Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lasers, Mi-go, Defense Budgets

Welcome! As usual, I’ve been keeping myself quite busy with a mix of Sasquatch projects and some writing on the side. So, let me share a couple of things that have been occupying my attention lately!

I spent a number of hours just in the last couple of weeks reading everything I could find about spaceship weapons, because I’ve got an idea for a military SF series and I’m starting to get serious about it. I spent days reading about particle beams, lasers, rail guns, mass drivers, and lasers again, trying to develop a real sense of what would work well in the universe I’m imagining. I’m a big fan of David Weber’s Honor Harrington stories, but missiles are the primary weapon in the Honorverse, and I want ship-to-ship combat in my story to feel a little different. So I’m going a little retro and thinking hard about direct-fire weapons. If Weber’s stories capture the tactics and feel of Nelsonian naval combat, I’d like mine to capture some of the tactics and feel of the pre-dreadnought era, like Tsushima or Santiago or Manila Bay. I think I’m leaning toward rail guns at the moment, possibly using molten metal projectiles (there is real-world research going on with this now), but a serious treatment of lasers and the tactics they would imply is fascinating too.
In Thule, we’re making slow progress. Just this week I jiggered the outline a bit to make room for some more monsters: the mi-go, moon-beast, and nightgaunt. Other parts of the campaign setting reference these Cthulhu Mythos creatures, and at first we weren’t going to include stats for them (especially since most are available in Pathfinder already). But on reflection we decided that we had enough unique things to say about these critters in our world, and that it wasn’t really fair to keep name-dropping them without giving the GM the corresponding monster descriptions. I’d like to shoehorn shoggoths in too, but we’ll have to see. Space is tight, and they’re high-level monsters that might not see a lot of play.

Anyway, things are progressing!

Politics/Current Events: Today, I’m going to poke a couple of holes in a bit of common “wisdom” that’s been getting a lot Facebook posts lately: “The United States spends as much on our military budget as the next 15 countries put together.” The first implication, of course, is that we so far outspend any possible rival power that we are in a position of complete military superiority, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a dinosaur. A second implication is that we could dump 50 percent or more of our defense budget to make room for important social welfare programs, and we would not be less safe than we are right now. If Obamacare costs hundreds of billions more than it was supposed to, well, the defense budget can make up the difference, and the dinosaurs who are worried about Russia or China will just have to grow up.
Well, here’s why the “spend as much as the next 15” viewpoint is dangerously deceptive. First of all, the natural response when you see a number like that is to assume that if X (the US defense budget) is equal to 15 of something else, each of the other things must have a value of about 1/15th of X. The US defense budget in 2013 was about $682B; ergo, every other country in the top 15 spends about $45B, right? That, however, is not remotely correct. The real values at the top (I took these numbers from Wikipedia’s military spending article, which is certainly accurate enough for this discussion) look like this:

1.       United States ($682B)
2.       China ($166B)
3.       Russia ($90.6B)

So, as you can see, our spending is not 15 times greater than China’s, or Russia’s. Our spending is about 4 times greater than China’s, and 7.5 times greater than Russia’s. That seems like a comfortable margin still, but it’s not entirely accurate. Military spending in China and Russia is a lot less transparent than it is in the US, and a dollar of defense spending doesn’t buy the same thing in every country. We get a much more accurate picture when we adjust the numbers for “purchasing power parity” which squares up the different currency values and monetary policies to the same standard. With PPP-adjusted figures, the top spenders actually look like this:
1.       United States ($682B)
2.       China ($249B)
3.       Russia ($116B)

Now we see that our spending vis-à-vis China is not 15 times greater, or 4 times greater, but actually a little more than 2.7 times greater. Still plenty of an edge, you would think. But I’m not so sure. Our spending is spread all around the globe, but China’s is quite concentrated in East Asia. If you assume that current spending is a close correlation for military power (it probably isn’t), maybe half of our $628B is in East Asia, but all of China’s $249B is. Now we’re talking about a regional margin of maybe $314B to $249B, which looks awful close to parity to me. Our ability to stop the PRC from doing something we don’t like in its own neighborhood is far from assured. Likewise with Russia, although I would guess that our “regional budget” in Europe is a lot less than half our total budget since the end of the Cold War.
I also worry that we don’t spend our defense dollars as wisely as our potential adversaries might. I suspect that China gets a lot more “teeth” and a lot less “tail” out of each dollar it spends, whereas we make a lot of Pentagon functionaries very comfortable before we begin to buy anything that goes bang. But that’s beyond the scope of my little rant today. For now, I’ll just finish by saying that if we don’t like the way Russia or China is acting, we’re not likely to deter them by slashing our defense spending.

The Finer Things: Charles Smith Vineyards Velvet Devil Merlot. It’s a nice Washington State blend, 90 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet-sauvignon. My wife and I discovered it at Ruth’s Chris a couple of months ago while enjoying a rare night on the town. To my surprise, I happened across it at our local Haggen just the other day. For $11, it’s a great bottle of wine.