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.


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.

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.


Deterrence is usually packaged in steel boxes

Remember the good old days when Europe was at peace and Russia was a bosom buddy? Neither do I, but back in 2013 we certainly were operating that way. Here’s a blast from the recent past:

The U.S. Army’s 69-year history of basing main battle tanks on German soil quietly ended last month when 22 Abrams tanks, a main feature of armored combat units throughout the Cold War, embarked for the U.S.

Turns out, maybe that was not well thought out. But don’t worry, they’re on it:

Determined to deter the rising Russian threat, the US Army is slashing the time it takes for a brigade to get ready for battle once it’s arrived in Europe, from over 40 days to under 10.

I won’t comment on that any further; it’s proposed here as something for you to think about.

But as long as we’re talking about tanks, enjoy some long-lost verse about mechanized warfare from the creator of Winnie the Pooh.

— End transmission —

Context and Counting

“Count THIS!” said Teddy Roosevelt

This blog has been illuminating pixels for more than a year now, but has never covered a simple topic that pops up in the news with some regularity – historic fleet counts. The reason, most likely, is that it is annoying. Such historic comparisons are both meaningless and fraught with symbolism; educational and mind-numbing. And in the hands of the uninformed or misinformed, they only make you dumber than when you started.

So let’s get started!

The most recent instance of journalists attempting to count ships was last week when POTUS (not SMOD, sadly) visited the shipyard in Newport News to announce his defense spending plan. Speaking to a naval crowd, he repeated a common statement that the Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1916, as measured by the number of hulls displacing water.

This is true, if one sticks strictly to raw numbers. The New York Times, of course, was quick to point out that today’s ships are rather more capable than a century ago.

The Navy swelled from 245 ships in 1916 to a peak of over 6,000 during World War II, downsizing between conflicts and bulking up during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. From the 1970s, the Navy gradually began to shrink to a total battle force of 275 ships as of September 2016.

But that fleet includes 10 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 63 destroyers, 11 amphibious assault ships and 68 submarines, 14 of which are armed with nuclear warheads.

I hate to call the NYT staff a bunch of simpletons (especially as a journalism major myself), but, well… context, people. Context. Of course capabilities have changed over the years.

But what was the mission of the fleets in those respective eras?

What ships were at the tip of the spear and which had other roles?

And do those ships have any technological advantage over their adversaries?

In order to get a cleaner comparison, let us first acknowledge that the nature of most of the fleet has changed. The monitors and steel gunboats of 1916 have no equivalents today, for example, and today’s aircraft carriers had no Edwardian ancestors. Fortunately, we still have major surface combatants – basically, your battleships and cruisers of 1916 and cruisers and destroyers of 2017. These are the backbone of the fleet, whose mission of sea control has remained more or less constant since the days of sail.

So what are the numbers?

In December of 1916, the U.S. Navy had on its books 36 battleships and 30 cruisers – a total of 66 major surface combatants. Worth noting: there were also 25 “auxiliaries,” which are basically the ships that carry fuel and supplies for the combatants (the guys celebrated here). Like sea control, this mission is also relatively constant over time.

So, how’s the score today? One hundred years later, in September of 2016, the U.S. Navy operated 22 cruisers and 63 destroyers, totaling 85 major surface combatants. Additionally, there were precisely 29 vessels providing fleet logistics.

What we see in this view is that over the century, the combatant force increased by just under a third (from 66 to 85) while the logistics force increased about 15 percent.

Now let’s break it down further – assume it takes four ships on the books to deploy one. Essentially, you have one ship training to deploy, one on deployment, one recently returned, and one going through overhaul.

Then take that number and divide it in two, since geography forces the U.S. to have a two-ocean navy.

Don’t worry, I did it for you here (decimals are rounded down to whole numbers).

Year Surface Combatants Deployed Deployed from Each Coast
1916 66 16 8
2016 85 21 10


What we see is that the American ability to send a floating piece of steel to a given crisis somewhere on Planet Earth is not that much different than a century ago. Granted, the 2016 number is slightly higher, but when one accounts for squadron operations (ships rarely sail independently) this really means we can only have a sea combat-capable presence in three or maybe four separate regions around the world. Given the intended 60/40 Pacific/Atlantic split, our abilities in the Pacific might be a little better, but in the Atlantic it’s actually worse.

Yes, we have carriers too, but only one is typically deployed per coast at a time (we recently had a grand total of zero), so they don’t change the end result that much.

If we thought that degree of presence was enough in 1916, when we still played second- or third-fiddle to the British – well, maybe with the increased responsibilities of the 21st Century, ratcheting it up might be a tad helpful.

Technology affects what a ship can do when it arrives somewhere, but as for being present there at all, a century of technical innovations can’t change basic facts of geography, fuel consumption curves, or the strategic value of the simple presence of a combat force. The toys are just details – but they are dazzling, and too often cause us (and naive reporters) to lose sight of why they exist.

And, about the toys – the enemy has those, too.

So, probably best not to rely on that.

Yemen – Still a Bad Place

Suez's little brother

A tricky neighborhood

And you probably thought the Yemen posts were done. Wrong! There just wasn’t much to report for a while.

Yesterday a group of Houthis launched a suicide attack on a Saudi naval vessel in the Red Sea, a short distance north of the Bab al-Mandeb, killing at least two sailors.  Early reports indicate three suicide boats attacked the Saudi frigate and at least  one caused damage and casualties. Things seem to have been quiet on the maritime front since October, but it’s picking up again. Stand by for more developments in February.

Remember, what goes on near this particular strait, even if it only concerns the locals, will end up touching us eventually. So take note.


Units of Measurement

The real reason Bill Gates got rich

The real reason Bill Gates got rich

It’s official: Millennials really are worse off than their Baby Boomer parents. Adjusted for inflation, today’s 25- to 34-year old set is earning about 20 percent less than its equivalent cohort in 1989, according to the group Young Invincibles. This despite all that education that’s supposed to pay off.

Left unsaid: The Boomer generation is a terrible unit of measurement.

A recurring fallacy in American culture and politics is the idea that somehow conditions in the 1950s and early 1960s – coincidentally, when many Baby Boomers were growing up – is the natural norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not that I was there, as I’m one of those poor Millennials. But a little knowledge of history can get you a long way.

Let’s put it this way: If we ever have it that good again, we’re screwed.

The parents of the Boomer generation handed them two enormous gifts: a world where every industrial state outside North America was pulverized by war, and a giant section of that very same world walled off behind the Iron Curtain.

Anyone who wanted any high-end product after World War II had to buy it from an American (or possibly an enterprising Canadian). As a result, the U.S. could afford enormous wages and social programs because money was coming its way; all the competitors were still rebuilding. Accentuating this, offshoring production wasn’t possible when possible sites were either still bombed out or under Communist control. Domestically, the Cold War also induced enormous defense spending that, irrespective of deficits, provided great wages and benefits in the moment.

Over the years, Western Europe and Japan rebuilt and became powerhouses in their own right by the 1980s, but the groundwork had been laid in previous decades for continued U.S. economic expansion just as the Boomers hit the workforce en masse.

Timing is everything, and they hit it.

Boomer prosperity will not be recreated. Everything aligned for Americans of that generation politically, sociologically and technologically, and an amazing moment of growth was the result. It is only the collective self-absorption of the Baby Boomer generation that gives us the historical illusion that this was somehow right and proper. Lightning cannot be expected to strike twice.

Ultimately, Boomer prosperity was based on the outcome of World War II. That’s the sort of recipe that only works once – nor should we wish for a repeat.


Up and Atom

radioactive_manA wise professor I had once declared that every war fought after August 1945 has been a nuclear war. Even if atomic weapons never actually came into play, the very thought that they could has had an outsize impact on a great many world events. For example, the containment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to very limited areas of operation was, in the end, the result of American and Soviet leaders trying to avoid nuclear exchanges. Escalation would have been easy – hence Truman firing MacArthur – but the availability of nukes helped keep a lid on things.

And so it is that we are all told that only the U.S. has ever used nuclear weapons in anger, and then only twice, in a single week in a single country.

But that’s not entirely true.

Ask France. Or Algeria.

The long history of French Algeria is fascinating in its own right, though outside the scope of this little post. In short, France began to colonize it in the early 19th Century and came to consider it as more than a colony, but an outright piece of France proper (it’s closer to mainland France than Hawaii is to the Lower 48, after all). But in the aftermath of Vichy rule and the turmoil in WWII France, the fragile arrangement was doomed. Unrest spread as soon as the war in Europe was over, and by 1954 Algeria was in the throes of a full-fledged insurgency that lasted until 1961. By the end of it, official French policy was withdrawal from Algeria and eventual independence, and even then, they still managed to have two sets of enemies – Algerian guerillas (who also supported French withdrawal, but more violently), and French Algerian colonists (pieds noirs) who didn’t want to leave their homes and fought government efforts to get them out. Ugly.

France’s response to the Algerian War of Independence killed a couple hundred thousand people, ended the Fourth Republic, elevated Charles de Gaulle to power with the Fifth, nearly caused a military coup, and somewhere along the way, while everyone was busy, included a few nuclear weapons being set off within Algerian borders.

Yes, that’s right – in 1960-61, France detonated four separate nukes at Reggane, deep in the Sahara. Two more were detonated at Ekker before Algeria was granted independence on July 5, 1962. Strictly for testing, of course; data collection and, you know, science.

Um… but it’s hard to claim that these tests were for purely technical purposes with no political considerations whatsoever. By 1960 things were at their height, and a nice demonstration of enormously destructive fission right in the enemy’s backyard would be a handy way of demonstrating the coercive elements of French power. Such demonstrations are a core competence of nuclear weapons.

All players needed a reminder that the French government would decide the final outcome. Both Algerian natives opposed to all things French (specifically the FLN guerrilla group) and intransigent pieds noirs opposed to French withdrawal needed to understand this. Someone somewhere in Paris made the calculation that nukes would help make the point.

Anyway, these were nuclear weapons unleashed to affect the outcome of an armed conflict. Just because the blasts didn’t hurt anybody doesn’t mean they had no effect.

Beneath the Arc de Triomphe – France remembers

Beneath the Arc de Triomphe – France remembers


The New Year Is Upon Us, Part II

Now under new management

Now under new management

Uh, “fake news” is your top concern? Is that the best you’ve got?

I mean, what about hangnails? And food spoiling when you forget about the leftovers in the fridge? And traffic! Traffic sucks! Let’s fix that!

I jest, of course. But something all of these have in common is that they are simply part of life. You can fix a particular situation, but the overall issue isn’t going away.

Oh, and for the latter three, you generally don’t have to abridge Constitutional freedoms to address them. The First Amendment protects people’s right to say stupid things, as reflected in American libel laws. And with regard to social media, it will take mere weeks for people to figure out how to game the system and flag real things as fake if they simply don’t like the content, thus defeating its purpose. There’s really nothing else to say about institutional “solutions” – they will all fail legally and practically.

Disinformation is best fought culturally, especially in a liberal society in which the state (ideally) maintains a light footprint in the world of speech. If we take our First Amendment seriously, no top-down effort can defeat propaganda. People (enough of them, anyway) simply have to know when to ignore it.

Foreign propaganda will not gain a following in a strong society that believes in itself and has confidence in itself. Members of such a culture will understand that what they are being told does not quite jive with who they know themselves collectively to be. Propaganda is effective because it is loosely based in truth; usually, the event (whether current or historic) being discussed is a real thing – but the intentions, motivations and other abstractions provide natural room for interpretation, and a foreign interloper can play in this space to sow doubt among a population about its nation’s doings. But members of a confident culture will understand that the doubt being sold does not comport with what they know to be true. And the propagandist will fail.

Belief is a human need. People have always had religion. People have always had national glory. And there have always been naysayers looking down on such beliefs as useless myths that hold us back. But even the naysayers still must believe something too – and foreign propaganda can provide that hook, especially if they are already conditioned to believe their society is regressive. A society that fails to believe in itself will find something else to believe in, some kind of narrative that explains the world, however imperfectly, and however contrary to its own interests.

Referring back to Part I yesterday, this is where Russia’s RT network lives. Its motto is “Question More.” This pretty much encapsulates the theme in the last paragraph. RT is saying, “Has the Western model got you down? You don’t believe in the great myth anymore? We’ve got another version that might fit you better!”

And you know what? They are welcome to say so. We do free speech here, and it applies to them too.

The solution is to come armed with an understanding of what America is – not just as an administrative unit or set of place names, but its nature as a maritime, free-trading state; a cultural outgrowth of England and the Enlightenment; and as an occupant of North America with the relationships and geographies that entails. And, even more importantly, an understanding of why people continue to come here, what their aspirations are, and why they believe they can better realize them in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.

In a sense, our task is to get reacquainted with the myth. Not simply to regurgitate something about Columbus sailing the ocean blue, but to know why it’s important. Can we still call it a myth? Sure. No one can deny mistreatment of natives and slaves, and a million other injustices that occurred in the past. But a lot of great things happened in America’s past too, leading to the fastest and broadest improvement in quality of life in all of human history, which is, you know, nothing to sneeze at. In any case, the myth is less about the past than the future. The myth helps us determine what kind of people and what kind of country we want to be as we move forward, not looking back.

Bottom line: You should have no problem getting all your news from RT, al-Jazeera America and CCTV (the Chinese one). You will be impeccably informed on world events. But before you do, administer yourself an inoculation. It’s easy – all you need to do is believe in America. Seeing through the spin is easier than you might think.

