Geography Strikes Back

Geography Strikes Back, a Wall Street Journal 'Saturday Essay' on global conflict by Robert Kaplan.

If you want to know what Russia, China or Iran will do next, don't read their newspapers or ask what our spies have dug up—consult a map. Geography can reveal as much about a government's aims as its secret councils. More than ideology or domestic politics, what fundamentally defines a state is its place on the globe. Maps capture the key facts of history, culture and natural resources. With upheaval in the Middle East and a tumultuous political transition in China, look to geography to make sense of it all...

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Bill,

We do tactical geography. I have been requesting geostrategic analysis and guidance from higher for over a year. No one is thinking about it. Not officially. We are an organization of tacticians these days. Every commander builds himself an opcenter and a massive tactical intel team. No worries that he has not forces under his operational control. Tactics at the 4-button level are still tactics.

Geostrategy is a lost art in many regards, but it is becoming more important everyday. It is why we waged the Spanish-American War. Look at what we retain today from that conflict, it is not an accident: Pearl Harbor, Guam, American Samoa, Gitmo. Manila harbor and Clark keep us making nice their as well. These protected harbors will retain their geostrategic significance so long as we move things by sea and rely on a Navy to secure those things.

What is significant today and for the future. To us and our competitors? We need to be thinking about that, or we will wake up one morning like Spain did and realize we just lost something important.

As much as I hate writing it I think you're right :-). I clearly overstated the case. I still believe most field grade officers are at least aware of the points surfaced in the article, but I don't think awareness equates to knowing how to incorporate this knowledge into strategy development. I had a similiar discussion with one of our environmental analysts recently and requested an economic infrastructure map showing where certain countries were investing and why (these are long term strategic investments). In theory it should inform us of what will be important. It is hard to free people up to think strategically when everyone at all levels is focused on looking for Al-Qaeda flags in different countries. As you stated this clearly means our current strategy is little more than reacting to existing and emerging tactical threats. This is one reason I'm opposed to the myopic focus of many on irregular warfare. I'm a huge advocate of IW, but it isn't everything, and while it will exist around the world in various forms it isn't always important. We need to learn what is really important, and perhaps a focus on strategic geography will help determine that.

Assuming the study and pracice of strategic geography is a lost art, when was it lost? Where did it used to be taught? How was it incorporated into strategy when we used to do it? Assuming we did it before it shouldn't be hard to reinvent the wheel and get back to right.

Economics and technology are intertwined with geography. All three drive the need for a Navy and Marine Corps since so much of the world is ocean. The lack of air bases with adequate terrain and infrastructure at compromise Pacific distances from China is another example.

The tyranny of Pacific distances is why prepositioning is critical and the forward presence of the Army in Korea and the Marines in Japan should be retained. Ground forces are less susceptible to missile fires (if warned and air-defended) and their presence on allied territory assures that those allies join any fight and do not feel abandoned as economic and military allies.

Technology in the form of strategic and intratheater airlift and sealift is also related to geography. Where there are ample air bases and ports, deployment can occur to multiple locations. When allied geography is adjacent to a conflict, forcible entry may not be necessary. The east side of Taiwan and large center mountains provide somewhat of a non forcible entry capability to that eastern shore. Island hopping by helicopters assists the same way from the Philippines and Japan. Where fuel sources and infrastructure already exist, the costs of war are far less. It was far easier to support Vietnam where all battlefields were relatively close to ports, than Iraq and Afghanistan that were much farther away.

The nature of terrain and weather, inherent in METT-TC and geography, are also related to technology and economics. Korean and Afghan mountains and Korean rice paddies inflict a geographic nightmare for the attacker and favor the defender and guerilla. However, like Vietnam, forward deployed forces could be easily resupplied in Korea and troops in MRAP, Bradleys, and tanks can largely shrug off TBM. Helicopters and other fighter airpower also will reign supreme in areas with mountains and vast desert distances with few roads. In Korea, that airpower has fuel access readily at hand. Not so much in Iraq and Afghanistan when its internal supplies were sabotaged or nonexistent due to economics.

