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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.

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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 »

Fighting the Next War, Part II

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 25, 2009

The F-22, which the Air Force has alleged to be the fighter that could not be shot down, has been destroyed on the ground by the American Congress, two days before the news broke that the F-35– the Joint Strike Fighter– is at least two years behind schedule and won’t enter the production phase until at least 2016.

It’s been a bad week for the Air Force.

Where does this leave American air power as we head into the second and third decades of the century? Not in a particularly good place in the short term but, if the Air Force brass can get their heads around it, in a very good position for the mid to long term.

In the first part of this article I touched upon the F-22 suffering from many problems, the most critical of which was timing. Not only was the insanely expensive F-22 up for review during a financial crisis, but at a time in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have been constantly in the news for their outsized role in the Afghan theater of the war. Every week we see stories of Reaper or Predator strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hear the virtues of this style of aerial combat– extremely long loiter times, no American pilots in danger or captured in sketchy places in the event of a shootdown, reasonably stealthy… and relatively cheap. If these drones work so well in the air-to-ground role, what can they do for air supremacy?

The idea of taking the human pilot out of the cockpit holds several advantages, not the least of which is taking the risk of dead American pilots off the table. From an aircraft design standpoint, removing the pilot, cockpit controls, life support system and ejection seat is a dream for the weight savings, allowing greater loiter time, greater deliverable payload and overall cost savings.

In modern fighters, the pilot is always the weakest link; fighters can pull far more Gs than the pilot can tolerate without losing consciousness. While it is true that could make UCAVs incredible dogfighters, that isn’t nearly as important in modern aerial warfare as is the fact that the higher G load the aircraft can handle, the better chance it has of avoiding  advanced SAMs You also eliminate the problem of limited mission duration by taking fatigue, food, and discomfort out of the equation. From a mission planning standpoint you can take greater risks; although these planes will be expensive, they will also be more disposable as you aren’t losing pilots when you lose airframes. It’s politically a lot easier to send a fleet of robots against a highly defended target than it is to send someone’s kids to do the job.

There are significant downsides to UCAVs in the air supremacy role; the control systems would be extremely complex, especially if any autonomy is expected. Active control systems are potentially subject to interference and jamming, and the technology to actively control these aircraft in the split-second environment of aerial combat may not even be possible due to broadcast lag time, demanding the aforementioned complex autonomy. When you take humans out of the loop, you also have the problem of the computer choosing incorrectly and destroying the wrong targets or making other mistakes. The “creepiness factor” of robots killing humans is going to inspire a Russian, Chinese and Iranian campaign amongst lesser developed nations to outlaw these things, and it is undeniably going to gain traction as America will likely be the only ones deploying autonomous systems like this for several years.

The biggest problem facing the move to UCAVs, though, isn’t technological– it’s oh so very human. The biggest obstacle is the revulsion with which UCAVs are viewed by the Air Force, which of course is run primarily by fighter pilots whose entire identities are invested in the fact that they have piloted high performance jets. Ever have a conversation with a fighter pilot? They talk about flying a fighter the way a 17 year old boy talks about sex– it’s the ultra-idealized, be all and end all of human existence. They cannot, for the most part, conceive of, first, a computer doign their job in the cockpit and second, of not spreading their profession to a next generation of fighter pilots. That’s a problem when these men and women are the ones who need to set strategic and tactical policy for the Air Force and as well as making the research and procurement decisions about future aircraft.

The Air Force has run up against a wall every bit as imposing as the limits of a human to withstand Gs– the potential of the next generation of planes has outstripped the costs that Americans are willing to pay for them. A plane that can cruise at supersonic speeds rather than only sprint at them, that can engage a dozen targets simultaneously while being nearly invisible to radar, that can maneuver like no plane before it– those are the features of the F-22. So is the $361,000,000 price tag per plane, for a plane that is designed to operate in units measured in multiples of 12. The next plane up, the F-35 JSF, is rumored to be significantly less capable int he air-to-air role than advertised and is getting very expensive itself; if its primary role is to be that of an air-to-ground attack plane with a secondary air-to-air capacity, then one has to question the wisdom of buyign it when UCAV technology has already been demonstrated to handle that role very well.

This week we’ve heard the Air Force make the argument that to deny the F-22 is to fight the last war rather than the next as the F-22, while useless in Afghanistan could be a huge difference maker in a more symmetrical war against a major power. The reality may well be that procuring the F-22 and F-35 may indeed be the move rooted in the last war, as technology has eclipsed the need for the human pilot in the cockpit; the Air Force may finally, unwillingly, be dragged into that realization by the White House quaterbacked drive that ended the F-22’s procurement cycle.

Posted in American Politics, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Fighting the Next War, Part One

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 21, 2009

America has a nasty habit when it comes to maintaining our military– we fight, throw all of our economic and industrial might into the battle… and then destroy the military created the day after the armistice is signed.  The ugliness of this cycle has, of course, become greatly magnified during the era of industrial-technological warfare; with the drawdown post-World War I setting us up for WW II, the post-WW II drawdown enabling the North Koreans to launch their war in 1950 and push the Americans all the way to Pusan within roughly 5 weeks. Drawdowns occurred even in the Cold War settings that followed Korea and Viet Nam, always returning America to a dramatically weakened strategic position than it was in during the war.

The reasons for this are clear– in a democratic society war fatigue runs high and the will of the people to be reminded of war after the fact is low, leading to demands for a “peace dividend” and for tremendously reduced military spending. This is, of course, a sensible response– unbridled military spending during peace time can be ruinous, but in the course of American history we have traditionally overcompensated for this sentiment and cut back to the point of fundamental weakness with relation to our global responsibilities.

As the most active portion of the ill conceived and strategically unsuccessful “War on Terror” comes to a close with the shuttering of the Iraq Theater, war fatigue is running particularly high at the same time America deals with a financial crisis that makes spending on military systems particularly painful. The situation is further complicated by the traditional dual impetus to reduce military capacity coming at a time of transitional technology, in which robotic systems seem nearly ready to displace traditional man-in-front systems.

Into this maelstrom flies the F-22 Raptor, a tremendously advanced aircraft with no clear role in the current war and a pricetag that represents the cost of ten to fourteen F-15s, the current American fighter in the air superiority role that the F-22 seeks to fill.

The Obama Administration’s stance on the F-22 is clear– we don’t want this thing. The Congress is divided between fiscal responsibility and the fact that suppliers for the F-22 project have been strategically salted throughout the most important Congressional Districts in the nation, making the vote tough for key Congressmen and Senators. The Air Force sees the design potential of the aircraft and wants many, many more. The other three services see the Raptor as the usual platinum plated Air Force toy– good only for air-to-air combat and useless in the close air support role that has been so incredibly vital to the Marines & Army in this and the past several wars. They may have a point– since 1991 and Operation Desert Shield/Storm, through Somalia and Kosovo and the WoT, the US Air Force has made fewer than 25 air-to-air kills against jets of an enemy air force, all of them in 1991 in the air war phase of Desert Storm. In that same time, over 10,000 missions have been flown against targets on the ground.

Oddly enough, that disparity makes, for both sides, the most militarily compelling argument over the F-22. The President, the members of the DoD not wearing blue suits, and the budget conscious can point to the scarcity of air-to-air combat and make the seemingly rock solid case that an incredibly expensive air superiority fighter is unneeded; the Air Force can conversely claim that we have fallen into the trap of falling the last war rather than preparing for the next against a more symmetric adversary against whom the F-22 would be a key to American victory over China, Russia or (in a stretch) Iran. “Fighting the last war” is a phrase loaded with meaning to military planners and historians, an indictment of the thinking that what worked last time will prevail next. The Maginot Line is an oft-cited example of fighting the last war; the French built a huge line of fixed positions that mimicked the trench system of the First World War in the hope that it would secure France from Germany; Germany on the other hand had prepared for the next war by developing mobile operations featuring tanks and trucks that easily outflanked the Maginot Line. It’s a damning accusation.

Later today the Congress will issue an up or down vote on continued funding for the F-22, and the vote counters are hard at work trying to figure out the balance between self interest, military necessity, financial prudence and technological advance. Running Local will be back after the vote with Part Two of the story.

Posted in American Politics, Obama Positions, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Rap on The Lack of MRAPs

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 10, 2009

CNN reports this morning that IED bombings have increased by 1000% in Afghanistan over the past month, a shocking number but perhaps not a shocking development given the likely migration of skilled bomb makers from the Iraq front of the war to the Afghan one. The use of improved IEDs employing shaped charges and molten jets to defeat armored vehicles seems to confirm this suspicion.

With the recent introduction of thousands of Marines to the theater and the southern offensive which is being undertaken by the Corps, hits against extremely vulnerable Hummvees are on the rise. The Hummvee was a Cold War design, made to shuttle officers and equipment around the conventional battlefields of Central Europe, not the guerilla deserts and mountains of this war. It’s manifest deficiencies for this type of war were made crystal in the midstage of the Iraq Campaign, with the rush to deploy MRAPs (Mine Resistant, Ambush Proof) heavy vehicles  as replacement for the Hummvees that were getting blown away with alarming regularity.

So, why have the Marines deployed without sufficient MRAPs even with the certain knowledge that Hummvees are a death trap for the Marines using them? The standard line echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s line about fighting with the force you have rather than the one you want– we needed the Corps in there now and they, as they always do, met that call and deployed light. The real truth, though, is a bit more complex.

The first element is that MRAPs are wildly expensive relative to the mission that they are designed to carry out– light hauling, command mobility, patrol, and reconnaissance. The Hummvee did that job at less than $200,000 per copy (albeit, not well…); the average MRAP’s tag is well north of $1,000,000. Given the huge fleet of these “light” wheeled vehicles an army needs– they’re literally the commuter cars of the force– that is running into very serious money. Complicating that is the rush to design, build and deploy these monsters– the production infrastructure is still being built up and production capacity dialed in; it is hoped that by December we can crank out 1000 of these things per month, but right now we’re looking at a number closer to 50 per month. They’re also a bitch to move around– they’re heavy, big, and unwieldly; you can move many fewer on a standard transport than you could Hummvees.

That doesn’t bring us to the biggest problem of MRAPs in Afghanistan, though– the fact is that they don’t work well there in the craggy, mountainous terrain that they’ll have to handle. As I mentioned, these things are hulks with poor visibility. Imagine driving a Hummer H1 along, say, the Pacific Coast Highway– it’s a twisty narrow road, high on a cliff and your vehicle is extremely wide and has crappy visibility. Sound like fun? Now make the road narrower by two thirds, put it much higher on a cliff, make your visibility much worse and add bombs, RPGs, and other infantry nastiness to the mix. MRAPs are both necessary for operations in Afghanistan and a nightmare for operations in Afghanistan.

Financially, logistically, and strategically we are not at a point where we can simply redesign vehicles for every theater of operations we operate in; the sad fact is that to fight in Afghanistan we’re going to have to accept a higher level of casualties from IED until we can find a better way to deal with the IED threat.

Posted in Afghanistan, American History, terrorism, Warfare | 1 Comment »

Sometimes There’s Never a Right Time

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

I had an interesting email exchange the other day with a friend who just returned from his second tour as the commander of first an infantry platoon and then an infantry company in the Afghan Theater of the war. We were discussing the resurgence of the Taliban, their improving tactics and the general difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan when the quality of our own troops came up.

As a commander, he is quite satisfied with the quality of men and women that he commands in the field; morale is showing some frays over the issue of multiple combat tours that always seem to get extended just when people start to believe they’re about to go home, but that’s been true of America’s wars for a century. While on the topic of morale, I broached the third rail of personnel issues for the Army, especially– soldiers who are gay.

Don’t ask, don’t tell has become a punchline in the military and the popular culture both. Only fools believe that gay and lesbian personnel aren’t a part of every company, every ship’s crew, every squadron; simple math tells you that the demographic distribution of gay Americans mandates that gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are members of every sizable unit of our Armed Forces. More commonly known amongst military personnel as “Ask, Don’t Tell” for the way the program is actually administered, the policy has been exposed to the hypocrisy that lies at its foundation over the past several years of war, which have seen dismissals from the service under the Don’t Ask rubric decline from the pre-war years– when the military needs specialists who happen to be gay, it seems, they don’t quite pursue their dismissal with the vigor that they do in peacetime.

My friend is sympathetic to the overall cause of openly integrating the force, but he falls back on a common refrain amongst even progressive military thinkers on the topic– you don’t do anything that might cause upheaval within the ranks during time of war. On the surface, that is a seemingly eminently logical point. Wartime is not the time for social engineering, it is a time for boosting morale and getting maximum performance from the troops. Anything that distracts from that goal is an unwelcome distraction, indeed. Why dispose of a policy that, if flawed, has kept something of a lid on the entire situation for fifteen years now?

The liberal knee jerk response is “Because it’s the right thing to do”, of course, and in a vacuum they are right– we know that segregation and bigotry is a fool’s errand as witnessed by the racial segregation our own nation experienced between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Outside of that vacuum, though, that argument isn’t nearly as compelling– even Abraham Lincoln dispatched with a cherished founding stone of our nation, the writ of habeas corpus, due the the exigencies of the Civil War itself, so “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t carry as much weight during this time of war due to precedent.

That dismissal, though, is countered to an extent by the excesses of the current war that have found protective coloration in precisely the habeas corpus argument; Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, extraordinary rendition, denial of lawyers and “new” interpretations of the Geneva Convention as it relates to the definition of “prisoners of war” are all beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s willingness to relax not only our Constitution but also our uncodified standards of conduct. We were collectively complicit in that relaxation, of course– it is far too easy to wash our own hands of culpability and assign the blame to an unpopular President while forgetting that he was elected by the people to represent us and that, truthfully, many of us were so outraged and so angry in the time following 9-11 that even though we may have talked about how much we hated what Bush was doing we went ahead and re-elected him with an even larger share of the vote. American Democracy has eroded as a concept due to the excesses of the Bush Administration, but we can at least stop it from eroding to the point of football, where all ills are blamed on the quarterback even if the fault lies with the coaching staff or the defensive line. Yes, I am amongst those who spoke out against the Bush policies as did many people, who worked or gave money for Kerry and Obama, who worked to elect progressive Congressmen and other elected officials, but I am also an American and that is the overarching reality of all of our lives– we are part of a collective, part of a nation, and we must see reflected in our own eyes its flaws as well as its benefices if we are to be honest with ourselves.

So too, then, must we recognize that there will never be a right time to deny rights, dignity, responsibilities and privileges shared by most Americans to any subset of Americans based on parochial beliefs or even what some might see as demonstrable facts. We are one people in blame as we are one people in right, and as one people it is beyond our honest ability to deny rights ostensibly shared by all to the few. Amongst those responsibilities and privileges is the ability to serve our country in uniform if one so chooses, a right and privilege currently denied any homosexual who chooses to live as themselves rather than in the closet. Yes, allowing openly gay members to serve in the military may cause some minor disruptions in the force structure, but we already have a much larger issue of integration to inform us as to what we can expect– the largely seamless integration of African American soldiers into “regular” units of the military during the Truman Administration. Naysayers predicted catastrophe as a result of unit integration– remember, this was a time when legal integration was still very much a reality in the American South, so making the military much less ready to accept black troops than it is to accept gay troops today. The predictions of mutinies, readiness level declines and other dire events never came to pass, of course, and assuming that they would today over integration of openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is rendered even sillier given that history.

The military command structure itself has implicitly said this by reducing the number of dismissals for homosexuality during the war. The generals & admirals have spoken– dismissing gay troops would cause a greater force disruption than leaving them in place in many cases, as witnessed by the hesitance over the last four years in particular to make a dismissal cases against homosexuals, especially those serving in the technical, intelligence, and language sectors of the military where these men and women serve not only with honor but hold skills and talents integral to the successful waging of the current war.

There will never be a right time to integrate and accept openly gay troops into the force structure– there will always be a compelling argument made by those whom the layman is afraid to challenge on military grounds. The military, however, while being the ultimate guarantor of our safety is also the servant of the people of this nation, not the other way around. Those people must accept that there will never be a right time to deny basic rights to their peers; it is that peer relationship, that we are all Americans under the Constitution, that easily trumps any social, racial, or biological subset we may belong to with the exceptions for cause that are codified under the law (denying felons the vote, preventing the mentally insane judged a hazard to others from owning firearms, and the narrow like).

If a man or woman is willing to protect, defend, and honor their fellow Americans then we are not, as those Americans, too, in a position to deny them. To do so is to redefine the meaning of America in a direction which we have travelled too far and too easily these past seven years. It is time to reclaim our identity, and to do that we must accept that identity is a broad one that embraces all with a birthright to it.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Human Rights, Social Justice, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 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 »

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 »

Now Where Did I Leave That Nerve Gas…?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

It would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying– after a year of the Air Force misplacing, mis-shipping, and basically mishandling nuclear weapons to the point that generals are getting fired and entire command structures are being redone, the Deseret News (Salt Lake City) disclosed on Sunday that–oopsies!– the Army may or may not have had a slight accounting discrepancy with the amount of nerve gas it’s storing for destruction at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah.

Any sensible military would’ve put half of the USAF command structure in front of firing squads this year, but as it turns out that would violate OSHA or some such regulation. In America, instead, we’re forced to retire to lucrative positions with defense contractors the dopes who send nuclear detonators to Taiwan and watch planes under their command fly around the US with “We thought they were test dummies but– oopsies!– were actual strategic weapons” bolted to the wings of their aircraft.

The scary thing isn’t just that those events happened, it is the reason why they have happened– crappy training and discipline. The two great separators between the US military and all others have traditionally been level of training and sophistication of weaponry. The US spends more money training its enlisted and especially officers than any other military in the world. For that investment, we theoretically get a force that can be trusted to think for itself, to carry out complex orders using sophisticated systems, and generally not to trod upon its own penis with combat boots. Guess what we’ve been stepping on of late? Lax standards and under-trained staff officers have been the proximate cause of all of the Air Force’s strategic weapons blunders this year; reviews have found QA checklists unchecked, officers who have no clue what is in the procedural manuals for handling nuclear weapons that they’ve allegedly been drilled on, weapons handlers who can’t tell a detonator from helicopter batteries. We’ve spent years pumping money into the Russian military to secure their arsenal and agonizing over the possibility of them misplacing a few nukes; anybody taken a look at Minot AFB or, I don’t know, under the carpet at the O club at Barksdale?

Lapses in training as it pertains to nuclear materials are a huge fear we have with Pakistan; it is unthinkable that it should be occurring within the US force structure. One has to wonder if the suddenly crappy training being given to our nuclear weaponeers isn’t the result of the financial pressure being exerted on DOD by the ongoing wars. Clearly strategic nuclear weapons are not the priority that they were in the darkest days of the Reagan-Evil Empire era’ s it possible that the USAF is pulling training dollars and competency out of the strategic arsenal in favor of spending with direct application to this war? It seems a reasonable assumption, especially given the unconscionable screw-ups going on. One more little gift from Mr. Bush’s war that keeps on giving even after the mission is accomplished, I suppose.

Now we see that the Blue Boys aren’t the only ones who can’t be trusted with a WMD– the Army may or may not know how many tons of deadly nerve agents they have or have destroyed or have shipped to god knows where. The United States went out of the chemical warfare business in 1985 when the Congress voted to destroy all stockpiles of US chemical warfare agents. Nearly a quarter century later we’re still in the process of doing so as the things are damnably hard to safely dispose of, requiring highly specialized incinerators. We still have stockpiles of artillery shells, bombs, rockets, spray tanks, storage tanks, mines, and the like mainly sitting out in the Utah desert at Deseret, at a handful of other sites in the nation (eight, according to GlobalSecurity.org), and offshore on Johsnston Atoll in the South Pacific… at least as far as the Army knows. 

We now know that the Army doesn’t actually know for sure– oopsies!– just how much nerve agent it has destroyed at Deseret or indeed how much they ever had or were supposed to have. They are putting the blame on accounting problems and tell us that they are “reasonably sure” they’ve gotten everything destroyed that they were supposed tot destroy by this point and know how much is left. Are you reasonably assured by that? 

Here in DC a few years back we had a bit of first hand experience with this issue– it seems that during the World War One era chemical weapons research was conducted in what is now the Spring Hill neighborhood of the city and on what is now the campus of American University. Due to some accounting errors and forgetfulness, nobody realized that when Spring Hill and AU were built that there were not only buried storage pits of toxins under the sites but also the odd unexploded mustard gas shell or six hundred. Nobody realized this until, in December of 2000, someone noticed that kids were getting sick at an AU childcare facility. Soil samples revealed huge levels of arsenic, which led to some digging and then an odd metallic clink when a shovel hit an artillery shell–oopsies!– still full of gas, which led to half the neighborhood being dug up and a boatload of munitions and toxins cleared. At least we know that what’s going on at Deseret isn’t a new problem, I suppose.

We are the kings of sanctimony when it comes to responsible stewardship of WMDs, which we absolutely should be– the things are a wee bit dangerous. Lax disciplinary standards and poor training are antithetical to the lowest infantryman in our system; that they seem to have become prevalent amongst the highest security areas of our military structure is unacceptable.

To have this emerge now, of all times, with Dick Cheney still predicting nuclear and chemical attacks against out cities… well, it does make you wonder just how sloppy we’ve been, doesn’t it?

Posted in Nuclear Weapons, terrorism, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 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 »

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 »

Look Over Here, Not Over Here

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 5, 2009

With Russia supplying imagery intelligence to Iran, you have to wonder if this strategically odd war that Israel is fighting with Hamas isn’t actually an elaborate cover for their possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. While the Russian recon satellites are busy watching IDF bases running at high capacity to support the war in Gaza, is it possible that they just might miss the preparations for a strike against Iran? It would be audacious of Israel to do something so extreme as a cover operation, but audacity has been Israel’s calling card for many years. There’s some sense to the idea– Israel wanted to break things and kill people in Gaza anyway and they’re doing it before the new, less friendly US Admin comes in. It’s two birds with one stone in the end– a “free shot” at Hamas to the West while they take care of a major strategic problem to the East.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Who, Us? We Didn’t See a Thing.

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 2, 2009

middle-east-mapA curious little tidbit was nestled within the stories earlier this week about the United States returning “control” of the Green Zone to the Iraqis. As it turns out, this was a two-for-one deal with Iraq not only getting back the Green Zone tar baby but also taking responsibility for controlling their own airspace.

That might not seem like too big a deal– after all, who is possibly going to be attacking Iraq from the air with so large a percentage of the US military sitting on the ground there? What makes this interesting, however, is the fact that Iraq literally can not control its airspace; their Air Force currently consists of a gaggle of Cessna 172s (the ever popular “Cessna” of US private aviation), some Beech & Cessna 8 seat transport planes, a few helicopters and a couple of C-130s. What’s missing from that mix that might help in controlling one’s airspace? If you said, “Fighters and radar warning aircraft” promote yourself to Junior Wing Commander.

It is true that in the 21st Century controlling your airspace is a cornerstone of sovereignty, so even a symbolic turning over of the airspace has some meaning. An alternate and somewhat more interesting meaning, however, comes into better focus when you look at a map of the Middle East.

As we’ve all been told a few hundred times, Iran is embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons and the Israelis… well, let’s just say they aren’t terribly pleased with this development. One of Israel’s larger problems in doing something about the Iranian nuclear program is proximity– as in Iran is a “You Can’t Get There From Here” locale if you’re flying an IDF strike fighter.

To reach Iran, the enterprising Israeli air commander is left with a very few options. The first but most remote possibility is a flight north up the Med to Turkey, then across Turkey and Southwest through Iran. I consider this to be a highly unlikely option; the Turks are unlikely to want to antagonize the Iranians with whom they share a border, and an Israeli strike that crosses Turkey would either mean landing and refueling at Turkish bases (diplomatically untenable) or the Turks allowing Israeli refueling aircraft not only to refuel the strike package on the way in but then to loiter over Turkish territory and refuel on the way out– it’s not something I can see the Turks condoning, especially when you recall how they got cold feet about allowing the US to use Turkish bases as jumping off points for the 2003 Iraqi invasion. Turkey and Iran aren’t openly belligerent towards one another right now; why would Turkey wish to change that when they have enough problems with the Kurds to keep them occupied?

Taking out the Turkish option, Israel’s planes are almost certainly going to overfly Jordanian airspace, which isn’t going to make anyone particularly happy… on the surface, a point we’ll get back to. The only viable non-Jordanian flight path is through very hostile and very well defended Syrian airspace, and hey, who needs a two front-war, right? So, assuming a transit of Jordan, Israeli planes can either go southeast over northern Saudi Arabia (not going to happen as if it did the King’s head would be a on a pike by nightfall) or, and here’s the interesting bit, head due east across Iraq and refuel over the Western Persian Gulf before going on attack runs at Iranian nuclear hot spots like Esfahan/Natanz, Bushehr, Arak, and even perhaps as far as Karaj & Tabriz.

From my perspective, a major stumbling block to Israel taking that route has been that they would need to seek permission from the Americans to overfly Iraqi airspace, which we were responsible for up until this week. America, of course, would be put in an interesting diplomatic spot if we did that for allowing the “hated” Zionisits to overfly Islamic (if Sunni) lands to strike at Iran. At that point we may as well conduct the raid ourselves as we’d be getting all of the love notes at the UN anyway.

It sure is a good thing that in the waning days of the Bush-Cheney Admin, however, that we handed the responsibility for protecting that airspace to the one group that couldn’t do it– the Iraqis themselves. By the time they realized the Israelis were over their country the planes would be heading out over the Gulf and the Iraqis won’t be able to do a thing to stop them on the way back even if they do know they’re coming. The Americans can put a diplomatic “Huh?” face on as we aren’t the ones controlling the airspace so we can’t be legally blamed for the incursion. The Israelis aren’t going to give much of a damn what the EU countries think about the move, the Russians will be thrilled because this means they can sell the Iranians more reactor components and a freshly updated integrated air defense system and the Jordanians– remember them, the guys who first had their airspace violated?– are just as happy that the Iranians are dealt a huge blow in their quest to become the regional hegemon. Iran holding nuclear control in the Gulf would put enormous pressure on Saudi Arabia, who hold in trust the Holy Cities of Mecca & Medina. Jordan’s King Abdullah, being the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is much happier with his brother Sunnis holding those cities unmolested by Shi’a power, which would undoubtedly be brought to bear should Iran gain nuclear weapons.

Will this all come to pass? Good question. If it does it will likely happen within the next 10 days so as not to overlap the American Inaugural.

Keep your eyes on those Iraqi skies.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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