Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Archive for the ‘Foreign Affairs’ Category

A Light Fickers

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 20, 2013

This has been a week of hopeful words from unexpected sources, words that give succor to the soul but arouse unease in the intellect.

From Pope Francis I we hear words of hope, words that say that the Church has buried itself for far too long in doctrinal small sightedness which has made cynical the flock. A religion founded on the principles so well expounded in the tale of the Samaritan– tolerance for difference, kindness in the face of prejudice, the universality of the human condition and the amelioration of its woes– has submerged itself in fights over the denial of earthly rights and heavenly rewards to people over matters pertaining to their love and its physical expressions. From John Boehner we hear rumblings that the nihilistic campaign being waged by the Tea Party isn’t what is right for America, that being elected to govern does not equate with mothballing the government. From as unlikely a source as the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, we hear words of conciliation and mutual respect in a call to welcome Iran back into the community of nations as a full fledged partner, and end to, as he refers to it, an age of blood feuds.

Three disparate sources, one overarching theme– reconciliation. It is impossible for people of hope not to be at least momentarily inspired by words such as these coming in a time as divisive as the one we now populate. Our minds, those cynicized organs so conditioned by the events of the past quarter century to ignore hope in favor of a darker coalescence of possibilities, for a moment lighten as we glimpse that flickering ember and wonder if it can be kindled into a generator not necessarily of heat but still of  tactile reality. The possibility can’t be denied, if even out of sheer desire for it to be real.

The reasons to think it is not real are, sadly, easy to enumerate. Francis is at the helm of a vast doctrinal bureaucracy heavily invested in the teachings of the previous Pontiff, Benedict, whose march to undo the moderatel influence on the Church of John Paul II and John XXIII became the hallmark of his pontificate.

Like the legendary grey men of the permanent British Civil Service, those doctrinally orthodox Cardinals, Bishops and functionaries understand that they will outlast the temporary leadership of their nominative leader; Benedict’s labors to restock the Curia and its various functional apparatuses with younger men are rewarded in that way. They know that they must publicly toe the line drawn by their Pope, but will they rush to enact his decrees or let them linger under study, under “timely” implementations and half hearted directives to the pastoral network, playing the waiting game in hopes of a new, older direction from the next Pope?

Francis and “His” Curia

I discussed yesterday with an old friend, a man of faith, character and intellect, whether the Pope’s words were actually aimed at the doctrinal staff or rather lower, at the grassroots network of parish priests and the faithful. Upon reflection I believe my friend to be correct, that Francis is trying to do an end run around his governing structure and enact change from the bottom by seeing his message preached from the myriad pulpits, thus forcing the Bishops into acceptance and then the structure all the way back to those supposedly closest to the Pope’s direct control in Rome. It strikes me as a desperate play by Francis, although not a hopeless one– my main hope in it is that he acknowledges that the system is broken and that he cannot fix the damage by decree, but must invest his power in the organizationally powerless and ask them, through faith and numbers, to right what is wrong with the Church.

Mr. Boehner faces a problem similar in theme if different in mechanics. Boehner finds himself the nominal leader of a Republican caucus not only badly divided but acting in a manner that is nearly unprecedented in the leadership structure history of his party, While the Democrats have always been a somewhat fractious coalition, earlier of Northern liberals and Dixiecrat conservatives and later of Blue Dogs, liberals, moderates, fiscal conservative/social liberals and various and sundry other ideologues practicing vaious and sundry different ideologies, the GOP has been a much more rigid, lockstep caucus. In the years since the Eisenhower Administration, with the slight aberration of the Gingrich speakership, the GOP in Congress has existed under the tight control of their Speakers and Minority Leaders with strong and able whipping by the lower leadership. It has reliably supported their core themes (at least in the way they’ve been somewhat misleadingly packaged)– lower taxes, smaller government, fiscal responsibility measures, the curtailment of the social safety net, opposition to abortion and the extension of civil rights, sometimes with the abetment of the fractious Democrats and sometimes without. The “Hastert Rule”, which stated that no bill be brought to the floor unless it met with the approval of the majority of the Caucus, seemed absolute.

The brashness of that lockstep record emboldened the Boehner/Cantor leadership to overplay their hand at the close of the first decade of the new century, legitimizing and deploying the proverbial war elephant of the Tea Party Republicans as a force they hubristically thought they could control and whose dynamism they never fully understood. War elephants, as I’ve written in the past, are funny things from a historic perspective– massive, intimidating juggernauts that can scare the enemy off of the battlefield, yes, but more often than not they proved to be unreliable forces of nature as apt to trample their own lines into dust as they were to scatter an opposing army. The elephantine presence of the Tea Party electees of 2010 has done precisely that to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor’s leadership in the House and to a slightly lesser extent Mr. McConnell’s leadership in the Senate.

That leads us to the horns of Mr. Boehner’s dilemma this week– a caucus so out of control as to be characterized by its own members as being on a legislative kamikaze mission to hole the hull of our government. Mr Boehner has made a very poor secret of his attempts to rein in the caucus and to get them to focus on governance rather than on the destruction of the same– his sometimes tiresomely bellicose verbiage has moderated to calls for governmental foresight and moderation. Even speaking as someone who shares very little governing philosophy with Mr. Boehner, I respect his desire for moderation and sanity displayed this past week despite the typhoon of immoderation his previous actions have unleashed. I hope that he can somehow restore the genie to the bottle by force of will and backroom deals among the more pragmatic members of his party, but that hope is again, as is the case with Pope Francis’ hope, limited by the empirical evidence before us to the contrary. It is hard to undo a system that is behaving in a manner so optimally that it has subsumed the governors placed to control it.

Last is the letter delivered to the American people and to the world by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a world set reeling by actions coming from the Middle East since the mid 1960s, what words could be more welcome than those calling for a legitimate peace from one of the nations that have so greatly fostered that reeling instability? Rather than suing for peace, President Rouhani asks for something even more intellectually appealing– and end to the “zero sum game” of lingering Cold War thinking, a new compact founded on a return to (or perhaps, truthfully, a novel) respect for the needs of other nations in the pursuit of the “win-win” scenarios that we all know are possible if the principals would moderate their definition of “wins” away from the absolutism of Berlin or the deck of the USS Missouri. An eminently rational appeal from a nation reputed in the West to be the home of irrationality, a land who sacrificed its children in the 1980s as human minesweepers and who has suckled nascent terrorist movements until they were ready to leave the house and wreak havoc internationally has a seductiveness of the mind almost too tantalizing to ignore.

Is this a deliverable promise–  or even premise– from an Iranian President, however? Is it a simple ruse to take advantage of American war weariness to further complicate our effort to deny Iran nuclear weaponry? Is it a truthful statement of Rouhani’s personal desires but ultimately a meaningless gesture as it is the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in whom all power is really vested by his control of the theocratic infrastructure, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and, especially, the nuclear apparatus?

In Rouhani, again we see the problem of a putative ruler who may have no control over his supposed domain– a rump ruler, a ruler in name only. In the cases of Boehner and Francis I, the issue is those whom they supposedly represent and speak for; in the case of Iran, it is those whom exist on a plane above the public face of the ruler. Same problem, different ladders. Can the conciliatory words of Rouhani, even if they are delivered with sincerity in the man’s heart (an open question), really amount to anything when Khameini’s IRGC and its al-Quds terrorist network are openly waging war in Syria in support of the Assad regime? Is it possible that, like Francis, Rouhani is trying to inspire the Iranian people to see a better path and institute change from below, perchance by a reinstitution of the Green Revolution that we saw in 2009-2010, a revolution that the US didn’t materially support despite our clear interest in doing so? Could Rouhani be seeking US support for its resurgence? A possibility.

We live in a world where institutions are breaking down and a trend towards anarchy is emerging, a problem illustrated, I believe, by this week’s hopeful words. The superficially unifying theme behind them is reconciliation, yes, but perhaps another darker unification emerges upon consideration of them as an interlocked whole rather than as discrete conversations– the recognition by our leaders that their leadership is in jeopardy and with it so too are our societal institutions. Are the leaders calling on the led to, in effect, dispose of the middlemen– the power of the institutions that have gone rogue, the power of the Curia and its apparatus, the Tea Party, the Iranian Supreme Leadership– in an effort to save not only themselves but their societies as they are currently defined? If so, what are the ramifications of these grasps at newly ethereal power?

I’m tempted to see these as the penultimate gestures from leadership– a rational, constructive and coalition based approach to restoration of the societal norms we’ve become accustomed to over the past centuries. Should they fail, the tumult of the ultimate gestures to retain power– gestures we’ve seen throughout history’s darkest times– seem to be likely as the leaders of our institutions all retain executive powers that they will surely try to use to maintain their power.

Are our societies so flawed that we should allow them to go through a period of painful redefinition at the hands of middle men, or should we hope for an enlightened leadership emerging from those who were perhaps responsible for those middle men attaining so much power in the first place? We’ve seen “middle men” take power so many times in so many nations in the personage of the ambitious Colonels, but this is a different scenario; this time it’s not a jumped up military officer looking to take power but maintain the institution, it’s a fundamental dismantling of the institution by the “Colonels” that is sought, perhaps not unlike the tumult of the move from Feudalism to Limited Constitutional Monarchy or Imperialism to Mercantile Democracy.

The world contemplates change subconsciously this week in the guise of hopeful words that hide situations redolent of the loss of faith. A flickering light burns, but whether or not to nourish the ember to fire– and what we feed that fire with– is becoming the central question of our time.

Advertisements

Posted in American Politics, Christianity, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, Foreign Affairs, History, Iran, Middle East, Religion, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

We’re Looking In The Wrong Strategic Direction

Posted by Bob Kohm on June 23, 2011

Last night President Barack Obama gave what has been billed as one of the most important speeches of his Administration to discuss the winding down of hostilities in Afghanistan. While this speech was undoubtedly as important as it was purported to be and contained very significant news, the major address of the day on American and global strategic issues was given by Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai.

Speaking about recent tensions that have been spurred by the Chinese government over the Spratly and Paracel Island chains in the South China Sea, Mr. Cui  rattled China’s saber by saying, “I believe some countries now are playing with fire… And I hope the U.S. won’t be burned by this fire.” These comments come on the heels of two weeks of comments from the Chinese government instructing the United States to stay out of the South China Sea entirely.

To understand the gravity of this situation it is necessary to have a firm grasp on the background of a conflict that has seemed meaningless for decades but that is now growing into what may become the fulcrum of the United States’ claim to relevance in the Pacific Ocean. The Spratly and Paracel Islands are a collection of minuscule reefs, islets, shoals and rocks in the South China Sea, with the Paracels located off the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam and the Spratlys located off the

Map of the South China Sea, showing China's claims

coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. The Spratlys are located over 635 miles from the nearest Chinese coastline on Hainan Island while the Spratlys lie roughly 185 miles from Hainan and the Vietnamese coast, respectively. Both island groups have multiple claimants– the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the PRC all lay claim to territory in the Spratlys while Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to the Paracels, which have been administered by the PRC since fighting a minor war with Vietnam over them in the mid-70s.

As is the answer to most questions in Asian strategic puzzle, the importance of the island groups themselves lay in the natural resources they harbor. The Spratlys in particular are thought to be extremely rich in untapped undersea natural gas and oil deposits and both island groups are extremely rich fishing grounds. That was enough to maintain this conflict at the low simmer it has been on for nearly forty years, with ludicrous military bases being built on stilts on islets to small to hold a Boy Scout camp, occupations and counter-occupations of rocks, naval skirmishes and fisheries fights. Money has always been a good enough reason to spur on a conflict, but in the past several months the South China Sea issue has grown tenfold in strategic importance and tension for reasons rooted firmly in the geopolitics of an emergent China and its decision to test what it sees as a weakening America.

As America has become mired in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns over the preceding decade and seen its economy dive, China has sensed an opportunity to transform its economic power into regional hegemony in East Asia and the Western Pacific. In the early part of the previous decade, China committed to increasing its ability to project power off of its own shores and into the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the creation of a true blue water fleet for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Beijing started building out the Type 054 destroyer program, kicked off several submarine production programs and obtained from Russia and rebuilt the Varyag (now PLAN Shi Lang), an aircraft carrier started during the Cold War for the Soviet Navy and abandoned before completion with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Additionally, China focused on the concept of denying the United States access to the oceans within striking distance of the Chinese mainland itself by investing in advanced ground to sea and air to sea cruise missiles and finally the DF-21 ballistic anti-ship missile, the first system ever built to utilize a land based ballistic missile with a maneuverable conventional warhead  specifically to strike at ships at sea. Interestingly, the Chinese carrier will go to sea for the first time next week to undergo sea trials, almost certainly at the heart of the tensions in the South China Sea.

