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The Democratisation of Airpower

Big shifts in the military balance happen quietly over many years, and then leap suddenly into focus when the shooting starts.

It happened to classic blitzkrieg tactics in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, infantry-fired anti-tank missiles, in just three weeks. And it happened to ‘air superiority’, in the sense that it has been understood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Tanks ruled the battlefield from the German blitzkrieg of 1940 until 1973. Only more or better tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more sophisticated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more plentiful. There is no longer a single, simple equation for battlefield success.

Air superiority, the other main component of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of success. The powers that could afford to design and build the most advanced combat aircraft controlled not only the sky but the land beneath it, and could batter weaker states into submission (NATO against Serbia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few casualties of their own.

Fast forward to September 2019 in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom should be among the privileged, invulnerable few, for it has a very high-tech air force and the best air defences money can buy. It can also call on the immense power of the United States, which maintains military bases in a number of Gulf states and has promised to protect it. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise missiles that the Saudis didn’t even see coming. According to the Houthi rebels in Yemenis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least ten Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say eighteen drones hit the Abqaiq oil processing site) and an undisclosed number of Qasif K-2 cruise missiles (the Saudis say four cruise missiles struck the Khurais facility).

The Saudis didn’t see them because they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hidden from Saudi radars. They were launched from three different sites, but timed to reach their targets simultaneously from three different angles. They took out half the oil-processing capability of the world’s second-biggest producer for at least some weeks – and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two million dollars.

That’s assuming they were built in low-wage Yemen. They’d cost twice that to build in Iran, and at least ten times as much in the United States. But that’s still pretty cheap when you consider that a single F-35 fighter costs $122 million. You get a very capable airplane for your money, and a couple of them could do equal damage to those oil processing facilities – but they wouldn’t do a much better job.

They could also get shot down, which would be a very large amount of money (plus maybe the pilots’ lives) down the drain. The drones and cruise missiles can also be shot down, of course, but they’re cheap, they have no pilots, and if there are enough of them, some are likely to get through. If they don’t get through today, send more tomorrow.

The Saudis made it extra-easy for the Houthis (or the Iranians, if you believe the Saudi-American version of the story) by not having any short-range air defences for their most important economic assets, or at least none facing in the right direction. But this is because Saudi Arabia doesn’t plan to do its own fighting in any confrontation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s defence budget ($67.6 billion last year) goes mostly on buying very expensive military equipment from the United States, but what it is really buying is American military support. In return for all that money, the Kingdom expects Americans to do the actual fighting for it, just as it hires Sudanese and Pakistanis to do the ground combat in its war in Yemen.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Donald Trump knows nothing about foreign affairs or military strategy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a lifetime imposing on others. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t deliver the services.

The big question that is finally going to be asked, in countries rich and poor, is why the air forces insist on buying ultra-expensive manned aircraft instead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, disposable unmanned vehicles. The truth is that air forces are run by pilots, and they like to fly planes, but what happened in Saudi Arabia last week will finally give the civilian authorities arguments that the aviators cannot resist or ignore.

So the shift to primary reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for offensive action will get underway at last, and the result will be the democratisation of air power. Only rich countries with a mastery of high technology can own F-35s. Even the smallest, poorest country (and some non-state actors too) can afford to build or buy a few thousand drones and a couple of hundred basic cruise missiles.

Democratisation is a double-edged sword.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The Saudis…services”)

Converging Crises

Maybe we can get through the climate crisis without a global catastrophe, although that door is closing fast. And maybe we can cope with the huge loss of jobs caused by the revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) without a social and political calamity.

But can we do both at the same time?

We should know how to deal with the AI revolution, because we have been down this road before. It’s a bit different this time, of course, in the sense that the original industrial revolution in 1780-1850 created as many new jobs (in manufacturing) as it destroyed (in cottage industries and skilled trades).

The AI revolution, by contrast, is not producing nearly enough replacement jobs, but it is making us much wealthier. The value of manufactured goods doubled in the United States in the past thirty years even as the number of good industrial jobs fell by a third (8 million jobs gone). Maybe we could use that extra wealth to ease the transition to a job-scarce future.

The climate emergency is unlike any challenge we have faced before. Surmounting it would require an unprecedented level of global cooperation and very big changes in how people consume and behave, neither of which human beings have historically been good at.

These two crises are already interacting. The erosion of middle-class jobs and the stagnation (or worse) of real wage levels generates resentment and anger among the victims that is already creating populist, authoritarian regimes throughout the world. These regimes despise international cooperation and often deny climate change as well (Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil).

And there is a recession coming. Maybe not this year, although almost all the storm signals are flying: stock markets spooked, a rush into gold, nine major economies already in recession or on the verge of one, an ‘inverted yield curve’ on bonds, and trade wars spreading. Even Donald Trump is worried, which is why he postponed the harsher US trade tariffs against China that were due next month.

Economists have predicted nine of the past five recessions, as they say in the trade, so I’m not calling the turn on this one. But a recession is overdue, and a lot of the damage done by the Great Recession of 2008 has still not been repaired. Interest rates are still very low, so the banks have little room to cut rates and soften the next one. When it arrives, it could be a doozy.

So what can we do about all this? The first thing is to recognise that we cannot plot a course that takes us from here and now through all the changes and past all the unpleasant surprises to ultimate safety, maybe fifty years from now.

We can plan how to get through the next five years, and we should be thinking hard about what will be needed later on. But we can’t steer a safe and steady course to the year 2070, any more than intelligent decision-makers in 1790 could have planned how to get through to 1840 without too much upheaval. They might have seen steam engines, but they would have had no idea what a railroad was.

We are in the same position as those people with regard to both AI and the global environmental emergency (which extends far beyond ‘climate change’, although that is at its heart). We know a good deal about both issues, but not enough to be confident about our choices – and besides, they may well mutate and head off in unforeseen directions as the crises deepen.

But there are two big things we can do right now. We need to stop the slide into populist and increasingly authoritarian governments (because we are not going to stop the spread of AI). And we have to win ourselves more time to get our greenhouse gas emissions under control (because we are certainly going to go through 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent, which would give us +2̊ C higher average global temperature).

The best bet for getting our politics back on track is a guaranteed minimum income high enough to keep everybody comfortable whether they are working or not. That is well within the reach of any developed country’s economy, and has the added benefit of putting enough money into people’s pockets to save everybody’s business model.

And the best way to win more time on the climate front is to start geo-engineering (direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the global temperature down) as soon as we get anywhere near +2̊ C. To be ready then, we need to be doing open-air testing on a small scale now.

There will be howls of protest from the right about a guaranteed minimum income, and from the greener parts of the left about geo-engineering. However, both will probably be indispensable if we want to get through these huge changes without mass casualties or even civilisational collapse.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“And there…doozy”)

The INF: Another Treaty Bites the Dust

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty died last Friday, but there won’t be many mourners at the funeral. There should be.

The problem the INF was intended to solve, back when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed it in 1987, was ‘warning time’.

Bombers would take many hours to get from Russia to America or vice versa, and even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would take 30-35 minutes. That would at least give the commanders of nuclear forces on the side that didn’t launch the surprise attack enough time to order a retaliatory strike before they died.

Whereas intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) based in Europe could reach the other side’s capitals, command centres, airfields and missile launchers in ten minutes: barely time to tuck your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye, as they used to say.

The IRBMs put everything on a hair-trigger. You had maybe five minutes to decide if you trusted the data from your radars or your satellite surveillance before you had to decide whether to launch your nuclear counter-strike. Which makes it all the weirder that the Russians took the lead in introducing IRBMs to Europe.

They were called SS-20s, and they put all the capitals of NATO’s European members on ten minutes’ notice of extinction. However, Moscow would also have only ten minutes’ warning once the US developed its own IRBMs and based them in Europe (they were called Pershing IIs).

But the United States is not in Europe, and only the Soviet Union’s ICBMs could reach it. No matter what happened with IRBMs in Europe, the US would still have a half-hour-plus warning time. The Russians were exceptionally foolish to start this particular bit of the arms race.

By the mid-1980s the Russians were looking for a way out, and Ronald Reagan, who hated nuclear weapons, was happy to help them. He and Gorbachev signed the INF treaty in 1987, banning all land-based ballistic missiles with ‘intermediate range’ (500-5,500km).

They also banned all land-based cruise missiles of similar range, although the relatively slow-moving cruise missiles never posed a ‘warning time’ problem. The INF Treaty was the first major sign that the Cold War was ending: 2,700 missiles were destroyed in the following two years, and everybody lived happily ever after. Sort of.

So why have they now just let the INF Treaty die?

The Russians have been fiddling around with an existing sea-launched cruise missile that has a range of several thousand km. That’s legal at sea, but then they test-fired the same missile from a land-based mobile launcher. They kept that test below the INF-permitted limit of 500 km for land-based cruise missiles, but the test proved that it would work at any range.

Naughty and stupid, but boys will be boys. It’s a cruise missile, so it has no impact on warning time, nor would it give Russia any strategic advantage. Why didn’t Vladimir Putin just stop the nonsense, and maybe apologise?

Same goes for the United States: the INF is good value, and the Russian infringement is legally questionable but strategically unimportant. Why haven’t you taken the time to sort this out and keep the treaty alive?

The reason is China. All the arms control treaties of the later 20th century were made in a bipolar world: the United States and the Soviet Union were the only players who counted. Now China counts too, and arms control becomes a ‘three-body problem’. Those are very hard problems to solve.

The sane answer is simply to deal the Chinese in. Beijing doesn’t want to live with ten minutes’ warning time either. It would probably sign up to the INF terms provided that the U.S. and Russia were willing to grant it parity in other weapons. You could even throw in a new ban on ‘hypersonic’ missiles of intermediate range, which will be otherwise be threatening warning times in a few years.

But there are people in Washington, and no doubt in Moscow, who would love to have the option of a no-warning disarming strike on Beijing. You have to kill the INF to achieve that, because you would need to put land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the ground in Asia. But those people have won the argument, because nobody else cares enough.

Former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, who negotiated the INF Treaty, told the Voice of America recently: “When something like the INF goes down the drain almost like nothing, it shows you the degree to which people have forgotten the power of these weapons. One day it’ll be too late.”

It’s thirty years since the Cold War ended, and the insiders in the American and Russian defence establishments who are letting the INF die are betraying our trust. New weapons, new strategies, new threats are the building blocks of their careers, and they have forgotten to be afraid of nuclear war.

So don’t blame Donald Trump or John Bolton or Vladimir Putin, who are only doing their usual belligerent shtick. Blame the careerists, who should know better.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“The Russians…alive”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Real Refugee Problem

Every once in a while a photograph of a migrant’s tragic death (usually that of a child) catches the public’s imagination.

The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, fleeing from the Syrian civil war, dead face down in the surf on a Turkish beach in 2015, triggered a wave of sympathy that ended with Germany opening its borders to 900,000 refugees that year – and Hungary building a border fence to keep them out.

Here we go again. A picture of 23-month-old Valeria Martinez, tucked into her father Oscar’s T-shirt, both dead face down on the banks of the Rio Grande, has unleashed a similar wave of sympathy in the United States, although it certainly hasn’t reached the White House. And once again most of the migrants are claiming to be refugees.

In fact, few of the migrants fit the legal definition of refugees in either case. The Arabs and Afghans trying to get into Europe had fled genuine wars, but they were already in Turkey, which is quite safe. They just wanted to move on to somewhere with better job opportunities and a higher standard of living. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t give you right of asylum as a refugee.

The same applies to the migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, even though thousands of them are drowning in the attempt. They are fleeing poverty, or dictatorial regimes, or even climate change, but they are not fleeing war.

Neither do they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (My italics.) That is the language of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, so they don’t qualify as refugees. You may feel sorry for them, but there is no legal duty to let them in.

The Refugee Convention was incorporated into US law in the Refugee Act of 1980, so few of the people now seeking entry at the Mexican border qualify either. This matters, because while twenty years ago 98% of the people crossing the border were Mexican young men seeking work, more than half are now entire families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and most of them claim to be refugees.

They are not, and that (not Donald Trump) is why US courts are rejecting at least three-quarters of the applications for refugee status. You may wish that the law took a more generous and humanitarian view, but it does not. And if you think things are bad now, they will be ten times worse in twenty years’ time.

Global heating is starting to bite. We’re still on the learner slopes, but the droughts and the floods, and the crop failures they cause, are multiplying, especially in the tropics and the sub-tropics where temperatures are already high.

In the worst-hit areas (which include the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America) family farms are failing, some people are going hungry, and the number of people on the move is starting to soar. This is precisely what unpublished, in-house government studies were predicting twenty years ago in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Now it’s here.

As the number of migrants goes up, the willingness of host populations to receive them will inevitably go down.

5% new population in a decade will feel disruptive to some people, especially if there are big cultural differences between the old population and the immigrants, but most people will accept and adapt to it. 10% in a decade is definitely pushing it, even though it’s only 1% a year. And 20% new population in a decade would generate a huge political backlash in almost any country on Earth.

That’s human nature. You may deplore it, but it’s not going to change. And behind uncomfortable considerations of what the politics will permit lies the even starker reality that they can’t all come. Twenty years from now there will be far more people who desperately want to move than the destination countries could possibly accommodate.

So the borders will start slamming shut in the countries, mostly in the temperate zone of the planet, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food to eat. And don’t believe the myth that you cannot really shut a border.

You can do so quite easily if you are willing to kill the people who try to cross it illegally, and the governments of the destination countries will probably end up doing just that. Their military and their civil servants, if not their politicians, were already having grim internal debates about it fifteen years ago.

Sorry to spoil your day.
To shorten to725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“5%…Earth”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.