Streetwise Professor

August 11, 2019

Did the Petrel Blow Up Real Good?

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:02 pm

In Russia, August, not April, is the cruelest month (though July can be pretty bad too). Recent Augusts have been pretty benign, though: no ferry sinkings or rash of drownings or major fires. This year, however, August (and July) appear to be returning to form, with an explosion at a Siberian ammo dump, raging forest fires (again in Siberia), and last week, an explosion at a missile test in Severodvinsk, in far northern Arkhangelsk. This all followed the sinking of a highly secretive submarine in July.

The first announcement of the Severodvinsk event was puzzling. There was a spike of radiation that had people in the area scurrying to pharmacies to get iodine. There was an announcement of an explosion during the test of a rocket engine. But conventional rocket engines don’t release radiation when they explode, so whence the radiation? Upon reading, the only thing I could think of was that there was a mishap in the testing of Russia’s insane nuclear powered Буревестник (Burevestnik or “Petrel”) cruise missile, of which Putin is so fond.

Since the explosion, the Russians have been telling the truth slowly, and although they have not come out and said it was the Petrel (“Skyfall” in Nato nomenclature) that blowed up real good, everything they have said tends to confirm that suspicion. Oh yeah. Seven people died. Not two. And five of those seven, yeah, they worked for Rosatom–Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation. And yeah, there was an explosion in “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.” (Come again?) A nuclear fuel vessel was anchored nearby, and emergency personnel evacuating the injured wore hazmat suits: the ship had been present at the time of a previous test of the Petrel.

The Dvina Bay has been closed due to alleged pollution from rocket fuel, and the Russians claim that the explosion occurred during the testing of a liquid fuel rocket motor, but this does not rule out that the Petrel was involved: conventional rockets would be used to launch the weapon and give it sufficient velocity for a nuclear powered ramjet mechanism to operate. (Though it is interesting that liquid fuel is involved: even the US’s insane nuclear ramjet Project Pluto utilized safer solid fuel rockets for liftoff. Perhaps the use of liquid fuel is not surprising: Russia’s still in development RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is also liquid-fueled.)

Although in a 1 March, 2018 speech Putin touted the missile as having virtually unlimited range, your results may differ. By a lot:

Russia is preparing for a special operation to find a missile that fell into the Barents Sea. This was reported by CNBC. The American television channel refers to intelligence data. Allegedly the missile with a nuclear power plant was lost during the tests in November 2017. The missile launches themselves were conducted four times, from November 2017 to February 2018. In all four cases, it ended in failure. The longest of the tests lasted about two minutes. The rocket flew about 35 kilometers and fell, according to TASS.

There were supposedly “moderately successful” tests (meaning they didn’t blow up, apparently) in late-2018 and January of this year.

In his March, 2018 speech, and in subsequent remarks Putin has betrayed a Hitleresque fascination with wonder weapons like the Petrel and the Poseidon nuclear torpedo. Hitler’s fascination arose from his realization that American and Soviet industrial might and population advantages made the odds against Germany prevailing in man-on-man, plane-on-plane, tank-on-tank combat vanishingly small. Putin’s focus on wonder weapons likely has a similar motivation.

These projects betray an inordinate fear of US missile defenses (if only they were so effective as to negate Russia’s ICBM arsenal–apparently Reagan’s ghost still haunts them), and something approaching panic at the recognition that the gap between American and Russian military potential is widening inexorably. * Falling behind in symmetric competition, Putin and his military establishment are turning instead to competing asymmetrically. These efforts are in the nuclear sphere, because the Russians recognize that nuclear weapons are their only source of strategic power, leverage, and relevance.

Putin’s pets Petrel and Poseidon are thus signals of weakness and doubt, wrapped up in bravado. They are unlikely to change the strategic balance in any serious way, and so far Petrel has evidently been far more dangerous to its developers than its intended targets. Not that you can expect an admission of that anytime soon.

*The use of liquid fuel in the RS-28 ICBM also likely reflects Russian fears of US missile defenses. Defeating missile defenses by using heavy parallel separation warheads requires much greater thrust that is more reliably delivered with liquid-fueled rockets. Reliance on such rockets may also reflect constraints on Russian capacity to produce solid-fueled rockets, due to the lack of critical materials.

July 6, 2019

Underwater Russian Roulette

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:18 pm

When my grandfather was barely 17, his mother signed a paper saying he was 18 (he was a hillbilly with no birth certificate, which gives rise to another story I may tell sometime), and he left Burr Oak, Ohio to join the Navy. He went to electrician’s school, and was assigned as an electrician’s mate on a submarine, the USS K-2 (submarine #33 in the US Navy), on which he served in 1921-22. (The K-2 was laid-up the next year.)

As you can see, she was a tiny thing, displacing 400 tons on the surface, and a little over 500 tons submerged.* My grandfather’s stories of his service on her were pretty harrowing. 1920s submarines were not for the faint of heart.

Even so, if given the choice, I would serve on the K-2 circa 1920 than on a modern Russian sub. Since Soviet days, the Soviet/Russian sub force has experienced a litany of accidents, many of them fatal: here is a list of those since 2000. The most notable of these incidents, and the one with the highest death toll, was of course the Kursk, about which Putin famously and laconically said: “It sank.”

Well, this week Putin didn’t have to say exactly those words about another sub, but there was a fatal incident aboard a Russian boat, reported to be the Losharik, reputedly a super-deep diving research and intelligence vessel.

Given the very secretive nature of the sub’s purposes and missions, and the inherent secretiveness of the Russian state, we know very little beyond a few details. These include that there was a fire that killed 17 aboard. (The standard crew of this class is estimated at 25, so arguably the fire killed 2/3s of those on board.) That the surviving crew was able to seal off the affected compartments, and eventually extinguish the blaze. And that’s about it.

It’s one thing for a dry dock carrying a decrepit hulk like the Kuznetsov to sink. It’s another for one of the most elite units in the Russian Navy to suffer such a catastrophic event. It does not speak well of the condition and readiness of the Russian Navy generally.

There are also some curious details. Reportedly 7 of the 17 killed were captains “of the first rank” (the equivalent of an O-6 in the US Navy). I know the Russian Navy (especially the nuclear sub force) is officer-heavy (and indeed, the entire complement of the boat is apparently officers), but that’s an insanely high number. Most US major combatants (including SSNs, SSBNs, and DDGs) are commanded by commanders (O-5), and others have a single captain, who is CO. What were 7 (or more) captains, plus two Heroes of Russia, doing on board? Was it holding some sort of ceremony? Or was it engaged in activities that were of intense interest to the higher ups?

Another possibility is enlisted ratings, and even junior and mid-grade officers, are not deemed sufficiently qualified and trustworthy to crew such an important vessel. But if they are not given substantial responsibility as lieutenants, how can one be confident in the captains? Is the Russian Navy so paranoid about security that they don’t trust anyone but the very senior, to serve on top-secret ships?

Also, are senior officers the best suited to handle the vital, but more narrow tasks that western navies entrust to well-trained, specialized ratings? If not, depending on the very senior to perform these tasks may increase the risk of things like fatal fires.

I doubt we’ll learn much more about the Losharik. But what we do know, especially in light of the record of Russia’s silent service, reinforces the very real perception that anyone in that service plays a submerged version of Russian Roulette every time his boat casts off.

*My grandfather took dozens of photos in his time on the K-2. I am going to digitize them and will post them when I do.

January 7, 2019

Lost in Space? Some Musings on the Economics of an Independent Space Force

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:30 pm

One of the Trump administration’s (and really, Trump is the one pushing it) more interesting ideas is the creation of an independent military “space force” as a separate service branch, co-equal with the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. Given that this proposal gores many, many political oxen inside the military and without, it’s hard to get an objective viewpoint. Everyone’s opinion is colored by their vested interest.

I have no answer as to whether it’s a good idea or not. But I do have some thoughts on the appropriate framework that could contribute to a more objective evaluation. Specifically, transactions cost economics and property rights economics (and organizational economics, which has some overlap with these) address issues of how formal organizational structure, and the ownership and control of assets, can affect the allocation of resources, for better or worse. And that is the issue here: can a reorganization involving the creation of a new entity that has control rights over assets heretofore controlled by other entities improve the allocation of defense resources?

I mused on this topic long ago, but have never really pursued it in a serious way. But I’ll muse some more given the newfound topicality.

It’s useful to divide the analysis into two parts. First, how does organizational structure, and in particular the assignment of rights of control over existing assets (e.g., artillery pieces, aircraft), affect military effectiveness and combat power? Second, how does organizational structure affect the choices regarding which assets to invest in?

With respect to the first issue, over the centuries militaries have devoted considerable effort and thought to organizational charts, and the allocation of control rights over military hardware and military units. Some simple examples: should each division have its own artillery, with all guns being under division control, or should some guns be assigned to battalions subject to control at a higher level (e.g., corps, army)?; should all tanks be concentrated in armored divisions, or should infantry divisions also have organic tank units?; should submarines be employed in support of fleets, or operate independently?

As with all resource allocation decisions, there are trade-offs, and militaries have struggled with these. There has been experimentation. There has been success and failure. Changes in technology have necessitated changes in organization, because the nature of specific weapons systems may affect the trade-offs. These are arguments that never end, as the incessant reorganizations of militaries (e.g., the U.S. Army’s recent shift to a brigade-based structure) demonstrate.

A couple of transactions cost economics insights. First, most decisions regarding the use of military assets are made subject to severe temporal specificity. If I am under attack, I need fire support NOW. Moreover, it may be the case that even in a large military only a few resources are available to provide that support. Temporal specificity creates transactions costs that can impede the allocation of resources to their highest value use.

Second, trade is unlikely to be a viable option, especially given temporal specificity. “Hey. I need some artillery support on my position right now. Can you give me an offer on what that will cost me?” Yeah–that works. The prospects for spot exchange are almost non-existent, and intertemporal exchange is unlikely because (a) timelines are short (for a variety of reasons), making end game problems acute, and (b) potential parties to an exchange are unlikely to be interacting repeatedly over time with reciprocal needs.

Since voluntary exchange is out (except in very unusual circumstances) resources need to be allocated by authority. Which makes issues of organization and the allocation of authority (control rights) paramount.

With respect to space assets, the case for a space force relates to the fact that many space assets (a) offer value to air, naval, and ground forces, and (b) there are economies of scale and scope. Having each service invest in its own space assets likely sacrifices scale and scope economies, but eliminates the need for inter-service bargaining over access to these assets, and reallocation of these assets in response to shifting military needs.

Allocating space assets to one existing branch (e.g., the Air Force) would facilitate exploitation of scale and scope economies, but would require inter-service bargaining to permit the non-controlling service to get access. A specialized space force permits exploitation of scale and scope economies, but also necessitates inter-service bargaining. The key question here is whether a specialized force would have better incentives than an operational force. For example, the Air Force might favor itself over other services when deciding how to utilize space assets, whereas a separate space force would not be as parochial.

With respect to the second issue–which assets are procured–the impact of organization on the Congressional procurement process is paramount.

The services are highly politicized organizations, and certain specializations within a service may exercise disproportionate influence. For example, the “fighter mafia” in the Air Force is legendary. As another example, in the pre-WWII U.S. Navy, battleship admirals held sway. These factions within a service may warp and stifle the development of new technologies, new doctrines, or investment decisions: the stultifying effect of the dominant infantry branch within the pre-WWII U.S. Army on the development of armored forces (both hardware and doctrine) is an example.

Creation of a separate force that invests in assets provided by the other branches would tend to undermine the power that any faction in a particular branch could exercise. The branches would have to form coalitions to influence Congressional funding decisions. But the creation of a new entity with its own vested service interest and its own ability to influence Congress could prove problematic as well.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Air Force, beliefs that nuclear weapons made most conventional forces–including conventional air arms–obsolete, led the Air Force to try to persuade Congress to slash spending on conventional forces in order to focus on strategic forces, especially bombers. This led to the “Revolt of the Admirals.” It also led the Navy and even the Army to invest in nuclear capabilities in order to claim strategic relevance and maintain their share of the budget. These investments were almost certainly wasteful, and would not have been made but for the independent Air Force’s influence.

Perhaps the most important historical example that could shed some light on the desirability of an independent space force is the creation of a separate Air Force in 1947, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966, in which the Army ceded to the Air Force control over all fixed wing aircraft.

The effects of this reorganization were probably beneficial overall, but there certainly were problematic effects. In particular, it almost certainly attenuated the Air Force’s incentives to provide ground support, and resulted in the Army investing excessively in rotary wing aircraft (i.e., attack helicopters) to provide it.

Perhaps a better idea would have been to create a separate strategic air wing (first including strategic bombers, then strategic bombers and ICBMs, as well as air superiority fighters), and permit the Army to operate tactical aircraft for ground support. This was essentially what was done in in the immediate aftermath of WWII, with the creation within the Army Air Force of a Strategic Air Command, a Tactical Air Command, and an Air Defense Command.

The Marine Corps, and to some degree the Navy, provide a model. Each operate their own fixed wing air services, specialized to provide the kinds of air power each needs. Marine air is relentlessly focused on providing close air support. The Marine operational commander has control over these assets, and does not have to haggle with another service to get them. Moreover, the Marines’ acquisition decisions (notably the division between fixed and rotary wing aircraft) are oriented towards getting the optimal mix for the specific mission.

I have only touched upon some of the relevant considerations–there are no doubt others I have missed. Moreover, I have given only superficial attention even to the issues I raise. But this should be sufficient to show just how complicated this issue is. Organizational decisions, such as the creation of a separate space force, will have profound implications for how military resources are allocated, and what resources will be invested in in the first place. Crucially, the assets in question cannot be allocated by markets or the price system, so it is not a question of organization v. market, but the form of the organization(s). Further, military assets are complex, long-lived (and becoming more so–note that B-52s may be operational for more than a century), and can be extraordinarily specialized and hence specific (in the TCE meaning of that term). Technology is incredibly dynamic, and needs shift dramatically over time as new threats emerge. This all means that organization and the allocation of control rights matter. A lot.

And perhaps most importantly, organizational choices will be made in a politicized environment, and will affect political bargaining in the future. This will inevitably distort current choices (e.g., whether a space force will be created in the first place, what assets it will control) and future choices as well. It also makes it very difficult to sort through the debate on the topic, because everybody involved is a political player with its own political interests.

That makes it all the more important to establish a relatively objective and rigorous intellectual framework in which to analyze these questions. I think that transactions costs economics and property rights economics hold out great promise as the basis for such a framework.

July 3, 2018

When It Comes to Its Pathetic Military, Economic Powerhouse Germany Can’t Even Manufacture Decent Excuses

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:15 pm
Trump sent a letter admonishing European nations that have failed to meet their solemn promise to spend 2 pct of GDP on defense.  In reply, Merkel dispatched her Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to deliver a whinge that would embarrass a teenager explaining to mom why he hasn’t cleaned his room.  For the last 10 years.

Shall we begin the beating? Let’s!

Nato, she said, was not just about “cash” — but also about “capabilities” and “contributions”.

Just what “contributions,” exactly? Tiresome, supercilious lectures, with a heavy emphasis on Germany’s moral superiority?  Nothing that actually goes boom or risks killing anyone downrange, apparently.

And what capabilities? By Germany’s own accounting, its lack of readiness is “dramatic”:

What’s wrong with the Bundeswehr?

  • Bartels pointed to “big gaps” in personnel and equipment. At the end of 2017, no submarines and none of the air force’s 14 large transport planes were available for deployment due to repairs.
  • Other equipment, including fighter jets, tanks and ships, was outdated and in some cases not fully operational because of bad planning or a lack of spare parts. Some air force pilots were unable to train because too many aircraft were being repaired.
  • Soldiers have experienced increasing levels of stress and there was a lack adequate leadership due to some 21,000 vacant officer posts.
  • The report said the government needed to pursue reforms “with greater urgency” and increase defense spending.
  • A lack of funding and inefficient management structures and planning were behind the problems. Germany has cut defense spending since the end of the Cold War. In 2017, it spent about 1.2 percent of its economic production in 2017 on the armed forces, which is below the 2 percent target recommended by the NATO alliance.

Other than that, they’re a powerhouse!

Tanks? Did you ask about tanks? Planes?

The Bundeswehr is due to take over leadership of NATO’s multinational Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) at the start of next year, but doesn’t have enough tanks, the Defense Ministry document said.

Specifically, the Bundeswehr’s ninth tank brigade in Münster only has nine operational Leopard 2 tanks — even though it promised to have 44 ready for the VJTF — and only three of the promised 14 Marder armored infantry vehicles. [An American tank company has 14 M1s, by the way.  A company.]

The paper also revealed the reason for this shortfall: a lack of spare parts and the high cost and time needed to maintain the vehicles. It added that it was also lacking night-vision equipment, automatic grenade launchers, winter clothing and body armor. [It would probably be more efficient to list what they aren’t lacking.]

The German air force is also struggling to cover its NATO duties, the document revealed. The Luftwaffe’s main forces, the Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets and its CH-53 transport helicopters, are only available for use an average of four months a year — the rest of the time the aircraft are grounded for repairs and rearmament.

And I guarantee you, these problems are NOT because of intense use and deployment.  It is neglect and stinginess–pure and simple.

German leadership is apparently deaf.  So deaf that they can’t even hear Trump:

Bundeswehr Chief of Staff reacts: Volker Wieker defended the military, saying “no complaints have come to my ear either in Germany or from our allies.” He did however admit that combat-readiness needed to be improved.

Back to Frau van der Leyen:

“You can easily spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence without actually offering anything to Nato,” she said in Berlin on Tuesday evening. “The question for Nato is not just how much you spend nationally on defence, but how much does the country provide in terms of contributions that Nato needs.”

Maybe so, if this example of pointless military expenditure is representative of the best Germany can do.  But if you don’t spend squat you clearly won’t offer anything to Nato.  And squat is pretty much what your contributions are to Nato needs.  Training with broomsticks and shouting “bang! bang!” is not what Nato needs.

So let’s see whether you can spend money on defense and buy some capabilities with it, shall we?  Let’s put that vaunted German efficiency to work!

Germany, Ms von der Leyen stressed, was the second-largest supplier of troops to Nato behind the US, as well as the second-largest supplier of troops in Afghanistan.

Germany also has the second-largest population and economy in Nato, and on a per capita basis and a GDP basis, so it should supply the second-largest number. Even so, it definitely does not pull its weight.  It is a free-rider by every measure whose contribution does not match its population or economic heft.

Insofar as Afghanistan is concerned, Germany has suffered fewer KIA there than not just the US, but the UK, Canada, and France.  On a per capita basis, it has suffered far fewer than Australia, Italy, Poland, Denmark (which has suffered only 14 fewer KIA, despite its vastly smaller population–and the disdain with which Germans treat them), Spain, the Netherlands, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, New Zealand, Norway, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

None of which, I might add, hosted anything like the Hamburg Cell of Al Qaeda for years.

Given that record, any decent, self-respecting government official (perhaps an oxymoron!) would pass over Afghanistan in silence.

The minister also pointed to the prominent role of the German Bundeswehr in Nato’s push to bolster the security of member states in eastern Europe.

Prominent? Like how, precisely?  The VJTF is the primary Nato contribution to the security of eastern Europe, and we’ve already seen just how pathetic Germany’s contribution to that is.

“To be clear: we stand by the 2 per cent goal that we set ourselves in Wales. We are on the way to meeting it. And we are ready, and have shown that we are ready, to take on substantial responsibilities inside the alliance,” the minister said.

“We are on our way to meeting it.” On your way? When will you get there? In time to celebrate Putin’s 90th birthday?

I can guarantee you that this pathetic response will not mollify Trump.  To the contrary–it will only make him more pissed off.  Meaning that the next Nato summit will be loads of fun!

In other news, Germany says that sanctions will not affect Nord Stream 2:

Germany has been assured by the United States that any sanctions imposed on Russia will not affect the building of a gas pipeline to bring Russian gas to Europe, a spokeswoman for the German economy ministry said on Friday.

The spokeswoman said that guidelines provided by the United States suggested that construction of Nord Stream 2 would be unaffected.

I dunno, Fritz.  Sounds like a dare to Trump, and if he takes you up on it, it will be to screw you, not the Russians.  And continuing to make pathetic excuses for reneging on Nato commitments just might spur him to do so.

Finally, Merkel, who has become the epitome of the careerist politician who clings to power at all cost, jettisoned her supposedly principled moral stand on refugees and agreed to set up camps at the German border to detain them for processing.  Her Bavarian gadfly, Horst Seehofer, was apparently mollified by this concession.

The Social Democrats in the coalition have yet to sign off.  I would not be surprised if Merkel uses their opposition to renege on her commitment to Seehofer–it is probably as firm as her commitment to boost defense spending.

I will not be surprised at anything Merkel will do to hang on to power.  No doubt she will suffer pretty much indignity to do so. Because that is pretty much her overriding concern, to which everything else is subordinate. Meaning that I sincerely hope that Trump continues to bust her chops about Nato, and pretty much anything else, for that matter.

July 6, 2017

Once Upon a Time in Annapolis

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 7:20 pm
Please indulge me with a trip down memory lane. Forty years ago today I was inducted as a Plebe at the United States Naval Academy. I’m sure all you all* find that hard to believe. No, not that I went to Navy–the 40 years part 😉

Plebe Summer was a grind, but I can’t say that it was that difficult. There were in fact some high points. I can still get some yucks (not just from myself, but from others) with stories from that summer. Most related to my battles with authoritah! As I’ve often said–including under oath (when some attorney digging for dirt during a deposition asks why I left the Academy–but that’s getting ahead of the story)–Navy is where I learned that I had issues with authority, and that I was a libertarian rather than a conservative. During Plebe Summer I expected a lot of Mickey Mouse, and got it. But I was operating under the false belief that after the ritual was over, things would get serious and the Mickey Mouse would end. Wrong!

I soon learned that the BS was 24/7, and that standing out in any way attracted unwanted attention and harassment from some pretty twisted people. And I do mean twisted. Perhaps my experience was an outlier, but the upperclassman (along with his roommate) who took a special dislike to me was really twisted. How twisted? Killing his entire family in their sleep twisted. I really didn’t want to spend my 20s (and perhaps beyond) having to be subordinate to the likes of them.

During my years at Navy I also became sufficiently confident in my ability that I knew I could make it in many different careers and didn’t need the structure and security of the Navy. My dad was aghast when he learned (from my former high school history teacher, in whom I’d confided) that I was thinking of leaving. He was a classic manager/executive guy, and sat me down for a talk when I was home on spring break leave. In the 21st century, I’m sure he would have prepared a PowerPoint presentation. In that analog age, he instead prepared flip charts laying out the case for staying at Navy. This involved going into nuke power. Unfortunately, he gave this presentation the week after Three Mile Island blew. Really. Talk about your awkward timing!

I told him “Dad, I really appreciate the thought and effort, but that’s just not me.” As a compromise I agreed to attend the summer professional training (PROTRAMID) which involved spending a week at the surface, submarine, air, and Marine training facilities, and to defer making a decision until afterwards. But as soon as I got back to Annapolis, I prepared a resignation letter (a copy of which I found when cleaning out my mom’s house last month).

The usual routine was for a resigning Mid to have an exit interview with the Deputy Commandant. I did, but then I had one with the Commandant, and finally, the Superintendent (which almost never happens). The Supe was a bad-ass: Medal of Honor winner VADM William P. Lawrence. Admiral Lawrence asked me if there was anything he could do to convince me to stay. I cheekily said “guarantee a slot in Naval Intelligence and I will consider it.” (I was really not interested in boats, especially the kind that went underwater, and didn’t have the eyes to fly.) He said that was not legally possible, so I said, “then there is nothing you can do.” We shook hands, then I saluted, did an about face, and left.

Shortly thereafter, I went from alpha (the Academy) to omega (the University of Chicago). Many serendipitous twists and turns and 38 years later, and here I am.

A high point in that saga came about 25 years after I left Navy. My dad said to me one Christmas: “I thought you were making a big mistake, but you made the right choice.” That was good to hear, and I know he was right–the really important thing was that he knew it was right. It was the right choice to go, and it was the right choice to leave. When I look back–which I do seldom, and mainly on days like this–I do so with no regrets, and with pride. Pride at having gone there, but mainly pride at having no reason to regret deciding to leave.

* This is a Texan phrasing that I have adopted because it is so much more precise than “you”.

December 3, 2016

The Trumpharrumphers’ Latest Freakout

Filed under: China,Economics,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:30 pm
In the nearly 4 weeks since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a daily freakout on this issue or that. Every day, we hear about another statement or appointment or Tweet that is apparently going to result in the impending arrival of the end times. For those thinking about career moves, becoming a Pfizer manufacturer’s rep in a blue state is a sure winner, because Xanax sales are certain to skyrocket.

Yesterday’s Freak Out by the Trumpharrumphers–which is spilling over into today–is that their bête noire took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. How this call came about is somewhat obscure. CNN reported that a former Cheney advisor now working the Trump transition, Stephen Yates, arranged it. Yates denies it.

That’s really neither here nor there. The issue is whether this is some grave blunder on Trump’s part. The immediate reaction by many is that this was thoughtless and rash, but I wouldn’t be so sure. It could very well be calculated to send a message to China that Trump does not accept the status quo that has developed over the past decades. China has challenged this status quo, particularly through its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. This could be Trump’s way of pushing back. Sending a message to the revisionist power that revisions can be a two way street.

It is a low cost way of sending that message. Unlike some alternatives, it is not latent with potential for an immediate confrontation. China would have to make an aggressive countermove. Consider an alternative way of sending a signal: sending US ships or aircraft to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. That presents the potential of immediate conflict, due either to the decision of the leadership in Beijing, or a hotheaded commander on the spot. Recall that soon after Bush II took over that the Chinese forced down a US EP-3 aircraft off Hainan.

Not to say that Trump will not order freedom of navigation missions after becoming Commander in Chief. Just pointing out that taking the phone call certainly gets China’s attention, and gets it to think about what the new administration’s posture will be, without putting US and Chinese military forces in close contact in a way that could result in a disastrous incident.

One thing that is very striking about the hysterical reaction to The Call is that many of those responding most hysterically that it raises the risk of World War III have also favored a much more confrontational approach with Russia, especially in Syria. Gee, you’d think that declaring a no fly zone over Syria would create a far greater risk of an armed confrontation between nuclear superpowers than taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president.

This asymmetric approach to Russia and China makes no sense. Yes, Putin has a zero sum view of the world; wants to revise the post-Cold War settlement; nurses historical grievances; and believes that the United States is hell-bent on denying Russia its proper place in the world (or worse yet, overthrowing its government). But the Chinese have a zero sum view of the world; want to revise the balance of power in Asia; nurse historical grievances; and believe that the United States is hell-bent on denying China its proper place in the world. Russia hacks. China hacks. Indeed, if anything, Chinese hacks have been far more threatening to US national security than the alleged Russian hacks that have generated the greatest outrage, namely the DNC and Podesta email lacks. For instance, the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database likely caused grievous harm to US security: the DNC and Podesta hacks only embarrassed, well, political hacks. (Which probably explains the intensity of the outrage.) Insofar as Russian propaganda is concerned, if RT (which does not even register on the Nielsen ratings) and fringe internet sites gravely threaten US democracy, we have bigger problems to worry about: we will have met the enemy, and he is us.

The key issue is capability. With the exception of nuclear weapons, Russian capabilities are declining and limited, whereas Chinese capabilities are increasingly robust. The Soviets were big on “the correlation of forces.” The correlation of forces is strongly against the Russians at present. They have limited ability to project power beyond their immediate borders, and then only (in a persistent way) against ramshackle places like the Donbas and Abkhazia. The Russian Navy is a shambles: its current deployment off Syria would make Potemkin blush. The Navy faces the same problem that it has faced since the time of Peter I: it is split between inhospitable ports located at vast distances from one another. The submarine force has made something of a comeback, but its surface units are old and decrepit, and fielded in insufficient numbers. The potential for expansion is sharply constrained by the near collapse of Russian shipbuilding: even frigate construction is hamstrung because of the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines.

Russia is also in an acute demographic situation: during his recent speech, Putin crowed that fertility had increased from 1.70 live births/woman to 1.78–still well below replacement. This problem manifests itself in the form of increasing difficulties of manning the Russian military. It still relies on conscription for about 1/2 of its troops, and those serve for an absurd 12 months. After 8 years of reform efforts, 50 percent of the personnel are now kontraktniki, but the Defense Ministry’s refusal to release information on the number of contract soldiers who leave each year (while touting the number of new volunteers) suggests that there is considerable turnover in these forces as well. There is still no long-term cadre of non-commissioned officers, and the force structure is still very top heavy.

Moreover, this military rests on a very shaky economic foundation. In particular, Russian military manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was, and the fiscal capacity of the state is sharply limited by a moribund economy. This makes a dramatic expansion in Russian military capability impossibly expensive: even the modest rearmament that has occurred in the past several years has forced the government to make many hard tradeoffs.

In contrast, Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

In contrast to Russia, China is actually in the position of having a surfeit of military manpower, and is looking to cut force numbers while increasing the skill and training of the smaller number of troops that will be in the ranks after the reforms are completed.

Policy should emphasize capability over intentions. Intentions are hard to divine, especially where the Russians and Chinese are involved: further, the United States’ record in analyzing intentions has been abysmal (another argument for gutting the CIA and starting over). Moreover, intentions change. It must also be recognized that capabilities shape intentions: a nation with greater power will entertain actions that a weaker power would never consider.

Taking all this into consideration, I would rate Russia as a pain in the ass, but a pain that can be managed, and far less of a challenge to US interests than China. Putin has played a very weak hand very well. Indeed, as I have written several times, we have actually fed his vanity and encouraged his truculence by overreacting to some of his ventures (Syria most notably). But the fact remains that his is a weak hand, whereas China’s power is greater, and increasing.

I am not advocating a Cold War: East Asia Edition. But when evaluating and responding to capabilities of potential adversaries, China should receive far greater attention than Russia. Certainly there is no reason to risk a confrontation over Syria, and pique over embarrassing disclosures of corrupt chicanery that the perpetrators should damn well be embarrassed about is no reason for a confrontation either. A longer term focus on China, and managing its ambitions, are far more important. That is a relationship that truly needs a revision–a Reset, if you will. And methinks that Trump’s taking the phone call from the Taiwanese president was carefully arranged to tell the Chinese that a Reset was coming. A little chin music to send a message, if you will.

A more provocative thought to close. Realpolitik would suggest trying to find ways to split China and Russia, rather than engage in policies like those which currently are driving them together. A reverse Nixon, if you will. I am by no means clear on how that would look, or how to get there. But it seems a far more promising approach than perpetuating and escalating a confrontation with a declining power.

PS. This is fitting in many ways:

December 16, 2015

Russia’s Shambolic Logistics in Syria

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:39 am
In responding to Micheal Weiss’s idiotic hyperventilating (but I repeat myself) about Russian intervention in Syria, I quoted the old adage: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.  I noted that logistics severely constrained Russia’s military capacity in Russia. Look no further than this for evidence of how shambolic Russia’s logistics are:

Earlier this year, an old refrigerator ship called the Georgiy Agafonov, built to transport fruit and vegetables for the Soviet Union, was quietly gathering rust in the Ukrainian port of Izmail where the Danube flows into the Black Sea.

Its owners, a Ukrainian state company, assumed it would never sail again. When a Turkish company offered to buy it for $300,000, they watched as the hulk was towed away, presumably for scrap.

Nine months later the ship is back at sea, renamed Kazan-60, reflagged as part of Russia’s naval auxiliary fleet, and repurposed as an unlikely part of Moscow’s biggest military operation outside the old Soviet boundaries since the Cold War.

. . . .

The need for the extra cargo ships arose because Russia’s warships did not by themselves have enough capacity to supply the mission, said Vasily Kashin, senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

“Before we had to use amphibious landing ships to carry supplies to Syria. But now they are not sufficient and we are creating a new class of military transports which are part of the navy but in fact are pure cargo ships,” he said.

An icebreaker called the Yauza was also sent to the Mediterranean from the Arctic to beef up Moscow’s logistics. According to publicly available shipping data, it made two trips to Syria in October and November.

Buying old cargo ships gives Moscow more control than contracting out its transport to commercial carriers, said Gerry Northwood, chief operations officer with British maritime security firm MAST.

 

Russia has utilized some flashy weaponry–such as surface and submarine launched cruise missiles–in its Syria campaign. But this is military Potemkinism, a dazzling facade that distracts from the shabby and creaking structure beneath. Especially now, with rumblings about Turkey closing the Bosporus to Russia, those freaking out about Russia’s involvement in Syria need to look beneath the facade, and understand how the realities of logistics, which have doomed far more campaigns than anything that has transpired on battlefields, fundamentally limit what Russia can even hope to achieve.

 

August 18, 2015

Vladimir Putin: At Sea in More Ways Than One

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:12 pm
Putin went for a dive in a submersible of the Crimean coast today. He was apparently in search of the Russian economy, and the ruble, but the sub couldn’t quite make it that far down.

As people get older, they tend to repeat the same behavior even after it has become self-parodying: they run out of new ideas and cling to old ones that used to work. This is especially true for people who are at a loss for what to do, because they are presented with insoluble problems.

Vladimir Putin is a perfect illustration of this. Even though his acts of derring do have become the target of world-wide satire, did the submarine thing again. (I thought he would actually go to Kherson, and claim to stumble a cross a relic of Vladimir the Great, but he went with the glass bottom boat again.) Perhaps smarting from previous criticism of his scuba dive in which he claimed to have found a (planted) amphora, today he asserted that the sea bottom was strewn with them.

Putin is at sea in more ways than one. He faces a dire economic situation. His old standby-various energy powerplays-has been undermined by declining demand growth and the development of new supplies. He is in a quagmire in Donbas. He has no idea how to address any of these problems, and indeed, everything he tries seems to turn out badly.

So he goes to the well one more time, and looks even more delusional than usual. It’s the kind of thing that people who are out of ideas do.

It’s also hilarious that the man who bans Dutch cheese and Dutch flowers*, and stymies the investigation of the shutdown of airliner with dozens of Dutch citizens aboard, went on his dive in a Dutch-built vessel.

I guess he didn’t trust a Russian one. Given that it’s August, that’s probably wise.

To round out the comedy, Putin communicated with Medvedev by radio. Poor Dmitry, always the sidekick who never gets to do the fun stuff.

* The Dutch flowers are allegedly infested with California thrips. Dutch flowers and American bugs! Obviously a Nato plot!

 

March 22, 2015

Russia: The Travis Bickle of Nations

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:02 pm
It’s been quite a week for Russia. In a documentary about Crimea, Putin said he would have put Russian nuclear forces on alert had the west contested his anschluss. Further, the Russian military deployed nuclear capable Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers to Crimea, and Iskander nuclear capable missiles to Kaliningrad. They launched massive maneuvers in the Northern and Western Military Districts, and threw another hissy fit over very small, largely symbolic US operations in the Baltics and Poland. Latvia accused its gentle giant neighbor of sending submarines to probe its waters, and Sweden claimed that one-third of Russian “diplomatic” personnel were intelligence agents engaged in preparations for Russian military action against its western neighbor. (Remember the Great Northern War and Charles XII!) Quite a week!

But they weren’t done! They saved the best (by which I mean worst) for last, when the ambassador to Denmark threatened the tiny Scandinavian nation’s navy with nuclear annihilation for having the temerity to incorporate its air defense frigates (of which it has a grand total of 3) into the Nato anti-missile defense network. Talk about overkill: nuclear weapons to target 6500 ton frigates? Really? What, does Russia doubt the accuracy of its conventional weapons, so it has to go with the close-counts-in-horseshoes-and-nukes theory?

Actually, you know that’s not it. It is just another example of Russia channeling its inner Travis Bickle. You know, the title character from Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to?” [whips out nuclear weapon concealed inside sleeve].

The only question before the house is whether this is all an act intended to intimidate the neighbors into acceding to Russian demands, or they are descending into madness under the stress of events, just like Travis. I honestly don’t know, but don’t discount the second possibility altogether.

Regardless, it is apropos that this occurred right around the time of the death of Singapore’s  Lee Kwan Yew, who said “Russia has an enormous nuclear arsenal, but what else?”

One particularly disturbing aspect of this is that Vanin is not one of the real mouth breathers. He is a career foreign service man, who was once closely associated with the Yeltsin “family” and Roman Abramovich while serving as Chairman of the State Customs Committee. He was deeply involved in the Three Whales scandal. Three Whales was a FSB-connected furniture shopping center that was running a smuggling operation. The State Customs Service launched an investigation, which set off a war between Vanin’s people and the siloviki. Vanin was one of the casualties, losing his job when Putin reshuffled the organization of various ministries in 2004.

So the guy rattling the nuclear saber against a nation of 5.6 million people that was last a military power in the 10th and 11th centuries is not one of Russia’s real siloviki thugs. Comforting thought, eh?

The Pentagon, Nato and the Europeans are fretting about how to deal with Russia’s hybrid warfare. (Note I omit Obama from that list: I doubt he gives a damn.) They need to give more thought to the real reason why hybrid warfare can work: it is conducted under a nuclear shield wielded by madmen, or those who are content to give a portrayal  of one that de Niro could appreciate.

October 19, 2014

Russian Truculence and a History of Russian Naval Mishaps Colliding in Swedish Waters?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:35 pm
Russia has been hyper-aggressive of late in probing the defenses of neighboring countries, including the US and Canada, mainly by aircraft. Sweden has been a frequent target as well.

Now Sweden may be the subject of another probe, this one from under the sea in the Stockholm Archipelago. Anomalous underwater activity was detected, as have been communications (some encrypted) from a point in the region to the Russian naval base at Kaliningrad. The comms purportedly include a distress call. A Russian tanker (under the Liberian flag with an English name, the Concord) has been circling suspiciously in the Baltic: some suspect it is the mother ship of a mini-sub. A Russian research ship, the Professor Lugachev, has suddenly set sail from Saint Petersburg.

Given history, and current events, the Occam’s Razor solution to this mystery is that a Russian sub, maybe a mini-sub, has run into trouble while probing Swedish waters.

The Russians, of course, deny everything:

A defence ministry spokesman in Moscow told reporters that the Russian navy’s submarines and surface ships were “performing tasks… according to plan”.

“There has been no irregular situation, let alone emergency situation, involving Russian navy vessels,” he said.

Again given history, the best thing to do is to assume the opposite is true. Consider the case of the Kursk:

In the days after the incident, the Navy and the government issued a blizzard of non-information, mis-information and dis-information.  At first, the Navy denied that anything was amiss, acknowledging a mere “technical difficulty.”  The government denied the problem for some time; it took two entire days to even admit that the ship “was in serious trouble,” and then lied about when the incident had occurred.  Indeed, the day after the sinking, the Navy commander told the press that the exercise had been flawless.  Yes: flawless.

They never used the word “sink.”  They claimed the entire crew was alive.  They claimed they were in communication with the crew, and that the ship was supplied with air and power from the surface.  The Navy excused its evident lack of preparation for a rescue by bewailing the weather conditions and strong currents, even though the weather was fine and the currents benign.  All complete and outrageous fabrications.

Enraged by the duplicity, at one Navy press conference, the mother of a Kursk officer, Nedezhda Tylik, launched into a screaming denunciation of official dishonesty.  In an event captured on film, a nurse was seen to move up behind Tylik, and inject her with a hypodermic needle.  Tylik collapsed and was taken from the room.  (A still photo is available here; I have not found the video online for free despite a diligent effort; there is a documentary that has the film that can be purchased here.)  She first claimed she had been sedated against her will, and the Navy said that it had indeed given her a sedative; in an Orwellian way, it acknowledged the “solicitous administration of needed tranquilizers.”

Then, remarkably, in the aftermath of a domestic and international outcry, the Navy denied that it had sedated her, and Tylik also recanted, claiming that she had only been given her heart medication at her husband’s request.  Yeah, sure.  Who you gonna believe?  Them or your lying eyes? (Tylik maintains this version in the documentary.  But why did neither she nor her husband make that statement initially?)

And how can we forget Russia’s dodgy naval safety record? I’ve often mocked how its carrier Kuznetsov, such as it is, never leaves home without a salvage tug bobbing along in its wake. The Russian naval curse even inflicts those dumb enough to buy its cast offs and then spend billions trying to fix them up. The Indians found this out to their cost when they bought the Admiral Gorshkov. Now the Chinese are having problems with the Liaoning, ex-VaryagNo biggie. Just that steam is flooding out of its boiler compartment. But it’s not a boiler explosion, apparently! So there’s that.

Given the combination of recent Russian truculence and the long record of Russian naval mishaps, the most likely explanation is that a Russian naval intelligence operation has come to ruin. Let’s hope that the crew survives-though given the track record one doubts that Putin and the Russian high command give a crap about that. Indeed, they would probably prefer that the crew die undiscovered than survive to be captured. Let’s also hope that the facts come out, and prove very embarrassing to VVP.

But one thing for sure: pay zero attention to what the Russians say about this. Well, that’s not right, exactly. Take what they say, and assume the exact opposite and you might be within visual range of the truth.

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress