05 October 2010


Certainly, it is the duty of military leaders to prepare our armed forces for the next war.   Yet, we can never know what the future can bring; such are the bizarre twists and turns throughout history.

As one wise philosopher noted, always in motion, the future is.

Many wars seemed inevitable at the time.  Surely, the system of alliances prior to the First World War created a powder keg in Europe, whose detonation was all-but-certain.  Similarly, few could have doubted the likelihood of an even more destructive Second World War.  Such predictions permeate even fiction, including works such as James Hilton's fantasy novel, Lost Horizon, the book which introduced us to the mystical land of Shangri-La.

Nevertheless, despite all of our planning, many wars come as a complete shock.  Few could have anticipated Saddam Hussein's inexplicable annexation and subsequent invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Similarly, who could have anticipated the strange chain of events which led the British Royal Navy into the Falkland Islands War of 1982?

Explorers first sighted the islands in 1690, with Britain and France both laying claim to the Falklands' icy shores during the 18th Century.  At the time, the islands seemed nothing worth fighting over, with one British lieutenant claiming that the Falklands were "the most detestable place I was ever at in all my life"

Thus, the British thus vacated the Falklands, in no small part due to the economic stress caused by the rebellious American colonies.  Meanwhile, the French ceded their claim to the islands to their ally, Spain.

While the British government certainly didn't have any real desire for the Falkland Islands, they nevertheless felt the need to lay claim to them out of a sense of national pride.  In 1769, the tension between Britain and Spain over the seemingly-insignificant Falklands was such that historian Julius Goebel was to later claim that "the ministry, which had clearly been disposed to an accommodation at the outset of the trouble and might even have gone so far as to acquiesce at the outset of the trouble an arrangement suggested by Spain...now found itself in a situation where only extreme measures would silence popular clamour [for British rule of the Falklands]".  Such would be the case two centuries later.

In light of the tension over the Falklands, Lord North proposed a secret agreement with Spain that the British would eventually leave the Falkland Islands in exchange for the temporary political victory.

Thus, all would be peaceful if it weren't for the intervention of a rising global superpower.  Then, much like now, this particular global superpower had a penchant for clubbing baby seals.

You guessed it, we're talking about:

America.  (Fuck, yeah!)

Spain later ceded authority over the Falklands to the emerging state of Argentina.  The islands soon became a hotbed of sealing activity.

Jesus Christ, it's coming right for us!

In 1829, the Argentine governor in the Falklands restricted seal hunting, as the native population of the blubbery mammals was dwindling.  Of course, banning seal clubbing out of any sense of humane treatment of animals is really quite ludicrious.  Killer whales--the beloved creature children remember from movies such as "Free Willy"--have been known to not only feast on baby seals, but also play racquetball with them.

I am not making this up.

The Argentine governor put the captain of an American sealing vessel, the Harriet, on trial for violating the ban on clubbing baby seals.  In response, the American ambassador to Argentina asked that the USS Lexington, under the command of Silas Duncan, undertake a punitive raid against the Falklands.  Captain Duncan, ever the over-achiever, thoroughly ravaged the Falkland Islands, razing its defenses, and imprisoning most of its inhabitants.  This allowed the British a window of opportunity to take the islands, where they have remained distinctly British ever since.

Fast-forward nearly a century and a half later.  Britain, then allied with NATO against the Soviet Union, feared a Soviet naval attack through the "G-I-UK" Gap, the Northern Atlantic passageway for the Soviet Battlefleet which passed through the waters among Britain, Iceland, and Greenland.  Thus, the Royal Navy predicted, understandably, that in a coming war, aircraft carriers would be useless; ground-based aircraft could provide sufficient air cover.  The Royal Navy needed to, instead, focus on anti-submarine capabilities, leaving carrier operations to the United States Navy.

British naval officers protested. Yet, despite their best efforts, the carriers HMS Invincible was sold to Australia, and the HMS Hermes was scheduled to be scrapped.  Britain's Labour Defence Secretary Denis Healey argued that aircraft carriers would only be useful during an amphibious operation far beyond the reach of Britain's land-based airstrips.  Certainly, this would not be the case in a classic "G-I-UK" scenario.

But it was exactly the case in the unexpected Falklands Islands War of 1982.

Military professionals, think-tanks, and the defense industry will always claim, with a sense of positivism, that the next war "will" entail tanks/insurgents/hybrid war/F-22s/giant robots...you name it.  Yet, no one can predict the future.  We often base our foreign policy models on theories of rational actors, national interests, and a well-designed national security strategy.  But nations--indeed, people--do not always act rationally.  The future could entail more counterinsurgency and peacekeeping, or a major conventional war.

Remember that wise sage:  always in motion, the future is.


DP said...

Enjoyed the essay. And the whale video. That was funky. Remind me not to be reincarnated as a seal.

Adding to the difficulty of prediction is that training and equipment for the war that never is, may still exert a deterrent effect by ensuring it doesn't happen.

The US Navy put massive resources (e.g., F-14 Tomcat/Phoenix, AEGIS, etc.) into defending carrier from mass Soviet bomber attack in the Battle of the Atlantic. While Aegis continues to be useful, the Tomcat's main reason for existence (a few Libyan encounters aside) was doing its bit for recruitment in movie Top Gun. But did the huge commitment to fleet area defense help exert a deterrent effect on the USSR, by convincing them they couldn't easily stop the carriers and by implication their escort of convoy reinforcements to Europe, thus making WWIII less likely?


M.L. said...

"We often base our foreign policy models on theories of rational actors, national interests, and a well-designed national security strategy. But nations--indeed, people--do not always act rationally."

Aha...but they do act rationally...at least it is rational from their point of view.

Another great philosopher said "Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."

Rationality is a subjective, not objective, judgement. According to Gharajedaghi, it rational judgement are the confluence of perceived self-interest, emotion, and culture (Systems Thinking, Managing Chaos and Complexity, 2006). Funny how these correspond to another gentleman named Thucydides who posited that nations go to war generally out of fear, honor, or interest.

In short, Everyone acts in what they think is their own best interests. We (Americans) err in assuming that everyone thinks like us. When we are surprised by the "unpredictable" behavior of others, we dismiss the behavior as irrational (a kind of enthocentric cognitive dissonance). In fact, if you try to understand the subjective interests of other people and nations, you reduce your chances of being surprised considerably.

Aitor said...

Good post.

Seriously, you bloody Yanks were causing trouble even back then!

Anonymous said...

Thus, the Royal Navy predicted, understandably, that in a coming war, aircraft carriers would be useless; ground-based aircraft could provide sufficient air cover.

The Royal Air Force. The whole debate about the CVA01 carrier project was driven by the Navy insisting on the carriers and the RAF promising it could cover the Navy anywhere in the world for cheap (as long as they got the aircraft they wanted). The reductio ad absurdum of this was the infamous map the RAF produced for a briefing which moved Australia 300 miles NW. Eventually, in the context of the 1968 emergency defence cuts, the RAF won and the Navy didn't get CVA01. Victorious and Ark Royal were allowed to expire without replacement, Hermes transitioned to the LPH role.

They did, however, sneak through the Invincible class by designating them "through deck command cruisers" rather than "aircraft carriers". Later on, they were able to get the Sea Harrier buy to go on them.

Conservative Defence Secretary John Nott wanted to sell Invincible and possibly also the two LPDs, but events happened and 'Vince is still in the fleet today.

El Goyito said...

The next (and in some places current) wars:

Drug Wars - international militarized, well-funded criminal cartels versus military-backed law enforcement agencies. This war will have all the elements of 'regular' war - sea, air, land, cyber, dark ops, etc.

Water Wars - conflict between countries and/or groups over access to water resources.

Inter-Islam Wars - Christian society had a renaissance, a reformation and series of anti-church Enlightenment-based secular revolutions and I believe the Muslim world could well face the same type of thing.

"Ohhh, great warrior! Wars not make one great." -Master Yoda