The pre-history of the Friedman unit

Those of us who blogged through the Iraq War will of course remember the Friedman unit, a measurement of time defined as how long it will take until things are OK in Iraq, conventionally equal to six months, named for Thomas “Airmiles” Friedman of the New York Times. But I didn’t realise the unit has a prior history. Not until I read Waugh in Abyssinia, that is.

OK so; this is the book Evelyn Waugh wrote about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, that would become the source for his novel Scoop!. It’s a very strange book. Waugh divides it into three parts, and there’s no reason not to tackle it in the same way. The first third is a potted history of imperialism in the Horn of Africa, startlingly radical (he basically adopts a Hobson/Lenin economic-determinist explanation) and very critical of the British (mostly for hypocrisy). His account of the complicated way in which Ethiopia was both a target of imperialism and an expansionist empire itself, and his insistence on the transformative importance of the League of Nations’ international recognition of the country, is great.

The second contains Waugh’s narrative of his travels and the war. This is basically why the book is still read – it’s classic impressionistic travel writing, with good jokes about reporters prefiguring Scoop, fine prose, and a subtle account of a pre-modern society trying to be modern.

What he’s going on about here is one of the key forms of the state in the 20th century – the development dictatorship. Waugh is very good on the conflicts inherent in this, the contract-hunting chancers and weirdos drawn to it, and the ambivalence of the whole project. Ambivalence about modernity is the core theme of his work, and development dictatorship gave him enormous scope to, ah, develop it. One of the key things you have to grasp about him is that although his self-presentation in his old age was as someone who’d been a deep reactionary all along, his books aren’t often like that. He plays up the old git shtick, and then leaps on a train de luxe to the front line. The contradiction is where the art gets in, and why the journey to Ethiopia inspired him.

The third section, though, is completely weird. Waugh went back to Ethiopia after the Italians occupied it, and at this point his scepticism seems to have completely failed him. He kicks off mocking journalists in Djibouti who tell him the war isn’t over and guerrillas are everywhere, warms up by insulting British MPs who make the mistake of caring what happened to the Ethiopians, and travels up the line to Addis Ababa. On the way he observes that every bridge, tunnel, and choke point is heavily guarded by tired, nervous Italian soldiers. No matter.

He goes to see the Italian governor, who has installed himself in the emperor’s palace, surrounded by the few sticks of dictator chic the looters didn’t steal or torch. Six months, they agree. He bashes “liberals” some more. Guerrillas break into the city centre in company size, exactly as the guy he was shitposting says, and he gets shot at. Six months, he says, and everything will be OK. Not just the unit size, or the security situation, but the characteristic architecture and interior design of the Friedman unit has been defined. He has another dig at a British MP for believing that the Ethiopian resistance government still exists. They’ll be put in the bag, in six months. Rather as the Americans never did get Saddam’s appointed deputy, the Italians never did catch it.

He completely falls head over heels in love with the Italian contractors who are building a new road as a counterinsurgency project (it’s going to be done in six months), and announces that the Ethiopians never bothered to build any roads, forgetting that he already praised one of theirs a hundred and fifty pages back. It’s a header right into the deep end of the trahison des clercs.

And we probably better talk about the racism. At this period of his career Waugh has a weird habit where he’s quite capable of being respectful of foreigners’ institutions, character, or appearance…and then he throws in a massive, jarring insult. It’s never integral to his point, but rather chucked in as a style statement, a sort of sprezzatura of turds. This always makes him sound weirdly American, because the style he adopts and the choice of epithets come from there. Rather than the kind of patronising imperial condescension you expect, you get a shot of the Klan, of burning crosses on suburban lawns, corpses towed behind Ford V-8s. Tellingly, he kids himself the Italian conquerors are like…the pioneers of the American West.

The point would be made to him in due course. By the time he came to write the Sword of Honour trilogy, he’s cut it out. It took the second world war to do that. But what interests me is that he didn’t start off writing like that. He got it from somewhere, but where?

Who is the man….SCHACHT!

I’ve just been re-reading the end of Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes. Here’s something interesting. Skidelsky frames the debates in Whitehall about British proposals for the post-war economic settlement and about the negotiations with the USA as being between two key groups, whom he defines as the multilateralists and the Schachtians. Schachtian, of course, is a reference to German central banker Hjalmar Schacht.

The element of Schacht’s long and variable career that was meant was his work as Reichsbank director for Hitler, during which he established a network of bilateral trade and payments clearing agreements centred on Germany as a substitute for the collapsed multilateral trading system, that also had the major advantage of conserving Germany’s very limited reserves of foreign exchange and gold. The Schachtian position was that the UK would come out of the war desperately short of reserves – this was common ground – and that given the political constellation there probably wouldn’t be a successful international settlement – this definitely wasn’t – and therefore the UK needed some other solution. They argued that any solution involving capital controls would ruin the City of London, and more tariffs would wreck industry, so the answer was to go bilateral within a sterling clearing network a bit like Hitler’s. An important feature of a clearing agreement is that it tends to force trade into balance, modulo whatever credit the two parties agree to provide each other.

The multilateralists wanted to dilute the conflict between the UK and the US in a wider global solution, and differed on whether it was more important to preserve free trade in the sense of not having tariffs, or whether protectionism was a price worth paying for a workable financial setup. The issue everyone was dancing around was that whatever solution would need to be acceptable to the Americans, and the American position was self-contradictory. Our problem was that we needed the money; theirs that their conditions for paying it out were mutually exclusive. The US wanted free trade (although not for things it wanted to protect like agriculture), but that implied either substantial currency flexibility or the US supplying the rest of the world with liquidity. The US wanted stable currencies, but those implied either US financing or else either concessions on trade, or clearing restrictions that amounted to concessions on trade. And the US wanted multilateral payments without bilateral clearing, but that implied either US financing, floating currencies, or concessions on trade. It was a preview, really, of the famous open economy trilemma.

An important point was that different bits of the US government cared about different elements of the problem. The State Department cared passionately about free trade but not so much about currencies or payments. The US Treasury cared intensely about currencies and was willing to give ground on trade. Both of these were relatively open to paying into the system. Congress didn’t really care about free trade or currencies, in fact some of it was actively hostile to free trade and formed an alliance with the Vice-Presidency and the Department of Agriculture against it, but it did very much want to limit how much money the US had to chip in.

On the British side, an important feature of the Schachtian vs Multilateralist debate was that the two camps cut across everything else in British politics. The multilateralist camp included hardcore classical liberals like Lionel Robbins of LSE, for whom free trade was really the only issue that mattered. It included people who wanted a multilateral solution because it promised enough international liquidity for the UK to stand off American demands to break up the sterling area and demand unilateral free trade. It included European and world federalists who saw Bretton Woods as a step towards world integration. It included Keynes, who wanted a multilateral solution at this stage because it promised a managed world economy.

On the other hand, the Schachtian camp included imperialists who wanted to break with the US and create a separate imperial economic unit, radical left-wing voices who wanted to do something similar as an exit from world capitalism (and perhaps a prelude to inviting the USSR to join), and some proto-Europeans who wanted to build on the fact many of the European allies were sterling-area countries. Roughly, the Treasury came down on the multilateral side and the Bank of England on the Schachtian.

One way of reading British history since then is that the multilateralists won, but were repeatedly disappointed by their partners’ commitment to multilateralism. What we might call Bretton Woods version 1.0 never really took off precisely because the US didn’t want to finance it until the emerging Cold War forced them to relaunch it with both more European integration and more US money. Later, although the Schachtians were some of the loudest voices against joining the EEC, some of the most influential voices inside government were those of multilateralists who hoped for a worldwide free trade area via GATT and via the special relationship. But this never happened, because nobody (especially not the US) wanted it that much. It did, however, leave a rhetorical legacy of arguments against the European project that seek to characterise it as a Schachtian/protectionist exercise contrasted to world multilateralism.

The interesting thing here is that Schachtian thinking didn’t go away. It continued to exist under the ice of the multilateral hegemony, for example in the late 1970s protectionist turn of left-wing economic thinking that enduringly shaped people like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. And it shapes the Brexit camp’s understanding of trade, however much they protest their liberal multilateralism. Boris Johnson arrives on a shiny boat with a delegation of dignitaries and signs for a handful of big ticket contracts under a “deal” with a named country. It’s all very Schachtian; very different from the reality of many, many individual transactions between thousands of firms. It’s bilateral, it’s politicised, and it’s heavily biased to big ticket contracts for big business. After all, one of the multilateral criticisms of Schachtianism was precisely that it was part of the so-called managerial revolution.

Somehow, we ended up with multilateralism in charge and trying to justify itself in Schachtian terms against a Schachtian insurgency that justifies itself in multilateral ones.

Quick campaign post

This Chris Cook piece about campaigning strategy is good. Here’s something I noticed which he doesn’t call out specifically. The party leaders’ activities by ITV region are actually very similar. Going by Chris’s table, Theresa May has made 23 visits and Jeremy Corbyn 22. Both leaders have concentrated their operations on two regions, Greater London and the West Midlands. May visited Central 5 times, as did Corbyn. She appeared in London 5 times, while Corbyn did so 6 times. In total, Corbyn’s visits to these two regions represent half his total, while May’s represent 44% of hers. The distinction should not be treated as particularly important, as it’s accounted for by precisely two visits. I would cautiously support Cook’s contention that he’s trying to get on the regional news as often as possible with an enthusiastic turnout of activists by going to seats where there is a good membership base. This at least turns his meetings to some use. Alternatively he actually expects the Labour share of the vote to be up on last time – look at the concentration of visits around a 5% swing. That would be…brave?

The NHS hack and GCHQ

It looks like the worldwide ransomware attack on Windows XP machines originates from one of the exploits in the so-called Shadow Brokers dump, a collection of exploits developed or bought by the NSA. Oliver Rivers asks: Where was GCHQ?

Well, the answer is more like: Where was CESG? Or LCSA? Through the Second World War and the Cold War, the UK maintained a structural distinction between the agency responsible for collecting signals intelligence on its enemies, and the one responsible for protecting its own systems from them. During WW2, the centre of offensive signals intelligence was at Bletchley Park, as everyone knows. It drew on resources from the secret services, from the Foreign Office, from the RAF Signals Branch’s Y Service, and from the Royal Navy. Army SIGINT became more important in the cold war.

There was also, however, a centre in London devoted to what we would now call security assurance. This agency, known as the London Communications Security Agency (or Group, or Service, or Centre – it got reorganised a lot), had the job of verifying the security of cryptographic systems developed by everyone else. As it happened, the biggest such project of the war was Rockex, created by the radio-focused Section VIII of Special Operations Executive to communicate with their spies in occupied Europe and the Far East. Rockex turned out so well that the military turned to it to distribute the intercepts from Bletchley Park to commanders in the field, and the Foreign Office used it for diplomatic communications worldwide.

We kept going rather like this. The development, and operation, of cryptographic systems was decentralised. The military, and the secret services, and industry built things, while the defensive security group (whose name changed all the time) defined standards they had to comply with and provided expert support. On the other hand, the offensive GCHQ spied on HM Enemies, however defined.

There is not a hard line between their functions. For a start, they share common technology. If you want to provide information security assurance, you need to be able to test it, which means you’re capable of spying. The technology of information security is supremely dual-use. But this is also true of classical intelligence. Kim Philby headed the counter-intelligence branch of MI6, the spies responsible for spying on the other lot’s spies. The defensive side would like to know about the attackers; the attackers often find out first from the defence.

Classical human intelligence agencies usually are divided up this way. SIGINT agencies are a bit different. GCHQ has, since 1941, had the sole right to brief the prime minister outside the Joint Intelligence Committee process with a selection of its choicest takes. This reflects an important truth about its work. SIGINT is the steroid of intelligence – whatever you think of it, whatever it does to your democratic health, it makes you stronger. It may not make you smarter, but if there is an effective crypto break of some sort, it will deliver you the other side’s literal words. Also, it can deliver quickly. One of the greatest achievements of Bletchley Park was to deliver decrypts in close to real time. In a nuclear world, this is desperately valuable.

As a result, they have always wanted to be an integral fourth service, pulling all the resources together, making their unique access and capability worth something. This was consummated in the UK when the London-based security functions were rolled into GCHQ when the new building in Cheltenham opened back in the Blair years. Terribly, something similar has happened in NSA since Edward Snowden went on the run.

The problem here is that the two missions conflict. When the offensive mission discovers something, its incentive is to hoard it. This is the hoard recently leaked. When the defensive mission discovers something, its incentive is to fix it. But only the offensive one gets to brief the prime minister. Only the offensive one drops startling insights into startling people onto the prime minister’s desk. The defensive mission can hope only for peace, and the appreciation of its professional peers so long as it is allowed to tell them. Its world is more adult, more intrinsic in motivation, more genuine in its commitment to public service. It is like the justification that the offensive side uses for its sins.

It is fairly clear that the offensive side will win the agency’s internal politics so long as the two are forced to live in the same fishtank. This cohabitation is, however, optional and somehow we did without it when it mattered most. Free CESG!

The NHS hack and technical debt

So the NHS got hacked. Jeremy Hunt saved £5m a year in payments for extended Microsoft support and now look what’s happened. This reminded me of something important.

Software engineers have a concept of “technical debt” that is worth remembering. Technical debt arises when you decide to put some work off to the future, so you can get on with something more important in the moment. So there was that annoying bug, but you thought it was more important to finish the integration with Salesforce and your customers definitely thought so. You knew you needed to do the security audit, but there were all those bugs to tackle. You wouldn’t have designed the whole thing this way, had you known anyone would use it, but rebuilding the core of the application? There are more immediate concerns.

It’s like debt for a number of reasons. First of all, you’ve got to pay it off in the end. If you don’t do the security audit, one day you’ll be on the news. If you don’t do the big redesign, one day you’ll hit some sort of limit. If you don’t keep up with the maintenance, one day the whole project will just be too crufty to advance further.

Secondly, though, the optimal level of technical debt is not necessarily zero. Debt is useful. We incur technical debt when we choose to prioritise some tasks over others. This allows us to commit more of our resources to goals we consider important, on condition we eventually get after the others. This has an important consequence.

An organisation can put up with more technical debt if its ability to pay it off – to fix it – is also growing. If the inventory of deferred work grows faster than the capability to do it, though, it’s heading for ruin.

And finally, as with any kind of debt, it’s very important to recognise that it exists and to account for it. One of the best ways to give a false impression of success in business is to find a way to borrow without accounting for it. Leverage increases returns.

With technical debt, you’re essentially borrowing from yourself. The flow of cash that would otherwise have been used to retire the technical debt is available for some other purpose. This looks like there’s been a saving – a reduction in the actual costs of doing business. But in fact, there is no saving. Work that needs doing has not been done. It will need doing in the future. Swapping future money for money today is the very definition of debt.

As I say, the optimal level of technical debt is not zero. But let’s think about this more broadly.

When institutions want to save, especially governments, the first thing they do is cancel big capital projects. That’s easy – they are well defined lump sums. The second thing they do, though, is to cancel maintenance. The nice thing about cancelling maintenance is that stuff usually works for quite a while. You have the cash, and the repayment is in the future. Debt, see? And wonderfully, you don’t need to book it anywhere. When John Major privatised the railways, Railtrack plc reduced the track mileage it replaced annually by two-thirds. Not surprisingly, it managed to pay dividends right up to the bitter end, borrowing from its assets by running up technical debt.

So. Remember when the fella said he was fixing the roof while the sun was shining?

In colour

Really good Ross Anderson interview:

It’s as if you had a forest where all the animals could see only in black and white, and suddenly, along comes a mutation in one of the predators allowing it to see in color. All of a sudden it gets to eat all the other animals, at least those who can’t see in color, and the other animals have got no idea what’s going on. [Good book] They have no idea why their camouflage doesn’t work anymore. They have no idea where the new threat is coming from. That’s the kind of change that happens once people get access to really powerful online services.

So long as it was the case that everybody who could be bothered to learn had access to AltaVista, or Google, or Facebook, or whatever, then that was okay. The problem we’re facing now is that more and more of the really capable systems are no longer open to all. They’re open to the government, they’re open to big business, and they’re open to powerful advertising networks.

This is what happened with the Viktor Bout project. Although they’d developed a lot of the same mechanisms we’d learned to recognise from spammers on the Internet through convergent evolution, that didn’t mean they understood it or even really perceived it as a threat. Now we’re in the same position.

Scale and scalability

I’ve been thinking a lot about scaling and the economics of the cloud recently after reading this. Specifically, this quote:

The costs for most SaaS products tend to find economies of scale early. If you are just selling software, distribution is essentially free, and you can support millions of users after the initial development. But the cost for infrastructure-as-a-service products (like Segment) tends to grow linearly with adoption. Not sub-linearly.

To unpack this a little, most Infrastructure-as-a-Service providers make “linear scaling” a big part of their sell. That is to say, their pricing is based on pure volume billing. You use more RAM, or CPU cores, or networking bandwidth, or transactions on the database service, or whatever, and your bill goes up proportionately. This speaks to the desire for predictability, and also to a couple of déformations professionelles.

First of all, if you program computers you learn pretty quickly that it’s easy to come up with solutions that work, but that become disastrously inefficient when you apply them on a large scale. Because computers do things quickly, this isn’t obvious until you try it – it might be fast because it’s right, or fast because the test case is trivial. Identifying the scaling properties of programs is both something that is heavily emphasised in teaching, and something that will invariably bite you in the arse in practice. One way or the other, everyone eventually learns the lesson.

Second, it’s quite common in the economics of the Internet that you meet a supply curve with a step function. Back in the day, BT Wholesale used to sell its main backhaul product to independent ISPs in increments of 155Mbps. As traffic increases, the marginal cost of more traffic is zero right up to the point where the 95th percentile of capacity utilisation hit the increment, and then either the service ground to a halt or you sent thousands of pounds to BTw for each one of your backhaul links. When the BBC iPlayer launched, all the UK’s independent ISPs were repeatedly thrashed by this huge BT-branded cashbat until several of them went bust.

So everyone is primed to look out for a) nasty scaling properties and b) cliff-edge pricing structures. The IaaS pricing model speaks to this. But it has a dark side.

When we talk about “economies of scale” we mean that something becomes cheaper to produce, per unit, as we produce more of it. This is, in some sense, the tao of the Industrial Revolution. To put it in the terms we’ve used so far, something that has economies of scale exhibits sub-linear scaling. The dark side of the cloud is that its users have got rid of the risk of pathological scaling, but they’ve done it by giving up their right to exploit sub-linear scaling. Instead, the IaaS industry has captured the benefits of scale. Its costs are sub-linear, but its pricing is linear, so as it scales up, it captures more and more of its customers’ potential profitability into its own margins.

There’s a twist to this. Really big IaaS customers can usually negotiate a much better deal. At the other end of the curve, there’s usually a free tier. So the effective pricing curve – the supply curve – is actually super-linear for a large proportion of the customer base. And, if we go back to the original blog post, there’s also a dynamic element.

Because outsourcing infrastructure is so damn easy (RDS, Redshift, S3, etc), it’s easy to fall into a cycle where the first response to any problem is to spend more money.

One of the ways sub-linear scaling happens in IT is, of course, optimisation. But here you’re being encouraged not to bother, to do the equivalent of throwing hardware at the problem. Technical improvement is also being concentrated into the cloud provider. And, of course, there’s a huge helping of confusopoly at work here too. The exact details of what you’re paying for end up being…hazy?

In our case, this meant digging through the bill line-by-line and scrutinizing every single resource. To do this, we enabled AWS Detailed billing. It dumps the full raw logs of instance-hours, provisioned databases, and all other resources into S3. In turn, we then imported that data into Redshift using Heroku’s AWSBilling worker for further analysis.

I heard you liked cloud, so I built you a cloud to analyse the bills from your cloud provider. In the cloud.

So here’s a thought. Want to know how employees at Apple and Google are more productive? The answer may just be “monopoly” or more accurately, “oligopoly”. And as Dietrich Vollrath likes to point out, under standard assumptions, more monopoly means lower measured productivity economy-wide.

Some links on my current preoccupations

If you want something completely weird, try this. The Swiss government is still so furious about the whole business with the whistleblower who sold German tax authorities a stack of CD-ROMs with lists of tax evaders that they had their intelligence service spy on the German excisemen. But German counterintelligence found out about it somehow. Since the 1st of December, a secret warrant has been out for their arrest, and now they’ve snagged the 54-year old Daniel M., a Swiss citizen, in Frankfurt am Main, on suspicion of espionage for a foreign power namely Switzerland since at least January 2012.

So German and Swiss spooks are chasing each other around Rheinhessen? Who ordered that? Also, I had imagined that the Swiss might be trying to warn the account holders that they were coming under suspicion, but the Swiss seem to have had a more aggressive solution in mind as they were trying to identify the individual German officials involved in the deal.

Taking back control. A poll for NEF suggests that 81% of the public feels it has no control over the central government, while 70% feel they have no control over private companies that contract for public services. This neatly summarises the whole problem. You can shout at your MP and you have a reasonable chance of getting an answer. The MP can shout at this or that minister, government agency, or corporation and they have a reasonable chance of getting an answer. But try getting Sodexho, Npower, Veolia, some no-name NHS contractor, or your friendly local railway TOC to answer a question or do a goddamn thing. But it’s only the politicised minority that’s even aware of their existence. Hence the miasmatic, unfocused crankiness that permeates everything.

This also reminds me of something in Peter Mair’s acclaimed book Ruling the Void. Mair makes the excellent point that European integration – the process of wiring up the national polities with the European polity – means that discontent with the EU invariably also means discontent with the national polity. But – perhaps because he didn’t want to accept that anyone who disliked the EU might have a real problem – he didn’t follow the logic through to the conclusion that discontent with the national polity also ends up being discontent with the EU.

On which theme, here’s a good piece on the crisis of French provincial cities. The way I think of this is as follows: Europe used to be characterised by a party divide that roughly mapped onto an urban-rural divide. The countryside was organised by a network of associations that supported the conservative, or Gaullist, or Christian Democratic party. The city was organised by trade unions and other associations that supported the socialist or Social Democratic party. In the longue durée, the difference was really whether a city had developed a meaningful industrial working class; where it hadn’t, sometimes other political formations would survive to speak to specifically urban concerns. The example would be the Liberals surviving out west in the UK.

But this structure is changing. Sure, it looks roughly similar on a map, with red clusters in a blue sea. The content behind those labels, though, is changing. This change can be expressed as the effect of three flows – there’s the last wave of suburbanisation (like the lotissement) phenomenon in France, there’s a wave of re-urbanisation, and there’s also a tendency to super-urbanise. So the traditional rural constituency is being hollowed out by movement to the city, but these days the movement is direct to Paris, or London, or why not New York. At the same time, the exurbanites aren’t organised into the rural constituency because why would you join FNSEA if you’re not a farmer and you basically live on the motorway? Instead they become the classic fake news constituency, organised by the Facebook app for iPad, aka the weapon of mass destruction of our times.

Meanwhile, this piece by Mark Gregory for EY gets to something I worry about. A lot of Brexiters, and also lefties, understand the economy of London and the South-East as being basically about banks. They draw different conclusions from this; the first think we’ll be OK because just letting the finserv sector rip as a tax haven will work (never mind being tracked down by Swiss assassins), the second think we’ll be OK because bankers, fuck’em. But this misses a lot of important stuff. It makes a lot more sense to see it as an integrated professional services cluster that does software, architectural design, adverts, movies, drugs, and a whole lot of arcane specialities. Some of this is here because it’s linked to the financial centre – activity in the financial centre tends to drive demand for accountants and lawyers – but this is a subset of the total. One way to look at this is to say that it’s sucked up all the loose graduates from a large part of the world, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could kind of spread them out across the UK. Well, perhaps. But this assumes the specialisations aren’t complementary. I wonder.

More to the point, I wonder what degree of Brexit-related disruption would cause people to up sticks and go, and leave just the pure financial element.

And what about the guy who got us into this mess? David Cameron‘s £25k shed seems to concentrate every aesthetic trope of the Cameron years into one artefact. There’s the whole posh-people-go-to-festivals style – surely about to become terribly dated – but there’s also the killer detail that the light switches are made out of Bakelite. They don’t just look nostalgic; they’re chemically composed of the stuff. And, even posing on the steps of the thing, he’s still wearing his shiny black business brogues, a small bank playing a man on TV.

Blog Like It’s 2007

What with all the North Korea excitement, I thought it might be time to check on what the US Navy’s aircraft carriers are up to. This is always a useful way to distinguish “loud media yelling” from “something that might actually happen”. This information is helpfully collated here, but is in no way secret. To appreciate it, it’s worth understanding that the carriers have a very well-defined operating cycle that is linked with all kinds of other industrial and career processes.

Roughly speaking, a carrier is expected to deploy for six months out of every 24 months. Out of that six months, a bit less than a month is spent on passage between the home port and the area of operations. To avoid a gap, this means that the relief has to sail a month ahead of time. About every five years, the ship undergoes a really massive three-year overhaul, known as a RCOH for Refuelling and Complex Overhaul, during which the nuclear reactor is shut down, maintained, and refuelled. Half-way between RCOHs there’s another, six-month drydocking.

This establishes a cycle of readiness states – the ship comes out of dockyard hands, completes sea trials, works up through various levels of training, receives and re-qualifies its air wing, trains as a unit with the air wing (called a COMPTUEX), trains as a unit with the wider task force (called a JTFEX), and finally deploys. Having come back, the ship is available as a reserve for a while before the inexorable timetable demands that major maintenance begins and renders her immobile.

It’s possible to put maintenance off, but this is borrowing from the future – one of the reasons why carrier availability was very low at the time of the 2006-2007 war scares was the massive surge deployment at the end of 2001 and its partial continuation through 2003. It’s also possible to bring it forward, but this is very, very expensive (the RCOH is itself a multi-billion dollar project. The price of admiralty is high) and is subject to critical path restrictions. If, for example, one ship is on the slipway, obviously you can’t put another ship there. More subtly, the short-supply tradespeople employed on one ship can’t get to the next one until they’re done, and expanding the workforce is a long-term project.

On the other side of the book, the USN tries to maintain three major requirements – a carrier in the Middle East, another in the Western Pacific, and a third in Japan, which is permanently based there. As there are ten carriers, this should be possible within a classic one-out-of-three rotation, but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that because of the possibility that the major maintenance periods may fall at the same time.

So what’s up at the moment? Stennis, Truman, Reagan, and Lincoln – i.e. 40% of the force – are all in deep maintenance periods of one kind or another. It’s important to note that Reagan is the carrier based in Japan and is therefore logically the first to respond to any crisis in North-Eastern Asia. Her maintenance phase, or Selective Restricted Availability, was planned for four months from the 10th of January, so the fact she’s still tied to the pier may mean the work is dragging on, or more problems have been discovered during the work. Bush is deployed in the Persian Gulf, with a good three months of her deployment left to run.

Vinson, the one everyone is excited about, has been operating all year in the Western Pacific. Like Bush, she is mid-deployment and due to head for home towards the end of June. She recently headed back to the Western Pacific from a port call in Singapore.

Of the rest, Nimitz is working up the readiness cycle. She recently completed the COMPTUEX, which took the best part of a month. On this basis, assuming no sudden hurry, she is probably going to relieve either Bush or Vinson in June, sailing at the end of May. Roosevelt looks likely to be the next out, as Washington doesn’t have an assigned air wing. Eisenhower is the most recently returned, but that wasn’t very recent, as she arrived in Norfolk on the 30th December. She was at sea during February and March on occasion, providing training for reserve air crew, but as she has been back at the pier since the 24th of March I would think it’s getting time for some leave and some maintenance.

To sum up: out of the three routine tasks for carriers, one is covered by Bush while Vinson is doubling up on two of them. Overall availability is not unusually low, but it is not high either, as there is one carrier immediately available as a reserve while two reliefs will be needed for sailing dates in May. Vinson‘s recall to the Western Pacific may be more of an indicator that Reagan‘s return to availability is delayed than anything else.

Obviously, even one CVN is serious business. But just as in 2006-2007, there is no evidence of a mobilisation to match the talk.