Friday, May 23, 2014

How Much Military Part 1: The “Greatest Lower Bound”

I’m in an analytical frame of mind this fine May morning...well, all right, for us Long Islanders, anxious to get the pollen washed off our cars but thwarted by the rainy weather, it’s really not all that fine...so I thought I’d address one of the perennially contested subjects in public policy: how much military a nation such as ours should have, and why.

We must establish certain postulates for such a discussion before we address the question as phrased above:

  1. What sort of nation are we?
  2. What missions do we intend for our armed forces?
  3. What nations constitute the relevant context for planning?
  4. What are the political systems of those nations and how are they armed?

Answers to those questions must be agreed upon a priori by all parties to the discussion, or planning becomes impossible. Yet the mutability of the answers points up a tragic fact about all such planning: No matter how deeply studied the context or how meticulously designed the military, no such plan will remain good forever.

Give that a few moments’ thought while I make some decaf.


Frederick II Hohenzollern “the Great,” King of Prussia in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, was once asked why he embarked on his 1740 invasion of Austria, shortly after his accession to the Prussian throne. His reply: “I was young, had a big army, a full treasury, and I wanted to see my name in the newspapers.”

Frederick, of course, was an autocrat, and thus was effectively answerable to no one. Countries with quasi-democratic or quasi-republican political systems don’t make their decisions quite as fliply as Frederick implied. The requirement for certain sorts of consensus about questions 1 and 2 in the numbered list above precedes all decisions about war and preparations for war. In the absence of such a consensus, military preparations become difficult at best.

The arrival of war, or a war in progress, will evoke a consensus if one did not previously exist, or solidify and intensify one that did. For example, the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 undid the pacific inclinations of the American public, which had arisen in response to the expensive and disastrous events of World War I, almost completely. However, a world in which dozens of nations possess the ability to strike from afar, many with weapons of mass destruction, makes the achievement of a prior consensus (and a firm one, at that) vital in the literal sense: the survival of the nation rests upon the matter.

In that regard, the influence of the sort of nation we are – a constitutional federated republic that recognizes certain inalienable individual rights and uses a democratic mechanism for the selection of its political class – is muted by the enveloping geostrategic context. Were a nation armed with ICBMs to launch an attack upon the United States, it would seem rather leisurely, if not wholly pointless, to insist upon a Congressional declaration of war before sending our forces into action. More to the point, in the event of such an attack, our forces had better be both adequate to their task and ready for immediate deployment.

This is not to say that the modern geostrategic context utterly obviates a national consensus on military planning and the use of the military. Indeed, in recent years we have seen our politicians deploy our men at arms for missions quite distinct from warfighting. Given our politicians’ penchant for using the armed forces in such a fashion – they, too, like to see their names in the newspapers – the public’s willingness to condone, or at least to tolerate, such non-military uses bears upon military planning almost as powerfully as the existence of nuclear-armed adversaries with an intercontinental reach. However, our potential adversaries and their capabilities create a “greatest lower bound” for the capabilities our armed forces must possess: at least so much to deter or countervail such threats, and never less.

For today, let’s focus on the demands of that “greatest lower bound.”


If the U.S. military is not to be used in wars of conquest and territorial acquisition, then the philosophy behind its fundamental missions will be defensive. Our planners must address needs of the following kinds:

  1. Invasion (of the U.S.) by land;
  2. Invasion by sea;
  3. Invasion or aggression from the air or space;
  4. Attacks on American-flag ships at sea;
  5. Attacks on America’s non-terrestrial assets;
  6. Attacks on Americans abroad, and on their extraterritorial possessions.

Historically, little thought has gone to invasions by land or sea, at least since the conclusion of the War of 1812. The nation-states that share land borders with us have not been viewed as significant threats. Alongside that, our naval power has long been regarded as too formidable to permit a challenge along our coasts. Indeed, since the conclusion of World War I the U.S. Navy has been the foremost naval power in the world.

Even so, it’s not impossible that an invasion force might someday cross our borders or land upon these shores. Therefore we must possess forces at least potent enough, and well-placed enough, to identify such incursions and provide our command authorities with the information required to respond appropriately. Such “tripwire” forces are positioned south of the Demilitarized Zone of the Korean peninsula, and were at one time situated on the “NATO side” of the various invasion routes that might allow a Soviet incursion into the NATO states of Europe.

Today, the greater defensive consideration is an attack from the air or space. Defense against conventional aircraft is a well-understood task. It requires a Tactical Air Defense capable of engaging the attacker and thwarting him before he can strike. It’s only recently become feasible to destroy incoming spacecraft – in the usual case, the warheads released by ICBMs – but as the technology of antimissile defense advances, no doubt the U.S. will deploy them to protect its strategic forces (i.e., its intercontinental bomber fleet and its land-based ICBMs).

What’s that you say? Why not mount antimissile defenses around America’s population centers as well? Aren’t out citizens as deserving of defense as our weapons? Posed that way, an affirmative answer would seem morally obligatory. Yet it is not so, for a reason most laymen fail to consider.

The United States is not an aggressor state. We don’t go to war for gain. The posturing of various idiots, ideologues, and tyrants to the contrary, the world knows it.

The point to owning forces targeted at population centers is deterrence: the ability to threaten an unacceptable degree of slaughter and destruction in retaliation for an aggressor’s strike on our strategic forces. The calculus of deterrence works roughly this way:

You, Mr. Potential Aggressor, cannot be sure that you’ll take out our entire intercontinental capability with your counterforce assault. Even if you could guarantee the destruction of 90% of it, the remaining 10% is sufficient to kill half your citizens and lay waste to your industrial foundation – and should you strike us, we will use it exactly that way. So have a care about your ambitions. Indeed, have a care about what threats you make as well, for we, too, have a counterforce capability.

In a world rife with nuclear-armed states, deterrence is the highest of all strategic considerations.


The previous section addresses the defense of our intraterritorial assets and interests. In our progressively globalized world, the extraterritorial ones:

  1. American-flag vessels at sea;
  2. American assets in Earth orbit, and eventually beyond;
  3. Americans and American-owned property outside the borders of the United States.

...deserve consideration as well.

The U.S. is large, but what’s outside the U.S. is quite a bit larger. For practical purposes, it’s impossible to create a standing force capable of coming immediately to the defense of a U.S.-flag ship attacked in the middle of the ocean. As large and capable as our navy is, it’s not nearly large enough to guarantee that. The same is true in spades for our orbital properties: at this time, our many satellites, which are essential to our contemporary communications and navigation structure. Sadly, it’s also true for those American citizens outside the nation’s borders, and for what properties they’ve legitimately acquired in other lands.

It seems that in those domains, defense must be taken to mean deterrence just as when we speak of defense against an attack from space. Owing to considerations that pertain to international relations, this has two aspects:

  1. The ability to threaten devastating retaliation upon a “state actor” that moves against Americans or their assets;
  2. The ability to seek out and destroy “non-state actors” – terrorists, pirates, and other forces not overtly employed nor supported by a nation-state – that undertake such aggressions.

In the first of the above cases, the fundamental considerations are economic. The potential attacker must be aware that he will not be permitted to profit by such an aggression, that we can and will make him sorry he tried any such thing. This requires that the potential attacker be “rationally evil:”

  • There must be an upper limit to the damage he would accept as a worthwhile price for his objective, and:
  • He must believe that we could inflict greater damage upon him.

However, it also requires that the U.S. be willing to inflict such punishment – that we would be willing to bear the cost, including any foreseeable deterioration in our alliances, partnerships, and other international relations in the aftermath. This is not guaranteed to be a straightforward calculation to make, for either side.

A relatively clear case would arise should some satrapy attempt to “nationalize” – the political synonym for “confiscate” – the property of a large American corporation operating within that satrapy’s borders. This hasn’t been attempted in a long time; in prior incidents, American air and naval forces have been swift to arrive on the scene and “make adjustments.” Nevertheless, it remains possible, and should a nation ruled by an amoral regime conclude that the U.S. would not take retaliatory action, the presence of a tempting industrial-economic-commercial “prize” within that nation’s borders might tempt the regime to seize it.

A far murkier case is before us at this very instant: that of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, the U.S. Marine who unintentionally crossed the Mexican border and has been imprisoned in Mexico. This man is innocent of any wrongdoing, but he has technically violated Mexican law by not entering the country at a designated port of entry. It seems clear enough that the Mexicans are holding Sgt. Tahmooressi as a “bargaining chip,” hoping to extort some sort of concession for his release. Given America’s far larger and more capable military, the Mexican government would not have arrested or imprisoned Sgt. Tahmooressi if military retaliation seemed likely. However, arguments in Moral Philosophy notwithstanding, it’s simply not credible that the White House would do such a thing to rescue one Marine. (Indeed, it’s unlikely that the Obama Administration would go to war over a thousand American Marines unjustly imprisoned, though Obama’s predecessor in the Oval Office might have reacted in a less predictable and far less pleasant way.)

The contemporary approach to the defense-by-deterrence of extraterritorial persons and properties is the threat of a reaction by American special forces: the Navy’s SEAL teams, Marine Force Recon, or the Army’s Delta Force. The existence of those forces allows an Administration the option of threatening a covert, proportional retaliation that would be “deniable” at least in a cosmetic sense. The nature of the threatened retaliation might be an assassination, or the destruction of some military installation, or the sabotage of some infrastructural asset. The careful targeting and calibration possible to such a response would make it more credible, and therefore more effective.

Though action by our special forces is often relevant to attacks by “non-state actors,” in such cases they cannot be used to defend by deterrence or negotiation. When a non-state actor has already struck, deterrence has (of course) failed, though we can sometimes discourage like minded others from acting by striking back swiftly and effectively. Furthermore, such actors tend not to negotiate in good faith. The archetype for an effective reaction is President Reagan’s 1985 use of American F-14s from the USS Saratoga to capture the Palestinian terrorists that hijacked the Achille Lauro and murdered American citizen Leon Klinghoffer. Less public uses of American special forces are likely in less dramatic incidents where fewer lives are at risk.


Recognizing the “greatest lower bound” is but the beginning of a military planner’s journey, at least for the planning of armed forces that have been put to as many uses, military and non-military, as those of the United States. However, it provides an important degree of perspective to the layman who can follow him this far on his odyssey:

For a nation as internationally engaged as the U.S.,
“Greatest lower bound” forces are required to be very large,
And very formidable.

The implications for military budgeting, and the requirement for a degree of tolerance for the waste inevitable in the allocation and expenditure of large budgets, should be obvious.

2 comments:

  1. Much as it pains me to admit it, in regard to the case of Sgt. Tahmooressi, I don't actually disagree with the present administration. He wasn't under orders to be operating in Mexico...he went there inadvertently in his capacity as an individual American citizen. And although it seems clear that his violation of Mexican law was unintentional, he did violate it. It's not as if the US Government has a valid claim that locking someone up for violating the law unintentionally is some sort of grave crime against human rights. And to assert that his status as a Marine is relevant to his treatment in Mexico would be to assert that his actions were a reflection of US military policy...which would necessarily make his crossing of the border with guns an act of war.

    It's a shame that this happened, but regardless of who occupies the White House, I don't think it would be prudent to argue that a Marine legally arrested for violating Mexican law in Mexico is entitled to any more official action from the US Government than any American citizen would receive upon being arrested abroad. Which, as you can read in detail on the web site of the State Department's consular service, is not very much at all.

    This is not an Obama policy...it's long-standing policy that's been in force in substantially identical form and content for many years. So I don't blame Obama for following it.

    The tendency in the past of local authorities in friendly countries to release military law-breakers back into the custody of their own officers has had more to do, I suspect, with a desire to avoid negative non-military consequences (such as depressing the local economy around the base, if all off-base leave is suddenly cancelled by the commanding officer) than with a fear of violent retaliation.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Compare and contrast the case of Sgt. Tahmooressi with the repeated reports of uniformed Mexican soldiers encountered operating deep inside Arizona and Texas, some of whom have recently fired on American Border Patrol agents.
    the reasonable solution would be for one of our airmobile military groups to capture one of these patrols and then exchange prisoners. then demonstrate to Mexico that any further entry of US territory by armed men will be met with armed force, prisoners held as POWs if in uniform, or summarily executed on the scene if not in uniform. The first time we execute a bunch of ununiformed intruders there will be a squawk, after a repetition the border incursions may cease.
    -Rurik

    ReplyDelete

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