Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Fightin' Myopics

America is known for its military might, and enthusiastically took on the "sole superpower" mantle with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I will shortly prove how false this self-conception is. For those of you still enjoying your security, I apologize in advance for interrupting your quietude. Nonetheless, you should know our knights in armor can no longer protect us, yet are still off in foreign lands spilling blood and dealing death in our name. They will come home angry paupers, but come home they must. All around our land, the voices are raising in number and volume to bring them back, and still the King will not hear. Why will He not? Must we now fill wagons with straw and set them alight?

Not only is the myth of US military dominance false, it was magnified by the preening, overweening military ineptitude of our hubristic leadership. "Incompetent" fails to describe them; observing their antics is like watching a blind person feel their way into a vintage Ferrari Daytona and go on a tire-burning joy ride. Kind of like Al Pacino did in Scent of a Woman, only at least he was smart enough to request and promptly listen to directional commands from a sighted passenger. This time, Pacino's driving alone, he's already torn the fenders off the car from bouncing it off guard rails and barricades, has plowed through crowds of pedestrians, and now he's floored it and is heading towards an overpass. Three things signify why US military might has become vulnerable and largely ineffective. Paradoxically, they are the very symbols of its might: aircraft carriers, missiles, and satellites.

For any given conflict, an accurate appraisal of the relative costs and benefits of defense vs. offense provides a good framework for devising winning and cost-effective tactics. In the First World War, the widespread use of machine guns made holding ground (blunting force) very cheap and advancing (projecting force) horrifyingly expensive. The most innovative planners and engineers were assigned to dream up solutions to the machine gun's defensive advantages, and their dreams led to weaponry and tactics known as "blitzkrieg." Blitzkrieg still dominates the thinking of the West's military planners. Despite that mindset, the questions which practically govern current or contemplated conflicts are ones like these: can a $100 rocket-propelled grenade, mine, or improvised explosive device knock out a $10,000,000 Abrams tank? (The answer governs to what risk you put an Abrams tank.) Can a $1,000 heat-seeking missile destroy $100,000,000 worth of helicopter? (This determines where you fly your helicopters.) Can a $100,000 missile knock out a $100,000,000,000 aircraft carrier? (The answer influences where and how you deploy an aircraft carrier.) If the answers are "yes," then you know defense holds the strategic advantage due to a technology advance.

In modern warfare, if you can see it, you can kill it, and aircraft carriers are so huge they're hard to miss. Their obsolescence has not been fully demonstrated much less widely comprehended, but in terms of expense and unwieldiness, they're the modern equivalent of mounted knights in shining plate armor. If they are put in harm's way, say off Iran's coast or Taiwan's, they will promptly be sunk or sent limping back to port. The defenses of carrier battle groups would be overwhelmed by the application of relatively cheap combined arms. The battle group's ships would quite literally be sunk by swarms of speed-boats, jet-skis, and missiles, and just as nasty peasants with projectiles drove the knight from the battlefield, muslims and buddhists with missiles are about to drive US carriers from the seas. This isn't a prospect we in the West should look foward to, but it is one we must accept, and the sooner we do so the better. Tactically, it is inevitable.

It used to be the US was the only country with truly effective missiles, and they were ungodly expensive, awesome things with no equal. That's no longer the case. American missile technology has been surpassed. (Hey, it happened with cars and children's toys, right?) Other countries, like Russia and China, have made improved missile-delivered weapons at a fraction of the cost, and they have sold them to countries such as Iran. They have surface-skimming missiles with superb guidance systems. They have steerable propeller-hunting missiles that travel 225 miles per hour under water. They have missile-mines which lurk on the bottom of the ocean and rocket upwards into the hulls of ships. They have missile arrays which launch from remotely piloted jets, and then the jets turn into kamikaze missiles. Masses of engineers educated in universities like Stanford and Cal Tech were given the technical challenge of taking out the most powerful force-projecting instrument of blitzkrieg on earth (a US carrier battle group) by the cheapest, quickest means, and they have made the Better Mousetraps. Chinese manufacturing expertise has cranked out those lethal mousetraps in the thousands. US military planners admit there is no known defense against them, except to not go near them.

Missile, meet satellite. Current US military doctrine as formulated by Donald Strangefeld and others relies heavily upon satellites for command, control, surveillance, and precision weapons guidance. The reliance is now so heavy it has truly become an Achilles heel; knock out the satellites, and you've largely knocked out the US military. Vulnerabilities from relying on satellite communication links were already exposed in the first, and more commonly in the second invasion of Iraq, leading to incidents of malfunction, confusion, stalled vehicle columns and many casualties from friendly fire.

Satellites make aircraft carriers look invulnerable by comparison; they can be taken out by direct fire, by electromagnetic pulse, and by stealth using magnetic "parasites" which can attach and then be switched "on" to disable or degrade battlefield support capability. Once again, Russian and Chinese engineers have been on the case, and they've developed the weaponry to jam a stick in the eye of the world's sole superpower, which they will do at the start of battle. It's why our forces are so vulnerable. And it's why Bush has made blustering statements that foreign weapons in space will be taken as acts of aggression. Will his bluster help our armies and navies if push comes to shove? Will another squadron of two-hundred-fifty-million-dollar-a-pop F-22 Raptor fighters maintain dominance?

Blitzkrieg required relatively cheap projection of force in order to enable fast advances over terrain. Blitzkrieg is over, or perhaps more accurately, war's pendulum has decisively swung back towards defensive supremacy, and it will travel in that direction for some time. Tactics lag technology, but technology defines tactics and the era of the landser, or fighting peasant, has returned. For a long time, there were still knights who thought they could've overcome the rabble's arrow and roundshot if they'd just put more courage into their charges.

(Graphic courtesy of a blind racing outfit from where I grew up.)

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