UAVs, Navy, Satellites, Battle Stars

This post, which I want to keep pretty short, feeds off my post on re-orienting national security priorities.

I read a fascinating paper provocatively entitled “How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015” (PDF), by James Kraska.

It takes a look at what is happening now as the US Navy flounders and the Chinese Navy quickly ramps up, and then suggests what might happen if China decided to sink the USS George Washington in 2015.

What fascinates me about this is that US Navy dominance is sort of seen as a given these days, something not worth worrying about, but naval supremacy has always been a significant factor behind any superpower’s reign of world affairs.  The US gladly took over the mantle of naval superiority and its positive externalities for world security after the United Kingdom found it in their best interest to ally with the US.  The Royal Navy’s battleship-style fleet did not transition well into the age of submarines and aircraft carriers.  The loss of the Suez Canal was a significant barrier, as well.

So the US took over after World War 2 and has since controlled the oceans.  This has enabled it to push an era of free trade and open water travel that has made it cheaper to ship resources than even to fly them, so much that the cost is almost negligent.  In terms of protecting capitalism, having the US superpower in control of the oceans has been incredibly successful.

Now the US focuses more on satellite/overhead imagery, and more recently, on asymmetric warfare.  Which has left several gaps in the American strategic security worldview.

The paper suggests that China could destroy a US carrier, which would have a psychological effect on Americans perhaps bigger than a physical effect, although with a Chinese contractor shutting down the Suez for “repairs” and China throwing up other roadblocks, this could delay the US in appropriately responding its massive, yet diffused fleet into the Pacific.  Control of the Pacific would shift as China’s neighbors, by sheer proximity, would be reluctant to move to counter China’s naval aggression.  What would the US be able to do?

It’s a fascinating paper although obviously it only looks at an American military perspective and not all the other factors:  economic, cultural, etc.

But it also makes me wonder why the US is so focused on a small group of jihadists when there are bigger fish to fry for continued American dominance.

1) It is in the US interest to ensure continued and unfettered control of the oceans, to ensure open trade, safe shipping lines, and access to necessary strategic hold-points like Guam, Hawai’i, Okinawa, Europe, and other navy bases.

Robert Kaplan is associated with the neo-cons but he is an excellent security historian.  What he says about US naval moves against China is that we should focus on building our presence so enmeshed with Pacific interests that China will be more inclined to ally with us than to try to displace us.  This is a strategy akin to the UK realizing it had to partner with the US after WW2, and akin to the argument that alienating Japan before WW2 would push them to attack the US for control of the Pacific.

Some quotes:

“None of this will change our need for basing rights in the Pacific, of course. The more access to bases we have, the more flexibility we’ll have—to support unmanned flights, to allow aerial refueling, and perhaps most important, to force the Chinese military to concentrate on a host of problems rather than just a few. Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve (finding and hitting a carrier, for example), because if you do, he’ll solve them.

“Andersen Air Force Base, on Guam’s northern tip, rep- resents the future of U.S. strategy in the Pacific. It is the most potent platform anywhere in the world for the projection of American military power. Landing there recently in a military aircraft, I beheld long lines of B-52 bombers, C-17 Globemasters, F/A-18 Hornets, and E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes, among others. Andersen’s 10,000-foot runways can handle any plane in the Air Force’s arsenal, and could accommodate the space shuttle should it need to make an emergency landing. The sprawl of runways and taxiways is so vast that when I arrived, I barely noticed a carrier air wing from the USS Kitty Hawk, which was making live practice bombing runs that it could not make from its home port in Japan. I saw a truck filled with cruise missiles on one of the runways. No other Air Force base in the Pacific stores as much weaponry as Andersen: some 100,000 bombs and missiles at any one time. Andersen also stores 66 million gallons of jet fuel, making it the Air Force’s biggest strategic gas-and-go in the world.

“Guam, which is also home to a submarine squadron and an expanding naval base, is significant because of its location. From the island an Air Force equivalent of a Marine or Army division can cover almost all of PACOM’s area of responsibility. Flying to North Korea from the West Coast of the United States takes thirteen hours; from Guam it takes four.

“”This is not like Okinawa,” Major General Dennis Larsen, the Air Force commander there at the time of my visit, told me. “This is American soil in the midst of the Pacific. Guam is a U.S. territory.” The United States can do anything it wants here, and make huge investments without fear of being thrown out. Indeed, what struck me about Andersen was how great the space was for expansion to the south and west of the current perimeters. Hundreds of millions of dollars of construction funds were being allocated. This little island, close to China, has the potential to become the hub in the wheel of a new, worldwide constellation of bases that will move the locus of U.S. power from Europe to Asia. In the event of a conflict with Taiwan, if we had a carrier battle group at Guam we would force the Chinese either to attack it in port—thereby launching an assault on sovereign U.S. territory, and instantly becoming the aggressor in the eyes of the world—or to let it sail, in which case the carrier group could arrive off the coast of Taiwan only two days later.

“During the Cold War the Navy had a specific infrastructure for a specific threat: war with the Soviet Union. But now the threat is multiple and uncertain: we need to be prepared at any time to fight, say, a conventional war against North Korea or an unconventional counterinsurgency battle against a Chinese-backed rogue island-state. This requires a more agile Navy presence on the island, which in turn means outsourcing services to the civilian community on Guam so that the Navy can concentrate on military matters. One Navy captain I met with had grown up all over the Pacific Rim. He told me of the Navy’s plans to expand the waterfront, build more bachelors’ quarters, and harden the electrical-power system by putting it underground. “The fact that we have lots of space today is meaningless,” he said. “The question is, How would we handle the surge requirement necessitated by a full-scale war?”

“There could be a problem with all of this. By making Guam a Hawaii of the western Pacific, we make life simple for the Chinese, because we give them just one problem to solve: how to threaten or intimidate Guam. The way to counter them will be not by concentration but by dispersion. So how will we prevent Guam from becoming too big?

“In a number of ways. We may build up Palau, an archipelago of 20,000 inhabitants between Mindanao, in the Philippines, and the Federated States of Micronesia, whose financial aid is contingent on a defense agreement with us. We will keep up our bases in Central Asia, close to western China—among them Karshi-Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, and Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, which were developed and expanded for the invasion of Afghanistan. And we will establish what are known as cooperative security locations.

“A cooperative security location can be a tucked-away corner of a host country’s civilian airport, or a dirt runway somewhere with fuel and mechanical help nearby, or a military airport in a friendly country with which we have no formal basing agreement but, rather, an informal arrangement with private contractors acting as go-betweens. Because the CSL concept is built on subtle relationships, it’s where the war-fighting ability of the Pentagon and the diplomacy of the State Department coincide—or should. The problem with big bases in, say, Turkey—as we learned on the eve of the invasion of Iraq—is that they are an intrusive, intimidating symbol of American power, and the only power left to a host country is the power to deny us use of such bases. In the future, therefore, we will want unobtrusive bases that benefit the host country much more obviously than they benefit us. Allowing us the use of such a base would ramp up power for a country rather than humiliating it.

“I have visited a number of CSLs in East Africa and Asia. Here is how they work. The United States provides aid to upgrade maintenance facilities, thereby helping the host country to better project its own air and naval power in the region. At the same time, we hold periodic exercises with the host country’s military, in which the base is a focus. We also offer humanitarian help to the surrounding area. Such civil-affairs projects garner positive publicity for our military in the local media—and they long preceded the response to the tsunami, which marked the first time that many in the world media paid attention to the humanitarian work done all over the world, all the time, by the U.S. military. The result is a positive diplomatic context for getting the host country’s approval for use of the base when and if we need it.

“The first part of the twenty-first century will be not nearly as stable as the second half of the twentieth, because the world will be not nearly as bipolar as it was during the Cold War. The fight between Beijing and Washington over the Pacific will not dominate all of world politics, but it will be the most important of several regional struggles. Yet it will be the organizing focus for the U.S. defense posture abroad. If we are smart, this should lead us back into concert with Europe. No matter how successfully our military adapts to the rise of China, it is clear that our current dominance in the Pacific will not last. The Asia expert Mark Helprin has argued that while we pursue our democratization efforts in the Middle East, increasingly befriending only those states whose internal systems resemble our own, China is poised to reap the substantial benefits of pursuing its interests amorally—what the United States did during the Cold War. The Chinese surely hope, for example, that our chilly attitude toward the brutal Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, becomes even chillier; this would open up the possibility of more pipeline and other deals with him, and might persuade him to deny us use of the air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Were Karimov to be toppled in an uprising like the one in Kyrgyzstan, we would immediately have to stabilize the new regime or risk losing sections of the country to Chinese influence.”

2) To reinforce naval supremacy will require control of the skies and space.  Orbital satellites provide significant communications for all American forces and commercial interests, and a satellite war would cripple American capabilities.

3) Protecting satellites and increasing outer space security will require something akin to George Friedman’s (CEO of STRATFOR) battle stars (read “The Next 100 Years”), large manned orbital stations that provide armaments and increased surveillance for protecting satellites, providing imagery and comms to the ground, and even shooting down rockets, planes, or attacking ground targets.  Friedman suggests 3 battle stars could be required, orbiting continually in line with the earth’s orbit to always provide overhead support in certain regions.

Says John Reilly in a fair review (read the rest) of George Friedman’s book:

“The section on the Third World War allows the author to wax techno-thrillerish on the matter of mid-21st- century weaponry. We learn a great deal about hypersonic weapons and their ability to blow up unsatisfactory objects anywhere on Earth in a matter of minutes. He has plainly thought a great deal about the military applications of space which, again, he views as an extension of Mahan’s strategy of controlling the world’s trade routes. We get a description of geosynchronous Battle Star observation-and-command stations. (He adopts the term “Battle Star,” without noting the implications of that term for his optimistic view of the military and civilian applications of robots of all kinds.) We also get an excursion to bases on the Moon that sounds not altogether unlike Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.””

4) UAVs will continue to improve in sophistication and lethality, and are already providing extra eyes for American border security (see San Diego), Afghanistan/Pakistan targets, and eventually everywhere.  They are rapidly getting improved optics, more dangerous armaments, higher altitudes, and more time overhead (like these UAVs that can hover instead of do racetracks).  UAVs will probably be complementing increasingly robotic android armies, taking humans off the front lines to be replaced with dispensable robots to do war-fighting and perimeter security.

These seem like very far-off strategic priorities but these must be driven by intentional funding, innovative projects, and understanding by the citizenry of their importance.  I am far more in favor of continued intelligence dominance by the US than I am of attempting to do neo-colonial counter-insurgency and nation-building abroad, when domestic security and international respect for governments would suffice in building networks against terrorist plots.

There are plenty of other questions, too, such as whether it would be bad for China to compete with us or take over the seas.  Or what the impact would be of increased naval presence in the Pacific (see below the long comment about Guam).  Or whether alternatives are viable (building floating bases instead of using land).  I’d like to see more discussion on all of that below, if you could take the time.