Friday, July 31, 2009

Colombia and the South American Arms Race

In a world of non-state conflicts (Iraq, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria), it is refreshing to witness a good old-fashioned state-to-state confrontation. It is much less violent than the up-close-and-personal, messy, insurgency. Today, we see Venezuela kicking it up a notch against its regional rival, Colombia.

Venezuela and Ecuador have funded guerrilla proxies against Colombia. Now that Colombia is emerging from its civil war, it is naturally antagonistic toward its unfriendly neighbors. A FARC-free Colombia will tackle the resource and border disputes it currently ignores. Colombia's battle-hardened army, and its friendly relation with the US, do not comfort Hugo Chavez, either. The strategic rivalry in the area may draw the rest of the continent into the confrontation. An arms race started by Peru and Venezuela will lead to some much needed cash for the American military-industrial complex for the next few years.

Whether this arms race widens will depend on the ABC: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Argentina's Kirchner may well take Chavez's side and use the Venezuelan aid money to "recapitalize the military" [aka graft money to constituents.] Where Brazil and Chile will come down is more difficult to read, due to their complex relationship with the area. Venezuela will interpret the outcome of the Brazilian fighter competition as a signal of where Lula is going.

Iran: A Less Than Lethal Insurgency

We're seeing the Iranian protesters again on the news, with the memorials for Neda and the ensuing melee.

Iran is an interesting case right now on the bureaucratic struggles during an insurgency. The fact that the protests have dragged on this long, one month plus and counting, means that the Iranian government does not have enough manpower to secure the streets. The counter-insurgency rule of thumb for manpower is 10 to 20 soldiers per 1000 residents. Obviously here Iran fails to have those soldiers to lock down Tehran.

The reason is simple. In the news videos we have seen thus far, there is a conspicuous absence of the Iranian army. Instead, the riot police and the Basij militia are the primary enforcers against the protesters. Without bringing in the rest of the Iranian security apparatus, the Basij is outnumbered by the protesters on the street. It would take a more rigorous analysis, but I suspect the Tehran metro police department is being kept out of play here as well.

The fact that Iran has not deployed the military means that the revolutionary council does not trust the military. The size of the protest population has backed the Revolutionary Council into a corner here: It can call in the Army, which would contain the current crisis, but which would leave the protesters to fight again down the line, as I described earlier. Or, it could stick with the Basij, and the current insurgency will continue like an open sore, sapping the Iranian security apparatus.

It appears that the Revolutionary Council is facing a lose-lose situation here, and the Iranian Insurgency has a genuine chance of success, my previous predictions not-withstanding.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Health Care Alternative: More Doctors

Today NPR has two healthcare stories I heard:
1.) Volunteer doctors provide free care at a camp/fair for the uninsured,
2.) Community organizers help Obama push for universal healthcare.

I'm struck by a thought: These community organizers would surely do a lot more good if they all have a medical or nursing degree! Just imagine the concrete, physical good they can do to the world, instead of the intangible, unmeasurable service they are providing. Yes, they are talking to people, and helping people's voices get heard. But what if, they can do that, and give people what they need, too!

As a community organizer, you are usually backing a lost cause. It will take forever to see a return on your efforts, if ever. As a medical professional, you see an immediate return of your efforts. People get well right before your eyes, or at least do not suffer as much as before. You are helping people, either way. But you do more good as a medical caregiver than a community organizer. That medical fair would never have happened if doctors and nurses did not show up. You would only have a bunch of community organizers then.

Of course, it may be because I'm an engineer that I'm thinking this way. But it is a logical choice to get a nursing degree instead of community-organizing-efforts. Unless those community organizers do not really want to help people.

If Obama wants to give more medical care to the American people, one way he can start is by opening a free medical and nursing school open to all. This school will keep up the academic rigor by failing people who cannot make it. It will focus only on primary care and trauma care. Its graduates will man those community clinics for MedicAid and MediCare patients, and the uninsured.

