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Category: Robert Farley

Sao Paulo Put Out to Pasture

[ 37 ] February 15, 2017 |
Sao Paulo carrier.jpg

Sao Paulo. CC BY-SA 3.0

Brazil has decided to retire, rather than refurbish, the Sao Paulo:

On 15 February, the Brazilian Navy announced the retirement of the SAO PAULO aircraft carrier (the former FOCH). Since Argentina has similarly demobilised the 25 DE MAYO, the era of aircraft carriers as capital ships in Latin America might now have come to an end.

With 37 years’ operational service at the time of its acquisition from France, the SAO PAULO has a proud history in the service of two nations, with several attempts made at enhancing its operational capacity. However, Brazilian naval authorities decided that the technical uncertainties involved in so large-scale a programme, coupled with the likely high cost and extended timescale (ten years, according to some observers), made it preferable to retire the carrier.

While a replacement programme has not been altogether ruled out, it would at best take third place in the hierarchy of naval projects, after the nuclear submarine project and the construction of the new NL-class corvettes. Both are less expensive than the putative replacement of the SAO PAULO and acquisition of a modern carrier-compatible aircraft. Even if the carrier were to be modernised, the existing fleet of F-1 (A-4M SKYHAWKs) would reach the end of their service life by the time the programme could be completed.

This will drop the number of navies capable of operating CATOBAR (catapult-assist-take-off-arrestor-recovery) to two; the US and France.  Word is that the second domestically built Chinese carrier will have steam catapults, and INS Vishal may have electromagnetic catapults if she ever enters service.

I don’t like the idea of a nuclear submarine project for Brazil; too much overhead for too little return, especially given the defense commitments that Brazil has. I can’t quibble overmuch with the decision to scrap Sao Paulo, though. Refurbishing the carrier would have been expensive, and the acquisition of replacement aircraft for the A-4 Skyhawks (which are approaching the end of their useful lives) would also have cost more than Brazil could credibly spend. As I’ve argued in the past, the best naval investment for Brazil would be a decent-sized amphib, which would give Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) capabilities and command facilities in addition to some high-level warfighting capacity.


I Don’t See Any Method at All

[ 49 ] February 13, 2017 |

Chengdu J-20s. By Alert5 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

In the wake of the phone call between President-Elect Trump and President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan, a few analysts of the Asia-Pacific tried to make the best of it.  The arguments that the Trump call represented a genuine strategic maneuver, and not simply the random hurling of feces, boiled down to two points.  The first was that US diplomatic treatment of Taiwan ought to be considered intolerable from the perspective of liberal democratic foreign policy.  The second was that the phone call signaled Beijing that the United States was willing to put China’s most tightly-held maritime aspiration in jeopardy.  Even if the US did not decide to recognize Taiwan, the move would force Beijing to acknowledge the danger.

I don’t quite hold with either of these, but they aren’t abjectly silly rationales.  In the flush of the moment, it was possible to imagine that President Trump did indeed have some vision for what US-China relations should look like, and that he was willing to engage long-standing (for better or worse) taboos in order to push the relationship in a direction.

Turns out not so much.nyt21217

Make no mistake; I think this is the right move. There are merits to the idea of rethinking the US approach to Taiwan, and there was some logic to trying this in the midst of a Presidential transition, but the risks outweighed the benefits. But it should put paid to the notion that there was any logic or coherence to Trump’s first foray into the US-China relationship. Trump either had no idea what he was doing when he spoke with Tsai Ing-Wen, or had no good sense of the costs and benefits of opening up the snake nest that is US-Taiwan relations.

As long-time readers will know, I don’t take arguments about “reputation,” “resolve,” or “credibility” all that seriously; in addition to all of the problems associated with defining foreign policy in terms of aggressive masculinity, there are simply too many psychological, cultural, and bureaucratic filters to allow messages to have the kind of fined-tuned impact necessary to making the argument work.  But a lot of folks still do take credibility seriously, and many of those were harsh critics of President Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria after Assad’s violation of the “red line.”  It’s fair to say that if you take credibility seriously, Trump’s phone call with Xi should be deeply disturbing. China made multiple verbal and non-verbal threats to the United States following the call, indicating further action if Trump did not back away from his Taiwan comments; subsequently, Trump backed away.  The question of whether B naturally flowed from A is irrelevant; it’s hardly irrational for the Chinese (or for various third party observers) to conclude that Trump’s resolve failed in the face of Chinese power. Again, if you believe (as I do) that the politics of reputational messaging is nonsense all the way down, this won’t bother you.  If you’re someone who was deeply troubled by Obama’s failure to bomb a misbehaving Russian proxy, then you should be very concerned about what just went down between Trump and the closest thing that the United States has to a peer competitor.

Sunday Links

[ 13 ] February 12, 2017 |

Jin (Type 094) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine. By CSR Report RL33153 China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress by Ronald O’Rourke dated February 28, 2014 – United States Naval Institute News Blog, Public Domain.

Some random thoughts for your Sunday afternoon…

And of course:

RIP Richard Hatch

[ 73 ] February 9, 2017 |

Screenshot 2017-02-09 12.34.40

In honor of the passing of Richard Hatch, some blasts from a past in which Battlestar Galactica was a relevant blogospheric discussion topic:


A or B for Australia?

[ 12 ] February 8, 2017 |
HMAS Canberra RIMPAC 2016.jpg

HMAS Canberra, RIMPAC 2016. PO2 Jeffrey Troutman, Public Domain.

Some thoughts on Australia’s thoughts about what to do with its two baby-carriers:

How deeply are Australia’s naval aviation acquisition plans set in stone? With the F-35A on the verge of appearing at the Avalon Air Show, debate over the appropriate version of the Joint Strike Fighter continues.

Australia is purchasing the F-35, and Australia has already acquired two aircraft carriers capable (with modifications) of operating the F-35B. Two years ago, the government conducted a study to examine the potential for purchasing the F-35B and modifying the two Canberra-class amphibs (built in Spain to the same design as the Juan Carlos I), but eventually rejected the proposal as too costly, and too detrimental to other naval objectives.

But the debate continues, and as Australia’s strategic situation seems to be in flux (not least because of the election of U.S. President Donald Trump), longstanding procurement plans may merit reconsideration.

Foreign Entanglements: Jules Your Verne

[ 1 ] February 8, 2017 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, Christa Blackmon and I struggle to escape the  dystopia of Trump’s America:


[ 32 ] February 6, 2017 |

scottMy friend and former student Tyler Scott has published an op-ed on Trump’s immigration order in the Lexington Herald-Leader:

With the stroke of President Donald Trump’s pen, the message of equality and goodwill evaporated. It doesn’t matter if the courts overrule the travel ban against seven Muslim countries, or if the administration changes course, or if every American abroad is able to reassure acquaintances that we don’t all agree.

It may not be an outright Muslim ban, but it sends the message to the very people we need to continue the fight on our side that we don’t see them any differently than our common enemy.

As an infantryman patrolling the streets of Baghdad, every day was a battle for hearts and minds. We had to persuade a populace that a western, well-fed, predominantly Christian military — who received more in care packages from home in a month than their own children may see in a lifetime — truly empathized with and shared their burdens.

Monday Links

[ 60 ] February 6, 2017 |


From the comment threads it seems like everyone experienced a degree of trauma during last night’s game that is, frankly, unbecoming.  Here are some links to help you move on:



Flying Wing!

[ 40 ] February 3, 2017 |

YB49-6 300.jpg

Latest at the National Interest is a look at the YB-49:

As the United States approached World War II, it enjoyed the luxury of many innovative aircraft companies, and a ton of money to spend.  Part of this bounty went to pursuit aircraft, part to tactical attack planes, and part to long-range bombers. This last generated one of the most interesting failures ever to emerge from the U.S. aviation industry; the Northrop YB-49 “flying wing” bomber.

Keep Mexico Weird!

[ 108 ] February 2, 2017 |


A few brief thoughts on Mexico, and especially misperceptions of Mexico that seem common in the United States, but that particularly appear to animate Trump’s thinking.

  • Mexico has 119 million (127 million according to World Bank data) people, making it the 11th most populous country in the world.
  • Mexico’s PPP adjusted GDP is $2.193 trillion, making it the world’s 11th largest economy. Countries with smaller economies include Italy, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Australia, et al.   Per capita is $18857, putting Mexico firmly into the range of middle-income countries; on a per capita basis, Mexico would be the poorest large country in the EU, but on average Mexicans are wealthier than Chinese.
  • Mexico’s GINI coefficient (to the extent this is a useful metric) is far from good, at 48.2, but isn’t much higher than that of China, and is below that of Brazil.
  • Adult literacy in Mexico is 93%, behind Russia, slightly behind China, ahead of Brazil, and way ahead of India.
  • Mexico’s Democracy Index score is 6.47, making it a “flawed democracy.”  In comparison, this would put Mexico at the bottom of the EU and behind Brazil, but ahead of such countries as Ukraine and Georgia.

Nothing staggering here.  Mexico is a really big middle income country, which makes it one of the world’s largest economies in aggregate.  The population is relatively well-educated.  Inequality is high, although this is exacerbated by stark geographic differences across the Mexico (big, diverse countries will generally have significant inequality).

Where Mexico stands out is in foreign relations.  Despite having an economic profile broadly similar (in overall heft) to the BRICS, Mexico has made no substantial effort to re-write the rules of the international economic order.  Mexico is not part of NATO, despite participating in World War II from May 1942. Mexico has observer status in the Non-Aligned Movement, and has never been regarded as a leader of international organizations outside of the Americas. Even in the OAS, Mexico has only rarely wielded its economic and demographic heft to steer the organization in preferred directions.

This low profile extends to the military sphere.  Mexico devotes .677% of its GDP to defense, which is…. really, really, really low. Military expenditure as part of government expenditure is 2.3%, which is also really, really low; less than half that of Brazil, and would be in the bottom rung (though not the absolute bottom) of NATO. In terms of equipment, the Mexican armed forces are severely undercapitalized.  The fighter fleet of the Mexican Air Force (formally part of the Mexican Army [ed.- yay!]), consists of three F-5s.  Three. The primary combat vessels of the Mexican Navy are mostly in excess of fifty years old, and include veterans of the Second World War. The primary military tasks of the Mexican armed forces are internal; fighting insurgents, and managing (in various ways) the drug trade.  Mexico does not participate widely in UN peacekeeping missions; in 2016, it deployed a total of 23 personnel abroad. Mexico does not normally make substantial military contributions to regional multilateral operations, such as Haitian earthquake relief.

So if you want to identify an area in which Mexico is really weird, look no further. Mexico stands out even in comparison to Canada, which despite having a quarter of the population and a smaller economy, manages to spend twice as much on defense in raw, non-PPP adjusted terms. It stands out in contrast to other Latin American countries of similar economic and demographic stature, such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, or Brazil.

The explanation for Mexico’s weirdness seems simple; the overwhelming power of the United States effectively dictates Mexican national security policy.  Mexico cannot hope to build a military capable of resisting the United States, much less protecting its emigrant populations or recovering lost territories.  At the same time,  no state other than the US can plausibly threaten Mexico’s security. Consequently, Mexico doesn’t face any very serious choices regarding national security policy; it can afford to have a very small defense budget and a non-activist foreign policy. This policy pays dividends insofar as it allows Mexico to allocate financial resources more efficiently than otherwise, to avoid costly entanglements, and (not least) to avoid some of the civil-military difficulties that have afflicted other Latin American countries.

As an explanation for Mexican security policy, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it only goes so far.  There are plenty of countries in positions structurally similar to that of Mexico that do not make the same choice.  As noted, Canada has historically adopted a much more activist military and foreign policy (explainable by Canada’s position within the Anglosphere and the Atlantic community, but still).  Ukraine and Poland have not adopted “Mexican” strategies with respect to Russia, instead preferring internal and external balancing.  Vietnam has constructed its security policy around measured resistance to China, rather than accommodation. Indeed, for the first hundred years of its existence Mexican security policy assumed (on and off, to be sure) an antagonistic United States. Brazil and Argentina also rely on implicit and explicit security guarantees from the United States, but carry out much more activist foreign and military policies than Mexico.

It is better to think of Mexico’s accommodationist foreign policy as a choice, rather than as a structural dictate.   It is almost certainly a good choice; antagonism would cost more and invite more extensive US intervention, internal balancing (military buildup) would cost a lot more, external balancing (alliance with foreign powers) is extremely difficult on the multilateral side and not all that productive even in bilateral terms.  But Mexico is surely large enough, and wealthy enough, to consider alternative choices.

