Policy Tensor

A Controlled Experiment

In Middle East on November 10, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Isis strikes

The Obama White House decided last week to double the number of American “trainers and advisers” in the fight against the Islamic State; bringing the total number of US military personnel in the campaign in Iraq to 3,000. The United States has been conducting airstrikes for three months now, with little to show for it. US warplanes, reported the paper of record, “are mostly hitting pop-up targets of opportunity.” In Iraq, only a quarter of more than three thousand sorties so far involved striking targets on the ground. The situation in Syria is even worse. After the initial strikes on obvious fixed sites clearly visible from the air, the campaign has petered down due to lack of targeting information. This comes as no surprise, given that there are no partners on the ground to direct fire.

What the United States is doing in the campaign against Isis amounts to a controlled experiment. What is being tested is the “Afghan model” of warfare, in which indigenous allies replace US ground troops with the help of American air power and a small number of special operations forces.[1] The rapid collapse of the Taliban alliance in 2001 was explained by the devastation wrought by US precision strikes allowing even a rag-tag crew of local allies to take-over territory abandoned by the Taliban. Specifically, special operations forces acted solely as scouts tasked with providing precise locations of enemy positions which would then be annihilated by precision airstrikes. Once the enemy had thus been routed even untrained indigenous ground troops could be expected to prevail against survivors. Obama’s current war plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State essentially amounts to a bet on the viability of the Afghan model.

Stephen Biddle has forcefully argued that the Afghan model is not widely applicable.[2] In particular, the viability of the model depends crucially on the “balance of skill” on the ground: “allies with inferior skills cannot exploit precision airpower even with US [special operations forces].” The effects of precision airpower work through a “synergistic interaction with ground force skill.” When combined with a favorable balance of skill on the ground, precision airstrikes conducted from a position of absolute command of the air produce tremendous lethality. But ground and air forces are “poor substitutes for one another.”

The governing logic of this nonlinear relation between airpower and the balance of skill on the ground relies on the lessons of 1918, laid out in Biddle’s excellent monograph. The deadlock of the Western Front remained unbroken for more than three years. Massed infantry tactics in 1914 yielded nothing but slaughter in the face of modern firepower. In 1915-1918, all armies instead first used artillery barrages to dislodge the enemy from dug-in positions, followed by infantry charges to take-over territory. Such effort usually failed outright because even a few survivors armed with modern weapons could still slaughter a painfully large number of exposed troops as they charged the trenches. Even when such tactics allowed one side to advance a few hundred yards, it increased their exposure to the enemy’s artillery. How, then, could men survive the storm of steel and advance at all?

The solution that was hit upon by all (surviving) great powers was essentially the same. Germany (as usual) was the first to innovate with the Second Battle of the Somme in the first of the four Spring Offensives in 1918. Instead of massed infantry brigades, troops advanced in dispersed small platoons that were less vulnerable to concentrated fire. They moved at speeds afforded by the terrain, using all possible cover to shield themselves from the hail of fire. Artillery was deployed not to dislodge the enemy but to momentarily suppress enemy fire to allow one’s troops to dash across open fields and into the safety of cover. This required combined arms operations with close and unprecedented cooperation between multiple units. These innovations, quickly deployed by all powers still fighting, finally restored movement to the Western Front in 1918.

Biddle calls the complex of techniques required to operate effectively in the face of radically lethal modern weapons, the “modern system.” His basic argument in that military power in the modern era is not just a function of material capabilities and technology. Numerical preponderance is such a bad predictor of military outcomes that even flipping a coin performs better. Nor do more sophisticated measures of material capabilities like the Composite Index of National Capability (CINC), also called the COW index, does much better in predicting military outcomes. Rather, a state’s effective military power depends first and foremost on whether or not, and to what degree, it has mastered the modern system of force deployment. Biddle shows how military contests between modern and non-modern armies have been extraordinarily one-sided, whereas numerical preponderance and technological advantages only matter in wars between like armies.

Biddle oversells his case for continuity in land warfare since 1918 a bit in that the introduction of the radical combination of mobile armor and flying artillery in 1940, and the emergence of precision guided munitions in large numbers by 1990, were indeed game changers. By his own account, the French military had learned the lessons of 1918 and adopted the modern system of force deployment. How, then, was the Fall of France accomplished in six short weeks? As for the effect of precision guided munitions and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), one only needs to examine the discussions of Russian, Chinese, and Indian military strategists.

