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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fly-By-Night Contractors, the Bo Trial and Iran’s New Kit

Canada paid $1 million to a German contractor to produce noise-monitoring equipment for the Victoria-class submarines several years ago. Not only was the product not delivered, it seems that the company is no longer registered in Germany, although CBC News has found a trace of them in Turkey. While Canada’s defence acquisition programs could fill textbooks with examples of what not to do, one usually expects that contractors for such major pieces of equipment would be internationally known.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese press has been riveted by an innovation– a relatively open trial of a senior Party official. Son of Bo Yibo, a powerful Party elder, Bo Xilai rose to the position of Secretary of the Communist Party in Chongqing, simultaneously holding a Politburo seat, until his wife Gu Kailai was implicated in the death of a British citizen and the Chongqing police chief claimed that Bo was involved in widespread corruption and abuse of power.

Bo’s ongoing trial has captivated Chinese media. Never before has the evidence against a senior official been laid out so publicly. Usually, such trials are conducted behind closed doors, as the trial of Gu Kailai was, and very little of the legal process happens in the courtroom in any case. Why the exception?

Bo became a powerful figurehead for the Party’s populist wing, surrounding himself with the trappings of Maoist “red culture.” The populists believe that the Party has deviated from its principles by failing to use its newfound wealth to balance the economic inequalities and address the problems of development that still claim far too many casualties in China. While Bo himself was rather circumspect on most of these issues, the Party might well think it wise to let this sordid courtroom drama play out in the public eye to disabuse the populists of their fallen hero, rather than risk turning Bo into a martyr. There was believed to be substantial apprehension among the wealthy Party elite when it looked as though Bo Xilai might rise to the Politburo Standing Committee during the transition of power last year. There is, after all, no rhetoric that can be more powerfully used against a Communist Party than Communist rhetoric. Given China’s slowness to balance the inequalities of development, the populists do indeed have a popular case.

So the Bo trial is not the beginning of a new age of transparency, nor is it any less unthinkable that Bo would be found innocent than any other official the Party puts on trial. It is simply that the Party has judged it safer to air some of its dirty laundry in this case than risk the entire case being seen as an attempt to crush a popular leader.

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Iran has announced that it will soon unveil a number of domestically-produced weapons systems, notably including a new submarine. Given the record of Iran’s past domestic defence products- midget and subscale submarines, “destroyers” that anywhere else would struggle to qualify as frigates and alleged stealth aircraft built on the scale of jet trainers, it probably won’t be anything to get excited about. The Gulf States, of course, will be watching closely, as will the United States and Israel.

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An article at Foreign Policy.com highlights (or repeats) an interesting truth of the digital age: that many pieces of information that were once products of professional intelligence gathering can increasingly be found through open sources. Daniel Prieto asks what we can do to leverage the march of OSINT more effectively.

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On Thursday, Japan intercepted some Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers intruding in its airspace. Although some might think such intrusions the main purpose of the Bear fleet (in its career since 1956, the turboprop-powered bomber has probably become the most intercepted aircraft of all time), it is an unusual blip in an otherwise cordial Russo-Japanese relationship.

In the News

The perhaps inaptly-named Global Force 2012/2013 reports on the operational readiness of a Royal Navy that has been rapidly shedding key elements of its expeditionary capability for several years. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in the state of key Royal Navy capital programs, this is an essential and fairly comprehensive source.

Russia’s massive Eastern exercise concluded last week, the final numbers are out, and a number of key problems ranging from technical difficulties to marksmanship have emerged. Just what the exercise was preparing for remains a mystery.

Indian Think Tank IDSA writes with understandable concern about the rise of both Chinese and Japanese nationalism and its implications for the region.

The US Air Force is diversifying its basing options and increasing its presence around China’s periphery. Given that a RAND Corporation report (later disavowed by the company despite being impeccably reasoned) several years ago showed that the US would lose an air war with China over Taiwan even in perfect conditions, partly due to limited basing options, this is a reasonable move. Japan may also be feeling the heat from a PLAAF that is approaching parity in quality of equipment and already outnumbers the Air Self Defense Force by a considerable margin. On the other hand, the risk of provoking an arms race in a region that has so far avoided anything that could justifiably use that label should be taken seriously.

A prison break in Pakistan frees 248 Taliban– bad news for a country in which some regions are at the mercy of jihadist groups, and a further bad sign for Afghanistan, which waits for the final withdrawals of Western forces with understandable apprehension.

Surprise Exercises in Eastern Russia

How many countries these days have 1000 armoured vehicles to put into a single exercise? Russia does, and it has. President Vladimir Putin ordered a surprise exercise in the Eastern Military District, commencing on the 13th and running until the 20th. This is an all-arms exercise on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving the Russian Pacific Fleet, the Air Force and the Army, all on a massive scale. Sources quote upwards of 100,000 personnel, 500-1000 tanks and armoured vehicles and 130 aircraft.

Naval components of the exercise include mine-hunting and anti-submarine warfare drills directed against conventionally-powered submarines, while the air force is flying top cover to maritime operations. The land component is primarily important as a mobilisation and logistical exercise. The big question which intelligence agencies will be examining is how the forces are being deployed.

Historically, the main purpose of Siberia-based land forces was to keep China in check following the Sino-Soviet split. Whereas Soviet military doctrine in the West strictly adhered to the principles of a strategic offensive, a different approach was taken with China, relying on layered defences and fortified areas.

Key Questions

The question now is what the present tactics and deployments of ground forces will indicate. Will there be a southern or an eastward orientation? Will the tactics me based upon manoeuvre warfare or defence-in-depth? As there is reportedly an aggressor training component to this exercise, nations interested in answering those questions will have ample opportunity to do so.

Why?

Why this exercise? Why now, and why in the east? Logical answers may be few and far between. As with any military involvement, this sort of sabre rattling buys Putin a certain amount of political capital and is a convenient distraction from domestic political problems, of which he has more than enough. Geostrategically, the exercise is somewhat puzzling.

While Russia has historically harboured suspicions of Chinese strategic intentions, that relationship is now quite friendly, and the thought of hostilities between the two de facto allies seems absurd. But who else is there? Russia’s dispute with Japan over the Kuril islands has not impaired friendly relations. Likewise, Russia does not need to care about North Korea. The Russian Pacific Fleet is far removed from the disputes of the South and East China Seas, and from the trade route choke point of the Malacca Strait. In short, this is the exercise of a useless muscle.

Still, it is less useless than Russia’s forces in the west, which guard against the evil Western imperialists- and could probably stroll right through to the Bay of Biscay at this point if they really wanted to, given the state of European land forces and Russia’s vast armoured superiority. If Moscow wants to call attention to its military strength and geopolitical importance with a large exercise, the East is certainly the less silly option.

This could also be a reaction to the US “eastward pivot,” reminding everyone that Russia too has a Pacific Fleet and providing China with some semblance of the multipolarity it prefers. Considering that Russia and China have just concluded joint naval exercises, however, the timing seems odd.

Of course, ego is the go-to explanation for all Russian military behaviour. “We will show our vast military power so that everyone knows how important we are! And of course, we must be on guard in case the evil (insert name of country or alliance) try to invade our vast, cold, inhospitable territory that no one actually wants. What, we don’t have any enemies left? Well then make one, do I have to think of everything?”

In the News- Syria and Russia

After a nearly two-month hiatus (sorry about that- life, it seems, will happen), we return to publication with news items that are just begging for some bad jokes.

Russia has said that it will deliver S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles to Syria, honouring a previous contract, “to deter foreign intervention.” Days of confusion ensue as to whether or not the missiles have already been delivered. The United States and Germany plead with Russia not to go ahead with delivery, saying that it will alter the balance of power in the region.

The S-300 is a serious threat to modern air forces- if you’re the sort of country that has a densely-layered air defence system to back it up. The Syrian Army, as Israel has repeatedly demonstrated over the past few months, does not.

Meanwhile, Russia has already delivered Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Syria under a 2007 contract- rebel fishing trawlers beware! The Yakhont is the export version of the Onyx supersonic anti-ship missile, one of the world’s most dangerous. Presumably, these will all be used in shore batteries, since Syria’s Soviet-era missile boats would need serious work in order to handle them.

In a far more serious deterrent to foreign intervention, Russian vessels, including the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, three amphibious assault ships which US officials believe to be carrying supplies of weapons for the regime and other vessels from the Russian Black Sea Fleet are sitting in the eastern Mediterranean.

Full-scale intervention in Syria always seemed politically unlikely, but the Russians’ presence on Syria’s short coastline makes any intervention from the sea almost impossible- even if the Russian vessels do not attempt to intervene, their presence lends the situation the potential to explode into a wider international incident should an accident occur. The question is, why should Russia feel such a degree of commitment to Assad? Of course, Putin may be trying to tick off the West on general principle- this just seems a rather expensive and risky investment.

Meanwhile, Assad has warned Israel that he will respond “in kind” to any future air strikes on Syrian territory, while citing “popular pressure” to retake the Golan Heights. Still no comment on the rather more urgent “popular pressure” for the president to leave office… Like Galtieri before him, Assad is looking for an enemy to distract his people- or perhaps he is throwing a sop to his Hezbollah allies. Unfortunately, civil wars don’t just go away.

With fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights today between rebels and government forces, Israel was not involved. Meanwhile, we can be sure that Israel takes Assad’s threats with all the seriousness that they deserve. I’m sure the Israelis are so terrified they can barely continue laughing. Israel may not be able to pacify a region without getting egg all over its face, but when the IDF is called to perform a mission it was actually designed for, like pounding whatever’s left of the Syrian Army at this point into the ground, the result is a foregone conclusion.

In the News: South Korea and US strengthen Defence Plans

In response to North Korea’s recent intemperance, the US and South Korea have signed a new military plan which requires the United States to be part of the reply to any North Korean provocation, under South Korean leadership.

Meanwhile, China has reached a deal to buy 24 Su-35 fighters and 4 Lada class Air Independent Propulsion submarines from Russia. Given that the Chinese have previously copied both Russian fighters and Russian submarine technologies, we can:
1. Not hold our breath for any follow-on orders, and
2. Ask the Russian government what on earth it is thinking.

The last time Russia sold an advanced fighter to China, it was quickly copied and produced in China. Now the Chinese are no doubt buying the Su-35 to get a look at the latest refinements. The Lada buy is somewhat less explicable, given that China already has a fairly advanced fleet of conventional submarines based on Russian technology. It may indicate that China’s efforts toward air independent propulsion have hit some problems.

In The News

Ahmadinejad offers to go into space– world wonders will he stay there?

Russia tries to nationalise volunteerism– BeyondDefence proposes they nationalise the black market while they’re at it, since we’re obviously in the realm of the ludicrous. The rising Russian volunteer movement is probably the closest the country has ever come to the communist ideal- naturally, it can only be a threat to state security.