Thursday, September 29, 2011

Submarines and Numbers

***Unapologetic Geek & Nerd alert!***
Read on at your own risk.

The other day I posted to Google+ that the United States could shadow every deployed element of the Iranian Navy without a major dip in its combat capabilities. This was in reply to an article that said Iran was planning to deploy its own navy more aggressively, and possibly "near American waters". I wasn't even remotely worried, not only is our navy larger, it is orders of magnitude more capable. My original comment was that the US could put one of its fast attack submarines on the tail of a Iranian surface ship and more or less blow it out of the water if it so much as shot a firecracker at a ship in international waters. The lopsidedness of such a pairing would be laughable if human lives weren't in th balance.

Well, that got me thinking (a dangerous development), about world navies and their respective naval powers. More to the point, I was interested in comparing their submarine forces, since Submarines are more uniform in their use than almost any other class of seagoing vessel. I ran some numbers, and then referenced them against the listed populations of each nation. I'll get to the relevance of that in a second, but let me show you the numbers.

First of all, a bit about the abbreviations.
SSN is the US designation for a nuclear fast attach submarine.  
SSBN is the US designation for a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. 
SS is the US designation for a conventional submarine.

The list below is hardly exhaustive of all navies. These were just nations that I happened to be familiar with militarily. The info was from Wikipedia, so we know there are some room for error to be considered. Second, I'm going to make some huge generalizations here. There are exceptions to these, I know, but still, I can't account for all of the nuances of the world submarine fleet in one blog post.

Nuclear fast attack submarines like the American Los Angeles class are long range power projection weapons. They are designed to leave American ports, submerge, and then not surface again until they came home three months later. They are large, heavy, and not as quiet as most modern conventionally powered submarines, meaning that some measure of stealth is sacrificed for range and endurance. Most current nuclear powered submarines that I am aware of are capable of firing guided missiles. The ability isn't necessarily innate to the technology, but a nation that can afford to build a sub-sized reactor has probably already fielded guided missiles.

Ballistic missile submarines are something of an odd-man out in this game. Ideally, they are designed to leave port and vanish for 3 months, doing nothing but hiding so that a foreign power will never precisely know where that segment of the nation's nuclear arsenal is. However, there is an increasing movement lately to use the stealth and experience of these ships and their crews to deploy special forces and carry cruise missiles as a conventional offensive weapon. Four Ohio class submarines have been so modified.

Conventionally powered (diesel-electric) boats are generally a defensive vessel. Their range, speed and endurance, size, payload and warload are almost always smaller than a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine. That's not to say that they can't be used offensively, but the limited abilities means that that type of activity would likely not the be norm, or would be accordingly scaled down in a modern conflict.

Now, lets look at the numbers.

Pop. / Submarine Population SSN SSBN SS Total
United States 4,398,746 312,311,000 53 18 71
China 20,298,861 1,339,724,852 7 4 55 66
Russia 2,977,192 142,905,208 20 11 17 48
Great Britain 5,660,182 62,262,000 7 4 11
France 6,582,189 65,821,885 6 4 10
Australia 3,786,397 22,718,381 6 6
Norway 831,500 4,989,000 6 6

First of all, The United States has the most combat submarines of any nation in the world. This makes sense since it is the most geographically isolated the world's major players, with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between it an most of its principal allies. Its military doctrine has been centered on its ability to protect sea lanes, and project military force over water. The fact that all of its submarines are "fleet" grade nuclear boats also supports that policy.

China is the second highest number of submarines. But if you look carefully,  only 11 of those are nuclear powered, meaning it they have limited projection abilities.  But it you really want to compare numbers, look at the population per submarine. The United states currently has one submarine for every 4.3 million US citizens. Now, look at China. Their numbers pale in comparison. They have 20 million people for every submarine, and most of those subs are strategically defensive in nature. This shows a defensive Naval doctrine, one where a fight will likely be had in Chinese waters, and not the open ocean or off of another nation's coast. If you look at modern policy, and modern politics, that fits with what we know of china. Most of its adversaries share a land border with it, and in the grand scheme of things, it has limited military obligations or interests outside of that scope.