Still, on the specific question of the campaign to destroy the Islamic State, Biddle’s insight is clearly applicable. The caliphate is not simply a rag-tag collection of salafi jihadists. It reportedly contains a very large number of former members of the Iraqi army, including the highly-trained Republican Guard. (The Iraqi army was helpfully disbanded by Paul Bremer in his de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi government in 2003.) Moreover, we have seen that the Islamic State is capable of complex operations. It has prevailed against Western and Israeli-trained Kurdish peshmerga, as well as the strikingly numerically preponderant US-trained Iraqi forces, not to speak of Assad’s forces and sundry rebel groups in Syria. At one point, the New York Times article says that the airstrikes have forced Isis fighters to “disperse and conceal themselves,” counting it as a success. But it could equally well be seen as a signal warning that Isis is learning the modern system of force deployment, if they are not already trained to do so. For it is not out of the realm of possibility that they are being trained by elite Republican Guard officers who were the only ones to put up a serious fight against invading US forces in 2003.

It recently surfaced that the Islamic State has acquired a number of advanced surface-to-air missile systems. Isis has used heat-seeking missiles to down Iraqi helicopters. It recently published an online guide describing how to use shoulder-fired missiles to down Apache attack helicopters. The US has refused to deploy these otherwise very effective platforms because of worries about their vulnerability to ground fire. Fixed winged aircraft, whether manned or drones, can provide air cover only for brief, intermittent periods. The adversary can seek cover when they hear the warplanes approaching, and resume their movement after they pass. Survivability rates for trained adversaries on the ground are thus very high, even in the face of an intense air campaign. At lower altitudes such as during take-off and landing, even fixed-winged aircraft are vulnerable to the aging Soviet-made SA-7 Manpads, which has been used often enough by Isis and other insurgent groups. Isis positions close to the Baghdad airport are thus a special headache. Isis militants may also have gained access to Chinese-made FN-6 missile systems, and even the more advanced Russian-made SA-24 Manpads which are effective against aircraft flying at cruising altitudes.

Not only are Isis fighters well-trained and well-armed, they are also learning how to operate in the face of US airpower. The Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi troops are therefore unlikely to prevail against the Islamic State even with the support of US airpower. The United States’ controlled experiment is likely to fail. America will eventually have to place substantial boots on the ground. The plan put forward by Kimberly Kagan’s shop, the Institute for the Study of War, is sound. It calls for the deployment of 25,000 combat troops. That number will keep rising the longer Obama takes to realize the futility of the experiment.


1. Andres, Richard B., Craig Wills, and Thomas E. Griffith Jr. “Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model.” (2006).

2. Biddle, Stephen D. “Allies, airpower, and modern warfare: The Afghan model in Afghanistan and Iraq.” (2006).

A Decade of War

In World Affairs on October 27, 2014 at 2:06 am

The theme of the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of the semi-official periodical Foreign Affairs published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is the lessons that the United States ought to learn from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a supremely important exercise for America’s foreign policy elite. The result, unfortunately, is disappointing. In what follows, I will first describe what the five contributors argue. All of them, as well as the editors, agree that the wars have been unambiguous disasters. But none of them have tried to grapple with the bigger questions raised by this debacle. Why did the United States launch on such a misguided adventure in Iraq, a nightmare from which we are very far from waking? How did it come about that there was such widespread support—in the beltway and the foreign policy community—for such a fool’s errand? Why did the warnings of realists—not to speak of anti-war radicals—go completely unheeded in the rush to war? These fundamental questions are largely ignored in the issue.


In his essay, “More Small Wars: Counterinsurgency is here to stay,” Max Boot is still peddling his book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Boot argues that whether it likes it or not, the United States will find itself in many more small wars or pacification campaigns in the decades to come. “Since Washington doesn’t have the luxury of simply avoiding insurgencies, then, the best strategy would be to fight them better.” He proceeds to recount the lessons that emerged from his study of the hundreds of small wars carried out by Britain and the United States over two centuries. These lessons are of the management literature type: plan for the peace, revaluate strategy, train forces for counterinsurgency missions, learn the language of the occupied, send a sufficient number of troops, have patience, and so on and so forth. One thing that he failed to consider in the book and which is also conspicuously absent in his essay is precisely how the United States stands to gain by fighting small wars at all.

