Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How It Could Happen, Part Two: Nemesis

This week's post is the second of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. As already mentioned, this is scenario rather than prophecy—an outline of what could happen rather than a prediction of what will happen, and thus an exploration of some of the major vulnerabilities in America’s faltering empire. It may also be worth saying that no real aircraft carriers were harmed in the making of this narrative.

The missiles and fighter-bombers launched from the fleet were the second wave of the American assault, not the first. Attack helicopters from Kenyan bases took off a few minutes later, but went in ahead to target Tanzania’s air defenses.  Their timing was precise; by the time the first US jets crossed into Tanzanian airspace, the four military radar stations that anchored the northern end of Tanzania’s air defense system were smoking rubble. Real-time satellite images brought news of the successful strike to Admiral Deckmann and his staff aboard the USS George Washington, and to President Weed and his advisers in the situation room in the White House.

Those images were on the screens when the whole US military satellite system suddenly went dark.

In US bases around the world, baffled technicians tried to reconnect with the satellite network, only to find that there was no network with which to reconnect.  NORAD reported that all the satellites were still in their orbits and showed every sign of still being operational, but none would respond to signals from ground stations or send data back down. Analysis quickly ruled out a technical failure, which left only one option; the president’s national security adviser glanced up from a hurriedly compiled briefing paper outlining that one option, to find the Secretary of Defense regarding her with a level gaze. She turned away sharply and snapped an order to one of her aides.

Analysts long before the war had noted China’s intense interest in antisatellite technology. After the war was over, however, it turned out that what took out the US satellite system was not advanced technology but old-fashioned espionage.  Chinese agents more than a decade earlier had managed to infiltrate the National Reconnaissance Office, the branch of the US intelligence community that managed the nation’s spy satellites, and data obtained by those agents enabled Chinese computer scientists to hack into the electronic system that controlled US military satellites in orbit and shut the whole network down, robbing US units around the world of their communications and reconnaissance capabilities.  Within minutes, cyberwarfare teams were at work, but it took them most of a day to get a first trickle of data coming in, and more than a week to get all the satellites fully operational again—and that was time the US invasion force no longer had.

The Chinese technicians who had slipped into Tanzania in the months before the war had strict orders that no action was to be taken under any circumstances until the US began active hostilities. The terse radio message announcing the destruction of the northern radar stations removed that factor.  The crews knew that they might only have minutes before American bombs began falling on them.  Their mission was precisely defined by the logic of “use it or lose it,” and so everything that had arrived in the shipping containers went into the air in well under ten minutes.

Survivors’ accounts of what happened aboard the naval task force over the next hour are confused and in places contradictory, but apparently shipboard radars detected nearly a thousand targets suddenly airborne on the southwestern horizon. At least half of those were false echoes, electronic decoys produced by Chinese “spoofing” technology, and many of the remainder were physical decoys meant to draw fire away from the supersonic cruise missiles that constituted the real attack.  Even by the most conservative estimates, though, there were at least 200 of the latter. The task force had some of the best antimissile defenses in the world, but naval strategists had determined decades beforehand that a sufficiently massive attack could be sure of getting through.

Those cold mathematics worked themselves out in a chaos of explosions, burning fuel, floating debris, and dead and dying sailors and soldiers.  Of forty-one ships in the task force, three made it safely to harbor in Mombasa, and eight more—including one of the troopships—were able, despite damage, to fight their way to the Kenyan coast and get surviving crews and passengers ashore.  The others were left shattered and burning, or went to the bottom.  The fate of the three carriers was typical: the John F. Kennedy took three cruise missiles in close succession and sank with nearly all hands; the Ronald Reagan was hit by two, caught fire, and was abandoned by its crew; the George Washington was hit astern by one, staggered in toward the coast despite crippling damage to its steering systems, and ran onto a sandbar near the Kenyan shore.  A Japanese news photographer on assignment snapped a picture of the abandoned ship—broken, ghostlike, the deck tilted nearly into the surf on one side—and that photograph, splashed over the media worldwide in the following days, became for many people the definitive image of the East African War.

*  *  *
Long before the George Washington reached its final resting place in the sands off Kilindini, US forces on the scene were doing their best to respond.  The loss of satellite intelligence did not prevent the launching points for the cruise missile attack from being spotted from the air by drones, and US fighters hurtled south to hammer them; only the orders that scattered each of the Chinese crews the moment their last cruise missile went up kept them from suffering horrific casualties, and as it was, more than a thousand Tanzanian civilians were killed.  More than half the planes on the three carriers had taken off before the carriers were put out of action, furthermore, and those that made it safely to Kenyan territory were refueled and put to use immediately, carrying out punishing strikes against Tanzanian military and political targets. 

Back in Washington DC, President Weed ordered a media blackout on the disaster.  His press secretary announced merely that the task force had been attacked by missiles, and that details would be coming later. That night, meeting with his advisers and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he reviewed what was known about the fate of the task force, frowned, and muttered an expletive. “They bloodied our nose, no question,” he said. “If we cave in, though, we’re screwed.  We’ve got to reinforce the troops in Kenya and proceed with the operation. I want a plan on my desk first thing tomorrow.”

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that year was Admiral Roland Waite, a patrician New Englander with Navy ties going back to an ancestor who sailed with John Paul Jones. “You’ll have it, sir,” he said.  “If I may suggest, though—”

The president motioned for him to continue.

“A plan for extracting our forces, sir.  Just in case.”

“We can’t.”  The president all at once looked older than his sixty years.  “If we cave in, we’re screwed. The whole country is screwed.”

The plan was on the president’s desk at 6 am: a sketchy but viable draft of an airlift operation, using most of the Pentagon’s available air transport capacity to get troops and supplies from Europe and the Persian Gulf to Kenya in a hurry.  By the time it reached the Oval Office, though, the unfolding situation had already rendered it hopelessly obsolete.

*  *  *
The planes took off from airbases in Central Asia as soon as word came that the enemy satellite network was disabled.  A flurry of secret diplomacy in the months before the war had cleared flight paths through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, and positioned tankers for in-flight refueling in the latter country; Iranian civilians waved and cheered as the planes roared by, guessing their destination.  As ships burned and sank off the Kenyan coast, six Chinese fighter wings were on their way to Tanzania, with more to follow.

Their route was not quite direct, since Tanzania was under heavy air attack by the Americans and thus could provide no safe airfields.  Instead, an airbase in the Chinese client state of South Sudan served as a final staging area.  More shipping containers had ended up there, and some of the tight-lipped young men as well. Fresh pilots climbed aboard the fighters, fuel tanks were topped up, aircrews loaded and armed weapons, and the first wave of the air counterattack hurtled southeast into Kenyan airspace. American radar crews on the ground misidentified them at first as friendly craft, delaying an effective response for a few minutes.  The moment the newcomers began attack runs on one of the American airbases, though, that mistake was cleared up, and US fighters already in the air pounced on the Chinese fighters while those on the ground roared up to join the fight. 

An hour into the air battle, the American commanders on the scene and in the Persian Gulf were clear on three things. The first was that the planes and their pilots were Chinese, even though every plane had had the red star of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force carefully painted over with the green roundel and white torch of the Tanzanian Air Force.  The second was that, at least at the moment, the Chinese had the advantage of numbers. That was less of a problem than it might have been, since the US had plenty of fighter wings available to join the conflict, and four more were already being shifted to Persian Gulf airfields within striking distance of the combat zone.

The third realization, though, was the troubling one: the Chinese pilots were at least as good as their American counterparts, and their planes were better.  Both US fighter wings in Kenya flew the F-35 Lightning II, the much ballyhooed Joint Strike Fighter, which had been designed to fill every possible fighter role in the NATO air services. That overambitious goal meant that too many compromises had been packed into one airframe, and the result was a plane that was not well suited to any of its assigned missions. The Chinese J-20s had no such drawbacks; faster and more heavily armed than the F-35s, they had a single role as a long-range air superiority fighter and they carried it out with aplomb.  By the end of the first day, though both sides had been bloodied, US losses were nearly half again those of the Chinese force.

News of the arrival of the Chinese fighters forced the plans for resupplying the four US divisions in Kenya by air into indefinite hold.  “Until we have air superiority back,” the Secretary of Defense explained to Weed and the other members of the team, “there are hard limits to what we can do. Even if we send them with fighter cover, the big transports are sitting ducks for their air-to-air missiles.”

The president nodded. “How soon can we expect to retake control of the air?”

“Within a week, if everything goes well.  I’ve got four fighter wings on the way in tomorrow, and four more following them in two days.”

“What about the airbases in South Sudan?” the president’s national security adviser asked.  “Those should get hit, hard.”

“That would mean,” the Secretary said, picking his words carefully, “widening the war to include another Chinese ally.  Maybe more than one, if the other African countries in their camp get involved.”

“They’re already in,” President Weed growled. “Diego Garcia’s in range; I want a B-52 strike on the South Sudan bases as soon as possible.”

*  *  *
Two days later, a mob sacked the US Embassy in South Sudan.  The staff barely escaped by helicopter from the roof.  The B-52 raids the night before had cratered one of the two Chinese airbases, but also flattened two nearby villages and killed several hundred people.  Across Africa, Chinese allies took turns denouncing America’s actions in East Africa and threatening war against Kenya, while the few remaining American allies lay low.

The denunciations were for show.  The real decision had been made more than three months earlier, as Tanzanian and Chinese diplomats made secret visits to half a dozen Chinese-allied nations in Africa, explaining what America was about to do and why it mattered.  The prospect of a Chinese military response made a difference this time; so did China’s offer to cover the costs of the plan being proposed; so did the cold awareness, inescapable as one head of state after another stared at maps and briefing papers, that if the Americans overwhelmed Tanzania, any of China’s other African allies might be next.  One after another, they signed onto the plan, and began an indirect process of troop movements.

As news media flashed word of the South Sudan riots around the world, accordingly, the ambassador from Tanzania presented himself at the Kenyan presidential palace to deliver a note. Despite the studied courtesies with which it was delivered, the note was blunt. Since Kenya had allowed a hostile power to use its territory and airspace to attack Tanzania, it stated, the Tanzanian government was declaring war on Kenya—and over the next few hours, six other African nations did the same.

Three hours before dawn the next morning, an artillery bombardment silenced the animal and bird sounds of the coastal forest on the Tanzania-Kenya border, some fifty miles south of Mombasa.  Tanzanian troops surged over the border at first light, backed by the first contingents from the other members of the Chinese-supported coalition and by a wave of Chinese ground-attack aircraft.  By day’s end, forward scouts riding the armed light trucks that African armies call “technicals” were halfway to Mombasa, Kenya’s second city and largest port.

That night, Kenyan and American military officials held a hastily called meeting in Nairobi, chaired by the Kenyan president. The original American plan of action was fit only for the shredders, everyone recognized that, and the issue at stake now was not the liberation of Tanzania but the survival of the US-friendly Kenyan government.  The next morning, after hurried consultations with Washington via the secure diplomatic line from the US embassy, the four American divisions left their bases and headed toward Mombasa, running up against Coalition forces two days later.

Under normal circumstances, the US forces would likely have seized the advantage and the victory, but these were not normal circumstances.  The air war continued, but the Chinese edge was widening; the US air bases in Kenya had been bombed repeatedly, and efforts to resupply them by air even at a minimal level were running into increasingly fierce Chinese fighter attacks.  Furthemore, the four US divisions had only part of their normal equipment—the rest was at the bottom of the Indian Ocean—and the troops they were facing included seasoned veterans of some of Africa’s most bitter wars.

The major issue, however, was air superiority.  The US military had made air superiority so central to its military doctrine, and had achieved it so consistently in past campaigns, that nobody had any clear idea how to fight and win a battle without it.  Generals who were used to aerial reconnaissance and lieutenants who were used to being able to call in air strikes were both left floundering when these and many other mainstays of the American way of combat were no longer available.  As the Chinese pressed their control of the air further and ferried in more ground-attack aircraft, US forces had to face the unfamiliar threat of air strikes, and US generals had to cope with the fact that it was their movements that were being spotted from the air. Finally, there was the impact on morale: troops who had been taught nearly from their first days in boot camp that air superiority guaranteed victory were unprepared to fight against an enemy that had taken air superiority away from them.

Which of the many factors decided the Battle of Mombasa remains an issue for military historians. Still, the results were not in doubt.  After a week of hard fighting, Coalition forces took Mombasa and began to advance up the main highway toward Nairobi, while the battered US divisions and their Kenyan allies retreated before them.  The Kenyan president fled to Kisumu, in the far west of the country, with his mistress and his cabinet. Jets still screamed south from US bases in the Persian Gulf to tangle with Chinese fighters based in half a dozen African countries, and land-based cruise missiles and B-52s from Diego Garcia pounded anything that looked vaguely like a military target, but it was hard for anyone to miss the fact that the US was losing the war.

End of the World of the Week #43

Speaking of cod theories involving lots of ice—the theme of last week’s failed apocalypse—any collection of predicted cataclysms that never quite managed to happen would be incomplete without a reference to the inimitable Hans Hörbiger and his Welteislehre or World Ice Theory. Hörbiger  was a brilliant Austrian engineer whose mechanical inventions made him a well-earned fortune, but like many another engineer, his ability to figure out ingenious mechanical devices did not translate into a capacity for critical analysis of his own scientific theories.

The World Ice Theory is among the more complex of alternative cosmologies, and no attempt will be made here to summarize it in any detail. The important thing to have in mind, for our purposes, is that space is full of ice. The Milky Way isn’t a galaxy full of stars, it’s a vast cloud of chunks of ice, and they’re all spiralling slowly inwards...toward us.

The Moon is one of the blocks of ice. It’s not the first Moon the Earth has had, either. Every so often the Earth’s gravity captures a big chunk of ice, which then proceeds to spiral inwards until it finally disintegrates and bombards the Earth with ice-meteors, causing vast destruction followed by equally vast floods. That’s what killed the dinosaurs, and the most recent moon of ice broke up recently enough that myths and legends are full of garbled references to the cataclysm. What’s more, the current Moon is very close, and someday soon it will break up in its turn, obliterating our civilization.

Hörbiger’s theory first saw print in his book Glazial-Cosmogonie in 1913, and between the two world wars it was extremely popular. It still retains a following today, even though astronauts have been on the Moon and found that it was a ball of rock, not ice.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Richard said...
Mr. Waite seems to have a decent grasp of what is likely to happen...hey, where is my Tarot deck...? While imperial decline is morbidly awesome, I was wondering what other writing you were working on recently. Anything you want to spoil after that month of toil?

10/10/12, 7:43 PM

Tony said...
I take it China proper has stayed out of the official war so far, officially just providing trained pilots and hardware for their allies?

Even that being the case, I'm sure there's been some truly crazed economic upsets in these first few days. Boycotts both official and spontaneous of anything from china, etc...

10/10/12, 8:27 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Richard, the time I didn't spend hauling in September produce from the garden and heading up to a Druid gathering in the Poconos went into the Green Wizardry book -- that'll be in the publisher's hands by the first of the year -- and a volume of rituals and meditations for the religious side of the Druid order I head, which I hope will be finished around the same time. Thanks for asking!

Tony, exactly. I could easily have turned this into a booklength piece by filling in all the details and weaving in some characterization -- since I didn't want to do that, a lot of the events stateside during the first two parts, and elsewhere in the world during the whole thing, have to be left to the reader's imagination.

10/10/12, 8:41 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
South Sudan as a Chinese client state - that's very very plausible. May already be the case, for all I know.
As South Sudan is the main prize in the region, oil-wise, the question is: how could the US have let that happen? Was the US leadership, at any point since the referendum that made S.S. independent, dumb enough to assume that there would be so much oil to go around that they could miss an oil-state or two? Or were they defeated by Chinese diplomacy?

10/10/12, 9:49 PM

wall0159 said...
Story moving along nicely :-)

In last week's report, you said in the question section that as gas prices in the US reach parity with the rest of the world, that means that the US empir eis over.

I was thinking about this -- how is it that gas prices _are_ so low there, even right now?

My thinking is this: let's take it as given that the US has an empire, has priority access to the oil, and its companies exploit it. Those are privately owned companies, whose goal is to maximise their profit. Why would they then sell the oil to the US where prices are lower than elsewhere? This is not obvious to me...

10/10/12, 10:51 PM

DeAnander said...
Right now, under the Harper Regime, we're kind of looking at Alberta as a Chinese client state :-)

anyway, this is an entertaining (though rather depressing -- all that warfare and civilian casualties etc) read... good to see ADR active again, welcome back!

10/10/12, 11:20 PM

Leo said...
The only consolation i can think of for President weed is that the trust of the people is to low for the media blackout to shatter. Could spark a few things, but they would happen anyway.

Noticed that its only America and Kenya, no other allies. Guess Nato is sitting this one out.

Can't wait to see what this does to the Monroe and Carter doctrine

10/10/12, 11:22 PM

Andrew said...
"By the end of the first day, though both sides had been bloodied, US losses were nearly half again those of the Chinese force."
I think you meant to write ... were nearly double ... ?

10/11/12, 2:16 AM

favonius said...
Uh, Uh, Hurry up with your next few instalments JMG, otherwise you might be overtaken by actual history: Turkish F16s force Syrian flight from Moscow to land

10/11/12, 2:29 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

You brought out the F35's after all in the fictional scenario! It is a very fast paced story and I'm enjoying the minimal dialogue whilst you concentrate on providing us with a ripping yarn. The story oozes of over confidence and hubris. What do they say, “act in haste and repent at leisure”?

I'm reading Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse" at the moment and am about a third of the way through.

As a general observation of the book so far, Jared suffers a bit from the Gore phenomenon, except that he seems to be looking down on it all from the lofty heights of academia and basically in the meantime going about in the real world doing whatever he pleases. I may be wrong in this assessment and only time will tell as I progress further through the book. No disrespect to him, it is merely an observation that bugs me and I could not have written that book.

Back to your story though as the previous reference to the book "Collapse" actually does relate.

For your interest, it appears that the Vikings were at first traders and then shortly switched to the more profitable industry of raiders. Once transport routes and suitable targets were identified, it became only a quick change of plan and marshalling some resources. This is a similar tale to the Chinese in your story is it not?

That game can be played by anyone though and I came across this article in Rolling Stone Magazine about the prior activities of your GOP presidential candidate in his days at Bain capital in the pursuit of leveraged buyouts:

Greed and debt the true story of Mitt Romney and Bain capital

It is a sad state of affairs when such an article is published in Rolling Stone magazine than in the major tabloids. Still it shows anyone can move from a trader to a raider given the right circumstances and incentives. This private equity firm stuff goes on here too and I worked for a while at a major manufacturer (who no longer manufactures) whilst it appeared that exactly this scenario went on in the background. So many people were put out of work...

Incidentally, the US leaders in your story have clearly forgotten the long term objectives in their quest for prestige and short term goals. This is symptomatic of our current society and I've seen many references to such thinking in the actions of many of the societies leaders discussed in the "Collapse" book. It didn't lead anywhere nice. Was it my impression or did Jared really seem to overly relish retelling the tales of cannibalism? Perhaps as a mostly vegetarian I am overly sensitive to such things?

Anyway, my favourite paragraph so far was, "Easter's chiefs and priests had previously justified their elite status by claiming relationship to the gods, and by promising to deliver prosperity and bountiful harvests. They buttressed that ideology by monumental architecture and ceremonies designed to impress the masses, and made possible by food surpluses extracted from the masses. As their promises were being proved increasingly hollow, the power of the chiefs and priests was overthrown around 1860 by military leaders called matatoa, and Easter's formerly complex integrated society collapsed in an epidemic of civil war".

The promises of the chiefs and priests sound chillingly like a political sound bite from a politician today.

Can't wait to see where your story ends!



10/11/12, 4:10 AM

russell1200 said...
The Battle of Dorking lives! It also reminds me of the "thought-pieces" that the militia crowd enjoys where the Chinese/NATO descover previously unknown cabablities with which to invade the United States.

So just where exactly are these Chinese fighter planes in Somalia getting there fuel from.

A battle like this would have some nasty surprises no doubt. The U.S. Subs have not made an appearance yet after all. But it looks an awful lot like a Guadelcanal type scenario with both sides operating at the very edges of their logistical capabilities. There are a lot more locals of course, but in their typical wars they can rely on commercial sources to bring in supplies. They likely won't be much better off than the superpowers.

10/11/12, 5:09 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Presumably the Chinese would be able to introduce delays in the American manufacturing and replacement process for military equipment.

Years ago it was rumoured that the Chinese secret service had accessed all the portions of plans for making helicopters that the Americans had contracted to various Asian companies, so they ensured that the parts for American use didn't work so well, but the copies they made for themselves would be fine. Now we hear of a virtual Chinese monopoly of rare earths, needed for fancy military equipment.

There's also the financial games they could play as America's main creditor and supplier of goods.

10/11/12, 5:14 AM

hawlkeye said...
As in, "roll the dice and wait and see..."? Blinded by the Jameson Weed and the roll comes up snake-eyes...

10/11/12, 5:18 AM

Nano said...
Filling in the blanks...

@Tony and Thijs
Lets not forget how the Chinese have been getting on the inside in Central and South America. There are several countries in those regions that would love to "stick it to us" as well. I wouldn't be surprised if insurgencies, skirmishes pop-up around there while something like the scenario is happening.

Chaotically overwhelm the senses from all directions.

10/11/12, 6:44 AM

Robert said...
The decisive clash between the two Empires might be economic rather than military

On the other hand Uncle Sam's ability to interdict China's oil supply by sea is probably one thing that's preventing the Chinese making a move on the dollar so you might have to reach military parity before Beijing feels safe to make its move.

China has a military alliance with the Russians by the way. The Russian and Chinese economies are complementary and Russia can supply China with much of the natural resources it needs. It's not just a matter of oil and gas, apparently Russia has twenty five percent of the world's reserves of fresh water which may prove especially significant.

Had the West treated Russia decently after the collapse of the USSR Russia might have become a friend of the United States the way Germany did after WW2 Instead Chicago economists and the US Treasury pushed their corrupt puppet Yeltsin into imposing shock therapy on the control and were quite happy for the mafia oligarchs who stole Russia's wealth to launder the money through the City of London and all the offshore tax havens.

As a result Vladimir Putin is no friend of ours and Russia is in the Chinese camp. I suspect history will view what happened in the Nineties will be seen as a strategic mistake of colossal dimensions.

10/11/12, 6:59 AM

Todd S. said...
I know you've written extensively on 'that one thing' that caused an empire to lose a war and head into decline, and I think you may actually be prescient on this one. Were the US ever to be on the "inferior" side of an air war, I do believe your scenario would become reality.

10/11/12, 7:51 AM

Joe Johnson said...
One phrase that comes to mind when reading your scenario is "mutually assured destruction." At this point, the U.S. and China are so profoundly economically intertwined that a conflict such as the one you're describing would assure absolute economic destruction of both countries, regardless of who ends up with the African oilfields at the conclusion of the war.

Unless the war's outcome comes along with a wholesale occupation of the U.S. by Chinese forces (something unlikely as long as the U.S. has nukes), I don't see how China would think going to war over oilfields, no matter how large, would be worth the economic cost of losing its biggest trading partner and no doubt that trading partner's allies too.

A fascinating series though, and I really enjoy reading it.

10/11/12, 8:15 AM

SLClaire said...
I'm glad you are including the End of the World of the Week in your posts this year. Do I guess correctly that this is information you researched for Apocalypse Not that didn't make it into the book? If so, good that you didn't let all that work go unread by the rest of us! This week's version was among my favorites so far.

10/11/12, 8:17 AM

Johnny Rustsinthesun said...
JMG: These last two posts have been fascinating and thought provoking. I share your belief that the US Empire is crumbling and is likely to crash hard in the next decade or two, most likely from a combination of military and economic forces. However, I think one has to be wary of attributing too much competence to China and the Chinese. Don't forget how everyone feared that Japan was going to take over the world in the 80s (Black Rain anyone?) and now they're the sick man of Asia: a stagnant aging economy that cannot even maintain control over a few rocks in the South China Sea.

Don't forget how rife China is with corruption; how saddled they are with an entrenched and self-serving elite; how much the average Chinese person would much rather make money than war; and how China will be hit as hard as anyone else by resource limitations. Yes, if China successfully teamed up with Russia and, say, Iran, they might be able to take down the States militarily. But, on their own, as they are now or will be in 10 years, I don't see it.

I'm not sure where you are heading with this and I eagerly await your next installment, but I do have to say this: since it is almost inevitable that America will elect some loose-cannon right-wing fascist to the presidency as the economy continues to disintegrate, the willingness of the nation to rain down nukes on any potential adversary increases as we go forward, and I don't think the Chinese would be unaware of this. So, unless you have some plot twist in which they also hack into America's network of ICBMs, subs and tactical nukes, I don't see the Chinese being foolish enough to engage the States in a hot war any time soon.

All that said, I'm all ears and my mind is open. Keep it coming!

10/11/12, 8:19 AM

Seb Ze Frog said...
Millennium Challenge 2002

My greetings.

Please forgive me if it was already mentioned last week, but I find the discussion of the Millennium Challenge 2002 interesting enough in the context of this post to take the risk.

In my opinion, the thoughts of Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper are well worth the read.

Have a great day
sebzefrog at

10/11/12, 9:01 AM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
This stuff is surprisingly plausible, if I may say so. Who could tell that behind the peaceful archdruid there was an old grognard, after all? :)

Your head somehow manages to wear an amazing number of hats. Must be a big head, hehehe.

You may be overstating the Chinese capabilities a wee little bit, but the scenario is plausible, and even if we tweaked things in a way that still allowed the US forces to "win" the war (say, only one carrier sinks, the other is mauled and the third suffers repairable damage, plus a bitterly contested air war eventually resulting in US victory, somewhat serious communication and surveilance gaps, but not total blackout, etc), it would still probably be a unrecoverable trajedy for the imperial system. Like Pyrrus said, another victory like that, and the US as an imperial power would be done for.

That's why the scenario is so plausible. Even if you take it with a huge grain of salt, you can still see that things would go belly up very fast on the face of determined and moderately effective resistence. The US Armed Forces have no resilience at the moment. If they can't win something fast and with overwhelming advantage, they probably can't win it at all. I doubt the US could endure even a 10 to 1 kill ratio (in their favor) with a determined enemy for anything more then a few months, if at that, much less a ratio less skewed (3 to 1, say), or something near parity.

10/11/12, 10:27 AM

Renaissance Man said...
Ah. Echoes of the Falklands War and the sinking of HMS Sheffield by Exocet.
I'd say it's a page-turner... except I press the down-arrow key, which doesn't sound anywhere near as pithy.

10/11/12, 10:44 AM

DesertedPictures said...
Nice story, but I wonder why you choose China as the new rising power in this scenario? Would Russia or an opec-alliance not pose a bigger threat in the future? After all China lacks domestic oil and gas; while Russia still has big deposits. China does have a lot of rear-earth metals but they are mostly used in high-tech devices: and those are on the way out when energy-prices go sky-high.
I also wonder how long the next empire will last if they are still dependent on oil. Will countries that loose cheap-energy soonern (and are forced to adept earlier) be on top after the next empire runs out of energy? Or will the next empire be smart and adept to a low-energy imperial order before the oil runs out...

10/11/12, 11:17 AM

ando said...

Well done.

I was imagining my colleagues, here at the Defense
Contractor, viewing a picture of a disabled and abandoned Aircraft Carrier awash on a sand bar. The cognitive dissonance might well do them in!
They are unable to even imagine such an event.


10/11/12, 11:17 AM

chad said...
what about the part where all the utopian survival camps who had been happily awaiting the apocalypse all these years are destroyed and looted during the war? Oh wait, in order for that scene to be in there there would have to actually BE utopian survival camps that actually exited and functioned in more than people's imaginations and promotion campaigns, my bad.

10/11/12, 11:43 AM

Forest Farmer said...
I am not an expert on military matters, but your scenario about today’s reliance on satellite technology is not only plausible, but possibly understated. A good friend of mine used to work at an Air Force base whose sole purpose was to communicate and control spy satellites. He related to me this real life incident:

Military satellites use low polar orbits. When you look at the night sky and see a bright spot slowly crossing from North to South or visa versa, you are seeing a spy satellite. The orbits take less than 90 minutes, and as the world turns on it’s axis the ground moves laterally under the satellite orbit so the satellite effectively sees every square mile of the earth in a 24 hour period. The view from these close orbits is good enough so that these spy tools, which are essentially Hubble Space Telescopes pointing down at the ground, can identify what brand of cigarette pack a person is holding. On an individual basis though, a satellite’s view of a particular spot of ground is only available for about 20 minutes as both the satellite and the Earth turns. There is a whole fleet of them up there, switching from one satellite to the next to maintain surveillance of a particular spot.

At the time of my friends experience, communication with each satellite was direct, and thus limited to that 20 minute window. A password would be sent to the satellite to trigger data retrieval, and then before communication was interrupted by the orbit a new password would be sent up to be triggered for the next orbit. Each password would time out in 90 minutes, so you gave it a new password or that’s the end of it. This was a very secure procedure to prevent highjacking of the satellite. However, the new passwords where generated in a physically different location in the building and carried by handcuffed briefcase every 90 minutes. Distributing authority this way also increased internal security.

One day there was a general alert in the building. The base security chief decided to have his crew run a surprise security sweep of the building. They were stopping everyone and requiring identification verification. The fellow carrying the security code for a particular satellite had inadvertently left his badge on his desk. The security guards assumed the worst and hauled him off, handcuffed briefcase and all, to a detention room and began grilling him. Meanwhile, the control room goes into a panic because they don’t have the code to the satellite and if they don’t get it before it goes over the horizon, they will forever loose contact with a $100M+ piece of hardware. The entire place was in an uproar looking for the guy. Luckily, someone peeked in the sound proof detention room and the briefcase currier ended up sprinted through the building to deliver the code with just seconds to spare. The afore mentioned guards were never seen in the building again, with rumors that they had been re-stationed to a north Alaskan radar station.

The point of this is that even today, any prolonged communication outage would likely require the relaunch of an entirely new satellite fleet. Even with standby extras on the ground, this would not be a quick thing.

10/11/12, 12:08 PM

jollyreaper said...
Scenarios, not prophesy, as you said. And we're all amateurs speculating into the wind, even the professionals. :)

That being said, my own take.

Knocking out three carriers feels optimistic. Yeah, we have the example of Midway but it feels a little too yay, Clancy! on behalf of the Chinese, weapons working just as well as advertized in the sales brochure. Granted, going into the exact details of what happened blows this up from a blog post to a techno-thriller novel. How were we ignorant of Chinese weapons capabilities, now did we miss the movements, how did we leave ourselves so exposed, etc.

All that aside, the question of logics would be key here, even more important than the results of the initial battle. As mentioned above, Guadalcanal -- two industrial powers fighting at the end of long logistic supply chains. The US could not effectively embargo Vietnam due to political reasons. China could not have pre-positioned sufficient weapons and supplies to fight with what they have in-country. Both parties will have to run long supply chains to keep the war going.

Oh, another comparison, North Africa in WWII. Rommel had the Allies' number there but was constantly hampered by a lack of supplies. Different scenario from the war in Europe where the Nazis were pushing supplies through occupied-if-not-friendly territory. Aerial interdiction hurt but ships are a lot easier to stop than trucks and peasants pushing bicycles. Both the US and China have sea lanes to control. And if the Chinese have decent-enough subs, they could have the US running around in circles trying to protect the convoys.

And this then brings about the next question of strategic goals. The war we're talking about here is really the biggest we've had since WWII. It's potentially a Korea Part 2.

We know what the US wants: break some third-world heads, cheap oil, USA! USA!

Why does China want? What do they expect to happen? They're turning a US smash and grab operation into a major international crisis. My druthers would have their reason for starting the war be a terrible mistake, the results being two gunfighters managing to fatally wound each other, bleeding out in the street.

The Japanese thought that the Westerners would accept defeat in WWII. The high command was convinced they could knock the US out of the war with a few swift blows and that would be that. Wargammers and staff college professors with access to archives and capabilities and studies of both sides have tried for years to figure out a way the Japanese could have won WWII and it just doesn't seem possible. Start a war they can't win, obviously. Hurt the US even more than they did in reality, make the war last a few more years? Yes. Force the US out of the war through sheer dint of fighting? No.

So I assume the Chinese guess is the US would be bloodied and humbled and forced to give up the fight, international pressure and the like. Accept our losses because the next step would be escalation and the potential there is doubling down and putting a whole lot more at risk.

Ugh. Keep coming back to the thought the Chinese are making a shrewd and cunning mistake to match the imperialist hubris of the Americans. A bad time will be had by all. India will emerge as a regional superpower in the aftermath.

10/11/12, 12:37 PM

jollyreaper said...
Unless the war's outcome comes along with a wholesale occupation of the U.S. by Chinese forces (something unlikely as long as the U.S. has nukes), I don't see how China would think going to war over oilfields, no matter how large, would be worth the economic cost of losing its biggest trading partner and no doubt that trading partner's allies too.

I think China eventually plans to have a huge domestic demand for much of what they produce, no longer requiring exports to the US. Certainly if there's a plan of enriching themselves serving the rival they plan to topple, this would factor into their thinking.

But really stupid, idiotic miscalculations are incredibly possible. If WWII was a novel, I would be tearing the author a new one for handing Hitler the idiot ball and invading Russia. "Look, you wrote this guy as a shrewd operator! He went from nothing to running a nation. He's got military experience. Sure, he's also got an irrational hatred of the Jews but he needs to make a more subtle mistake than this. Even if he does believe the Russians are a rotting shed waiting to collapse when the door is kicked in, he's going to want to finish taking out the UK before opening another front in the war. He leaves the UK intact, that's ready staging base for continental invasion if the US ever gets dragged in. And you know FDR wants to with the lend-lease stuff, all he needs is an opportunity."

The trick to writing a proper mistake in fiction is you need to be convinced that the character can sincerely make a bad decision, either because his judgment is clouded or because the facts available to him are too muddy to clearly see what's actually occurring. Especially tragic when the reader does have those facts at hand.

10/11/12, 12:46 PM

BrightSpark said...
Fascinating stuff. Coming from a nation with next to no military capacity, it's always interesting to see how the presence of a large military actually removes possibilities for thought. If you have a large military, all thoughts seem to be focused on preserving it, that is, until like in your scenario, preserving it becomes impossible, and a new norm is formed.

What I do wonder in this scenario is if this is the last time that the military will allow itself to operate to a silly battle strategy, and thus, power will pass from the (nominally) democratically elected president to some junta of generals.

I've always thought of such a scenario emerging in the case of a crazed president threatening the nuclear option against China, with the generals actually being the voice of moderation, understanding the consequences. Of course, losing democracy is no easy thing, but it might be impossible to preserve at the level of a large federation of states anyway in such times.

10/11/12, 12:53 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Thijs, the Chinese already have a presence in South Sudan and are expanding it steadily. They've got one thing the US doesn't have -- vast reserves of US dollars to spend on foreign aid -- and that's enabling them to expand their network of allies throughout the Third World.

Wall, do you remember when Obama fired the CEO of General Motors a few years ago? It's very popular to assume that the corporations have all the power, but every so often you get to see where the real power is, and it's political and military. The oil companies sell oil as cheaply as they can in the US because it's a political necessity to the US government that they do so, and the US government has ample formal and informal means of making sure the oil companies do as they're told.

DeAnander, that's no joke. In another 20 years, Canada may be taking orders from Beijing the way it now takes orders from Washington.

Leo, exactly -- in the scenario, the US has very few allies left. We aren't quite there yet, but we're getting there.

Andrew, no, "half again" means "one and a half times" -- the Chinese lose 20 planes, the US uses 30.

Favonius, that's why I didn't put the scenario in the Middle East!

Cherokee, no way was I going to leave the Joint Strike Fighter out of this one.

Russell, South Sudan, not Somalia. South Sudan is shaping up to be a significant oil producer, and of course the entire scenario presupposes the discovery of significant petroleum reserves in East Africa generally. Given a couple of Chinese-funded refineries, the fuel problem isn't exactly hard to work out.

Raven, well, I haven't included any of that -- I'm more interested in the straightforward military options.

Hawlkeye, exactly. Stay tuned!

10/11/12, 1:12 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Nano, in a booklength version I'd include that as well.

Robert, I've been arguing that for years. The plundering of Russia by the West after the Soviet Union's fall was a triumph of short-term greed over long-term interests.

Todd, thank you. That's certainly my view.

Joe, not at all. The US is no longer China's main trading partner -- iirc it's the EU these days -- and the best possible time to weather a sharp economic shock would be in the wake of a major military victory. The US is far more expendable globally than most Americans think!

SLClaire, bingo. I could have written an encyclopedia of failed apocalypses!

Johnny, every one of the things you've mentioned about China was true of the US in 1900. Didn't stop us from becoming a global power, and it won't stop China, either.

Seb, the Millennium Challenge debacle was a major influence on this scenario, though of course I took it a good deal further.

Guilherme, I could certainly have written the scenario to have a less decisive American defeat, or even a stalemate, and gotten similar results in the fourth and fifth parts of the story. Yes, I've basically had the dice fall China's way this time -- not, I think, unrealistically so -- but that's one of the possibilities.

10/11/12, 1:39 PM

Joel Caris said...

It's great to have you back and I'll add to the chorus of those who are really enjoying this fictional foray. I find it both fascinating and entertaining--though it would be far from entertaining in real life, of course.

I actually had plans to get some fiction-writing done this summer, but then the craziness of gardening and farming and other such things interrupted those plans. Still, I don't regret allowing those activities to take over my focus; it's been a productive summer. In fact, I've managed to get over 100 jars of food canned up over the last month or so, both for my own winter eating and for Christmas gifts. Blackberry jam and syrup, tomato puree, tomato jam, apple sauce and butter, salsa, pickles, pickled beans. Plus, the hoop house is still pumping out tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers and I'm hoping to get more salsa, tomato puree, apple sauce and pickled peppers canned. It feels so good to be putting all this food away!

I'm also highly anticipating winter, though. I don't know if you've heard, but it's been an unusually dry summer here in the Northwest after our wet spring. Portland actually set a record--only a quarter inch of rain from July through September. We've gotten a touch more out here on the north coast, but not much. Maybe an inch. The rain's finally supposed to hit tomorrow and I have to say that I'm really looking forward to it. It's gotten to the point that quite a number of my friends out here are actually anticipating rainy weather. And they haven't even had to look at and worry about the barely-trickling creek that provides our water out here or eyeball the dried out pastures that means more hay-feeding than normal here on the farm I'm living on. We get 90-100 inches of rain here annually, and yet it still only takes a couple months of no rain to put you on the edge. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people in our society don't understand just how little control we really do have and just how quickly and easily nature can smack us down.

Anyway, it's fun to have you back writing. It's helped inspire me to return to my own blog now that things are starting to vaguely slow down. I'm looking forward to a good winter of thought, writing, and reading. (And some work, of course!) I'm excited to see how your story plays out.


10/11/12, 1:50 PM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
To Cherokee:

Man, that was a good read. Thanks for the link. Haven't really been reading on US elections. They seem pretty meaningless for americans themselves, so it's natural that they mean even less for people outside the borders.

To the people that compared this scenario to Vietnam or the pacific campaign in WW II:

While there were political constraints on the way the war was fought by the US forces there, and they certainly influenced the outcome, there was ALSO a constraint on the communist side. Or do you think the USA would have managed to hold on Vietnam if the PLA came streaming over the border in large numbers? Or the russians sent a couple of attack subs into the Gulf of Tonkin to play a little hide and seek game witht he US carriers conveniently parked there? The scenario proposed here is one where the gloves are off, for the most part. The closest thing that came to that was Korea, and while the US managed to hold off a communist takeover, the result there was basically a return to status quo.

About WWII, that's a very flawed comparisson, IMO. It's like saying that because the Gauls were devastated by Julius Ceasar it would be unthinkable that the much more barbaric germans would have any chance against Rome. The situations are different. In WWII the USA was probably at the peak of its productivity, wealth (including oil and other natural resources) and probably also on more intangible things like a cohesive political system and national identity. None of those things are present anymore.

As for why the chinese would pick a fight, meh, that's like asking why war exists in the first place. It's rarely "in the best interest" of anyone to go to war, and even so we do. Why did the europpean contries decided to pound each other to rubble into WW I, ending a three century long streak of europpean dominance over the world? And do the same thing again 20 years later?

While I think the military details are a bit skewed here and there (not that much, though), and it is much more plausible that something like this will happen somewhere in the Middle East (possibly with Israel in place of "Kenya", and getting equally invaded by it's neighboors after the US is forced to leave), the piece reads like eery foreboding. I expect to see something resembling this happening in my life time (I'm 29, so there's some time).

I think reading about ALL sorts of empires and their fall is necessary to gain a proper perspective, since applaying lessons from just one or two cases, however instructive, is a flawed methodology because, well, the USA is note Rome or somesuch, but all empires have stuff in common. For example, I think that for this immediate situation, the paralelles of the Spanish Empire are enlightening. It managed to get diplomatically isolated and picking quarrels with almost everyone at one time or another (usually winning), until there was a confluence of bad events and overreaching that managed to crack it's aura of invencibility and then it was a very quick and steep fall, as everyone else piled on to kick the proverbial man down.

In JMG's scenario, for example, I would expect that things would escalate, at diplomatically, if not military. Russia and Iran would probably side with China over this. India would be a wild card. As JMG's wrote, there would be a lot of african chinese client states willing to side with the guys who appear to be winning. It's doubtful that Europe or Japan would contribute materially to a US blunder like that, and after it NATO would possibly go to the same trash bin where the Entente and the Warsaw Pact are.

10/11/12, 2:09 PM

andrewbwatt said...
Hello, Archdruid!

I hope you had a productive September. From the earlier comments, it sounds like you have. I'm looking forward to the religious meditations book, to go with the handbook of rituals for meetings you've already given us. That was very useful.

While I recognize that this is fiction, do you think that the collapse of American power is likely to be so bald and obvious as this? If I understand catabolic collapse correctly, one all-or-nothing East African War or its equivalent is akin to an apocalypse, isn't it? That is, a highly-unlikely event...?


Oh, but you said, last time, that this is about pointing out vulnerabilities, not specifically saying, "this way" but rather, "these risks and these opportunities:"

* the satellite system is vulnerable
* a carrier group, inexpertly wielded, is a tempting target
* long supply chains in an age of energy scarcity are at risk
* even long-term allies can change sides
* domestic politics do not always make good strategy

And so on...

If anything, I'd say that you'd been reading the Thirty-Six Stratagems recently. I see a lot of that thinking in this story so far. A former student of mine from China gave me a copy, and it makes for interesting reading — especially since it's apparently part of the modern-day curriculum for middle school students there. She knew it quite well.

10/11/12, 2:09 PM

Guilherme de Baskerville said...
OTOH, the fall of the Soviet Empire has some lessons, too: I don't think the USA will be invaded. It will probably dismember itself in a few parts (same as the USSR), it will NOT go crazy and detonate nuclear weapons but it will descent into a period of chaos and really bad economy until some kind of strongman (think Putin) pulls the contry (or the parts of it that are not totally seceded) somewhat together, minus the empire side of things, and we go from there to a more distant future, where my magic eight ball has no powers. Meriga doesn't sound implausible in the long run :)

Lastly, also aimed at the WWII comparissons: The way the US military is geared today it would be impossible for it to sustain a "hot" war with someone that manages to fight in the same league as itself. Even discarding casualities and destroyed equipment, the sheer ammount of ammunition that would be spent would deplete the US stockpile quite rapidly. And the kind of equipment that gives the US it's qualitative edge can not be manufactured in a emergency to fill the voids. Specially not if the US loses acess to strategic materials, there's a lack of funds, etc. Even if the country somehow made a very desperate effort at producing stuff quickly and there was wild popular support for a foreign war (doubtful), by necessity the kind of equipment that could be produced quickly would be of much inferior quality and much more old fashioned.

Nowadays, the USA has 187 modern air superiority fighters (F-22's). Well, not all of them are operational yet, but this is a pretty firm number. But there's no budget for anymore of those. There's still some 230 F-15's, but they are getting reaaaally old, and are supposed to be swapped with the new F-35. The USAF received a total of a little over 1.100 F-15's of all variants troughout it's 20 year production run, just to give a sense of scale. The F-35 itself, though produced in bigger numbers, will be available (even without any further cuts in it's projected number) in much smaller numbers then the array of planes it's supposed to take over. There's a grand total of 20 B-2's. There's no plane to take over the heavy bomber role from the B-52's.

Just regullar attritional losses due to carrying multiple sorties would put a lot of strain on those fighter numbers, without a single loss to enemy action. With the kind of commitments the USA has, I don't think it can lose much more then a 150 planes or so before things become totally unmanageable. And, like I said, they are not easily or quickly replacable, and without them, bye-bye the empire game. The US doesn't know how to project force without them.

It's the same math that faced the spanish tercios, really. Even if they will every battle and kill 5 guys for every one of theirs that dies, they can't replace them. Specially at the same level of competence. And that's not even counting someone else evening the odds...

10/11/12, 2:32 PM

Nestorian said...
I think there are many grounds to question the viability of the scenario you propose.

One important factor you have ignored: US nuclear submarines and strategic bombers - not to mention additional carrier task force groups – a significant number of all of which would have been operating in the East Pacific at the time of the Kenyan events. In addition, the US would have all kinds of short-range aircraft and missiles to fire at China from its own ample set of bases ringing China during all the African events.

The US could easily have used these resources to execute a successful nuclear first strike against all China's nuclear capabilities (which are in fact quite minimal) while the Chinese were focusing their attention on events in and around Kenya. China would then be finished permanently as any kind of serious projective military threat. They would have won the battle in Kenya, and inflicted substantial military losses on the US, but they would have lost essentially all their own in the process.

Also, I think it is wrong to assume that the Americans are idiots compared to the Chinese when it comes to the ins and outs of cyberwarfare, or in general when it comes to the matter of military strategy and tactics. On the contrary, I think there is good reason to assume that the US is the world leader in the field of cyberwarfare and computer security in particular. It certainly is a very hot employment field at this time in the DC area, and the US has a long history of cutting-edge leadership in the most advanced forms of electronics and computer wizardry. Thus, the very premise of your scenario on the basis of which the Chinese are able to inflict serious damage on the US in the first place is highly questionable.

Further, I think it is simplistic to suppose that US intelligence agencies would be completely oblivious to the large-scale secret buildup of Chinese fire power within Kenya in the manner you describe. These things in the shipping containers would all first need to be produced, and I have little doubt that US intelligence has the capacity to keep a close watch not just on production, but also on subsequent deployment. Surely they wouldn't just lose track and forget about all that stuff in the manner your scenario presupposes.

What’s more, for every high level Chinese mole in the US, why shouldn’t there be a corresponding high level US mole in China, telegraphing key strategic decisions, software weaknesses, and so on, to the US?

In short, the Chinese may be very smart, but that neither implies that they aren't seriously outgunned by the US (which in fact they are - to the point that the US could easily take out their entire nuclear arsenal in a first strike without threat of reprisal), nor does it imply that the US is any less smart than the Chinese in using their own military capabilities

10/11/12, 3:04 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Renaissance, the Falklands war is one of the historical resources I've had in mind while writing this.

Pictures, I could have used any of a dozen countries and any of at least as many flashpoints. If I'd used one of the others, no doubt somebody would be wondering aloud why I didn't use China.

Ando, it's precisely because they can't imagine such events that such events are fairly likely to happen.

Chad, excellent! Dunno how long you've been reading the Report, but I've pointed that out myself a few times.

Farmer, thank you for the story! That's exactly the sort of thing that makes a shutdown of the US satellite network (or some similar tech-based stratagem) a possibility.

Reaper, of the 200+ Chinese cruise missiles, a very large fraction would have been aimed at the carriers -- they're the targets most worth hitting, remember -- and so I don't think it's at all improbable that six would get through. The Chinese already have cruise missiles capable of doing exactly what I've described -- that's no secret. As for China's goals in the war, those are straightforward enough: they're gambling that the US is no longer able to sustain a major war for any length of time, and that they can score a victory and get a peace treaty without too much risk of things going nuclear. More on that soon...

BrightSpark, stay tuned!

Joel, good for you! We didn't do quite that much canning, but we got a lot of pickles, sauerkraut, jelly and mincemeat put up.

Guilherme, nicely put. Thank you.

Andrew, the end of an empire is not the same as the end of a civilization. Civilizations take their time to fall; so do some empires, but a significant number of them crash to ruin in short order -- one of the things to keep in mind is that war and politics can force some kinds of change very quickly.

10/11/12, 3:22 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Guilherme, exactly! It's one thing to wave around abstractions about military power (as Nestorian, just below your comment, does), and quite another to check the numbers and realize how poorly prepared the US is for any kind of serious war.

Nestorian, er, you've been reading way too many Pentagon press releases (or Tom Clancy novels, which amounts to the same thing). The US can launch a successful first strike against the Chinese nuclear forces? In your wet dreams -- the Chinese would be on high alert, and the moment their radars and satellites picked up the sign of our SLBMs, a whole bunch of Long March 4s would head skyward. Thirty minutes later, US cities and military bases would start turning into hot vapor. Nice strategic choice, that!

In a later post we'll talk at length about the logic of nuclear deterrence in an age of decline. For now, I'd point out that it's exactly the sort of fantasy you're retailing -- the notion that US superiority is as guaranteed as Pentagon publicity likes to claim -- is more likely than any other factor to cause the kind of US military defeat I'm describing in this scenario.

10/11/12, 3:28 PM

Leo said...
I'm currently thinking of this as similar to the battle ofTteutoburg Forest, Romans lost 3 legions. Mind you its also a loss of sea power, so the time the Athenian fleet was destroyed while it weas beached is also similar.

The outcomes going to more resemble the Athenian since the Romans recovered from Teuoburg but the Athenians soon lost to the spartans.

The difference is that the Athenians couldn't replace their loses and fight while the Romans could punish the Germans (something 6-9 million killed) and rebuild their legions.

The Americans in this story (and Real Life) lack the ability to replace their loses. Something could happen to make the USA win, but it would only be a short lived Phyric victory.

10/11/12, 3:43 PM

Johnny Rustsinthesun said...
JMG: Thanks for replying to my post. I think you miss my point. I wasn't saying that China was incapable of turning into a world empire. They're presently in the process of doing so. However, I'd take issue with one of your rebuttals of my argument. I said that corruption, an entrenched elite, a populace more concerned with money than war, and resource limits would work against Chinese imperial ambitions. You dismissed my comment by saying that none of those things stopped the United States from becoming an empire at the start of the 20th century. Well, first, the US wasn't facing resource limits at the start of the 20th century. I also argued that China would be put off by the threat of nuclear retaliation by the US.

But, this is beside the point. I wasn't arguing that China cannot become a world empire. I was arguing that they cannot defeat the US in a hot war (not anytime soon). I think you are too quick to dismiss posts like mine and Nestorian. A rigid unwillingness to listen to reasonable criticism is not the hallmark of a true (or truth) seeker.

In shooting down Nestorian's post, you argued that the Chinese "arsenal" of Long March missiles would quickly overwhelm America's ICBM network. Really? Do you know the numbers each side has? Furthermore, do you recall the existence of America's nuclear-armed subs, as well as nukes that can be deployed from bombers?

I'm loving your story and can't wait for the next installment, but I'd counsel adopting a somewhat less dogmatic approach to input that doesn't jibe with your opinion. Have a look at some of China's failed cities, their incredible rates of corruption and things like the recent train crash they had before painting the Chinese as infallible geniuses. Remember, the best laid plans of mice, men and even Chinese...

10/11/12, 4:47 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
So . . . Hubris is followed by Nemesis, who in turn is followed by whom? Ate (= Mischief) perhaps? And then maybe the Erinyes (= the Furies)? With a grand purification reserved for the last of the five episodes?

I can't wait to see how this all plays out. But I must wait, of course, and I don't really expect you to tip your hand in reply. That would just spoil the delight. This whole narrative is such a treat so far!

10/11/12, 4:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Leo, the main difference between the East African war and the Teutoburger Wald was that Rome's power was not yet in serious decline in 9 CE, while the power of the US is already in fairly serious decline today. I'd compare my hypothetical East African war with the battle of Adrianople instead.

Johnny, so if I disagree with you, I'm being rigid and dogmatic? That's interesting logic. I do disagree with you; I considered the issues you raised long before you posted here, and came to conclusions that differ from yours, and you haven't yet offered anything approaching convincing reasons why I should change my mind. So I disagree with you; deal.

As for Nestorius and his ICBMs, er, are you under the impression that ICBMs somehow cancel each other out? If the US launches a thousand missiles and China launches a hundred, the US still gets hit with a hundred missiles, which would be quite enough to cripple us economically and militarily for quite a while. That's why the US didn't chuck nukes at China during Korea or at Russia during Vietnam, you know -- even if you do more damage to the other side than they do to you, the cost to your own nation and its infrastructure is so massive that it's not worth doing. Again, though, we'll be discussing this in more detail later on.

Robert, I hadn't thought of Ate! Nah, the other three parts don't have Greek names. Stay tuned...

10/11/12, 5:07 PM

jollyreaper said...
I'm aware that there are some very scary anti ship missiles out there but they have never been tested against an American battle group, the same way out defenses have never been tested by a full attack. There's no telling how wrong things will go but I note that weapons and tactics developed between wars tend to encounter rude surprises when the wars start.

I'm curious to see how the Chinese imagine the war will go and what actually happens. I tend to fear intense escalation but that is no guartantee. I didn't think the ussr could fall without things going nuclear and I was obviously wrong.

I'm thinking of how Iraq was sold to us. Yay, patriotism. The thing I don't know is if the secret war aim was to get the oil and it all screwed up or if the only goal was to start a war and make some bucks and the damage done to the US wasn't even a consideration. Rather than Machiavelli pulling off something worthy of a moustsche twirl its more like mafia parasites destroying a business for profit.

While I'm sure the details will have quibble room, a mass missile attack from onshore launchers against carriers is pretty much my go-to scenario for the next great American defeat. If they could fit these things with extended range tanks, there's no need for a bomber fleet or missile sub to carry them within range. Give them a 2000 mile range, good search radar, there's no way the US could locate all the possible launchers. The only question is ensuring that there is total saturation of the defenses. Even one serious missile hitting a carrier could be a mission kill, flight operations over, return to port. And after the first time that happens, carriers have to be kept so far offshore as to be useles. Mission accomplished.

10/11/12, 5:17 PM

jollyreaper said...
Regarding nukes, the Chinese don't have a throw weight like the ussr but even a couple could really ruin our day.

Given that the Chinese are planning for a fight with the US, their boomers are likely out to sea and diplomatic back channels will let Washington know what's in range if they want to press the issue.

10/11/12, 5:25 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
I will happily stay tuned.

As for Nestorius, et alii, Robert Burns had a good word:
"... foresight may be vain; the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft aglay, and leav'e us naught but grief an' pain for promis'd joy."

Murphy's Law always plays mischief with each and every calculation of military advantage, and the Peter Principle ensures that the top levels of any hierarchy, whether political or military, are well stocked with people who have reached their personal levels of incompetence. This may be where Ate (= Mischief) most easily enters into history.

10/11/12, 6:03 PM

Stu from Rutherford said...
Very good read and very plausible.

I would like to point out for some other readers that a nuclear exchange between the US and China could have other side effects that have not been mentioned in the comments.

Using much of its arsenal against China simply leaves the US more vulnerable against Russia (and who knows who else?) In addition, as JMG has already mentioned, the economic destruction that China could wreak with just 100 warheads would make Russia top dog, at least for a while.

No, the US would always keep most of its arsenal in reserve for the only adversary which has nuclear parity.

10/11/12, 6:37 PM

Nestorian said...
Here is my counter-argument to the point you made concerning Chinese ICBM capability:

The Long March 4 design is principally used to launch satellites, not deliver ICBMs. It is a design going back to the late 80s, and as an ICBM delivery device, it suffers from several huge liabilities: first, their numbers are relatively few (no more than a couple dozen); second, these few locations are fixed and thus easily targeted; and third, their solid fuel systems require a slow and laborious process, taking hours if not days, to prepare them for launch.

If the US had short-range, much more modern and thus abidingly trigger-ready missiles nearby - as they surely would on submarines, strategic bombers, and aircraft launched from both nearby Asian land-bases and nearby carriers - the US could take them all out before the Chinese could even get them ready to launch. One must reckon with the likelihood that the US would take this step in the course of the kind of crisis you describe as soon as they had reason to believe the Chinese were in the beginning stages of the laborious and lengthy process of getting their missiles ready for launch. The Chinese wouldn't have a prayer.

Also, I had several other objections to your scenario that I think warrant serious consideration, but that you did not address.

10/11/12, 8:41 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jollyreaper, my sense about Iraq is that the neoconservatives were clueless intellectuals who believed their own hype, and thought they could waltz into Iraq, turn it into a nice friendly democracy, and hand over the oil to US oil companies. They were wrong, and have been scrambling around ever since trying to blame everyone else for their failure.

Robert, true enough.

Stu, watch that bear-shape space!

Nestorian, how many presidents would be willing to risk the population of Los Angeles on the hope that the Chinese can't get a few of their missiles airborne? As for your other points, I don't see any point in arguing them, since you've basically set up a straw man; I'm not claiming that the US military and intelligence services are staffed by idiots, just that they make the same kind of mistakes they and other nations have made repeatedly in crises in the last few decades. The arguments you offer would "prove" that the US fleet couldn't possibly be surprised at Pearl Harbor, or (on the other side of the coin) that Germany and Japan couldn't possibly spend all of the Second World War convinced that their codes were still secure. 'Nuf said.

10/11/12, 9:47 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Johnny (offlist), at this point you're just nitpicking. Enough.

10/11/12, 9:48 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
Here in the Pacific North West we had another program on NPR about disaster preparedness in regard to the Juan De Fuca plate. That's the lynch pin I based my short story on for your book. No war would be needed although the Pacific Northwest would look like we had been through a war and lost! We heard exactly what to expect when the plate broke again. I don't believe the US Government would be able to help anyone out here. As far inland as you lived you would have experienced a 7.0 for eight to nine minutes. Considering the terrain, infrastructure and the lack of the maintenance needed (and isn't getting), it isn't going to recover! I believe that such an event alone would reveal all the cracks in our clay feet, if the feet didn't crumble completely.

Red Neck Girl

10/11/12, 11:36 PM

Draco TB said...
Now we hear of a virtual Chinese monopoly of rare earths, needed for fancy military equipment.

Prior to China becoming the source of 95% of the worlds Rare Earths the US and EU mined their own. All they're really complaining about in regards to China deciding, quite rationally IMO, not to sell theirs any more is that they'll have to start mining their own and thus pay more for them.

There's also the financial games they could play as America's main creditor and supplier of goods.

If every country did their own manufacture from their own resources such a scenario could come to pass. And, yes, every country has that capability. What such would do, though, is minimize trade and thus stop the wealth pump that is used to keep a few people inordinately wealthy.

10/12/12, 3:15 AM

Rhisiart Gwilym said...
John Michael: that mythic image of the grounded, tipped-over, abandoned carrier on the East African sand bank --

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Already, just two episodes in, this is a superb piece of work, not only for its page-turner grip, but also because of the masterly erudition and grand-master strategic grasp behind it.

LLongyfarchaidau, fy Mrawd i farddol a dderwyddol!

10/12/12, 3:31 AM

Rik said...
Suppose the US does not launch primarily JSF's & F-35's from carriers, but uses those battleships instead as floating factories? Purpose: launching and producing/repairing drones. These carriers can remain out of terrorists way, relatively, while other carriers only launch AWACS and a small force to protect the controllers.

I've been thinking for a while now that present style carriers are outdated and won't last long. Of course, I might be wrong. Probably am. In the same way, I'm also thinking those fighter jets will (somehow!) morph into very large drones themselves. The Wikipedia article on the JSF writes for example that it has hard- & software issues. It might be due to a lack of space. In that case they could replace the pilot with, um, a decent ordinateur.

P.S. First comment here! Very nice! A druid-engineer.. I never thought of that.

10/12/12, 4:09 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

hehe! Glad to see that you didn't hold back on the F35's. Design by consensus is a recipe for disaster. Even, we're involved in the debacle! It should be about using the right tool for the job...

Some commenters are clearly struggling with accepting the option of the US conceding defeat in any given military circumstance. This however, is only one option among many. Your story may even end up with the US as a client state subject to a Chinese wealth pump? Who knows, but we'll find out over the next couple of weeks.

I read a reference to the Vikings conquest of the Faeroes Island in the "Collapse" book mentioned in my previous comment. As the island is just north of the UK it got me wondering because there was a brief mention that the island was inhabited by Scottish and Irish hermits at the time. Given the name of the island, do you think that it may have been a retreat position of the Druids?

Apologies to all. My previous comment included a reference to the year 1860, when it should have been 1680. Ooops.

Hi Guilherme,

Yeah, it is a ripper reading page turner and very to hard to put down.

Hi Joel,

Nice to hear about your canning. Very wise, land is there to save you money, not make it. Yeah, winter is the time to be sitting on the Internet blogging as things just slow down. It hasn't really warmed up here yet for Spring either (yesterday it snowed, although none settled on the ground).

By the way cold years are dry years here so who knows what the future weather will bring?

Here's a photo from the local fire station yesterday (it's 50m higher in elevation than here and east facing which makes a big difference)

Cherokee fire station and snow



10/12/12, 4:13 AM

Nestorian said...
As for my other points, these are not strawmen at all, but rather substantive objections to key assumptions underlying your scenario. Your scenario presupposes that the Chinese and others are far superior to the US in the arts and techniques of cyberwarfare, and I have given a couple of substantive reasons to believe that, in fact, the opposite is true, and that it is therefore far more likely that the U.S. is in a position to knock out Chinese military communications than the reverse. The U.S. is currently hiring legions of computer security experts to protect against precisely the kind of Chinese cyber-takeout you describe. What grounds do you have for the assurance that the Chinese could pull something like that off as easily as you presume?

Also, your scenario presupposes that the Chinese are able to secretly pre-position substantial military assets in a client state without US intelligence knowing about it, which I find highly dubious. I think that to make your scenario realistic, you have the burden of proof of demonstrating that the Chinese could actually pull something like that off - even though there is every reason to believe that US intelligence has the capacity to carefully monitor all of their manufacturing activity and military deployments.

10/12/12, 6:27 AM

RPC said...
"a triumph of short-term greed over long-term interests" - best capsule description of neoclassical economics I've heard to date!

10/12/12, 6:31 AM

RPC said...
"the neoconservatives were clueless intellectuals who believed their own hype" - yup. Believing one's own press releases seems to be the kiss of death, eh?

10/12/12, 6:35 AM

Robert said...
Agreed about the clueless neocons. The tragedy is that their ideology led to the slaughter of a vast number of Iraqis and the deaths and maiming of thousands of American soldiers and several hundred British as well.

I would love to have been able to teleport these ideological lunatics right into the middle of Baghdad defenceless at the height of the war to see what war is like. None of those responsible for the rape of Iraq will ever be punished for it indeed I'm sure the tame journalists and intellectuals who propagandised for it will continue to rake in their K Street fees

10/12/12, 6:54 AM

Robert said...
I wrote a poem about the neocon criminals at the time of the war

The Patriotic Neocon

Time was the Con was satisfied
Constructing corporate cages for the breeze
Nor did he care
How foul the air
Con man still got his K Street fees

But obstinate senility
The subtle lie the pious fraud
Have put us all
Against the wall
So the Con's become a Chicken Hawk Lord

Throughout the land his wrath is turned
On libeal apostasy
Our cause is just
Baghdad or bust
Go out and save "democracy"

You've heard about those camps That's why
We're fighting Was it not WMD before
WMD they be
Vanished into thin air you see
How else can we now sell this war?

Con man marches on the Arab League
With several thousand abstract nouns
Armed to kill
With a keyboard still
The corpy Suits not yet dressed down

Sometimes the light does reach his eyes
But he's determined not to see
I can't be right
To turn and bite
The Halliburton hand that gelded me
We're fighting

10/12/12, 7:00 AM

Richard Larson said...
You have driven the point home - I can't wait for the next three points to be made. Give me a clue..., please.

10/12/12, 7:18 AM

chad said...
JMG, thanks for the response. You have indeed pointed this out many times before; may I ask, which do you think is the biggest factor that makes the utopian survival camp meme a mere fantasy and nothing more? Is it the practical challenges such as the fact that actaully providing for 100% of your own needs takes skill most americans don't have and can't just learn overnight, despite how "easy" it all sounds. Or do you think the social factor matters more, or the fact that having a utopian community where many people live together holding everything in common and functioning perfectly without any formal authority and structure is nothing more than a fantasy; this is ironically coupled with the fact that the very people who most desperately would want to escape society to live in a utopia of their own are the very people whose personality problems currently impede their functioning in society and those same personality problems will prove to be even more disruptive in a utopian community with no formal structure or authority in it. Therefore, these people are even less likely to exist contently in an isolated surival camp than they would in mainstream society.

Good work, keep it up.

10/12/12, 8:34 AM

SLClaire said...
I thought I knew what the word nemesis means but, going on the same line of thought as Robert did, I started to imagine titles for the remaining pieces and that led me to look up nemesis in our unabridged Websters dictionary. There I found the meaning to be "1. in Greek mythology, the goddess of retributive justice, or vengeance. 2. (a) just punishment, retribution; (b) one who imposes retribution." I was thinking of it more in terms of a particularly dangerous opponent, forgetting the retributive justice angle. But I'm certain that you had that much in mind. From the point of view of most of the rest of the world (the cheering crowds in Iran in your story as an example), the success of the Chinese attack and ongoing war will certainly be seen as giving the US its just desserts.

While still thinking of Greek mythology, I looked up Scylla and Charybdis. Once it becomes apparent to Weed and his cohorts that the US is losing, and remembering what you said in the first installment about the sullen mood of the electorate amid the ongoing recession, it appears that Weed is going to find himself in between some or another version of these. I'm guessing that a serious reduction of oil availability in the US is about to happen, resulting in economic depression worse than the 1930s version and ensuring Weed's a one term president. If he gets to finish his one term, that is. I can imagine some possibilities ...

10/12/12, 8:52 AM

Richard Larson said...
Archdruid, you have lit a match with this potential scenario you have imagined, as per certain comments. Methinks some should understand there are many more possibilities, with the US Miltary even winning more battles along the way.

But the one constant is the drive for resources as your imaginative story highlights. This is the bait that will one day soon draw in the US Military into a battle that it will not win. Afterwhich, the failure of the US Economy is on full display as the military scrambles to replace the machinery.

10/12/12, 8:56 AM

Brother Kornhoer said...
This discussion of the use of nuclear weapons reminds me of a funny quote from Stephen Ambrose's "Rise to Globalism." For those who don't know, Ambrose is what I would consider a very mainstream US historian - he was at the University of New Orleans. Anyway, during the latter part of the Vietnam War, some Air Force general suggested dropping a nuclear weapon on Hanoi to bring the North Vietnamese to terms. Quoting Ambrose (from memory - should be close): "If the US had done that, most likely the Chinese would have dropped a nuclear weapon on Saigon. What would happen next was anybody's guess, but no one, not even Richard Nixon, wanted to find out."

Mr. Greer, I was expecting some infrastructure warfare to be part of your scenario. I've thought for some time now that infrastructure will be one of the next battlefields. Indeed, if you combine nuclear and infrastructure warfare, and imagine nuclear targeting of key infrastructure sites, you quickly realize just how few weapons it would take to render the East Coast, for instance, without electricity, water, or fuel.

Furthemore regarding nuclear weapons, apparently the Chinese are making efforts to upgrade their missle arnsenals ( So while today their long range missles might require a lengthy preparation process, that may no longer be true in a very short time.

Personally, I think the belief that any nuclear power can successfully launch a first strike and get away clean is very dangerous idea. Hopefully there are strategic thinkers in the military in all countries who would disabuse the politicians of such ideas.

10/12/12, 9:16 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Girl, since I was born and raised on Puget Sound I try to keep track of the subduction-quake issue. When that puppy goes, a very large fraction of the Pacific Northwest is going to be pounded to rubble.

Draco, every country can do its own manufacturing with its own resources? Depends on the country, and on how far into Third World status it wants to slide. Japan and Britain, for example, don't have the mineral resources needed to maintain any kind of industrial society -- Japan never did, and Britain used theirs up. That's the reason why competition for overseas resources has been so potent a driver of empires for the last half dozen centuries.

Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr! I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

Rik, well, that would require getting the huge military and corporate constituency that supports funding for aircraft carriers to stand down, which probably won't happen until some carriers go to the bottom. It's also worth remembering that if you're close enough to launch a drone, you're close enough to be hit by a cruise missile.

Cherokee, the notion that the US is by definition invincible is hard for some people to get past, no question. That's one of the reasons why a sharp military defeat could have massive political consequences here.

Nestorian, no, they're straw men. All I'm suggesting is that the Chinese manage to pull off two tricks that the US fails to anticipate -- not unlike, for example, the Chinese offensive in Korea in October 1950, which took the UN forces completely by surprise. I could cite other examples by the dozens. Neither the US intelligence services nor the Pentagon are infallible, and the scenario I'm building here simply requires the sort of ordinary mistake that, in the real world, happens all the time.

RPC, believing one's press releases is a common bad habit of intellectuals, and explains why they need to be kept away from the levers of political power.

Robert, I'd have been satisfied to see all of 'em drafted and sent into Iraq in a frontline infantry unit.

Richard, sorry but no -- I've got the rest of it written, but nobody gets advance warning!

Chad, I think you've made a good first-approximation analysis here, but a complete answer would take a full blog post. I may fit that in sometime soon.

10/12/12, 11:03 AM

John Michael Greer said...
SLClaire, wait and see!

Richard, of course there are many other possibilities. I made the scenario focus on a decisive American defeat in an overseas war precisely because that's something far too many people consider unthinkable, and it needs to be thought about. Still, the later phases of the scenario would work just as well under many other conditions. I may do a followup post talking about some of the options.

Brother K., the Chinese are indeed hard at work limiting their vulnerabilities -- they'd be idiots not to, and they're not idiots. For that matter, I wouldn't bet money that there aren't a half dozen Chinese nukes tucked away in rented storage units in large American cities as a last-ditch deterrent; in their place, I'd certainly do something of the kind.

10/12/12, 11:09 AM

jollyreaper said...

Also, your scenario presupposes that the Chinese are able to secretly pre-position substantial military assets in a client state without US intelligence knowing about it, which I find highly dubious. I think that to make your scenario realistic, you have the burden of proof of demonstrating that the Chinese could actually pull something like that off - even though there is every reason to believe that US intelligence has the capacity to carefully monitor all of their manufacturing activity and military deployments.

Intelligence screwups remain highly realistic. Several classic blunders have been mentioned above.

I look at scenarios the same way cops look at crimes: means, motive, opportunity.

A Red Dawn scenario is a non-starter. There's no possible way to imagine the Russians or anyone else capable of invading the United States. If you want to tell a story about Americans becoming insurgents, it will have to be a civil war situation. The remake of the movie changed the invaders to Chinese and then later North Koreans. Sorry, not happening.

JMG's scenario falls just within the bounds of means. I think the motive is still likely a miscalculation but it fits within the range of historic blunders we've seen before. Rockstar overdosing on drugs? No, when has that ever happened? Conservative religious figure undone by scandals involving sex and money? Who has ever heard of such a thing?

If there's already a significant amount of traffic between Chinese ports and the pending warzone, it would be difficult to notice the containers are not what they should be. The prepositioning of warplanes is disguised as part of a planned military exercise which is straight out of WWIII scenarios. Note: in actual history, the Russians were more than half-convinced our Able Archer exercises were cover for a decapitation first strike against them. Read up on it, pretty scary.

Like I said, if I were writing it I'd want one carrier sunk outright, one crippled and limping back to port, one partially-damaged and carrying the survivors that made it into the air from the other two. Several of the escort ships would have been hit and destroyed. This just makes the defeat more protracted and painful and also gives the president more to worry about: keep the carrier in the fight and risk destruction in another attack? Bring it home with the survivors and leave the American troops unsupported?

The funny thing about techno-thriller novels is that they never ever EVER imagine the US getting defeated. I can only think of one techno-thriller featuring the defeat of the protagonist army and that was one written from the Soviet perspective! Still an American win.

10/12/12, 11:20 AM

jollyreaper said...
I'm flashing back to WWI here. From Wiki:
The Schlieffen Plan was the German General Staff's early 20th century overall strategic plan for victory in a possible future war in which the German Empire might find itself fighting on two fronts: France to the west and Russia to the east. The First World War later became such a war, with both a Western and an Eastern Front.

The plan took advantage of expected differences in the three countries' speed in preparing for war. In short, it was the German plan to avoid a two-front war by concentrating troops in the West and quickly defeating the French and then, if necessary, rushing those troops by rail to the East to face the Russians before they had time to mobilize fully. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and modified by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Schlieffen's retirement; it was Moltke who actually implemented the plan at the outset of World War I. In modified form, it was executed to near victory in the first month of the war. However, the modifications to the original plan, a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris (the Battle of the Marne) and surprisingly speedy Russian offensives ended the German offensive and resulted in years of trench warfare. The plan has been the subject of intense debate among historians and military scholars ever since. Schlieffen's last words were "remember to keep the right flank strong," which was significant in that Moltke strengthened the left flank in his modification.

Chinese opening move is devastating but follow-ups have problems and the two great war machines collide with each other and begin grinding themselves to pieces.

10/12/12, 11:20 AM

jollyreaper said...
For people with an academic interest in gigawars, there was a pretty interesting set of books put out by Sir John Hackett, "The Third World War: August 1985" and "The Third World War: The Untold Story."

He goes into utterly exhaustive detail and much of the book isn't even about the shooting but the geopolitics behind the war.

Wiki article

10/12/12, 11:25 AM

Nestorian said...
Hello JMG,

Why did you not put through the first of my last two posts - the one that directly addresses your contention that a U.S. President would refrain from launching a nuclear first strike against China because of the threat of Chinese nuclear retaliation?

In that post, I have provided a substantive argument to the contrary in a manner that is polite and free of insult and derogation in its phrasing. Why will you not publish it and address its merits - or the lack thereof - in public? It is certainly more than a "rehash" of what was previously discussed, but rather both adds further relevant information and advances my argument in a substantive new direction, in direct response to your rebuttal of what I had said before. Don't your readers have a right to a full grasp of both sides of the debate, so that they can judge the comparative merits of our opposing positions for themselves?

For your convenience, I will put through that prior post again, completely unchanged. (Please, by all means, though, discard this post as constituting a private preamble.)

10/12/12, 11:33 AM

Nestorian said...
I think that under the sort of desperate circumstances that your scenario envisions, most any American president would be willing to make the decision to execute the strategic objective of completely disarming Chinese nuclear capabilities - especially since the risk of incurring the kind of cost you suggest, such as the destruction of LA, would be negligible. Keep in mind that the pre-positioning of all the various military means required to rapidly execute a successful first strike against the Chinese nuclear threat within a short range of the Chinese mainland is an abiding, everyday reality (via submarines, East Pacific carriers, close-in Asian military bases, strategic bombers approaching from the arctic, etc.) Keeping things that way is in fact one of the principal U.S. strategic objectives.

What's more, U.S. intelligence is surely in a position to detect clearly when the Chinese commence the lengthy, hours-to-days-long process required to fuel and prepare their few ICBMs for launch, and could give the signal for all the above resources to launch a devastating counterstrike that would hit the Chinese targets squarely within minutes - since, as I mentioned, most of the US assets I mentioned are pre-positioned within short range of the Chinese mainland as a matter of course.

Keep in mind also that, in stark contrast to all the short-range, trigger-ready weaponry the US keeps pointed toward China, China for its part has NO blue water navy, NO world class carrier groups, NO nuclear-armed submarines, NO string of military bases in client states located close to the US mainland, and just a relative handful of very outdated and very vulnerable ICBMs. They are thus not in a position to pose any serious short-range threat to the US mainland, and the only long-range threat they possess, their few ICBMs, are effectively useless given the relative balance of forces that prevails.

The US, on the other hand, has about a dozen world-class carrier groups, 18 or so state-of-the-art nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarines, pre-positioned state-of-the-art weaponry in South Korea, Japan, Iraq (don’t let the “withdrawal” propaganda fool you), Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Diego Garcia, one or more of the central Asian “’Stans,” etc. They don’t maintain 700 or so military bases around the world in a “lily-pad” type of system for nothing.

By the time an historical scenario such as you describe gets off the ground, there is a decent likelihood that the US will have in place a formidable space-based weapons threat as well. Granted, there is unquestionably a lot of waste in US military and intelligence spending, but they don’t get absolutely nothing out of it for spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on it either.

For all these reasons, the Chinese threat to LA would in fact be minimal to negligible under the conditions you describe, and the President's decision to eliminate Chinese nuclear capabilities would actually be fraught with minimal risk, and thus relatively easy to make if the stakes were sufficiently high (which they aren't yet, at the present historical juncture, but certainly would be under the kind of scenario you lay out).

10/12/12, 11:35 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
JMG wrote:

"For that matter, I wouldn't bet money that there aren't a half dozen Chinese nukes tucked away in rented storage units in large American cities as a last-ditch deterrent; in their place, I'd certainly do something of the kind."

OK, I'll let a pretty small cat out of a pretty flimsy bag here. When the USSR fell apart some twenty years ago, I was closely following everything I could find about the fate of its nuclear arsenal. Eventually I concluded, as a best guess, that a certain part of its nuclear arsenal had escaped the efforts of the US and Russia to secure it.

Many years later I happened to chat with a rather knowledgeable person from one of our three-letter agencies. (One of the perks of being on the faculty of a place like Brown University is that you can have chats like that from time to time.) I mentioned my best guess to that person in the course of our conversation. He commented, rather laconically, "of course you're right," and he made it clear that we had no reliable information about just where some of those missing weapons were (are).

So it's not only the known nuclear powers, or even recognized nations, that have to be factored in as one thinks about the course of some future nuclear war.

As for me, I expect that JMG is right about those rented storage units, only it's not only China who has rented them, perhaps not even recognized nations.

But it's a card that can only be played once, and the game is a very long one, so I don't suppose we'll see that card actually played very soon. Indeed, it may never need to be played at all to win in that game, for which I am thankful.

10/12/12, 12:19 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...

Your points led me to some interesting reading about China's nuclear capabilities. But I believe that your position (that the US could defeat China without losses by a first strike in a nuclear war) is incorrect.

China's current ICBM arsenal includes the DF-31A, which can be cold-launched from mobile launchers and has the range to hit anywhere in the United States. It "only" carries a 1 megaton warhead, but that's more than enough for a populated area. The launchers' mobility makes them extremely difficult to track by satellite to target cruise missiles.

But even that is somewhat beside the point. China also maintains a (small) fleet of nuclear submarines, armed with the JL-2 variant of the DF-31A. You cannot first-strike nuclear submarines. As soon as a nuclear power has submarine launch capability, it's joined the MAD club.

10/12/12, 1:09 PM

phil harris said...
I hope the following might be some back-up for the context for a plausible 'show-down' scenario. You have alluded to these many times yourself.

There are about 50 million barrels of oil traded every day as exports from net-producers. The USA imports something like 11Mb/day so taking over 20% (1/5th) of world exports. Even N America as a whole is a significant importer. China and India have been importing more oil and producers have been using more of their production at home. These trends are going to continue. Fellow readers can check it out for themselves here

Judged by carbon emissions, the US per capita emission is much greater than most other countries.

The threat to the rest of the world from the USA is apparent. I guess one way or another USA will be forced to reduce fossil fuel consumption, in particular to limit imported oil. That this will be sooner rather than later seems a reasonable assumption. I hope very much it does not come to war, but there is reason to call a halt.

Of course China has its own domestic tigers to ride, and at some time the aspirations of their middle-class will get their own reality check; but when have internal contradictions ever been a bar to external war?


10/12/12, 1:54 PM

LewisLucanBooks said...
And, if the military option isn't played by the Chinese, there's always the economic zone option.

Idaho, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania have been mentioned as possible sites for these self contained city states. The Idaho site would cover approximately 50 square miles.

10/12/12, 2:22 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

Is that notion a bit like la la la, I can't hear you?

I'm dropping in a truly shameless link to my latest Spring Update on YouTube. I've covered a bit of the diversity of plants here in the clip. There's also some footage of the friendly wombat at the end:

Mid Spring Update

Thanks for taking the time to watch it!


10/12/12, 3:59 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Reaper, those are exactly the conditions I specified for the shipment of cruise missiles to Tanzania: a very extensive two-way trade between China and Tanzania (and China's other African client states), so that a few hundred shipping containers over a period of months could easily pass unnoticed.

Nestorian, no, I'm putting it through, because you've made an allegation that's inaccurate. I never received your earlier attempt to post the piece on a US nuclear first strike; that's why it didn't appear. I appreciate that you're willing to defend your viewpoint in a courteous and reasoned manner, unlike too many people on the internet; I think you're wrong, and that ideas such as yours may cause a great deal of unnecessary death down the road, but I see no reason to ask you to leave the conversation.

That being said, your information on the Chinese ballistic arsenal is, as Kieran points out a little further down, rather out of date. The Chinese are currently putting a great deal of money into modernizing their nuclear arsenal; the DF-31, their new mobile frontline missile, doesn't need hours or days to prepare for launch, and neither do their JL-2 SLBMs, which are in testing stage right now and should be fully operational by the time my scenario plays out. (They have one nuclear-armed submarine and are building more, by the way, so that's another place your facts are out of date.) There are also plenty of other ways to deliver a nuke -- my scenario of nukes sitting in storage lockers is only one of the options.

That's why nations don't use nukes: the price tag of even a minor retaliatory strike is far greater than anything a nation can gain by nuking an enemy. The value of nuclear weapons is as a threat, not as a functional weapons system -- a point that I plan on discussing in much more detail down the road a bit.

Robert, I've heard rumors about that. It would be fascinating to know just who has those nukes.

Kieran, many thanks for the data. This matches what I've found.

Phil, and of course that's the elephant in the living room of current geopolitics: nearly every other nation on earth would benefit significantly if something messy happened to the US. That's a very uncomfortable situation for a nation to be in, especially when it's headed for bankruptcy and dependent on an outdated military machine.

Lewis, I hope no US state is ever idiotic enough to allow such a thing to happen. Still, corruption -- and we have a thoroughly corrupt political system, of course -- has gotten worse ideas put into practice.

Cherokee, very much like "La, la, la." I suspect we'll hear that a lot in the near to middle future.

10/12/12, 4:59 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
On the question of how easy it might be for hostile parties to smuggle weaponry into the US inside shipping containers, take a look at Carolyn Nordstrom's _Global Outlaws_ (2007), especially her discussion of the port of Long Beach, its vulnerabilities, and the irresistible economic forces that prevent even our government from taking effective measures to remedy these vulnerabilities.

Nordstrom is an anthropologist with a real knack for winning the trust of professional criminals and a solid reputation (among them) for not betraying that trust. This book of hers is a very insightful study of modern smuggling.

Among other results, she finds that the most resourceful smugglers are skilled enough to keep far ahead of the best efforts of any government to secure its borders, and that they have the means and know-how to keep on doing so for the indefinite future.

She thinks (and I agree) that complete national security, at least against private small-scale hostile operations, is now probably beyond our nation's capacity, even in theory. And if it is theoretically possible, the costs and economic consequences of achieving it are now impossible to sustain. ("Private" and "small-scale" are the key terms here.)

10/12/12, 5:28 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
JMG wrote:

"Robert, I've heard rumors about that. It would be fascinating to know just who has those nukes."

I don't know, either, but I will hazard a guess that a large fraction of them are in various private hands within the boundaries of the former USSR. Most of them are probably not for sale at any price these days, under Captain Jack Sparrow's principle of waiting for the opportune moment. The opportune moment is so very clearly not now.

10/12/12, 5:38 PM

jollyreaper said...
Was just reiterating your container scenario since it's a point that might get overlooked by a reader seeing as this heavy trade does not currently exist. I find it highly plausible. As for the fighters on exercises, if you were writing this as a bigger novel, there would of course have to be a scene of a junior analyst correctly twigging that this is a little too convenient and his superior ignoring him. Shades of Tora, Tora, Tora. But since this is not meant to be a doorstop novel, I'll just imagine that went down.

As for all the lovely weapons systems you mentioned, my fear is that we are supremely equipped to fight a war that isn't going to happen.

The fall of the Roman Empire is a complicated subject and not something to gloss over lightly but I keep flashing back to the BBC series I CLAVDIVS and Augustus Caesar screaming about wanting his eagles back. These eagles, of course, are the standards for his legions lost to German barbarians. Anyway, there's a whole series of posts on this blog about how invincible military systems became vincible. Note the points made about the economic systems those militaries exist to support. The United States is a maritime nation. We lose access to the sea, we are up a certain stream lacking for paddles.

The thing that never gets covered in techno-thrillers is the cost of supporting a military machine. You really need to play a proper game like Civilization to get an appreciation for the opportunity cost of arming up. You have to sacrifice on domestic improvements to field an impressive military and, as Eisenhower said, every bomber and bullet is a bridge and library not built.

You get a sense of this reading middle age histories as kings lament over the cost of putting an army in the field and lacking a decisive battle to make such an expense worthwhile. It costs money to project power and you can bleed your treasury even if there's not much blood to show for it. An enemy can bring you to ruin simply by making you preserve a force in the field. This is what we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's no way either of those countries could have kicked us out by force but these occupations could not pay for themselves.

If you want another analogy, think of it like opening a new store in a territory. The company expects there to be a heavy capital investment at first but eventually that store needs to turn itself a profit. If not, the store needs closed because it is a terrible investment. This brings us back around to the wealth pump example as elaborated on at great length on this blog.

Point is, what are you going to do with all those weapons? If our economy is based on China, are we going to shoot them hard enough to put things back to the way they were before? If not, can we shoot other people hard enough to make them supply us the raw materials we need to bring all our manufacturing back to the US? And if we can't do either thing, how are we going to support our war machine?

Personally, I find the idea of war repugnant and there is at minimum one jerk. If it's a single aggressor, he's the jerk. Many wars have more than one. About the only just war I can think of is a defense against aggression, either for yourself or in the name of another. But that's often the coloring used to make a jerk's war look pretty. We went into Iraq as liberators, don't you know. Saddam was the jerk. We had to do it, he was a meanie.

10/12/12, 5:49 PM

Bill Blondeau said...
Nestorian, JMG is right to laud your coherence and courtesy in this discussion. More, for my money you are the most valuable commenter this week... although not in a way that is likely to please you.

This series of posts is clearly built around the theme of disconnect: the gap between preconceived structures of imagined reality, and the independent nature of the actual world.

Your thoughtful, well-phrased, yet resolutely intransigent arguments for US military preeminence make a superior demonstration of exactly that kind of delusion. You keep restating your reframing your arguments more finely, hoping I suppose that JMG, or some of the other commenters, will swing round to your point of view. That you do this without becoming shrill or undignified speaks well of you. But it's clear that you are unwilling to reconsider your own position.

In short, you are something of an exhibit. I don't think the Archdruid himself could (fictionally) represent your point of view as well, as vividly, and as stoutly, as you do. It's a welcome illumination.

I don't mean to be condescending or overly snarky, though it's been a long week. Quite the contrary, you're more knowledgeable about many of these matters than I; and I suspect that a long conversation with you would be a genuine pleasure.

For the time being, though, I'll have to be content with the clarity and weight of your written arguments. Though I disagree with your conclusions, I am compelled to thank you for your service.

10/12/12, 7:38 PM

Dr. Omed said...
On the nuke question, I will stick my very small oar in to say I have recently read that our own nuclear arsenal is aging and its maintenance is problematical; that moral is poor among Air Force personnel in charge of it, and that we cannot even replicate bomb components now that the engineers who designed and made the originals are retired or dead and records unavailable. Also that many of the missiles in the silos are not in great shape and not guaranteed to launch. As soon as I can flog out of my recalcitrant memory a link or the name of the book or article I read I will come back and post it. I don't think submarine nukes were discussed, however.

10/12/12, 9:05 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Robert, exactly. Anybody who thinks it would be impossible to get half a dozen nukes into the US and hide them in storage lockers in big cities needs to reflect on the sheer volume of illegal drugs imported to this country every year. That alone shows just how porous our borders are!

Reaper, if I were writing this as a doorstop novel, there would be a scene like that, and a lot of other little details filled in. Still, barring some publisher offers me a chunk of change, this is as big as the narrative will get -- and it'll be tucked into the back of my forthcoming book on the decline and fall of the American empire.

Bill, Nestorian's way of thinking is extremely common today. It was also extremely common in Britain before 1914, when it was unthinkable to most Brits that the Royal Navy's battleships would be scrap metal in forty years. It's precisely because so many people believe so firmly in the myth of America's invulnerability that defeat, when it comes, will be so stunning a blow.

Dr. Omed, nuclear strategists I've read suggest that, rockets being the complicated objects they are, only about 60% of our missiles can be counted on to launch on order under the best of conditions, and not all those that do launch will get to their targets. Factor in aging systems and the other problems you've named, and the usefulness of nukes as anything but a threat becomes a very dubious point. Please do find that article if you can -- it'll be useful for the upcoming discussion of the logic of deterrence in an age of decline!

10/12/12, 9:47 PM

The Brother said...
just to add to the problems of a nuclear first strike

one single nuke of a 1 megaton yield (well within normal yields) detonated in low orbit would be enough to Electromagnetic Pulse most or all of the US, knocking out most of the electric grid and un-shielded powered devices (sort of like revolution)

10/12/12, 10:06 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I spent a lot of today getting some of the Summer vegetables in the ground. It is still too cold during October for the tomato seedlings which are still happily sprouting inside, but it’s all about in now.

Nature constantly reminds me that if you want to grow a large portion of your own produce then you really need a resilient system. This requires a lot of space, because today the summer vegetables went into the most fertile beds, whilst the winter vegetables were transplanted to another location so that they could go to seed. I'm finding that letting a lot of the vegetables and herbs go to seed is creating a huge seedling bank here, plus it is a lot less work in the long run.

So, I'm out there planting and transplanting and it occurred to me that in the story, the Chinese are actually doing the US a long term favour. Seriously, I'm not kidding. The loss of those carriers, plus aircraft, plus combat forces etc. in the story is actually a crash program of forced simplification on US society. This reduces the overall burden of maintenance of that military cost on a declining society.

Obviously, the ability of that society to extract resources from the rest of the planet also declines at this point too.

I expect that the loss of extraction benefits for the US would be greater though than the reduced demand for resources given your scenario. I don't know how it would roll, but I'm reasonably certain that you've already considered this aspect.

It would be interesting to know what the impact of a reduction in access to imported oil would be in the US? It would almost certainly impact the US food supply system - as it would here too. Very unpleasant.

The garden reminds me constantly how far beyond our environmental budget we live every day. What is worse though is that most of us don't even know it.



10/13/12, 3:49 AM

Brother Kornhoer said...
A point comes to mind about cyber warfare and intelligence satellites: let's assume that the US is the best at cyber warfare, and the Chinese are middlin'. However, suppose the US is very dependent on functioning IT networks (net-centric warfare was a buzz phrase a few years ago), while the Chinese rely more on old-fashioned communications devices. So, if it came down to war, the US cyber offensive wouldn't do much damage because there's not much to damage, but the Chinese effort would be in a target-rich environment. Same with satellites - since the Chinese don't field them as much while the US appears heavily dependent on them, wiping them all out would disproportionally hurt the US.

Regarding the possibility of an EMP strike, there's actually been an in-depth study of this - tax money well spent, IMHO:

10/13/12, 6:37 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
Nice , really nice. I agree with others that you have gone quite Chinese in this, but it is definitely inside the scope of possibilities. That said, I'm somewhat baffled by the lack of attacks to the US Persian gulf bases, with Iran as a friendly proxy so close and with the americans using them to assist their Quenian forces... or that is for the next chapters ? ;)

As everyone is talking about nuke deterence and whatever, I would like to remember a similar case: chemical weapons in WW II. If you don't remember their use is because they weren't used ;) and that is the point in question, since neither of the sides in WW I was shy on using them and all the participants in WW II has sizable stocks that were left pristine even when Germany attacked the USSR ( note that the germans argued that, as the USSR had not signed the Geneva convention, all weapons were fair against them ) and even when the Soviets were nearing Berlin ( "apres moi le deluge" was in vogue in the nazi elites in those days ).

So why weren't they used, even by people that considered their foes not human and by people that weren't shy of making cities to turn in fire tornados and nuclear mushrooms ? Your guess is as worthy as any other, but I remember reading a nice story that happened during "le drole de guerre" before the invasion of France. During that time the French captured ( "a little bit too easily", according to the source I read )a marauding group of German soldiers and noticed that brought gas masks with tampoons soaked in copper sulfate. Thinking that the Germans were on the verge of launching a gas attack that could only be stopped by copper sulfate, the French were quick to produce their own copper sulfate tampoons for their gas masks and to enforce their usage. A couple of days later, pretty much all of the French gas masks were corroded beyond repair by the copper sulfate ... and that was the German plan all along :p

(continues ... )

10/13/12, 7:41 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
( cont. )

My point is that, when you have a powerful weapon and you know your enemy also has it, all the incertainties add up pretty quick to reduce the margin of safety of use pretty fast ( in the story above, it was mainly the fact that the French couldn't possibly know for sure the Germans had a new gas type or not, and that if they did, their strategy of sitting on the Maginot line would be compromised beyond repair ... hence their hasty reaction ). In the nukes case, in spite of no one having a decent known counter ( all the "shields" so far proposed are really bad or worse ), there are massive uncertainties if you want to make a nuke attack against other country: the launch orders will work ? ( apparently the US ICBM launch system was never tested "in vivo" with more than one missile during the cold war (!!!) and I would bet that it was also not tested after it, so no one knows if the system can really handle mutiple launches even in it's best days ) The rockets will fire? Their guidance system will work good enough? The nuke bombers will get to the target area unharmed ? Will the enemy intercept them or the ICBM ? Will the nukes detonate ? Will the enemy retaliate fast enough? Has the enemy a " dead hand" mechanism? ( the Russians have it, so it would be reasonable to assume they aren't the only ones )? Can we intercept their nukes ? Their nukes will get to target and detonate ? Do they have smuggled nukes already in our land waiting to detonate ? ( that is huge concern for a place like the US with it's gigantic land and sea borders ).

All of this uncertainties ( and I politely removed the post nuke aftermath, like dealing with the destruction of infra and the popular reaction to a governement that let them get nuked in name of forsaken piece of land or sea ) add up really fast: even if you had a 95% chance on your side in all of the above ( and even today the US can't have it against China or anyone else in the nuke club ), 0,95^14 ( the chance you have a positive result after 14 positive eliminatory tests with a 95% sucess chance ) is already 0,48 , less than a flipping of a coin. Unless the reward in case of sucess is on the level of the punishment you get in case of failure or better, that is not a risk worth taking and normal cases the reward simply is not big enough ...

There is a reason with the game theory was invented mainly to assist nuke related decisions ;)

10/13/12, 7:46 AM

Glenn said...
On Containers:

Once upon a time I spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. One of my assignments was Marine Safety Office, Guam. Everything from oil spill clean up to passenger ship inspection. It involved a lot of training, including how to inspect shipping containers.

If the Coast Guard and Customs ever had the budget to inspect _One Percent_ of the shipping containers entering the U.S. they would be thrilled. At the time (mid '90's) I don't think we were inspecting one in a thousand. Anything from illegal drugs to illegal Chinese Immigrants has, and will be, smuggled in containers. Anyone remember the dead Chinese found in L.A. and Tacoma about 10 years back? Yeah, if someone said anybody had smuggled a few nukes, or bioweapons into the U.S. in containers I'd find it quite credible. This country is too wedded to capitalism on the cheap to even check every cow for mad cow disease, unlike the rest of the industrial world; and for the same reason we've got real porous borders.

Marrowstone Island

10/13/12, 9:06 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Brother, yes, there's that -- just one more problem with thinking that the US, or anyone else, can get away with a first strike unscathed.

Cherokee, good! Yes, we'll talk about the upside of imperial collapse when the narrative's finished.

Brother K., I seriously considered doing a scenario in which the US went after a midsized nation with a much less sophisticated military, and got its clock cleaned because the other side figured out how to target US technological weaknesses. Pick your scenario of imperial collapse, there's plenty to go around!

Ricardo, the Chinese aren't attacking in the Persian Gulf because they're not trying to start a world war. A lot of people forget that war is an instrument of policy, and most wars, even between big powers, were fought in limited theaters over specific goals. The US goal in this war is to get Tanzania's oil; the Chinese goal is to demonstrate to the US that it can no longer just take what it wants from the rest of the world, and attempting to do so will have a price tag the US does not want to pay. Politics by other means, as Clausewitz said.

Glenn, thanks for the info! None of this surprises me at all.

10/13/12, 10:20 AM

Dr. Omed said...
OK, found it: I got my information on the state-of-our-nukes from chapter 9 of Rachel Maddow's book "Drift." I checked it out of local library, read it and returned it a week or so ago. As I recall, the book had a decent index; I'm sure her sources are listed. My 54 year old brain does not retain data near as well as it once did.

10/13/12, 10:35 AM

Ricardo Rolo said...
Mr Greer notice that I said "attacks" and not "Chinese attacks" ;) . Of course that the chinese have no intentions of escalate the conflict, but their allies might not think like that ...

Say, Iran, that has a long standing Feud with Oman about the control of the Hormuz strait or even Bahrain or Qatar, that are rife with social and ethnic tensions with a much hated minority ruling both countries ( to add with a shiite majority being opressed by a Sunni dynasty with strong ties to Saudi Arabia ) and that Iran has claimed more than once as their "de jure" land. I would definitely not be surprised if , with or without direct Chinese intervention, there would not be some kind of "disturbances" or even a full fledged military move by Iran if they sensed weakness of the Americans in the area ... say like Mussolini have gone behind Greece as soon as he saw the British being pounded by the German air force.

I would even say that a simple uprising with minor external intervention ( say, a Iran-backed "color revolution" , like the Germans did in the Sudets ) of the opressed minorities in either of these two countries would put the already hard-pressed American forces there in a quite harsh position. And it does not seem that China has the kind of power in hands to be able to simply phone Teheran to stop it ...

10/13/12, 10:59 AM

:€ said...
It might be that the reason that chemicals and biological weapons were never used on large scale is the inherent messiness. Their usage complicates battlefield situation immensely, you have to protect your own troops which makes fighting very hard for them, other side also has this protection available, etc.

But maybe reasons were merely tactical: for example Germans relied heavily on horse transport in WW2, so using poison gas would cripple their own army. Or even personal quibbles: there's a story that German generals wanted to use poison gas at Stalingrad but Hitler refused. He was gassed in WW1 and found it problematic. As for the opposite side: Churchill wanted to 'drench Germany in poison gas' but his generals were against it. See

(I'll reproduce part of his memo here for its sheer bloody mindedness)

"I you to think very seriously over this question of poison gas," the four-page note began. Britain's wartime leader continued: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it [gas] in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women."

Churchill's directive bluntly stated: "I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay to use poison gas ... One really must not be bound within silly conventions of the mind whether they be those that ruled in the last war or those in reverse which rule in this." Specifically he proposed: "We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention ... It may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meantime, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by the particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now here now there."

In closing, I don't think that apparent self-restraint on use of poison gas means that we'll see such restraint in the future. Even less that we'll see restraint in use of nuclear weapons. Compared to poison gas, they are much less unwieldy, incomparabily more lethal and there's no protection against them. Maybe the most important reason: they are present and operational in every conflict that USA participates in. That was never the case for poison gas.

10/13/12, 12:33 PM

:€ said...
I find it hard to believe that military and political hubris won't extend to nuclear warheads as well. Meaning that they will indeed cause terrible damage to the USA itself, but also that they will be used because their use will seem justified in political/military circles. With arguments not unlike the one Nestorian makes.

And when there is war, there is fog of war. It's frightening how close to nuclear war we've been during the Cuban missile crisis:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis Arkhipov was second-in-command of the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 which was operating near Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the crisis -- clearly unaware of the fact that Soviet submarines operating in the area were carrying nuclear torpedos -- U.S. naval vessels dropped depth charges on those Soviet submarines in a bid to get them to surface so that they would not bypass the United States naval blockade on Cuba.

When they did so on the B-59 the captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky believed that war had broken out and accordingly wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo at the vessels firing them on. The three officers who were authorized to launch this torpedo -- which included Arkhipov, the captain and the vessel's political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov -- quickly reviewed their options. The captain and the political officer were in favour of firing. Arkhipov argued against launching the torpedo stating they should await orders from Moscow. They were forced to surface at the behest of the eleven U.S. Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier that were engaging them. It was then they learned that no shooting war had broken out between the US and Soviet forces there, but by not launching the nuclear-tipped torpedo Arkhipov in effect had averted the starting of a nuclear war between the two superpowers."

(Anyone seen Crimson Tide ? Similar situation, with American nuclear submarine instead of Russian one.)

As for hidden nuclear bombs in cities and extortion: I wouldn't do it if I were Chinese. If 9/11 is any indication there would be hysterical popular support for nuking the whole world if one American city goes down in a mushroom cloud. Sadly, this also makes it an attractive false flag operation.

WRT Sir John Hackett: he had placed initial CCCP incursion which starts WW3 into former Yugoslavia, and my (very small) birth town right into the first page of the book. This propechy of his was a popular feature during annual Day of the Fools (not to be confused with Fools day) celebration for several years before and after 1985. One of national newspapers had also published excerpts from the book for the laughs.

I was in primary school when reading these, but one of the things which seemed dangerously implausible to me even then was the idea of limited nuclear war. It seemed very clear to me that you can't contain nuclear genie in conventional warfare bottle. But military experts (who fought in real wars) and political leaders obviously thought they could.

10/13/12, 12:36 PM

:€ said...
PS. I apologise for IHR link, but Google found them as the first complete source of the memo. Anyway, there's more complete reference to Churchill and poison gas which also shows his entusiasm for using it before WW2 ...

10/13/12, 12:48 PM

Unknown said...
JMG I am fascinated by the extent people want to discount China. A statistic I ran across recently was that if the US was to do blazingly well and attained a 3.5% average growth rate for the next couple of decades, which does not seem very likely but let’s be optimistic. While China actually slowed down to just 7% growth, which could happen. China’s economy will still exceed the US economy’s size by about 25% in 2030. It seems to me that the tide is definitely running against us at this point.
The second discount that intrigues me comes from my son. While he was in engineering graduate school at Columbia University he made friends with several Chinese students. He told me several times: “Dad we’re screwed, these kids are unbelievably smart, they don’t party, they work all the time and they are all going back to China because that is where the opportunity is.” Anyone who thinks the US has one up on China for brains and work ethic hasn’t met their students.
Lastly it seems to me that if I was in China’s shoes I would be weighing two items. The value of the US market to my economy and the interference the US provides in the international market for raw materials. In terms of the US economy compared to the Chinese economy it strikes me that the US economy is mature and does not have much potential for growth with the aging baby boomers contracting their spending and not a lot of market expansion potential. However this is not true of the Chinese economy with 4 times as many people as the US and most of them at a lower standard of living there is a massive opportunity for increased consumption. In the meantime the US presence in the international materials market has a certain cost to the Chinese economy and when that cost exceeds the value of our market to their business interests it seems to me that China has no reason to not pull the plug on the dollar. Am I missing something?
Tom A
PS I hope this is not a repeat.

10/13/12, 5:11 PM

team10tim said...
RE: Why it will/won't go nuclear

I found this nice little article on the counter intuitive aspects of nuclear war Nuclear Warfare 101
The Nuclear Game - An Essay on Nuclear Policy Making. It has three sections covering the restrictions that nuclear nations have imposed on themselves, the calculus of planning nuclear attacks and defense (MAD and all that), and the aftermath of a nuclear war. Well worth the read in my opinion.

10/13/12, 5:14 PM

:€ said...
There's a study considering nuclear exchange with China:

A Chinese attack on the continental United States with 20 ICBMs would result
in as many as 40 million causalities. As if that is not enough, China is in the
final phase of a nuclear facelift that the U.S. intelligence community has predicted
will result in 75 to 100 warheads “primarily targeted” against the United States
by 2015.

I don't think there is any reliable data on effectiveness of ICBMs that's available to general public. But I don't think that's an issue at all. Even if only every third US missile hits its target, the damage is still beyond horrific, there are simply too many of them.

Actually, if nuclear missiles are that unreliable, this may degrade the threat from let's say China to ... acceptable for some people. Luckily, there is still Russian threat ...

Well, speaking of Russian threat, there is this historical precendent (well worth reading)

10/13/12, 6:36 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dr. Omed, thank you! I'll check it out.

Ricardo, okay, got it. That would make a great plot twist for the doorstop-sized novel version, but this has already gone to 15,000 words!

Euro, I suspect Churchill was drunk at the time. You'll notice that his generals didn't take the hint. I'm not sure that it's messiness so much as the same problem that besets all weapons of mass destruction -- they're great for deterring any other country from using them on you, but if you use them, the losses you can expect to take from retaliatory strikes are greater than any military or political advantage you can gain by using them.

Unknown Tom, it was a repeat, but that's one of the reasons I moderate comments -- when Blogger is acting up, I'll get anything up to half a dozen copies of some posts. No, I don't think you're missing anything; as I said to Johnny wotsisname earlier in the comments, all the arguments currently being used to insist that China can't supplant us were also being used in Britain a century ago to insist that the US couldn't supplant them.

Tim, good! Someone -- was it you? -- posted that a little while back, and I plan on using it as a resource for the forthcoming post on the logic of deterrence.

Euro, thanks for the link -- a good clear discussion of why both sides have every reason to step back from using nuclear weapons.

10/13/12, 8:50 PM

:€ said...
@JML The problem with logic of deterrence is its apparent clarity which seems to provide a safety net for the parties involved, so they are more reckless walking the tightrope that they should be. But there is no clarity in the fog of war :/

For example, during the Cuban crisis, both Soviet and USA side pushed harder than they should. And loose canons like Castro would launch the nukes if they were in charge. Not that anyone was in charge anyway, apart from Eris.

As McNamara himself said: "We came very close, and in the end we avoided nuclear war solely because we were lucky."

And let me point out Churchill's thinking WRT poison gas. Drunk or no, it's another illustration how logic of deterrence may go wrong:

"Why have the Germans not used it? Not certainly out of moral scruples or affection for us. They have not used it because it does not pay them. The greatest temptation ever offered to them was the beaches of Normandy. This they could have drenched with gas greatly to the hindrance of the troops. That they thought about it is certain and that they prepared against our use of gas is also certain. But they only reason they have not used it against us is that they fear the retaliation. What is to their detriment is to our advantage."

PS. Maybe they should use blogger captchas as control codes for nukes. I can think of no better deterrent ;)

10/14/12, 1:17 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Hm, I seem to be the one who posts the odd personal story or two that is relevant to this post. Here's another:

About ten years ago one of my sons (a physicist) was carpooling to UC's Lawrence Lab in Livermore, Calif. One of the others in the carpool was several decades older than he, and had had a long past in the CIA.

They all got into the habit of talking, since it was a daily commute of an hour each way. Early on, the CIA man had established that there was a lot he couldn't talk about, but that he would certainly answer questions when he could do so.

One day the topic of nuclear war came up, and how close we had ever come to it. Everyone knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, but my son asked whether there had been other close brushes with nuclear war. The CIA man said that there had been more than a half dozen others, and that many (or was it, most?) of them had been much closer calls and much scarier than the Cuban one everybody knew about. He also said that he couldn't be more specific.

My son was enormously unnerved by the answer he had gotten, which is why he replayed the conversation to me.

So in addition to Hubris and Nemesis, Tyche (= Fortune or Chance) also plays a large role in such matters. So far she has smiled more than frowned. So far. But Fortune is not always constant.

It may be Hubris to think that we are rational animals to an extent that our species can always *choose* whether we will use nuclear weapons or not.

10/14/12, 2:05 AM

GuRan said...
team10tim, thanks for the link to the nuclear warfare essay, very enlightening.

Cherokee Organics, thanks for the recommendation on "The Future Eaters" a while back, which I found a used copy of and found fascinating!

And of course ArchDruid, thanks for your continuing work here, and at AODA. I don't comment often, but I read every week.


10/14/12, 4:18 AM

phil harris said...
Ricardo mentions the relationship China/Iran and suggests an interesting sub-plot.
I have wondered for the best part of a decade why the USA kept its hands off Iran. It did occur to me that the polite phone call might have been to Washington, reminding them whose oil they might be thinking about
PS I must keep reminding myself about exponential growth. 3.5% over 20 years means doubling the quantity / activity of whatever it is. 7% per year means a doubling in 10 years. I have to ask myself where it is all going to come from. And where is the considerable carbon and other product of industry and consumption going to end up?


10/14/12, 6:06 AM

Stu from Rutherford said...
Thanks for mentioning the potential unreliability of the ICBM's. It had never occurred to me even though I try to keep up with the latest satellite launches, etc.
Many rockets don't get off the pad, and many don't make their proper delivery, but the worst is that so many do not get off on their original schedules.
In a nuclear exchange environment, you can't postpone launch for two weeks while you're fixing something, because your base may not exist in two weeks.
The 60% figure is very believable.

10/14/12, 9:21 AM

:€ said...
It might be that the US empire already sees China as a serious adversary, with battle plans. Is Clancy writing a book yet ?

For more insight into Strangelovian minds: USA cold war nuclear doctrine has been recently declassified:

Apology from the horse's mouth is interesting as well:

10/14/12, 4:21 PM

Hal said...
I will await your more developed thoughts on the nuclear threat, but am so far unconvinced. To say there is a low probability that it wouldn't go that way means there must be a rational, deterministic set of circumstances and mechanisms in place which lower the probability, and that the most decisive of the players must have the intelligence and ethics to understand those circumstances and act wisely. Or, as pointed out above, lots of dumb luck.

To that I have only two words. Well, two proper nouns and a letter. George. W. Bush. Yeah, he's history, but it's just a matter of time before we have our Caligula along with the circumstances that would make him very dangerous. Some Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman type who believes God is on our side and talking to him/her. Or a psychotically deluded Dick Cheny type who believes all of the military propaganda about our ability.

None of which takes away from your scenario here. You have built a very plausible series of events. I can't think of any reason Chinese and American players aren't ever so capable of bringing it to this point in the narrative. The title of the first title was Hubris, after all.

That it could go into even more disastrous directions as it develops further just means worse news for the US empire, and I think that's what this is about, anyway.

10/14/12, 7:06 PM

Nestorian said...
To all who have made kind remarks about my contrarian posts: Thank you. I definitely concede that the information underlying my arguments is several years out of date, and that China may have advanced militarily to the point where they have the US now firmly in the classic MAD grip, with their new-generation ICBMs and now-operative nuclear sub.

I conclude my contributions to this week's discussion with some general observations. The US-nuclear-primacy vs Chinese-attained-MAD-parity issue comes down to an ongoing technological race between the two powers. As a general matter, this is a technological race a) about which much information relevant to the evaluation and debate is not available to the public, and b) about which both the Chinese and the US decision makers who DO have that information could be seriously mistaken. That makes for a lot of "wild cards" that might get played in an unwise fashion by either side in a desperate situation such as JMG envisions - and I think we all agree that some scenario along these lines is bound to arise sooner or later.

Additionally, it is worth remarking that all the issues we have been discussing could also be evaluated concerning the US position vis a vis Russia - with all the same uncertainties and "wild card" factors.

10/15/12, 5:45 AM

wvjohn said...
JMG, Thanks for the weekly installment of Age of Empires! I suspect the cyber threat is vastly underrated. Looking at just one piece of it, we have not had the capacity to manufacture anything as complex as a $50 network router for a long time and I've heard lots of stories about "unexpected firmware." In the meantime, a friendly reminder to everyone to hit your local auctions, etc. Last weekend I got 200+ canning jars, 10 trash bags of tin containers, and a useable wood cookstove for less than $100.

10/15/12, 6:56 AM

Jim R said...
Those are some interesting links.

JMG, cant' China disrupt quite a swath of our economy by stopping shipment of iPhones, pet food, and various plastic geegaws? Untold damage could be done without even firing a shot.

10/15/12, 7:14 AM

Jim R said...
Oh, and JMG,
That's a particularly interesting apocalypse theory.

I sort of think it's a good thing that earth has been sprinkled with ice occasionally. It gives us oceans and such. Also, the thin hoar of frost found on the moon (at one of the poles I believe) might make it a more attractive location for a permanent outpost.

10/15/12, 7:21 AM

Will said...
John: I am (as a former military officer and former diplomat) shocked by the amateurishness of your scenario. you are normally so sensible. there are lots of ways the US could be badly embarassed in a war, even defeated. this African dream world is not one of them. for starters, the stakes are too small for the Chinese to risk the destruction of their foreign trade and the collapse of their export-led economic model. they would foresee the consequences of 'vctory' and avoid the war. try again.

10/15/12, 7:24 AM

Johan said...

I only now saw your answer to me last week, having been away with patchy Internet access. My preference for tracking a carrier group would be to make use of the dramatic improvements in high-speed signal processing, and have a number of distant aircraft and drones, with large antenna, and underwater manned or unmanned craft listening to all the radio emissions of a carrier group. Along with satellites, for confirmation, I think it would provide sufficient resolution during the cruise phase. Just before the CSG moves into JSF or Super Hornet range, then the high-altitude drones move closer to provide the higher resolution needed for initial aim of the missiles. Yes, the CSG might detect the drones, but do they have the time for an effective response? And no, it wouldn't be as elegant as one invisible drone, but I think it would be far more likely to work.

My objection to the stealth drone is that stealth doesn't make aircraft invisible, but it drastically reduces the probability of detection. A high-altitude, slow-moving, long-endurance drone with a high-powered sensor package doesn't sound very small to me, and and since stealth can be countered effectively (for example, using multi-static or low-frequency, as in VHF, radars), and since the US has more experience with stealth than anyone else, I find it implausible that the drone could loiter in that particular place for days (weeks?). Look at the F-22, the stealthiest aircraft in the world by most accounts. It has well-designed stealth properties - but it also has supercruise, so as to minimize the time spent in range when it could be detected. (This leaves it vulnerable to IR tracking - you can't get it all.)

You may have other information on the US Navy's actual capabilities with regards to stealth, and I'm quite aware I might be wrong. Also, what I point out above are technical capabilities, but a Navy in decline might have had to strain just to maintain more basic skills, and so may miss a sufficiently stealthy drone despite what the radars could see. Gadgets are no good in war if you haven't practised thoroughly with them. I got the sense that the scenario Navy is more or less up to current standards, though.

Regarding this week's post, good work again! I like it that you went for the supersonic cruise-missiles, which sound much easier to deploy in containers than ballistic missiles, I think the attack on the military comms network shows by far the most likely attack vector, and I like the way the ground units become rather less fearsome when losing air cover. My only question is why the USAF sent the F-35 and not F-22's?

I don't think it would tip the balance, but the F-22 would be much more of a challenge for the Chinese fighters. And from the sound of it, the carrier-based F-35's were supposed to do the majority of the ground strikes anyway. Still, that's a nit.

Enough of this war business, I'll end on a brighter note: yesterday we brought in nearly the last harvest: about 12 kg's of pumpkins, and several cabbage heads to be turned into sauerkraut. It turned into a decent year in the garden after all!

10/15/12, 7:24 AM

valekeeperx said...
Couple of offlist questions:
1. A few times you have indicated that the US government subsidizes businesses, corporations, etc. I agree that this is so, but don't quite grasp the mechanisms or ways by which this is done. I understand the subsidies for agriculture, which are more direct, but I expect that the supports for commerce are indirect. If you could provide a quick summary or outline of these subsidies, or at least point me towards a good summary elsewhere, I would greatly appreciate it.
2. A few times in different posts and in comments, you and others have alluded to the belief that California may not be the best place to be in post-peak years. As a lifetime resident of SoCal, I can maybe see that perhaps earthquakes may be a challenge, but I don't see that California has any particular corner on challenging conditions. Tornadoes and hurricanes can be just as devastating. Climate change will have widespread effects. Implementing your recommendations will be a good thing to do no matter where one might live. So, if you could provide a little insight about the varying regional post-peak challenges here and elsewhere, again, I would greatly appreciate it.
Thanks and very much appreciate all your work.

10/15/12, 8:48 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ Will

Aren't you assuming that the key players in such a scenario as JMG's will act rationally, with an eye to their own and their nation's best interest?

Having lived through the last seventy years of the world's political, military and diplomatic history, I cannot share that assumption. As a species, we seem far better at rationalization than at rationality.

10/15/12, 9:18 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Euro, the reason the British didn't use nerve gas in the Second World War was the same reason why the Germans didn't; it would have been tolerably easy, once British bombers started dropping it on the Saarland, for Hitler to order V-2s tipped with it to head for London. Now of course mistakes are possible, and so is sheer human stupidity, but the nuclear powers are as aware of that as anybody else. More on this down the road.

Robert, I'm not surprised. I've read declassified accounts of a time when Norad thought it detected a massive Russian first strike coming -- turned out their radars were picking up the rising Moon. We got fairly close that time.

GuRan, thank you!

Phil, I've wondered whether the Iranians might just have picked up a few Soviet nukes in the pre-Putin fire sale days. Still, I suppose it might have been a Chinese phone call.

Stu, watch that issue. It's hugely important.

Euro, a bunch of Clancy imitators have already done books on US-China military faceoffs. Of course the US always wins -- the Clancyesque genre is all about trying to prop up America's faltering ego.

Hal, Stalin and Mao were both megalomaniac tyrants who killed tens of millions of people, and had nuclear weapons. Did they start World War III? No; they may have been crazy but they weren't stupid. As for George W. Bush, er, in what way is he an argument for your point of view? You do recall, I hope, that he had the nuclear launch codes at his side night and day for eight years, and didn't use them.

More broadly, what is it with American politics that so many people these days want to portray the mediocre political hacks who've infested the White House for the last couple of decades as some kind of secular equivalent of evil incarnate? This country could teach Carl Jung a thing or two about projecting the shadow...

Nestorian, I think you'll see some wild cards being played in a very clumsy fashion in the upcoming episodes!

10/15/12, 9:32 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Wvjohn, that's certainly an issue, though it's not one I've followed closely. No doubt a good scenario could be put together in which the Chinese response centered on hacking, or something like that.

Jim, economic disruption is an ordinary feature of warfare -- a lot of people just before the First World War insisted that war between the European powers was impossible because of the sheer economic damage it would cause. They were wrong, of course. As for ice, I'm very fond of it myself, especially in bourbon on a hot summer night.

Will, quite a few of my readers with military and political experience disagree with you. As for the one objection you've bothered to make in detail, China is already in the process of transitioning from an export-driven to a domestic consumption economy -- they'd be idiots not to, after watching Japan run the export model into the ground by pursuing it past the point that domestic wage and price increases eliminated the competitive advantage that makes it work; furthermore, the payoff to be won by supplanting the US as global hegemon -- which is pretty clearly the overall goal of China's grand strategy -- makes any short-term impact on exports a minor issue. Try again.

Johan, thank you! I'll look into that, and consider integrating that approach into the published version of the scenario. As for the F-35, that's partly because I used the JSF as a bad example of dysfunctional weapons procurement in an earlier post, and partly because the USAF is chugging ahead with plans to make the F-35 its frontline fighter, despite its many limitations. It makes a good model of the way that political and economic considerations so often trump military reality, over the short term in today's America.

Valekeeperx, I don't have any way to respond to offlist questions if you don't give me an email address -- Blogger doesn't fill that in. Since they're relevant questions to the broader project of this blog, though, I'll respond to them here.

Government subsidies to US industry happen through a dizzying array of programs ranging from a tax code that allows many large US corporations to pay little or nothing in taxes, through government purchases of products and services at inflated prices, to straightforward giveaways in the form of grants, loans, credits, and so on. Here's a bit from Bernie Sanders talking about one particularly egregious program, and from the other end of the political spectrum, a Cato Institute paper on corporate welfare.

As for California, I wasn't thinking about earthquakes; every corner of the US has some kind of natural disaster that hits it at regular intervals. No, my take on California is that it's rapidly shaping up to be the Rust Belt of the early 21st century. Between a corrupt and gridlocked state government, sky-high costs of doing business or much of anything else, entrenched ethnic conflicts primed to explode in various unpleasant ways, and economic shifts that are cutting the ground out from under the state's economy, all the pieces are in place to make LA and San Francisco in 2025 look like Detroit and Pittsburgh did in 1985 -- bleak, crumbling, crime-ridden, bankrupt icons of urban blight -- and give the rest of the state all the charm of, say, Gary, Indiana and environs. It's just not going to be a good place to live, at least for several decades.

10/15/12, 10:02 AM

:€ said...
@Hal I am actually more concerned with Dr. Strangelove than Caligula. Crazy tyrant will most likely get assassinated by internal enemies, way before he reaches for launch codes. Sophisticated stupidity of the experts has no such kill switch.

One of central theses in US nuclear doctrine is that every side will necessarily constrain themselves to limited nuclear strikes. Reason being: no side will be foolish enough to launch a full nuclear exchange, they will do it sensibly and tactically. This rational actor hypothesis won't survive ten minutes into some future war. It's just like economic equilibrium in theory and ugly reality of 2008 crash in practice.

And GWB, despite his antics, is not that different from Obama in practice. For all practical purposes both can be considere different ventriloquist puppets played by same puppeteer. It's probably inevitable that sometime in the future puppet will assume dictatorial autonomy resulting in more or less amusing twilight zone horror scenario, but we're not there yet.

10/15/12, 10:19 AM

:€ said...
JMG, It's clear that nuclear ICBMs are not that reliable and that their reliability is actually hard to assess since the complete package has never (thank god) been actually tested on large scale in real world. It's a very important fact which I haven't seen factored into official military thinking anywhere. Well, apart from fantasy scenarios where US missiles are 100% reliable and Soviet/Chinese ones are in state of total decay, so US finally can exercise first strike option with missile shield taking care of the feeble retaliation strike.

But let's look at it another way: if it takes obscene 8 billion dollars anually to have a somewhat functional nuclear missile system with 60% (it's probably better that that but by 20% at most) accuracy, how can China or Russia compete ? It's same wasteful technology, where lots of crucial details are arcane black art, only available through lots of experience.

Wouldn't that actually mean that USA is at advantage here ? IIRC, the China nuclear retaliation study I've linked does not account for ICBM reliability in its calculations. It just assumes 100% effectiveness.

The big question to me is: are Chinese really doing anything different or are they just playing the same idiotic game as the USA. The problem with idiotic games being, the idiot will drag you to his level and beat you with experience. For example, I see China has obtained an aircraft carrier recently and is due to a horrific real estate market crash. What's their advantage, really ?

10/15/12, 11:04 AM

Darth Imperius said...
John, from your comments and general skepticism about the current order, I wanted to suggest that you might find some of the ideas of the "New Right" interesting. See, for example, "Archeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age."

The basic idea here is that a new European empire will emerge from the ruins of Pax Americana, one which has rediscovered "Apollonian" values and become assertive in the world again. I find this vision both appealing and probable; the idea that the West is just going to lay down and die in the face of rising empires like the Han and Islam seems absurd. More likely, I expect a new militancy to emerge once Europeans realize that they can no longer live a complacent existence under American protection, and have to begin to reassert their collective Will to Power.

As for America, I agree that we are probably in for a dark period, as our current mythology collapses and our citizens begin to look for deeper allegiances than liberalism, capitalism and constitutional democracy. The challenges of “National Socialist” China and Islam could prove fatal to us, or they could be the catalysts for a new and stronger civilization. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on some of these New Right ideas, because overall they seem fairly compatible with your vision.

And one last thing: Is it your belief that humanity’s power has forever peaked, and that we are now facing a terminal decline, followed by extinction? Knowing what we now know about the hostile universe, don’t you think we must at least make every effort to increase our power and cosmic reach, as an alternative to going the way of the dinosaurs? Doesn’t this survival imperative trump everything else?

10/15/12, 11:04 AM

RPC said...
Regarding nukes: one thing to remember is that fusion weapons require regular maintenance. A Soviet-era H-bomb sitting in a shipping container for twenty years would be a _very_ dirty but decidedly non-nuclear device. To get it operating as intended, you'd at a minimum need a few grams of tritium and, more importantly, an old Soviet bomb technician to know how to install it. Regarding Johan's point "Gadgets are no good in war if you haven't practised thoroughly with them." - the Air France flight that crashed into the Atlantic a few years back did so because the least experienced pilot kept his yoke pulled back while the other two pilots tried to figure out why the plane kept stalling. The investigators concluded that, among other things, too much training was taking place in simulators rather than aboard real aircraft.

10/15/12, 12:35 PM

:€ said...
WRT what airplanes will the carriers of the future carry: navy brass is voicing disenchantment with complex stealthy beasts like F22 and F35. See

Keywords: cheap, simple, robust, not necessarily stealthy

10/15/12, 1:57 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ Darth Imperius

No, survival doesn't obviously trump everything, certainly not on the individual level.

With relatively little effort I can think of all sorts of situations where I would prefer to die rather than do what it took to survive . . . and then have to look at myself in the mirror the morning after and remember what I had done. I expect some of the other comment(at)ers here would think the same.

If that is how it works for an individual, I see no reason why it should not work that way if it ever comes to the survival of our species. Individually or collectively, we still have to remember what we have done. Memories often become an unbearable burden.

Also, no matter what we do as a species, evolution and history overtake us in the end.

If we do survive indefinitely, after 5,000 more years Bach will be as irrelevant and meaningless to most those far-off humans as the ziggurats of Sumeria are to us.

After 50,000,000 years, the human sensorium may have changed (by evolution) to the point where parts of a Bach toccata and fuge are simply inaudible, and what remains audible is heard only as a racket.

And this is long before we reckon with the heat death of the whole universe, which will overtake everything we have ever done in the final analysis.

So . . . no, survival doesn't trump everything.

10/15/12, 4:39 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I don't usually post this late in the weekly cycle, but Will's comment to you got me thinking about a strange incident that I became involved in over the weekend.

As a bit of background to the next paragraph, late Sunday night after a day of long hard work in the sun I was trolled to my face during a conversation. To my embarrassment I took the bait and ran with it and it quickly devolved into a heated discussion. It was stupid of me, but I learned my lesson and won't repeat it.

What I've noticed is that increasingly in our society people are communicating using techniques which project their opinions with force (and finality). It is quite gobsmacking to me really, because quite often those same opinions are not supported by experience and/or knowledge of the subject. Furthermore, I suspect that our society is being slowly conditioned to accept this situation as a point of strength.

My gut feel tells me that this is actually a weakness and in difficult times, it is probably better to consider some alternative points of view (or options / scenarios).

This does however require people to reconsider their worldviews. I've noticed that people tend to tune in to opinions that confirm their worldviews and sometimes I think this may be at the source of our declining quality in political debate.

Clearly, the commenter Will was unable to consider your fictional scenario as it was confronting to his worldview (and work life) and he responded by projecting his opinions as absolute and final when in fact dialogue and discussion would have been very valuable. He may have even been able to provide some valuable insights given his work background.

I’ve said in the past that our society stinks of magic and this is one projection of that magic. It’s all a bit sad really.


10/15/12, 5:33 PM

Hal said...
John Michael, I think you missed my point. Sure, there have been insane leaders with potent weapons before. But Stalin, Mao, and even GWB were never faced with a game-changing defeat at the hands of an upstart power after generations of supremacy and the near-mythologized belief that they possessed the ultimate ace-in-the-hole to reset everything. Add to that the belief in a divine mandate, and you have a dangerous combination.

I'm even more concerned about the pressure that individual would be under to pull out a victory, or at least a major payback, from a population that believes in the myth even more than they do. Look at the calls to go to war against Iran, some coming from some people who were or are serious contenders for president.

Now, I think after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, to call for another war in that area, one has to be so delusional as to be unable to conceive that the US can lose. Too much Hollywood and Disney, I think. The good guy always wins before the credits roll, and all that.

I realized when I was writing it that all of my examples were coming from the Right, and it would look like I was demonizing that end of our so-called political spectrum. I really don't particularly identify with the other end, which I observe as being as deluded in their own areas. But the seriously dangerous initiatives have all come from the Right for the last generation or so, that's just a readily-observable fact.

I think if you reread my post, you'll see that I was mostly supporting your scenario. That China could also be making a big mistake in no way lessens the impact of such a turn of events. In fact, it would make it worse on both sides. It wouldn't be the first time the next contender for the empire title has crashed and burned bringing down the former power, only to make way for somebody else. Your example of Germany and Great Britain, though not perfect (they ended up fighting us as well) illustrates the point.

10/15/12, 6:06 PM

jollyreaper said...
That's a a similar gripe I have on several blogs. There's areas that are clearly open for discussion because there are no clear outcomes and then along comes someone who has opinions no more valid than the rest of us and he says this is the one and only way.

Ugh. There's just not possible, long odds either way, and likely. This goes for anything hypothetical we care to discuss and the underlying assumptions all carry on from there.

Nobody can say we won't invent the cheap energy gewgaws to replace fossil fuels tomorrow. I would not consider it likely. I see a low energy future as likely. What are the odds for things remaining more of the same? Hard to say. How long can we keep the plates spinning? I can show you newsletters that said we should have collapsed by now. I can show you others that would say gasoline would be pennies a gallon.

I don't trust anyone in the debate who says they know what's exactly going to happen but I do take far more seriously people who can lay out their arguments clearly, with support, and are quite clear on how they arrived at the asumptions that underpin their scenario. And I'll really respect a person who admits getting it wrong and goes into how he made a well-reasoned mistake. Honesty is impressive.

10/15/12, 8:46 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Euro, China can afford 8 billion a year these days a lot better than we can. They're doing it the smart way -- just enough nukes to guarantee mutual assured destruction.

Darth, I figured we were going to hear something from the Sith point of view sooner or later! Yes, I'm somewhat familiar with the Nouvelle Droit, enough to know that when you say "Apollonian" you probably mean "Uranian" as opposed to "Demetrian." If Europe's going to pull much of anything together in the wake of the Pax Americana, it's going to have to get a move on -- right now the most likely future for today's European nations is submergence beneath a Muslim voelkerwanderung over the next century or so.

As for survival as an imperative, I hope I won't be insulting you if I say that I've always found that a creed for cowards. You, and I, and everyone else are ripening toward death with every breath we take; clinging to fantasies of indefinite survival simply gets in the way of appreciating life. For heaven's sake, if you're going to embrace the sort of warrior creed the Nouvelle Droit seems to favor, the joyful acceptance of the imminence of death is a basic first step in that direction!

Finally, no, I don't think our species faces a terminal decline; if anything, we're just coming to the end of humanity's giddy and wasteful adolescence, and over the millennia to come we may finally manage something closer to adulthood. The average mammalian species, as I recall, lasts ten million years; that means that 90% of our species' lifespan may yet still be ahead of us, which ought to be ample time to work through all the possible ways of being human. Then we can leave the world to the distant descendants of raccoons, and let them see what they can do with it.

RPC, that's a good point. It would be very embarrassing if a nuclear war broke out, and everybody's arsenals just emitted a vague whimper and sat there in the silos!

Euro, now let's see if they can get Congress to buy them something that makes smaller profits for the defense industry!

Cherokee, the wrong kind of magic. There's way too much corrupt thaumaturgy and way too little theurgy.

Hal, you're right, I did misunderstand. Still, I'd encourage you to notice that neither Hitler nor Saddam used their substantial nerve gas stockpiles even when facing total defeat. Again, we'll discuss this in more detail down the road a bit.

10/15/12, 8:55 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Reaper, as you've probably noticed, I have strong opinions about a lot of subjects discussed on this blog. Still, I trust I've set out the reasons behind those opinions!

10/15/12, 9:00 PM

jollyreaper said...
Agreed. You state what you think and why, with evidence. And your rebuttals don't involve a bunch of sloppy reasoning and cheap rhetorical tricks. While there's plenty of room for people to disagree with your conclusions, we are in the court of evidence and reason, not monkeys flinging excrement.

While I would prefer the "everything is fine, don't worry" argument to be true, its proponents seem more than a bit lightweight. The book Abundance is getting a lot of press but it sounds more like the work of a stock promoter than actual journalism, Popular Science fantasies that are never delivered on.

10/15/12, 9:25 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Reaper, I've managed to miss that book so far. I think I'll keep it that way!

10/15/12, 11:45 PM

jollyreaper said...
Likewise. I generally consider it intellectually lazy to judge a book on reviews rather than reading it for myself. However, when the reviews say the book is making all the same mistakes as other books I've already read and brings nothing new to the table... I'll happily read a good book on the topic but see little profit in reading one that doesn't even make the case for its side with solid, defensible arguments. Too many books, too little time. Always have to triage the read pile.

10/16/12, 3:55 AM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

Nestorian, you wrote,

"The US-nuclear-primacy vs Chinese-attained-MAD-parity issue comes down to an ongoing technological race between the two powers. As a general matter, this is a technological race a) about which much information relevant to the evaluation and debate is not available to the public, and b) about which both the Chinese and the US decision makers who DO have that information could be seriously mistaken."

When John Kennedy was running for President, he charged that the Eisenhower administration had allowed a missile gap to develop. He pledged to increase the U.S. stockpile of ICBMs to get us back to parity with the Soviet Union.

My late father had a Pentagon job with a medium level security clearance during that period.

After the fall of the USSR, it became public that the actual missile gap of the late Fifties was in the other direction. The arms buildup of the early Sixties merely increased a pre-existing American advantage.

Wondering if Kennedy had simply concocted a missile gap for political reasons, I said to my father, "You know, there never was any missile gap." He said, "Well, we all thought there was."

10/16/12, 2:57 PM

jollyreaper said...
Regarding gaps, RAND had all these studies in the 80's about how awesome and deadly the Russians were and please Pentagon can has more money for toys? Only after the USSR fall did we find out that was a bunch of hooey, too.

Likewise, in the lead-up to Gulf War 2 we were told Bush had sekrit intel shared with congressional leaders and we can all totally trust him that Saddam was a baddie and had to go. Again, all lies.

The thing to remember about "facts" as our leaders see them is they aren't trying to figure out what's true and base a policy around reality, they have a preconceived agenda and are looking for anything that will support enacting it. If you are a tame intellectual who can provide a convincing line of bull to go along with the agenda, there is a seat at the table for you and six-figure compensation, check your soul at the door.

I won't trust a politician as far as I can throw him but this does not mean I am against research into better devices for the flinging of politicians. I'm rather partial to catapults and trebuchets.

10/16/12, 8:04 PM

Magnificent Beast said...
About US nuking China:
Haven't you noticed that at no point of the story so far has China openly declared war on the US?
Then imagine how to a uninformed observer a seemingly out of the blue nuclear strike by the US on Chinese bases would look like!
Public opinion is still something you have to contend with, and all the other countries in the world (maybe even the UK) would be immediately forced to condemn the USA for such actions and take severe punitive measures.
In the worst case scenario, China (or one of it's allies that doesn't like the USA, like Russia) would nuke them back.

10/17/12, 7:03 AM

lifeasart said...
Just a thank you for your efforts. Most rewarding use of my time.

10/17/12, 3:54 PM

:€ said...
I think that poison gas and nuclear weapons (and their historical usage or lack thereof) are too different to extrapolate from one to the other. At very least, I would hope so: chemical weapons have been used quite a lot in Iran/Iraq war, by both sides. As for why Saddam Hussein didn't use them against coalition forces: he couldn't. Air strikes in first few days destroyed CW stockpiles, factories, logistics and air force (prefered method of delivering CW). And after the strikes Iraq army was in such disarray that any chemical warfare would prove far more lethal to them than to coalition soldiers. I guess that almost complete destruction of Iraq CW capacity was the reason why they were never used, not so much fear from nuclear retaliation (far too dangerous, just think of Russia and China).

As aside: the same idea of air and missile strikes disabling the opponent capability to retaliate is alive and well in USA grand plan called Air Sea Battle (for China, most certainly).

Why Germans (or Hitler, more precisely) did not use Tabun during WW2 can be debated indefinitely. I believe that it was a combination of factors: Hitler's personal views on poison gas, hazardousness of Tabun to German troops and false intelligence that Allies also had something as devastating as Tabun (they didn't). That didn't prevent Germans to manafacture quite a lot of Tabun artilery shells. If British army (which blissfuly dismissed warnings about German chemical weapons as propaganda) used mustard gas (as Churchill wanted and as they had before WW2), these shells would most probably get used.

Nuclear weapons are really an unknowable unknown and only real deterrence from their usage is that they never get built. I find that somewhat similar to nuclear powerplants: given their risks and ultimate cost nobody sane should build them (at least with current technology). Still, we do, and they're considered safe enough. Such false idea of their safety was instrumental in Fukushima disaster.

I find the whole deterrence theory unconvincing and nuclear deterrence theory a willful blindness. End of this page on Wikipedia has some good reasons why:

Actually, the sole existence of plans like Air Sea Battle proves that nuclear deterrence doesn't work that well :/

10/17/12, 5:04 PM

Ol' Bab said...
Another voice pops up with a view that includes peak Oil:

The Cargo Cult angle is great, right on.

Greatly appreciate the blog, have read it all, forgotten most (age). Resonates and answers questions about things that always nagged me. My world view is so much larger now. Thank you JMG.

I remember that at some tender age someone else also rocked my world view when he laughed at those idiots in Washington for selling fear and demonizing the Russians. They're just people, he said, like us. I was perhaps 12.

Ol' Bab

11/21/12, 10:30 AM