South Korea’s THAAD undermines strategic stability? it doesn’t have to be so

So, the deployment of THAAD (terminal high-altitude area defence) systems in South Korea have, predictably, gone ahead. So too, the backlash against this development has been predictable. The language of the Xinhua report was predictably harsh: the US deployment of THAAD is designed to “neutralize China and Russia’s nuclear deterrents and put their national security at risk.” The report goes on to say, “those who wish to scare China will be deeply disappointed, for China has never, nor will ever, bowed down in the face of external security threats.” It accuses South Korea of “skating on very thin ice by aiding the United States in compromising China’s legitimate security interests. It is also destabilizing the strategic balance as well the stability of the region, which it claims that it set out to maintain in the first place.” Finally, it warns South Korea that it should “wake up and realize that China has never been a source of regional tension and instability, and its neighborly diplomatic philosophy of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, should not warrant schemes that undermine the country’s national security [and that] Seoul should also realize that it is amity and goodwill between neighbors, rather than a handful of high-tech weapons, that constitutes the true shield of regional peace and stability.”

Eric Gomez argues that China’s concerns might not be entirely misplaced. He argues, “If the survivability of China’s relatively small nuclear arsenal is threatened, it would make sense for Beijing to make adjustments in doctrine and weapons technology that bolster survivability and keep the assured in “assured retaliation.” Changes to China’s no first use doctrine would be a major policy shift and face domestic hurdles.” In other words, THAAD in South Korea might just encourage China into abandoning its existing “no first use” policy and adopting pre-emption as a strategic option. As he argues, “China faces a “use it or lose it” problem, while the United States could face a window of opportunity to destroy Chinese nuclear forces as early as possible in a conflict. The risks of a crisis or conventional conflict escalating to the nuclear level become more acute.”

Principal to China’s concerns is that THAAD in South Korea can erode the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrent. Supposedly, the radar systems that are part of THAAD can be used to gather important data on Chinese nuclear warheads, distinguishing the dummy warheads from real nuclear warheads in China’s ballistic missiles. Given the small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, its ability to assure destruction – through deception – is therefore critical to its deterrent posture.

However, as Chris Buckley argues, the deployment of THAAD does not result in a “significant improvement in the ability of the US to monitor Chinese missile tests”. Radar systems in Japan and Taiwan already provide the US with the capacity to closely monitor Chinese nuclear tests. Rather, “China’s real, underlying worry appears to be that THAAD could open the door to a much wider, more advanced fence of anti-missile systems arrayed around it by US allies [which] would magnify Chinese worries about the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent, and entrench Chinese fears of encirclement by a coalition knitted together by a shared anti-missile system.”

Furthermore, China could adopt several measures to overcome this potential problem. It could, as a recent Global Times report suggested, abandon its “no first use” doctrine, as noted earlier. Alternatively, China could “respond by spending more on its nuclear, missile and anti-missile forces “to ensure survivability of a second-strike force, and expanded penetration aids and decoys to defeat US missile defences in the event of a second strike.” China could also accelerate the deployment of its road-mobile Dongfeng-41 which can carry multiple warheads. Finally, “China is also working on a “glide technology to alter the trajectory of a warhead as it nears its target, which could be used to overcome US missile defences in the long term””.

None of these arguments about THAAD potentially adversely affecting strategic stability is fundamentally flawed. They all make sense. None of the speculated Chinese reactions is counter-intuitive. I fully expect any of the speculated reactions to come true – indeed, I do not rule out a combination of any of these reactions from happening.

But here’s my problem with these arguments: they all strike me as structurally deterministic. THAAD in South Korea MAY, JUST MAY result in undermining strategic stability between China and the US. But it doesn’t have to be so!

I would argue that there is a necessary human element to strategic stability. Policy makers have to WANT to resort to the use of force in the event of a crisis. If these policy makers decide that the crisis does not threaten or even undermine core national interests, then it is unlikely to result in the use of force. In other words, “core national interests” can be up for grabs; it is not carved in stone. Even if a crisis potentially undermines core national interests, policy makers still have to make the call to resort to the use of force.

Furthermore, there are mechanisms that allow adversarial countries to manage crises between them, to do everything they can to prevent an otherwise uncontrollable spiral towards the decision to use force.

THAAD may just undermine strategic stability, but that is not a given!

President Trump, you’re wrong: weapons don’t win wars

This title from the Washington Post caught my eye yesterday: “Trump says U.S. ‘never wins wars’ anymore”. The article, focusing on Trump’s first budget, highlights the intent of increasing U.S. defence spending, so that the U.S. military can have the tools with which “to deter war and, when called upon, ‘to start winning wars again.'”

Trump’s proposed budget will allocate USD603 billion base defence budget, which does not necessarily include other defence items that may emerge over time. Right off the bat, John McCain and Mac Thornberry have argued that this is not sufficient; they propose a budget of USD 640 billion instead. As McCain argued, “President Trump intends to submit a defense budget that is a mere 3 percent above President Obama’s defense budget, which has left our military underfunded, undersized, and unready to confront threats to our national security.

There are at least two separate issues that come to my mind.

One, defence spending might need to be increased, principally because of the U.S. commitments around the world. Admittedly, the U.S. military is overstretched, not just with on-going deployments to existing conflict zones. At the same time, however, the U.S. military wants to maintain its presence in non-conflict zones as well – such as the naval deployments to the South China Sea. In this instance, McCain may be right in arguing for an even larger budget increase for defence.

Two, to mangle Colin Gary’s 1993 book Weapons Don’t Make War,weapons don’t win wars either. The U.S. has a rich history of strategic failures – Vietnam comes immediately to my mind.

What wins wars, at least in my mind, is sound strategic thinking. It begins with understanding what is at stake such that the use of force needs to be seriously contemplated. It then takes into consideration the terrain of the likely theatre of operations – a terrain that is in part physical geography (but also how our own mental maps comprehend that physical geography), a cultural and ethnographic terrain (involving the peoples living in the likely theatre of operations), and a political terrain that includes both the domestic politics in one’s own country and in the country with which we are intending to go to war against on the one hand, and the international politics (how the rest of the world will perceive our use of military force).

Is “expertise” all that it is cracked up to be?

Like Tom Nichols, I THINK an expert, at least on the matters that this blog focuses on. Oh, I KNOW I am not in the same level as other scholars like Colin Gray, Eliot Cohen, Elizabeth Kier, Martin van Creveld … These experts exist in another, much higher, plane from the one that I inhabit. But I have studied war and strategy in a rigorous and structured manner. And, as a consequence, I think I have ideas and arguments relating to war and strategy that are worth something.

I am NOT saying that other people – who unlike me have not been formally schooled in the study of war and strategy – have ideas and arguments about the subject matter that are not listening to. A good friend of mine never studied in a university, and has given me the pleasure of some of the most vigorous and rigorous debates on these matters in my life.

However, there are a number of people who clearly think their own opinions are as good, if not better, than the arguments forwarded by scholars. I have some experience of this.

Some time back, I answered a question on Quora that asked this question, if Malaysia and Singapore were to go to war, which country would win. My answer is produced verbatim below:

I don’t know how to answer your question, but I can suggest a few considerations that will shape the answers you seek.

One, what is the cause of the war? What is the purpose for which the two countries would be prepared to resort to the use of military force? How this question gets answered then begins to determine the kind of military operations that either side will undertake.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all strategy; each strategy must be shaped by the peculiar conditions in which it exists. A one-size-fits-all approach to strategy is likely a recipe for strategic disaster. And on this issue, I tend to agree with how most Singaporeans think, that Singapore is too small to allow for strategic disaster.

Two, what is the relative combat power of the two armed forces? To answer this question, you need to move away from the overly simplistic notion of counting tanks, divisions, squadrons, shops etc. Military power is not purely about how many divisions either side has, but also (maybe even more importantly) about how those material capabilities are used. By some strategists’ thinking, military power is the end result of an equation involving hardware (tanks, planes etc), software (doctrines, operating concepts, strategic thinking), and ‘wetware’ (soldiers, their training, their skills, their dedication, and their will to persist).

Three, how resilient is the national population? Stemming from the last issue, the will to persist, this is a critical (but often overlooked) consideration. Although to be fair, people like LKY and GKS in their early speeches recognised the human element in war. But it is also more than the will of the military organisation to persist, it is also the will of the population (from which the personnel of the military organisation come) to accept any burden, pay any price (sorry, plagiarising from people way more eloquent than me).

My answer elicited one comment: “You started with “I don’t know how to answer your question” but claim to teach War Studies, Strategic Thought, and Defence Policy. Then follow with 6 paragraphs that misses the question completely. Clever!”

I would argue – and I think my counter here is correct – that my “answer” did not tell the person posing the question a definitive answer, but provided the person with the key issues he/she would need to think about before arriving at an answer on his/her own.

A second experience of this kind of public commentary revolves around my recent commentary which was picked up by TODAYOnline recently. One comment on my piece was the following:

Article ignores critical facts as previously presented. If these facts are in question, they are not questioned in the article, by the author. This implies that either the facts are NOT in question, or the author is NOT aware of the facts. Brilliant!

1) The inspection was NOT routine.

2) Chinese authorities were tipped off. Without the tip off, the vehicles would NOT have been inspected

3) The “Inspection Team” was a full court press of officers/inspectors when a routine inspection would have had at most one or two inspectors. The team zoomed in on the SAF vehicles.

4) The “security of the cargo” dictates nothing. There is no “security of the cargo”. The vehicles are training platforms and all sensitive equipment had already been removed, if they were ever present. This is understandable as the vehicles would be handed over to commercial operators with NO Security Clearance. In other words, if the commercial operator had chosen to violate the privacy of the client and open up the cargo, they would have learned NOTHING.

In short, this is a speculative piece of armchair quarterbacking with 20/20 hindsights with selective blinkers on.

Here’s my beef with this commentator’s response: none of the four “facts” he listed are actual facts. I personally believe that the person’s claims are accurate, but because I have absolutely NO EVIDENCE whatsoever, these cannot be facts!!!

At this point, I go back to the words of Tom Nichols, whose 2013 editorial, “The Death of Expertise” (hyperlinked earlier), inspired this entry:

Unfortunately, an increasing number of other folks now reject every assumption in what I just wrote; they would whine that I’m defending the fallacious “appeal to authority,” they might then invoke the dread charge of “elitism,” and finally accuse me (or people like me) of trying to use credentials to stifle democratic dialogue.

But democracy … denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It means, instead, that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other.

It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s,” because no one really lives that way.

Don’t get me wrong. Like Tom Nichols, I WILL NEVER claim that experts know everything, are never wrong. That being said, as Nichols argued, “mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is just plain silly [and] a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. It’s a rejection of science.”

It is also from Nichols that I end this entry:

  1. The expert isn’t always right.

  2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.

  3. Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

  4. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, the expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. At that point, you’re best served by listening, not carping and arguing.

2016 in review: my thoughts


I thought the picture above really summed up 2016!!!

2016 has been, at least for me, a less than pleasant year. And I am not even talking about Brexit and Trump, although I believe both will have an impact on security matters for all countries in 2017.

I started out the year worrying about the continuing security challenge that terrorist actors will continue to pose to both Southeast Asia and Singapore in particular, although I still maintain the position that terrorist actors do not pose existential threats to states.

A lot of my attention was maintained on the Singapore Armed Forces, and the various policy issues that emerged in 2016, in particular the continuing viability of National Service.

However, much of the regional security dynamics have become greater concerns, both for the region as well as for states. China has been an increasing concern. From its construction of artificial islands and their subsequent militarisation to its increasingly muscular (even strident) language, culminating with the seizure of Singapore’s Terrex ICVs and the USN’s drone, China I think is going to continue to occupy strategic attentions in 2017. How some countries in Southeast Asia have reacted to this increasingly muscular China has been of some interest. The Philippines really shocked me because it has probably suffered more from this increasingly muscular China than any other country in the region, and yet Duterte has gravitated the country towards China. Even Malaysia seems to be turning towards China.

I am always reminded of my colleague’s snide reaction to the Edwin Starr song, War: War, what is it good for? My colleague always replies, “Well, it keeps me gainfully employed.” Sentiments that I share, up to a point. I suspect 2017 is going to keep me busy, although if 2017 turns out to be a quiet year, I will be most happy to have been proven wrong.

The Terrex Case: What can Singapore do???

Enough already, I can imagine people who read this blog say at this point.

Except I was motivated by this image I saw this morning in my FB feed:


My point is this: who ever came up with this is not being fair.

Don’t get me wrong; anyone who knows me knows I am not enamoured of the Singapore government. But there really isn’t very much that Singapore can do about resolving the Terrex case.

It IS the Melian Dialogue after all. The powerful do what they want, the weak suffer what they must. And as much as other scholars argue about Singapore punching above its weight (and Singapore probably does, in international politics), it is nevertheless the ‘weak’ in comparison to China’s ‘powerful’.

Should National Servicemen in uniform sit down in public transport?

Some of you may remember this image:


And no doubt are now wondering what the heck am I bringing this up? After all, this happened 5 years ago!!!

The reason for this post is this – something I read on my Facebook today. The following three issues (taken verbatim from the site) really got my goat:

  1. Stomp
    As this topic was brought up, the knee jerk reaction would be Stomp because it is just so damn notorious. Soldiers fear no enemy, fear no ghosts, but the one and only thing that can make the tough guys of the SAF pee their pants, is Stomp. We wonder if people are really so obsessed about screwing NSmen up, or that they are just after the money Stomp would give, but nevertheless, this batshit craziness needs to be stopped.
  2. Cannot sit on MRT
    After a day of tough training, the final test involves standing quietly and not offending anyone on your one and a half hour journey back home. It doesn’t help that most camps exists in god forbidden ulu places. We also don’t understand why that lady who probably already sat the whole day in office have more rights to sit than us.
  3. People think you’re Superman
    We’d love to be Superman, but the truth is, regardless how many pushups we do, how many kilometers we run, how many times we clear the SOC, we are still not bulletproof. Yet that’s what people seem to think whenever shit crops up and they automatically assume you’re the one to solve it. It doesn’t take a soldier to help carry that wheelchair up the bus, anyone can do it.

I wrote about this issue after the story broke. My point back then was that the SAF has only its image to back up its deterrent posture. It has nothing else: no military history to speak of; and, no, its ability to mount almost flawlessly executed National Day Parades is at best an imperfect deterrent instrument as well.

David Boey also addressed this incident in his blog. As David noted, “[this incident] will extract a price from the ongoing efforts by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF to shore up public support for, and confidence in, the Lion City’s armed forces.” David further argued, the potential negative impact of this incident “goes beyond convincing Singaporeans that their men in green won’t turn yellow before their first taste of battle. This is because the SAF’s value as a deterrent against military aggression will be compromised”.

So, to come back to the question, should NSmen in uniform be allowed to sit when travelling in public transport? The short answer is YES!, but on the condition that there are seats available. Quite a few years back, while in an MRT (and standing already), I had to speak up loudly to ask someone to give up his/her seat for an elderly lady who had come on board. An elderly gentleman did get up, but an NSF (in full uniform!!!) was sitting in the reserved seat, watching his phone with deep intent and concentration, and carried on sitting!!!

Why is this a big deal? First of all, it is a big deal when an able-bodied person takes the reserved seat if a less able-bodied (whether elderly, injured, pregnant …) passenger is present in the vehicle. But for a NSF, the public image of the SAF potentially takes a hit.

So, NSFs, please do take a seat when you’re heading home or to camp. But do also watch your behaviour, because how you behave will, for better or worse, be seen as a reflection of the organisation to which you belong.

Making the case for more, not less, discussion and debate within the SAF

Andy Dziengeleski and John McRae argue, on the Modern War Institute, that “it is only through a dialectical approach—a community of professionals engaging in a rational and logical dialogue—that innovative ideas are put forth, challenged, refined or synthesized, and applied.”

This is something I believe is absolutely needed in any armed forces, particularly in its military education institutions. Something I have tried to aspire towards in my career, albeit with only mixed success.