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The Real Threat of Chinese Nationalism

The Buzz

On Monday, China’s Shanghai Composite Index dropped 8.5 percent, the largest percentage fall since the financial crisis hit in 2007. Hours earlier it was reported that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would not attend a ceremony in China on September 3 marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two. So far, China’s economic slowdown has been seen as separate from the country’s antagonisms with Japan. Both domestic and antiforeign discontent might concern China watchers, and both might be simmering at the moment, but each registers as its own threat, requiring its own policy response. This is wrong. What connects these issues is the worrying role popular nationalism has taken on in China in the era after Mao Zedong and, more recently, after Deng Xiaoping.

All of this comes on the eve of a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to the United States in September. Xi lands in Washington as the leader who has, according to President Obama, “consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping." No force has been more important in Xi’s power grab than nationalism. He has presided over a country that has stoked patriotic fervor as well as antagonized its neighbors and the United States. The most immediate result of stirring up national sentiment has been to strengthen Xi’s power within the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. With this backstop of popular support, Xi has steadfastly pursued a set of programs, even amid some opposition. For example, his anticorruption purge has continued even after an authority as prominent as former president Jiang Zemin warned against it becoming too ambitious.

Nationalism has worked for Xi. So far, patriotic, mass support has protected him from a strong, public challenge by the military or the party. But nationalism in China has an uncertain and at times combustible relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders in Beijing. In China, street-level, unchecked nationalism—nationalism en masse—is a precarious threat both to the CCP and to regional and global stability overall.

In 2012, Xi took control of a China unthinkable without Deng Xiaoping. By opening up its economy and jettisoning Mao-era programs, China created an average of 10 percent growth per year over the thirty years beginning with 1980. Millions were brought from subsistence living to a point where median income now approaches a “middle-income trap.” As if to acknowledge this change, Xi reiterated his commitment to Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” shortly after coming to power.

But this phrase, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is by now, of course, “nonsense,” China scholar Roderick MacFarquhar said at the time. Communism no longer connects the nation; it is no longer a unifying ideology. Instead, China now has

"No ideology. No sense of what the country is about. And the only way, and it is a very dangerous way, that they can achieve some kind of unity between party, state and people, is the dangerous route of nationalism."

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, and with the strict tenets of communism shed as a unifying ideology, nationalism has been paired with robust economic growth in China to legitimize the country’s leadership. Both contributed to an “authoritarian resilience,” as China scholar Jessica Chen Weiss describes it. Now, nationalism and economics have begun to decouple as growth has slowed and stocks have tumbled. Comparisons with Deng have turned from complimentary of Xi to concerning for China as a whole. “The country is now going through a crisis of transition, unparalleled since Deng Xiaoping set out to put clear water between China’s future and the Mao era,” writes George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and senior advisor to UBS, in the Financial Times.

What connects the faltering economy with the animosity between China and Japan is that antiforeign protests are some of the only forms of mass, organized protest that have been permitted to take place in China. As Weiss points out, while anti-Japanese demonstrations were repressed in the 1990s and 2000s, they nonetheless flared up in 1985, 2005, 2010 and 2012. Moreover, she notes, the 1985 anti-Japanese protests were early precursors of the pro-democracy protests of 1986 and 1989, giving participants much needed experience in mass mobilization. Weiss explains what the CCP knows well, that “[e]ven strong authoritarian governments may have difficulty reining in protests that are widely seen as patriotic and legitimate."

History shows that Chinese officials quickly repress demonstrations about domestic issues. This is less the case with antiforeign protests, which not only can have an intrinsic, patriotic legitimacy leaders find difficult to counter, but also, as Weiss argues, can have a value for China’s leaders to signal resolve in diplomacy.

In a statement released for the anniversary of the end of World War II on August 15, Japanese prime minister Abe said that his “heart is rent with the utmost grief” about the damage done by his country. But he also emphasized that “[w]e must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” This statement joins a list of recent perceived slights, including a row this summer over the treatment of the war in Japanese textbooks, that irk many Chinese.

Chinese-Japanese tensions have eased somewhat since the worst days of 2012, which Weiss says saw the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations since relations were normalized in 1972. Of the 287 prefecture cities Weiss and a colleague studied in 2012, nearly three-quarters saw street protests. Should Xi tolerate another spate of anti-Japanese protests, he would be using popular sentiment to signal to Japanese officials that China’s avenues for compromise are few. Importantly, this wish to signal resolve in diplomacy is weighed against the threat that such protests will spiral out of control, turning to domestic grievances and turning against Beijing. In this way, any anti-Japanese protests ostensibly about the Second World War are a potential rallying point for discontent about the present. “In current American usage,” the scholar Bernard Lewis noted, “the phrase ‘that’s history’ is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns.” Not so in much of the world, and not so in China now.

China’s leaders, Xi chief among them, can wield nationalism for their own ends. And now, leaders may wish to double down on nationalism as both the economy and the legitimacy the government has gained in the post-Deng era from a strong economy weaken. But nationalism isn’t an easy tool to control. As Weiss points out,

"the past two Chinese governments fell to nationalist movements that accused them of failing to defend the country from foreign encroachments: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Manchu leaders of the Qing dynasty."

Going into this autumn, policy makers should be mindful of what is happening in China’s streets, as well as what Xi does and says before and during his trip to Washington.

John Richard Cookson is assistant managing editor of The National Interest.

Image:Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsChina RegionsAsia

Russia's Lethal Stealth PAK-FA T-50 Fighter: High Hopes, Big Price Tag

The Buzz

Reports in the Russian media, if accurate, have made a bold claim: Moscow’s PAK-FA T-50 fighter could be much closer to joining Russia’s air force than many expected. However, economic pressures and technological challenges could be a big bottleneck to the program going forward.

In an article by Russia Today, it was reported that “in 2016 the Russian Air Force will get ready to put the first production models of the stealth fighter jet into service.”

RT added: “All weapons and technical innovation in design for the PAK-FA are promised to be ready by 2020, which, among others, will include 12 types of missiles alone, six of which are to be ready by 2017. Some of the PAK-FA missiles will be hypersonic, with most designed specially to fit into fighter’s inner bays so as not to interfere with its stealth characteristics.”

Many in Western circles feel the advanced fifth-generation fighter could be quite capable and a big upgrade for Russia’s air force.

“The analysis that I have seen on the PAK-FA indicates a pretty sophisticated design that is at least equal to, and some have said even superior to U.S. fifth-generation aircraft,” former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula told TNI back in December of last year. “It certainly has greater agility with its combination of thrust vectoring, all moving tail surfaces, and excellent aerodynamic design, than does the F-35.”

Others who are in the know also agree the jet could prove quite sophisticated, rivaling the best Western fighter jets.

“Performance-wise it certainly looks to compete with the Raptor,” one senior military official with extensive experience on U.S. fifth-generation fighters told TNI, also back in December.

But Can Russia Afford It?:

While the PAK-FA certainly has potential, the biggest challenge—just like with the American F-22 and F-35 fifth-generation fighter programs—seems to be cost.

Several months ago, Russia cut its initial order from over fifty planes to just twelve. The most likely reasons for such a move? Western sanctions that are taking a big bite out of the Russian economy along with low oil prices.

Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister for armaments, explained back in March that  “Given the new economic conditions, the original plans may have to be adjusted.” He noted that “It is better to have the PAK FA kept as a reserve, and later move forward, while squeezing everything possible for now out of the 4+ generation fighters.”

And Just How Good Will the “Tech” Be?

While cost will be a factor, there is also the question of how strongly Russia can put together one of the big advantages the F-35 seems to hold: sensor and data fusion, along with advanced avionics.

“The real question is can the Russians achieve the same degree of data fusion and networking capabilities of the F-22A and F-35—right now I’d put my money on the U.S. and our allies in that regard,” Deptula explained to TNI in December.

When it comes to the question of avionics, an industry source told TNI the PAK-FA is closer to a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-16E/F Block 60 than an F-22 or F-35. “Some may claim that the PAK-FA is a 5th gen. fighter, but it's more of a 4.5 gen. fighter by U.S. standards,” the industry official said.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Explained: Why Taiwan Should Skip China's Big Victory Day Parade

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Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense on Wednesday announced that sluggish recruitment fig.ures were once again forcing it to delay its plans to end military conscription next year, one of the major goals of the Ma Ying-jeou Administration.

Convincing enough qualified young men and women to forsake the comforts of civilian life and enlist in the armed forces will always be a great challenge, one that has been made more formidable by recent controversies such as the July 2013 death of Army conscript Hong Chung-chiu and the 'Apache-gate' scandal earlier this year. At the very least, the Government should not make matters worse by sending contradictory signals about the nature of the threat facing Taiwan to potential recruits.

Sadly, such a signal is exactly what the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is about to broadcast after it allowed its honorary chairman, Lien Chan, to attend a series of events in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, which will include a goose-stepping military parade on September 3 of such proportions as to bring to mind the very fascism that was defeated in the war.

The Ma Administration doesn't seem to realize that it is shooting itself in the foot. The main issue isn't the KMT's longstanding disagreement with the Chinese Communist Party over the latter's historical revisionism and the role that communist forces supposedly played in the war, a battle of ideas which is of little interest to most Taiwanese (Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire during World War II).

The real problem is that Lien's participation in the events—even if he is going as a 'private citizen'—plays directly into Beijing's propaganda campaign (it has also extended invitations to retired generals in the Taiwanese military as well as a number of politicians on the island) and risks undermining the willingness of young Taiwanese to join the military. After all, why should young men and women adopt a lifestyle of hardship and risk their lives if the nation's political leadership doesn't take the Chinese military threat seriously?

Mr. Lien, a former KMT chairman and vice president, is also expected to hold a meeting with President Xi Jinping during his 'low-key visit'. All this comes a little more than a month after footage simulating a People's Liberation Army (PLA) assault on a mock-up of Taiwan's Presidential Office was made public, and on the heels of a new recruitment video for the PLA Navy whose bombast and militarism has caused concern among China's neighbors.

Yet by attending, Lien—and by extension the KMT—will be signaling that such belligerence, which again will be on display during the Victory Day parade, is of little concern to Taiwan. Never mind that the Second Artillery Corps continues to threaten the island nation with approximately 1500 ballistic missiles, that the PLA has held several exercises practicing amphibious assaults of the kind that would be launched to invade Taiwan, or that the efforts by China's intelligence agencies to penetrate Taiwan have intensified. All of this is happening in a period when, according to President Ma, relations between the two sides are the best they've been in sixty years.

As editorials such as this one in the state-run Global Times make amply clear, an authoritarian, expansionist, and nationalistic China remains an existential threat to democratic Taiwan, a situation that could get worse in light of the trend lines in Taiwanese society and the high likelihood that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will return to power next year.

Besides alienating the young Taiwanese whose faith in the military establishment hangs in the balance, Mr. Lien's presence in Beijing will hardly be reassuring to Taiwan's security allies, chief among them the U.S., where doubts about Taipei's commitment to self-defense have never been entirely dispelled.

That isn't to say that China should always be treated like an enemy and that no efforts at conciliation should be made. Quite the contrary. But such diplomacy should never occur in isolation of the optics that those exchanges generate. Sending a high-profile representative to an event that celebrates militarism by a regime that refuses to let go of the past and which continues to threaten war against Taiwan's 23 million people for expressing their legitimate right to self-determination is not a wise decision. (Although James Soong, the third presidential candidate in the 2016 elections, will not attend the ceremony, it is reported that a representative of his party will do so.)

There is no doubt that young Taiwanese men and women are dedicated to defending their country and way of life. But whether they choose to do so by enlisting in the military will be largely contingent on how seriously their government takes national defense. Cavorting with a militarist regime at a time of rising apprehensions over China's belligerence and disregard for international law accomplishes just the opposite.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

China Nears Deal to Acquire Russia's Lethal Su-35 Fighter

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If reports prove accurate, Russia is set to finally close a deal many years in the making—selling China one its most advanced fighter jets.

According to a report in the WantChinaTimes citing work done by China’s GlobalTimes, Beijing will soon be in possession of twenty-four Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

“We are holding talks with our Chinese partners on agreeing a draft contract for the supply of fighter jets,” explained Ivan Goncharenko, first deputy director general of Russia's arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

A sale of the Su-35, considered by many defense officials to be one of the best fighter jets in the world, would be significant for a number of reasons.

For starters, the fighter is highly advanced and would be a strong upgrade for China’s air force.

“It’s a great airplane and very dangerous, especially if they make a lot of them,” said one senior U.S. military official to The National Interest back in December. “I think even an AESA [active electronically scanned array-radar equipped F-15C] Eagle and [Boeing F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet would both have their hands full.”

A U.S. Navy Super Hornet pilot—a graduate of that service’s elite TOPGUN school—offered his own analysis on the plane: “When taken as a singular platform, I like the Su-35’s chances against most of our platforms, with perhaps the exception of the F-22 and F-15C,” the naval aviator said.

Beijing, besides getting its hands on one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets would also get access to the planes advanced suite of technology—some of Russia’s best—at a time when China is attempting to develop its own aviation industry and become as self-sufficient as possible.

Additionally, Beijing would also be able to get an up-close-and-personal look at the advanced engines that power the Su-35. Presumably, China could learn a great deal from the latest in Russian aircraft engine design—an ongoing weakness in Beijing’s own fighter aircraft development programs.

“Large powerful engines, the ability to supercruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform on paper,” said one highly experienced F-22 pilot to TNI, also back in December.

But Will It Happen?

The deal itself has been the subject of rumor and speculation for a number of years now. History shows that even with signs that an agreement is close to be finalized, there is the strong possibility it could fall through again.

The biggest reason: Russia may get cold feet.

As I have explained on a number of different occasions, Russia has multiple reasons to hold off selling one of its most capable pieces of military hardware to China.

Moscow's last big jet sale to China, the Su-27, should give Moscow some serious reason to pause or scrap the deal altogether. When Russia’s defense industry was on its back in 1992 after the death of the Soviet Union, China purchased $1 billion worth of the then-advanced fighter. Future Sino-Russo military sales seemed to have a bright future. Plans were laid for an expansion of the agreement for the sale of up to two hundred jets, with huge quantities to be assembled in China. The deal would, however, collapse after the first hundred or so jets were delivered when Moscow accused Beijing of replicating the jet and prepping it for resale under the names J-11 and J-11B.

Chinese officials denied the allegations quite strongly. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010, Zhang Xinguo, deputy president of AVIC, claimed the jets were not a copy.

“You cannot say it’s just a copy,” Zhang boldly asserted. “Even if it looks the same, everything inside cannot be the same.”

However, with oil prices dropping and Moscow looking to lock in strong ties with Beijing as tensions in Ukraine continue to simmer, Russia might consider the sale of the advanced fighter a small price to pay towards a longer-term partnership. Stay tuned, this could all get very interesting. 

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

This Is How China and Russia Plan to Crush America's Stealth Aircraft

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Both China and Russia appear to be building unmanned aerial vehicles designed to negate America’s advantages in stealth aircraft.

Earlier this year, photos first emerged of a new High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) UAV termed the Divine Eagle that foreign observers believe is designed to detect and eliminate stealth enemy aircraft far from the Chinese mainland.

As Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer wrote back in May:

“[The Divine Eagle’s] long range anti-stealth capabilities can be used against both aircraft, like the B-2 bomber, and warships such as the DDG-1000 destroyer. Using the Divine Eagle as a picket, the Chinese air force could quickly intercept stealthy enemy aircraft, missiles and ships well before they come in range of the Mainland. Flying high, the Divine Eagle could also detect anti-ship missile trucks and air defenses on land, in preparation for offensive Chinese action.”

Russia appears to be designing a similar system, according to Flight Global.

While at the MAKS show in Moscow this week, Flight Global spoke with Vladimir Mikheev, the first deputy chief executive officer of the electronic systems producer KRET, about a new UAV being shown at the show, which KRET is a subcontractor on. During the interview, Mikheev said the new (thus far, unnamed UAV) is similar to China’s Divine Eagle in that it uses low frequency radars to detect low-observable stealth aircraft like the F-35, F-22 and B-2 bomber. Most stealth aircraft are created to evade high-frequency radar systems.

The Russian UAV goes a step further by integrating a sophisticated electronic warfare suite onto the aircraft. According to Flight Global, “Mikheev says KRET is providing a deeply-integrated electronic warfare system that not only provides a protective electromagnetic sphere around the aircraft to counter air-to-air missiles, but also cloaks it from radars.” Thus, if true, Russia’s new UAV would be able to detect America’s stealth aircraft without itself being detected. That could be a deadly combination.

Some in the U.S. military are already planning for a day in which stealth becomes mostly obsolete. As The National Interest previously noted, when discussing what America’s sixth generation fighter jet might look like back in February, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that stealth may be overrated.

“You can only go so fast, and you know that stealth may be overrated.... Let's face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat—I don't care how cool the engine can be, it's going to be detectable. You get my point."

It was not the first time that Greenert had questioned the long-term viability of stealth technology. In a 2012 paper, for instance, he said that better computing power would ultimately greatly undermine the value of stealth.

"Those developments do not herald the end of stealth, but they do show the limits of stealth design in getting platforms close enough to use short-range weapons," Greenert wrote at the time, according to the Navy Times.

"It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth to also include concepts for operating farther from adversaries using standoff weapons and unmanned systems — or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them."

Dave Majumdar has also observed on The National Interest that, “Russia and China are already working on new networked air defenses coupled with new radars operating in the UHF and VHF-bands that threaten to neutralize America’s massive investment in fifth-generation fighters. Fighter-sized stealth aircraft are only optimized to perform against high-frequency fire control band radars operating in the Ku, X, C and portions of the S-band.”

Not everyone completely agrees, however. For example, in response to Greenert’s comments about the stealth capabilities of America’s future 6th Generation fighter, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, said that stealth will continue to be "hugely important."

“Stealth is wonderful, but you have to have more than stealth," Carlisle said, according to the Air Force Times. "You have to have fusion, you have to have different capabilities across the spectrum. It will be incredibly important. It won't be the only key attribute, and it isn't today."

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

The U.S. Air Force's Lethal Master Plan to Dominate the Skies

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Much has been written about the transformation of the United States Air Force between the Vietnam War and Operation DESERT STORM. In his classic book Sierra Hotel, C.R. Anderegg documented the revolution in training that occurred at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base during this era, led by the so-called “Fighter Mafia” of Air Force legends such as John Jumper, Ron Keys and Moody Suter. Steve Davies opened the door to the secret MiG program known as “Constant Peg” that occurred during the same time period in his book Red Eagles, while former Red Eagles Squadron Commander Gail “Evil” Peck gave his unique perspective on this historically significant squadron in his book America’s Secret MiG Squadron.

During this period the Air Force also invested heavily in weapons system modernization, highlighted by the development of the F-117, masterfully portrayed in Ben Rich’s Skunk Works. This period is again the subject of academic analysis, this time by United States Northern Command deputy command historian Brian Laslie in The Air Force Way of War. Laslie agrees with previous studies that the revolution in Air Force training, including the integration of training against real MiGs, and the development of new aircraft and weapons all played a major role in the improvement in Air Force employment in the post-Vietnam period. However, Laslie breaks with previous analysis when he identifies the development of the Red Flag exercise as the single most important improvement of that era. He argues Red Flag provided realistic training to aircrews, led to the development of airpower tactics that helped the Air Force dominate the skies above Iraq in DESERT STORM, and proved the viability of new technologies such as the F-117.

Laslie begins his examination of the Air Force’s changes after Vietnam by recapping the poor performance of the service during that air war. Through comprehensive research and analysis, the author provides a host of reasons for the Air Force’s disappointing performance, but he contends that the root cause was unsatisfactory aircrew training. “The single greatest problem faced by USAF pilots…was poor combat training prior to employment. This poor training reinforced poor tactics and doctrine during combat” (p. 29). Laslie argues that aircrews were unprepared to face newly produced MiGs and surface-to-air missiles deployed in Vietnam, and the inevitable result was the loss of hundreds of aircraft and aircrews.

The author argues that many combat veterans returned to the States after their deployments and were disgusted with the level of training they received prior to combat, and were determined to change what they saw as unacceptable preparation. Laslie discusses many of the same Air Force officers that were introduced in Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel. Both authors describe the environment of Nellis at the time, and the group of supremely gifted fighter pilots who plied their craft at the service’s tactical center of excellence.

During this era, then-Majors John Jumper and Ron Keys revolutionized aircrew training with their “building block approach” to training fighter pilots. The idea of a dedicated adversary force flying dissimilar aircraft from the ubiquitous F-4 spawned the development of the Aggressors. A highly classified program to fly and maintain Russian-built MiGs was beginning to take hold and expand, and a brilliant fighter pilot named Moody Suter nurtured the idea for a realistic large force exercise that would prepare fighter pilots for war. However, Anderegg and Laslie differ on one critical point: the influence of the contemporary general officer corps on these initiatives.

Anderegg gives the bulk of the credit for these programs to the determined effort of the so-called Fighter Mafia, often portrayed as fighting senior leadership to persuade them of the necessity of training improvements. Laslie agrees that these young officers were guiding forces behind the training revolution, but he differs from Anderegg in the role of senior Air Force leaders at the time. Anderegg portrays the Generals as risk-averse and indifferent at best, openly hostile at worst to proposed changes in Air Force training. Laslie uses a multitude of examples to show the senior officers that were instrumental in the improvements in Air Force employment and the development of these advanced training programs. Of note, the author discusses the vital role played by General William Creech, who pushed the envelope at Tactical Air Command in improving Air Force tactical employment and training.

“Creech’s importance cannot be overstated. Tactical doctrinal changes, more flying hours for pilots…and improvements to Red Flag were all hallmarks of his tenure as TAC commander” (p. 71). General Creech has been criticized in various texts in the last decade, and a generation of Air Force officers who have read and re-read Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War have developed a hostile impression of General Creech, who was often at odds with the intractable John Boyd. Laslie’s text plays a crucial counterpoint to Anderegg and Coram, and gives readers a new understanding of the hard-nosed general who was determined to improve the quality of Air Force training and employment.

The real star of the book is Red Flag, a revolutionary training exercise that began in 1975. Reports on combat losses in Vietnam identified the initial 10 combat sorties as the most likely time a pilot would be shot down. Moody Suter believed that those first 10 “combat sorties” could be flown in a realistic combat training exercise, minimizing the risk and maximizing the lethality of inexperienced pilots. Laslie delves into the development and the rapid growth of the exercise in more detail than has been found in any previous examination of this period. The author identifies when and why new mission types were added (i.e. Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses [SEAD] and Combat Search and Rescue [CSAR]), and when new aircraft types were integrated into the Red Flag force.

Laslie uses interviews with fighter pilots of the time to describe the revolution that was Red Flag. “Word of Red Flag spread like fire through the fighter community. The response from participating crews was overwhelmingly positive. Pilots said it was the ‘most valuable training ever’ and the ‘most realistic since actual combat’” (p. 64). Previous accounts of the era have discussed the development of Red Flag, but none has captured its importance with the vibrant tone that Laslie has.

The author examines small-scale Air Force operations in the 1980s and concludes that the revolution in training had taken hold, and the service was much more effective in the conduct of air operations. But the true proving ground for the new training programs was DESERT STORM, which turned out to be the confluence of Air Force doctrine, training, and technical improvements. The tremendously successful air campaign would forever change the face of warfare; the conduct of the air war was shocking in its speed and effectiveness. U.S. and coalition losses were minuscule compared to air combat of the past. Laslie contends the revolution in Air Force training, in particular Red Flag, was the reason for the U.S.’s rout of Iraqi forces. “The pilots who fought during Desert Storm were by and large not veterans of combat…However, the group and squadron commanders, flight leads, and other pilots were far better prepared for their first combat missions than their superiors had been when they entered combat in the 1960s and 1970s” (p. 132).

Red Flag had allowed these combat rookies to operate like seasoned combat veterans. As a result, the once vaunted Iraqi air and air defense forces were systematically isolated and destroyed. New U.S. fighter aircraft and weapons, in particular the F-117, performed splendidly and received the preponderance of media coverage and praise during and after the war. However, it was the people that flew the aircraft, guided the weapons, and made decisions during the fog and friction of war that made the difference in DESERT STORM. “In the end, it was not technology that beat Saddam Hussein’s forces…The deciding factor was that U.S. pilots were simply better trained and better prepared to meet the threat that lay before them” (p. 150–1). The air war over Iraq validated the development and modernization of training programs such as the Fighter Weapons School, the Aggressors, Constant Peg and Red Flag.

Laslie tackles a period of Air Force history that has been skillfully examined by several air power experts. Yet the author is able to explore new ground, and truly provide the reader with a significant analysis of the importance of these revolutionary training events, in particular the Red Flag exercise. The Air Force Way of War should be considered required reading for air power historians and analysts, combat veterans and active duty Air Force operators. Laslie’s enthralling text makes it clear why Red Flag is still thriving as it approaches its 40th birthday.

Tyson Wetzel is is an Air Force officer and a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School, of which he was also an instructor. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This piece first appeared in the Strategy Bridge here


Oshkosh Wins Contract to Build the U.S. Military's Next 'Humvee'

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The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps have chosen their supplier for Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs), their replacement for Humvees, and supplement to MRAP All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs). For now, and presumably the next decade, that supplier is Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Truck. The stakes were high, as the JLTV contract may be the last large military truck contract in North American for at least a decade. But if Oshkosh can keep its pencils sharp—and that’s a meaningful if—it may hold that franchise for a few decades after that.

As the Washington PostNational Defense magazine, and everyone else reported, the initial contract awards $6.7 billion for 17,000 vehicles over seven years. Low-rate initial production will begin late this year, and get rolling in about ten months. The Army’s first unit to receive JLTVs should fill its motor pool by 2018. The franchise may not be quite large as that of the Humvee, but probably as long-lasting. The USMC will have bought its lot of 5,500 by 2021, but the Army foresees buying 49,000 trucks over many years to come. With repeated rebuilds—an exercise in which Oshkosh excels—those vehicles could be in service until 2040, and the entire program could be worth some $30 billion. That’s not a Joint Strike Fighter, but it’s noticeable around Lake Winnebago. Champagne corks were likely popping, and over coffee in the morning, the news may even outrank talk of next weekend’s preseason Packers game.

Getting here, though, the going has been rough. It has been three years since the Joint Program Office (JPO) awarded roughly $60 million development contracts to Oshkosh, Lockheed Martin, and AM General. It has been eight years since the Army’s initial intended in-service date back in 2007. And it has been a decade since the promise of the JLTV was held up at Army Materiel Command and Marine Corps Systems Command as an excuse for not buying MRAPs—actually on the shelf then—sooner and faster. (For more on that, see my dissertation forthcoming next year.)

Whether the JLTV will prove as robust as the toughest MRAP is an open question, though retired Major General John Urias, president of Oshkosh Defense, thinks it will come close. The JLTV will certainly be more strategically and tactically agile—with the “off-road mobility of a Baja racer,” as he put it today. At M-ATV prices—almost $400,000 each—the JLTVs won’t be cheap. While Rohlfs & Sullivan might disagree, I can easily argue that safeguarding the lives and limbs of the troops inside is worth that figure. What’s less clear is how many are really needed. If the entire U.S. military overbought its way to 28,000 MRAPs, then 54,500 (admittedly smaller) JLTVs might seem excessive in a future budget drill.

For Oshkosh, the win bears along another threat. According to Reuters, the contract does include the expected option for the government to buy the technical data rights to the vehicle. For the JPO, just figuring out how to score the offer should not have been simple. “The economics of intellectual property rights” in the JLTV competition, I wrote here in February 2014, constitute real “managerial challenge of military procurement”. For Oshkosh, pricing those rights was probably vexing as well. Should the government exercise that option, it will be able to release the data to any and all prospective contractors in 2022, and solicit build-to-print bids. That’s exactly what the Army did with the data it already owned on the cargo trucks of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) some seven years ago. Oshkosh significantly underbid 17-year incumbent BAE Systems in 2009, and in the process, forced the closure of the old Stewart & Stevenson automotive enterprise outside Houston. (For a summary of my work on that issue, see my essay “Oshkosh, the FMTV, and the example of fixed-price contracting”, 28 October 2013.) 

Underbidding didn’t work out well for Oshkosh in the short run, but it certainly removed a competitor. This procurement decision, unless reversed on one of the protests that AM General and Lockheed Martin may already be readying, may similarly restructure the business. Lockheed made a serious commitment in transporting the remnants of BAE's truck operation lock, stock, and barrel to Arkansas. Whether it will keep the team intact long enough to challenge Oshkosh in the re-competition remains to be seen. Entry may be followed as surely as exit. Of late, AM General has won contract manufacturing business for R-class Mercedes sedans, and export Humvee orders with the Mexican Army and others. Indeed, CEO Charlie Hall has been working hard to diversify beyond the franchise Humvee business every since taking over at the start of 2011. But the company is yet to convince the world that it has the engineering capacity to design and bring to market wholly new vehicles. Private equity is not always patient capital, and the asset is now much easier to value.

Another asset, an intangible one, is similarly about to change in value, but positively. As I told Defense News recently, Oshkosh will now be “supplying heavy, medium and light trucks to both the US Army and the USMC. Troops will see Oshkosh bumpers wherever they look.” John Alic, late of the late Office of Technology Assessment, lamented in 2007 that “no one asks” the military’s truck drivers what they want in new trucks (Trillions for Military Technology, Palgrave, pp. 107–108). After the IED and MRAP experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, I doubt that’s any longer true. In my experience, you'll likely never find a Marine who’ll say anything negative about those almost ubiquitous Oshkosh trucks. And that “blanket of marketing” is soon to get all the more comprehensive.

This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's website here


Explained: Why Katrina was a Human-Made Disaster, Not a Natural One

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The flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was a human-made disaster, not a natural one. The flood-protection system for the city had been poorly designed and maintained. It also turned out that a series of waterway engineering decisions to try to contain the flow of the Mississippi River and to facilitate river navigation to and from the Gulf of Mexico, were badly out of sync with the region’s ecosystem. In short, it was a failure of critical infrastructure at multiple levels that nearly doomed one of America’s major cities. Ten years later, what happened to New Orleans should serve as a forceful reminder of the costly consequences of hubris, denial, and neglect. Sadly, though, this attitude continues to characterize the relationship Americans have with their built and natural environments.

New Orleans’s primary line of defense against the sea and the Mississippi River has long been a levee and floodwall system. Unfortunately, that system saw little investment in the half century prior to Hurricane Katrina. The city is like a fishbowl, with the water on the outside and a half a million homes on the inside. New Orleans has been sinking at a rate of three feet per century, so that it lies at an average of six feet below sea level, with some neighborhoods as low as eleven feet below. Without the levees and floodwalls, much of the city would be a shallow lake.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall it had hooked east, sparing the city its worst winds. But the waters from the storm found a ready path to assault the “Big Easy,” thanks to the construction of a 76-mile canal that was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1968. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), known locally as “Mr. Go”, was built to shorten the time and distance required for oceangoing vessels to transit from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans waterfront. During Katrina this cement-sided waterway provided a ready path to funnel the storm surge originating from the Gulf of Mexico for a direct hit on New Orleans. As the hurricane came onshore, the water steamrolled down the MRGO on a collision course with the Industrial Canal, causing an 800-foot breach. Many of the communities to the east of New Orleans were victims of the overtopping of the MRGO. More than 80 percent of the city was flooded and nearly 250,000 residents were forced to flee; today the population is still nearly 100,000 below its pre-Katrina level.

Given its clear vulnerability to flooding, the haphazard management of New Orleans’ storm protection system prior to Hurricane Katrina is mystifying. Invading floodwaters not only put lives at risk, they created a toxic cauldron of debris that contaminated and scarred the urban landscape. Yet throughout the 1990s, federal funds that might have been used to repair and strengthen the city’s levees and flood walls and protect the pumping stations were bled off for other projects, such as widening the MRGO. In 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $22.5 million for storm protection projects for New Orleans. The Bush administration cut that budget request to $3.9 million and then dropped it to $3.0 million in 2005.

Sadly, the sense of denial and neglect of critical infrastructure that led to the near drowning of New Orleans in 2005 continues to endanger many U.S. cities today. Miami, Norfolk, New York, and Boston all face the twin risks of rising sea levels associated with climate change along with the likelihood of more frequent and intense hurricanes. Seattle sits astride the Cascadia subduction zone that belongs to the Pacific Rim’s seismically active “Ring of Fire,”and Los Angeles lies along the San Andreas Fault. In America’s heartland, cities such as St. Louis and Memphis could be devastated by an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault Line.

Across the nation, Americans have been taking for granted the critical infrastructure built with the sweat, ingenuity, and resources of earlier generations. Not only are we not upgrading it to keep pace with modern needs, Congress and state legislatures have been squandering this legacy by failing to adequately fund basic repairs and maintenance for roads, bridges, ports, wastewater and drinking water systems, dams, and levees, and the electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems. Even for “blue sky” days, our ongoing neglect of that infrastructure is a national disgrace. But as New Orleanians can attest, it translates into reckless endangerment when disasters strike.

For too long Americans have been pretending that disasters are rare and unknowable. Additionally, we have been resistant to making sensible investments in mitigation measures before storms occur, such as placing flood barriers around electrical substations or moving emergency generators out of basements to higher floors. Insanely, in the aftermath of disasters we have a national bad-habit of returning to “business as usual” by often allowing reconstruction in areas that will almost certainly be flooded again.

Hurricane Katrina, along with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, are reminders that the gravest source of danger for Americans derives not from acts of God or acts of terror but from our own negligence. The ongoing risk associated with disasters is far more knowable than we often assume and the means for mitigating their consequences are well within the reach of the most-advanced and wealthiest country in the world.

What has been in too short supply is the political will and leadership that will ensure our communities, metropolitan regions, and nation can better withstand, nimbly respond, recover, and adapt to the inevitable disasters heading our way. There are few more important imperatives that the next president will need to advance than bolstering national resilience.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Renewing America here.

TopicsEnvironment RegionsUnited States

Revealed: How to Stop China's Slow Strangle of Asia's Security Order

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I’m in Taiwan this week as a guest of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, speaking at the ROC (Taiwan)–US–Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue, a meeting held annually since 2011. It’s a similar idea to the Quadrilateral Plus Dialogue, in that it’s a group of democratic states with a stake in Asia–Pacific security getting together to examine where their interests overlap and how we might cooperate on security matters.

Also like the Quad Plus, there’s an obvious “elephant in the room” in the form of the PRC and the way in which it’s driving regional thinking on security issues. This post is extracted from my conference paper, written for the session on maritime security.

Maritime security in the Asia–Pacific region has been largely underwritten by the capability of the United States Navy for the past 70 years. That reflects the circumstances at the end of WWII, when all the Asian powers were weakened by years of war, and in Japan’s case by disastrous defeat. It was a regional manifestation of a global rewriting of the world order, which saw the United States being the dominant power everywhere but Eastern Europe. The global economic system defined at Bretton Woods reflected the unrivalled financial strength of the post-war United States, and the global trading system became increasingly liberalized. The net result was the creation of a system in which many nations prospered—not least of which those in Asia over the past quarter century. The Soviet Union, for most of that period the only serious geopolitical rival to American power, finally collapsed when it couldn’t match the economic growth that was powering its rivals.

Today we’re seeing the metastable post-WWII order coming under serious pressure. Ironically, the main challenge is coming from China, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the United States led order. The U.S. and other countries, including Australia, helped the PRC enter the world economy and set it on the path to becoming the world’s largest economy. It was always the hope—and probably expectation—that the PRC would ‘normalize’ into the world community and become a partner in the order from which it had benefitted so much. I think it’s fair to say that most of us are disappointed, if not outright alarmed, at the actual trajectory the PRC seems to have chosen for its rise to the top of the list of world powers.

China is throwing out significant challenges in all aspects of national power. Its economic clout is considerable, its military power is growing rapidly, its espionage activities are very successful and it isn’t afraid to use any or all of those to pursue its own interests. Of course all countries do that to some extent, and we shouldn’t be surprised when China puts its own interests first. But what’s different, I think, is that China appears to want to be the most successful player in a game in which it defines its own rules, rather than becoming a powerhouse in the order that the rest of us have been happy to operate within.

American naval power has been mostly uncontested for decades, and the Soviet Union was much less strong at sea than on the land or in the air, but it’s now coming under pressure in the Western Pacific due to the growing ability of the PRC to field anti-access and area denial capabilities. I don’t have to explain here in Taiwan the difference in PLA capability relative to the US today compared to 20 years ago during the third Strait crisis.

That has led some commentators to argue that the ability of the U.S. to underwrite the security of its partners and allies in this part of the world has declined. I’m not so sure of that. It is certainly true that there is much less qualitative difference between PRC and U.S. capability today, and due to proximity, the PRC probably has a quantitative advantage in most circumstances. But it is far from being able to overwhelm the United States, and any significant armed clash would still be disastrously costly (increasingly for both sides). The forces of the US still represent a substantial deterrent to overt military adventurism, and the question ultimately boils down to one of American resolve.

The challenge for US allies and partners is to keep America engaged. In the past we’ve all tended to ‘free ride’ on American power. Japan is spending under 1% of GDP on defense and Australia 1.8%, while the US spends more than 4%. When there was no serious challenge to the U.S. Navy in our region that was a low risk strategy. But today we have to collectively think harder about the costs and benefits of alliance and partnership contributions. If the U.S. sees its good will towards its friends in the region being taken advantage of, it will have less incentive to continue to commit substantial resources, especially as the environment becomes ever more challenging.

Australia is moving to spend more on defense, and to align its forces with those of the U.S., so placing a bet that a stronger contribution to the American alliance framework will help underpin the current security structure. As we see in the South China Sea, that strategy is vulnerable to ‘chipping away’ at the periphery, which the PRC is currently doing, but it probably still represents the best alternative in the big picture of regional security.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

China's Master Plan to Become a Global Maritime Power

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China's navy, from its founding in 1949 to the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, was focused on preventing Taiwan from becoming formally independent. This goal did not require long-distance operations that would require an at-sea resupply capability. Now, however, Beijing has declared its status as a global maritime power. 

Amateurs, it is said, talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. The leaders of China's navy, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), apparently have finally understood the vital role played by logistics in any effective military force. The PLAN's current modernization program may be dated to the mid-1990s, but until recently it failed to include expanding replenishment-at-sea (RAS) capabilities. 

Before the turn of the century, the PLAN included just one Soviet-built oiler and two relatively limited Fuqing-class oilers for its entire fleet. The ex-Soviet Komandarm Fedko-class replenishment ship began construction in the Ukraine in 1989, was purchased by China in 1992, and joined the PLAN in 1996 as the Qinghai-Hu (AO 885). It is a large ship, displacing 37,000 tons, making it almost as big as the most numerous US oilers currently operating. The Qinghai-Hu has four replenishment stations and China added a small flight deck and hangar capable of operating one Z-8 transport helicopter. The ship is reportedly underpowered, with an engineering plant based on just one diesel engine, but has supported ships deploying to Guam and on Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations.

The two Fuqing-class ships that joined the PLAN in 1980-1982 displace just 21,000 tons. They are equipped with four refueling stations, but have minimal stores replenishment capability. These ships have a small flight deck but no hangar, severely limiting their ability to operate helicopters.

China's lack of emphasis on underway refueling capability before 2005 is highlighted by the fact that Beijing actually built four Fuqing-class ships in the 1980s, but sold one of them to Pakistan in 1988, while assigning the fourth to commercial service.

But additional oilers joined the PLAN in 2005, when two Fuchi-class ships were commissioned. The Fuchi oilers are the first modern RAS ships in China's navy; two improved versions of this class joined the fleet in 2014. This has meant that the PLAN counter-piracy task groups deployed to the Gulf of Aden and beyond have depended almost entirely on the first two Fuchi-class oilers; they were for the most part tasked with 'port and starboard' deployments, assigned away from homeport six of every 12 months. 

The improved Fuchi-class vessels now in the PLAN have four refueling and two stores transfer stations, providing the capability to deliver significant quantities of dry goods and ordnance at sea. They thus should be classified as a replenishment oilier or 'AOR,' rather than the standard 'AO'. This is the class of RAS ship required to support long-range operations, although their relatively small size – 22,000 tons – means that they require frequent replenishment from relay tankers. 

The PLAN in 2015 includes seven RAS ships. At least one additional Fuchi-class AOR is preparing to join the fleet and the PLAN should be expected to budget for additional ships of this class, or an improved version.

PLAN RAS ships have proven their capability at both astern and alongside refueling. Additionally, they all have flight decks capable of helicopter operations, though only the Qinghai-Hu and the Fuchi-class ships are equipped with the hangars necessary to embark Z-8 logistics support helicopters.

The Chinese navy's experiences in long-range deployments have increased significantly since December 2008, when the first counter-piracy task group departed for the Gulf of Aden. The past seven years of 'far seas' operations have brought home to Beijing the fleet's need to be logistically self-supporting if it is to be an effective tool of statecraft and able to support China's national security priorities at sea. These include disputes in the East and South China Seas, of course, but extend to defending the global trade routes on which China's economic well-being depends. 

China's recognition of the importance of logistics support for the PLAN's far seas operations is also recognized in its move to establish a relatively permanent facility at Djibouti. Establishing an overseas logistics system will support, rather than take the place, of RAS ships.

The increasing number of RAS ships entering China's fleet will also allow greater employment of the PLAN's aircraft carriers, the first of which, Liaoning, will within the next decade be joined by at least the first indigenously built Chinese flattop. Carrier operations require the near-constant presence of RAS ships, primarily to replenish aircraft fuel and ordnance, as well as being on-hand to refuel escorting destroyers and frigates.

The PLAN in 2015 has an adequate RAS force to support continuous far seas operations. Increased defense funding and support illustrate Beijing's recognition of the need for improved RAS capability. Additional replenishment ships will be built to better support both those operations as well as future aircraft carrier operations.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia