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‘Foreigners’ in A Song of Ice and Fire

By Taylor Marvin

This post contains mild spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire through A Dance with Dragons. 

Daenerys arrives in Qarth. “The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus'”, 1511. Via Wikimedia.

Over at Duck of Minerva Dan Nexon has an interesting piece looking at at George R.R. Martin’s reliance on fantasy tropes in A Song of Ice and Fire: 

“Given all of the ways in which Martin breaks with tropes found in the bulk of high fantasy, it can be easy to forget the degree to which his underlaying fantasy architecture is dungeons-and-dragons level pastiche–complete with Dire Wolves, cliché steppe nomads, pseudo-vikings, and other flotsam and jetsam from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.”

This is certainly true. Throughout ASoIaF the substance of Martin’s world is always less interesting than how he presents it — after a few hours with Tolkien the reader pines for the forests and cities of Middle Earth, while reading Martin makes you desperately happy to be born in the 21st century. There’s certainly an argument to be made, however, that Martin’s subversion of the wish fulfillment of the conventional fantasy genre is made more effective by his use of fantasy tropes, an argument Nexon suggests:

“I suppose we could make a case that its pedestrian fantastical elements enhance the critical dimensions of A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps it might turn out that Martin’s subversive instincts extend not only to issues of class, gender, and power, but also to the so-far ambiguous status of the distant history of Westeros.”

This makes sense. To critique the fantasy genre — if that’s indeed what Martin’s doing — he needs to suggest the comparison: without dragons, ice demons, and uncertain prophecy ASoIaF would read more like invented historical fiction than fantasy.

I think a much more biting criticism of ASoIaF’s world building is its depiction of non-Western societies. Martin obviously is very familiar with Western European late medieval history and this knowledge shows in his depiction of European-flavored Westeros. However, Martin appears to be much less familiar with Babylonian or Persian history, and the Slaver’s Bay cultures based on these societies feel much more cliched. While I don’t share all of Ryan Noonan’s frustration with the Essos chapters in A Dance with Dragons — while meandering, Daenerys’ misadventures tell an interesting story about the importance of deplorable institutions contribution to social stability, and the problems of letting teenagers run governments — but these chapters would feel more realized if Slavers’ Bay wasn’t populated by stereotypes. To be fair Martin’s depiction of Westeros’ brutality and epidemic misogyny doesn’t do Western European culture any favors, but the scheming and rotting decadence of Slaver’s Bay is more a lazy appropriation of Orientalist tropes than subversion of them. Unlike Tolkien’s Southrons these depictions aren’t, in my reading, racist, but they do help wreck Daenery’s storyline in A Storm of Swords and Dance — if a setting doesn’t feel real the stakes are necessarily lower.

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A ‘System of Systems of Systems’ for the PLA

By Taylor Marvin

Over at The Diplomat’s Flashpoints blog, Robert Farley insightfully discusses the branch interoperability challengers facing the PLA:

“I’ve belabored the organizational aspects of China’s system of anti-access systems because bureaucratic boundaries matter… As of yet there is little indication that the PLAN, PLAAF, and 2nd Artillery have developed the practices necessary to ensure an efficient, effective partnership in battle.  To be sure, we have little evidence that the three organizations cannot collaborate effectively, but what we know of the history of inter-service conflict suggests a high potential for friction.  The Chinese military has not had the opportunity to work through that friction in realistic, wartime conditions.”

I think Farley makes a very important, and under-appreciated, point about the  PLA’s lack of combat experience. Aside from the brief, but destructive, 1962 Sino-Indian and 1979 Sino-Vietnamese wars the PLA hasn’t fought a major conflict since Korea, and this experiential deficiency is a major challenge to creating a responsive institutional culture able to function under the stress of wartime. Importantly, the PLA’s lack of combat experience means that it likely cannot even identify the existing interoperability problems that it must focus on. In a recent piece for Foreign PolicyDmitri Trenin argued that deficiencies revealed by the Russian military’s poor performance during the 2008 Georgia War have spurred modernizing efforts and a shift away from a force benchmarked on a Cold War-style great power struggle:

“The resultant soul-searching in the Kremlin and the brooding over the price of victory created an atmosphere propitious for military reform to begin openly and in earnest. The ‘lessons of the war’ also weakened the unreconstructed traditionalists, military and nonmilitary alike, who were driven by inertia and who had clung to the decaying remnants of the Soviet military system for nearly two decades, in the vain hope that it might be revived.”

While I’m deeply skeptical of Trenin’s optimistic thesis — the Russian military faces huge demographic, institutional, and funding barriers between it and a modernized professional force — he makes an insightful point: it is extremely difficult to assess an armed force’s deficiencies in the abstract. This shortsightedness can encompass equipment — for example, it took the painful experience of air combat over Vietnam to demonstrate that the 1960s-era USAF’s near-total reliance on missiles in air-to-air combat was premature — but is even more apparent, as Farley notes, in organizational assets. This of particular concern to the PLAN because, as shown by Eric McVadon in 2007’s “China’s Matring Navy”, its human capital and organization assets lag behind its platforms and weapons, though training programs appear to be improving and the acquisition of the Liaoning aircraft carrier is at least partially intended for training and doctrine-development purposes.

But a peacetime emphasis on organizational reform can only take you so far. To twist Farley and Roger Cliff’s phrase, using the feared DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in combat requires a “system of systems of systems”: the weapon itself, the parallel surveillance and communications systems required to operate and target the missile, and the ‘system’ of strong human capital and effective organizational communications and culture required to translate peacetime procedure to wartime action.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

John James Audubon, “Washington Sea Eagle”, 1839. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Election to decide future interrogation methods in terrorism cases.

Bibi’s subtext: Israel won’t bomb Iran before spring.

Assessing a potential conflict with Iran: costly, and confusing.

How to measure for a president.

Nightmares of an I.R. professor (a bit old but excellent, and via Sullivan).

The media and US Embassy in Tunis fiasco: Force fitting a square into a circle.

New Lupe Fiasco – Put Em Up.

Strategic Interactions in “Last Resort”

By Taylor Marvin

This morning I watched the pilot episode of ABC’s Last Resort. The show chronicles the adventures of the crew of the fictional USS Colorado, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. After disobeying a potentially unlawful order to fire on Pakistan, the crew goes rogue, docking at a small inhabited island in the Indian Ocean.

While the show’s core concept showed promise — Crimson Tide aside, a rogue submarine crew is an inherently dramatic setting  — I had trouble making it through the pilot, mostly due to stock characters and the silliness of the plot. The experience did lead to some entertaining live-messaging to the friend who recommended the show as I watched:

“I’m glad the Navy manages to crew their submarines exclusively with models.”

“OH SHIT THAT GUY’S THE T-1000 TERMINATOR DON’T TRUST HIM HE’S FROM THE FUTURE”

Maybe the show will get better; there are plenty of series that don’t find their feet immediately. But the show does present an interesting take on nuclear bargaining. [MAJOR SPOILERS for the pilot follow]

At the close of the pilot the USS Colorado’s crew is in a precarious position: their vessel is docked at the tropical island of Sainte Marina and is (presumably) too damaged to take out to sea, and the entire US government wants them dead. At the climax, Captain Chaplin desperately attempts to deter a pair of B-1s from bombing his submarine at dock by launching a nuclear missile at Washington, DC, broadcasting the assurance that if the bombers are called off he’ll destroy the missile before it hits its target (yes, this is ridiculous, but bear with me). The Pentagon blinks, calls off the bombers, and Chaplin harmlessly redirects the missile to detonate off the eastern US coastline to prove his threat to meet any threat to his submarine with nuclear force is serious. To reinforce this threat, Chaplin record a message threatening to launch his missiles if anyone comes within 200 miles of “his” island, which is somehow disseminated and broadcast on US domestic news networks:

“I’m Captain Marcus Chaplin of the USS Colorado… We have commandeered the NATO early warning station on the island of Sainte Marina. From this facility we can see the movements of all the world’s militaries. We are in control. I am declaring a 200 mile no-man’s land around this island, effective immediately. As for myself and the men and women of the USS Colorado, we love our country. We would gladly die for what it represents. But we do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own. If the current United States Executive or any nation violates this perimeter, we have 17 more nuclear missiles aboard and we will not hesitate to unleash fiery hell down upon you; I give you my word, test us and we will all burn together.”

Preposterous? Yes. But this is an interesting question: how would this strategic interaction between a rogue US boomer captain and the outside world play out? At the close of the pilot, this positions are fixed. Captain Chaplin controls a NATO station that apparently features long-range radar that his crew can use to detect incoming aircraft, making it difficult for outsiders to approach the island undetected. He also possesses 17 (Ohio-class SSBNs can carry 24) Trident II ballistic missiles, each with four nuclear warheads — an arsenal capable of killing a good portion of the world’s population. But for plot reasons (namely, the producers needed a reason to justify filming off the submarine, and an excuse to cast a bartender that looks like this) the submarine is presumably unable to dive or even move, except in extraordinary circumstances, canceling out its reason for existing: stealth. Presumably elements of the US government responsible for Chaplin’s betrayal want him and his crew dead, and everyone wants the threat of 17 nuclear missiles controlled by a rogue captain removed.

The core problem with this interaction is that Captain Chaplin’s threat isn’t credible: because he and his crew are Americans with families living in the US, their threat of “assured destruction” if they’re challenged is not credible, and the government knows this (hint: don’t say you “love” the country you’re threatening to destroy if you want people to take you seriously). If the Pentagon launches a strike on the USS Colorado, they can reasonably guess that Captain Chaplin and his officers will not launch a mass nuclear strike on the US in retaliation. Unfortunately for Chaplin’s bargaining position, his only available method of retaliation is so devastating that it’s unthinkable — the same limitation sank President Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy of reducing US conventional forces in favor of reliance on nuclear deterrence. If Chaplin wants this threat to be credible, he must employ some type of commitment device that would tie his hands in a crisis, forcing him to launch his missiles even if he didn’t want to; perhaps by constructing an automated system that would automatically launch the missile once the island’s radars detected an aircraft within weapons range. Confounding this problem is Chaplin’s low information. Presumably Chaplin’s captured NATO radar station would have trouble identifying the nationality of an incoming cruise missile strike during a crisis, and a submarine launched torpedo targeting the Colorado would be impossible to identify — if Chaplin has no way of knowing who’s shooting at him, how is his threat to respond credible? A rogue nuclear arsenal is just as threatening to other nations as it is to the United States, and capable military powers like China, Russia, and the UK have a major incentive to remove the threat while facing a much lower risk of being on the receiving end of Chaplin’s nuclear retaliation than American forces. While a nuclear strike on the US is certainly a very bad outcome in the eyes of these countries, the low risk of Chaplin identifying and launching a reprisal on their country in time could be expected to alter their cost/benefit reasoning to make a strike worthwhile.

This makes Chaplin’s position untenable. In the eyes of US policymakers, a strike on the USS Colorado isn’t a particularly bad outcome; a strike by another country whose lower military capabilities make a successful reprisal more likely is worse. If the United States doesn’t destroy the USS Colorado, someone else will at a much greater risk to the US — given this incentive, the US will strike first. Even if Chaplin isn’t bluffing, in the event of a US strike he’s unlikely to get a retaliatory strike off. An attack by a B-2 or stealthy AGM-129 cruise missiles on the docked USS Colorado is unlikely to be detected before the submarine is destroyed. Given the relatively low risk of destroying the Colorado and the much greater risk of someone else attempting to do so, American policymakers will order a strike. If Chaplin can take the Colorado out to sea his chances of surviving improve considerably, but it’s unclear if the show will go there. If it doesn’t, Captain Chaplin and his crew don’t have much of a chance of getting out alive.

A New Space Race? Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

Daryl Morini has a thoughtful response to my piece challenging his previous argument in The Diplomat that a new space race between America and a growing China is likely in the near future.

I think the core of our disagreement comes down to the likelihood of China jumping the gap between a purely military “ASAT race” and a prestige driven exploratory competition, motivating a newly-revitalized American space effort in response. Morini argues that as China grows wealthier and more technologically capable, this jump is likely:

“But if money is the sinews of war, then this space race will be more formidable than the last.

The U.S.-China competition is not about ideology; perhaps the Cold War never truly was either. Regardless, this modern great power stand-off has the potential to redefine the international pecking order. The motive of prestige – associated with great power status since nations went to war over diplomatic protocol and seating orders – will drive the new space race as it did the last.

Those who point to this time being different to the Cold War are right. But this is the main difference: China has the economic foundation and perhaps ambition to see this race through. This might yet fuel the U.S. motivation to run it, too. Ignoring the problem is not a prudent option.”

Do read the whole piece.

Why Do Americans Underestimate the Iranian Government?

