Archive for January, 2009

Nukes and robots

January 30, 2009

A fascinating article on robotic warfare by Peter Singer.  He raises a number of good questions about it, notably how much easier it will make it for America to go to war.  I think this is also very troubling when you start doing the calculus from the other side.  Let’s say you’re a nuclear power but you haven’t been able to keep up with the US deployment of robots.  Now a conflict starts, and you’re faced with two problems: first, your forces are probably overmatched; second, and more importantly, since you inflict mostly robot casualties but they are killing people, the political cost to you becomes much greater and to them much lower.  At the extreme, even if you win a battle, no one cares.  So there are very few ways to force the US to the bargaining table.  What is left? The nuclear gamble.

There are lots of ‘what ifs’ here. Of course no-one right now seriously thinks they can really beat the US in a conventional war. But plenty of leaders will believe they can inflict enough political damage by killing a sizeable number of soldiers that they can get to the table.  If the US military pursues this path of limiting human damage too much, the unintended consequence may be the paradoxical outcome of much greater death and destruction.

Beware forcing your enemies into desperation.


Final word on the White Paper

January 29, 2009

Having now read through the whole thing, three things strike me:

– The professional vs ideological fissure is alive and well in the PLA

– However they may be easier bedfellows than we might think. Certainly professionalism – particularly in the small things that count – is growing in leaps and bounds

-The combination means the PLA is probably much less likely today than in 1989 to stand aside and not fire (recall in 1989 Deng had to call in special divisions after the usual rank and file were hesitant to fire)

On the one hand, there’s an impressive and growing degree of professionalism: they’re putting in place the basic things and getting them right.  On the other hand there’s still all the ideological baggage and the old modes of thought, replete with empty slogans and vague strategy.  We’ve long known about this professional vs old school tension, but in the White Paper they seem to coexist quite nicely. (more…)

China’s stimulus and the military

January 28, 2009

There could be an interesting dynamic here. On the one hand, with government spending going up in all departments, I doubt the military will be left out. So look for another near or above 20% boost in military spending in the next budget.

At the same time, one surprising element of the recent White Paper is how enmeshed the military still is in the economy. In particular, how it gets involved in infrastructure construction: “In the past two years they have put over 14 million workdays and one million vehicles (or machines)/time into [national construction]”.

Now, the point about a stimulus is that you want to spend money. So using free military labour is not very desirable, and you’d expect the local govts to avoid using them. Which means a whole bunch more free time for military personnel. Either the stimulus gets slightly diluted – but onl slightly, you’re still buying all the materials – or the PLA has to find a whole bunch of new training modules, double quick.

Caucasus report-back added

January 28, 2009

I have now uploaded my report back on a recent trip to the Caucasus, including Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

India’s opportunistic diplomacy

January 26, 2009

Today was Republic Day in India, complete with a Soviet-style military parade. Besides the lists of all the gleaming new hardware on display was the quite interesting fact that the guest of honour was President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan (yes, there’s an immense potential for Borat jokes on this one).  Basically it comes down to uranium – the Kazakhstanis have lots of it and the Indians will need it.

It’s a nice reflection of quite how opportunistic and multi-faceted India’s diplomacy has become. There’s been much talk about the US and India, but at the same time the Indians are buying lots of weapons from Russia and supporting the regime in Myanmar, and much else besides. Indeed, their purchases from Russia are becoming very substantial – an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine among them. It will be interesting – I’m going to try tack down the data – to compare Indian and Chinese purchases from the Russians.

Fragmented command of the PLA

January 26, 2009

This can’t be classified as new, but from another part of the White Paper we learn that the Army has no unified command, but is split into four headquarters and seven regional commands. Of course the CMC serves a type of unified-command function, but there doesn’t seem to be a general staff-type organization.

The political benefits are clear (general staffs do not exactly have a reputation for trust-worthiness), but this could be a weakness in the event of conflict.

Nukes with “Chinese characteristics”

January 25, 2009

The nuclear weapons division (“the Second Artillery Force”) has the goal of “a lean and effective strategic missile force with Chinese characteristics.” WTF? I’m going to write more later on the sloganeering all over the White Paper. But this one is so good it needs its own entry.

What on earth could it mean? A Chinese soldier strapped to the warhead? Which would make Dr Strangelove’s final shot “nuclear war with Texan characteristics …”

The possibilities for humour are endless

Kim’s alive!

January 25, 2009

After the countless photos that no-one could say were real, and the hilarious ‘portraits’, we now have an at-least-probably-true report that Kim Jong-Il is not incapacitated. He met with a Chinese envoy recently. This at least tilts the balance in favour of “he’s recovering and reasserting control” camp of NK watchers.

This doesn’t change the fact though that the man is obviously fragile. The furious rumour-mongering on successors will continue. This latter though is beside the point. Kim himself ruthlessly built a power base long before his father died. Any nominated successor will not have that. Look for it to be a Hua Guofeng moment.

I’m still placing money (but not too much) on Kim’s death generating one of the defining foreign policy moments in Obama’s first term. I don’t know the nature of US planning for that contingency, but the low priority of Asia right now is discouraging.

Give me your young …

January 24, 2009

Another little nugget from the White Paper. The PLA is taking education quite seriously and they are starting early. “At present, there are 117 colleges and universities with defense students. The PLA has selected nearly 1,000 key middle schools in the various provinces and municipalities as the main sources of defense students.”

I don’t know at what stage the US military starts recruiting. I’ve always heard about campus recruiting centres, and there’s a cadet-type programme I believe. Maybe there’s an interesting contrast here that parallels the two countries’ approaches to sports training – China’s top-down forced selection, vs a freer, bottom-up US system. These are important long-run determinants of military styles and capabilities.

China’s democratic military

January 24, 2009

I’m going to pull out little nuggets from the White Paper over the next couple of days, before returning to a broad view. The first one: in April last year “instituionalized” – I don’t know if they existed before – servicemen’s committees in every unit of the PLA. These have no decision making power, but get to make recommendations on things like NCO selection. Most surprisingly – they are chosen by soldiers by secret ballot.

Now, we shouldn’t be naive about this. These committees are composed of soldiers, so I doubt they’d raise too much fuss, or they’d get disciplined. In fact, they work “under the leadership of the unit Party branch (or grass-roots Party committee) and the guidance of the unit commanders”. And I wonder how “secret” those ballots are.

Still. This is very interesting – one wonders why they felt the need to do it. Ground-level pressure? A general principle of creating co-opted structures before they can come into being on their own? My guess is a combination of both.