Coupled to the increase in China’s strategic military capability is an increase in China’s strategic vision. Sorely wounded by then President Bill Clinton’s decision to send two US carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 during a period of high tension between China and Taiwan, China started to evolve a strategy that had as its end goal the replacement of the United States Navy as the preeminent force in the Western Pacific Ocean and the limitation of America’s ability to hem China in with the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines-Guam wall of American allies. China, once divided into “spheres of influence” by the United States and the European powers, would now seek to carve out its own sphere of influence running from the Russian border to the Indian border to Myanmar on the land and which would encompass the entirety of the South China and Yellow Seas. It ultimately foresees “reunification” with Taiwan, economic and military influence over Japan and the Philippines and practical control over the nations of South East Asia. Additionally, China would seek to outflank its major Asian rival, India, by establishing forward naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Further into the future, China also would seem to be laying the groundwork for an eastward expasnsion, purchasing large blocks of land and coastal facilities on the West Coast of South America as it attempts to control the Pacific Ocean in 2050 in much the way as the United States has controlled it since 1945.

All of this leads us back to the current question, that of the greatly increased tensions over the past several weeks in the South China Sea. The PLAN and the Chinese Maritime Security Ministry have made unprecedented deployments of ships to the South China Sea region and have acted extremely aggressively, bumping and even ramming foreign fishing vessels, menacing Vietnamese and Philippine patrol boats and installations and issuing proclamations of Chinese sovereignty over the entire South China Sea– prompting– in the one funny bit of this whole imbroglio– the Philippine legislature to rename the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea” to assert their claims.

The United States, of course, does not and will not acknowledge China’s spurious claims to sovereignty over an area of ocean that lies mainly outside of China’s territorial waters and economic exclusion zone under every recognized international charter. Much of the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea, including almost all of the oil and raw materials that feed Japan’s industrial society and oil shipments from the Gulf States to the United States’ West Coast, compounding the US opposition to any restriction on the right of free passage through open waters.

Here’s is where China’s gamble comes into play. During the pre-War on Terror era, the United States would likely rush carrier strike groups into the South China Sea to stare down the Chinese and put an end to these claims and tensions. Today that is a much more difficult proposition. China holds extensive economic leverage over the United States, which is undoubtedly being exercised behind the scenes in a dual strategy– China issues very public warnings to the United States to stay hands off while it militarily bullies our allies prompting them to look to us to stand up for them, but in private the Chinese are threatening to inflict tremendous damage on the US economy if we move to challenge them. The Philippines are already publicly seeking to invoke provisions of a 1951 calling on the United States to come to its defense in the event of a naval attack, upping the pressure on America to show the flag. China is betting that we will not do that in any meaningful way and thus break the confidence our Pacific allies have in us, forcing them to accept the “reality” that accommodating  China is their only way forward. This is made more important to China by the reaction of the United States to the inter-Korean conflict several months ago over the shelling of Yeonpeyong Island and the near shooting war that broke out over it; China did not anticipate the United States so strongly backing South Korea’s military play and was deeply offended by the revelation that US cruise missile and attack submarines were operating in the Yellow Sea, which China has always declared to be sovereign territorial waters. That particular move, the operation of US submarines in  a sea that China regarded as its own and which bolstered the United States at the expense of China at a time that China felt it had clear advantages over the United States, is a mirror image of the Chinese assertion of sovereignty claims over yet another entire sea as we are seeing today.

How will this play out? There are several possibilities– it seems almost inevitable that China, which is issuing point blank warnings to all other claimants of the islands to get out of its way, will wind up in a minor naval skirmish with the Vietnamese in the coming days and weeks. If it sees no dire reactions to that, it will challenge a Filipino ship to really test the resolve of the United States. All along it will continue to publicly warn and attempt to embarrass the United States over this issue with the intent of eventually putting us in a position where we either have to deploy a carrier strike group and a host of subs back to the South China Sea with the threat of massive Chinese disruptions to our economy or put our tail between our legs and show our Pacific allies that they have to obey Beijing. Expect to see in the news over the coming weeks an increase in cyberattacks against the American government and financial systems coming from China to further push the message to the White House and Congress and continued increases in naval tensions in the South China Sea.

China, historically long in thought and slow to act, believes it has reached a point where action is wise. It knows that the period for this action is limited– the American economy will recover over the coming five years and the US debt spending regime of the past several Presidencies will be more limited, so the period of magnified Chinese influence will ebb back to more balanced levels. It is for this reason that I believe that we will see China continue to very aggressively press this claim, even at the risk of a minor Chinese economic disruption caused by damaging the American and global markets or even at the risk of a limited engagement with the US Navy if it believes that the PLAN can gain the strategic advantage.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Korea, Submarines | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Saudi Intervention in Bahrain Presages Widespread Economic and Security Disruptions

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2011

Reports have emerged already from reliable sources (such as Stratfor) that Saudi forces may have already entered Bahrain in support of the besieged government and that Omani forces will enter today as well.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this development could be for America and the world– please do not discount this development because the media is not reporting on it adequately due to the news overload from Japan and Libya; frankly I suspect that this is happening right now in part because of the saturation of the news cycle as Saudi intervention has been rumoured to be ready to go for three weeks now.

Why is this so important? There are two major reasons. First, Saudi and GCC military intervention tells us that there is the real possibility of the Shi’a rebellion succeeding, a major problem as it is being financially and politically backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and representing the long feared first action of Iran on the Western side of the Gulf. As Stratfor points out, Saudi and Omani intervention becomes a very apparent threat to an Iran that is feeling particularly belligerent these days. I would add to that that while Iran cannot really project any land power across the Gulf, it is not without reason to suspect that they might try overt air or naval action or, much more likely, might wage a large scale, thinly covert terrorist wave campaign sponsored by the IRGC and targeted at Saudi and Omani ol targets as well as against the US 5th Fleet which is based in Bahrian. America is economically vulnerable right now and a crippling strike on oil distribution or production facilities or even the renewal of something like the “Tanker War” of the 1980s, the mining of the Straits or even the announced “closing” of the Straits would be a direct attack on our economy; if gas is already heading to $4 based on Libya, what would it go to if the Persian Gulf oil flow was interdicted, and what would $7-10 gas do to our economy? It’s got to be a seductive idea to the Ayatollahs– flexing Iranian muscle against the Saudis to possibly establish an Iranian puppet connected to the Kingdom by a causeway while damaging the Americans and making a long term rise in oil prices inevitable. America’s options will be limited– we can’t afford a general war with Iran and doing anything meaningful to Iran will further exacerbate the oil crisis, we’d be limited to tactical actions like going after Iranian naval assets.

Second, Saudi intervention to put down one of the “popular” revolts sweeping the region makes the possibility of internal instability in the Kingdom much more possible than it appears to be right now. I don’t really need to go into the huge global repercussions of internal strife in the Kingdom which threatens or limits production and distribution.

Should either of these situations come to pass– and one happening makes the other much more likely to happen as well in a cascade– other actors will come into play, notably Venezuela. Chavez will be unable to resist the chance to further screw the US by messing with his own oil production to exacerbate our difficulties at a time when his fortunes are starting to fade. Japan is totally reliant on the Gulf for its oil and is obviously already in a chaotic state and in a little reported (in the West) but very active confrontation with China over the Spratly Islands, which has flared badly over the last six weeks– what impact could there be on that situation, even moreso because of the petroleum/natural gas reserves suspected to exist there?

If I’m right, this intervention could be the start of a bad spiral extending globally over the coming months. It might present dramatically over the next few days or it could unfold slowly over the next few weeks, but be assured that there will be very negative ramifications of a Saudi/GCC intervention in Bahrain.

Posted in American Politics, Events, Foreign Affairs, Iran, Islamists, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Firing Starts and a Twist Emerges

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 20, 2010

Twitter lit up at about 12.10EST with reports of artillery fire being heard near Yeonpyeong Island (now confirmed by the RoK media), and almost simultaneously the news broke that Kim has told New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson that he will agree to ship nuclear fuel rods outside of the country thus limiting North Korea’s ability to reprocess the uranium and build more nukes.

In the large post this afternoon I mentioned that Kim would try and do what he always does– go charging to the brink and then try and pull back. At this point it will be very interesting to see what he does– he has obviously applied one break with the concession to Richardson, but if he fires on Yeonpyeong and/or other targets the RoK & US governments will not likely be swayed by that concession as there have been too many instances of the North making and then failing to live up to precisely this kind of concession.

If Kim does not fire on Yeonpyeong the tea leaves will be analyzed and reanalyzed by every Asia watcher going. What would it mean? It could mean that Kim was told flat out by Beijing that firing would cost him his regime and his life. It could mean that the power struggle within the North Korean government has reached a conclusion. It could simply be weakness in the resolve of the DPRK government, which will end the Kim regime once and for all. His military might be on the brink of rebelling, understanding the suicidal nature of initiating a war.

Of course, he still may fire. This RoK live fire is expected to go on for two hours. The DPRK response, if it is coming, will come within three after that by my estimate.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

And So It Begins

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

Hold tight– several Korean sources and even CNN (hey, welcome to the party, American MSM!) are now reporting that residents of Yeonpyeong and several nearby islands have been ordered to take shelter immediately, signalling that firing will begin within the hour. Initial reports say that during a pre-exercise drill by the RoK forces a North Korean battery opened up and fired 30 rounds of artillery into the waters near Yeonpyeong.

As I said on Facebook the other day… if you pray for peace, now would be an outstanding time to do so.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Uncategorized, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Korean Conflict Imminent

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

I’m going to resurrect the blog for the next few days to chronicle what I suspect will be the outbreak of open hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, continuing my commentary from RotoJunkie.com

As the situation stands on Sunday afternoon in the US and overnight in Korea, the skies over Pyongyang and the DMZ have cleared and all indications are that the South Koreans will carry through their promised live fire exercise on Yeonpyeong Island in the morning.

The UN Security Council emergency session, taking place  today at the behest of the Russians to try and stop the RoK artillery exercise and defuse tensions, will amount to nothing as the Americans are not on board. Politically South Korea (henceforth the RoK) can not draw down from these exercises as the government almost fell over the lack of response to the North’s shelling of civilian targets on Yeonpyeong on 23 November.

The Background

Taking a look back at the origins of this crisis and to give a general primer on the strategic situation on the Peninsula, the immediate roots of this crisis lie in two acts of North Korean aggression, the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on 26 March 2010 and the aforementioned shelling of Yeonpyeong. Military aggression from the North  (the DPRK) is not a new phenomenon; over the years they have fired across the DMZ too many times to count, have been caught landing commandos via mini-sub inside the RoK’s borders, have shot down reconnaissance planes and famously took captive the USS Pueblo back in the late ’60s. This year’s events, however, have reflected a departure from the norms of DPRK aggression both in terms of scale and targeting.

The Cheonan was most likely sunk by a DPRK mini-sub not far from Yeonpyeong near the holy disputed “Northern Limit Line” in the Yellow Sea, a maritime boundary separating RoK water from DPRK water somewhat arbitrarily drawn by US General Mark Clark at the end of the 1950-3 Korean Conflict. Sinking this ship with its large crew marked a decided and especially provocative escalation in the types of attacks the North was willing to perpetrate. The subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong represented the first intentional targeting of civilians and civilian areas since the 1953 Armistice and has had a huge impact on the South Korean public’s outlook on intra-Korean relations.

The South’s response to both incidents, and particularly the Cheonan, was perceived both internally and abroad as being somewhat feeble. After the sinking, the South made some nasty declarations about protecting its own, went to the UN with proof of the North sinking the ship after raising it from the floor of the Yellow Sea, held a few naval demonstrations and largely nothing more despite the high death toll aboard the stricken vessel. The response to Yeonpyeong was little better at first– increased caterwauling about the North cutting it out, threats of retaliation “next time” and very showy tours and exercises on the island. The South Korean population had had enough of that behavior, however, and as a result the RoK’s Defense Minister was sacked by the government of President Lee. Shortly after– and hugely against the wishes of the Chinese– a large scale naval exercise was held with the US Navy in the Yellow Sea, which China considers to be off limits to the major navies of the world. The point was made that the United States would stand behind its RoK alliance by inserting the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group (CSG) into the Yellow Sea and revealing that our most advanced attack submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, had already been operating in the Yellow Sea before the Yeonpyeong strike occurred. That was followed by US-Japanese exercises off of the East Coast of North Korea, some uncharacteristically tough talk from President Lee both at home and abroad, and ultimately the scheduling of the current artillery live fire exercise.

