Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Government Pork in India: Software Edition

India's Defence Research and Development Organization, which is the Indian equivalent of the American DARPA and the service materiel commands rolled into one, wants to build its own computer operating system. It cites computer security as the impetus.

While the goal is noble, it is patently a boondoggle. DRDO is setting up TWO software engineering centers to write this one operating system. Its waste is evident when you think: MIT computer science students used to write an operating system for their 6.033 design project [not sure if they still do that.] Linus Torvald largely wrote the Linux kernel on his own, over a 4 month period. [Other people contributed codes for features later on, but Torvald finished the functional prototype.]

The Linux example stands out particularly, because it is open and already working. China's software institute, for example, has customized a couple versions of Linux for domestic use. If India cares about developing a useable product and plugging security holes, it should deploy a suitable Linux version immediately, instead of putzing around with an ego project/pork like this operating system project.

That India is continuing with Windows while waiting for DRDO, with its long history of over-budget and over-schedule projects, means that this stunt was for political purposes rather than to satisfy a present capability gap. For most computing needs, there are open software products available.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tests are Good

Tests help kids retain information and improve learning outcomes. Americans need to get over their fear of testing straitjacketing their kids. You can be both creative and take tests. It is not either-or.

And have more recess time. Asian countries have 10 minutes between each class, so kids can recess throughout the day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Absurdity of the Zero Interest Mortgage Meme

MSN quotes this gem of an article, speculating on the home mortgage interest rate in America. The unknown author thinks that the interest rate has a good chance of hitting zero percent. He reasons, "0% financing has long worked as an incentive in the auto industry." And, "After all, two years ago, few people would have thought a 4% mortgage was possible, Larson said."

The author ignores the fundamentals of bank financing. For home owners, their payment consists of two parts: principal and interest. If the sum of principal and interest is within his means, the home owner can afford the house. The laws of supply and demand says that the monthly payment of the average house will be affordable to the average home owner. Interest rate is but half of the price here, the other being home price. If there is excess inventory on the market, the sellers will have to lower the monthly payment to move inventory, meaning lowering both interest and principal.

The other market here is the financing market, being the bank. Banks do not care about the price of the monthly payment, per se. They only care about the interest payment. With a zero interest mortgage, the banks will lose money. With positive inflation, the interest rate has to be higher than inflation. With zero or negative inflation, keeping money in the bank is worth more than taking on the risk of lending. If we ever do get to a deflationary economy, banks will never incur a loss from mortgage lending. They will either not lend at all, or they will milk a government subsidy to cover their risk of lending.

In addition, in a deflationary period, by definition the home price will go down with the rest of the economy. With a lower home price, once again the monthly payment is within reach of the average buyer, all without having to resort to zero interest.

The author seems desperate to believe home prices will not fall. That desperation, and the political will to prop up the home prices, is harming all Americans and holding back our economic recovery.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Naval Strategy and South China Sea

This article in Asia Times adds to our understanding of nationalist elements in Japan politics.  The writer's pro-China bias is so thick that even I could pick it up, but he makes clear the current [and maybe emergent] Japanese strategy: Aggressively patrols the Senkaku Islands as territorial waters, but not crossing the bright line of settling the islands.  Japan's strategic concern is in not antagonizing Taiwan on the Diaoyutai issue, which can strengthen the pro-unification camp in Taiwan.  [The independence movement in Taiwan is pro-Japan for historical and geo-strategic reasons.]  If Taiwan ever reunifies, Japan will settle the Senkakus in a heartbeat.

More broadly, Japan's overtures to Vietnam, and Phillipine's ASEAN rebuke to Sec. Clinton's South Sea remakrs, underscores an interesting anti-colonial dynamic [for lack of a better word] at play in South East Asia.  [The Hate Triangle that is North East Asia is well-documented.]

In all ASEAN states [except Singapore and maybe Brunei], there are strong sentiments and biases against both China and America. [A bit of Japan, too, but that's faint compared to the other two.]  The Chinese outposts in the South Sea are sore spots to the surrounding countries, but their people don't like the Americans, either.  For example, Vietnam would really prefer Russia over the US in balancing China, but Russia cannot do more than sell weapons at present.  In fact, Russia wants to refurbish Cam Ranh Bay, but we'll see if it actually happens.  Up Country portrays well both the strategic inevitability of a US-Vietnam security alliance, and Vietnamese reluctance to do so.

Phillippines has been pissed off about the American evacuation of Clark Air Base in 1991.  Its intelligentsia are suspicious of America over its support of Marcos regime.  Indonesia has regional aspirations, colonial baggage, past military dictatorships, and an Islamic identity, all of which build the above bias as well.

All this is to say that the US may have no "entry point" into a Battle of the South Sea.  While the US has a freedom of navigation concern, the combatants (China + one more) will not want its help in resolving the battle.  The most likely scenario is where the US Navy escorts neutral convoys together with Singapore and Japan, a la the Tanker War'84-88.  The escort scenario will require several squadrons of FFGs, which the US Navy is retiring soon.

Most of the popular South Sea scenarios envision the US taking a combatant role against China's southern fleet, which in turn feeds into the general support for more destroyers and aircraft carriers.  However, the political emphasis on the higher end of the Navy is unbalancing it for meeting the full spectrum of requirements.  The combatant scenario is but one of the possible futures of the South Sea.  Another equally likely future is the above escort scenario.  Convoy escort is generally the duty of frigates, but we are coming up against a frigate gap.  The current difficulties of the Littoral Combat Ships program means it may be cut short.  It will take time to start up a replacement frigate program.  So there may be a long gap between the retirement of the last Perry and the introduction of the next frigate, in the near future.  If the South Sea Battle falls during this gap, the US Navy will have to commit our Aegis destroyer squadrons [which are national strategic assets for missile defense] for convoy duty, which is a much lower strategic priority.  So the USN is on the trajectory toward a disastrous South Sea.

[The LCS as currently configured is completely incapable of convoy air defense, and only possibly capable of the convoy ASW, pending its ASW module.]

Another question we need to answer is the strategic priority of the South Sea itself.  With the opening of the Northwest Passage, the South Sea is no longer the petrol lifeline of Japan.  Australia, another ally, does not depend on the South Sea for petroleum.  Other than the possibility of oil, and the general global commerce, why should the US care about the South Sea?

The popular South Sea combatant scenarios may be the manifestations of a US Navy in search of a strategic purpose.  The continuing focus on a "near peer competitor", aka China, is unbalancing the US Navy from its other strategic priorities, as I outlined above.  We need some sanity over this piece of ocean, at least in the US.  That the ASEAN states go crazy over the submerged atolls there does not mean it will start World War III.  The most important role for the US is to contain the conflict, and compartmentalize its effects from the rest of the world.  With a robust convoy escort capability, we can minimize the harm of a shooting war on global commerce, and avoid foreign entanglements.  The Senkaku flare up reminds us all that there are no easy territorial disputes left in the world.  All of the remaining territorial disputes have no clear title holders; every claimant has a legitimate claim to the title.  The rest of the world should not suffer from these petty title fights.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Senkaku/Diaoyutai, and Reflections on Maritime Low-Intensity Warfare

Watching the Senkaku dispute, one is reminded of the passion people feel toward land, especially a piece of land that most people have never seen and almost uninhabitable. That people can feel so passionate of land speaks ill toward conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

What is the next step? In the Hobbesian world of international relations, possession is 90% of the game. Japan had erected markers and a lighthouse on Diaoyutai, but has no permanent presence on the islands. Therefore, the first actor to "settle" the islands will resolve the dispute in his favor.

Indeed, as NightWatch reports, Japan is considering stationing troops.

I thought China might deploy the PLA to garrison the islands much like it did in the south china sea, but this article suggests that China may not have the will to escalate.