Russia is an interesting animal as well. First of all, a lot of their arsenal is upkeep and rebuilds of cold-war and 1990s era equipment built by the Soviet Union. But still, if you look at their numbers, its a telling correlation. Per Capita, they have one submarine for every 3 million people (2.9 if you want to get technical), and a full half of that is nuclear powered fast attack submarines. This shows a nation that wants to be able to project  its power and take the fight to "the other guy" rather than  hunker down in friendly waters. Again using the US as the benchmark, this is a nation with a more aggressive naval strategy and doctrine, and more intentions (or aspirations at the very least) for force projection.

On paper, Great Brittan (.062 Billion) has the same  "fleet" (nuclear) submarine force (though higher quality) as China 1.339 Billion) . Relatively speaking, this shows how unagressive China currently is with its navy, while Great Britain still clearly wants to retain some level of naval force. Still, per capita, The queen has fewer submarines than the US with 5.6 million people per submarine. Again, looking at the numbers, this is a nation that wants to protect its ability to use the ocean, but feels it has fewer obligations than the US. I hate to skip over France, but if you look at the numbers, the populations, and the boats, they are more or less in the same situation as England, with a force meant to send power elsewhere, rather than just wait for it to come to their coast.

I included Australia because I was interested in their situation. Militarily, there are very few forces in the world that pose a direct threat to the island nation, and no one realistically able to invade and occupy. Their submarine fleet consists of 6 conventionally powered boats, all built with western technology in Australia. Whats interesting  is that even though they only have 6 boats, if you math that out against their population, they are more invested in a strong naval defensive strategy than any of the above players aside from Russia. 3.7million people per boat. While their navy will probably never numerically rival America or China, when you consider their population, they are a nation that feels that a naval conflict might well come to them, and they need to be able to stand up to it.

Last but not least, Norway was a bit of a pleasant shock to me. I look them up because I knew they had a formidable submarine fleet for the region. What I found was a nation who's conventional sub force matched Australia's, and in terms of raw number of attack submarines, was also on a par with Great Brittan and France. All this from a nation that boasts 4 million people, just over 831 thousand per submarine. This is a nation that clearly feels like it needs to be able to stand up to some heavy hitters in order to protect its own coast. When you consider than they more or less exists as a next door neighbor to Russia, that postulation fits.

Now, part of the reason this comparison works is how specific the mission of the submarine is. Yes, the role of the sub has expanded greatly over the years, but in the grand scheme of things, it still has a very limited, focused role in modern warfare. Conversely, the flexibility and power most modern surface ships has diversified almost beyond belief. The size of a ship today has far less bearing on its firepower or function that it did in times past. Classifications like frigate, destroyer and cruiser are now pointless, with modern navies increasingly equipping all of their ships with guided missiles and powerful radars. Where twenty years ago there was a single ship for nearly every purpose in the US navy, the word stage today is based more on adapting and modifying. A destroyer could be doing the work of a cruiser one day, and then loading refugees from a war torn nation the next, and then ferrying special forces for a helicopter raid on the third. That really is where we are with it. As such, looking at and evaluating a Navy's surface fleet is a lot more dicey than looking at its submarines. Having a lot of amphibious assault ships would indicate a navy with a strong offensive doctrine (which the US has), but lately, the Italian, Spanish and British navies have been training to use their small aircraft carriers as assault ships as well, giving them a duel purpose ship, making it hard to decide where the emphasis is on a given day.

In the end, it is a lot of academia, and a lot of numbers, and if you're not into it, it is all very dry. But, if you are willing to shift through it all, and do some basic reading, figures like these can help shed new light on news reports like "china is building a new submarine", or "the United States is decommissioning one of its submarines". Submarines are just one facet of the equation. What you really need to look for is abilities, and what nations are increasing what abilities. With that knowledge, you might catch yourself actually thinking one step ahead of the anchor on the evening news one day.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A couple of things.

As much as I would like to sit down and pontificate on a single topic for a while, there have been a few topics eating at me this month. Let me highlight one of them, though I admit this is a revisit of something I spoke about before.

(1) - Pistols and Concealed Carry

The other day, a friend of mine looked at me while we were talking and asked, "When you and [your wife] go out to eat at like a McDonald's or something, you don't take you're gun with you then, right?"

I looked right at him and said "That is exactly when I would take my gun with me, moron!"

I'm sure some of you are cringing at that responce, but there is a very good reason I am revisiting this topic. Something a lot of people don't seem to understand if the "why" in my decision to carry a concealed firearm. I don't put this thing on hoping to use it. And I don't see myself as a potential knight in shining armor in the event of a violent crime. I didn't buy this sidearm so that I could carry concealed. I carry concealed because I happen to have a sidearm for professional reasons. The reason I carry it is because I don't ever want to look in the mirror and have to say to myself "you could have protected that person if you had just remembered to put your gun on that morning."

Does that sound extreme to you? I'm the same way with my Leatherman and my mobile phone. Both are invaluable tools that I try and have on me at all times. More to the point, I do routinely chastise myself when I forget one of them. Given the nature of a firearm, and when it would be used, pulling it for any reason would be a grave circumstance by definition. And like I have said before, when I'm wearing it, I'm looking for ways out of a situation, not how to shoot myself further into it. If it were just me and something happened, trust me, I would probably find cover somewhere and wait for help. But if my wife or son were with me, and cover wasn't readily available, going toe to toe with an attacker might be the only chance I have to protect my family. I already own the gun and the CWL, what's the point in not carrying it?

(2) - The current US budget situation.

Today the Gainesville, Fla., Tea Party released a summary of the national budgetary situation. They have effectively removed the last eight figures from each category, and framed the whole thing as a household budget. As much as I like to think I am a numbers' person, this process helped to clarify for me exactly how ridiculous the situation is.

The information they provided reads like this:

Your annual income is:                       $21,737
Your annual expense is:                     $38,188
Your annual "credit card" use totals:  $16,451
Proposed cuts total:                                $385

You owe your credit card company: $142,000

Alright, first of all, if you want to argue these numbers, go ahead. I'm not even going to try and verify them, the last time I tried to wrap my head around the US budget I would up with a headache and more questions than answers. Seriously, if these are wrong, just post a reply and tell me.

Now, to the meat of the issue. As someone who's had to actually work with a budget that looked something like this, I actually know how bad this is. In my case, I wasn't spending that much, and it was all critical items, like mortgage, bills, gas and so forth. But still, I was racking up more debt than I knew what to do with. I should note that at that point, I was unemployed and we were living off my wife's income. A second job helped, but I'll talk about that in a second.

I'll admit, up until now I was someone arguing for cuts and a balanced budget. After seeing this I have come to two conclusions. First, I was one of those people who didn't have a good instinctual understanding of "millions" verses "Billions" verses "trillions". I understand the numbers, but the proportions are too abstract for me. These numbers up here are more familear, and that means they hit home. Looking at the proportions as listed here, I think it's safe to say I'm much more pessimistic about "balancing the budget"  now than I was a week ago. And this brings us to my second realization:To balance the budget without increasing revenue (upping taxes) would mean cutting better than 40% of all expenditures. That's not trimming a little off the top, thats taking a hatchet to the defence budget, Medicare and Medicade, just to name the top three. I don't think the discretionary spending portion of the national budget has enough money allocated to it to even take a major chunk out of the overage.

So what does all this mean? Let me tell you, it means a bunch, and let me talk about it for a moment. First of all, unless we want to actually take an ax to the the existing budget (which we won't do, in my opinion), a tax increase in inevitable. And to be honest with you, I'm currently not even opposed to an increase after looking at these numbers. However, we need to go about it smartly.

