Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Kaplan's Elegant Decline at 15

Back in the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan published an essay that still comes to mind on a regular basis a decade and a half after its publication; America's Elegant Decline. I first mentioned it ten months after its publication while I was in Afghanistan, and then only briefly. 

At 15, I think it is time to see how it holds up.

15 years is a long time - but it also passes quickly. 15 years from now would be January of 2038. You know all that talk about "2040" in the last year, well you're one POM cycle away ... and while some things we think about the future to come will be roughly correct, some will be quite off. That is normal and should be expected. With that benchmark in place, Elegant Decline holds up pretty well.

Before we dive in, let's remember the time and place of 2007. Obama was still the junior Senator from Illinois. The surge in Iraq was almost at its peak and at the time success was iffy. Though we knew at CENTCOM in mid-Summer of 2007 that NATO culminated in Afghanistan and the USA would have to step in soon as we could, in general Afghanistan - the good war - was seen as in good hands with NATO.

Though the cheap seats were warning otherwise, the Navy let everyone know of the glories of Transformation embodied by LCS, DDG-1000 and CG(X) were going to bring if everyone would just shut up and color ... a period that would end 18-months after Elegant Decline with the truncating to 3-ships of the Zumwalt class ... and you know the rest as we rolled in to the Age of Salamander to prepare everyone for The Terrible 20s.

So, in to that moment Kaplan dedicates the first third of his article reminding everyone of some truths are were as correct in 2007 as they are in 2023;

Beware pendulum swings. Before 9/11, not enough U.S. generals believed that the future of war was unconventional and tied to global anarchy. ... Now the Pentagon is consumed by a focus on urban warfare and counterinsurgency; ... But have we pushed it too far? We may finally master the art of counterinsurgency just in time for it to recede in importance.

...Though counterinsurgency will remain a core part of our military doctrine, the Pentagon does not have the luxury of planning for one military future; it must plan for several.

"Regular wars" between major states could be as frequent in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. ... these future wars will not require any "manifestation of insanity by political leaders," nor even an "aberration from normal statecraft, " but may come about merely because of what Thucydides recognized as "fear, honour, and interest."


The current catchphrase is boots on the ground; in the future it could be hulls in the water. 


A "peaceful, gain-loving nation" like the United States "is not far-sighted, and far-sightedness is needed for adequate military preparation, especially in these days," warned Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890..

This is when he transitions to what he, rightfully, sees as a primary indicator of America's decline - its Navy - something that dominates the other 2/3 of the article.

...too few strategists at the time were thinking seriously about sea power. Today we are similarly obsessed with dirty land wars, and our 300-ship Navy is roughly half the size it was in the mid-1980s.

A great navy is like oxygen: You notice it only when it is gone. But the strength of a nation's sea presence, more than any other indicator, has throughout history often been the best barometer of that nation's power and prospects.

I just wanted to take a note to nod at the hard work led by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) in the changes to Section 8062(a) of USC Title 10, 15-years after Elegant Decline, to put this in to law. 

Our friend Bryan McGrath has a superb summary of the changes and their importance here.

Back to Elegant Decline - where Kaplan does a great job outlining more nuggets of unalloyed truths;

Our sea power allows us to lose a limited war...Army units can't forward-deploy anywhere in significant numbers without a national debate. Not so the Navy. ... Great navies help preserve international stability. 


In an age where 90 percent of global commerce travels by sea, and 95 percent of our imports and exports from outside North American do the same (even as that trade volume is set to double by 2020), and when 75 percent of the world's population is clustered within 200 miles of the sea, the relative decline of our Navy is a big, dangerous fact to which our elites appear blind.

Well, it didn't double, but it did go up by 30%.

A lot of you will remember this well;

...in a 1954 article in Proceedings ... a young Harvard academic named Samuel P. Huntington told the Navy not to feel sorry for itself:

The resources which a service is able to obtain in a democratic society are a function of the public support of that service. The service has the responsibility to develop this necessary support, and it can only do this if it posses a strategic concept which clearly formulates its relationship to the national security. 

Emphasis added by me.

Good googly moogly yes. Has our "service" been doing this sales job well? No, no it has not. Why? They have tied themselves to the mast of the archaic, accretion covered Cold War era Goldwater-Nichols and the Cult of the Joint that comes with it. That is why. They have convinced themselves that they have to accept this state of affairs in silence when they don't - it is senior leadership's choice to interpret it as such. Our Navy and the nation it serves suffers as a result.

