Russia Is Set to Triple Nuclear Supersonic Bomber Force

The Buzz

Russia will purchase at least 50 of the newly revived Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack) heavy strategic bombers, dramatically increasing its arsenal.

As The National Interest previously reported, last month Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would resume production of the Tu-160 strategic bomber, a Soviet-era aircraft that is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons.

On Thursday, Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s Air Force, revealed that Moscow will purchase at least fifty of the Tu-160 strategic bombers once production resumes.

“No less than 50 aircraft over time will be purchased in order to cover the costs that will go into production,” Bondarev said, according to Russian state media outlets.

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This will dramatically increase Russia’s bomber capabilities as only fifteen Tu-160s currently remain in service (about 35 were originally built, according to Russian media outlets). That is at least a 333 percent increase in the number of Tu-160s in Russia’s arsenal.

Bondarev further revealed that the decision to restart production of the Tu-160 was made by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "The supreme commander [president of Russia] and the Russian defense minister have taken a decision on reviving production of the Tu-160M aircraft,” TASS, a Russian government news outlet, quoted Bondarev as saying.

The decision to restart production on the Tu-160 was made in part because of production delays in Russia’s fifth-generation bomber, the PAK FA. The PAK FA strategic bomber was supposed to be delivered to the Russian Air Force by 2020, however, Bondarev announced earlier this month that this date would be pushed back by three to five years.

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On Thursday, Bondarev assured his audience that the decision to restart production of the Tu-160s would not delay delivery of the fifth-generation PAK FA bombers, as both would be produced simultaneously. "Of course, we have no right to do it otherwise," he said in response to a question about whether the two planes could be produced at the same time.

Russia has yet to reveal a timeline for when it will begin producing the Tu-160 bombers again.

The Tu-160 is notable for both its supersonic speed and its variable-sweep wings. Tupolev Design Bureau, which designs the plane, claims that the Tu-160 is the largest supersonic aircraft in the world, as well as the heaviest combat aircraft currently in existence.

As Tom Nichols previously explained on The National Interest:

[The Tu-160] is a perfectly capable nuclear bomber that, in time of war, would fold back its swan-like wings and dart toward its targets at top speed. Once in range, it would launch cruise missiles that would make the last part of their journey low and slow under enemy radar.

In announcing the resumption of production at the Kazan Aviation Plant last month, Defense Minister Shoigu praised the Tu-160 as “a unique machine, ahead of its time for many years and even until now [it] has not been exploited to its full potential."

(Recommended: Russia's Supersonic Tu-160 Bomber Is Back: Should America Worry?)

"No one has devised a better plane in the supersonic category up to date," he further boasted.

Besides building the new Tu-160s, Russia plans to modernize the fifteen it currently operates. 

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Schleiffert

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

5 Things America Needs to Know about China's New Military Strategy

The Buzz

On Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense issued its first policy document in two years, a white paper titled, “Chinese Military Strategy.” The document, released amid ongoing Chinese island reclamation and increasingly hostile warnings to U.S. Navy aviation assets operating in the South China Sea, outlines how the Chinese armed forces are expected to support Beijing’s geopolitical objectives.

In the white paper, a copy of which can be read online in English or Chinese, China vows to use the armed forces to create a “favorable strategic posture with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means,” in order to guarantee the country’s peaceful development. The document also less-than-subtly indicts the United States (and other neighbors) for taking “provocative actions” surrounding Chinese reefs and islands.

Five major elements of the strategy worthy of American attention stand out:

1. Preserving the role of the Communist Party remains the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) number one priority:

The PLA’s most important task remains maintaining the power and authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The white paper makes it perfectly clear that the PLA first exists to protect the CPC and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Notions of defending the Chinese homeland or the people of China take a back seat to preserving the legitimacy and efficacy of the CPC. After all, the PLA is an arm of the CPC—not the Chinese state—and thus the Chinese armed forces are tasked solely with defending the Party rather than the well-being of 1.3 billion Chinese people. Should economic, demographic, or social issues threaten CPC legitimacy, Xi has the option of utilizing PLA forces to quell political opposition and domestic unrest.

2. China is building a military to fight and win wars:

The Chinese military is focused on ensuring recent investments in the PLA translate into genuine warfighting capability. The white paper clearly states that the PLA intends to, “endeavor to seize the strategic initiative in military struggle, proactively plan for military struggle in all directions and domains, and grasp the opportunities to accelerate military building, reform and development.” The Chinese military desperately wants a military capable of going on the offensive and defeating any challengers. The white paper gives particular emphasis to Chinese naval ambitions of becoming a blue water force. A Chinese blue water navy will operate regularly beyond the “first island chain” separating the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas from the Pacific, to protect Chinese strategic interests.

For officials in Beijing, a blue water navy is a modernized force capable of defending territorial claims, conducting global operations, and perhaps most significantly,constituting a “real challenge” to the U.S. Navy. While the desire for a capable blue water navy is not surprising, it serves as a warning to other nations in the region, a warning that is unlikely to ease existing tensions with neighboring Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. A Chinese military that is built to fight and win wars is also a military that could show little reluctance in using force to assert sovereignty.

3. The PLA appears focused on perceived threats from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South China Sea littoral states and the Koreas:

The white paper and its reworked strategic guidelines reflect a perception of “new” national security issues: the U.S. rebalance to Asia; Japanese revisions to military and security policy; external countries meddling in Chinese territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere; instability and uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula; and independence movements simmering in both Taiwan and Tibet. Beijing’s security interests now lie farther from home, and across regions requiring an active military presence. The PLA leadership is seeking to equip and train its forces to meet new perceptions of the Chinese security environment. In doing so, the latest white paper makes certain China has no qualms in upholding a military strategy of “active defense,” or what the document breaks down into a combination of strategic defense, self-defense, operational and tactical offense, and a willingness to counterattack.

4. The Chinese military knows it has some big organizational hurdles to overcome:  

The white paper examines necessary measures to overhaul the daily operations and internal structure of the PLA. These include: giving continued priority to ideological and political work, modernizing logistics infrastructure, establishing a military law system, and integrating military and civilian support efforts. Specifically at the domestic level, the white paper stresses the need to improve national defense education, boost public awareness of the Chinese military, and rethink processes for bringing on PLA enlistees. These initiatives all appear to be aimed at tackling existing weaknesses in organizational and human capital to yield a stronger military force.

5. The good news: China is interested in military-to-military contacts and relationships and the white paper is a sign of increased transparency:

The white paper states that, “China’s armed forces will continue to develop military-to-military relations that are non-aligned, non-confrontational and not directed against any third party.” More specifically, the white paper expresses Chinese armed forces’ interest in fostering a new model of military relationship with U.S. armed forces that would include defense dialogues, exchanges and other measures aimed at strengthening mutual trust, preventing, unintended escalation, and mitigating crises. Military-to-military contact and engagement with China are beneficial to the United States because such initiatives can help avoid miscalculation and improve the U.S. ability to understand Chinese intent. Engagement also establishes a foundation for future negotiation and de-escalation if crises develop. The other “good news” in the white paper is its transparency. The white paper is a clear statement of Beijing’s military intent; after reviewing the white paper, the international community is left with a better understanding of Chinese plans for their military.

A clear-eyed reading of China’s new white paper should temper naïveté in thinking Beijing seeks to become a peaceful, responsible stakeholder in the global order. Aside from an interest in deepening existing mil-mil relationships, the new strategic guidelines leave little room to doubt Chinese ambitions of transforming into a modern, maritime power capable of challenging the United States in the Asia-Pacific theater and elsewhere in the world. The white paper signals that the Chinese military intends to project power beyond its immediate periphery, into the open ocean, in pursuit of a “national rejuvenation” aimed at countering what Chinese leaders see as U.S.-led efforts to check China’s rise. The document marks a notable transition from a Chinese focus on economic development—and a hands-off approach to global affairs—to a reorientation that not only accounts for the global scope of Chinese interests, but also suggests a national tenacity to defend Chinese interests through the use of force.

China’s white paper sends some disturbing messages that China is committed to “achieving slow motion regional hegemony.” It appears that China has both a vision and a plan to extend the PLA’s global reach—now it is up to the United States and its allies and friends in the Pacific to engage with China while working to devise an adequate response.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Smart Targeting of ISIS

Paul Pillar

Eric Schmitt reports in the New York Times that the U.S. military is refraining from attacking some sites it knows are ISIS facilities, including at the group's principal headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, to avoid the significant civilian casualties that such attacks would certainly entail. It seems the group has located some of its facilities, probably intentionally, immediately next to civilian concentrations or jails where it holds some of its innocent captives. This is the sort of restraint by the United States that is likely to spin up further the domestic opponents of the Obama administration who charge that the administration has been too timid in going after ISIS—or in diving into many other foreign conflicts, for that matter. Senator John McCain says we should be setting our hair on fire because of recent gains by ISIS. The syllogism underlying such alarmism seems to be: (1) ISIS is a despicable, brutal organization (which is true); (2) the United States military has the physical capability to inflict substantial damage on ISIS (also true); therefore the United States should use that capability more fully than it has so far (which does not necessarily follow).

The burning-hair approach has characterized much of the popular and political American attitude toward ISIS ever since the group scored dramatic territorial gains in Western Iraq last year and flaunted its stomach-turning brutality with beheadings of captives. The prevailing attitude focuses narrowly on the here-and-now of territorial gains and losses and on how military force could be applied to influence the tactical situation on the ground. But such a focus is not to be equated with what is in the best overall interests of the United States, especially in a conflict as complex as the one in Syria.

In one respect the territorial ebb and flow is indeed important for those interests: visible gains by ISIS have been an important factor in heightening the attractiveness of the ISIS brand in the eyes of radical individuals, including ones from the West, who have flocked to its banner. It is power and success more than ideology that have served as the group's main drawing card. But that observation begs the question of what such radicals would be doing anyway if they did not become factotums in ISIS's ministate or cannon fodder in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. The observation also ignores all the other respects, besides this one facet of recruitment, in which the ISIS problem does or does not bear on U.S. interests.

The restraint being shown by the U.S. military in the interest of avoiding collateral casualties is sound targeting policy on a couple of levels. One is the repeatedly demonstrated dynamic of how attacks that harm significant numbers of innocent civilians tend to anger and radicalize populations in a way that works to the advantage of extremist groups, is one of the most effective recruiting tools for such groups, and more than offsets the damage that the attacks directly inflict on the groups. This dynamic has long been in evidence with other groups even before ISIS became the main concern. None other than Donald Rumsfeld ruminated, with reference to other U.S. military action, whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing.

The other level concerns how U.S. interests specifically are or are not involved, and how those interests differ from those of putative allies or clients. The fight against ISIS is, in multiple respects, not America's fight. The United States is not the principal original target of the group, and certainly not in the way that it served as the “far enemy” that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack as part of its strategy for getting at the near enemy. The fight is not one the United States can win; winning ultimately will depend on local will of the sort that, as the U.S. secretary of defense observed in his recent awkward but truthful comment, was lacking in the recent combat at Ramadi. Not least important, it is the United States that incurs the danger of additional radical responses to additional use of U.S. military force. Calls by supposed allies for more use of such force constitute cheap talk when it is the United States and not them that would carry the added risk of radical reprisal. The United States was not the original target of ISIS, but it makes itself a target (either for ISIS itself or for other like-minded radicals) the more it becomes directly involved in ISIS's conflict.

There are multiple wrong reasons for such involvement. One is the emotion and urge to strike back that stems from a group's dramatic gains or atrocities. Another is the general American tendency to think that if there is a problem somewhere in the world worth solving, then the United States can and should solve it. Yet another, applicable to the Iraqi side of the theater, is the relieving of cognitive dissonance for those who promoted or supported the launching of the Iraq War and would like to think, and would like the rest of us to think, that the turmoil that the invasion set off is instead due to later mismanagement of U.S. power.

Tom Friedman has it right when he observes, with specific reference to the fight against ISIS, “We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals.”

TopicsSyria Iraq Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

The Future of Military Power: R2D2?

The Buzz

I’ve recently discussed two trends in military technology. The week before lasts’ post on the 1990s non-revolution in military affairs argued that low-tech adversaries simply make themselves scarce when faced with a technologically superior foe. Before that I discussed the impact on the survivability of expensive top-end platforms of the new generation of long-range sensors and weapons.

The former observations apply to the asymmetric campaigns that western forces have fought over the past 15 years in the Middle East. The latter apply in the ‘anti-access/area denial’ world of future major power conflict. It should be worrying for planners of future force structures that exquisitely capable but increasingly expensive high-end platforms don’t look to have a decisive role in either.

But somewhere in between there’s the ‘just right’ campaign, where those platforms are exactly what’s required. That includes the 1991 Gulf War and the NATO contribution to the Kosovo campaign in 1998–99. In both cases western forces avoided exposure to insurgency because they weren’t involved in extended ground campaigns. And Iraq and Serbia’s air defense capabilities didn’t seriously trouble American-led air power.

It was a grand time for advocates of air power. I sat through many a presentation of the virtues of bloodless (for the winners) achievement of strategic aims through precision strike. The trouble is that the 1990s, when that mindset was at its strongest and the worship of airpower reached its zenith, doesn’t look much like today’s world.

The post 2003 insurgency in Iraq was only put down by the many boots on the ground of the 2007 ‘surge’. And, as we know now, it left behind a very fragile environment, creating space for a hideous new hybrid actor in the form of ISIL. Russia is showing that state-backed hard power still plays a role in international affairs and it’s seriously rattling European notions of post Cold War peace. In the Pacific theatre the United States is facing an ever more challenging access environment as China builds its military power, especially numerous missile systems designed to keep American naval power at arm’s length.

Insurgencies and anti-access systems are both asymmetric in the sense that they don’t tackle the strengths of western forces head on. They’re post-RMA strategies that blunt the advantages otherwise conferred by sophisticated weapon systems. Neither are a new idea; the Viet Cong successfully adopted guerilla tactics against a much more powerful United States half a century ago and Egypt’s asymmetric approach to Israeli air power and armor in 1973 achieved their goals.

There are two possible responses to the contemporary versions of these challenges. The first is to push on and develop ever more elaborate platforms to maintain a technological edge. There are numerous downsides to that idea. It will require better defensive suites to allow the platforms to get close enough to do their job, with commensurate cost and weight penalties. The R&D will take ever longer, if the 19 years and counting of the F-35 wasn’t enough. And there’s always the risk that we’d be deep into diminishing returns, as adversaries think up new asymmetric responses (not least of which the ‘swarming’ of major platforms by large numbers of much cheaper systems), steal the technology for themselves, or both.

I think the better answer is summed up in the old saying about the relative merits of not beating them and joining them. If the adversaries are using long-range sensor and weapon systems on one hand and dispersion on the other, it suggests a new approach that takes the best of both worlds. Major platforms of the future mightn’t deliver end effects themselves, but a swarm of smaller sub-systems that by virtue of numbers could provide area coverage for ISR, persistence in the battle space and, when called together, locally outnumber even sophisticated defenses.

The sub-systems could be networked together, and in the future Moore’s Law will probably enable autonomous systems. In short, the future of military power might be R2D2s rather than Death Stars (PDF):

‘Just as the Death Stars’ vulnerability and inadequacy are perfectly realistic, the superior operational performance of a simple droid corresponds to real-life experience. Time and again, war-winning weapons tend to be simple, inexpensive and small.

The author of that piece could usefully have added ‘and numerous’ at the end there, but the rest of the sentiment is right. The resultant force mightn’t look as impressive as today’s—perhaps a problem for peacetime ‘presence’ and alliance assurance—but it’ll be more effective when it counts.

Two things will be required to make that future a reality. First, the temptation to make the sub-systems as capable as possible will have to be resisted—that way awaits further R&D, cost and schedule problems. Second—and more difficult to achieve—is the need for military planners to give up on Death Stars. If recent reports on the RAN’s frigate plans are to be believed, there’s a fair way to go yet.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Creative Commons 2.0. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Watch Out, America: China Might Have 415 Warships by 2030

The Buzz

China’s Navy will have some 415 warships by 2030, a former senior U.S. Navy officer predicts.

The prediction was made by James Fanell, the former top intelligence officer for America’s Pacific Command, whose area of operations includes the Western Pacific. Speaking at the annual conference of the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Institute, Fanell said that “The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] will continue to expand for the next 15 years.”

According to Defense News, Fanell predicted that, in fifteen years, China will have an incredible 99 submarines, 4 aircraft carriers, 102 destroyers and frigates, 26 corvettes, 73 amphibious ships and 111 missile craft. That will give Beijing a total of 415 warships.

This would be a considerable increase over China’s current naval power. In its most recent assessment of Chinese military power, the Pentagon said that “The PLA Navy now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.” Moreover, in 2030 many of China’s warships are likely to be more advanced.

(Recommended: Face Off: China's Navy Stalks U.S. Ship in South China Sea)

At last week’s conference, Fanell especially emphasized China’s new Luyang III Type 052D class destroyers, which he referred to as a “game changer” because they will allow China’s Navy to expand its area of operations further out at sea.

“With the vertical launch system, the YJ-18 [anti-ship cruise missile], the active radar system, the Luyang III may not be equivalent to an Aegis, but it's good enough for the Chinese Navy,” Fanell told Defense News following the conference. “I think they're pretty happy with it and that's why they're extending production of the ships — it gives them the ability to extend control beyond the first island chain."

Fanell’s not the first naval expert to highlight the transformative impact the Type 052D class destroyers will have on China’s ability to project naval power. When China was rumored to have launched its first Type 052D destroyer back in 2012, Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes— who together co-authored the groundbreaking book, Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategywarned that “The PLAN may have found its premier surface combatant.”

(Recommended: China's Master Plan in the South China Sea)

Fanell has a history of making blunt assessments about Chinese naval power and doctrine. When still on active duty, he repeatedly made headlines when publicly discussing those subjects. For example, in 2013 he called China “hegemonic” and said it engaged “aggression,” while also saying it “bullies adversaries.” The following year he told a naval conference that China was planning for a “short, sharp war” with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Tokyo administers but Beijing also claims.

In November of last year, Fanell was removed from his posting on U.S. Pacific Command. It was reported at the time that his removal was over his controversial remarks, which ran counter to Pentagon talking points.

Nonetheless, at his retirement ceremony in February of this year, Fanell warned of a future war with China.

(Recommended: China Still Wants Russia's Deadly Su-35 Fighter)

“The strategic trend lines indicate the Communist Party of China is not only ‘rejuvenating’ itself for internal stability purposes, but has been and continues to prepare to use military force,” he said at the time. “Let’s not deceive ourselves. The evidence I’ve been chewing on over the past 15 years is overwhelming. Beijing has prepared for military action and [Chinese] President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ has a defined timeline to reach this ‘rejuvenated’ end state.”

Many of Fanell’s co-panelists at the recent U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Institute’s conference also emphasized that China is rapidly seeking to build up its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, which have long been seen as a major weakness of China’s Navy. “Both surface vessels and subs seem to be largely focused on anti-surface warfare," Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said, according to Defense News.

Christopher Carlson, a former U.S. Navy officer, agreed, stating: "We're going to see some very impressive ASW changes…. We have a problem when they become proficient.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/U.S Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Manda M. Emery

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia