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China's Lethal Bombers Fly Over Japanese Strait

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China’s Air Force conducted its first-ever drill in a strategic strait near Japan on Thursday.

According to China’s Ministry of National Defense, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAFF) conducted its first exercise over the Miyako Strait. PLAAF spokesperson Shen Jinke said that the drill aimed to “level up the PLA Air Force's mobility and combativeness.”

The press release on the Ministry of National Defense’s website stressed that the drill was not aimed at any country, and Shen was quoted as saying— according to the Shanghai Daily— that: “In line with international laws and practices, offshore drills by the PLA Air Force beyond the First Island Chain will proceed in consideration of actual situations.”

(Recommended: Watch Out, China: Japan Readies Test of New Stealth Fighter Jet)

Although the press release did not specify which aircraft was used in the drills, the pictures revealed the pilots flew China’s new Xian H-6K bomber. The H-6K is the most advanced variant of the H-6 bomber, which is a locally built version of the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 Badger that Moscow first deployed during the 1950s. The PLAAF first received a TU-16 bomber from the Soviet Union in 1958 and has been modifying it ever since.

Chinese state-owned media have previously described the H-6K, which entered into service in 2013, as a “medium-sized craft designed for long-range attacks, stand-off attacks and large-area air patrol. Unlike its predecessor, the H-6K can carry cruise missiles under its wings. The H-6K also maneuvers more deftly than the H-6 and requires a smaller crew to operate.”

Among the H-6K’s greatest advancements is “its use of two Russian-made 12-ton thrust D-30-KP2 turbofans and lighter-weight composites have reportedly extended its range by 30 percent to a combat radius of 3,500 km.” Indeed, some have speculated that the bomber, which is nuclear capable, has the range to reach all the way to Hawaii.

(Recommended: Japan's Master Plan to Defeat China in a War)

The location of the latest drill is almost certain to unnerve Japanese officials. To begin with, the flyover was near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but China contests.

More importantly, the Miyako Strait is a gap 160 miles wide between Japan’s Miyako and Okinawa islands. It provides the crucial gateway for China’s North and East Sea Fleets to access the wider Western Pacific.

The Miyako Strait would also be a crucial battleground in any war between Japan and China, and Tokyo would likely use its favorably geography around the Strait to execute an anti-access/area-denial strategy against China.

As Kyle Mizokami has previously described on The National Interest:

Japan, which spends roughly a quarter as much on defense as China, could use the Ryukyus to execute an Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2/AD) plan in the Miyako Strait. Like any good A2/AD strategy, such a plan in the Strait would require a fraction of the spending necessary to overcome it.

The PLAAF’s drill over the Miyako Strait is a tacit recognition of this crucial weakness. It also shows a determination on the part of China to try and overcome this weakness over time. At the same time, the drill is also indicative of the Chinese Air Force’s desire to conduct training exercises further away from the mainland. Back in March, the PLAAF conducted its first ever drill over the Western Pacific. That one was conducted over the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines.

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

The new drill comes just a day after China issued eight warnings to a U.S. Navy surveillance plane flying over Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea.

"This is the Chinese navy ... This is the Chinese navy ... Please go away ... to avoid misunderstanding," the Chinese Navy warned the P8-A Poseidon, according to CNN, which had reporters embedded on the U.S. Navy plane.

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

Image: Wikimedia/Aquatiger127

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

At a Crossroads: What Is the Future of U.S.-China Relations?

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The Asia security field is a crowded one these days, and that is a good thing. The region is confronting a number of destabilizing threats: disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas, weak governance in several Southeast Asian nations, and continuing uncertainty over North Korea’s intentions and capabilities, among others. All are long-term, ongoing challenges, and the more ideas that get out there about how to manage these issues, the better.

No issue gets as much attention, however, as the U.S.-China relationship and what it means for regional security. For most, it boils down to whether the era of U.S. primacy is over. If it is, what should the next stage look like and how does China fit in? If not, how does the United States preserve its role as the fundamental security guarantor in the region and how does China fit in?

Three recent, thoughtful reports/papers attempt to address this question: the first, “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China” by my CFR colleague Robert Blackwill and Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis; the second, “The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose” (pdf) by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd; and the third, “Beyond American Predominance in the Western Pacific: The Need for a Stable U.S.-China Balance of Power” by Carnegie Endowment scholar Michael Swaine. Each adopts a different approach and arrives at different conclusions, although the Rudd and Swaine analyses are largely compatible. Blackwill and Tellis explicitly seek to develop a roadmap for continued U.S. primacy in the Asia Pacific. Rudd and Swaine, in contrast, argue that such an effort is unrealistic, even harmful, given the realities of U.S. commitments and domestic politics, as well as China’s intentions and growing capabilities. Both Rudd and Swaine seek to have the United States and China sacrifice near-term interests for a longer-term greater good. However, Rudd places a much greater burden of compromise on the United States, while Swaine is more even-handed in his call for accommodation by both sides.

I was most eager to read the Rudd report. I have heard the former prime minister speak on a number of occasions and have always been impressed by his insights. In his report, Rudd assumes the role of peacemaker—trying to bridge the gap between the “private or semi-private narratives each side [the United States and China] may have about the other.” Although ostensibly designed to speak equally to Chinese and U.S. policymakers, the report is, for the most part, designed for a U.S. audience—explaining China and the Chinese perspective to Americans and offering recommendations for Washington.

Rudd’s argument is premised on his belief that Chinese President Xi Jinping is someone with whom the United States can work, that he is prepared to take calculated risks, and that there is now a window in China for Washington and Beijing to strike a grand bargain. According to Rudd, it is up to the United States to use this space as creatively as possible, while it lasts. While this is an appealing narrative, the report does not make clear why Rudd believes this. Rudd also leaves the reader hanging when he asserts that China will become a more active participant in the reform of the global rules-based order and that it will bring a “new, forthright Chinese voice in the world.” It would have been helpful had the prime minister explained whether this voice will mean more Air Defense Identification Zones or more Asian Infrastructure Investment Banks or both. The implications for the region are vastly different.

There are also some off-putting notes. Rudd begins by announcing that the Chinese economy will continue to thrive, noting: “Sorry, but on balance, the Chinese economic model is probably sustainable.” It is an awkward pronouncement that assumes that Americans want the Chinese economy to fail—something very few Americans, in fact, desire. (What Americans do want is a thriving Chinese economy that offers a fair and open trade and investment environment.)

While bold and fun to read, Rudd’s analysis of Xi’s presidency and the potential for significant new cooperation with the United States—should only the United States seize the moment—ultimately falls short because it is difficult to find the evidence to support it. Xi may well have the political capital to strike a grand bargain, but Rudd’s faith in him notwithstanding, it remains unclear that he wants one.

The lack of demonstrable Chinese interest in a more accommodating regional security posture makes me initially sympathetic to the dominant theme of the Blackwill and Tellis report. As Blackwill and Tellis note, the current Chinese leadership has offered little indication—either in words or action—that it does not have as its endgame supplanting the United States as the regional hegemon. However, the report adopts such an uncompromising stance on any potential for the United States and China to find common ground that it loses me along the way. There is a built-in assumption that China necessarily wants to supplant the United States—not simply this regime at this moment in time. Such a deterministic understanding of Chinese politics and interests ignores ongoing debates within the country and the potential for new understandings to emerge

The recommendations (as in the Rudd report) run several pages, and for the most part, they represent a coherent strategy for the United States. Blackwill and Tellis have flipped the current hedging strategy from its emphasis on engagement with limited containment to containment with limited engagement. Much paper is devoted to strengthening military and economic ties with our allies. Still, it is difficult to understand, at times, how the containment and engagement will all work together—for example, “agreeing on enhanced security confidence-building measures between the two sides” while the United States establishes a new technology-control regime and levies an across-the-board tariff on Chinese economic goods in response to Beijing’s cyberattacks. Whatever its weaknesses, however, the report raises appropriate alarm bells concerning the challenge that many current Chinese economic and security behaviors pose for U.S. interests and the necessity of addressing them directly.

Ultimately, I thought the quietest piece—the one released with the least fanfare—was the most thought-provoking and compelling. Swaine offers a reasonably even-handed assessment of both the U.S. and PRC perspectives and tackles head on the problem that Beijing and Washington have concerning “clashing assumptions and beliefs about the requirements for continued order and prosperity in Asia.” He also identifies several very specific areas for potential cooperation, including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and the management of maritime territorial disputes, and then proceeds to lay out how actual progress might be realized through various trade-offs. For example, he suggests that the United States halt arms sales to Taiwan in return for credible assurances by Beijing that it will not use force against Taiwan (except in the case of a dejure declaration of independence) and acceptance that unification would be peaceful and must involve the consent of people of Taiwan. One can agree or not with all of Swaine’s analysis or prescriptions, but in a much shorter piece, he takes the reader deeper and farther into understanding the challenges at hand and the potential roadmap for resolution.

This piece first appeared on CFR's blog Asia Unbound here

TopicsChina RegionsAsia

Coming to RIMPAC 2016: Taiwan?

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Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2015 that included a reference to a recent issue: China’s potential participation in 2016 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, a biannual multilateral exercise that mostly involves the US and its key allies.  Other nations are invited but do not partake in major parts of the program. China was such a guest last year.

The amendment stipulates that if US Department of Defense invites Beijing to participate in RIMPAC, a similar invitation must be extended to Taiwan.  Not surprisingly, the news was received well in Taiwan. David Lo, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry spokesperson, welcomed the amendment, and Taiwan-based Want China Times ran the headline ‘House passes clause to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC’.

However, before jumping to conclusions, let’s have a look at the exact wording of amendment proposed by Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC):

“The Secretary of Defense shall invite the military forces of Taiwan to participate in any maritime exercise known as the Rim of the Pacific Exercise if the Secretary has invited the military forces of the People’s Republic of China to participate in such maritime exercise.”