Richard K. Betts is the most reasonable. His first-order lessons sit well with the present author, even though he mixes tactical questions with strategic ones:

First, the United States should fight wars less frequently but more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces rather than too few. Second, the country should avoid fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries, since local politicians will rarely do what Americans want when that differs from their own aims. And third, Washington should give priority to first-order challenges, focusing its military planning on fighting wars with great powers and focusing its diplomacy on preventing them.

Deterring aggression by other great powers is the biggest—if largely unacknowledged—achievement of US foreign policy since World War II. The United States prevented the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia. It made sure that Germany and Japan were defanged, and threatened nobody. As China emerges as a powerful force in Asia, American protection has reassured China’s worried neighbours. On the other hand, America’s efforts to impose itself on minor powers and small states—from Indochina to the Middle East—have largely failed. This is because American power is well-suited for deterring great power adversaries and ill-suited for pacification campaigns. When Boot says the US military should focus on training for counterinsurgency operations, he is wrong. The United States cannot sacrifice combat effectiveness and divert scare resources away from preparing to fight great power adversaries. This is simply because maintaining a favourable balance of power is the United States’ primary strategic interest. As Betts puts it, “the United States needs to temper the ambitions unleashed by its post–Cold War dominance, not only in reaction to the setbacks it has experienced in small wars but also to prepare for bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.” If swatting flies in the muck is sapping the strength of the US military, the United States should simply stop patrolling the marshes.

Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro (“Homeward Bound?”) are not drawing any lessons from the wars. I have no clue why their essay is included in this section. Their concern is to evaluate the risk of radicalized Westerners now fighting for the Islamic State returning home and unleashing terror. They argue that this is a manageable threat (since it is quite easy to flag the returning jihadists) and there need be no panic about it.

Rick Brennan (“Withdrawal Symptoms”) complains about the Obama administration’s failure to reach a status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad. He points out that the reason why the negotiations failed was because the administration insisted on legal immunity for all US forces in Iraq, something that was politically impossible for any Iraqi government to accept after the Blackwater massacre. Brennan claims that Iraq’s descent into its current nightmare was foreseen with “eerie accuracy” by the military. Specifically, a 2010 internal assessment concluded that in the event of a American pullout, “the central government in Baghdad would become ever more corrupt, sectarian, and acquiescent to Tehran, setting the stage for a revival of the Sunni insurgency, a resurgence of AQI, and the end of the relative stability that the United States had worked so hard to foster.” The same thing, Brennan claims, is happening now in Afghanistan where the Obama administration is planning to pull out all American troops by 2016.


Peter Tomsen reviews three new books on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan. The most interesting of these is Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy, wherein she documents Pakistan’s double game of “public support and private official assurances that Pakistan is allied with the United States and NATO, but clandestine ISI support for radical Islamist terrorism.” Citing an “inside source,” Gall goes so far as to claim that not only was Pakistani intelligence aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts, the ISI “ran a special desk” to handle bin Laden. [More on it when I’m done reading the book.] Tomsen shows that Afghanistan is headed towards calamity, with possibly a full-scale return of the Taliban when the US departs. He argues that it is high-time to arm-twist Pakistan. Specifically, the US should do three things:

The United States should designate the Afghan Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, which would result in financial sanctions against banks and other institutions in Pakistan that the group relies on for funding. Then, Washington should make clear that U.S. military aid to Pakistan will end if Islamabad does not shut down the ISI’s terrorist proxies. Finally, Washington should warn Islamabad that if Pakistan continues its support for extremists in Afghanistan, the United States might designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism—a move that would produce severe economic, political, and diplomatic consequences for Pakistan.

Brennan’s assessment, shared by Tomsen—that US forces ought to stay till the dependent state can manage its own affairs—reinforces the case against small wars. If the United States cannot leave until the nascent state can survive by itself, this significantly increases the ex ante cost of pacification campaigns. But whether or not the United States should fight small wars is not a question of costs alone. The most important question raised by these failures is nowhere to be found on the pages of Foreign Affairs. When should the United States fight small wars? This is not rocket science—the answer is straightforward. America should only fight small wars when it has a vital interest at stake that cannot be achieved by any means short of war. Small states are of little consequence to America’s standing in world affairs. As a rule, small wars invariably sap the strength of great powers instead of enhancing their power position. Given the high costs and dubious gains of small wars, the United States is best off undertaking them only in the most extreme of circumstances. For instance, the Islamic State is arguably a case that requires the deployment of US ground forces. The threat to American security is unambiguous. Airstrikes are incapable of doing the job. And regional players are either incapable or unwilling to destroy the Islamic State. Even though there is little appetite in America for a ground war, the alternative—a salafi jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East—is even less appetizing.   

