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Category: Robert Farley

Strategerizing Mark IV

[ 13 ] February 20, 2014 |

A bit more on airpower, seapower, and strategic theorizing:

The ongoing debates over airpower theoryseapower theory, and strategic theory more generally have glided over three issues: the division between domains of action, the division between military and civilian contributions, and the increasingly transnational nature of the modern strategic community. Until we grapple with these three factors, we’re missing a big part of the process of how we grow and groom specialists in strategic affairs.

Technology and Organizational Design

[ 4 ] February 19, 2014 |

I have a post up at War Council (a project associated with the West Point Defense and Strategic Studies Program) about technology, innovation, and institutional design:

Major Cavanaugh’s post brings to the fore one of the most critical issues facing any defense establishment: the relationship between technology and organizational design. How does the way in which we structure our military organizations affect military technological innovation? The short answer is that institutions both shape and manage technology.  The services set priorities for procurement and innovation that lead to technological transformation.  This is as it should be; specialists in land, air, and naval warfare know what they need, and should have a hand in pushing the defense industrial sector in the right direction. At the same time, organizations have to respond to disruptive, unanticipated technological change.  Military success over the last century had depended on having the capacity to manage such change.

I Maintain the Same Policy on Office Hours

[ 170 ] February 18, 2014 |

This is very European:

No Swiss fighter jets were scrambled Monday when an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked his own plane and forced it to land in Geneva, because it happened outside business hours, the Swiss airforce said… But although the co-pilot-turned-hijacker quickly announced he wanted to land the plane in Switzerland, where he later said he aimed to seek asylum, Switzerland’s fleet of F-18s and F-5 Tigers remained on the ground, Swiss airforce spokesman Laurent Savary told AFP.

This, he explained, was because the Swiss airforce is only available during office hours. These are reported to be from 8am until noon, then 1:30 to 5pm.

As you may recall, later this year Switzerland will hold a referendum on whether to purchase 18 Saab Gripen fighters to defend Swiss airspace from 8am until noon, then 1:30 to 5pm.

Airpower and Drones: An Excerpt

[ 21 ] February 17, 2014 |

War is Boring has published a short excerpt of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force. The excerpt is taken from the chapter on drones, and stems from one of my biggest frustrations with the extant drone debate; the lack of sufficient connection to the history of airpower theory and practice.

The novelty of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles can obscure how well they fit within traditional air power theory. Drones’ capacity for combining persistent surveillance with precision-guided munitions makes them useful for air campaigns designed to detach the sinews of enemy military and governmental institutions.

Indeed, if neoclassical air power theory is about leveraging intelligence and surveillance to achieve political and strategic effect, drones are ideal platforms. Drones’ vulnerability to surface and air attack—at least by sophisticated opponent—is ameliorated by their lower material and human costs.

Check out the rest.

Sunday Book Review: The North African Air Campaign

[ 12 ] February 16, 2014 |

How much did the US Army Air Force contribute to Axis defeat in the Mediterranean, and what implications did that victory carry for the rest of the war? In The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno , Christopher Rein argues that the extant literature on the campaign has misunderstood airpower’s contribution.  Biased interpretations on the part of both air and ground partisans have led to misconceptions about how the campaign played out, and about the nature and capabilities of the USAAF.

The History
Rein tracks the USAAF deployment to North Africa from late 1941, before US involvement had officially begun. US airmen deployed to Egypt in 1941 to begin preparing for US involvement, to support US aircraft being exported to the RAF, and to begin learning RAF tradecraft. The US involvement on the Eastern side of the Med accelerated with the Pearl Harbor attacks, as some of the squadrons that escaped from the Philippines found their way to Egypt, eventually becoming the Ninth Air Force.  These squadrons would (after a failed attempt to attack Ploesti, and an abortive scheme to support the Soviets in the Caucausus) eventually join the RAF in supporting Montgomery’s offensive across Egypt and Libya.  The Ninth Air Force would be joined by the 12th in the wake of Operation Torch, as the Allies slowly tightened the noose on Axis forces in Tunisia.  Following the surrender in North Africa, the USAAF would support amphibious operations in Sicily and Italy, and wage a very successful counter-air operation against the Luftwaffe, notwithstanding the unfortunate diversion of heavy bomber assets to a disastrous raid against Ploesti.

The Relevance
Rein argues, contra much of the historiography on this subject, that the USAAF had relatively sound doctrine and aircraft to undertake a tactical air campaign, but that the problems lay with training and experience. In particular, Rein argues that the struggles in the early part of the campaign came from the lack of joint training with US Army ground forces. Apart from several small engagements in the Pacific Theater, the US Army had virtually no experience with ground-air integration in conventional combat situations.  The lack of available aircraft prior to the war exacerbated this problem.  Much aircraft production in 1941 and 1942 was diverted to the Pacific, to preparing for the Combined Bomber Offensive, or directly to the RAF.  Over the course of the campaign, the Ninth and Twelfth Air Forces developed the tacit knowledge necessary to carry out effective air tactics and operations, both through experience and through interaction with the British (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans). In particular, the USAAF developed tactics for the employment of fighter-bombers, a use of pursuit aircraft not conceptualized with any detail prior to the war.

