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Warning: Iran Could Already Be Gaming the Nuclear Deal

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While the world focused on the escalating Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria, the continuing debate in Tehran over adopting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has gotten a little lost. But listening to the Iranian parliament argue whether the nuclear deal should be adopted—something the US Congress will not get a chance to do—provides great insight into how the leadership intends to implement the deal. Little of this insight is reassuring.

As we approach the deal’s October 19 Adoption Day anticipated by the United Nations Security Council, there is no indication that Iran is backing away from the JCPOA. That has not stopped Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei from letting the parliament and hardline critics have a go at the JCPOA’s flaws, especially if that helps check President Hassan Rouhani’s popular support. The special parliamentary commission established to review the JCPOA has frequently taken an adversarial stance towards the deal and the president over the past few weeks.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, a current ally of Rouhani, has rushed the commission’s review under a “double emergency plan” mechanism. The mechanism—which sounds awfully like something from Animal House—is most likely designed to minimize the bloodletting from a drawn out process. Parliamentarian and Commission Spokesman Hossein Naghavi Hosseini stated the final report will likely recommend a resolution that will neither “accept” nor “reject” the nuclear deal, but instead would “provisionally approve” the JCPOA. This gives the parliament its say without hampering the administration’s ability to maneuver.

Once the report is read in parliament, there will be plenty of spin designed to obscure the realities of the deal and appease domestic audiences. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi’s statement that Iran collected samples at the Parchin Military Complex in the absence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cast doubt on the integrity of inspections at the suspect site. It also showed the extent to which concerns of regime legitimacy continue to outweigh appearances in the minds of Iran’s leaders. Expect to see a litany of assertions about what the JCPOA does and does not compel Iran to do. Officials will argue the agreement does not restrict Iran’s missile activity, and that sanctions relief should be immediate per the Supreme Leader’s redlines.

Cherry-picking which parts of the deal will be considered legitimate is one element of a larger approach Tehran appears to be taking with the JCPOA. Supreme Leader Khamenei and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili have argued that because the P5+1 members are only “suspending” the sanction regime rather than removing it, Iran should handle its implementation of the deal in a similar manner. By merely “suspending” its nuclear program, Iran can keep it as reconstitutable as possible. This is easy with some program components, such as centrifuges. Other elements will be more difficult, especially the required reconfiguration of the Arak heavy water research reactor and the reduction of Iran’s uranium stockpile.

The P5+1 and Iran are still negotiating the details of the redesign for the Arak reactor, and Iranian officials have attempted to spin this issue as well. On July 27, Salehi argued that US Secretary of State John Kerry was “mistaken when he said that the Arak Reactor’s core will be removed and filled with concrete.” Salehi emphasized that while that the calandria will be removed, set aside, and filled with concrete—just as Kerry had noted—Iran would retain the option to “install a new reservoir in the place of the old one” should the nuclear deal fail. Regardless of Salehi’s spin, the JCPOA requires that the existing calandria “be made inoperable”. China is coordinating Arak-related talks between Iran and the P5+1, but these details must be worked out prior to Implementation Day, currently expected in early 2016.

Iran’s arrangements for the conversion or transfer of its excess uranium stockpile also remain to be determined. Iran’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA Board of Governors Reza Najafi explained on September 11 that it was “possible” Iran could transfer its excess stockpile to Russia, but noted that Iran was reviewing its “strategies, methods, and options.” He explained, “One existing option is changing and converting stockpiles, and another option is exporting products to other countries.” Recent reports from the sidelines of the September IAEA General Conference indicate that the Russian option is coalescing. Salehi met with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s nuclear company Rosatom, and discussed the "issue of when, how, and in what manner" to transport enriched uranium to Russia.

It is a good bet that Russia will be the end buyer for the stockpile, just as it is likely that China will play a large role in the redesign of Arak. Iranian officials’ insistence on weighing their options could be seen as simply foot-dragging, or as a prelude to a more serious effort to game the terms of the JCPOA. The Iranian leadership also needs these public debates to prevent Tehran’s compliance with the deal from appearing as capitulation to the West.

Ultimately, Iranian officials will continue spinning statements for domestic audiences, emphasizing the reversibility of those aspects of the nuclear agreement that the P5+1 hoped would be the most irreversible.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Tara Beeny is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. This report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project. It analyzes the most important Iran news events of the past week and provides an outlook of the regime’s strategic calculus.

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on AEIdeas blog. You can find it here.



Russia Could Fly 96 Sorties a Day over Syria

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The Russian expeditionary force in Syria could generate as many as ninety-six fixed-wing combat aircraft sorties per day, assuming they have well-oiled logistics and properly trained maintenance crews. But that is a best-case scenario during a “combat surge”; more realistically, the thirty-two Russian jets at Latakia might be able to generate only twenty sorties per day.

“With thirty-two on the ramp, I think they'll probably be able to fly twenty-four jets per day,” one recently retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot told me. “Depending on sortie duration and whether they're flying at night, they may get between two and four sorties per jet, per day. So I think the range is probably between forty-eight and ninety-six sorties per day.”

But while the Russians might be able to generate as many as ninety-six sorties in a day during a surge, they might not be able to sustain that pace for long. “Whether or not they'll be able to sustain a pace like that will be interesting to watch,” stated the retired fighter pilot.

Another current U.S. Air Force official agreed with the assessment. “That's about right,” the second Air Force official said. “There are a lot of variables though—number of aircrew and maintainers, aerial refueling, distance from airfield to target and the amount of intel on deliberate targets. Some could be flying on-call CAPs [combat air patrols] waiting for targets and flying longer missions while others takeoff on deliberate missions where they take off with pre-designated targets.”

But other U.S. Air Force officials are dubious—given the Russians’ relatively anemic logistical train and the diverse types of aircraft that they have fielded. “I think those numbers are really optimistic,” said a third senior U.S. Air Force official. “If I had thirty-two airplanes and they were all different I think we could—with good logistics—get a four-turn-four from the Su-24s, a four-turn-four from the Su-25s, and two-turn-twos from the Su-30s and Su-34s…. So that’s twenty-four sorties a day.”

Moreover, the Russian aircraft have not been observed flying at night—which cuts down on their sortie generation rate. That has led other Air Force and Marine officials to conclude that the Russians might be flying as few as 20 twenty sorties per day—mostly in pairs and with sporadic support from the four air superiority oriented Su-30SM Flankers. Only some Russian aircraft have been observed carrying KAB-500 satellite-guided bombs or Kh-29 laser-guided missiles. That means that most Russian aircraft have to flying during the day when dropping unguided munitions. “I don’t see them flying at night especially since they’re dropping dumb bombs,” the third official said.

However, the Su-25s might be able generate more sorties than the other aircraft types present at Latakia because they operate differently from typical fighter aircraft. “The Frogfoot would have a whole different operating construct – shorter sorties and ordnance loading requirements,” said a fourth senior U.S. Air Force official. “Perhaps seventy-five percent tail availability, three sorties per day is reasonable.”

U.S. forces are typically able to maintain about seventy percent mission availability during combat surges—but the Russians are not likely to be able to match that. One U.S. Air Force commander said that he was able to keep four F-15C Eagles aloft twenty-four hours a day with twelve deployed aircraft during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The F-15Cs had to fly for six hours per day during those sorties. “With hard work and good logistics, this was comfortable,” the U.S. Air Force official said. “Can the Russians do that? I don't know – their jets are rugged, but like I said, I'm skeptical about logistics.”

U.S. Navy officials offered similar assessments. “We recently took seven top-of-the-line Super Hornets to [Naval Air Station] Fallon [Nevada] for a det,” a senior naval aviator said. “You can safely assuming that a part of the time the seventh jet will be undergoing maintenance, so I suspect the Russians have eight to ten [out of each 12 aircraft detachment of Su-24s and Su-25s] available at any time.”

Like the Air Force officials, U.S. Navy officials questioned how many sorties the Russian forces would be able to fly. “We also flew a five-turn-five-turn-five schedule for fifteen sorties a day,” the naval aviator said. “This was relatively aggressive from a resource standpoint. We’re talking jets, but how many pilots did they bring? What is their maintenance footprint?”

The problem for the Russians is that they have not deployed overseas since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Russian logistics will probably be the long pole in the tent,” the fourth Air Force official said. It’s a problem further compounded by Russia’s use of conscript troops rather than professionals. “They are not used to this like we are. Our maintainers are smart… Not conscripts. They’re motivated and they know the business well,” the third official said. “I don’t think the Russians are dumb, but they’re not Americans.”

The difficulty in gauging the Russians’ sortie generation capability is complex because there are a lot of unknowns. Factors like maintenance efficiency, fuel and weapons availability, parts logistics reach back, and general pilot and maintainer proficiency during surge operations are just a few of the factors that can have a drastic effect impact on sortie generation. The U.S. Air Force has developed its methods after a lot of trial and error—and a lot of practice. “The USAF has a complex method of ensuring it has enough jets and pilots to maintain surge operations, and it relies on bringing enough of these things together in sufficient quantity with well trained operators to implement them,” said a fifth Air Force official. “That's what makes us so good. The synergy between man and machine to endure for the long haul.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov


This Could 'Sink' the U.S. Navy's New Aircraft Carriers (And it’s Not China)

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The Government Accountability Office has slammed the U.S. Navy for badly managing its plans to buy new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. Too late to do anything about delays and soaring costs, the top government watchdog hopes the boondoggle will at least be a teachable moment.

In 2009, Newport News Shipbuilding started construction of the first ship in the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford, also known as CVN-78. Scheduled to enter service in May 2016, the vessel may not arrive with key gear and is already $2 billion over budget.

“Budgets set early in the Ford-class program were not realistically achievable and included optimistic delivery dates to the fleet,” Paul Francis, GAO’s managing director of acquisition and sourcing management, bluntly told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 1. “The consequences of this tension have been realized today … with promised levels of capability potentially compromised.”

Having warned of exactly this outcome two years before the Virginia-based shipbuilder laid down CVN-78’s hull, Francis could not help but slip in an “I told you so” up front in the GAO’s full report titled “Poor Outcomes Are the Predictable Consequences of the Prevalent Acquisition Culture.”

“In July 2007, we reported on weaknesses in the Navy’s business case for theFord-class aircraft carrier,” Francis noted to the assembled lawmakers. “Today, all of this has come to pass in the form of cost growth, testing delays and reduced capability – in other words, less for more.”

But at least according to the current requirements, Ford is already 92 percent complete. So, all the Pentagon can do is try to prevent these kind of messes with future members of the class and other big ticket items.

More than a decade ago, the Pentagon started considering replacements for the Navy’s venerable Nimitz-class carriers. In service since 1975, the sailing branch has progressively updated Nimitz and her sisters over the years.

Unfortunately, the basic design imposes significant limits on the scope of any changes. The Navy specifically wanted the Ford class to allow for more dramatic improvements.

Among other features, the new ships have an updated nuclear reactor, bigger flight decks, an electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft, upgraded computer systems, more powerful radars and an advanced mechanism to help catch landing planes. In contrast, even the newest Nimitz-class vessels look particularly dated with their Cold War-era nuclear power plants, steam-powered catapults, spotty Internet connections and increasingly outdated electronics.

Unlike the previous modifications, these improvements centered in no small part on largely untested technologies that would take time to get working. In itsfirst report on the project eight years ago, GAO had zeroed in on these potential issues.

The government watchdog highlighted seven unrealistic expectations the Navy had about the project. Most importantly, despite the fact that contractors were still developing many of the core systems, the sailing branch assumed that the overall shape and size of the carrier would remain essentially the same throughout construction.

With the hope that the final design would have a hull similar to the older carriers, the Navy assured the Pentagon the work could be done quickly and on the cheap compared to those ships. GAO and Newport News both disagreed.

“Specifically, we noted that the Navy’s cost estimate of $10.5 billion and two million fewer labor hours made the unprecedented assumption that the CVN 78 would take fewer labor hours than its more mature predecessor – the CVN 77 [USS George H.W. Bush],” Francis told senators. “The shipbuilder’s estimate – 22 percent higher in cost – was more in line with actual historical experience.”

The watchdog’s fears turned out to be well founded. Six years after publishing their initial criticisms, GAO released a second report stating that, as expected, new equipment such as the ship’s radar, and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System and the Advanced Arresting Gear landing system were all running into trouble.

When construction of Ford began, the Navy had not built a single one of the radar units it expected to fit on the ship. Engineers had never tested the components they had built outside of a laboratory.

The sailing branch had started prototyping the EMALS and AAG gear, but on land. GAO found that both of these state-of-the-art systems were experiencing relatively normal teething problems.

The shipbuilders had to incorporate design changes into the vessel they were already building. Unsurprisingly, the new carrier was over-budget by 22 percent – perfectly in line with Newport News’ original estimates.

In January, the Pentagon’s top weapon tester pointed out continuing problems with various important systems, especially the EMALS and AAG gear. Four months later, the Navy finally tested throwing a weighed sled with the new catapult off the still in-progress Ford.

“Reliability for the catapult and arresting gear systems have not been reported on in over a year,” the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation wrote in its annual summary of the program. “Before the Navy stopped tracking/reporting on catapult and arresting gear performance, both systems were performing well below their projected target to achieve required reliability.”

Then there was the matter of shock testing CVN 78. The Navy routinely uses explosives to shake new ships to make sure they’re ready for dangerous, combat situations.

Despite initial plans for a so-called Full Ship Shock Trial, “the Navy unilaterally reneged on the approved strategy on June 18, 2012,” according to the Pentagon’s year overview. In August, Frank Kendall — the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics — sent a memo to Navy secretary Ray Mabus ordering him go ahead with the tests, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Beyond delays resulting from issues with the ship and its equipment, the Navy kept revising the number of sailors it will take to run the ship based on various design changes. “As manning requirements have been further developed, analysis indicates the present design has insufficient berthing for some ranks requiring re-designation/redesign of some spaces as a possible solution,” the Pentagon evaluators discovered.

The Pentagon figured the sailing branch will run into problems getting the Ford ready for its version of the troublesome F-35 stealth fighter. All told, GAO isn’t sure the Navy can meet its goal of having the ship fully operational less than five years from now.

“The timeframes for post-delivery testing, i.e. the period when the ship would demonstrate many of its capabilities, are being compressed by ongoing system delays,” Francis said. “This tight test schedule could result in deploying without fully tested systems if the Navy maintains the ship’s ready-to-deploy date in 2020.”

Perhaps even more problematic, the Navy’s failure to be realistic about the carriers from the start means the costs are likely to keep growing beyond the more reasonable estimates at the beginning from GAO or Newport News. Regardless of the final price tag, “the Navy’s approach … results in a more expensive, yet less complete and capable ship at delivery than initially planned,” Francis declared.

However, the wrangling over CVN 78’s cost is basically over. But Francis told senators he was worried about the same problems playing out with the second ship in the class, the John F. Kennedy – a.k.a. CVN 79.

As with the Ford, GAO accused the Navy of being overly optimistic about the up-front costs and fudging the numbers by planning to install key gear after getting the ship. If the sailing branch proceeded as planned, Francis explained the service would be accepting yet another carrier with the same flaws as the first one.

“I think what we’ve seen with the CVN 78 and the CVN 79 was optimism verging on delusion about what each carrier was going to cost,” Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, told War Is Boring after reviewing the watchdog’s report. “The Navy and the Pentagon knew that the true cost was politically untenable.”

Beyond that, both the Pentagon and lawmakers have refused to keep to their own budget caps with the new carriers. Congress has put caps in place to try and control the price point. The Navy had previously convinced lawmakers to loosen those rules as the Ford became more expensive.

Now, the Kennedy is already at its Congressional mandated $11.5 billion cap. Under existing plans, however, both the Pentagon’s own Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and the Congressional Budget Office expect the ship’s final cost to go up.

According to Francis, the debacle has been the result of complacency on all sides and culture that promotes throwing money at problems. “In the commercial marketplace, investment in a new product represents an expense,” the managing director noted. But for the military, “new products represent a revenue, in the form of a budget line.”

In turn, the services offer overly optimistic assessments of their own projects to secure pieces of that increasingly shrinking budget. The Navy is already looking for money for CVN 80, despite clearly not having a real sense of how much the new carriers actually cost.

“The environment of Navy shipbuilding is unique as it is characterized by a symbiotic relationship between buyer [Navy] and builder,” Francis added. “Under such a scenario, the government has a limited ability to negotiate favorable contract terms in light of construction challenges and virtually no ability to walk away from the investment once it is underway.”

In his concluding remarks, Francis said that the only way to avoid bigger problems in the future is to have a serious conversation about how the Pentagon asks for and how Congress doles out money for large defense programs.

“I think it’s easy for the Pentagon and Congress to dismiss GAO’s warnings and predictions at the beginning,” Smithberger lamented. “It’s only when the chickens come home to roost that they start to pay attention.”

The most important point seems to be that everyone involved in the process needs to get real about their spending habits from the start.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here


This Is What Russia's Enemies in Syria Should Fear: The Su-24 Fencer

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While the four Russian Su-34 Fullback bombers deployed to Syria are eye-catching, most of  the Russian air force’s long-range striking power in the region comes courtesy of the venerable Su-24M2 Fencer. Russia has deployed twelve of the distinctive twin-engine, variable geometry wing jets to its base in Latakia.

While the Fencer is an aged design that can trace its inception to the 1960s, Russia’s remaining fleet of Su-24s has been heavily upgraded with modern systems. The current version of the Fencer is equipped with GLONASS satellite navigation systems, an upgraded glass cockpit, a modern head-up display and an upgraded air-to-air self-defense capability with the addition of R-73 high off-boresight missiles.

The jet has also been provisioned to carry a wider range of precision-guided munitions. But while the Russian jet can be equipped with precision-guided weapons, according to U.S. Air Force officials—Russian forces don’t appear to be using such weapons. Instead the Russians appear to be mostly using unguided munitions according to Pentagon officials. Indeed, U.S. Air Force officials have gone on the recording saying so. “Those aren’t precision weapons,” U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Robert Otto told reporters on Thursday as quoted by TIME. “We can tell what’s hanging off the airplane.”

The Fencer can carry a maximum of 17,600lbs of ordnance, but usually carries only 6,600lbs in most configurations according to Sukhoi. The aircraft, which was designed to penetrate enemy airspace at low altitude, can hit targets as far as 400 miles away without aerial refueling while carrying six 1,100lbs FAB-500M-62 bombs (the plane does has aerial refueling capability). Nonetheless, the Fencers are likely flying more than just strike missions. The aircraft are probably being used for reconnaissance and other support missions, according to U.S. Navy officials.

With twelve aircraft available to them, the Russian air force should have between eight and ten Fencers available to them at any given time. If these Russians have surged enough resources to Latakia, the ten Su-24 could generate thirty sorties per day in a best-case scenario. But there are important unanswered questions—we don’t know how many pilots and maintenance crews the Russian forces brought with them. Moreover, many U.S. Air Force and Navy officials doubt that Russia brought enough support equipment with them. “It's unlikely that they have brought the support equipment with them that we do on our TSPs [theatre security packages], “ one Air Force official said. “It certainly isn't already in place in Latakia.”

The Russian air force will eventually replace aircraft with the Su-34, but the Fencer will remain in service for some time to come. It still offers the Russian forces in Syria a decent long-range strike capability against targets that are further away from Latakia.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: WikiCommons.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

America and Russia in Syria: Superpower Showdown or Opportunity?

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Reportedly, Washington and Moscow are working on ways to deconflict their tactical military operations within Syria in the aftermath of the Russian military’s arrival on the scene in recent weeks. That is good news. The last thing we need is to have two nuclear superpowers inadvertently, or even intentionally, shooting at each other in some quagmire in the Middle East.

But in another sense, of course, the two nations’ strategies for Syria are nowhere near deconflicted.

President Putin declared that his goal in Syria was to fight ISIL. His more plausible goal, as reflected in his military’s choice of initial bombing targets, is to uphold President Assad’s shaky hold on power by attacking closeby insurgents even if they are relatively moderate and unaffiliated with ISIL or al-Nusra.  Putin wants to protect his own proxies, retain Russian access to the naval facility along the Mediterranean coast at Tartus, and—most likely—embarrass the United States while demonstrating Russia’s global reach.  While undoubtedly concerned by ISIL at one level, he is unlikely to attempt to defeat it militarily, given the dangers and difficulties associated with any such mission.  He will leave that problem to us.  The fact that Assad has killed most of the quarter million who have died in this war to date, and caused most of the displacement and refugee flows as well, matters little to the callous Putin, who in any event probably blames American naivete more than any other factor for the fact that this war has dragged on for four and a half tragic years.

Yet Putin’s cynicism about this war may not preclude U.S.-Russian collaboration on a practical path forward. If we envision some type of Bosnia model for what we are trying to achieve in Syria and work backwards, it is at least possible that Russian and American objectives can be largely reconciled—or, to employ the word of the day, at least deconflicted.

In terms of American interests, we need to defeat ISIL and ultimately unseat Assad, while mitigating the humanitarian disaster befalling the country as fast as possible. Putin needs the containment of ISIL before its offshoots wind up in Moscow, as previous groups of jihadis have done over the years. Beyond that, he also wants to exercise Russian leverage and influence on the Middle East stage in a way that enhances national prestige. I would submit that most if not all of these objectives are at least in principle compatible.

A future Syria could be a confederation of several sectors—one mainly Alawite and largely along the Mediterranean coast; another Kurdish and along the north and northeast corridors of the country near the border with Turkey; a third possibly Druse, in the southwest; at least one more made up primarily of Sunni Muslims; and then finally a central zone of intermixed groups in the country’s main population belt from Damascus to Aleppo. The last zone would be difficult to stabilize but the others might not be so inherently problematic down the road.

With this arrangement, Assad would have to step down from power in Damascus eventually—but perhaps he could remain in the Alawite sector, as a compromise.  A weak central government would replace him, but most power and most of the country’s future armed forces would reside within the individual autonomous sectors (and belong to the various regional governments). ISIL would be targeted collectively by everyone. The whole thing would surely require international peacekeepers to hold together, once a deal was struck down the road. Russian troops could help with this mission along the Alawite region’s borders with other parts of the country, for example.

Getting to a point where such a deal was even possible would take time and great effort. Our training and equipping of moderate opposition forces would have to be expanded greatly.  Vetting standards would have to be relaxed in numerous ways.  Moreover, U.S. and other foreign trainers would need to deploy inside Syria to accelerate training where the would-be recruits actually live (and must stay, if they are to protect their families).

Those regions that could be accessed by international forces, starting perhaps with the Kurdish and Druse sectors, could receive humanitarian relief on a much expanded scale. Over time, the number of accessible regions would grow, as moderate opposition forces were strengthened.  This process could help reduce the scale of suffering, and refugee flows, right away—even if it would admittedly take a couple years for the overall strategy to have any real chance of succeeding.

But while it could take many months or years to achieve the outcome we want, articulation of this kind of vision now could provide a basis for working together with, or at least not working against, other key outside players in the conflict including Russia and Turkey and the Gulf states and Iraq. (I do not claim that it is realistic to collaborate with Iran—that would be a welcome surprise, but a major surprise, if it proved to be the case.)

Surely, the Russian intervention in this war was not well-motivated. In the short term, moreover, it has made things much more complicated. But if we use the occasion to recognize that current western strategy is inexorably failing in Syria, we may be able to find a better path forward that eventually finds more points of accord than disagreement between Moscow and Washington—and, more importantly, that meshes more realistically with current realities of power and politics inside this forlorn land.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at Brookings, member of the Africa Security Initiative there, and author of the new book, The Future of Land Warfare.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia Has Its Own 'A-10' Warthog in Syria: Enter the Su-25 Frogfoot

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While top-of-the-line Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-H fighters and Su-34 Fullback bombers have captured the lion’s share of attention, the single most effective Russian aircraft deployed to Syria is the venerable Su-25 Frogfoot. The Russian air force has deployed a dozen of the slow, low-altitude flying tanks to its base in Latakia. But it’s not clear which version of the jet Russia has sent to Syria, however it’s probable that these are the latest Su-25SM version of the aircraft.

“The Russian air force will use the Frogfoots to support the Assad regime in the same way the USAF is using the A-10 Warthog to support the Iraqi government,” one veteran U.S. Air Force aviator told me. Another senior Air Force official agreed. “Frogfoots are the best air-to-ground platform for this type of fight for sure.”

The much-vaunted Su-34 Fullback bomber is not likely to play a significant role—four aircraft are just not enough. “Four jets are not enough to fly ‘sustained sorties,’ certainly not twenty-four hour ATO [Air Tasking Order] ops,” a third Air Force official said. “I'd guess that they are flying two-ship missions, hitting targets two to three times per day or night, tops. But... It's the Russians, so you never really know. “

The Su-30SM multirole fighter is not likely to play a significant role either—given their limited numbers and lack of a genuine mission. “The Su-30s are really an air-to-air platform so I could see them in an escort role,” the second Air Force official said.  “But, why would you need to escort your own fighters in a permissive environment?  ISIS doesn’t have any fighters of note… But the coalition does…”

That means most of the genuine combat operations will fall to the dozen Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer bombers and Su-25s. While the Su-24 is a good long-range battlefield interdiction aircraft, it is not particularly well suited for working closely with ground troops at “danger close” distances. However, the Su-25—like its American A-10 Warthog counterpart—was purpose-built as a close air support aircraft in the tradition of the Soviet Union’s much-venerated Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik from the Second World War.

Much like the Warthog—which the U.S. Air Force leadership is fighting tooth and nail to scrap—and the Sturmovik, the Frogfoot is an armored beast of an aircraft with an armored cockpit and multiple redundant systems. The Russian air force has upgraded dozens of Su-25s to the latest SM standard, which includes a glass cockpit, a GLONASS satellite navigation system and modern avionics that would allow for the use of precision-guided munitions. Eventually, the Russian air force will likely upgrade its entire Su-25 fleet since the Frogfoot still plays an important role in the service’s order of battle—as demonstrated by the Syrian deployment. Close air support has always been an important part of Russian and Soviet doctrine going back to the Second World War.

The aircraft has repeatedly proven itself supporting Russian ground forces fighting wars ranging from Afghanistan to the Georgian conflict in 2008. Nonetheless, because of the high-risk low-altitude missions Su-25 pilots fly, the Russians and other Frogfoot operators have lost many aircraft to ground fire—both to anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. ISIS does not have sophisticated air defenses, but it does have anti-aircraft artillery and it is likely that Russian aircrews will have to closely coordinate with Syrian regime ground forces while flying at low altitude. The presence of Syrian ground forces to identify targets should make Russian air strikes more effective—assuming Assad’s forces and the Russians can properly coordinate.

It would be a “safe bet” to assume that the Su-25 will bear the brunt of Russian combat sorties, according to one senior U.S. Navy aviator—especially given that twelve aircraft can maintain a decent sortie generation rate. U.S. forces are not likely to encounter the Frogfoot outside of Syria however. “I doubt the Russians will be flying their Frogfoots very far east,” a veteran Air Force pilot said.  “They'll likely be used only within 150 nautical miles of home station.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia's Air War in Syria: A Chance to Spy on America's F-22 Fighter?

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Russia may be using its air campaign in Syria as an opportunity to gather intelligence on U.S. forces and gain operational experience on their latest hardware. Gathering information on the U.S. Air Force’s stealthy fifth-generation F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter is of particular interest to the Russian military.

Nonetheless, the Russian expeditionary force largely follows traditional Soviet doctrine and consists of a mix of combat aircraft, air defenses and a heavily armed ground security element. “While it appears the Russians are following their standard doctrine with regard to the deployment/employment of their ground and air assets, it’s certainly not out of the question to use their newer air-to-air assets as a form of ‘operational testing’ in the real world environment,” one senior U.S. Air Force intelligence official told me. “In a sense, we're doing the same thing with our F-22s.”

Though gaining operational experience on the Sukhoi Su-30SM and Su-34 is likely an important aspect of the Russian deployment, the Russians might have another objective in deploying their latest jets to the theatre. “It may be a way for them to ‘characterize’ the F-22’s radar emissions on their radar warning receivers (RWR) in a real-world environment,” the senior Air Force intelligence official said.  “Not traditional intelligence collection per se, but could be a way to see how their RWRs receive and display an F-22's radar emissions.”

Another senior U.S. Air Force aviator offered a more succinct assessment. “They probably aren't planning on getting into any air-to-air engagements with ISIS,” the pilot said. “$100 says their air players are there to soak up trons from our fifth-gen stuff.”

But not everyone shares that opinion. “I am skeptical that the Su-30s are there purely to collect ‘intel.’  Presume that the Russians have other traditional ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] collectors to do that,” the senior intelligence official said. Russian forces generally use specialized aircraft like the Ilyushin Il-20M Coot-A to collect electronic intelligence—and it would make sense to assume the Russian air force has deployed such assets to the region.

Conversely, the presence of the latest Flanker variants in Syria might be to ward of Western intelligence assets that might attempt to close in to gather data on the Russian deployment. “The Flankers are not present for defensive counter-air purposes, but instead, their presence is probably meant to harass and push back air breathing intelligence collection craft that might venture too close to their base of operations,” a third Air Force official said.


Other U.S. Navy and Air Force aviators agreed. “The four jets may be postured to sit on an alert/scramble notice.  It would be very challenging for them to fly sustained combat ops with only four fighters,” one F-22 Raptor pilot said. “I would submit they'd be able to fly a two-ship once a day to provide escort/over watch of the primary air-to-ground players and not much more.”


But another U.S. Air Force official cautioned not to underestimate the Russians. “Remember they have more interoperability between their planes and they were designed to be easy to work on.” The Russians might be able to generate more sorties than many expect—which would be many more than a comparable force of four Raptors. “The Raptor requires extensive logistical support to keep it flying… Just think of the Low Observable (LO) work that needs to be done between sorties,” he said. “If you just want to fly at a marginally capable rate, you need engines and flight controls, not fifth-gen avionics and LO coatings.”

Overall, the consensus amongst U.S. Air Force and Navy officials I spoke to is that the Russian expeditionary force is too small to be genuinely effective. But if Russia is serious about its Syrian air campaign, the Russian presence will likely grow significantly. “While the amount of aerial firepower is significant, I'd still watch for more in order to run sustained around-the-clock sortie generation,” a U.S. Air Force official said. “If the Russians are as serious about this as they say they are, more aircraft should show up as base infrastructure is improved.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

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How China is Using 'Science' in the South China Sea to Gain Control

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Publications often view the South China Sea as a source of constant security tension whereas analysis of scientific cooperation in the region, on the other hand, is rare, thinly spread and short. However, scientific cooperation in maritime matters does exist; ‘collective research and knowledge’ is even considered by neighboring nations as a means of gathering together—a functional bridge—indispensable in de-politicalizing reoccurring tensions. Disputes between parties continue to poison bilateral relations and negotiations on a Code of Conduct are tested by significant political questions while scientific programs link an extensive network of scientists and bureaucrats covering complex maritime questions, resource management and sharing a common interest for fragile ecological balances.

Scientific programs obviously serve the interests of both China and the Southeast Asian countries: areas of cooperation are numerous and the easiest ground to establish regional cooperation regimes. In this sense, collective scientific work or the adoption of functional standards could contribute towards defusing threatening attitudes.

The numerous projects initiated demand time (they run over several years) and a substantial financial investment. They can only start once all parties (including those currently in conflict) strike an agreement, to avoid risk to their smooth running. Chinese proposals are non-stop, at every level and in every domain. They cover a very wide scope of research from tectonics, currentology, sedimentology, marine geology to prospecting and exploration programs or fight against pollution and environmental warming.

Yet, as my ASPI Strategic Insight paper demonstrates, scientific cooperation endorses the reality of the relationship, which is that of ‘unequal interdependence’ or asymmetry. No effort equals in size nor in quality the one sustained by the Chinese. China is the main initiator, orchestrator and financial sponsor of regional scientific cooperation programs. As a country where the Science & Technology development model forms part of a more global strategy to validate its status as a powerful nation, China has actively supported research through the funding of institutes, universities’ programs, infrastructure and specialists education. President Xi Jinping is involved in the elaboration and supervision of different programs such as the state program for ocean development—2006 to 2020—or the five-year improvement plan for oceanic development. Scientific research is clearly viewed as an instrument of power more than a vector of cooperation (nevertheless a useful ‘façade’); in the domain of scientific cooperation, as in others, China plays on the weaknesses of its partners.

China-led scientific cooperation programs serve three aims: first, to control the data for the area to enhance all the options; second, to use research as a demonstration of power—the submarine Jialong is one such example; or third, to reaffirm Chinese sovereignty through the bias of holding on to selected scientific data. Scientific cooperation becomes a strategic asset and a tool that fits into the overall strategy for non-military coercion.

The evidence shows that China uses its rapidly developing scientific and military prowess in a synchronous timing to dissuade rivals, give credibility to its arguments and secure its regional space and supply routes. After 20 years of research programs in the South China Sea, the space is effectively starting to become well controlled. But this control isn’t really the product of scientific cooperation. It’s rather the result of China leading research programs and banging the drum. It’s therefore reasonable to question the link between the understanding of the maritime space that this research has enabled and its use for gaining power. Besides, scientific cooperation hasn’t reduced mistrust and facilitated the agreement on a Code of Conduct.

But China’s strategy of ambiguity is best illustrated by its reclamation activities. Not only has the construction of artificial islands been made possible under the guise of scientific cooperation (the Chinese started discretely with Fiery Cross, from 1988, when China participated in the construction of a marine observation station for UNESCO) but the dramatic bio-physical and geo-physical impact of such transformation, which extends well beyond the area, may be the most convincing argument that Beijing isn’t working for the ‘common good’ but looking only after its own ambitions.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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Mexico: From Cold War to Drug War

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Earlier this summer, I participated in the Library of Congress’s first ever ScholarFest. My conversation partner, UVA’s Professor William Hitchcock, and I spent ten minutes discussing whether the Cold War still mattered. I imagine that very few people in the audience were surprised to hear two historians argue for the continuing relevance of the Cold War. They were surprised, however, by some of the reasons we gave.

What I told the audience was this: in the United States, in Latin America, and around the world, the wars that we are fighting today on drugs and terrorism both grew out of and bear a striking resemblance to the Cold War. Not only that, but many of the same people and groups that fought the Cold War are now fighting today’s wars, using the lessons they learned and the power and influence they gained from that earlier struggle.

The Cold War in Mexico:

Mexico provides a perfect example: understanding the dynamics of the Cold War in Mexico provides important insights into why Mexico is currently losing its war on drugs. In Mexico, as in much of the rest of the world, the Cold War was a complex geopolitical and local contest over questions of security, ideology, economics, and culture. International events, like the Cuban Revolution, had local repercussions, and at the same time domestic politics shaped the Mexican government’s foreign policy. Mexico’s leaders believed that the greatest threat to the nation was internal opposition. Fearing a repeat of the Cuban experience, they targeted leftist groups and beefed up security capabilities, especially in the areas of surveillance and counterinsurgency.

While the specter of the communist guerrilla haunted the pages of the Mexican press and the speeches of the country’s leaders, it was actually the government that escalated the violence of Mexico’s Cold War and unleashed terror upon its own citizens. Soldiers and special agents assassinated political activists like Rubén Jaramillo, they massacred untold numbers of student protesters in Mexico City’s Plaza of Tlatelolco in 1968, and they tortured, ‘disappeared,’ and murdered thousands of residents of Guerrero in the 1970s. The hidden, undeclared nature of the Cold War made secrecy a priority for all sides. Opposition groups and government agents alike operated in a clandestine world of shifting loyalties and secret agendas.

Eventually, Mexico’s government demolished the few guerrilla groups that actually existed and won Mexico’s Cold War. It was clear by the beginning of the 1980s that Mexico would not follow the same fate as Cuba, but instead would remain capitalist, conservative, and allied with the United States.

Exit Cold War, Enter Drug War:

But as the Cold War came to a close for Mexico, a new war was ramping up that would quickly eclipse the earlier struggle. Like the Cold War, the War on Drugs has grown into a complex geopolitical and local contest. International events, like the recent soaring demand for heroin in the United States and the earlier crackdown on Caribbean smuggling routes and Colombian cartels in the 1980s and 1990s, have had significant local repercussions in Mexico. Even though the various sides are fighting for different goals this time around — the current war has much less to do with ideology and much more to do with wealth — the Drug War participants and their methods are remarkably similar to those of the Cold War.

In fact, some of the very same individuals most responsible for the violence of Mexico’s Cold War were also responsible for escalating Mexico’s Drug War. We now know that numerous government leaders and security agents who led the Cold War attack on leftist “insurgents” were also deeply involved in drug trafficking. Luis Echeverría, president of Mexico from 1970–1976, was rumored to have been linked through his wife to Cuban exile and drug king Alberto Sicilia FalcónMiguel Nazar Haro, the head of Mexican intelligence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used his position of authority to protect a stolen car smuggling ring and helped the Guadalajara cartel battle its competitors in Sinaloa. Some Mexican intelligence officials even conducted their own trafficking operation that involved sending tanker trucks filled with marijuana across the U.S.-Mexican border. Echeverría, Nazar Haro, and others led their country at a time when it was transitioning from Cold War to Drug War, and they played a significant role in enabling and accelerating that transformation.

Today, Mexico is engulfed in a drug war, and the nation’s leaders and security services are still engaging in similar questionable activities. In both the Cold War and the Drug War, corruption and subterfuge have obscured the real nature of government activities and undermined public trust in the nation’s leaders. President Enrique Peña Nieto has been accused of corrupt dealings involving his wife and their opulent mansion, but he has so far escaped substantial investigation. The Mexican army has been exposed for committing extra-judicial executions, just as it did during the Cold War. Studentsjournalists, and other members of society are being murdered and disappeared. And just as it did in the past, the Mexico’s justice system is failing to solve these crimes. Given the Mexican government’s past record of atrocities during the Cold War, one has to wonder about official attempts to deflect blame for Mexico’s current problems.

This piece first appeared on The Strategy Bridge here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth America

Bombs Away: Russian Air Strikes Reveal Bankruptcy of US Policy in Syria

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Just what Syria needed—another military actor on the battlefield.

After a three-week military buildup of about 30 warplanes in the northwestern coastal city of Lattakia in Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ally Russia began airstrikes in the country's central provinces late Wednesday Syrian time.

Russia launched the first round of air strikes by hitting eight targets in the northern countryside of Homs and Hama which it claimed were ISIS locations, just hours after President Vladimir Putin's request to use military force was approved by the Russian parliament. The Russian claim was immediately thrown into doubt. The areas around Homs and Hama are not ISIS hotspots. In fact they are known as a bastion for the U.S.-backed moderate rebel forces and an important strategic gateway to Assad's Alawite coastal heartland. 

Within an hour of the strikes occurring, the leader of the Western-backed anti-Assad opposition group on the ground claimed the strikes had killed at least 36 civilians.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters in Washington that the strikes occurred “where there probably were not ISIS forces.” He said the move was effectively “throwing gasoline on the fire” in Syria and that without efforts to replace Assad, it could “inflame the civil war in Syria.” The Wall Street Journal reported U.S. officials as saying that the targets had in fact been rebel forces backed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The strikes could lend credence to claims by Syria's opposition that, after promising for years to support the rebel cause, the U.S. has abandoned them to effectively side with Iran and Russia and preserve Assad's power. This could push more rebels to embrace ISIS, the al-Nusra Front and their allies as the only forces genuinely engaged in battle against Assad's forces. 

With the U.S. already conducting strikes in Syrian airspace, Russia's involvement also opens up the possibility of a military incident between American and Russian warplanes. 

Russia's initiative will undoubtedly buoy Assad ahead of any renewed diplomatic initiative and negotiated political transition. The US has consistently said that Assad cannot have any future role in Syria. But with the emergence of ISIS as a priority for the U.S., there have been signs that Washington may be more willing to capitulate on Assad's role in any future transition. Despite repeated condemnations of Assad, the Obama Administration has made clear it will not do very much to dislodge him. Washington's half-hearted and ill conceived US$500 million program to build a moderate rebel force of 5000 fighters is collapsing; just 54 vetted rebels graduated the program, only for their equipment to be taken by al Qaeda upon arriving in Syria. Russia's military presence will also most certainly serve as leverage in any transition discussion. 

Unfortunately, all of these possibilities would just add another chapter to the horror in Syria, which is snowballing into the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. 

The most immediate consequence of Russia's actions can be found in the timing of the move, which exposed the bankruptcy of American policy on Syria in the most deliberately brazen and embarrassing way possible.

Just hours after the strikes began, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared in what can only be described as a bizarre joint press conference in New York for the closing day of the UN General Assembly session, where the two superpowers have signaled a confluence of interest in destroying ISIS but traded potshots over who is to blame for its rise. 

Kerry said the U.S. would have “grave concerns” if Russia strikes “areas where ISIL and al Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating...Strikes of that kind would question Russia's real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime.” To strike the U.S.-backed rebels as talks were continuing in New York is defiant, to say the least. Yet there was Kerry, still saying he was willing to work with Russia on “deconfliction” in Syria and warning against escalation.

As the U.S. continues it's diplomatic rhetoric, Russia is not even pretending to hide its real intentions. More than at any other time in the conflict, Washington's tentative Syria policy calls to mind the fable of the emperor with no clothes. Russia, meanwhile, is holding all the cards.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

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