An U.S.-American point of view: Europe must regrow its teeth!

by Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai. He is is a military strategist who has served in assignments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Lt. Col. Pillai was assigned to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2012-2013 where he worked on U.S. and NATO policy. He is a published author in a variety of journals and received his Master of International Public Policy (MIPP) degree from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The opinion in this article reflect the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.

Europe is confronted with a United States that is tired and frustrated as seen by the recent NATO Summit that exposed this frustration when the president of the United States confronted NATO allies, especially Germany to spend more on their defense. The world’s sole Superpower is tired of the responsibility of managing the “Liberal Empire” built on the notions of democracy and free-trade since World War II.

After decades of asking Europe to spend more on its security and to uphold the NATO Alliance’s pledge of 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the United States is letting its rage show to the discomfort of the European nations for failing to meet their commitment. Germany was singled out because of its strong economy and its large population in comparison to the rest of Europe.

While the United States spends close to 4% of its GDP on defense that figured its spread across the world to support alliances in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As Europe and the United States face growing competition and threats from Russia, China, and rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea along with transnational terrorism, it is time for Europe to grow its teeth again.

While the European Union as an integrated economic union is rich, it remains militarily impotent compared to its latent potential. In fact, as George Friedman, author of the book “Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe” wrote, “Hannah Arendt, a postwar philosopher, once said that the most dangerous thing in the world is to be rich and weak. Wealth can only be protected by strength, as unlike the poor, the wealthy are envied and have things others want, and unlike the strong they are subject to power.” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 157).

While Europe remains scarred by the catastrophic period of war between 1914-1945 where over a 100 million perished, the period after World War I and II under the protective umbrella of U.S. military might have given Europe the space needed to rebuild. This allowed European nations to rebuild their societies and economies, and eventually worked towards the project of European integration that hadn’t truly existed since the Holy Roman Empire brought some form of resemblance to the former Greco-Roman world. After the end of the Cold War, the Europeans sped ahead with integration of their economies while cashing in their “peace dividend” by dramatically reducing their military capability.

The fractures between the United States and Europe materialized in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts of Bosnia and Kosovo, where the European nations, the European Union as a collective body, failed to stop a bloody conflict in its backyard until it became a NATO operation when the United States took lead to end the bloodshed.

The European Union proposed the European Security and Defense Policy as an alternative security force to NATO (meaning when the U.S. and Canada were not involved) when it was not needed to lead an operation. While it has evolved since 1998, it never grew into an actual military force capable of deterring aggression from the likes of Russia. As Friedman points out regarding the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, “[w]hen…no one came to Georgia’s aid, a founding premise of the European Unification – that the European Union would take care of the economy while NATO would take care of security – became more uncertain.” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 119).

The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference. — U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates cited in Ian Traynor, “US Defence Chief Blasts Europe over Nato“, The Guardian, 10.06.2011.

In 2011, this weakness was displayed again during the intervention in Libya, where elements that constituted the core of NATO and the EU force, primarily the British and French, relied heavily on U.S enabler support.

The Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 with irregular forces and then annexation further demonstrated the EU’s and by default NATO’s impotence. The European Union could not muster a significant military force to deter conventional Russian aggression and Russia presents an uncomfortable reality as Friedman once again points out that “[t]he problem of the EU was that the Europeans had nothing to offer but peace and prosperity – an Ode to Joy. But what would happen if the joy failed, if either peace or prosperity evaporated? Then what would hold men together in brotherhood, and what would hold the European Union together?” (Friedman, Flashpoints, p. 119).

Some would counter argue by rightly pointing out that neither Georgia nor Ukraine is a NATO member. Therefore, there was no justification for the NATO alliance to invoke an Article 5 response. At the same time, NATO has stepped up its military presence in eastern Europe to include its Air Policing Mission over the Baltics, and forward stationed troops ranging in eastern Europe, and establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VHJTF) to respond to Russian aggression. These steps are designed to serve as both a tripwire and as means to initially inflict punishment on any Russian aggression; however, RAND war games conducted between the summer of 2014 and spring 2015 highlighted NATO’s vulnerabilities to stop a full-scale Russian ground assault near the Baltics in large part due to NATO’s inability to project sufficient power from western Europe as major seaports, airports, road and rail networks would be targeted by Russian advanced systems such the Iskandar missile and NATO airpower would be under threat from Russian S-300/S-400 air defense systems (see also Patrick Truffer, “Zapad 2017 demonstrates the modernisation of the Russian armed forces“, offiziere.ch, 16.02.2018). Right now, the European Union, and NATO with U.S. assistance can provide some deterrence against Russian aggression; but without the U.S., the EU and NATO do not have a credible conventional military force capable of defending its interests against Russia without risking nuclear escalation (the UK and France maintain a small yet credible nuclear deterrence to Russian adventurism).

Despite the European Union total population exceeding that of the United States, the current force structure of various European allies is appalling compared to the U.S. When comparing forces in the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2018, one sees that the U.S. Marine Corps with its three active divisions and three active air wings is larger than the entire British Military establishment. The U.S. Special Operations Command total force structure is about equal – and if further UK cuts are made – will be larger than the entire British Army. The once vaunted Royal Navy has less personal than the U.S. Coast Guard. However, the British do field very capable forces, especially its Special Forces, that continue to serve alongside the United States in various conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As the chart above illustrates, NATO without the U.S. spends only about one-third of the U.S. defense spending. For comparison: Russia’s small military spending is almost five times lesser than the one of NATO without the U.S. If NATO without the U.S. were to meet its 2% pledge, it would equal roughly 50% of the U.S. defense expenditures and would not reach parity until it would reach 4% of GDP.

Increased spending will not solve all of NATO’s problems. NATO’s spending must address the gaps in operational capability, material stocks, transportation networks (air, sea, road, and rail networks sufficiently hardened and standardized), etc. Germany has recently been the target of criticism when stories leaked that only a small portion of its Eurofighters are operational, significant problems with its naval assets, and army helicopter pilots have to train on civilian ones because of chronic maintenance issues (George Allison, “Less than a Third of German Military Assets Are Operational Says Report“, UK Defence Journal, 21.06.2018). If the Europeans want the United States, and by extension Russia, to take them seriously, they need to rectify their chronic military shortfalls.

To effectively deter Russian aggression, considering Russia’s formidable A2/AD systems that could challenge the rapid introduction of U.S. forces, European forces need to have the capability to deter and at a minimum buy time for U.S. reinforcements to arrive (and more than likely will have to fight their way from western Europe again if key air and sea ports are disrupted in eastern Europe). If the U.S. walks away into isolation, all that free education and healthcare in Europe will not defend them from others who are more powerful (a U.S. critique without the proper context since Europeans pay for those benefits with higher taxation).

In addition to military shortfalls in Europe, Europe states need to reduce or eliminate the caveats they place on their forces when deployed to operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The joke that the acronym for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan really meant “I Saw Americans Fight” was partly due to the maddening frustration with caveats from nations on if and when their militaries would conduct actual combat operations. Of course, some were better than others, but after watching the torturous process of getting force commitments from European partners for ISAF, it became clear that things needed to change. Again, it should not be a struggle to get combat ready brigades (plural for a reason since one brigade is about 3-5,000 Soldiers) from a nation(s) whose population is more than 60 million.

The relationship between the United States and Europe is not only challenged by the current Russian threat, but in the long-term will be increasingly challenged by China’s global ambitions. The growing Chinese influence as a result of its “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative along the routes of the famed “Silk and Spice Road” traveled by Marco Polo, the geography that separated Europe from Asia continues to shrink while the challenges increase. This astute observation is made by famed geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan in his recent book, when he wrote:

As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. I do not mean to say that Eurasia is becoming unified, or even stable in the manner that Europe was during the Cold War and the Post Cold War — only that the interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics, with each reinforcing the other, are leading the Eurasian supercontinent to be come analytically speaking, one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasian simply has meaning in a way that it didn’t used to. Morever, because of the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin, evinced by refugees from North Africa and the Levant flooding Europe, and because of dramatically increased interactions across the Indian Ocean from Indochina to East Africa, we may not speak of Afro-Eurasia in one breath. The term “World Island,” early-twentieth-century British geographer Halford Mackinder’s phrase Eurasia jointed with Africa, is no longer premature. — Robert D. Kaplan, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century“, Random House, 2018, p. 7.

In light of these challenges, Europe must regrow its teeth – actual military capability to match its economic status. If it wants to be taken seriously by competitors and threats ranging from Russia, China, and/or Iran, it needs to demonstrate it has the capability to back its “soft power” with credible “hard power”. Finally, if Europe wants to regain the respect and trust of a frustrated U.S.-America, it must prove it has the means to be an equal partner. The famous quote by Winston Churchill: “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them” still applies. However, the current situation lies somewhere in the middle where the United States is frustrated with its allies who lack the capacity to fight alongside it – a worrying reality if the United States finds itself in a major conflict with a near-peer competitor such as Russia and/or China. Europe needs to recall its martial ghost of Sparta, Alexander, Rome, and Charlemagne once again if it wants to be taken seriously upon a growing multipolar world.

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Note (August 9, 2018): This is a revised version of the original article. Due to a mistake in the transmission of the final draft, the original article had several grammatical errors. We apologize for the inconveniences.

Posted in Armed Forces, Chad M. Pillai, English, International, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Chemical Weapons in Syria: Red Lines or Proving Grounds

Despite the fact that they are banned, chemical weapons are still being used today. According to a French analysis, chemical weapons were used in at least 130 instances in Syria between October 2012 and April 2017 (Rebecca Hersman, “Resisting Impunity for Chemical-Weapons Attacks“, Survival 60, no. 2, p. 75). The two U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have reacted differently to major chemical weapons attacks in Syria. One made threats, did not consistently implement the threats and therefore lost his credibility; the other seized the opportunity, did not hesitate to take action, and used his “nice, new and smart” missiles. Neither of the presidents made an impression on the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian medical staff take part in a training exercise to learn how to treat victims of chemical weapons attacks, in a course organized by the World Health Organisation in Gaziantep, Turkey (Photo: Murad Sezer).

Syrian medical staff take part in a training exercise to learn how to treat victims of chemical weapons attacks, in a course organized by the World Health Organisation in Gaziantep, Turkey (Photo: Murad Sezer).

Back at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, it was well known in intelligence circles that Syria had one of the largest active chemical weapons programmes in the world. The Syrian Armed Forces had several hundred tonnes of mustard gas (a blister agent), as well as several hundred tonnes of the nerve agent Sarin and several dozen tonnes of VX (another nerve agent). These chemical warfare agents could be deployed using aircraft bombs, artillery grenades or missiles (République Française, “Synthèse nationale de renseignement déclassifié: Programme chimique syrien, cas d’emploi passés d’agents chimiques par le régime et l’attaque chimique conduite par le régime le 21 août 2013“, 02.09.2013, p. 3). It was the first time in a civil war in which one party to the conflict had such a large arsenal of chemical weapons. In this context, two main scenarios gave cause for concern: the use of chemical warfare agents by the Assad regime, especially in the event of its imminent collapse, and the proliferation by extremist groups (Mary Beth D Nikitin, Paul K Kerr, and Andrew Feickert, “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress“, Congressional Research Service, 30.09.2013.).

The situation got worse at the end of July 2012, when Damascus threatened to use chemical weapons in the event of an “external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic“. In response to a question posed by the journalist Chuck Todd, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed during a press briefing in August 2012 that he did not intend to begin a military intervention in Syria, but that a movement or the use of large quantities of chemical weapons could change this, and far-reaching consequences would follow. The use or proliferation of chemical weapons was not only concerning for the USA: it was also worrying for their allies in the Middle East.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. […] We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly. — Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps“, 20.08.2012.

Obama repeated this again in December 2012 when he addressed his threat of far-reaching consequences directly to Assad: “The use of chemical weapons is, and would be, totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” By August 2013, this “red line” had been confirmed several times by the U.S. government.

Obama had been rather naive in his hope of intimidating Assad and offering a deterrent against the use and proliferation of chemical weapons to non-governmental groups, such as Hezbollah [1]. As far as the use of chemical weapons was concerned, Obama’s threats were in vain. The Syrian Armed Forces most likely deployed sarin on 19 March 2013 in Khan al-Asal (20 dead, 124 injured), 29 April 2013 in Saraqueb (1 dead, 10 injured) and on 21 August 2013 in Ghouta (355 dead, 3,600 injured) [2].

The attack on Ghouta could not be ignored by the U.S. government, especially because an early U.S. estimate was rather high, talking of over 1,400 dead (of which 426 were children). About a week after the attack, the U.S. government announced that it had solid evidence that the Syrian government had carried out the chemical weapons attack (Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais, “The Thick Red Line: Implications of the 2013 Chemical-Weapons Crisis for Deterrence and Transatlantic Relations“, Survival 59, no. 6, p. 85). The “red line” drawn by Obama around a year earlier had therefore apparently been clearly crossed, in anyone’s view. However, Obama was hesitant to implement the threatened consequences — the massive military attack by the U.S. Armed Forces which was anticipated never took place.

In the hope of intimidating Assad and by drawing the “red line”, Obama had backed himself into a corner because the unilateral use of military force without the approval of the UN Security Council was utterly contrary to his fundamental convictions. When the British parliament rejected a motion by British Prime Minister David Cameron at the end of August 2013, which had been intended to pave the way for British military involvement to punish the Assad regime, Obama’s concerns about falling into a trap by unilaterally taking military action were particularly pressing (Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine“, The Atlantic, April 2016). At the same time, this also opened up new scope for Obama: new, the U.S. Congress should decide about military retaliation in Syria. The corresponding bill was introduced to the U.S. Senate on 6 September 2013.

In a formal sense, the U.S. President, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, would not have required the approval of Congress to take such a limited action (Barack Obama, “Text of President Obama’s Remarks on Syria”, The New York Times, 31.08.2013). With the involvement of Congress, however, Obama was not only playing for time (and as time passed military retaliation became less likely): he was also able to shift responsibility to Congress, while at the same time taking himself out of the line of fire (Lewis and Tertrais, p. 79). As early as 4 September 2013, he qualified his statements about the “red line”. He defined and clearly showed whose credibility was at stake: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. […] My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’s credibility’s on the line.” (Jonathan Allen, “Obama Reframes ‘Red Line’ Rhetoric“, Politico, 04.09.2013).

But before the bill made it to the U.S. House of Representatives, the situation changed: on 9 September 2013, the then Foreign Minister John Kerry answered questions from journalists during a visit to Great Britain. Asked by journalist Margaret Brennan what the Assad regime could do to avert a U.S. military strike, Kerry replied:

[Bashar al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously. — John Kerry, “Press Conference by Kerry, British Foreign Secretary Hague“, U.S. Departement of State, 19.12.2013.

This was not a well-thought out strategy, but a slip by Kerry, which incorrectly spread over the media as an U.S. ultimatum to Assad. This assessment is also underscored by a U.S. State Department statement that Kerry’s remark was merely rhetorical in nature.

Just a few hours later, with the agreement of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed the seizure and destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons, which led to the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” on 14 September 2013 (Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour, “Russia Calls on Syria to Hand over Chemical Weapons“, The Guardian, 09.09.2013). With its swift implementation and Syria’s immediate accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention, U.S. retaliation was definitely off the table. From a humanitarian point of view, this was an ideal solution which, by destroying (a large proportion) of Syrian chemical weapons, may have prevented things from becoming worse and effectively saved human lives. But even this was not enough for Assad to stop himself from using chemical weapons again.

However, Obama’s publicly flaunted inconsistent behaviour was fatal for the credibility of the USA and its influence in the Middle East. Finally dropped by the West, this sealed the fate of the “moderate rebels” in Syria and strengthened radical Islamist groups. In the medium term, the USA lost their influence in the Middle East to Russia. Russia was not only able to expand its armaments business in the Middle East: since then they have again been regarded as an influential player in this region. On the international stage, the impression spread that the USA was no longer prepared to intervene decisively on a military level when fundamental international norms were breached. This gave Russia additional room for manoeuvre, which Putin skilfully exploited in the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine in March/April 2014 and the Russian military operation in Syria from the end of September 2015 onwards (Lewis and Tertrais, p. 96f).

Screenshot from a video posted to YouTube on April 11, 2014 shows substantial yellow coloration at base of the cloud over Keferzita, Syria, drifting with main cloud, and color intensity appears to quickly dissipate over next 20 seconds.

Screenshot from a video posted to YouTube on April 11, 2014 shows substantial yellow coloration at base of the cloud over Keferzita, Syria, drifting with main cloud, and color intensity appears to quickly dissipate over next 20 seconds.

Officially, the chemical weapons declared by the Syrian government were destroyed at the beginning of January 2016. However, it is questionable as to whether all chemical weapons had been declared. Although Sarin attacks stopped from autumn 2013 until spring 2017, chlorine was used as a weapon in several cases from April 2014 onwards (“Fifth Report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism“, UN Security Council, 13.02.2017). Although chlorine stocks do not have to be declared, their use as a weapon is contrary to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Finally, on 4 April 2017, the Syrian Armed Forces deployed Sarin again in the attack on Khan Shaykhun (around 100 dead, 27 of which were children, and around 200 injured) (Hersman, p. 76; “Seventh Report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism“, UN Security Council, 26.10.2017). It was the first such incident that had occurred during the term of U.S. President Donald Trump. As a power politician, it seemed clear to him that consequences had to follow in order to save the USA from further loss of face. On the morning of 7 April 2017 — just three days later — U.S. forces bombarded the Syrian-operated Shayrat Air Force base with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, with 58 Tomahawks destroying 44 targets on the air force base (“ISI First to Analyze Shayrat Airfield Missile Attack“, ImageSat International, 05.11.2017). The air strike enabled Trump to set an example, to show determination and strength, and to clearly set himself apart from Obama’s politics. Interestingly, the air strike occurred during the two-day visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, and could also be understood as a demonstration of power against China.

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography).

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles — click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

Russia was informed in advance of the imminent air strike, which enabled the Syrian Armed Forces to bring some of their aircraft to safety. Although Shayrat is the second largest Syrian air force base, the U.S. air strike had no strategic consequences. Around 10 Syrian aircraft were destroyed, which were presumably mostly defective planes. In addition, 13 toughened aircraft protection structures, 10 weapon depots, 7 fuel tanks, 5 workshops and parts of 5 SA-6 anti-aircraft missile batteries were destroyed. Shayrat was defined as a target because it was from here that the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun took place. Nevertheless, no installations were destroyed that would have prevented a new chemical weapons attack from the air force base. According to National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster, the Sarin storage areas still on the air force base were deliberately not fired upon by Tomahawks to avoid the risk of poisoning civilians near the air force base (“Why Was Syria’s Shayrat Airbase Bombed?“, BBC News, 07.04.2017). The runway also remained intact, enabling the Syrian Armed Forces to land and take off from the base with their remaining Su-22s hours later.

Striking Syrian military bases is little punishment for the perpetrators, nor much justice or restitution for the victims. — Rebecca Hersman, p. 79.

The U.S. retaliation was basically ineffective as a deterrent. A good year later, the Syrian Armed Forces used chemical weapons in Douma (probably chlorine possibly in combination with Sarin, with 43 dead) (“Russia, Syria Trying To ‘Sanitize’ Chemical Attack Site, U.S. Says“, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 19.04.2018). This time, the US, together with France and Great Britain (hereinafter referred to as the “coalition”) bombed the Barzah scientific research centre, along with the Him Shinshar chemical weapons depot and its bunker with 105 cruise missiles. In order to exclude Russian victims, Russia was once again warned of this attack. According to the coalition, chemical weapons were being developed and manufactured in Barzah, but it seems unclear whether chemical weapons were also neutralised during the destruction of the three targets. Satellite photos showing the fire brigade in the immediate vicinity of the Barzah scientific research centre shortly after the air strike, and the absence of victims caused by the agents released make this rather doubtful, however.

Imagery taken on April 14, 2018 shortly after the destruction of the Barzah scientific research centre by 76 missiles shows two fire engines -- click on the image to enlarge.

Imagery taken on April 14, 2018 shortly after the destruction of the Barzah scientific research centre by 76 missiles shows two fire engines — click on the image to enlarge.

For the coalition, the air strikes were not only a retaliatory action: they also provided the opportunity to test the capabilities of their cruise missiles. For the first time, France used its sea-based version (Missile de Croisière Naval; MdCN) of the French variant (SCALP) of the British Storm Shadow. Apparently, however, the operation did not go quite to plan: three MdCNs did not even leave their launchers, and it would appear that the three which were fired missed their targets by several hundred metres (Jean-Dominique Merchet, “La Marine a rencontré des ‘aléas technique’ lors du tir des missiles de croisière“, L’Opinion, 17.04.2018). There are different reports about the number of cruise missiles which hit their targets. According to the coalition, all 105 cruise missiles that were fired reached the targets set. According to the opposition-friendly Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, at least 65 cruise missiles were intercepted by the Syrian air defence. Ultimately, this only plays a subordinate role: it was much more important for the coalition to send out a signal that the consequences threatened regarding the “red lines” which had been drawn, and their breaching of these lines, would be put into action. It will also be clear to the coalition that this has barely helped the population threatened by chemical weapons, because Assad can hardly be prevented from using chemical weapons again (especially chlorine) if his personal cost-benefit calculation clearly speaks in favour of such an operation (“Assessing the Impact of the U.S.-Led Strike on Syria“, Stratfor, 16.04.2018; Phil McCausland and Yuliya Talmazan, “Trump’s U.S.-Led Airstrike Won’t Stop Assad’s Chemical Capabilities, Experts Say“, NBC News, 16.04.2018).

Imagery taken on April 14, 2018 shortly after the destruction of the Shinshar chemical weapons storage by 22 missiles -- click on the image to enlarge.

Imagery taken on April 14, 2018 shortly after the destruction of the Shinshar chemical weapons storage by 22 missiles — click on the image to enlarge.

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Graphic compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

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Footnotes
[1] According to a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the authority to decide on the use of chemical weapons lies with the generals of the Syrian Armed Forces. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, the command authority for the use of chemical weapons is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad and an unnamed general in the Syrian Armed Forces.
[2]Chemical weapons used in Syria appear to come from army stockpile“, Reuters, 05.03.2014; Gwyn Winfield, “Ake Sellstrom, Chief UN weapons inspector in Syria, tells Gwyn Winfield about the challenges of doing a CWA inspection in the twenty-first century“, CBRNe World, February 2014, p. 10; Sellström Åke, “United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic“, 12.12.2013.

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RIMPAC 2018: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) is one of the world’s largest military exercises, held biannually by the United States Navy (USN) since 1971 in its Hawaiian and southern Californian training areas, usually with participation from several Pacific partner countries. On June 27th, the latest edition was underway and the exercise is expected to end today, on August 2nd, 2018. With more than 50 naval vessels deployed this year, RIMPAC 2018 is one of the largest and most ambitious yet in this long-standing series of exercises.

There are some notable changes from previous editions of RIMPAC, however. As reported widely in the media, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was “disinvited” due to China’s “continued militarization of the South China Sea“. This follows participation by Chinese naval assets in the 2014 and 2016 editions of RIMPAC, which was seen to some extent as an effective means of building trust and confidence between the USN, PLAN, and regional navies. However, it is worthwhile noting that Chinese deployments were relatively limited, with the contribution in 2016 consisting of one Luyang II-class destroyer, one Jiangkai II-class frigate, one Qiandaohu-class replenishment ship, one Type-926 submarine support ship, and the Peace Ark hospital ship. The Chinese contribution to RIMPAC 2014 was also joined by a Type 815 Dongdiao-class intelligence collection vessel, which was not invited to participate but nonetheless proceeded to monitor signals and other communications from RIMPAC participants while remaining near the island of Oahu. With progress stalled on a South China Sea Code of Conduct, though, there are some understandable doubts as to whether Chinese inclusion in RIMPAC was having any effect on China’s political leadership and their willingness to employ military force in support of territorial expansion.

Republic of Indonesia Navy guided-missile frigate KRI Martadinata participates in RIMPAC 2018 (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arthurgwain L. Marquez)

Republic of Indonesia Navy guided-missile frigate KRI Martadinata participates in RIMPAC 2018 (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Arthurgwain L. Marquez).

Just as importantly, however, the Indonesian Navy has expanded its involvement, deploying its new Dutch-designed Martadinata-class frigate, KRI Raden Eddy Martadinata, as well as the landing platform dock KRI Makassar. Commissioned in 2017, the Martadinata-class frigate joining the exercise is a milestone for Indonesia’s campaign to modernize and expand its maritime forces in response to increased illegal fishing from Chinese vessels in or near Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Meanwhile, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Israel joined RIMPAC for the first time, although the Israeli Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy contributed only staff officers to the exercise. The deployment of several Vietnamese naval vessels to a future edition of RIMPAC will be crucial to U.S. alliance-building efforts in the Asia-Pacific region. Interestingly, regarding the Sri Lankan contribution, the force was comprised of 19 members of the Sri Lanka Navy’s marine battalion, who received training from the United States Marine Corps (USMC) during RIMPAC, continuing a relationship between the two forces that began in 2016 with the original members of this Sri Lankan unit being trained largely by the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of the USMC.

RIMPAC 2018 also heavily emphasized the multi-domain capabilities of the U.S. and its allies. A “Sinking Exercise” (SINKEX) held on July 12 saw U.S., Japanese, and Australian forces sink a decommissioned amphibious ship with air- and submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, ground-launched cruise missiles, land-based artillery and rocket systems, and a submarine-launched torpedo. Of particular note, the hulk was hit with a Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a land-based anti-ship weapon jointly developed by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace (KDA) with a range of over 500 kilometres. Showcasing this weapon and others at the SINKEX may have been intended to demonstrate to China that it does not have the monopoly on Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. For example, China has touted its Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) as a potential means to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, with several of these missiles stationed at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base in northern Guangdong province, leaving many contest islands within range. The DF-21D has a far greater range than the NSM, however, and so SINKEX also demonstrates the need for the U.S. and its allies to catch-up to China’s progress in asymmetric maritime warfare.

Live-fire from aircraft, a submarine, and land-based assets including High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (M142 HIMARS), and Type 12 Surface-to-Ship Missiles sink the decommissioned ex-USS Racine (LST-1191) July 12 off the coast of Hawaii.

In any case, RIMPAC 2018 (and the politics surrounding it) will be the subject of much discussion and analysis in the months to come. As the first such exercise to be held since the introduction of the “Indo-Pacific” concept by the Trump Administration, it has highlighted some of the challenges facing its implementation. On the one hand, disinviting China showed the US’ willingness to pursue this concept of Indo-Pacific security and take a harder position on China’s activities in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Indian Navy’s deployment of a lone frigate, INS Sahyadri, might represent India’s scepticism about the concept or simply the Indian Navy’s lack of preparedness to undertake such sustained, long-range operations.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Future of Peace Talks with the Taliban

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.

Taliban's political office is seen on June 19, 2013 in Doha, Qatar.

Taliban’s political office is seen on June 19, 2013 in Doha, Qatar.

Given that neither the Taliban nor the United States appears any closer to lasting victory in 2018 than in 2001, a consensus has emerged in the international community that a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan remains the only way to end it. Some U.S.-politicians and pundits have argued that the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan, others that it can defeat the Taliban once and for all by deploying more soldiers. Neither option, however, looks realistic. Unless the Taliban and the U.S. plan to stay at war forever, peace talks seem the only viable alternative if either side wants to effect some kind of change.

Despite the gradual consensus on the need for a political settlement to end the War in Afghanistan, the roadblocks to peace talks have only increased since the start of the conflict. The Taliban has more money and support now than ever before. The insurgents have grown more hostile to the Western world and the U.S. in particular, and their most anti-peace faction has a hold on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s waning leadership. None of these factors preclude peace talks on their own, but they represent obstacles that the U.S. must navigate if it hopes to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table and learn from past failures.

When the War in Afghanistan began, the U.S. missed an early opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban. In December 2001, Taliban leaders proposed surrendering in exchange for amnesty, but the Afghan government and the U.S. ignored their offer in anticipation of defeating the insurgents on the battlefield (Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014, p. 47). Some observers hypothesized that the Taliban only resorted to insurgency in the first place because the U.S. refused to negotiate with the insurgents once it had overthrown the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Anand Gopal, “The Taliban in Kandahar”, in Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders between Terror, Politics, and Religion, ed. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, Oxford University Press, 2013, 1f). After defeating the Taliban in a show of force, the U.S. enjoyed temporary leverage over its demoralized leaders. Seventeen years later, though, the superpower has found itself struggling to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, a significant turn of events for a country used to influence and victory.

Former Taliban fighters at a jail complex in Shebargan, Afghanistan (Photo: Yuri Kozyrev).

Former Taliban fighters at a jail complex in Shebargan, Afghanistan (Photo: Yuri Kozyrev).

Once the U.S. had reevaluated its position on peace talks, it ran into the obstacle of determining how to initiate negotiations with Taliban leaders who had made their own reassessment about the benefits of peace. U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy had emphasized fighting the Taliban, but U.S. President Barack Obama had campaigned on the goal of extricating U.S.-soldiers from Afghanistan. Afghan and U.S.-diplomats thus had to lean on their allies in the Persian Gulf to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. In 2008, Saudi Arabia organized meetings between representatives of the Afghan government and the insurgents (Thomas Ruttig, “Negotiations with the Taliban”, in Talibanistan, p. 441). The U.S. would complain only a year later, however, that Saudi Arabia was doing too little to stop the insurgents from fundraising on its territory (Declan Walsh, “Wikileaks Cables Portray Saudi Arabia as a Cash Machine for Terrorists“, The Guardian, December 5, 2010). For its part, the United Arab Emirate funded a meeting between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Kabul in 2010 (Ruttig, p. 442). These conversations failed to prevent hiccups in the peace process: the same year, the Afghan government discovered that it was negotiating with an impostor who had introduced himself as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, then Mullah Muhammad Omar’s second in command (Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Imposto“, The New York Times, November 22, 2010). Some observers expected that the death of Osama bin Laden would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but those hopes too never came to fruition. The insurgents opened a diplomatic mission in Qatar for the purpose of peace talks in 2013 only for the Afghan government to complain that the Taliban was billing itself as a government in exile (Reza Sayah, “At Their Office in Doha, Taliban Make Changes“, CNN, June 20, 2013). It would take a prisoner swap to bring the insurgents and the U.S. from these frequent episodes of miscommunication into concrete, productive negotiations that might lay the groundwork for peace talks.

Discussions over the fate of Bowe Bergdahl, an U.S.-prisoner of war held by the Taliban for several years, forced the U.S. to negotiate with the Haqqani network, considered the most anti-peace Taliban faction. From Bergdahl’s 2009 capture to his 2014 release, the Haqqanis insisted on exchanging him for the “Taliban Five“, prominent insurgents incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. After five years of back and forth, the U.S. agreed to the Haqqanis’ initial conditions (“Negotiation Analysis: The US, Taliban, and the Bergdahl Exchange“, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, December 5, 2017). U.S.-diplomats hoped that the release of the “Taliban Five” would act as a building block to peace talks, considering that the prisoner swap amounted to the most substantive negotiations with the Taliban in the history of the War in Afghanistan (Michael Semple, “Why Did the Negotiations to Free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Take Years?“, Interview by Marco Werman, Public Radio International, June 6, 2014). The U.S. had proved that it could negotiate with even the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction described as the most hostile to peace talks. If the U.S. could conduct a prisoner exchange with them, perhaps it could conclude a political settlement with all the insurgents.

The wreckage of a vehicle that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was said to be traveling in near the Afghan border in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

The wreckage of a vehicle that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was said to be traveling in near the Afghan border in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

To U.S.-diplomats’ surprise, the momentum built by the prisoner exchange would disappear only two years later. In 2016, the U.S. killed Mansour — then the Taliban’s leader — in an airstrike, eliminating an insurgent whom some had considered the U.S.’s best chance of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. The move angered even some of Obama’s own aides, who anticipated that it would backfire and hinder peace talks (Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan, “A Dubai Shopping Trip and a Missed Chance to Capture the Head of the Taliban“, The Washington Post, March 24, 2018). For their part, the Haqqanis were also simmering over the 2014 arrest of Anas Haqqani, the brother and son of the faction’s top two leaders, while he was traveling to the Gulf (Declan Walsh, “Two Haqqani Militant Leaders Are Captured, Afghan Officials Say“, The New York Times, October 18, 2014). Several months after Mansour’s death, the Taliban threatened reprisals against the Afghan government if it moved to execute Anas (Bill Roggio, “‘Blood Will Be Spilled’ If Anas Haqqani Is Executed, Taliban Threatens“, The Long War Journal, September 6, 2016). According to U.S.-journalist Jere Van Dyke, himself a former Taliban hostage, the Haqqanis had thought that the U.S. agreed to allow Haqqani operatives to travel to the Middle East after Bergdahl’s release. The U.S. detention of Anas surprised them (Jere van Dyk, “The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping“, PublicAffairs, 2017, p. 318). The Taliban and the U.S. no longer seemed on the same page, nor did the War in Afghanistan appear any closer to ending in 2016 than it did in 2001. Only after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump did the Taliban signal that it might participate in peace talks after all.

While nothing suggests that the developments relate to Trump himself, his tenure has seen progress in the peace process between the Taliban and the U.S. In a February 2018 letter to “the American people”, the insurgents expressed openness to a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan (Harriet Alexander, “Taliban Publishes Open Letter to Americans“, The Telegraph, February 14, 2018). In response, former Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Barnett Rubin wrote in his own open letter to the Taliban that, while previous negotiations had failed, this opportunity seemed more promising (Barnett Rubin, “An Open Letter to the Taliban“, The New Yorker, February 27, 2018). It had emerged a month earlier that officials from the Afghan government had held preliminary conversations on peace talks with representatives of the Haqqanis in Turkey, an encouraging sign (“Afghan Peace Talks in Turkey: Haqqani Network Present but Afghan Taliban Main Faction Absent in Talks“, The Times of Islamabad, January 14, 2018). In March 2018, the U.S. indicated its willingness to support peace talks with not only the Taliban but also the Haqqanis, whom, unlike the Taliban, it had labeled a terrorist organization (Carlo Muñoz, “White House Backs Proposed Afghan-Led Peace Talks with Haqqani Network“, The Washington Examiner, March 25, 2018). In July 2017, U.S.-officials signaled that they would pursue direct peace talks with the insurgents (Mujib Mashal and Eric Schmitt, “White House Orders Direct Talks to Jump-Start Afghan Negotiations“, The New York Times, July 15, 2018). The coming months will determine whether these contacts bear fruit or meet the same result encountered by previous Afghan and U.S. attempts at negotiations, but these developments give renewed life to the push for a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan.

The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on January 20, 2018, left at least 40 people dead.

The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on January 20, 2018, left at least 40 people dead.

The questions of how the U.S. should approach peace talks or whether it should even entertain the possibility have inspired diverse suggestions. A report by the RAND Corporation proposed organizing a ceasefire in conjunction with offering Taliban leaders amnesty and power-sharing. Diplomats Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of maintaining a military stalemate (Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering, “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace“, Century Foundation Press, 2011, p. 2). Others have proved less optimistic. Jack Fairweather, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, argued that the U.S. would need to address Afghanistan’s history of ethnic conflict if it wanted a true end to the war (Jack Fairweather, “The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan“, Basic Books, 2014, p, 328). David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute of Peace Studies, advocated for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling the war “unwinnable” (David Cortright, “Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan“, Paradigm Publishers, 2011, p. 35). Thomas Ruttig, who directs the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noted that the Taliban believes in its ability to outlast the U.S. in the conflict, an expectation that the U.S. has reaffirmed by wavering on whether and how long it will stay in Afghanistan (Ruttig, p. 454). In the face of these disagreements, the possibility of a political settlement to the conflict or even an U.S. withdrawal will require deep introspection from the U.S., which has spent seventeen years fighting an enemy that remains a powerful foe on the battlefield.

While the War in Afghanistan has convinced the U.S. that only a political settlement can bring the conflict to an end, no one knows for sure whether the Taliban has reached the same conclusion. The insurgents have economic, ideological, and political incentives to continue the war. The chaos within their leadership, meanwhile, would present many challenges before and during peace talks. The insurgents’ ideology emphasizes hostility to the U.S.; their support from Iran, Pakistan, and Russia ensures that they can fight Afghan- and U.S.-soldiers for as long as they need to; the illegal drug trade remains as lucrative as ever; and the Haqqanis, with whom the U.S. has experience negotiating but who rarely make concessions, now hold primary sway over the Quetta Shura while other insurgents have started to chart their own path. These obstacles, some recent but others decades in the making, will keep the insurgents from the negotiating table until the U.S. determines how to overcome or at least accommodate them. While U.S.-diplomats, generals, and politicians have spoken of negotiations’ importance, policymakers have spent far less time assessing their own ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, a task at which none have succeeded for long. Nothing guarantees that what the U.S. does can change the Taliban’s calculus. However, U.S.-policymakers can dedicate more resources to mitigating the obstacles to peace talks noted here and fewer to a war that, as many have argued, may never reach a conclusion on the battlefield.

General John W. Nicholson, center, with Afghan officials in Farah Province in May, 2018. As commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, he was instrumental in initiating a rare cease-fire in June 2018.

General John W. Nicholson, center, with Afghan officials in Farah Province in May, 2018. As commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, he was instrumental in initiating a rare cease-fire in June 2018.

The anti-Americanism inherent to the Taliban’s ideology represents the problem that dealmakers will find the hardest to assuage in the short term but the easiest to overcome in the long term. Numerous insurgencies have negotiated with opponents whom they once described as existential enemies, and the Taliban’s anti-Americanism seems to derive less from the U.S. itself than from the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which would likely decrease or disappear after a peace treaty. In the meantime, the U.S. could offer to withdraw from Afghanistan if the Taliban agrees to a ceasefire — as well as to participate in negotiations. Despite this proposal’s apparent risks, the U.S. has the ability to deploy forces to Afghanistan at a moment’s notice. The U.S. could continue to protect Afghanistan without U.S.-soldiers there, and this superficial withdrawal would go a long way toward building goodwill with the Taliban. Refraining from calling Taliban leaders “terrorists” and removing sanctions on them could also contribute to a reduction in tensions between the insurgents and their U.S. counterparts.

Dealing with the list of regional and world powers backing the Taliban has a more obvious solution. The U.S. should make a greater effort to ensure that the peace process includes not only Pakistan but also China, Iran, and Russia, which have their own national interests in Afghanistan as well as varying degrees of sway over the Taliban. While the insurgents’ alliances with several countries have saved them from dependence on any one, the U.S. could turn the tables by getting all the Taliban’s sponsors to pressure the insurgents to participate in negotiations at once. How or even whether the U.S. could achieve such a feat remains a mystery to even the best diplomats at the State Department, but the U.S.’s current hostility toward China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia is doing nothing to support the prospects for peace. Engaging with these countries can only help the U.S. bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The Taliban’s participation in the illegal drug trade offers a more complex diplomatic issue. On the one hand, international law prohibits narcotrafficking, and the spread of opium’s derivatives has ruined countless lives in Afghanistan and the rest of the world. On the other, the extent to which the illegal drug trade has become intertwined with the Taliban and the Afghan economy likely precludes enforcing a ban on the production of opium — as the insurgents themselves did almost twenty years ago. The most practical solution also seems the least palatable: turning a blind eye to the Taliban’s current and future participation in the illegal drug trade in the name of bringing peace to Afghanistan. To an extent, the U.S. has already adopted this strategy with regard to officials in the Afghan government, many of whom participate in narcotrafficking. Whether and how much the illegal drug trade will factor into peace talks falls to the U.S., which spearheads not only the War on Terror but also the War on Drugs. Maybe narcotrafficking will stop mattering to the insurgents if they no longer need to fund their war against the U.S., but the U.S. should refrain from making that assumption.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a visit to Kabul in early July 2018.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a visit to Kabul in early July 2018.

The decentralization of the Taliban could cause the most harm to peace talks, for the Quetta Shura may lack the authority to enforce any peace treaty to which the Taliban agrees. This problem requires a more targeted approach, forcing the U.S. to conduct outreach to several factions of the Taliban as the U.S. devises a political settlement that satisfies most or all of them. Though some pundits have proposed that the U.S. negotiate with moderate Taliban factions but fight radical ones, such a strategy sounds more divisive than productive, having the potential to divide and prolong the insurgency. Instead, the U.S. should adopt an approach that appeals to a spectrum of insurgents, from the Haqqanis to Taliban defectors with their own objectives. While never a monolithic insurgency, the Taliban today seems far more diverse than the self-described resistance movement founded twenty-four years ago.

As the U.S. ponders these obstacles to peace talks and their potential solutions, it should reflect on what it hopes to achieve in Afghanistan and whether a political settlement can produce that result. Seventeen years after the U.S. invaded the country, its goals for Afghanistan remain far from clear. The U.S. has long insisted that Afghans — the Afghan government and the Taliban — must conduct peace talks with the U.S. as a guarantor, but the continued dependence of the Afghan Armed Forces on U.S.-military aid belies this argument. Trump must decide whether to take the Taliban at its word. Assuming that he, like the the international community, judges that only negotiations can end the War in Afghanistan, the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can conduct peace talks with its oldest opponent on the battlefield.

Today, the Taliban represents a challenge far different from the insurgents whom the U.S. confronted and defeated in 2001. They no longer fear the U.S. as they did in the 1990s, nor does the Taliban show the same wariness that the U.S. does. To conduct peace talks with the insurgents and reach a political settlement to the War in Afghanistan, U.S.-policymakers must understand their enemy as well as the Taliban has come to know the U.S.

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Is the Russian T-90 a better tank for Iraq than the American Abrams?

by Paul Iddon.

Iraq has recently began taking delivery of 73 Russian T-90S/SK main battle tanks (MBTs), the most sophisticated tank to enter the Iraqi arsenal since the United States supplied Baghdad with 140 refurbished M1A1M Abrams MBTs (without depleted uranium layers in armor) a decade ago. To date, Iraq has received 39 T-90S tanks, all of which are now in the army’s 35th Brigade.

A flag of the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi covers parts of a US-made Abrams tank provided to the Iraqi army.

A flag of the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi covers parts of a US-made Abrams tank provided to the Iraqi army.

The delivery began amid a dispute between the Abrams’ manufacturer General Dynamics and the Iraqi Government. Late last year it was revealed at least nine Abrams tanks were being used by the country’s Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitary in Iraq in violation of the terms under which the tanks were supplied to Iraq (Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations, “Operation Inherent Resolve Operation Pacific Eagle–Philippines“, Report to the United States Congress, 31.12.2017, p. 51). An Abrams tank in the PMFs possession was also involved in a clash with the Kurdish Peshmerga last October and subsequently destroyed by an anti-tank missile. General Dynamics has threatened to withhold its services until the Iraqi Government recovered the tanks, which it since has, briefly demonstrating how dependent Iraq is on the US for spare parts and maintenance for its M1 fleet.

M1A1M Abrams vs T-90S/SK: Which is the better tank?
Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnik recently argued that the Iraqi Army’s 9th Division’s 35th Brigade replaced its M1A1Ms with T-90S/SK not just because of the unreliability of maintaining the Abrams compared to the T-90S/SK but overall because the T-90S/SK is a better tank and much better suited to Iraq’s needs. While the latter is likely true in many respects analysts consulted by offiziere.ch argue that the M1A1M Abrams remains in a different league than the T-90S/SK and is a superior tank in many ways.

“In general, I think the T-90A or T-90S model tank would be badly outgunned by the M1 in a head to head fight,” Sébastien Roblin, a freelance journalist who specializes in international affairs and military history, told offiziere.ch. “Russia has built better versions (T-90AM, and T-90MS), and is developing a much improved T-90M model. Generally the M1 has way better optics and thermal imagers than the T-90, and historically the side which spots, shoots and hits first wins in tank battles,” he elaborated. “The M1’s human loader is also qualitatively better than autoloaders, and its ammunition is stowed much more safely in separate compartments, rather than a carousel in the center of the tank – in which crew members are literally surrounded by shells!”

The video above shows dock workers loading the first batch of T-90S’ for Iraq onto a ship in February 2018.

Joseph Trevithick, a writer on military-related matters for The War Zone, argued that “whatever the Russians might say” their “46-ton T-90 is simply not in the same class as the 70-ton M1. They never really intended it to be either. Different design philosophies influenced by different doctrines. The Russians are still building ‘command tank’ sub-variants with more radios and navigation aids than they’re willing to give the average conscript tank crew that ‘tethers’ even small units together in a way that has gone in many ways unchanged since World War II.”

Roblin also noted that one selling point the “Russians often talk up” about is the fact that the T-90 can engage enemy targets from a longer range than the M1 since its cannon can fire guided anti-tank missiles, something the M1 is incapable of doing. “While a cannon is generally a better anti-tank weapon — since it has a faster rate of fire and it is generally harder to defend against kinetic shells — the missiles are potentially useful for very, very long range shots and also hitting helicopters,” he went on to note. “However, I cannot think of a single account of a main battle tank firing a missile in combat –- which doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever happened, but if so, only very rarely -– so I think the ability is pretty niche if nobody is actually using it in the conflicts that have occurred so far.”

Which tank is better suited to Iraq’s needs?
Of course none of this necessarily means that the T-90S/SK is not overall better suited for Iraq’s requirements. Trevithick reckons the Russians are “not necessarily wrong” when they argue that the T-90S/SK may “be better suited to the Iraqi Army’s own capacity to operate and maintain equipment. At the same time, their ability to do things on their own is a much more pressing issue if they lost access or were having a harder time getting US-funded or facilitated contractor assistance,” he elaborated. “If the Iraqis were to completely break with the United States for whatever reason, their M1s would become unsupportable very quickly.”

Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told offiziere.ch that the T-90’s “show good performance in Iraqi conditions” since its “easy to change spare parts” and the tanks engine parts are less sensitive to dust and other grit common across Iraq’s harsh landscape. T-90s are also good for the conflicts the Iraqi army fights in since it has good protections against old and modern ATMs [anti-tank missiles] and can fire missiles through its standard tank barrel, which is perfect for desert skirmishes where the tank has to be far away from its targets,” he added, referring to the capability Roblin mentioned. Another crucial point is that T-90s are cheap if bought in large quantities,” he added. “Russia is ready to provide further services, help improving active and passive protection systems, and provide other kinds of weapons that can work together with T-90, like BMPTs Terminator.”

Tank and maintenance crews with 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, install M1A2SepV2 Abrams reactive armor tiles (ARAT) at the 7th Army Training Command's Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Feb. 28, 2017. The installation of the ARAT will enhance the tank's defensive capabilities, providing a greater deterrent against aggression as the 3rd ABCT maintains a persistent presence in central and eastern Europe as the rotational ABCT for Atlantic Resolve. The Irak M1A1Ms do not seem to have any active protection systems by default. (Photo: Ch. (Capt.) Malcolm Rios).

Tank and maintenance crews with 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, install M1A2SepV2 Abrams reactive armor tiles (ARAT) at the 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Feb. 28, 2017. The installation of the ARAT will enhance the tank’s defensive capabilities, providing a greater deterrent against aggression as the 3rd ABCT maintains a persistent presence in central and eastern Europe as the rotational ABCT for Atlantic Resolve. The Iraqi M1A1s do not seem to have any active protection systems by default. (Photo: Ch. (Capt.) Malcolm Rios).

One other factor important to evaluate is the difference between the versions of the M1 and T-90s serving in the US and Russian armies compared to the export variants – since exported military hardware and equipment often have less capabilities than the ones supplied to the militaries of their respective countries of origin. Trevithick says “information is limited” when it comes to the precise capabilities of Iraq’s M1s and T-90s. What is for sure is that the T-90s “definitely don’t have the Shtora passive active protection systems and do not appear to have a hard-kill active protection system either.” They do, on the other hand, “appear to have the side skirts and rear slat armor associated with Russia’s own T-90MS, as well as extensive ERA [explosive reactive armor] suite. So its hard to tell exactly how this configuration stacks up even against other T-90s.” He went on to point out that the US Army’s own M1s “don’t yet have hard kill active protection systems either and it’s hard to see how Iraq’s Abrams would have a more limited passive armor package than at least the base variants, which is more robust than that on the T-90. Iraqi Abrams of course don’t have the depleted uranium armor package,” he concluded. “It is almost certain that they have less capable sensors and network connectivity than their American counterparts.”

Roblin also points out that while the M1 would likely prove a much more advantageous tank on a battlefield against enemy armor that isn’t necessarily Iraq’s priority. In the post-2003 era Iraq’s major fights have been with non-state actors which have had a limited capability to capture and field modern armor (the best the likes of Islamic State have usually managed to deploy on the battlefield have been some antiquated T-55 and T-62s). This coupled with the fact Iraq historically has more familiarity and experience working with Russian tech, which is invariably cheaper to purchase and easier to maintain, makes the T-90 a logical choice. He also pointed out that the T-90s “potentially better defenses against missiles and RPGs, thanks to its reactive armor and soft-kill active protection systems” also weights into the equation. More importantly, the T-90 is cheaper, cheaper to maintain, and weighs a lot less at just under 50 tons than the M1’s 70 tons, and there are a lot of bridges that can’t take that weight,” Roblin added. “The M1 also uses a gas-guzzling turbine engine, while the T-90 uses diesel – though T-90A/T-90S model are slower. From Iraq’s perspective, the sticker price, operating costs, and political tensions are probably the biggest issue, in any event.”

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A Suppressed Voice: The Continuing Conflict in West Papua

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was formerly a policy advisor in the New Zealand public service and now primarily works in the development sector. You can connect with and follow her updates on Twitter.

A Papuan woman wearing atribute the Morning Star flag as mark the 51st anniversary of West Papua on December 1, 2012 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti).

A Papuan woman wearing atribute the Morning Star flag as mark the 51st anniversary of West Papua on December 1, 2012 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti).

Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia – All of these countries have had internationally recognised events of genocide take place in their history which has, in turn, shaped the way the world deals with the horrors of mass casualties and the difficult, but vital task of post-conflict reconstruction. But genocide is not a thing of the past, it is occurring right now in the Asia-Pacific. West Papua, a region which occupies half of the island of New Guinea is under Indonesian government authority, with most of the 2 million indigenous inhabitants living in remote areas across mountainous and forested territory. The people have been subject to systematic oppression, human rights violations, degrading indigenous culture and exploitation of resources. With restricted access of foreign media into the region, it is critical that there is continual attention given to an obscured case of government abuse.

History: the confiscated freedom of a people
The on-going conflict in West Papua has many facets, however, the main reason for the violence has been the denial of the right for self-governance and autonomy. Under the conditions of colonialism, the people of West Papua have rebelled against the rule of the Dutch East Indies – since 1867, a desire for liberation was expressed, and continued prominently in 1906, 1921, 1926, and 1935. The granting of Indonesian independence in 1949 began a process of decolonisation for the Dutch in the 1950s – Indonesia wished to obtain West Papua as part of the independence deal, claiming it was part of their territory, but the Dutch refused.

Map of the Dutch East India Isles in 1818.

Map of the Dutch East India Isles in 1818.

In 1961, the Dutch prepared for the self-determination of West Papua by setting up a council of mostly indigenous Papuans to create a national anthem and a flag, in which the Morning Star flag was flown for the first time on December 1st 1961 – West Papua’s full independence was aimed to be established in 1970. But Indonesia would not stand for this. On December 19th 1961, Indonesia launched a campaign to return West Papua as part of Indonesia’s rightful territory, and violence between the Dutch Empire and the newly established nation-state ignited. The West Papuans who pursued their right to autonomy were dismissed by Indonesia as they believed the act of independence was a cover up for creating a new Dutch puppet state.

The brute military force of Indonesia attracted international attention where the Cold War superpowers poked their heads in to figure out where their strategic goals fitted into this predicament. The United States stepped in, in 1962 to broker a deal which would be called the New York Agreement – a plan to win over Indonesia and quell the lingering Soviet influence in the country. With Indonesian interests in mind, the agreement negotiations contained no indigenous representation of West Papuans. The decision was made to place West Papua under United Nations control while preparations were made to transfer ownership to Indonesia in 1963.

The New York Agreement involved holding an “Act of Free Choice“, which would give the Papuan people a chance to decide their future. However, this is now more popularly known as the “Act of No Choice”, as the representatives chosen to speak for the West Papuans were picked by Indonesian officials and were gathered under Indonesian military supervision while they made their verdict on integration into the territory. Not surprisingly, the result was unanimously in favour of integration. The West Papuans desired a referendum, a “one-person-one-vote2 system, instead, formal control was handed to Indonesia, beginning a period of military control and human rights abuses.

In a demonstration in the UK, protesters denounce alleged torture by Indonesia in West Papua in 2012.

In a demonstration in the UK, protesters denounce alleged torture by Indonesia in West Papua in 2012.

Enduring human rights abuses and claims to genocide
Once the “Act of Free Choice” concluded, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the results, and West Papua became part of Indonesia. The Under Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1969, Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan, confessed many years later that the Act “was just a whitewash. The mood at the United Nations was to get rid of this problem as quickly as possible. Nobody gave a thought to the fact that there were a million people there who had their fundamental human rights trampled. Suharto was a terrible dictator. How could anyone have seriously believed that all voters unanimously decided to join his regime? Unanimity like that is unknown in democracies” (Clinton Fernandes, “Hot Spot: Asia and Oceania (Hot Spot Histories)“, 2008), p. 106).

It is estimated that over 500,000 West Papuans have been killed through a range of policies and organised killings. Over time pro-independence organisations began to sprout all across the West Papua region – the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka; OPM) being the most prominent group. OPM, along with its non-violent actions, has also carried out attacks on military and police targets. However, in retaliation to OPM’s early actions, the Indonesian government carried out mass military operations between 1977 and 1978, claiming these operations were required to counter attacks launched by organisations such as OPM. It is reported that over 4,000 people were killed in the highland region of West Papua during this period alone.

Other acts include the use of napalm and chemical weapons against villagers in 1981, and the massacre of 32 West Papuans in Wamena in October 2000. The area of Wamena was targeted once again in 2003 when police raids resulted in killing 9 people, torturing 38, arresting 15, and leaving thousands displaced from their homes to refugee camps where at least 42 people died from hunger and exhaustion.

Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader and Chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.

Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader and Chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.

Even in the last few years, non-violent action has been targeted by authorities. In 2016, the Legal Aid Institute Jakarta reported that over a period of 6 months, government authorities arrested more than 2,280 Papuans for non-violent demonstrations, and in December 2016, a series of pro-independence demonstrations in many locations across the country resulted in 500 arrests and multiple charges of treason. In 2017, Freedom House reported that more than 2,000 people were arrested for participating in non-violent demonstrations supporting independence (“Indonesia“, Freedom House, 2017).

Academic analysis has demonstrated that there is evidence to claim genocide of West Papuans through the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A paper published through the Yale Law School outlines examples of the crimes committed in West Papua, against the articles in the Genocide Convention. It concludes that acts such as torture, disappearance, rape, systematic resource exploitation, labour transmigration schemes, and forced relocation taken as a whole appear to bring about the destruction of West Papuans. These acts “individually and collectively, clearly constitute crimes against humanity under international law”. The International Lawyers for West Papua, a non-government body of legal professionals, also support the findings of intent of genocide against the people of West Papua.

In 2017, the Asian Human Rights Commission released a statement saying that violations of human rights remain unaddressed, that the Indonesian government does not have a strong policy of human rights protection in Papua, and that these frequent violations are caused by the security approach applied. In February 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Indonesia stating concern “about increasing reports of the excessive use of force by security forces, harassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions in Papua”.

The movement of solidarity
It was not until the end of Suharto’s rule of Indonesia in 1998 that the stories of West Papuans could be told and reported. During a period of significant democratisation of Indonesia, space was made for Papuans to express their concerns, and political movements were reinvigorated. However, over the decades different rulers of Indonesia had different stances and policies towards the freedom of exercising speech and political assembly. The ability of ordinary Papuans to voice their concerns has therefore been irregular and disconnected.

The Indonesian regime is well known for blocking international access to the West Papua region, including foreign media, international observers and United Nations experts. This makes it difficult for international watchdogs, organisations, and researchers to get objective and reliable information of what is occurring in the region. Those outside of West Papua rely on information from local interpretation and opinions of events, and due to the lack of official reporting on these events, empirical evidence and figures cannot always be collected. History and experiences of people are a valid form of evidence, but each anecdote must be read with an open-mind to understanding other viewpoints and perspectives.

There are also armed groups fighting for the independence of West Papua; for example the West Papua National Liberation Army.

There are also armed groups fighting for the independence of West Papua; for example the West Papua National Liberation Army.

But with the rise of technology and social media, West Papuans have been using creative methods to spread their messages so that the international community are aware of their situation. Their activities have mainly involved non-violent actions through flag raisings, demonstrations, and self-declared national congress meetings to form political manifestos for an independent Papua.

Using Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and with access to smartphones, West Papuan activists have uploaded violent acts towards people in the region, as well as showing the exploitation of natural resources such as mining and deforestation. The most common form of non-violent action has been the raising the Morning Star flag on December 1st to support an independent Papua. This action has been occurring for over thirty years, but at a cost of potentially receiving a severe 15 year prison sentence if raised within the Indonesian territory.

Movements of solidarity in West Papua – either through violent or non-violent means – are faced with extreme consequences which include beatings, torture, and unlawful killing. So far in 2018, West Papuans have been arrested for running a disaster relief donation collection, pro-independence groups have been raided with mass arrests, and individuals have been sentenced to treason for involvement in pro-independence activities. The latest changes to Indonesia’s counter-terrorism laws could also have an impact on West Papuan armed groups.

A wave of international support and current developments
Activists in countries all over the world have formed groups in support of an independent West Papua, including international coalitions such as the International Lawyers for West Papua, and the International Parliamentarians for West Papua.

In 2016, the “Westminster Declaration for an Internationally Supervised Vote in West Papua” was launched in London, and supported by the International Parliamentarians for West Papua. The declaration has five provisions, with the main aim of redressing the wrongs from the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”, and “call for an internationally supervised vote on self-determination in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolutions 1514 and 1541 (XV)“. The declaration continues to circle the globe today in the hope for further support from world leaders.

In addition to the declaration, a petition smuggled into West Papua was reportedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans in support of holding an internationally supervised vote on self-determination. In September 2017, it was presented to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation and rejected because West Papua is not part of the 17 states identified as “non-self-governing territories” by the United Nations. In a statement by the chairman, the committee confirmed that it could not receive “any request or document related to the situation of West Papua, territory which is an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia”, as well as additionally stating that “Indonesia is a good friend of ours“. Whilst the legitimacy of the petition has been questioned, the increasing evidence of the ongoing abuses of West Papuans by Indonesian security forces cannot be ignored.

The Grasberg Mine, located near Puncak Jaya in West Papua, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world (Photo: Kadir Jaelani).

The Grasberg Mine, located near Puncak Jaya in West Papua, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world (Photo: Kadir Jaelani).

Investment over freedom and justice?
In a region where calls for international investigations over human rights abuses are not followed up, and with the United Nations bodies unable to act on the status of West Papuan independence, it becomes the duty of civil society, activists, journalists, non-government organisations and interest groups to continue lobbying governments and spreading the awareness about the conflict in West Papua.

Tied up in investments, governments are afraid to call out Indonesia for its abuse of West Papuans. Allies of Indonesia are benefiting from the resource rich areas in the West Papuan region where one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world is located. Digging up more than $40 billion worth of resources by U.S. mining company, Freeport-McMoran, the extraction of these resources is expected to continue satisfying investors until 2041 until the mines become of no value.

Yet even as mines are extracted, and forests are torn down, the battle of historical narratives and truths continue, and the people of West Papua have proven they will not rest until a declaration for independence becomes a reality. In the words of academic Nino Viartasiwi: “West Papua was the victim of a large political game played from the 1940s to the 1990s. In the political struggles between the world’s two political poles, the wishes of the Papuans did not matter. Nevertheless, the efforts of the Papuans to deliver their account of history in the 2000s proves that the narration of history no longer belongs solely to the powerful”.

Posted in English, Indonesia, Politics in General, Sandra Ivanov | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Indian Ocean Base Race Continues Apace

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.

Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.

A flurry of meetings scheduled for mid-2018 have seemed to demonstrate a rapprochement between China and India, following a tense stand-off on the Doklam Plateau between troops from the two countries in late 2017. In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an “informal summit” on 26-27 April 2018, which was intended to “reset” the bilateral relationship. In June 2018, Xi and Modi meet again on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao. Then, in July 2018, the two leaders will meet once more in Johannesburg, South Africa for the 10th BRICS summit.

However, in the maritime realm, the rivalry between China and India continues apace. As previously reported here, 2016 saw the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti, while China acquired a 99-year lease for the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in 2017 and India riposted with its own modest base agreement in the Seychelles. Just a few months into 2018, the momentum has continued, with numerous more announcements of port agreements and base openings in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and the Western Pacific. These developments serve to demonstrate that, though there may have been some progress made in China-India relations at the Wuhan summit, there are very real geopolitical concerns that will continue to generate tensions between the two Asian powers.

In April 2018, the Australian media was rife with reports that China is establishing a naval base in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, less than 2,000 kilometres from the Australian coast. Both the authorities in China and Vanuatu have denied that there are any such plans, and it has been noted that China may simply be investigating the potential to establish a facility to monitor spacecraft and facilitate lunar rocket tests. Such a facility could also be used for intelligence gathering but would certainly not serve the same function in the Western Pacific as China’s naval base in Djibouti is meant to serve in the IOR.

However, India is poised to exert greater control over the western end of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes and a conduit between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Near the entrance to the Strait, a series of naval and airbases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would allow India to severely limit China’s access to resources in the event of a large-scale military conflict. However, the Indonesian authorities announced in May 2018 their intention to grant the Indian Navy use of revamped port facilities in Sabang, an Indonesian island 710 kilometres southeast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has yet to seek a presence on the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca, but access to Sabang will allow India to further assert its influence in the IOR.

This follows the announcement in February 2018 that the Indian Navy had gained access to Duqm, a strategic port on the southern coast of Oman. Ostensibly, this agreement on logistics and the use of dry dock facilities at the port is intended to allow India to play an increased role in counter-piracy efforts near the Gulf of Aden. However, it is very likely that the outreach to Oman was motivated by a desire to counter what Indian defence planners and strategists frequently refer to as China’s “string of pearls” policy, a geopolitical strategy according to which China allegedly seeks to contain India and challenge Indian dominance in the IOR through a network of naval and airbases. In this context, China leasing the port of Hambantota is a provocative move, given that it is located less than 500 kilometres from the southern coast of India, but it is not the most ideal way to contain India: with an Indian presence in Duqm in the west and Sabang in the east, India has a strong hand at both the chokepoints to the IOR.

China and India’s Maritime Footprint in the Indian Ocean (Tuneer Mukherjee, "China’s Maritime Quest in the Indian Ocean: New Delhi’s Options", The Diplomat, 24 April 2018).

China and India’s Maritime Footprint in the Indian Ocean (Tuneer Mukherjee, “China’s Maritime Quest in the Indian Ocean: New Delhi’s Options“, The Diplomat, 24 April 2018).

Regardless of whether China is pursuing an elaborate strategy of geopolitical containment or simply seeking privileged access to developing markets, Chinese officials have been just as busy as their Indian counterparts thus far this year. In May 2018, Chinese authorities reported that they had made good progress in negotiations with Tanzania regarding the latter’s proposed mega port at Bagamoyo. Expected to become one of the largest ports in Africa, access to the facilities for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would strengthen the Chinese presence in the western IOR. However, without more detail on the Tanzanian-Chinese negotiations, it is difficult to say whether Bagamoyo will upset the balance of power in the western IOR; as much as Duqm can balance the Chinese presence in Djibouti, the Indian military presence in the Seychelles is much more limited.

Evidently, there is some disconnect between the levels of “high politics” and “low politics” in China-India relations. Even as Xi and Modi are apparently building a good rapport in their high-level discussions in Wuhan and Qingdao, the race is on among Chinese and Indian officials to gain the upper hand in the IOR. This background tension presents a risk to peace and security between the two countries; for example, territorial disputes over India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet, could escalate into another open confrontation as both sides seek to exploit rich deposits of mineral resources there. If the rivalry between China and India is to be set aside, much more must be done at the working level — and in haste — to improve mutual trust and build confidence in areas of security cooperation.

Posted in China, English, India, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems and Artificial Intelligence in Future Conflicts

by Patrick Truffer. He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

According to critics, mankind will be a huge step closer to self-extinction in the not-too-distant future. More specifically, this work could be carried out by lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). But how realistic such apocalyptic future scenarios really are? What is the current status of LAWS and how likely is an international ban on such weapon systems?

More or less unnoticed by the public, systems with weak AI are evolving: they improve the results of search queries on the Internet, are used in speech recognition or machine translation, and such systems will also be used to control drones and vehicles, to increase efficiency in logistics, in medicine and in many other areas in the near future.

Through the use of “deep learning neural networks“, the progress in the field of AI has been remarkable in recent years. Put simply, this approach first extracts abstract solution strategies from an extensive data collection on a specific problem. The solution strategies are then supplemented, expanded and improved using data known and unknown to the system – comparable to training. Finally, the perfected solution strategies are applied to specific problems. [1]

This approach can also be found in systems used in the field of security. For example, there are pilot projects for the autonomous evaluation by surveillance cameras that strike an alarm in the event of “conspicuous behaviour” (Jefferson Chase, “Facial Recognition Surveillance Test Extended at Berlin Train Station“, Deutsche Welle, 15.12.2017). Therefore it is not surprising that armed forces are also interested in these new technologies.

Theoretically, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS could be operated autonomous whiteout a man in or on the loop.

Theoretically, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS could be operated autonomous whiteout a man in or on the loop.

Automatic weapons systems have been in use in the armed forces for decades, but with operators always involved in the detection, identification and selection of targets or in the final decision on the use of (lethal) force. In autonomous systems, on the other hand, these processes take place almost without human interference. Such systems do not have “free will”, but they are able to carry out certain tasks independently, without human interaction, under unforeseeable conditions, on the basis of their rules of engagement (Paul Scharre, “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War“, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 27ff). Theoretically, this is already the case with some defence systems, such as the Aegis Combat System, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System CIWS, and modern air defence systems [2]. Currently, more than 30 states have such autonomous defence systems. However, this excludes drones that are still used operationally, because they are remote-controlled and not autonomous, at least in the decisive phase of the use of force (Scharre, “Army of None”, 4).

The defence industry is advancing research in the field of LAWS in which AI systems will play a decisive role. Test flights conducted in 2013-2015 demonstrated the capabilities of Northrop Grumman X-47B to take off and land autonomously from an aircraft carrier and to carry out air refuelling autonomously. Autonomous systems play an important role in the U.S. Third Offset Strategy, which aims to secure the technological lead of the U.S. armed forces in the long term. Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Air Force have been experimenting for years with the use of swarms of low-cost autonomous microdrones. Initial approaches to such systems have already been tested, even if they have not yet been given a kill order. In 2016, the U.S. Air Force released 103 Perdix micro-drones from an airplane, which then went autonomously into formation and independently carried out various small missions; the associated video was released in early 2017. According to Stuart J. Russell, a British AI scientist at the University of California, the U.S. Armed Forces would be able to cost-effectively produce swarms of such drones within 18 months. When produced serially, micro-drones are expected to cost between 30 and 100 U.S. dollars apiece (Andreas Mink, “Wie Roboter uns töten werden“, NZZ am Sonntag, 02.12.2017).

Loitering Munition also has a high degree of autonomy. It is a type of guided weapon that is initially launched without a specific target, can orbit over a target area for a long time, and then uses its sensors to attack the target. This includes, for example, the IAI Harop, which comes in the form of a stealth drone. It can autonomously eliminate radar sources from its waiting position above the target area, in which it can stay for 6 hours. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) had exported the Harop to Azerbaijan, where it was used in the Nagorno-Karabakh region for the first time – albeit not as originally planned. The device hit an Armenian bus with militia soldiers who were being transported to the contested region. Seven soldiers were killed (Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Israeli-Made Kamikaze Drone Spotted in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict“, Washington Post, 05.04.2016).

This shows that the U.S. is not the only one conducting research in the field of LAWS. With the Taranis, an autonomous combat drone from BAE Systems, the UK pursues a similar demonstrator program. The findings will be incorporated into the Franco-British Future Combat Air System together with the equivalent French project nEUROn, also involving the Swiss RUAG Aerospace. In February 2017, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that AI systems will play an increasingly important role for France in the development of new military technologies. France will to ensure that the connection to the U.S. and the UK will not be lost in this area (Jean-Yves Le Drian, “L’intelligence artificielle: un enjeu se souveraineté nationale’, in Intelligence artificielle: des libertés individuelles à la sécurité nationale, Eurogroup Consulting, 2017, 11–24). Chinese President Xi Jinping, for his part, wants to transform China into a “superpower of artificial intelligence” by 2030, with massive investments (Mink, “Wie Roboter uns töten werden”). Similar to the UK and France, but still lagging behind technologically, China is researching an autonomous reconnaissance and combat drone, the AVIC 601-S Sharp Sword. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also recognised the importance of AI systems. In September 2017, he said that whoever would become the leading nation in AI would achieve world domination (“‘Whoever Leads in AI Will Rule the World’: Putin to Russian Children on Knowledge Day“, RT International, 01.07.2017). Despite lagging significant behind the USA and China, Russia has intensified its development of autonomous systems (Vincent Boulanin and Maaike Verbruggem, “Mapping the Development of Autonomy in Weapon Systems“, SIPRI, November 2017, 97f).

In formation (from right to left): Dassault's nEUROn, Rafale et Falcon 7X.

In formation (from right to left): Dassault’s nEUROn, Rafale et Falcon 7X.

The military use of autonomous systems and the proliferation of the corresponding technologies are associated with some risks. At the strategic level, it should not be underestimated that the autonomous systems lack the ability to understand own actions in the overall context. LAWS will be used with a set of rules, which will define their actions. However, the context of a conflict can change rapidly. In such cases, the stubborn observance of preassigned rules, the lack of anticipation, empathy and gut feeling can lead to unforeseen or unwanted escalations. Every soldier knows that, in the course of a mission, the command received at the beginning may not coincide anymore with the original intention of the superior. A soldier must be able to adapt himself to the situation, so that the intention of the superior can be implemented at all times and all unforeseeable circumstances. The absence of this consideration of the overall context can lead to instability at the international level. If LAWS had already existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S. policy might have ensured that Soviet ships (including submarines) would have been forcibly prevented from crossing the blockade line if necessary. A Soviet rule of engagement would probably have meant that the sinking of a strategic submarine would have to be answered with a regionally limited nuclear retaliation. If both systems would have begun to interact with each other uncontrollably with the respective guidelines, for example because the U.S. system detects a violation of the blockade line (whether rightfully or not), this would have lead to a catastrophe at a breakneck speed. [3]

Interestingly, such considerations do not play a decisive role in the discussion on an international ban on LAWS. The reason for this is that the efforts to ban LAWS are being driven almost exclusively by NGOs active in the field of human rights and international humanitarian law. This creates two different camps which demand a ban for different reasons:

  • Consequentialists fear negative effects on the use of LAWS because these systems will not be able to comply with the principles of international humanitarian law. These include, for example, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the principle of proportionality and the prevention of unnecessary suffering. The problem with this argumentation is that if LAWS were to violate the principles of international humanitarian law, their use would already be prohibited today – an additional ban is not necessary. On the contrary, such a ban would benefit those states which do not recognise international law and would therefore not comply with this ban either. Also unanswered is the question of how to proceed from the point of view of the consequentialists, if the progressive technology would enable a much more precise use of force through the use of LAWS, which could incapacitate the opponent in a much more targeted and selective way. [4] Wouldn’t LAWS have to be used as an outright priority in such a case?
  • Deontologists argue that the use of LAWS is unethical regardless of its effects, as is the case with torture, for example. Decisions on life and death would have to be made exclusively by people, for only they are in a position to morally weigh up such a decision in its full scope. Even if LAWS could reduce the number of deaths in wars, their use would violate human dignity (Scharre, “Army of None”, 285ff). The problem with this argument is that it is completely unrealistic – the days of a fight in which one human soldier faces another are long gone. Where is the dignity in being mowed down by a machine gun, shredded by a bomb, or killed by an infection? In wars, there is no right to a dignified death. In this way, deontologists do not criticize LAWS, but wars per se.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which has been active since 2013 and is coordinated by Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch and supported by a number of NGOs, belongs to the camp of deontologists. The campaign is committed to a “pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of” LAWS. Although the campaign does not (yet) insist on a general ban on AI in weapon systems or remote-controlled or automated weapon systems in armed forces, it demands that such systems must in any case be controlled by humans.

In early April, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) formed by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) addressed the topic for the second time. However, it would be premature to conclude on the success of the campaign – the GGE is nothing more than a discussion forum without a negotiating mandate. A first decisive hurdle will be whether a generally accepted definition of LAWS can be formulated. Although 26 countries currently support a ban, with the exception of China, these countries are not technological pioneers in the field of LAWS. With few exceptions, these states seem to be more interested in restricting the capacity of more powerful states to act than in humanitarian or even ethical factors. This will make it difficult to get the USA, Russia, UK and France, all of which explicitly opposed such a ban, on board.

Even if, in the long term, the international community of states could impose such a ban, the genie can hardly be pushed back into the bottle. The developments that form the basis for LAWS are not military but civilian. The key to this is the software development, which is largely independent of future use and the eventually chosen hardware platform. The ability of an autonomous system to move around in an unknown building, to sketch and identify rooms, equipment and people inside, can be used positively in the hands of rescue forces, but negatively in the hands of terrorists (Scharre, “Army of None”, 121ff).

According to Frank Kendall, former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, the main threat posed by LAWS is not the application by armed forces, but the uncontrollable proliferation in which virtually anyone can access the corresponding technologies and use them for their ends (Scharre, “Army of None”, 120). [5] What a future with killer drones in the wrong hands could look like was impressively demonstrated last November in the video “Slaughterbots”, which caused quite a stir.

Conclusion
Automatic weapon systems have been a reality in the armed forces for decades, although always reserving the ultimate power of decision to humans. LAWS go one step further in this respect: they have the ability to carry out certain tasks independently and without human interaction under unforeseeable conditions. This is not a very distant vision of the future – simple autonomous systems in clearly defined fields of application, for example in air defence, theoretically already exist today. But progressive development and use of LAWS do not necessarily have to end in an apocalypse, although the challenges of such weapon systems in terms of ethics, international stability and proliferation are also considerable. A ban on LAWS not only tries to push the genie back into the bottle, which will hardly be possible, but also prevents the benefit of potential opportunities. It cannot be ruled out that LAWS could make a much more targeted and precise use of force possible. Taking into account the development efforts for the underlying technology, not driven primarily by the military field, and the interests of the states involved in the discussion on a LAWS ban, a comprehensive international ban on LAWS seems rather unlikely.

 
Footnotes
[1] AlphaGo, the AI system that could beat the best human Go player, was originally fed and trained with data from 30 million Go games played by people (Scharre, “Army of None”, 125f). Following video series presents a good introduction to “deep learning neural networks”: Part 1 – “But What is a Neural Network?”; Part 2 – “Gradient Descent, How Neural Networks Learn”; Part 3 – “What Is Backpropagation Really Doing”.
[2] Theoretically, because these systems have integrated human controls despite their autonomous capabilities (for example, with a decision on fire release).
[3] This example is not so far-fetched: on October 27, 1962, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Randolph, together with 11 destroyers, forced the Soviet submarine B-59 to surface. To this end they used depth charges with a small explosive force (roughly equivalent to a hand grenade). Because the submarine could not maintain contact with Moscow, the authorisation to use the 15 kiloton nuclear warhead (equivalent to the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb), which was carried by the submarine unbeknownst to the U.S. Navy, was delegated to the commander of the submarine, the political officer and the fleet commander. Under the impression of being sunk by the U.S. ships, the submarine commander, with the consent of the political officer, gave the order to fire the nuclear torpedo and thus destroy all U.S. ships in the vicinity in one fell swoop. Finally, the fleet commander was the only one who suppressed the execution of the command (Scharre, “Army of None”, 310; “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: Materials from the 40th Anniversary Conference“, The National Security Archive, 11.10.2002).
[4] According to Ronald C. Arkin, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and U.S. scientist in the field of robotics, this is quite feasible (Thompson Chengeta, “Prof. Ron Arkin UN Debate on Autonomous Weapon Systems“, 2016; Ronald C. Arkin, Patrick Ulam, und Brittany Duncan, “An Ethical Governor for Constraining Lethal Action in an Autonomous System“, Defense Technical Information Center, 2009).
[5] The basic software for creating “deep learning neural networks” can already be freely downloaded from the Internet.

Posted in Drones, English, International law, Patrick Truffer, Proliferation, Security Policy, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bashar’s bluff: Damascus cannot challenge the U.S. military in Syria

by Paul Iddon

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with his Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17, 2018.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with his Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17, 2018.

In his May 31 interview with Russia Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his regime will soon focus on dealing with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), outlining two options it has to do so in his view: negotiations or force. He claims that he has already “started opening doors for negotiations”, reasoning the fact that “the majority of them are Syrians”, that “supposedly they like their country” and may prove receptive to this option. However, he added that, if negotiations fail, the Syrian Army will be forced to liberate areas occupied by the SDF — “with the Americans, or without the Americans”.

In light of these comments the U.S. Department of State affirmed that the US will not hesitate to use “necessary and proportionate force” to defend both its forces and its SDF allies.

SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel also told Reuters that such a move “is not a solution that can lead to any result. […] Any military solution, as far as the SDF is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people.”

Several past examples all conclusively show how swiftly the US can bring force to bear when either its troops or the SDF were threatened by Assad or his Iranian-backed militia allies.

Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Colton Elliott / Air National Guard).

Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Colton Elliott / Air National Guard).

On August 18, 2016 two Syrian Air Force warplanes attacked US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast city of al-Hasakah following violent clashes there between the Kurds and the pro-government National Defence Forces and the Syrian Army. The impact of the bombs were felt by nearby U.S. special forces. Two Syrian warplanes returned the following day, it’s unclear if they were the same ones, for what appeared to be a second bombing attempt only to have to abort their mission after stealthy U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors swooped in to intercept them. The U.S. and Syrian warplanes came within a mile (around 1.5 km) of each other.

Another incident on June 18, 2017 saw a Syrian Su-22 bomber target SDF positions near al-Tabqah only to be promptly shot down by a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet jet – the first time the U.S. shot down an enemy warplane since the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. The U.S. justified the action as being “in accordance with [the] rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”

During the Raqqa campaign, US-backed SDF operating a M1117 Guardian armoured vehicle supplied by the US.

During the Raqqa campaign, US-backed SDF operating a M1117 Guardian armoured vehicle supplied by the US.

On two separates occasions in the same month U.S. Air Force F-15s shot down armed Iranian-made “Shahed 129” drones when they flew into the de-confliction zone around the al-Tanf base near the Jordanian border, where the U.S. trains anti-ISIS fighters, and in the first incident dropped bombs inside that zone. Earlier U.S. airstrikes on May 18, 2017 hit a convoy of pro-regime militiamen moving towards the base’s zone in what was later revealed to have been a misunderstanding.

More recently, last February 7, a large force of pro-regime militiamen and Russian mercenaries backed by armour and artillery attacked an SDF headquarter beside the Euphrates River in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate only to be heavily bombarded by several different US aircraft – ranging from F-15E Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptors to Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones to enormous B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships, as well as nearby US Marine-operated artillery guns and rockets – forcing them to retreat in disarray. The attackers suffered significant casualties, many estimates put the figure at over 100, while only a single SDF fighter was wounded and no US personnel harmed.

Taking these precedents into account even a large-scale regime attack against U.S./SDF positions is unlikely to afflict any significant defeat against the U.S. forces in Syria. Aside from the al-Tanf base all the areas in Syria the US has a military presence in are on the east bank of the Euphrates. The way the Euphrates separates northeastern Syrian Kurdish territories and large swathes of Deir ez-Zor from the rest of the country resembles a large moat. While the regime has demonstrated its capability to use Russian-made pontoons — similar to what the Egyptian Army used to cross the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — to cross the Euphrates in the past (see video below), its forces are unlikely capable of moving large numbers of tanks nor mechanized infantry across the river via pontoons or bridges without being interdicted and destroyed by U.S. aircraft. Even if it does manage to target, or even kill, U.S. troops anywhere in Syria, Washington could — and more likely than not would — promptly retaliate by destroying several regime targets across Syria using large numbers of Tomahawk cruise missiles — which neither Russian nor Syrian forces in the country have the capability to shoot down.

 
Also, it is highly unlikely Damascus could get Moscow’s backing in any attack against the SDF, never mind U.S. troops. Russia has shown on numerous occasions that it seeks to wrap up the conflict in Syria through negotiations now that the regime is no longer directly threatened. Taking on the SDF and risking a wider war against the U.S. could completely compromise this goal.

Damascus’s empty threats against the Israelis and Turks for their respective attacks on Syrian soil also show why this is a likely outcome. The regime has failed to deter Turkey’s significant ground incursions in the northwest, mostly because Russia never seriously opposed them.

While Moscow has publicly rebuked Israel for past airstrikes, it has never intervened or threatened to shoot down Israeli jet fighters over Syria with the advanced air defense systems, or air superiority fighters, it has based in the country. Furthermore, Moscow recently pushed for a deal with Israel for it to allow just regular Syrian forces to retake southern Syria’s border regions, while preventing Iranian-backed militias from deploying to those areas, following the latest round of Israeli airstrikes on May 10 — which were prompted by an Iranian rocket attack targeting the Golan Heights. Russia also made clear, during a visit to the country by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, that it won’t supply Damascus with long-range S-300 missiles, after threatening to do so in light of US-led airstrikes against targets connected to Syria’s chemical weapons programs last April.

Conclusion
Assad’s veiled threat against the SDF and its U.S. backer is clearly a bluff since he demonstrably possesses no capability to actually challenge the U.S. military in Syria. The likelihood of Moscow giving tacit support to a Syrian offensive against the SDF and the U.S. military is extremely unlikely for aforementioned reasons. Even if Moscow acquiesces to any regime offensive, Damascus would most likely suffer a swift battlefield defeat at the hands of the U.S. military. Ultimately, so long as the U.S. remains in northeast Syria, Damascus will not be able to send in its army and subdue the Kurds once again. With this being the case, Assad only really has one option: to try and compel the U.S. to leave Syria, and regain some form of control over its northeast, and that is his first one, negotiating with the SDF in good faith.

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Syria remains the foremost proving ground for the world’s most powerful armed forces

by Paul Iddon

Two Russian Air Force Su-57s (Photo by Anna Zvereva).

Two Russian Air Force Su-57s (Photo by Anna Zvereva).

For years now Syria has been the foremost proving ground for major military powers to test their equipment in real combat conditions. The first half of 2018 has proven no exception and in fact demonstrates that this trend is as, if not more so, popular as ever.

In May 2018 alone both Israel and Russia separately announced the combat debut of two different fifth-generation stealth fighter-bomber aircraft in Syria within days of each other. While both claims of these respective planes carrying out combat operations in Syria are unverified they are nevertheless worth evaluating.

Russia
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu publicized a video showing Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 (T-50) stealth fighter-bomber launching what appears to be a Kh-59MK2 long-range subsonic cruise missile (see video on the right), which can deliver a warhead of 700 pounds (almost 320 kg) of explosives at targets over 550 km away. Shoygu claimed the aircraft launched the missile in combat over Syria last February, which coincides with a brief two-day deployment of a pair of stealthy Sukhoi Su-57s to the country.

 
It remains unclear if the missile Shoygu showed on video was actually fired in Syria at an enemy target. A Syrian source cited by Al Masdar News dubiously claimed that the Su-57s targeted positions belonging to Jaysh Al-Izza (“Army of Glory”) group in the towns of Kafr Zita and Al-Lataminah in the countryside of Hama Governorate.

In a recent article in The Daily Beast, on the other hand, military analyst David Axe outlined several reasons to be extremely skeptical over the Kremlin’s claims of a February test launch, pointing out that Moscow “seems determined to portray its stealth fighters in the best possible light as prospects fade for mass-production of the troubled warplanes.” He notes that the Su-57 “currently lacks many of its planned electronics and sensors and has been cleared to carry only a few different kinds of munitions” and in its public appearances to date has only carried “dummy bombs and missiles that are strictly for display.” Citing experts Axe illustrates that there is nothing in Shoygu’s video presentation to indicate that the missile launch did indeed take place in Syria rather than “some remote air force testing site deep in Russia’s interior.”

While this may well prove the case, Russia has in the past used its deployment in Syria to gauge the effectiveness of its equipment. For example, it has launched several of its long-range 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles at targets across Syria since 2015, a missile it hitherto never used in a war zone before (see also Louis Martin-Vézian, “Comprehensive Infographic about the Russian Intervention in Syria — December 2015 Update“, offiziere.ch, 08.12.2015). The Syrian conflict also saw the combat debut of the flashy Su-34 Fullback fighter-bomber and marked the first time many of Russia’s strategic bombers – such as the Tupolev Tu-95 Bears and Tu-160 Blackjacks – conducted long-range bombing runs, flying directly from Russia, over an actual war zone.

The military operation in Syria certainly required certain funds […]. Some 33 billion rubles were earmarked in the Ministry’s 2015 budget for military exercises. We simply retargeted these funds to support our group in Syria, and there is hardly a better way of training and perfecting combat skills than under real combat conditions. […] I am sure these costs are reasonable and necessary, because this was a chance to test everything in combat, find faults and rectify them. — Vladimir Putin, “Meeting with Russian Armed Forces Service Personnel“, President of Russia, 17.03.2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is on record saying that the best training for Russia’s armed forces is actual combat, the same applies for the equipment those forces have to rely upon.

The symbolic projection of power that comes with using such weapon systems is another factor, which is one reason why flying Su-57s to Syria for a mere two days and firing hitherto unused missiles at unspecified targets is a worthy endeavour in Moscow’s view, if that is in fact what they did.

Israel
“We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East,” announced the Commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Major General Amikam Norkin, during the IAF Senior Air Force Conference in Herzliya last May. “It has become part of our operational capabilities,” he added. “We are the first to attack using the F-35 in the Middle East and have already attacked twice on different fronts.” Norkin made these comments while displaying a photograph showing an F-35I or “Adir” (Hebrew for “Mighty One” or simply “Awesome”) flying high above the skies of the Lebanese capital Beirut.

 
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper pointed out that the display “is certainly a deterrent value” against Israel’s numerous adversaries across the region, namely Hezbollah and Iran, but nevertheless added that it “comes off like an inordinate swagger” and went on to speculate that it was “perhaps also an attempt to rehabilitate the IAF’s image following the downing of an F-16 by the Syrian air defenses during the previous escalation of hostilities with Iran and Syria, in February.”

While Norkin did not mention which two fronts the F-35Is saw combat one of them was doubtlessly Syria. On May 11, Israel bombed no fewer than 30 sites believed to form part of the military infrastructure used by Iranian paramilitaries and their Shiite militia proxies in the country. IAF F-35s likely participated, but in what capacity remains unclear.

Israeli Air Force F-35I 'Adir' flying over Beirut.

Israeli Air Force F-35I “Adir” flying over Beirut.

Israel’s single squadron of F-35s became combat operational in December 2017. As per tradition Israel’s variant of the plane has been outfitted with Israeli avionics and technology, most noticeably a domestically-developed command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) system.

Writing in Popular Mechanics Kyle Mizokami reasonably speculates that the F-35Is likely took part in the May 11 strike either by participating in the extensive bombing of the numerous targets or using “its advanced sensors to identify targets on the ground for other warplanes to attack, then coordinated the entire attack via [the] airplane’s C4I system.” In other words, the F-35I may have operated as a stealthy mini-AWACS platform that oversaw the numerous attacks across the Syrian battlefield below.

The United States (as well as France and the United Kingdom)
At 4am on the morning of April 14 the United States, France and the United Kingdom launched 105 air and ship-launched cruise missiles against three sites connected to the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program in retaliation over a suspected regime gas attack in the town of Douma near Damascus the week before. The British and French launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles / SCALP EG while the Americans launched barrages of their Tomahawks.

B-1 Lancer bomber preparing to takeoff to launch JASSM cruise missiles at a Syrian chemical research facility on the night of April 13, 2018.

B-1 Lancer bomber preparing to takeoff to launch JASSM cruise missiles at a Syrian chemical research facility on the night of April 13, 2018.

In addition to the Tomahawks, however, the US also launched 19 subsonic AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) cruise missiles from B-1 Lancer bombers, flying from the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, for the first time ever in combat. The JASSM’s were all directed at the Barzeh scientific research centre in Damascus.

As with the Russians the United States, France and the United Kingdom seized the opportunity to live fire test their new missile. The JASSM entered service back in 2006 and has a range of 370 km and can deliver a 1,000 pound warhead (almost 455 kg). An extended version of the missile, simply called the JASSM-ER, can hit targets from over 900 km away. However, in the Syria strike, the US used only the original JASSM. The massive April strike was also the first time France fired their naval variant of the Storm Shadow, the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN). Three of the missiles were launched from the FREMM multipurpose frigate Languedoc in the Mediterranean. [1]

Syria was also the first conflict zone in which the US deployed the F-22 Raptor, when it began bombing Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria back in September 2014, which continues to fly over the country today. Rather than just function as another bomber the F-22 has primarily used its powerful sensors to gather information for other US and coalition aircraft operating over Syria and helped guide them to their targets – performing a not so dissimilar function to what Mizokami speculated Israel’s F-35s might have done.

The Raptors have also helped ensure no clashes occurred between US-led coalition and Russian aircraft and successfully deterred Syrian Su-24s from bombing Kurdish forces in the city of Al-Hasakah in late August 2016 a second time. As military analyst Robert Beckhusen put it: “Think of the F-22 like a sniper – it can use force if needed, but its primary job in the Middle East is to provide overwatch.”

A picture taken on March 2, 2018 shows a Turkish army T129 ATAK attack helicopter flying towards the village of Al-Maabatli in the Afrin region in the northwestern Aleppo province countryside as part of the Operation Olive Branch (Photo: Bakr Alkasem).

A picture taken on March 2, 2018 shows a Turkish army T129 ATAK attack helicopter flying towards the village of Al-Maabatli in the Afrin region in the northwestern Aleppo province countryside as part of the Operation Olive Branch (Photo: Bakr Alkasem).

 
Turkey
Ankara utilized its invasion of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin region earlier this year to try out some of its new military gear in combat. Pro-government newspapers all published several almost identical articles showcasing the type of equipment being used. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was cited arguing that Ankara’s use of drones over Afrin was a “game-changer that ensured the operations success.”

More than half of the weapons system and vehicles the Turkish military deployed in its Afrin operation were domestically developed and produced platforms […]. — Drones Turned Fortune of Afrin Operation, Prime Minister Says“, DailySabah, 22.03.2018.

The Afrin operation was the first time Turkey deployed its domestically-produced T129 ATAK attack helicopter in combat. The helicopters fired laser-guided 70mm Cirit missiles, also produced in Turkey, at Kurdish fighters. The T129 was developed as part of a joint effort between Turkish Aerospace Industries and AgustaWestland, which is why the T129 is basically a variant of the Agusta A129 Mangusta outfitted with Turkish-made avionics and weapon systems.

The combat debut of the T129s resulted in one being lost to Kurdish ground fire killing both crew-members. Despite that incident Turkey has successfully marketed the T129 and other domestically-produced gear as evidenced by the fact Pakistan is buying 30 T129s in what will amount to the largest Turkish-Pakistani arms deal in history.

Conclusion
Given the fact the Syrian conflict shows no sign of ending anytime soon – with regional powers like Israel and Turkey intervening more forcefully in recent months, and the likelihood that the US and Russia will retain forces in the country for some years to come more – more weapon systems will doubtlessly make their combat debut on the Syrian battlefield in the foreseeable future.

Footnotes
[1] The Storm Shadow was already used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and during the NATO intervention in the Libyan Civil War by the RAF, and named as SCALP EG, by the French and the Italian Air Force. Additionally, French aircraft fired SCALP EG missiles at ISIS targets in Syria as part of Opération Chammal. In October 2016 the UK Government confirmed that UK-supplied missiles were used by Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen.

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