Archive for August, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong

Posted: August 25, 2012 by bafriedman in Uncategorized
Neil Armstrong assumes his rightful place

Neil Armstrong assumes his rightful place // Image via

According to the noted literary research house, Wikipedia, the earliest reference to the Moon being inhabited was The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th Century Japanese folk tale. The Superman-esque story is about a Princess from the Moon growing up on Earth with adopted parents rather than about travel, but it’s most likely the earliest extant literary reference to humans being on the surface of the moon. Certainly this could not have been the beginning of mankind’s fascination with our nightly visitor. I like to think the vast majority of humans, whether ancient or modern, share the experience of gazing at the moon with longing. Wanderlust isn’t bound by gravity.

Since than, many literary giants have used words to cross the void. J.R.R. Tolkein, Robert Heinlein, Daniel Defoe, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, and George R. R. Martin are just a few.

But precious few of us ever got there. Neil Armstrong, who died today at 82, was the first to do so. Fair winds and following seas, sir, and thank you for your service and for turning science fiction into reality.


Writing to discuss the long shadow the Apollo Project has cast over the American one, Charles Homans concluded:

The American exceptionalism that Kennedy nurtured as a goad to accomplishment has become a cocoon. Kennedy once lamented that the Soviets’ primacy in space had left the “psychological feeling in the world that the United States has reached maturity, that maybe our high noon has passed … and that now we are going into the long, slow afternoon.” In retrospect, he had it backward. It is the moon landing, notSputnik or Gagarin, that haunts us. It is the point from which we measure our descent.

Neil himself echoed this statement, in testimony before the US House of Representitives, but ended his statements on hope:

The reality that there is no flight requirement for a NASA pilot-astronaut for the foreseeable future is obvious and painful to all who have, justifiably, taken great pride in NASA’s wondrous space flight achievements during the past half century.

Winston Churchill famously stated: “The Americans will always do the right thing after they have exhausted all the alternatives”. In space fight, we are in the process of exhausting alternatives. I am hopeful that, in the near future, we will be doing the right thing.

While we at Grand Blog Tarkin are in the business of speculating about alien invasions, giant space robots, and galaxy-wide theaters of operations, those problems are only possible in a future where humanity has escaped a one-planet grave.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong, for taking the first step beyond this world, and for doing so on behalf of peace from all mankind.



Keeping to the Script

Posted: August 16, 2012 by Adam Elkus in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

What would you do if you, an ordinary soldier, were told that a weapon would arise that would completely change the context of warfare as you understood it, to say nothing of international politics? The kicker: said weapon would be used against your country and lead to its total devastation and surrender. That was the dilemma faced by Captain Isao Takachiho, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Army’s Kwantung Army and the anime Night Raid 1931‘s primary antagonist.

Weapons and Armies in the Balance

The dominant problem for any strategist in a time of peace lies in prediction. What weapons will be utilized? How do they shape politics while being shaped by politics? Because of contingency, even a relatively stable vision of the future can be derailed by the actions of agents, structures, and cascading trends. Existing structures can be a barrier to coping with the demands of the future, but change also unleashes disruptive political forces that can barely be controlled. The degree to which early 20th century Asia served as a test lab for shifts in strategic history is often undervalued by strategic analysts preoccupied with the decisive European battlefronts that rendered Asia (by comparison) a strategic sideshow. Since Night Raid 1931 deals in part with the strategic consequences of these shifts a few words about early 20th century military history is warranted.

In Asia, China had critical military importance to the balance of power but also lacked the strategic centrality its sheer military and economic muscle affords it today. Reformers within the late Qing military were painfully aware of new ways of war, but were frustrated by conservatives who readily accepted Western weapons but rejected the new modes of organization and training necessary to employ them. When reforms were adopted, the creation of professionally trained and led bureaucratic armies empowered militarists such as the Beiyang Army’s commanding officer (and future post-Qing warlord) Yuan Shikai. By the 1930s, the Nationalist Party held a substantial chunk of territory and fielded a German and Soviet-trained party army. It had crushed the majority of the warlords but faced a persistent Communist military challenge and Japanese territorial encroachments.

Military professionalization in Japan gave rise to a politically autonomous army, much of it based in northern China. It subscribed to an vision of total war rooted firmly within a global ideological rise of authoritarian belief systems rooted in race “science” and blood and soil conceptions of nationalism. Unlike in 1914, every military–including the Japanese–understood the stakes fairly well. These would be truly national wars in which the “strategic rear” that supplied military machines would be targeted. However, Japan took this understanding to a gruesome extreme.  As brutal as warfare would later be within maritime Southeast Asia, even the worst paled in comparison to the intensity of the carnage the the Japanese would unleash in mainland China, which ranged from Genghis Khan-like scorched Earth tactics to the first modern employment of battlefield biological warfare. China was ultimately a distraction for the US in World War II.  It was, however, central to the Japanese strategy and vision of a postwar order. China was a promising resource area and colony for the future Japanese empire and held the bulk of its land forces.

A Captain’s Strategic Choice

Takachiho, who comes of age within the Japanese Army professional military educational system, is a firm believer in the ideology of Pan-Asianism and the maintenance of the Japanese imperial system. But a shocking revelation revealed by an imperial soothsayer ultimately causes him to deviate from the strategic script. Within the anime’s fictional universe, Japan’s rulers depend on a line of prophetesses to assist them in pivotal moments of decision. The prophetess tells Takachiho of a vision of a ruinous world war ending with the use of a terrifying new weapon and the end of the imperial era. Takachiho and his men promptly desert the Kwantung Army, vanishing into northern China as they contemplate what to do with their terrible knowledge. This weapon, to be clear, is the atomic bomb. Yet because the series occurs within the 1930s, the characters lack the proper language and terminology to delineate it. They merely refer to it as “the new kind of bomb” and other provisional terms.

Colin S. Gray has written that each era has a strategic narrative, shaped by politics, culture, technology, and waves of military tactics and doctrine. However, we can only know this strategic script in retrospect. Even then, new historical revelations can upend our understanding of the script. Unlike a movie script, in which the narrative is preordained, strategic narratives are also always contingent stories marked by the paths not taken. Takachiho lacks the most important aspect of the strategic script: the political context of the 1940s and the early Cold War. What he has is the knowledge of the future and the desire to change it. The Captain’s foreknowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the success of his ambitious ends. His plan involves three elements of the strategic script that he gets, at best, partly right.

First the Captain decides that he will use the bomb, which he succeeds in assembling with the resources of Kwantung Army contacts, to further pan-Asian nationalists. What he could not understand is that Asian nationalism, though later channeled and fed by both Japan and the Allies to further their own war aims, could not succeed without the destruction of both Japanese and European military power in Southeast Asia. Even if his plan (which will be elaborated on later) had succeeded, the squabbling and powerless nationalist intellectuals he vainly attempts to enlist to his side would be ill-placed to take advantage of it. After World War II, many of those same men would go on defeat the British, French, and United States with a combination of political maneuver and armed struggle. In 1931, however, he conferences with a group of men politically agitated but incapable of seizing control over their nations’ destinies.

Second, Takachiho anticipates the concept of deterrence and the gruesome fact that recognition of the ultimate weapon’s capability could only be achieved by the mass destruction of civilian life. A weapon that is never used cannot create a “balance of terror.”  Takachiho plans to drop a bomb over Shanghai, demonstrating the bomb’s potency to great power observers by simultaneously taking Chinese, European, and Japanese lives within the internationalized metropolis.  Takachiho hoped to use such a demonstration to compel the creation of a Pan-Asian state system with Japan as a powerful component and prevent the outcome the prophetess foretold. But the supreme weapon, while immensely destructive, ultimately proved to be rather useless as the driver of grand political designs. Despite possessing nuclear weapons neither the United States or the Soviet Union could use them or threaten them to spread their ideologies. The devastation inflicted by twin atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki coerce Japan, but the scholarly debate over how it did is far from settled. Nuclear weapons, despite being dubbed “strategic” could not, on their own, lead to the expansive political outcomes Takachiho desired. As far-seeing as he was, Takachiho did not understand the limits of his new weapon.

Finally, Takachiho’s actions represent a fairly off-key element of the 1930s strategic narrative: the independent non-state actor. His group, if successful, would commit an act of nuclear terrorism and change the course of history. Takachiho’s attempts to marry terrorism with pan-Asian activism anticipated the rise of transnational ideological guerrilla and terrorist movements in the Cold War. But his strategic design was not realized in the 1930s or thereafter. The most powerful non-state actors in the 1930s were either guerrilla movements like Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP), political organizations like the National Socialist Party (later known as the Nazis) and the Japanese militarists who aspired to take command of a state. These were all national actors, with the state-organized Comintern the only true transnational actor.

Mao would probably object to being called a “non-state” actor, as unlike the transnational al-Qaeda he regarded the CCP as China’s rightful government. The warlords that held sway over much of China and patches of Central Asia lacked transnational ambitions. And in the Cold War, the most successful non-state groups were national guerrilla armies with state support, not small bands of passionate men with a desire to change the course of history. Those men languished or died in the hundreds of thousands in prisons throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In the end Takachiho is manipulated and killed by Japanese Army intelligence, who have their own designs for nuclear warfare.

The Dominance of Structure

Perhaps that is the best way to transition into the next point: the anime’s rather depressing–if complex–take on the ever-present issue of agency vs. structure.  We live in an era supposedly marked by “super-empowered actors.” These actors, we are often told, use networks and technology to punch far above their geopolitical weight and are poised to overturn warfare and statecraft as we know it. All of Night Raid 1931‘s characters are super-empowered both literally and figuratively. The agents of the Sakurai Agency, a special organization within Japanese Army intelligence have abilities ranging from tekekinesis to telepathy. Takachiho and several of his men also possess super powers. Moreover, Takachiho and later the Sakurai agents are empowered by their own determination to resist what one agent dubs the “cage” of state authority and the fate that larger political designs dictate for them. The Sakurai agents pursue Takachiho and later thwart their own superiors’ desire to capitalize off the Captain’s technology,

This freedom is achieved, but at at a great price. Takachiho is defeated, his bomb and research notes are destroyed, and a telepath within the Sakurai Agency creates the illusion of an atomic explosion to scare visiting international dignitaries into abandoning the path of great power war. But it is implied that World War II happens regardless, even if perhaps a far worse horror was avoided by the thwarting of Japanese Army plans to utilize Takachiho’s doomsday weapon. The cosmopolitanism and vibrancy of early 1930s Shanghai, a prominent setting of the anime’s early episodes, is cruelly shattered when Japan attacks and destroys a substantial portion of Shanghai in 1932. The main characters ultimately find themselves free of the bondage of the state, but are condemned to live their lives with knowledge of the horrors to come. Even with their abilities they are unable to change what grand empires have set in motion, and merely seek to live day by day.

Networks certainly matter, but perhaps not in the way contemporary theorists imagine. The Japanese militarists depicted in the anime are a substate network, but one that channels a noxious ideology and ultimately captures a powerful state’s warmaking capacity. The Sakurai agents and Takachiho’s men are another kind of network, and both are ultimately failures. This isn’t to say that the anime disregards individual agency. The anime’s complexity can be seen in its revisionist (to put it mildly) depiction of the events leading up to the Mukden incidentNight Raid 1931 uses a typically supernatural device to illustrate the contingency of strategic events and the role of “irrational” elements like religious beliefs to impact world events. The appearance of the prophetess motivates wavering Army officers to make good on their plans to destroy the Manchurian railroad, starting a destructive new chapter in Japan’s political-military designs over China. But the prophetess like the Emperor, functions as a part of the state’s guiding political-religious ideology, not an completely independent force that acts in variance with it. Of course, it is also her dire warning that spurs Captain Takachiho to desert. Different individuals can sometimes have drastically different interpretations of official religion and ideology that cause them to clash.


Captain Takachiho certainly deviated from the strategic script of his time. But, for a man whose tidy world was shattered by a revelation of future warfare, he was sadly effective at grasping at some of the major currents of future policy and strategy. Those currents are ultimately what gives Night Raid 1931 an air of quiet tragedy. Individuals–many of them likeable and friendly–find their destinies circumscribed by structural forces. The super-empowered Sakurai men and women are ultimately bystanders to the larger geopolitical order and find meaning in tending their own gardens. The last shot of the anime–Takachiho’s younger sister and Sakurai agent Yukina standing alone amidst falling snow in a deserted and poorly lit Tokyo zoo–is particularly evocative. She is a small figure amid a gathering darkness and will never see her companions, who scatter to the four winds, again.

Palpatine should have been able to take it easy. He not only managed to gain absolute power over the galactic civilization, but the Senate had begged him to take control. The Jedi had been, for all intents and purposes, exterminated. Nothing should have crossed his desk besides trade disputes, the occasional bill to name a library after him, and pleas for mercy from various alien races. Instead he had this damned rebellion on his hands. His right hand man was a whiney asthmatic who couldn’t even be trusted to find two droids that used to belong to him on his own home planet. Palpatine’s a politician. He doesn’t know the first thing about military strategy. Neither does Darth Wheezey McEmo over there. What’s a Sith to do?

You find someone in your organization with vision and strategic acumen. In Palpatine’s case, that person is Moff Milhuff Tarkin. Tarkin’s a man with a plan. He thinks that Palpatine should rule through fear of force rather than force itself. Tarkin understands deterrence. This is a man that recognizes that the Empire cannot kill its way to victory, but it can intimidate. This is counterinsurgency and stability through deterrence, based on a credible, overwhelming threat. That credible, overwhelming threat is the Death Star. Palpatine’s promotion of Moff Tarkin to Grand Moff, an entirely new rank, is evidence that 1) Palpatine recognized that Tarkin had a strategic vision and 2) the Empire heretofore lacked a military strategic vision. Palpatine rose to power through Machievellian politics and deception rather than military force. He didn’t defeat the Jedi clone army, he co-opted it. He defeated the Jedi through betrayal and deception, a skill set that may not work in the face of a galaxy-wide insurgency.

Palpatine, at some level, must recognize this as Tarkin, during the events of A New Hope, is the Stonewall Jackson to Papatine’s Robert E. Lee. Yes, Vader is present on the Death Star but he’s not in charge. Tarkin gives the order to destroy Alderaan after all. All Vader does is torture a prisoner and then reacts to the rebel assault by joining the fight himself. Both tactical level actions. Tarkin is clear-headed and cool the entire time. He never flinches as he destroys a civilization as an example while Vader is chasing after a presence he hasn’t felt in a long time and angrily taking off in his TIE fighter. Palpatine found the right man for the job, until those pesky rebels blew him up.

The strategic and operational competency vacuum left by the death of Tarkin is evident immediately upon the opening events of The Empire Strikes Back. The Imperial Starfleet arrives at Hoth too far away from the planet, leaving the rebels time to organize their evacuation. Then, rather than simply bombard the rebel base from orbit, they launch a planetside assault on the base. Sure, there was a shield generator protecting the base, but the ground assault occurred in the complete absence of suppressive fire from the Starfleet. Turbolasers may not destroy Echo Base outright, but it can keep the Rebels’ heads down long enough for the ground assault to breach their perimeter or, better yet, besiege the base. These are JV-level mistakes when it comes to coordinating forces. Fire without maneuver is a waste. Maneuver without fire is suicide. In this case, it’s total mission failure. The rebellion lives on while the entire fleet completely bungles a mission to capture HVTs. The fleet performs so poorly that Vader has to turn to contractors to capture rebel leadership for them.


It’s hard to believe that Tarkin, a man whose military acumen so impressed the Emperor that a new rank was created just for him, would not have foreseen these mistakes and better handled the Imperial Starfleet. Vader’s reactive leadership style (failure followed by force choke) was unable to cope with rapidly changing situations. Vader let his personal goals and passions get in the way of strategic and operational demands. He couldn’t bombard Echo Base because he wanted to capture Luke and turn him to the Dark Side. Tarkin, unencumbered by a hokey religion, the need for an apprentice, or sentiment of any kind, would have ended the rebellion on Hoth.

Which leads to my next point: Palpatine and Vader, just like the Jedi, are strategic incompetents. The resources of the vast Empire are directed not firstly to the defeat of the rebellion but rather to the capture of Luke Skywalker, a super-empowered religious extremist from a desert wasteland who has great symbolic value but no real command and control over the movement that he is a part of (yes, I went there). When Palpatine describes his theory of victory to Luke on the second Death Star over Endor, the defeat of the rebel fleet is barely a postscript to Luke’s fall to the Dark Side. The Empire is clearly operating without a coherent strategy as their ends are confused. Nor did Palpatine produce any useful policy that would serve to better prioritize the strategic ends. The severe lack of a healthy separation of church and state wasted Imperial resources.

What a super-empowered religious extremist from a desert wasteland might look like.

Tarkin, of course, would not have let this happen. Palpatine obviously had great trust in the Grand Moff and, had he lived, the Emperor could have delegated the military fight against the rebellion to the true military mastermind while turning to the Imperial intelligence or special forces communities to hunt down Luke Skywalker. Either that, or Tarkin’s coolness, vision, and competency would have allowed him to execute a coup d’etat that would depose the distracted and arrogant pair of Sith. This, actually, would not have been too bad of an outcome for the galaxy. While Palpatine is prone to rule through force, Tarkin intends to rule through the threat of force. This would have first required the destruction of Alderaan, the execution of Princess Leia, and the destruction of Hoth, but after that years of peace could have followed. Surely this was a bad outcome for the rebellion and George Lucas’ merchandise sales, but the people of the galaxy would have seen peace. Instead, when the only competent strategist in the entire Star Wars galaxy dies at Yavin, decades of civil strife follow. (If you follow the Expanded Universe anyway.)

Let’s say you were tasked with designing a new, evolutionary approach to delivering kinetics via the sky. Ideally, it could be piloted by a single person, would feature an incredibly powerful senor array, and utilize the best available in computer assistance. How much would it take to bring such an idea from fruition to, say, a Mk VII version?  According to SoldierSystems, such a weapons platform would cost $1,584,302,000, and would have been designed in a cave by Tony Stark.

The Completely Bearable Costs of Being Iron Man

The Completely Bearable Costs of Being Iron Man

(The above figure doesn’t include Tony Stark’s mansion or assorted luxury automobiles; being piloted exclusively by billionaire playboys is not an ideal requirement for revolutionary military equipment).

As fictional super-weapons go, Iron Man’s costs are not insurmountable, and his technological conceits relatively minor: a personal chest-mounted nuclear reactor and multiple jets are a leap, but at least an understandable one.

The advantages of such a system are tremendous. Iron Man carries an arsenal powerful enough to put him on footing with godlike aliens, and versatile enough to dispatch with everything from Afghan warlords to drone swarms to giant flying killer space whales. The flight range is such that, deploying from the continental US, he is capable of circumnavigating the globe under his own power and without need for refueling of any sort.

Iron Man armor is also a surprisingly versatile platform, capable of mission-specific customization and mounting a variety of different payload systems. This bodes well for long-term viability as a military asset, as it largely bypasses the payload/platform debate.

Also, it’s compact size combined with pilot-protection make it possible to operate on missions where normally delivery systems that powerful would be unwieldy. Iron Men would not be limited to air combat, and missions could range from close support (airborne or otherwise) down to the “capture” part of counter-terror “kill or capture” missions. (Having a suit of armor impervious to most small arms fire that can also fly makes extraction of individuals much, much easier.)

Even assuming Iron Man is only tasked as an evolutionary support aircraft, he comes across as much more cost effective than the latest real-world attempt at world-conquering genius flyers. The F-35 program has currently budgeted $382 billion for an initial order of 2,443 jets, giving a unit price of (roughly) $156,365,125/fighter. For the price of a single F-35, you could get just shy of 99 Iron Men! (Worth noting: the Mk I Iron Man was developed by necessity in a cave in Afghanistan, with supplies provided at no cost to Stark Industries,* which is an unfair advantage. Also, yes, fiction.) As superweapons go, Iron Men become a steal, especially when you contrast the durability and low maintenance costs of an Arc Reactor against the projected lifetime expenditure on the F-35.

But perhaps even the 1.5 billion dollar price tag is a bit much,** and you’re less interested in global deploy-ability and air-to-air fighting in your GWOT than you are in having dedicated and versatile urban combat support. If that is the mission, one could certainly do worse than copying Batman’s arsenal.

Batman is 87% mansion and batcave

Batman is 87% mansion and batcave

The lion’s share of the cost of being Batman comes from a fully-functioning mansion and a suite of vehicles designed for urban combat, with the training and armor coming at a surprisingly modest fee for the HUMINT capabilities provided.

Since it is hard to imagine a future where the human intelligence and stealth will not be valued, Batmen provide a very light-impact, small footprint force that can focus primarily on anti-terror campaigns (anti-corruption, while not strictly included, tends to be a personal hobby for such individuals, and should be seen as an included bonus.) Should the situation necessitate an escalation of violence, Batmen (and women) come with included arsenal featuring both armored urban transport and a ground support VTOL. The armor, mobility, stealth, and dedication to justice that a Batman provides come at a price, but when it comes to COIN operations, surely one Batman is worth approximately 100 MRAPs. If the US were to replace our total MRAP fleet with Batmen (acknowledging that while their roles overlap somewhat they are not interchangeable), it would mean 200 active Batmen now fighting the GWOT (and, unfortunately, 400 parents tragically lost after screenings of Zorro).

At this point, it’s fair to point out that all this talk of relative cost and bargaining doesn’t really fit the idea of superweapons. The Death Star, near and dear to this blog’s heart (and the foundation of the Tarkin Doctrine) would cost

At 2012 prices, about $852,000,000,000,000,000. Or roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP.**

according to the fine economists at Centive. Or, in superweapon terms, one Death Star costs the same as 5,448,785,335 F-35s.


*Okay yes, but through weird spoilery mechanics. At no cost to Tony Stark, at least.
**If strength increase is the primary reason for wanting an Iron Man, it looks like Raytheon’s Sarcos XOS 2 military exoskeleton will cost about 1/1,000th of Iron Man armor. It can’t fly, though.