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Russia's 'Carrier Killer' (Now ISIS Killer): The Tu-22M3 Supersonic Bomber

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The Russian air force conducted another massive strategic bomber raid on Daesh targets in Syria yesterday.

As before, the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS bombers played a prominent role, however, the supersonic Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers conducted the majority of the attacks. “A squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers made airstrikes against 6 ISIS facilities in the provinces of Raqqah and Deir-ez-Zor. They engaged depots with weapons and ammunition, mass concentrations of military hardware, training camps and workshops producing explosives,” reads a statement from the Russian defense ministry.

That statement was later amended to add: “Just a few minutes ago a squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers has made the second massive airstrike against 6 militants’ facilities engaging a communications centre, ISIS ammunition depot, a small factory producing explosives and car bombs, as well as a terrorist training base.”

While videos released by the Russian defense ministry shows that the aircraft were dropping OFAB 250-270 free-fall bombs, the aircraft were originally designed to strike U.S. Navy carrier strike groups in the Atlantic and high value NATO targets in Europe if the Cold War ever turned hot. There is no direct U.S. equivalent to the Tu-22M—the closest is perhaps the Rockwell International B-1B Lancer, which has been de-nuclearized in the post-Cold War-era, has a somewhat similar role. Another rough analogue might be the now retired FB-111 strategic bomber variant of the F-111 Aardvark.

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The Tu-22M3 is the last version of the Backfire that is still in service. The aircraft was sold to the Soviet leadership as a derivative of the older and much less sophisticated Tu-22 Blinder—but the Tu-22M is a completely new design that shares nothing with it predecessor except for its designation. The Soviet military basically had to trick the Kremlin into funding the Backfire the same way the U.S. Navy convinced the U.S. Congress that the almost entirely new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet airframe was a derivative of the original F/A-18.

According to the Tupolev design bureau, the first Tu-22M0 prototype was completed in 1969. It made its first flight that year on August 30 with V.P. Borisov as the pilot in command. The first prototype of the current M3 version of the jet first flew on June 20 1977 with production starting in 1978. The last version of the Tu-22M3 became operational in March 1989 just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Tupolev. The Kazan Aircraft Production Association built a total of roughly 500 different Backfire variants.

When the Backfire was introduced into service, it caused a lot of concern within the U.S. Navy because it is designed to carry a massive load of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The jet is fast—it has a top speed of Mach 1.88 and will easily sustain Mach 1.6 for extended periods—and carries 53,000lbs of weapons. Typically, that meant the Tu-22M3 could be carrying ten Raduga Kh-15 anti-ship missiles or three massive Raduga Kh-22 missiles—both of which can hit speeds of around Mach 5.0. The 13,000lbs Kh-22 was especially feared because of its long 320 nautical mile range and 2,200lbs shaped-charge warhead that could cripple an aircraft carrier with a single blow.

(Recommended: 5 ISIS Weapons of War Russia Should Fear

But it also carries conventional free-fall bombs—as many as seventy FAB-250-class weapons or eight FAB-1500-class weapons. A Russian ministry of defense video indicates that the Tu-22M3 dropped OFAB-250-270 bombs—basically 551lbs of blast fragmentation weapons—on Syria.  Dunarit—which manufactures the OFAB-250-270—helpfully points out the weapon “is intended for destruction of military-industrial sites, railway junctions, field facilities and personnel in open terrain as well as in light armoured vehicles and trucks on the march or during attack within the main concentration perimeter.”

(Recommended: The Russian Air Force's Super Bomber)

The Tu-22M3 will eventually be replaced in Russian service by the PAK-DA or potentially even the Tu-160M2—which Moscow has stated will be reentering production in 2023. But that might not be the end of the road for the Backfire. There have been persistent rumors that China wants to buy the aircraft as part of its anti-access/area denial strategy—so it’s not inconceivable that we might see Chinese Backfires one day. Stay tuned…

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

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Is War Between China and India Possible?

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As I was researching and writing the latest Contingency Planning Memorandum for CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, “Armed Confrontation Between China and India,” one of my top priorities was to avoid overstating the probability of the contingency. Throughout most of my conversations with Indian, Chinese, and U.S. policy analysts, I found a striking consensus about the relative stability between these two giant Asian neighbors. This was reassuring, but also slightly surprising given the lingering suspicions and growing competition between New Delhi and Beijing.

Then I started reading a new book by Bharat Karnad, Why India Is Not a Great Power (Yet), and quickly observed that nearly all of the avenues by which I thought a China-India conflict might conceivably emerge (land border skirmish, Tibetan protests, India-Pakistan standoff, and maritime disputes) were also areas where Karnad believes India should pursue far more aggressive policies. The one exception is Pakistan, where Karnad suggests India should principally deploy economic incentives to overcome longstanding hostilities (an approach he recommends for all of India’s smaller neighbors).

Karnad, a professor of National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is unusually strident in his call for India to play an opportunistic power-balancing role in Asia without signing up to either Washington or Beijing’s agenda. He expects that India will never find the United States to be a reliable strategic partner and that China will inevitably represent India’s chief security threat. To chart its own path, India will need to play a more opportunistic and reckless game quite unlike anything we have seen in its history since independence.

Karnad’s prescriptions go well beyond garden variety calls for “nonalignment” or greater Indian “strategic autonomy.” He proposes that India needs to take provocative measures if it wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, and in particular, to “strategically discomfit” China. To these ends, he argues for steps such as mining the Himalayan passes between India and China with atomic demolition munitions, arming China’s neighbors like Vietnam not only with Brahmos cruise missiles but nuclear weapons, and actively bankrolling and assisting an armed uprising in Tibet. Each of these steps would undoubtedly make an armed India-China confrontation more likely and more dangerous.

Quite unlike Karnad, my Contingency Planning Memo assumes that the U.S.-India partnership holds significant strategic value to both sides. As a consequence, I argue that Washington should stand by New Delhi’s side in the unlikely event of an armed confrontation between India and China, even at the risk of heightened U.S. tensions with China. To be clear, however, I also assume that India will not unilaterally pursue the sorts of policies that Karnad advocates and I suggest that Washington’s interest in backing India should apply only to defensive security measures.

These competing perspectives are worth considering because India has important strategic choices to make as its material power grows. I suspect that if India becomes more confident in its partnership with the United States, it will be less likely to pursue risky foreign policy positions. Karnad’s India, on the other hand, with growing power and ambition but deeply insecure about its relations with Washington and convinced of the China threat, would be far more likely to emerge as a dangerous new wild card in the international system.

Daniel Markey is adjunct senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Senior Research Professor and Academic Director of the Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This piece appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here. For more on preventing armed confrontation between China and India, please see CFR’s recent Contingency Planning Memorandum here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

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If North Korea Isn't Communist, Then What Is It?

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Last month I argued that North Korea is not really a communist state, at least not as we normally understand Marxist-Leninist states in the 20th century. For example, North Korea is governed by a monarchic family clan; its 'socialism' has been broadly replaced by corruption (at the top) and informal marketization (at the bottom); it flirts with race-fascism. Yet it does still retain obvious elements of old Stalinist states – for example, in its iconography, obsession with ideology, and anti-Western foreign policy relationships.

In my experience in this area, both scholarly and journalistic, this creates a lot of confusion and intellectual competition, with consequent political repercussions over how exactly to respond to North Korean provocations. There is a wide division out there about just how to interpret North Korea, what it 'really' is, what it 'really' wants, and so on. Similarly, a common retort to de-legitimize one's intellectual opponents in the study of North Korea is to claim another does not really 'understand' the 'true' North Korea.

The easy answer is to throw up one's hands and call North Korea sui generis. That may be right in the way North Korea synthesizes seemingly disparate elements into what should be an ideological rube-goldberg jalopy. But North Korea manages to hang on regardless of how many times we analysts say it is an incoherent mess. So it seems worthwhile to sketch out some of the various interpretations floating around out there. Based on my experience at conferences, in scholarship and journalism, from my trip to North Korea itself, and so on, I would say there are five primary interpretive angles:

1. North Korea as 'classic' Cold War Stalinist alternative to South Korea:

Who believes this? Non-Korean journalists, Korean conservatives and military, non-elite Americans

What is their ideology? Traditional conservative

What is their big fear? A Northern invasion of South Korea

I argued against this interpretation last month, and I would reckon most North Korea analysts would say this is no longer the best way to read Pyongyang. But I find it is still quite popular. Its appeal is obvious. It is easy to understand, parallels nicely with South Korea as the liberal democratic alternate, and fits into an obvious frame – the Cold War.

And because North Korea started out this way, all sorts of vestiges remain: the socialist moniker (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), the iconography (lots of red, the flag, the national seal, the party symbol), the autarkic ideology. And Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, almost certainly believed in socialism or communism (although whether his son and grandson do is matter of intense debate).

2. North Korea as a dangerous rogue state gumming up the works of globalization and U.S. hegemony:

Who believes this? U.S. hawks and think-tankers

What is their ideology? Neoconservative

What is their big fear? Nuclear proliferation

The idea here is that North Korea has actually successfully adapted to the end of the Cold War and remade itself as a gremlin in global governance. It refuses to follow even the most basic rules; its decision-making is a fog to outsiders; it does not belong to any international organizations. It is the most unpredictable state in the system. Back when he was Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz captured this anxiety well: “I'm more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don't understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done.”

3. North Korea as a semi-fascist barracks state

Who believes this? Various intellectuals (Brian Myers, Josh Stanton, Christopher Hitchens, Vox), my North Korean minders

What is their ideology? None

What is their big fear? Nationalist competition with and subversion of South Korea

Brian Myers has led this school, which argues that North Korea is a misunderstood racist state based on Japanese and German fascist forms from the early twentieth century. It rallies its citizens through aggressive race-based nationalism (the defense of minjok), defends the racial 'cleanliness' of Korea in a big intrusive world, insists that ethnic Koreans of other nationalities are still Koreans, and routinely uses racist language in its diplomacy. On top of this, it is one of the most highly militarized states in the world. Racism plus hypermilitarism looks a lot more like fascism than communism.

Notably, when I was in North Korea, my minders used a lot of this sort of language. As one of them put it, 'no mixing' (ie. inter-racial mixing).

4. North Korea as neo-Confucian kingdom defending Korean independence against foreign predators:

Who believes this? Doves (here, here, here), the South Korean left, Korean college students

What is their ideology? Leftist

What is their big fear? American misunderstanding and overreaction

If the above interpretations are all congenial to conservatives and hawks, here is perhaps the one I encounter most from the left. The idea here is that North Korea is more Korean than socialist or fascist, and that if we look at Korean history, we can see where it came from. For example, the North Korean monarchy is not a transplant of Stalinism but a reversion to Korea's earlier Confucian political form, a point evidenced by the inclusion of a Confucian writing brush in the party symbol, and in the DPRK's insistence that it is a modern version of Koguryeo, a much earlier Korean kingdom.

Or, it was U.S. behavior during the Korean War – specifically the extraordinary bombing of the North — which radicalized Kim Il Sung and the Korean Workers Party. If the U.S. had not been so brutal, the logic goes, the North Korea would have been more like North Vietnam or East Germany, instead of the Orwellian tyranny we know today. The policy extension of this view is that North Korea must be brought in from the cold by outreach such as the Sunshine policy.

5. North Korea as a mafia racket masquerading as a country:

Who believes this? No clear school (me, Alastair Gale, Josh Stanton)

What is their ideology? None

What is their big fear? An Inter-Korean federation that effectively subsidizes North Korea permanently

This is perhaps close to the neoconservative interpretation. The more I study North Korea, the more the gangsterism strikes me. North Korea is indeed a trouble-making rogue. But it is far more predictable than rogue/conservative interpretations permit. North Korea is not in fact suicidal, nor is it likely trying to bring down South Korea, invade it, or otherwise achieve Northern-led unification. This is all out of its reach, and there's no way China, Japan or the U.S. would stand by if these eventualities actually began to play out. What Pyongyang wants more than anything else is just to survive, so war is highly unlikely; and its elites want the lifestyle to which their bloody climb to the top has entitled them.

We know that North Korea routinely engages in illicit behavior: smuggling, drug production and running, insurance fraud, proliferation, counterfeiting of dollars and RMB. We know that throughout the 'sunshine' period it took every advantage to demand South Korea pay for joint projects, and even pay Pyongyang off directly. It rips off its own labor force, whether working abroad in Siberia or in the Persian Gulf, or at home in the Kaesong industrial zone. Inside North Korea, corruption is endemic, and its elites gorge themselves at the population's expense. Kim Jong Il's appetites for liquor and women were neronian, while Kim Jong Un has continued his father's partying rule by building a ski resort (yes, really).

In short, North Korea is post-ideological and akin to The Godfather: a massive racket to shake down anyone, inside North Korea and out, to fund the self-indulgent lifestyle of a narrow elite. North Korea is what happens when Don Corleone takes over an entire country and can enforce his clan rule with a secret police rather than just capo henchman. Actually, North Korea is barely a country at all; it's an Orwellian gangster fiefdom.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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Ready for War: Russia's Stealthy Kh-101 Cruise Missile Debuts in Syria

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The Russian strategic bomber raid on the Daesh targets in Syria yesterday marked not only the combat debut of the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack, but of a stealthy new Russian cruise missile. A video released by the Russian defense ministry clearly shows what appears to be the new Raduga Kh-101, which is slowly replacing the older Raduga Kh-55/Kh-555 cruise missile.

The new weapon—which is an extremely long-range stealth cruise missile—comes in two variants. The Kh-101 is the conventional variant, which was launched from Tu-160s against Syrian targets yesterday and the Kh-102, which is the nuclear-tipped variant. The missiles might have a range as great as 3,100 miles by some Western estimates.

However, Russian media indicates that the weapon has far greater capabilities. In 2012, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the conventional variant of the missile would have a circular probability of error of less than 30 feet at ranges of up to 6,000 miles. The missile would use a combination of inertial guidance and satellite navigation using the Russian GLONASS system. Some reports indicate it might have a imaging infrared terminal guidance system.

The missile’s warhead would pack 880lbs of explosives. At the time, Izvestia had reported the weapon would enter service in 2013. Indeed, given that the Russians used the weapon during yesterday’s raid, that appears to have been the case.

