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Category: Robert Farley

The Weapons that Never Were

[ 35 ] June 23, 2014 |

In my latest at the National Interest I talk about five potentially revolutionary weapon systems that never came to be:

Weapons die for all kinds of different reasons.  Sometimes they happen at the wrong time, either in the midst of defense austerity, or with the wrong constellation of personnel.  Sometimes they fall victim to the byzantine bureaucracy of the Pentagon, or to turf fights between the services.  And sometimes they die because they were a bad idea in the first place.  For the same reasons, bad defense systems can often survive the most inept management if they fill a particular niche well enough.

This article concentrates on five systems that died, but that might have had transformative effects if they had survived.  These transformations would only rarely have changed the course of wars (countries win and lose wars for many reasons besides technology), but rather would have had ripple effects across the entire defense industrial base, altering how our military organizations approached warfighting and procurement. Not all the changes would have been for the best; sometimes programs are canceled for sound reasons.

“Portugal Is Like Brazil’s Distant, Abusive Daddy”

[ 93 ] June 22, 2014 |

Open thread for the Portugal-US match.

[SL] I think it’s in the bag, since the US has never lost a World Cup game with Teddy Roosevelt in attendance:


Admittedly, if Lyndon Johnson rather than Teddy Roosevelt was at the game today, the US would be up 7-1. Unfortunately, they would lose to Vietnam in the next round.

Sunday Linkage

[ 53 ] June 22, 2014 |

For your reading pleasure:

Over the next few days we’re going to be playing with the advertising zones a bit.  Our intent is to avoid particularly annoying ads while nevertheless improving revenue streams.  Comments appreciated.

Capturing the Spoils of World War I

[ 70 ] June 20, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat discusses how the course of World War I in Asia helped set the board for World War II:

However, the events of 1914 were watched closely in East Asia, where many believed that the war held the key to the future of the continent. Japan, in particular, saw the war as an opportunity to improve its position at the expense of Germany, which Tokyo quickly appreciated would not be able to defend its Pacific positions. On August 7, 1914, the British government asked for Japan’s assistance with securing Pacific sealanes. On August 23, Japan declared war against Germany, and began operations against German territorial possessions in the Pacific.

Japan quickly seized this opportunity by laying siege to the German Concession at Tsingtao (Qingdao). The primary German forces in the area consisted of a cruiser squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, but when the war began, Spee and his cruisers were touring German island possessions. Seeing the writing on the wall, Spee determined to avoid the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, and started a long set of adventures that would end in the Falkland Islands.

If you really dig arguments between Japanese and Chinese nationalists, you will LOVE the comment thread on this one.


[ 114 ] June 19, 2014 |

I’d comment at more length on the Ann Marie Slaughter op-ed, but Daniel Larison is killing it.

For my part, it’s the operational aspect of the demand for the use of airpower that’s so puzzling. One of the reasons (I presume) that the Obama administration was so reluctant to bomb Syria was that it was difficult to sort out how a brief, or even moderate, bombing campaign might bring the conflict to a close. As we discovered in Libya, it’s impossible to bomb for humanitarian purposes; if you’re going to engage, you need to decide who you want to win and push for it. In Syria, the state was considerably more robust, the opposition more fractured, and the nastiest elements of the resistance more powerful than in Libya, meaning that it would be harder to win and the fruits of victory would be more ambiguous. I suppose this is why Slaughter has determined to rely on the Credibility Fairy, suggesting that bombing would have resolved everything from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea to Jose Fernandez’ Tommy John surgery.

Strangely enough, the operational case for limited use of airpower in Iraq is a lot stronger than in Syria, precisely because we presumably wouldn’t be bombing for “humanitarian” reasons. The intention would be to support the efforts of Iraqi forces to identify, fix, and defeat ISIS fighters, then recover and control actual territorial objectives. These, not atmospheric nonsense such as “resolve” and “messaging,” are objectives that airpower can actually contribute to.

Note that “operational” is a different thing than “strategic.” At this point, to the extent that the US prefers the current Iraqi government to an ISIS-controlled government, I think it’s sufficient to help out with intelligence assistance that will allow the Iraqi Army to use its vastly superior firepower to track and defeat the insurgents/fighters/whatever. Iraq isn’t fighting the PAVN; it should be able to use its overwhelming superiority in just about everything to push back. The fundamental problems remain with Iraq’s political settlement, and airpower is singularly incapable of resolving those issues.


[ 10 ] June 17, 2014 |

I think Roger Sterling may have come up with this:

Sunday Book Review: Torpedo

[ 13 ] June 15, 2014 |

Katherine Epstein’s new book “Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain” is about two things.  First, it’s about the torpedo, including both the struggles that several companies went through in the United States and the United Kingdom in manufacturing early torpedoes, and the doctrinal turmoil that the development of the torpedo generated in both the United States Navy and the Royal Navy.

Second, Torpedo is about the development of the legal, bureaucratic, and technical foundations of the modern military industrial complex.  Building on the work of other theorists, Epstein argues that the real foundations of the MIC lay in naval procurement at the end of the nineteenth century.  The industrial demands on naval warfare, both in terms of capital intensive production and capital intensive research, required a large peace-time commitment on the part of the government.  The state and private industry could equip armies much more quickly than they could equip navies or (eventually) air forces.

This meant developing novel forms of public-private interaction.  In particular, to acquire advanced technology the state could no longer rely on private firms using their own capital to develop off-the-shelf products that the military could choose to purchase.  The capital requirement of innovation, combined with the fact that defense firms had a limited number of customers, meant that firms would only pursue innovation if assured that their investment would pay off.  This meant that the state would have to pre-emptively invest in private innovation, whether through direct grants or through guaranteed purchase contracts.

This, in turn, created a complex set of intellectual property problems.  The private firms that developed the torpedoes wanted to own the intellectual property associated with that technology, or at least to be fairly compensated for their investment.  This meant selling either to the United States or to some foreign government.  The government, on the other hand, felt that its investment in the projects meant that it should share (at least) in the ownership of the intellectual property. The government also worried about the export of advanced technology and advanced intellectual property to foreign buyers.  This set the stage for brutal IP litigation between the US government and several private firms, both foreign and domestic.  That the government and the firms needed each other served to make the fighting even more vicious.

The US systems of intellectual property and export control were unprepared for this development.  The US tried to rely on the 1799 Logan Act (meant to prevent private individuals from conducting US foreign policy) in order to prevent US firms from exporting torpedoes abroad. Similarly, US patent law struggled with the quandaries associated with joint public-private development of IP.  In the United Kingdom, which already had a system of export controls and secret patents, this process ran far more smoothly.

On the organizational and doctrinal side, Epstein points out that while we would expect the USN, as the smaller and less tradition-bound of the two navies, would focus on a “disruptive” innovation like the torpedo, in reality the Royal Navy pushed farther and faster on torpedo doctrine and technology than any of its competitors. In contrast to the hidebound institution often depicted in popular history, the early 1900s were a period of intellectual ferment in the RN, with questions of fleet design and ship construction hotly debated between several factions.  The torpedo, understood by many as a weapon with war-winning potential, loomed large for most of these factions.

The RN also had better access to research and training resources than the USN, which allowed it both to formulate doctrine more effectively, and to feed experiential knowledge back into the system of technology development. Consequently, Epstein argues that the conventional understanding of the relationship between disruptive military innovation and established military power is wrong; the most advanced military organizations typically have the greatest means not only to pursue disruptive innovation, but also to evaluate the implications of such innovation.

This is a good book; it’s an interesting book, and it breaks new ground on the role of intellectual property law and the defense industry while also contributing to the literature on military organizations and innovation. But this book ends up being about two different things; the development of naval doctrine in the early twentieth century in the RN and the USN, and the development of modern intellectual property law.  There are some people that are interested in both of these things (me!), but that number is extremely limited. Many readers are going to find particular parts of the story intensely interesting, but will skip some of the other chapters.  For my own part, I found the intellectual property angle much more interesting than the naval doctrine angle, although that’s likely because of the nature of my current project.

I can heartily recommend Torpedo, and indeed I suspect that scholars of the history of the modern military industrial complex will find it indispensible.  At the same time, the transition between the two foci will be a struggle for a lot of readers.


[ 76 ] June 12, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat examines the legacy of HIJMS Yamato:

For American audiences of a certain age, the most evocative depiction of Yamato came in the form of the animated television show “Star Blazers,” in which the Earth repurposed the hulk of Yamato to fight a series of galactic wars.  Star Blazers was an edited and redubbed version of the Japanese “Space Battleship Yamato,” which made explicit reference to the lost battleship. In a pointed reference to Japan’s wartime experience, the first alien attack comes in the form of a radioactive bombardment that leaves the surface of the earth poisonous and desolate.  Most of this escaped the notice of the American audience at the time, however.


[ 82 ] June 11, 2014 |

Very briefly on this nonsense…

The argument that the United States could have prevented the collapse of Iraqi control over Mosul and other areas is predicated on the belief that a relatively small (certainly no larger than 10000) contingent of US troops, supported by US air forces, could either defeat rebel groups or sufficiently stiffen the Iraqi Army such that it could defeat those groups.  There is no evidence that this is the case, however; prior to the Surge, much larger US forces were unable to maintain order in Iraq.

This is to say nothing of the fact that leaving a larger contingent was virtually impossible given political reality in both Iraq and the United States in 2011.  The “Maliki would have fought for a larger force” is pure hand-waving, and the idea of leaving even 2000 was deeply unpopular in the US.  Moreover, had we left a larger force (at any plausible level, which is to say much lower than 130000), it would require significant reinforcement in order to handle problems like this, which would itself prove politically unpalatable in both countries.

Long story short, the central takeaway of the WSJ piece is the effort to pass off the continued disaster of Iraq to Barack Obama, one of the only people in US politics who bears virtually no responsibility for the disaster in Iraq.


World War I Centennial

[ 13 ] June 11, 2014 |

In my latest at War is Boring I talk up the National World War I Museum in Kansas City:

The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is gearing up for the centennial of the Great War.

I just visited. You should, too. It’s a good experience despite the institution’s flaws.

In preparation for the first months of the centennial, the museum has opened the new exhibitions On the Brink—covering the pre-war July Crisis—and Over By Christmas which highlights the world’s growing realization that the war would last longer than a few months.

The new exhibits are a mixed bag, but the overall museum experience is a rich one.

Light Carriers!

[ 16 ] June 10, 2014 |

Latest entry in the endless debate over aircraft carrier classification:

The “aircraft carrier” designation has become a bit of a joke among defense commentators on Twitter, with one Popular Science writer deciding to avoid controversy by referring to everything from the Japanese Izumo to the USS Nimitz as a “floaty movey flyer holder.” The definitional becomes more significant when we range beyond the relatively small community of defense and aviation specialists, and try to explain to the laity why a 45,000-ton ship that carries supersonic jet fighters is not, in fact, an “aircraft carrier.”

A War to Avoid

[ 89 ] June 9, 2014 |

I have a longish piece at the National Interest on how a war between China and the United States might play out.  It concentrates more on the strategic details surrounding the opening and conclusion of any conflict than on the tactical details themselves:

How does the unthinkable happen? As we wind our way to the 100thanniversary of the events that culminated in World War I, the question of unexpected wars looms large. What series of events could lead to war in East Asia, and how would that war play out?

The United States and China are inextricably locked in the Pacific Rim’s system of international trade. Some argue that this makes war impossible, but then while some believed World War I inevitable, but others similarly thought it impossible.

In this article I concentrate less on the operational and tactical details of a US-China war, and more on the strategic objectives of the major combatants before, during, and after the conflict. A war between the United States and China would transform some aspects of the geopolitics of East Asia, but would also leave many crucial factors unchanged. Tragically, a conflict between China and the US might be remembered only as “The First Sino-American War.”

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