Category Archives: The Lighter Side

Maritime and naval stories with a dash of comedy.

Avatar: Shock and Awe-fully Dumb

Written by Matthew Hipple for Movie Re-Fights Week

The blockbuster Avatar is not only remarkable for its stunning visuals and brow-beating politics, but for the colossal  incompetence of the corporate and military leadership of the Resource Development Administration (RDA). 

Sure, humanity may be counting on you for their survival. Sure, you have arrived on an alien planet armed with the ability to transmit your consciousness into proxy flesh suits hewn together with the most advanced science. But hey, why not just “YOLO” it and see what happens? What could go wrong? It’s not like you’re 4.5 light years from earth with limited resources!

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Tactical Failure: If It Looks Smart and Doesn’t Work – It’s Stupid

Having thoroughly pissed off the blue bees nest on Pandora, RDA command is ordering you to destroy a tiny, purple-glowing “Tree of Souls.” The critical node in a vast planet-wide biological neural net, it is located  in the middle of an area of heavy radar interference and the aerial equivalent of deadly shoal water.

That's it? It's the size of a town Christmas tree! How hard could it be?
That’s it? It’s the size of a small town Christmas tree! Why does this have to be complicated?

RDA commanders probably read the old classic “Starship Troopers” and had heard of Star Craft’s “Zerg” and Halo’s “Flood” from the History Channel. Biological hive minds always end in billions of dead terrans. The mission was probably too important not to staff to death.

What would be more perfect than assigning a massive, vulnerable transport ship carrying a comically lashed-together bomb of mining ordnance through this rock mine-field? Granted, the target is only the size of a Denny’s… OH! Let’s add a ground assault through dense jungle with little to no air support. Never pass up an excuse to party “Ellen Ripley” style in an exo-suit. The plan looked awesome on power point, as one can see from the many unnecessary parts: a militarized space barge and a ground assault. The words “decisive,” “domain,” and “disruptive” probably appeared multiple times.

Yeah... this feels good. I'll sacrifice all my mobility to protect this lumbering militarized space barge.
Yeah… this feels good. We’ll sacrifice all our mobility to protect this lumbering militarized space barge. We look TOTALLY cool right now.

However, RDA had JUST blown up the Home Tree – a facility the size of a small city – using nothing but a token force of deadly and agile VTOL gunships. Not only was Operation Soul Tree against a far smaller and more fragile target – but it would be in a physically and electronically denied environment.  Why suddenly trade mobile lethality for for static defense on a flying dump truck? Why risk losing your entire ground force in a superfluous assault through dense jungle?  Seriously, how could this NOT go wrong?

Aurgh! A total disaster we could have NEVER predicted!
Noooooo! A total disaster we could have NEVER predicted!

Now, had the RDA forces learned the lesson of their own experience – they would have executed a multi-axis raid on the “Soul Tree” using a primary assault by gunships and a feint by a faux “bomber.” The ground assault would have been completely scrubbed.

Maintaining a “feint” – preferably using gunships and a transport on rudimentary auto-pilot – would draw enemy forces away from the actual angle of attack. The windows of the aircraft used for the feint would have to be blacked out. Recon for Airborne Pandoran forces would quickly discover that the cockpits were empty, and realize the bomber is a feint.

Detaching the primary aerial assault force from the  bomber would have allowed pilots speed and flexibility denied to them in the original plan to guard a militarized transport. With Pandoran forces distracted by the potential bombardment by the transport ship, the main assault force would move through the floating boulders at top speed, devastating the Soul Tree with their ordnance before quickly retreating back to base.

I love the smell of victory in the morning.
I love the smell of victory in the morning.

With the ground component completely scrubbed, the RDA would retain a significant force to continue defense of their facilities. While these bases are heavily defended already, these are static defenses that require augmentation from mobile components. It would be wise to keep some of the aerial component in reserve as well, in the off chance that Operation Soul Tree failed and human forces would have to hold out until military re-supply from Earth.

Of course, unlike in Operation Guard the Slow and Useless Target, we get to win this time.

Strategic Failure: That Escalated Quickly

Sooo... now that I randomly burned down all your homes just so I can dig under your tree, we're cool - right?
Sooo… now that I randomly burned down all your homes just so I can dig under your tree, we’re cool – right?

But let’s take a step back here – why did the RDA get to the point where it believed it had to commit all its forces to a winner-take-all assault on this Soul Tree network node? Oh, that’s right, they chose to burn down some blue people’s entire capital city.

Granted, the tree is sitting on top of an unobtanium stockpile critical to humanity’s survival… but this is the same human civilization that is capable of creating avatar meat-puppets that can be operated remotely to any location anywhere on this alien planet. Certainly, we can learn the ancient art of lateral drilling?

We can bring genetically engineered soldier suits trillions of miles through space - but can only dig like Gold-rush era miners.
We can bring genetically engineered soldier suits trillions of miles through space – but can only dig  like Gold-rush era miners.

The vast mining infrastructure operated by the RDA, and the automated technology available to it, would allow humanity some options OTHER than blowing a native city into oblivion to access the resources. It’s the future, surely there are automated mining units that aren’t the size of office buildings, or tunnel-boring machines that could serve this mission.

And let’s be real here – the outfit sent to collect all these resources is the “Resource Development Administration.” Mining should be their specialty.

Force Planning: Phoning it in

The mining technology angle leads us to a more general problem with the technology employed by the RDA. Considering the military and commercial operational needs, the capabilities developed from the technology available seem oddly under developed.

The lack of orbital strike capabilities is notable. From cracking open a large hole for mining to cracking open a target – the RDA would have found great use for an orbital weapon of some sort. It’s not like the mission’s importance to earth didn’t warrant the resources. They certainly had the technology for it. You could destroy ANY  tree you really felt necessary – and you wouldn’t have to risk any military forces. Hell, the Pandorans wouldn’t even know it was you. They don’t know how satellites work.

You came this far, with ALL this technology... and couldn't bring a space cannon?
You came this far, with ALL this technology… and couldn’t bring a space cannon?

More concerning is the lack of a real military application of the avatar technology the movie is named after. Sure, the modified blue people are a nice touch. Hearts and minds is always the better path then a tough military campaign in someone else’s backyard.

However, why settle for tall skinny blue people? Why not create a legion of 10 foot tall super-Cena ? You could add extra arms, camouflage skin, or even millions of tiny spider-like hairs for extra grip! Perhaps lower cost methods could be employed to save human personnel and maximize combat effectiveness, like making the combat exo-suits neural net operated. Perhaps remote neural control could operate the gunships… or even gunship swarms controlled by a single consciousness. In the movie Surrogates, the DoD was fighting wars with legions of brain-controlled robots… and they weren’t even advanced enough to land a mining operation in another solar system.

You can biologically engineer a whole new life-form that can be remotely controlled anywhere on the planet... and all you can make is REALLY tall blue people?
Why don’t we try this with 2-3 more feet in height, 5x the muscle mass, and 2 more arms for faster magazine change-outs, multiple melee and ranged weapon use, and better climbing abilities. Maybe the skin can be a color that blends in better with the environment. Really, we can do better than super-tall blue hipsters.

Hell, if the RDA had the ability to hack into the neurological network of a surrogate body remotely – why wasn’t anyone trying to tap into this planetary neural net? Imagine the processing capacity of a planet-sized biological computer, or the influence one could have on inter-tribal planetary politics with neural-net access. At the very least, the intelligence gathering potential would be invaluable for a force operating in a potential adversary’s backyard.

Conclusion: Insanity or Laziness

Humanity is in a tight spot – an energy crisis along with dwindling terrain resources mean that unobtanium is humanity’s only way out. Unfortunately, the RDA decision makers on Pandora has decided to phone it in.

You ask me for strategy? I offer you something better - a myopic pursuit of frontal assaults. I offer you the obsessions of a man who has clearly never seen the movie "Zulu" or read a Kipling poem, and has only been fighting wildlife for at least a decade.
You ask me for strategy? I offer you something better – a myopic pursuit of frontal assaults and kinetic effects. I offer you the obsession of a man who has clearly never seen the movie “Zulu” or read a Kipling poem. I assure you, though my experience in military operations was once great, I have done nothing but slowly go mad from the isolation and fight wildlife for at least a decade.

Perhaps it’s the cabin fever spending so much time away from civilization. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of mission requirements that involve fighting either animal opponents or blue people armed with sticks. Maybe it’s even the lack of good reading material. Whatever the case, those who were clearly once capable corporate, technical, and military leaders had long ago started slacking off – thinking down predictable or silly stovepipes in their execution of the Pandora mission. It makes a good case for regular leadership rotation. It pays to ensure one’s leadership does not become stale… or even lose their minds from isolation.

Whoever humanity sends to re-take Pandora – and capture the traitor, Jake Sully – will be a bit more on the ball.

We'll be back, hippies.
We’ll be back, hippies.

Matthew Hipple is the President of CIMSEC and host of our Sea Control and Real Time Strategy podcasts. He is also an active duty Surface Warfare Officer, whose opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the Resource Development Administration.

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Ulysses S. Grant at Endor

Written by Matthew Merighi for Movie Re-Fights Week

The Battle of Endor was the ultimate confrontation in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was a two-pronged battle both in space and on the surface of Endor. Each was a desperate race against time; the Rebel Fleet desperate holding out against the Imperial Fleet backed by a fully armed and operational Death Star laser while a strike team battled a full Imperial Legion defending the Death Star shield generator. We all know how the story ends: the plucky Rebels manage to overcome the Legion through successful use of indigenous forces and coalition warfare, allowing the Rebel Fleet to destroy the Death Star from the inside. The Death Star explodes, the evil Emperor dies, and the galaxy is finally free of tyranny. The end.

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While this makes for good cinematography, it makes for poor understanding of military strategy. As the television show Robot Chicken points out, there is no reason why the Rebels should have won that battle even once the Death Star was destroyed. The Imperial Fleet was still very much intact, though down a Super Destroyer, and could have prevailed in a protracted conventional engagement. Moreover, the Emperor’s initial strategy to hold the Imperial Fleet in reserve in order to demonstrate the Death Star’s power and fuel Skywalker’s despair in his fall to the Dark Side was clumsy at best. Palpatine demonstrated what happens if you do not pay attention during strategy classes.

In crafting a better strategy at Endor, the Empire could have turned to a figure from American military history: Ulysses S. Grant. For our historically impaired audience, General Grant was the commander of Union forces during the American Civil War who distinguished himself through quasi-Soviet strategy of using superior manpower to slowly grind down the Confederacy until it surrendered. He is one of the best examples of a successful attrition-based approach to strategy and tactics. He followed the dictum that “quantity has a quality of its own.”

If Emperor Palpatine isn’t going to use his Fleet, I’d like to borrow it for a time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
If Emperor Palpatine isn’t going to use his Fleet, I’d like to borrow it for a time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Union’s Grand Army of the Republic (double entendre intended) exhibited the same characteristic as the Imperial Fleet: it was larger and better outfitted but less ably manned and led than its Rebel counterpart. This did the Union no favors in the early phase of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln fired Grant’s predecessor, George McClellan, for failing to act aggressively with the Union’s numeric advantage. “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army,” Lincoln fumed, “then I would like to borrow it for a time.”

If Grant was directing operations at Endor, he would immediately engage the Rebel Fleet. He had enough numbers to overwhelm the Rebel Fleet early while they were still processing the trap the Empire laid. He also had optimal field position. The Rebel Fleet was trapped on three sides by the Death Star, Endor, and the Imperial Fleet. The Rebels were also strung out in a long column while the Imperial Fleet was in a broad line. Imperial Star Destroyers, with their superior armaments and optimization for firing at targets to their front, “crossed the T” and pummeled the ships in the Rebel vanguard before the heavy cruisers in the rear could get into good firing range.

An example of “crossing the T.” (Image from Wikipedia)
An example of “crossing the T.” (Image from Wikipedia)

Grant’s approach does have a downside: the risk of a Pyrrhic victory. The Imperial Fleet is not just a warfighting tool; it is also a tool of domestic policing. The Empire is held together through fear of the Imperial Fleet, so conventional losses at Endor could have been a political disaster when coupled with Emperor Palpatine’s death. Grant would have accepted those risks and proceeded with his strategy. He would have reasoned that, despite the short-term challenges of replacing losses, the Rebels would have much more difficulty recovering from such a slugfest than the Empire would. Grant might also have reasoned that it would be much easier to bind together a government by NOT being a pro-human racist or building giant planet-killing superweapons that would ruin the galactic economy but that is neither here nor there.

Remember strategists: focus on your most important objectives, use your advantages wisely, and don’t be afraid to take risks. If you do, you too might defeat the Rebel Fleet one day.

Matthew Merighi is CIMSEC’s Director of Publications. He is a Masters of Arts candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also a proud Star Wars nerd.

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CALL FOR ARTICLES: Movie Re-Fights (Dec 14-20)

As Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches, people are already arguing over what the nature of the new Empire, or how the Rebellion has evolved. Many are debating the nuance of how these fictional sides even fight their wars to begin with, a question that remains delightfully open ended for most fictional war movies. So, we decided to use opening week as an excuse to throw down the gauntlet!

For any film – Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, Aliens, Independence Day, Top Gun, Rambo II-IV, Battleship, Tears of the Sun, the Great Escape, Failsafe, Master & Commander  – we are looking for articles answering the time-old cinema debate: How would you have done things differently, and why? How would you have fought the battles, the firefights, executed the operations, or set your rules of engagement? How would you have negotiated the treaties or… betrayed them? Maybe you wouldn’t have done anything differently – which is another fine argument to make. Perhaps, like the insanely plausible idea that Jar-Jar is a sith lord, you have a conspiracy theory to share… no worries, we’re not picky.

There was a recent article that suggested Star Wars could “prove” an operational concept couldn’t work, but movies can’t “prove” anything. We can, however, use them as a proxy by wish to discuss our ideas on strategy, politics, and military operations.

Week Dates: 14-20 Dec 15
Articles Due: 6 Dec 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

Navy Introduces Innovation Qualification Pin

[Editor’s Note: This is satire.]

Secretary Ray Mabus discusses the new Innovation Qualification Pin in Akron, Ohio.
Secretary Ray Mabus discusses the new Innovation Qualification Pin in Akron, Ohio.

(AP Wire) At an InVenture Place event in Akron, Ohio – Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has announced the upcoming development of a Navy Innovation Qualification (IQ) Pin. The pin is intended to embrace a force-wide implementation of innovative culture and ensure navyinnovation meets the highest standard of excellence. Mabus said during his speech that, “innovation is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and it is only right that the most powerful navy seeks to harness it.” “With the necessary safety and oversight, of course,” added an aide.

In preparation for the IQ pin, Mabus has released a memo on assessing workplace innovation by fiscal year 2016. Plans are for standards of innovation to be codified by Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters Marine Corps. The joint Navy and Marine-Corps effort to develop these standards, and ultimately the criteria for the IQ pin, is being called the “Innovation Bridling Squadron” (IBS). IBS’s charter is to develop force-wide qualification standards integrating lessons learned, operational risk management concerns, and DoD acquisition.

IBS is led by CAPT Wallace Binghamton from OPNAV N84, who was available for comment at the InVenture Center event. “Without oversight, innovation can often lead to the foregoing of regulations or unpredictable results,” said Binghamton, “integration of a fleet-wide standard will allow experienced leaders to mitigate risks, and ensure innovation does not stray too far from the safe and proven path. Those who eventually earn their IQ pin will be fully certified in the navy way of innovation.”

Binghamton assured us that IBS would be very disruptive, stating their inspiration will be DoD acquisitions. “Let’s be serious here – the US military knows innovation. We have everything from the F-35 to the Army’s Future Combat System,” said Binghamton, “We can design and field a new landing craft in the time it takes to fight only two world wars. We know innovation – we just need to get the word out.”

The IQ development committee consists of this dumpster grease fire behind the Chili's.
The monthly IQ development committee consists of this dumpster grease fire behind the Chili’s.

Binghamton then described his team’s vision for the IQ certification process. “When I was earning my Surface Warfare pin, it was a long and painful process. It is critical that equal rigor be put into our innovation process. We have a mock-up Personal Qualification Standard (PQS) form of about 70 pages at the moment – but that’s only a skeleton, of course.”

When told IBS’s current plans, and asked for comment, Mabus’ grunted and grabbed his stomach, growling a, “no comment,” before storming off, “to go talk to someone about IBS.”

The roll-out of IBS’s study on the timeline for developing the IQ pin is scheduled for 2020. The first Navy and Marine Corps InnovationQualified officers are scheduled roughly for 2030 in anticipation of China’s global hegemony and America’s ignominious retreat before communism’s iron boot. The physical pin design will be complete by 2035.