Mexico’s accommodationist strategy also places some obligations (mostly implicit) on the United States.  These include (relatively) decent treatment of the Mexican diaspora, an end to efforts to chip away at Mexico’s territory, a minimum of active subversion of the Mexican government, a degree of respect for Mexican sovereignty, and a degree of protection against the military or subversive ends of foreign powers.  As long as these obligations are met (in broad terms), the United States gets a deal; it does not have to worry, at all, about the large, wealthy, potentially powerful country with latent but compelling irredentist claims along its southern border.

That’s a pretty good deal.

If I were in a senior policymaking position in the United States government, one of my central objectives would be to keep Mexican foreign and security policy “weird.”  Mexico can afford to expend a much greater portion of its economy on defense; it can easily undertake a much more activist foreign policy.  Mexico can afford a lot of Russian Su-27s and MiG-29s, or Saab Gripens, or Eurofighter Typhoons, or Chengdu J-10s. It can afford to upgrade its navy with submarines and modern surface warfare vessels, including missile-armed patrol boats that would give the USN headaches. It can afford to suspend or modify a wide range of cooperative security programs with the United States.

Mexico probably won’t do any of these things, partially because of inertia, and partially because balancing would require a major resource allocation.  But then previous US Presidents have tended to shy away from hinting at pogroms against the Mexican diaspora, or at suggesting that the US military will intervene directly in Mexico’s sovereign territory.

“Are My Methods Unsound?”

[ 106 ] January 30, 2017 |

Silicon valley title.png

It turns out that a strong commitment to stark, raving racism is bad for business:

President Donald Trump’s next target in his administration’s immigration policy will focus on what Silicon Valley fears most: the work-visa programs that tech companies rely on to hire tens of thousands of workers each year, according to a report by Bloomberg.

The executive order is still a draft, according to the report, but if enacted, it could mean major overhauls in the way tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon recruit their employees. Under the order, companies would have to prioritize hiring American workers, and if they must hire foreign workers, then they must prioritize the most highly compensated, according to the report.

“Our country’s immigration policies should be designed and implemented to serve, first and foremost, the U.S. national interest,” the draft says, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg.  “Visa programs for foreign workers … should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritizes the protection of American workers — our forgotten working people — and the jobs they hold,” the draft states.

It turns out that a strong commitment to stark, raving racism is also bad for geopolitics:

Domestically, one of the big obstacles to Indian support for Trump will come down to his position on H-1B visas for skilled immigrant workers. Indian citizens and companies benefit disproportionately from this program. In 2013, U.S. government data showed that Indian citizens received nearly two-thirds of all H-1B visas, abetted in part by Indian outsourcing firms. Though Trump has vacillated on his H-1B position, as he has on so many of his other positions, his website currently cites the program as a major point of grievance with existing U.S. immigration provisions.

An H-1B crackdown could potentially affect India’s economy as well. India is the top remittance receiving country, accounting for just over 12 percent of world remittances in 2007. In 2012, remittances to India stood at $70.39 billion and represented 4 percent of the country’s GDP. Non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the United States sent nearly $11 billion in remittances in 2012, representing the second greatest source of remittances after the United Arab Emirates. India’s current political leadership has shown that it is attuned to the interests of the vast Indian diaspora living abroad, particularly in the United States. U.S. immigration policies have important economic effects for India and New Delhi will take note of what Trump is promising.

In the past week and a half, Donald Trump has made clear his interest in confronting China.  He has also pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which (whatever its bevy of problems) was part of a containment strategy against China, and is now preparing to open a rift with one of the key countries that the United States will need to balance the PRC.  When given a choice between racism and geopolitics, Trump and Bannon strongly prefer racism.  This is something that Tulsi Gabbard should probably think about…


[ 119 ] January 30, 2017 |

Erez Crossing, Israel-Gaza

Bibi embraces his one true commitment: walls that keep brown people out.

For Bibi, there is apparently no limit to the how much you can hate Jews, as long as you hate Muslims more. And Mexicans?  Well, it’s so hard to tell…

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