1) ANY increase needs to come with a legal mandate that the budget be balanced from that point on. Otherwise we are just giving messy children more mud to play with and hoping they don't make another mess. The congress will spend whatever they are given without a second thought, and that goes for both sides of the aisle. Money is the currency of power at that level, and any revenue increase would give our elected officials more currency to spread around in order to curry favor with voters. Personally, I think that we could raise every penny of the short funds, and at the end of the day congress would still come up in the red because of "unexpected" needs. Its not that I don't trust our elected officials... no, actually, it is because I don't trust them. I don't trust them at all.

2) As loathed as I am to agree to a tax increase, I will also say that we need to go about it smartly. I'm not going to sit here and try and say who should pay what. But you can bet I'm going to challenge any ideas that come down the pike. When I say challenge, I don't mean shoot them down, but I do want to examine the logic that is out there.

The bottom line for me goes like this; for each tax bracket or demographic, I want to know how much they are supposed to pay, how much they are actually paying, and what their percentage looks like compared to the others. Like I have said before, I don't want to tax the hell out of the rich just because they are rich, but if they are paying 2% of their income in taxes, and I'm paying 15% (just as an example), then we do have something to talk about.

3) One of the reasons that I think the process won't be even remotely this straightforward is the fact that the Tea Party was elected largely on a strong "no more taxes" platform.

4) I also think we need a good, strong look at what our obligations are with each portion of the budget. I don't think there is any single area that should be axed, and in fact hitting any one too hard for cuts could likely cause upheaval domestically. Meicare & Medicade affect two very venerable populations within the US, and the real kicker is that both groups have a healthy voting demographic to go with. Militarily, as much as the a lot of people aren't thrilled with the US presence in Afghanistan and what's left of Iraq, we need to keep in mind that the military is still the primary proactive force in the counter terrorism and national defense effort. Additionally, China had effectively engaged in a race to upgrade their military, as well as a technological race with us in space travel. While I gladly admit that the chance of them militarily threatening the US is remote, even under the most optimistic of circumstances. But, as a superpower we do have obligations to our allies, some of whom are less than a stone's throw from the Chinese border. Any number of political fights today could turn hot in a very short time (Taiwan, South Korea, Iran). With the world currently in hard times across the board, there's no telling what culture will react to what pressure the wrong way. I'm not trying to say that we should spend like we have been, or even like we are, but there are people out there who would gladly knock our armed services back to the 1990s in terms of equipment in order to save money on them, and that is tantamount to using flintlocks in today's military environment.

I guess my point overall is that we need to take a hard look at what our obligations are, and how badly we want to keep them. As much as I hate to say it, even with tax increases, we may well be looking at reductions across the board, and that includes cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and the military.

The foot note to all this is that no mater what, I don't think its possible to balance the budget without pissing off better than 50% of the electorate. So whichever party manages it (if either of them do), can probably look at having every one of their members thumped soundly during the next election cycle. If they cut funds, the recipients will be hacked off, and if they up taxes, a lot of other people will be mad six-ways-till-Sunday.  I might be wrong, but I don't think so.

Okay, moving on yet again.

(3) Social Networking

Let me go ahead and wrap this lengthy tirade up with a bit about social networking. I'm currently on Facebook, but the way things are going that isn't going to last much longer. I was one of the entry-level Google+ users, and I'm here to tell you that from where I'm standing, Facebook looks an awful lot like  its panicking, and rather than swimming, its thrashing around pointlessly, just waiting to drown. I'm sure that's a lot of oversimplification of the facts, but I'm not thrilled with the new look, the new features, or all of the crap that came with.

On the flip side, I'm really getting used to Google+, and enjoying the way they manage their information and offer their services. Perfect? Not by a long shot. But they are light years ahead of Facebook right now.