Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dune as a Mirror on Tactical Doctrine

Admiral Yamamoto wants a do-over
I'm an unabashed fan of Frank Herbert's Dune. I'm fascinated by the construction of an entire, completely plausible universe with an understanding of politics, religion and economics.  One of the things that makes Herbert's Dune universe work is a specific set of technological assumptions that channeled the options for conflict in specific directions.  The use of  personal shields precludes guns - so called 'projectile weapons' - along with directed energy weapons like lasers.  Each feudal House had a stockpile of nuclear weapons - the 'Family Atomics" - but, just as with the world we have lived in for the last sixty years, the use of these weapons is impossible because every scenario for their deployment leads to the destruction of modern civilization.

So conflicts in the Dune universe are limited to a very specialized form of edged weapons combat and various kinds of skulduggery and poison.  The idea is that you learn to do a few very unusual, highly specialized things in order to win in single combat, and those that are truly gifted and perfect these otherwise arbitrary skills become the legendary warriors of their time, the Duncan Idaho of their cohort.

There are genuinely fascinating parallels between that sort of specifically limited combat options and the once-in-a-species experience of air-to-air combat in WWII.  The required skills seem obvious - airmanship, tactics and gunnery.  But this was both simpler, and infinitely more complex.  High speed individual combat in 3 dimensions, spatial awareness, understanding both the capabilities and limitations of your aircraft, your weapons and your colleagues.  Early in the war the most gifted warriors in this unprecedented form of single combat learned things like 'Never turn with a Zero' and developed a life-preserving tactic called the 'Thatch Weave'.

When you think about it, this set of highly specialized skills only had salience for a few years in the mid twentieth century.  There were air-to-air battles in Korea and Vietnam, but they were much different, performed at higher speeds and mediated by greater technology than the earlier fights that were truly dependent upon the capabilities of the humans at the controls. Indeed, in both the European and Pacific theaters, the Axis loss of trained, experienced fighter pilots was the decisive consideration - training is great, but in order to succeed you needed people who could survive long enough to learn how to fight in this very specific kind of battle.  And it took both good airframe design and a real focus on air-sea rescue that could keep the best pilots in the fight.

It's hard to overstate how odd and time-specific this type of warfare actually was.  You have to go back to the medieval knights to find a time when individual, one-on-one combat had a place in a larger military campaign.  There's a great deal of discussion around the glory and honor of air-to-air combat - I'll leave that judgement to the reader - but the fact remains that you have to have such an odd technological and geopolitical balance in order to ever utilize that kind of combat at all.  Ultimately, it's a technological battle - the Mustang, Thunderbolt, Corsair and Hellcat gave the Americans a real qualitative advantage no matter what other factors you measure, but it still only took one mistake in tactics, one error in energy management or one lapse in judgement or awareness and you would lose to a technologically weaker foe.  It's another similarity to the medieval knights - a better horse could still stumble - or the Dune universe, where a better fighter could make a simple tactical error and pay the ultimate price for doing so.

The last hundred years has seen the technological evolution of warfare - from the repeating rifle to air power to missiles and nuclear weapons - that has resulted in the geopolitical stalemate we're seeing all over the world.  But it has, for brief periods, produced some tremendously odd forms of warfare that we see as normal, but when viewed in a larger context are simply highly specialized manifestations of the current status of technology as applied to human conflict.  And when viewed through that lens, the accelerating nature of technology can be expected to continue to be disruptive to all the best-laid plans of Admirals, Generals and Joint Chiefs all over the globe.  From ballistic missiles reducing the forward role of aircraft carriers to unmanned combat aircraft limiting the natural inhibition to attack, warfare is getting smaller, closer and more personal after a century of huge armies and continental battlefronts.  Just like Frank Herbert presented in Dune, advancing technology can actually make warfare more personal, and more dependent on a few individual's skills.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guns Before Guns Were Cool...

In the days before movie and teevee gun fetish, there was the anti-gun, a gun carried by characters who's focus wasn't on gunfighting, and yet who somehow mastered the ability to deploy this farcical toy in real world confrontations in order to dominate the situation and kill (or wound) the enemy in one climactic scene after another.  From Inspector Erskine of The FBI to Mike Stone in Streets of San Francisco to Barney Miller and Maxwell Smart, the snub .38 was both the easy to carry gun for detectives and some kind of magical ender-of-fights when the plot called for a denouement.

Whether the classic Colt Detective Special, the aluminum frame Smith & Wesson Airweight or the tiny five-shot Chief's Special, these were small frame revolvers chambered in .38 Special, with short barrels, round butts and often a bobbed or shrouded hammer.  The reality is that the .38 Snubby was the gun you carried if your job required you to carry a gun but you never really expected to have to use it.  It was the classic "belly gun" of the streets, not something that could not be shot accurately, but rather intended to be used at contact distances.  Tactical doctrine was simple - you pulled it from concealment, pressed it against your foe and squeezed the trigger.

Out of a 2" barrel, the low-velocity .38s were not ballistically impressive.  There would be no expansion, very little penetration - indeed, both car windshields and heavy winter overcoats tended to provide sufficient protection against this round - and the standard load, the 158gr LSWC was unlikely to stop a determined attacker.  This was a gun for people who didn't care about guns, for people who never even thought about guns.  This was a "gun" in the most generic terms, intended to remain in a well worn leather holster over a 20 year career, fired at the range four or five times a year, and passed on to a son at the end of a life of service to one's community.

Make no mistake - the .38 Snub of the mid-twentieth century was a lethal weapon, and took a lot of lives.  But contrast it with the iconic handguns of the current era.  From Sonny Crockett's Bren Ten to the Beretta 92F carried by Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon to Raylan Givens' Glock. These are not as much lawmen as gunfighters, and they pay infinitely more attention to the tools of their 'trade' than their predecessors.  Those earlier cops would have been a little embarrassed at that kind of attention paid to their gun.  Carrying it was part of their job, part of their uniform, part of their daily life, but shooting it certainly was not.  They represented the image of the cop-as-crime solver, not the kind of cop-as-warrior gunfighter we have grown so comfortable with today.

Today, sitting in a restaurant having lunch, we think nothing of local cops coming in dressed in tactical gear, pants bloused into their boots, ballcap and sunglasses, tactical holster slung low on their thigh, tac vest with STANAG mag pouches and a bundle of flex-cuffs on their belt.  These are men (and women) who are entirely conversant in the use and capabilities of their weapons.  They are not the people who would have clipped a .38 snub on their belt and gone to another day at the office.

I guess I will leave the question of whether we are better or worse off for this development as an exercise for the reader.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Syria Impossible

And a Cocktail
Two things are absolutely true about Syria's political future.  First, Bashar al-Assad's Alawite Ba'ath regime cannot be permitted to retain power.  His brutal slaughter of his own people, his contempt for their ideological and economic aspirations and his refusal to permit any kind of political process, even to the point of mass murder has stripped his government and his party of all legitimacy.  Secondly, at the same time, the greatest risk to regional peace is the fall of al-Assad's government.  At that point a bloody civil war becomes a horrific free-for-all, with each faction, bolstered or resisted by the rump loyalist military and their massive weapons stockpiles, will turn its guns on all the others. Local nations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Jordan to Iran and Iraq will rush in to try to put a lid on the wildfire ignited by a true leadership vacuum in Damascus, and the stage will be set for a regional war.  Meanwhile, the US, NATO, Russia and China stand poised just outside the war zone, armed to the teeth and prepared to protect their "interests", however they choose to define them.

In a sense, al-Assad is serving as a stabilizing force, keeping the outsiders out and limiting the scope of the war to a fairly simple to understand two-sided civil war.  About the only thing that Islamists, Secularists, Christians, Kurds, Communists and Sunnis agree on is that the Ba'ath loyalist regime and their Shi'ite supporters are the enemy.  As soon as there is no loyalist regime, that one point of concurrence will have been eliminated and blood will spill everywhere.  It's not even clear that there is a basis for any of the factions to work together with any of the others, and to whatever extent 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' comes into play it will be a temporary truce - every small victory resulting in a realignment of factions and targets.

These sorts of wars are what you have in a world with superpowers, nuclear weapons, resource wealth and instant global communications. Nationalist factions no longer necessarily hold sway, and many of the organized groups fighting these conflicts have priorities above and beyond the establishment or preservation of a nation.  There are ethnic, tribal and sectarian groups fighting for primacy and economic dominance more than anything else, and as Afghanistan so graphically demonstrates, holding political power in the Capitol is meaningless in the larger context of the conflict.

In the '90s during the Balkan wars we all became familiar with the term "ethnic cleansing", as it became the poster child for these kinds of sub-national and trans-national wars that are now the norm, to the point where they are the only kinds of wars that are even possible.  With the dominance of air power, satellite surveillance and long range missiles it has become impossible to put an army in the field and fight a conventional maneuver war to take  and hold territory.  So the only possible end-game for these modern conflicts where multiple factions fight for varying goals might be some kind of voluntary division of territory that allows the factions to stand up a community and a government in their own vision.  There is, of course, so much wrong with this approach that it probably can't even begin to work - which territory has the resources, which governments treat their people in an unacceptable fashion, how to prevent border wars from breaking out constantly - but what people are demonstrating clearly is that they simply cannot find it possible to live alongside one another in a diverse population, tolerating the differences in ideology and religious beliefs in the name of peace and prosperity.

So we conclude that it is unacceptable for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power in Syria, and that it is unacceptable for Bashal al-Assad's regime to fall.  Thirty years ago in the movie "War Games", the computer Joshua observed:

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Worth thinking very seriously about today.