Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.


Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.


Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.


The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.


Air-Sea Battle Debate Picks Up, South Korea Heads For Silent Eagle

Further to my posts on military doctrine and naval warfare in East Asia, and Mark’s posts on Air-Sea Battle, James Holmes reports over at the Diplomat on a debate that’s been heating up. Specifically, the question is whether Air-Sea Battle is needlessly escalatory, and whether, surprise surprise, a naval blockade approach (as for example the one suggested by Kline and Hughes a while ago) might be the better approach to a notional future conflict with China. Holmes provides some good sources and analysis, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have heard of Kline and Hughes’ take, dubbed “War at Sea,” going with Hammes’ somewhat less innovative “Offshore Control” concept instead. Some of the caveats that arise toward the end of the article might be better answered under the former framework than the latter.


Meanwhile, South Korea’s fighter competition seems to have reached a point where Boeing’s Silent Eagle is the last bird flying. The F-35 broke the bank, and the Eurofighter consortium seems to have fudged some of their paperwork.

The Silent Eagle is an untried, radar cross-section reduced F-15 variant. Its low-observable characteristics depend on carrying missiles internally in what used to be the F-15 conformal fuel tanks, which both reduces range and provides only a four-missile capacity. Of course, it has all the expected goodies in terms of avionics, but it still lacks the various aerodynamic upgrades tested on the F-15 airframe. What’s so great about that? Well, for one thing, the Koreans really wanted a stealth aircraft, since China and Japan will both have stealth aircraft. While it is highly doubtful that Silent Eagle is any more stealthy than any other Generation 4.5 fighter (bearing in mind the F-15 layout was not designed for low-observability, unlike the Typhoon), the name might carry some weight. Also, South Korea already has a fleet of relatively new F-15Ks, so there are advantages in standardisation.

China: The struggle for coherent leadership (and other news)

Francois Godement’s paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations on the new Chinese party leadership argues that Xi Jinping has accumulated substantial personal power in excess of his predecessors, albeit at the cost of catering to the interests of Party elders. Worth a read for anyone interested in China’s internal politics.

Interestingly, former president Jiang Zemin, widely seen as the leader of the Party’s conservative wing, recently publicly endorsed Xi, a clear call for Party unity that has suggested to some that Xi’s authority is not all that it could be.

It is worth remembering, however, that Hu Jintao’s tenure as president was always limited by the fact that he was a compromise candidate from Jiang’s perspective, with the result that Jiang kept behind-the-scenes control of his faction of the Party. Hu and his premier Wen Jiabao spoke often about Party reform, but never seemed able to accomplish it. Xi, by contrast, was Jiang’s hand-picked successor. Jiang’s pronouncement may be seen as a call for unity around Xi’s energetic if not yet effective approach to tackling Party corruption.

Meanwhile, former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, once at the pinnacle of populist politics, is to face trial on charges of graft and abuse of power.

Vice President Li Yuanchao is headed to Pyongyang to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Korean War. This will likely be one more forlorn call to North Korea to embark on the path of reform and opening- a longstanding Chinese agenda whenever state visits occur between the two countries.

A mass protest was held today outside the Chinese consulate in Manila against Chinese aggression in territorial disputes with the Philippines. The protesters rightly point out that such disputes tarnish China’s image as a benevolent power.

In other news, Defense Industry Daily reports the possibility of a submarine deal between Poland and Germany. Germany may lease two of its U212s to Poland, allowing Poland’s old ex-Norwegian Kobben class subs to retire. If completed, the deal would also provide for a joint submarine operating authority, a sensible move for both Baltic countries. A letter of intent between the two defence ministers also includes cooperation in logistics vessel procurement, good news for Poland’s waning shipbuilding industry.

In the News: Yakhont Goes Boom and Sugar-Packed MiGs

Explosions on July 5th in the Syrian port city of Latakia may have been a shipment of Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, allegedly destroyed by a cruise missile launched from an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine.

Japan is catching flak for criticising China’s defence buildup and strident unilateral behaviour in ongoing island territorial disputes in this year’s defence white paper. The Defense News article does a good job of examining all sides of the issue.

For the Chinese (and the South Koreans, who also have an island in dispute with Japan), this comes across as advancing the militant nationalist agenda of the Abe government. To the Americans, it is a signal that Japan may be willing to increase its investment in its own defence, a sore point for the Americans who are essentially spending $80 billion a year providing defence to Japan.

An objective observer might note, however, that the Japanese are acknowledging a real problem in calling out China’s unilateral actions and violations of Japanese territorial waters and airspace (hundreds of instances every year). One might also note that the Americans are unlikely to get what they want. Japan seems to have no plans to expand its military forces in any meaningful way. It has fallen behind China in production of naval air defence ships, new combat aircraft acquisitions and now carriers as well, and there are no plans to redress the balance.

Panama has impounded a North Korean freighter found to be carrying two MiG-21s, assorted spare parts and a number of obsolete surface-to-air missile systems from Cuba, concealed under bags of sugar. Defense News presents a history of North Korean sanction-busting. Frankly, if MiG-21’s and SA-2s are all it’s got them, let them have it.

The CSIS think tank published its annual in-depth analysis of the US defense budget.

The Washington Post published a very interesting interview discussing the direction of China’s economy. The bottom line is that even this quarter’s 7.5% growth was massively subsidised through government underwriting of unsustainable (and uneconomic) capital investments, and any attempt to change current policies in order to develop domestic consumption could trigger an economic crisis.

George Freidman of Stratfor writes very perceptively on the NSA and the problem with surveillance today:
“The problem with the war on terror is that it has no criteria of success that is potentially obtainable. It defines no level of terrorism that is tolerable but has as its goal the elimination of all terrorism, not just from Islamic sources but from all sources. That is simply never going to happen and therefore, PRISM and its attendant programs will never end. These intrusions, unlike all prior ones, have set a condition for success that is unattainable, and therefore the suspension of civil rights is permanent. Without a constitutional amendment, formal declaration of war or declaration of a state of emergency, the executive branch has overridden fundamental limits on its powers and protections for citizens.”

In the News

The US Navy has tested a surface ship torpedo defence system (SSTD) aboard the carrier George H. W. Bush. Developed by the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory, the system combines passive detection and classification with a Countermeasure Anti-Torpedo to achieve hard kills. This system addresses a key area of vulnerability for surface ships, given the speed and multiple guidance modes of modern torpedoes and the multiplication of modern conventional submarine forces. Russia has already fielded a rocket-based system called Udav-1, which combines anti-torpedo and ASW functions and encompasses a number of specialised rockets.

Russian Prime Minister Medvedyev warned against the prospect of either Sweden or Finland joining NATO- a prospect that has come up in public debate due to the weakening defence postures in both countries. Sweden was embarrassed in April by being unable to respond to Russian aircraft approaching its border. Once again, Russia’s insecurities combine with belligerence to push its neighbours into the arms of NATO, which starts the cycle over again.

The hotline between North and South Korea is apparently back up. So much for the boy who cried war.

In the News: Nukes for South Korea?

Rep. Chung Mong-joon, longtime South Korean lawmaker and high-profile member of the ruling party, is speaking about the need for South Korea to either demand the return of American tactical nuclear weapons or develop its own. Why? To force China to take the North Korean situation seriously and keep its dog off the furniture. The reasoning is that only China still has the power to make North Korea listen to reason. The tactical nukes were removed as part of a de-nuclearisation agreement for the peninsula, which North Korea has clearly violated.

The US Navy will deploy a solid-state laser weapon aboard USS Ponce in 2014, the first time a viable laser weapon will have been operationally deployed.

In an unaccustomed display of competence, the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program is testing Thales’ excellent Sonar 2087 towed array for the ASW mission package, slated for operational capability in the 2016-2018 bracket. The Thales sonar has an outstanding reputation, and is reportedly able to operate effectively even at the high speeds of which LCS boats are capable. This would be an alternative to drawing on the production line for the MFTA towed array slated to replace the rest of the US Navy’s existing arrays.

US Navy CNO Admiral Greenert is trying to raise awareness of hacking and electromagnetic spectrum vulnerability in US forces. As I’ve written, this angle plays a major part in China’s strategy for dealing with carrier strike groups should they ever face them in combat.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on the US and China to build “strategic trust” during a speech in Washington, while continuing Singapore’s tradition of asking for increased US presence in the region. The problem is that from a Chinese viewpoint, those positions are in conflict. Building international trust requires creativity, and while inviting China to next year’s RIMPAC exercise was certainly creative, it was the exception in a relationship that both sides seem to be putting less and less effort into.

The US military has published its crowning joint doctrine document, covering military doctrine for all services. Creatively titled Joint Publication 1, it’s probably nothing to get excited about, especially if its lower-tier predecessors, Air-Sea Battle and the jargon-based Joint Operational Access Concept, are anything to go by.

The US Navy is also contemplating major procurement changes. The plan had been to design a Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to take the new AMDR radar. Unfortunately, the design seems not to have enough room to do that economically, and so the current Flight IIA may continue in production until a new design, possibly a cruiser successor, can be fielded. Also, the planned order of 52 Littoral Combat Ships may be cut to 24, with a single mission package including urgently-needed minesweeping equipment and possibly a vertical launch system for missiles. It seems that the Navy has decided it can’t afford $650 million ships that do nothing.

North Korea Reveals War Strategy

North Korea is to restart its Yongbyon nuclear plant, deactivated under the 2007 disarmament-for-aid deal. Assuming the facility can be reactivated, it could produce both enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. As wars go, this one is rather odd. In fact, North Korea’s war strategy is the same as its peacetime strategy, and can best be formulated as, “Give us food or we’ll keep hurting ourselves.”

North Korea has scrapped the armistice on a war that never officially ended, threatened nuclear war, actually stated that they are at war, and are now threatening to reactivate a facility that may be able to produce material that may be used in a bomb in a few years. They have threatened to target Guam, Hawaii, Los Angeles and, for some reason, Austin, Texas. Just how many steps can there be between war and actual combat?

The answer, apparently, is as many as they want, particularly since all this sound and fury has been met with little but strong language and the scheduled annual Foal Eagle exercise by the South and the United States. Sure, the US sent B-2 bombers and F-22s to participate, but that was it. Why isn’t the North being taken seriously in its tantrum?

Well, in a diplomatic sense, the answer is that it has proven an untrustworthy partner. There is very little appetite left to prop up North Korea with aid when it is clear that nuclear disarmament is not going to happen- particularly when the Chinese and the South are so obviously willing to help the DPRK undertake economic reforms and develop a Chinese-style economy. The Chinese have taken every visit by the North Korean leadership as an opportunity to emphasise the advantages of this path. And yet somehow, it hasn’t sunk in.

South Korean K1 Tank

South Korean K1 Tank

North Korean Pokpung-ho Tank

North Korean Pokpung-ho Tank

We can only speculate on the bizarre psychology of the situation. But in a military sense, it is clear that the North doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Nuclear war would be suicide. Conventional war would also be suicide, at least for the regime. North Korea’s armoured forces, though numerically impressive, are dominated by the 1950’s vintage T-54/55 and the 1960’s vintage T-62. The most recent indiginous design, which may incorporate more recent Russian and/or Chinese technology, has insufficient numbers to counter the K1 and M1 tanks of the South and the US. The DPRK Air Force is dominated by MiG-21 “Fishbeds”, the same aircraft faced by F-4s and F-8s during the Vietnam War, with around 120 newer MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s, and would prove little more challenging than the Iraqi Air Force in 1991. North Korea’s two advantages are numbers and a very dense air defence system, equipped with significant numbers of the modern SA-17 medium-range missile. Their chances, to put it mildly, are not good.

In summary, neither the Americans nor the South Koreans will be intimidated into perpetuating the cycle of nuclear blackmail at this point, and any follow-through on the DPRK’s threats would be both hopeless and tragic. The question is what Pyongyang will do next. Coming away from this encounter with neither face for the young leader nor desperately-needed aid, at what point will they feel forced to break out of their current futile paradigm- and in which direction will they go?