less enthusiasm than volunteers. The US Army certainly holds to this belief, and various commentators have implied that conscription explains the relatively poor performance of the Army in Vietnam. This is absurd, of course; the difficulties the Army faced were at the tactical and operational planning levels, rather than at the level of tactical execution. Poorly trained conscripts are also blamed for the failure of Russia’s army in the first Chechen War.

The general rejected the idea that conscription requires a trade-off. Instead, he argued that conscription (which takes only a percentage of eligible German males in any case) allows the Bundeswehr to appropriate a cross-section of the skills it needs to operate as an organization. Instead of relying on volunteers to fill its ranks, the Bundeswehr can simply take what it needs. When those personnel are in the army, they can be offered particularized incentives for becoming professional soldiers, at least for a time. Thus, conscription allows the Bundeswehr to maintain a higher level of human capital among its personnel than a similar volunteer army. The general suggested that this was particularly important given the increasing technical demands that digitization puts on soldiers.

This argument is particularly interesting coming from a German, because the experience of the German Army in the 20th century has consistently defied the argument that conscripts damage military quality. Throughout the 20th century (and before, back to Prussian times) the German Army has managed both widespread conscription and extremely high quality, all the way down to the level of tactical execution.

To be clear, I’m not calling for conscription in the US. I do, however, think that some arguments against conscription are nonsense, and I suspect that the “quality” objection may be one of these. The experience of Germany and other Western European nations with conscription should also serve to dispel the notion that a draft makes a country more militaristic, violent, or conservative; there would appear to be virtually no evidence to back up these claims.

America’s Biggest Boondoggle

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |


Has a state ever wasted so much money on so pointless a project? Even if the interceptors worked, they would be useless; at best they would convince the Russians and Chinese to develop more and better missiles, at a fraction of what we’re spending. And if a missile shield isn’t 100%, or very near, it does not break us out of the deterrent relationship with even a small nuclear power like North Korea.

Yet we continue to pour the money down the rathole…

Aerial IED

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |

Just read an interesting report in Defense News about the proliferation of aerial IEDs in Iraq. Apparently, insurgents are developing IEDs that can propel themselves into the air and explode. This has damaged several helicopters. Since US helicopters have been flying a very low altitudes since 2003 or so, the tactics may turn out to be quite effective.

No link, unfortunately.

UPDATE: Dave helpfully provides links here, and here.

Notes on Transformation

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |

Via Crooked Timber, a brief excerpt of Thomas X. Hammes book on the Pentagon and military transformation. Colonel Hammes is deeply skeptical of the effectiveness of a Transformed military in fourth generation warfare. He is also rather unfair to the French Army, but that’s not surprising. More on this last later.

Also see, via AG, this article by Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, contending that the basic problems with US counter-insurgency reside at the levels of national and organizational culture, rather than in technology. I tend to agree.

I have yet to comment on Kingdaddy’s five part counter-insurgency series, but I nonetheless recommend it to you. I’ll get around to discussing it eventually.

Ten Flicks that Define America

[ 0 ] January 17, 2006 |

Via Lance comes this interesting question.

You have to explain America to someone from not here, but you can only use ten movies to do it. Which ten do you choose?

The idea is not to give them a history lesson, so you don’t have to start with The New World and end with Jarhead.

What you’re trying to do is give them a sense of who we are—your take on our dreams, our attitudes, our idioms, what we think we are, what we are afraid we are, what we really might be.

I’ve given this a little bit of thought, becuase I used to have some fun by imagining, at a given moment, that some Founder or other famous personage would find themselves transported to the present day, and would need some sort of explanation of America and the world. Cars in particular, I thought, would always be difficult. My favorite two visitors were Thomas Jefferson and Cicero; don’t ask me why, because I can’t explain. Anyway, thinking about this question through the medium of film is particularly interesting, because I also like to use movies as pedagogic devices. This is what I came up with, in no particular order:

1. Lone Star: Lone Star is really about everything, from a particularly American form of local corruption to the collision of race, class, and power on a small stage. Sayles has been trying to remake Lone Star for years (Sunshine State, Limbo) for years, but I don’t think that lightning strikes twice on this one.

2. Once Upon a Time in the West: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might have taken this spot, as they’re more or less about the same thing; the extension of the East into the West. I love them both, and whether you prefer the former or the latter depends in large part on the interpretation of the expansionary project. It’s odd, but not really surprising, that a pair of Italians (Leone, Bertolluci) could demonstrate such insight into America.

3. Do the Right Thing: Do the Right Thing has plenty of flaws, but it also has plenty of things going right for it. It deserves inclusion as a chronicle of racial tension and urban life in America.

4. Blazing Saddles: The end of the Western, at least as it had been conceived of in John Wayne’s era. Indeed, I think that the Western as a genre needs to be interpreted through the lense of Blazing Saddles, with its implicit discussion of rural and urban politics and its explicit message on race and the West.

5. GoodFellas: I’ve seen Taxi Driver included on lots of lists, and it is appropriate, but I think GoodFellas and Raging Bull fit better. Taxi Driver presents too grim a picture even for me. GoodFellas is, in large part, about the intersection of class and white ethnic identity. While I prefer Godfather as a film, GoodFellas paints a more accurate and compelling picture of America, largely because of the class component.

6. Night of the Living Dead: The Manchurian Candidate might also have occupied this slot, but I think Night of the Living Dead is a better, more important film. The terror and paranoia in NotLD is more immediate and practical than in The Manchurian Candidate. In the latter, our neighbors may be communists. In the former, they’re quite a bit worse. More importantly, we don’t get saved by Frank Sinatra, and our hero is undone in the end for the most mundane, casual, and meaningless of reasons.

7. Badlands: Again with the empty geographic space, but what I like best is the metaphorical empty space that Spacek and Sheen can only fill with a cobbled together dime store romance narrative. One of my favorite films.

8. The Searchers: I know that some prefer other Ford, including MWSLV and Stagecoach, but I cannot seriously entertain such arguments. Wayne’s Edwards is one of the most complex, difficult, troubled, and American characters ever to appear on celluloid.

9. Raging Bull: GoodFellas in a different context. Context matters.

10. Citizen Kane: Included both for its narrative and for its place in film history. Money, politics, and fame are tied together differently in American that anywhere else. CK also demonstrates the possibilities of the medium, a medium in which America is pre-eminent.

This list is a bit grim, possibly because I like grim movies. It’s also Western-heavy; Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Blazing Saddles are clearly Westerns, while Badlands and Lone Star are close. I don’t think that’s unfair, especially considering that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would probably come next. You don’t have to buy the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis to believe that space and the West are critical to the American experience, and in important ways set America apart from Europe and elsewhere. Race, another theme critical to America, is present in at least five of the films I selected, although usually in different ways. The presence or absence of the state also plays a large role in all but two of the films.

Honorable Mention: Office Space, Sunset Boulevard, Groundhog Day, High Noon, The Machurian Candidate, Chinatown, Scarface, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Fog of War, Days of Heaven, Touch of Evil, Once Upon a Time in America, Pulp Fiction


[ 0 ] January 17, 2006 |

Fascinating. Via Baseball Prospectus, subscription required.

Do you know you can already get a bet down on whether or not Mark McGwire will be elected to the Hall of Fame next year? I was poking around one of those off-shore gambling sites and found a proposition with the following lines:

Yes: +240
No: -300

Hmmm… it’s interesting that it’s even come to this. Six years ago, he looked like a mortal lock. Now, you have a shot at making money betting against him getting in. Count on nothing–oh, except that Cal Ripken Jr. is a mortal lock. That much we know.

That seems to radically understate his chances, but I suppose that I may be underestimating the effect of the steroid hysteria. I doubt very much that McGwire will be kept out of the Hall of Fame for long, but it’s possible that the voters may decide to punish him by keeping him on the shelf for a year or two. In my view this is entirely unjustified; steroids or no, he’s one of the most fearsome hitters ever to play the game.

  • Switch to our mobile site