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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 »

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 »

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 »

 
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