Hey folks! Fireside this week – sorry for those of you who were waiting patiently for the last post on cereal farming. I had hoped to have it ready to go, but the start of fall semester teaching has pushed that off until next week. Those who pay less attention to higher education news may be surprised that the semester is starting so early, but most colleges (including the institution I am teaching at) have moved their schedules up and compressed them (by removing all of the holidays) in order to get the fall semester done before Thanksgiving, as a way (hopefully) to reduce the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks. Only time will tell if that is a successful strategy, though my teaching is all-online in any case!
For my musing this week, I wanted to actually return to some of the comments on the last Fireside’s musing. The comments for that post were very active with suggestions for technological or strategic situations which would or would not make orbit-to-land operations (read: planetary invasions) unnecessary or obsolete, which were all quite interesting.
What I found most striking through was a relative confidence in how space battles would be waged in general, which I’ve seen both a little bit here in the comments and frequently more broadly in the hard-sci-fi community. The assumptions run very roughly that, without some form of magic-tech (like shields), space battles would be fought at extreme range, with devastating hyper-accurate weapons against which there could be no real defense, leading to relatively ‘thin-skinned’ spacecraft. Evasion is typically dismissed as a possibility and with it smaller craft (like fighters) with potentially more favorable thrust-to-mass ratios. It’s actually handy for encapsulating this view of space combat that The Expanse essentially reproduces this model.
And, to be clear, I am not suggesting that this vision of future combat is wrong in any particular way. It may be right! But I find the relative confidence with which this model is often offered as more than a little bit misleading. The problem isn’t the model; it’s the false certainty with which it gets presented.
Let’s talk about aircraft carriers for a moment – I promise this is going to come back around to spaceships (though some of you may well enjoy the waterships just as much). There is currently a long-raging debate about the future of the aircraft carrier as a platform, particularly for the US Navy (by far the largest operator of aircraft carriers in the world), to the point that I suspect most national security publications could open companion websites exclusively for the endless whinging on aircraft carriers and their supposed obsolescence or non-obsolescence. And yet, new aircraft carriers continue to be built.
As an aside, this is one of those debates that has been going on so long and so continuously that it becomes misleading for regular people. Most writing on the topic, since the battle lines in the debate are so well-drawn, consists of all-or-nothing arguments made in the strongest terms in part because everyone assumes that everyone else has already read the other side; there’s no point in excessively caveating your War on the Rocks aircraft carrier article, because anyone who reads WotR has read twenty already and so knows all of those caveats already. Except, of course, the new reader does not and is going to read that article and assume it represents the current state of the debate and wonder why, if the evidence is so strong, the debate is not resolved. This isn’t exclusive to aircraft carriers, mind you – the various hoplite debates (date of origin, othismos, uniformity of the phalanx) have reached this point as well; a reader of any number of ‘heterodox’ works on the topic (a position most closely associated with Hans van Wees) could well be excused for assuming they were the last word, when it still seems to me that they represent a significant but probably still minority position in the field (though perhaps quite close to parity now). This is a common phenomenon for longstanding specialist debates and thus something to be wary of when moving into a new field; when in doubt, buy a specialist a drink and ask about the ‘state of the debate’ (not ‘who is right’ but ‘who argues what;’ be aware that it is generally the heterodox position in these debates that is loudest, even as the minority).
Very briefly, the argument about carriers revolves around their cost, vulnerability and utility. Carrier skeptics point out that carriers are massive, expensive platforms that are increasingly vulnerable to anti-ship missiles and that the steadily growing range of those missiles would force carriers to operate further and further from their objectives, potentially forcing them to choose between exposing themselves or being pushed out of the battlespace altogether (this, as an aside, is what is meant by A2/AD – ‘Anti-Access/Area-Denial’ – weapons). The fear advanced is of swarms of hypersonic long-range anti-ship missiles defeating or overwhelming the point-defense capability of a carrier strike group and striking or even sinking the prize asset aircraft carrier – an asset too expensive to lose.
Carrier advocates will then point out all of the missions for which carriers are still necessary: power projection, ground action support, sea control, humanitarian operations and so on. They argue that no platform other than an aircraft carrier appears able to do these missions, that these missions remain essential and that smaller aircraft carriers appear to be substantially less effective at these missions, which limits the value of dispersing assets among a greater number of less expensive platforms. They also dispute the degree to which current or future weapon-systems endanger the carrier platform.
I am not here to resolve the carrier debate, of course. The people writing these articles know a lot more about modern naval strategy and carrier operations than I do.
Instead I bring up the carrier debate to note one facet of it that I think also applies to thinking about spaceships: the carrier debate operates under conditions of fearsome technological uncertainty. This is one of those things that – as I mentioned above – can be missed by just reading a little of the debate. Almost none of the weapon systems involved here have seen extensive combat usage in a ship-to-ship or land-to-ship context. Naval thinkers are trying to puzzle out what will happen when carriers with untested stealth technology, defended by untested anti-missile defenses are engaged by untested high-speed anti-ship missiles which are guided by untested satellite systems which are under attack by untested anti-satellite systems in a conflict where even the humans in at least one of these fighting forces are also untested in combat (I should note I mean ‘untested’ here not in the sense that these systems haven’t been through test runs, but in the sense that they haven’t ever been used in anger in this kind of near-peer conflict environment; they have all been shown to work under test conditions). Oh, and the interlinked computer systems that all of these components require will likely be under unprecedented levels of cyber-attack.
No one is actually certain how these technologies will interact under battlefield conditions. No one can be really sure if these technologies will even work as advertised under battlefield conditions; ask the designers of the M16 – works in a lab and works in the field are not always the same thing. You can see this in a lot of the bet-hedging that’s currently happening: the People’s Republic of China has famously bet big on A2/AD and prohibiting (American) carriers from operating near China, but now has also initiated an ambitious aircraft carrier building program, apparently investing in the technology they spent so much time and energy rendering – if one believes the carrier skeptics – ‘obsolete.’ Meanwhile, the United States Navy – the largest operator of aircraft carriers in the world – is pushing development on multiple anti-ship missiles of the very sort that supposedly render the Navy’s own fleet ‘obsolete,’ while also moving forward building the newest model of super-carrier. If either side was confident in the obsolescence (or non-obsolescence) of the aircraft carrier in the face of A2/AD weapons, they’d focus on one or the other; the bet hedging is a product of uncertainty – or perhaps more correctly a product of the calculation that uncertainty and less-than-perfect performance will create a space for both sets of weapon-systems to coexist in the battlespace as neither quite lives up to its best billing.
(I should note that for this brief summary, I am treating everyone’s development and ship procurement systems as rational and strategic. Which, to be clear, they are not – personalities, institutional culture and objectives, politics all play a huge role. But for now this is a useful simplifying assumption – for the most part, the people procuring these weapons do imagine that they are still useful.)
In many ways, the current aircraft carrier debate resembles a fast moving version of the naval developments of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Naval designers of the period were faced with fearsome unknowns – would battleships function alone or in groups? Would they be screened against fast moving torpedo boats or forced to defend themselves? How lethal might a torpedo attack be and how could it be defended against? Would they be exposed to short-range direct heavy gunfire or long-range plunging gunfire (which radically changes how you arm and armor these ships)? With technologies evolving in parallel in the absence of battlefield tests, these remained unknowns. The eventual ‘correct solution’ emerged in 1903 with the suggestion of the all-big-gun battleship, but the first of these (HMS Dreadnought), while begun in 1904 was finished only after the Battle of Tsushima (May 27-8, 1905) had provided apparently startling clarity on the question.
Coming back around to spaceships: if multiple national navies stocked with dozens of experts with decades of experience and training aren’t fully confident they know what a naval war in 2035 will look like, I find myself with sincere doubts that science fiction writers who are at best amateur engineers and military theorists have a good sense of what warfare in 2350 (much less the Grim Darkness of the Future Where There is Only War) will look like. This isn’t to trash on any given science fiction property mind you. At best, what someone right now can do is essentially game out, flow-chart style, probable fighting systems based on plausible technological systems, understanding that even small changes can radically change the picture. For just one example, consider the question “at what range can one space warship resolve an accurate target solution against another with the stealth systems and electronics warfare available?” Different answers to that question, predicated on different sensor, weapons and electronics warfare capabilities produce wildly different combat systems.
(As an aside: I am sure someone is already dashing down in the comments preparing to write ‘there is no stealth in space.’ To a degree, that is true – the kind of Star Trek-esque cloaking device of complete invisibility is impossible in space, because a ship’s waste heat has to go somewhere and that is going to make the craft detectable. But detectable and detected are not the same: the sky is big, there are lots of sources of electromagnetic radiation in it. There are as yet undiscovered large asteroids in the solar-system; the idea of a ship designed to radiate waste heat away from enemies and pretend to be one more undocumented large rock (or escape notice entirely, since an enemy may not be able to track everything in the sky) long enough to escape detection or close to ideal range doesn’t seem outlandish to me. Likewise, once detected, the idea of a ship using something like chaff to introduce just enough noise into an opponent’s targeting system so that they can’t determine velocity and heading with enough precision to put a hit on target at 100,000 miles away doesn’t seem insane either. Or none of that might work, leading to extreme-range exchanges. Again, the question is all about the interaction of detection, targeting and counter-measure technology, which we can’t really predict at all.)
And that uncertainty attaches to almost every sort of technological interaction. Sensors and targeting against electronics warfare and stealth, but also missiles and projectiles against point-defense and CIWS, or any kind of weapon against armor (there is often an assumption, for instance, that armor is entirely useless against nuclear strikes, which is not the case) and on and on. Layered on top of that is what future technologies will even prove practical – if heat dissipation problems for lasers or capacitor limitations on railguns be solved problems, for instance. If we can’t quite be sure how known technologies will interact in an environment (our own planet’s seas) that we are intimately familiar with, we should be careful expressing confidence about how future technology will work in space. Consequently, while a science fiction setting can certainly generate a plausible model of future space combat, I think the certainty with which those models and their assumptions are sometimes presented is misplaced.
On to Recommendations!
I watched this video by Military History (not) Visualized on the distinction between tactics, operations and strategy a couple of years ago, but I ran across it again, and I think it is interesting, although I do not entirely agree with the taxonomy. The are a few linked major changes I would have made – and these aren’t really corrections (he isn’t wrong), so much as preferences. First, I think it should probably be more strongly stressed that ‘grand strategy’ is often not broken out in this taxonomy; MHnV is very much presenting a taxonomy with grand strategy as its own distinct entity (and consequently, the space for regular strategy is dramatically shrunk). He notes this, but doesn’t note strongly enough that in selecting grand strategy out, he is effectively presenting not a three-part taxonomy (as his title and structure implies), but a four-part taxonomy, with the fourth part removed. That’s a pretty important difference to leave out!
That in turn leads him to under-emphasize the massive difference between the two definitions of strategy he presents (though he seems aware of its significance, a viewer might not be): one of which confines itself to how to achieve policy ends by military force and the other of which includes the decision not to use force to achieve those ends. I very much prefer the latter definition of strategy, to the point that I am fond of saying that ‘any game which doesn’t let you declare peace is merely Real Time or Turn Based Tactics.’ A definition of strategy that includes only “how to use military force to achieve policy ends” risks fading rapidly into operations and – as we’ve discussed – mistaking operations for strategy is a classic and disastrous planning blunder.
It’s still a very useful video, especially as a starting point for thinking about these terms, but those are points I think could have done with a touch more clarification; again, not a critique per se – nothing MHnV says is wrong, just a preference.
I stumbled across “Losing the War” an essay by Lee Sandlin about World War II (particularly the American perspective) and its memory. I think the rumination on the memory of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is particularly thought-provoking, but deserves caveat. The long essay that precedes it does a good job of both rendering the unthinkable thinkable (and thus perhaps offering some insight into the strategic calculus at the time) while at the same time not engaging in an apologia for it. On the flip side, even for 1997, the essay is a bit behind the curve in the shifting evidence for the complex decision-making calculus about using nuclear weapons; folks with JSTOR access may note this article which appeared in Foreign Policy two years before Sandlin’s essay and gives a better sense of the late-90s ‘state of the debate.’
Also very much worth a look, this video by Tod of Tod’s Workshop serves as a fantastic followup to our discussion last year about arrow penetration. In that essay, I noted that one of my frustrations was a lack of evidence about arrow speed and impact energy over distance since most tests are done at extreme close range. Tod’s effort here provides measured test shots at up to 100m, providing a firmer basis to consider how an arrow slows down in flight – in this case, quite a bit more than I had expected. I had figured, based on the computer simulations of Magiar et al. that an arrow might lose about 6% of its velocity and about 10% of its impact energy at 100m of distance, but I noted in the essay that I thought something had gone rather wrong with Magiar et al.’s figures, but I didn’t know what. Tod’s work, at minimum, shows that the decline in striking power is much greater over distance: his arrows lost around 16% of their velocity and 30% of their impact energy (thirty!!) over 100m. That would suggest that the drop-off in lethality against armored (or shielded) targets at long range would be potentially even more severe than my original essay suggested. At the same time, I think penetration that Tod’s arrows do show at that distance suggests to me that I need to also downgrade mail-over-gambeson even further in my mental model, against appropriate ‘bodkin’ tips.
Finally, for this week’s Book Recommendation, David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (2011), which is a history of the Mediterranean (and to a lesser, but still important extent the people who lived next to it), beginning in 22,000 BC and running up to 2010. Naturally, this is a history of systems, not events. The Great Sea recommends itself on at least two accounts. First, Abulafia has written it as an engaging introduction to the history of the Mediterranean Sea and the peoples who lived on its shores, suitable and useful for the non-specialist looking to get a handle on it. That’s more important than you may realize. We tend to think of history in terms of land areas, but as Abulafia correctly notes down to about 1830 or so, the Mediterranean – including the countries and peoples dotting its coast – is a more useful category of understanding than land regions. Abulafia is not the first person to make this observation, but that leads to the second point.
Second, The Great Sea is, in my view, simply superior to the comparable volume, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (2000). Both books work with the argument that we should understand the places where people lived on the Mediterranean almost like an archipelago, united by the sea but divided by the land, because land transport times and costs were so much higher than sea transport, such that a place far up the coast might be ‘closer’ than a much nearer village located inland. This insight is fundamentally correct. But there the similarities begin to fade as Abulafia has in many ways written his book as a response to The Corrupting Sea, something he is quite explicit about (e.g. xxiv-xxxi). Horden and Purcell argue for an almost timeless Mediterranean, at least through to the end of the Middle Ages and so they structure their book thematically, mixing time periods in order to present a seemingly unchanging Mediterranean reality. It is, especially for the non-specialist, a frustrating and inaccessible structure (as an aside – if you do read The Corrupting Sea, you will note several gestures at a sequel companion volume; in the twenty years since its publication that volume has not emerged, though a collection of essays by the authors – most already published elsewhere – titled The Boundless Sea: Writing Mediterranean History (2019) has. This is not to be confused with David Abulafia’s recent book, also titled The Boundless Sea (with the subtitle A Human History of the Oceans) and also published in 2019, but which has the singular virtue of being an original monograph, rather than a collection of republished essays).
By contrast with Horden and Purcell, Abulafia argues that there is not one, timeless Mediterranean, but rather five clear periods, each defined by distinctive patterns of trade, movement and conflict on the sea. In the end, reading both books, I find it hard not to conclude that Abulafia is correct that it is more useful to think about the way the sea changed than Horden and Purcell’s effort to think about the way it stays the same, not the least of which because it allows Abulafia to avoid dragging certain patterns anachronistically into eras where they did not seem to predominate (the obvious example being The Corrupting Sea‘s emphasis on cabotage – meant here in its non-legal definition as small-scale coastal trading with small boats over short distances – which was present in all eras, but far less dominant during the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, both periods which saw far more long-distance bulk trade).
Consequently there is something here for the non-specialist reader who wants to get a grasp on the history of this place (with an ample set of endnotes to spur further reading), while the specialist can read the book sniffing for how Abulafia differs from Horden and Purcell (and also Fernand Braudel) and what evidence he uses to make that case.