By spilling the blood of tens of thousands of Muslims, America’s Iraq debacle inflamed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, thereby making it a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist radicals. Thousands of American troops have returned in coffins, and tens of thousands have been crippled. The war cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars. Yet, no vital American interest in Iraq had ever been identified. Moreover, even America’s military capability has suffered as a consequence. It is no longer in a position to fight in two regional campaigns simultaneously—the gold standard of the US military. Furthermore, American prestige has suffered a lasting damage. For instance, Iran no longer fears an American invasion aimed at regime change. Iranians know that America will not be landing a large land army in Eurasia any time soon. The threat of the use of force is considerably more useful than the use of force itself.

What this issue of Foreign Affairs shows is that the mandarins at the Council on Foreign Relations have failed to consider the most important questions raised by the decade of war. If there is any soul-searching in the foreign policy community, there is no sign of it. For the most fundamental question that arises in the aftermath of Iraq is this: How did the foreign policy community fail to see the obvious? Namely, that no conceivable US interest could be secured by removing Saddam and taking up the task of pacifying Iraq. Elsewhere, I have grappled with this question. The answer that emerges is not pretty. Basically, Saddam came to play a central role in the formulation and justification of a muscular US foreign policy—the “rogue states doctrine”—in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the twelve years between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, Saddam became a litmus test for beltway insiders and foreign policy elites to prove their cred. With the neocons firmly in the saddle, the United States launched an ill-considered policy to reconfigure the Middle East by force. When Bush went after Saddam he was following the path of least resistance in the domestic political economy of US foreign policy. The foreign policy elites offered little resistance because they had long-ago lost sight of realism.


The Balance of Naval Power

In Realism on October 21, 2014 at 8:34 am

If you aren’t new to these pages you probably already appreciate the centrality of naval power in the policy tensor’s framework for understanding world affairs. The primacy of naval power is due to the fact that the world is made up of large landmasses separated by large bodies of water, so that the plumbing of global capitalism is necessarily maritime. Whereas the ‘global balance of power’ is determined regionally by land-based military power, the maritime realm is a natural monopoly. It is this latter fact that centers the international system. Merchant oligarchs flock to the dominant maritime state for protection. It is the job of the “central government” to undertake system-wide tasks, organize politico-military action at the global level, and ensure the smooth functioning of global capitalism.

The maritime realm is a natural monopoly for two reasons. First, the existence of natural control points allows the dominant state that garrisons them to bottle-up rival navies, deny rivals access to world markets, and monopolize intercontinental politico-military interactions. This is especially important in peacetime, when the field-guns on land are largely silent. There is a reason why international coercion is called ‘gunship diplomacy.’ Basically, the army is a very blunt instrument of power. It is maritime power that is the instrument best suited for international coercion. Second, Mahan was right all along in arguing that contests for naval supremacy are settled by decisions reached in great battles between the major battle fleets of opposing navies. The balance of naval power is determined by the most formidable ships of the contestants. The side fielding superior firepower prevails almost surely because there is nowhere to hide at sea. Like squash, small differences in capabilities yield largely one-sided decisions. Whereas an army two-thirds as strong as the opponent can very well draw the adversary to a stalemate (like France in 1914), a navy two-thirds as strong as the adversary can barely hope to survive in one piece. Moreover, naval battles are short affairs. In 1904, the Japanese fleet sunk the entire Russian fleet in a single day’s action. In World War I, Germany’s “risk fleet” remained bottled-up in the North Sea for the entire duration of the war. The only major naval engagement of the war—the Battle of Jutland—failed to yield a conclusive decision; proving to be a major disappointment to British Admirals who were fully expecting to crush the German fleet there and then. Similarly, the war in the Pacific was decided largely at Midway when the Americans sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers.

