March 29, 2002



A classic example of this (see below) is this article by my former colleague at Lum the Mad's, Arcadian Del Sol. Arc comes to this conclusion, through bitter (and amusing) experience, about the low-level player vs. player game in DAoC:

If you dont have spells, or a bow, or some other ability to fire from your side of the chess board to the other side of the chess board, you'll be faced with a hard choice: sit and watch the chess game, or charge out in a solo suicide assault.

Arc is understandably frustrated. He plays a paladin, and he wants to charge out into a battle that reminds him of the final scenes of Excalibur. So frustrated, perhaps, that he misses the obvious parallels between the battle behaviour patterns his friends and enemies have adopted and the nature of ritual combat in primitive societies, best outlined in John Keegan's A History of Warfare:

Arrows or throwing-spears might sometimes bring down a man in the front line; then, if the enemy timed a short charge right, he could be finished off with axes and thrusting spears.

Also the Aztecs:

A battle that began with an exchange of arrows, to sow the confusion in which tese individual duels might be fought, ended with those taken prisoner being led to the great city of Tenochtitlan.

Also, for that matter, Homer's Troy. Before he started siphoning off his credibility by commenting on current political matters, blogger favourite Victor Davis Hanson made his reputation with his famous thesis that the Classical Greeks were so successful in warfare because they were the first to stop fighting the way Homer (and Arc) describe and introduce a form of culturally imbued discipline to battlefield movements. What Arc's describing is a battlefield where Hanson's "Western Way of War" hasn't taken root yet. If I'd been there, I'd have been rooted to the spot just watching, an anthropologist on an ancient battlefield... when I wasn't dodging those arrows, I suppose. But the fact that DAoC's creators have established a world where something like real ritual warfare has actually emerged is a testament to their skill as world-builders... as much as it discomfits poor Arc.

Posted by BruceR at 11:49 AM

YEAH, SO WHAT? After reading


After reading that last, of course, everyone who does play EQ, Ultima, etc., is saying, "well, duh," while everyone who hasn't is saying, "who cares?" But the experience is the kind of mini-insight into human behaviour that attracted many of us to "multi-user dungeons" (MUDs) and their descendants in the first place.

Underlaying all the fantasy mumbo-jumbo of all these places is a compelling conceit... that if one designs a virtual world and encourages thousands to each assume an alter-ego of that world, that if the design assumptions are sound, those alter-egos will interact like real humans would. Instead of computer-driven and infantile artificial intelligence, you have several thousand actors with real human intelligence in there with you. If it's done right, you can befriend, take revenge, find love... as a computer games writer I covered a couple cases where Everquest players became so immersed as to lose touch with their own, generally emotionally and financially squalid real-life circumstances.

I have no interest in learning more about elves qua elves. I am interested in learning about human behaviour, though. In a way, the designers of these games are engaged in large chaotic never-ending group psychology experiments. In real life, the Stanford Prison test was shut down because real people were getting hurt. In EQ or DAoC, there's a Stanford Prison-type situation every couple weeks, which those running the game have to then figure out how to navigate their way out of in real-time without losing their subjects/paying customers forever.

The theorists like Robert Wright wax poetic about game theory. Have they spent any time talking with Raph Koster, who designed a zero-sum world in Ultima Online? (Everquest is explicitly a non-zero sum world; DAoC is a mixture, where competition with other human actors only takes place at high levels. This leads people, interestingly, to design their avatars either with zero-sum or non-zero sum competition in mind from day one.) Of all the systems designed to help employers classify their job-seekers (Type-A, self-directed, etc.) the most revealing might just be the one devised by Richard Bartle to classify these gamer populations. Maybe not: a lot of gamers reject the whole idea of human taxonomy. They might be right: but do you know anywhere else in popular discourse where everyone has an opinion on the subject and considers it an important one?

There likely won't be too many papers written in the psych journals about these communities. There's variables all over the damn place. No doubt mice and Skinner boxes produce much cleaner data. But if you ever want to just observe mass human behaviour, freed of all the baggage of this real world, the massively-multiplayer experience might be instructive. I've always found it so, anyway.

Posted by BruceR at 11:18 AM



Left my now 5th level Saracen fighter for a bit, started a new Troll shaman character over on Midgard. There I found the Everquest-style human (?) contact I was more used to. It makes sense: if you look at it rationally, there's never a good reason to slow down your level progression by yacking with a low-level fighter in these games. There's lots of them around, and they have precious little they can offer you unless they can some day catch up to your level of play. On the other hand, there's rarely a good reason NOT to talk to someone who's always got a healing spell handy, like any of the cleric/fighter-cleric classes. They can't hurt you, and they always have the potential to help a little in return for a simple bow or wave.

The corollary would be if, for whatever reason, you do feel like breaking into massively multiplayer gaming for the first time, without a lot of friends already in game, pick a healer class. People are nicer that way.

Posted by BruceR at 10:20 AM

March 28, 2002

Correspondent Jeff G. writes: I

Correspondent Jeff G. writes:

I was wondering if you could recommend a really cool game for someone who's only experience with such things were Zork and Kings Quest (back in the, what? Mid-90s, I guess?)

When I moved out to Denver to pick up my PhD, I left that stuff behind. But I've been hankering to play -- maybe get my wife involved -- but as I stood in front of the racks and racks of PC games at Best Buy, I realized I hadn't a clue what I was looking for.

Any suggestions?

Jeff, the Baldur's Gate series (Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, and Icewind Dale, and add-ons) are very, very good single-person/team dungeon crawls. Made in Canada by Bioware, but you'll have to live with that. :-) The other in that series, Planescape:Torment, is a true classic of computer story-telling, meant for those who like a more thoughtful, novelistic story line, but I'd recommend trying one of the others, first. If you find there just hasn't been enough D&D in your life so far, you must try these: start with the original BG and the Sword Coast add-on, if you can find them.

There are two highly promising games (supposedly) coming out this year, Microsoft's Dungeon Siege and Bioware's Neverwinter Nights (both have been delayed by their creators). Both promise to be a little more freeform, as they cater more to the "create your own dungeon, then play through it with your friends" ethic, ie, the tabletop D&D experience on computer. Dungeon Siege promises to be a little more of a clickfest than NWN, as it's also trying to attract what's left of the Diablo crowd that hasn't already succumbed to mouse-claw-like repetitive stress injuries, and both may end up requiring a reasonable unit (ie, 1 Gig or higher) to run on.

Then of course, there's the massively multiplayer online game, with its thousands of simultaneous players. There you've got the additional $10 a month U.S fee, generally high-end system requirements, and a basically dysfunctional online community. When it works, however, it's the most compelling entertainment experience a computer can offer, in fantasy or any other genre, for that matter. Having 1,000 other independent thinking actors in the same virtual space can make things pretty stochastic at times: some people call that unpredictable, some people call that annoying. It's certainly an acquired taste, and not for the completely casual gamer: once you're in one of these worlds, it's hard to just drop the battle cause the baby's crying, for instance: first you have to run and find a tree to hide behind, etc., etc. The reigning king is Sony's Everquest, of course, which panders to the obsessive-compulsive, and has a milieu with about as much relation to real good fantasy writing as Medieval Times has to the battle of Agincourt. I believe it should be tried once, just to see what the fuss is about, but discarded before the first credit card charges show up in a month (Since the starter kit's now a ludicrous $10).

Better choices for sustained play in this subgenre, I believe, are the aforementioned Dark Age of Camelot (which tries to bring the experience back to real human mythologies), or Microsoft's Asheron's Call (which created its own unique fantasy world from scratch, instead, with all the inevitable pluses and minuses that entails.)

Other games I've enjoyed, but which I would not suggest for a minute are in Baldur's Gate leagues, are the made-in-Spain Blade of Darkness and Sierra's Arcanum.

Getting wives involved. Alas, I cannot help thee with that. Although a lot of women, in my limited experience, do like Dark Age of Camelot. This one, for instance.

Posted by BruceR at 10:14 AM

March 27, 2002



As important as Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker piece on the Iraqis and the Kurds is, its opening tableau of a gas attack on the Kurds is somewhat disingenuous. The writer focusses on the 1988 attack on Halabja, and the effects on its civilians. Yet he also writes that the Iranians, then at war with the Iraqis, controlled the town at the time. A logical explanation, not strongly put forward in the New Yorker piece, is that the Iraqis were using gas to dislodge the Iranians and the Kurdish civilians were caught in a chemical crossfire. This is appalling, of course, but it's not necessarily genocidal. (Thanks to the nattering nabobs at Sgt. Stryker for the reminder.)

Posted by BruceR at 03:14 PM



All my thoughts on the Oscars, in a nutshell.

Posted by BruceR at 02:36 PM



"It also turns out that a British organization, Indict, is already pursuing an indictment against Saddam for war crimes."

And the Belgian organization Frown is already drafting plans to mount an international campaign of scowling, which will force his regime to divert precious resources to rubber chickens, joy-buzzers and Singing Telegram Gorillas to improve their standing abroad. Meanwhile, the French organization Surrender is drafting plans to cede Marseilles to whomever wants it, just in case.

Lileks, today, dismantling the NYT's Nick Kristoff.

Posted by BruceR at 11:34 AM



Finally cracked open my Dark Age of Camelot box last night (I passed my exam, so I think I was allowed). For those who don't know, DAoC is a massively multiplayer fantasy roleplaying game, like Everquest but a little more rooted in real human mythology, as opposed to post-Tolkien, bloody-elves-everywhere schlock. I know a couple of the people at Mythic behind the game, and I knew it was going to be a quality product. And it really is, as promised, like "Everquest without the parts that suck." Leveled up to 3 as a Saracen warrior in desultory play on the Nimue server, and here's a few newbie impressions.

Pros: The newbie zones on Nimue are refreshingly empty, actually. It was fairly easy to find oneself alone when hunting, and there was none of the mass mini-mob, rat carrion-everywhere insanity of Freeport gate, say. I also really liked the quick customization of the characters... it always bothered me in EQ taking so long to make my character look even slightly different from the others. Each armor piece changes your appearance slightly, and after I bought a nice blue cloak I was clearly my own person. The initial forest zone is pretty enough, although not as scary as some EQ forests. The default mouse/keyboard settings were clunky (who plays like that?) but it was easy enough to reconfigure. Of course, installation, the manual, the help tips were all professional and trouble-free, as one expects from Mythic. Best of all, there were a ton of good names for characters still available on the server, including basically all of the so-called Arthurian "House of Babylon" (Saracen relatives of Sir Palomides). Amazingly, I picked up "Safere," as in Sir Safere, brother of Palomides, one of the minor characters in Malory. That was one of my big hopes for DAoC, actually, that it would allow one to roleplay one of the minor Arthurian knights, one of those whose "story had never made the books." I was really surprised it was that easy. Now I just need to figure out how to create Safere's "or chequy vert" coat of arms...

Cons: Not much chatter, yet: we'll see if that changes. It's not that I miss typing "gratz" everytime someone says "ding" but it would have been nice to have had one interchange with another human player. Maybe that'll improve higher up. The mobs (monsters) are less aggressive and threatening than EQ... none of them came after me, or ganged up. Unlike, say, fire beetles at Qeynos, attacking one didn't bring them all down on me. I saw some too-big-to-handle monsters, but nothing ever tried to chase me, either. Maybe their AI gets better further out. Also there was a lot more lag than I would have thought, for a fairly empty server, with monsters blink-dogging away from their locations a fair bit.

Anyway, the first month is free, so I'll mess around a little longer. I'm looking forward to trying out the Norse and Celtic mythological areas, too.

Posted by BruceR at 10:34 AM

March 26, 2002



(Read Part 1 -- Part 2) A long-term, multi-decade strategy of fracturing the Arab bloc and bringing Western values to the region in the process will only help Israel in the long run. However, in the long run, as they say, they may all be dead. What is likely to happen in the meantime? The prescription for a workable solution is actually fairly clear... the difficulty is getting Israelis to recognize it, not anyone else. First off:

Forget the "Peace Process." Forget the Saudi "plan," of course... it's not a plan but an ultimatum. But more than that: forget the idea of bilateralism, altogether. As is clear by now, Israel has no one to talk peace with: Arafat either cannot or will not, and his successors were he to be ever overthrown are even more bloodthirsty. As for the rest of the Arab world, they cannot control Arafat at risk of their own populations' rioting, and they have nothing to offer Israel by themselves. Nor does America have a role... it will only reinforce prejudices in the region by intervening. Israel must create its own solution, and then defend it for however many decades (centuries?) it takes the region to come around. That solution, however, cannot be the "Greater Israel" solution of the Zionist extremist... Israel must come up with something that the United States can, if not exactly like, at least not hate. Some territory must be given up to the Palestinians. A first step would be:

Evacuate Gaza. The Gaza Strip would be an abomination even if all the people were of the same religion. Six thousand Israeli settlers control 90 per cent of the land, including all the agriculturally productive parts. Nearly a million Palestinians squat on the remaining 10 per cent. Most of the stories of settler and IDF shootings of unarmed Palestinian boys come from Gaza. The strip is not strategically valuable, and is only a drain on the IDF: the port itself would guarantee at least some economic success for the inhabitants, if the intifada ever ended. Israel has already wrapped fortifications around the entire strip which can be easily bolstered into a wall. Israel should immediately move to evict its own settlers, hand over full authority to whatever fragment of the Palestinian Authority wants it, and settle down behind the Gaza Wall, allowing no more Gazan day-labour into the country than is absolutely necessary to keep their economy moving. The west can rebuild Gaza however it likes: the important thing is that Israel will have shown the world it will not inhibit Palestinian self-determination, provided its own security is not at risk. This will mollify the next inevitable step:

Annex the Golan. There are 17,000 Jewish settlers on nominally Syrian land in the Golan, too. The difference is, this is clearly strategic land. To surrender it threatens all of Israel, and everyone knows it. Rather than push for its return, the West should acquiesce in its annexation. This could lead to a regional war, of course, but one Israel is still rather likely to win over the hapless Syrians. In the end, the result will be the same: a strengthened local position, and a victory Israel can use to calm its own domestic extremists as it goes on to the next phase:

Divide the West Bank. Martin van Creveld is one of the most brilliant living military historians. He has essentially written the book on the history of military logistics. So one can have no doubt his opinion is valuable when he opines in Newsweek that if Israel doesn't end the occupation and build a "wall" between itself and the Palestinians on the West Bank, it will inevitably succumb:

History shows that walls can work. The Roman Limes, or border, kept the barbarians out for several hundred years, as did the Great Wall of China. The wall between Greek and Turkish Cypriots works. For decades the Berlin wall turned that city into a very secure place indeed.

This will be the big crisis, of course. The West Bank must be partitioned. Jerusalem must be claimed to the exclusion of the Palestinians, along with enough land to provide a military buffer. But the hotbeds of Palestinian unrest must be left outside the wall -- Ramallah, Jericho, the camps -- and the wall left open on one side, into Jordan (basically you'd be looking at the area of Samaria to the east of the Janin-Nablus-Ramallah-Jericho line). That will mean the evacuation of thousands of Jewish settlers. Particularly, that means abandoning the settlements along the Jordan, which will be incredibly unpopular domestically. Any Palestinians who choose to stay on the Israeli side of the wall would have to have some means of gaining Israeli citizenship. The Palestinians will demand more, and cite UN resolutions. But Israel will have to be steadfast. Hunkered down behind the Samarian wall, with the Palestinians left to their own devices, the suicide bombings will stop, and more traditional battles (force-on-force incursions, F-16 strikes against Katyusha rockets) will resume. That is the price of being Israel. But the IDF will no longer be gnawed at from within by the brutality of the intifada, and the Jewish state can unite in the task of preserving its own survival again.

The results of a Samarian wall will be complex. Unable to support themselves on their remaining land, unable to cross the wall to work in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will emigrate... many to other Arab countries, where they will become destabilizing influences there, much to American pleasure. The annexation of territory and changes to borders will tax the international system, just as Kurdistan would: Israel's friends in the west will have to fight long and hard to mitigate the force of past and future Security Council resolutions. The current prime minister, Sharon, is too beholden to settler interests to take any of these actions. That means he must leave office before Israel can even start moving towards a unilateral solution: of the current politicians, perhaps only Netanyahu has the mix of support required to pull it off. The loss of the dream of an Israel all the way to the River Jordan will produce its own violent unrest at home. The threat of a weapon of mass destruction hurled at Tel Aviv will never disappear until the whole region renews itself. Those are all negatives. But the likelihood of Israel surviving until that renewal will increase markedly.

The West can help by keeping the UN off Israel's back; by doing its part to destabilize and distract the Arab world through other means; by providing funds to support both settler eviction and mollify Palestinians still claiming their right of return. But the inevitable solution to the Israeli dilemma will be a unilateral one. If the country stays around long enough to enact it, that is.

Posted by BruceR at 04:00 PM



(Read Part 1) That last entry was non-constructive criticism, I know. What would be a viable prescription for establishing a friendly Arab world? I donít have all the answers, either, but hereís a few obvious ideas.

Bring Back Deterrence. Given the recent announcements in Britain and the United States, this is clearly being done. Any rational actors left in the Middle East cannot mistake the clear message that an attack on the American or British homelands with weapons of mass destruction will lead to a commensurate response. Thatís not a permanent solution, of course, but it should buy enough time to:

Divide and Conquer. The Middle East is too big for one bite, and bite-and-hold occupational tactics wonít work. At least some of the countries on the list must be neutralized before taking out the remainder, likely by facing them off against each other. An amenable government in Iran, for instance, would simplify the situation remarkably. Currently, however, all these countries are more or less united, by hatred for Israel, if nothing else. They are an unassailable bloc right now, and that bloc needs to be fractured. Therefore the United States must:

Repudiate Wilson. The Wilsonian commitment to preserving the worldís 1919 borders has outlived its usefulness in the Middle East, at least. The U.S. has done much to preserve the worsening status quo by insisting that the lines drawn in the sand by the colonial powers must forever be preserved, fearing the instability that would result if they did not (Even if it meant ignoring Wilsonís other principle, that of national self-determination). But in the Arab world, the U.S. needs instability now. The borders are artificial, and work against peaceful solution: unlike those determined by centuries of war and peace treaties in Europe say, they were imposed borders, with little relation to the facts on the ground. This is particularly a problem in the case of:

Kurdistan. As that recent New Yorker piece everyoneís talking about amply demonstrates, Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest thing to a pro-American Muslim state that exists in the region. Yet Wilsonian determinism dictates it must forever be under the thumb of whoever rules in Baghdad. This is clearly unacceptable. The biggest destabilizing act the U.S. could create right now (and easily defendable at home and abroad) is not this silly pretext of UN inspectors vis-a-vis Iraq, but the recognition of Kurdistan as its own country, backed by American occupying force. The impact would be to send ripples through the whole regional system, not to mention cripple Iraq far more than inspectors would. But thatís what you do when the chess pieces are lined up for a stalemate: you upset the board. The short-run result could be blowback, and even a regional war, but the long-term result, as the strength of the western economic system and the energy of the resurgent Kurds, inevitably made itself felt, would be a deep penetration of American values into all the immediately surrounding countries and beyond, leading hopefully to a series of internal revolutions in other countries that America could then capitalize on down the road. In the meantime, the threat of weapons of mass destruction would likely be lifted off both America and Israel, as the Arab countries focussed on this new, more urgent threat.

Recognizing Kurdistan would not be seen as a threat to Islam, per se: the larger Islamic world would necessarily be divided against itself on the question. There are probable negative consequences: Turkish antipathy, and other attempts to redraw borders finally, in Africa, for instance. These could be managed through a combination of diplomacy, bribery and forceÖ and in any case, turmoil in Africa is not a threat to Americans at home the way Middle Eastern extremism is. The UN would also be undermined by the redrawing of boundariesÖ but that would be necessary collateral damage in the short run.

But what about the Israel question, you say? As I will explain next, there really is no role for Americans in the coming Israeli-Arab war. And there is no way that America can defend its values (ie democracy) in that country without reinforcing the growing Muslim-vs-the-world polarity that threatens world peace. Defending Jews against Muslims with American armed force, rather than Kurdish Muslims against other Muslims, can only increase the risk to the United States.

Make no mistake. The equilibrium of the region is going to vanish at some point in our lifetimes. Kurdistan, not Israel, offers the best chance for the Americans to influence the new equilibrium that emerges (and by fracturing the Arab bloc, ensure Israel's long-term survival, as well). Sometimes, when you donít like the answer, you have to change the question.

Posted by BruceR at 03:19 PM



I don't want it to seem like I'm picking on Steven Den Beste. I so totally agree with almost everything he writes, that the rare cases of disagreement are the only thing unusual enough to be worth writing about. Either that, or I could just put "what the Captain said" at the top of each day's entries, I suppose.

And it's not that I think Arab militancy isn't the most dangerous force in the world today, too. But Den Beste's proposed solution, occupation and subjugation of the Middle East, seems pretty much a non-starter, purely for statistical reasons.

Look, in modern times, armies have generally just been capable of keeping a lid on a restive population if they can keep a ratio of at least 1:100 of occupiers to civilians. The British more or less locked down Ulster for 25 years, but never got troop strength before the most recent truce much below 18,000 (not counting the RUC), for a 1.5 million population during that time. The Israelis, by contrast, have 20,000 soldiers permanently watching just under 3 million Palestinians, and are losing control by the day.

Postwar Japan and Germany were exceptions to that rule, with ratios more like 1:1000. This was achieved for two reasons: first, that the recent military defeat had been utterly destructive and overwhelming, and second, that there was nowhere left in the world for Japanese extremists or Nazis to run or turn too. Flight, regrouping, and rebuilding, the traditional tactics of the resistance fighter when completely overmatched, were simply not available to them.

America's deployable ground forces overseas, Army and Marine, come to around 600,000, in 13 divisions (10 army, 3 marine). Given the standard NATO rotation model of a third of one's forces overseas at any one time, that comes to 200,000 total foreign deployable. Of that, it's unlikely at least half wouldn't be needed somewhere else besides the Middle East. So the remaining 100,000 troops could conceivably keep the lid on an isolated, defeated region with 100 million civilians long enough for its society to be suitably restructured. Populations of the more obstreperous Middle East countries:

Lebanon: 4 million
Israel/Palestine: 10 million
Yemen: 17 million
Syria: 18 million
Saudi Arabia: 22 million
Iraq: 25 million
Iran: 65 million

See the problem yet? To occupy all those countries, even in ideal circumstances, would take over 150,000 soldiers, fulltime. And the circumstances would be far from ideal soon enough.

That 1:1000 ratio assumes that every other country in the region was on side with the American plan: leave one country untouched (like Sudan, or Somalia), where the bad guys can hide, and the occupier-to-civilian ratio necessarily climbs to Irish levels: over a million American ground troops, which to be sustainable would require a 10-fold increase in American combat strength.

Such an increase would not be possible. Other countries could not be relied on (being generally uninterested in recreating the Arab world in Americaís image). The necessary dilution of the quality of the American fighting soldier would be strenuously opposed by the military. Conscription would certainly be necessary. Casualties would soon become unacceptably high. And the rebels would hide in whatever safe haven was still open to them, and wait for the next U.S. election. To follow Den Besteís prescription would be to recreate Vietnam, and lose it again, for much the same reasons as the first time.

The future of the West in warfare is in leveraging its militariesí technological and economic advantages into high-value, transformative strikes... true surgical warfare in the purest sense. Mass occupation and cultural reshaping by force ceased to be an option decades ago. A different approach is needed here.

Posted by BruceR at 02:35 PM



Damian Penny is taking flak today for exulting over Canadian snipers' high kill counts. Writes one correspondent:

These are serious men doing a grusome [sic], grim job. I doubt they are enjoying it as much as you are.

Do soldiers, particularly victorious ones, "enjoy it"? Anyone who actually spends time with them knows it's a lot more complex than that. Mixed with the understandable horror and fear are other emotions, part professional pride maybe, part warrior exuberance perhaps. Lee hinted at the dichotomy when he said, looking over the ruin of the Union army he'd destroyed at Fredericksburg: "It is well that war is so terrible: we would grow too fond of it." Or think of Churchill after his Sudanese days: "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." Read Richard Holmes, or David Grossman, or Niall Ferguson... all of them describe circumstances where the majority of professional, western soldiers, as Churchill put it on another occasion, smiled as they fought... even, in Ferguson's case, in the trenches of World War One.

The snipers in question were professionals, specialized in killing at a distance. They did their jobs well, and they all survived. So I suspect they have not spent their entire time then and since appalled at the horror of what they were doing. I'm sure some occasionally even cracked a smile. That's how soldiers are. Every press account I've read so far backs that up, including the one Penny provides. To say that they couldn't possibly have "enjoyed it" (why? because that would be un-Canadian?) is as simplistic as assuming they did would have been.

PS: Damian moderates his earlier glee, saying maybe he's watched too many Clint Eastwood movies. Funny, I never saw an Eastwood character that seemed to take any joy in anything. If all our soldiers were mini-Clints, they'd be a pretty joyless lot indeed...

Posted by BruceR at 02:02 PM



In honour of my 20,000th visit, I've changed the discussion forum to something less onerous. I get too many great emails I can't manually reprint... hope this helps. To kick things off, though, I've reprinted the thoughts on my Margolis challenge by fellow Canadian blogger Charles Tupper Jr.

Posted by BruceR at 12:09 PM

WHO IS DO? Long on


Long on my list of artists who should be famous, but aren't yet, is the trance singer Do. Given her almost un-Googleable stage name, it's not surprising one can't come up with a picture of her, or even much information... her current remix of Bryan Adams' "Heaven" with Spain's DJ Sammy was on round-the-clock radio play over the last weekend, on all the good stations within range of my unit's army exercise, anyway. Best one can tell from the video is she's vaguely Jewel-like. Great track, though, and the girl has killer pipes. It strikes me this is the kind of quiet breakthrough into mainstream North American radio play that girls like Shakira and Kylie had to pay millions in marketing for... too bad about the name, I guess.

Posted by BruceR at 01:07 AM

March 25, 2002



From the print version of the Nation, April 1:

MIT linguistics professor [Noam Chomsky] attended the Feb. 13 trial of Fatih Tas of Aram Publishing House, the Istanbul-based publisher of Chomsky's American Interventionism. Charges of printing "propaganda against the indivisible unity of [the] country, nation, and state" were dismissed when the hearing opened and Chomsky asked to be tried alongside Tas.

Posted by BruceR at 10:01 PM



I love pro-Taliban writer Eric Margolis in the morning. He's such an idiot: he makes you thankful for your own neurons. There but for the grace of brain damage...

Ironically, the only nation where the U.S. war on drugs did work was in Afghanistan - thanks to its former Taliban regime. According to the UN drug control agency, the Taliban virtually halted cultivation and trade of heroin-producing opium poppies. Afghanistan supplied 80% of Europe's heroin and about 60% of America's. The American invasion and overthrow of the Taliban handed power to the Russian-backed Northern Alliance, which fully revived the heroin trade and now controls 90% of drug exports.

Now to understand Margolis, you have to know that he believes interim president Karzai is a U.S.-installed Oswald-like patsie, and the Northern Alliance still the real power behind the throne in Kabul. So yes, I would hope the Karzai government controls 90 per cent of the country's opium exports... if there'd been an opium crop yet since it took power. Ninety percent of zero is...? As to the Taliban, it's well documented Mullah Omar profited insanely for years off of opium exports, before suddenly burning all his crops in the fields a few months before Sept. 11. It's still unknown exactly why he did this, even among the Taliban (Omar was a whimsical absolute ruler), but it almost certainly wasn't under pressure from U.S. law enforcement agencies, I think it's safe to say at this point.

The burbling continues:

Just two weeks ago in Afghanistan, the U.S. lost eight soldiers and dropped 3,300 expensive precision bombs against will-o-the-wisp opponents in a failed battle in the Shah-i-Kot Valley (shades of Vietnam's IaDrang Valley battles).

Okay, the challenge is out. I defy anyone to find the slightest military parallel between Ia Drang and Shahikot, to back Margolis up, other than they both had American troops fighting in a valley. Knowing Margolis, it's remarkable he didn't also point out the amazing comparisons with the Shenandoah Valley and Valley Forge...

Posted by BruceR at 11:11 AM



"One year ago, George W. Bush presented himself at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City as an avatar of free trade."

--National Post editorial, today

Posted by BruceR at 10:01 AM

March 22, 2002



"[Prime Minister Jean] Chrťtien also said he expects the campaign against terrorism to carry on for some time, but added Canada hopes to wrap up its mission to Afghanistan by July." --National Post, March 19

"Well, the nature of terrorism being what it is, they will continue to attack. So this war isnít over from a long shot and I donít think anybodyís under the impression that this was the last bastion of Al-Qaeda resistance in the entire theatre. So itís going to be going on for years I would expect."--Lieut. Col. Pat Stogran, commander of Canadian ground forces in Afghanistan, March 21

Posted by BruceR at 02:12 PM



Wearable computing innovator Steven Mann is suing Air Canada for roughing him up.

Mann's an interesting fish, who's had run-ins with Canada's airline before: compare this summary of another problematic flight a couple years ago to what happened to him this time to see what a difference Sept. 11 has made even to the lifestyle of a frequent-flying cyborg. Before, though, the airline staff were just jerks, amusingly caught on film by Mann's surveillance suite: now it's a question whether Mann (who with the blocky CPU and battery packs under his sweater vest and his never-removed giant camera-sunglasses, looks even at the best of times something like a suicide bomber for the Nerd Liberation Front) will ever be able to fly "comfortably" again. So sad...

Posted by BruceR at 11:38 AM

March 21, 2002



Tonight I've got my tactics exam, which I've been cramming for; after that I'm going to a meeting about a possible tasking on Friday for our cell. Sorry for the repeated absences, to anyone still reading... at least the work's steady, I guess.

Posted by BruceR at 03:10 PM

March 19, 2002



Iain Murray takes issue with my preceding comments re his refutation of Herold on his site. I have a lot of respect for the guy, and I see where he's coming from. But the simple fact is he's trying to refute a verifiable (if deeply flawed) proposition with a non-verifiable one, an approach that can never be conclusive. Murray's also being a touch disingenous when he writes:

We [Stats] do not produce new data ourselves, except on rare occasions when we have a specific grant for the project.

Murray says he has done no independent evaluation of the number of Afghan civilian casualties. But he also stands by his clincher in his opinion piece that his own thorough review concluded that 650 of the deaths Herold found are "in any way reliably reported." (Those are not mutually contradictory statements: a review of existing data and the generation of new figures are different things, of course.) But that still doesn't explain why, if Murray had any faith in the methodology behind his review of the Herold figures, that he's not willing to expose it to its own scrutiny. And if he doesn't want to share it, for whatever reason, why he thought referring to it would make his argument any the stronger. If anything, that unsupported reference considerably weakens his piece, and ventures very close to idle self-promotion for Murray and Stats.

Look at it this way. If Marc Herold had published his 3,000-plus figure for Afghan casualties, and not offered all his data for Murray and others to challenge, Murray (and I) would have rightly torn him to pieces for not having the guts to expose his data to scrutiny. But now Murray makes a claim, backed by a study he's already completed, but he's content to keep it securely in his pocket, instead asking the rest of the world to "just trust us."

Posted by BruceR at 02:07 PM

March 18, 2002



I think it's clear I'm as happy as anyone to see Marc Herold's ludicrous Afghan casualty numbers debunked, so I should be happy Megan McArdle and others have tried to call attention to the problems with Herold by providing links to's Iain Murray's refutation of it at Tech Central. However, I'm not really... it disturbs me that Murray doesn't bother to provide more than perfunctory evidence of his own numerical claims.

A STATS review of the data suggests that, on a careful reading, only 650 of the deaths he claims are in any way reliably reported.

When Herold goes to the trouble of putting everything but his own raw notes on line, a proper refutation can only be of equal weight if it does likewise. But Murray provides no links, and has no mention of its "review of the data" on its site. That's pretty slipshod. If Murray really has done a review of Afghan casualties that could stand up to scrutiny, why wouldn't he publish it? No, Murray had a chance to bury Herold forever online... and he whiffed. You simply can't criticize people for faulty methodology, without inviting debate on your own. Murray, of all people, should know that.

Posted by BruceR at 02:18 PM



While I'm here, here's my nutty airport security story. (Issued free to all North American airline passengers, along with their complementary peanuts.) Travelling to and from Louisville AFB, from Pearson International, on a Canadian Air Force Airbus, while in uniform, our chalk was intensively searched both coming and going. On the way down, we had to take our combat boots off and pass them through X-ray; on the way back up, one foolish soldier who hadn't prestowed his forces-issue multitool (ie, a pair of pliers) had it permanently confiscated.

Now, I'm not going to complain about the indignity or anything. If the Canadian Forces wanted us to shave our heads and paint them purple every time we flew, I'd do that too. But it seems a tremendous waste of money to search so thoroughly, just to eliminate any chance that a Canadian soldier with a pair of pliers could overwhelm his 200 other trained soldier buddies and redirect the plane, doesn't it? At some point, doesn't common sense have to kick in?

Posted by BruceR at 12:18 PM



Well, I'm back. Great time in Ol' Kentuck. Very friendly people there: felt very much at home. More on that later, maybe.

Meanwhile, great story from the Ottawa Citizen's David Pugliese today, on NORAD bringing back the Zeppelin. As a diehard Nate Zachary fan, I've got to say it's about time, dammit.

Also, here's a picture from our guys in Kandahar, which pretty much says all I have to say about the 6-month anniversary.

Posted by BruceR at 11:52 AM

March 08, 2002



Off to Ft. Knox with the guys in green for a week. I'll post if and when I can. In the meantime, read Steyn's latest: it's classic. Also this piece on the Gardez fighting in Time, which one suspects is much closer to the truth (maybe 60 Al Qaeda and some regrouping Taliban) of the strength of this adversary than what ABC News is saying today (600 foreign fighters). The difference? Time quotes actual identifiable humans (like local governor Taj Mohammed Wardak), whereas ABC goes with third-hand accounts from "villagers" and a "farmer." Oh, yeah, that's reliable... Hey, if we're going to ding Marc Herold for that kind of stuff, we've got to call the big journos when they do it, too.

The Christian Science Monitor has also been putting out must-read stuff on the war lately. Like this and this. And this.

Posted by BruceR at 03:00 PM

March 07, 2002



Scott, Scott, Scott... an army is good for many things. War fighting, peace keeping, bridge building, and keeping unemployed goombah teenagers from the backwoods from joining the Klan come to mind. But one thing defense tax dollars are certainly not meant for is subsidizing Hollywood producers' props budgets. Twit.

Posted by BruceR at 04:01 PM



Damian Penny's correspondent Aaron Dickey brings up the question of anti-aircraft missiles on the White House roof. Are there any? As a former air defence officer myself, the answer, it's safe to say, is no.

Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt the Secret Service has some Stingers in its armoury. But every serious report I have seen (the presence of Secret Service missiles has never been officially confirmed, of course) puts them across the street at the Executive Office Building, overlooking the White House. This is not surprising. Firing a shoulder-mounted SAM is a complex procedure. To do so from the White House itself while a plane was barrelling in would be almost certainly suicidal... not the ideal conditions for concentration on the task at hand.

If those Stingers had been deployed however, could they possibly have engaged successfully on Sept. 11? Again, almost certainly not. The Stinger is a horrible missile choice for warding off jetliners. Its range is too short, to start with... so you basically have to wait until the closing aircraft is on its approach run. And the warhead is too small to do any significant damage to a plane that's already planning to crash anyway (Taking out a single engine, which is all the missile would likely do, isn't going to change the equation.)

Stingers can be very effective against helicopters (actually, everything's effective against helicopters), or low-flying fast air... because a small jet hit by a Stinger is probably not going to finish its bomb run, and almost certainly won't get home. But the Sept. 11 bombers wanted to crash. They didn't want to get home. Losing a single engine on the approach would have been unlikely to change that.

What if the plane was circling, or still hadn't turn into its final run, yet? Stingers are still a horrible choice. They're fire-and-forget heatseekers: the other reason you wait for the approach run for such weapons, is against a crossing target they could end up acquiring all kinds of alternate targets: jets on the Reagan Airport tarmac, F-16s coming in. They are optimized for use in areas where there is no friendly air. In a city, you could never use them with certainty unless you were facing a hovering target, a plane coming right at you, or going straight away from you post weapons-delivery (which, again, was not an option in this case). Something like the British/Canadian Javelin, which is laser guided, and allows the operator to discriminate right up to the point of impact, would be a much better choice, frankly.

To really get a good ground-to-air solution for the problem, it'd be far better to have a Patriot battery with good sightlines somewhere overlooking the executive mansion. You could certainly get an effective "kill" in time that way. Or a good Combat Air Patrol by the local F-16s. But the White House Stingers on Sept. 11 could only have done more harm than good.

Posted by BruceR at 12:44 PM

March 06, 2002



I don't normally have a lot of time for retired colonel/commentator Michel Drapeau. I find him to be a bit of a whiner and an alarmist, when it comes to Canadian defence policy. (If I want to be criticized as a soldier, I'll listen to a guy who actually fought, like Lew Mackenzie, instead.) But he's dead on the mark today in the Globe and Mail:

Relying on Canada both for military assistance to fight the pockets of resistance from remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrilla forces, and for international political support in its enduring quest for safe skies and public places everywhere, the United States may well find our continued presence in Afghanistan beyond June to be of incalculable strategic value. If so, an early pullout of our troops from Afghanistan could be suicidal for U.S.-Canada relations. Chances are, our brave soldiers serving in Kandahar might not be able to strike camp for return to Canada this coming June. Absent some creative contingency planning, however, Canada simply lacks the sustaining power to maintain the current tempo of military operations, let alone the ability to augment our current commitment to Afghanistan to backfill behind U.S. troops deployed, say, to Iraq.

Drapeau's absolutely right, of course. We used up the last remaining regular force reserves we had to send 880 men to Kandahar. That's it... we're tapped out. (We also have large contingents in Bosnia and Eritrea.) With a six-month rotation those troops are going to start coming home in June. But these guys are almost half the Kandahar defence force, currently... the Americans aren't going to let them go happily if there's fighting on. And the odds the Taliban are going to give up before June now have to be seen as exceedingly small. Between now and June, the chance of a few Canadian combat casualties is high: those alone would make a perceived retreat or withdrawal from the coalition in four months a politically impossible move at home, as well.

Okay, so then what? Drapeau's right: we can't conjure another battalion out of thin air between now and June. The easiest option would be to draw the curtain on the Bosnia commitment. NATO may not like that much, but it's a viable option that Drapeau doesn't mention. Another would be to replace the land forces in Kandahar with a squadron of F-18s in Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps in Turkey as part of the air blockade over Iraq if that theatre heats up in the meantime. Another would be to rerole another combat arm of limited usefulness (like the artillery units, which almost never deploy anywhere), and turn them into infantry.

The one option Drapeau does consider, the turning up the heat on the reserves, is frankly the least viable. There is a very similar precedent: in 1952 Canada needed a brigade in Germany with NATO and another in Korea simultaneously, which was beyond the capacity for the regular force to sustain. Reservists were called up in large numbers to form a reserve brigade, which took the NATO job, allowing the regulars that had been slated for that post to go to Korea. At the time Canadian troop strengths were at a low ebb (even lower than today), and to avoid pulling out of the Korean War it had to be done. In many ways, it was the most successful deployment of reservists in Canadian history (far more so than the hamhanded efforts at the start of the two world wars) and has served since of the model of what Canadians would do the next time they got into dire military straits.

Well, we're there now. But it still can't work. You see, in 1952, the reserves were still largely manned by ex-World War 2 soldiers, many of whom wanted another kick at the can, or were otherwise having troubles reintegrating into civilian life. It was easy to pull in another brigade. That's not possible now... there's just not the installed base. A lot of people might want to go, but without any job protection legislation for reservists, they can't risk their civilian jobs. (And there's no way you could pass that kind of legislation in this country in three months.) So instead what we're going to see is a mishmash of multi-unit contingents (the need to draw on three battalions to get enough troops for Kandahar is the first sign of that), pushing the reserves as hard as they will bear (which isn't much more than they're already doing now), and possibly some reroling. But the likelihood we're still going to have to withdraw in embarrasment from a foreign commitment by June is still very high.

Posted by BruceR at 09:53 AM



You can't blame the New York Times for pulling an offensive Ted Rall "cartoon" off their website: it really is indefensible, by any standard higher than that of a sewer rat. As one of those who wrote the publisher asking them to show responsibility, I am more than impressed with the promptness of their response.

Of course, that doesn't mean that cartoon isn't in broad syndication elsewhere. Ted Rall is syndicated by UPS, just like Dear Abby, Doonesbury, Tom Toles, Cathy, etc. etc. (You can find a list of some of their other clients here.) UPS is also responsible for Uclick and Ucomics, their own websites, which obviously still have the cartoon insulting WTC widows, and possibly Mariane Pearl, in circulation (else I couldn't have linked to it). My writing campaign is done, but if anyone else wants to drop a line to UPS executive VP and editorial director Lee Salem, the email address is It's fun, it's easy, and it has the potential to hurt Rall where he lives.

Anyone whose favourite cartoonist/columnist is also distributed by UPS might consider dropping them a line as a heads-up, too. Does anyone really think Abigail Van Buren or William F. Buckley wouldn't at least make a point of mentioning they were offended to UPS, if they were made aware of this particular little hate crime? Van Buren, after all, is responsible for Operation Dear Abby, which encourages average people to write servicemen and women to thank them, and has counselled lots of grieving people over the years... just an idea...

Posted by BruceR at 01:45 AM



Me, I'd support the subjugation of the Taliban based on this, alone. But I'm a sentimentalist.

Posted by BruceR at 12:44 AM

March 05, 2002



From the Star's own story on Kathleen Kenna:

In Toronto, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression led a chorus of condemnations on the continuing dangers of reporting in Afghanistan. "We deplore this deliberate attack on [Kathleen] Kenna and the other passengers in the vehicle," said CJFE Executive Director Joel Ruimy. "We expect she will receive the medical care she needs. And we expect all journalists working in Afghanistan will be able to do so in the safest conditions possible."

If I was a Talib, boy I'd be scared now. Lord knows what could happen if the CJFE gets mad at you...

Posted by BruceR at 12:23 AM



The Toronto Star just lost their other reporter in Afghanistan, with the well-versed and talented Kathleen Kenna falling victim to some kind of attack on the car she was driving in near Gardez. With her injuries, Lord knows how long until she'll be back. There'll likely be some kind of battlefield promotion from the city desk to replace her as a result, although after Pearl and now this, the waiting list for Bombay bureau chief can't be the longest one. (I'd have taken it... I'd live in Mumbai in a second, any day, if the pay was good. Beautiful city, that.) The Star's other reporter in-theatre, Mitch Potter, you'll no doubt remember was expelled for breaking confidentiality rules by army public affairs (see March 1 posts).

Posted by BruceR at 12:01 AM

March 04, 2002



Another good dissent piece from Hitch, who typifies my own belief that in current events, unlike science, if everyone believes something, it must be wrong.

Posted by BruceR at 11:34 PM



The situation in Gardez is turning into an eerie replay of Black Hawk Down, isn't it? Just as in Mogadishu, a fellow falling from a helicopter under fire led to an apparent rescue attempt, which then resulted in a second helicopter crashing with heavy loss of life, with some of those fatalities actually occurring in a firefight between survivors and Taliban on the ground after the crash. It's like the Taliban watched the movie last week, or something...

Posted by BruceR at 04:55 PM



(Thanks to Lileks for pointing this one out.. as he says, he found it at Fark.) The folks behind the new computer game Underash are a piece of work, indeed. I can't find any fault with anything he's said. But there is a playable download, and plenty of screenshots for you to make up your own mind. Or you could just read the backstory, which is kind of like "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" as written by a group of genocidal Islamic maniacs:

Ahmad [the Intifada equivalent of Gordon Freeman or Lara Croft] is going to move spontaneously, and he will convulse spontaneously. He will not keep silent when the jailerís blade plunges into his living veins, the same as hundreds of similar young men and children who have been determined to reformulate the image of history with their blood.

I'm curious as hell which American company's game engine they're licensing... I'm also still trying to figure out why the tanks bleed...

Posted by BruceR at 02:41 PM



Howie Kurtz needs to calm down. About everything you ever wanted to know about the U.S. Government's secret bunkers can be found here. Does he really think terrorists need the New York Post to blab something before they'd figure that they'd be in one of these facilities? Anything involving 50,000 tons of concrete is not going to be concealable by media gag order.

Also in the WashPost: The Americans seem to be having real troubles securing their staging areas and approach routes.

Posted by BruceR at 12:46 PM

March 03, 2002



Interesting CP story in the National Post from Kandahar. Canadian soldiers asked for permission to kill two Afghans laying anti-tank mines around the base that they had under observation, but the American commander wanted them captured instead, and they ended up getting away. A little later two pro-American Afghan soldiers were killed when their truck disintegrated, and a second explosion killed three children:

Sources told The Canadian Press that [Canadian commander Pat] Stogran in fact wanted to kill the two outright but was overruled by his American bosses. There was some grumbling among troops around the base on Sunday about the decision.

UPDATE: The navy's having some fun, too.

Posted by BruceR at 04:31 PM



Speaking of Naomi "No Logo" Klein, one of her disciples has this amusing plea for legal defense funds on her site:

The three OCAP [Ontario Coalition Against Poverty] activists facing a jury trial later in the year on the antiquated and reactionary charges of 'participating in a riot' and 'counselling' others to do so, are looking at the prospect of two years if convicted.

Such an antiquated concept isn't it? Just for the record, I saw that "protest" and it WAS a violent riot, which saw an angry mob throwing bricks, rocks, and anything that wasn't nailed down at a thin police line that was keeping them from storming the legislature. Only remarkable cop restraint (and I can't always say that's been the case in my experience) kept the number of serious injuries on both sides from soaring. I don't actually mind political protesters resorting to even violent means to make their point, if they feel all other options are closed to them, you know. There have been times in history where that was necessary. What I do mind is them refusing to accept legal consequences, or as in this case, denying they were ever violent at all, even though they know that's a lie. But to OCAP, you see, violence is only violence when the police do it.

Posted by BruceR at 04:13 PM



I must agree with Heather Mallick's skepticism concerning the flamboyant Bill Thorsell's plans to create another Bilbao Guggenheim out of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum (my provincial tax dollars at work), all exhaustively covered by Thorsell's former newspaper, the Globe and Mail. Admittedly, the ROM had all kinds of problems, which Thorsell clearly identified... it's too small, the north side is a disgrace, etc, etc. But my hopes his plans to reshape it by turning it into the Crystalline Entity quavered when I read this line in James' Adams' pre-selection piece:

Toronto has not been entirely architecturally and culturally impoverished over the past decade. One could cite KPMB's designs of Woodsworth College and the Fields Institute at the University of Toronto, Santiago Calatrava's BCE Place Galleria, the graduate residence centre (sic) by Morphosis-Teeple at the U of T, the McKinsey & Co. centre on Charles Street West, all built in the past 10 years.

You have to understand. I work at U of T, and the Graduate Centre residence so cheerfully cited as the ROM's precedent here is quite possibly the ugliest building created by man. With its bare gray metal walls and castle-slit style windows, it is an excrescence, nothing more, nothing less. There are lots of buildings that are plain, or boring, and hence ugly by extension. But very few are deliberately ugly, an intentional insult to all who view it and are forced to live or work in it. The Graduate Centre is such. If you told me the architectural malpractitioners behind it had been shot for their sight-crime, I wouldn't have shed a tear.

Still, I'm glad they went through the trouble of a million-dollar international search for architects for the new building. Otherwise how could they ever have found out well-off Canadian leftist Naomi Klein's uncle was able to do the work for them? One hopes for her sake that the new building has no logos...

Posted by BruceR at 04:02 PM



The Defence Department routinely dispatches low-flying jets to chase animals from its giant air-weapons range in Labrador to prevent "random blinding" when laser-guided weaponry is tested at the remote site.
--"Animals shielded from laser weapons," Michael Macdonald, Canadian Press

You know, call me crazy, but my feeling would be if you're a caribou and you're being painted by a designator designed to bring a laser-guided bomb down to your location, a risk of random blinding isn't the biggest problem you're facing at the moment.

Posted by BruceR at 03:44 PM



Unlike the strategic bomb wings (see below), which have taken on a new utility with the advent of GPS munitions, naval carrier battle groups have been recognized as the Queen-pieces of the naval realm since the 1940s. The U.S Navy's 12 fleet carrier groups each carrying up to 50 interceptors and attack craft, and surrounded by missile cruiser and destroyer escorts, rule any space they're in, surface, subsurface and sky... while they proved less useful than the strategic bombers in Afghanistan, it should really be seen as amazing that they were useful at all, given that it was a landlocked country. So, who else has anything close?

As I mentioned, the competition is a little closer than with strategic bombers. Three nations (France, Brazil and Russia) still have a full-sized carrier each. Five others (Britain, Italy, India, Spain and Thailand) have mini-carriers flying some version of the Sea Harrier.

As the Falklands proved, Sea Harriers can be dangerous combatants. A battle group with Sea Harriers is likely to kill any surface naval group without them before it can get in range with surface-to-surface missiles or guns: if only because the threat of Sidewinder-armed Sea Harrier patrols is likely to prevent any maritime patrol aircraft from fixing the Harrier group's location with accuracy, guaranteeing the Harriers get first strike. (The Argentines lost in the Falklands largely because they never had any idea where the British carriers were.) On the other hand, a full-sized carrier will make short work of a "Harrier carrier" in the same seaspace. Harrier carriers are more akin to the U.S.'s 12 LHA/LHD ships, each of which supports one of the Americans' 12 ship-borne Marine Expeditionary Units, and which also carry Harriers. While slightly more all-round capable (the U.S. Harriers are optimized for strike missions, not naval interceptions), their impact on a hypothetical sea battle would be about the same.

So, if you wanted to rank the world's navies based on their carrier assets (which, in deep-water circumstances, is going to be pretty much the only rank that would count), you'd end up with a score sheet more or less like this (Based on the scoring system: modern naval fighter = 0.02; Harrier/obsolescent naval fighter = 0.01; only ship-borne naval air squadrons counted):

U.S carrier battle group (1 of 12): 1.0
French navy: 0.6
Russian navy: 0.4
Royal Navy (3 Harrier carriers): 0.3
Brazilian navy: 0.2
Italy, India, Spain: 0.1
Thailand: 0.05
U.S. Marine LHA/LHD (1 of 12): 0.05

In other words, if every other navy in the world decided to combine to take a run at 2 U.S. carrier battle groups, they'd have a fair chance. If one of the Americans' other 10 carrier groups heaved over the horizon in the meantime, however, it'd be game over. That's the extent of American naval superiority. Although the lead in "fulcrum assets," the Queen-pieces of battle, isn't quite as extensive as it is with the bombers (where it's 5-0 as opposed to 10-1), the Americans still have a overwhelming lead that will not be surpassed at least in our lifetimes.

The big question: what about the land? If we accept the definition of fulcrum assets, what's the army equivalent to the carrier group or the bomb wing, and how does the U.S. compare in those? I'll address that, and the interesting position that tactical air assets hold, in the next posting.

Posted by BruceR at 12:35 PM



From yesterday's London Telegraph:

The Queen is as interested in pedigree corgis as she is in thoroughbred horses, and from a young age both she and Princess Margaret were fascinated by breeding their dogs. Their early experimentation resulted in the dorgi, the issue of a coupling between one of her corgis, and one of Princess Margaret's dachshunds.

Posted by BruceR at 12:40 AM

March 02, 2002



(Also see part 1, below) If one accepts the argument that the strategic bomb wing is a fulcrum asset, comparable to a naval carrier group in its transformative impact on the battlefield, then the question becomes, who else besides the Americans has, or could have, one? As everyone can probably deduce, the answer is no one, really... but let's be a little more precise.

First, let's list the characteristics that made the B-1/B-52 combo so deadly in Afghanistan, as well as anywhere else on the globe's surface where the Americans enjoy a little air superiority (that's not a euphemism... assuming the Americans retain control of Diego Garcia and Guam, any of their 5 strategic air wings can reach out and touch any populated land surface in the world with at most one refueling): they're high-altitude, high-capacity (12,000 lb bomb load or higher), high cruising-speed bombers with combat radii in excess of 1,500 miles and equipped with GPS-guided precision weapons that don't require either a second pass or a controller on the ground or in the air. That last element is crucial: the advent of the GPS weapon has turned the classic postwar problem with airforces on its head. Before about 1995, every modern air force had to choose between high-altitude, inaccurate attacks or low-altitude, potentially risky attacks. One saw this in Kosovo, where the rock and the hard place for NATO were misplaced and unpopular attacks on tractor convoys, and the Yugoslav SAM net waiting patiently for the attackers to start flying under 15,000 feet to avoid those kinds of mistakes. The GPS weapon means accurate airstrikes are possible from altitudes of complete impunity; other than for purposes of air defense suppression, the best strike aircraft is once again the one that can get the farthest with the mostest... enter (or reenter) the B-52s.

Why 1,500 miles? Well, just about every major power has strike aircraft that can knock out the other guy's airbases at 900 miles or less (the F-15E's combat radius is 790 miles, the Tornado IDS and the Su-24 870). Even the Australian F-111 and new Russian SU-34 peter out at 1,200 miles or so. But the true intercontinental bomber can strike from bases so far away that counterstriking is not possible: they can be defended against, sure, but their owner automatically assumes the strategic initiative, able to pick the time and place of his attacks. The big problem with smaller strike aircraft is finding suitable theatre basing within range of their targets. But it's hard to imagine even the most unpopular nation couldn't find a suitable base for the asking within 1,500 miles of a given combat zone.

Now, it goes without saying that the only nations who can have a GPS-reliant system are the Americans or their permanent allies, as they own the GPS satellites. That's one strike against all the other countries. But assuming the Americans acceded, there's still a problem: a big one. You can't just buy a strategic bomber, or convert another plane into one: they're too specialized. And except for the Americans, Russians and Chinese, no one has built one in decades, and no one's currently planning to build any more of them. Even if the Americans did give you GPS bombs, you'd still have to upgrade an existing strategic bomber to carry the weapons (which would take about 5 years), or start a whole new production run... which automatically means at least 10 years of development and construction before the first one is available... and that's for a highly industrialized nation.

So, assuming the Americans give them GPS access, who has any bomber frames that could be refitted to use it? Only three countries: Russia, China, and the Ukraine.

Existing strategic bombers:
Russia: c. 200 (15 Tu-160, 80 Tu-95, 100 Tu-22M)
China: 100+ (Tu-16)
Ukraine: c. 80 (55 Tu-22M, 26 Tu-22)

Iraq's strategic bomber fleet was destroyed on the airfields in 1991. Egypt's and Libya's are unserviceable, as are those inherited by Belarus. (India also has 15 ex-Russian bombers, which it uses for maritime surveillance.) Russia's Tu-160s are modern aircraft; the Tu-22Ms still have considerable potential, as well. One would say the remainder, including all of China's, are hopelessly obsolescent... if one wasn't reminded how long the 40 year-old-plus B-52s have been in service. GPS is simple technology... assuming any of these planes could fly, they could probably be converted to carry the bombs, at some considerable expense in treasure and time. But basically only these nations are 5 years and millions away from having even a single modern strategic bomber: despite cutbacks, America still has nearly 200, and veto power over who else can join the GPS club. And the only way any other country not on that list could hope to go strategic would be to purchase some part of one of those air fleets, making further proliferation extremely unlikely, at best.

In terms of strategic air assets, then the Americans are without peer or competitor. Even their Navy can't say they're as unchallenged in their element as the USAF's Strategic Air Command is today: at least some other nations have aircraft carriers. But more on those carriers later.

CODA: One gains new respect in this analysis, for those savvy Australians: unbelievably, they have acquired for themselves the closest thing to a modern strategic bomber wing extant outside the USAF. If they chose to convert them, their 20 F-111s could theoretically carry 2 internally-stored JDAM-type weapons each to precision-hit targets over 1,000 miles away, in any weather: farther than any other combat strike aircraft in service today (except possibly the new Russian Su-34). When the Americans closed down their F-111 fleet a few years ago, the Aussies stocked up on spare airframes and parts at firesale prices, giving them an increased capability for long-range precision air power arguably now second only to the United States (Several European countries have larger numbers of precision strike aircraft, but with significantly shorter ranges.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:59 PM



The Air Force just dropped its first thermobaric munition, which, as this site discussed in December, is what you call a fuel-air bomb when the good guys use it.

Posted by BruceR at 10:53 PM



I'll never understand for the life of me why the Pentagon is still hell-bent on reducing the number of its strategic bombers in service. The 28th Air Expeditionary Wing in Diego Garcia, and in particular its 8 B-1B's (each capable of carrying 24 2,000 lb. JDAMs... the B-52 can only carry 6 internally) were the real war winners in Afghanistan. I've posted some comparative stats here. Basically, the carriers off Pakistan were each launching around 30 FA-18/F-14 sorties a day, each carrying 1 2,000 precision bomb or its equivalent at that extended range. The 18-plane wing at Diego Garcia, meanwhile, was launching 4 B-1s and 5 B-52s each day, with up to 126 similar sized JDAMs between them, or the equivalent of 4 carrier battle groups in long-range sustained operation conditions.

With the advent of GPS-guided munitions, the strategic bomber is back in the game again, as Gregg Easterbrook and others have noted. One of the Air Force's 5 remaining Strategic Bomb Wings (2 B-1, 2-B-52, 1 B-2) are, in at least some scenarios, more useful than one of the Navy's 12 carrier groups. All of them are what I've referred to as "fulcrum assets": military units capable of independently and dramatically changing the military situation on the ground, anywhere in the world, with minimal losses and relative impunity. And unlike the naval carrier group (a technological realm in which 8 other nations more or less convincingly still pretend to compete in), there is no other nation even in the same ballpark as the Americans when it comes to strategic air assets. More on this later.

Posted by BruceR at 03:05 PM

March 01, 2002



Yet another recommendation by yet another dedicated group of public servants that Canada spend considerably more on defence. They're preaching to the choir: everyone of every political party, that thinks the governing Liberals are not spending enough... right to left, right across the spectrum. The Trudeau nationalists and the left want increased spending so Canadians can stop relying on Americans for such things as troop lift and continental air defence. The right just wants to blow up stuff real good. Does it make a difference? No. Remember, in this fall's budget, with planes literally falling out of the sky and the entire political opposition calling for a multi-billion increase in annual spending, the government choked on spending more than $500 million, and most of that was one-time-only rather than a real year-over-year spending increase. Now yet another report has called for a $4 billion increase in annual spending, on top of the current $11 billion a year (enough to allow us to improve our forces to something like Australia's level). What's changed since Sept. 12 that would give this recommendation any more hope of being heard? No, the only thing that's going to change military spending in Canada is a governmental change, and as we all know, that isn't happening this decade. Move along people, nothing to see here...

Posted by BruceR at 10:44 PM



Years of immersion in Classic Simpsons has left me unable to watch an amusing real-world event without thinking of one of their bits. Case in point: the recent blading of Canada's minister of defence by his officers, who admitted he had to be told three times on three separate days before he realized Canadian commandoes had finally seen some real action in Afghanistan. Ever since, I keep seeing Art Eggleton as Homer in the "Cape Fear" episode:

Agent: Tell you what, sir. From now on, you'll be, uh, Homer Thompson at Terror Lake. Let's just practise a bit, hmm? When I say, "Hello, Mr. Thompson," you'll say, "Hi."
Homer: Check.
Agent: Hello, Mr. Thompson.
Homer: [stares blankly]
Agent: Remember now, your name is Homer Thompson.
Homer: I gotcha.
Agent: Hello, Mr. Thompson.
Homer: [stares blankly]
[A long time later]
Agent: [sighs in frustration] Now, when I say, "Hello, Mr. Thompson," and press down on your foot, you smile and nod.
Homer: No problem.
Agent: Hello, Mr. Thompson! [stomps on Homer's foot a few times]
Homer: [stares blankly]
[to other agent] I think he's talking to you.

Posted by BruceR at 10:23 PM



Good story in the Toronto Star on Canada sending another company of Patricias to join the battlegroup in Kandahar, bringing Canadian strength there to 880. Notably, the new troops being sent are attached from the 2nd Battalion of the Patricias, in Winnipeg, not the remaining company of the 3rd Battalion, based in Edmonton, where the rest of the force hails from. Not sure what the competing commitment is that prevents the rest of the 3rd being sent instead.

The Star hasn't written much about Kandahar since their reporter there, Mitch Potter, was expelled by Canadian Army Public Affairs for allegedly revealing too much about Canadian and American deployments in stories he filed from Afghanistan.

While there are a lot of soldiers staging out of Kandahar, it's notable that the base's actual defense falls on only two battalions: the 1st Battalion, 187th Regiment, 101st Airborne, and the Canadian PPCLI battlegroup. If you subtract out all the Americans doing prisoner guard duty, flying helicopters, doing logistics, or stopping by en route to some other mission, it's likely the actual base defense troops will be barely over 50 per cent American after these latest reinforcements land.

Posted by BruceR at 10:02 PM