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Confirmed: China Is Building 2nd Aircraft Carrier

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The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is building its second aircraft carrier, several senior Chinese military officials have confirmed, a Hong Kong daily is reporting.

On Monday, Taiwan Focus News Channel cited the Chinese-language The Hong Kong Commercial Daily in reporting that China has begun work on its second aircraft carrier, which will have a more advanced launch system the one currently used on China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

According to Taiwan Focus News Channel, the initial report cited Liu Xiaojiang, the former political commissioner of the PLA Navy, as saying that the “government's industrial and manufacturing agencies are now in charge of the ship's construction.” The report also cited Ding Haichun, who was promoted to the position of deputy political commissioner of the PLA Navy back in January, as confirming that China’s second aircraft carrier is under construction.

Taiwan Focus News Channel went on to paraphrase Ding as saying that “after the completion of the ship's construction, it will be turned over to the Navy for training maneuvers.”

Want China Times, which is also based in Taiwan, also carried a story about the original report on Monday.

This is not the first time that Chinese officials have commented about the presumed second aircraft carrier. As I previously reported, back in January 2014 the Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao newspaper quoted Wang Min, Party chief of Northeast China’s Liaoning province, as saying that construction on China’s second carrier had begun in the port city of Dalian in Liaoning province. Wang said that the carrier would be completed in six years’ time, and that China ultimately intended to build four aircraft carriers.

That report was quickly taken down.

Similarly, last month another local Chinese government, that of Changzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, published a report saying that a local company had been awarded a deal to supply products for China’s new carrier. That report was also quickly taken down. Even state-run media outlets in China have hinted at this reality, and noted that the Chinese government has not denied.

Thus, it seems undeniable that China is pursuing at least one more aircraft carrier. The main questions remaining are when will it be completed  and how many will Beijing ultimately build?

Regarding the former question, both Ding and Liu denied various reports that said that China’s second aircraft carrier could begin testing as early as this year, citing the technical difficulties involved in building an aircraft carrier. Neither appears to have offered up any guesses as to when the new carrier would be launched.

Liu was equally evasive when asked how many carriers the PLA Navy would ultimately operate. According to the reports, he said that at a minimum China would need one to be at sea at all times, one to be in maintenance at all times and one to be used for training purposes. At the same time, he added: “I think if we need carriers, the more the better. The key is how much funding do we have.”

Taiwan Focus News Channel also reported, again citing The Hong Kong Commercial Daily, that numerous military experts said the new carrier would feature a catapult takeoff system, rather than the less advanced ski jump ramp utilized by China’s current aircraft carrier.

The new carrier would the first one that China built domestically, as the Liaoning is a Soviet-era carrier Beijing purchased from Ukraine.


Revealed: The Devastating Aftermath of a Nuclear Attack on Manhattan

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My generation doesn't think much about nuclear weapons, disarmament and the consequences of nuclear-weapons use. Some certainly do, but generally, the cause of nuclear disarmament is being carried on by an older generation.

I think that's a problem. Nuclear weapons seems like an old issue, from a previous generation and time. Plus, we have our own causes and as the argument often goes, 'no one is ever going to use one anyways, right?' This never convinces me, for a variety of reasons, but I also think we just haven't lived in a time when geopolitical tensions were such that two nuclear armed powers were close to war (except perhaps India and Pakistan in 1999, and the growing nuclear dimension of the tensions between Russia and the West today).

There is also the fact that the immediate and full effect of a military-grade nuclear weapon hasn't really been represented in pop culture since the end of the Cold War. For example, films since 9/11 have only depicted explosions from small nuclear weapons, usually orchestrated by terrorists like in the film The Sum of All Fears, but also in The Dark Knight Rises and to a lesser extent The Peacemaker. The point is that younger generations have never really been exposed, even fictionally, to the dangers of nuclear war. Some films do deal with this, like Crimson Tide (great film, but nuclear war is averted, yet again) and Independence Day (the nuclear explosion is not depicted, and it fails to stop the aliens, except later in space with the help of Jeff Goldblum).

In short, my generation has never had its version of The Day After.

That's why an article from 2004, recently republished by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (h/t The Browser), grabbed my attention. The article is adapted from Lynn Eden's 2004 book Whole World on Fire, which essentially argues that US military planners have consistently underestimated the destructive effects of nuclear weapons by only calculating their blast damage, and not the additional damage caused by fire and firestorms.

It is worth quoting Eden describing the results of an 800 kiloton nuclear warhead detonating over Manhattan, which she does to terrifying effect. First, the temperature of the detonation itself:

Within a few tenths of millionths of a second after detonation, the center of the warhead would reach a temperature of roughly 200 million degrees Fahrenheit (about 100 million degrees Celsius), or about four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun...

...After one second, the fireball would be roughly a mile in diameter. It would have cooled from its initial temperature of many millions of degrees to about 16,000 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly 4,000 degrees hotter than the surface of the sun.

Eden then describes the destruction the heat would cause downtown:

At the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, and St. Patrick's Cathedral, about one half to three quarters of a mile from ground zero, light from the fireball would melt asphalt in the streets, burn paint off walls, and melt metal surfaces within a half second of the detonation...

