Archive for October, 2012

Arising out of the last of the three Presidential debates, and in particular, Mitt Romney’s expressed concern about the dwindling number of ships in the US Navy, two articles for your consideration.

The first, courtesy of McClatchy (and available here) is an interesting article about how anyone can begin to conceptualise the existing strength of the US Navy. As the reporter, Matthew Schofield notes, right now, the US Navy has a total of 286 ships, down from its Cold War high of 594 ships in 1987. At the same time, however, Schofield notes that it is important to remember that right now, the US does not face a peer competitor. My favourite part is a quote from US Naval War College Associate Professor James Holmes that is truly insightful: “We judge naval combat power on a relative scale. . . . That’s why ‘the Navy is smaller than it has been since 1917’ and ‘the Navy is bigger than the next 13 navies combined’ both contain a grain of truth but are basically factoids. Numbers count; the tonnage of ships counts; but these one-liners tell us little.”

The second is another contribution from James Holmes, this time via The Diplomat (available here). And before anyone thinks these are two different topics, what Holmes has to say about what China needs in terms of a blue-water navy is reflective of the general idea of the earlier piece. The number three priority, in Holmes’ opinion, for the Chinese navy ought to be the “unsexy ships”, by which Holmes means a fleet logistics capability that would allow Chinese naval vessels to remain at sea indefinitely, allowing them to surmount “the tyranny of distance.” But what is really instructive is Holmes’ first two priority items for the Chinese navy – go to sea a lot, and think like a blue-water navy. As Holmes notes, his most important two priorities are what he terms as the “human factor in seafaring and maritime combat.” Both, by the way, non-quantifiable elements.

Military strength, strategic effectiveness, combat power – in a sense , all three concepts are the same. Military hardware is undeniably important, BUT IT IS NOT THE ONLY DETERMINANT! Qualitative variables cannot and must not be omitted from the “equations” we use to “calculate” these concepts. I am reminded once again of my favourite bass-ass soldier – the Gurkha Dipprasad Pun (whose story can be accessed here), who single-handedly turned back a team of over 30 Taliban fighters assaulting his position. I am also reminded of how most strategic analysts thought defeating Saddam Hussein in 1991 was not going to come easy, based purely on what military hardware the Iraqi military could deploy, and how wrong we all were! As I sometimes tell my military students, the best weapon in the hands of a half-trained arse-monkey is useless.


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Interesting analysis, courtesy of The Washington Post (available here). A memorable quote from The heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng: “There’s real antagonism toward the U.S. The scary thing is, as you have this group of officers who think the U.S. is out to get them, they’ve also seen their military improve… We are potentially looking at a military that is more self-confident, arguably more arrogant, and being pushed by a political leadership somewhat eager to show how much it has improved. … All you need is somebody doing something stupid.”

It should be noted, as the report also indicates, that China’s defence spending is probably only a fraction of what the United States currently spends on defence. Estimates suggest that by 2035, Chinese defence spending will outstrip that of the United States, but these estimates are surely based on existing economic growth rates (and charting defence expenditures over a period of time). Assuming these patterns of growth and expenditure to continue unabated for the next 2 decades is surely a bit far fetched?

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This is an issue that has been vexing me for the last 10 years: if the security challenges that a state faces are not the traditional inter-state high-intensity armed conflict type, should its armed forces be reconfigured to meet the specific type of threat that the state faces?

In Southeast Asia, it seems pretty much accepted universally that the security challenges that we face will probably fall under the so-called non-traditional security rubric, and as a consequence, Southeast Asia’s armed forces will spend more time conducting so-called operations other than war. In other words, Southeast Asia’s armed forces can expect to conduct disaster relief operations, or participate in UN-mandated peace or humanitarian intervention operations. What Southeast Asia’s armed forces are probably least likely to do is to conduct so-called conventional military operations. By conventional military operations, we usually think of major wars – the mobilisation and deployment of armoured divisions to cut a swath through the enemy’s defences, the application of combat air power to destroy enemy military installations. Basically this is the stuff of movies – A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Midway, for instance – or TV series such as Band of Brothers or The Pacific.

However, a story from The Washington Post (available here) suggests that the United States Army is changing its training systems to prepare its personnel for the types of military operations that they are more likely to face in the not-too-distant future. If this carries on, in other words, the end result is going to be a United States Army that will basically emphasize certain skill sets over others. As the Washington Post story suggests, “The new army, senior military leaders say, must become more nimble, its officers more savvy, its engagements more nuanced and almost certainly shorter. The lessons of the Arab Spring weigh heavily on war planners, with an array of threats looming in the Middle East and elsewhere. A high premium is being placed on devising the proper use of Special Forces, drones and cyber capabilities.”

The idea that an Armed Forces would train and prepare its soldiers to operate effectively in new security terrain is obviously not something fundamentally new per se. Even for the United States Army, as the report indicates, the training it has conducted over the last decade has prepared its soldiers to conduct operations similar to those that were found in Iraq or Afghanistan. The problem, of course, is that as these operations wind down, what types of operations that will challenge the United States cannot be known. As such, the new training systems will focus on equipping soldiers with the skill sets that hopefully allow them to function effectively in a multiplicity of currently unknown military operational scenarios and environments. The skills being imparted in this new training system are not dissimilar to Charles Krulak’s vision of the Three-Block War. As the Washington Post report indicates, “The soldiers involved in the exercise here are tasked with helping an allied nation push back an invading force, while battling two insurgencies. Special Forces working closely with conventional units and troops have been ordered to show deference to American civilian officials with vast experience in the country.”

That the United States Army wants to equip its soldiers with adaptable skill sets is probably not remarkable in any sense. If anything, such a plan ought to be regarded as merely responsible and sensible. But here is the kick, at least for me – can these adaptable skill sets be given to other soldiers in other armed forces as well?

Here in Singapore, the Singapore Armed Forces maintains a rhetorical doctrine of full spectrum dominance. I say “rhetorical” because the Singapore Armed Forces has never had to demonstrate actual full spectrum dominance. The Singapore Armed Forces has had to mount a counter-terrorist operation (successful, by the way) in response to the 1991 hijacking of SIA flight 117. In 2004, it had to mount a disaster relief operation in very short notice (once again, successful) – Operation Flying Eagle in December 2004 in response to the Boxing Day Tsunami. More recently, the organisation has had to respond to another counter-terrorism mission in support of local law enforcement after Mas Selamat managed to escape from the Whitley Detention Centre (OK, they didn’t manage to catch him, but I think we can all agree it was due to leadership failures at the highest levels, and not the fault of the armed forces or law enforcement).

Notice how the Singapore Armed Forces has never had to mount a major military operation to defend Singapore against another state’s military attacks. It has never had to mount the kind of operation that former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had envisaged in his memoirs. It has never had to fight a war – what General Sir Rupert Smith refers to, “war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs…” Such wars, to paraphrase Rupert Smith, do not exist in the Singapore Armed Forces’ history.

And yet, the Singapore Armed Forces maintains its doctrine of full spectrum dominance, despite an operational history that has featured exclusively in the inter-related domains of non-traditional security and operations other than war. What I have not been able to answer in my head is whether or not full spectrum dominance is something that is within reach of the Singapore Armed Forces. Maybe the United States Army can aspire towards full spectrum dominance; it is after all a full-time volunteer-only organisation, and it presumably has the time to properly train its soldiers to acquire the range of skill sets that allow these soldiers to segue seamlessly from one operational scenario to another. Does the Singapore Armed Forces – a largely conscript-based organisation – have similar amounts of time to train its soldiers equally well???

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A commentary, from our colleagues at the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies. This commentary is penned by Dr. Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University.

The commentary, (which can also be accessed at http://www.jiia.or.jp/en_commentary/201210/09-1.html), is reproduced in full below.

On August 15, a bipartisan group led by former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Harvard professor Joseph Nye published the 3rd Armitage-Nye report: “The US-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia.”

The report begins by declaring that the US-Japan alliance is at a “time of drift” and “endangered.” There seems to be a wide perception gap between the United States and Japan, given Prime Minister Noda’s assessment at the US-Japan Summit meeting in May that “the alliance has reached new heights.” There is also a big difference from the past two reports published in 2000 and 2007 that expected the US-Japan alliance could develop like the Anglo-US alliance.

The 3rd report asks whether Japan desires to continue to be a “tier-one nation,” or is content to drift into “tier-two status.” If Japan chooses the latter option, the report is of no use. It is a question of “Japan’s disposition” and, if Japan remains a tier-one nation, the United States expects Japan to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as an ally. The report concludes Japan has sufficient power and influence to do so.

The report happened to be published when Hong Kong-based activists landed on the Senkaku Islands and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak demanded apologies from the Emperor. The report’s recommendations can serve as a message not only to Japan but also to South Korea. Concerning Japan-South Korea relations, the report emphasizes the necessity of turning attention to the immediate common threat from China instead of allowing historical issues to undermine bilateral relations. The report then proposes that Japan confront the historical issues and recommends that the bilateral historical problems be resolved though Track II Japan-Korea-US dialogues. The report also recommends the early conclusion of the Japan-South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA).

The analysis on China is pessimistic, unlike the past reports. China is now facing a period of social and economic change. Its future path is unpredictable and the chance of domestic disunion cannot be ruled out. In such a scenario, this report assumes, the Chinese leadership would inflame nationalist sentiments while infringing still further on human rights. It therefore recommends that Japan utilize its national power and influence to prepare for such a case. In addition, the report proposes pursuing an A2/AD strategy for US carrier strike groups and responding to the Chinese Navy’s expansion beyond the first island chain with the US military’s concept of Air-Sea Battle and the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ “dynamic defense.” The report calls for greater interoperability between the US military and the Self-Defense Forces, with particular emphasis on coordination between the US Marine Corps and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force to deepen cooperation in amphibious operations. Other recommendations include Self-Defense Force minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf and US-Japan joint surveillance in the South China Sea. Cooperation in nuclear and other energy fields, arms exports, and cyber security are recommendations of a new kind.

Japan has lifted earlier restrictions on security policy by shifting force posture southeastward, relaxing the three principles on arms exports, and revising its basic nuclear and space laws. The remaining issue is that of collective self-defense, which was referred to in past Armitage-Nye reports. Also, despite severe fiscal constraints, it is of course necessary for Japan to increase its defense budget and Self-Defense Force personnel. The Armitage-Nye report was published before the presidential election, which means this report has every potential to provide guidance on Japan for the next US administration. Those recommendations are worth considering.

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The issue of corrupt practices in international arms deals is something that has been speculated on. Precious little evidence has been uncovered, although one high-profile case involved BAe Systems (see reports available here), a case that was settled in 2010. A pretty comprehensive coverage of this BAe Systems scandal is available from The Guardian (available here).

A recent report from The Independent (available here) addresses this issue further. The pressure group TRansparency International, according to this report, argues that the overwhelming majority of arms dealers are still less than transparent in how they are tackling this issue of corruption, which transparency International claims costs up to 20 billion pounds a year.

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A spate of recent RSIS commentaries on these inter-related topics for your reading pleasure.

The most recent, from colleague Collin Koh (available here) looks at the possible ramifications of the soon-to-be operational Chinese aircraft carrier, designated the Liaoning. Collin suggests that this aircraft carrier is likely the precursor of a fleet of aircraft carriers, but that is something that is going to take some time in constructing. More importantly, Collin argues, it is going to take the Chinese Navy considerably longer to construct a proper balanced fleet that support carrier battle groups. But that is going to pale in comparison to the time the Chinese will take to master carrier battle doctrines and tactics.

The second (available here) is by Youna Lyons, who argues that satellite imagery can have a significant impact on adjudicating the various competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. To some extent, the contest is generated by the ambiguity of the various rocks and islets that make up the Spratlys. That being said, satellite imagery is merely a small part of an eventual political solution. As Youna astutely observes, “Satellite imagery … only contributes to the debate of what is a rock, what is an island and what is neither but may be a low tide elevation. Google Earth does not determine sovereignty over islands or rocks. It does not determine the extent of the maritime zone to which an island or rock may be entitled.”

Finally, colleague Yang Razali Kassim (and editor of the RSIS COmmentary series) examines the viability of a code of conduct in shaping the on-going contest of territorial claims and recent naval activities in the South China Sea. His piece (available here) argues that a Code of Conduct can actually be consonant with China’s broader geo-strategy, since it facilitates the so-called Deng Xiaoping solution – to shelve sovereignty issues and to focus on joint economic development.

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The concept of the centre of gravity is, of course, most famously associated with the Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz. But Clausewitz was famously unhelpful in outlining what constitutes the centre of gravity. While Clausewitz believed that most times the centre of gravity is the capacity of wage war, he did concede the possibility that there might be other centres of gravity, and indeed the possibility that there might be in any combatant multiple centres of gravity (something which obviously contradicted the Newtonian physical world that was the source of Clausewitz’s thinking).

Now, via the Washington Post and US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, come two pieces on re-thinking the centre of gravity. The latter, from Dr Antulio Echevarria II (available here), argues that the centre of gravity, at least in the context of the United States, may constitute the mind of the Commander-in-Chief. As Echevarria puts it, “It is the mind of the commander in chief-where gains and losses are weighed-that has always been America’s center of gravity, not the will of the public.”

The former, a blog from the noted writer Thomas Ricks (available here), analyses the Echevarria editorial. As Ricks astutely observes, “I think it was Lincoln who often shaped public opinion during the Civil War, not the opposite. It was Lyndon Johnson’s fears and flaws that drove both his handling of the Vietnam War and his failure to level with the American people. It was George Bush’s determination to invade Iraq that led to the American invasion, not a groundswell of public opinion that drove him.”

While both articles address the United States, I would propose that it nevertheless offers food for thought for any other state. Perhaps it is the political elites, in particular their minds, that constitutes the true centre of gravity in war. Some strategic culture theorists suggest that a country’s strategic culture is not something that exists a priori, but rather is the result of how political elites shape public opinions in a manner that is consonant with historical, geographic and other factors. The images and narratives that mobilise a nation’s people and helps them decide their strategic preferences or choices don’t just exist, these images and narratives are the result of explicit manipulation by the nation’s political elites.

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