And, yes, I recognize most people think of “fake news” as more an issue of random web sites outright making things up so people click on their links. The same principle above still applies. Fakery is bipartisan and international. Watch for signs that a story or study is serving someone’s narrative, which you can often judge simply by the venue of publication. Certain facts are uncontestable, but the abstract realms of intention and feeling can be twisted to totally change how different outlets interpret an event. Just remember what this country ultimately stands for, and that things are never as bad, nor as good, as the headlines may say.

Here’s to a mildly better-informed 2017.


The New Year Is Upon Us, Part I

Pop 'em!

Pop ’em!

Welcome to 2017, folks.

So let’s talk about 2016. You’re safe now – it can’t hurt us anymore.

That whole election thing didn’t go the way most people thought it would. SMOD failed to make his much-anticipated appearance, for one. Of course, the expected victors have gone casting about for scapegoats and came upon two main (somewhat linked) guilty parties, in the forms of Russia and “fake” news.

I want to take on each of those in turn to discuss how we might make ’17 a little better. However, this post got long enough, I’ve split it into two. So Russia today (ha!), fake news tomorrow.

But let us first stipulate that neither factor threw the election – ultimately, in a contest between two incredibly disliked candidates (the non-meteor candidates, anyway), one was ultimately so disliked and represented things which so many people were fed up with, that that candidate simply lost, regardless of poorly-sourced clickbait or foreign propaganda. Under the rules that have served us well since 1788, that’s all there is to it.

For Russia – a few words. Russia has been doing what it does for a very long time. Toying with its opponent’s information environment and angling for strategic effect is a specialty of the old Soviet Union and Putin is well-acquainted with its methodology. The current situation is fortunate because we at least know about it, are discussing it, and are taking some sort of action (even if it’s maybe a few years late). If we were unaware, Russia would still be busy with disinformation efforts – maybe not expecting much to happen, but pushing just in case something did.

So, yes, let’s fight back and adopt deterrent measures and acknowledge that Russia doesn’t have our best interests at heart. But let’s also acknowledge that this is what they do. And we need to have a plan to deal with it. The indignant response from Washington these days implies we don’t.

And about that… I don’t mean to get tactical, as I can’t read the minds of Russian cyberoperatives, but I do have a hunch that they had no super-secret pre-election pollsters telling them anything we didn’t know in the U.S. It stands to reason that Russia expected exactly the same result we all did. Ergo, the targeted cyber raids and associated leaks aimed at the presumed victor were intended to weaken the domestic position of a soon-to-be-sitting President, and perhaps provide additional dirt they could leak after she was safely in office. The number crunchers’ data made the election seem like such a foregone conclusion, Russia’s interest was probably not on Nov. 8, 2016, but on Jan. 20, 2017. Using info obtained via the 2016 hack, they would gradually work to undermine the U.S. President in some yet-to-be-determined way over the following four years. I suspected they were as surprised as the rest of us when they realized they’d picked the wrong target (don’t worry – he’s next).

Bottom line: Take this as a lesson, people. Russia is Russia. What it does now, it always has done and always will do. It’s a fun place to go, but isn’t your friend. Don’t provoke it – but be ready for it.

Cyberwarfare is an unexplored world that presents new problems and requires equally new ways of thinking. Doctrines must be created or adapted, on which the indispensable Admiral Stavridis (ret.) has some thoughts. It stands to reason that the same country that helped develop maneuver warfare theory would be at the forefront of this new domain. It is time for the U.S. to catch up, if not respond in kind.

Stay tuned for Part II.

UPDATE: It appears my assessment of Russian intentions wasn’t that far off from the one in the Intelligence Community.

From page 12 of 25 of the UNCLAS report (courtesy New York Times):

“When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy and crippling her presidency from its start, including by impugning the fairness of the elction. … Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity.”

So, whoever the Russians’ preferred candidate was, they expected the same result we all did, and took actions to chip away at her future administration’s legitimacy. Of course, her opponent has enough baggage… well, I doubt many hacks were necessary to get dirt on him. (Might not have to wait long to find out…)

Two takeaways:

1.) If I may repeat from the original post, THIS IS WHAT RUSSIA DOES. Always has been, always will be.

2.) And even if every allegation is false (not likely, but still), it doesn’t matter, because in planting the seed of a doubt in the election’s legitimacy or playing up shady connections between Russia and the incoming POTUS, Russia has accomplished its goal of sowing discord and confusion. The joke’s on us either way.

Somehow 2016 just never ends…