...Those who tried to escape through the streets would have been incinerated by the hurricane-force winds filled with firebrands and flames. Even those able to find shelter in the lower-level sub-basements of massive buildings would likely suffocate from fire-generated gases or be cooked alive as their shelters heated to oven-like conditions.

And then the fires that would engulf the city and the surrounding suburbs:

On a clear day with average weather conditions, the enormous heat and light from the fireball would almost instantly ignite fires over a total area of about 100 square miles...

...As the massive winds drove flames into areas where fires had not yet fully developed,the fires set by the detonation would begin to merge. Within tens of minutes of the detonation, fires from near and far would join to form a single, gigantic fire. The energy released by this mass fire would be 15 to 50 times greater than the energy produced by the nuclear detonation...

 ...These superheated ground winds of more than hurricane force would further intensify the fire. At the edge of the fire zone, the winds would be powerful enough to uproot trees three feet in diameter and suck people from outside the fire into it.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is imaginable, real and frightening. Even though recent set-backs have slowed down the momentum for nuclear disarmament, it's critical that it at least remains a visible part of the global agenda.

Brendan Thomas-Noone is a Research Associate in the International Security Program and the Digital Editorial Assistant at the Lowy Institute.This article first appeared on the Lowy Interpreter, here.


Will the Next-Generation Stealth Bomber 'Ground' the Air Force?

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From the time it came into being in 1948, the United States Air Force has had a state-of-the-art long-range bomber in its inventory. The first was the extraordinary B-36 Peacemaker—the name intending to signify its deterrent value rather than (just) being ironic—and the latest is the B-2 Spirit “stealth” bomber. There has been several notable aircraft, not least the B-52, which is now scheduled to have a service life in various versions of an astonishing 90 years. (For a review of the current USAF bomber fleet, see here.)

Bomber aircraft have been an important part of America’s superpowerdom, allowing it to project global air power and forming part of the nuclear deterrent. Some bombers over the years have never seen combat, but others have flown many “hot” missions. So it’s no surprise that a new Long Range Strike–Bomber (LRS-B) system is in development.

The value assigned to long-range bombers by the U.S. is shown in how much it’s spent developing and building them. They’ve frequently been the center of controversy about costs—not just the sometimes eye-watering direct costs but also the opportunity cost of other capabilities foregone. The B-36’s first battle was fought in Washington, with the newly-minted USAF and the U.S. Navy (USN) slugging it out over which Service would carry the strategic nuclear capability. In summary, the USN lost a planned “supercarrier” to fund the bomber. The B-36 was called “the billion dollar blunder” at the time (or $10 billion dollar blunder in today’s money), but at least that referred to the entire program of nearly 400 aircraft. The B-2, by contrast, cost almost a billion dollars each to build—and when the R&D is added in, the 21 aircraft fleet cost $55 billion.

Which begs the question, what might the LRS-B cost? Being a closely-held program, data’s scarce, but the USAF is hoping to keep costs “down” (these terms are relative) to $550 million per aircraft including R&D. Of course, we’ve heard those words before, and anyone who has followed my scribblings will know that historical trends aren’t easily defeated. The F-35 was supposed to be substantially cheaper than the legacy aircraft it was to replace, for example. It isn’t – but it is less expensive than the F-22 which immediately preceded it, so there’s some hope of a better outcome for the LRS-B than we saw for the B-2.

(Recommended: US Navy's 6th Generation Fighter Jets Will Be Slow and Unstealthy)

One of the major drivers of cost is likely to be survivability. The B-36 could fly intercontinental distances thanks to sheer size and fuel capacity, and it flew at high altitude, which was supposed to bestow safety from the early jet fighters. However, that supposition was never tested, and it’s highly questionable whether the B-36 had the ability to fight its way through defended skies into the 1950s. In the 1960s, the B-52 proved vulnerable to the relatively modest air defenses of North Vietnam, despite its much higher performance, and almost two dozen aircraft were lost to enemy action. The B-52 fleet might have been able to defeat Soviet defenses in the event of major hostilities, but not without extensive electronic jamming and corridors carved out by prior nuclear missile strikes.

Today, the B-2’s survivability in contested spaces is largely based on stealth, but that’s unlikely to be a winning strategy as sensor technology enabled by vastly increased signal collection and processing capability enables counter-stealth systems. Because being hard to see will always be better than being easy to see, the LRS-B is going to have to be stealthy too, but it will also have a range of other active and passive defense mechanisms, including electronic warfare and (probably) directed-energy systems. And they’ll have to be at the cutting edge—a sure-fire recipe for cost risks to be realized.

(Recommended: The U.S. Just Tested a Stealthy Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile)

The USAF estimates that it can build 100 LRS-Bs for the same cost as its 21 B-2s. But we know how optimistic costs and numbers data can be. While little is known about actual costs to date—or even how much design progress has been made—some analysts are already suggesting a nearly 50 percent cost increase. Worryingly, the Congressional Research Service has already noted that “while standing by that cost, Air Force officials have observed that capping the cost now or in the future is likely to result in limiting some of the LRS-B’s capabilities or restricting the quantity produced.”

Quantity is the likely victim of cost increases. In the early 1990s the USAF had plans for 132 B-2s and 750 F-22s; it got 21 and 187 respectively. While they’re very capable platforms, numbers matter too. Almost certainly, the LRS-B program will cost more and deliver fewer aircraft than the USAF is hoping for. The important question then becomes whether they deliver enough capability to justify the high costs. There are some business cases floating around, and we’ll take a look at those in later posts.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defense capability and director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist blog here.


Reality Check: China's Military Power Threatens America

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In their writings on China’s military modernization, too many commentators fail to ground their views in the available sources. In most cases, this practice does no more than discredit the author, or the publication that gives him a forum; but when analysts responsible for writing national assessments are unversed in original writings, the consequences may be far graver.

In a recent Washington Quarterly article, M. Taylor Fravel and Christopher Twomey spotlight the more baleful side of this tendency, taking aim at influential American analysts who write unlearned perspectives about Chinese intentions towards the United States.

The paper’s title—“Projecting Strategy: The Myth of Chinese Counter-Intervention”—captures its thesis. Fravel and Twomey claim that in recent years the U.S. national security community has repeatedly mischaracterized China’s likely response to American intervention in a regional conflict involving China, ascribing aggressive designs where none exist. This practice, the authors believe, has given rise to a conventional wisdom that is harmful to bilateral relations.

To be sure, Fravel and Twomey are on solid ground when they expose those who claim that “counter-intervention” is a term used frequently in Chinese texts. But this error can be set straight in a footnote, certainly no more than a single sentence. Perhaps as simple as this: Authoritative Chinese sources seldom use the term “counter intervention,” or anything resembling it, except when discussing foreign imputations of Chinese strategy.

The two professors, however, go much further than this harmlessly pedantic “word to the wise.” They posit that the absence of this concept means that the ideas that “counter-intervention” embodies—deterring or denying America access during a regional conflict—do not figure into Chinese military planning. Since Chinese texts offer no direct proof of a counter-intervention strategy, those who assume one exists must be imagining it. Thus, with their sloppy attributions, American analysts are guilty of exaggerating the Chinese threat.

However, one need not achieve mastery of the available Chinese texts, or suffer from cognitive defects, to conclude that China almost certainly has a military strategy that accounts for American intervention in a regional war.  Here is the train of reasoning. China is a party to many disputes with its neighbors, some of which are American treaty allies (Japan, the Philippines), and one of which America has vowed to defend if attacked (Taiwan). These disputes involve claims of sovereignty over offshore islands and jurisdiction over maritime zones, which China believes constitute “core interests,” especially in the case of Taiwan.

Should one of these lead to war, the U.S. is very likely to enter the conflict: it has shown its willingness to do so in the past, both in word and deed. American statesmen command the most powerful military in the world; its capacity to project power from and on the sea is unparalleled. Conclusion: China has a tremendous incentive to build systems—and develop plans for using them—that enable it to undermine America’s ability to intervene.

These “systems” have already been built. Most call them “anti-access area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities: they constitute an array of platforms and payloads designed to sink foreign capital ships approaching the littorals. These capabilities include, inter alia, diesel submarines, aircraft and small boats armed with cruise missiles; land-based cruise missiles; and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Designers have placed a premium on range, i.e., the ability to destroy targets as far away from the Chinese coast as possible.

Now, does China have a “plan” to use these systems in any plausible scenario involving military conflict with the United States? The working hypothesis should be, “Yes, highly likely.” For how could it not, given what Chinese policymakers believe they face? To read every Chinese source you can get your hands on and find no mention of such plans should not lead one to conclude, against the weight of logic and good sense, that no plans exists. But that is exactly what Fravel and Twomey have done. Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer calls this the “fallacy of the negative proof.” Because I could not find it among the available texts, it could not possibly be a thing.

Fravel and Twomey acknowledge China possesses formidable A2/AD systems but they do not believe plans exist to employ them to deny American access to contested waters and territories in the event of conflict. What they need to do then—and my colleague Jim Holmes makes this same point in a recent critique (which the two authors ignored in their response)—is identify which hypothetical adversary has hastened Chinese investment in these capabilities and what strategy will guide China’s actions when a dispute with an American ally escalates into belligerency.

One other argument in their paper deserves closer scrutiny. The two scholars lament American analysts’ special focus on China’s A2/AD capabilities. Doing so creates blind spots. While we cast our gaze on the littorals of East Asia, Chinese policymakers may be quietly plotting to expand their clout in the far seas. Indeed, American analysts no doubt spend the bulk of their time thinking about the A2/AD challenge. But this is entirely defensible, for while Chinese efforts to develop a blue water navy may someday be an object of real concern, at this very moment China’s existing capabilities threaten to undermine the most fundamental precepts of American grand strategy.

Since the Second World War, American policymakers have sought to maintain primacy in the major regions of the world: Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. Instability or imbalance in any of these areas imperils American interests. Some very smart people, including one of Fravel’s colleagues, have questioned the wisdom of this strategy. But as long as this strategy remains in place, government analysts and strategists will look with alarm at any developments that threatens the American military’s ability to support it.

As long as American policymakers want to be able to intervene, the prospect of foreign counter-intervention will always be a thing.

Ryan Martinson is research administrator at the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) of the United State Naval War College in Newport, RI.

Image: Wikimedia/Russiavia


Iran’s Overrated “Genius” Hasn’t Got Us Cornered

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Ali Khamenei is, warns Ray Takeyh, “a first-rate strategic genius.” The Iranian leader, he argues, has bamboozled the West in the nuclear talks and is now on the verge of signing a nuclear deal that will allow him “to forge ahead with a nuclear program while safeguarding [his] regime and its ideological verities.” By attaining an agreement that “is technologically permissive and of limited duration,” the elderly cleric has “entered negotiations with the weakest hand and emerged with the strongest.”

It isn’t mad to interpret Khamenei’s latest moves as those of a clever tactician. Khamenei is a skilled player of Iranian domestic politics. He outmaneuvered his rival Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had helped Khamenei ascend to the supreme leader’s post in what many have interpreted as a bid to limit Khamenei’s power (since Khamenei lacked the religious qualifications and popular appeal needed to master the role). Khamenei has often managed to keep himself above the day-to-day political fray while still enforcing its boundaries and shaping its balances. And he’s slowly accumulated religious authority and financial clout. We’re not dealing with an old fool. But that doesn’t mean that Khamenei is on a path to victory in the nuclear talks.

First, while Khamenei has often been willing to move slowly, Takeyh’s reading of Khamenei’s intentions and goals suggests that the supreme leader is patient to Petrosian-like extremes. Under the nuclear deal rumored to be taking shape, Iran’s program would be under serious restrictions for ten years, and these restrictions would be lifted over the following five years. The deal, in other words, would sunset in 2030, having entered twilight in 2025. And Iran would likely need some measure of time—months, years—after the sunset to develop a useable bomb even if it chooses to do so immediately. The Iranian nuclear program will have existed without attaining its putative goal for more than four decades. In this time, Iran would have continued to live without the deterrence provided by a nuclear weapon.

Even if Khamenei is confident that President Obama won’t go to war with him, that confidence only gets him to early 2017. If Khamenei wants the bomb to scare off his enemies, does he believe that the next decade and a half will not be dangerous? If, on the other hand, Iran is aiming for an offensive nuclear weapon, why is Khamenei giving his targets so much time to prepare and to build up nuclear arsenals that would overshadow his even more vastly than they already do?

Second, Takeyh’s assertion that there will be “no legal limits” on Iran’s nuclear program and that “Western powers will have no recourse” after the expiration of a deal is simply not true. Iran would remain under the verification provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, including those which assure the peaceful nature of a nation’s nuclear program. Iran would face the same risks—sanctions, isolation, military action—that it does today if it maneuvered toward nuclear breakout. And if the nonproliferation regime fails to put a nuclearizing Iran back at the top of the international agenda, but the United States and Israel develop concerns of their own, well, history does not suggest that either state will bow to international law or the whims of the international community when it perceives its national interests to be at stake.

Third, we must consider whether any viable policy path could allay Takeyh’s concerns. If Takeyh’s reading of the situation is correct, but there is nothing we can do to obtain a better outcome, Takeyh’s essay is a mere historical analysis. A viable alternative doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The Iranians, after all, have yet to show interest in an agreement with no sunset, even as the negotiations have been extended twice, so we can’t expect that they’d change under the current negotiating framework.

On the other hand, allowing these talks to break down while tightening sanctions would be an enormous gamble. We’d have (again) humiliated the factions in Iran’s government that have sought negotiations with us, empowering their critics and strengthening the narrative that the United States simply cannot be trusted. The Iranians would likely resume their riskiest enrichment activities and claw back the other concessions they made at the beginning of the current round of talks. More centrifuges would be built, letting them enter the next round of talks with a fait accompli even bigger than the one we face now. Those moves toward a nuclear breakout that Takeyh suggests may come when a deal sunsets in 2025 or 2030 could instead come much sooner. War would be more likely—and war is merely an expensive way to kick the can a few years down the road. The talks remain the best attainable approach even if Ali Khamenei really has outfoxed us.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.


TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

Putin's Gambit

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With the ceasefire in Ukraine showing early signs of holding, international attention will now intensify towards finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis facing the country. For Kiev and its Western backers, prospects are bleak for bringing about their desired settlement. But it will also not be easy for Vladimir Putin to convert his considerable short-term bargaining power into lasting strategic gains.

On the face of it, Russia’s position in Ukraine is strong. Even though the Russian economy has taken a battering as a result of Western-imposed sanctions, Moscow still enjoys a commanding position on the ground. Only with Russia’s blessing can the conflict be brought to a permanent halt, which would seem to grant Moscow a sizable degree of leverage for extracting concessions from its Western adversaries.

There has been much speculation about what Russia’s long-term strategic goals might relate to: its fear of NATO expansion, its desire to recreate a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space and its deep-seated craving for prestige on the world stage. But the overlooked point is that if Vladimir Putin wants to convert his position in Ukraine into a lasting victory along any of these dimensions, then he needs to play his diplomatic cards very carefully indeed. And even if he does so, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

Putin’s ability to win meaningful concessions from the West—a renunciation of the Western interest in Ukraine’s future or broader recognition of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, for example—will depend upon his ability to engineer a fissure among the powers ranged against him. Putin will not succeed in ambitious reforms to the European security architecture if the other great powers stand firm. Instead, his gains will be limited to influence over eastern Ukraine at most. But if Putin is able to broaden the appeal of Russian foreign policy, he will emerge from the crisis with a permanently stronger hand in global affairs. Simply put: Putin needs allies.

History suggests that the most effective revisionist powers are those able to split potential opposition to their policies. Nazi Germany was able to remilitarize and expand its influence across Mitteleuropa partly because Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were either slow to see Hitler’s regime as a menace or else were convinced that others would deal with the threat. Imperial Japan’s rise to power during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was facilitated by a military alliance with Britain, which served to deter others who stood to lose from Japan’s rise from doing anything to stop it. And during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was at its most threatening to the United States when Moscow looked close to splitting the Western alliance—through lobbying West Germany to make a separate peace with the Warsaw Pact, for example, or by encouraging leftist governments to “go neutral” (or “Finlandize”).

The challenge for revisionist states, then, is to ensure that their actions do not provoke unified opposition. Judged against this yardstick, Russian diplomacy is looking less than stellar. From rekindling relations with North Korea to buzzing coastal Britain with nuclear bombers, Putin appears to place more stock in flexing Russia’s muscles than in showing diplomatic restraint. Such bullish grandstanding might play well in some domestic circles, but it does no favors to foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, who might otherwise be disposed to serve as a bridge between Moscow and other Western capitals and could feasibly mediate a grand bargain that would cement some lasting strategic gains for Russia.

If Russia continues to represent itself as a military threat to its neighbors, it will find itself isolated and unable to reshape international politics in the truly fundamental ways that its leadership would like to. This is good news for those who would like to see Russian influence stop at Russia’s borders. But complacency must not be allowed to take hold. The danger for Western capitals is Putin finding a way to break the diplomatic cordon sanitaire—if the United States loses enthusiasm for protecting the peace of Europe; if dovish European states pursue appeasement over deterrence; or if the great powers of tomorrow, China and India especially, turn out to be silent partners (or worse) in Putin’s challenge to the liberal order.

Indeed, weak in their condemnations over the annexation of Crimea and continuing to make noises in favor of concessions to Putin, there seems to be at least some appetite in Beijing and New Delhi for seeing Russia succeed in chipping away at Western stewardship of world affairs. As the localized conflict in eastern Ukraine begins to stabilize, then, the global effort to keep Russia contained and isolated must be redoubled.

Image: Flickr/theglobalpanorama/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsDiplomacyPolitics RegionsEurope

Russia Is Building New Aircraft Carrier, Navy Chief Confirms

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Russia is building a new aircraft carrier its navy chief confirmed on Monday, according to reports in state-owned media outlets.

On Monday Itar-Tass News Agency reported that Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s top naval commander, announced Russia is building a new aircraft carrier.

"The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander," the reported quoted Chirkov as saying. Itar-Tass did not report any additional details except that Chirkov made the remarks while speaking to workers at the Kolomensky Zavod plant. The plant makes diesel electric engines for navy vessels. which makes diesel electric engines.

Russia currently has one operational aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1985. However, last month Russian media outlets began reporting that the government-owned Krylov State Research Center was in the rudimentary stages of developing a new carrier-class for the Russian navy.

The reports said that the carrier was still in the conceptual phase of planning. However, when completed the new Russian aircraft carrier would reportedly be able to hold roughly 100 aircraft on board. That would make it 10 percent larger than America’s current Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which can store roughly 90 aircraft carrier.

In addition, the reports last month claimed that the new carriers would utilize catapult take-off launch systems. All Soviet-era carriers used ski-ramps to launch aircraft from their flight decks. However, a scaled mockup of the new carrier shown on Russian television had the old ski-ramp style launch systems.

The reports last month were greeted with some skepticism abroad. Writing in Reuters, for instance, War is Boring’s David Axe said the new carrier “is likely to remain a paper concept. A quarter-century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia lacks the money, expertise and industrial capacity to build aircraft carriers.” He later added: “But the Kremlin has failed to maintain its expensive shipyard facilities and perishable worker skills. So it can’t actually complete the new vessel any time soon.”

In recent years, Russia has launched a massive program to modernize its military equipment. The program was announced by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in a speech in early 2010. At the time, he said the goal was to revamp “arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.” That same year Russian officials said the rearmament program would cost around $600 billion.

While many foreign analysts dismissed the announcements as mere bluster at the time, since then Russia has been debuting new weapon systems at an impressive rate. As Nikolas Gvosdev wrote in The National Interest last year, “Russia is now engaged in its largest military buildup since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.” He went on to observe, “The rest of the world is taking notice.”

Image: Wikimedia/Gaz Armes


The New Battleground in the U.S.-Iranian Covert War

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The emergence of cybersecurity as a global problem reveals that states are harnessing cyber technologies in the service of their respective national security and foreign policy interests. One question arising from this phenomenon is how the embrace of cyber means and methods might affect strategic and geopolitical competition among rival powers. Will the increasing exploitation of cyber technologies destabilize power politics given the technologies’ unique qualities? Or will these technologies become just another tool rivals use jockeying for international influence?

David Sanger’s story in the New York Times on February 22 about the “growth of cyberwarfare between the U.S. and Iran” provides some food for thought concerning how rival states are using cyber means. The story analyzes an April 2013 NSA document published by The Intercept, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that contained talking points about Iran for then-NSA director Keith B. Alexander.

Sanger emphasizes “the striking acceleration of the use of cyberweapons by the United States and Iran against each other” and the “computer competition between the United States and Iran.” Sanger quotes David Rothkopf as arguing that, in U.S. strategic decision-making, the cost of using cyber weapons is sufficiently low that U.S. officials seem to believe that “we can’t afford not to use them.” That certainly appears to be the attitude with respect to Iran, with the document highlighting NSA’s successful cooperation with Britain’s GCHQ on “multiple high-priority surges” against Iran that allowed NSA to “maximize our target coverage.”

Based on Sanger’s analysis and the NSA document, it looks as if Iranian officials have reached the same conclusion. The document describes Iranian cyberattacks against U.S. financial institutions and Saudi Aramco in retaliation for cyber attacks Iran experienced, including the Stuxnet operation and a cyberattack on its oil industry. The NSA notes Iran’s “clear ability to learn from the capabilities and actions of others” and its “striving for increased effectiveness by adapting its tactics and techniques to circumvent victim mitigation attempts.”

Here, competition is taking place in two contexts. First, the United States and Iran are engaged in cyber-centric competition, with each side playing offense and defense in cyberspace. According to the NSA, Iran developed and used cyber means and methods to retaliate against cyber attacks it suffered. The retaliation involved unsophisticated DDoS attacks in response to Stuxnet, and cyberattacks to destroy data on Saudi Aramco computers “after having been a victim of a similar attack against its own oil industry.” In this cyber-on-cyber context, Iran is increasing its capabilities and demonstrating its willingness to use them.

The second context involves the larger strategic and geopolitical relationship between the United States and Iran. The U.S. government faces multiple challenges with Iran, including—as the NSA document mentions—the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s efforts to “extend [...] its influence across the Middle East.” Neither of these are specific to, or dependent on, cyber technologies. The NSA document reveals the U.S. government bringing its cyber capabilities to bear on these challenges, including cyber espionage designed to support U.S. negotiators in the nuclear talks and integration of cyber inputs into crisis contingency planning for Iran. In this cyber-in-realpolitik context, the United States applies its cyber capabilities, in parallel with other sources of material power, to advance its overarching strategic and geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Iran.

Sanger characterizes the NSA document as evidence of expanding cyberwarfare between Iran and the United States, which implies that cyber-on-cyber competition between the two has the potential to destabilize the broader strategic and geopolitical relationship. I read the document differently.

In the cyber-on-cyber context, the Iranian actions described in the document are retaliatory and do not appear to involve escalation from the attacks it experienced. In that sense, the Iranian counter-strikes look calibrated to respond in kind, signal commitment and capabilities to compete in this realm, and perhaps deter future attacks. Presently, neither DDoS nor destruction-of-data attacks constitute warfare. The United States has not treated them as such, as evidenced by its labeling of the North Korean cyber attack on Sony, which included the destruction of data, as “cyber vandalism.”

The destabilizing strategic factors for the United States in the NSA document—Iran’s nuclear program and its attempts to spread its influence in the Middle East—do not arise from cyber-on-cyber competition. The strategic nightmare of Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability is what led the United States to deploy its cyber power against Iran in the Stuxnet operation. Even in this cyber-in-realpolitik context, neither the Stuxnet attack nor the escalating “cyberwarfare” has stopped the two countries from continuing to negotiate a possible nuclear deal, which demonstrates how subordinate the cyber elements of this rivalry are in the broader scheme of things. The expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East also has nothing to do with cyber-on-cyber competition, and this geopolitical problem is not one the United States will manage effectively by focusing on cyber power.

In addition, the U.S. attempt to use a cyber attack to address its strategic concerns about Iran’s nuclear program did little, it appears, to mitigate that threat, but, according to the NSA document, contributed to Iran’s ability to compete more effectively in the cyber-on-cyber context. This boomerang effect suggests that using cyber attacks as leverage for strategic and geopolitical interests might be counterproductive because they have little impact on the balance of influence and advantage but can help the adversary, in the NSA’s words, “learn from the capabilities and actions of others.”

One leaked two-page document does not, of course, tell us everything about how cyber technologies affect power politics now or in the future. Cyber-on-cyber competition might, one day, prove sufficiently disruptive to upset strategic and geopolitical calculations among rivals. But, based on the NSA document in question, that is not what is happening between the United States and Iran.

David P. Fidler is a Visiting Fellow for Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University and an Associate Fellow with the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House.

This article originally appeared on CFR's Net Politics blog here.

Image: Flickr/ Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Martyrs Wanted: ISIS' Devastating Defector Problem

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As the pressure on the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) mounts against the backdrop of coalition attacks and a Kurdish offensive in Syria’s Raqqa region, militant recruitment has become a pressing matter for the radical organization, which has lost many fighters in clashes around Iraq and Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), out of 1,800 people killed during the Kobani battles, 70 percent belonged to ISIS. On February 14, 132 fighters died across Syria, including forty-four ISIS militants. Given mounting losses, ISIS expansion has relied on a two-pronged recruitment approach: targeting foreigners looking to join the new caliphate and enlisting members of the local population. While the foreign recruitment strategy appears successful, local recruitment faces growing obstacles in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS has relied on a powerful branding strategy, diffusing violent images on social media, YouTube and Twitter. The organization has released several documentaries boasting its military exploits such as the Flames of War featuring heroic-looking militants and gruesome footage of bombings and executions. This systematic glamorization of violence has allowed the terror group to attract foreign recruits. In January, a new study by International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimated that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria had reached about 20,000.

ISIS’s local recruitment approach has been described in Idarat al Tawahosh (The Management of Savagery), a book written by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004, which ISIS has adopted. Naji argues that the first step for recruitment is “the creation of organizations to improve the management of the areas under our control.” ISIS applied this technique initially following its surge in June. The groups managed everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques in Raqqa. One activist admitted at that the time that the organization had been doing “massive institutional work.”

A second recruitment tool imagined by Naji was the manipulation of tribal antagonism in favor of the organization. ISIS attempted to mobilize Arab crowds ahead of the battle of Tel Hamis in Syria last year using flagrant anti-Kurdish discourse. In accordance with Naji’s recommendation to use money or power as incentives, activists in Raqqa report that ISIS offered cash and sabaya (female slaves) to local tribal leaders to encourage them to swear allegiance.

Indoctrinating local populations and its youth was another cornerstone to Naji’s manifesto. Since its inception, ISIS has imposed religious and military training on children in the Raqqa province. The same activists report that the group uses two training camps—Sharea Ashbal and Maahad Ashbal al-Khilafa—to indoctrinate and train children. According to a Syrian Human Rights Committee report in August, at least eight hundred children under eighteen had been recruited by ISIS. Other reports highlight the more than thirty kids fighting with ISIS in Kobani. An ISIS defector said that militants targeted the young to “[break] down traditional authority structures: the alliance to the family and to the tribe.”

While these strategies succeeded initially, they appear more difficult to maintain in the wake of the continuous coalition, Kurdish and Shia militia attacks on ISIS. The counteroffensives have killed many militants and disrupted the transfer of goods between regions under the organization’s control. Naji’s governance tool appears to be faltering as residents in ISIS-controlled areas increasingly complain of rising food and fuel prices and declining services. The price of staples such as bread has also risen significantly and basic products have become scarce.

ISIS has since resorted to aggressive means for youth recruitment, triggering resentment in some areas. One Iraqi activist notes that the organization often recruits children without the knowledge or approval of their families, leading to a drop in school attendance. A wave of conscription among youth in Mosul, Hawija and Kirkuk in Iraq has in some cases led to kidnappings to coerce families to provide them with fighters (although reports could not be independently confirmed). ISIS militants also arrested forty ex-fighters in the Nusra Front and rebel factions from the village of Abriha and town of al-Sahil and trained them in sharia camps before sending them to battlefronts. Syrian activists said that ISIS also began forcing male members of foreign families that had come to live in the Islamic State, but did not want to fight, to participate in battles.

As a result, ISIS has suffered increased defections in Syria, particularly after the fall of Kobani. Militants have tried to return home or join other groups. ISIS executed one hundred jihadists who attempted to defect. Defections have left the organization possibly facing a shortage of willing martyrs. Other reports point to ISIS police arresting four hundred fighters in Raqqa for not reporting for duty. The same Iraqi activist reported that the organization banned truck drivers from transporting ISIS fighters to limit desertion. In both Raqqa and Mosul, the transit of residents in and out of the city has been closely monitored.

Decreasing human resources may account for ISIS repositioning across areas under its control. ISIS had to transfer in late December eight hundred Chechens, Afghans and Syrians with their families to the city of Tel Affar (50 km west of Mosul), which was the scene of heavy fighting. The number of Islamic State checkpoints and patrols also dwindled in the Syrian border town of al-Bokamel in January, with troops possibly funneled into Iraq.

ISIS relies heavily on the loyalty of both its muhajireen (foreign fighters) base and ansar (local supporters). While the organization’s successes bolstered its appeal among foreign fighters, warlords and tribes, whether in Syria or Iraq, new losses may be starting to chip away at its aura of power. The rate of recruitment has dropped by more than half in February (only fifty-four recruited) compared to January 2015. Compare this figure to June 2014, when nearly six thousand fighters had joined ISIS.

Growing defections, rising tensions and declining local recruitment puts added pressure on ISIS and provides the U.S.-led coalition and the Baghdad government with a window of opportunity to degrade the organization. But in Iraq, other social, political and economic reasons account for local support of ISIS. Naji’s tactic using tribal antagonism to breed organizational loyalty may not have had enough time to sink in, but for many Sunnis—particularly in Iraq—no credible alternative to ISIS has emerged. The Iraqi government will need to take concerted steps to diffuse sectarian tensions and present itself as that alternative. ISIS also benefits from the use of both Syrian and Iraqi territory according to its military needs. The anti-ISIS coalition will need a more comprehensive approach in Syria if it hopes to win the day.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center currently reporting from Iraq. She is a French-Lebanese journalist and based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami. This piece originally appeared here, on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Magharebia/CC by 2.0


Has ISIS Invaded Afghanistan?

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The growing geographic spread of ISIS has lately been part of the news chatter in tabloids and respected papers alike.

We know ISIS has tried to spread its propaganda to Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2014 and proclaimed its leadership of that region in early January, with members of the Pakistani Taliban claiming loyalty to the group. One of ISIS's Afghan commanders who was in a recruitment video aimed at the region was killed at the end of January, and another was allegedly arrested by the Afghan Taliban.

However, police in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, where ISIS was reported to be fighting, recently denied the group had a presence there.

Nevertheless, many Afghan Government officials, Afghan analysts with links to Government, and some civil society activists I spoke to last year are set on making the case that ISIS is operating in Afghanistan. Their counterparts across the border in Pakistan seem to be less concerned, even if the link between the Pakistani Taliban and ISIS is ostensibly stronger.

Others however, remain skeptical, and the Taliban website has been suspiciously silent on the matter. Australia's Foreign Minister has been cautious about acknowledging an ISIS presence in Afghanistan (possibly because there is about as much evidence for its presence in Australia, considering the Sydney siege and two individuals arrested before they could strike), though the Australian Government continues to warn that ISIS may expand its operations to Afghanistan in the future.

The question is, why should we even bother looking for ISIS in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is in enough trouble already, and for what it's worth it has had an “Islamic state” for much longer than Syria or Iraq. After all, the Taliban officially goes by name Islamic Emirate, and has thus long laid claim to the “Islamic state” brand. The fact that ISIS called itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” might actually be a nod of acknowledgment from one quasi-state to another that such an ambition is already established in Afghanistan.

Though much has been made of the similarities between ISIS and the Taliban, such as their focus on conquering territory, maintaining an army and governing structure (all trademarks of states), they are not the same.

The Afghan Taliban still draws the majority of its recruits from within Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal structure, though it is known to also collaborate with many other ethnic and terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There have been suggestions of Arabic trainers and mentors in Afghanistan, but generally Afghans have not liked them. Sunni Muslims have long been a majority in Afghanistan (no underdog status as in Iraq) and any sectarian problems have been predominantly of an ethnic nature, involving the Shia Hazara minority group.

Rather than looking for ISIS, I worry more about Afghanistan's other problems, which provide ample space to breed more extremist and criminal groups, and should be addressed both by the Afghan Government and the international community.

The Afghan Taliban is losing command and control, and its self-financing structure has seen it morph more into a criminal group than an insurgency. A recent UN report argued that the Taliban was acting more like a 'godfather' than a 'government in waiting', something Gretchen Peterson argued in 2009 when she compared the Taliban to the Sopranos minus the chianti. The Taliban leadership has long denied fragmentation and emphasized its unwavering command and control. On the ground however, the story is different, and many Afghans resent the fact that some fighters no longer practice as their leadership preaches.

There is a lesson here for counter-terrorism as an answer to the problem of ISIS. Much of what the Taliban has become today can be linked to the 'kill and capture' policy of the US military, which not only alienated the local population but also eliminated a lot of older, mid-level commanders with allegiances to the old Taliban leadership and belief system. Forced to continuously refill their ranks, the Taliban fighters and commanders have become younger, many with a rather basic understanding of Islam and Taliban rules (such as the laheya).

Thus, the very counter-terrorism policy designed to defeat the Taliban – which recently was quietly reinstated – has made the group into the different beast we are now dealing with; one that is far less likely to be reconciled into the Afghan Government. This should cause us to pause and consider if similar counter-terrorism approaches elsewhere might not also backfire.

Another way to understand the appeal of groups such as the Taliban, or ISIS, is to recognise what I would call the enabling environment that breeds extremism.

In addition to rising poverty and unemployment in Afghanistan, high dowry prices have forced young men to delay marriage and seek work abroad, or even engage in crime or jihad to afford a wife. This creates frustration, so much so that the Taliban has tried to lower dowry prices in areas they control. ISIS's response to the same problem has been somewhat more 'creative'. Either young women are encouraged to volunteer to marry fighters or ISIS sanctions their rape, enslavement and forced marriage. The importance of this 'sexual conquest' or 'primitive gratification' in ISIS's strategy, and the attraction for many young men struggling to find their place in more modern societies, has been little analysed in trying to understand the group's universal appeal.

In many ways, what ISIS offers is what young marginalized men across the world, including in Afghanistan, seek: adventure, violence, power, sex and a sense of self and community.

If we analyze the appeal of extremists groups from this angle, then the international community needs to adjust its narrative of “all is going well in Afghanistan” and ensure a longer-term development strategy. The Afghan government needs to get serious about its reform agenda and address corruption within its ranks. Not an easy task, which is perhaps why some stick to the seemingly more straightforward promise of counter-terrorism, which in my opinion only fans the fire of groups like ISIS and the Taliban.

This article originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.