I got into another Twitter tiff recently – came out when the story of Russian hacking of the election was made big news on Friday night. Personally, I don’t believe the story – it all seems to come down to an allegation that some hackers once-removed from Russian intelligence did some of the hacking of the DNC…which might put a Russian angle on it, but if anyone thinks that Hillary was made unpopular by the leaks, rather than the leaks just confirming why she is unpopular, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Anyways – the argument came down to the nature of the Russian threat, which I view as practically zero.
Russia, to remind, has a GDP somewhat less than South Korea’s. Roll that over a bit – South Korea, a tiny, resource-poor nation on the Asian periphery makes more money that Russia, sitting on 1/6th of the world’s land surface and stuffed to the gills with all manner of natural resources. Sorry, but people with that kind of base to build on who don’t wind up among the world’s richest people just won’t be viewed as a grand threat by me. Russia as a threat is just living off the impression of Russian might resultant upon the outcome of World War Two…with Russian troops triumphant over the ruins of the Hitlerite capital city. Don’t get me wrong, that was a grand and useful achievement and if I were to ever meet one of those Russian soldiers, he’d get my salute…but the bottom line is that with Russia vastly outnumbering the Germans and with 40% of the German military tied down in other theaters, they still only barely managed to bludgeon their way into Berlin…and were utterly exhausted by the effort. Had we unleashed Patton’s Third Army on them in the fall of 1945, they would have been pushed back to Smolensk in short order. Russia has nukes and has power and can cause us endless trouble, but they aren’t an existential threat to the United States.
China, however, is.
And that was my main point in the argument – to think that we’ve got to worry obsessively about the Russian bear while China is out there actually building the military force to fight us with is asinine, in my view. Key to understanding this is China’s Type 001A carrier – no great shakes against a Nimitz or Ford class carrier, but it is China’s first domestic product…and they are building it after spending years studying carrier design and operations (including obtaining the HMAS Melbourne when the Aussies put her up for scrap). They are building a fleet-air arm – and the only reason anyone on this Earth would build a fleet-air arm is to fight our fleet-air arm. Count on it – as night follows day, China will one day challenge our naval supremacy…and it’s either fight or surrender, at that point. I’d rather we fought – and in fighting we’ll need a few things. One of them is an alliance with Russia…a tricky thing to achieve if we’re busily thwarting them from gaining territories which are mostly populated by ethnic Russians.
But, we’ll also need a much large industrial economy than we have now. You see, among the other things China has is vastly larger ship building capacity than we do. When the Germans sought to challenge Britain for naval supremacy in the early 20th century, they never had a chance – Britain had far larger ship building capacity. Even if the Germans managed to steal a march on the Brits and put out a superior class of ship, the British could respond by putting out a better one, faster, and in larger number. This is why when the German High Seas Fleet ran into Britain’s Grand Fleet at Jutland in 1916, the only thing the Germans had in mind was to run away as fast as they could. The Germans had to – they were outnumbered in capital ships 37 to 21 and the British ships were bigger, faster and carried much heavier armament. Just now, we’ve still got that – any fleet heading to sea against us is only preparing some interesting, new wreck dive sites for future hobbyists…but 10 years or 20 years from now? Not so certain – unless we build and build and build our industrial economy back up to snuff.
In the matter of our economy, we can’t just be hung up on what makes the most money – part of our consideration is long-term national survival. During World War Two, the United States commissioned 16 Essex-class carriers. That was in less than four years. True, these are much smaller and less complex than modern Ford-class carriers, but the USS Ford was laid down in 2009 and won’t go into commission until next year. That’s 8 years. What if we got into a major naval war? We have to assume (a) we’ll need more carriers under any circumstances and (b) some of the carriers we’ve got will be damaged or sunk. We’ll need capacity to rapidly increase the number of carriers…and we simply haven’t got it…but we can’t put the war on hold for 8 years while we wait for more.
This is what the dogmatic free-traders don’t get – but it is something we must understand. The world can be a merciless place, and it is most merciless to those who take no thought for tomorrow; who make no preparations for catastrophe. It is said truthfully that we weren’t prepared for World War Two when we got into it – but we also weren’t entirely un-prepared. The Essex-class was ordered in 1938 and by the time of Pearl Harbor, three keels had been laid – and when the war came, we had the ship building capacity (the overall industrial capacity) to massively ramp up production…not just of big carriers like the Essex, but a host of smaller carriers, destroyers, cruisers and other attendant fleet vessels. We must have that capacity at all times. We never know, precisely, when we’ll need it. It doesn’t matter if steel manufacturing (and other parts of it like coal and iron mining) don’t pay as much as the neato-new bit of I-Crap…we have to have it. And if that means a bit of tariff walls and some other economic juggling to keep capacity alive in the United States, then we simply have to do it. Your cool GDP numbers from last quarter won’t matter at all if three of our ten carriers are sunk in a naval battle and you’re still years away from even one replacement.
Military power is not just the ships, planes and tanks you have in being when the guns go off – it is the ability to replace losses and increase numbers. Russia learned this in World War One. They actually had a fairly splendid military force in 1914, but they had only limited capacity to replace losses and even less capacity to expand production (one small light on this: the Russians didn’t have a single facility for making tannin – a vital ingredient in the tanning of leather; which, among other things, was needed to make Russian army boots. They had purchased their tannin before the war from Germany…hurrah for free trade, huh?). We are, if not fully in that position, getting close to it. I doubt our ability to rapidly increase production of vital military materials. No problem if we’ve got small wars against badly armed adversaries – but put us up against someone who is powerful and can increase production rapidly and we’ll be in a great deal of trouble.
China is a threat. Iran is a smaller threat. Russia is an annoyance. Keep things in perspective – especially keep in mind that Russia’s population isn’t half ours and if they ever did want to go to war with us, they’d lose. Badly. Also, if one is really thinking that Putin is planning a grand offensive into central Europe, then the fact that the EU vastly out-classes Russia in every capacity should be a bit of food for thought…if they can’t fight off the sickly Russian bear, then of what practical use are they in world affairs? I’m all for helping out people in trouble – but the EU should be able to look after itself, at least vis a vis Russia. Sure, with some help from us…but only if they show some fight, for crying out loud. Poland is increasing it’s military forces…so far, haven’t seen much desire on the part of France and Germany to follow suit. Meanwhile, Sweden has “reformed” its military to the point where they are admitting they can’t defend themselves. Need some work there, guys. Meanwhile, we’ve got our own issues to deal with – and if we are to send another Expeditionary Force to Europe, I’d like to have at least some assurance that an European Expeditionary Force would be around if we need them in the western Pacific.
Our biggest threat, however, is our own folly. We’ve allowed things to slide – allowing ourselves to print and borrow money to buy cheap consumer goods while our real economy – the economy which makes, mines and grows things – was allowed to atrophy. We’ve got to bring it back. Best to bring it back with innovation and new technology applied to old needs, but bring it back by hook or crook, regardless of cost. We will need it – and we might need it sooner than we expect.