The balance of naval power, then, is a question of the relative strengths of the major battle-fleets of the adversaries. And the strength of a state’s fleet is determined overwhelmingly by the number of capital ships it can field. Capital ships are those warships that can put up a fight against the most formidable ships of the time. As usual, this is largely a question of firepower and armor. In the two-and-a-half millennia preceding the advent of ocean-going sailing ships, the galley was the only game in town. The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Athenians, the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Venetians imposed navel hegemony in the Mediterranean Sea by means of fighting ships powered by human muscle. The tactic was always the same: sink the adversary’s vessel by ramming it from the side, and/or “parallel park” next to the adversary’s vessel and board it to settle the contest by sword, spear, and/or firearms. Even after the arrival of gunpowder, the tactics changed only marginally. Hardly any ships were sunk by broadsides from galleys until the late fifteenth century. That is to say, the beginning of the long sixteenth century (1450-1650).

The simultaneous emergence of sail and sea-borne artillery changed the nature of the game for good. The King of Portugal (unlike elsewhere in Europe, private merchants hardly played any role) began exploring the Atlantic seaboard off Africa early in the fifteenth century. The Portuguese navy pioneered cannon bearing ocean-going ships powered by sail. Innovations in navigation (the astrolabe, marine cartography), sailing (multi-mast ships and multiple sails per masts), and gunnery (lighter and safer bronze artillery) coupled with an intense desire to seek an alternative route to the Indies propelled the Portuguese sailors further and further south along the long African coast. They rediscovered the southern route to the Indies in 1488. Soon after, they replicated the 2000-year-old Phoenician feat of circumnavigating Africa. By the close of the century, the Portuguese had a formidable ocean-going navy that had no counterpart in the world. The 100-ton caravels that were used in the initial explorations gave way to the 500-ton carracks, which in turn gave way to huge naus, “the Great Ships” sometimes displacing a thousand tons, and finally, the galleons.

The nau, while it was equipped with guns, was primarily a cargo ship; while the galleon—with its superior speed, firepower, and maneuverability—was a true capital ship (even though it too carried cargo). In some sense, the Age of Sail (1490-1860) is synonymous with the galleon—the beautiful design was to dominate the oceans for three centuries. But it was the Great Ships that led the way in the Age of Exploration. The Portuguese set up many factories in India where most of the Great Ships that were used in the Indian Ocean were made. The decisive naval battle that marks the modern era apart took place at Diu in 1509. (This marks the modern era apart because the Portuguese succeeded in supplanting the centuries old Levant route for the pepper trade. To use the plumbing analogy, the southern route became the primary “pipe” connecting Europe to Asia.)  A small Portuguese fleet of just nine Great Ships obliterated the joint fleet of the Mumlûk Sultanate of Egypt and the Sultan of Gujarat which sported a hundred dhows (a generic name for the small sailboats that were a staple of the Indian Ocean trade; many can still be seen plying the routes today). The latter had the support of the Venetians and the Ottomans whose joint stranglehold of the pepper trade the Portuguese had sought to break. Already by this point though, even the formidable Venetian fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean was absolutely uncompetitive against the Portuguese warships. Luckily for the Venetians, the Portuguese never ventured up past the Red Sea.

What came next was not a radical new ship design; it was a conceptual innovation. By the late sixteenth century, the Spanish, the English, the French, and the Dutch had all acquired armed sailing ships. These were overwhelmingly private. No one other than the Portuguese had a state navy worth speaking of. For instance, the “invincible armada” sent by the King of Spain to invade England that met its fate at the hands of the Anglo-Dutch fleet in 1588 was mostly made up of leased private ships. Even the Dutch, who prevailed against the might of Spain and emerged supreme in 1609, were barely organized. Naval battles were still mêlées—with individual ships firing and maneuvering at will with no order of battle; fighting in whatever arrangement they found themselves in. The potential firepower of sea borne artillery was finally unlocked during the Anglo-Dutch naval wars (1654-1656, 1665-1667, 1672-1674), when both sides increasingly followed the ‘line of battle’ with heavily armed gunships arranged in one file to allow the full fury of their artillery to be brought to bear on the adversary. Specifically, it was the second Anglo-Dutch war (wherein the Dutch prevailed handsomely over their inferiors) that marks the final victory of this concept. During the first war, it was used inconsistently and mostly by England. This was one reason why the English “won”; the other being the actual existence of a “national” navy. During the third war—the one where the Dutch took on the combined might of England and France—the state navy of the Dutch Republic itself remained grounded.


