Dong Feng’ing in the new year

China’s magic bullet – the supposed carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile – is all over the news…again. This time because CINCPAC Adm. Robert F. Willard commented that the weapon system had reached “initial operating capability,” giving the media yet another excuse to indulge in more orgasmic Sinophilia. Judging by the many gleeful proclamations of the impending death of the U.S. Navy, one gets the impression that certain elements in the media are looking forward to a Chinese-dominated world-order (at least until they get the memo on changes to intellectual property rights).

The last time this story was making the rounds, back in August, I posted that the threat of the DF-21D, though not insignificant, has been greatly exaggerated. Analyses that predicts the dislocation of power balances due to the introduction of a single weapon system is fundamentally flawed because it examines strategy solely from a technical perspective, neglecting technical, operational, and strategic considerations that dictate how the weapons are actually used.

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Counterfactual History: Soviet Aggrandizement in the 1980s

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the fact that the 1980s were probably the most dangerous years in the history of human civilization. There was no shortage of commentators exclaiming the miraculously “peaceful” dissolution of the USSR, but few dwelt on the fact that matters could have easily gone the other way had the Soviet Union  followed the historic pattern of empire and attempted to reverse decline through expansion. In his 1983 book The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union Edward Luttwak correctly diagnosed the terminal illnesses plaguing the communist superpower, and argued that it was highly likely that the Soviet Union would attempt to consolidate its position by invading the remote western provinces of China and setting up client governments in the newly conquered territories. Here’s how he made his case (to ease the writing of this post, I sometimes drift back and forth between the past and present tenses):

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Lessons from Byzantium: Survival Amid Weakness and Eternal War

The word ‘Byzantine’ has come to denote political intrigue of treacherous complexity. Thus, it might be thought that a Byzantine grand strategy would be something to avoid like the plague; a nightmarish tangle of ill-conceived and contradictory policies that is guaranteed to produce catastrophe [sound familiar?]. In fact, the empire from which the term derives was one of the longest surviving empires in history. Surely they must have done something right.

Indeed, as Edward Luttwak argues in his new book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine history provides an excellent example of a grand strategy that utilized all instruments of state power to maximum effect.

Strategy is an imperative for the poor and the weak. Compared to the united Roman Empire of centuries past, Byzantium was both. When it decided to wage war, the ancient Roman Empire was able to combine well-trained military forces raised from its huge manpower reserves with sheer warlike determination to literally grind its enemies into dust, often abandoning strategic and tactical subtlety to gain victory through simple attrition; a high-cost but low-risk strategy guaranteed to produce success for anyone able to foot the bill. Not so the Byzantine Empire, which suffered from a chronic shortage of combat-ready troops and a disadvantaged geography that left it surrounded by enemies, with no easily defensible frontiers or a secure “homeland” territory. And yet, the Byzantine Empire survived nearly a millennium longer than its Western ancestor. How? With a grand strategy attuned to its situation.

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The Benefits of Stupidity

Joseph Fouche over at the Committee of Public Safety brings us George Friedman’s (founder of stratfor.com) ridiculous prescription for American grand strategy:

America’s grand strategy is to be so big and so powerful that it escapes the consequences of its own stupidity.

Laughable though it may seem, this policy has much to recommend it. Edward Luttwak offers the best explanation as to why.

Strategy is an intricately complex exercise, with a multi-layered vertical dimension that consists of the many interacting levels of strategy – from the lowest level of technical competition to the highest level of grand strategy itself – and a horizontal dimension that consists of the enemy’s response. A perfectly optimized strategy requires a policy that is in harmony with all levels of both dimensions. Reaching this harmony would be no small achievement even in the simpler times of antiquity, but in the modern bureaucratic state it is infinitely more difficult. In Luttwak’s own words,

the highly diversified bureaucratic apparatus of modern states is itself a major obstacle to the implementation of any comprehensive scheme of grand strategy. Each civil and military department is structured to pursue its own distinct goals, and each has its own institutional culture. Consciously or not, the separate departments are likely to resist a concerted scheme whenever it clashes with their particular bureaucratic interests, habits, and aims. For the implementation of a normative grand strategy, the organization of modern states is both the essential instrument and a powerful impediment.

Dictatorships obviously have an easier time of it, but for democracies, complex strategy making is all but impossible:

Democracies cannot function as cunning warriors stalking their enemies in the night. Nor can modern pluralist democracies achieve coherence in their foreign policies, shaped as they are by the contending forces of voluntary pressure groups, organized lobbies, contending bureaucracies, and political factions. Yet there is much to be said for the resulting incoherence.

With all the impediments to efficient strategy making in the U.S., we are lucky to reach a consensus on the need to be big and powerful.

But even if we assume that it is realistic – or at least possible – to craft an optimized grand strategy we are still left with a question: is a unified grand strategy even necessary? It can be argued that ad hoc policymaking has produced outcomes only slightly less favorable than those of a universal strategic scheme. American foreign policy might be sloppy and full of mistakes, but it avoids permanently systematizing critical failures, which is a danger inherent in more coordinated strategies:

…while the successful application of a grand strategy should reduce the prevalence of small errors of disharmony, it will do so at the risk of focusing energies to perpetuate much larger errors. That is why the warlike ventures of dictatorships that can impose the tightest policy coordination, exploit the paradoxical logic to the full, and routinely achieve surprise whenever they attack begin well, only to end in utter disaster.

Strategy is a reciprocal enterprise; every action provokes a response from both enemies and allies. Americans look at the overwhelming disparity in military and economic power between the U.S. and the rest of the world and lament their failure to leverage this power toward the creation of a truly American world order. So they gnash their teeth, rend their clothes, and tear out their hair in exasperation of America’s strategic incompetence. Yes, it is true that America has not harnessed its resources in service of a unified grand strategy, but by not doing so, we avoid the inevitable counter-strategy from the rest of the world:

There is now a multidimensional American supremacy that is quite unprecedented in all of human history and that awaits only the determined pursuit of a power-maximizing global strategy to become fully effective for the United States, and intolerably oppressive for everyone else. Defensive responses and hostile reactions of widening scope and mounting consequence would inevitably follow…

Whatever added leverage could have been obtained by purposeful coherence in the first stage, thereby evoking coalition building in the second, would be lost in the third and final stage, in which some sort of global equilibrium would be restored once the original enhancement of American power was negated. Even if incidental disasters were avoided along the way, the United States would lose not merely what it would have previously and briefly gained but much more than that, because of the damage inflicted by intra-Western quarrels on multilateral institutions and long-established cooperative practices.

Finally, let us remember that, in the words of Sun Tzu, “the pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless. If it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it or the wise make plans against it.” What strategy could be more formless than no strategy at all?