That federal medical/nursing school has got to be cheaper than the $1+ trillion/year (2002 dollars) that MediCare is projected to require by 2075.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kenya: the Next Sino-Indian Flash Point

The New York Times has a summary article on Kenyan politics last week.  For all the talk about Americans' self-obsession, the Old Media does a pretty fair job of covering world events, for those who care to look.

Anyway, the article basically says that the old Mau Mau Uprising never went away.  The ethnic fissures in Kenya are as explosive as ever.  This instability, coupled with Indian and Chinese ambitions in the area, may well make Kenya the next Sino-Indian flash point.

Here I am not saying that either China or India will instigate a crisis, but rather, that their local allies have an incentive to drag the two countries into the conflict.  Both countries are expanding their commercial relationships with Kenya.  Their alliances with local politicians and powerbrokers will start to line up along Kenya's ethnic fault lines.  When Kenyans go to war against each other, they will call on their external allies for support, thus widening the conflict.

In a sense, this is similar to the dynamic covered in Freakonomics and Gang Leader for a Day: The powerful chiefs have an inherent desire for peace and quiet, because war is bad for business.  Their underlings, however, are trigger happy, because war improves their odds of advancement in a tournament-style system.

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American Recession is Over (Or, We Have Hit Rock Bottom)

Bernanke has added his voice to the growing concensus view, that the Recession is over.  This is one week after Daniel Gross's article on some leading economic indicators.

So this means that we have hit rock bottom, low enough that the economy will not shrink anymore, for a little bit longer.  You can kind of see this in the stock market as well, where the SP500 hit the bottom back in March, and has recovered quite a bit of its value since then.

However, the question now is, what's next?  The current "recovery" is primarily the result of fear easing and hitting bottom.  Back in the first quarter of this year, the credit market locked up, and businesses went into survival mode, hoarding cash and minimizing expenses.  Now, the commercial papers market has returned to somewhat normal, meaning businesses can stop hoarding cash.  Businesses cannot slash any more expenses without impeding their operations.  And productivity is up, as they fire many of the lazier employees.

American companies are earning some money from the economies of China and India (and Brazil and other developing countries), which gives you that small rise in earnings you are seeing in the Second Quarter reports.  However, the American consumers are not spending, so there is little domestic driver for corporate earnings this year.

There are three scenarios going forward:

1.) Optimistic: The Obama stimulus finally hits the economy.  The Adjustable Rate Mortgages stop being a drain on banks (because they already wrote down the mortgage sector, hopefully).  We can't see a consumption-driven recovery, but we can see Investment from a new technology, as yet unknown.  Rich people the world over start going on vacation again to luxury destinations.  Inflation stays under control.  These little things add up to start dragging the world economy out of the slump. 

This would depend on all of these little things happening, and so far, it looks highly unlikely, short of a World War III-driven economic recovery.

2.) Neutral: Stimulus hits, but the ARM write down (from all the 2007 homebuyers losing their homes, or a Federally-forced "mortgage protection" settlement) largely cancels out the stimulus.  Consumption stays the same.  Investment stays low.  Inflation stays middle.  Rich people are afraid to visibly spend on luxuries, keeping them at home.  We enter a Japanese style economic ennui.

This scenario is very likely, because the ARM write down has yet to happen.  As Gross said in his article, we cannot foresee a technology compelling enough to start an Investment-driven recovery, in the style of the 90's Internet Boom.

3.) Pessimistic: The ARM writedown overwhelms the Obama stimulus.  Inflation on the Supply inputs (a bad corn harvest, rise in fertiliser cost, Nigerian MEND terrorism, et al) pushes companies and households into bankruptcies.  The stock market takes a second nosedive.

This scenario is somewhat likely.  If it does happen, it will be a long, bad stretch for the world.

The above analysis does not account for several wildcards.  For example, the Cap and Trade regime and other environmental initiatives could severely curtail corporate investment and bankrupt small companies.  A bad H1N1 outbreak in the northern hemisphere could drive 2009 back into negative growth territory.

So for those of you looking to invest in the stock market: Yes, you have missed the bus, once again.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009


Prof. Stephen Walt said something I've talked about here before: The AARP is a bigger existential threat to America's national security than China.  After all, China, despite its holding of Treasury bills, is not going to zero out the DoD's budget by 2075, whereas AARP's Medicare will.

To my international readers: This is why you need to look at your own healthcare system carefully.  It will limit your ability to afford the good stuff like an aircraft carrier.

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Grooming and Personality More Important Than Looks

It's nice to know that grooming (being clean-looking) is more important than general attractiveness, at least for men.  It's a trait firmly under our control.

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China and Nigeria

This piece of news is a reflection of the growing ties between China and Nigeria.  It will be interesting to observe how the various economically-dominant minorities in Africa maneuver against each other, Lebanese vs Indians vs now Chinese.

Another point is the MEND insurgency in Nigeria, one of the more successful Global Guerrillas in the world.  With China getting increasingly involved in the extraction industries in Africa, including Nigeria, how will these insurgencies react?  Will China deploy public and private advisors to these governments to improve their security?  Will MEND cells in China take root?

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TTP for Anti-Ship Missile Launcher Sites

Galrahn at Information Dissemination is talking about a possible Iranian missile base in Eritrea, and the Israeli (possibly related) naval activity in the Red Sea.  If Iran is building an anti-ship missile base in Eritrea to close down the Suez Canal, that will certainly give Iran a lot of leverage over Europe.

So naturally, there is a military need to shut down this missile base.  Incidentally, I have an anecdote that is relevant to this situation.  Hopefully, if you are planning for a similar scenario, you will find this useful.

About 10 or 11 years ago, I was in a seminar.  The conclusion of the seminar was a military planning exercise.  The scenario was, surprise, an Iranian missile launch site on one of its Strait of Hormuz islands.

The conditions of the scenario were:
1.) The missiles [Silkworm?] and their launchers were housed in a concrete blast-resistant bunker.  The bunker has clamshell doors on opposing ends, allowing the Iranians to launch missiles after they open the doors.  The bunker construction precludes a Tomahawk strike.
2.) The post had SHORAD weapons, and nearby air bases limit air strike options.
3.) The post had a small garrison, squad to platoon size, including the missile technicians.
4.) Ground reinforcements were 4 to 8 hours away.
5.) A Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operation Capable) and its Amphibious Ready Group were within flight range.
6.) Iran had just declared the Strait of Hormuz closed, and we have observed activity at the post to make the missiles operational within 24 hours.

The mission was, To absolutely, positively disable the facility.  Because of the bunker construction, an air strike might leave the missiles operational.  So a ground presence is necessary regardless to ensure the facility's destruction.

Obviously, they structured the parameters to force a platoon/company raid on the planners.  Which is basically what we all came up with.  I used the mortars to take out the radio tower/antennae before starting the assault, while others went after the garrison right away.

The challenge here, though, is the bunker.  One guy suggested using Dragon missiles to blow the doors, but the Marine Colonel, who facilitated the exercise, said that had a high likelihood of failing.  The Colonel said that he would have used C-4 explosives to breach the bunker.  Just had to make everyone schlep a bag of C-4 onto the objective.

My idea, though, was to bring some quick-setting cement along the raid.  A few engineers will mix the cement on the objective, and fill in the seams around the blast doors.  By the time the reinforcements arrive, the cement would have cured.  They thus cannot open up the bunker doors, rendering the bunker, and the missiles inside, useless.  With a sealed bunker, the Iranians would have to either build a new bunker, which takes time, or site new missile launchers in the open, which is ripe for a Tomahawk strike.

The Colonel thought it was a neat idea.  Hopefully we never have to try this idea for real.

[You might think of a SEAL raid in the beginning, but a SEAL platoon (14 people) possibly cannot schlep enough stuff to take on the bunker.]

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chinese PLA Officer Corps Promotion Cycle, and Some Notes on India

Here is an observation thread about China today. Most of the observations are valid, coming from different perspectives. The observation about their selective enforcement of laws can be jarring to a Westerner, but not news to anyone else. The Rule of Law is definitely one of the larger issues the international aid community is struggling with now.

One commenter there noted the rapid promotion cycle of PLA officers, compared to the US Army. American officers generally have made Lieutenant Colonels (O5) by their 20th year in commissioned service. [We're not talking about the guys who are retiring.] However, the People's Liberation Army expects its officers to make "Division-Commander-Equivalent" (O8-equivalent) by their 20th year. That is fast indeed.

The speed of promotion in PLA has several effects. One is that the pressure for promotion is correspondingly high. You are not only preparing for the promotion coming up, you're also preparing for every subsequent promotions. With the intense competition, every little mistake or blemish has huge consequences (Think Zero-Defect Mentality in the post-Cold War US Military.) So the officers are always afraid of stepping away from the group norm.

Another effect is that the sycophancy gets magnified. China has a gift-giving culture that Americans might call bribery, but similar to every other non-Western nation. In the PLA the officers obviously cannot afford much given their salary, but they're still expected to give something. Coupled that with the sycophancy natural in a political organization, even someone who wants to stay clean cannot do so.

On the other hand, their generals do become very good at reading people. To survive the promotion system, they have to be good at reading body language and socializing. That may give them an edge in certain military and political situations.

With so short a promotion cycle, the officers hardly spend any time at any position. In the US Army, battalion command is supposed to be a three year job, giving the lieutenant colonels some time to make their mark on the team. The staff also have time to learn and anticipate the commander's intent. In the PLA, commanders hardly spend any time on their post (probably a year at most). Just when the commander and his staff have gelled as a team, it's time for the commander to move on to his next position. He also does not have much time for schooling, definitely not the year-long CGSC and War Colleges American officers are accustomed to. He has to depend a lot on On the Job Training.

Another effect of the fast promotion system is that the PLA has to kick out a lot of young officers along the way. If you do not make that first promotion list, you probably will not be on the next one, either. With many government-owned companies in the defense sector and elsewhere, this provides a steady stream of employees.

Another effect is that the PLA has a small staff system. The US military let many not-likely-to-promote officers stick around to make their 20 years and qualify for retirement, in part to fill the many staff jobs. The PLA does not have that pool of bodies to draw on.

However, sycophancy does not imply mindless sucking up. The PLA does think about the future and values scholarly activity (a carryover from Confuscianism), as opposed to the anti-intellectual US Army. Combine that with the obedient officer corps. If the political leadership or the PLA brass needs to change their doctrine or organizational direction (eg, from centralized corps formations to decentralized battlegroups), the officer corps will quickly adapt and adopt their orders. That organizational flexibility cannot be discounted.

Some people in that observation thread mentions nepotism. It does exist, but its effect on the PLA is limited these days. With the economic growth of the past thirty years, there is a lot of money in the non-military sector. Generals are more likely to place their children in the government enterprise or private companies, to make money, than to groom them to follow the family tradition.

Compare and contrast the PLA system with that of India. Bharat-Rakshak recently had an interesting thread that touches on Indian Army's promotion system. [Another one talks about officer commissioning sources and touches on promotion, too.] The Indian promotion cycle is definitely slower than the PLA's, maybe slightly longer than America's. So the battalion commanders have more time to gell with their staffs.

Two features of the Indian system are worth noting though: Its top-heavy chain of command, and its emphasis on a full career.

The Indian Army is remarkably brass heavy, when compared to NATO formations. On the line units, they have majors (O4) commanding companies, colonels (O6) battalions, and brigadiers (O7) brigades. Coupled with the 5 to 6 years you typically spend in each rank, that makes for a long time between command billets. While the line commanders definitely get more maturity and "wisdom" for being so senior in their military career, they may also be more set in their ways.

Another part of the Indian system is their emphasis on career. Most of the Short Service Commission officers get out of the Indian Army at the five year mark. However, the permanent commissioned officers (like the Regular Army officers of yore) usually stay on until retirement. So the Indian Army has a big population of the field grade, permanent commissioned, officers on the payroll. This is as opposed to the American system where most officers separate from service between the fifth year mark and the twelfth year mark, with the rest holding out for the 20th year retirement. The "iron rice bowl" mentality associated with government career service makes the Indian Army more rigid, less mentally flexible, than the US military. Indian Army's military operations around the country keep its line units on their toes, but the institutional and support side of the army are slow and inflexible. The slower tail of the Indian Army may hold the line units back in an extended campaign.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Prevention of Chronic Conditions Key to Healthcare Reform

Today's Fortune has an article saying that preventative care will not necessarily fix our health care budget problem. Much of the preventative care (health maintenance) today consists of minimizing complications of chronic diseases, such as eye exams for diabetics and statins for heart disease patients. These practices merely improve quality of life of patients and delay the inevitable, and increases our healthcare expenses.

Miller says, the key is to prevent these chronic diseases in the first place. I agree, and want to clarify my earlier healthcare article: When I said Prevention, I meant prevention of chronic diseases, not of complications.

Another point Miller brought up is that, as we live longer, cancer and organ failure becomes problems, which are costly and inevitable. Prevention won't fix that. That's another issue to ponder, and my earlier article did not adequately resolve this issue. Can we afford to keep alive all people who grow old enough to deal with geriatric cancer and organ failures? (As opposed to other patients who have remaining economic potentials.) Or, is this question a moral/ethical one, ie, We have to spend the money because it is inhumane to make the judgement?

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New MRAP-like Capability Gaps

Paul McLeary of Aviation Week asked a question: What is our next MRAP-like capability gap? In other words, a capability gap that the US military has been underfunding, but which would be catastrophic in our next war?

I came up with 3 gaps, one for each of the departments, 'cuz I'm joint in my heart :)

1.) AAM seeker diversity: AIM-120 desperately needs an infrared seeker alternative. Or a hyperspectral sensor.
2.) Corvettes/Frigates/PCs for Navy: they need more smaller ships. that one will come up when we intervene in a coastal situation again. Galrahn is talking about this one right now.
2.) An airborne-capable tank would be nice.

One of the commenters said cyber, but that's kind of getting enough attention as it is. An MRAP like capability gap is usually very conventional and un-sexy. That's why we get "surprised" when it happens.

Anyone else have any thoughts?

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Honduras and Xinjiang

The administration should have stayed out of the Honduras business. If the President still respects the Nation-State paradigm, as his recent weapon shipment to Somalia suggests, then he should leave that whole business up to the governmentS of Honduras, let them fight it out.

And if he subscribes to the reality-based non-state actor paradigm I discussed earlier, then he still should stay out of Honduras. At this time, the situation in Honduras is too chaotic. Slate's article on Honduras said that there hasn't been a poll in Honduras for almost a month, so we have no idea which faction has the people's will right now. In addition, Michelletti promised to hold the presidential election as scheduled. It's best to just wait and see.

Of course, as Machiavelli has said, nobody likes a fence straddler. It's best to pick a side and stick with it. Of course, Machiavelli also advised us to always support the weaker side, since they will appreciate the help more. If we're officially supporting Zelaya's return to power, that will definitely include a military component, leading to a Honduran casus belli against us.

Obama should have sat this one out.

As regards to the current mess in Xinjiang: Protesting is ok, but rioting is not. Destruction of property is a waste of resources, and should only be done when militarily necessary. Hurting or killing bystanders is an even bigger sin. Neither the Uighurs nor the local Hans do their causes any good by running through the streets as they have been doing.

Uighurs should fight any discrimination they face in China, but only through civil disobedience campaigns (that minimize property damage).

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Corroborating Evidence of Afghanistan Economy of Force Ops

Gen (ret) Jones stated that we will not be sending more troops to Afghanistan. That is in keeping with Col (ret) Lang's thesis that we are moving the strategic main effort from the conventional forces to the commando forces. Consequently, the conventional forces need to change their mission to meet their objectives as the supporting element. I advocated for a refugee mission to meet the new strategy earlier. The situation remains favorable for this mission.