The reason for the RoK’s repeated timidity in the face of DPRK aggression lies just over 30 miles north of Seoul. Emplaced along the DMZ are over one hundred North Korean 170mm “Koksan” artillery pieces capable of putting direct fire on any target in Seoul in addition to as many as several dozen 240mm Multiple Rocket Launch Systems capable of putting artillery rockets into Seoul, as well. These weapons are located in hardened postions called HARTs (Hardened ARTillery) and would be somewhat difficult to destroy before they managed to fire several volleys. It is that capability, along with the very large reserve of SCUD-variant, LUNA-M, NK-02 and FROG artillery missiles further north that have dialed down the RoK’s will to retaliate in the past– they have an awful lot to lose by escalating a crisis with Pyongyang. How much?  Many authorities foresee up to one million casualties in Seoul in the first two hours from full artillery bombardment by the North using only conventional warheads. I don’t agree that casualties on that scale would occur as the US & RoK would silence or disrupt many of those those guns and launchers within less than an hour, but it would still be a disastrous occurrence. Apparently the South Koreans have overcome that fear this time around, however, as it is the normally dovish population that is driving the calls for retaliation.

With that brief history in hand it is easy to see that the situation on the Peninsula has moved in a new direction as 2010 has played itself out. As mentioned earlier, the RoK is not in a political position in which it can stop the scheduled exercise in the face of North Korean threats— and North Korean threats have been dire. This week alone the DPRK has threatened to attack not only Yeonpyeong but also, depending on the speaker, two, three, or more other sites, to hit US assets in Japan with missile fire, to use its nuclear weapons, or to take on the US Navy. Much of this rhetoric is being driven by succession planning within the DPRK, as the reign of Kim Jong Il draws to an end and he tries to hand power to his son, Kim Jong Un, against the will of some factions of the military and possibly the regime in Beijing, the North’s most important supporter. Kim Jong Un is seen as a weak pretender by many, just as his father was when he took the reins of power from his father, Kim Il Sung. It seems evident that the Kims are ratcheting up tensions with the hope of stopping them at the tipping point to show that Kim Jong Un is not only ready to command but is essential to the continued existence of the Stalinist regime. Their ability to stop them, however, seems to be predicated on the RoK acting as it always has and refusing to escalate military tensions and the United States not rocking the boat. Today this seems a  highly flawed premise.

The Coming (?) Storm

Ever since the joint naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, the United States Navy has been putting more and more assets into play in the Western Pacific. Last weekend the Navy surged an incredible nine nuclear attack submarines to sea in a 72 hour period, and this week two more have set out putting an extraordinary 67% of our nuclear attack subs at sea. Joining them are as many as three (and my money is on all three) of the most powerful undersea combatants ever built, the Ohio-class cruise missile subs (SSGNs). These boats are a rare glimpse into what the US military can do when it works with a good idea and stays within budget to recycle assets instead of giving General Dynamics carte blanche to spend taxpayer money. Each of these boats are a converted Trident submarine that has had its ballistic missile launch systems removed and replaced by 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles optimized for land attack. In addition, the boats are specialized intelligence and special ops platforms, with lockout chamber and mini-craft to covertly deliver SEAL teams to the beach and all manner of electronic intelligence gathering capabilities.

On the surface things get no better for the North Koreans. At the conclusion of its joint exercises with the Japanese, the George Washington CSG returned to its home port of Yokosuka, Japan with the announcement that it would be in port through the holidays and New Year. Earlier this week the Washington CSG returned to the sea with no prior announcement. The CSG is comprised of the carrier and its air wing, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS cruiser, an Arleigh Burke class AEGIS destroyer, a nuclear attack sub and attached frigates for anti-submarine (ASW) defense. It is the basic building block of American power projection and each of our ten CSGs outpower the entire navies of most other countries. The presence of the USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) is confirmed in the Yellow Sea and consists of the Essex, a “baby” carrier loaded with USMC AV-8b Harrier strike fighters, Sea Cobra attack helicopters and various troop transport & ASW choppers along with an USMC Expeditionary Group, consisting of a reinforced battalion of Marines with full equipment along with the same cruiser, destroyer, frigate and submarine assets of the CSG.

Potentially coming into play will be the USS Carl Vinson CSG, currently underway in the Pacific (more on them in a bit) and the USS Ronald Reagan CSG, also in the Pacific and coming off of its pre-deployment trials. The USS Boxer ESG is also in the Pacific and may be moving towards Korea already. The prospect of the combined striking power of three CSGs and two ESGs along with the Ohio SSGNs and the various Improved Los Angeles and Seawolf attack subs is, in a word, massive.

Not to be left out is the US Air Force, which has been known to deploy its B2 Spirit stealth bombers to Andersen AFB in Guam and which would play an important role in a US strategic campaign against the DPRK. Coupled with B1 Lancers and B52 Stratofortresses, the strategic assets of the USAF will come into play early in the game if escalation becomes inevitable. The US also maintains large numbers of  tactical fighters and fighter-bombers in South Korea and Japan that would round out our air supremacy package with the Korean F-15s and Navy F-18s.

The Koreans feature a formidable military designed precisely to strike quickly and deep into the DPRK with American backing. Their Air Force is first rate, featuring many modern US aircraft types such as F-15 and -16 variants along with older F-4 & F-5s and their Army features superb tanks (unlikely to be used here) and ample supplies of attack helicopters. Training across Korean Forces is superb and their Special Operations Forces are amongst the world’s elite.

In addition to US & RoK forces, the Japanese, who have grown very concerned with the unstable nuclear armed regime occupying a portion of the peninsula historically known by the sobriquet “The Dagger Pointed at the Heart of Japan”, have put a large portion of their formidable naval assets to sea in the past two weeks in response to the growing tensions.

The Deadly Wildcard

In the face of so much opposition it would seem that the North should back down, but there has been growing evidence over the past few years that coupled with the attitude that the RoK is “too soft” to withstand attacks on Seoul and thus will never attack the North, is the reliance on the North’s fledgling nuclear weapons program to stop the US from moving against them. Having often both heard and expressed the idea that having a nuclear weapon makes you too dangerous for the United States to ever take on, the Kim regime has poured a high percentage of its scarce resources into developing, with assistance from Pakistan and Iran, nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them.

North Korea’s history of testing their nukes is a bit spotty, to say the least. Their first  declared test, in Ocotber of 2006, may or may not have been an actual nuclear detonation at all but a staged event with massed conventional explosives.  Even if it was a nuclear test, it would have been regarded as a “fizzle”– meaning that a self sustaining nuclear chain reaction was not maintained long enough to extract the maximum potential of the blast. They seem to have done better in 2009, setting off a blast that was roughly the equivalent of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. They have been frantically working on a third test, with news comign out this week that they’ve dug a 500 foot pit to conduct it in.

If we assume a small stockpile of dodgy nuclear weapons in North Korea’s hands, the next questions become “Can they deliver them?” and “Under what circumstances?”. Neither is easy to answer. The North has launched several variants of the SCUD (locally called the Nodong) series of missiles of Iraq fame with great success; these missiles have greater ranges, higher payloads and in some cases better accuracy than the ones Saddam Hussein fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia in the First Gulf War. They have certainly been outfitted with chemical warheads and likely biologicals in addition to high explosive conventionals (unlike Iraq, the DPRK WMD programs are well documented), and Kim has claimed that they’ve been fitted with nuclear warheads as well. That is unconfirmed. The Koreans have also built the longer range Taepodong-1 and Rodong-1 missiles, capable of hitting Japan and the US bases in that nation and again claimed by Kim to be nuclear armed. The Taepodong-2, which has been tested but has never flown successfully, is a true ICBM made to take a nuclear warhead to America’s West Coast with all cities from Anchorage to San Diego and all of Hawaii theoretically in range. An attempt in 2009 to launch one of these as a satellite booster failed when the second and third stages, with the payload, fell into the Pacific.

If it chose to, there is little doubt that the North could at least make a credible attempt to put a nuclear weapon on Seoul or any other RoK location and could very possibly make a credible attempt to hit Tokyo or American bases at Yokosuka or Okinawa and perhaps even Guam with nuclear weapons.  The immediate result of that would likely be the total destruction of North Korea’s ability to make war and, depending on targets hit, the population of North Korea could well be targeted as well. North Korea’s nuclear program is centered at Yongbyong and at a select few other locations, all heavily hardened to the extent of being built into and under mountains. They would be almost impossible to destroy with any conventional weaponry currently known to exist and would necessitate the use of American nuclear weapons to destroy. Fortunately the regime is more afraid of losing control of its weapons than it is of the US taking them out, so they are kept at a very few sites and not spread all over the place. Unfortunately those sites, being buried, would require in my opinion the employment of multiple penetrating and ground-bursting US weapons, the absolute dirtiest employment of nuclear arms from a fallout standpoint. South Korea, Tokyo, the major naval base and population center at Vladivostok in Russia and areas of China could all be in the fallout pattern at the caprice of the winds.

What situations could produce a nuclear exchange? With Kim that crystal ball is very hard to read given his instability and history of making good on threats. Just this week his regime has threatened to hit targets within and without the RoK with nuclear weapons and the Japanese are notably rattled by that; it is thought that US ballistic missile defense ships are likely on station between Japan and Korea as well as at Okinawa and Guam. How would Kim react to Pyongyang being bombed, as it possibly will be if the North hits the RoK tonight? What if the South mobilized and signaled an impending invasion (they haven’t at this point)? How will Kim react to American air power coming out of Japan? There are rumours of a North Korean nuclear torpedo and nuclear seabed mines– would they dare to try to employ them against a United States Navy CSG or ESG?

There are no great answers to what is clearly the greatest question of fighting the North Koreans.

If it became apparent that an all out war was going to begin in Korea involving ground forces, be aware that most authorities agree that American doctrine for fighting the Soviets throughout the Cold War was to employ tactical nuclear weapons not only first but immediately, and my supposition is that doctrine would apply to North Korea as well to prevent them from getting a shot off at Seoul or Tokyo and killing millions. You can bet that there are one or more likely more than one Ohio-class nuclear missile subs (SSBNs) off the Korean Coast this afternoon set to fire depressed trajectory missiles that would arrive on target in under ten minutes.

Conclusions

It is highly likely that at least limited artillery exchanges and air strikes will be carried out over the next 8-24 hours in Korea in response to the live fire exercise at Yeonpyeong Island. Once the first shot is fired, it will be difficult and may prove to be impossible to stop escalations over the following 72 hours, which could see severe civilian casualties in and around the RoK’s national capital area. DPRK doctrine has always heavily relied upon special forces raids and over the years many DPRK special forces cells have been uncovered in the South; the possibility for terrorist style attacks on civilian and government targets throughout the South and possibly in the Japanese home islands certainly exists. It is my belief that the United States will not be involved in the first stage of retaliatory strikes against the North outside of air defense missions unless US forces are previously targeted or heavy civilian casualties occur, but US intelligence and aerial recon elements along with Special Forces (most likely SEALs) are almost certainly already being used and are in place in North Korean territory. If a second or third round of retaliatory strikes happen, it is certain in my opinion that US forces will become actively embroiled in the fighting, largely from the sea and air. I do not anticipate in any case a 1950-style invasion of the South; the DPRK ‘s tanks are so mechanically poor that they likely couldn’t cover the distance without massive mechanical support that they don’t have available. It is also the onset of winter in Korea, meaning harsh conditions but rivers that have not yet frozen solid enough for the North to use them. The possibility of a last minute coup or one that occurs early in an exchange is also not to be discounted– the Chinese and Russians want no part of a war to be fought on their doorstep and they both hold sway with factions within the DPRK government and military. Russia and China have both deployed troops to their respective borders with North Korea and can be assumed to be at a heightened state of military readiness; while their engagement in the fighting is extremely unlikely, it cannot be forgotten that China has been here before and that neither China nor Russia would look kindly on an American ally having a border so close to so many vital Chinese and Russians national security locales and assets. If fighting does come, it will most likely largely consist of air strikes and artillery duels at the outset followed by heightened air and naval engagements and the potential usage of any class of WMDs by the North if Pyongyang starts taking appreciable damage and the regime looks as if it might fall. That stage could be reached at any point after the first DPRK artillery shell falls or specal ops raid occurs and it is that unpredictability that makes this the geopolitically terrifying scenario that it is.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Folly of a Denuclearized Iran

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 6, 2009

I have, in the past, been an advocate for taking extreme measures to prevent Iran’s ascension to the ranks of nuclear armed nations. Clearly a nuclear-armed Iran presents problems for many nations in the Middle East and, of course, remains an unfavorable outcome. The question is just how unfavorable that outcome is and how much of our national prestige, treasure, influence and ultimately blood we should expend in the effort to prevent it.

Atomic weaponry is at its base a 1940s technology, nuclear weaponry a 1950s one. The major hindrance to producing these weapons is not exotic technologies, amazing leaps of knowledge in physics or even access to raw uranium , it is access to centrifuges to refine and enrich the uranium or, if one wishes to build plutonium weapons, the construction of breeder reactors. This is not to say that building the cascade of high-speed centrifuges needed to produce sufficient quantities of enriched uranium isn’t a major undertaking– it surely is, requiring a bit of underhanded dealing and a whole lot of cash. Therein lies the problem– building centrifuges is merely very difficult, and merely difficult is not all that much of an impediment to even less developed nations. It wasn’t to South Africa, a pariah nation at the height of the Apartheid Era which constructed a nuclear arsenal and even tested a nuke in conjunction with Israel. It certainly hasn’t been to the North Koreans, who field an arsenal that might already include 15-20 weapons. Pakistan has had no trouble not only developing but distributing nuclear technology and, perhaps, weaponry. Argentina and Brazil abandoned weapons programs under superpower pressure at the final stages of construction. Basically, this is “rocket science”, not light speed technology. My five year old builds rockets. He doesn’t have to design a rocket, formulate and synthesize the fuel, do the aerodynamic testing on the stabilizers or engineer the best nozzle. It’s already been done for him, just as all the hard parts of building a nuclear weapon have been done for Tehran. It’s just a matter of collecting the parts and established technologies and then following the steps to turn them into something. My son is a bright kid, but as yet he hasn’t proven himself to be Oppenheimer, much less Einstein.

If we posit that stopping any determined nation from building an atomic or nuclear weapon over sixty years after the engineering work was done is not a matter of technologic secrecy, then we have to ask just what it is that will prevent a nation from building their own nukes. Even during the Cold War era of dual superpower pressure to limit the expansion of nuclear leverage South Africa pulled it off despite the clear application of US-USSR pressure; in a era of unipolar power, then, how do we presume that expansion can be absolutely stopped?

Clearly, we cannot. With the technology out there, any nation that can scrape together the money, technicians and political will can and will develop nuclear weapons in the next two decades. Nobody wanted North Korea to have nuclear weapons; they now have them. Nobody– nobody– wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. An Iranian weapon is a passing threat to the Untied States and Europe, a very slightly more real threat to Israel, but a huge threat to the national interests of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Iraq. It is a direct challenge to the Arab leadership engendered in the Egypt-Saudi system, and a confirmation of the fealty of Syria & Lebanon to Tehran. It is the avenue by which Iran sees itself returning to the prestige of Darian Persia, being the hegemon not only of the Persian Gulf but asserting its alpha presence into the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. In Tehe\ran’s mind, fielding nuclear weapons undoes the millenia of humiliation that followed Alexander’s defeat of Darius III. A nuclear armed Iran in domination of the Gulf also promotes another of Shi’a Iran’s major goals– the refutation of the Sunni Islam in favor of an ascendant Shi’a Caliphate, with unfettered Shi’a access to Mecca and Shi’a philosophy and beliefs making clear inroads into the presently Sunni/Wahabbi dominated Islamic culture. Given these prizes, this is not an aspiration that Iran is going to negotiate away– what could be offered them that would trump regional hegemony and the justification of their religious beliefs?

If technology is not a barrier and diplomacy not an option, we are left with a military solution to preventing Iran from deploying nuclear weapons. Israel is seen as a primary actor in that supposed drama, but I have great difficulty in finding the mode by which they could accomplish anything meaningful with their current force structure. Operations against Iran would presumably be carried out by the IDF’s principal strike systems, the F-15 & F-16 attack planes. Those planes face tremendous hurdles in operating against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, not the least of which is raw distance. While the F-15I, Israel’s primary strike aircraft, has a maximum range that would enable it to strike Iranian targets that presumes an aircraft lightly loaded, operating at optimal altitude and at a steady, moderate speed with external fuel tanks replacing weaponry. Changing the assumptions to include a more realistic combat profile– heavy weaponry, long periods of low altitude flying, periods of high speed flight– and the F-15I would, at minimum, need refueling over the Persian Gulf itself going in and coming out of Iran. It would also necessitate violating the airspace of either Iraq and Syria, Turkey, or Jordan & Saudi Arabia not only by the high speed strike aircraft but also by the slow, easy to shoot down tankers… who would also have to linger in hostile territory waiting to refuel the exiting strike. To further complicate the matter, defense suppression aircraft would also need to get in as the Iranian nuclear sites are highly defended by the latest Russian SAMs. All of this presumes that the Israelis have some weapon that even the Americans have not been able to produce– an effective, very lightweight munition capable of being carried over extreme distances and then penetrating the deepest, most reinforced bunkers in the world. Given that there are at least 30 sites spread throughout Iran, many of them literally built in caverns under mountains, the ability of Israel to stop the Iranian program via airstrikes is likely nil.Given that outcome, we can also dispose of the concept put forward by some that the Saudis or Turks would grant an air corridor for the strike; nobody wants to kick a nuclear armed hornets nest if they can’t be assured of its destruction.

The only path open to Israel for actually destroying Iran’s nuclear program is via its own nuclear weapons. Good luck with the politics on that one, Mr. Netanyahu.

America, similarly, has limited options here. We could fight our way through Iranian air defenses at some cost to put bombs on the surface above Iranian facilities, but we could not destroy those facilities with any level of confidence and would have to absorb incredible political damage to do even that in addition to seeing greatly expanded Iranian deviltry in Iraq and across the globe. A general invasion of Iran is, of course, not an option and even establishing and defending temporary airheads at the sites of their nuclear facilities to effect their destruction would seem to be a nearly impossible task.

With no diplomatic, technological, or workable military options, we must soberly reasses our goals and abilities vis-a-vis Iran. A nuclear armed Iran does not pose a threat in the sense of their threatening or actually carrying out strategic nuclear strikes against Western cities or military targets– clearly doing so would result in the total destruction of Iran. While many have stated that Iran is somehow divorced from physical reality by their alleged desire to become martyrs for Allah and thus are not subject to the threat of death, isn’t it clear from the events of the past three weeks that even the Ayatollahs are firmly invested in the power, rewards and goals of “this” life?

Where Iran poses a threat is in the limitation of America’s ability to project power in the Gulf and the end of Egyptian-Saudi leadership of the Islamic world. Israel listens to the words of Ahmahinejad and hears the voice of doom, but in reality Iran as a nuclear power is of little enhanced threat to Israel as compared to Iran of today. At worst Israel and Iran would exist under the very stable MAD regime that the US & USSR existed under for decades.

Iran as a nuclear power complicates the world, but doesn’t pose much of a real threat to the West. We should react accordingly.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Iran, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Weapons | 2 Comments »

Blackjacks and Backfires and Bears, Oh My!

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 15, 2009

OK, I give. I’ve gotten at least fifteen requests for my take on yesterday’s AP story about the Russians talking about using airbases in Venezuela & Cuba for bomber stopovers, so here goes.

Let’s start by saying that I’m not impressed, and I don’t think you should be, either.

Non-stealthy strategic bombers as a vector for global war are about as relevant as horse cavalry, so I think we can immediately dismiss this conjectured move having any military import; the TU-95 Bear, the most frequent visitor from the Russian Long Range Aviation stable to our shores, is a propellor plane of 1950s design that has been updated over the years. As a long range maritime patrol plane in an environment where there is no fighter coverage I suppose it could be considered a threat to shipping; flying out of Cuba and Venezuela that would never be the case. The Backfire is more of a carrier killer (at least it was in 1984) than it is a strategic bomber, and the Blackjack is a B-1 knockoff with more mechanical problems than the latest offerings from Detroit. The biggest threat in having them making brief stopovers and visits in Cuba & Venezuela is posed by the chance that they might fall out of the sky and crash onto a fishing boat working the canyons for tuna.

So, if we dispose of the notion of these aircraft and their basing arrangements posing a military threat, we’re left with the concept of them posing a PR risk. That’s certainly a more realistic assessment, but not one I’m ready to buy into, at least as far as an American audience goes. A news story like the one we’re hearing today is going to make the broadcast and the papers, true; the problem is that it’s the high water mark for this kind of thing. The next step is one that we’ve seen oh so many times– pictures of a pair of F-15s or -16s sitting, one on each wing, on a turboprop Bear that has wandered too close to the US shoreline. It almost looks like a gag– an ultramodern US fighter juxtaposed with some WWII looking piece of junk with a big Russian emblem emblazoned on it; if I’m Vlad Putin I really don’t want that image flashed too many times to emphasize just how archaic and technologically backwards my nation is as compared to the Americans. Want a really good laugh? Let a Bear trail its toes in close to the Virginia Capes or the Carolinas and we can see what it looks like when one of the F-22s stationed at Langley AFB in Virginia Beach  flies formation with Tupolev’s best idea of 1954. Again, not an image I’m courting if I’m Putin.

I hardly think that many Americans would be either impressed or overly distressed by a visit fromt he Occasional Bear or even Blackjack; indeed these visits aren’t something newly renewed, despite what the press would have you believe; indeed since 2006 we’ve been seeing frequent Bear fly-bys, especially around Alaska with the occasional trip downt he East Coast. No big deal– we see the lumbering Bear on radar at a range of hundreds of miles, shoot off a couple of fighters for what amounts to a slightly enhanced training mission, the pilots wave to each other or if the Russians are feeling frisky offer up a serving of pressed ham, and everyone goes home.

Would Americans, though, be concerned about the appearance of Russians operating from thie side of the Atalantic again? That’s a bit trickier question that was posed at RotoJunkie by a frequent poster, but again I’m not in the market on this one.  I think that the ridiculousness of the imagery above is going to allay any concern and make anyone attempting to use it for political advantage look a bit silly. Talk about China setting up shipping ports in Baja California and Peru and there’s cause to be concerned; Russia occassionally landing obsolete bombers in the farcical Venezuela or Cuba? Set threat level to “marshmallow”. We aren’t even talking about permanent basing rights and the Russians establishing infrastructure in Venezuela and Cuba; even that wouldn’t be particularly threatening, but it would be worth noting as it would show long term Russian commitment. Occasional landing rights, though? Not too much to hang anyone’s hat on there. If that’s how Putin is planning to test the Obama Admin then the Oval Office should be sending the Kremlin several dozen roses.

So, if there’s no military threat and no tangible PR/moral victory to be had from the American people, then why bother with this bit of nonsense? In my sight the target audiences are the Russian, Venezuelan and Cuban working classes, all of whom have been growing quite restive of late. The Russian economy is in tatters; the promise of an end to the concept of peasantry was never realized and now the people are starting to see that it never will be under the current system. The modern traditional authoritarian response to a large underclass that is unhappy with a situation at home with no easy answer is easy– appeal to nationalism. We’ve seen Mr. Putin play this card several times even before the economic collapse– the cyber attacks on Estonia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial, the war in Georgia, showdowns with the Ukraine over Gazprom pipelines that were cast in the Russian press as Ukrainian ingratitude and attempted theft; this is simply a continuation in that pattern. The men of Soviet Long Range Aviation were the sex symbols of the Soviet Era– they ate the best food, they made the most money, they lived the most glamorous of military lifestyles. They were the ones who took all of the indignities inflicted upon the Soviet Union and flew them right back to the American shores, threatening the running dog imperialists every hour of every day with the might of the Worker’s Paradise. Putin and Medvedev first announcing a resumption of Bear patrols late in 2008 and now having their military drop this silliness about occasionally landing in Cuba & Venezuela is just attempting to stir that old nationalist pride at patrolling American shores to distract the Russian people from their daily woes.

The same is even more true in Venezuela, where the economy is in ruins beyond even the damage caused by the Chavez Regime. With oil prices less that a third of their previous high, the redistribution of wealth that Chavez had purported to deliver has become even more a redistribution of misery; his political future is bleak if he can’t do something to shore up his regime and distract his people Enlisting the Russians in his “great cause” of resisting the United States is tailor made both to do that and elevate the imnprtance of the Venezuelan nation in the eyes of the Venezuelan people whose favor he has lost. Raul Castro, too, needs a prop for his regime; even as he tries to chart a course less belligerent than his brother’s, Castro could certainly use a reminder to the Cuban people of a time when tons of money flowed across the Ataltntic into Cuban society fromt he Soviet Union and the false promise that it could return even as he moves to court the American Administration to remove the blocks between America and Cuba.

In the end, this theater of the absurd is actually recorded in Russian and Spanish with only the subtitles set in American English. Something tells me that it won’t be playing to rave reveiws in any language; the problems of the Russian, Venezuelan and to a somewhat lesser extent the Cuban governments face are growing beyond the potential for the distraction of the circus to calm the populace. All the creaky planes in the Russian arsenal are not going to change that.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Latin America, Russia | Leave a Comment »

Skivvies and Soundwaves

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

Sometimes the greatest crises start in the silliest ways.

Earlier this week, in what on the surface sounds like a navalized version of the Keystone Kops, Chinese fishing boats and coastal patrol boats surrounded and harassed an unarmed American ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, waving large Chinese flags and taunting the crew while generally making life uncomfortable for the much larger ship. When Chinese seamen tried to snag the long sonar cables that Impeccable was towing, the American crew turned high pressure fire hoses on the Chinese… who promptly stripped to their underwear and continued taunting until the American ship departed the area.

It all sounds very juvenile, a slightly higher stakes game of penis waving on the high seas. In reality, it was the largest incident in a week-long series of events that portend major problems for US-PRC relations as Chinese Premier Hu Jintao prepares for his initial meeting with President Obama in two weeks.

USNS Impeccable is, without question, an interesting ship. Operated by the US Military Sealift Command, Impeccable is an “ocean surveillance” ship, whose stated mission is oceanographic research and investigation. It is, of course, in actuality a major intelligence platform, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) system tasked to gather intelligence on and keep track of enemy submarine forces. Impeccable carries the most sophisticated and sensitive sonar arrays in the American inventory, capable of locating and tracking submarines at ranges of hundreds of miles under the right circumstances and also making recordings which can be enhanced and downloaded to the fleet and by which our submarines and surface combatants can positively identify enemy subs. Given that Impeccable was operating in international waters off of China’s new submarine base at Hainan Island, its mission was clearly tracking the new generation of Chinese subs stationed there.

To understand the Chinese sensitivity to spying on its submarines it is necessary to look back at the 1995-’96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The Chinese, in the run-ups to the 1996 Taiwanese elections, decided to flex their muscles to dissuade Taiwanese voters for voting for a pro-independence government by conducting a series of “missile tests” that overflew Taiwan and several live fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to the Chinese provocations, President Clinton ordered Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) into the area, with USS Nimitz transiting the Strait in December of 1995 and then again in March 1996 with the USS Kitty Hawk battlegroup. The Chinese got the message—if American CBGs could operate in the Strait, they could destroy China’s economic and military heart, which exists along the Chinese Pacific Coast. This changed China’s entire military development program, causing them to see the Taiwan Strait as the key to their national sovereignty. As it is realistically very difficult to challenge America’s CBGs from the surface or air, China turned to the third attack venue—undersea—to stop America from threatening the Chinese littoral again.

China has spent extraordinary amounts of money over the past decade in developing its attack submarine forces in the hope that swarms of Chinese subs could make entering the restricted waters of the Taiwan Strait too risky for the American carriers, standing them off to the fuel limits of their embarked air wings and thus greatly complicating American participation in any future PRC-Taiwan crisis. The quality of the newer Chinese nuclear subs, however, is extremely questionable—the Chinese are not, to be polite, particularly good at naval development and have suffered many problems in their undersea programs. Their boats are quite noisy, the kiss of death for a sub, and their seaworthiness has not been demonstrated to be adequate for extended operations on a regular schedule. There is a school of thought, however, that suggests the newer Chinese boats coming on line have been relieved of those problems, hence the extreme interest of the United States in learning all that we can about them. Are the boats capable? The Chinese certainly want us to believe so whether they are or not, and they certainly don’t want us to learn enough to make a decision either way.

Enter Impeccable, Chinese sailors in the skivvies, and two incidents earlier in the week in which Chinese military aircraft buzzed American ships and in which a Chinese destroyer cut in front of the bow of a US ship and you have the beginnings of a Chinese power play.

China has long maintained that its economic and security interests are not limited to the twelve mile international waters boundary acknowledged by all nations and they have attempted to exercise that claim on many occasions, the most famous of which was when a Chinese J-8 fighter rammed and forced down a US Navy EP3 surveillance aircraft at… wait for it… Hainan Island in April of 2001, causing a several week long crisis that saw the Chinese first downing the aircraft and then engaging in that most Chinese action, disassembling it to steal its technology.

The Chinese were trying to do something very similar with Impeccable when they got doused with the fire hoses—they were using their boat hooks to try and snag and steal the sonar towed array cables being pulled by the ship while at the same time trying to exercise their claim on waters far beyond those they are entitled to.

Given the timing, with the first meeting between Hu and Obama on the near horizon, it is easy to imagine what the Chinese are up to. With America in financial crisis and with its military distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China is trying to upset the balance of power quickly before America under Obama can regain its footing. It’s hard to blame them—they are in no position to directly challenge an America that can respond at full strength, so why not challenge America while it is still weakened from the misadventures of the previous Admin and under financial pressure that China can make worse? In some ways this is very much like the Soviet provocations that accompanied the beginning of the Kennedy Administration; the question now is whether or not Obama will respond from strength, sending Impeccable and its sister ships back to the waters off of Hainan with a military escort or whether he is too constrained by China’s economic position to do so.

Undoubtedly Hu will come to the meeting with demands that the United States back off in the East Pacific, Yellow and South China Seas or else China will have to consider economic actions detrimental to the United States. The gravity of those threats will be easily determined—if they are made publicly or are allowed to leak very quickly, then China will be placing its prestige and power on the line by directly challenging America, signaling that they think they have a seriously strong hand. If they are made quietly and without fanfare, then they are merely a test of America’s resolve. China has traditionally been hesitant to engage in open confrontation, preferring the subtle maneuver to the exercise of main force. This will be an interesting exercise in power for both sides. Expect to see China take steps on the economic front in the coming ten days, perhaps a Chinese professor giving a “major interview” questioning the continued wisdom of helping the US economy or perhaps a signal from China’s Central Bank that it is considering dumping US Treasuries, to ratchet up the pressure on Obama.

We all know the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times. It will be a major test of Obama’s capacity to lead in seeing if he can make China’s life equally interesting.

Posted in China, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Submarines, Warfare | 2 Comments »

Spy vs. Spy in Guinea-Bissau

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 3, 2009

One of the best features of the old Mad Magazine was the brilliant Spy vs. Spy comic strip. For those who don’t recall it or weren’t Maddicts like I was as a pre-teen, two beak faced spies, one all in white, one all in black, would spend the panels of the strip plotting heinous, Roadrunner vs. Coyote type traps for one another, usually involving a surprise bomb or someone popping out of some strange place to blast the other’s head off. It was great stuff as a kid and it’s actually still pretty funny if you find them on line. When a Spy vs. Spy strip comes to life, however, it isn’t quite as much fun.

Guinea-Bissau is a tiny, poverty ridden nation at the extreme western margin of the African continent, prominent for little besides being little. A former Portugese colony, Guinea-Bissau became an independent nation in 1974 and has seen little go right before or since. Its people are well fed by the Atlantic Ocean so it is not subject to the starvation that besets so much of Africa, but it has no oil, no manufacturing base and a geography that doesn’t lend itself to much valuable enterprise.

Except one. Drug smuggling.

The Bolango Archipelago sits immediately offshore Guinea-Bissau’s western beaches and is rife with tiny, isolated desert islands, making it an outstanding base of operations for South American drug cartels seeking to move product across the Atlantic and into Europe. It is estimated that 800 kilos of cocaine pass through the archipelago each week, worth billions of dollars and making drug transshipment by far the nation’s leading economic sector. The drugs are are transported to Guinea-Bissau by aircraft flying from the East Coast of South America or are shipped via freighter and dropped offshore, where they are collected by smugglers from the archipelago who repackage them into transit packs and send them to Europe via established smuggling routes. The government has long been a partner of the South American cartels, with longtime strongman-President João Bernardo "Nino" Vieira profiting mightily from the trade.

Vieira’s complicity in the drug trade was recently a major issue in Parliamentary elections in Guinea-Bissau, which featured uncomfortable questions for the President and the first stirrings of an overthrow since Viera retook power in 2005 after having been deposed himself in a coup several years earlier. Deciding that action must be taken to quiet the anti-Viera, ani-Cartel forces in the country, Viera apparently ordered the assassination of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday night, having General Batiste Tagme na Waie blown to the proverbial smithereens by a bomb placed in his car. Upon learning of the unanticipated and widespread distribution of their General, the military seems to have taken exception to Mr. Vieira’s policies and responded by shooting him in both knees and removing with a pair of scissors the parts of the body that men are often most fond of before shooting him in the head.

It was a bad weekend to be a leader in Guinea-Bissau. They all seemed to go to pieces.

The interesting thing about all of this is the manner by which General Waie was removed from the scene. West Africa, sadly, is no stranger to assassinations and killings; they seemingly happen constantly and almost always the same way– by shooting. In fact, nobody I’ve seen interviewed on the topic can seem to recall the last time a bomb was used to kill a West African leader.

Portions of South America do, however, see many killings by way of explosives wired into people’s cars, especially in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. That raises an uncomfortable possibility, that the assassination of General Waie was either facilitated or carried out by Cartel operatives moving to ensure their continued de facto control of GUinea-Bissau by Vieira’s narco-friendly regime. In other words, they were protecting their own.

Far looking geopolitical thinkers recognize that Africa will be one of the major locations of interest as this century unfolds, with China and India looking for space to grow, with natural resources abundant but poorly exploited, with a population that largely continues to struggle far below the standards of the rest of the world and thus potentially easy to manipulate or otherwise control. The forces of Islamization are snaking further west and south as Iran and Saudi Arabia become major players in sub-Saharan Africa. The United States under the Bush Administration considered improving relations with sub-Saharan Africa to be a major foreign policy objective, a policy which will be continued under the Obama Admin. In its waning days the Soviet Union turned its gaze on Africa, as well, and in a novel way– by sending legions of Russian Orthodox missionaries into the countryside to convert the populace to their faith and establish an affinity where no natural one had existed, a tactic which has been revived by the Putin-Medvedyev cadre. Is it then possible that we’ve all been ignoring a major non-governmental player in Western Africa, and one that not only is actively seeking power but that has already effectively taken ownership of an entire nation? If, as now seems obvious, the South American drug cartels have taken control of the nation of Guinea-Bissau one has to wonder what else they are controlling in Africa and other corners of the world not often gazed upon by the West.

In this Spy vs. Spy scenario, we’re going to need more colors than just black and white.

Posted in Africa, Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Orbital Bumper Cars or A Message Sent Via Communications Satellite?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 12, 2009

The New York Times is reporting that for the first time two large satellites have collided in orbit, an American Iridium sat-phone orbiter and what has been described as an “inoperatve Russian communications satellite”. The debris from the collision of the two spacecraft is a potential disaster for other spacecraft; indeed the International Space Station and its crew is already in danger from the debris field, which is expanding through not only its orbit but also through that of hundreds of other birds.

This mess is reminiscent of the January 11, 2007 Chinese intercept of a satellite in a demonstration of their ability to take out militarily significant sats. The Chinese came under fire from all quarters for the irresponsible test/poke in the eye which resulted in a gigantic cloud of orbital debris in an already crowded orbital path. Satellites, despite the rough journey they follow to get into orbit, are extraordinarily delicate instruments and can be easily damaged by tiny, high velocity mini-meteors and bits of space junk; huge chunks of defunct satellite are not, thus, a good thing. Worse, the bits of debris need to be tracked as their orbits change due to the initial energy of the impact and then either settle into an orbit or, more likely, degrade across many other orbits. Think about that– take two 1200+ pound plus machines loaded with ceramics and metals, smash them into each other at 17,000+ mph and then consider how many pieces they will break into. Now track the larger parts that can be resolved on radar for weeks, months, and years as they first expand their orbital paths and then plunge back through the orbital paths of thousands of other spacecraft on their way to burning up in the atmosphere sometime over the next few weeks to years. It is, to simplify, not good.

There are larger issues here. The first is that orbital space is getting very, very crowded as redundant sats are launched to do jobs that satellites of competitors are already doing while other satellites fail and replacements are launched, with new birds going up all the while for new purposes. Some say these collisions will become inevitable, although to this point only three smaller accidental collisions have been recorded. Sooner or later, either satellite design is going to have to dramatically change to deal with collisions (most likely an impossibility) or satellite losses are going to become more frequent, a problem that will grow exponentially as the failure by destruction of one satellite will lead to a debris field which in turn may well destroy others. It’s quite a mess.

The other concern here is that since these were an American and Russian satellite and the collision happened over Siberia that we have a Chinese test redux happening here. There have been rumors in the past that the US was covering some of its intelligence satellites as Iridium constellation birds, an exchange that was allegedly worked out as the US government bolstered the technologically brilliant but fiscally disastrous early Iridium days. Additionally, the US military and intelligence agencies make extensive use of the Iridium satellite phone system, and the satellite destroyed was, coincidentally, the one that would handle transmissions from a swath of Central Asia, already the arena of US-Russian competition in the previous few weeks as the Russians have sought to hamper our Afghan War effort by shutting down the Kyrgyz Manas air base to us.  Could this have actually been a Russian demonstration of their capacity to intercept an American satellite? There is some logic to it when you consider the belligerence of the Putin-Medvedyev regime as well as the “Test Obama” ethos that our rivals can be expected to adopt and indeed some have, especially the Russians. It’s also hard to imagine that this collision came as a surprise, given how closely satellites are tracked in orbit– it suggests that one of those satellites was actively maneuvering to get close o the other, otherwise this collision would likely have been seen coming in advance. I’ll be keeping an eye on Aviation Week (aka AvLeak) over the next few weeks amongst other sources to see what buzz pops up.

Either way, accident or attack, this is a nasty situation and one we will likely be visiting and revisiting in the future as space not only continues to fill up but also as its strategic importance is magnified.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), NASA, Russia, Space, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Threat Evolution in the Islamist World

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 6, 2009

Just in case there was any doubt that the Islamic World can prove to be a major pain int he American ass– especially when they get a boost from the Russians– let this week serve as an example. Not only did Iran finally tell the truth about a techno-military breakthrough, the friendly folks in Kyrgyzstan just agreed with their former overlords in Moscow to form a new “Soviet” bloc rapid reaction force while simultaneously kicking us out of our most important base to stage Afghan operations from. In related news, a C5 dropped an entire cargo load of Zanax into the Pentagon’s north parking lot on Thursday.

Starting with the lesser of the two events, the Iranians are notorious for declaring major military breakthroughs that are later found out (and by later I mean 20 minutes after release) to have been either outright fabrications or PhotoShop mashups– who can forget the time the Iranians announced that they had synthesized sharks with frickin’ laser beams under their Dr. Evil program? This week, though, the usual cries of “BS” rang hollow after the Iranians claimed to have a launched their first independently built and flown sat.. and the damned thing had the audacity to actually exist and broadcast tones for everyone to hear. Amateur skywatchers detected both the satellite and its upper stage booster in orbit even while the Pentagon was still telling everybody that they doubted Iran’s claims, even though they must have had the same visuals and have been tracking the telemetry signals the bird was beaming back. Who at the Pentagon decided to make a fool of our space tracking folks is a question worth asking one of these days.

The significance of Iran launching a sat isn’t so much that they can now broadcast bad Iranian television worldwide as it is that the technology to orbit a satellite is much the same as launching an ICBM– put a smallish payload into a low orbital track on a set course and you have the first several parts of the formula for putting a payload down anywhere in the world. Add that to a nascent nuclear power and you have a problem for everyone, especially as you would have to assume that Iran would be more than willing to share for a price with anyone who wanted the capacity to nuke any target from Gary to Gorky. Further complicating the package is the nasty surprise that Iran actually does have a real capacity to do the advanced engineering needed to do this and you have to start wondering just what else they can do; is today’s Iranian vaporware  stealth missile or super cavitating underwater missile tomorrow’s Iranian military capability? I put that in the “highly doubtful” category, but before this week it resided safely in the “Oh god, stop it! You’re making soda come out of my nose” zone.

Now for the more disturbing development on the Islamist-Pain-In-The-Butt-ometer… a renewed and quite troubling military alliance between Moscow and the Central Asian nations we’ve been courting, spending heavily on, and relying upon for carrying out our Afghan War for the past several years. There have been rumors and threats from the Kyrgyz leadership to close Manas Airbase to us over the last year, but they have always proven to be false or just bluster. This week, that changed with Kyrgyzstan joining former Soviet Republics Armenia, Belarus Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan & Uzbekistan in a security alliance with Moscow that features a 10,000 member rapid reaction force under central (read, Russian) command. Tossing the Kygyz two billion in loans and one hundred fifty million in largely military aid in exchange, Moscow got the Kyrgyz government to close out the leases on Manas to the US, leaving us hugely in the lurch in supporting ongoing logistical operations int he expanding Afghan War. With the loss of Manas (the lease provides a 180 day closeout period, which hasn’t officially started yet), we’re either going to need to greatly expand Baghram AFB with Afghanistan, with all the security and logistical headaches that using an in-theater locale for your major staging location brings, or try to split Blofeldian badguy Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan from the new RetroSoviet alliance and regain access to K2 airbase in his nation. Dealing with Karimov is, to be kind, an unsavory prospect– the petty madman has a nasty habit of engaging in the mass murder of unarmed groups who oppose him, exotically imaginative tortures for political foes (he went Terminator II on one and slowly lowered him into a vat of molten steel, feet first…), and general unkindness to kittens and soft cuddly puppies. Talk about your Hobson’s Choice…

This is the outflow of George Bush’s crappy misplay of the Central Asian region over the last five years, culminating in Russia’s unopposed stomping into grisly paste of American ally Georgia late last year. Having demonstrated that America can or is willing to do very little to support its Caucausus and Central Asian allies, they are wisely and inevitably cutting deals with the Putin-Medvedyev regime to the great detriment of the United States. As Russia puts a stranglehold on our Afghan operations jsut a few weeks after Pakistan asserted it’s own pain-in-the-assibility by closing our other major supply route into Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass, the Obama Admin is going to be left with some uncomfortable choices to make on how to clean up the mess they’ve been left with.

America has had a nasty tendency to freeze in time the Islamic nations as members of the Third World as it existed in the Eighties, a mode of thinking that has gone from simply outdated and ignorant to downright dangerous. As technological competence disseminates and statecraft advances with boosts from traditional US rivals, our relied upon two barrelled approach of technological superiority and diplomatic dominance are no longer to be taken for granted and, perhaps, not even to be relied upon at all. The playing field, while not nearly level, is trending towards symmetry rather than the asymmetric game we’ve become used to. The new Administration must adapt to this new reality at the same time it remediates the problems caused by the last Admin’s reliance upon it. It will not be an easy task.

Posted in Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs, Islamists, Russia, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Embracing An Islamist Regime?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

David Axe’s brilliant blog, War Is Boring, yesterday explored what I view as a patently insane proposal from the Council on Foreign Relations to establish an internationally funded Somali Coast Guard to combat piracy. Somalia cannot govern itself, provide food for its people or police its own territory much less the oceans so yes, sure, let’s assume that the mythical Somali government not only would use the international funding to establish a hugely expensive and technically complex force structure but also that they would even have the inclination to do so.

Stunning.

Axe himself had a more interesting idea– is the answer to the Somali problem simply embracing the concept of a hard line Islamic regime in Mogadishu? For the sake of background, Somalia, long the victim of near total anarchy, was for a brief while in 2006 & 2007 effectively governed by a confederacy of Sharia-law courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). That came to an end in 2007 when the Bush Admin encouraged and facilitated an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia under the concept that the ICU was providing a home base for alQaeda and similar Islamist radical elements. The Ethiopian Army, supplied with intelligence and armaments by the US in addition to oft rumoured US Special Ops raids and operations, had little problem defeating the ICU’s armed militia, taking back Mogadishu and eventually driving the ICU out of its last strongholds, leaving Somalia once again ungoverned and the ICU reduced to a guerilla band.

The piracy problem grew out of control shortly thereafter begging the question of whether we would be better off with an Islamic regime that isn’t disposed to liking the West or the current mess which threatens international commerce and the flow of oil. A fuller description of the piracy issue and the US Navy’s lackluster response to it can be found in my previous entry, The Vaporware Navy.

As the American Presidency moves to Barack Obama, we are seeing a different attitude being taken towards the Islamic World. While the realities and exigencies of war still exist and have been accepted by President Obama, an effort is clearly underway to defuse hostilities by winning over the Islamic people. Could that effort extend all the way to the acceptance of a true Islamist regime in Mogadishu if it meant Somalia would be under some authority and the piracy problem would be curtailed?

A return of the ICU may be underway already, even without our help or acceptance. With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces Somalia has reverted to form and become an anarchist failed state, while the ICU is starting to re-emerge in the south. That being said, if the Obama Admin backed a return of the ICU as a reversal and redress of the policies of the previous admin ICU could take control of the entire nation fairly quickly.

What are the risks of an ICU/Islamist Somalia? There is, of course, the risk that our enemies would find haven there; it is a questionable risk, however, given that they are just as likely to find haven in an ungoverned Islamic region such as Somalia is now; indeed our Special Forces have been very active in Somalia taking down terrorist camps and operations. There is the risk of severe human rights abuses, as seen from a Western perspective, of allowing a Sharia-court based system to govern the country. Clearly it will not be pretty– women in burkas, denial of human rights, the reality of Sharia-mandated punishments for adultery, etc. That entails political risk to Obama’s left flank as the women’s rights and Amnesty Internaitonal crowds will feel betrayed by their President on this issue– the reality that the people of Somalia are living with even less human rights and dignity now doesn’t seem to penetrate the dogma of these folks. There will also be risk to his right flank as the Limbaughs and McConnels of the world try to hang a “soft on Islamic terror” label on Obama if he reaches out to the ICU. Never mind that you cant win a war against a movement and that you need to find soft solutions to the problems.

On the upside, we would almost certainly see a huge reduction to pirate activity out of Somalia. The Islamic Courts greatly curtailed piracy when they had control in ’06 & ’07 and there’s no reason to think that they suddenly see piracy as being in keeping with Islamic law; for a change we’d be on the benefit side of Sharia. Obama would have the opportunity to really make an impact on the Islamic “Street”; it would be very hard to demonize America as the enemy of Islam if we very publicly came out in favor of returning a Sharia movement to its role as ruler of an islamic nation. This is the kind of move that would do what Obama hoped to do with his recent interview with al Aribiya Television– prove that America is not the enemy of Islam. Additionally, returning order to Somalia would make possible real foreign aid to a suffering people, including the safe delivery of food. One wonders if the solution of so intractable a problem as Somalia might not also lay the groundwork for real action in regional neighbor Sudan’s Darfur region.

Can Obama recognize the ICU and return it to power in Somalia? Clearly it is within his power to do so, but the political cost, both at home and in Western Europe, will be extremely high. So too would be the potential payout. The time is arrived for America to realize that the export of Democracy and western style human rights to unwilling nations or those simply not yet equipped to deal with them is not a reasonable or even desirable goal; “better dead than red” does not translate to “better secular than starving”. Somalia is an Islamic nation in a state of chaos; resisting the emergence of an Islamic government to fix the problems is a fundamentally unsound strategy.

To look at past as prologue, consider the fact that a young socialist by the name of Ho Chi Minh desperately sought the acceptance and support of Harry Truman in 1945 & 1946. Ho effectively controlled post-Japanese occupation Indochina and had instituted a workable governing structure that was feeding the people and keeping order; he petitioned the United States to recognize his government and stop the French from reoccupying Indochina in much the same way we were making it clear to other European nations that the colonial period ended with the cessation of World War II. Ho was, sadly, not politically acceptable to a Red Scare America despite his friendly overtures; the rest is history. It is important for America to learn from that oft forgotten lesson and not allow our Islamist Scare mindset to prevent order from returning to Somalia and security returning to the seas off of the Horn of Africa.

Posted in Africa, American Politics, Foreign Affairs, History, Human Rights, Islamists, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Money,Missiles, and a Question of Credit

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 28, 2009

Ben Smith had a very interesting short in his blog today, about your friend and mine Dmitry Medvedev and the Bush iskandermissile1v. Medvedev standoff over the proposed US missile shield in Eastern Europe and the Russian SS-26 forward deployment to Kaliningrad.

Smith, drawing on Joshua Keating’s piece in Foreign Policy, posits that President Obama and SecState Hillary Clinton’s tough talk on the US-Russia relationship may have catalyzed the rumored Russian decision to hold off on the deployment of the nuclear missiles to the Russian enclave less than 100 miles from Gdansk and 300 miles from Berlin. As much as I agree with most of Obama’s positions on foreign policy, I have to question whether anything he’s done has much to do with this decision.

As Obama ascends to the Presidency, the world does seem to be breathing a sigh of relief at the end of the seemingly random belligerence of the Bush Administration and some concrete results are building from it– the possibility of allies taking released Gitmo detainees and the possibility of true economic coordination to resolve the global financial crisis both having made news of late. If you told me that Russia had become amenable to revisiting this issue on that basis, I might have less of a problem with the analysis– the writing is on the wall that Western Europe will be giving Obama a honeymoon and Russia should try to capitalize on that to seek renegotiation of what has been a roundly botched and needlessly aggravating situation.

What I have trouble buying is that Russia has been cowed into making a unilateral decision, even if it is in anticipation of a delay or reversal of the deployment of the American missile shield to the Czech Republic and Poland. Are we to believe that Russia is more afraid of Obama’s posturing than that of the Bush Administration, which actually explored and had advocates for deploying American combat troops into Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetian conflict.

So, if we can discount that tough talk of Obama and Clinton while also questioning whether or not Russia is simply defusing a messy situaiton under the guise of joining the honeymoon party, what are we left with? To my mind the answer is simple– it comes down to money. Russia recognizes that Obama, who has never been a huge proponent of missile defense, would love to shed the expense of this system’s deployment to Eastern Europe but really can’t due to the fatc that the Czech Republic and Poland have stuck their necks out to accommodate the Bush Admin and by extension America  in playing host to the system. They also recognize that the downturn in petroleum prices is trashing what had been up until a few months ago their own boom economy and that they may once again need Western and Central Europe not just as clients for Gazprom and the rest of their petroleum industry but also as economic partners. Forward deploying clearly offensive missile systems in Kaliningrad meant to threaten Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo and the Baltics is not necessarily the best way to foster the kind of mutual trust economic relationships that Moscow may well need.

Economics, goodwill, fear, hidden circumstance– it is hard to ascertain precisely what Moscow’s driving influence right now might be with regard to the deployment of the Iskander missile system to Kaliningrad, although we can make some educated guesses– most of which come down to money. Will the G20 meeting, to be held in April, be the forum in which the two leaders finally resolve this issue by agreeing to basically backburner all of it, as Keating suggests? Possibly, but I suspect that will be the “public” resolution to a problem whose outcome has already been dictated by forces outside of the control of Obama, Medvedev or indeed anyone. As always, strategic military issues are tied so tightly to economic realities that they become indistinguishable.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Weapons, Russia | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Obama to Islam: We Are Not Your Enemy

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 27, 2009

President Obama (and doesn’t it feel good to read that instead of “President-elect Obama”?) gave an interview to al-Arabiya satellite TV and in the process declared to the Muslim world that the United States is not it’s enemy.

While from our perspective Obama is correct, this will obviously be a tough sell to many in the Islamic nations. The reality is that we must and will be continuing combat operations against or at least within Islamic nations for the foreseeable future– the devolution of Pakistan is going to be one of the major foreign policy story of the next two years along with the fall and Islamification of Mubarak’s Egypt, we are likely going to be seeing a lot more about major coordinated operations in Afghanistan, sooner or later the Special Ops types conducting operations in Indonesia and the Philippines are going to get picked up on by the main stream media, etc.

Is it unreasonable to ask the Islamic people to see us as anything other than an enemy? To put it closer to our own cultural experience, let’s ignore our strategic treaty alliance with the Aussies and suppose that China or India attacked Australia. Even though they wouldn’t be attacking the US, would we feel an enmity towards the Chinese? Does anyone recall a wave of Argentinian sympathy when the Falklands war was going on? Me either. Perhaps even more on point is the reaction of the Russians to the NATO operations against their Slavic brethren in Serbia. There was no compelling strategic linkage between Belgrade and Moscow, but that became the very identifiable pivot upon which the emotions of the Russian people turned on the West, facilitating the emergence of Putin’s dictatorial powers.

As an American, I do not view Islam as an enemy although I do see it as being the facilitator for the emergence of our enemies. It’s a fairly nuanced view and one that I realize many of our countrymen don’t share for a number of reasons, from positions that posit that Islam is indeed the enemy to the neo-Buddhist views of the far left that hold we have no enemy except ourself. In the Islamic nations, especially in the ones that are lacking in affluence and education, it is so much easier to simply hear the Pat Robertsons and Dick Cheneys of our nation who make noises about Islam being the enemy than it is to convey nuance just as in our nation, despite its affluence and education, it is so much easier to simply see binLaden as the face of Islam.

President Obama is making the right choices and broadcasting the right message; I am concerned, however, that any message, no matter how  correct, can not penetrate the cloud of static that has been fostered byt he previous administration. Now more than last month the United States is not the enemy of Islam; the question is if the often mentioned “Muslim Street” is even tuned in anymore.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Islamists, Middle East, Obama Positions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Tortured Compass

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 14, 2009

This morning the Washington Post is carrying a story largely dealing with the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a man who sought entry to the United States in August of 2001 with the intention of participating in the September 11th hijackings. al-Qahtani was subsequently captured in early in the Afghanistan War and shipped to Guantanamo Bay in January of 2002 for interrogation.

That al-Qahtani was treated at Guantanamo in a way that nobody reading this blog would ever wish to be treated goes without saying. Findings of an investigation by Susan Crawford, who is in charge of the military investigations into Gitmo, show that al-Qahtani was deprived of sleep, clothing, and heat, was forced to appear naked and was strip searched by female interrogators, was ordered to perform “dog” tricks while on a leash, was menaced by a military working dog and was interrogated for between eighteen and twenty hours a day for forty-eight of fifty-four days. According to Ms. Crawford, this meets the legal definition of torture, despite the fact that no single grave application of pain or injury was performed.

I do not believe that torture should be used as an interrogation technique in almost any circumstance. I believe that most of my fellow Americans would agree with that, but only because of the qualification at the end of the sentence– “…in almost any circumstance”.  Like most moral-legal issues in the United States, I believe that there are ten percent of Americans at one pole– “No torture, ever, under any circumstance”– and ten at the other– “Heh, did you see what Jack Bauer did to that guy?”. That vast middle is gradated, surely, but it is also where most of us reside; persuadable by a good argument, but also clinging to both emotional response and what we see as clear pragmatism.

Taken so soon after September 11th and what we thought might be the related anthrax attacks, al-Qahtani was without question a valuable intelligence asset and one worthy of thorough interrogation. There was the possibility that he was privy to other planned operations or to the network infrastructure that disseminated the 9-11 plans down to the field operatives who carried it out. He may have had contact with command nodes, he may have had contact with logistics support people, he may have had contact with unknown planning and ops cells active in Europe and the United States– clearly we needed to know what he did (and didn’t) know so that we could gain a better insight into the enemy’s organization and perhaps head off further attacks. Again, given the temporal proximity to the attacks and the fact that the clock might be ticking towards the next attack, it is understandable that the CIA, DOD, and whatever other acronyms took a shot at him wanted to get his information quickly, while it was still fresh and before alQaeda could adapt to his capture.

But torture?

Here’s where we run into the sticking points. Interrogation, done in the correct way, is a lengthy, carefully conducted process of plucking just the right strings often enough that the subject confuses his loyalties, loses hope, or sees benefit to giving up what he knows. That is obviously in contravention to what those controlling his interrogators felt that they needed– quick, accurate information to head off what might be impending plots that could kill thousands of Americans. Faced with that set of circumstances and a “forgiving” command authority in the Bush-Cheney White House, it is understandable– though not palatable, from my perspective– that they might turn to more aggressive   interrogation with the correct prisoners designed to provide quick and dirty answers that could be refined later. I believe that those who made the decision to greenlight aggressive interrogation techniques had no illusions about the overall accuracy of their take– torture produces lousy info– but they needed something, quickly, that would give them an indicator into the mind and planning of an enemy we didn’t understand at a time when he could be moving again.

In the case of al-Qahtani, I do not believe that they acted in the way that I as an American would want to see my government’s organs operate. We understood that a guy like al-Qahtani was muscle, not brains; he was only told enough to carry out the operation he was assigned to and nothing more. That’s nothing new– you can go back to the Narodnaya Volya of the 19th Century and see this kind of cellular terror organization– and we knew that he likely didn’t know a damned thing.

Let’s change up for a moment though and exchange al-Qahtani for someone like al-Zawahiri, the #2 in al Qaeda and the alleged brains of the operation, or someone like Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who planned and ran the 9-11 operation. If we had taken one of them in the first weeks after the attacks, what then? They would have the data in their heads to destroy any current attack planning and potentially to roll up the entire alQaeda network if we acted quickly enough to get that information. Is this where that phrase, “…in almost any circumstances…” meets its application?

I’m guessing that the middle would agree that “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc would be called for in the interest of stopping an attack. I bet those on the further reaches of the middle spectrum would also be OK with blowtorches, electric generators and anything else someone in a Romanian CIA detention center could think of. I also bet that those same people are kind to their neighbors, adopt shelter dogs and cats and give to charity.

This great American middle, this body of people that the world thinks it has figured out, are a fickle bunch that defy easy description. They’re (we’re) a topic I plan to touch on quite frequently in this blog as I don’t think there’s a cultural phenomenon at work in this world right now more interesting or with a greater capacity for joy or pain. Principled, yes, but too pragmatic to rely solely on principles; too emotional to rely solely on pragmatism, too. Are they just uncommitted, weak willed and willing to blow in the wind, or are they something else, a force that moves towards reality when confronted with the ethereal? We torture ourselves over torturing those who wish to hurt us, but we still do torture them despite outrage and pity that I think many feel in their hearts when looking at the aftermath.

North is always in the same place, but we can only find north by looking at the shifting arrow of the compass.Is the case of al-Qahtani a point that the compass moves toward, or is it the center that it pivots around?

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Intelligence (and lack thereof) | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Israel: Preparing for General War?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 13, 2009

idfA fascinating bit of news from the always interesting Information Dissemination this morning– we’re shipping massive amounts of ammunition to Israel via Greece, or at least attempting to. As reported by Reuters, the US Military Sealift Command is seeking to hire a ship to make two runs from Greece to the Israeli port of Ashdod in the next two weeks, with each run carrying about 160 twenty foot shipping containers of ammunition, explosives and detonators. We’re talking about more than six million pounds of things that go “Boom”. To put that in perspective, there are about 40 rounds of M-16 ammunition to the pound.

What makes this even more interesting is that MSC let a similar contract in December for an emergency shipment of ammunition to Israel, part of which, speculates Information Dissemination, was the bunker buster and small diameter bombs used by Israel to hit the Gaza tunnels and targets in Gaza City where collateral damage needed to be minimized. That shipment consisted of roughly six million pounds of net explosives– which means that we aren’t even counting the significant weight of all the metal around the explosives.

So, six million pounds of explosives before the war began, and now six million pounds of emergency ammo supplies after most of the heavy lifting is already done in Gaza? Interesting. If Israel were just seeking to replenish stocks of ammo spent already, this could’ve been handled much more quietly at a time where this transfer wouldn’t have raised quite so many eyebrows– these are extraordinarily large shipments of ammunition, and I think it’s safe to assume that we are talking about something well outside the bounds of normal arms transfers. It makes you wonder what, exactly, the rush is.

One school of thought might be that Israel wants to get this taken care of before Obama comes to office under the notion that he might tighten the supply of US munitions to Israel, but that is easily dismissed. While Obama may curtail transfers of high tech offensive systems to Israel (which I doubt, but let’s entertain the possibility), nobody is going to deny Israel tank rounds, bullets, explosives, artillery shells and bombs– there’s no point in doing that as, for the most part, they’re easily obtainable from other sources. No, Israel was not under the gun to replenish peacetime stocks.

Was Israel rearming for continued operations in Gaza? At some point you have to stop simply making the rubble bounce. Unless Israel intends to literally flatten Gaza City, they didn’t need this much ammo under an emergency purchase agreement to continue the current pace of operations– which, let’s face it, they wouldn’t even be able to two weeks from now for a lack of targets.

Last week saw the first rockets fired out of Lebanon at Northern Israel, the rerun of the impetus for Israel’s disastrous war against Hizbullah. If we assume, as seems almost certainly the case, that Iran is calling the shots at this point for both Hamas & Hizbullah then a more interesting scenario starts to coalesce. Iran may be trying to hold Israel’s attention at its own borders rather than focusing on hitting the Iranian nukes while generally destabilizing the Middle East and driving up oil prices. They may have miscalculated.

We’ve seen that Israel has adopted a true wartime footing in dealing with Hamas in Gaza– they have moved forward in the air and on the ground with brutal efficiency, paying less attention to civilian casualties and collateral damage than they did in Lebanon ’06.

We’ve also had the disclosure last week that the Bush Adimn turned down an Israeli request for an air corridor across Iraq, bunker busters, and refueling support for a strike on Iran last year; with a new Admin coming in, Israel suspects that its window may be closing to hit the Iranian nuclear operation before it starts to deploy weapons. Israel must acknowledge the chance that if they violate Iraqi and/or Syrian airspace to hit Iran, they may face a wider war involving Syrian ground forces and Hizbullah supported directly by Iranian Revolutionary Guards units.

Now Israel is taking delivery of six million pounds of munitions as an emergency delivery– an extraordinarily rare situation in US-Israeli history. Start to connect the dots and one possible picture becomes clear.

It is possible, and increasingly becoming more likely, that Israel is preparing for a general war in the Middle East, and Iran is misplaying its hand and giving Israel political cover for doing so. None of the western powers has slapped Israel around for the Gaza incursion– everyone recognizes that Israel has a right to retaliate for the Hamas rocket fire. That retaliation could have been handled solely from the air, but instead Israel went in on the ground as well… could that be because they are trying to secure their western frontier and prevent Iran from hitting them with irregular forces out of Gaza? It makes sense if they’re worried about a larger war.

Now we add the dot that I wrote about last week– we handed Iraq control of their air space when we handed back the Green Zone… despite the fact that Iraq cannot control its air space. America and the West has deniability on anything that Israel does over Iraq, including using it as an air corridor to Iran. That’s twice we have the West turning a blind eye to Israel… in a way that facilitates drastic Israeli action.

Two blind eyes and a renunciation of Israel hitting Iran to give America further diplomatic cover, an Israeli action that seems unnecessarily strong in Gaza, a huge and extremely unusual ammo shipment, Iran caught making mistakes and the West about to be headed by an American President who may favor peace more than the current Admin, and Israel securing its weakest frontier. Those are a lot of dots.

I think that most of us have seen the Godfather movies, in which, at the end, the Corleone Family settles all debts in an orgy of violence to secure the empire for years to come. With potentially eight years of Obama at the helm of America, is Israel preparing  to settle all debts, to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities while de-balling Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas in a related action?

It’s within the realm of possibility. This may be an interesting week.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Israel, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Pakistan’s Troubling Nukes

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 12, 2009

pakistanThe Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an interesting piece on the question of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal last weekend, focusing largely on the twin concepts of stockpile security and political stability. It’s a lengthy read, but well worth the time; you can find it here.

The article focuses mainly on the efforts and difficulties of one Khalid Kidwai, the Director of Pakistan’s Office of Strategic Plans. Mr. Kidwai is, effectively, in charge of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and arsenal whose existence creates for Mr. Kidwai many foes. The article speaks of Indian saboteurs, alQaeda penetration agents, various and sundry other Islamist groups seeking the entree to the power of the atom, and American commandos whom Kidwai presumes are waiting at the ready to swoop in and take Pakistan’s arsenal back to America at the first sign of major instability within Pakistan.

Pakistan poses a unique problem for the United States, and, indeed, the Western world. A technologically advanced nation still buried in crushing poverty, a modern state struggling with an immense Medieval fundamentalist movement, an urban nation bounded by a lawless mountain territory that it can exercise no control over, Pakistan is the prototypical land of contradiction. That contradiction extends, troublingly, to the fact that while this is a state advanced enough to create and use nuclear weapons, it is also backwards enough to give the world little or no confidence in its stewardship of those weapons.

Pakistan’s internal justification for being a nuclear-armed state is clear enough on the surface levels– it sits next door to and upon land formerly owned by the much large India, which has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades and has many clear strategic advantages over Pakistan, not the least of which is the sheer size of its population. Throughout the latter days of the Cold War, the United States & Soviet Union vied for the friendship and alliance of these putatively “non-aligned” nations, with India favoring Russia while Pakistan has gravitated towards American arms and power. One result of that constant four-handed gamesmanship was that neither the Soviets nor the Americans were willing to bring much pressure on nations like India, Pakistan or even South Africa to halt their weapons research; doing so too overtly would decisively push any of these nations to the orbit of the rival Great Power, thus we held our collective tongues. As a result India and Pakistan made all of the necessary moves to create nuclear weapons technology while South Africa built its first atomic weapons and dismantled them. With the knowledge that India was proceeding at full pace towards atomic and eventually nuclear weapons, Pakistan felt it had no choice but to reciprocate.

Pakistan’s path to nuclear weaponry was marked by two visionary scientist who contributed greatly not just to Pakistan’s ability to field a nuclear arsenal but also to the world’s disquiet over the arsenal’s presence. A.Q. Khan is a name well known– the father of Pakistan’s program, Khan freelanced his knowledge, plans (both created and stolen), and technical expertise to other states desiring nuclear weapons, states such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, and supposedly Syria. The question of whether his motivations were strictly monetary or if they were influenced by his religious beliefs remains somewhat open; the Pakistanis have kept Khan under house arrest and have not made him available to Western intelligence agencies of civilian entities to answer questions. The other scientist was Sultan Bashirood Mahmood, and he is a stickier situation– an avowed Islamist and Islamic Fundamentalist who has referred to Pakistan’s stockpile as the “Islamic Bomb” and who has sought to share his knowledge and expertise to countries and groups based on their “Islamic Purity” to balance out the “Zionist” bomb.

Mr. Kidwai surely has his work cut out for him.

Further complicating a picture already crazyquilt with concerns over security and stewardship is the fact that Pakistan is, to be kind, a political mess. From the open air arms bazaars of Peshawar, where a NATO supply depot & convoy was just shot up, from the Khyber Pass, the Main Supply Route for US forces in Afghanistan which was recently closed by Pakistan due to operations against rebellious tribes, to the madrassas and militant mosques of the big cities, Pakistan is sure of only one politically reality every night when she goes to bed and upon awakening every morning– that today could be the day.

Politically troubled almost since its inception, Pakistan has in recent years gone through a series of asassinaitons, attempted and completed coups, a military dictatorship and democratically elected leaders whose elections were the subject of much scrutiny & derision. Their own government institutions are totally unreliable; the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, has worked openly against Pakistan’s previous three administrations and is an exporter and facilitator of terrorist operations– the latest of which appears to have been the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. The ISI was also the major facilitator of the Taleban takeover of neighboring Afghanistan, with all the excesses and terrorist attacks that entailed. The ISI shares a compound with Kidwai’s own nuclear security operation and is rumored to have the program itself thoroughly infiltrated.

Amongst those vying for political control in Pakistan are vehement anti-Indians, who seek a war over the disputed province of Kashmir, organized fundamentalist cliques, elements from within the ISI, democratic reformers and latter-day communists. The military, which installed Pervez Musharraff, also can never be counted out as the next government of Pakistan. The “tribal areas” of Pakistan, places like Baluchistan and Waziristan, also harbor large armed bands of dedicated Islamists who are believed to be sheltering Osama bin Laden and are a tremendous force for political instability within Pakistan.

What would happen if the ISI, with its fundamentalist leanings and penchant for large scale anti-Western terrorist operations, teamed up with their allies in the tribal regions or with one of the urban Islamist factions to topple the government and install their own? In such a scenario we would be looking at a government with similar religio-political leanings as those held by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary forces in Iran… but with a highly organized paramilitary/intelligence operation already up and running to enforce internal security and export trouble.

In such a scenario, the first and most hopeful outcome would be for the military to fight it out with ISI and the Islamists in the streets; such a happening is foreseeable as a possibility, but not terribly likely, The fact is that the Pakistani Army & Air Force, equipped largely with modern American weaponry, are shot through with Islamists and Islamist sympathizers; I would be surprised to see them fighting to keep Pakistan a secular nation in the face of an Islamist coup.

A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that the coup takes hold quickly and with the support of the military, leaving the United States with a series of choices– intervene? Put Mr. Kidwai’s notional American commandos into action to take out Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure? Wait and hope for the best? Encourage India to move on Pakistan?

There is, of course, no opportunity for large scale military intervention into an Islamist coup in Pakistan for America– it would be totally unsustainable and our forces would be constantly in an environment perhaps worse than the one prophesied for the invasion of Japan. Are those commandos waiting? In the waning months of the Musharraf egime in 2008, possibly, perhaps even with the knowledge of Mr. Musharraf. Now, that is highly unlikely– we most likely don’t even know the extent of their dispersion of the nuclear force in times of peace, much less crisis. India would not be inclined to go to war with Pakistan under Islamist, either– much too likely that when India ran roughshod over the smaller Pakistani forces that the Islamabad regime may see a nuclear exchange as an inviting scenario.

The question quickly devolves to this– do we want an extremely hostile Islamic nation sitting idly around looking for mischief and with the connections to make it or do we act precipitously to take out their ability to put our cities at risk through low-tech deliverable nuclear warheads?

Quite a question, that.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Islamists, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Vaporware Navy

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 8, 2009

pirate_01We love to talk about military hardware. Its sexy. Missiles, fighters, cannons, tanks– they’re big, they go boom, they’re the ultimate guy toys. They’re hardware. Orders, commands, Rules of Engagement– that’s military software. Just like any other system, the hardware is useless without the software to run it, the software is useless without the hardware to run on. When you have one and the other is simply a promise, a notion, something that may or may not happen– that’s vaporware.

The US Navy, those fine folks in white with all that big expensive hardware, with all those complex software routines and systems to run that hardware… they know a little something about vaporware.

Today the US Navy announced the formation of Combined Task Force-151 (CTF-151) to take on one of the most vexing problems that the Navy has faced in a while– the very high profile, very annoying, very anachronistic presence of the Pirates of Somalia. Our friends who have traded in the cutlass for the Ak-47 and the 12 pounder for the RPG have become the nail that needs pounding down… but nobody seems to have a big enough hammer to do the job, not because the pirates are too strong to smash but because they have the annoying habit of not staying in one place long enough to get hit in a meaningful way. They’re guerrillas at sea, and guerrillas have never been our specialty. We’ve heard the brass tell us that we aren’t optimized for this mission, that there’s just too much ocean to track them consistently, too much shipping to protect. They were honest, but honesty, like guerrillas, has never been our specialty.

An intractable problem. A public asking why it’s intractable when it wasn’t in the Seventeenth Century. Some US hardware in the area. Why not issue a box of software to make it look like perhaps we’ve come up with a solution, but just maybe, perhaps, forget to put the CD in the box?

That is what CTF-151 is– a shiny software package that has nothing inside. CTF-151 is a commander, an org chart, and a big pile of paper– nothing more. CTF-151 isn’t getting any ships that aren’t already in the area under CTF-150. CTF-151 isn’t getting any orders to shut down piracy by hitting them in the one place where it could make a difference, on the beach. That’s just as well because it doesn’t have the hardware to do so. CTF-151 isn’t even getting an updated Rules of Engagement or legal advice one how to handle any latter-day Steed Bonnet that they might nab on the high seas– a particular problem because there’s pretty much nothing in the current law that would allow us to do anything with ones that we do capture in international waters and nothing effective to do with any we might grab in lawless Somali waters.

Somali piracy is a serious problem; these guys are grabbing ships on the high seas and making a fortune– a fortune– doing it. Estimates of their take in ransoms last year alone runs into the high tens of millions. They grabbed a ship full of Russian tanks and ammunition; they grabbed an Iranian ship that people are still wondering about the cargo of. They’ve grabbed a supertanker full of oil. They’ve attacked passenger liners– and won’t it be a bit of a pickle for the civilized world when they actually succeed in taking one of those and offer to ransom back the passengers for fifty million? How about when they take a real floating bomb– say an LNG tanker or one full of chemicals that are weapon precursors?

The UN is making the right noises about the problem– they authorized action on the sea or land to put an end to this problem. The UN, of course, is the biggest issuer of vaporware going; they can ask the producers to make the products and can even tell the world that they’ve ordered them to be developed, but they can’t enforce that order– they can promise anything they want, but they can’t ship.

Russia and even China are starting to show signs of life in at least getting some real force into the area. France, of all nations, has actually done a bit of ass kicking, launching commando raids to free hostages in Somalia and taking down pirate ships on the ocean. The reality, however, is that if anyone is going to put an end to this problem, it has to become too risky for hopeless Somalis to engage in, and that means blowing the living hell out of Somalia again, at least that part of Somalia where these guys are basing. That ultimately can only devolve to the US, we’re the only one with the power projection capacity to handle the job in the Horn of Africa. Of course, we also have had a bit of experience with combat in Somalia and aren’t eager to experience that again.

It’s time to figure out just what we are prepared to do about this problem and then do it. If the answer is “nothing”, then so be it– it’s a bad answer, but at least it would be some kind of an answer and the world could make alternate plans to avoid the Horn of Africa and the Suez Canal and we can get used to the further economic chaos that will cause. If the answer is to take out the pirate’s shore facilities, find a way to punish the pirates that we take on the ocean, and generally make life too dangerous for the pirates, then let’s get ready to deal with this as a front in the current war and get on with it. What we must not do is temporize, issue press releases, and pretend that the hardware and software is in place to do the job when we currently have no desire to put it there or use it to this end.

CTF-151 is vaporware, and vaporware is a singularly bad way to handle problems. Empty promises always are.

h/t to the Custodian at http://www.informationdissemination.blogspot.com/

Posted in Africa, Foreign Affairs, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
%d bloggers like this: