Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground
September 17, 2007
JOANNE MYERS: This morning we are delighted to welcome back Robert Kaplan. It is always a fascinating morning whenever Bob presents his latest work, and today should be of even greater interest, especially since President Bush, in a primetime address last week, set the stage for reduced but continuing U.S. engagement in Iraq, thus raising the possibility of an open-ended commitment there.
Should this become a reality, it will be interesting to hear whether our speaker believes that an ongoing mission of this kind will have consequences for America's other military interests abroad.
For decades now, the United States has maintained a strong military presence throughout the world, both in times of war and in times of peace. Still, our perception of the military seems limited to the extraordinary challenges facing our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our speaker this morning is determined to change this misperception.
For some time now, Bob Kaplan has enjoyed enviable access to our armed forces, spending more time with our servicemen than any other civilian journalist working today. He understands how the military is fighting in scores of places around the globe, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. Imperial Grunts was the first volume of his travels with the American military, a journey which he began in 2002 that took him on a tour of elite Special Forces and Marine outposts in remote corners of the world. His analysis, spanning several continents, provided both a basis with which to understand the complex mission of these elite soldiers and an insight into the men themselves.
For those of you who are interested in this discussion, you can find a transcript on our website.
In Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, which is the second book in the three-volume project, Bob expands on his earlier work and goes beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to vicariously take us on an odyssey, crisscrossing the globe in the air, at sea, and on the ground. In so doing, he conveys the vast scope of America's military commitments, which rarely make it into the news. This time around, he shifts his focus to the Pacific, where emerging Asian powers present vexing diplomatic and strategic challenges to U.S. influence. He shows us the extent to which U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen are protecting sea lanes, providing disaster relief, contending with the military rise of China, and crafting contingency plans for war with North Korea and Iran.
With this intensive coverage, our speaker has once again added to his reputation as being one of the most prominent lay voices on issues surrounding American foreign policy today.
Bob Kaplan has been writing as a foreign correspondent for more than 20 years, gathering information in some of the world's most difficult and dangerous places. As a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, his writings are always informed by an incredible vigor and penetrating analysis. In addition to Imperial Grunts and Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, he is the author of 11 books on foreign affairs and travel, which have been translated into many languages. His books include Balkan Ghosts, Warrior Politics, The Coming Anarchy, and The Ends of the Earth.
When not traveling or writing, he is also doing some teaching, as a Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Bob once wrote, and I quote, "Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned writing, as a means to reveal the vivid reality of places that get lost in the elevator music of 24-hour media reports."
For anyone who is familiar with Bob's writing, as I imagine many of you here are, it is apparent that it is this philosophy that serves as a framework for all his work.
I ask that you now join me in giving a very warm welcome to a journalist who loves what he does and, despite the cynicism or the skepticism, never gives up the passion, someone I always look forward to listening to: Robert Kaplan.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you so much for that introduction, Joanne. It's a pleasure to be back here, for, I think, the umpteenth time, or at least the seventh or eighth time.
There are a lot of different roles for journalists. One is to be a gap filler, which is what I have tried to do in these two books: Cover what others are not covering. Because others are too busy covering things that need to be covered, there are always vast swaths of the earth and the world that go uncovered, undeservedly.
So in this book, I am really being a gap filler. Everyone is focused on Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. I am focused on a lot of the other places where the U.S. military has troops.
Everyone is focused at the moment on counterinsurgency and land forces, Army and Marines. The bulk of this book is about the Air Force and the Navy. It's just filling these gaps.
This book, 90 percent of it at least, is profiles. It is profiles of noncommissioned officers, what makes them tick, why they joined the military, what makes them get up at 4:00 in the morning on ships and go through a myriad of fire drills and combat drills throughout the day, for weeks on end. So rather than give you a standard book talk, which would just be about people, individuals, I am going to talk about some of the issues that were raised in my mind in the course of researching this book.
The first thing that I could say is, the big thing out there is that the ultimate strategic effect of the war in Iraq is to fast-forward the arrival of the Asian century. While the United States is occupied in Mesopotamia and contiguous areas in the Middle East, and while European defense budgets are either starved or more or less on a level area, the militaries of China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia are either growing or modernizing rapidly.
The word "modernizing" is much more important than "growing." A big military doesn't necessarily mean a good military. In the 1990s, seven of the ten largest armies in the world were Asian. But that didn't make them particularly formidable, because they were large land, peasant armies, more suitable for bringing in the crops or some such thing than they were for actual fighting.
