Archive for August, 2012

Following from the last post, an analysis of Vietnam’s acquisition of Kilo-class submarines, this time courtesy of colleague Collin Koh. His RSIS Commentary can be accessed here. As Collin argues, “Vietnam’s Kilos will … create concerns for China’s naval planners who in the past did not have to consider a Vietnamese undersea capability.” Nevertheless, “this new capability will not pose too great a challenge to China’s naval primacy in the South China Sea, given the growing overall edge of China’s submarine capabilities.”

So basically, there really isn’t very much that the Southeast Asians can do to improve their positions with regards to China in the on-going disputes over the South China Sea.


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An interesting read, courtesy of Andrew Higgins writing for The Washington Post (available here).

As Higgins notes, the ASEAN Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan, acknowledges that “Southeast Asia is struggling to cope with the ‘big and heavy’ presence of China and the United States in the region and needs to face up to growing security and political challenges”. This observation was made in the aftermath of the recent Phnom Penh meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers, whose failure to produce the customary consensus end-of-meeting declaration “highlighted deep divisions created by China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea and rhetorical blasts about the waterway from Beijing and Washington.”

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Two very interesting reports on the role of the US and China in the global arms market. From the New York Times (available here), comes a report that the US has in 2011 nearly tripled its arms sales compared to 2010. This surge in arms deals was driven primarily by Gulf states, increasingly concerned about Iran and the security and stability of the Gulf region. As the NYT report notes, “Overseas weapons sales by the United States totaled $66.3 billion last year, or more than three-quarters of the global arms market, valued at $85.3 billion in 2011. Russia was a distant second, with $4.8 billion in deals.” In 2010, the US registered $21.4 billion in arms deals for 2010, and this increase represents the “largest single-year sales total in the history of United States arms exports. The previous high was in fiscal year 2009, when American weapons sales overseas totaled nearly $31 billion.”

The recipients were mostly the Gulf states, which although not geographically contiguous with Iran, nevertheless were sufficiently worried by recent developments to rapidly increase investments in “expensive warplanes and complex missile defense systems.” Saudi Arabia, in addition to Apache and Black Hawk helicopters acquired in 2010, bought 84 F-15 fighters, a variety of ammunition, missiles and logistics support, and upgrades of 70 of its existing F-15s.

The second report, courtesy of The Washington Post (available here) documents China’s arms sales to sub-Saharan Africa. Although these sales have largely centred around small arms and ammunition, it is the apparent lack of government oversight into these arms sales that is the cause for concern.

China is by no means a player comparable to the US in the global arms market, but, as another report (available here), China’s share of the African market is certainly increasing quite significantly. In the high-end major combat systems market, the US is still overwhelmingly the dominant player in the global market, but it might not be too long before the Chinese start making significant in-roads into this end of the arms market as well.

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OK, I know this topic does not look very much like it has got anything to do with the subject matter of this blog, but I just could not resist.

The idea of a space elevator, where humanity can send payloads (whether human or otherwise) into orbit is not new. Recently, a very interesting article from the BBC (available here) suggested that the technologies required for a space elevator are tantalisingly close. This reminded me of an RSIS Commentary that a colleague, Paul Mitchell, then with RSIS but now back with the Canadian Forces College, penned (available here).

I remember that when Paul first submitted a draft of this Commentary, the editorial team at RSIS did a “Say, what???” After much persuasion, Paul’s Commentary was, quite obviously, eventually published. Paul’s Commentary suggested that Singapore was perhaps uniquely suited to position itself as a potential candidate location for the construction of such a space elevator.

Of course, there are strategic implications that accrue if such a technology does become possible. There have been long-standing international concerns about the militarisation of space. What currently prevents this militarisation is the still-prohibitive costs of sending payloads into orbit. A space elevator of course reduces these costs very considerably.

Will this technology eventually come about? I, for one, am not betting against it!

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Two RSIS Commentaries, from colleagues Richard Bitzinger and Michael Raska, for your reading pleasure.

Michael Raska argues in his Commentary (available here) that “the U.S. needs to clarify the [Air Sea Battle concept] in terms of its relevance to the new “rebalancing strategy” in the Asia-Pacific, while at the operational level, the U.S. military needs to articulate particular aspects of the [concept] in terms of future Allied interoperability requirements and involvement. Perhaps most importantly, both the U.S. and China need to enhance their military-to-military cooperation in order to mitigate increasing strategic distrusts.” Otherwise, the Air Sea Battle concept might turn out to be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

In the second Commentary (available here), Richard Bitzinger suggests that the very concept of Air Sea Battle might simply be an attempt to ‘repackage’ existing RMA concepts, and therefore represents nothing fundamentally new.

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The case of Singapore’s defence policy reflects the parallel between zoology and military strategy. At the start of Singapore’s existence as a sovereign political entity, the Singapore Armed Forces was small, poorly armed and equipped. Its strategy then was likened to a poisonous (or poisoned) shrimp – there was no way to avoid being eaten by a larger opponent, but given the poison it contained would have then caused the opponent a great deal of pain. It was the thought of this impending pain that, the Singapore Armed Forces hoped, would be sufficient to deter any potential opponent from swallowing up the island. British scholar Tim Huxley likened the poisonous shrimp to a “Stalingrad-style defence” in his book Defending the Lion City.

The next stage of the Singapore Armed Forces, as the national economy grew rapidly and defence spending (while remaining within the 6% of GDP ceiling) grew as well, was likened to a porcupine. Because of the increases in defence expenditure, the Singapore Armed Forces was starting to get some decent military equipment, and this gave the armed forces the capacity to begin to project power some distance away from the island. The idea was that, like the porcupine rustling its quills ad preventing hostile actors from causing harm to its body, the Singapore Armed Forces could defeat a hostile opponent even before this hostile opponent got close enough to direct deadly force against the island.

The third phase of the Singapore Armed Forces, still on-going, has sometimes been likened to a dolphin. The analogy draws attention to how dolphins rely primarily on their speed, agility and intelligence to survive and prosper, but dolphins still possess sharp teeth. Furthermore, dolphin pods have been known to attack sharks. Similarly, the Singapore Armed Forces, in undertaking its IT-driven military transformation, is leveraging on sophisticated technologies to generate strategic power. Its ability to leverage on sophisticated technologies is of course dependent on the simple fact that Singaporeans are becoming increasingly technology-savvy.

I was recently asked by a colleague what I thought the next zoological analogy for the Singapore Armed Forces’ military strategy might be After some thought, I felt that the next appropriate zoological analogy might well be the bee. Bees are highly organised, social animals, who attack enemies by swarming against the enemy and driving it off with multiple stings. Similarly, the technologies that underpin the Singapore Armed Forces military transformation (the so-called Third Generation agenda) seem to suggest that combat forces will increasingly move away from the division as the basic unit of analysis. Instead, combat appears to be moving increasingly to smaller combat teams swarming against the enemy.

Now comes a fascinating article from the BBC (available here) suggests that military operations are increasingly analogous to that of the octopus. The analogy was drawn because of the so-called Petraeus Doctrine, which empowered the lowest ranked soldiers to make their own tactical decisions, and not always look back to their commanders for guidance.

What will they think of next???

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Sir John Keegan, author of what must surely be one of the “must-reads” in the entire body of literature on military history, his magisterial The Face of Battle, passed away on 2 August 2012. The Face of Battle was the first major work to try to depict the experience of battle, not from the perspective of the commanders, but from the people who actually waged it, the soldiers. I read it about 20 years ago, at a point in time when I had just started my career in military education. I remember being fundamentally moved by the book, to the point where I became fascinated more with the histories of soldiers, as opposed to the more standard history of the great commanders. Not that I will ever come anywhere close to what John Keegan achieved.
One of his later books, A History of War, may have performed what was for me a cardinal error in misunderstanding the Clausewitzian paradigm of war. That being said, if nothing else, his first book assured Keegan his place in the pantheon of great military historians.
The Telegraph obituary is reproduced verbatim below.

He had been on the teaching staff of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, for 25 years in 1986 when Max Hastings announced his recruitment to the paper the day he took over the editor’s chair. Keegan proved an unrivalled asset as the Soviet empire crumbled and collapsed, the government demanded a “peace dividend” in the form of cutbacks to the Armed Forces and a series of military actions flared up in the Middle East and the Balkans.
Whatever the subject before him, Keegan wrote with close knowledge of the military arts and a personal acquaintance with many senior serving officers who had been his pupils; above all, he demonstrated a deep awareness of the human aspects of warfare, which was cruel, confusing and frightening, if occasionally glorious.
It was always with surprise that new acquaintances discovered that Keegan was no battle-hardened veteran. He was a gentle civilian who was deeply imbued with his Roman Catholic faith and had been crippled with tuberculosis since childhood. While an unabashed supporter of the British alliance with the United States, he described himself as “95 per cent pacifist” and looked forward – though with increasing doubts in recent years — to a world which had abandoned war.
John Desmond Patrick Keegan was born on May 15 1934, and after the declaration of war was taken to the depths of rural England where his Irish father, a south London schools inspector who had been a gunner in the First World War, had responsibility for some 300 evacuated children. Well beyond the sound of enemy gunfire, John enjoyed an idyllic childhood, untouched by any personal experience of the tragedy of conflict.
Nevertheless, he maintained a close interest in every aspect of the fighting, following the news, learning to identify aircraft and meeting locally quartered troops from the Empire, Poland and elsewhere. Last to arrive were the Americans who, in the run-up to the invasion, seemed to fill every tiny road and market town until they vanished overnight in June 1944.
The family’s return to down-at-heel post-war London, where he was sent to the Jesuit-run Wimbledon College, was not a happy experience. In 1947 tuberculosis began to affect one hip. He was placed in an open-air ward of a hospital in Surrey, where the young patients had to wear pullovers and mittens in the worst winter of the century during the day, and were provided with the protection of flapping canvas screens lowered around them at night. He was allowed home after eight months.
The hip grew worse again, and he found himself taken back to hospital, encased in a plaster corset. This time he was not among children, but cheerful cockney veterans in a men’s ward of St Thomas’s, near Westminster Bridge. The Anglican chaplain taught him Greek; a polio victim coached him in French; and, thanks to a well-stocked library, Johnnie, as he was known there, was able to read much history and almost the entire works of Thomas Hardy.
On emerging from hospital two years later, his hip immobilised with a bone graft, Keegan won a place to read History at Oxford. But on going up to Balliol he developed TB again, and was away for another year while being treated with new drugs. He then returned, walking with a stick, to find himself among a highly talented intake, which included the future Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham, Northern Ireland Secretaries Patrick Mayhew and Peter Brooke, historian Keith Thomas, the Benedictine monk Daniel Rees, and the Prince of Wales’s Australian schoolmaster Michael Collins Persse.
Keegan was tutored in the Middle Ages by Richard Southern and in the 17th century by the Marxist Christopher Hill. Although there was no chance of a military career, he observed the confidence of those who had done National Service and decided to take “Military History and the Theory of War” as a special subject.
After a long tour of the battlefields of the American Civil War with his future brother-in-law Maurice Keen, the medieval historian, he returned home to find work writing political reports for the American embassy in London for two years, then obtained a post as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. It was Keegan’s first proper job.
The academy had some similarities with an Oxford college, including beautiful grounds and buildings as well as good company. But while Oxford encouraged debate, Keegan found himself, as a civilian, lecturing on Military History to motivate young men who were part of a chain of command, trained to accept orders.
The rebellious streak that lurked within him meant that he did not always find this easy; nevertheless, he discovered how liberal and open-minded the Army could be (as long as its core values were not undermined). It tolerated the Keegan family donkey, Emilia, which kept breaking into the student officers’ quiet room. But while writing half a dozen 40,000-word potboilers for “Ballantyne’s Illustrated History of the Violent Century”, he was constantly aware that neither he nor his charges had any personal experience of war.
As a result, his first major book, The Face of Battle (1976), asked: what is it like to be in a battle? Instead of adopting a commander’s perspective, seeing every conflict as an impersonal flow of causation, currents and tendencies in the way favoured by contemporary historians, Keegan concentrated on the experience of the common soldier.
After elegantly discussing why history is usually written by victors and the limitations of survivors’ accounts, he examined three battles: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including priests’ eyewitness accounts of the first, a post-conflict questionnaire sent out by an officer after the second, and the flood of letters, diaries, poetry and official reports written during the last, he described what in the past had all too often been skated over: the deep fears, the lust for killing, the willingness to risk one’s life for a comrade — characteristics common to the soldiers of all three battles. He evoked the sights, sounds and smells of war, vividly bringing home the experience for both veterans and civilian readers.
The book was an immediate success, and has never been out of print. It marked out Keegan as the most sparkling writer among the talented lecturers of the Sandhurst war studies department. This led to some jealousy, but he was able to use the vital addition to his income to educate the two sons and two daughters born to him and his wife Susanne Everett, later the biographer of Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka.
His next venture, an attempt to produce a military version of the annual Jane’s Fighting Ships, called World Armies (1978), lasted for only two editions. But Six Armies in Normandy (1982) opened with a moving prologue which was his finest prose passage, and was to be much anthologised. This outlined his assured, child like perceptions of a rural society in which the horse was still the main engine of farm work and Britain enjoyed the assured support of a vast empire before being severely buffeted by the onrush of uncomfortable reality in the 1950s and after. In it he recounted the story of the invasion of Europe from D-Day to the liberation of Paris to show how selected experiences of the Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, Poles and French reflected both the diverse natures of their societies and the particular factors that characterise all armies amid the chance of war.
When the Falklands conflict broke out in the same year, Keegan was at a conference in Israel. Confronted by a television reporter he was at first pessimistic about the chances of the Task Force. But on returning home he started to write under the pseudonym Patrick Desmond in The Spectator. This work was not only authoritative; it also did much to counter calls in the early weeks from other writers for the operation to be abandoned.
Two years later he at last obtained the chance to see war in close-up when The Daily Telegraph sent him (as Patrick Desmond again) to write about the escalating Lebanese civil war. The experience, he recorded, taught him “how physically disgusting battlefields are… like being in a municipal garbage dump” and what it was like to be frightened.
There were two co-operative works, Zones of Conflict: an Atlas of Future Wars, with Andrew Wheatcroft, and Soldiers: a History of Men in Battle, a companion to a BBC television series written with John Gau and his Sandhurst colleague Richard Holmes.
In 1986 the chance came to make the final break with the academic world that had been increasingly chafing him. According to Hastings’s memoir, Editor, Keegan rang for a chat, and on discovering that his friend was to edit The Telegraph, burst out: “Can I be your defence correspondent?” An immediate assurance was given, though it soon left Keegan wondering uneasily if he was fitted for the rigours of daily newspaper journalism.
But he quickly settled in at the paper’s Fleet Street office . In addition to taking some plodding first steps in news reporting, he produced three or four elegant leaders a week as well as longer, signed comment pieces. There was also the chance to write book reviews and a fine account of Waterloo .
With his ability to touch souls and stir consciences, Keegan found himself being offered large publishing contracts for writing on ever grander themes . The Mask of Command (1987) concerned the ability of leaders such as Alexander the Great, Wellington, Ulysses Grant and Hitler to weave a spell over their troops with a combination of energy, tenacity and ruthlessness. The Price of Admiralty (1988) took him into less familiar waters with an account of the evolution of naval warfare from Trafalgar to the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War.
Critics responded favourably to A History of Warfare (1993) — which was awarded the Duff Cooper Prize — in particular admiring the vastness of the book’s scope (it ranged from Genghis Khan, the Romans and the Japanese samurai to the soldiers of the 19th century). But his attacks on Clausewitz’s claim that war is a continuation of policy by other means – the military historians’ equivalent of the debate about the number of angels to be found on the head of a pin – bemused general readers and did not satisfy all professional colleagues.
All this time Keegan was also busy producing lively copy for The Telegraph where, even if he was not fully aware of it, he enjoyed a unique position in which he could reflect on the experience of a fast fading generation. As the passing years fed an increasing appetite for detail and explanation, he offered his own interpretations of the two great 20th-century conflicts in The Second World War (1989) and The First World War (1998), which was awarded the Westminster Medal.
He also brought his unrivalled grasp of the reality of military engagements to the frequent flare-ups which succeeded the fall of communism. He was proved entirely justified in dismissing the doubts expressed by Left-wing journalists about the abilities of the Allied coalition during the Gulf War of 1990, and treated himself to a crow of triumph afterwards. This was recognised by an OBE in 1991, though Hastings made no headway when he suggested that perhaps a journalistic award, too, might be in order.
Keegan did not always find friends elsewhere. Some fellow historians carped about the number of small mistakes, and complained that his later books — on the Iraq war and the use of intelligence in war — were not written with the authority of his earlier works. The RAF long resented what it saw as his failure to give it credit, and did not fail to note his error in stating that the air campaign in the Balkans could never bring President Milosevic of Serbia to defeat. He handsomely owned up to the error.
John Keegan was knighted in 2000, and among the professional honours heaped on him, he was made a visiting fellow at Princeton and a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He was invited to give the Lees Knowles lectures at Cambridge and the Reith Lectures for the BBC, which were published in 1998 as War and Our World. Perhaps the most remarkable recognition came during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Normandy campaign, when he was invited to brief President Bill Clinton at the White House.
He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Historical Society.
A man of unfailing good nature and tolerance, Keegan settled at a 17th-century manor house in Wiltshire, where he produced a column in the Telegraph Magazine recording life at the village of Kilmington. He wrote of its farmers and modern craftsmen, the changing seasons and the discovery of a bomb in a field. Most popular with readers were his stories of Edgar, the Keegan family’s self-assured Maine Coon cat, who pursued pheasants and rabbits with untroubled ruthlessness.
In 2009 Keegan published The American Civil War, a combination of narrative and critique which emphasised, above all, the importance of the continent’s geography in the conflict.
In his last years John Keegan was confined to a wheelchair after a bone clicked in his back while he was taking part in a parish pilgrimage. Even though he had to have a leg amputated, he continued for some time to be driven up to the Telegraph’s office on Wednesdays, to write leaders and other articles, to answer his post and take part in the leader-writers’ afternoon conference.

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