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Posts from the ‘History’ Category

Flying in the 1930s

By Taylor Marvin

Via Wikimedia.

Via Wikimedia.

Here’s a fantastic picture I was lucky enough to recently stumble across on Wikimedia: a 1931 snapshot of a British Imperial Airways Handley Page H.P.42 airliner refueling in Samakh, Palestine. The aircraft itself is gorgeous, but there’s many other interesting facets to the photograph. With their small internal volume the range of early prop-driven aircraft was poor, necessitating many refueling stops at rugged way stations that otherwise wouldn’t see much traffic. Flying in the 1930s was restricted to the wealthy, and was considered luxurious — the small ram-air generator on the right side of the fuselage likely provided electricity to the passengers, a novelty by the standards of the era.

If you’re flying anywhere in the next few weeks, be grateful you live in the 21st century.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the Middle Ages

By Taylor Marvin

Last month Andrew Sullivan flagged a very interesting story on posttraumatic stress disorder among medieval knights. There is strong documentary evidence that medieval soldiers suffered from severe psychological problems, according to Thomas Heebøll-Holm of the SAXO Institute at the University of Copenhagen:

“Previously, medieval texts were read as worshiping heroes and glorifying violence. But in the light of modern military psychology we can see the mental cost to the knights of their participation in the gruesome and extremely violent wars in the Middle Ages.”

Warfare in the Middle Ages was truly horrific. Medieval single-handed arming swords were heavy (averaging roughly two to three pounds) and able to traumatically amputate limbs in a single cut. Blows to unarmored heads or torsos could be instantly fatal. Injuries that did not kill soliders on the battlefields would often become infected and, in the absence of antibiotics and sanitization techniques, turn gangrenous and end in horrible lingering deaths. Like modern combatants, knights and other medieval professional soldiers were not immune to psychological problems rooted in stress and horrible conditions of grinding warfare.

Medieval combat, 1415.

Medieval combat, 1415.

While the popular perception of the Middle Ages of period of endless warfare is inaccurate, it was a era of casual violence and widespread, horrific suffering far outside most modern humans’ ability to realistically comprehend. Of course, this is something we’re all aware of in the abstract: everyone knows that the Middle Ages were violent, and the entire epoch is best remembered the popular imagination as little more than a history of wars. But I think that few people actually appreciate just how violent mediaeval warfare was, and how horrific the injuries caused swords and other medieval weapons really were. Media is partially to blame: most of us get our knowledge of life in the Middle Ages from film, and movies often present a sanitized view of medieval combat. Think about, say, The Lord of the Rings: while Peter Jackson’s enormously popular trilogy doesn’t shy away from showing medieval combat, the necessity of a PG-13 rating means that Orc’s blood is black and the vast majority of sword strokes leave no visible injury and kill instantly instead of leaving a trail of screaming, slowly dying soldiers. While other films –Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is a good example — do a better job depicting realistic traumatic injuries, most films about medieval warfare approach it from an adventure or fantasy perspective, meaning there’s less appetite for gritty, disturbingly realistic films about medieval rather than modern conflicts. This colors our modern perception of medieval warfare, and obscures the stresses knights faced and its effect on their psychologies.

15th century depiction of the Battle of Formigny.

15th century depiction of the Battle of Formigny.

The horrors medieval Europeans faced were not limited to casual violence — disease inflicted mass suffering modern humans outside regions affected by the AIDS epidemic have no real conception of. Medieval author Boccaccio describes the effects of the Black Death in the introduction to his 1353 allegory The Decameron:

Michael Wolgemuts allegorical depiction of the Black Death. The Dance of Death, 1493.

Michael Wolgemut's allegorical depiction of the Black Death. 'The Dance of Death', 1493.

And it did not behave as it did in the Orient, where if blood began to rush out the nose it was a manifest sign of inevitable death; but rather it began with swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs, some were small and others were large; the common people called these swellings gavoccioli. From these two parts of the body, the fatal gavaccioli would begin to spread and within a short while would appear over the entire body in various spots; the disease at this point began to take on the qualities of a deadly sickness, and the body would be covered with dark and livid spots, which would appear in great numbers on the arms, the thighs, and other parts of the body; some were large and widely spaced while some were small and bunched together. And just like the gavaciolli earlier, these were certain indications of coming death.”

It’s estimated that the Black Death killed up to 50 percent of the European population in four years. Proportionately, that is comparable to over 150 million deaths in the modern United States. Some local death rate in the most severely affected parts of Europe — southern France and Italy — reached 80 percent, and many individual towns were completely depopulated. Modern inhabitants of the developed world have no conception of a disaster of this magnitude.

The scale of the Black Death’s destruction had a profound impact on the societies it affected. Again from Boccaccio:

“Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health. Others were of the opinion that they should live moderately and guard against all excess; by this means they would avoid infection. Having withdrawn, living separate from everybody else, they settled down and locked themselves in, where no sick person or any other living person could come, they ate small amounts of food and drank the most delicate wines and avoided all luxury, refraining from speech with outsiders, refusing news of the dead or the sick or anything else, and diverting themselves with music or whatever else was pleasant. Others, who disagreed with this, affirmed that drinking beer, enjoying oneself, and going around singing and ruckus-raising and satisfying all one’s appetites whenever possible and laughing at the whole bloody thing was the best medicine; and these people put into practice what they heartily advised to others: day and night, going from tavern to tavern, drinking without moderation or measure, and many times going from house to house drinking up a storm and only listening to and talking about pleasing things. These parties were easy to find because everyone behaved as if they were going to die soon, so they cared nothing about themselves nor their belongings; as a result, most houses became common property, and any stranger passing by could enter and use the house as if he were its master. But for all their bestial living, these people always ran away from the sick. With so much affliction and misery, all reverence for the laws, both of God and of man, fell apart and dissolved, because the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or ill like everyone else, or were left with so few officials that they were unable to do their duties; as a result, everyone was free to do whatever they pleased.”

While the Black Death was the most destructive of medieval pandemics, other diseases were also extremely destructive. Like victims of medieval warfare, survivors were unlikely to ever fully recover from the stress of pandemics that decimated their societies.

Remembering the Great War

By Taylor Marvin

I’m lucky enough to own a collection of vintage World War I history books, which I inherited from my great grandfather. All were published in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and offer a fascinating contemporary take on the First World War. Here are a few of the most interesting and striking photos from these volumes, which provide a fascinating look at the destruction of the Great War and the forward-looking but doomed optimism of its aftermath.

Around the World With a Camera: Special War Edition, Photographs from the Battle Fields”, 1919.

“Now for Prosperity!”

Evident in every contemporary history of the First World War is an optimism that this “Great War” was the last that humanity would ever fight, and that its survivors had lived through the climax of history. From the introduction to Around the World With a Camera:

“Around the world with a camera visiting every nation under the sun! Who would not like to make such a trip in safety and in ease? It is a journey but few of us could make during the Great War, when every country was thronged with spies, making the use of a camera forbidden except by official photographers.”

“‘The World’s Greatest War’ has terrible significant. It means the largest armies ever assembled, the fiercest battles ever fought, the most cruel atrocities ever committed and the most splendid valor ever shown.

It has been impossible to realize that millions of men have been fighting against each other to the very death. It seems incredible that war should have involved nearly all the civilized nations of the Europe, extending across the seas to Japan and even touch Canada in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States.

And the most rigid censorship was established against newspapers photographers and correspondents; yet they were able to secure photographs, sketched and information which the public so eagerly awaited.

For hundreds of years to come the world’s interest will be centered in the four years through which we have just passed. Art and literature, economic and social advancement, in fact every activity of human endeavor will be influenced by this greatest of all epochs to an extent which we are unable to appreciate today because of our inability to obtain a comprehensive perspective. Unborn generations will peruse ‘Around the World With a Camera’  with an interest far greater than our own.”

It’s easy to mockingly dismiss this optimism — after all, in 1920 World War II was less than two decades away. But it is important to remember that in 1914 Europe had been at peace for half a century, and the absolutely unprecedented scale and destruction of the Great War stunned the world. Around the World With a Camera’s forecast of a future of perpetual peace and prosperity is much harder to dismiss as hopeless naivety in its contemporary context of a world exhausted by the costliest war in history.

Around the World With a Camera showcases amazing illustrations and photography from all fronts of the war:

“The Grey Fighters of the Atlantic Fleet Reach Home: Ship for ship, man for man, and gun for gun, this long line of super-dreadnoughts and other battle craft is second to none in the world. This unusual photograph of the fleet as it entered New York harbor was made from an airplane flying over the ships. Admiral Henry T. Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, has been made commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, thus giving him the command of the Pacific Fleet as well as that of the Atlantic.”

Sketches from the front.

“An Anxious Moment for One Boche: Coming out of his dugout the Hun prisoner wonders if Americans, French, British or Italians are waiting for him, and also what will be the attitude of his visitors upon meeting. Seldom does the camera record a more interesting study in facial expression than it caught as this German gave himself up to a Scotch soldier.”

An expressive sketch of a French and American soldier.

An expressive sketch of a French and American soldier.

French recruiting poster: “Come to the Aid of the Soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine’ — men from the ‘lost provinces.'”

French Propaganda: “Memories of 1776 blend with the hopes of 1917. France welcoming America as a participant in the war to save civilization. The arrival of American troops ‘Over There’ aroused the enthusiasm of the grateful French people and electrified their courage.”

“The Smile That Is On To Stay: The shell which made the hole damaged but didn’t break, the head. Through thick and thin the British Tommy has retained his good nature and certain confidence in the final victory. He has passed through many a dark day since his army began the memorable retreat from Mons, but his smile has never worn off.”

The narrative of World War I as the climax of history is especially evident when reporting on the treaty of Versailles that ended the war:

“The signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles on June 28th formally ended the greatest war in the history of the world, and as the German delegates attached their signatures the thoughts of many turned back to the days of 1871 when Bismarck imposed his stern conditions on the French delegates in the same hall.”

“Justice at the Peace Table.”

“The President and Mrs Wilson at  Buckingham Palace. The Manchester (England) Guardian says: ‘President Wilson exercised a manifold attraction during his visit. Everybody has been charmed by his homely personality; some by his oratorical skill, others by his good humor, and still more by the high moral resolve by which his is animated. It was left, however, almost to the last moment of his stay for the most intimate revelation of his character. Who, looking on this group photograph, will doubt this? That the man who can stand between a king and a queen to be photographed with one trouser leg at full length while the other is turned up a couple of inches is above everything else — human!'”

Optimism for the future:

“Carving the Masterpiece” — the League of Nations.

“Peace.” Flags of the United Kingdom, United States, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, Poland, and Belgium.

U.S. Official Pictures of the World War: Showing America’s Participation, by Captain James C. Russell and Captain William E. Moore. 1920.

“And unextinguished laughter shakes the skies.” African-American infantryman during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Note the gas mask.

