Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Russia's Aleppo Raid

Bombs Away!

The recent mystery air raid on a bona fide UN aid convoy near Aleppo isn't really a mystery at all...

The Russians are denying that their aircraft were operating above Aleppo during the strike, but they know the U.S. government quickly figured out that they were responsible. After all, every time the Russians or Syrians launch jets, U.S. radar and intelligence assets carefully monitor them, warning U.S. forces of any deliberate Russian or Syrian air strike. The monitoring also provided valuable intelligence on where Russian military attention is focused. Regardless, Putin knows the U.S. employs these capabilities and that we would have been focused on Russia’s heavy air coverage of Aleppo.

And that leads to the key takeaway: Putin just doesn’t care that he’s been caught. On the contrary, his strategy is actually served by his lack of concern.

In destroying the humanitarian convoy, Putin has simply reinforced his longstanding message to the West. In many ways, it is pitch-perfect. An aid convoy is not off-limits, Putin is telling President Obama — which means that we should expect worse to come. In other words, unless the United States accepts keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Putin will continue to burn Syria. And Assad — totally undeterred by the pathetic weakness of U.S. deterrent power — revels in this longstanding slaughter strategy. Russia might hint that this attack is retaliation for the accidental U.S. bombing of Syrian soldiers, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was pure Putin: deliberate and brutal application of force in the service of a long-term strategy.

Of course, this raises another question: If Putin’s interests are served by this strike, why is Russia denying involvement? The answer is simple: Putin knows that 44 knows, and that’s all that counts. To preserve a pretense of moral credibility, Russia is employing its familiar disinformation strategy to deny responsibility. These denials will cool or distract some of the international public anger against him. But Putin also predicts that two developments will now follow.
 First, the U.S. won’t provide evidence of Russian culpability. Second, the U.S. will continue dancing Russia’s diplomatic waltz by redeploying John Kerry into another round of pointless negotiations. 
The U.S should defy Putin’s expectations in both cases. We should use the U.N. Security Council to confront the Russians with evidence of their culpability. The U.S. should also suspend all cabinet-level discussions with Russia on Syria’s future. Instead, we should escalate our support to moderate rebel factions. For some groups, that support should include the provision of man-portable surface-to-air missile systems.

The whys behind this latest Russian aggression are not complicated. In the end, it’s just another product of 44’s foreign-policy lethargy. As in the Baltics, Putin continues to hold the reins. And so, Assad’s confidence — and the fuel his regime gives ISIS — grows ever stronger. And U.S. credibility — moral and strategic — grows ever weaker. And the overflowing morgue that is Syria grows ever more desperate.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Sino - US Conflict of 2017

A recently published study of four ways that the U.S. and China may engage in war seems at first to warn against the high human and economic costs of all four kinds of engagement. The study by RAND Corporation, sponsored by the U.S. Army, does state that it “reinforce[s] the widely held view that a Sino-U.S. war would be so harmful that both states should place a very high priority on avoiding one.” And it does repeatedly warn that various prevailing conditions are pressuring both sides to rush and strike first, fearing that if it delays initiating war, they would lose much of their capacity to strike, a highly destabilizing configuration.

A reading of the study, however, is likely to leave readers with the sense that the U.S. will fare much better than China in whatever form the war takes. This observation, which runs throughout the report, is likely to embolden those in the U.S. who believe that a Sino-U.S. war is inevitable, and hence call for more preparations for such a confrontation, and – in some cases – for the U.S. to strike first. This side effect is deeply regrettable, given that this favorable (at least for Americans) assessment of the results of the war, as we shall see shortly, is based on rather dubious assumptions.

The study compares four kinds of war:

  1. A Brief but Severe war would last “a week or so” and would involve selective U.S. strikes on China. In this scenario, military-operational exigencies necessitate a fast-paced, intense conflict. Such a conflict would asymmetrically harm China, because China’s economy would be severely disrupted, with significant aftershocks, and U.S. counterforce capabilities would steadily degrade China’s anti-access, area denial (A2AD) capabilities, while U.S. losses would drop off as China’s A2AD suffered.
  2. A Long and Severe war, the authors estimate that the conflict would last “a year or so,” and it would likely involve Japan and other U.S. allies. In this war, the losses suffered by both sides make compromises harder than in the brief war. They add that the mounting military losses would weaken the legitimacy of the Chinese state and China’s economy would be harmed “disproportionately and badly.” The authors hence conclude that “the economic, domestic, and international effects of a long, severe conflict work against China.” 
  3. In a Brief and Mild conflict, hostilities might be triggered by a miscalculation or an incident involving a third party, but political leaders would withhold authorization for major attacks on opposing forces. The authors conclude that the conflict could be ended before causing major damage, and that there would be only minor losses on each side. A critical distinction between the “Intense” and “Mild” scenarios is that the former involves U.S. strikes on Chinese soil, whereas the latter does not. 
  4. In a Long but Mild conflict, the leaders of each country might agree to contain the fighting, but not to end the conflict. If the losses remained low on each side, the conflict could drag on for a year or so, as each side’s leaders decide that the conflict is “politically sustainable” and don’t want to lose domestic legitimacy by conceding. The authors believe that “even with fighting limited, economic losses would grow, especially for China.” Separatist movements within China might try to exploit the ongoing interstate conflict to advance their aims.
In all four scenarios the report assumes that because China has next to no capabilities to strike the U.S. homeland, and because the war is assumed to be confined to the Western Pacific and to conventional forces, that China will suffer much more from the war than the U.S. The authors add:

“In sum, the economic harm caused by a Sino-U.S. war, unless brief or mild, would be substantially greater to China than to the United States, an asymmetry likely to persist if not grow by 2025.”
The authors explicitly state that they have not included the effects of a possible nuclear war in their analysis [p.29]. They argue that China is unlikely to resort to use of its nuclear arms, even if it will be losing what the RAND authors call a long and severe war, and they describe the possibility of the U.S. initiating a nuclear conflict as “far-fetched” [p.31]. 

The probability of this kind of escalation may indeed be small, but it is certainly not nil, and the disutility is so immense that it merits greater consideration than it is given in this report. One further notes as both sides are developing very high yield conventional explosives and low yield nuclear ones, the line between these two kinds of arms is blurring and the danger that it will crossed is increasing.

Moreover, many who observe that all assumptions and scenarios about how a war will unfold, hold only until the first missile is lobbed.

Nor can one take for granted that the domestic political cost of war will be much higher for China than for the United States. Americans are very war weary, less willing to make sacrifices, and more able to effectively express their opposition to another war in a faraway country than the Chinese people.

The authors’ title for the paper has echoes that may well not have been intended. They argue that one must think more about what kind of war to fight with China, in order to avoid the worst kind. The title though evokes Herman Kahn’s notorious book Thinking about the Unthinkable, which sought to make an all-out nuclear war more acceptable – to Americans. The RAND report’s unintended effect may well make war more likely, given its assumptions that China will be unable to lay a glove on the U.S. homeland , while China would suffer greatly in military, economic, and political terms.

The report does not include even a hint as to what such a war will accomplish, what it will lead to: the U.S. occupying China and “rebuilding it”? 

Introduce a regime change that will end with a government more favorable to the U.S.? 

Given America’s recent nation-building experiences in much smaller states in the Middle East, one cannot but wonder. One may well say, this was not what RAND asked the authors to study. However one cannot assess a war, or compare one kind to another, without discussing what kind of China we will have to contend with once we win (assuming we do). 

If the expected end state is akin to what we now have in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, one may well conclude that we should avoid any and all the wars RAND has laid out.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Coming Indo - Pak War

Could India and Pakistan really go to war?

 It almost seems an absurd question to ask. After all, both countries have long been nuclear powers -- a deterrent that encompasses the lives of a combined 1.4 billion people. Both nations have also seen some years of relative peace along their border, a break from the wars that pockmarked the 20th Century.

And yet, hours after 18 were killed in an attack on an army base in Indian-administered Kashmir, the director-general of military operations for the Indian Army announced that the terrorists carried gear which had "Pakistani markings."

Arnab Goswami, the host of the country's most-watched English news hour, expressed rage at Pakistan: "We need to cripple them, we need to bring them down on their knees."
One of his guests, a retired army general, went a step further: "We must be seen as inflicting punishment on Pakistan by non-terrorist means ... the nation needs a catharsis!"

But what about the ready nuclear arsenals both countries possessed? Surely that would be a deterrent?
Major General G. D. Bakshi, had a clear answer: "Pakistan is one-fifth the size of India. If we fire even a part of our arsenal, most of it will be on the Pakistani Punjab, from where the Pakistani army comes: Not a crop will grow there for 800 years!"
"Let's stop self-deterring ourselves," he cried.

Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman told CNN that India was "desperately looking for ways to deflect the world's attention from the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir," referring to the protests and unrest there.
And emotions have boiled over on the Pakistani side, too.

Sunday's attack is not the first deadly attack on Indian soil that New Delhi has accused Pakistan of having a hand in.

n January, another Indian military base was attacked in northwestern Punjab, not far from the border with Pakistan. And then there were the Mumbai attacks in 2008 in which 164 people were killed.

While Indian officials continue to link those attacks to the Pakistan government, Islamabad has consistently denied any involvement. In each of these terror attacks, and others like them, there have been calls for a strong Indian response.

The next steps of diplomacy -- or a war of words -- are likely to play out in New York this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. New Delhi is expected to call for sanctions on its neighbor, for what it alleges are clear moves to support terrorism.

Islamabad, meanwhile, is expected to highlight unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir, where a two-month-old curfew persists after mass demonstrations and violence.

India's approach will be crucial.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Next Korean War

Imagine it is 2020. The director of the CIA requests an urgent meeting with the US president.

The reason:

North Korea has succeeded in making a nuclear bomb small enough to fit inside the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States. The news soon leaks to the public. High-level meetings to devise a response are held not just in Washington, but in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow as well.

This scenario may seem unreal today, but it’s more political science than science fiction. North Korea just carried out its fifth (and apparently successful) test of a nuclear explosive device, doing so just days after testing several ballistic missiles. Absent a major intervention, it’s only a matter of time before North Korea increases its nuclear arsenal (now estimated at 8-12 devices) and figures out how to miniaturise its weapons for delivery by missiles of increasing range and accuracy.

It’s difficult to overstate the risks were North Korea, the world’s most militarised and closed society, to cross this threshold. A North Korea with the ability to threaten the US homeland might conclude it had little to fear from the US military, a judgement that could lead it to launch a conventional, non-nuclear attack on South Korea. Even if such a war ended in North Korea’s defeat, it would be extraordinarily costly by any measure.

That said, North Korea wouldn’t have to start a war for its nuclear and missile advances to have real impact. If South Korea or Japan ever concluded that North Korea was in a position to deter American involvement in a war on the Peninsula, they would lose confidence in US security assurances, raising the possibility that they would develop nuclear weapons of their own. Such decisions would alarm China and set the stage for a regional crisis or even conflict in a part of the world with the greatest concentration of people, wealth, and military might.

There is another risk as well. A cash-strapped North Korea might be tempted to sell nuclear arms to the highest bidder, be it a terrorist group or some country that decided that it, too, needed the ultimate weapon. By definition, nuclear proliferation increases the chances of further nuclear proliferation—and with it the actual use of nuclear weapons.

The US has options, but none is particularly attractive. As for negotiations, there’s little if any reason to be confident that North Korea would give up what it considers to be its best guarantee of survival. In fact, it has often used negotiations to buy time for further advances in its nuclear and missile capabilities.

Another option is to continue with a version of the current policy of extensive sanctions. The problem is that sanctions will not be potent enough to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs. This is partly because China, fearing large refugee inflows and a unified Korea in America’s strategic orbit should North Korea collapse, will most likely continue to ensure that it gets the fuel and food it needs.

As a result, it makes more sense to focus on diplomacy with China. The US, after consulting closely with South Korea and Japan, should meet with Chinese officials to discuss what a unified Korea would look like, so that some Chinese concerns could be met. For example, a unified country could be non-nuclear, and any US military forces that remained on the Peninsula could be fewer and farther south than they are now.

It’s of course possible or even probable that such assurances wouldn’t lead to any meaningful diminution in Chinese support for North Korea. In that case, the US would have three more options. One would be to live with a North Korea in possession of missiles that could bring nuclear bombs to US soil. The policy would become one of defence (deploying additional anti-missile systems) and deterrence, with North Korea understanding that any use or spread of nuclear weapons would lead to the end of the regime and possibly nuclear retaliation. Cyber weapons might also be employed to obstruct and impede the progress of North Korea’s program.

The second option would be a conventional military attack, targeting North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities. The danger is that such a strike mightn’t achieve all of its objectives and trigger either a conventional military attack on South Korea (where nearly 30,000 US troops are based) or even a nuclear attack from the North. Needless to say, Japan and South Korea would have to be prepared to support any US military response before it could be undertaken.

The third option would be to launch such a conventional military attack only if intelligence showed North Korea was putting its missiles on alert and readying them for imminent use. This would be a classic pre-emptive strike. The danger here is that the intelligence mightn’t be sufficiently clear—or come early enough.

All of which brings us back to that possible day in 2020. If much is unknown, what seems all but certain is that whoever wins November’s US presidential election will confront a fateful decision regarding North Korea sometime during her or his term

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Flying Shark


Nicknamed the "Flying Shark", the J-15 fighter is currently equipped for air superiority missions. But with heavier versions ready to fly off future catapult-equipped Chinese aircraft carriers, the J-15 will blossom into a true long-range multi-role fighter

New imagery shows that the Flying Shark will receive major upgrades, which point to gains in not just China's engine-making  - but her overall carrier fleet.

The J-15 is derived from the Russian Su-33 (itself developed from the Su-27 fighter), and is currently in limited production by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. It is used by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) on its sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

In September 2016, images of an upgraded J-15, the "J-15A", emerged on the Internet, showing significant upgrades to its engines and flight performance. The plane makes use of domestically produced WS-10H turbofan engines, distinguished by a squarish, silver afterburner nozzle.

While some J-15 prototypes were fitted with WS-10 turbofan engines, all production J-15s presently operating off the Liaoning aircraft carrier use the Russian AL-31 turbofan (which has a dark-colored afterburner nozzle). If future J-15As use the WS-10H as a power plant, it would indicate a triumph for China's emerging aviation engine industry, which has long been a weakness. Another likely upgrade is the installation of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which has improved resolution, multi-target ability, and resistance to jamming.

However, perhaps the most significant evident upgrade is the reinforced landing gear on theJ-15A's nosewheel, with the extender in particular much larger. Strengthening the nosewheel is necessary for the plane to operate on carriers with catapults; the catapult's aircraft launch bar pulls the J-15 by its nosewheel when the carrier catapult accelerates the fighter during takeoff.

Also, the holdback bar needs to be attached to the rear of the nosewheel prior to catapult launch, in order to prevent premature movement.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The New Power Couple

The Commonwealth Russian and Iran hook up have reached an unprecedented peak, fueled by military cooperation in Syria, a shared vision of the global order, and mutual criticism of Western policy in the Middle East. 

So, what all does this mean? 

The new closeness between Moscow and Tehran in Syria has already had serious consequences for Europe. It has strengthened Assad’s hand, increased violence, resulted in more refugees flowing into European countries, and further marginalised Europe on the diplomatic track.

Yet question marks remain about the durability of the relationship. Does it signify a sustainable strategic alliance that will reshape the geopolitics of the wider Middle East? Or are we merely experiencing a high point in the seesaw saga of Russian-Iranian relations – a saga where cooperation will always be limited and tarnished by mutual distrust?

Tehran is a useful ally to Moscow in a highly unstable region, but it is just one thread in Moscow’s patchwork of important relationships that need careful balancing.

Moscow offers Tehran a critical means of protecting its regional security interests. However, Iran’s leadership is divided on how best to hedge bets between Eastern and Western powers to achieve the country’s strategic objectives.

Despite their differences, the war in Syria looks set to be the crucible of Moscow-Tehran cooperation for some time to come, given its centrality to the strategic ambitions of both parties.

Instead of pursuing policies that attempt to exploit divisions between Iran and Russia, Europe should use its limited leverage to reduce violence in Syria and, if possible, pave road for political transition later down the road. 

This can only happen with better understanding of the drivers of Iran and Russia's policy in the region.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mission Creep

The expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes. Mission creep is usually considered undesirable due to the dangerous path of each success breeding more ambitious attempts, only stopping when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs. 

 The deal for U.S. military cooperation with Russia would expand the current mission in Syria far beyond it's exclusive focus on the Islamic State group. 

And the Pentagon is totally P.O'd about it

 The cease-fire deal reached Sept. 9 calls for the two former Cold War rivals to set up a joint facility for sharing intelligence and coordinating airstrikes against ISIS and al Nusra. The key requirement is adherence to a seven-day cease fire that calls on the Syrian regime and Russia to halt attacks around the city of Alleppo, which has experienced some of the war's most horrific violence, and allow for sustained delivery of humanitarian aid.

The details remain unclear. Some U.S. military officials are suggesting that the "cooperation" between the U.S. and Russia may be narrowly defined to involve only sharing intelligence with the Russians and deconflicting air space rather than expanding the target list for U.S. aircraft.  

 The seven-day ceasefire could be completed by Tuesday. Top U.S. military officials plan to meet Monday to begin hammering out the details of the “joint integration center”  that will be the hub for the military cooperation with Russia, according to one defense official. 

 But U.S. and Russian commanders will likely experience tension over selecting and prioritizing targets. The Russians are more focused on al Nusra because that group poses a bigger threat to Syria’s major cities and the survival of President Bashar al Assad, a key Russian ally.

“Going into this, the U.S. wants overwhelming attention paid to ISIS targets. The Russians would much rather see the targeting of al Nusra. It’s going to be a negotiation on the ground between colonels and one stars that are putting together targeting lists,” Stavridis said.

Those negotiations could get ugly.

“They’re going to get into the nitty-gritty targeting disagreements,” said Jacqueline Lopour, a former CIA analyst who is now a research associate with the Centre for International Governance Innovation  in Canada. “What if there’s a target and the Russians say ‘Our information says this is a terrorist’ and the U.S. says no, it’s not? They say ‘Show us your information’ and the U.S. says 'No, we’re not going to compromise our sources.' It’s going to get messy,” Lopour said. “What happens if someone vetoes a target and the other side goes ahead and strikes it anyway?” she said.

 Complicating matters are the links between al Nusra militants -- who at times fight against ISIS -- and the American-backed rebels that the U.S. considers to be moderate. 

“There’s a lot of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” Lopour said. “It’s all quite muddled and complex.”

The U.S. has teams of special operations troops on the ground in Syria to support some Sunni Arab militias in fights against ISIS. Other Sunni Arab groups receive money and weapons from the U.S. In some situations, they fight alongside al Nusra militants against common enemies like ISIS.

That ambiguity will frustrate the Russians.