What I am talking about now, though, is a modernization, the creation of real military-civilian postindustrial complexes throughout much of Asia, with satellite technology, ballistic missile technology, weapons of mass destruction, increasingly. The Indian Navy, for instance, which is the fifth-largest in the world, is on its way to becoming the third-largest in the world over the next half-decade or decade. The Indian Navy now has patrols in the Mozambique Channel in southeastern Africa and as far away as the Strait of Malacca, covering the whole Indian Ocean.
The Japanese Navy has 119 major warships. Compare that to the British Royal Navy. The British Royal Navy has only 44 major warships, and it's going down to 29, because more than a dozen are about to be mothballed over the coming years. Meanwhile, the Japanese Navy will probably enlarge. We are in the early phases of real Japanese rearmament.
As I said, this is all quietly happening while we focus on Iraq.
The way that I judge militaries is often by the military-civilian relationship in a particular country: How healthy is it? We have a lot of debate about our military-civilian relationship. I critique it in the epilogue of this book. But compared to Europe, it's a very healthy civilian-military relationship. The Iraq War has not turned Americans against their own military.
Americans may not know much about the military, because we have had 30 years of an all-volunteer elite force, but they respect it. In Europe, often, militaries are like civil servants in funny uniforms. They are there for peacekeeping operations, for disaster relief operations. But it's hard to envision public support for a sustained combat operation, at least to the degree that you see in the United States.
But the civil-military relationship in Asia is becoming quite healthy. That is also something to keep in mind. The biggest single fact out there in Asia is that the Pacific Ocean is no longer an American lake. It's less and less so. For 60 years, the Pacific was an American lake. That was the result of where World War II left us. In 1945, when World War II ended, the United States had over 6,000 ships in the U.S. Navy. A lot of those were commandeered civilian, quasi-civilian support ships. After the war and the tremendous demobilization we went through, it went from 6,000 to 600 ships. We had 600 major warships throughout the Cold War. That number oscillated a bit, from 550 to 620, but it was mainly around 600.
In the 1990s, the U.S. Navy went down to 300 ships, as part of the drawdown at the end of the Cold War. The Chinese now have 248 and are building or acquiring submarines at five times the rate that we are, even as our Navy goes from a 300-ship navy, if you believe former Assistant Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, down to a 150-ship navy.
Navies are not something you think about. They are out there over the horizon. But if you look throughout history, navies are often a good indicator of where power is going. Navies are able to do things that armies can't. If we want to deploy an extra 30,000 troops somewhere, there is a big national debate about it. But you can double the number of warships in the Persian Gulf and nobody in Congress breathes a word about it or cares. You can go from one to two to three carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf—a carrier strike group is an aircraft carrier with 5,000 seamen onboard, with two cruisers, two destroyers, a frigate, two submarines; you are dealing with 10,000 or so sailors—you can just send one a few miles off the coast of Iran, and there is nary a word of protest.
Navies are able to forward-deploy, and so are air forces, in ways that armies aren't. So navies are very important here.
One of the main things I saw in researching this book was how the United States military is positioning itself to deal with China as a future peer competitor. This is not warmongering; it's just facing up to reality. China's economic dynamism of the last few decades is now producing a military dynamism, the same thing that happened to us at the end of the Civil War.
Between 1869, and the Grant administration, and the outbreak of World War I, a period of about 45 years, is when the U.S. economy was churning ahead at 7 or 8 percent growth a year, and that is what inspired Marine landings in Samoa, in Hawaii, off the north coast of South America. As we traded more with the outside world, we had more interests in the outside world. That led to a more forward-deployed military, or at least a forward-deployed military, for the first time in our history.
Lo and behold, the Chinese are going through a similar process at the moment. Their economy has had such dramatic growth that now they have interests in parts of the world. For instance, where does most of the oil that China uses come from? Increasingly, it's coming from the Middle East. That means more oil tankers going from the fleshpots of China to the Persian Gulf. Given China's history and bad experience with Western powers, one would expect the Chinese to protect their own oil tankers, not to depend on us to do it for them.
So you are going to see an increasingly large Chinese and Indian presence in the greater Indian Ocean area and in the southwest Pacific.
There was a great Ming Dynasty admiral, Zheng He, who, about 500 years ago, sailed Chinese treasure fleets in search of trade and tribute between what is now the east coast in China and what is now the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa. In all Chinese military manuals now, this particular figure is written up. China has produced a lot of film documentaries about him. The Chinese military is constantly talking about this guy. The voyages that he did replicate almost exactly the tanker routes of today, and where the Chinese Navy will be in the future. China will probably build a canal across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand sometime early in the 21st century, which will strongly affect the Asian balance of power and provide an alternative to the Strait of Malacca.
In other words, there has been a unipolar world in the Pacific for decades. That is changing. Just as economic figures show you how the world is becoming more multipolar, just as headlines show you how the world is becoming more multipolar, what I found in researching this book is that in a naval and air force way, we are at the very beginning stages, in the Pacific especially, and the Indian Ocean, of a more multipolar world. It is having its effect on militaries as well.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing. For many decades, Asia modernized economically, and the United States provided the security umbrella with the 7th Fleet. That is changing, very much so.
If you want to look at India—I spent part of the summer in India—and you want to look at where Indian foreign policy is going, if you want an insight about it, look at the foreign policy of the best, most enlightened British viceroys—the Indians themselves mentioned to me Curzon, Bentinck, Hastings, and others—and what their foreign policy was. Although they were British colonialists, they operated from the same geographic point of reference as today's Indian leaders. What that meant was a greater India in trade and economic purposes, which takes in about four or five countries—Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal—and also with the Indian Navy using the entire Indian Ocean as its field of operations.
In terms of Korea, the last and one of the largest chapters in this book deals with Korea. It is an analysis of different scenarios of what could happen there. I think, no matter what happens in Korea, over the coming decades we will see a loss of U.S. influence there. Remember, the Chinese have all the points of contact in North Korea—the ships, the factories, the rail lines. The Chinese are increasingly influential in all these places in North Korea.
The Chinese and the South Koreans take a much more cautious, benign view of the North Korean regime than the United States and Japan take, for one big reason: They have contiguous land borders with North Korea, and if they miscalculate or there is a sudden regime implosion, you will have millions of refugees, not going to the United States and Japan, but to China and South Korea.
So the Chinese, on the one hand, are not particularly pleased with this regime in North Korea, but they are terrified of a regime implosion or a regime change. Look at what happened in Iraq. North Korea has 26 million people, about the population of Iraq. It doesn't have quite the ethnic problems, the sectarian problems, that Iraq has. But its standard of living is lower than Iraq's was, and it has far less of a history of any kind of stable parliamentary system than even Iraq had in the 1940s and 1950s.
So there is a real fear among the Chinese of a regime implosion. What the Chinese are probably looking towards in the future, way beyond the Beijing Olympics, beyond Kim Jong-il, is some sort of a Gorbachev-like, light-beer version of a communist buffer state, sort of like what they have in Tibet at the moment. That would be a far better system in terms of human rights than exists now in North Korea, but would still be a long, long way from any democratic North Korea.
That is a vision that does not necessarily displease the South Koreans. What the South Koreans want most of all, again, is stability. They don't want to finance an imploded, collapsed North Korea. South Korea is very much a status-quo, middle-class democracy, but middle-class for only two generations. There is a tremendous fear of instability in the north. That's why the Chinese may understand South Korean aspirations and fears better than we do.
So any kind of regime involvement—I don't use the words "regime change"—in North Korea would see a heightened Chinese influence. If there were to be a successful negotiation with North Korea, you could see the emergence of a northeast Asian co-prosperity sphere, with its own currency, that would lock the United States out in the years to come—not lock it out; reduce our influence.
On the other hand, a unified Korea, a unified greater Korea, would present a lot of problems to Japan. Remember, Japan occupied Korea, not for four years during World War II, but for 35 years, from 1910 to 1945. It is not an occupation that is very well remembered. So a unified Korea would probably be an enemy, to some extent, of Japan.
Either way, I think U.S. power in that region of the Pacific ultimately declines.
One of the things our military is doing is, we are quietly leveraging India and Japan against China. The U.S. Air Force, especially, is doing more and more bilateral exercises with the Indian Air Force. There are more and more exercises with the Japanese military. This is fine, as long as it doesn't go too far. To leverage India and Japan against China is far too crude, given the economic realities that we live in with China, where the Chinese basically prop up our currency, to a significant extent, and at the same point, we are the biggest buyer of Chinese-manufactured goods.
When I say the military is responding to the rise of China as a peer competitor, I am talking about a very subtle thing. I am not talking about anything very crude, in that sense.
Here's the issue with China. If you talk to businesspeople, everybody is very pro-Chinese. Most people are. They love doing business with China. They don't know what all this stuff is about. Who cares if they are building submarines? The business world loves China.
Then you talk to the military world, and they say, "Oh, they're building this and they're building that." Not only are they building subs, but they are acquiring nuclear-powered subs. The only reason you want nuclear-powered anything, in the first place, is because you have blue-water imperial ambitions, because the whole point of a nuclear-powered sub is that it doesn't have to come back to refuel, and it is limited only by the amount of food you can carry onboard, which is about four months' worth.
The longest submarine deployment is about three or four months. They stack the food, literally, on the floor, so the floor is raised and everyone is bumping his head against the pipes overhead. As the voyage goes along, as I have seen, the floor gets lower and lower, as they take out the canned foods and all of that. They have the coffee and the potatoes hanging from the ceilings. This is the life of a nuclear submarine.
So you have a totally different attitude in the military than in the business community. But you know what? They both go together. One thing that I think we have learned very starkly in Iraq: Secretary Rumsfeld thought in worst-case-scenario terms for the original invasion of Iraq and got the best possible result. He thought in best-case-scenario terms for the occupation of Iraq and got the worst possible result.
Not only everyone, but for the military in particular it is incumbent upon to think in worst-case scenarios, but not in such worst-case scenarios as to provoke the very thing you are trying to avoid.
As I like to see it, the military thinks about China skeptically, in worst-case scenarios, so that the best-case scenarios of the business community are what are proven right in the end. But helping them along is this kind of skeptical, constructive pessimism of the military, to draw red lines in the Pacific, not even to give a reason for the Chinese general staff to enter into any adventurous thinking.
Where does this leave the military? I would just say that each war is not necessarily like the next one. In other words, if you look at military history, our situation in Iraq now may not tell us much about future military challenges. The Franco-Prussian War gave us no insight as to what World War I would be like. Korea and World War II gave us very little insight about what Vietnam was going to be like. In fact, Vietnam was more like the Philippine war of 100 years ago than it was like the war in Korea. The First Gulf War gave us no indication of what the Second Gulf War, the Iraq War, would be like. Likewise, our struggle now in Iraq may not give us much insight about the future.
We may master the art of land counterinsurgency just as it recedes in importance and we find that our future challenges are more air and naval. A global power at peace, like ourselves, requires an air force and a navy that are as forward-deployed as possible. Remember, we can lose in Iraq, really lose and be humiliated—but it wouldn't be the end of the world, because our Navy still controls the entry and exit points to the Middle East. It is because of our Navy and our Air Force that a loss in Iraq, despite the headlines that would be generated from it, would not necessarily mean the end of U.S. "great power" status.
Increasingly, as I see the future, and the future of globalization—remember, we may live in a globalized world, but what does that mean? Seventy to 80 percent of all goods and products still travel by sea. The sea lanes still need to be protected. Without the U.S. Navy at the moment, you might have a whole different situation in the major choke points of world commerce, like the Strait of Malacca, for instance. So globalization is proceeding partly thanks to what the U.S. Navy does on a daily, non-headline basis around the world.
Putting a lot of this together—this is an article that I have coming out in The Atlantic in November—if you look at naval power, if you look at where militaries are stationed, America is in the process of a very elegant, long-term decline. Remember, decline can be overrated. It may not be as important as you think. The British Royal Navy and the British military actually started to go into decline in 1895. From 1895 to 1905 was when you saw the real decline in relative terms to those of emerging powers, like imperial Japan, the United States, which was first starting to build up a navy in the 1890s. The British decline started then, but it did not stop Britain from winning two world wars in the next six decades to come and being a major, very constructive power.
So when I say decline, I am talking in relative terms only. I am looking at what many other militaries, particularly in Asia, are doing and where ours is.
By the way, the reason why we are going down to a 150-ship navy, at the rate we are going, has to do with a lot of reasons; it's not just Iraq. It has to do with the whole procurement process in the first place, the fact that they want to load every ship with every weapons system imaginable, so it becomes cost-prohibitive. The current destroyer—I was embedded on a destroyer for a month—a destroyer today is about $1 billion. But the new destroyers that they want to build would cost $4 billion, because everyone wants their weapons system on it. So it's the very process of procurement itself that is gradually immobilizing us. We are very prone to attack in the future from a new rising peer power, with a leaner, meaner means of developing its military.
Let me just say one or two things about the Middle East and the military there.
If you look at the Middle East—and I may have said this before here—from Morocco all the way to Pakistan, what you see is an increasing loss of central power. The current generation of autocrats in the Middle East cannot rule quite as autocratically as previous generations. Whether it's dictatorships or it's new democracies, they are both failing. It is a failure of central power. From Morocco to Pakistan is like a straight line of messy Mexico-style scenarios, where, instead of one-party rule and one president whom you deal with—and you get business done by dealing with only one or two or three people in the country—now you have many, many people you have to deal with. It is no longer just one-party rule. Increasingly, other actors—tribes, the population, parliaments—have to be taken into account. If you look at the politics in Morocco and elsewhere, you will see this in an organic, non-dramatic way.
But doing business in the Middle East is going to get far more complex in the years to come, because it's not just the leader we are going to have to convince in each country; it is many other political actors in each country. As we see kind of a political meltdown in the Middle East and the rising power of Asia in the Pacific, what this boils down to is increased emphasis on the greater Indian Ocean, where you are going to have more and more clogged sea lanes, more and more possibility of terrorism, more and more of an emphasis on navies, and more and more involvement of the Chinese and Indian navies as the years go along in the Persian Gulf.
I will stop here and we will open it up to questions. Thank you very much.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: One of the worries one always has about growing militaries is that these militaries will want to seize power themselves and be in competition with civilian leadership. I want to ask you to expand upon something you said in a sentence, which was that there is not too much to worry about in the scenario you just described, on that basis. Could you just say a bit more about that?
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. First of all, there is a great book on this subject. I don't want to be stealing somebody else's idea. It's called Fire in the East by Yale University professor Paul Bracken. He goes into the development of Asian militaries and how they are happening precisely because of a more democratic-like process. Freer markets, freer societies have produced a boom in economic development that has allowed Asian militaries to modernize to a degree that they couldn't in the past.
In terms of our operations, we have military operations throughout the world. In a previous talk here, I told about how we have operations, deployments, in 70, 80 countries in any given week. But the key thing to remember is that this is not like the Cold War, when we were propping up dictatorships. Congress mandates this and keeps all this on a very tight leash. We can only aid and assist and train militaries of democracies. The minute there is a rollback of democracy, like there was in Nepal a year ago, our military operations just cease and desist for the time being and wait that process out.
But I think Asian militaries are just modernizing to the same extent that their societies are. I don't think it presents any danger to democracy in South Korea, in Japan. Remember, the Japanese Navy is three times the size of the British Royal Navy, but it's doing it with just a military budget of less than 2 percent of its total GDP. It's just that Japan's economy is so big that it is able to do this.
So military budgets relative to GDPs in Korea and Japan are still very, very small. There is a lot of room for normal growth. For instance, our military budget is about 4 percent of GDP, and that's with the Iraq War spending. In fact, I will give it to you exactly. Without Iraq, it's 3.4 percent of GDP; with Iraq, it's 4.5.
QUESTION: You mentioned protecting shipping in the Indian Ocean and the like. Business intelligence and insurance companies are very concerned about something that most people perhaps confine to movies and so on, and that is the increased incidence of piracy in those areas. Could you discuss that a bit?
ROBERT KAPLAN: I have just been reading a history book on the Strait of Malacca. Piracy has been a problem in the Indian Ocean area for centuries. In fact, it was just an expression of the fact that states had very little control over their seas. Piracy in the area around the Strait of Malacca and the Indonesian archipelago—the whole Southeast Asian archipelago—quadrupled after the United States was kicked out of the Subic Bay Naval Station. That is an indication of what happens when there is less U.S. naval power in a region. We left Subic Bay, and in the decade following, piracy went up four times.
Now, as it happens, we are kind of reentering the Philippines, under a completely different basis. U.S. naval ships are allowed to visit there. We are using Clark Airfield for the first time in 15 years. So the United States is, in an indirect way, regaining its basis, to some extent, in the Philippines.
But that is a danger of when a great power loses power in the high seas; piracy goes up. In fact, it was the relative decline of the British Royal Navy that started the arms race elsewhere that was a factor in World War I.
When I say that it's going to become a multipolar world even in terms of naval strategy, to say nothing of politics or economics, there are worrying patterns there.
QUESTION: You spoke of how Japan is reexamining its role in defense and adopting a more assertive posture. Do you think, if the LDP loses power, that will result in a significant change in that process?
ROBERT KAPLAN: Remember, when North Korea fired its missile—I believe it was in 1998—across Japan into the Pacific Ocean, that did more than any white paper in terms of getting Japan to rearm. I think this is a broad-based feeling among the Japanese.
When we talk about Japan just having a "self-defense force," those are funny words. As I said, it fields almost as many ships in the Pacific Ocean as the U.S. Navy does at the moment. But again, it's modernization, not size, that is important.
I think the biggest effect on this may be the Chinese, because the Chinese are being very, very smart. They are not just throwing their arms up and complaining about Japanese rearmament. They take it as a given, and they are trying to steer it in a more benign direction. They have been putting increased diplomatic emphasis on Japan. The Chinese are really wooing Japan.
Japan is going to become a normal country. It's going to rearm. It may even have nuclear weapons at some point in the future. We can't stop that, but we can improve our relations with Japan to such an extent that Japan is not merely part of a U.S. power dynamic in the area. So there really is competition between us and China over the direction of Japanese rearmament.
QUESTION: I think one of the burdens of your talk is that as the navies of China and other Asian powers grow, there will be more friction with our Navy, and perhaps with America. On the other hand, navy-to-navy relations are sometimes a tool of diplomacy to reduce friction. Can you talk about that practice, and maybe relate it to this concept of a 1,000-ship navy that Admiral Mullen has been talking about?
ROBERT KAPLAN: Great question. First of all, sea power is the friend of the diplomat, much more so than land power is. Navies take a long time to get somewhere, and that gives diplomacy time to work its magic. John F. Kennedy used the time it took the U.S. Navy to get to Cuba, in some respects, to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. There is a cliché: Navies make port visits; armies invade.
Also, navy-to-navy cooperation tends to be better than land military coalitions, because of an indefinable "brotherhood of the sea."
Yes, let me introduce Admiral Mullen's 1,000-ship navy concept, because you probably don't know about it. The former CNO (chief of naval operations) of the U.S. Navy, Mike Mullen, who is going to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, actually, put forth this concept of the 1,000-ship navy—in other words, a fleet of all allied ships of the United States which would, together, patrol coastlines, drive up tips about terrorists, keep the sea lanes open. Anyone could join, provided they were willing to share intelligence with other members of the coalition.
This sounds like a lovely idea, but keep in mind what's going on here. Admiral Mullen is basically squaring the circle of U.S. naval decline. He is aware that the U.S. Navy can't do it alone, the way it has for the six previous decades. This is one of those nice concepts that allows us to leverage the growing naval power of allies.
It is really a 1,000-ship coast guard, when you think about it. Most navies in the world aren't really navies; they are coast guards. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard would rank as the ninth-largest navy in the world, if it was to be called a navy.
So it's a 1,000-ship coast guard. It is sort of the naval equivalent of counterinsurgency—patrolling offshore, keeping people from coming in. A submarine just has to put up one little antenna and it can snoop on cell-phone conversations on land.
To me, the real significance of even the proposal of a 1,000-ship navy—it's a good idea, worth pursuing—is that it is another indication that we are in a slow naval decline.
QUESTION: Having served in the Pacific on destroyers in 1943 and 1944, and having gone to the Naval War College afterwards, I must say that you have enunciated Mahan like nobody else has ever done. I thank you for it.
But I didn't hear anything about The Hunt for Red October. I didn't hear anything about Russia and their influence on the choke points around the world.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Two things. First of all, the questioner mentioned Mahan, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who was the great strategist, whose book The Influence of Sea Power, in 1890, had a tremendous influence on McKinley, on Teddy Roosevelt, on Kaiser Wilhelm.
Actually, what's going on now is that the Navy has given up on Mahan and is now following Sir Julian Corbett, who wrote a much more benign vision of naval power. The joke is that the Chinese are the Mahanians now, because they read Mahan avidly in their war colleges and they quote him in a lot of the articles that have been translated.
Russia is a Pacific power, as well as an Atlantic power. Basically, sales to the Chinese and a few others have allowed Russia to sustain its military research and development wing, even during the tough years of Yeltsin in the 1990s. It has been subsidized through weapons sales. A lot of the ships that the Chinese are acquiring are from Russia.
But it's unclear—everyone can come up with a scenario themselves—whether we are going to face a Russian-Chinese antidemocratic axis across Eurasia. Or maybe, because we are so interlocked with the Chinese economically, that may not happen; the opposite may happen.
From what I see, I think it's very important to note that while we question Iran's legitimacy because of the statements that come out of its government, there is nothing that the Chinese are doing that is illegitimate. What we are seeing is the normal rise of another great power, the way we have seen it throughout history. It may be inconvenient to us, but there is nothing illegitimate, warmongering, or unnatural about it. They have become a great economic power, and now we have to face the fact that they are going to be a great military power as well.
QUESTION: Would you please expand on the balance of power in the Pacific, or wherever else you want to go, in terms of nuclear weapons, where, on the one hand, we are adamant against North Korean nuclear weapons, and at the same time, we have cooperation arrangements with India? What is happening?
ROBERT KAPLAN: By the way, let me just answer a part of your question that I avoided. I forgot about it.
You mentioned The Hunt for Red October. Actually, when you are embedded on submarines, there are constant exercises throughout the day—all these made-up scenarios, where you track another boat in its baffle, so that they don't hear you in the rear, and where you fire missiles. It's always country orange, country X, but nobody is kidding themselves. Off the record, they will tell you that the adversary is always China. The ship they are tracking or trying to corner is always a Song-class submarine or something like that.
So if you go by the exercises that go on daily in the Pacific, China is the organizing principle for the U.S. Navy.
In terms of nuclear, sure it's a double standard. Of course it is. This again gets back to the balance-of-power question. India is a real pivot state in balance-of-power terms in the 21st century. Whether India tilts towards the United States, towards China, towards whomever, is going to have a massive effect. India is going to be a great regional power in the Indian Ocean area. I think the Bush administration has been so generous towards India because in the Bush version of a grand strategy, you leverage India and Japan against China.
I think that would be, frankly, the Democratic version of a grand strategy, too, but it wouldn't be as crude, probably, and would have different rhetoric attached to it.
It's unclear that this is going to go through, because, apparently, there is a lot of dissension in the Indian Parliament about it.
Again, there is a double standard in this. We are favoring some powers, not favoring others. We don't want regimes like North Korea and Iran to get nuclear weapons. Remember, India has been a democracy for many decades. Its systems are far more transparent than the countries which we don't want to have nuclear power. Those are very, very real differences.
In terms of the balance of power, we are trying to use India to limit China. That's the bottom line.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for a highly interesting and thought-provoking lecture. It was very interesting indeed.
It was very good, I think, that you highlighted so much the possibilities of the United States to project power by the U.S. Air Force and by the U.S. Navy. We don't talk that much about that these days. Nevertheless, I would like to have your comment on all the talk these days of the U.S. military might being overstretched by its engagement in Iraq. Ideally, for a superpower like the United States, it would always like to have the three options of Army, Navy, and Air Force. It seems to me that the three are not at hand today.
ROBERT KAPLAN: I think, when you look at the whole issue of overstretch, the first thing that comes to your mind is that you can be deployed in a hundred countries around the world and not be overstretched, but you could be deployed in one country in the world and be overstretched, if the one country requires 160,000 troops and a lot of these other deployments range in size from twelve troops to maybe 700 or 800, at the highest.
Iraq is overstretching the Army and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Marine Corps. It's not really overstretching the Air Force and the Navy to nearly the same degree. Remember, during the Tanker War of 1984 to 1988, the U.S. Navy was very heavily deployed in the gulf, probably more deployed than we are now, in effect. So it's not really a problem for the Navy and the Air Force. It's a real problem for the Army and for the Marines. In fact, the outgoing CNO of the Navy, Admiral Mullen, has been using every option he has to get more sailors to Iraq, because he is afraid of the Navy being shut out of this war, not doing its share, being overlooked, with all the attention going to the Army. They have instituted all these programs, individual augmentee programs, to get more sailors into Iraq.
It is an overstretch, but it is a very particular kind of one. When you hear Secretary Gates talk about going down to 100,000 or so, when you hear Secretary Gates and Admiral Fallon being a bit more aggressive about troop withdrawals than General Petraeus and President Bush, I think what you are seeing is that they want to get us down to that magic number where the Army can start to recover in a manpower sense. Once you are below 100,000, then you can get the Army deployment cycle on a more even keel, and you can be prepared for another emergency somewhere else in the world, if that happens.
QUESTION: Could you comment on the situation of Taiwan?
ROBERT KAPLAN: First of all, with the upcoming Beijing Olympics, I think the Chinese are going out of their way to be very cautious, peaceful, and everything. I think that's why they have been helping us on North Korea. The Beijing Olympics is really China's coming-out party.
Also, given the increasing trade between China and Taiwan itself, there really is no reason for China to ever invade Taiwan at this point.
Keep in mind that we look at Taiwan as a model democracy, but China claims it looks at Taiwan because it is part of its national patrimony that it wants back. What goes unstated is Taiwan's strategic value. MacArthur called it an unsinkable aircraft carrier right off the coast of China. In other words, as long as Taiwan is independent and it provides a listening post for the United States and other allied powers, China's ability to project power into the blue waters beyond Taiwan is very limited.
One expert told me that when China consolidates its grip on Taiwan, it will be like the Battle of Wounded Knee in America. The Battle of Wounded Knee was the last battle of the Indian wars. It was a symbolic endpoint of Western consolidation, where the United States finally had control of everything from the Atlantic to the Pacific and could then look outward in a much more internationalist framework. This expert was telling me that once that magic line is crossed and the Chinese have control over Taiwan, you will find China a much more aggressive, outward-looking great power, much in the way that we have been in recent decades.
The Chinese write incessantly about what MacArthur said, about Taiwan's ability to be this outward projection point for their Navy.
QUESTION: Could you comment a bit on your observations as far as the morale of our enlisted armed forces—I know you have spent a lot of time with the Navy and the Air Force—and also comment about what the attitudes of our Army and Marines are with regard to Iraq, whether it was a mistake, how this is going to affect the future attitudes of our military?
ROBERT KAPLAN: Keep in mind that this book has one long chapter about Iraq, but the rest of the book doesn't deal with Iraq at all. What I say at the beginning is that I don't avoid Iraq, but neither am I limited by it.
Once you get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and you are on ships and destroyers in the Pacific or you are with Special Forces A-Teams in Africa, for instance, or with the Marines elsewhere in the world, morale is great. Morale is not an issue. It simply is not an issue.
Remember, there is so much to do elsewhere in the world, and the sailor's or the airman's day is so long—18-hour days—that nobody sits around talking about Iraq very much, because the present reality where they are in the world is ever-present in their minds.
In Iraq itself, I think it's a very mixed picture. Among units that have been deployed there three or four times, morale is suffering. What I have found is that, at least in terms of Army Special Forces and Marine Force Recon units, though they debate Iraq and have different opinions on it, basically everyone wants to be deployed there at least once, because they are terrified, in a career sense, if they are professional soldiers and Marines in elite units and they never got to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. I have actually heard a lot of insecurity and anxiety about, "Hey, the war is five years on. I still haven't been deployed there."
Of course, it's the opposite when you meet someone in Special Forces who has been there three times already, or four times. It is deployment-dependent.
General Petraeus, in his testimony, mentioned a fact that didn't get much news. Reenlistment rates among those in Iraq are up 130 percent among younger soldiers and Marines, and 115 percent among older, mid-career soldiers and Marines. So reenlistment rates would indicate good morale.
QUESTION: How dangerous is the Iranian Navy, with the ability to buy inexpensive excesses or equivalent from Russia, China, and Korea?
ROBERT KAPLAN: I will give you a sense of the problem in a little passage that I have in an article coming out. Imagine our aircraft carrier. It's $5 billion, $6 billion, one of our older Nimitz-class carriers, with all the latest gadgetry and gizmos on it—or a destroyer, $1 billion. Imagine it besieged by a whole bunch of Iranian revolutionary guards on jet-skis close to the shore with shoulder-fired missiles, who would fire on the destroyer or the frigate or the carrier and would do maybe pinprick damage. But it would be enough damage to make a great victory in a global media sense. It would probably knock out a few of the fighter jets on there.
We think of asymmetry in terms of IEDs, [Improvised Explosive Devices] but there are all different kinds of asymmetry. It's not the Iranian Navy per se, which is pretty weak and decrepit; it's the Navy of the Revolutionary Guards, more specifically, that our planners worry about. It's these kinds of ways that I just indicated that they are really worried about, asymmetry applied to the sea.
JOANNE MYERS: Unfortunately, our time is up. Once again I want to thank you for your unique take on what is happening to our armed forces. Your comments will definitely be an addition to our series on Ethics, War, and Peace.
Thank you very much.