“How the Argonne was won. Like their Indian fighting ancestors the Americans fought from behind trees and bushes, digging a ‘fox hole’ fir cover whenever they paused. This photograph was taken by a Signal Corps operator during the advance of the 18th Inf., 1st Div., up the slopes of Hill 240, near Exermont, Oct. 11, 1918. These soldiers fought their way to the top in the face of heavy machine gun fire and drove the enemy from the position. The bullet-torn helmet in the foreground tells the story of a ‘buddy’ who lies ‘over yonder.'”

“While the ground soldier fought for days to gain a trench system of a patch of woods the airman sailed above viewing a reading the terrain like a map.”

“Yanks in Cochem smoking German pipes of peace.”

American soldiers at camp in France, 1918.

“Danger for gas attacks was impressed on our men by every means in order to enforce obedience to the army orders concerning the carrying and wearing of gas masks. This exhibition was staged for the benefit of soldiers by Maj. Evarts Tracy, C. E. In 1918 from 20 to 30 per cent of all our battle casualties were due to gas.”

The United States in the Great War, by Willis J. Abbot, 1919.

“The Italians in their mountain lines fought under appalling difficulties. The wounded men had to be lowered down precipices, often more than a thousand feet high, to emergency hospitals or waiting ambulances below. The American Red Cross played a large part in Italy.”

“General Pershing in a typical pose which suggests the force and poise of the man.”

“An arrested Arab sheik voluby protesting his innocence to his impassive captor, a British Tommy, who doesn’t understand a word of his language.”

Why the US Should Unilaterally Eliminate ICBMs

By Taylor Marvin

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev after sign the New START treaty, April, 2010.

Signing the New START treaty. Photo by

In April 2010 Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START nuclear arms control treaty. The treaty, ratified and entered into force this past February, reduced both countries’ levels of deployed nuclear weapons to numbers not seen since the 1950s. However, American support for the treaty was not universal – despite endorsements by George H.W. Bush and six former Republican Secretaries of State, conservative lawmakers and pundits alike rushed to attack New START as a threat to US security and appeasement to a resurgent Russia. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was especially critical of the accord, claiming in a Washington Post op-ed that “the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated” and that the treaty could be President Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet.” Despite this strident opposition the New START treaty was ratified, ushering in a new era in strategic arms limitations.

The ratification of the New START agreement was a victory for nuclear arms control advocates. It should not, however, be the end of efforts to reduce stockpiles of nuclear arms: in addition to the 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warhead limit mandated by New START, both Russia and the US currently stockpile thousands of tactical nuclear warheads – weapons designed for attacking military targets not covered by New START — and maintain thousands more warheads in storage. Other nuclear powers field hundreds of their own warheads. Though the threat of nuclear war has declined since the end of the Cold War, as long as large numbers of nuclear missiles remain armed the threat of an accident or misunderstanding escalating into a nuclear exchange that ends human civilization remains. The United States should continue to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear disarmament has long been a goal of progressives around the world. However, their efforts are often hampered by an unwillingness to recognize the deep structural incentives that encourage the preservation of the nuclear status quo. Anti-nuclear activists are too often unwilling to offer any detailed arguments about which specific weapons systems should be cut, and often seem to feel that by recognizing that nuclear weapons have some degree of strategic value compromises their deep moral opposition to their existence. This is unfortunate – if anti-weapons activists are unable or unwilling to offer detailed arguments in favor of specific arms control proposals, their laudable mission won’t be successful.

Progressives in the US and Russia must continue to argue for further bilateral arms control treaties that reduce both countries’ number of nuclear weapons. However, the United States should also take the revolutionary step of eliminating intercontinental ballistic missiles, a nuclear delivery system that plays a key role in America’s nuclear force. Though we should encourage Russia to do the same, US lawmakers should be prepared to make these unprecedented cuts unilaterally. This is a rational strategy that would increase global security, lower US defense costs and dramatically improve international perceptions of the US, all while not compromising American safety. The end of the Cold War is an enormous opportunity to defuse what’s still the greatest threat to human civilization. We shouldn’t let fear prevent us from taking it.

The Nuclear Triad System

Both the US and Russian nuclear arsenals are split between three distinct delivery systems in an arrangement termed the ‘nuclear triad’. At the dawn of the nuclear age, the only vehicles available to deliver nuclear bombs into enemy territory were large aircraft. As tensions between the USSR and its onetime Western allies began to escalate in the aftermath of World War II, the USSR, US and UK all invested in large fleets of intercontinental range strategic bomber aircraft capable of penetrating deep into enemy airspace in the event of a nuclear war. However, by late 1950s advances in surface-to-air missiles made it increasingly apparent that bomber aircraft would have difficulty surviving long enough to deliver their nuclear payloads.  While this revelation led to the development of more technologically advanced and survivable strategic bomber aircraft and autonomous nuclear cruise missiles that enabled strategic bombers to hang back from heavily defensed targets, it also encouraged the US and USSR to develop missiles with intercontinental ranges able to carry nuclear warheads across the planet in minutes. These ICBMs – intercontinental ballistic missiles – heralded a revolutionary shift in the Cold War calculus of nuclear destruction. Unlike relatively slow bomber aircraft, a mass exchange of ICMBs kill a significant portion of humanity in minutes, and apart from the wild-eyed, technologically infeasible missile defense schemes of the 1980s ICBMs defied all hope of being intercepted or destroyed before they reached their targets. Paradoxically, the almost incomprehensible destructive power of these new weapons stabilized tensions between the USSR and US, and likely prevented the Cold War from escalating into World War III. Because it was unlikely that any side could prevent an opponent’s ICBMs from reaching their targets both adversaries knew that any war would be unwinnable, removing any incentive for a preemptive strike.

However, the first generation of ICBMs were not entirely effective. Early ICBMs were large and delicate, limitations that forced them to be stored in fixed silos, meaning that both the Americans and Russians knew the exact locations of their adversary’s missiles. In the early years of the Cold War this was not a fatal deficiency, because early ICBMs were not accurate enough to target enemy missiles. However, rapid advances in ICBM guidance systems soon made targeting and destroying enemy missiles on the ground a realistic possibility. Both the US and USSR assigned large numbers of their ICBMs to the counterforce mission – destroying enemy nuclear forces and their command and control infrastructure – rather than the more traditional countervalue mission – destroying an enemy’s cities. A country capable of destroying the bulk of its opponent’s nuclear weapons on the ground possessed what was referred to as ‘first strike capability’: the ability to launch a surprise attack without suffering retaliation.

The advent of counterforce capabilities was destabilizing because it created a tempting incentive for a preemptive strike – because the side that launched their missiles first in a crisis had the advantage, both sides had an incentive to escalate any crisis to Armageddon. Because the flight time of these missiles is measured in minutes, by the time one side detected the enemy’s missiles launching they would have only minutes before their own missiles were destroyed on the ground. In a crisis this meant that both sides had the incentive to strike first, rather than risk their enemy making the decisive first move.

Though the advent of counterforce capabilities did destabilize the Cold War, it also introduced the possibility of limited nuclear war. While early nuclear war planners had assumed that any nuclear war would immediately escalate to targeting cities, a purely counterforce exchange would spare population centers, dramatically lowering casualties and potentially allowing for human civilization to survive a nuclear war. However, it’s worth remembering that even a pure counterforce strike would be unimaginably destructive: a US strike against a single group of Chinese ICBM silos would cause upwards of 20 million casualties [1]. A less restricted counterforce exchange – for example, one between the US and Russia – could kill millions more. The high civilian casualties inherent to even limited counterforce strike makes it hard to believe that a counterforce exchange would not escalate to a full scale war.

Russians and American engineers worked furiously to reduce the vulnerability of their countries’ nuclear forces. Early efforts to reduce vulnerability to a devastating counterforce first strike ranged from the practical step of hardening ICBM silos against anything but a direct nuclear strike to more dangerous schemes, like the US 1960s effort to keep B-52 bombers armed with live nuclear bombs in the air at all times to prevent a surprise Russian attack from destroying them on the ground (this scheme was abandoned after a series of accidental crashes terrifyingly resulted in the temporary loss of live nuclear bombs). However, other technological advancements more effectively reduced missile vulnerability. By the end of the 1960s ICBMs were smaller and powered by stable solid fuel rockets, meaning they could be stored fueled in very heavily armored underground silos and launched at literally minutes warning. Similarly, in the early 1960s the US and later USSR successfully deployed ballistic missiles that could be launched from a submerged submarine. While early submarine launched ballistic missiles – SLBMs – lacked the range to strike targets deep within the US or USSR, by the 1970s SLBMs were capable of the full countervalue mission.

The value of a submarine launched ballistic missile were obvious – unlike land based missiles, submarines were mobile and, with the advent in the 1950s of nuclear propulsion that allowed submarines to remain deep underwater for months, increasingly undetectable. Nuclear powered submarines capable of carrying dozens of SLBMs could lurk off enemy coastlines with impunity, allowing them to launch their nuclear weapons at close range and with little warning. Unlike land-based ICBMs, a preemptive first strike had no possibility of destroying SLBMs before a reprisal could be launched. With the introduction of SLBMs, the possibility of a survivable nuclear war largely vanished. While the USSR and US were the first to introduce nuclear SLBMs, the UK, France, and China soon introduced their own missile systems, and India is expected to field one by 2015. Additionally, the Israeli Navy is believed to possess a submarine nuclear deterrence in the form of shorter range submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles.

However, unlike land-based ICBMs smaller SLBMs were never accurate enough for the counterforce mission. Both the US and USSR reserved their SLBMs for the ‘second strike’ mission that would annihilate the cities of any opponent foolish enough to launch a nuclear attack, while a large portion of ICBM forces were tasked with destroying their opponents own ICBMs. The total destruction SLBMs guaranteed to inflict on any nuclear aggressor was referred to as ‘mutually assured destruction’ – or, fittingly, MAD. The introduction of SLBMs capable of guaranteeing MAD stabilized the Cold War by definitively removing any incentive to launch a nuclear attack no matter the circumstances – for both the US and USSR, war was the worst case scenario.

US ICBM test launch. DoD photo.

These three classes of weapons – nuclear bombs and cruise missiles carried by strategic aircraft, land-based ICBMs, and SLBMs – make up the nuclear deterrence ‘triad’. Not all nuclear powers maintain a full triad. Because of the high cost of developing sophisticated SLBMs and the dedicated submarines to carry them, Israel only fields a short range cruise missile-born submarine based deterrent to complement its Jericho III land-based ballistic missile. Smaller, densely settle countries like France and the UK do not choose to field ICBMs due to the land requirements and cost of large ICBM bases (the US and Russia all base their ICBM forces in the sparsely settled open prairie and steppe), preferring to base their nuclear deterrent completely on SLBMs. Similarly, the high costs and limited everyday utility of long-range strategic bomber aircraft make them unpractical for smaller nuclear powers, many which only field tactical aircraft (in common usage, fighter aircraft) capable of delivering nuclear weapons over short distances rather than dedicated strategic bombers. Because of its high cost and the limited utility of nuclear triad redundancy, today only three countries maintain a full nuclear triad: the US, Russia, and China, though the People’s Liberation Army Air Force lacks the in-air refueling infrastructure to give their Xian H-6 strategic bombers true intercontinental capability.

The nuclear triad’s massive redundancy was its key advantage during the Cold War – while both the US and USSR had some incentive to strike first and destroy their rival, the triad system’s redundancy, varied delivery platforms and large number of individual weapons guaranteed that even if hit by a devastating first strike, a nuclear power would still retain the capability to retaliate. This redundancy was a key part of US nuclear doctrine: US nuclear planners required that each leg of the triad be capable of destroying the USSR independently of the other two. In this way the triad system was an important moderating influence on Cold War rivalry. However, the triad system also owed its existence to less defensible rationales. In the United States, after the development of the atomic bomb the Air Force had a monopoly on the strategic bombers needed to deliver early nuclear weapons, and later on ICBMs – a monopoly that marginalized other services. To counter this perceived deficiency, the US Navy lobbied for its own nuclear forces. In the late 1940s, before the invention of workable intercontinental ballistic missiles, US admirals vehemently argued for the construction of an extremely large class of aircraft carriers capable of launching the large strategic bombers required to carry early nuclear weapons. Air Force officials rightly perceived this as an explicit effort to end the Air Force’s monopoly on nuclear weapons, and bitterly opposed the construction of the USS United States supercarrier, which was canceled in 1949. Despite this setback, the shrinking size of nuclear weapons soon allowed the Navy to fly nuclear-armed aircraft off conventional aircraft carriers, and the Navy was later allowed to obtain its own SLBM deterrence force. While the nuclear triad’s redundancy did have its strategic advantages, its emergence was partially due to  interservice bureaucratic rivalries.

Competition between the US and USSR also contributed to the supremacy of the triad system. Unlike the smaller nuclear powers, both US and USSR held rival positions of leadership in the internationally community. Maintaining these bipolar leadership positions made keeping up appearances extremely important, and both the US and USSR made great efforts to match each other’s technological and social developments. When the Soviets launched the successful Sputnik satellite in 1957, the US launched a crash program to launch their own spacecraft as quickly as possible. Similarly, despite the dubious economics of building a supersonic passenger airliner, when the British and French began the high profile Concorde program (which never became anywhere near profitable) the Soviets immediately began work on their own supersonic airliner, the similarly unsuccessful Tu-144. Of course, the Cold War balance of power wasn’t altered by prestige projects like civilian space programs or glamorous supersonic airliners – the civilian technological arms race between the superpowers was only a proxy for their more serious military arms race. Just as the US and USSR strove to match each other’s civilian prestige projects, they faced an even more urgent need to counter their opponent’s military advancements. This continuous one-upmanship extended to the nuclear arms race, and contributed to the proliferation of a bewildering variety of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. While the triad system was not strictly necessary to mounting an effective nuclear deterrent, for the superpowers – unlike smaller nuclear-armed states – it was a necessity to maintaining their prestige and international image.

Modern Nuclear Forces

In the aftermath of the Cold War the risk of nuclear war has declined considerable. That doesn’t mean that the US nuclear arsenal is worthless – the American nuclear force still provides the deterrence that is the ultimate guarantee of US safety. However, it is hard to argue that the size and variety of US nuclear forces is strictly necessary in today’s world. To its credit, the United States has aggressively reduced its nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War: today the US fields roughly 1,800 deployed warheads out of a total inventory of 8,500, down from a 1960 high of over 30,000. However, despite these reductions the US and Russia still maintain large numbers of nuclear weapons deployed across their triad systems. China, the only other major power to maintain a full triad, also deploys a large number of weapons, though much less than Russia or the US.

US Deployed Nuclear Forces:

Under the terms of the New START Treaty, this number is required to drop to 1,550 by 2017. Currently, deployed US strategic nuclear weapons are distributed among the following delivery systems:

Trident II test launch. DoD photo.

– 1,152 warheads are deployed on 288 SLBMs. The US Navy’s current SLBM, the UGM-133 Trident II, carries 4 independently targeted warheads, explaining the discrepancy between the number of warheads and launch vehicles. Importantly, the Trident II’s 4 warheads is a treaty-imposed (SORT) limitation – the UGM-113 is physically capable of carrying up to 14 reentry vehicles. The US SLBM force is currently deployed on 14 Ohio class submarines.

– 500 warheads on 450 LGM-30G Minuteman ICBMs. Unlike its SLBMs, the US largely refrains from fielding ICBMs carrying multiple warheads, despite the fact that the START II treaty banning MIVR missiles never entered force. The US ICBM force is currently deployed in three clusters in North Dakota, Montana, and one split between Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska.

– Less than 150 aircraft-delivered warheads. While the US possessed roughly 300 nuclear bombs, most are in storage. Only about 60 aircraft are currently tasked with carrying these weapons, making US aircraft-delivered weapons of negligible importance in an actual full-scale nuclear war. It is important to remember that despite the limited size of the American strategic bomber fleet the US’s aircraft-delivered nuclear arsenal is still capable of killing most of humanity.

Russian Deployed Nuclear Forces:

Despite the disclosure requirements in the New START Treaty, determining the exact composition of deployed Russian nuclear forces is difficult. New START documentation lists 1,537 strategic offensive arms, likely comprised of:

– Roughly 160 SLMBs mounting roughly 576 warheads [2]. All Russian SLBMs are modern and highly capable, and are capable of hitting targets in the continental US from Russian territorial waters. Russian SLBMs typically carry more warheads than their American counterparts: the RSM-54 Sineva (NATO reporting name SS-N-23 Skiff) carries 10 MIRVed warheads, and the RSM-56 Bulava (NATO reporting name SS-NX-32), currently under development, will carry up to 10 warheads.

R-36 (NATO reporting name SS-18 Satan) test launch. Image by ISC Kosmotras (

– Roughly 295 ICBMs mounting roughly 1,007 warheads. Russian ICBMs are advanced and capable of immediate launch in a crisis. Unlike US LGM-30 Minutemans, Russia fields mobile ICBMs capable of being transported throughout the country, making a counterforce strike against Russian ICBMs extremely difficult. Russia continues to mount the maximum number of warheads possible on their ICBMs.

-At most 844 airborne nuclear weapons on roughly 76 strategic bombers.

Because Russia’s currently deployed weapons fall under New START’s 1,550 limit, Russia is not treaty bound to reduce its deployed forces by 2017.

Chinese Deployed Nuclear Forces:

Four decades of arms control treaties have forced the US and Russian governments to be reasonably transparent about their nuclear forces. Chinese nuclear forces are much more secretive, meaning that estimates attempting to quantify the Chinese nuclear triad are very inexact:

-China currently fields 10 to 14 SLBMs [3]. However, the current weapon, the JL-1, is short ranged and is not capable of reaching the continental United States from the western Pacific Ocean [4]. A more capable SLBM, the JL-2, is close to entering service.

-54 to 62 DF-3, Df-4, DF-5 ballistic missiles [5] that are nearing obsolesce. All of these missiles are liquid fueled, making them unable to be launched with little warning. Only the DF-5 is capable of striking targets in the continental United States.[6] China also fields fewer than 30 modern DF-31 and longer range DF-31A missiles [7].

-China is estimated to currently possess roughly 150 nuclear gravity bombs [8]. People’s Liberation Army Air Force strategic aircraft are much less capable than their US or Russian counterparts, and are incapable of intercontinental operations.

While the US and Russia are no longer at each other’s throats, every additional nuclear missile deployed increases the risk of a misunderstanding or accident leading to an unintended holocaust. This risk is real, and the costs of even a limited nuclear war would be truly unimaginable. While the US and Russia’s efforts to diplomatically reduce their deployed nuclear weapons are laudable, they aren’t enough. The US should take further steps to reduce its nuclear forces.

Eliminating ICBMs

Despite its troubled road through the US Senate, the New START treaty did demonstrate that there is still enthusiasm for arms reduction in the US and Russia. However, this isn’t enough. While still valuable, strategic arms treaties are an extremely conservative way to reduce the ever present threat of excessive nuclear arms. The United States should take the more dramatic step of eliminating one leg of its nuclear triad.

This would be an unprecedented advance in arms control, and would uproot the stasis of gradual treaty arms reduction. In addition to reducing the size of the US nuclear arsenal, such a dramatic action would win the United States enormous international goodwill and respect. This would also fit into the US government’s idealistic aspirations – only two years ago President Obama proclaimed that “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Eliminating a leg of the US nuclear triad is a laudable contribution to this worthy and attainable goal.

But which leg should the US eliminate? At Slate, defense reporter Fred Kaplan has convincingly argued that Russia and the US should begin phasing out ICBMs:

“Is anybody thinking about the idea of phasing out the ICBMs? These are the weapons that, over the decades, have spurred first-strike temptations to begin with. They are at once the most accurate and the most vulnerable nuclear weapons. That is, they are capable of destroying, and being destroyed by, the other side’s ICBMs. In other words, their very existence creates temptations of pre-emptive strike in the event of a crisis. They are the weapons, in fact, that generated the nuclear arms race of the 1960s to 1980s. Now that the Cold War is kaput and the notion of first-strike scenarios more improbable than ever, let’s get rid of them—rather than plan to build more of them—while the climate is clear.”

This argument makes sense. ICBMs are destabilizing, the counterforce mission’s dubious deterrence value makes them irrelevant to US security, and no one believes in first strike scenarios anymore anyway. Giving up American ICBMs would not decrease the US’s second strike capabilities, and would preserve America’s ability to credibly deter potential adversaries.

But why limit our aspirations to only one leg of the nuclear triad? SLBMs are the obvious choice to preserve: their invulnerability and second strike capability is the basis of MAD and the nuclear peace. However, unfortunately for nuclear idealists there are also good reasons for preserving US airborne nuclear weapons.

Nuclear warheads carried by strategic bomber aircraft make up only a small fraction of the US nuclear arsenal – under New START, the US fields less than 300 aircraft-launched nuclear bombs, most in storage. However, aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons offer flexibility unavailable to other delivery systems. Unlike ballistic missiles, manned bomber aircraft can be recalled or redirected, giving policymakers an extra margin of safety in a crisis. Similarly, bomber aircraft can be deployed without inadvertently starting a nuclear war. Arguably the greatest nuclear threat of the 21st century comes from small rouge nations possessing a handful of warheads like North Korea or potentially Iran, rather than great powers like Russia or China. US deterrence strategy towards these states relies on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation for destructive actions. However, ICBMs or SLBMs are not suited for this mission, because when a ballistic missile is launched it is not immediately obvious where it’s being targeted (while a missile’s target can be determined by its ballistic trajectory, this trajectory is not apparent until several minutes into the missile’s flight. A nervous observer a credible incentive to launch a retaliatory strike as soon as a potential enemy launch is detected, before the target is apparent). Even a justifiable US nuclear launch against a rouge state in a crisis (laying aside the arguable morality of any retaliatory nuclear strike) could easily be misinterpreted by China, Russia, or any other nuclear power as a preliminary strike against them, giving them enormous incentive to launch their own missiles against the US before they could be destroyed on the ground. While this scenario is unlikely, the inherent panic and confusion of any crisis scenario where the US is seriously deliberating a nuclear strike against a rogue state makes it much more likely. However, aircraft-launched weapons have much less room for misinterpretation – an aircraft’s destination is visible to anyone with the technological resources to detect it, and an nuclear airstrike’s slow speed compared to a ballistic missile make a panicked misunderstanding less likely.