I still wonder why Saudi Arabia and Turkey don't make a deal and attack Syria from the north and south (making a deal with Jordan) and split the Sunni Syrian territory between them. It would provide water pipeline access to Saudi Arabia where so much desalinization requires so much energy. A recent article speculates that Saudis might import energy by 2030 and other articles discuss water shortages worldwide with only 3% of the total being non-salt water. It would allow oil pipelines to the Mediterranean and Turkey to bypass the Straits of Hormuz. It would encircle Iraq (and indirectly Iran) and provide a place for Iraqi Sunnis to migrate, if desired.

Another article in today's Real Clear World speculates that one reason the Chinese claim the South China Sea is to make us standoff further with aerial intelligence assets. Technology like Global Hawk and Reaper allow monitoring China from just outside the 12 mile limit, and a UCLASS would allow the same...with less risk of an international incident inherent in shooting down a manned aircraft.

Obviously, ice breaker and sub tech are a factor in the arctic where economics will drive oil exploration in a harsh environment. Airpower will be essential there, as well. It will be a situation not unlike the South China Sea with many nations adjacent to the arctic and all claiming some oil drilling rights.

Another excerpt from his book mentioned the Caspian sea area and the oil sources of those other "stans," coupled with the strategic location of Azerbaijan. If Israel attacks Iran and uses Azerjaiban which is then attacked by Iran, it would result in the U.S. being invited into that territory to surround Iran militarily and secure the oil supplies in that area.

Move Forward:

Could you explain a little more fully when you say "a non forcible entry capability" exists on the east coast of Taiwan? I ask because there appears not to be many ports over there and not too many people either. I don't quite understand what good it would do anybody to be able to land on the east coast of Taiwan.

It appears you may be contradicting yourself when you speak of the terrain in Korea. On the one hand you say it favors the defender and the guerrilla (I am making an assumption guerrilla means light infantry). That is a valid I think. But then you say that forward areas can be easily resupplied by armored vehicles. Since Korea is mountainous would those vehicles be vulnerable to attack because they would be confined to roads in valleys? Would they be vulnerable to tactical ballistic missiles if those missiles had warheads filled something like the brilliant anti-tank munition?

The other thing is that it is good to have fighter jets, but they may not be so effective against good troops dug in in mountains. RandCorp posted here a few months ago about how hard it is to actually hit guys hiding well in mountains.

This forever a civilian thinks you may be underestimating the extent to which tech can overcome terrain.

"a non forcible entry capability"

Should have said assisted entry. Examples? We had help landing in Saudi Arabia in Desert Shield and Kuwait in OIF. If we were assisting Ukraine, we could receive airfield and port assistance from next door Romania because they would fear they are next. If the PLA was commencing an amphibious assault against Taiwan, Marines flown by MV-22 out of Okinawa could reach Taiwan's eastern shores before the mid-Strait PLA arrived. U.S. Army helicopters, likewise, could reach Taiwan from the Philippines. U.S. ground forces would then become guerillas helping the Taiwan ROC in battling the PLA and preparing other landing zones and austere shallow water ports/beachheads.

The A2/AD crowd would say that adversaries would attack ports in Romania and airfields in Okinawa and Philippines to preclude this. I guess they also would time their invasion to attack the USS George Washington while it's parked pierside in Japan, and would strike ships in San Diego and Pearl Harbor/Guam with Klub missiles disguised as containers on cargo ships. Missiles would destroy MV-22s on Okinawa along with F-22s elsewhere. In naval think tank minds, China would risk a nuclear exchange and utter economic collapse (lost trade and mined ports/blockade) by launching a Pearl Harbor like attack out of the blue over a nebulous objective like Taiwan (guess they want their own 10-year insurgency) or the South/East China Sea.

However, it goes beyond that. The A2/AD crowd attributes high-tech capabilities to every potential adversary, no matter how weak they are and minimal their defense budget is. They show US tankers restricted to the Gulf of Oman and Turkey, even though we surely could fly aerial refuelers over the Persian/Arabian Gulf or Saudi Arabia if the latter is attacked. They likewise depict highly capable S-300 like missiles being able to magically see through Taiwan mountains to engage airborne-troop dropping, air assault, and airlanding aircraft flying low behind those tall central mountains.

The problem is that because think tanks are so smart in the eyes of the D.C. crowd, that folks in power don't recognize these goofs and think the sky is falling. Chinese leaders likewise may miscalculate when they see our own published exaggerations and think their assassin's mace can beat U.S. air/seapower.

Iran certainly knows they can't which is why they threaten to mine (temporarily) the Straits of Hormuz, and to attack US forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. These would be weak responses at best and the resulting GCC arms race and future US basing in Azerbaijan and elsewhere would simply make it all the more destructive for them the next time when we initiate the attack instead of Israel.

Since Korea is mountainous would those vehicles be vulnerable to attack because they would be confined to roads in valleys? Would they be vulnerable to tactical ballistic missiles if those missiles had warheads filled something like the brilliant anti-tank munition?

Again, you are attributing capabilities not evident in North Korea or most realistic foes. Hezbollah got a lucky shot in on an unalerted Israeli corvette. We would have AWACS to see such missiles and countermeasures would turn on per "meanwhile"s comment.

The DPRK has no brilliant anti-tank munitions. They have no advanced tanks or aircraft or air defenses thanks to the same sanctions and low defense budget that afflict Iran. Sure, the DPRK would attempt special ops infiltration to attack us. We would have much shorter supply lines than either current/recent conflict. More forces and more armor would be protecting those convoys. As Dave Maxwell alludes to elsewhere, you could speculate that we and the ROK would probably have SOF capabilities in North Korea if they attacked or just fell apart.

You are certainly correct about confinement to roads in valley. Recall that Ken White mentioned how poor and narrow North Korean roads are which would make an offensive difficult north of the DMZ, I would imagine. That is not because the DPRK are anywhere near as capable as even the ROK Army. It is just highly restricted terrain with many places for ambush. That is more of a threat than Chinese or DPRK TBM (unless the latter are nuclear).

The other thing is that it is good to have fighter jets, but they may not be so effective against good troops dug in in mountains.

RandCorp, who I think became RantCorp, and then "meanwhile," recalls Soviet fighters without U.S. precision munitions or U.S. countermeasures. U.S. fighters and bombers today have amazing sensor pods. F-35 will have EO/IR sensors and built-in lasers. If they, or Reapers target something, it gets hit. Apaches are even better at precision direct fires and they can overfly the mountainous terrain of Korea the same way they do in Afghanistan.

RandCorp's outdated assessment is typical of why Sean Naylor is correct in saying decision-makers and the public need more AirSea battle details rather than A2/AD allegations that are not uniformly accurate. Classified programs that may or may not be essential get carte blanche due to the A2/AD boogyman.

For instance, what will escort these new long range bombers over China? If these L-Band and other radars can find the general area of our bombers, can't J-20 find and destroy our unescorted B-3? Another example: just because a TBM can target aircraft parking places and runways does not mean it can kill lots of ground troops inside armored vehicles or in a bunker. The few in number ASBM and associated sensors have questionable capability at this time. Carriers initially can stand-off, assisted by aerial refuelers. Somewhat feasible TBM threats to softer air and larger target sea assets (once air defense missiles run out?) do not mean that comparable Chinese TBMs can kill multiple dispersed and dug-in ground troops, helicopters, or MV-22s that land briefly and then disappear hidden by a large mountain range.

Some have probably already read a recently hurried CSIS assessment that Korean U.S. Army troops could be replaced by rotating active and reserve troops. Dave Maxwell's assessment in the other article that technology will shortchange troops is not correct, IMHO. AirSea battle will shortchange Army technology AND troops beyond the 480,000 level when sequestration strikes. Then the Army will be required to hand walking papers to highly capable multi-tour war vets who came through in real wars in order to finance hypothetical/unlikely conflicts associated with a Pacific pivot.

The median income of most Chinese families remains around $10K and their workforce is aging. Their young culturally are supposed to take care of the old there. Their factories are churning out more products than they can sell worldwide and their workers certainly can't afford many of those products. China depends on exports. War with the west and its neighbors would cut off those exports and threaten their access to cheap oil...gas their own few folks with cars certainly could not afford at $5 a gallon. Public transportation would be bombed as part of EBO meaning those factories would be largely vacant of workers. China's status as number 2 in the world would simply evaporate.

We talk about not understanding the cultures and other factors associated with those we fight. Why don't we understand the above factors when pondering unlikely war with China?

Move Forward:

I must strongly disagree with you about things if "the PLA was commencing an amphibious assault against Taiwan". I preface my remarks by saying this is just an exercise in the hypothetical but it does have value since the main subject is geography. And I'll add logistics.

If Red China attacked Taiwan by sea and we were only able to reinforce via the east coast of the island, we would be doomed. Any men we landed there we would essentially be delivering into Red Chinese POW camps. We could get the men there via air, as you say, but once delivered not enough things could be delivered to them to allow them to fight effectively. There isn't much port capacity on that side of the island. Even if there was forces landed there would have to fight their way over mountain ranges to get to where all the people and facilities are. Any forces landing on the east coast would be landing nowhere.

If this hypothetical came about, and the Red Chinese had the west coast and we had the east coast, the problem would basically be who could build up forces faster. The Reds would have the west coast with all those ports only some 100 miles or so off their coast. We would have almost no ports an ocean away from our coast. We would have no chance at all of competing. It wouldn't matter how well the central mountains shielded airdrops. Like I said, you'd be airdropping people into the bag. If the west coast was lost, the island is lost.

Just an opinion here, but if the Red Chinese did take Taiwan by force (just an opinion on another hypothetical), they would not be faced with a 10 year insurgency. It is an island, there would be no support coming in from the outside. Because it is an island there would be no contiguous country to provide sanctuary. And most importantly, Red Chinese small war practices don't resemble ours. They would crush any insurgency by the simple expedient of killing everybody who even looked like they thought about it, and their families. They have never shied from mass, truly mass, terror. It works, at least in the short run.

As far as Korea goes, I have always wanted somebody to war game, in a sophisticated way, the invasion of north Korea in 1950 with modern forces. The American force would be equipped like we are now. The Red Chinese would be light infantry like they were but with 4-wheelers, Javelin missiles, guided mortar shells and SA-24s or the most modern iteration of the Stinger. You would start the thing with the Red Chinese infantry where they were when they commenced to run us out and weather conditions would be the same. The object of the exercise would be to see if any of our forces could extricate themselves or would they all be killed and captured. The results would be interesting to see and might illustrate how much effect terrain terrain and wx have.

Kim's forces don't have BAT but the Red Chinese might. If they gave them to KIm's forces (another hypothetical) things might be hard.

I think RandCorp, meanwhile and RantCorp are all different people. Style and content all differ significantly.

If this hypothetical came about, and the Red Chinese had the west coast (of Taiwan) and we had the east coast, the problem would basically be who could build up forces faster.

You got it partially correct IMHO. We would have the east coast and adjacent oceans. China would be in a heavily contested battle to cross the Strait and secure the east coast with the few forces that make it. If you examine most AirSea Battle think tank studies, they completely omit that China would face exactly the same A2/AD dilemma that we would face...only many times greater.

We would be landing on terrain largely controlled by friends. Imagine the trajectory a missile must take to clear steep mountains and then land nearly vertically on the east side to hit dispersed ground forces of unknown location. 1500 missiles sounds a whole lot less effective when divided by 1000 targets over a 300 mile long Taiwan and another 500 targets on allied territory and Guam, with many of those targets hardened or repairable or simply not where aimed or struck. Chinese amphibious ships and few airborne-capable planes would be crossing a 100 miles Strait filled with air, sea, and land hazards of Taiwan and U.S. origin.

To ensure all realize there is no OPSEC violation here, this is all completely hypothetical as I have zero knowledge of any contingencies involved. However, look at the realities of their capabilities and challenges vs ours. The PLA could not begin to cross and sustain a large invasion force on Taiwan...or the South China Sea...or East China Sea. Think how long it would take to cross the Strait on an amphibious ship at 20 knots...about 5 hours under fire from Taiwan and the U.S. the entire time. Parts of the South China Sea are more like 600-900 miles from China.

Again, Taiwan is about 300 miles long. That is about the distance from Bagram to Kandahar in Afghanistan. If we can't find insurgents in that size Afghanistan area, why feel confident that China rapidly could crush a highly-capable Army and insurgency in forested mountains and along beaches, having to sustain their cross-strait battle force under fire for that entire time. What happens to world opinion and Chinese exports during that time. Our Marines and Army forces will have boarded and stopped China-bound tankers and their harbors will have been mined.

Why would you think that friendly ground forces on the east side would lack the mobility to move to the west around or over those mountains, assisted by attack/assault helicopters, JLTV, and CAS?

It sounds startling to hear about all those TBM and a few anti-ship ballistic missiles. The contrasting challenge facing the Chinese to cross that Strait are far more startling to the PLA. What happens when China runs out of TBM and we still have multiple F-35s and bombers just starting to arrive in number? If Taiwan is obliterated after being targeted by 1000 missiles, what is China's gain vs the current billions it makes in peaceful trade with Taiwan and trillions in lost trade with adjacent and distant trading partners?

Move Forward:

This is a fun discussion.

I agree with your points about the difficulties the Red Chinese would have if they made a contested attempt to invade. The difficulties would be so great that they probably wouldn't try it. My points were made to address a the "what if" situation. The "what if" would never come to be if the USN was not defeated. If the USN were to be defeated to the extent that we could not get ships and forces over to the island by sea, things would be very different.

In that case the Red Chinese wouldn't have to make a contested landing. They could just blockade the place and wait for it to run out of food. Then they could occupy it. The amphibious forces they do have would make occupation a lot easier.

You bring up a good point about 1000 or 1500 ballistic missiles with conventional warheads not really being all that much force. If you compare the amount of high explosive that can be delivered to the amount of HE that was delivered by aircraft in all the past wars, it really isn't too much. Malta stayed in operation for years in the face of constant air attack. Someplace like Guam, if hardened and facilities scattered about, may be able to take a lot of missiles and still keep ticking. (That is one reason I like the Swedish Gripen fighter. It is designed to for dispersed ops using road sections. Same survivability but far less cost than an F-35B.)

An additional point that I've never heard discussed is what kind of production rates can they achieve with those missiles? Once you fire off your thousands in an initial barrage, what kind of sustained fire rate can you maintain with continuing production? I have no idea but it would be interesting to learn what it is.

I am sure (in continuing our hypothetical) that friendly ground forces could fight their way around and through those mountains...IF they had enough logistical support. Having only the east coast would make that very hard to get the requisite support. Of course as you say, it is a big if if the Red Chinese could take the west coast but IF they did, the island would be lost.

Move Forward,
Points well taken. I do not mean to denigrate economics and technology as they are critically important as well. But my point is we do not focus sufficiently on understanding geography and as Kapan points out focusing on economics and technology is not enough, we must understand the geography. Most importantly as you point out geography is connected to everything - the physical with the human/cultural. And to reinforce Dave D's point on COL Collin's book on Military Geography we should consider his words in the opening pages of his important work:

Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines geography as "a science that deals with earth and its life, especially the description of land, sea, air, and the distribution of plant and animal life including man and his industries with reference to the mutual relations those diverse elements." ...Geography consequently embraces a spectrum of physical and social sciences from agronomy to zoology. In simple terms it describes what the environment is at any given place and time.
...
Military Geography, one of the subsets within those broad confines, concentrates on the influence of physical and cultural environments over political-military policies, plans, programs, and combat/support operations of all types in global, regional and local contexts. Key Factors (displayed in Table 1 [on page 4 of the book]) directly (sometimes decisively) affect the full range of military activities: strategies, tactics, and doctrines; command, control and organizational structures; the optimum mix of land, sea, air, and space forces; intelligence collection; targeting; research and development; the procurement and allocation of weapons, equipment, and clothing; plus supply, maintenance, construction, medical support, education, and training...

Sir, really enjoyed your's and the Major's comments in the other article. Still have personal, unsubstantiated doubts that SOF alone could have secured either Iraq or Afghanistan given the distances and insurgent threats. I personally thought General Shinseki was more correct in telling Secretary Rumsfeld that smaller was not better...

Also seem to recall that when bin Laden was escaping at Tora Bora, someone was requesting more regular general purpose forces (GPF) that were not available. I'm wondering if special warfare forces would have felt comfortable operating in small A-teams, etc the last few years around Sangin and other Helmand and Arghandab areas...or the Korengal valley a few years back. Do GPF gain some of the Intel that allows night raids to function? Don't know any of this...just speculating.

If we had not been in Afghanistan for the past decade, could we have pulled off the raid on bin Laden's compound? Would Pakistan have given us overflight rights from the sea or Afghanistan from any of the other adjacent stans? What happens in two years when the general purpose force leaves. Will we still have unlimited overflight over Afghanistan for CAS and resupply of special warfare forces? Will direct action forces still be around? If not, what airpower will prevent the 1975 conventional attack we witnessed in Vietnam?

MF,

You make several good posts here, but while I would never argue that SOF can operate without conventional forces, I believe it is important for us to be honest about the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The raid to seek revenge on AQ and to punish the government of Afghanistan for allowing them sanctuary and for continuing to protect them after the attacks did not require conventional forces. If we would have stopped short of regime change (Desert Storm is looking strategically smarter every day...), or, if following regime change we would have not gone down the feel good path of nation building, we would likely never have needed a large conventional presence. Everything about Afghanistan that we have had to deal with is consequences to the choices we have made throughout the evolution of that problem.

Could we have left the Northern Alliance to their own devices in regards to establishing some sort of monopoly against the Taliban? Yes. Most likely this would have forced a compromise a decade ago. We could have just built a SOF base on Bagram, with CIA operating in a Pakistan that we had not forced to wage war on its own Pashtu populace. After all, our target was AQ, not every insurgent group in the region that we hang "terrorist" labels on today.

We act like the scale of the conflict today is the fault of our opponents, but the opposite is very much the case. The Afghanistan conflict is a perfect case, in fact, for the Republican Party's latest battle cry: "We built that"!

We don't appreciate or own up to how our actions to turn the Northern Alliance into a centralized government with so much patronage vested in the President drove the Taliban to begin a revolution to challenge that intolerable political result.

We don't appreciate how our ever-increasing COIN efforts against that growing revolution sparked an even more diverse and problematic resistance insurgency among the average, apolitical people of Afghanistan who are affected by our actions.

We don't appreciate how our demands on the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to get out into their previously self-governed populaces of the rural/tribal areas to "enforce the rule of law" and otherwise generally act the way we think governments should act; for purposes to address our interests as we defined them, not their interests as they defined them; have acted to destabilize both of these countries far more than any ideology or efforts of AQ or any other such group.

The debate should not be the tactical one of conventional approaches to fix this thing we built vs. SOF approaches to fix this thing we built. The debate needs to be on the strategic choices we made that built this thing in the first place. Until we have that debate and recalibrate our actions accordingly, everything else is sadly moot.

Bob Jones:

Away from mil geography and back to the "Can you blame them?!" flacking for Taliban & Co and the Pak Army/ISI, I see.

I actually like your point about leaving things to their own devices a decade ago to a degree. The anti-Taliban forces were starting something of a comeback and a number of other countries were giving them support. We could have just let them continue. It would have been interesting to see what India, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the 'Stans could have done. We may yet get to see that.

Curmudgeon (I think it's him) likes to point out how you on the one hand characterize the Afghans as being apolitical but on the other hand they aren't apolitical and are driven to revolution because the Taliban, who gained power through violence, were driven from power through violence. Seems a good thing to point out.

Personally, I always find your view that recognizing "their interests" seems to equate to yielding to "their interests". I think our interests trump their no matter how cross the generals in 'Pindi get.

Dave, well said, and as a sort of a boast, I own an original copy of the Warlord's (COL John Collins, USA Ret.) "Military Geography, For Professionals and the Public". I've often referred to this gem in my "professional" and personal endeavors.

The subtitle says it all:

"To understand today's global conflicts, forget economics and technology and take a hard look at a map, writes Robert Kaplan."

This is why I think Military Geography should be a key part of any Professional Military Education curriculum (along with History, Theory, Operational Art, and Strategy) or any undergraduate or graduate program in security studies!!

The only disagreement I have with Kaplan's article is his claim that the military ignores geography? He didn't mention one thing in his article that most officers aren't already aware of. Studying military and human Geography is an old and sound idea that has not been rejected. Kind of reminds me of Dr. Kilcullen in his recent article telling the military they better get ready for urban combat because it is coming. News flash, the military has been preparing and evolving their ability to fight in urban terrain. Kaplan could have made his point without assuming the military didn't get it, or if he really feels that way he should have given some examples to validate his claim.