Head Call

Hull tech heaven (Navy Times photo)

After years of delays, USS Gerald R. Ford has been commissioned, the revolutionary electromagnetic launch and recovery system seems to work, and all people can talk about are the… bathrooms.

Specifically, the urinals, or lack thereof.

For the first time, every bathroom on the Ford — known throughout military circles as a head — is designed to be “gender-neutral,” meaning all of the urinals have been replaced with flush toilets and stalls, Navy officials say.

There are certain practical benefits to such flexibility, even if a ship’s crew is only about twenty percent female.

But this is not the real reason for the design. I’m going to give away a secret here. When James Cameron made that record-setting dive into the Mariana Trench a few years ago, he discovered Something The World Isn’t Supposed to Know (no, not that city from “The Abyss”): the ocean floor is made up not of rock, nor of sand, but actually of discarded Navy urinals.

Because urinals are the worst.

They are maintenance nightmares. Salt builds up in the pipes and clogs up the system. People spit dip where they shouldn’t. And other factors you’d rather not think about. Anytime you walk into a head, you can expect half the urinals to be inoperative. So what do the hull technicians (ships’ welders and plumbers) do? They pull the urinals off. Lots are removed during planned maintenance periods… others, well, they go to sea and somehow don’t make it back.

Either way, once a ship is commissioned its urinal count begins to steadily diminish. It’s basically a law of physics.

So while the self-righteous people of the world are congratulating the Navy on gender equity or something, and the old salts rail about the days when ships were wood and men were steel and peed in wall-mounted porcelain, all the Navy really did was save its overworked engineers a lot of time and effort down the road.

Historical note: throwing urinals into the sea is a well-established tradition.

Freedom of Information

Everyone has a means of distributing information

Strange as it may seem, most of what you need to know about what’s happening in the world is at your fingertips. If you want to understand the interests of a country, what its goals are, and what it’s thinking, there’s no need to delve into the Top Secret stash of operational details (today there’s one real winner about to get a cold dose of reality regarding that fact). Really, all you have to do is ask. They’ll tell you.

Of note this week, we have the annual report to Congress from the Office of the Secretary of Defense concerning Chinese military and security developments.

Want to know how the Chinese military is structured? Where their fake islands in the South China Sea are? How many troops are located near the Strait of Taiwan? The stated strategic objections of the People’s Republic? U.S. analysis of Chinese intentions? It’s all there – you – yes, you! – can read it.

But don’t take DoD’s word for it. Want to know the Chinese Military Strategy? They’re happy to fill you in – the white paper was released in 2015 for your eager eyes.

Forget China. What about that other big guy we often perceive as a mystery wrapped in an enigma, Russia? Well, I don’t read Russian, but if you do, have fun with this. It’s there for you! For the rest of us, we have an engrossing report by the Office of Naval Intelligence assessing the state of the Russian fleet.

Pretty much anything you want to know, you can. Between that and reading a map, you’ll be pretty much up to speed.

Reserved Sense of Humor

There is not a big industry of Navy Reserve jokes or satire out there – but now and then something good pops up.

WASHINGTON — For at least the past three months, Navy Reserve Commander and current White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been desperately begging his chain of command to activate him on multi-year-long orders “to anywhere remote,” Duffel Blog has learned.

And when they do appear, you can generally assume it’s in the Duffel Blog.

Highways of the Sea

Maritime power is much trickier than land power for the layperson to understand. Armies use weapons to control the land they stand on; navies cruise around singing to each other, or something – right? No. So, taking advantage of a couple recent events, let’s take a different approach.

Combined arms operations at a maritime choke point

Event one: It’s National Police Week and Washington, D.C., is crawling with cops from around the country. I drove home behind a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy yesterday, which is not a feature of my typical commute.

Event two: For some reason, Hollywood remade CHiPs. Fortunately the box office numbers indicate hardly anyone saw it, so they won’t feel compelled to do that again.

Why is this important?

Because the sea services are basically the highway patrol!

I don’t mean that literally – Posse Comitatus and such, after all – but in the sense that the fundamental purpose of a highway patrol, more so than municipal law enforcement, is the facilitation of commerce and connections across a wide territory. It keeps the roads open and functional. The sea services do the same in their environment.

In most states the highway patrol or state troopers are the only statewide law enforcement agency, so it’s true they spend significant time investigating criminal cases. Nevertheless, most people’s exposure to them is not in a criminal context, but just simple traffic enforcement. The purpose of enforcing safe driving and adherence to rules of the road is, yes, personal safety, but also to keep the roads open, keep the traffic flowing, and keep commerce humming. If you cannot trust that you will survive your daily commute due to unruly traffic-mates, you are unlikely to undertake it. The norms enforced over decades by the highway patrol are what give you the confidence you need. And that confidence is what enables the economic activity that supports us all.

That’s not to say some states and municipalities aren’t capricious or abusive in their manner of implementation. But the fundamental mission is critical.