Given that the technology required to manufacture nuclear weapons is likely to become available to more and more small states in the next century, deterring rouge states like North Korea and Iran, rather than superpowers, is likely to be the primary mission of the US nuclear deterrence in the future. This justifies the preservation of US air-delivered nuclear weapons and strategic bombers. Just as the US will continue to rely on its SLBM force to deter advanced powers like Russia and China, the strategic nuclear bomber force will deter small nuclear-armed states.

As Fred Kaplan points out, eliminating US ICBMs would not meaningfully compromise the American nuclear deterrent: while eliminating ICBMs would sacrifice much of the counterforce mission, the US would retain an iron-clad second-strike capability in the form of SLBMs and flexible nuclear response capability in deployed strategic and tactical bomber aircraft. However, as New START’s tumultuous road through the US Senate illustrates, even mild nuclear disarmament in not popular in some circles of American government. The USAF shares this opposition to nuclear cuts, especially to its ICBMs. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley emphasized this point in a recent speech before the Air Force Association, strenuously arguing against nearly all potential cuts to Air Force funding and mission and reiterating “as the U.S. nuclear arsenal gets smaller and the number and diversity of nuclear-armed powers increases, the flexibility inherent in our nuclear triad becomes even more important. We must maintain the nuclear triad.” However, like most criticism of cutting or eliminating entirely US ICBMs, this isn’t a compelling argument. Yes, the nuclear triad is more flexible than a nuclear force based on only two legs. However, unless proponents of the triad can explain how much marginal safety ICMBs contribute to the US nuclear deterrence and whether this marginal gains outweighs their costs, this isn’t a serious argument.

Eliminating US ICBMs faces three main obstacles: Republican aversion to all arms reduction, domestic interservice rivalries, and likely Russian refusal to make reciprocal reductions, which is sure to dampen US enthusiasm for such a drastic disarmament.

The first obstacle is perhaps the most manageable. While Republicans are sure to loudly proclaim that any reduction in US nuclear forces, much less a wholesale abandonment of venerable ICBMs, is appeasement and a gross threat to US security, the truth is that even without ICBMs the US will still enjoy a comfortable margin of nuclear security in the other legs of the triad. As noted above, the US enjoys a commanding SLBM lead over Russia. Because SLBMs are the basic of mutually assured destruction, this lead is an iron-clad guarantee of US security. Additionally, while aircraft-born nuclear weapons are the smallest leg of the US triad, the American strategic bomber force is far more capable that Russia’s. The mainstay of the Russian strategic bomber fleet – venerable Tu-95 turboprop aircraft – would likely have trouble penetrating US defenses in an open conflict, and Russia only fields 13 (as of 2011) modern and more capable Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ aircraft. This US lead is even more pronounced over the Chinese, the only nuclear power to retain dedicated strategic bomber aircraft into the 21st century. In contrast the US dedicates 60 B-52 and B-2 aircraft to the nuclear mission, and retains highly capable B-1 Lancer aircraft which despite having their nuclear capability removed in 1995 could potentially be refitted for the nuclear strike mission. B-2 strategic bombers — whose stealth technology dramatically increases their survivability and capability — are a particularly important, and unique, US asset. The relative strength of the US strategic bomber force is an important counter to arguments that eliminating US ICBMs is dangerous. Even without the ICBM force, in combination with US SLBMs US air delivered nuclear weapons would preserve America’s capability to deliver a flexible nuclear response with strong deterrent value.

Additionally, preserving the bulk of the US airborne nuclear arsenal addresses another potential barrier to unilateral ICBM disarmament: domestic interservice rivalries. Even if the US completely eliminated its ICBM force the US Air Force would still retain a nuclear capability. Though the prestige and relevance of the nuclear mission has declined precipitously since its inception during the 1940s and 1950s military organizations, like any bureaucracy, are loath to voluntarily give up power and influence. However, the preservation of the airborne nuclear strike mission would preserve some measure of nuclear relevance in the USAF, giving lawmakers a tool to allay Air Force leaders’ opposition to eliminating USAF ICBMs. Civilian leaders could also leverage Air Force concerns over budget cuts to win acceptance for reducing the USAF nuclear force. While a minor component of total USAF spending, maintaining the nuclear deterrence force is still costly, accounting for an estimated $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2012, or roughly 3% of the total Air Force budget [9]. LGM-30 ICBM total operations and maintenance outlays estimated to increase by $19.5 million in 2012 [10]. Given the Pentagon’s tightening fiscal horizon, freeing up funds devoted to ICBM operations for more prestigious projects could entice Air Force leaders to refrain from protesting retiring the ICBM force.

The last obstacle is the highest. US domestic pressures will make it very difficult to eliminate ICBMs unless the Russians – still our principal nuclear adversaries, despite rising concern about China’s military ambitions – make matching cuts. This is understandable. Just as 1960s fears about a (ironically non-existent) “missile gap” between US and Soviet ICBM capabilities helped elect John F. Kennedy, modern Americans will be deeply wary of American disarmament that isn’t matched by the Russians. To most Americans, ICBMs are the weapons of nuclear war and it isn’t widely understood that land-based ballistic missiles are a smaller leg of the nuclear triad – in the popular consciousness, eliminating ICBMs is equivalent to abandoning America’s entire nuclear shield. If the Russians decline to make matching reductions, it will be very difficult to convince American voters that eliminating ICBMs is a rational next step in disarmament.

Unfortunately, the Russians are unlikely to eliminate their own ICBMs. Russian strategic nuclear forces are much more biased towards ICBMs than America’s, where SLBM-born warheads outnumber ICBMs by more than 2 to 1. Russia fields roughly 570 SLBM-carried warheads on 160 missiles, compared to approximately 1,000 warheads on 290 ICBMs. This means that the Russian military would sacrifice a much larger portion of its total nuclear forces by eliminating ICBMs. Similarly, the US fields more ballistic missile submarines than the Russians: while the US SLBM force is currently carried on 14 Ohio class submarines, the Russian fleet currently operates only 5 Delta III and 7 Delta IV class ballistic missile submarines. Exacerbating this imbalance, the Delta classes are nearing retirement, and are scheduled to be replaced by only 8 of the upcoming Borei class (one of which has already entered service), which is admittedly much more advanced than the Deltas it is slated to replace.

This imbalance is partially due to historical reasons – as a continental power, the USSR never invested as much in its navy as the US did – but is also due to chronically strained Russian defense funding. Ballistic missile submarines are extremely expensive. The upcoming Russian Borei class has a unit cost of $890 million, and the US Ohio class $2 billion. SLBMs are also more expensive than their simpler land-based cousins. The unit cost the American LGM-30 Minuteman is $7 million, while the cost of the UGM-133 Trident II is $30.9 million. Russian missiles show a similar price difference. This price difference shouldn’t be surprising: SLBMs are launched from underwater and must be compact enough to fit within the hull of a submarine, making them that much more difficult to engineer. Even today, SLBMs are difficult to produce: Russia’s “troubled” RSM-56 Bulava, currently under development, has failed 6 of its 16 flight tests. This isn’t a knock against Russian engineering prowess: it’s a fairly typical record for ambitious missile development programs.

Eliminating their ICBM force and maintain nuclear parity with the US at New START levels would require the Russians to field roughly 120 SLBMs mounting 540 individual warheads. Russia is unlikely to commit to such an expensive restructuring of its nuclear forces. Of course, the commitment problem caused by the US/Russian SLBM imbalance could be addressed by a future arms limitation treaty that limited strategic arms to fewer than 600 warheads, bringing US SLBMs in line with Russian arsenals. This isn’t hopelessly optimistic – it’s worth remembering that the 1,550 warhead limit mandated by New START is a dramatic decline from the 6,000 limit of the 1991 START I treaty, so further reductions are possible in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way around the Russian’s understandable reluctance to reorient their strategic nuclear forces – there’s simply no way US activists can convenience Russian leaders to spend billions dramatically increasing the size of their SLBM force in exchange for retiring the ICBM Strategic Rocket Forces. However, activists do have control over the domestic US reaction to understandable Russian intransigence. Republican hawks and many security-minded Democrats are sure to insist that the US will not deactivate its ICBM force if the Russians are unwilling to do the same. However, a bilateral disarmament is not strictly necessary. It’s difficult to argue that the United States would be less secure if it gave up its ICBMs and the Russians and Chinese did not.  By eliminating ICBMs the US would give up counterforce capability, but this really wouldn’t change the nuclear equilibrium between the US and Russia. Russia would have a monopoly on the counterforce capability to destroy US land-based missiles, but the US wouldn’t have vulnerable ICBMs in the first place. Both powers would retain a second strike capability in SLBMs and hardened Russian ICBMs, and a limited strategic bomber second strike capability. Eliminating US ICBM forces would lessen the change of an accidental war and reduce US military spending while preserving nuclear weapons’ deterrence value. Unfortunately, as New START demonstrated even moderate and objectively conventional arms control measures have trouble avoiding increasingly knee-jerk Republican obstructionism. However, that’s no reason not to press ahead. There’s a strong argument for unilaterally eliminated US ICBMs.

[1] Federation of American Scientists/Natural Resources Defense Council, “Simulated US and Chinese Nuclear Strikes”, 184.
[2]  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Russian Nuclear Forces 2011”,  68.
[3] The Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Chinese Nuclear Forces and US Nuclear War Planning”, 38.
[4] Naval War College, “China’s Nuclear Force Modernization” , 16.
[5] The Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Chinese Nuclear Forces and US Nuclear War Planning”, 38.
[6] Naval War College, “China’s Nuclear Force Modernization” , 15.
[7] US Air Force Air and Space Intelligence Center, “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threats 2009”, 21.
[8] Naval War College, “China’s Nuclear Force Modernization” , 15.
[9]  Department of the Air Force, “FY 2012 Budget Overview”, 34.
[10] Department of the Air Force. “Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget Estimates Operations and Maintenance, Vol. I”, 36.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in ClickRally Magazine.

This post has been edited to correct several numerical errors (February, 2014). I apologize for the oversight.

Class Conflict, Economic Stagnation, and the Road to Argentina’s Dirty War

By Taylor Marvin

The 1976 junta, architects of the Dirty War.

The 1976 junta, architects of the Dirty War.

Argentina’s Dirty War is one of history’s great tragedy. Between 1976 and 1983 Argentina’s military government killed between 9,000 and 30,000 Argentines in an effort to counter the perceived threat of leftist social activism, a crime supported by the United States government. Despite its infamy, the causes of the Dirty War are not clearly understood. This uncertainty is characteristic of the Dirty War– despite the passage of nearly thirty years it is difficult to even clearly say what, exactly, the Dirty War was. To some degree, it was a civil war – the junta orchestrating the violence certainly saw themselves as part of an existential conflict against internal communism and anarchy. However, this label does not fully express the history of the violence. Despite the violent aspirations of leftist and Peronist groups, the non-state actors that both opposed and supported the conservative junta never approached the organizational and military capacity necessary for serious action against the government. In this way the Dirty War was much more similar to a mass breakdown of civil society that sparked organized governmental violence against the Argentine population, and the Dirty War possibly shares more with the chaotic French or Chinese Cultural Revolutions than the more organized, bipolar conflict typically termed “civil wars”.

What is interesting about the Dirty War isn’t its brutality – its torture and fear were symptoms that defined 20th century state failure across Latin America. Instead, what is interesting about Argentina’s descent into chaos is that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to have been predictable. Despite its deep structural problems, Argentina in 1970 was a fairly wealthy country with a developed and relatively educated urban population, largely free from the grinding rural poverty that characterized its northern Latin American counterparts. Similarly, despite frequent social unrest is seems reasonable to have expected Argentina’s relatively high consumption level to have moderated social unrest. However, there were signs that Argentine society in 1970 stood on the edge of a precipice. The Peronist movement of the 1950s and 1960s had overturned the established Argentine political equilibrium, and Argentina’s five military coups by 1970 were high, but not exceptional, by Latin American standards. However, what made Argentina exceptional was its extreme social inequality, which bred a class conflict whose violence and instability was extreme even by Latin American standards. This class conflict created the conditions that allowed Argentine society to become progressively more unstable throughout the 20th century, and created the economic conditions that encouraged social divisions to explode into the chaos and violence of the Dirty War.

Argentine society was founded on social divisions. Immediately after independence, Argentina was segregated between residents of the coastal cities and the interior provinces. This divide was rooted in the dramatic social and economic difference between urban Argentina and the mostly rural provinces, and expressed itself in the long dispute over the future of the Argentine state. Coastal urban liberal elites, or unitarios, believed that the Argentine government should be highly centralized and dominated by the growing capital city of Buenos Aires. Conservatives, or Federalists, disagreed with the Liberal Party vision for the future of Argentina and instead advocated a federal, decentralized government where most power rested in rural regional governorships. The unitario-Federalist conflict sparked repeated civil wars between rural and urban factions, with control of Argentina alternating between both sides throughout the early to mid-19th century.

The enmity of this conflict was intense. The Liberal elite saw the rural caudillos — rural warlords — and their guacho, or cowboy, supporters who strongly supported federalism as racially inferior barbarians who would have to be exterminated before Argentina could attain prosperity. Even in the decades immediately after independence Argentina’s urban and coastal populations was primarily ethnically European, and urban authorities were adamant about their desire that Argentina would grow into a culturally European state. While the exact ethnic origin of the gauchos is debated, it was commonly accepted in contemporary Argentine society that the gauchos drew much of their ethnic and cultural heritage from the native populations of the Argentine pampas, and were much less culturally European than the costal urban population. Because of the guachos’ indigenous cultural origin and habit of hunting cattle without the permission of the central government, liberal politicians typically viewed gauchos, and other rural workers, as no better than criminals. This hostility was clearly articulated by the liberal politician and later president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in his 1845 book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism that framed the conflict between unitarios and Federalists in terms of a universal battle between savagery and the civilizing influence of the cities. While Sarmiento’s views were extreme, they were by no means unusual; most Unitarian politicians saw the entire rural class of Argentine workers as a tangible threat to the future prosperity of Argentina. The extreme hostility of the unitario-Federalist conflict would become a defining trait of Argentine class conflict: conservatives of the 1970s likely saw their working class political opponents in the same terms as the barbarian threat Sarmiento perceived. Despite its geographic origins, elements of classism were pervasive in the conflict between the unitarios and the Federalists. Gaucho resentment of the wealthy coastal elite and deep racial animosity between the two sides raised the intensity of the conflict, and contributed to its escalation into frequent open warfare.

Open warfare was common during the era of the unitario-Federalist conflict.

Open civil war was common during the era of the unitario-Federalist conflict.

The unitario-Federalist conflict waned by the 1860s. Federalist leaders and their rural gaucho supporters gradually became less politically influential, and a series of unitario Liberal Presidents successfully shaped the Argentine state into a centralized government based in Buenos Aires. Despite the consolidation of the Argentine government, the social divide between workers and wealthy elites remained. However, their political identities shifted to ones drawn from purely class rather than geographic divides. The newly dominant wealthy – mostly located in the rapidly growing capital but also in the provinces – held mostly conservative political views, while liberal leaders among the expanding poor and working classes agitated for social change.

The conservative elite that grew out of the wealthy unitario Liberals were able to dominate Argentine politics through a mixture of violence and fraud. While Argentina was nominally a democracy, the secret ballot was not adopted until 1873, making voters vulnerable to intimidation and retaliation for daring to vote against the dominant political force in their town. This vulnerability meant that elections were usually violent, and electoral outcomes in individual polls often depended on which group physically controlled the area. When working class Argentines did vote, their participation in the political process was negated by widespread electoral fraud by the elite. Undisciplined gangs commonly attempted to disrupt voting in political opponents’ districts, and wealthy Argentine politicians, most of them from dominant Porteño families, often organized gangs of thugs or former soldiers to accompany them to the polls and intimidate or disrupt opposition voters. These abuses were the result of systematic fraud by the leaders of the Buenos Aires political machines, and were designed to preserve the oligarchical rule of the wealthy elite despite their numerical disadvantage. Though democratic government theoretically gave the working class the power over elite politicians, the determined effort by wealthy conservatives to undermine and manipulate elections allowed power to remain concentrated in the hands of the Buenos Aires elite. The electoral violence and fraud of the oligarchical era set the standard for later Argentine democracy — though Argentina would remain nominally a democracy, the wealthy elites that emerged from the unitario-Federalist conflict understood that fraud and social oppression were now acceptable political techniques.

Despite dedicated efforts to maintain their control over Argentine society, the era of oligarchical dominance began to crumble in the 1890s. In the aftermath of a prolonged recession caused by decades of economic mismanagement by the oligarchy, working class liberals were able to win significant control over Argentine society from the elites, culminating in the establishment of universal male suffrage in 1912 – a reform that made election fraud by the elite much more difficult – and the democratic overthrow of the oligarchy by the liberal Radical party in the elections of 1916. During Radical Party rule Argentina benefited from a strong global economic environment, and liberal lawmakers supported by the working class and poor were able to make significant social gains. Not coincidently, this period of broadly democratic government coincided with the height of Argentine economic success. After the development of intensive trans-Atlantic trade Argentine agricultural exports to Europe rapidly grew the economy and supported a growing immigrant population. The strength of the export economy – which coincided with a series of world agricultural commodity booms – lasted until the 1929 Great Depression that effectively shut down international trade and devastated the export-dependent Argentine economy. During this era the Argentine economy grew to become one of the largest and the world, and despite chronically high inequality Argentine workers did see their incomes rise. Of course, despite the success of Argentine democracy civil discourse remained violent – anarchist attacks against the ruling oligarchy were common during this period – but the type of large scale political violence that characterized the earlier caudillo, and later Peronist and Dirty War eras was absent. Despite the large class divide between the oligarchy and the labor-based Radical Party the transition to democratic rule in 1916 was peaceful.

However, immediately after the crash of 1929 the democratically elected Radical government was overthrown by a military coup that returned the liberal turned conservative elite to power, and initiated the oppression and corruption of what became known as the ‘Infamous Decade.’ Conservative elites and their supporters in the military, alarmed by the Radical Party-era success of liberal, working class politicians resorted to widespread violence and political oppression to keep working class leaders out of power.

Despite this oppression and lack of durable political institutions, Argentine society remained largely civil in the post-unitario era. Transfers of power between liberals and conservatives in the oligarchy and Radical eras were not especially destructive, though they were not peaceful or orderly. While the unitario-Federalist conflict of the 19th century repeatedly led to open civil war, the conflict between the conservative oligarchy and working class liberals was not nearly as violent. This relatively calm period ended with the arrival of Juan Perón. The emergence of the Peronist movement in the 1940s fundamentally changed Argentine political culture by shaping working class anger over the continued economic stagnation of the 1930s and poor standards of living into a highly organized political force that unified the liberal and conservative poor into a coalition able to challenge elite rule. This coalition was unprecedented; much of the working class’ chronic failure to unseat the political hegemony of the conservative right was due to its inability to unite behind a common political movement. By building a political message based on populism and personal charisma rather than a defined political philosophy, Army officer Juan Perón was able to unite the competing political and labor movements of the working class into a unified block.

While the Peróns’ personal charisma was an important part of their political success, they also benefited from the deteriorating social and economic conditions that had been allowed to fester under the conservative civilian and military rule of the 1930s and early 1940s. The global depression and collapse of the global export market had severely shrunk the Argentine economy, and workers’ real wages plummeted. Rising levels of unemployment were accompanied by increased hostility towards worker rights and organized labor by the conservative government, which further strained Argentine society. The political and social philosophy of Peronism was deeply attractive in this economic environment. Peronism was able to articulate a message of universal citizenship, a concept of nationalistic identity that poor Argentines had been excluded from since independence. The genius of Juan Perón was his ability to take the deep resentment over social exclusion and poverty among poor Argentines and shape it into a common political identity that challenged the continuation of an elite-dominated social society. By making workers’ rights and dignity a central tenant of its philosophy and message, Peronism was able to cement itself as a social force within Argentine society in a way previous political movements – notably the rural Federalism of the guachos – had not.

The Peróns, 1951.

The Peróns, 1951.

However, while the impact of Peronism was unprecedented it was fundamentally a continuation of the class conflict that had divided Argentina since independence. Despite its revolutionary message, Peronism succeeded because it appropriated the same political tools of clientelism and identity politics that had dominated Argentina for generations, tools that had been previously used by both the Conservative and Radical parties. While Peronism irrevocably altered the status quo, it was a product of the same working class discontent that had spawned the Federalists and Radicals. Perón’s charisma and organizational genius were important parts of his rise, but he was not a magician — Peronism’s unprecedented disruption of the Argentine class-politics equilibrium was due more to Argentina’s worsening economic conditions than the man himself.

The arrival of Peronism struck Argentine civil society like a bomb. To the elites, both among the wealthy and the military, the arrival of Peronism was a disaster that threatened the conservative hegemony. Suddenly, the stakes of the unremitting Argentine class conflict were raised. Many wealthy Argentines could not understand this new and unsettling movement among the poor. While the leftist violence of the early 20th century and Radical democratic revolution of 1916 were setbacks for the oligarchy, they did not threaten wealthy Argentines’ positions and privileges at the head of society. The Peronist movement was different. The rhetoric and unprecedented organization of the Peronists threatened the wealthy’s place in society in a way that the Radical Party had been incapable of, and the civilian elite and military feared Perón as much as it despised him. When Perón was overthrown in the military coup of 1955, wealthy elites had no intention of allowing the working class to ever again threaten their place at the head of the Argentine government.

This conservative determination was unsuccessful. Deteriorating social and economic conditions among the Argentine working class and increasing political desperation precipitated Perón’s return from exile in 1973. However, Perón’s return did not improve Argentina’s economic outlook, which continued to collapse through the 1970s. Argentine industry and the formal employment sector began to disintegrate and real income levels fell as inequality rose, an economic decline worsened by ineffective government economic policies. These changes were also accompanied by deteriorating conditions for Argentine workers that retained their jobs. An increase in seasonal workers and short-term contracts increased the uncertainty the Argentine middle class faced, increasing the fear of, as well as actual, inequality. The loss of traditional labor rights and increased explicit exploitation of Argentine workers weakened the perceived affiliation poor Argentines’ had with the state, and rising inequality contributed to increasing polarization of Argentine politics. These conditions worsened under Perón’s administration, and accelerated after his death during the tenure of his third wife and successor Isabel Perón.

As Argentina’s economy spiraled towards collapse Argentine civil society, long strained by it endemic class conflict, began to unravel. The worsening condition of Argentina’s urban poor was exacerbated by government neglect, and at times outright hostility. Popular anger over poverty, obvious inequality and Argentine society’s growing climate of fear and mistrust precipitated the emergence of a variety of armed groups, which ranged from leftists to Peronist-supporting reactionaries.  The overthrow of conservative civilian rule by the military in the late 1960s further radicalized these poor and working class groups, convincing them that armed conflict was necessary for social change. The arrival of violent political fringe groups was if anything seen as an even greater threat to the status quo by the Argentine elite. Argentine civil society stood at the brink of complete collapse.

This environment of political chaos was exacerbated by the disintegration of the organized Peronist movement, which in Perón’s absence became more radical and ideologically splintered. Part of this radicalization was due to a gradual split in the Peronist movement; while the Peronists of the 1940s were a coalition of the left and right-wing poor linked by populism, a violent division in the late 1960s between leftist and conservative elements of the movement diminished the moderating effect of the coalition. This largely unprecedented bridge between the Argentine popular left and right did not survive the disillusionment and political stress of military government, which encouraged radicalization that made the Peronist coalition across ideological divides impossible. Once removed from the umbrella of Peronism, these groups grew more radical and more violent, a processes worsened by Perón’s failure to establish any type of formal succession structure within the movement during his lifetime. The reemergence of organized liberal political violence in the 1970s convinced the Argentine conservative elite that drastic action was required to stamp out the leftists. Elites saw the class conflict of the early 1970s as an issue of survival: after the trauma the Perón presidency the military was not prepared to risk further assaults on the social dominance of the wealthy elite by the poor. In an environment of increasing poverty and radicalized politics any room for civil compromise was quickly disappearing.

Even as late as the early 1970s there was still arguably room for political accommodation. Though the fuse of open civil conflict was lit, democratic reforms could have averted further violent escalation. The second Perón administration managed to united elements of the left and the right and moderated the emerging conflict, but after Perón’s death in 1974 this influence was gone, and open violence began. In the aftermath of Perón’s death reconciliation between the elites and working class activists became impossible, and Perón’s sucessor Isabel Perón was overthrown by the military in 1976. The new military junta immediately escalated the conflict against leftists groups into open government violence against the people, beginning the violence of the Dirty War. This decision was a product of the lingering trauma of Peronism, which caused the military and the elites they represented to severely overestimate the threat posed by a violently angry working class. Despite their lofty ambitions of social change, Argentina’s armed extremist groups were mostly limited to isolated kidnapping and small-scale terrorist attacks , and did not pose the existential threat the military perceived. It was this miscalculation that initiated the excesses of the Dirty War: the lingering psychological trauma of Peronism led elites to believe that they were already trapped an open civil war with the working class that threatened to overwhelm them, and that their survival rested on quickly and decisively destroying working-class leftist groups. When initially unsuccessful, the military rapidly escalated the tactics they were willing to utilize against elements of Argentine society they perceived as undesirable. The unprecedented brutality of the Dirty War grew out of the military’s frustration over its inability to decisively destroy the leftist movement.

The leaders 1976 military government.

The leaders 1976 military government, termed the "National Reorganization Process".

Despite its unprecedented brutality, the Dirty War was fundamentally a continuation of the liberal-conservative class conflict that had defined Argentine society through the 20th century. The conservative National Reorganization Process junta’s criminal violence was motivated by a desire to end this conflict decisively by destroying their liberal ideological opponents among the working class. Leftists groups’ resistance to “capitalism” were explicitly an attack on the wealthy elite, and conservative death squads targeting liberal political activists and trade unionists operated especially freely in the slums. However, despite its similarities to the long-running pattern of Argentine development the Dirty War was far more violent than any other period of political conflict in the 20th century. The legacy of Peronism – which convinced elites that their survival was at stake and working class liberal activists that violence could rapidly provoke social change – and the rising social inequality of 1960s and 1970s created the conditions necessary for a complete collapse of social order. While the core social conditions that led to the violence of the Dirty War were the same as those that had fueled earlier conflicts, by the early 1970s Argentina was an economically stagnant, socially divided society that was permeated by fear and resentment. These conditions created the tinderbox that the political legacies of Peronism, leftist activism and military frustration ignited. While the Dirty War was unprecedented, it was not an aberration – the social divide that created it had been a part of Argentine society throughout the 20th century.

This class conflict that culminated in the Dirty War has become much less influential after the 1983 return to democracy. While class remains an important part of Argentine political and social identity, Argentine society seems unlikely to suffer another violent collapse. Just as economic malaise has precipitated Argentine political unrest, the relative stability of the post-1983 is likely at least partially due to improving economic conditions. The contemporary Argentine economy is clearly comparatively weaker than during the export economy era, especially in comparison to other large economies. However, growth trends are stronger post-1990 than in other years of the post-1930 era. This growth likely has a moderating influence on Argentine politics. The popular anger of Peronism and the disintegration of Argentine society during the Dirty War were at least partially due to the social stress of wage stagnation and increasing inequality. Declining aggregate social stresses in the post-Dirty War period are likely responsible for the decline of class politics in contemporary Argentina. While it remains popular among poor slum residents, today’s Peronist movement has largely shifted its base away from unions and is a significantly less class-based party than the Peronism of the 1940s.

The contemporary moderation of Argentine politics is not wholly due to economic factors. The military lost much of its political power in the aftermath of the return to democracy, and its absence has removed the wealthy conservative elite’s most powerful tool for subverting electoral politics. Nearly all shifts to conservative ascendency in the post-oligarchy era were accomplished by military coups, and the decline of the Argentine military after its disgraceful conduct during the National Reorganization Process significantly lowered the stakes of Argentine politics. Importantly, conflict between political parties has a low likelihood of escalating into a future military takeover.

Together these two factors have largely defused the class conflict that dominated Argentine society. While class is still an important part of Argentine culture and continues to influence politics and personal identity, the divide between the rich and working class seems unlikely to lead to another catastrophic disruption of Argentine civil society.

Auyero, Javier. Poor People’s Politics (Duke, 2000).
Brown, Jonathan C. A Brief History of Argentina (Facts on File, 2010).
Friedman, Benjamin. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (Knopf, 2005).
Gasparini, L., Guillermo Cruce and Leopoldo Tornaroll (2009). “Recent Trends in Income Inequality in Latin America.” Society for the Study of Income Inequality Working Paper Series.
Gillispire, Richard. Soldiers of Perón: Argentina’s Montoneros (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).
Lewis, Paul H. The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
McGuire, James W. Peronism without Perón (Stanford University Press, 1997).
Sabato, Hilda. The Many and the Few: Political Participation in Republican Buenos Aires (Stanford University Press, 2001).
Slatta, Richard. Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier (University of Nebraska, 1992).
Taylor, J.M. Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman (University of Chicago Press, 1979).

On Terminology

By Taylor Marvin

This is an aside, but can we please stop using the terms “third-world” and “global south” to describe developing countries? I know that this is inconsequential, but terminology shapes the worldviews that it is used to articulate, and using terms that are fundamentally meaningless breeds both sloppy thinking and unsound narratives. The term “third world” is a product of the Cold War — it described countries that we not aligned with either NATO (the “first world”) or the USSR (supposedly “second world”, but this term was almost never used). For the last 20 years the term “third world” has been by definition meaningless, but it’s remained in common usage in spite of its irrelevance.

“Global south” isn’t much better. Yes, most of the world’s poorer countries are generally southerly located, and historically rich countries tend to be located high in the northern hemisphere. But there are so many exceptions to this broad distribution that it’s almost meaningless. There are many rich countries outside of the northern hemisphere — Chile, Australia, and Singapore all spring to mind — and there are still European countries with standards of living much closer to poorer parts of the world than their more fortunate European peers. Given the world economy’s ongoing shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, framing world income and economic development in North/South terms seems even more archaic. I understand the enduring human enthusiasm for sorting to world into neat and easily understood groupings, but in these cases they’re so blatantly uninformative that I can’t see their value.

What is interesting is that when describing high income countries the term “global periphery” is, counterintuitively, more fitting:

Image by Wikimedia user cflm.

Base image by Wikimedia user cflm, modified by author.

OECD countries are depicted in blue. However, over one half of all of humanity lives within the red triangle. It’s worth remembering that despite the common Western view that depicts North America and Europe as the central drivers of world history, the experience of what’s historically been the “rich” world is generally peripheral to the shared experience of humanity in general: North America is only home to 8% of humanity, and Europe 11%. This trend is increasing due to historically faster population growth in poorer countries — interestingly, in the span of the 20th century Europe’s share of the human population has fallen from 25% to its current 11%. The center of the world’s economy 21st century shift towards the center of the human population is encouraging and should be celebrated, and the fact that the economic map of last 500 years of human history was nearly the inverse of humanity’s distribution on the globe was a profound injustice. With its passing geographic sortings of human income should become less relevant.

Update: Of course, I’m going to keep using the term “the West” because it makes me feel like I’m in Lord of the Rings.

What Soviet Naval History Can Tell Us About China’s New Carrier

By Taylor Marvin

Shi Lang. Image from Google Maps.

The ex-Varyag docked. Image from Google Maps.

Yesterday China began sea trials of it first aircraft carrier, which began its life as the Soviet carrier Varyag before being bought and extensively refitted by the Chinese over the last decade. Via Defense Tech, the Wall Street Journal is apprehensive about this new demonstration of Chinese naval power:

“It is the most potent symbol yet of China’s long-term desire to develop the power both to deny U.S. naval access to Asian waters and to protect its global economic interests, including shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and oil sources in the Middle East.

Its launch is thus seen as a milestone in relations between an ascendant China, bent on reclaiming its historical role as a global power, and a debt-ridden U.S. that wants to retain the military supremacy it has wielded in Asia since 1945.”

However, there is good reason to doubt how significant this event really is. In The Guardian, Asian military expert Ian Storey argues that the launch of the ex-Varyag, which has been possibly renamed the Shi Lang, signals the start of a shift towards Chinese supremacy in the western Pacific, though he is careful to emphasize that the actual tipping point toward Chinese control is far away:

“By itself, the ship does not erode the credibility of America’s military presence in the region nor greatly increase China’s power projection capabilities. Nevertheless, the vessel is a potent symbol of China’s aspirations to become a global maritime power and is yet another indication that the military balance of power is gradually shifting in China’s favour.”

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point about just how difficult it is to actually operate carriers:

“The basic issue here is that the learning curve at the initial stages of carrier operation is extremely steep. Not only is it difficult and expensive to build a working aircraft carrier, but if you don’t already have a fleet of working aircraft carriers, you don’t have pilots and flight crews who can reliably operate it. And if you don’t have pilots and flight crews, you don’t have experienced people who can train new pilots and flight crews. What’s more, the United States got to go through this bootstrapping phase decades ago when ships and planes were simpler. Then we had a solid foundation of human capital to go through the process of building more advanced hardware. But if you want militarily useful equipment for the 21st century, your human capital gap is much bigger than any that we ever faced.”

However, the deficiencies of the ex-Varyag are deeper than the PLAN’s lack of experience operating carriers. The ex-Varyag is based on the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier design, which was originally built for a different mission than American carriers and is much less capable than its US counterparts. The ex-Varyag has inherited the Admiral Kuznetsov-class’ deficiencies, limitations the Wall Street Journal almost entirely glosses over. The Wall Street Journal’s presentation of the ex-Varyag as a much more capable design than it actually is is reinforced by its accompanying graphic, which makes the ship appear almost as large as a modern Nimitz-class supercarrier:

Image from the Wall Street Journal.

This presentation is strictly factual: the ex-Varyag is almost as long as the US Nimitz-class. However, size does not necessarily equal operational effectiveness, and the capabilities of the ex-Varyag and the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class it is based on are much less than a modern US supercarrier. The roots of these deficiencies lie in the Soviet Navy’s long struggle to acquire carriers, and the compromises it made to finally acquire them, compromises the ex-Varyag inherited.

The Admiral Kuznetsov-class was born from compromise — while the Soviet Navy had desired large, American-style carriers since the 1950s, the funding to construct them never appeared, despite the USSR’s enormously high levels of military spending. There were several reason for Soviet admirals’ continuing disappointment: the Soviet Navy had historically taken a backseat to the Red Army, and due to limited funding the Navy had made a conscious decision to focus on their submarine rather than surface fleet. In many ways, this was a rational decision. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union had no pressing need for naval capabilities: because a conventional war between the USSR and Western democracies was likely to take place in Europe, the Soviets did not need the extensive navy required to transport thousands of troops across the Atlantic. Without the same core mission as its American counterpart, the Soviet Navy never enjoyed the political clout the US Navy did. Because the Soviets would not strictly require a blue water navy in a conventional European war, there was little reason to mount an expensive effort to achieve parity with Western surface fleets. Instead, the Soviets focused on fielding advanced submarines and cruise missile systems to defeat Western navies, and there was not much room for expensive carriers in Soviet naval strategy. This led to the emergence of a Soviet navy very different from America’s: the Red Navy was more focused on submarine warfare and was more integrated with land-based aircraft armed with very long range cruise missiles than its American counterpart, and unlike the US Navy had little surface presence outside of local Russian waters. This was reflected in the organization of Soviet surface fleet — unlike in the US Navy, late-period Soviet flagships were not aircraft carriers but unique nuclear powered guided missile cruisers.

However, Soviet admirals repeatedly pressed for aircraft carriers similar to those of their US adversaries, partially for military reasons, but also to defend their institutional pride. For the most part, they were unsuccessful — Soviet politicians were not willing to fund expensive carriers they saw as peripheral to Soviet security aims. However, in the late 1960s the Soviet Navy was able to acquire small Moskva-class helicopter carriers that were optimized for anti-submarine warfare and, reflecting Soviet naval doctrine, relied on anti-ship missiles for self-defense. Even calling the Moskvas helicopter carriers is a bit misleading — unlike modern flat decked US or UK helicopter carriers Moskva-class ships resembled a small cruiser with a small deck covering the back half of the ship. While these ships were incapable of launching fixed wing aircraft, they did allow the Soviet Navy to begin acquiring experience in naval flight operations.

The clear limitations of the Moskva-class led Soviet admirals to continue pushing for larger, more capable carriers. When naval lobbying for an American-style nuclear powered supercarrier failed, the Soviet Navy decided to settle for an intermediate design between the Moskva-class helicopter carriers they were familiar with full-scale aircraft carrier they desired. The result of this compromise was the Kiev-class.

Kiev-class carrier Novorossijck. The half-deck is clearly visible in this picture, as is the ships cruiser-like bow, which is dominated by large anti-ship missile lauchers.

Kiev-class carrier Novorossijck. The half-deck is clearly visible in this picture, as is the ship’s cruiser-like bow, which is dominated by large anti-ship missile launchers. Author unknown, via Wikimedia.

The compromises involved in the Kiev-class’ development were immediately apparent — the ships resembled a conventional cruiser with a small aviation deck, which due to its restricted size was only capable of launching a small number of specialized vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The Kiev-class was generally a failure. The ambitious Yak-38 VTOL aircraft design intended to fly off Kiev-class carriers was plagued by developmental problems, offered middling performance, and was never produced in large quantities. Even outside of the failure of the Yak-38, the core mission of the Kiev-class was never fully defined: its small deck and reliance on short-range VTOL aircraft meant that its air wings were only suitable for reconnaissance and interception missions, and it was not clear of the class’ mix of the missile cruiser and carrier role would be competitive with more focused US designs. Despite the failings of the Kiev-class, they did give the Soviet Navy its first experience operating fixed wing aircraft off of ships.

This experience proved valuable. Despite the chronic political opposition to aircraft carriers from Soviet higher ups, the Red Navy was able to secure funding for a much more ambition successor to the Kiev-class. These new Admiral Kuznetsov-class carriers were designed from the outset to support conventional Soviet Air Force fighter aircraft, which were much more capable than the poorly-performing Yak-38s the smaller Kievs were dependent on. Unlike the Kievs‘ half-deck, which spanned only about half of the ships’ length, Admiral Kuznetsov-class ships featured a full deck that covert the entire ship’s upper surface, similar to its American counterparts, and could launch formidable Soviet aircraft. However, despite their size the Admiral Kuznetsovs were much less capable than American supercarriers. Unlike American carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov-class did not feature a powerful catapult to launch heavily-laden aircraft, instead relying on a ski jump-like ramp at the ship’s bow to boost aircraft into the air. Similarly, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were not nuclear powered, giving them less range and endurance than American carriers, and carried less aircraft. These deficiencies were partially driven by cost constraints, and by Soviet naval doctrine: unlike American carriers, which were the centerpiece of the US Navy and whose core mission was to project power across the globe, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were intended to support the rest of the Soviet fleet, rather than the other way around. While the core weapon of the US Navy is aircraft launched by carriers, the core mission of the Soviet fleet was to destroy Western shipping with submarines and missile cruisers that the Admiral Kuznetsovs defended. Soviet terminology supported this distinction — instead of referring to the Admiral Kuznetsovs as ‘aircraft carriers’, the Red Navy officially titled them ‘aircraft-carrying cruisers’.While the effectiveness of Soviet carrier doctrine is debatable, it meant that the Admiral Kuznetsov design was much less capable or flexible than American supercarriers.

The Admiral Kuznetsov. The ski jump at the bow is clearly visible. The helicopters on the aft deck provide scale.

The Admiral Kuznetsov, which is structurally identical to the ex-Varyag. The ski jump at the bow is clearly visible. The helicopters on the aft deck provide scale. US DoD photo by Paul A. Vise, via Wikimedia.

The Admiral Kuznetsov had the misfortune to be launched in 1985 and commissioned in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. While the Admiral Kuznetzov entered service in the Russian Navy, the only other Admiral Kuznetsov-class ship built, the Varyag, was not completed and sat unfinished in Ukraine for a decade before being sold to the Chinese. While the ex-Varyag has been extensively refitted by the PLAN, it still inherits the deficiencies of the Admiral Kuznetsov-class, and entirely lacks the power projection capabilities of modern US carriers Given these deficiencies and the PLAN’s lack of  experience operating aircraft carriers, it is unlikely that the ex-Varyag will ever be used operationally. It’s much more likely that it will be used exclusively as for training purposes, which despite its limitations is an achievement sure to be heavily leveraged for domestic consumption within China. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the launch of the ex-Varyag isn’t significant — China has spent nearly a decade refurbishing the ship, and the technical and operation experience gained from operating the ship is fundamentally important to the success of China future, more capable indigenous carriers. But the alarm trumpeted in the Wall Street Journal is unwarranted. It’s also not clear how dangerous of a development the emergence of a Chinese carrier actually is. Chinese officials have often pointed out that their country is the only with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to not field a carrier, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t entitled to one.

Matt Yglesias is right to note that the Chinese Navy will face a long and difficult process building the technical experience and human capital necessary to operate its own carrier fleet. The Soviet experience acquiring carriers supports this assertion — the Soviet Navy’s progression from helicopter carriers to a fully developed carrier capable of supporting conventional fixed wing aircraft was a thirty year process. Of course, in the coming decades China will be able to devote significantly greater resources to its naval modernization than the Soviets ever were. However, the USSR also was a global superpower that spent a much higher percentage of GDP on its military than China does today (in the mid-1980s the USSR was spending at least $300 billion a year on defense, compared to China’s roughly $120 billion today), and the Soviet Navy enjoyed a much more developed naval heritage than the modern PLAN. It will not take China three decades to field its own indigenous carrier, but it will not be a fast process.

