The Desert Fox at MHQ

Erwin Rommel was one of the most interesting figures of WW2.  For a long time there has been talk that he was really only a great divisional commander who was promoted beyond his level of true competency.  Talking about the relative merits of generals is always fun, and incapable of being proven.  Rommel’s achievements in North Africa are undeniable, even though he never had enough men or equipment to do as much as he wanted.  On the other hand, the British siphoned troops from that front to send elsewhere on more than one occasion.  Rommel grabbing the Suez Canal or going even further afield is one of the great “what ifs?” of the war.   Read the fine article by Robert Citino in the Summer issue of MHQ, and take a look at some Rommel and Afrika Korps photos here.  Also, take a look at this article by Professor Citino about the German airborne attack on Crete in 1941.


Army Looks for New Camouflage

The U.S. Army’s soldiers will be getting new uniforms – eventually.  The current  Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), made of a digitally-composed color pattern, has not proven quite as universal as hoped.  It is a fine uniform, ironically, for only a limited environment – the urban.  Otherwise, it doesn’t quite cut it.  It is too light for forest or jungle environments.  It is not brown enough for Afghanistan, and not tan enough for the desert.

Providing soldiers with a proper uniform camouflage is much harder than one might think.  Finding an  acceptable pattern takes a lot of work, and experience in World War II and Vietnam has shown that different places require different patterns,  A universal pattern was a good idea on paper, but not in practice.   Soldiers now deploying to Afghanistan are already getting their new MultiCam duds.  MultiCam looks to me a bit more like modern German camouflage.

The whole story has made me wonder what caused them to change in the first place.   Three-color desert was fine for Iraq, but then the Army went to UCP.  Simply enhancing this pattern with more brown would have been effective for Afghanistan.   UCP was one of those things that must have sounded great, but did not work more effectively than specific solutions tailored for a particular theater.

I have been looking over even older patterns too, and I can’t help but think that the 1981 woodland pattern was great.  Not without flaws, but good for an enormous range of environments.  I also think that the so-called chocolate chip pattern uniform (Desert Storm) was effective.

In any event, this is being called a $5 billion mistake.   Check out this article.


Super Duper Secret Stealth Drone

This photograph was found on the web recently.  It is purportedly a secret stealth drone similar to the ones already acknowledged to be in the U.S. arsenal.  What strikes me about this photo isn’t so much that we have a machine like this that doesn’t officially exist – it is that we can get a photo of this from space and have it available in full color everywhere.  The Kennedy Administration had nothing remotely like this during the Cuban Missile Crisis back in 1962.   Today, such images are so common that we barely notice the technology.


2,000 Year Global GDP Chart

Check out this remarkable chart at The Atlantic of the relative share of world GDP over the last 2,000 years.  As you can see, the big story of the last five  centuries is the rise of the share of the western world.

I am not sure how well we can calculate GDP so far back.  The graph assumes a simple metric of one person to one unit of GDP, which may not be entirely accurate.  Who is to say?  At best, this is just a crude measure of economic output.  But the larger point is clear- that a handful of European or European-derived nations (the United States) have had an outsized share of global GDP since the Renaissance and the European discovery of the Americas – from around 1500.


John Carter Rides Again!

If you have been reading this blog for the last few months (which is as long as it has been going) you will recall that I was very enthusiastic about Disney’s John Carter.   You may also be aware that John Carter cost a sizable portion of Disney’s movie division their jobs.

John Carter has been maligned as a bomb – but is that a fair assessment?  My best movie buddy and I watched the DVD this weekend, and we agreed that the movie was (1) awesome; and (2) flew by.  It is over two hours long but feels like a much shorter film.  This is due in large part to the fast pace.  The action never lets up.  The film’s worldwide take was an impressive $282 million.   That is not pocket change.

Here is the rub:  John Carter cost $250 million to make.  It cost another $100 million to advertise – not that this advertising was apparent in even the slightest degree to me, and I was looking forward to the film.

I can’t believe that John Carter can be called a bomb with a straight face.  A box office bomb makes little money.  John Carter made lots of it, but Disney forgot to control costs.  Any product launch (and that is exactly what a movie is) will fail if expenses spiral out of sight.

I thought that John Carter was much better than Prometheus, which I also enjoyed.  Prometheus has not bombed, but it cost only half of what John Carter did.  That is a big factor.

If you would like to help Disney recoup some its money, the DVD is available at Amazon here.



I saw Ridley Scott’s latest movie, Prometheus, which is a prequel of sorts to his 1979 masterpiece, Alien.  I thought that Prometheus was a good film, not a great one.  As with many other films these days, you should not tug too hard on any one of the plot threads, or it will all unravel.

Even if you don’t see Prometheus, you should check out Govindini Murty’s fantastic examination in The Atlantic Monthly of the cultural tropes and influences in it.  This might be one of the few times that an article about a film is more interesting than the film itself.


America Pivots to the Pacific

Professor James Holmes of the Naval War College is fast becoming one of my favorite web authors. I have blogged about one of his articles before, and this week he has produced another fine piece in Foreign Policy about U.S. strategy in the Pacific, Is America Pivoting Fast Enough to the Pacific? Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down (hopefully), the Pentagon is moving to bolster American forces in the Pacific.

China will prove to be tough customer in any fight.  The U.S. should be wary of sticking its nose too far into the South China Sea dispute. It is not our territory, and never will be. We don’t want China to steamroll every other Asian nation, but the militaries of those front line countries should be putting forward the bulk of the forces to defend against possible Chinese moves.

Also, Holmes points out that the new LCS – Littoral Combat Ship – about which I have also previously blogged, is not as powerful as a conventional destroyer or similar surface ship. They are not meant to duke it out with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Fair enough. But then why are we building them at all if they are so comparatively weak? I understand that they will have uses other than in a full battle, such as fighting pirates or clearing mines, but wouldn’t some smaller, less expensive craft be suitable for such missions? I would prefer a better PT-style boat, armed with guns and a few missiles, not a weak but still expensive frigate that isn’t really a frigate.

During the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy found itself scattered across the globe on various imperial missions. The relative decline of the main fleet in Britain itself caused the German navy chief Alfred von Tirpitz to believe that he could build a fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy in its home waters, his thinking being that Britain’s overseas commitments would render it unable to collect all of its much larger navy back home to resist the German fleet.

He was wrong – very wrong. The British indeed recognized the German threat as paramount, and pulled back most of their forces from overseas stations. They also improved relations with the U.S., which obviated the need for a powerful North American squadron, and concentrated on building big capital ships to maintain their edge over the Germans.

But the damage was already done. The Germans had spooked the British like nothing else had since Napoleon. The anti-German alliance hardened, and Britain was inclined to see every additional ship launched by the Germans as a threat to their existence.  The seeds of the First World War were sown in large part because Germany misjudged Britain’s determination to remain the world’s foremost naval power.

The U.S should not become confused about its priorities. Fighting piracy and other such things are useful, but the role of the navy is to safeguard America, not other nations. To do this, it has to be able to either deter or dissuade other navies from taking hostile actions against it. That means powerful combatants. The LCS does not seem like it is meant to be that kind of a ship.

Not every ship must be powerful. Sometimes a navy needs large numbers of a ship at a low cost. World War Two-era Fletcher class destroyers were not overwhelmingly powerful. But they were true combatants, and did their job well. They were also backed up by large numbers of other ships. Does the building of the LCS take away from funds that might go into fewer but better ships, such as the Arleigh Burke class destroyer? At root, this is a question about how effective the LCS will be in a stand up seafight. I don’t know the answer to that.

This brings up another, fundamental question: Can the Pentagon make anything inexpensively? Does every weapon system have to be equipped with all the bells and whistles? This drives up development time and costs, and makes the finished product all the more expensive. There are some things that will never be cheap, such as a nuclear submarine or an aircraft carrier. If the question is fighting seaborne piracy, however, and it is safe to assume that pirates are not operating destroyers, then a smaller ship is a sufficient solution. I suppose the LCS is meant to be a more affordable ship, but I worry that too many sacrifices were made to keep the price (relatively) low.


My Old Enemy and the Former Friend of My Possible Future Enemy is Kind of My New Friend

China’s rise, and resulting territorial and maritime ambitions, have caused a number of other Asian nations to look to the United States for backup.  One of these countries is none other than Vietnam.  You all remember Vietnam, don’t you?

Yes, that Vietnam.  Robert D. Kaplan has a lengthy article in the current The Atlantic Monthly.  Apart from highlighting the strategic difficulties that China’s power has caused it – it is scaring other countries into the U.S. “camp”- it contains an illuminating explanation as to why the Vietnamese have gotten past the war, which FYI, they call the “American War.”

Nutshell:  They believe that they won it.