...by 1997, post Cold War budget cuts had reduced the Navy to 365 ships. (In the Quadrennial Defense Review of that year, the Pentagon established a 'red line' of 300 ships, below which the Navy would not go.)


Of course the 300-ship Navy could still, in the words of Robert O. Work, ...


 ..."pound the snot" out of primitive challengers like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea,

Don't worry, they didn't forget about China completely;

Robert Work told me that he believes the eventual incorporation of Taiwan into China will have the effect that the Battle of Wounded Knee had on the United States: it will psychologically close an era of national consolidation for the Chinese, thereby dramatically redirecting their military energies outward, beyond their coastal waters. Tellingly, whereas the U. S. Navy pays homage to Mahan by naming buildings after him, the Chinese avidly read him; the Chinese are the Mahanians now.

The next bit is something we called at the time wrong-headed and unhelpful and Kaplan is suspicious of at the time as well; then CNO Admiral Mike Mullen, USN (Ret.); 

He (Mike Mullen) went on: "I'm after that proverbial 1,000-ship Navy - a fleet in being, if you will, comprised of all freedom-loving nations, standing watch over the seas, standing watch over each other." Subtract the platitudes, and it's clear that Admiral Mullen is squaring a number of circles to contend with the difficult reality he's up against. 

I continue to hold that this throw away line that became a talking point that was then made flesh was one of the greatest strategic errors this century so far. It gave top cover to those who were looking for reasons not to build the Navy our nation needed. The evils of the Age of Transformationalism only made it worse ... another of Mullen's follies;

This is what the optimists saw right before the rot was unavoidable anymore;

The new DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, envisioned in one form or another for 12 years and beset with delays could end up costing $3 billion a ship - if any get built. The new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers could cost a whopping $8 billion each - not including $6 billion of research-and-development costs.

History can be cruel to such a geologic pace; this slowness is a recipe for vulnerability and nasty strategic surprise. We have a capital-intensive Navy consisting of vessels that cost tens of billions of dollars, and that must therefore each deploy for decades if they are to return the investment. Yet all future peer competitor like China need do to greatly devalue our fleet is to improve its ballistic-missile technology to the point where we're forced to move our carriers, say, 100 miles east of their present positions off the Asian mainland, to keep them out of missile range.

We should be so lucky. Time has found Kagan an optimist here.

...the new Ford-class carriers will be built with laser guns to kill incoming missiles, anti-torpedo torpedoes to deal with supercavitation technology, and electric catapults for launching UAV's in case fight jets, with their human pilots, give way to enhanced remote-controlled Predators that  can be refueled in air.

Well, in 2022 lasers are still the weapon of tomorrow like they always seem to be, anti-torpedoes are a strong maybe to no, and unmanned systems are still a few generations away if ever from there ... so ... technology and future risk can suffer from excessive optimism bias ... as always. Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey for a hint in that regard. 

Meanwhile, as costs drive us towards that 150-ship Navy...

Not yet...we're doing better than that so far. Kaplan was a bit too much of a pessimist on this point. At my darkest in pondering The Terrible 20s I warned of 240 back in 2010.

According to Navy Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, in an emergency we might even issue letters of marque, the way we did during the Revolutionary War, giving privateers the legal authority to act in our defense. Allowing privateers to help with, say, the drug-interdiction effort in the Caribbean would enable uniformed sailors to concentrate on the Pacific and Indian oceans.


Today, the United States devotes 4.38 percent of its annual gross domestic product to defense. Before the Iraq War, it was 3.5 percent.

In 2022 it was back to ~3.5%.

Admiral Morgan, the deputy chief of naval operations for information, plans, and strategy, told me that to maintain our naval primacy, we may need to devote close to 5 percent of GDP (assuming a growing economy) to defense. Yet it's unclear whether the American public will abide that.

Spoiler alert; they didn't.

So, there we go; the Elegant Decline at 15. 

Much spot on, some a bit too optimistic, some too pessimistic. On balance though, it aged fairly well in a decade and a half.

It should keep us all humble and it would do everyone well to understand that, on balance, 2023 is not all that different than 2007 ... and 2037 will most likely not be all that different than 2023.

Plan accordingly.

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