There is not much data available about the Kh-102 nuclear version of the cruise missile. One can presume that the nuclear variant will be at least as long-ranged and just as stealthy as the conventional variant. It will also likely travel at tree top levels and it is thought to cruise at about Mach 0.77. The nuclear warhead is thought be a 250KT device.

The nearest U.S. equivalent of the Kh-101 or Kh-102 is the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile, which has been retired from service. But the weapon incorporated a stealthy airframe and a 2000 nautical mile range when it was still in service.

The U.S. Air Force is currently developing the Long Range Stand Off missile which is likely be similar in concept to the two new Russian weapons.

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

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After Paris, Can Iran Be Counted on to Help Defeat ISIS?

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Iran may have joined in condemning the Islamic State’s (ISIS) vicious attack in Paris on November 13, but the terrorist strike also gives Tehran a major diplomatic opportunity to advance its goals in region. The United States, France, and other world powers are striving to build a more effective anti-ISIS campaign. Yet Iran’s own murky relationship with the extremist group may confound these efforts.

On one level, Iran views the Islamic State as a clear danger to its national security. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security chief Mahmoud Alavi warned the attacks in Paris represent a “serious warning” for Iran, and that ISIS remains the country’s most important threat in the field of hard (as opposed to soft or covert) war. Iran’s Army Chief Brigadier General Ahmed Reza Pourdestan threatened a “crushing response” should ISIS come within 25 miles of Iran’s borders, and arrests of several “ISIS teams” have occurred in Kermanshah over the past week.

Iran’s ally, Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, also denounced the Paris attacks:

“The nations of the region have confronted the brutal earthquake of ISIS in most of the Islamic and Arabic countries. Therefore, we understand and feel the painful sorrow of the French nation.” He stressed that perpetrators of the November 12 bombings in Beirut have been arrested and noted, “We will soon open other fronts against ISIS.”

Iran’s fear of ISIS, however, does not make it an ideal partner in combating the group. First, many within Iran’s leadership believe the Islamic State is ultimately a creation of the Gulf Arab states and the Western powers. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri condemned the Paris attacks, but also attributed them to the French government’s support of ISIS. He warned Western leaders not to misuse the tragedy to justify wars, “such as what happened after the September 11th attacks to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian reiterated Iran’s previous warnings to the Gulf States and the West that supporting the Islamic State could foment insecurity within their own countries. This misunderstanding hampers Iran’s strategic thinking, and leads to ineffective policies.

Second, Iran and the international community do not share the same primary objectives in Syria. The international community views the Islamic State as a more significant threat than Assad. For Iran, however, preventing Assad’s fall is paramount; battling ISIS remains a secondary priority. ISIS is not such an immediate threat that Iran is willing to work with opposition forces at the expense of its primary goal of keeping Assad in power.

Third, ISIS also serves a practical purpose for Iran. IS’s reign of terror and global ambitions have effectively distracted the international community from President Assad’s butchering of his own people. The United States and France are already pushing for greater cooperation with Russia in Syria, an implicit boon for Tehran’s new joint campaign with Moscow to preserve the current Syrian regime.

Finally, ISIS helps undermine the viability and credibility of any alternative to Assad’s rule. For Iran there is distinction with little difference between ISIS (accused of receiving support from Sunni Arab states and the West) and other Syrian opposition groups (known to receive support from the Sunni Arab states and the West). Tehran is happy to let the extremist organization fight it out with the various Sunni opposition groups that remain Assad’s most pressing political threat.

ISIS’s role in Iraq is more complicated. Deeply concerned by ISIS encroachment on Iran’s borders and the Shi’a heartlands of Iraq, Iran has focused on defending those areas. Tehran lacks the capability to roll-back ISIS in the Sunni-dominant areas of western and north-western Iraq, however. In absence of a long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State, Iran must ironically rely upon its Arab opponents and Western states to bear the costs of combating the group.

Regardless of its sympathetic rhetoric, Tehran has no qualms about using ISIS to serve its immediate goals. It would be a mistake for US negotiators in Vienna--in the hopes of creating a broader anti-ISIS coalition--to accommodate Tehran’s demands that Assad could stay indefinitely. Such a course would fuel Iran’s longer-term ambitions of regional hegemony, and sacrifice the chance at a genuine political solution in Syria.

This piece first appeared on AEI's website here

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The Russian Air Force's Super Bomber: Beware the Supersonic Tu-160

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The Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic strategic bomber made its combat debut yesterday as the Russian air force struck Daesh targets across Syria.

The Blackjack—which the Russians have nicknamed the “White Swan” due to its white anti-flash paint scheme and slender design—was the last strategic bomber ever developed by the Soviet Union. Though modern Russia has adapted the powerful long-range supersonic bomber for the conventional role, its original mission was to deliver a thermonuclear payload to the United States should the Cold War have turned hot. Effectively, it is Russia’s answer to the stealthy Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit—the last American Cold War-era strategic bomber.

According to the Tupolev design bureau, the Soviets started designing the bomber in the early 1970s—shortly before the United States had started to develop the B-2. The preliminary design was more or less in place by the mid-1970s. The first prototype flew on December 18, 1981, with B.I. Veremey flying as the lead test pilot.

Tupolev started flight-testing the first production aircraft in October 1984 with the first operational bombers being delivered to the Soviet Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily in in April 1987. The first operational Tu-160 bomber unit was the 184th Guards Heavy Bomber Regiment, which was based in Pryluky, Ukraine. The bomber regiment had nineteen out of the thirty-six Tu-160s built when the Soviet Union collapsed—which meant those jets belonged to a newly independent Ukraine.

The former Soviet republic eventually sold eight of those Tu-160s back to the Russian Federation in 1999, but the present day Vozdushno-KosmicheskieSily Rossii has only sixteen Blackjacks in service. The Ukrainians scrapped the remaining planes—but the newly independent country never had the resources to operate such a sophisticated warplane. The surviving Russian-owned bombers are being upgraded with new avionics and weapons.

Russia has indicated that it intends to restart production of the massive supersonic bomber at the Kazan Aircraft Production Association in 2023. Russia intends to produce more than fifty new Tu-160s—which would be built concurrently as the new Russian PAK-DA stealth bomber is being designed.  But, as always, there is the ever-present question of how Russia will pay for the new Blackjacks let along a new PAK-DA. “According to the plans, serial production of the aircraft [Tu-160] new version is to be implemented starting from 2023,” Russian deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov told reporters during a visit to the Kuznetsov factory. “The PAK DA project will be somewhat shifted beyond [2023], otherwise there is no sense in it.”

The new Blackjack variant would be called the Tu-160M2. While the airframe is likely to remain more or less similar, the Russians have indicated that the avionics, mission system and potentially the engines would be completely revamped. “There will be nothing left from the earlier version of Tu-160, only the platform. Much more advanced hardware will be installed on it,” Vladimir Mikheev, a senior official with Russia’s Radio-Electronic Technologies Concern told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

While the B-2 is relies on stealth—the Tu-160 relies on a combination of blistering speed and long-range standoff cruise missiles to deliver its payload. The Blackjack can sustain speeds of Mach 2.05 with its four massive Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofans, which provide 55,000lbs of thrust each at maximum power. However, operational Blackjacks are currently restricted to about Mach 1.5 in order to save airframe life.

The basic concept behind the Tu-160 is to use its speed to move into launch position quick and disgorge its cruise missiles before the enemy can react. Indeed, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy pilots told me that intercepting a high flying and fast flying target at Mach 2.0 or more is extremely difficult even for a high performance fighter like the F-15C Eagle.  

The Tu-160’s primary armament comes in the form of twin six-shot rotary cruise launchers that fit inside its cavernous weapons bays. The most common weapon for its strategic deterrent role is the 1,600 nautical mile-range Raduga Kh-55 nuclear-tipped cruise missile. But there is also a conventional version of the weapon called the Kh-555. But those weapons are slated to be replaced by stealthy new cruise missiles—which until recently were not thought to be operational.

However, recent video footage released by the Russian defense ministry indicates that Russian Tu-160 crews recently launched the stealthy new Kh-101 cruise missiles against targets in Syria. That likely means the Kh-102 nuclear-tipped variant is also operational with the Russian air force. The addition of those new weapons means the Tu-160 remains an extremely formidable enemy. In total, the Tu-160 can carry a whopping 88,000lbs of roughly the weight of a fully loaded F-15E. Its max takeoff weight is an astounding 606,000lb, which means it is the largest operational warplane ever built.

While the Tu-160 is the Russian answer to the American B-2, the aircraft was designed to operate using a completely different concept of operations. The B-2 was designed to penetrate deep into enemy airspace—the Blackjack was always designed as a standoff launch platform. It’s not a direct equivalent.

With a stealth aircraft, the platform is extremely expensive while the munitions can be cheaper. With a standoff platform, the aircraft is less expensive while the weapons have to be much more sophisticated. Both are effective methods to deliver weapons on target. Hopefully, we will never find out which is a better nuclear delivery method.

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

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What Star Wars Can Teach Us About Cybersecurity

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The new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, comes out in about a month. As with most people, I can’t wait for the new movie. I’ve been re-watching the old ones–except for The Phantom Menace, it’s terrible–and getting hyped for the new release.

In re-watching the old movies, I’ve been struck by just how bad the Empire was at cybersecurity. It’s not surprising given that the Empire, despite its resources and power, had some pretty glaring security gaps. I mean, who builds the most complex and destructive weapon in the galaxy and equips it with a single point of failure in the form of an exhaust port? Its cybersecurity gaps don’t fare that much better. In fact, three critical cybersecurity improvements would have made it much more difficult–if not impossible–for the Rebel Alliance to defeat it in Return of the Jedi.

1. Limiting Access Controls:

This is probably the Empire’s biggest vulnerability. Based on what we know from R2-D2 plugging himself into every foreign computer imaginable, the Empire didn’t employ basic access controls. Anyone plugging into an Empire-controlled network could find out anything they wanted to know. That’s how R2-D2 was able to find out where Princess Leia and the tractor beam controls were in Episode 4 (Star Wars/A New Hope). It’s also how R2-D2 was able to find out from the Cloud City network–presumably that was under the control of the Empire given Lando’s terrible deal making–that the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon was deactivated at the end of Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back). Good access controls allow people to only have access to computer functions that are necessary for them to do their jobs and should prevent anyone that connects to a network from accessing the whole thing. That’s why in most companies, you have to ask your IT department to install new software. When hackers infiltrate a network, generally their first priority is to find ways to gain more network privileges. Had the Empire even implemented basic access controls, there’s little chance that R2-D2 would have been able access everything he did.

2. Two-Factor Authentication:

The lack of two factor authentication is also a huge problem for the Empire. Two factor authentication essentially requires someone to use two credentials to access a system or device, like a password and security token, instead of a simple password. Had the Empire actually deployed two factor authentication throughout the Death Star, it would have been impossible for Ben Kenobi to deactivate the tractor beam in Episode 4. You could make the case that some form of Jedi mediation or mind trick could have gotten him over this obstacle by correctly guessing the two forms of authentication he needed, but in the Star Wars canon, those techniques don’t work on non-organic creatures like computers or droids. In the same movie, R2-D2 also would have had a much harder time shutting down the garbage compactor on the detention level, possibly not giving him enough time so save Han, Leia, Chewie and Luke.

3. Encrypting sensitive data:

The Empire has a patchy record with encryption. In Episode 5, they actually seem to use it. When the Rebels discover an unknown transmission on Hoth early in the movie, they can’t decipher its contents. C-3PO, whose primary function is translation and protocol, admits to the Rebel radio operator that it could be an imperial code but doesn’t provide any more information, leading us to believe that the message is encrypted. If only the Empire had used encryption with all of their sensitive data, like the blueprints for the Death Star. It’s also pretty appalling that they didn’t encrypt the fact that they had deactivated the hyperdrive on the Falcon in Episode 5. Even with sloppy access permissions, encrypting that fact meant it would have taken longer for R2-D2, Chewie and Lando to figure out what was wrong with the Falcon as they escaped Cloud City. That extra time would probably have given Admiral Piett more time to activate the Executor’s tractor beam and recapture them.

It’s probably impossible to argue that the Empire’s poor cybersecurity practices led to its downfall. After all, the Star Wars universe is science fiction and there are probably ways the Rebels could have gotten around the security measures had they been in place. No security control is ever perfect.

Here’s hoping that Kylo Ren and the First Order step up their game in The Force Awakens.

Alex Grigsby is the assistant director for the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 


Revealed: The Gulf States are Buying Tons of American Smart Bombs

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The tragedy of Paris this past weekend may eventually prove to have been the beginning of the end for the Al-Baghdadi Gang in Al-Raqqah.

Wantonly attacking the citizens of two UN Security Council members in a week wasn't just heinous, it was stupid. So if the Coalition air forces have been running through a lot of ordnance pummeling troops and infrastructure, the pace is only stepping up. Getting them the weapons, though, hasn’t been easy. As Air Force Secretary Debbie James stressed at last week’s Dubai Air Show, her department has been trying to speed up its part of the export review process. Some of the bureaucratic anguish is about maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME), an American policy since 1968, and a matter of law since 2008. At a certain point, however, obsession with Israel’s security undermines American efforts to help Arab states help themselves, and Arab security calls out for whatever America can reasonably send.

This week, it’s the Saudis who are buying a lot of bombs. As noted by Andrea Shalal at Reuters, the US State Department has just approved the sale of 22,000 bombs, including 5,000 GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) from Boeing, and 1,000 laser-guided Paveway IIs from either Raytheon or Lockheed Martin. The total bill will come to about $1.29 billion. The Houthis are absorbing a lot of damage, and now there will be more coming their way. It’s not clear just when that request went in, but we can imagine how the interagency ground its gears on this one. As William Wunderle and Andre Briere of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper in 2008, the process by which State and Defense have sought to determine just what might breach that QME hasn’t always been rigorous. But it’s important to remember that a qualitative edge doesn’t necessarily demand a quantitative edge, so at least large munitions sales have been getting through.

The United Arab Emirates, after all, have been getting resupplied with what they need. Back in October 2013, the Defense Department reported to the Congress that the UAE had applied to undertake a huge shopping trip with American weapons manufacturers: 5,000 of Boeing’s Small Diameter Bombs, 1,200 of Raytheon's JSOW-C glide bombs, and 300 of Boeing’s SLAM-ER cruise missiles. The Emiratis already had gobs of Textron’s Sensor-Fuzed Weapons—antitank cluster munitions that can take out whole squadrons of vehicles at once. The UAE Air Force also already had the fighter-bombers to drop them: about 79 F-16E/F Desert Falcons, and 68 Mirage 2000s.

It’s true that at one point, much of the Arab world had large air forces. Egypt still does. But these days, some of the less developed countries are spending much more on their armies than their air forces, because their security problems are mostly internal. The lingering big inventories of old aircraft will not be replaced; outside the Gulf, none of the countries can afford it. Consider that the Libyan Air Force under Qaddafi had about 400 jets—rather few of them flyable, of course. Even before the place fell apart, according to the Libyan Herald and other sources, the long-term plan for the Libyan Air Force included only 30. Those squadrons upon squadrons were built up only because the Soviets were spending about 25 percent of their GDP on military hardware, and giving a lot of it away at “friendship prices”. That gravy train left the station twenty-five years ago. It's not just that the inventories today aren't going to be replaced; after 1989, they were never going to be replaced.

The mere size of an air fleet and its munitions, of course, hardly captures its military power. In “Lessons from Ground Combat in the Gulf: the Impact of Training and Technology” (International Security, Fall 1997), Daryl Press argued that training is what matters most, given reasonably good equipment. In Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2006), Stephen Biddle argued that what matters is actually a closely coupled combination of training and technology. There is the separate problem that bombing can prevent al-Baghdadi’s maniacs from taking any more territory, but only boots on the ground can take the territory back. So far, those boots have been mostly Kurdish, and while the Peshmerga are tough, they are not legion.

So bean-counting doesn’t produce a meaningful answer, for few Middle Eastern countries can handle even the equipment they’ve got today. When planes are needed in Syria, Assad gets a fighter-bomber regiment direct from Russia. The regime probably doesn’t have the absorptive capacity to fly even another two dozen jets on its own. But there’s a marked contrast in what’s happening in the Gulf States. The Emirates have already figured out how to integrate drones into their airspace, while the FAA in the more spacious USA cannot. There was the arms deal signed with Ukraine in February—a rare show of support for the embattled European state. Alenia is pitching  gunships to the Emirati air marshals, and for good reason, they’re interested. That sale of V-22 Ospreys has been rumored for about three years now, and there’s an understandable need. Indeed, American arms makers are setting up not just sales offices, but the beginnings of more serious facilities. For as my colleague Bilal Saab has written, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE is one of the few places in the Arab world with a budding arms industry.

Indeed, that confluence of capabilities is already far ahead of what most countries in the region can manage. Almost everywhere else, either the armed forces lack the institutional capacity to wage modern war, or their treasuries lack the monies to pay for it. In some cases, it’s both, and that doesn’t add up to too a worrisome threat to Israel. But that also means that if the Emirates and the rest of the GCC can continue to improve their military performance by concentrating on training, doctrine, and organization, they should be able contain threats with much less outside assistance. Together, they have almost the population of Iran, and more disposable income. At this point, if Iran is no longer the clear and present danger, Daesh is. Either way, since 1991, we've known that tanks and technicals coming across the desert make really good targets for precision weapons. So let’s continue to get them the weapons they need.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where this piece first appeared.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Chinese Navy and the Quest for Access

The Buzz

In a quiet but undoubtedly significant event, Admiral Wu Shengli (吴胜利), commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and a member of the PRC’s Central Military Commission recently visited Malaysia with an entourage of 10 senior officials. During his visit, Admiral Wu secured agreement from the Malaysian Navy for the ships of the PLA Navy to use the port of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo as a "stopover location" to "strengthen defence ties between the two countries."

What’s remarkable is the environment in which this agreement has been reached. China’s military vessels have been active in Malaysia’s territorial waters off Borneo from 2011. Since 2013, the number of Chinese naval and coast guard vessels patrolling and anchoring around Malaysia’s Luconia Shoals and James Shoal, both of which are within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, has increased greatly, and PRC territory markers have been erected on the latter.

In June, National Security Minister Shahidan Kassim said that Malaysia would protest to China about the PRC Coast Guard ship long anchored in Malaysian waters at Luconia Shoals, while legislators voiced their unhappiness with the situation. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry has more recently been lodging weekly protests with Beijing over the presence of the Chinese ship in the area. While the anchored PRC ship is being monitored, there have been reports that Malaysian fishermen are still being driven away from the shoals by Chinese threats to facilitate Chinese fishing boats’ exploitation of the area.

Further, only a day after Admiral Wu left Malaysia, the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, visited Sabah and started berating ‘a regional superpower’ which has built facilities on three atolls just 155km from Sabah and "3,218km from its mainland.' "To claim this part of the South China Sea as theirs due to historical narrative is invalid," the Deputy Prime Minister Zahid noted.

Why then do we have this agreement now by the Malaysian Navy for Chinese navy port access to Sabah? And which part of the Malaysian administration was responsible for approving it?

Access to a northern Borneo port has long been an ambition of the PLA Navy in its efforts to expand control in the South China Sea. Two years ago, in a Strategist posting entitled Xi Jinping and the Sabah enigma, I noted how Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Sabah (subsequently aborted) reflected PRC efforts to increase links with that key region of northern Borneo. Chinese naval personnel first visited Kota Kinabalu in August 2013.

Later that year, direct contact between Malaysia’s Naval Region Command 2 (Mawilla 2) and China’s Southern Sea Fleet Command was initiated and Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein invited China’s Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan (常万全), to visit the Royal Malaysian Navy base in Teluk Sepanggar, Sabah, to jointly launch the tie-up. At the same time, Malaysia and China announced joint military exercises for 2014, eventually held in 2015 in the Strait of Malacca. A PRC consulate was established in Kota Kinabalu in April 2015 and the new consul-general began by urging that Chinese-language signs be erected across Sabah.

But back to Admiral Wu’s journey. During his current peregrination, Admiral Wu is visiting Malaysia, Indonesia and the Maldives, undoubtedly reflecting Chinese naval access aspirations in those three regions. This is one of three trips to neighbouring countries by senior PRC military officials this month. Admiral Sun Jianguo (孙建国), Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Department, accompanied Xi Jinping on his visit to Vietnam in early November. General Fan Changlong (范长龙), Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, is also currently leading a military delegation to Pakistan and India. A Global Times commentary suggests that all three trips are related to expanding China’s maritime interests.

In the light of these visits and increasing PRC maritime assertiveness, only the most innocent would, on observing the location of Darwin between the South China Sea and the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, conclude that the PLA Navy would not likewise be interested in securing access to and facilities in the port of Darwin. Particularly if it was under the control of a Chinese enterprise for the coming century.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

France's Charles De Gaulle Aircraft Carrier: The Good, the Bad and the Nuclear

The Buzz

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle (R91) is the centerpiece of the French navy. The 42,500-ton ship is set to play a key role in Paris’ war on the Daesh terrorist network in Syria and Iraq following Friday’s deadly attack on the French capital.

Though the ship is proving to be a capable warship with its relatively powerful air wing, which consists of a maximum of forty Dassault Rafale M strike fighters, Super Étendards Modernisé strike aircraft, Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes and a host of helicopters, Charles De Gaulle has faced a difficult path to realizing its full potential. During construct, the ship ran into huge cost overruns totaling roughly eighteen percent and several major delays. In fact, work had to be stopped on four separate occasions.

But Charles De Gaulle faced difficulties even once the ship was completed. The ship had to be fitted with better radiation shielding after inspectors found higher than expected radioactivity onboard—the ship had been in construction so long that safety standards had changed. Moreover, the ship’s flight deck had to be extended by about fourteen feet to accommodate the Hawkeye. The vessel had originally been designed to launch and recover the Super Étendards Modernisé, the Rafale and the US. Navy’s F/A-18C/D—the requirement to operate the Hawkeye was only added in 1992, which necessitated the refit.

The carrier also faced tremendous problems with its propulsion system initially. The ship had issues with vibration, and indeed during one well-publicized incident, the propellers literally snapped. The problem was traced to faulty manufacturing—there were air pockets in the cast copper-aluminum alloy. Worse, the blueprints for the propellers had been lost in a fire, which meant that the ship had to be refitted with hand-me down screws from Foch and Clemenceau. That cut her speed down from twenty-seven knots to about twenty-four knots—which was unfortunate since she is already considerably slower than her predecessors which steamed at thirty-two knots.

Charles De Gaulle was eventually refitted with new propellers in 2007 during her first refueling. The Charles De Gaulle’s advantage over conventional carriers is that she doesn’t need as much logistical support compared to her predecessors due to her nuclear propulsion. However, the French opted for a reactor that needs to be refueled every seven years. By comparison, an American carrier is only refueled once during its fifty-year lifespan. The refit also added a host of improvements that allowed the French to finally exploit its full potential. But even then, Charles De Gaulle suffered another embarrassing electrical fault in the propulsion system in 2010 that cut her deployment short—literally to one day.  At this point, however, most of the bugs seem to have been ironed out.

Charles De Gaulle is not the equivalent of a Nimitz or Ford-class carrier. The ship is less than half the size and it doesn’t have the deck space to accommodate as many aircraft or launch and recover those jets at the same rate, but it is a relatively capable vessel. The flight deck is not long enough to conduct simultaneous launch and recovery operations, but at maximum capacity, it can carry forty aircraft and launch 100 sorties in a single day. But that’s at maximum capacity; in reality Charles De Gaulle doesn’t carry nearly that many planes at any one time. What she does do is give France an independent strategic power projection capability—which is Paris’ first and foremost defense policy objective.

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

Image: Creative Commons.