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Category: Robert Farley

Ugh Double Ugh

[ 203 ] September 11, 2014 |

Well, this just looks like a clusterfuck.

In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with conviction. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces…

But defeating the group in neighboring Syria will be even more difficult, according to U.S. military and diplomatic officials. The strategy imagines weakening the Islamic State without indirectly strengthening the ruthless government led by Bashar al-Assad or a rival network of al-Qaeda affiliated rebels — while simultaneously trying to build up a moderate Syrian opposition.

The Syria side of the campaign remains a work in progress at the Pentagon, CIA and White House. The development of an operational plan is further complicated by a lack of intelligence — U.S. drones have not been flying over Islamic State-controlled parts of the country for long — and the absence of allied local forces that can leverage U.S. airstrikes into territorial gains.

And then we have this helpful group of assholes:

Progress has been encouraging. Arab states have scrambled to set aside differences to rally against the threat posed by the extremists, whose rampage through Iraq and Syria has unnerved rulers across the region.

On Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was to attend a meeting in Saudi Arabia with all of the major players in the Middle East, including the host country, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, to discuss ways to address the crisis.

Many of these countries are at odds over a range of issues and might not have been willing to send representatives to meet in the same room were it not for their urgent recognition of the new menace in their midst.

In common with their fear of the Islamic State, however, the region’s leaders also share a deep mistrust of the Obama administration, rooted in the past three years of increasing disengagement from the Middle East as the United States has sought to distance itself from the turmoil engendered by the Arab Spring revolts.

So, a group of countries that can’t agree on what should be done with Syria are deeply irritated that the United States has not sorted through what is to be done with Syria. Meanwhile, money pours out of the pockets of the Gulf states into the coffers of ISIS, which leaves everyone in the Gulf states deeply concerned that the US isn’t doing enough about Iran.

Japanese Flying Fortresses

[ 19 ] September 10, 2014 |

This is a fascinating picture:

Some more information here.

The first B-17 to come under Japanese control was an B-17D which was pieced together from the remnants of other destroyed B-17Ds on Clark Field in the Philippines. The same thing was done to to two B-17Es on Bandung Field on Java. At the time, this was the newest model of the B-17 available. The Japanese were impressed with the simplicity of the cockpit for such a large aircraft. One of the B-17Es was used for a test bed for a captured Norden bombsight, coupled to the Sperry automatic flight control system. Also of great interest was the B-17’s gunnery equipment, especially the Sperry automatic computing gunsight. The May 1943 issue of Koku-Asahi was devoted almost completely to the captured B-17s. Nearly every major component was shown in photos and drawings. Since the Japanese also had instruction manuals for the aircraft, no detail was overlooked.

Falklands to a Fault

[ 88 ] September 8, 2014 |

My latest at the National Interest takes a look at the legacy of the Falklands War:

The Falklands War ended with a decisive British victory over thirty years ago.  Nevertheless, the war remains alive in the imagination of analysts and historians. Although the conflict happened outside of the normal “zones of crisis,” it has long held the attention of students of warfare.  The war, which involved a conflict over territory between two established nation-states with large, capital intensive military establishments, seems almost quaint today.  However, the issues that brought about the war, the manner in which the war was fought, and the situation the war left behind continue to hold important lessons for practitioners of foreign policy today.

Foreign Entanglements: The Triad

[ 7 ] September 6, 2014 |

On this episode of Foreign Entanglements, I talk with Al Mauroni about the future of the nuclear triad:

Demographics and Vodka

[ 33 ] September 6, 2014 |

This is a comforting thought:

The most obvious explanation for Russia’s high mortality—drinking—is also the most puzzling on closer examination. Russians drink heavily, but not as heavily as Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians—all countries that have seen an appreciable improvement in life expectancy since breaking off from the Soviet Bloc. Yes, vodka and its relatives make an appreciable contribution to the high rates of cardiovascular, violent, and accidental deaths—but not nearly enough to explain the demographic catastrophe. There are even studies that appear to show that Russian drinkers live longer than Russian non-drinkers. Parsons discusses these studies in some detail, and with good reason: it begins to suggest the true culprit. She theorizes that drinking is, for what its worth, an instrument of adapting to the harsh reality and sense of worthlessness that would otherwise make one want to curl up and die.

… for a critical look on the actual demographic claims made in the linked article, see Mark Adomanis (h/t).

Clausewitz and Airpower

[ 2 ] September 5, 2014 |

Can the contributions of a general who died seventy years before the first powered flight lend us some tools for thinking about airpower? Apropos of another recent LGM conversation, it may be that time has passed the old soldier by, and that Carl von Clausewitz no longer represents an important touchstone for discussions of military strategy and history.  But if this is the case, then Bill Sweetman should inform the United States Air Force. Arguing that zombie Clausewitz was re-animated in the wake of the Vietnam War by “boot-centric warfare zealots,” Sweetman contends that the Napoleonic era theorist has little place in modern strategic theory. By contrast, let me suggest airpower theorist have long been engaged in a conversation with Clausewitz.

Identifying a central theorist of airpower, or group of theorists, invariably generates controversy.  Most agree that the Italian general Giulio Douhet was important, but few grant that he lends much direct insight into modern warfare.  William “Billy” Mitchell is a critical figure in the institutional history of the USAF, but his influence of airpower thought was much less important.  Trenchard and Arnold were more organizational pioneers than airpower theorists.

That said, almost everyone who’s studied post-war American airpower agrees that John Boyd and John Warden were important influences, even if they disagree as to whether than influence was good or bad.  Although both Boyd and Warden struggled at times with Air Force bureaucracy, they both reached the rank of colonel before retirement.  Warden served as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College.

And both Warden and Boyd engaged deeply with Clausewitz. A conversation with Clausewitz animates Warden’s entire approach to the influence of airpower on war. Warden uses the term “center of gravity” thirty-three times in his seminal work “Air Campaign,” directly citing Clausewitz on nine separate occasions.  To be sure, Warden uses Clausewitz as a jumping off point to make his own argument about the relationship of force to political outcomes, but he nevertheless saw value in engaging with the old Prussian.

Similarly, Clausewitz deeply influenced John Boyd.  The center of gravity, friction, and fog of war concepts all contributed to Boyd’s understanding of how organizations function, and of how airmen could use military force to prevent them from properly functioning.  Again, Boyd hardly agreed with everything in On War, and didn’t believe that the CvC could (or should) be imported directly into modern warfare, but he still understood and appreciated the contribution Clausewitz had made.

It’s fair enough to say that Warden and Boyd do not constitute the entirety of Air Force thought, but it would be absurd to suggest that they aren’t important, influential figures in the history of American airpower thought. Indeed, Warden famously argued that airpower alone, with only a residual ground presence, could quickly defeat Saddam Hussein and overturn the Baathist regime in 1990. In case you’re wondering, 1990 is 24 years ago, not 90 years ago.

But if you’re not convinced, a quick search of Air and Space Power Journal, the Air Force’s peer-reviewed scholarly journal, turned up eighty-two articles referencing Clausewitz since 1966.  With (about) 250 issues of the journal, this means that roughly one out of every three issues includes an article referencing Clausewitz. By comparison, Alfred Thayer Mahan was referenced twenty-five times, Giulio Douhet thirty-nine, Antoine-Henri Jomini twelve, and Billy Mitchell about sixty.

In short, I use Clausewitz to engage with the Air Force because the Air Force has seen fit to engage with Clausewitz.  I suspect that airmen have found value in Clausewitz for the same reasons that every other warfighter finds value in the Prussian. As Sweetman has helpfully shown, it is easy to disastrously misread Clausewitz, but productive readings of Clausewitz can apparently generate insights even for people who aren’t “Boot-centric warfare zealots.”

This is because Clausewitz provides a useful vocabulary for describing many of the most complex problems in military strategy, including the relationship between politics and force, the meaning of victory, and the power of uncertainty.  This, rather than his helpful tips for Napoleonic logistics, is why people still read Clausewitz today.  Clausewitz isn’t the end of strategic theory, but for a great many people he’s an excellent beginning.

The easiest critique of Grounded might be that none of the connections between Clausewitz and the history and practice of airpower are particularly novel.  Many analysts have criticized the Air Force for a desire to bypass the gritty work of destroying fielded enemy military forces, for a fetishism that puts technology ahead of politics, and for a failure to appreciate the critical role of friction in military affairs.  The (modest) contribution of Grounded is to bring these three critiques together, identify the institutional sources of the problems, and propose a bureaucratic solution.

And so while Bill may stress about the specter of “Boot-centric warfare zealots,” clutching copies of On War while villainously slipping 1763 F-35s into the pocket of an unsuspecting Air Force, I would advise him to relax. A working knowledge of Clausewitz doesn’t spell doom for the Air Force, even if it should generate some difficult questions about what we want for our military forces, and how we want to organize them in order to further our ends.

Friday Dinosaur Blogging: Dreadnoughtus

[ 63 ] September 5, 2014 |

Well, this brings together a couple of LGM obsessions:

Scientists have discovered the fossilized remains of a new long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur that has taken the crown for largest terrestrial animal with a body mass that can be accurately determined.

Measurements of bones from its hind leg and foreleg revealed that the animal was 65 tons, and still growing when it died in the Patagonian hills of Argentina about 77 million years ago.

“To put this in perspective, an African elephant is about five tons, T. rex is eight tons, Diplodocus is 18 tons, and a Boeing 737 is around 50 tons,” said study author and paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara at Drexel University. “And then you have Dreadnoughtus at 65 tons.”

Dreadnoughtus, meaning “fears nothing,” is named after the impervious early 20th century battleships. Although it was a plant-eater, a healthy Dreadnoughtus likely had no real issues with predators due to its intimidating size and muscular, weaponized tail.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a Dreadnoughtus unless it carries at least 8 12″ guns. Maybe if bspencer could get to work on that…


[ 2 ] September 4, 2014 |

Last week I did an interview on airpower and stuff with the Buter. Check it out.

Scratch Two Flattops

[ 33 ] September 3, 2014 |


Classe-Mistral-Vladivostok-2014” by QuoiqueOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

France has halted the delivery of RFS Vladivostok, first of two Mistral class amphibious assault ships:

The French government can not go ahead with the planned delivery of a first of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia, the president’s office said in a statement on Wednesday, citing Moscow’s recent actions in eastern Ukraine.

“The president of the Republic has concluded that despite the prospect of ceasefire, which has yet to be confirmed and put in place, the conditions under which France could authorise the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place,” President Francois Hollande’s office said.

Plenty of wiggle room there, perhaps intended to force Putin to abide by the cease-fire.  No indication as of yet regarding what would happen to the ships if they don’t get sold to Russia.


[ 17 ] September 2, 2014 |

I have a piece up at Real Clear Defense discussing the latest Air Force white paper:

Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council thinks the world of the Air Force’s new strategic white paper, A Call to the Future, suggesting that the document is the best of its kind. Contra Ward, I think that the white paper concentrates so much on the future that it ignores the present problems that will inevitably structure how the organization moves forward.

Addressed to “Airmen and Airpower Advocates,” America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future sounds a lot of familiar notes. It hypes the concept of “strategic agility,” a worthy contribution, but ends up defining the service’s contribution in reactive terms. A Call to the Future tackles procurement failures and speaks to the need for partnerships, but fails to contribute seriously to the most gripping procurement problem the Air Force currently faces – the F-35 – or to provide a framework for thinking about the failure of airpower partnerships in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also, the legendary Bill Sweetman on Grounded (squee!):

It’s unlikely that the U.S. Air Force will be abolished in anyone’s lifetime, whatever University of Kentucky professor Robert Farley, author of Grounded—The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, may think.

A few commentators have already raised the obvious issues: that the USAF already provides essential enablers to the Army and Navy, rather than being obsessed with bombers and independent airpower; that neither the Army nor the Navy would be well suited to take over things like space launch and operations, or airlift; and that not much money would actually be saved without eliminating entire missions.

But Farley’s book makes a bigger argument: that the case for an independent air force is based on the false assertion that airpower can win wars on its own. In doing so, the book exemplifies a toxic, and irrational skepticism toward airpower, and only airpower, which pervades some military thinking.

More on this one later.

Everything Becomes Crystal Clear…

[ 114 ] September 1, 2014 |

Now, at this late hour, we finally come to understand:

Thirty-six hours after the Obama administration banned importation of the classic brand of AK-47 assault rifles as part of sanctions against Russia, a Maryland dealer specializing in the weapon took stock of its inventory.

There was nothing left.

Laboring almost nonstop, workers at Atlantic Firearms in Bishopville, a Worcester County community on the Eastern Shore, had shipped hundreds of Russian-made AK-47s — an assault rifle prized by both consumers and despots — as buyers wiped out gun dealers’ inventories around the country. The frenzy was brought on, in part, by a suspicion among some gun owners that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was a backdoor excuse to ban guns many Democrats don’t like. Some customers bought eight to 10 rifles for nearly $1,000 each or more, stockpiling them as investments.

Did Putin and Obama meet secretly at the G-20 in September 2013, arranging a plan by which Putin could carve up Ukraine and Obama could carve up our Second Amendment rights? It would be irresponsible not to speculate!

Sunday Links

[ 105 ] August 31, 2014 |

Some links for your reading pleasure…


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