The Chinese military leadership seems to be aware of these difficulties. China has been careful to play down the significance of the ex-Varyag’s launch, stating that “there should be no excessive worries or paranoid feelings on China’s pursuit of an aircraft carrier, as it will not pose a threat to other countries.” This reassurance is partially to avoid antagonizing China’s neighbors, but is also likely to avoid the expectation in China that the ex-Varyag will immediately become an operational carrier. Similar, other ongoing Chinese weapons development programs seem to indicate that the Chinese military leadership does not see the ex-Varyag as a combat asset, and judges the introduction of truly operation carriers to be decades off. The J-20 program, China’s efforts to develop a modern 5th generation stealth fighter aircraft, is a good example of this. As I’ve argued before, the design of the J-20 — specifically, the differences between it and American and European advanced fighter designs — seems to indicate that it was designed for a different mission than Western designs. While the US F-22 was designed purely for the air superiority mission — to destroy enemy fighter aircraft — and the F-35 as a versatile multirole fighter designed to serve in the Air Force, Navy, and Marines the J-20’s large size, likely high internal fuel volume and selective stealthing seem to indicate that it is at least partially optimized for the long-range maritime strike mission, capable of attacking hostile ships beyond China’s ‘first island chain’. The fact that the Chinese military bureaucracy is investing in a prototype of what is potentially a long-range land-based maritime strike aircraft — a role that the US hasn’t pursued for decades — seems to indicate that they view an operational carrier as far off, because an operational aircraft carrier would at least partially negate the land-based maritime strike mission. Of course, this is almost entirely speculation. There are numerous other possible explanations for the J-20’s unconventional design: doubts of the survivability of carriers in a full-scale conflict, inter-division rivalries in the PLA, desire for multiple assets for the sea access denial mission, or a misreading of the J-20s intended mission. However, the fact that China is willing to invest in an expensive program that seems at least partially optimized for the land-based anti-shipping role seems to suggest that the Chinese military leadership is not yet willing to put very many eggs in the carrier basket.

All these factors — the ex-Varyag’s roots in the Admiral Kuznetsov-class, the long history of Soviet carrier development, and the enormous difficulties of building the necessary technical skill and experience for successful carrier operations — suggest that an operational Chinese carrier is at least a decade off, possibly much longer. The start of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials is a major step for the Chinese Navy. But it’s a first step.


Lee, Robin J. “A Brief Look at Russian Aircraft Carrier Development.
Goebel, Greg. “Soviet Jet VTOL: Yak-36, Yak-38, & Yak-41.” “Kirov Class Guided Missile Cruiser.”

Recommended Reading- “Beyond Bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror”

By Taylor Marvin

I’m currently reading Beyond Bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror. I’d recommend reading it — it’s a convenient ebook (I’m reading it on my iPhone), and at $1.99 it’s a pretty easy purchase to justify. I’ve only recently started reading ebooks, and while becoming accustomed to reading long-form writing on a screen rather than paper is a change that takes some getting used to, essay collections released in the wake of breaking events is one of the most exciting uses of the new medium.

Do Successful Wars Create Moral Hazard?

By Taylor Marvin

Glenn Greenwald has a typically unpopular position on the death of Bin Laden:

“Whenever America uses violence in a way that makes its citizens cheer, beam with nationalistic pride, and rally around their leader, more violence is typically guaranteed. Futile decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may temporarily dampen the nationalistic enthusiasm for war, but two shots to the head of Osama bin Laden — and the We are Great and Good proclamations it engenders — can easily rejuvenate that war love. One can already detect the stench of that in how Pakistan is being talked about: did they harbor bin Laden as it seems and, if so, what price should they pay? We’re feeling good and strong about ourselves again — and righteous — and that’s often the fertile ground for more, not less, aggression.”

There is a valid point here. Citizens must consent to war in democracies, and they are much likely to condone strictly unnecessary military actions if they have reason to believe that conflicts will be cheap and easy. This dynamic is visible in Clinton’s 1993 intervention in Somalia. The internal power struggle in Somalia had no immediate effect on the security of the United States, yet the decision to dispatch troops to Somalia was largely uncontroversial. While most US voters likely held unrealistic expectations about the probable costs of this mission, it’s more likely that the victory in the Gulf War had unrealistically convinced Americans that all future interventions would be as quick and victory so total. This view is dangerous because the Gulf War and the killing of Bin Laden are so far from the actual reality of most of the foreign conflicts the US has chosen to involve itself in. Elements of the US military- notably JSOC- are extremely good at the very practical task of finding and killing individuals. However, this capability has little relevance to what’s required to actually succeed in low intensity conflicts like Somalia, Afghanistan or Libya. That’s something American’s should remember when forming their expectations of success in future wars.

This logic extends to other aspect of warmaking as well. While the costs of actually fighting wars have risen constantly in the last thousand years, the US government has spent the last four decades inventing ways to lower the costs of war the average voter is asked to pay. During Vietnam, the draft was a huge forced mobilization of American society that strained it to the breaking point, and ruined the political careers of the politicians who orchestrated it. A war that requires such huge public sacrifices, even a justified one like Afghanistan, isn’t possible in contemporary America. The US military is increasingly drawn from a shrinking portion of the population, and the debt financing of war means that voters aren’t asked to pay for the wars fought in their name and ostensibly for their benefit. The risk of this trend is that it makes strictly unnecessary wars, like Libya, more likely by lowering their domestic costs. Wars are fought if their expected benefits exceed their expected costs. Lowering the costs of war mean that rich technological countries with volunteer armies and powerful militaries are more likely to choose to fight even in pursuit of shrinking benefits. David Rothkopf recently phrased this idea well when discussing the emergence of armed aerial drone warfare:

“The first hazard is that if war can be waged without apparent human cost to the attacker, it is clearly more likely to be undertaken. That such a strategy is really one that is primarily available to rich nations attacking poor ones only compounds the problem. But another moral hazard is that such attacks could easily become the first option of indecisive leaders, exactly as cruise missiles have also been in the recent past.  It allows such leaders to appear strong, to flex their muscles but to have very limited downside. That such approaches are really only good for limited purposes — assassinations, destroying specific targets, adding a pyrotechnic flourish to a rhetorical argument — is likely to be ignored or downplayed, as is already the case in Libya. The risk is that unlike nuclear weapons which actually are less likely to be used because the costs of unleashing them are so high, unmanned, over-the-horizon weapons are far more likely to be used because the costs are so low — even when they are not likely to be terribly effective.”

Even if the US and NATO are completely successful in Libya the actual benefits to the victors will be small, even if the benefits to oppressed Libyans and humanity overall are much greater. However, even if these prospective benefits are insignificant the immediate costs of the war are smaller still, giving policymakers and incentive to fight. I, like the vast majority of Americans and Europeans, don’t know anyone actually asked to fight over Libya. If the costs are so small, then why not fight for ill-defined humanitarian goals? As Somalia and Iraq showed, this is a dangerous line of thinking, though a very attractive one.

However, even if inexpensive successful military actions create the potential for subsequent public moral hazard this really doesn’t change anything. Even if the death of Bin Laden is insignificant compared to the Arab revolts, it is a cathartic and just achievement, and makes Americans safer. It sends a clear and valuable message: if you order an attack on the United States, you will die. It’s not wrong to celebrate this success. The death of Bin Laden is a type of closure, even if an incomplete one, and is as close to VE Day as my generation is going to get. The competence and lethality of US special forces are something to be proud of.

So say it with me: Osama’s fate was SEALed.

Cortés and 16th Century Brutality

By Taylor Marvin

Cortés encounters the Tlaxcalans.

Cortés encounters the Tlaxcalans.

I’m currently reading Jon Manchip White’s excellent, if under appreciated, Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire. The encounter between the Spanish and the Aztecs is one of the most interesting episodes in human history. On the eve of the Spanish Conquest, civilization in the Americas had been isolated from the rest of humanity for at least 60,000 years, were roughly 4,500 years technologically behind European cultures, and had developed advanced urban societies completely alien to Europeans. It’s doubtful that history has seen another encounter between two peoples with so little in common, or one so violent- over the course of the conquest, the Spanish conquistadores and their indigenous allies likely killed over one hundred thousand Aztecs by hand. One Spanish chronicler recounts forty thousand Aztecs killed in a single battle, though this is possibly an exaggeration. This brutality extends to the Spanish reaction to the Aztec religious tradition, which the conquistadors violently eradicated. Modern popular history, both in Mexico and the rest of the world, tend to demonize Cortés for this slaughter. This blame is partially justified — though the vast majority of American indigenous deaths in the centuries after the European contact were due to the introduction of European diseases, the conquest of the Americas is still one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. But blaming the conquistadors for their brutality ignores the reality of the world they inhabited. Cortés was a product of a world universally at war, and the idea of religious coexistence had no basis in their world.

Cortés and his companions lived in a world of two religions- Christianity and Islam. In the eyes of Cortés Christianity, specifically Catholicism, was the one faith of civilization, while Islam was the deadly religion of aggressive fanatics that threatened to overrun all of the civilized world. This worldview wasn’t bigoted, but was rather an accurate reaction to the world a 16th century Spaniard inhabited. Europeans saw the Islam they encountered, with good reason, as aggressive and an existential threat to Christendom. Cortés and his men had experienced this conflict firsthand in Spain’s centuries long battle to evict the Moors, and also through stories of the seemingly unstoppable Turkish advance into Eastern Europe. In 16th century Spaniard’s worldview only two religions were even possible- the true Catholic religion of civilization, and that of barbarians. The Aztec religion clearly fell in to the latter category, and had to be destroyed. It’s telling that in Cortés’ dispaches to the Spanish emperor he refers to Aztec temples as “mosques.” The Aztecs didn’t build churches, so their religion and society was as much a threat as that of the Moors.

It is not surprising that no Spaniards questioned the narrative that it was their religious duty to conquer and forcibly convert the Americas. The idea that different religious beliefs could peacefully coexist was completely alien to the 16th century. While the Protestant reformation had begun in Germany 2 years before Cortés’ expedition into the Aztec Empire, it’s doubtful that he or any of his men were aware of it. To Cortés and his companions, the world was neatly divided into two competing sects — civilized Christendom  and Islam. Cortés was aware that other religious practices existed among Indian tribes that the Spanish had already encountered, but these practices were likely easy to dismiss as petty witchcraft rather than developed religious traditions equal in theological rigor  to Christianity. Similarly, Cortés and the rest of contemporary Spain deeply admired their Roman predecessors, who were clearly non-Christian. However, the religions of the ancient Romans and contemporary Indians were only academic interests — to practical Spanish soldiers, what mattered in the world was the apocalyptic confrontation between Christianity and Islam, or civilization and barbarism.

It’s not surprising that the Spaniards reacted to the Aztecs with such brutality. In addition to their motives of conquest, the Aztec religion was as organized and codified as Christianity, making it, unlike the unorganized religious practices of the Caribbean natives, a threat that the Spaniards’ experience with an aggressive Islam demanded they react aggressively against. This worldview of zero-sum cultural competition was undoubtably strengthened by the undeniably horrible aspects of the Aztec religion like human sacrifice, practices that, despite the Spaniards’ own appetite for violence and sadism, disgusted the conquistadors. The point is that we shouldn’t judge the Spaniards’ brutal conquest. Their actions were a product of their culture, a culture that grew out of a world more violent than we can really understand. The unified Spanish state was forged in the desperate struggle against the Moors, and we shouldn’t judge contemporary Spanish culture for its brutality and religious fanaticism, a fanaticism that was the natural reaction to a violent world. In many ways modern Latin America was born from the long brutal war between the Spanish and the Moors — we shouldn’t be surprised that the birth was violent.