Rein comes to grim conclusions regarding the effectiveness of strategic bombing during the North Africa campaign.  USAAF heavy bombers were used effectively for long-range interdiction at several points during the campaign, attacking transportation networks in Libya and Italy.  However, the diversion of these bombers to attacks on Axis oil production at Ploesti proved a costly catastrophe. On a single night, fifty-three heavy bombers were lost, a total that exceeded combined losses for the previous thirteen months.  The lack of these aircraft, Rein suggests, helped add to early Allied troubles in Italy.  Rein also argues, without qualification, that the commitment of additional heavy bombers to the anti-submarine role could have substantially reduced Allied shipping losses and, potentially, accelerated the end of the war. Overall, Rein argues that the diversion of resources to the CBO significantly hampered Allied effectiveness in the Med, although the USAAF and RAF nevertheless managed to wage a successful air campaign.

The misunderstandings associated with the North Africa campaign stem, in large part, from the broader disputes between air and ground power advocates. Airpower advocates interpret the campaign mostly in negative, doctrinal terms; ground commanders without a sense of how to use airpower dispersed assets, and left the (smaller) Axis air forces in control of the air.  On the ground side, commanders were frustrated with the inability of the USAAF to provide much in the way of force protection, although Rein points out that this also stemmed from misconceptions of the degree of support that airpower could provide for advancing ground forces. The term “penny packets” emerges from this campaign, stemming from the argument that the US defeat at Kasserine Pass came, in large part, from the inability of airpower assets to concentrate and wage an effect counter-air campaign against Axis forces.  This dispersal violated the precept of centralized control, decentralized effect by parceling out air assets across various ground commanders. In fact, bad logistics and bad weather prevented the USAAF from playing its role at Kasserine Pass.

These problems of command and control a) stemmed from inexperience, rather than bad doctrine, and b) were largely solved by mid-1943. Nevertheless, as the modern USAF has struggled to forget its origins in strategic bombing theory and doctrine, the “penny packet” argument has replaced the “independent decisive effect of airpower.”  In comics terms, this amounts to a replacement of a “Golden Age” origin story with one from the “Silver Age.” After independence, of course, the USAF would utterly gut its tactical capabilities, in spite of promises made to the Army and to General Eisenhower.


This is an outstanding work on a campaign that remains misunderstood. Rein writes well, and has considerable practical and theoretical experience of airpower (a USAF Lieutenant Colonel, Rein teaches at the US Air Force Academy). The book is relatively short, but explains the strategic and operational issues sufficiently that even relative novices should be able to follow the action.  Rein also draws implications from this episode for the later history of airpower, although the lack of space and development makes these feel a touch strained.  Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book.


Centralized Control, Decentralized Effect

[ 6 ] February 16, 2014 |

I have created a page for Grounded which collects as many of the articles, reviews, and responses that I could remember to list.  Also buying information, etc. If there’s anything I’ve forgotten, or that I should add, please let me know.

Nobody Cares About Missiles

[ 33 ] February 16, 2014 |

There’s so much wrong with this:

The problems with the ICBM force, military and outside experts say, stem from the Cold War’s end and the pressures of the nation’s post-9/11 conflicts. Those twin challenges have dulled the glory and pride once associated with the nuclear mission. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force report said.

The pressure to cheat can be intense: Some tests were scored to two decimal places—99.44%, for example, like the purported purity of Ivory Soap. “The cheating is pervasive,” says a former Minuteman crew operator who left the service in 2010. “It’s pervasive because the leadership places so much emphasis on rote test scores to advance.” In the wake of the recent scandal at Malmstrom, airmen retook tests under intense scrutiny to ensure there was no cheating; the average test score was 95.5%. “So they’re not cheating to pass —they’re cheating to get 100s because so much emphasis is placed on test scores to advance,” this former missileer says…

Cheating was encouraged by higher-ups. “The commander would sit down with you and say, `These tests are ridiculous—you can try to do it all by yourself, which is noble, but you’ll but you’ll never be promoted,’” says the missiler who left the service in 2011. “There was times I was saved from failing by cheating. The testing got so ridiculous that it was no longer testing your ability to be a missile operator—it was testing your ability to take tests.”

The higher-ranking squadron and group commanders played along. “Some of the colonels were so lazy they’d call and tell me to fill in the answers for them,” the ex-missileer said of their quarterly recertification tests. “I very rarely saw the colonels take the test honestly.”

As I’ve argued, the problem isn’t the indiscipline of a particular subset of Air Force officers.  That indiscipline in the nearly inevitable result of institutional indifference to maintaining a capability that yields little in the way of resources or prestige.



Instincts Gone Wrong?

[ 41 ] February 15, 2014 |

Along with a lot of Kentuckians, I’ve generally been impressed with Rand Paul’s purely political skills. During his initial campaign, there was grudging acknowledgment that he could probably win in circumstances favorable to insurgent Republicans, but that he had not displayed much in the way of political acumen, and was unlikely to make much of a splash beyond being the Senate’s resident curiosity.  I think that’s largely been proven wrong, as Paul has taken advantage of his platform to increase his visibility without  reducing his viability.

I do wonder about this, however:

Blame is also owed to the media, in [Paul’s] way of looking at it. “I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this,” said Paul, adding: “He took advantage of a girl that was 20-years-old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that and that is predatory behavior.”

Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Those eager to dredge up the past, would be wise to dredge accurately. The suggestion that the media gave Clinton a “pass” suggests that at the time this was happening, the libertarian ophthalmologist was perhaps too busy to read what was in the newspapers.

Half the voting public may now be too young to recall the details, but as a card-carrying member of the media then and now, I can say that my workplace at the time, the Washington Post, was so transfixed by poor Monica Lewinsky that you could hardly go to the water cooler or the cafeteria or the pens-and-notebooks cupboard without being presented by a colleague with some new detail of what might or might not have transpired between the president and his beret-wearing intern. This was true at every other newspaper or magazine. The story consumed every sentient being in the nation’s capital, including dogs, cats, members of Congress and anybody remotely aware of the Starr report and its salacious footnotes, which people read out loud to one another at the breakfast table.

I could be terribly wrong, and revisiting Monica Lewinsky might indeed prove a political winner in 2016 in a way that it did not in, say, 1998.  I’d be pretty goddamned surprised if that were the case, however.


Dispensing with Strategy and the Strategists

[ 10 ] February 12, 2014 |

On the heels of arguing that strategy isn’t so important, let me suggest that the impact of strategists is generally over-stated:

Does this mean that Obama is indebted to any particular theorists of restraint or “offshore balancing?”  Not likely. There are many strategic theorists who would have counseled such restraint. Stephen Walt is one of them, but other “offshore balancers” include Christopher Layne, Eugene Gholz, and the bulk of the Cato Institute. Numerous leftish commentators have also counseled restraint, especially in the wake of the Bush administration. But indeed, compared to George W. Bush, we could categorize nearly every strategic thinker in the United States as advising restraint.  In some situations, even the most hawkish of Presidents can look restrained. As Walt himself has argued, Obama is merely responding to situational constraints.

Shut Up, Nick

[ 63 ] February 12, 2014 |

Well, this is certainly a way to solve the Ducks:

The NCAA committee recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, excluding the final two minutes of each half. So in effect, offenses won’t be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before then, it would be penalized five yards for delay of game. Under current rules, defenses aren’t guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense subs first….

But some coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, have criticized hurry-up offenses, arguing that they give offenses an unfair advantage and don’t allow them to adequately substitute defensive players.

“All you’re trying to do is get lined up [on defense],” Saban told in September. “You can’t play specialty third-down stuff. You can’t hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it’s got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you’re doing.”

Why yes; that is, indeed, the point.

Two thoughts: First, no huddle offenses are, without question, a lot of fun to watch. This is especially true when they’re conducted by teams, like the Ducks, that are very good at them.  Outlawing them in order to please Nick Saban makes college football altogether less interesting.  Second, the best defenses in the Pac-12 have, to my utter chagrin, demonstrated that the Ducks (and teams like them) can, in fact, be stopped.  This is a solution in search of a problem.


[ 176 ] February 12, 2014 |

No surprise here:

In yet another instance of science belatedly confirming what common sense has already told us, a new paper from researchers at three Canadian universities concludes that Internet trolls aren’t just mean — they’re sadists and psychopaths.

The paper, published last week in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, surveyed a group of several hundred on their Internet behaviors and personal traits. It found that trolling correlated with higher rates of sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, a certain lack of scruples when it comes to deceiving or manipulating other people.

“… it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists,” the paper rules.

I used to try to convince people that there’s no way to conceive of a retort so clever, so devastating that the troll will actually throw in the towel, or feel bad about him/herself. By the time you hit the “reply” button, you’ve already lost the battle.  I don’t much bother with that anymore.

…although I’ll grant that the temptation to troll this thread is strong…

Foreign Entanglements: Coalitions, Caveats, and Blogging

[ 0 ] February 11, 2014 |

In this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, I speak with Steve Saideman about the recent difficulties with the International Studies Association:

We also talk at length about Steve’s new book, NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone. Excellent book, check it out.

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