The Buzz

Allies and Airpower

The Buzz

In discussions about the future of ANZUS last week, I introduced a discussion of Australia–US cooperation in air combat and strike. Because of recent force structuring decisions, I think Australia’s well set up to make substantial contributions to coalition air-power operations in the future, but it’s worth thinking through how we might best do that.

History provides some valuable lessons. Australia’s first air operations with the United States were during World War II’s Pacific campaign. Australia started the war with equipment that wasn’t up to speed, and relied heavily on imports from the U.S. and UK. Both of those nations had their own priorities and it took the RAAF some time to catch up.

As a result, the Australian contribution to the allied air campaign wasn’t always especially helpful. As aviation historian Michael Claringbould observes, turning up for coalition operations and bringing along outmoded equipment can be counterproductive:

The formation of 10 Operational Group in late 1943 hindered the [US] 5th Air Force… [T]he limited contribution the RAAF would make at Nadzab [PNG] was at the expense of valuable apron space, badly needed by advanced US types. The fact that No. 10 showed up with obsolete or superfluous types frustrated the Americans, [who] were forced to allow the RAAF to operate from Nadzab for reasons of political compromise, rather than contribution to the war effort.

Flightpath, February–April 2012

So it’s possible for an ally—especially the junior one—to be a nuisance rather than an asset if its forces aren’t what the local commander needs. Balanced against that is the political payoff in having allied support, and it can be a net positive if mere presence is sufficiently valuable. That wasn’t the case in WWII because it was a war of survival, but in operations of a more discretionary nature the calculus can be different. Many of the smaller contributions to coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan can be filed under "little or no operational benefit but politically valuable."

Of course, it’s better to make a valuable contribution to the politics and the operation, as Australia managed to do in subsequent wars. By 1945 the RAAF was the world’s fourth largest air force (admittedly after some of the former high-rung position holders were displaced with extreme prejudice), with an inventory of capable aircraft and experienced personnel. The Navy was assembling a capable air arm, and the RAAF and RAN were significant front-line contributors over Korea. The RAAF later took its Canberra strike bombers to Vietnam and worked successfully with American tactical air units, flying over 11,000 missions.

But those successful exercises in alliance air power haven’t been repeated. Australian defense spending fell dramatically after announcement of the Guam doctrine and the end of the Vietnam War, and by the 1990s, Australia’s defense forces were suffering from a scarcity of resources and the inevitable "hollowing out" of capabilities. The ADF played no direct combat role in the 1991 Gulf War and when an American request for Australian F-111s was made for Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the aircraft weren’t fit for purpose, lacking critical electronic warfare equipment. Similarly, the Australian contribution to the air campaign in the 2003 Iraq War came only after Iraq’s air defense system had been effectively eliminated by U.S. forces.

Together, those examples show that Australia has been a valuable contributor to air operations when it had capable and well-maintained equipment which allowed the RAAF to operate effectively alongside American forces. At other times we’ve been an ineffective but tolerated flag flyer (and in Desert Fox not even that).

Today, after a decade of investment into its air-combat capability and with more to come, the ADF is well-placed to be a real contributor to allied air operations, should the government of the day choose. Super Hornets put it on a par with the U.S. Navy air combat and strike capability, and early next decade the F-35 will move Australia further up the American capability curve.

But tactical strike fighters mightn’t be the most valuable contribution we could make. The US won’t lack those—it will have 600+ Super Hornets and more F-35s by early next decade. Turning up with "more of the same" could be useful, as it was in the widespread wars in Korea and Vietnam, but in a more focused campaign it could complicate American command and control while adding little extra combat capability. To avoid that we could instead contribute capabilities that are almost always oversubscribed in modern air warfare: electronic-warfare support, airborne early warning and control and air-to-air refueling. Again the RAAF is well placed, with small but capable fleets of all those types.

It remains to be seen whether the government will opt for further investment in alliance-specific capabilities. But if it does, the less glamorous but always-valuable air-combat support assets would be a good place to start.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia-Pacific

A Two State Solution Is the Worst Solution—Except for All the Others

The Buzz

Given the “facts on the ground,” Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue that Washington should recognize the two-state solution is dead and get on with burying it.  There are two problems with this. A one-state solution would be a calamity for both sides. Furthermore, the so-called “facts on the ground” as interpreted by the Leveretts hardly make it inevitable.  


While the Kerry Framework collapsed, this does not make a one-state solution the next logical step.  The historian Benny Morris points out that just as two-state solutions have failed, so have one-state solutions to the Arab-Israeli dispute.  Rather than leading to a lasting peace, a one-state solution would transform the former British mandate into another Yugoslavia. 


The international system has been repeatedly characterized as anarchic, where the life of states can be “nasty, brutish and short.”  However, warring groups have greater protection under anarchy than if they were forced to live under the same roof. 


Neither side can credibly commit to the safety and security of the other.  If a single, binational state were created, the Palestinians would form the majority.  However, it is unlikely that the Jewish minority would be able to trust such a government.  A unitary state would demand the Jewish minority disarm its military forces in exchange for a binational one, leaving them vulnerable to future attacks.  (Similarly, the Palestinian side would have no recourse other than violence if the Jewish minority decided to renege on its end of the bargain.) 


Under a two-state solution, both sides can mitigate the consequences of receiving the sucker’s payoff should one of them decide to cheat on an agreement.  They can bolster their defenses, formcounter-balancing alliances, and raise (or hold onto) their national defense forces.  They can raise the costs of aggression by bringing in third-party monitors.   These are just a handful of the strategies states use to ensure that their rivals comply with their agreements.  While none is foolproof, they afford greater protection for both sides than unilateral disarmament and a one-state solution.


On the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated several of his longstanding positions in a press conference, including his support for a two-state solution.  The facts on the ground give credence to several options that would ultimately separate the two sides. 


Albert B. Wolf is a Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael

America’s Dangerous $5 Trillion Dollar Bet in the South China Sea

The Buzz

Over $5 Trillion dollars of goods move across the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea on an annual basis—and China seems focused on turning the area into its special sphere of influence.

Tensions have been steadily rising over the last few years in what Robert D. Kaplan has dubbed Asia’s Cauldron, and so far Washington has been unable to find the magic formula to get Beijing to back off. A new U.S. plan reported by the Financial Times will do little to change Beijing’s calculus. In fact, it could make matters far worse.

This supposed new strategy will focus heavily on surveillance flights and what might be dubbed a simple “shaming” strategy. FT reports that Washington will step up its use of surveillance assets in the area which “could be coupled with a greater willingness to publicize images of videos of Chinese maritime activity.”  It goes on to note, “some US officials believe the Chinese might be given pause for thought if images of their vessels harassing Vietnamese or Filipino fisherman were to be broadcast.”

This is not all:

“The US military’s Hawaii-based Pacific command has also been asked to co-ordinate the development of a regional system of maritime information, which would allow governments in the western Pacific detailed information about the location of vessels in the region. Several governments say they have been caught unawares by the surprise appearance of Chinese ships.

The US has supplied the Philippines, Japan and other countries in the region with improved radar equipment and other monitoring systems and is now looking for ways to build this information into a broader regional network that shares the data.

The Pentagon has also been working on plans for calculated shows of force, such as the flight of B-52s over the East China Sea last year after China declared an exclusive air defense zone over the area. The potential options involve sending naval vessels close to disputed areas.”

While such a plan clearly shows Washington is doing what it can to demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region in an attempt to deter Beijing, there are many pitfalls that should be considered—especially when it comes to the wider use of surveillance assets. For one, the U.S. would obviously have to place men and women in harm’s way in contested waters time and time again in order to enact this part of the plan. You don’t have to be a bookie in Vegas to understand the odds of some sort of tragic incident occurring are quite high. In this case, the goal of “doing something” might actually be worse than doing nothing. As history tells us quite clearly, wars can start from a small incident where tensions are running high. The consequences can be dire.

The ultimate challenge for American leaders is that they have devised a plan of action to only deal with scenarios where U.S. and Chinese forces would come into direct, kinetic conflict—the hotly debated Air-Sea Battle operational concept, something I strongly support. However, as Zachary Keck noted in these pages several months back “the problem with ASB (and its main competitors) is that they are only designed for high-level conflict, and thus can only be implemented if the U.S. and China move from a state of tense peace to a state of total war.”  Keck continues, explaining that “unless China takes a brazenly provocative action such as invading Taiwan or parts of Japan, ASB is more or less useless. No U.S. president is going to order the U.S. military to take the extremely provocative actions that ASB would require because of, say, recent actions by China setting up an oil rig in waters that it disputes with Vietnam.”

So far, Washington has been unable to deter Beijing from using a whole host of non-kinetic actions—sometimes referred to as “small-stick diplomacy”—to fundamentally alter the status quo in the South China Sea and make provocative moves to the north in the East China Sea. What to do in an area of the globe where multiple nations have various disputes with China and each other over the waves that control vital sea lanes, small islands and reefs, as well as possible riches in the form of natural resources. The Obama administration has been more focused on the bigger picture, that if the winds of war ever came to the region, Washington would have a plan of action for negating Beijing’s growing anti-access/area-denial arsenal. American can pivot, rebalance or pronounce its intentions to make the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific its main focus all it wants, however, if it can’t prevent China from altering the status-quo, its bumper sticker foreign policy pronouncements are painfully meaningless.

If you want to use the shame game to alter Beijing’s strategic calculus, there might be a better way.  There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions. This may just have the same or greater impact than if the U.S. attempted to use surveillance flights to embarrass Beijing—without the possibility of an incident spiraling into a possible conflict no one wants. While Manila has already filed its own claims against Beijing and Hanoi seems likely to follow suit, a joint claim or multi-party suit would be much more powerful. China should realize its neighbors have the ability to resist its claims without resorting to kinetic means.

While even this might not stop China’s moves to enforces its claims in the area around its nine or ten-dash line around the South China Sea, if shaming Beijing is the goal, and considering the stakes (not just who controls sea lanes worth trillions of dollars, but the very idea of the global commons, space that no one owns), this might be just the best way to do it.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth China Sea

"Iranians are Terrified": Iran's ISIS Nightmare

The Buzz

Iran is stuck between a rock and a hard place on ISIS and Iraq. Taking responsibility for security in Iraq – or even significantly contributing to it – would be a huge undertaking. But a fragmented Iraq on its border is a first-order concern for Tehran - it can’t just sit by with fingers crossed. The choice is complicated by Syria. Iran can’t continue to pursue its interests in Syria at the same level if it is mired in Iraq as well. It is likely that Tehran will have to choose, and it will choose Iraq.

To Iran, Iraq and Syria are similar challenges, except today’s crisis in Iraq is harder to solve and matters more. Until recently, Assad’s Syria has been a good friend and ally to Iran and still today, a conduit to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah. But Iraq is Iran’s backyard.

Iran has a lot to lose in Iraq by inaction. Last time Iraq’s interests were fundamentally opposed to Iran’s, there was a devastating 8 year long war. ISIS threatens Iran’s vast interests in Iraq: its significant influence over politics, in fact the country as a whole, including symbolic religious shrines, and trade, which reached $12 billion in 2013. Unlike in Syria, the majority Shia population in Iraq represents a real constituency for Tehran. Iraqi fragmentation threatens to stir up desires for independence amongst other minority communities, including in Iran, and force Tehran to double up efforts and resources in order to maintain its influence in Iraq. ISIS gains have peaked American interest in Iraq once more. Iran does not want any increased role for its US adversary in neighboring Iraq again. More importantly, the crisis threatens to spill over the 910 miles of porous border, which is poorly defended by the Iraqi police. 

Iranians are terrified. Many question Iran’s involvement in Syria, but they support involvement in Iraq. Syria is an optional war: a crisis where Iran can dial its involvement up or down based on its policy preferences. It is not an existential issue. But ISIS activities in Iraq pose a real threat and a genuine sovereignty concern, something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.

To date, Iran has invested a great deal in Syria: money, equipment and above all, political capital. While many argue this policy succeeded, it’s clear that the cost is high for Tehran. Iran’s presence in Syria has caused its regional popularity to plummet, discord amongst the elite, and rising discontent amongst ordinary Iranians questioning the use of public funds to prop up a dictator. Iran sustaining a regime it wants in power is part of its capacity to lead in the region, and so far it’s working.

But getting the result Tehran wants in Syria has been difficult. Today, it is a drain on Iranian resources and political capital. It’s no surprise that Tehran doesn’t want a repeat of Syria in Iraq. But containing the crisis in Iraq will be much harder, with many more potential pitfalls.

Today, Iran is trying to broker cooperation between all factions in Iraq against ISIS. But it is also assisting Maliki in pushing ISIS back. Tehran is providing intelligence and advisors, including commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Qassem Soleimani himself since mid-June, and military assistance. Reports confirm Iranian Su-25 aircrafts were shipped to Iraq in early July, while the first Iranian military casualty was reported a few days later. But overt Iranian involvement in Iraq further risks polarizing Iraqis and deepening sectarian tensions. In addition, Maliki’s stubbornness and overly sectarian style of governing no longer makes him a safe bet for the Iranian government, which must now find ways to ensure the survival of the current Shia-led structure.

Iraq is also high stakes because of the impact failure will have on Iran. If Iran has the kind of experience in Iraq that America had in Afghanistan and Iraq - running a shattered country - there won't be a lot left over to do much else. Involvement in both Iraq and Syria will continue to erode resources while making it impossible for Iran to pull out after such investment.

Iran cannot afford to be involved in a long, drawn out conflict on two fronts. While it is improbable that ISIS will sustain its current course, it was also improbable that they would take a quarter of Iraq. But they have and Iran is worried. Tehran can’t afford to let the crisis run its course because the risks are too high. Over the years, Iran has invested patiently in both Iraq and Syria. That's why it’s so difficult for Tehran to give either of them up. But Iran will have to choose because its resources and abilities are finite.  It will likely choose Iraq. 

Image: Office of the President, Iran. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

What is at Stake for China in Hong Kong: Reunification with Taiwan

The Buzz

In September 1982, Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher sat down to discuss the future of Hong Kong. It was neither the first nor the last of their many meetings negotiating the 1982 Sino-British Joint Declaration that set the date for the handover of Hong Kong to China for 1997. The British colony had started as a modest fishing village in the 1840s and was now an international center of finance home to millions of people from across the world. Deng Xiaoping wanted it back. After years of imperial decline, Britain had seen its empire evaporate and its rule of Hong Kong seemed anachronistic to many observers. But the British were not going to let it go easily. They had promised to leave behind the kind of government that Hong Kong had been accustomed to for the past century and a half, namely its capitalist system based on the rule of law. However, Deng was ready to take any steps necessary, including force, to return Hong Kong to China. In what is now a famous conversation between the leaders of China and the United Kingdom, Deng bluntly reminded Thatcher that he could “walk in and take the whole lot [of Hong Kong] this afternoon.” Mrs. Thatcher replied that while he could do just that Hong Kong would not be worth a penny to him afterwards: “There is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”

Recent developments in Hong Kong, call to mind Mrs. Thatcher’s memorable words. The people of Hong Kong in a pseudo-referendum have showed their resolve—they want more say in how their leader is elected. How the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responds will reveal China’s true nature to more than just the people of Hong Kong. For the Taiwanese, China’s actions in Hong Kong are especially important. If Taiwan is ever to take further steps towards unification with China, China’s record in Hong Kong must be spotless and the Taiwanese people must see how they will be governed and what kind of freedom they will have. Taiwan wants to see whether China will stay true to its promise outlined in the Joint Declaration of fifty years of autonomous rule in Hong Kong. Indeed, Taiwan is sure to think long and hard about the future of any further economic integration—let alone political integration—if it is the ghosts of 1989 and Tiananmen that take center stage and this Hong Kong democracy movement is stifled. The numerous free trade agreements that Taiwan has made with China in the past few years may all be for naught if the protests in Hong Kong devolve into chaos and political repression. Taiwan will be closely watching what happens.

The West will also be watching. Hong Kong wields an enormous amount of symbolic power as a place where English Common Law, free speech, and honest government hold sway. It does not bode well that a white paper released by the Chinese government in early June makes “loving your country” a key attribute of judges in Hong Kong. To trample on Hong Kong’s judicial system would be a direct assault on Hong Kong’s traditions and its legacy of Western rule of law. China should heed the importance of such a legacy. Hong Kong’s success as a financial giant rests on the confidence it instills in people who do business there. Puppet judges will destroy that confidence.  

What’s really at stake for China in Hong Kong, though, is about more than Hong Kong’s symbolic power as a center of capitalism and international finance. Hong Kong’s status as a financial center may be of secondary concern to China because the mainland already has a vibrant economic center in Shanghai.  In some ways, Shanghai has become the more important city.  If you want to do business on the mainland then Shanghai is your destination, not Hong Kong.  This is not to say that Hong Kong is unimportant. Hong Kong is still, along with London and New York, one of the world’s preeminent world capitals of finance and the CCP want to keep it that way. What is really at stake for China in Hong Kong is reunification with Taiwan.  Will the CCP kill the golden goose?  Will the CCP fear Hong Kong’s democracy movement and feel the need to crush it with an iron fist? Or will it allow for some sort of compromise in self-governance for Hong Kong—however much the CCP leadership may dislike democracy—in order to prove to Taiwan that it has a future in greater China? Ultimately, whatever China decides to do will show to, as Mrs. Thatcher famously said, “the eyes of the world … what China is like.”

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDemocracy RegionsChina

The New "Special Relationship": Australia and Japan

The Buzz

The rapidly warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but I want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterized by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defense policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defense cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule.

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialization would enhance national defense force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. This Article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist blog here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

Continuing and Expanding US-China Cooperation on Nuclear Security

The Buzz

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, China has made significant progress in improving its nuclear security. This effort has benefited significantly from cooperation between the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the US Department of Energy. This cooperation has included an extensive series of exchanges, including visits to a range of US facilities to observe nuclear security and accounting approaches; in-depth training and workshops on everything from approaches to protecting against insider threats to the design of physical protection systems to steps to strengthen security culture; a second joint demonstration of advanced material protection, control, and accounting of nuclear materials (MPC&A) technology in 2005; work to strengthen security and accounting regulations and inspections in China; and, most recently, cooperation to build a Center of Excellence (CoE) on Nuclear Security.

Then Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama announced cooperation on the CoE at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010. In January 2011, China and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding on the project. The center will serve as a forum for exchanging technical information, sharing best practices, developing training courses, and promoting technical collaboration to enhance nuclear security in China and throughout Asia. The National Nuclear Security Technology Center of the CAEA, established in November 2011, is responsible for the construction, management, and operation of the CoE. The CoE broke ground Oct. 29, 2013 and will be completed in 2015.

Cooperation on nuclear security in the civilian sector

While current cooperation focuses mainly on the Chinese civilian sector, personnel from defense facilities participate too. It is reasonable to assume that best practices associated with modern MPC&A principles learned through cooperation will be applied to fissile materials and facilities in the military sector as well, in part because the CAEA is responsible for controlling fissile materials nationwide in both military and civilian stockpiles and can transfer lessons from one to the other. Thus, it is imperative to maintain and strengthen cooperation. Future steps should include:

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to construct a more systematic and rigorous approach to design-bass threats (DBT) for each type of nuclear facility, focusing on those dealing with weapon-usable nuclear materials;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to decrease vulnerability to an insider threat, in particular at bulk processing facilities and storage facilities of weapon-usable fissile materials;

- Collaboration on applying modern material control and accounting systems and best practices for China's pilot reprocessing plant and for a pilot MOX facility that is under construction;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on China's updating and enforcing new regulations, drafting an atomic energy law, strengthening the independence of regulatory bodies, and providing adequate legal authority, technical and managerial competence, and financial and human resources to ensure regulatory capacity;

- Assistance on adopting realistic performance tests including "force-on-force" exercises. Chinese experts should be invited to witness such exercises at US sites;

- Moving forward with cooperation on security culture including implementing targeted programs to assess and improve security culture at each key site;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to increase international assurance about China's nuclear security conditions, including how China can make substantial amounts of information public while protecting sensitive information;

- Using the new CAEA Center of Excellence to provide training and exchanges of best practices for domestic guards and security personnel and those from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region; and

- Adding more Chinese "gifts" for the 2016 Washington Nuclear Security Summit. China should join the initiative on Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation agreed at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, incorporate the IAEA principles and guidelines regarding nuclear security into its national laws; and allow teams of international experts to periodically evaluate its security procedures.

Extending cooperation to the military sector

More importantly, to prevent nuclear terrorism US-China cooperation needs to expand from civilian efforts to the military sector, since it is the military that has custody of the largest stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials - and all nuclear weapons. Without knowing the problems that exist in the military sector, the indirect benefits of cooperation with the civilian sector for the military will be limited.

The two governments should restart the lab-to-lab program that was conducted from 1995 to 1998.  The program was designed to help create in China an interest in strengthening security systems by demonstrating the advantages of a modern MPC&A system. The collaborative program was terminated in the aftermath of the 1999 Cox Committee Report, which alleged Chinese espionage at US nuclear weapons laboratories. The Cox report was denounced by the Chinese government. Since the "lab-to-lab" program ended, direct cooperation on nuclear security and control of China's nuclear weapons has not occurred. Since 9/11, however, the two governments have undertaken significant cooperation against terrorism, and this should provide an opportunity to restart the lab-to-lab program, which would significantly benefit China's nuclear materials and facilities in the military sector.

The program should begin with less sensitive activities that are identified as mutually beneficial. The two governments could conduct in-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on a number of areas, including applications of modern seals techniques and continuous remote monitoring approaches for the storage of nuclear warheads and sensitive nuclear materials; tracking and monitoring techniques for shipments of fissile materials; and safety and security measures protecting nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. As the lab-to-lab program moves forward, based on the experience from US-Russian cooperation, China and the United States may consider mutual visits and joint work at selected key sites. Others areas of focus could include DBT approaches for sensitive facilities, advanced MPC&A applied at some sites, updating regulations and procedures, and strengthening security culture at some sites.


The Chinese government has taken significant steps to develop and apply approaches to nuclear security and nuclear accounting in the aftermath of 9/11. One driver of Chinese improvements has been international cooperation, in particular with the US.  Since the 9/11 attacks, China has actively cooperated with the US to improve its nuclear security in the civilian sector. Such cooperation should continue and grow stronger. More importantly, China-US cooperation should extend to the military sector that has custody of the largest stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials and all nuclear weapons.

At the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed that increased cooperation regarding the nuclear security of one country is beneficial to all nations. As Xi pointed out, "The amount of water a bucket can hold is determined by its shortest plank. The loss of nuclear material in one country can be a threat to the whole world."  President Barack Obama has emphasized that the biggest threat to US security is the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. The three Nuclear Security Summits have focused the top leaders in Beijing and Washington on nuclear security issues and enhanced consensus on the danger of nuclear terrorism. It is time to extend China-US cooperation on nuclear security to the military sector. Since the threat of nuclear terrorism is a top US priority, Beijing's cooperation on the issue would benefit the Sino-US relationship. Moreover, Beijing's active participation in building a robust global nuclear security system would improve its international image.

Hui Zhang, a physicist, leads a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

China's Hypersonic Weapons Program: A Game-Changer?

The Buzz

A recent report in the Washington Free Beacon seems to shed new light on China’s budding hypersonic weapons program:

“China’s military is working on a jet-powered hypersonic cruise missile in addition to an advanced high-speed glide warhead that was tested earlier this year.

A Chinese technical journal disclosed new details of research on what China’s defense researchers are calling a hypersonic cruise vehicle.

A line drawing of the scramjet-powered vehicle shows that the concept being studied for eventual construction is nearly identical to an experimental National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scramjet vehicle called the X-43.

Publication of details of work on the powered hypersonic cruise vehicle indicates China is pursuing a second type of ultra-fast maneuvering missile capable of traveling at speeds of up to Mach 10—nearly 8,000 miles per hour. Such speeds create huge technical challenges for weapons designers because of the strain on materials and the difficulty of control at high velocities.

Large numbers of Chinese military writings in recent years have focused on hypersonic flight. However, few have addressed scramjet powered hypersonic flight.”

It goes on to note:

"The Chinese report outlines in technical detail how a scramjet-powered cruise vehicle operates at speeds greater than Mach 5 and discusses how to integrate airframe design with scramjet propulsion.

A scramjet is an engine that uses supersonic airflow to compress and combust fuel, creating a highly efficient propulsion system with few parts.

The report analyzed “preliminary design methods for airframe/engine integrative configuration.”

The analysis “may serve as a basis for quick preliminary design and performance evaluation of airframe/engine integrative configuration” for a future Chinese hypersonic cruise vehicle, the report said.

The scramjet cruise vehicle was described in a technical military journal called Command Control & Simulation. The article was published by the 716 Research Institute of the state-run China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., China’s largest maker of warships, submarines, and torpedoes."

I have been interested in such weapons for a while now. Here is an interview I conducted on the subject back in March (reposted with permission from the Lowy Institute):

Harry Kazianis, Managing Editor of the Washington, DC-based international affairs publication The National Interest interviewed John Stillion, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Q: Please describe what exactly a hypersonic weapon is, for our readers.

A: NASA defines the hypersonic regime as speeds greater than Mach 5 but less than Mach 25. It further divides this speed regime into two parts. One is the 'high-hypersonic' speed range between Mach 10 and Mach 25. The other is the range between Mach 5 and Mach 10 referred to simply as the hypersonic speed range (this is about 5300 to 10,600 kmh). The latter is the speed regime where most of the recent discussion of hypersonic weapons has been focused.

Ballistic missiles with ranges between about 300 and 1000 km travel in this speed range, but they generally don't travel long distances through the atmosphere at these speeds. Usually when hypersonic weapons are discussed people are referring to machines that can sustain flight in the Mach 5 to 10 speed range for a significant distance and period of time measured in minutes. For perspective, the Concorde supersonic transport cruised at Mach 2.

Q: What nations have the strongest hypersonic weapons programs? How advanced is American technology in this regard?

A: Press reports indicate there are only three nations with hypersonic weapons programs: the US, Russia and China.

In November 2011 the US Army conducted a successful test of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) demonstrator. This is a hypersonic glide vehicle similar in concept to the reported Chinese system. A hypersonic glide vehicle couples the high speeds of ballistic missiles with the maneuverability of an aircraft. The goal of the AHW test was to collect data on hypersonic glide vehicle technologies to inform possible future designs. The test used a three-stage missile booster system to power the test vehicle to hypersonic speed and evaluated its performance on a flight over the Pacific Ocean.

A second US approach to hypersonic weapons made a similar advance on 1 May 2013 when the US successfully tested the Boeing X-51 hypersonic research vehicle (video above).

It is powered by a supersonic combustion ramjet or 'scramjet' engine and flew about 306 km in three and a half minutes at just over Mach 5. This was the first successful test of a scramjet-powered vehicle. The scramjet is efficient at hypersonic speeds, but as the name implies, the air flowing through the engine is traveling at supersonic speed, so the fuel must be precisely measured, injected into the air flow and ignited with extreme speed. Work on what eventually became the X-51 began in the early 1990s.

These successful tests indicate the US is well along the path to solving many of the problems associated with sustained hypersonic flight. These include the high drag and temperatures generated by vehicles traveling at hypersonic speed and developing an efficient powerplant.

Q: There have been reports that America is considering building such weapons for deployment on submarines. How challenging would this be and is it practical?

A: The X-51 had to be boosted to high speed (Mach 4+) by a rocket before it could start its scramjet engine. So, any weapon employing a similar propulsion system would probably initially be launched like a missile. The US has been launching missiles from submarines for decades and is familiar with, and has overcome, the technical challenges likely to arise in that part of the development program. Alternatively, launching a missile with an AHW-derived weapon might be equally feasible.

Q: China's various hypersonic glide vehicle tests have garnered a lot of attention. How advanced might Beijing's hypersonic program be compared to the US?

A: Not much is really known publicly about the Chinese program. What has been reported indicates that their initial investments might be focused on building vehicles that can replace the re-entry vehicles usually carried by ballistic missiles. These 'hypersonic glide vehicles', as the name implies, are carried by ballistic missiles, but once they descend into the upper atmosphere, their shape gives them much greater range and maneuverability than 'normal' cone-shaped re-entry vehicles. So, based on press reports, the Chinese AHW programs might be characterized as working to improve the capabilities of ballistic missiles while the X-51 program is focused on making weapons that behave more like very fast cruise missiles.

Q: Many have stated Chinese hypersonic technology could be used as a new form of anti-ship weapon like the DF-21D. Would you say this is possible?

A: Again, based on press reports, the DF-21D seems to rely on a maneuverable cone-shaped re-entry vehicle. Replacing this with a hypersonic glide vehicle might give the existing weapon greater ability to maneuver to attack targets and avoid defenses as well as greater range.

Q: How long would it take for such Chinese tests to move towards a weaponized system?

A: Our track record in predicting when new Chinese weapons will come on line is not very good. The DF-21D and J-20 stealth fighter both materialized more quickly than most outside observers thought they would. If the Chinese tests are as far along as they seem to be from press reports, it might be possible to see operational systems with this technology in the field within a decade.

Q: Can US missile-defense platforms such as AEGIS defend against such weapons? If not, what options would America have?

A: Defensive missiles have very limited time and a finite amount of energy available to position themselves to intercept an incoming offensive missile. Like most guided weapons they constantly compute and re-compute the point in space where they will intercept the incoming missile and fly toward that point. If the incoming missile is truly a ballistic missile, then its trajectory is essentially fixed and the interceptor will not need to maneuver much because the calculated intercept point will be quite stable. However, if the incoming missile can maneuver, the interceptor will need to maneuver as well. Given the high speeds and short timelines involved, hypersonic glide vehicles have the potential to make defensive missiles less effective than they might be against non-maneuvering targets.

Options for bolstering defenses include the electromagnetic railgun and directed-energy technologies currently under development. Other possible countermeasures include using jammers or other electronic countermeasure techniques to deny targeting data to the attacker or to confuse the hypersonic glide vehicle's own sensors as it attempts to hit its target. Disrupting communication links between sensing, command-and-control, and missile units is another possible means of decreasing the effectiveness of such weapons. Over the long run, developing long-range, survivable strike systems that would allow our ships to operate beyond the effective reach of weapons like the DF-21D may be the most robust defensive approach.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Selling a Slender Foreign Policy

The Buzz

Rand Paul wrote an op-ed for the National Review last week to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of recent violence in Israel.  The senator’s argument was that President Obama should act decisively to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority in order to show solidarity with Israel and influence events in the Middle East.  Properly understood, though, Paul’s piece was hardly a clarion call. On the contrary, it was part of a long-term and incremental campaign to win over the U.S. public to the cause of non-interventionism in foreign policy.

Rand Paul stands for a light global footprint for the United States.  Costly wars of choice, expansive networks of overseas bases, generous handouts to foreign leaders—none of these serve the interests of the American people according to Paul.  On the specific question of overseas aid, Paul is on record as calling for such programs to be abolished—including U.S. aid to Israel.

If Paul had his way, foreign policy would command a much reduced budget, require a significantly smaller military establishment (at home and abroad) and would involve precious little money being allotted to America’s allies.  The U.S. would be involved in far fewer military operations—whether large or small—and the nation would be meticulous in drawing distinctions between core national interests and problems which properly belong to other countries.  To coin a phrase, America would “come home.”

The rub is that Paul’s brand of foreign policy is a tough sell domestically, especially in GOP circles.  The U.S. military is highly valued by American society, regarded as a source of national pride and—in many parts of the country—regional economic growth and much-needed employment.  The public and their leaders fret about external threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and look to the military for protection.  If credible, the accusation of being weak on national security has the potential to torpedo any would-be presidential bid—Rand Paul’s prospective run for the White House included.

In this context, Paul’s latest op-ed can be considered an exercise in what political scientist William Riker called “heresthetics,” the political art of persuasion and manipulation.  Namely, Paul’s heresthetic was to link cuts in overseas aid (to the Palestinians) to a clear-cut national security objective—that is, weakening Hamas, a terrorist organization.  Such a presentation of the issues makes intuitive sense to voters, especially those with strong beliefs about U.S. obligations to Israel, because it couches Paul’s longstanding policy preferences for a slender foreign policy in overtly hawkish terms.  “Cut aid, hurt terrorists, and protect America and its allies,” Paul is effectively arguing.

Last year, Paul adopted a similar strategy when opposing the Obama administration’s use of drones.  Then, the political move was to connect the issue to drone strikes—a foreign policy issue—to extant domestic-political concerns over civil liberties.  Again, the overall goal was to convince domestic audiences that activism abroad is not something abstract but rather something tangible, a set of government policies that have real effects and, in fact, are inimical to voters’ self-interest.  The implication—then as now—was that a slender foreign policy would serve the American people much better than the status quo.

“Some say my position is too hard-line, too strong,” wrote Paul in his op-ed.  In fact, very few people say such things of his foreign policy stances.  Instead, the political burden that Paul grapples with is that of persuading the electorate that his vision for American foreign policy is something that can actually deliver material goods: safety, security, prosperity.  Between now and 2016, Paul will continue working to assemble as broad a coalition as possible in favor of his foreign policies.  His political task will be to continue convincing disparate domestic constituencies—one by one—that their material concerns can be advanced through non-interventionism and restraint.  That challenge is a tall one, but it is one that Paul shows little sign of giving up on.

Image: Wikicommons

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Britain’s “Shock-and-Awe” Plan for Syria

The Buzz

When evidence emerged on August 21, 2013 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a series of lethal chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held towns outside of Damascus, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged a firm response.  Nearly a week after the attacks that killed over 1,300 Syrians—many of whom were sleeping in their beds or cowering in basements to escape the middle of the night bombardment—Kerry stepped up to the State Department podium and was unequivocal in what the United States and the international community needed to do.  “This crime against conscience,” Kerry said at the time, “this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us.  And it matters to who we are.  And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world.  My friends, it matters here if nothing is done.  It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”

Of course, nearly a year later, we now know that the U.S. did not take military action.  Bashar al-Assad was forced to give away his chemical arsenal—which for years he denied even existed—to international inspectors for destruction, and by doing so escaped a coordinated air campaign that would have degraded a significant portion of his military power.  Eleven months later, the war in Syria goes on, and Assad is clawing back territory that was once the exclusive domain of his armed opponents.

At the time, commentators and pundits from across the political spectrum speculated as to why President Obama decided to opt for a last-minute, Putin-orchestrated diplomatic deal that would largely save Assad from military punishment.  Republicans in Congress, led by Senator John McCain, argued (and continues to argue) that the president’s unwillingness to use U.S. military power when it’s most needed diminishes the credibility of the United States in the eyes of friend and foe alike.  Obama was called gun-shy, naïve, too cautious for his own good, or simply overwhelmed by the world around him. 

Equally important, however, was the fact that America’s strongest ally across the Atlantic, Great Britain, opted out of an anti-Assad air operation as Washington and a good chunk of Europe’s capitals were debating whether military force was required to send a message.  Prime Minister David Cameron, a man who assumed that he could convince his colleagues that British involvement in a humanitarian mission was a necessity, failed to gain the votes in the House of Commons.  In a blink of an eye, the discussion for intervention in Washington became even more intense, and proponents for military action inside the Obama administration saw their position losing momentum as America’s indispensable partner decided to stay out of any operation.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we are all now afforded to opportunity to discover that the Syria debate in London was far more comprehensive than original thought.  In fact, if recent reporting is accurate (there is no reason to doubt that it isn’t), some British military officials were more muscular and innovative on the Syria problem than some of their counterparts in the United States.

Courtesy of the good investigative work compiled by the BBC’s Newsnight program, we now learn that political and military leaders in Britain were actively considering a more aggressive and hawkish policy towards the Syrian civil war as early as 2012—a time when the Assad regime was at its most vulnerable as thousands of Syrian troops were deserting to the other side.  From the BBC:

“The UK drew up plans to train and equip a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel army to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, BBC Newsnight can reveal. The secret initiative, put forward two years ago, was the brainchild of the then most senior UK military officer, General Sir David Richards..." 

"...With ministers having pledged not to commit British "boots on the ground", his initiative proposed vetting and training a substantial army of moderate Syrian rebels at bases in Turkey and Jordan. Mr. Cameron was told the "extract, equip, train" plan would involve an international coalition. It would take a year, but this would buy time for an alternative Syrian government to be formed in exile, the PM was told. Once the Syrian force was ready, it would march on Damascus, with the cover of fighter jets from the West and Gulf allies. The plan envisaged a "shock and awe" campaign, similar to the one that routed Saddam's military in 2003, but spearheaded by Syrians.”

General Richard’s strategy was serious enough to be pushed through the chain-of-command, where the British National Security Council discussed the merits and practicality of the plan and whether it could be implemented without any significant risk to western personnel and the security of the region. 

Fast-forward to July 2014, two long and grueling years later, and a strategy to train 100,000 moderate Syrians to take back their country from a depraved regime seems prophetic and visionary.  The Syrian civil war has only gotten bloodier, sucking in virtually every power in the region and thus turning a sectarian conflict into a proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers.  160,000 lives later, Assad seems to be in the best shape militarily since the protests first turned into an armed insurgency in the fall of 2011.  And, to add insult to injury, the very same influx of Islamist extremists that the United States hoped to preempt by not intervening are now in complete control of Syria’s oil-rich Deir-ez-Zor province.

We will never know whether Lord Richards’ ambitious, hybrid “shock-and-awe” campaign would have succeeded in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad and destroying his regime.  Assuming that it would betrays the many dangers, complexities, and scenarios that could have resulted if the Americans and British did in fact go that route.  But now that the Obama administration has announced a $500 million spending pool “to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition,” it adds credence to the assumption that the White House may be feeling some buyer’s remorse. 

Image: Wikicommons.  

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria