Saturday, January 15, 2011

Are conventional armed forces obsolete?

   I found myself waxing philosophical this week about the future of war.

   I floated an idea at a party the other night that there was no longer a need for conventional armed forces, heavy armor, mechanized infantry, amphibious landing craft, you know, all the cool stuff that makes war so much 'fun'. Sure, alcohol was involved. But it was an interesting idea to float. Do nuclear armed nations need conventional forces when going to war against other nuclear armed nations? Is fancy new military hardware like stealth fighters and stealth ships a total waste of money when the other side can just bust out a nuke if things start getting sketchy? I think I upset some people by floating this idea but that party sucked anyway.  

    I'm sober now and I still say I'm not wrong.

   When you've got nukes, why do you need to spend money on stealth bombers and other expensive hardware?

   Cut me some slack here. I'm still having fun with this idea. Soldiers, tanks, and stealth fighters do have many uses. But mostly only when going up against a non nuke nation with some resources you'd like to acquire. In such cases you can attack with impunity, overcome their primitive defenses using your advanced air force, take out their AA radar, bomb heavily and follow up with a tank rush. Soon you find yourself the proud owner of some fancy new real estate that's sitting on top of some proven reserves. This is where conventional forces come in handy.

   But what if you are the US or China or the seven other nations currently with the big red button of win? China just test flew a shitty imitation stealth fighter last week and the US currently deploys 187 F-22 raptors at a cost of $361 million each. The US navy has eleven active carriers. The most recent, the daddy Bush, cost $6.2 billion to build with running costs of a hundred million per year. The US naval college recently admitted that these boats are 'vulnerable' when you introduce the new Chinese DF-21D anti ship ballistic missile into the mix. That hypersonic, satellite aimed fucker with a 2000 mile range will pick off a carrier group from space long before those carriers get their aircraft within strike range of Beijing or Ningbo. The Russians have a similar type missile. Hell, even the Iranians have a bunch of Silkworms which I'm not convinced the USN can defend itself against.

   But let's suppose for a minute this weren't already true. Let's suppose, in some hypothetical future resource war versus China,  a few USN carrier groups get close enough to the Chinese mainland to launch an amphibious landing at the beaches east of Fuzhou against the 3.5 million strong PLA. For lulz, let's imagine a beach head is established. The Chinese lose a few square miles of sovereign territory. US marines are pouring ashore. Lav-25s are fanning out into the surrounding countryside to probe the enemy defenses. For more hypothetical fun, let's pretend that a good chunk of the People's Liberation Army are on a 'training exercise' on the Outer Mongolian border and can't offer up much resistance. The natural option for China is to break out the nukes. This will always become the 'natural option' when any nuclear power starts losing any conventional war. The playbook here demands two single megaton low altitude airbursts over the beach head that minimize fallout and turn all those fancy mechanized brigades to molten metal and fry everyone inside now that the losing side has decided to break out Oppenheimer's death; the destroyer of worlds.

   That pretty much reduces years of sleazy military-industrial-complex design contracts to nothing in a single launch. All those billions funnelled into the 'defense' industry (more like offense industry, amirite?) are wasted. The billions of dollars spent in the production of all those high tech vehicles end up being rendered useless by a relatively cheap thermonuclear blast.

   Soldiers are good for occupying captured territory. But in a war between nuclear armed powers, what former owner of the territory captured will ever sign an armistice to halt the war and accept the new boundaries before nukes get launched? Would the US, after a successful Chinese amphibious landing, give up Washington State and Oregon to the Chinese for the sake of peace? Not likely. All wars today between nuclear armed countries must escalate to full nuclear winter by default once one side starts losing. The red button of win must be pressed because it is there. We're living in a temporary stasis on the nuclear clock, it's still two minutes to midnight, just like it was in the 80s but current geopolitics have put that reality on the back burner while everyone gobbles up the last planetary resources. The grand wars for the scraps will come later.

   Interestingly, with the way global nuke proliferation is panning out, a nuclear war today doesn't have to lead to an automatic earth wide Mad Max post apocalyptic zombie wasteland. There is a new and recent  alternative. The possibility of a 'regional nuclear war'. Grab the popcorn right? We're talking India versus Pakistan here. Both sides have enough megatons to glass each other's major cities. Both sides believe Kashmir belongs to them. Both sides hate each other's guts. Extremists in both countries believe a war could sort this shit out. And yet both sides still invest in conventional militaries as if a war between them  is somehow winnable WWII desert North Africa style. India conducted a military exercise entitled 'Brazen Chariot' in 2008 where they wargamed some hypothetical desert armor clash with Pakistan and won. Unfortunately, they left out the fateful third act in that battle where the victorious Indian tank divisions steamrolled over the vanquished Pakistani forces only to get vaporized by a well aimed tactical nuke.

   Take that ghost of Heinz Guderian!

   Truth is, there is no such future conflict between nuclear armed sides where one side begins losing the conventional war and hemorrhaging territory or resources that doesn't force the generals to reach for the launch codes.

   So the point here is, why bother with the conventional forces at all?

   The current rulers of the world are still stuck in an outmoded paradigm.

   The British are broke yet have commissioned two new aircraft carriers. The Queen Elizabeth carrier is about to come online at a cost of 4 billion. It's supposed to field a squadron of F-35 stealth fighters. Those fighters are already cost over run programs from the US running into the billions. Western countries are going bankrupt while still trying to maintain the illusion of the sun never setting on their historic empires. It's hard to watch the slow and inexorable transfer of primacy to Asia. Perhaps there's a certain justice in that considering how we fucked them over in previous centuries.

  War is starting to favor defenders these days. Following that old Clauswitz paradigm, an attacking force needs a 3:1 numerical advantage to overcome entrenched defenders. Today's weapon technology seems to support that. In fact, today's technology magnifies that. Build a six billion dollar aircraft carrier? I can  wreck that with a one million dollar missile. Build a twenty million dollar tank? I can waste that shit with a cheap ass RPG-29. Build an up armored Humvee? I can waste it with ten bags of fertilizer buried under a manhole.

   War is getting cheaper these days if you are the defending force.

   Life itself is getting cheaper these days if you are willing to press the big red button of win.

   The 21st century has the potential to be the most interesting century in human history. All of us alive today get to watch shit go down. All of us alive today get to realize that the human race is fucked.


  1. What about MAD - mutually assured destruction? Maybe I'm deluding myself but I like to think that there never will be any nuclear type warfare, even on a smaller scale and only against military targets, because of the grave threat of escalating the situation. There is no point in using nukes to win a battle just to lose the war by nuclear annihilation. It's a senseless decision, a lose lose situation for everyone. Unless of course you're completely insane. And I'd like to think that for all the crazy leaders we have, none of them are THAT crazy.

    However in such a scenario, wars would be a rare thing anyway and a thing only for dictators. No public is going to approve of war if there's a risk of getting annihilated over some new territory or resources. Even the risk of getting nuked once is enough to sway public opinion against the war. Hell, would anyone really support nuking another country just for some resources, even without any risk of retaliation?

    Having old style infantry and military hardware is just too convenient for our leaders. No backlash and no serious repercussions. Wars can be waged almost in secret. Invade two countries and they'll vote you for a second term. And it's useful against insurgent style warfare, where precision is required. You can't nuke a insurgents' hideout without killing a lot of civilians in the process. The future is smartbombs and laser guided missiles, not "lets kill everyone" tactics. At least I hope to god that's true.

  2. "When you've got nukes, why do you need to spend money on stealth bombers and other expensive hardware?"

    Well... just not to have to use nukes. That's why. Russia and China both had nukes by 1969 and they fought a small scale conventional war. Massed artillery, tanks and even a fancy amphibious exercise. Well, it was on a river, but it was a nice show anyway. They both could have used the button, and, ey, Mao could get really freak sometimes, but they didn't... reason?

    Not worth the price. Both had a point to made. And the Russian made theirs much more clearly... for what they told. Same goes for any other major power currently on the business. Proxy war anybody? Even North Korea uses their shitty warheads (NK-tech? for god's sake if they ever launch one is there any guarantee it will even depart the second stage of the rocket?), basically, to run a protection racket against their southern neighbors.

    Same goes for India-Pak. They have had a couple of stand-offs already with both of them having the nuke. Do you think the rest of the people are going to let anybody use the button? Common'...

    As for the China-US scenario that's making all you war-nerdy folks wet your skivvies... sorry chaps, History says that since Nixon China and US have always preferred to collaborate and not confront.

    Your mistake is reducing every international quarrel to simple black/white term yes/no answered questions, which they are not. There are shades of grey and the basis of diplomacy and power-struggle has always been flexibility. It's when people start to lose their flexibility when you end wrapped in a World War, the kind of situation for whose solution the nukes were invented in the first place.

    Also, reducing every and any differences between powers to a nuke/no nuke scenario is what would make a nuclear war more feasible. With CVNs and tanks and Migs you give the guys in charge more options before they have to weigh if that crappy genocide around Sarajevo is worth Armageddon. Considering the level of the guys making the weighing, conventional junk is a godsend, some tree-hugging euro-commie would have induced them to nuke poor Karadzic if it had been ballot time back then.

    Besides, you are assuming a much more bigger effect against military personnel and hardware than nuclear weapons have. Armored divisions are a pretty tough target to destroy with nukes. They spread and ride vehicles prepared to withstand nuclear detonations and operate in contaminated environments. Fleets are easier targets, but it's cities, (big, static and full of combustibles), what the nukes were devised to destroy.

  3. I agree with everything you said Figler. But how far into the 21st century do we get before the oil, or food or water or whatever else starts to enter scarcity. How long will the 'collaborative relationship' between the Chinese and US last? Current trends say we're looking at economic parity around 2020. One is ascending the other is in decline.

    My point here is there may be no more room anymore for proxy wars or limited engagements as the stakes get higher. And when one side begins losing the conventional war, the fear is that they must reach for the big red button.

    To Sildude: Yes, MAD held shit together in the Cold War. But as the stakes get higher and a superpower begins to suffer unacceptable attrition from say an oil shortage, MAD philosophy begins to weaken. You get strong men screaming for action, that if we don't launch we die anyway.

    The ultimate obsolescence of MAD policy is an idea I thought worth floating. But war itself is a certain kind of madness and they are no fun without conventional toys, right?

  4. I get the feeling aircraft carriers are the modern version of the ancient pyramid. Made to inspire a religious awe and zeal for the State, but actually useless, resource-gobbling tributes to whoever orchestrated their construction, like the most recent one, the Bush.

  5. I actually think there's something to the old 'turning plowshares in to swords' style of operations where companies turned their assembly lines over to war machinery when called for... you don't waste any time building the last war's hardware and you don't build up an investment in the last war's strategy, something you point out the issues with in your eloquent post.

  6. For one, ICBM equipped submarines are a scary thought even for a well equipped force. Unless you are actively monitoring/shadowing each sub, it could be on your front door.

    All the cool toys make bullying a lot more fun though.

  7. The nature of globalism and asymmetric war today makes nukes and conventional wars obsolescent.

    You might subjugate your opponent with a nuke, but what will the backlash do to your economy as you fight to defend yourself against the ever-increasing returns (blowback) of asymmetric warfare?

    You can fight a nice, polite conventional war while keeping the highlights off the evening news of your citizenry, but what keeps a moderately determined group from injecting a few truckloads of toxic heavy metals, undetected, into significant water mains of 36 of your 50 largest cities and putting one of every 10 civilians in those cities in hospice care or chelation and dialysis for life? No water, no sewage, no city, no economy, no merchant class push for foreign resource control, no support for a military budget.

    Modern urban civilization is brittle, vulnerable, and impossible to defend with modern ideas of war. It also makes our populations and cultures possible. The only thing that protects it is not having people around that you have motivated to kill you in the first place.

    So the entire idea of what a military is used for has changed. The idea that it will remain an enterprise between standing armies is fast becoming a quaint taboo as the ratio of costs in asymmetric warfare continue to rise. The enormous costs against defending against this asymmetry will mean the vulnerabilities will increasingly lie in attacking the soft underbellies of developed economies- at the civilian population and economies themselves.

  8. Tactical Nukes are where all the action is.

    All it takes is one of them is the drunken, shaky hands of a Conscript and the fun really starts.

    Not to mention the missing Russian suitcase nukes, insane stockpiles of chemical weapons, and exploding Muslims.

    What is the point of having a guided bomb that can hit one house in a street when it costs crazy money to build, maintain, and deploy it?

    Iraq and Afghanistan have not turned into the love-in that our dumb leaders expected. Bombing the hell out of people only pisses them off!

    I suspect America has some kind of secret weapons system to neutralize an ICBM launch.

    Can't wait for that Iranian reactor to blow up after the cyber-attack on its control systems.

    China are going to troll the world!

  9. I think the first step in a war is to take out the satellites and nuclear missiles. I wont be surprised if US keeps a track of all the fixed and mobile nuclear missiles of all the other countries. The next phase would be take out all defensive mechanism and airfields. The last step would be a conventional invasion

  10. Escalation is a good point. Escalation comes in varying degrees, on the horizontal (shifting geographic locations, proxy wars), vertical (shifting targets from military to civilian or WEAPONS used from conventional to WMD), and political (rhetoric, negotiations, etc.). During World War II chemical weapons existed in massive stockpiles but were not used. The allies stockpiled chemical weapons to be used ONLY if Germany were to use them and Germany did not see the feasibility to chemical weapons in a maneuver warfare environment. Even in the most DESPERATE battles the Germans did not use chemical weapons in battlefield situations. As destructive as nuclear weapons are it would be surprising how military logic can deny or justify certain weapon usage.

    Of course once point defense systems (such as missile interception systems) and radiation cleanup methods become perfected nuclear weapons will be used as regular munition rounds.

    Do not forget that most military rounds are depleted uranium rounds, radiological in nature and is used openly with no hesitation.