Category Archives: Security

Losing men, finding heroes

Noah Richler can write. And I suspect that a few Canadians are glad he does: his recent studies of Canada and the country’s thoughts on war are becoming as much his own as they are “our” own. (In Canada, when, your father’s name is Mordecai, that’s quite a compliment.)

Richler’s recent musings on War and Canada paint a picture not of what Canadians think of their Forces, but how they think it. A key excerpt from his new book serves as Richler’s entry to the pesky question of how – once proud to don the blue helmet, and stand right on the line in the sand as Peacekeepers – Canada as an international force, and as a country, has moved on. Although magnificently descriptive, the cause and effect implied beneath Richler’s prose might be confused.

The claim is that “after 9/11” changed Canada’s course, leading us to extol our warriors, forget our generosity, and value the epic theatres of war over the messy realities of our character. Surely, the national imperatives represented in Afghanistan, related security threats of terrorism, and the prosecution of what our neighbors called the GWOT would take precedence over our Peacekeeping past; the message of government just had to meet the challenge.

But I’d disagree that it was 9/11 that turned this corner for Canada. Canadians who bother to read more than the scroll at the bottom of the TV screen were acutely aware by the new millennium that any national myth of Peacekeeper (complete with its aging red-bricked fortress where Foreign Affairs protects the peace prize won by Lester B. Pearson) was over. The lack of paying forward our peacekeeping myth was both appalling and inevitable as conflicts became more complex, and state sovereignty less apparent in the 21st Century. In this new world – after both the Cold War and post-Twin Towers – the route to revitalize the Canadian story, and the story of our Forces in the public’s eye was in need of a new script.

At the time Canada was deciding what path to take, a little red book was circulating among desks at DFAIT, written by the Rhodes Scholar Jen Welsh. For a time, it was influential. It argued that values and interests were the same. The halls of DFAIT were abuzz with the idea that, although no longer a middle power “punching above its weight,” there was an available script that allowed Canada to be “at home in the world.” Walsh’s 2004 book outlined a confident Canada that should act as a model citizen of the world, contributing to multilateral systems of governance and their institutions, set an example of balancing liberty and security, and reverse the slide of overseas development funding, while working with the Americans on security of the continent. On this last point it was least clear.

Regardless, Canadians seemed to agree. A report prepared for the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute suggested that Canadians liked the ideas of Welsh’s book. The same survey showed that more Canadians perceived global warming (52 percent) and potential epidemics like AIDS and SARS (60 percent) as threats than international terrorism (49 percent) and Islamic fundamentalism (22 percent). This compared to 75 percent of Americans answering that terrorism was a threat when asked the same question.

Key though, was that over 80 percent of Canadians surveyed would not contribute internationally if that meant sacrificing at home.

A statistic like that is partly a feature of the rabble of democracy and poor question design. However it also speaks to the lack of a clear engagement strategy in the complex “post” 9/11 world, opposed to the clarity living and a world of action “after 9/11.” Canadians weren’t thinking what to do after 9/11, they were thinking of what they were post-9/11, post-peacekeeping, post-middle power, post-mattering. Add to this the continuing spiral of defense spending; that bastion of acting abroad through explicit sacrifice of those from home.

From a perspective of national security that implies a sustainable Armed Forces, something that had gone wrong had come to a head. In the mid 2000s it wasn’t that for Canada to fight in Afghanistan it needed to increase military expenditure. It was that if there was going to be a Military expenditure, Canada needed to fight in Afghanistan. This reversal of cause and effect is missed in Richler’s take of the “wholesale revision” of Canada’s defining narratives.

It’s easy to place a party-political bias on what happened. Anecdotes of the Harper Government’s Treasury Minister at first refusing to sign-off on any funding for the “corrupt” UN, or the Minister of Foreign Affairs removing “Lester B. Pearson” from the address line of his business card, before removing “Canada” altogether, are indicative.

However, to assure a growing place in the world from fair-weather domestic support, the brave but battered story of model peacekeeper was not tenable. Canada would have to (literally) fight for it. Richler paints a sufficiently primal picture when he reminds us that “The enemy wore a kaffiyeh and a black beard and, like the monster Grendel in the story Beowulf, lived in a cave; ‘good’ was the property of a country rushing back into a majestically unsubtle narrative of the frontier.”  Afghanistan was chosen for virtuous reasons. It wasn’t Iraq. It wasn’t back to Africa, or Serbia. It was a hunt in the mountains. We found the heroes. Richler suggests we lost humans.

With the creation of an enemy, the void from the story was filled in and the myth of peacekeeper gone. Afghanistan, and the Grendel of the sands, provided a distinct actionable thing to do, and build a new story around. Afghanistan didn’t force, but allowed the story of warrior to be heard and then written into Canada’s (revised) History. How long the humanitarian generosity myth is left fallow, and what that means for Canada, might again divide value and interest.

And what about, “after” Afghanistan? The new jets, of course. We’re told they will let Canada’s narrative fly to new heights.

(Luke J. Heemsbergen joins Sovereign Complexities. Luke is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne. He hails from Canada. Luke’s research hopes to build bridges and light fires for new modes of democratic governance and to help steer the emerging policy implications within and without the state.)


The end of history and the last drone

Drone quadcopter operated with iPad by Ville Hyvönen

iPad operated quadcopter

On 25 February 2012 the Financial Times published Francis Fukuyama’s op-ed on drones. It addressed how the world may change when “drones are cheap and ubiquitous.” Fukuyama questioned how other countries, private individuals, rogue states, and terrorists may use unmanned and robotic systems in the future.

Access to drone technology will invariably lead to its nefarious use, suggests Fukuyama. He fails to recognize that when transformational technologies become commercially available, their widespread adoption is inescapable. More importantly, historical precedent suggests that all extensively adopted technology is overwhelmingly used for good.

The article is full of other problems and inconsistencies. Fukuyama spends three long opening paragraphs advertising his own do-it-yourself (DIY) quadcopter. His personal story is useful only as a literary prop for the sweeping generalization at the end: “That’s why I want to build mine now, before the government makes them illegal.”

Not quite the end of history, but certainly the wrong conclusion.

After an arduous opening that advertises Fukuyama’s knowledge of the word “telemetry” he proceeds to tell us the big ticket items. The Predator and Reaper drones have been used to strike “deep into Pakistan.” Hurrah. The Air Force will have more drone pilots than F-16 pilots by next year. And imagine this; they will be piloted from “half a world away.” Of course, drone strikes have also killed civilians. And manned fighter or bomber strikes have not?

Let’s not dwell on the overview. Most articles are not aimed for a drone-news-following reader. The issue here is that this introduction is so clumsy and superficial that it is painful to get through.

Fukuyama then plunges us into the future. “Down the road,” he says, “are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim.” And further into the future are “nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.”

This is all true. Although it would be helpful for us all, to start making semantic distinctions between what we call a variety of unmanned and robotic systems. He never claims that this op-ed is all encompassing. But it would seem reasonable to discuss autonomy and its implications if one is to make a leap towards nanobots and lethal toxins.

Fukuyama then enlightens us that privacy is “the chief concern” and proceeds to commercialize how his own drone could “look inside a neighbor’s third-floor window.” Of course he “would never ever be tempted to use it for such a thing.” Come on! This is in the FT, who edits these anyway?

On editing… Fukuyama calls the FAA the Federal Aviation “Authority” instead of Administration. This may be petty, but get it right!

After informing us that drones are used for targeted killings, Fukuyama suggests that as “the defense budget shrinks” using drones to “project power on the cheap” will be attractive. Sure… But the correlation is shaky at best. The proliferation of drones may lead to more targeted killings, but the defense budget – other than being a headline favorite – is really irrelevant here. Drones provide the US military and intelligence community a powerful capability and will be used (for right or wrong) based on overall strategy and tactical objectives. For the purposes of this discussion, we are passed procuring drones on a cost estimate basis. At 7,494 and counting, they are part of the arsenal.

On the other hand, miniature robotic devices do change the dynamics. Soldiers could use them to look into buildings before a raid to minimize losses. And intelligence agencies could employ them for an assortment of missions. However, will this change how they spy or kill? Using drones to deliver deadly pathogens is a possible scenario. But intelligence agencies have been successful at eradicating targets before. Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London is a case in point.

Fukuyama is also concerned about their domestic use. This seems to translate into his main argument that eventually the government will outlaw drones. I doubt it. For example, any enthusiast could procure advanced surveillance systems. A simple Google search using “surveillance AND DIY” returns more than 5 million results. There is a plethora of spy toys out there. Having your own drone and using it for degenerate ends won’t make this problem worse.

Fertilizer is used for bombs by some. And others use code for cyber-attacks. The government – rightfully so – now tries to keep an eye on fertilizer purchases. But it sure hasn’t made Java or C++ programming languages illegal. Drones will be used to spy on cheating spouses and to cause harm somewhere. But this should not make us “worried.”

Fukuyama continues. He asks what the world would look like when “other countries [will] operate fleets of drones.” And what would our attitude towards drones be “if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the airplane” or attacked “soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia.” Worse yet, Fukuyama seems concerned that China or Al Qaeda could use drones to target Americans in “Florida or New York.” He is especially petrified that drones in their ubiquity will be harder to trace and “without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down.”

Living in a world where we are “routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.” There is a point here, somewhere. But it is lost.

Stability restored

Yes, other countries are building drones en masse and will continue to do so. And terrorist organizations may try to use them to deliver an explosive. But making them illegal domestically would in no way change this paradigm. In fact, it would make us dramatically less competitive over time. Our systems would become outdated.

How would making drones illegal domestically protect us against these threats? It seems Fukuyama suggests that some dubious activity will be possible because there will be so many of them. That makes sense logically. But as alluded to above, there are websites that give us viruses and guns that are used to kill. Yet, we continue to visit the former and buy more of the latter.

Fukuyama mentions particle-sized robots in our blood-stream, but fails to imagine technologies that would be able to trace exactly to whom a drone belongs. A network of nanobots – to stay futuristic – would easily trace the origin of other drones.

He does cite the legitimate use of drones for police work and traffic management. But there are so many others. Drones could be used to monitor our electrical grid, to take care of the elderly, to assist during surgeries (or to conduct surgeries), to repair broken tissue, to fight cancer (hey, he went there). On the battlefield their usefulness isn’t perfect, but unquestioned.  And countries will not decide to attack us just because it costs less now than it did before or saves them a pilot or two.

Drones – and robotic systems in general – will soon become part of our daily lives. Already in South Korea they are being used as prison guards and as school teachers. Their proliferation could be as transformational as the spread of the Internet or the mobile device. Fukuyama – after redeeming himself with The Origins of Political Order ­– is sadly on the wrong side of history.

Image source: from Ville Hyvönen’s public Flickr page


Justifying carriers

In time, Brits may ask their politicians a simple question: if we spent a decade without aircraft carriers, then why do we need them now? Downing Street will spend the next decade formulating an answer.

The two carriers in question “would cost more, offer less military capability and be ready much later than planned.” This means they may be completed by 2020 instead of 2016-18 and would cost £12 and not £3.5 billion. And there will be other delays, as anyone familiar with defense acquisitions will affirm. The Royal Navy may then be without a carrier for a long time. In fact, “full carrier strike capability might not be achieved until 2030.”

To add insult to injury, the first carrier (HMS Queen Elizabeth) will be mothballed and kept in “extended readiness” after it is launched. And under current plans, the second carrier (HMS Prince of Wales) will operate for only 200 days a year.

While the UK ponders how to justify building these ships – especially as their use will be limited – it will attempt to maintain capability through partnerships.

On 6 January 2012, US Defense Secretary Panetta and British Defense Secretary Hammond signed a “Statement of Intent on Carrier Cooperation and Maritime Power Projection,” which is a “framework for increased cooperation and interoperability on the use of aircraft carriers.” At first, cooperation will be industrial. As Colin Clark observes, US firms may help Britain develop its carriers.

Extensive pilot and sailor exchange programs – a staple of transatlantic cooperation – would follow. But while British personnel will train on American carriers, US sailors will not be offered such luxuries in return. Yet, building carriers to provide a respectable exchange platform does not answer the public’s prescient question.

The UK has discussed another option since its carrier woes began; to fly missions from France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. And while some may have an impulse to insert surrender anecdotes, a desire to not operate jointly with the French is a poor reason for building expensive ships. In fact naval cooperation continues, even as recent rifts over France’s imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan emerge.

In October 2010, de Gaulle had problems with a faulty propulsion system that kept it docked. As joint operations with the ship are supposed to provide a lifeline for Britain, such technical challenges may get in the way. Well, at least this is one argument politicians could use to justify independent capability.

Other carrier-centered joint operations will continue. The HMS Argyll, a Duke-class frigate, recently joined the USS Abraham Lincoln as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Later in the year, the HMS Illustrious, a helicopter carrier, will join de Gaulle in the Mediterranean for drills. Expect such exercises to continue.

An empty deck

Britain’s anguish over lacking carriers may turn out to be the least of its problems. The carriers are designed to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF); a program with well documented challenges.

London requested a tailored version of the JSF, one that would take off by catapult and land by arrester wires. This modification – but one addition to years of changing requirements – could drive unit costs up even further. But it would “enable British aircraft to land on French carriers and vice versa.” However, this technology has not been tested. Thus complications may arise.

Furthermore, as Philip Ewing writes:

The Royal Navy hasn’t flown its own fast jets off its own carrier with catapults and arresting wires since 1979, aboard the old warhorse HMS Ark Royal. The three carriers it has had since then — the HMS Invincible, Illustrious and another Ark Royal — proved to be essential ships, but they were built with ski-jumps and designed for Harriers and helicopters only.

By 2023 – and this is the best case scenario – according to one MoD spokesperson, the Royal Navy would operate [only] 12 F-35 jets. This was said with a sense of accomplishment, yet it seldom suggests confidence or capability.

It would be hard to explain paying for empty carriers.

Keeping the sun from setting

If the UK continues to involve itself in coalition operations such as Libya and successfully – a relative measure – then it will be even harder for it to justify a capability that it spent many years without.

Keeping the sun from fully setting on the empire will cost London dearly. Instead of pursuing old glories that its handicapped carriers won’t provide, the UK should save on some costs and rethink the purpose of its future ships. As both sides of the Atlantic seek to increase cooperation, the UK could specialize and not replicate expensive and extensive American capabilities. It won’t be able to accomplish complex air missions with a handful of jets anyway.

Thus, in recognition of tomorrow’s challenges, the UK may consider transforming the carriers into amphibious assault ships operating drones and helicopters, as well as into motherships for elite forces (taking a clue from Washington). This could help save on costs today and operating costs tomorrow. It could also keep the Royal Navy on the high seas, where it belongs.


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