On the sea, no one has to physically keep the ocean open – water is water, and ships float equally well anywhere. But, still, the world’s coast guards keep the busiest areas marked with buoys and cleared of obstacles – a job fundamentally analogous to transportation agencies ashore and the law enforcement agencies that support them. The world’s navies complement navigational safety by preventing brigandage and piracy of defenseless merchants. Such prevention and deterrence can only be conducted through presence. That presence gives bad actors a reason to stay home, and reassures legitimate mariners that they can come on in; the water’s fine. A navy or coast guard that isn’t visible on the sea lanes isn’t doing its job.

And in a world with a thoroughly global economy, it is up to the largest economic players to provide that global presence. Not even the California Highway Patrol is equipped for that job. But neither is France. Nor China. Nor Germany. Nor Brazil. Sadly, not even the queen’s Royal Navy can sustain such an effort nowadays. However it may grate upon you, America, to carry the weight for all those freeloaders out there, alternatives are lacking.

Without the highway patrol, you’ll have the Fast and Furious crew dominating the interstates with little regard for your safety. Without a forward-deployed navy, you’ll have contested chokepoints, maritime insurance premiums climbing through the roof and more expensive everything.

Fundamentally, the mission of a highway patrol is not to catch bad guys, and the mission of a navy is not to fight wars. Their common mission is to simply allow you and your things to get from place to place unfettered.

And, for the record, none of the four highway patrolmen in my family paid me to say a word of this!

Addendum: Please visit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund or CHP 11-99 Foundation and consider a small donation.

Yemen: Your Future Case Study

Latest update: watch for a coalition advance in the west, focused on the Red Sea port of Hodeida.

Yemen, right where we left it (The Economist)

Yemen will continue to be a featured topic here at The Salty Wog. And why not? Terrible as everything about the Yemen situation is, those involved in military education will never escape it, as this theater can provide the basis for just about any conceivable case study. May as well get started now.

Keeping up with the news today will be a big assist for your Joint Professional Military Education tomorrow!

Unfortunately.

Tales from the Front

Not the Onion. Nor the Duffel Blog. Sometimes these things just happen.

BEHOLD: “Wild boars overrun Islamic State position, kill 3 militants

“Three Islamic State militants setting up an ambush in a bitterly contested area of northern Iraq were killed by a herd of stampeding boars, local leaders say.

“…[T]he militants were hiding on the edge of a field about 50 miles southwest of Kirkuk when the boars overwhelmed them Sunday.”

And thank you to USA Today’s headline writer for writing one of the most informative-yet-sardonic headlines you’ll ever see.

But don’t miss perhaps the most important part of the story: the counter-ISIS coalition has new members. And they’re hungry.

WWI Movie Night: “The Lost Battalion”

Thanks for the memories, Willy

This brief note will be our contribution to the great weight of material noting America’s entry into the Great War a century ago this month. If you want to see a 90-minute film that captures the nature of the fight as well as the U.S. Army of the period, it’s hard to improve upon “The Lost Battalion,” made for TV in the late 90s (I think) but really very good. I had a memory of seeing some of it when it was new – almost 20 years ago – and then I re-watched it last year. It holds up.

Thankfully a random YouTuber has made the whole thing available for your benefit. Here’s hoping the link continues to work!

Room at the Top

The masses look out upon the few

It’s baseball season, and the world is righted again. Apparently there was a basketball championship over the weekend, or something. Whatever. Now that bats are hitting balls across diamonds, sports actually matter.

And in the presence of play at such an elite level, what better time to consider the matter of discord between the masses and the upper classes?

Seriously. Something is up, from the election of our current POTUS to the rise of Duterte in the Philippines, to Brexit and the real shot by the Le Pen faction in France’s upcoming election. At the same time, it is an absolutely amazing time to be alive, with dancing robots, reusable rockets, self-driving cars and the miracle of all miracles, duct tape.

I think it has something to do with the fact there are 30 Major League Baseball teams.

Bear with me.

Institutional Stasis

As the 1960s dawned, the majors included 18 clubs. As the country grew, so did interest in baseball, and in 1962 New York got a second team (the hapless Mets) while Houston brought the major leagues to a whole new region. Meanwhile, the 1960 Census counted just under 180 million Americans.

Over the next 36 years, four more rounds of MLB expansion followed, finally ending in 1998. By the time of the 2000 Census, there were 280 million Americans.

That is a 35 percent growth in population over 40 years (100 million people!), and a 40 percent growth in baseball teams – quite proportional. Assuming a 25-man regular season roster, that’s 450 Major Leaguers playing on any given day expanding to 750 over four decades, in line with the general rate of growth.

In the 17 years since the 2000 census, though, the U.S. population has continued to grow, now to more than 324 million (a 15 percent gain). But, on any given day between April and August (before the expanded September roster), there are still just 750 Major Leaguers.

There’s only so much room at the top.

This, of course, is true in many realms other than baseball. Take school. To use a prominent example, in 2000 Harvard admitted 2,035 applicants. In 2017, it admitted – wait for it – 2,056. The application pool was a “record” 39,494. Dude, of course it’s a record. The pool of interested students isn’t getting any smaller. Naturally, more will apply every year.

If schools like Harvard represent the narrow path into the elite (at least for those not born into it), simple math is making the path ever narrower. At least for now.

Of course, there is lots of educational growth out there in online programs and new campuses, and getting a quality education has, in large part, never been easier. But gaining access to the elite names with the elite alumni networks – and it’s all about the network – has been basically the same for decades. Established schools in college towns run out of real estate. They can only get so big.

Likewise, there can only be so many baseball games played before the snow starts to fall. There are natural limits to institutional expansion. But if the talent pool keeps growing, entering those institutions becomes progressively more difficult for an interested individual.

The Paradox

The institutions are harder to reach, but they will never burn brighter. Some of the greatest ball players ever are playing right now. You can go see them! Usain Bolt has run a 9.58 in the 100-meter. There are amazing scientists and engineers making amazing discoveries and potentially world-changing inventions. There’s some guy who wants to colonize Mars, and might actually do it. Life is pretty awesome!

The talent available in a world of seven billion people can make pretty much anything happen. Which goes to show that our number-one resource in any economy is not oil or minerals or fertilizer, but human ingenuity. Malthusian fears of global famine have not exactly panned out for this very reason.

But did you spot the paradox? The world of seven billion people provides a deep bench of smart people – but most of those smart people don’t get to be in the driver’s seat. Major research institutions or financial organizations are only so big, and expand so much. And building new ones is difficult. It takes time to build the credibility necessary to be considered elite, and the power of inertia means that which is already elite will probably crush upstart competition for the title. That means the number of seats remains limited.

It’s a buyer’s market for the global meritocracy, given the volume of qualified people. And, eventually, it really does work out for the world, as those smart people, given global resources, create solutions that end up benefitting everybody. But for those who don’t get to ride the escalator – you know, most people – it’s awfully disappointing. No matter what they do, there simply isn’t room. If you don’t know the right people or occupy the right place, it’s just not going to happen.

And so, despite the world being amazing – for a few thousand dollars, anyone can fly around the world with access to all of civilization’s accumulated knowledge in his pocket – there is also a clear disconnect between the top and everyone else. And so we are where we are.

The Military

This blog must address a military angle, of course. There is much hand-wringing over the fact that a majority of young adults are unfit for military service due to physical fitness, legal trouble or other reasons. However, I refer you back to the growing population above. It doesn’t make those problems – which are real – go away, but at the same time, the “deep bench” phenomenon does go a long way towards alleviating it.

The military may get bigger at the margins, as the Army is planning to this year. But this country is in no mood for any major expansion, and Congress certainly isn’t going to pay for it. So I think it is reasonable to expect a static force structure with slight variations over the years (barring a major draft-triggering war, of course). The pool gets bigger, but the demand signal will likely remain about the same.

This impacts the makeup of those who do join, though. Since they don’t have to take everybody (this isn’t “Starship Troopers”), recruiters can pick from among top applicants. It is already largely a middle-class force – the myth of poor enlistees used as cannon fodder has been false for the life of the all-volunteer force – but this will probably be further accentuated. Just like other high-performing but non-growing organizations, its quality will improve but an individual’s ability to access it will decline.

The Future

Demography may not be destiny, but it’s a pretty good leading indicator. We’ve been talking about the effects of population growth, but what goes up must come down. Global populations are probably peaking, and a great many countries’ birth rates are plummeting. The problems we discuss today about institutional growth not keeping up with the population will be reversed in the coming century – many venerable institutions will struggle to keep their doors open.

With fewer skilled workers, those willing to do the requisite studying will have (relatively) easy access to important jobs. Wages will rise, as money chases fewer candidates. Access to elite schools will be democratized, as they’ll need to lower admission standards in order to keep their dorms filled. The financial and political elites will remain, but getting to those points will be easier. An interesting precedent is Europe following the Black Death. With the loss of 40 percent of its population, life was not easy, but there were certain advantages for those who were left. The chances of finding work at good wages were much higher post-plague; something similar will happen – for a while – after our own demographic collapse. But because there will be fewer people, not as much work will actually get done. So an overall economic decline is likely, even as individuals’ experiences seem to indicate otherwise. (As an aside, it’s odd to compare a horrible plague with a simple lack of breeding. But it’s a similar demographic effect.)

The problem of fewer workers to produce the necessities of modern life may be partially alleviated by automation and artificial intelligence – but beware those who rely too much on them. Stuff breaks. The Machine Stops. Ultimately, someone will still have to do what needs doing.

End This Post!

What we’re seeing is a situation where institutions are doing their best to remain static and do what they’ve always done, but are out of step with population trends (both up and down). As a result, today’s average worker can buy amazing goods and have incredible experiences far exceeding what the Sun King himself could have imagined, and yet feel unmotivated and left out because of the intense competition to access the highest levels. Tomorrow’s average worker will have greater social mobility and will enjoy relatively high wages, but due to overall economic shrinkage, won’t actually be able to buy anything exciting (to them – we would marvel at what’s mundane in 2100).

If Western history is any indication, the only long-term solution is to colonize Mars.

And, probably, to build baseball stadiums there.