It has been Fleet Week in San Francisco, which invites consideration of the things military forces do besides fighting wars. One of these, assisting first responders in civil disasters, figured in this year's Fleet Week.
But mainly Fleet Week is about showing off. It featured a 'parade of ships' coming into port (where I used my el cheapo phone camera to snap USS Antietam, CG-54, above), and three days of air shows - the first time I've ever walked to an air show. Sunday's Blue Angels performance had to be cut short because of intruding fog. (I had already watched them on Friday and Saturday.) An hour later the fog completely dissipated.
On an international note, this year's Fleet Week had a substantial Canadian presence: four ships and the Snowbirds, the RCAF's precision flight demonstration squadron.
But, ahem, on to the point of this post. In grand-strategic perspective, 'showing off' is arguably the primary mission of military forces. War-fighting is merely their most important secondary mission, the one they will be forced back onto if they fail in their primary mission.
Put another way, truly successful militaries deter, and achieve their wielders' objectives without a fight. Fighting battles and winning them is second-best, and might be regarded as a fail-safe mode. Fighting and losing, or surrendering without a fight, are both failure modes. (Which is worse depends on particular circumstances.)
To be sure, much military showing-off is an implicit display of war-fighting capabilities, and by no means is all or even most of it aimed directly at prospective enemies. Air show demonstration squadrons such as the Blue Angels and Snowbirds illustrate both of these points.
Flying loops in wingtip-tight formation may be a combat maneuver, but it certainly displays piloting skills and aircraft performance that are relevant to combat. But the more immediate objective of demonstration squadrons - as of much military display - is as a recruiting tool. Though come to think of it, being able to recruit troops is also combat-relevant.
The role of military display has generally been understated in the recent era. The books I read on the history of ships tended to denigrate the gilt-work of 17th century 'great ships,' though it served very well for conveying their royal owners' wealth and power.
The shift of attitudes can perhaps be pinpointed to a little more than 100 years ago, when the world's navies abruptly went gray as their armies went khaki. Not that the impulse toward display actually disappeared - at almost that exact moment, 'armored cruisers' gave way to battlecruisers, showboats par excellence, which is why their name survives in SF.
Which brings us to space. Space forces, strictly speaking, have some disadvantages when it comes to military display - in particular, being a long ways from most of the people they might impress. Space fighters, in the strict sense, can't go thundering a couple of hundred meters over the rooftops of Pacific Heights. Only atmospheric craft can do that.
The curious flip side of this is, of course, that the Space Race was all about (quasi-) military display on the grandest scale. In this case the hardware had no specific warfighting role at all. It didn't need to. Everyone understood that if you could hit the moon, you could nail Moscow or Washington.
But the Space Race soon ended, and I doubt there will be a repeat in the next few decades, even among emerging great powers. (Are the Chinese really going to impress India all that much by doing what Americans and Russians did 50 years ago?)
On the other hand, space might still have a future as a place to display technological prowess. And if, as I suspect, war 'as we have known it' is becoming obsolescent, the role of quasi-military display could become even more prominent than in the past. The obsolescence of war is not about moral betterment but pervasive mutual deterrence.
And deterrence is fundamentally all about showboating.