Saturday, August 26, 2006

Reviewing Never Quit The Fight: A long drink from the firehose 

Reading Ralph Peters is like drinking from a firehose. He hammers away with the toughest, most confrontational prose of any regular newspaper columnist that I know of, and reading hundreds of pages of Peters over a few days requires more than the usual emotional energy. Still, Ralph Peters is our most original analyst of military affairs writing for a popular audience, and there is vastly more to be gained from reading the eighty or so of his columns and longer articles in Never Quit The Fight than, say, the corresponding output of any columnist of The New York Times.

Peters examines military affairs and geopolitics through the prism of history and from the perspective of a soldier. Through all his work there is nothing but respect for the American soldier, nuanced contempt for the Pentagon brass, unreconstructed scorn for Donald Rumsfeld and his staff, condemnation for America's enemies, and the relentless application of historical perspective to America's present war and geopolitical opportunities. While most Democrats would dislike Peters for his often repeated belief that our enemies must be beaten so badly and unambiguously that they lose the will to fight, Peters is no partisan. He has clear political opinions, but is extremely critical of both Republicans and Democrats. From the first page: "A national election offered the American people one of the poorest choices in our history, between an incumbent administration that stood for arrogance, corruption, and security, and a challenger who emanated fecklessness, weakness, and a spirit of surrender." No arguing with that, I'm afraid.

Peters sharpest observations turn on the relationship between weapons procurement and America's likely warfighting requirements. In short, he believes that the defense industry, the Pentagon brass, and the Congress have, through a combination of stupidity and self interest, seduced the rest of us into believing that small numbers of extraordinarily expensive and technologically advanced weapons systems can both achieve American military objectives and substitute for quantity. Peters believes that these weapons will not achieve our military objectives for two main reasons. First, they derive from a misapprehension of the purpose of war:

Precise weapons unquestionably have value, but they are expensive and do not cause adequate destruction to impress a hardened enemy. The first time a guided bomb hits the deputy's desk, it will get his chief's attention, but if precision weaponry fails both to annihilate the enemy's leadership and to somehow convince the army and population it has been defeated, it leave the job to the soldier once again. Those who live in the technological clouds simply do not grasp the importance of graphic, extensive destruction in convincing an opponent of his defeat.

In this passage there is a taste of one of Peters' collateral themes: that the purpose of war is to make your enemy submit, and that most enemies will not submit until both their army and their population has been beaten so severely that they have lost the will to resist. Precise targeting allows for much reduced destructive power, which results in much reduced destruction. Yes, we no longer flatten cities to destroy an enemy's industrial base; we drop a JDAM through the ventilation shaft of a specific factory and spare the non-military buildings and people which in earlier wars would have also been destroyed. The result is that we no longer truly defeat our enemies, not to the extent required to ensure we will not have to fight them again.

Second, extravagant weapons systems run a serious risk of failing the specific missions for which they are deployed. These mission-specific failures are of at least two kinds. One is that we may find ourselves overwhelmed by enemies who deploy cheaper systems in great quantity. This broadside attack against the Air Force is typical Peters:
America needs a strong Air Force, but we have the wrong Air Force. The service's leadership, military and civilian, displays greater loyalty to the defense industry than to our national defense (the contractors who supply the Air Force teem with retired generals). Today's Air Force clings to a fight-the-Soviets (or at least the Chinese) model with greater passion than yesteryear's Army clung to the horse cavalry.

And Air Force leaders lie. Last year [2004], in war games with the Indian air force, our blue-suiters suffered embarrassing defeats. Our guys were arrogant and failed to think innovatively. We also had crucial high-tech gear turned off. The Indians used imaginative tactics -- and overwhelmed us with numbers.

Our Air Force's response? To insist the humiliation "proved" the need for the [three-hundred-million-dollar-per-copy] F/A-22. Yet purchasing that gold-plated piece of junk means that we could afford still fewer aircraft in the future -- we could be swarmed by other countries with lower-tech, affordable planes, just as the Indians did it.

Quantity matters, but also design. In a December 2005 article in Armed Forces Journal, Peters believes that the Navy's fetish for "grand fleet action" is preparing us for a war we are unlikely to fight:
As a former Army officer and a recent convert to the belief in the primacy of naval power, it appears to me that our Navy will have three overarching requirements in the future, only one of which has much appeal to sea-service officers. In order of importance, those demands are:

1 The ability to protect our maritime trade while interdicting that of an enemy; policing the sea lanes under the conditions of peace or lesser crises and dominating them through unrestrained power and strategic blockades in wartime.

2 The ability to promptly destroy or otherwise neutralize the naval capabilities of any enemy power or combination of hostile powers.

3 The ability to influence land warfare through massive firepower delivered anywhere on the globe, no matter the distance of the target from the sea.

At present, our Navy remains fully serious only about the second requirement, while the strategic issues of the moment make the third particularly appealing to those outside the Navy and to those within the service who are anxious, above all, to preserve funding. Yet, the decisive capability in a future great war would be the first requirement, with the second mission most useful in support of the broader control of the seas and the third an adjunct (if a critical one) to the operations of the other services.

While stressing again that a war with China is neither inevitable nor desirable, consider alternative historical analogies for how such a war might be waged and, ultimately, won.

First, the grand fleet action so appealing to those who command warships would be unlikely to resemble Midway or even the final naval battles fought as our forces neared Japan. A naval exchange with China, fought in strategic proximity to the Chinese mainland, would probably result in a second Jutland, a far more lethal and more dispersed exchange in which the Chinese, after inflicting more damage on our Navy than we allow in our war games, would nonetheless realize that the cost of doing so was prohibitive to their own force. The remaining Chinese fleet-in-being would become a fleet-in-hiding, bottled up and wary of further encounters.

The crucial naval activity in defeating China would be a rigorous, globe-spanning blockade that sweeps aside peacetime civilities and prevents China from receiving any resupply of raw materials, especially oil and gas. (A crucial indicator that the Chinese anticipate a war would be an attempt to accumulate massive, dispersed stockpiles of vital resources.) As China's appetite increases, it will become ever easier to bring its economy to its knees by closing the sea lanes (and freezing its global accounts and investments, by any means necessary). Pipelines, no matter how ambitiously constructed, not only could not provide adequate supplies, but — as U.S. forces learned to their dismay in Iraq — are easy to interdict.

A war with China would be a long war (even with resort to weapons of mass destruction), involving the sort of blockade that starved Germany in the First World War, combined with a strategic pummeling of China's vulnerable industrial base and its military. Just as Iraq is a boots-on-the-ground war, a war with Beijing would be a destruction-from-a-distance war, waged in the hope that internal rivalries in China would lead to the profound sort of regime change we saw in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1917. (Internally, China is becoming more unstable, not less so). Our grand strategy in such a conflict would be to turn the conflict inward, making it a Chinese-versus-Chinese struggle.

On the high seas, the role model for our naval captains would be less Bull Halsey and more Raphael Semmes — skipper of the Confederate cruiser Alabama, the greatest commerce raider of the Civil War. While it is hard today to imagine our vessels taking hundreds of merchantmen into custody — or sinking them — the issue of maritime trade will shape our naval future. In a globe-spanning war, shipping can only proceed at our sufferance. Faced with a war about our continued pre-eminence and even survival — enduring asymmetric Chinese attacks on our homeland — we will do what needs to be done, without regard for the niceties of international law or custom....

In this age of distinctly unpeaceful peace, our Navy is apt to find itself tasked to behave far more intrusively with foreign shipping and local maritime craft than would presently be comfortable to our National Command Authority, Congress or the Navy itself. Practical requirements, forced upon us by hostile actors, will dictate policy (despite Sept. 11, we still are not remotely serious about warfare). Policing the high seas is going to demand a Navy with more, if often smaller, vessels as the service reluctantly assumes the role of civilization's global coast guard.

A worrisome trend in our Navy is the elevation of technology above personnel to a degree never seen before. It appears to an outside observer that the desire to reduce crew size to a minimum on the next generation of vessels may prove to be a prescription for sharply reduced capabilities, if not occasional disasters. Despite the notion that a warship might seal itself against an assault, a crew so small that it cannot defend itself will, sooner or later, find itself in a position where it cannot defend itself. Postmodern manning initiatives appear to allow for no vital redundancy. Yet, management theories and personnel-cost savings that sound awfully good at budget time in the Navy Annex simply replicate the false savings the Army garnered by reducing manning so severely that deploying units had to be augmented by raiding the personnel rosters of like units (or the Reserve component).

Warfare remains an endeavor of the people, by the people and for the people. The machines are means, not ends. While there is an obvious cultural divide between the Navy and Air Force, in which people support systems, and the Army and Marines, in which systems support people, the Navy must overcome its utterly false belief that all problems have technological solutions. People matter.

Peters is unambiguous: We are not building the ships we will need to fight the most probable next war. Why? Because no defense contractor or admiral wants to build a zillion small, cheap ships that can house a few Marines and interdict the Chinese merchant marine.

Beyond his critique of the American military at peace and at war, Peters is an enormously creative thinker geopolitically. He sees far more potential in Africa, particularly South Africa, than most Western observers, and he thinks that we are squandering an opportunity to build strong alliances with the key powers in Latin America. Indeed, Peters believes that the two big southern continents will be so important that the twenty-first century will also be an "Atlantic" century, only this time centered on the south Atlantic. I am not sure he's correct in the grandiosity of his vision, but he's probably right about the basic direction.

Without ever devoting a column or essay particularly to the topic, Peters thinks more deeply about the degree to which humans are wired for faith than most journalists. Peters is not obviously devout in any one denomination -- he snarks on the Christian right with as much intensity as a blue state university professor -- but he believes that the Western chattering classes simply do not understand the crucial importance of faith to the motivation of human beings. Few other synidicated columnists would write these paragraphs, for example:
If we are serious about understanding our present -- and future -- enemies, we will have to rid ourselves of both the plague of political correctness (a bipartisan disease so insidious its victims may not recognize the infection debilitating them) and the failed cult of rationalism as the only permissible analytical tool for understanding human affairs. We will need to shift our focus from the individual to the collective and ask forbidden questions, from inquiring about the deeper nature of humankind (which appears to have little to do with our obsession with the individual) to the biological purpose of religion.

The latter issue demands that we set aside our personal beliefs -- a very tall order -- and attempt to grasp three things: why human beings appear to be hardwired for faith; the circumstances under which faiths inevitably turn violent; and the functions of religion in a Darwinian system of human ecology.

The answers we are likely to get will satisfy neither secular commissars nor their religious counterparts, neither scientists schooled to the last century's reductionist thinking nor those who insist on teaching our children that the bogeyman made the dinosaurs. We are at the dawn of a new and deadly age in which entire civilizations are threatneed by the dominance of others. They are going to default to collective survival strategies that will transform their individual members into nonautonomous parts of a whole. We are going to find that, after all, we may not be masters of our individual wills, that far greater forces are at work than those the modern age insisted determined the contours of our lives. Those greater forces may be god or biology -- or a combination of the two -- but they are going to have a strategic impact that dwarfs the rational factors on which our faltering thinking still relies.

Applied to human affairs, rationalist thought too easily becomes just another superstition. Even the unbelievers among us are engaged in a religious war.

One might add, although Peters did not, that George W. Bush understands at least this last point. With the possible exception of Hillary Clinton and a senator recently drummed out of the party, who among Democrats can say the same?

I certainly do not agree with Peters on every point, but I learn something on almost every page. Left or right, Ralph Peters makes you think hard about your conception of the world. If you read Peters columns in the New York Post, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, start by reading Never Quit The Fight.


By Blogger Mark, at Sat Aug 26, 12:34:00 AM:

I'm looking forward to your review of "The Foreigner's Gift." The views of a Lebanese immigrant to the United States should be illuminating to these discussions of whether the US is at war with all of Islam or just a portion of it.

Ralph Peters correctly argues that our political/military establishment doesn't understand the need for awesome destruction. But this is rooted in the American electorate's distate for civilian casualties. At some point we will need to recalibrate the balance between the risk we ask our soldiers to take and the number of civilian casualties we are willing to accept.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 26, 03:38:00 AM:

Peters' basic point is summed up nicely in a 1951 science fiction short story by Arthur C. Clarke called _Superiority_. The story is told from the viewpoint of a group finding itself in a war with an enemy of vastly inferior technology. Yet, because of the reliance on such high-tech weaponry, which is hard to produce in mass, and the continual attempt to make the weapons even more high-tech, the superior force ends up losing the war, thus making the reader consider what truly is important in maintaining superiority. Despite its age it's still relevant today.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Sat Aug 26, 07:34:00 AM:

Appreciate the review, Hawk- you continue to do exceptional work. I'm rushing out to buy Peters' book.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat Aug 26, 10:10:00 AM:

The export Northrup F5's were about $5M/each when the F18 were 10X the cost.

One-on-one the F18 could take the F5, but when the odds were 2-1, 3-2, etc, the F5's won.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 26, 10:52:00 AM:

Peters is unambiguous: We are not building the ships we will need to fight the most probable next war. Why? Because no defense contractor or admiral wants to build a zillion small, cheap ships that can house a few Marines and interdict the Chinese merchant marine.

And with good reason. I agree with a lot of points he makes, but this is so asinine it hurts. I cannot think of a single scenario where a force of lots of inferior combattants is going to be useful. Not in an age, where airborne search aircraft can map any surface craft with meaningful cargo capacity. Look at a frigging MAP. To interdict Chinese naval commerce in a hypothetical blockade scenario, you need to control the northern part of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. As long as you do it in a "cold scenario", you can do that with two Carrier task forces, plus land based aircraft from Japan and Korea (and depending on the political climate Taiwan and the Philippines). Helicopter carriers probably also would be REAL useful, as long as nobody's shooting back from those Merchantmen, and after somebody does, expect ROE to change from "board" to "sink" - which is a job for submarines and carrier strike aircraft.

This isn't the 17th century, where a blockade and commerce raiding were conducted using frigates, and this is not WW1 or WW2, where U-Boats did the job, cruising alone. A 21st century commerce war is going to rely on arial and satellite surveillance, and it will use submarines and aircraft to do the job. Lots of less capable ships are neither required nor useful - they need to be able to stand the heat of operating near an enemy coast, where a anti-ship missile can be launched at any time from the coast or some previously "harmless" trawler. That requires something that can carry the radar and defenses necessary, and that makes the smallest feasible ship a corvette or frigate, though depending on the threat level, a small force built around an AEGIS capable unit is probably the way to go. And again, looking at the map, the USN is superbly equipped to dominate relatively small areas, like say the East and South China seas.


By Blogger panther33, at Sat Aug 26, 11:13:00 AM:

Peters completely misses the point of Cope India 04, the exercise with India that he's so worked up about.

The USAF had "key high-tech gear" turned off because those were the rules of the exrcise, which were set by India as the host nation.

USAF AWACS planes were serving as neutral controllers, directing aircraft from both "teams" to their targets. Some said Indian pilots responded better to AWACS vectors that their U.S. counterparts. But in real life, India does not have AWACS.

Since stand-off weapons were not used and the USAF command and control planes were neutral, the exercise was a test of visual-range dogfighting. The SU-30 outperformed the F-16 in this area since the SU-30 is a much newer airframe. If you want to solve this problem, you either need to buy SU030s or something better. The F-22 is better, though expensive. Peters is hardly qualified to sa that the F-22 is a "gold-plated piece of junk" and the track record of the much-despised American military-industrial complex in producing top-quality fighters is rather good.

This was just one exercise. The Indians exposed some U.S. deficencies but that's what exercises are for. The USAF conducts dozens of multinational exercises each year and Peters seizes on just one or two to claim
that Air Force is "the wrong kind".
Not credible.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Aug 26, 12:15:00 PM:

He has some interesting ideas about geopolitics and an insider's view (though somewhat distorted by the passage of time now) on military intelligence, but be wary when he starts speaking about aerial or naval warfare... he was an Army officer. Airman and seamen may know shit about clearing a building or digging entrenchments, but they know way more than I do about aircraft and ocean currents.  

By Blogger Consul-At-Arms, at Sat Aug 26, 07:19:00 PM:

Great review, now I've got to buy this book, Darn you!

I've linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms.blogspot.com/2006/08/re-reviewing-never-quit-fight-long.html  

By Anonymous JohnOC, at Sun Aug 27, 10:50:00 PM:

I recall a scifi story the laser weapons couldn't deter the savage hordes until someone made a field modification to include some big bangs, ie, sound effects. Seems we now have a similar situation dealing with a culture where death is the road to eternal happiness and we are too effete to make big, attention-getting bangs.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Mon Aug 28, 02:46:00 PM:

The objective of any military is to fight to their strengths. To that regard, the US military is technologically strong, but weak in terms of manpower, so we direct warfare in the most systematic bloodless fashion possible, hence the F-22’s and such. This weakness shows up badly in Iraq, where high-tech solutions have a hard time stopping a thousand pounds of buried artillery shells and a piece of phone wire. In that regard, any future conflict started by Iran is expected to be a multi-pronged assault, with as many deceptive elements as possible. I would expect Al-Reuters to cover some staged disaster (like the Reichstag Fire), with blame being pointed at (Israel/US, pick one), and an absolute blizzard of Arabic propaganda pouring gas on the flames, with the objective being thousands of individual attacks scattered far and wide, mingled with civilians of all nationalities.

The flip side of this is the ability of the US to specifically target the leadership of Iran in the event hostilities break out. It is easy to scream “Death to the Great Satan”, much harder to follow thru with actual war when you realize your bedroom with the beautiful view of Qom is most probably entered into the firing point of a cruise missile a thousand miles away.  

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