First of all, the wording of the amendment is quite telling. If China gets invited, the Pentagon must invite Taiwan as well. Let’s put the amendment to a simple test: which scenario appears less complicated? To invite both China and Taiwan-which would no doubt elicit a very loud and unhappy reaction from Beijing? Or to not invite China in the first place and be done with it? It’s rather obvious that despite the excitement on Taiwan’s side, the amendment is more about the absence of China at RIMPAC 2016 than about a potential Taiwanese presence.

It’s likely that Walker’s amendment will make it to the final version of NDAA that will eventually land on President Obama’s desk. Such a provision would be hardly controversial for Republicans who are in the majority, and even if the Senate version didn’t include a similar amendment in its version of the NDAA, it is unlikely to be removed during the reconciliation process of both versions of NDAA. President Obama may veto the bill but the reason won’t be one, uncontroversial amendment, but rather disputes over the Overseas Contingency Operations budget that became a back door for the Congress to bypass restrictions imposed by sequestration.

There is certainly pro-Taiwan element in the amendment. Support for Taiwan has always been a bipartisan issue, a rare quality in the Congress engaged in political bickering between the GOP-controlled legislature and Obama administration. For congressional friends of Taiwan, this amendment is a win-win proposition. It demonstrates Congress’ resolve vis-à-vis China and, at the same time, inclusion of Taiwan in amendments to NDAA is certain to generate positive news in Taipei.

However, amendment or not, China is unlikely to receive an invitation to join RIMPAC 2016 anyway. China’s debut participation in RIMPAC last year was controversial from the onset. Moreover, to dispel any positive impressions, Beijing put on a comical twist on its participation by sending a spy ship that was monitoring the exercises from a distance. By doing so, Beijing gave Washington a golden opportunity to emphasize that just as China did not break any rule by sending such a vessel, nor does the US violate standing international law when it conducts patrols and surveillance outside China’s territorial waters and within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That’s worth noting because it’s Beijing who insists that it has the right to regulate third party military activity within the 200 nautical miles zone delimitating its EEZ. If the Pentagon wanted to make Chinese participation in the exercise look awkward, it would have hardly do better than the Chinese themselves. Beijing has now upped the ante in its neighborhood once again by embarking on large-scale island reclamation in the South China Sea, prompting the US to strengthen their patrols in the area. In the light of this development, the chances that Washington would invite China back next year are not exactly high. Thus, the amendment and the publicity it received is—in practical terms—much ado about nothing.

The eagerness on Taiwan’s side is easy to understand. Lacking broad international recognition, multilateral exercises like RIMPAC are typically a no-go for Taiwan. This is not to say that its military does not have opportunities to train with foreign counterparts. There are regular exercises with the Singaporean army in Taiwan while Taiwanese F-16s instructors train at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. However, the wide array of regular activities simply slips under the radar because both sides need to keep it low profile. Therefore, if there is a chance to acknowledge the US–Taiwan partnership publicly, it is typically in a manner similar to the reporting on this NDAA amendment.

But if Taiwan were to attend RIMPAC 2016, what would its participation look like? This is of course pure speculation, but it’s plausible that Taiwan’s navy would send the newly commissioned fast replenishment ship AOE-532 Panshih rather than a surface combatant. A lightly armed support ship would certainly be less controversial than, for example, a Kidd-class destroyer or Lafayette-class frigate. When contemplating Taiwan’s participation, one needs to understand that for Taiwan it is about symbolism first and practical experiences second. A one-off invitation would not mean much in terms of experience but it would carry great symbolic significance—well served by sending the biggest ship in Taiwan’s navy inventory. But for now, Taiwan’s participation in RIMPAC remains a dream.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsRIMPAC 2016 RegionsAsia

Is China Destined to Dominate the South China Sea?

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The failings of the counter-strategies, raised in William Choong’s provocative piece on China’s successful South China Sea strategy, have been evident for quite some time but have been glossed over. The conventional approach to addressing this long-running maritime dispute is generally seen as a careful mix of balancing and negotiation, with balancing sometimes seen as a prerequisite for negotiations. William’s post highlights that while this approach may appear sensible, it isn’t working. In this, several aspects related to both strategy and China’s stance should be discussed.

First, a feature of strategy often overlooked is that it involves interaction between a range of intelligent and adaptive players. As Edward Luttwak discusses, strategy is paradoxical in that the same response from players doesn’t usually work a second time because the others have learnt from their experiences. Strategy involves interdependent relationships where each party continuously modifies their position, intent and actions, based on the perceptions and actions of the other participants. Game theorist Thomas Schelling (PDF) wrote that these interactions “are essentially bargaining situations…in which the ability of one participant to gain his ends is dependent…on the choices or decisions the other participant will make.” The idea of strategy as an interactive social activity has been arguably neglected in the South China Sea imbroglio. Many policymakers have learnt their trade when attending overseas universities including in the U.S., UK and Australia. It’s not surprising that they crafted a strategy that carefully countered the conventional, traditional responses taught and espoused elsewhere.

Second, to be effective, a strategy must influence others in some meaningful way. In the current conventional approach there is a tendency to equate strategy with simply balancing ends and means. There is a strong implicit assumption that ‘balancing’ in the sense of changing the relative military power between nations will mysteriously lead to a change in China’s behavior. But strategy is all about how the means will be used to achieve the desired ends. Strategy gives, as the academics say, a causal path. Viewing strategy in this way highlights two factors: that influencing another’s behavior means finding something that they are sufficiently concerned about and that the proposed actions impacting this area of concern must be plausible. Threatening military action for example may not be credible if the matter is only a secondary, marginal issue. In the South China Sea case, no one has yet determined a course of action that China is either sufficiently bothered by or finds credible.

Third, a major reason that current responses have proved ineffective is that they’re unable to make meaningful linkages between different policy areas whereas China’s strategy is particularly successful at this aspect. The various responses by nations to Chinese demands are deliberately designed to avoid mixing island-snatching concerns with other aspects of their dealings with China. For most nations, the South China Sea concerns are strictly quarantined from other parts of their relationships with China. The Chinese strategy is the mirror image. Linkages are played openly and brazenly. If you want to be part of the Chinese economic dream then you need to be careful what you say and do about the South China Sea issue. It is easy to see what happens if you don’t. The Philippines took their worries to the international court against Chinese advice and, as such, have paid an economic price.

What is the upshot of this clash of strategies? In short, if nothing changes, nothing changes. China is well on track to own the claimed nine-dashed line territory. It’s been careful to say that when this happens, it’ll allow freedom of navigation in China’s new territorial zone. Despite this, there have been some recent conditions appearing that indicate that the rules may not be as such for naval vessels. Closing the South China Sea would potentially geographically split ASEAN asunder. Vietnam would be the worst affected; becoming an almost land-locked nation with limited access to the sea. With ASEAN’s potential to develop into a global manufacturing hub, this could concern more than just the regional grouping.

We should also recognize that many in China feel strongly that taking the nine-dashed line territory is their right. In the early 1990s, shaken by the Tiananmen Square experience, the Chinese Communist Party promoted a nationalist view of history and shaped the national education system accordingly. Today many have internalized this history that sees China having suffered a century of humiliation inflicted by outsiders and view the South China Sea dispute through this lens. How claiming territory from the Philippines or Vietnam addresses this appears somewhat inexplicable, but great powers are often accused of cognitive dissonance—and some argue the U.S. is also suffering from this.

To return to where we started, William’s post nicely outlined the success of China’s strategy. Can other nations’ respond in a meaningful way with their own strategies? Given recent troubles in devising a successful strategy for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prognosis may not be good.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Meet America's New 'Bunker-Buster' Super Bomb

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The U.S. Air Force has developed a new, lighter bunker-buster bomb that can be launched from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Flight Global reports that David E. Walker, the Air Force’s chief scientist, says that the U.S. Air Force research laboratory has proven the technology for its high velocity penetrating weapon (HVPW). The HVPW program, which was launched in 2011, was aimed at building a 2,000lb, rocket-propelled bomb that would be small enough to be integrated onto the F-35 and other non-strategic bombers.

Like other bunker-buster missiles, such as the gigantic 30,000lb Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the HVPW is designed to destroy buried targets like underground bunkers and tunnels. However, unlike MOP and traditional bunker-busters, his new kinetic weapon is rammed into the ground like a pile driver instead of being accelerated naturally by gravity. The force with which the HVPW strikes the ground allows it to penetrate underground targets while still being compact enough to be carried on the F-35.

“The idea is to get a heavy weapon effect with a much lighter weapon and a more compact weapon,” Walker, whose official title is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, told Flight Global. “That technology, we’ve proven that the concept works.”

Still, Walker emphasized that it isn’t clear how the U.S. Air Force will proceed with the HVPW program, which will depend on funding and the priority given to other bunker buster bombs. “The analysis of alternatives will determine what we’re going to do and how much actual funding we’ve got to go forward.”

When the Air Force first unveiled the program in 2011, it presented the HVPW as specifically designed to be carried on the F-35 joint strike fighter. However, Walker explained that the bomb could also be eventually used on other aircraft.

“[It’s] not just with the F-35, but for our entire fleet. How can I get a much more compact, lighter-weight capability which allows me to have more carriage? It’s very important in the future to have that capability.”

The United States’ has numerous potential uses for a bunker-buster capability in general. The one most often discussed, most often with regards to MOP, is to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, particularly the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, which is buried deep inside mountains (should a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran be reached, the Fordow plant would be converted into an exclusively research and development facility.)

Less often discussed is how a bunker-buster capability could be deployed against China’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Although China is believed to have a fairly small nuclear arsenal, with roughly 300-400 warheads, Beijing conceals its arsenal within an extensive underground tunnel system to deter adversaries from trying to conduct counterforce strikes that destroy China’s strategic deterrent.

Interestingly, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) ordered U.S. Strategic Command to submit a report on the “underground tunnel network used by the People’s Republic of China with respect to the capability of the United States to use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralize such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels.”

Thus, any new American bunker-buster capability is surely to be viewed with suspicion by leaders in Beijing. This is doubly true when the bunker-buster bombs can be carried by F-35 joint strike fighters, which many Asian nations— including Japan—are purchasing.

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

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

Revealed: The Islamic State's Two Most Powerful Weapons

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The ominous shadow of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) looms over Southeast Asia and Australia, judging from the scores of recent arrests throughout the region.

In order to neutralize ISIS, it is important to understand what we are confronting. Synthesizing various analyses of the entity appears to provide the following composite picture: ISIS seeks to create a geographically demarcated Islamic political entity that is potentially expansionist. The leadership of the organization is hierarchical and comprises a curious mix of hardline Islamic fundamentalists combined with genuine strategic and operational nous provided by disaffected and radicalized former Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s decimated military.

The core fundamentalist theology of ISIS emphasizes a deity that is punitive, keen on preserving religious purity above else. Consequently outsiders—Muslims who disagree with them; Shia, Christians and other minority groups and their religious symbols—can be disposed of as they are regarded as filth to be cleansed, not parties to a negotiable dispute.

Such an extreme religious narrative readily cloaks the base motivations of the many thugs who have been drawn into the movement and who rape, mutilate and kill for sadistic pleasure. The ensuing political ideology issuing from such a puritanical theological core is a version of Salafi jihadism, whose political goals appear to be as totalistic as its essential theological assumptions.

In the basic ISIS worldview, Islam must dominate all comers, by force if need be. Hence there is no logical reason to assume that ISIS leaders will be content with securing territory in Iraq–Syria only. If they can, they will expand further. Little wonder that they have sought to expand their influence into Taliban territory in Afghanistan–Pakistan and Libya; while conversely, similarly motivated violent Islamist entities such as Boko Haram in eastern Africa, and the East Indonesian Mujahidin in eastern Indonesia have pledged allegiance to it as well.

We are witnessing an institutional evolution of global jihadism in the Iraq–Syria region with potentially seismic worldwide implications. In short, ISIS is the new, improved, more resilient ‘mutation’ of al Qaeda.

Like its older, rapidly-declining, al Qaeda incarnation, ISIS does not seek to directly engage and defeat the armed might of its chief enemies: the ‘Jews and Crusaders’ – Israel, the U.S. and their coalition allies—as per stock Salafi jihadi narratives. ISIS has apparently adopted but refined the original al Qaeda ‘indirect’ strategy of aiming at the true centre of gravity of the Western and allied coalition: its largely multicultural publics.

The main political goal of this strategy appears to be to consolidate and opportunistically expand its self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate. ISIS’ objectives involve destabilizing and ultimately collapsing the fragile ‘near enemies’ of the Shia-aligned regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, as well as simultaneously corroding the political will of the ‘far enemies’ of Western coalition countries to carry on the struggle against it.

In line with this indirect strategy, ISIS emphasizes primarily non-kinetic means of expanding its power and influence. As much or possibly more thought and effort appear to be put into employing social media to attract followers worldwide to its religiously-legitimated enterprise of rebuilding the lost Islamic caliphate.

Social media—a weapon al Qaeda never really fully exploited—has truly been a force multiplier for ISIS. Thus not only untrained Muslim fighters, but trained military and law enforcement officers, as well as civilian professionals, and, as we have seen, entire families, have been targeted to conduct a hijrah (migration) to the caliphate to populate it and build up the ‘perfect’ Islamic society.

Even generally moderate Muslim societies like Malaysia and Indonesia have been affected by this skillful ISIS appeal. Meanwhile, another key element of the ISIS indirect approach has been to promote ‘crowd-sourced’ lone wolf or ‘wolf pack’ terrorism by self-radicalized supporters within Western and allied countries to internally destabilize them and sap their political will; whilst sowing discord within them between Muslim and non-Muslim communities and creating fecund conditions for the ISIS ideological virus to gestate further.  The December 2014 Sydney incident demonstrated the ISIS crowd-sourced terror tactic all too well, and Malaysian authorities have recently warned of potential lone wolf attacks as well.

In a following post I will discuss how a Western coalition ‘direct’ strategy, employing kinetic means as the principal instrument but supported by a host of non-kinetic measures, represents a potentially effective response to the ISIS indirect approach.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr

TopicsIslamic State RegionsMiddle East

Syria's Next Potential Crisis Could Turn the Middle East Upside Down

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With the Assad regime now more vulnerable in its fight against rebel groups, there is a strong case for the preparation of contingency plans to deal with a new and even greater humanitarian disaster that may unfold in and around Syria.

The potential for a genocide of the Alawites cannot be discounted. But the more likely impending threat is that of a sudden and massive population movement, especially from the western seaboard of the country into Lebanon. As noted in my previous piece (Assad's Regime is Brittle, and it May Fall Fast), fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and social media campaigns, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948.

Any substantial outflow of the Alawite community (whose total number is uncertain, but if estimated to comprise 10% of the Syrian population, could be up to 2 million people) would almost certainly risk overwhelming the institutions and confessional balance of the Lebanese state.

Given the recent weakening of the momentum of the Syrian regime in its military contest with the rebel forces, and the historical precedents (Palestine in 1948 and more recently the Yazidis and Kurds of Iraq), the international community should prepare for the worst.

If the Syrian regime is seen to be collapsing, attempts by the Alawites to flee will be all but unstoppable. And for the vast majority of the refugees, particularly the Alawites and other minorities, there will be little prospect of returning to Syria. The consequences are grave. Should there be such an outflow, its legacy will reverberate around the region for decades at humanitarian, political and strategic levels.

The Lebanese Government is struggling to cope with the present burden of around 1.2 million Syrian 'persons of concern' (to use the UN High Commission for Refugees terminology). It is anxious to prevent an additional inflow further distorting the confessional political balance of the country in general and exacerbating the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in northern Lebanon in particular. It will be keen for a further wave of refugees to be protected or absorbed elsewhere.

Europe, which is already receiving more Syrians by boat than from any other country of origin, will be the preferred destination for many. For others, the Persian Gulf states might provide an option. But neither the Gulf, European nor other Western countries are likely to be willing to countenance opening their doors to Syrian refugees on a large scale.

The challenge for the international community will be to find a comprehensive strategy that helps existing refugee populations in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the likely Alawite influx. It will need to be focused on enabling host countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, to cope with the financial and social burdens of absorbing such a presence.

Because it is clearly a scenario posing a threat to international peace and security, and would be seen as such by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, planning for an international response should be led by the UN. It would need to draw upon the experience and skills of UN agencies, supported by international and national non-government organizations with specialist capabilities in such areas as child protection.

The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimize the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimizing Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behavior and those of the Assad regime.

UN agencies and NGOs will also need to negotiate directly with rebel groups to obtain security assurances for Alawites. The work of building strategies and approaches for negotiating such arrangements, and identifying the key individuals and other factors likely to shape the outcome of such efforts, needs to begin now.

The international response should also devise ways to provide some degree of security to those seeking to leave or who have fled. Lebanon may be reluctant to open its borders even in an emergency. An intense dialogue with both the Lebanese Government and other actors may be needed if an even larger tragedy — and the risk of further derogation of Lebanese sovereignty — is to be avoided.

A longer-term aim would be to facilitate the earliest possible return of the refugees to their homes. That may prove impossible in the vast majority of cases. However, for those Syrians who do return (perhaps in the event of some sort of stand-off between the regime and its opponents), there is little likelihood they could be reabsorbed without significant financial assistance to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

The preliminary work that needs to be undertaken to give decision makers well-defined and credible choices on such issues is immense, and there is a great deal of relevant experience from the Balkans and elsewhere that ought to be tapped to assist in that process.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr/UNHCR. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia Reveals New 'Super' Aircraft Carrier Plans

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Russia has revealed key details of a new supercarrier it plans to build.

In a new interview with IHS Jane’s, Valery Polyakov, the deputy director of Russia's government-owned Krylov State Research Center, the company designing the new carrier, outlined some new details about the ship, which is being billed as Project 23000E or Shtorm (Storm).

According to Polyakov,, the vessel will displace between 90,000 and 100,000 tons, roughly double the size of any carrier Russia has built to date. It will also be 330 meters in length, 40 meters wide, and have a draft of 11 meters. The carrier will have a cruising speed of 20 knots (kt), with a top speed of 30 kt. The vessel will also have an endurance of 120 days and require a crew of between 4,000-5,000 sailors.

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The carrier will be able to carry between 80-90 combat aircraft of various kinds. Jane’s revealed that “the model features a split air wing comprising navalised T-50 PAKFAs and MiG-29Ks, as well as jet-powered naval early warning aircraft, and Ka-27 naval helicopters.”

A mockup of the carrier built by KRSC will be unveiled at the International Maritime Defense Show 2015, Polyakov said. That show will be held July 1-5 in St. Petersburg.

In addition, the carrier mockup KRSC built has four launching positions. Two of the launching positions are of the ski-ramp variant, while the other two are electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (EMALS), which the U.S. Navy itself just tested last week. As the U.S. Navy explained in a press release announcing the test, EMALS offer a number of advantages over the traditional steam-based launch systems.

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“Using electromagnetic technology, the system delivers substantial improvements in system maintenance, increased reliability and efficiency, higher-launch energy capacity, and more accurate end-speed control, with a smooth acceleration at both high and low speeds. By allowing linear acceleration over time, electromagnetic catapults also place less stress on the aircraft.”

One of the major shortcomings of the vessel, as currently designed, is that it will be powered by a conventional power plant, rather than a nuclear one. This could be later changed, per the customer’s wishes, Polyakov said.

In the Jane’s interview, Polyakov also detailed some of envisioned missions of the proposed heavy aircraft carrier: "The Project 23000E multipurpose aircraft carrier is designed to conduct operations in remote and oceanic areas, engage land-based and sea-borne enemy targets, ensure the operational stability of naval forces, protect landing troops, and provide the anti-aircraft defense."

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Reports that Russia was planning a new aircraft carrier first emerged in local media back in February. Those reports were confirmed by Russia’s naval chief the following month. "The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander," Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s top naval officer, said at the time.

Russia currently operates one carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched by the Soviet Union back in 1985. This should make it easier for Russia to construct a new aircraft carrier than a country like China, which has less experience with naval aviation than Moscow.

That being said, the proposed new carrier will be exponentially more complicated to build than Russian and Soviet carriers of the past. As such, it is extremely likely that the proposed Shtorm carrier will never come to fruition, especially given Russia’s mounting fiscal difficulties. As Jim Holmes wisely counseled, “Let’s not make too much of this.”

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

America in 2015: Democracy, Republic or Aristocracy?

The Buzz

In the United States, most citizens are taught from elementary school on up that the American form of government – democracy – is the best, most fair means of governance in the world.  Others will point out that in reality our country is a Republic, as James Madison described in the famed Federalist #10 in 1787.  But in practical terms, do either of those terms describe the American form of government today?  The results of an analysis released last week by indicate that the term most approximating the genuine nature of the U.S. political system today would be “aristocracy.”

Most Americans would chafe at such a suggestion, pointing to the fact that every two years a new Congress is voted into office by the people.  Any time the constituents don’t like their representative, the thought goes, they are free to vote him or her out.  While it is true that mechanism exists and on occasion the people do actually send a representative packing (as happened in 2014 when incumbent Congressman Eric Cantor was defeated by a virtual unknown in his party’s primary), it is extremely rare. 

In the 2014 federal elections, a staggering 96% of all incumbents were reelected, despite the fact the body had a disapproval rating of 83% heading into the vote.  How can this be?  If the people are so dissatisfied with their representatives and the people have the power to vote them out of office, why would they choose to reelect virtually all of them? 

In a word: Money.

While voters readily agree there is “too much money in politics”, few are aware of what that money actually does to the electoral system or exactly why it’s bad.  As the following data confirms, however, the excessive amount of money that has saturated our political system over the past few decades has effectively eliminated the ability of regular Americans to influence the outcome of elections and has handed an electoral monopoly to a tiny elite class of wealthy Americans.

On April 30, published a report analyzing the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections which revealed that a tiny minority of wealthy Americans had more influence over the outcome of the election than the balance of the nation’s 319 million citizens.  The report noted that this tiny group of the wealthy elite “accounted for an astounding $1.18 billion in disclosed political contributions at the federal level. Those big givers — what we have termed the Political One Percent of the One Percent — have a massively outsized impact on federal campaigns.”

In the 2014 elections – as was the case in the 2012 Congressional elections before it – not one single candidate won a seat in Congress who did not get money from this group.  But it gets worse.  The average winning House seat in 2014 cost $1.2 million.  If a person isn’t wealthy enough on their own or have the ability to raise such huge amounts, they are barred from even competing.  Thus, by bankrolling the candidates of their choice with so much cash, this “Political One Percent of the One Percent” effectively performs a “gatekeeper” function so that only other wealthy elite candidates get to stand for election.  Consider the ramifications of those facts.

With only rare exceptions, the only people who are able to compete to serve in our nation’s legislature are those who are independently wealthy or are able to make successful financial appeals to the “Political One Percent of the One Percent.”  Everyone else is excluded. defines aristocracy as “a government or state ruled by an…elite or privileged upper class.”  Given the set of facts that govern our political system today, by definition the United States is not a representative democracy.  As distasteful as it is for us to contemplate, we must admit “aristocracy” comes closer to the mark, as a small elite, privileged class does presently rule the U.S. electoral system.

When projections for political spending during the 2016 cycle are as high as $12 billion, what chance does anyone have to resist?  The analytics don’t lie: the American political system is now effectively controlled by a neo-aristocracy.  Within a number of weeks I will retire from the United States Army where I have served almost 21 years on active duty, including four combat deployments.  I have spent the majority of my adult life serving the people of this country and pledging to support and defend the U.S. Constitution – not the preferences and interests of an aristocratic elite.

As I retire from the active Army, I will be transitioning my service to the country to a different venue by establishing a 501c3 nonprofit called Democracy Awake, dedicated to the prospect of returning democratic power and influence to the American people.  If we are able to raise the necessary funds, we will provide a number of no-cost products and services to the American people for the 2016 cycle that has a chance of giving them greater influence over the electoral system (please see for more information). 

What we propose to do is unprecedented and has never been attempted in the history of American politics. I obviously cannot guarantee our effort will succeed.  What I can promise, however, is that if we do not try, if the people of this country remain passive in light of the political power amassed by this tiny wealthy elite, their power will continue to increase as the influence of the people shrinks even smaller.  By birth-right this country belongs to all the people.  It is time for us to wake up to these new realities before we lose this precious birth-right.

Daniel L. Davis is a retired Lt. Col. in the US Army.  He served four combat tours, including both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He was the 2012 Ridenhour winner of the Truth Telling prize.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDemocracy RegionsUnited States

Is U.S. Foreign Policy Making Americans Less Safe?

The Buzz

Senior U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials increasingly warn of the threat of “lone wolf” individuals attempting terror attacks within the United States. These potential perpetrators are characterized as externally motivated, but predominantly self-directed in plotting and attempting acts of politically and/or ideologically motivated violence. They need not travel to purported foreign “safe havens” to receive training or guidance, nor be in direct contact with terrorist organizations based abroad. Rather, their inspiration, in large part, appears to stem from the principles and narratives promoted by Islamist jihadist groups.

On February 12, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence:

“We face a much greater, more frequent, recurring threat from lone offenders and probably loose networks of individuals. Measured in terms of frequency and numbers, it is attacks from those sources that are increasingly the most noteworthy…”

On February 26, during the annual worldwide threats hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned:

“Home-grown violent extremists continue to pose the most likely threat to the homeland.”

Last Friday, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson stated on MSNBC:

“We’re in a new phase…in the global terrorist threat where, because of effective use of social media, the Internet, by ISIL, al-Qaeda, we have to be concerned about the independent actor who is here in the homeland who may strike with little or no warning…”

Finally, yesterday, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell described the messaging efforts of jihadist groups generally and the self-declared Islamic State (IS) more specifically:

“Their narrative is pretty powerful: The West, the United States, the modern world, is a significant threat to their religion. Their answer to that is to establish a caliphate. And they are being attacked by the U.S. and other Western nations, and by these apostate regimes in the region. Because they are being attacked they need support in two ways; people coming to fight for them, and people coming to stand up and attack coalition nations in their home.”

In summary, the most likely—though not most lethal—terror threats to Americans come from individuals living within the United States who are partially motivated to undertake self-directed attacks based upon their perception that the United States and the West are at war with the Muslim world.

Remarkably, these two observations have had virtually no impact on U.S. foreign policy discourse. In Washington, there is an agreed-upon, bipartisan understanding that under no circumstances will officials or politicians acknowledge, or even explore, the concept that foreign policy activities might play a role in compelling U.S. residents, who would not otherwise consider terrorism, to plot and attempt attacks. This is somewhat understandable given that there are many different backgrounds, experiences, and precursors that lead people to become violent extremists. Yet, whereas there are constant hearings and debates—even White House summits—about how to “counter violent extremism,” there is rarely any consideration of which U.S. foreign policy activities might themselves be precursors to U.S. terrorism.

In fact, the only foreign policy decisions that the Obama administration admits might inspire terrorism are those made by Obama’s predecessor. The first is one that the White House has tried to reverse since January 2009: detaining terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Most recently, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 18, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter endorsed closing the military prison because, “It still provides a rallying point for Jihadi recruiting.” The other decision is the 2003 invasion of Iraq; as President Obama stated on March 17, “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences.”

Of course, another unintended consequence emerged from the U.S.-led airwar in 2011 that ensured the toppling of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya.  As a U.S. military official told the Wall Street Journal today, “ISIL now has an operational presence in Libya, and they have aspirations to make Libya their African hub. Libya is part of their terror map now.”  Compare this recent warning to how the State Department described Libya on the eve of the 2011 airwar: “The Libyan government continued to demonstrate a strong and active commitment to combating terrorist organizations and violent extremism through bilateral and regional counterterrorism and security cooperation, particularly on the issue of foreign fighter flow to Iraq.”  Now, foreign fighters are flowing from Iraq and Syria to establish a stronghold in Libya. This is clearly an unintended, though not at all unsurprising, consequence, but not one that the Obama administration will acknowledge because it happened under its watch.

More critically, what foreign policy activities are bolstering the narrative of Islamic jihadist groups today? Is it really just the 122 terror suspects still in Guantanamo? What about drone strikes, which themselves are universally hated? Or, what of the support for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, whose government sentenced that country’s first elected leader to death this week? Finally, is the U.S.-led airwar against IS fueling that narrative and making the likelihood of lone wolf attacks within the United States more likely?

What else is the United States doing abroad that could be making Americans less safe from lone wolf terrorism at home? Why is this never asked or considered when officials and politicians discuss how the thirteen-and-a-half-year war on terrorism is progressing?

This piece first appeared on CFR’s blog Politics, Power and Preventive Action here

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States