November 05, 2018

Open Thread 12

It's time for our regular open thread. Talk about whatever you want, so long as it isn't culture war.

First, our regular link. I'm going to call out the FY 19 National Defense Authorization Act. No, it's not a particularly good read, or even totally comprehensible outside the Beltway. But it is useful to get a better idea of how the military gets its money. Or if you need to cure insomnia.

Second, overhauled posts include A Brief History of the Battleship, Iowa Part 1 and Part 2 and Fire Control Part 1 and Part 2.

Third, remember to update your bookmarks from to The CAPTCHA won't load on obormot.


  1. November 05, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    I'd expect the usual pattern of military spending to be the branches trying to talk Congress into giving them things. Are there any notable examples of Congress pushing something on a branch that didn't want it (or non-US equivalents?)

  2. November 05, 2018bean said...

    Loads. It's called pork. There's the one that gets dragged up every few years about Congress making the Army buy tanks it doesn't want, although there's some industrial preservation logic behind that. Worse is basing. There are loads of bases the services would like to close, but can't, because the local Congresscritters don't want to lose the jobs. The whole BRAC system is designed to give some chance of closing bases in spite of this.

  3. November 05, 2018Salem said...

    Yes, because budgets are limited and money is fungible, so Congress "giving" a service X is effectively denying it Y. For example, the USAF tried to get rid of the A-10 Warthog, because they'd rather spend the money on other things, but Congress (and the army) made them keep it. [This is a simplification of a longer story.]

  4. November 05, 2018bean said...

    I bring great news. The Naval Institute Press Holiday Sale has begun! This means free shipping on everything, and 50% off anything in the Holiday Catalog. I'll go through the whole catalog and post anything particularly worthwhile later, but it's a great chance to expand your naval library.

  5. November 05, 2018Salem said...

    On a related note - how should "small" countries spend their military budgets? Assume you have a solid economy, a pro-Western outlook, and larger, vaguely hostile neighbours (so it's not just for show). Do you want a large conscript army? Concentrate on one high-tech area? Or something else?

    For concrete examples, suppose you're Finland or the UAE or Taiwan.

  6. November 05, 2018bean said...

    That depends somewhat on the nature of my situation. Finland has a land border with the hostile neighbor, and the UAE doesn't. If there's a land border, then my main concern is making it hard enough to take me over that my friends can't ignore it. That probably means short-service conscripts, basically forming a nucleus for guerilla warfare. I can't win the war, but I can make it really expensive for the other guy.

    The UAE has to be more worried about freedom of trade. The main way for Iran to mess with them is by interdicting the Persian Gulf, not by direct invasion. So you need naval and air forces. Tie in deeply to the US network. Make sure we have bases, and then focus on something we aren't good at. Mine warfare springs to mind.

  7. November 05, 2018bean said...

    Taiwan is somewhat harder to figure out because they face both threats. I'm not of the camp that suggests the best option is just to have conscripts and land-based anti-ship missiles. If China attempts to apply soft power by sending destroyers to hassle ships, the best counter is to have destroyers of your own. But you need to balance that with anti-invasion measures. Which probably don't look like a major focus on a land army. That isn't totally incompatible with conscription, but conscription is going to be primarily about making sure that the populace has basic military skills and feels invested in the defense of the country than it is about generating effective troops.

  8. November 05, 2018redRover said...

    What does winning look in Afghanistan, and is it achievable?

    My answer is: they actually start to govern themselves in a reputable manner (i.e. become a functional state, not even a secular state, just a state) without too much ongoing handholding, and no.

  9. November 05, 2018Suvorov said...

    On a related note - how should “small” countries spend their military budgets?

    I'm told that nuclear weapons are relatively easy to build if you can get the right materials, and very cheap considering their destructive power. If there were no legal impediments, I wonder if it would be worth it for Finland or Taiwan to pursue WMD programs.

    What does winning look in Afghanistan, and is it achievable? My answer is: they actually start to govern themselves in a reputable manner (i.e. become a functional state, not even a secular state, just a state) without too much ongoing handholding, and no.

    What or who is served by Afghanistan becoming an independent state? Such a state might look like Jordan, I guess, but it might also look like North Korea or Iran. What's wrong with Afghanistan as a border region between other nations?

  10. November 05, 2018redRover said...


    What or who is served by Afghanistan becoming an independent state?

    That's a fair question, but I think that fighting unending wars (now going on year 18 of this round!) is not in our interests, or at least not obviously so.

    First, you have the direct cost and casualties, which are admittedly lower than they used to be, but also not zero by a long shot. Sending 500 Americans a year, plus however many others, off to be maimed for no clear reason, plus another 20 or so deaths, is maybe defensible on realpolitik grounds, but also hard to justify morally.

    Secondly, it's not clear that what we're doing is even keeping the country under control, though it is denying control to the Taliban.

    Third, even if you accept that the direct costs are worth it, I think you also have to look at how it impacts the larger balance of effort within DoD and the country. Even if the direct incremental costs aren't that big, you also have a lot of headspace, training, procurement, and so on directed at low intensity COIN type things, rather than getting ready for the next showdown with China. Now, maybe the future of warfare is actually COIN, or directed anti-terrorism type things, but I think that the expected value of COIN operations, relative to the damage that our opponents can cause American interests, is quite low. (i.e. a 70% chance we fight ISIS v2 versus a 2% chance we fight China, China is probably the bigger threat). It's a bit higher for Europe, but still also quite low, because of the migrant issue.

    Finally, it's not even clear that it's very effective at achieving our original anti-terrorism goal. AQ gets funding from all over, OBL was found in Pakistan under the noses of the Pakistani intelligence services, and they have received varying degrees of support from Yemen, Saudi, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Instead of keeping possession of Afghanistan with conventional forces, perhaps our resources would be better directed to fighting asymmetric war more aggressively worldwide.

  11. November 05, 2018Salem said...

    Suvorov - Pursuing nuclear weapons will alienate allies and has dubious practical use. This blog is in the middle of a series about the Falklands - note how well Britain's nuclear arsenal deterred the Argentinian invasion.

  12. November 05, 2018redRover said...


    Nuclear deterrence seems like it depends on a combination of how core an interest is being threatened, and also how unstable the leadership is.

    The Falklands, and a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Guam, are both non-central enough that the capital doesn't really feel threatened, and the territory could be re-taken with reasonably low casualties, because neither side wanted to escalate. If the Argentines had bombed London or Portsmouth as a sort of Pearl Harbor attempt, then things would have been different, just as a Chinese invasion of California would be.

    Taiwan going for nukes is obviously escalatory, and as you say risks isolating them from their allies, but it also means that any attempt to take Taipei is likely to draw a nuclear strike, and gives them invasion deterrence over and above what they can generate from their conventional forces and the aid of their allies. (i.e. the US would probably stake a carrier group, maybe even 2, on Taiwan, but I don't think they would go nuclear to prevent an invasion, but what do I know?)

  13. November 05, 2018Suvorov said...


    Pursuing nuclear weapons will alienate allies and has dubious practical use. This blog is in the middle of a series about the Falklands - note how well Britain’s nuclear arsenal deterred the Argentinian invasion.

    Arguably, that was because the English were not acting crazy enough to present a credible threat to retaliate to an invasion with nukes. I'm not sure I buy this argument, but I am under the impression that a US conventional invasion of other nuclear superpowers is unlikely because there is a credible chance they would nuke us. So perhaps England is unusually docile for a nation with nuclear weapons--but I think the answer is that the Falkland Island were strategically insignificant. I don't think a nuclear-armed Finland would nuke Russia for annexing a few islands, but I don't think that means Russia could invade Finland with the intent to take over the entire nation without being nuked. In short, I agree with redRover on this.


    Instead of keeping possession of Afghanistan with conventional forces, perhaps our resources would be better directed to fighting asymmetric war more aggressively worldwide.

    I agree with this, but I don't think Afghanistan really needs to be a functional state to do this.

    I guess I might define US victory in Afghanistan as "getting OBL and hurting AQ," since that was more-or-less the original reason for going in. And the US did that (admittedly, as you say, in Pakistan) so...I would suggest that the U.S. did "win."

    My guess is that the US of A is being kept in the country by a combination of moral reasoning (e.g. a desire not to let the Taliban take over again), mission creep and the Western mindset which is positively unsettled by any region that doesn't have a "working" "state," plus the last aspect you are getting at, I think:

    The idea that a working Afghani state is something that would prevent the region from being used as a giant training ground/slush fund for terrorists. Taking the long view, one could argue that just killing OBL and chasing AQ around the region were merely band-aids; only a strong state in the region will prevent a future 9/11.

    And that makes a certain amount of sense...although Iran and Saudi Arabia are both strong states, I think, and their own contributions towards terrorism are substantial. So there's that.

  14. November 05, 2018bean said...

    Re Afghanistan, I don't think that the term "functional state" translates into Pashto very well. The best case is probably the US getting out without an equivalent of the helicopters on the roof of the embassy in Saigon, and us managing to do enough drone strikes to keep things down to a dull roar.

  15. November 06, 2018Evil4Zerggin said...

    Something I've been wondering for a while: why were WW2 destroyers typically faster than cruisers, which were typically faster than battleships? From a (probably overly simplistic) hydrodynamic point of view, it seems that larger ships would benefit from less frictional drag per volume, and also from a higher hull speed. Indeed, a Fletcher was not massively faster than an Iowa despite having something like six times the power-to-weight ratio. Yet at the same time, why did nobody put anything approaching a proportionally larger amount of powerplant in their larger ships?

    Possible reasons I can think of:

    • A matter of roles, destroyers demanded speed above all else, whereas larger ships had stronger other demands? Though speed was hardly unimportant for larger ships.
    • Greater emphasis on reliability on larger ships? Though I couldn't find evidence for the boilers running at significantly different pressures at least.
    • Limitations on the amount of power that could be effectively transmitted to the screws? Probably the most plausible explanation to my uninformed mind, I could see there not being much more room to put more propeller without undue interference between each other.
    • Structural stresses and vibration involved in moving a larger ship at high speed?
    • Something else?
  16. November 06, 2018Johan Larson said...

    My impression is that the US (and its allies) tried very hard to build a modern democratic state in Afghanistan, and it just didn't work. The country is just too backward.

    I think it's time to consider what we actually want. We want a basically stable region that doesn't support Islamic radicalism elsewhere and doesn't consume too much in the way of our own lives and funds.

    I'm guessing the best course of action at this point is to start pulling out, and encourage some deeply-rooted strongman to take over who doesn't have any reason to support the Taliban. Keep sending weapons and maybe training to help keep the Taliban down. That should also buy enough influence to make sure the big man doesn't push the other ethnic groups around too much.

  17. November 06, 2018Chuck said...

    On the subject of Afghanistan, the main lesson I felt that 9/11 drove home was that areas of extremely weak or no government allowed terrorists and other unsavory groups a place to organize and thrive, and that occasional bombing was not enough to keep them from expanding. Even a fairly ineffectual government is better than nothing, as the non-government group spends most of its efforts on local fighting, and doesn't have as much leeway to bring the violence out to the world at large.

    @Evil4Zerggin I think it's a matter of how much you are willing to devote to the powerplant vs. armament, armor, and fuel. The Fletchers as you mentioned were not much faster than the Iowas unloaded, and that was after making a ship that was mostly engine. The Iowas had to carry a phenomenal amount of weight in arms and armor that the destroyer could forgo. It's also worth noting that battleships had range requirements far in excess of the destroyers, to the point that destroyers would commonly fuel off battleships.

  18. November 06, 2018bean said...


    It was primarily driven by tactical roles. The biggest factor was the role of destroyers as torpedo platforms. This needs high speed to be able to reach attack position quickly, then get out again. Cruisers weren't really expected to make torpedo attacks (except by the Japanese) and battleships definitely weren't.

    Other factors are screening and sea speed. If you're an escort for a ship, you need some margin of speed over it to be able to stay on station throughout maneuvers and the general jostling of station-keeping. So a destroyer assigned to a 33-kt carrier is going to want something like 35 to 38 kts. And small ships suffer much worse than large ones when there's bad weather and heavy seas. It wasn't uncommon for battleships to outrun destroyers in the North Atlantic, and even if the weather isn't quite that bad, it's not implausible that bad weather in the Pacific could see the destroyers limited to 34 kts while the battleships and carriers can keep 33. The apparent fall in modern ship speed (where a Burke can only make ~30 kts) is basically a result of looking at practical sea speed instead of how fast the ship can go in a flat calm, and usually correlates fairly well with the higher speeds of WWII vessels. (The growth of modern warships has also played a part in this, to be fair.)

  19. November 09, 2018bean said...

    Naval Book Mini-Review:

    Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward Beach

    Run Silent, Run Deep is a novel of the submarine war against Japan, and it's an excellent book, both as a novel and as a lesson in how a fleet boat ran. I'd rank it on par with Eugene Flukey's Thunder Below, his non-fiction account of his time as skipper of the USS Barb. Both are gripping accounts of the undersea fighting that ultimately crippled the Japanese economy. I'd rank it above The Cruel Sea, and pretty much level with Hunt for Red October.

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