A unilateral occupation of any island [of the 4 "habitable" ones] will trigger a military race to settle the other 3 islands. The second mover will also embargo the opposing garrisons to "freeze" the situation, pending diplomatic resolution. Both sides will try to re-supply their marines on shore. A naval confrontation is inevitable in this scenario. Due to the distance, neither side is capable of enforcing an aerial embargo for long, so aerial resupply will keep the garrisons at survival level.

[If Japan moves first, Taiwan will face political pressure to deploy as well. Such a three-way race risks driving Taiwan away from Japan, which may be one of the few current constraints holding Japan back.]

In this scenario of unilateral settlements, a military confrontation at sea will quickly reach a new local equilibrium, absent political wills for war. If domestic pressures increase, the political leadership may seek points through this escalation.

One further point on this military confrontation: To enforce the naval embargo against resupply, ramming will be the predominant tactic. As I mentioned previously, ocean-going tugboats are incredibly relevant on the maritime low-intensity battlefield. If a combatant is too fragile for ramming, its only resort will be warning shots, which is a very risky escalation on the force continuum, depending on gunnery skills and sea state. Whereas the physical force of a tugship enables safe resolution against non-cooperative vessels. While Galrahn has expounded on the necessity of including and elevating VBSS teams and naval infantry in the planning/doctrine & force structure of naval strategy, tugs and ramming represent the other leg of the low-intensity naval dyad. Indeed, a ramming touched off the current crisis, and the Japan Coast Guard cutters frequently resorted to ramming to enforce its claims over the Senkaku Islands. Both tugs & VBSS teams will depend on a mothership that is sorely lacking in the US Navy.

Given the prominence of nationalist groups in both Japan and China, a non-government actor may try to settle the islands. Japanese and Taiwanese civilian groups had attempted to resolve the sovereignty dispute through settlement. Japan Coast Guard were able to arrest and deport Taiwanese settlers in the past. Japanese settlers did not have the logistic support to stay long term. There is no fresh water on the islands nor much wildlife, making the logistic requirements unaffordable to most NGOs. The current diplomatic crisis may raise sufficient funds for such an expedition, though.

If a Taiwanese group undertakes a deployment, its primary obstacle will be Japanese eviction. The settlers will have to employ non-lethal measures to successfully resist eviction. For example, net launchers can trap RHIBs and swimmers in the surf zone, preventing Coast Guard officers from landing. Once on land, sticky foam and nets can immobilize the officers. Thus secured, the settlers can send the officers back out to sea on their RHIBs, for an intercept and recovery by their own cutters. The settlers may deploy an ADS-like device without contending with human-safety concerns, but fuel for power generation will be the primary constraint on its operation. Same goes for other direct energy systems.
[We focus on a Taiwanese group because of logistics, and because Chinese billionaires are unlikely to fund this endeavor without government clearance.]

A Japanese civilian group faces eviction risks from the Coast Guard as well. In the current environment, PRC will respond to a civilian escalation with a proxy civilian deployment [ie, a state-sponsored NGO.] To maintain the status quo, where Japn enjoys de facto sovereignty over Diaoyu with its cutter patrols, the Japanese government has an incentive to head off a low-intensity escalation by evicting Japanese settlers. In addition, a Japanese civilian escalation risks a Taiwanese response as well, which is against Japanese interests as stated above. Therefore, a Japanese NGO needs to invest in non-lethal measures to oppose landings.

An NGO can survive on the islands with reverse osmosis water purifiers and mussel/shellfish harvests. It is not impossible, but requires significant preparation and training.

At the moment, neither Japan nor PRC wishes to escalate the dispute. However, ignored domestic pressures can become rogue NGO actions. A successful NGO operation/settlement can force the governments into escalation, reaching the new local equilibrium of a naval embargo. A Solomonic resolution could divide each island into two, half to Japan and the other half China, with a Green Line going down the middle of each island. However, a settlement operation can preclude that division. We could end up with an Ying-Yang-esque division, with a Japanese Diaoyu Dao and a Chinese Taisho Jima. That would be an amusing ending to this 130 year old dispute.

PS (3OCT10): Edited title and added links and tags.