By Taylor Marvin

The New York Times recently published a problematic fluff piece that takes a speculative look at how national borders could change in the future, predicting 11 major border changes in the near future. It hard to know how seriously to take these predictions; while authors Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna argue that “we appear on the brink of [a] nation-state baby boom” they decline to go into the specifics of their forecasts at all. Stephen Saideman runs through the list and casts doubt on nearly all of Jacobs and Khanna’s forecasts.

In their entry on the prospect of a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’, Jacobs and Khanna mention offhand that “Iran has the potential to dominate the region, but it is also at risk of internal implosion.” As Saideman notes, this “risk” isn’t likely at all — Iran has no major successions movements, and is governed by a stable and reasonably domestically popular regime. But this offhand remark is interesting because, beyond being simply ill-informed, it reflects the common belief among foreign policy-minded Americans that the Iranian regime is on the cusp of collapse. While the recent removal of the cultish Iranian opposition militia group MEK from the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations is partially due to MEK’s propensity to pay off the influential, it is difficult to argue that the group would have found such a receptive audience in Washington if policymakers didn’t seem to believe that its delusional quest to overthrow the government of Iran had a chance of succeeding.

On a similar note, policymakers in Washington and the American media continue to misunderstand the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, and continue to believe that it was a violent revolutionary movement that failed to overthrow the government only because the Obama administration was too cowardly to arm it. As Daniel Larison has repeatedly noted, the Movement’s protesters were offended by an unfair election, not the supremacy of the unelected supreme leadership itself, and the Green Movement was never the revolutionary force American neoconservatives fantasized it to be. The regime itself remains broadly popular within Iran, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brand of combatively self-assured populism is generally well received by conservative and rural audiences. Contrary to these beliefs, Iran is not a failed state, its government faces no major internal security threats, and the history of the Green Movement does not suggest that a mass popular uprising is only waiting on American support to sweep away the regime and usher in an America-friendly democracy.

If the perception of a weak regime is incorrect, why is it so prevalent in Washington and the American media? Partially due to neoconservatives’ own biases — they want the same kind of democratic uprising in Iran as they fantasized would erupt in Iraq after an American-led invasion. As any reasonable observer must realize that there’s no way to overthrow the government at an acceptable military cost without the cooperation of the Iranian population, hawkish advocates of regime change need an unstable regime and revolutionary populace to even pretend their schemes are workable. Many American commenters also (reasonably) favor their own democracy, and have trouble recognizing that authoritarian governments can be just as successful at attracting the nationalistic loyalty of their own citizens as democratic ones; this bias is at least partially responsible for the ridiculous idea that Iranian citizens would respond to bombing by helpfully overthrowing their government, not raging against the people killing their neighbors. Another possible bias: while the Iranian diaspora in the US isn’t particularly politically influential, prominent Iranian-Americas tend to come from prosperous families that fled the country immediately after the fall of the Shah’s government and can be expected to be more opposed to the current government than the average Iranian living in Iran, affecting American policymakers’ own assessment of the regime’s stability.

Americans tend to view authoritarian states as either monolithic titans [today: China] or wobbly edifices on the verge of democratic revolution. Of course, the truth tends to fall between these two extremes. But underestimating the governing capacity of the Iranian regime and misunderstanding its internal politics is dangerous because it breeds strategies dependent on these misconceptions’ accuracy. Many Americans likely wouldn’t mind if Iran suffered an “internal implosion” but it isn’t likely to happen, and the widespread belief that it is is a recipe for bad policies.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Andrew Macke, ‘Anglers on the Rhine’, 1907. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Why a war with Iran would spell disaster.

Romney’s theory of provocative weakness.

The Islamic democracy agenda in Egypt.

Anti-access and the ‘fortress fleet’.

Obama plays hardball with Morsi and wins.

J Dilla – Dime Piece.

 

“Voluntary Purging” and Ethnic Regimes

By Taylor Marvin

At Political Violence @ a Glance [full disclosure: I edit contributions for the site] Erica Chenoweth flags an interesting quote by Bashar al-Assad included in Hassan Hassan’s recent piece in Foreign Policy“Practically, this process is positive,” Assad remarked, commenting on recent defections.

Chenoweth argues that the Assad regime sees the rebellion as less of an existential threat and more of a useful way of sorting out who’s loyal and who isn’t:

“Apparently, Assad would prefer a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors,’ as Hassan puts it. Although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging, thus strengthening the regime.”

In Hassan and Chenoweth’s telling, the civil war is a loyalty test that functions as a voluntary purge — because remaining with the regime is costly, especially for military officers and diplomats stationed abroad, those who elect to stay are the most committed. This “self cleaning” is useful for autocrats whose power rests on a small, empowered portion of the population, often in the economic elite or security forces. For these to be an effective bulwark of regime authority, however, they must not be compromised by dissent. Purging is a way to ensure this. Of course, it is often difficult to tell who is loyal, and who isn’t; because dissidents within the regime power structure hold positions of privilege and can expect harsh punishments for disloyalty, they have an incentive to fake compliance, weakening the regime’s security.

If authoritarians cannot easily assess loyalty, they either over- or under-purge. Over-purging, most famously by Stalin and Mao, weakens the regime by mistakenly removing capable supporters. Stalin’s purges during the 1930s paved the way for early Nazi victories after the German invasion and, as Stephen F. Cohen notes in “The Stalin Question” many of those who survived purges later rose to prominent military and economic positions; presumably, these high-quality Soviet citizens would have contributed more to the strength of the state had not languished in the gulag. Smaller scale purges are also costly to the regime if it overreaches, especially when focused on purging a technocratic or military support base. Under-purging risk missing dissidents, who can safely continue to slack or assist other dissenters external to the regime support base.

Ethnic-based regimes avoid this problem by using an extremely costly signal of loyalty, ethnicity. Conflating ethnicity with the regime makes it difficult for co-ethnics to defect by tying their personal security to the regime’s in a very visible way. Unfortunately for ethnicity-minded authoritarians, the loyalty benefits of ethnic-based regime types only work in narrow circumstances. If the regime’s ethnic group is large, ethnicity is no longer a costly tie to the regime and does not reliably signal loyalty; after all, not everyone can be part of the elite. If the ethnic group is too few, it would be difficult to entirely staff the upper echelons of the military and policy with loyal co-ethnics. This is the case in Syria, where Alawites, the religious minority the Assad family belongs too, make up less than ten percent of the population. While Alawites fill most elite Baath Party and security force positions, there aren’t enough of them in Syria to staff the entire government.An interesting question would be if ‘voluntary purges’ like Assad’s are more common in countries where the ruling elite comes from a ethnic minority large enough to motivate an ethnic-based regime but not large enough to rely on entirely.

Of course, there’s another potential explanation to Assad’s statement: he’s bluffing. Assad’s remarks quoted by Hassan were given to the pro-regime channel Addounia TV, and Assad knew they would be heard both by regime loyalists and the wider international community. Assad has an incentive to project a credible postion of strength, both to bolster regime forces and discourage foreign intervention — admitting that the defections hurt doesn’t accomplish this. Framing defections as positive “self-cleaning” is a credible way to lie.

‘Through Struggle, the Stars’: What’s a Interstellar Humanity Look Like?

By Taylor Marvin

I just finished John J. Lumpkin’s excellent novel Through Struggle, the Starsand highly recommend it. In addition to being a very respectable first novel by an excitingly original author Through Struggle, which depicts a — to steal Rick Robinson’s term — plausible mid-future interstellar conflict, admirably tries to accurately depict realistic space combat. Set in 2139, the novel attempts to plausibly extrapolate a future global political and economic system incorporating extensive off-world colonization, and with the exception of “limited” wormholes (the opening must be physically transported to its ultimate destination;  meaning a roughly ten light year travel limit and no causality violations) the space technology does not violate our understanding of what’s possible.

While the novel’s protagonist is engaging and the narrative interesting, Lumpkin’s worldbuilding is what I found most intriguing. In imaging humanity 130 years in the future Lumpkin reaches some interesting conclusions. Some I find plausible, others less so. Some scattered thoughts [no spoilers]:

Lumpkin has obviously thought a lot about the the shape of human society over a century into the future. The United States of 2139 is refreshingly multiethnic, with lots of Hispanic names in evidence. It’s also mentioned offhand that the average skin tone of Americans is a “light brown”; again, an encouraging acknowledgment of the US’ changing ethnic makeup. However, the humans the 22nd century seem to be very similar to today’s: aside from retina displays, little “posthuman” genetic augmentation, technological implants, or pharmaceutical alteration is seen. To be sure, social factors will probably play a greater role in determining the future prevalence of posthuman-type augumentation than technology, but their absence feels strange.

Through Struggle depicts a world where nation-states have extensively colonized nearby systems — China, Japan, the US, and UK, among others, are all shown to possess colony worlds home to millions of people (the US is 52 states strong; presumably two are off-Earth). The international order of Through Struggle is significantly more adversarial and unstable than today’s. Lumpkin cleverly suggests that off-Earth activity is destabilizing: individuals who mature in mono-ethnic colonies are more bigoted than those on Earth, and mercantilist trade between nations and their colony worlds has reduced international trade.

I’ve previously discussed why I find mid-future space colonization implausible: current humans don’t seem to meet the requirements of an expansionistic species, and living off-Earth will always be more expensive and less comfortable than remaining in the cradle. Lumpkin partially adresses these concerns by implying that colonization is more driven by a Scramble for Africa-style pressure to keep pace with competing states than rational expansion, but his depiction of colonizing “ranchers” lured off Earth by the prospect of free land seems antiquated at best. Population pressures sparked by extreme life extension could arguably justify off-Earth colonization — though I’m skeptical that humans will ever command the resources necessary to move a significant portion of humanity out of Earth’s gravity well — but Lumpkin never mentions life extension, aside from off-handed references to ‘sixty year’ careers.

In his imagined  future, the United States is a distant third ranked power behind China and Japan, which at the novel’s opening are on the brink of war. China’s global leadership position is more than plausible — in fact, it’s difficult to imagine any ‘not-awful/nation states exist’ future where China’s massive population doesn’t guarantee it superpower status. But Japan as a future superpower crosses the line from plausible to extremely unlikely, at least in my mind. Japan’s population is expected to fall to under fifty million by the 22nd century, and its strategic outlook will likely be dominated by attempting to counter growing Chinese regional hegemony — a future not conductive to attaining great power status. I understand that, for narrative purposes, Lumpkin requires the the novel’s American protagonists to not represent the world’s most powerful state. But assuming that the United States loses its position of global preeminence in the next century, India would be a much more realistic leadership choice in a bi- to multipolar world, alongside China.

I do find Lumpkin’s depiction of Iran as a future US ally credible. If China continues to grow economically and incorporates central Asia into its sphere of influence, a realist Iranian government could find closer ties with Washington an attractive counterbalance to Chinese influence, especially assuming (as Lumpkin seems to) that India remains a minor power.

In Lumpkin’s future, numerous nations field space combat fleets, including smaller states like Korea, Iran, various Latin American nations, and the UK. I find this very unlikely. Even assuming that technological progress, the advent of autonomous construction techniques, and off-planet economies of scale, interstellar spacecraft are extremely expensive. Today there’s only a single superpower capable of fielding a fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers, which are maybe an order of magnitude less complex than a starship. If the international order of a future starfaring humanity remains structured around competing nation states, I would expect only a few of the largest and richest countries to command the resources necessary to construct starships, if any elect to at all.

On the economic side, Through Struggle makes no mention of space elevators, even though constructing one would appear well within the technological and organizational capabilities of civilizations capable of constructing wormhole networks. I’m skeptical that the type of space economy that Lumpkin imagines is possible with out space elevators to ease transport out of Earth’s gravity well. This seems a missed opportunity for geopolitical drama as well: in a balkanized world nations without territory along the equator would have a much more difficult time constructing an elevator of their own, an enormous strategic handicap. (Most designs for space elevators rely on centrifugal force from Earth’s rotation to support the elevator, meaning they must be built near the equator).

Through Struggle is a war story. This raises some problems; while speculating about future space combat is an interesting thought experiment, there are reasons to suspect that open, large-scale wars in space are unlikely. Almost by definition, a future politically stable and rich enough to build starships means a world where humanity will continue to grow wealthier and more educated, and presumably be less inclined towards major wars. Starship construction also arguably implies post-scarcity, reducing the material payoffs from victory. If we accept the common ‘naval warfare as space warfare analog’ premise, then the fact that humanity has not fought a naval war in seventy years is also certainly suggestive.

Another barrier to open space warfare is the cost of space assets themselves. As previously mentioned, spaceships are very expensive, and likely always will be. Today the cost of major naval combatants has kept a global blue water navy the sole preserve of the United States since World War II — even the Soviets were unwilling to attempt to gain the US’ naval power projection capabilities, preferring to invest in asymmetrical sea denial assets like submarines and anti-ship missile systems. China appears to be following a similar path today.

Following this analogy, the first nation to field space combat forces would enjoy a massive advantage, perhaps one strong enough to steer potential rising adversaries towards “space-denial” asymmetric strategies rather than a “black-space” power projection force. Similarly, space combat assets could be so expensive that militaries are loath to risk them, and adversaries refrain from directly targeting opponents’ major assets out of fear of mutual losses or escalation.

That said, what would space combat look like? Fiction provides plenty of examples. Despite fielding directed energy weapons and immensely powerful engines, the warships of Star Trek and Star Wars inexplicably engage at extremely close range. The (comparatively) primitive warships of 2004’s Battlestar Galactica similarly close to a few kilometers before pounding away with artillery and defending themselves with close-in weapons systems similar to those modern navies use today (in the vacuum of space conventional artillery is a perfectly credible weapons scheme). However, while dramatic these depictions of space combat aren’t that realistic.

Lumpkin’s depiction of space conflict is obviously very carefully researched, and is impressive. Like Rick Robinson and Winchell Chung, Lumpkin discounts the possibility of stealth in space — a spacecraft will always be a hot target against a very cold background, with detection ranges in the millions of kilometers, at least. However, unlike Lumpkin I’m not convinced that stealthed weapons systems are impossible, at least under certain conditions. As some of the commenters at Robinson’s blog have speculated, it could be possible to soft-launch an missile actively cooled to the temperature of the cosmic background from a ship that wouldn’t accelerate until it was within the minimum kill range of the target’s defensive close-in weapons systems. Such a missile would be very hard to detect. However, I’m skeptical about the real world combat utility of stealthed kinetic missiles. To maintain a low signature, these weapons would have to maneuver by using their liquid helium cooling fluid. But this type of thruster would be capable of only low delta-v, making it very difficult for a low observable cold weapon to catch a maneuvering target at all, even if the target never knew it was there!

Here Lumpkin’s mix of lasers, nuclear and conventionally armed missiles and kinetic weapons is accurate. One use of stealthed remotely-fired weapons he doesn’t mention is nuclear-pumped x-ray lasers. One ship could eject several of these devices, which would then move laterally away from each other. Before firing they would be largely undetectable, negating the danger of counter-laser-lasers damaging your laser system, a frequent occurrence in the novel.  Firing several at once from different angles would increase the chances of killing the enemy ship, and the firing could be timed to coincide with the impact of kinetic weapons, similar to the Russian air combat practice of firing two missiles with different targeting systems at a single target to increase the chance of a kill. These weapons would be a low-cost augment to Lumpkin’s ship-based laser systems and mass drivers.

These speculative differences aside, John J. Lumpkin has authored an impressive debut novel. I highly recommend it.

Macho Posturing in Politics

By Taylor Marvin

Writing for Radio Free Europe, Claire Bigg highlights the unfortunate side effects of Vladimir Putin’s propensity for macho posturing (via Brendan I. Koerner):

“Vladimir Putin’s stunt with Siberian cranes this week was intended to display both his tough-guy image and his commitment toward saving endangered species.

But what it perhaps best highlighted was his curious knack for causing harm to rare animals.”

Welfare of endangered animals aside, by all accounts Putin is an expert at managing his perception as a vigorous adventurer among Russian domestic audiences; a narrative that is unquestionably electorally valuable. Numerous authoritarian and democratic leaders have played up their masculinity, especially in “macho” dominated cultures that respect this sort of posturing (there’s an argument to be made that Pussy Riot secured such a following in the Western public consciousness because its feminist archetype so obviously contrasts the masculinity of the Russian state, which is apparent both in Putin’s security apparatus and the Church). What’s particularly interesting is that Dmitry Medvedev appears to have deliberately strayed from this aggressive masculinity during his tenure as President and Prime Minister, instead projecting the well-dressed air of a sophisticated technocrat. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to separate him from Putin’s persona — the more conspiratorially-minded would suggest the verb diminish rather than separate — or a reflection of his personality I don’t know.

Of course, macho posturing for political gain isn’t limited to Russia — George W. Bush’s carrier landing is probably the apex of the genre.