The ‘ships of the line’ were to remain the capital ships until the arrival of steam power and armor on the high seas in the mid-nineteenth century (reigning from 1660-1860). While the Dutch may have adopted ships of the line at the end of their reign at the summit of world affairs, it was England that really mastered the technique. The Royal Navy had emerged as a formidable force during the English Civil War (ironically, siding with Parliament). By mid-century, it had become an effective instrument of national policy. The fight against the Dutch had led to a series of institutional innovations such as the “Fighting Instructions” and a permanent staff. By the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1715, England emerged with a preponderance in naval power. The Royal navy commanded 124 ships of the line; more than all the other powers combined. Of course, capabilities alone aren’t sufficient. It took nearly another half-century for England to secure control of the world’s sea lanes. It was only at the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), that the question of who will succeed the Dutch was finally settled. Even though England lost the War of the American Revolution (1775-1783), she maintained a firm grip on the maritime realm. The wars of the French Revolution (1792-1802) and the Wars of Napoleon (1803-1815) only confirmed what was already clear: no one could challenge the Albion at sea.

The ships of the line were dethroned with the arrival of the ironclads in 1858-1860. Armored and powered by steam, the ironclads almost immediately made sailing ships—that had dominated the high seas since at least 1490—obsolete. It was not that the ironclads were per se superior to the sailing warships. It was the advent of the exploding shell that made wooden hulls simply uncompetitive. More generally, the industrial revolution had changed the naval game permanently: from now on, the balance of naval power came to depend on industrial strength. The ironclad era (1860-1910) was one of constant innovation. As the century matured, the armor became thicker, the displacement larger, and the guns bigger and more numerous. Capital ships became more and more expensive. British naval mastery for the rest of the century rested on the firm foundations of her industrial strength, her unrivaled financial resources, and a virtual monopoly of stoking coal. By the close of the century however, seemingly out of nowhere, naval competitors of an entirely new magnitude had arrived on the world stage.

Germany, Japan, and the United States embarked on naval expansions at the turn of the century, following on the heels of France and Russia. The story is an old one on these pages by now, but these developments forced Britain’s hand in two ways. First, she realized that competing with the American Republic was the surest path to financial ruin, and therefore decided to surrender naval mastery in the Western Hemisphere (1901). Likewise, the naval expansion of the continental powers (France, Russia, and Germany) forced her to forge an alliance with Japan (1902); whereby she effectively ceded Asian waters to Japan. Second, the Royal Navy, under the far-sighted stewardship of the First Sea Lord, Sir Admiral Fisher, decided to raise the stakes. Fisher decided on the production of new capital ships of almost imponderable power. The HMS Dreadnaught, commissioned in 1906, was not simply an ironclad. It was such a decisive break that earlier designs are now referred to as pre-Dreadnaughts. The HMS Dreadnaught featured steam turbine propulsion; 11-inch Krupp cemented armor (German, obviously); 12-inch guns that delivered hitherto unheard of firepower; an unprecedented speed of 21 knots; and a displacement of 20,000 tons. No other warship in any fleet could even begin to compete with the Dreadnaughts (the name immediately given to warships in the same class as the HMS Dreadnaught). The Americans, the Japanese, the Germans, the French, the Russians, and the Italians, as indeed the British themselves, all suffered a massive capital loss as their standing fleets became irrevocably redundant.

Copyright HMS Excellent / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

There being no choice, the other powers tried to catch up as soon as possible. The newer, richer arrivals—the Germans, the Japanese, and the Americans—were somewhat quicker to catch up. However, the British went into World War I with a formidable lead in capital ships—by 1910, only Dreadnaughts counted in the balance of naval power. In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious allies agreed to a strategic arms limitation with the Washington Treaty of 1922, that put a moratorium on the construction of more capital ships and limited their ratio to 5:5:3 between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. The treaty was renewed in 1930, and again in 1934, despite Japanese protests. In 1935, Japan simply walked out and launched a major naval armament program. Around the same time, Germany decided to build powerful battleships (including the Bismarck, the most powerful battleship ever built) and a fleet of submarines.

But at the beginning of World War II, the Dreadnaught era (1910-1940) had already come to an end. As usual, previous technology was no longer militarily competitive. Once the aircraft carrier had arrived, flying artillery made warships obsolete. The guns on the battleships couldn’t move fast enough to target the aircraft, while the ships themselves were sitting ducks to the flying cannons. Capital ships were now aircraft carriers. The era of the aircraft carrier was suitably inaugurated on the day that still somehow manages to live “in infamy.” The spectacularly successful attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. For the attack largely destroyed America’s fleet of obsolete battleships, allowing her to forge a brand new fleet of aircraft carriers ex nihilo. The Pacific War was decided in the air over Midway. The balance of naval power had become the balance of air-sea power.

USS George HW Bush

Submarines had played a secondary role in the world wars: they were deployed to harass commercial traffic, never to contest command of the seas. Ironically, their most significant contribution was to draw America into the war. During the Cold War, they became the primary carrier of the superpowers’ nuclear deterrent. By the 1970s, the majority of intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads were sea based. The inherent stealth of the nuclear-powered submarines, and their unlimited range (restricted only by the need to replenish the crew’s food supply), made them much more suited for ensuring a second-strike capability than land based silos. The United States relied on its fleet of nuclear submarines even more than the Soviet Union.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dawn of the unipolar world, the United States has enhanced its power projection capability both on the high seas and from the high seas. The ability to strike targets far inland from sea borne platforms has increased steadily with the range and striking power of modern aircraft and missiles. Nimitz Class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the most formidable instruments of power projection ever made. But the spread of long-range precision strike weaponry is already beginning to undermine the supremacy of the aircraft carriers. To put it simply, hypersonic cruise missiles tipped with tactical nuclear devices can take out any aircraft carrier within a thousand nautical miles (the missile needs to be hypersonic to avoid getting shot down by theater missile defenses such as Israel’s Iron Dome). Even with a conventional warhead, a long range anti-ship cruise missile can down even the biggest ships with high probability. Indeed, the United States Navy is itself developing such a weapon.

And the problem is only going to get worse from here on. There is nothing very complicated about long-range precision strike; certainly nothing that cannot be mastered by the Chinese in a couple of decades. It is hard to see how aircraft carriers can maintain their capital ship status for very long at all. Basically, the aircraft carriers are floating dinosaurs. They will be relegated to secondary theaters (where no advanced adversary can threaten them) even before the missiles start to fly. But this does not mean that America’s naval primacy is at an end. The United States has a very neat trick up its sleeve. What the Americans have quietly decided (so quiet that even someone as obsessed as me didn’t realize it until recently) is to bet on a new Virginia Class of nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines armed to the teeth with advanced cruise missiles that can take out other submarines, surface ships, aircraft, and targets deep inside the adversary’s mainland. These boats—submarines are called boats—can operate both in littoral waters near an adversary’s coastline and in the deep ocean. They are the quietest and stealthiest submarines ever built. Equipped with life-of-the-ship reactor core—no refueling needed for thirty years—they have unparalleled endurance and unlimited range. They have the most sophisticated array of sonar and eavesdropping sensors and even a lock-out chamber for inserting special operators ashore.


The Virginia class is America’s answer the proliferation of long-range precision strike weapons to what the Pentagon calls America’s “near peers” (Russia and China). It is the new capital ship of the twenty-first century. The US navy plans to build at least fifty of these stealthy attack platforms. This would certainly go a long way towards solving the dilemma posed by China’s growing anti-access, area-denial capabilities in waters close to the Chinese mainland. The enthusiasm for these plans is very high in the beltway. These developments pose a very tricky problem however. America’s adversaries are likely to develop capabilities to try to counter these attack platforms. They will certainly invest in surveillance and detection capabilities, and develop specialized submarine hunters (perhaps suicidal unmanned underwater vehicles). Since America’s nuclear deterrent is also carried by nuclear-powered submarines, the adversary will have no way of distinguishing between the two. What looks like a theater operation in a limited conflict to the adversary will appear as a counter-force strike to the Americans (that is, a strike against their nuclear deterrent). The indistinguishably of the two platforms therefore undermines crisis stability (whether or not a crisis leads to an escalation to the highest level), thereby significantly increasing the likelihood of inadvertent global thermonuclear war.


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