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America and Russia in Syria: Superpower Showdown or Opportunity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Mexico: From Cold War to Drug War

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

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

The Cold War in Mexico:

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

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

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

Exit Cold War, Enter Drug War:

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

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

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

This piece first appeared on The Strategy Bridge here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Russian Navy Is Back

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Considering that he earned his spurs in the culture of the KGB, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated surprisingly strong navalist tendencies over the past eighteen months. Adding irony to this new focus on the sea, his presidency began with allegations that he mishandled the disaster of the sinking of the “Kursk” submarine in 2000, just three months after he was inaugurated as Russian president. However, last week’s deployment of Russian military forces to Syria confirmed that maintaining naval access has become a centerpiece of President Putin’s foreign policy and may shed light on future Russian foreign policy goals. Two other recent developments confirm this trend of restoring Russian naval power: the annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and the release of the Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020 in July of 2015.

The Russian annexation of Crimea restored firm Russian control over the port city of Sevastopol, which is the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol Shipyard. Sevastopol Shipyard played a key role in modernizing the Russian Navy over the past decade—even though it was located on sovereign Ukrainian territory but leased back to Russia under the Black Sea Fleet Agreement of 1997.

The Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020 leads off with the provocative phrase: “Historically, Russia—the leading maritime power…” and goes on to divide Russian naval policy between six regions: the Atlantic, Arctic, Antarctic, Caspian, Indian Ocean, and Pacific. Upon release of the Maritime Doctrine in July, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly that “…the Atlantic has been emphasized because of NATO expansion, the need to integrate Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base into the Russian economy, and to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean.”

That last phrase (“…to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean”) serves as a clear signal of one of the principal policy objectives of Russian military forces to Syria last week—the preservation of Russian naval access to the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. During remarks at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC on September 28, General Philip M. Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), said he believes Putin’s top priority is to protect Russian access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second priority, in service to the first, is to prop up Russia’s host, the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then third, he said, “After all of that, I think that they will do some counter-ISIL work to legitimize their approach to Syria.”

After Russian defense spending hit rock bottom in 1998, a decade of increased investment in modernization and maintenance has renewed Russian aspirations of exerting global influence with a similarly global navy. Although that navy is ready to sail, it still needs access to bases for logistics support for sustained deployments abroad. While the Russian Navy does not yet have the capacity to generate the scope and scale of Soviet Navy deployment patterns during the Cold War, it has restored its capacity to maintain presence where core Russian interests are at stake—such as in Syria.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy enjoyed access to bases in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Yugoslavia to sustain continuous naval influence in the Mediterranean Sea. The recent trend toward Russian maritime expansion could serve as a harbinger for future Russian foreign policy initiatives. In late August 2015, the Russians persuaded Spain—a member of NATO—to allow a Russian Kilo-class diesel submarine to refuel and re-supply on the Spanish island of Ceuta as it transited from the North Sea Fleet to the Black Sea Fleet.

Moving forward, keep an eye on Libya as another potential focus area for restoring Russian naval access. While the current political situation in Libya is tenuous, the conditions are set for Russia to attempt to restore its access to naval bases and further sustain naval presence in the western Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic oceans—all under the cover of “fighting international terrorism.”

Captain Sean R. Liedman, U.S. Navy, was the commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Eleven operating the P-8A and P-3C maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. He has twice served in the Air Warfare Division on the Chief of Naval Operation’s staff and also as the executive assistant to the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government. This piece first appeared on CFR’s website here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

The War over UCLASS (And Future of Naval Power Projection) Continues

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The U.S. Congress’ National Defense Authorization Act conference report for Fiscal Year 2016 has come out strongly in favor of developing a long-range penetrating unmanned carrier-based aircraft. However, even if the bill is pushed through the Hill, Congressional sources expect that President Barack Obama will almost certainly veto it.

“As access-denied environments proliferate, the carrier air wing of the future must contain a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of striking in contested airspace,” said Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, in an emailed statement. “Integrating an unmanned aircraft fully into the air wing must be a priority in the years ahead."

The House-Senate conference report adds $350 million to the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) program, the requirements for which has been mired in controversy for years. While the top echelons of the U.S. Navy and many in Congress support the development of a deep penetrating strike aircraft that is able to attack an enemy that is using anti-access/area-denial techniques, there are other elements that want a more basic air vehicle.

In previous years, the Office of the Secretary of Defense—prior to Ashton Carter and deputy defense secretary Bob Work taking the helm—insisted on developing an aircraft that is optimized for operating in permissive environments with a very limited strike capability. The Naval Air Systems Command was also amongst the factions that wanted a more basic intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform that could be used against terrorist networks and the like. However, Work essentially halted the UCLASS program while he reviewed the Pentagon’s ISR portfolio once he took office last year. Work was amongst those who originated the idea for a penetrating unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft when he was at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in 2003.

The conference report makes it explicit that the Congress would like to see the Navy develop an unmanned carrier-launched multirole aircraft that is capable of penetrating deep into non-permissive environments. The UCLASS, as the Congress see its, should be fully integrated into the carrier air wing and must have the range, payload and survivability needed for a range of missions—including deep strike. The aircraft should also be air-refuelable to give it the necessary range and endurance for that mission.

The Congressional report directs the Secretary of Defense to use the added funding to conduct “competitive air vehicle risk reduction activities” which would lead to the fielding of such a penetrating multi-mission UCLASS air vehicle.

Industry officials couldn’t immediately comment. However, the leading industry proponent for a long-range penetrating strike UCLASS is Northrop Grumman, which developed the X-47B demonstrator. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has advocated for a long-range penetrating reconnaissance aircraft that could relay information back to the fleet—which is an approach favored by many Navy officials too. Boeing has remained relatively mum about their approach, but there are indications that the company had intended to offer a modestly stealthy wing-body-tail design optimized for maritime ISR. General Atomics is had previously indicated a preference for a semi-stealth aircraft design called the Sea Avenger—which is a jet-powered derivative of the Predator series.

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


Russia's Air War in Syria Begins: Can 32 Planes Really Make a Difference?

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The Russian air force has started its air campaign in war-torn Syria against rebel forces around the city of Homs. But the scope and duration of the Russian air campaign is an open question. The Russian force of 32 fixed-wing combat aircraft at its airfield in Latakia is not large enough to sustain a prolonged air war.

“It's a token force, but they do seem problematic for our anti-Assad stance,” one Air Force told me. “Putin is clearly a pro-Assad guy. So it will be interesting to see whether the Russians attack U.S.-backed anti-Assad groups.”

The Target:

The initial Russian airstrikes do seem to have been directed against Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Assad regime rather than ISIS forces. But it is not clear if those were U.S.-trained rebels or not. Nonetheless, the strikes do suggest that Russian president Vladimir Putin is seeking to shore up the beleaguered Assad regime against both the rebels and ISIS.

Earlier in the day, the Russian Federation Council gave its consent to using force in Syria. “The Federation Council unanimously supported the president’s request—162 votes in favor [of granting permission],” Kremlin chief of staff Sergey Ivanov told ITAR-TASS on Sept. 30.

Interestingly enough, according to Ivanov, the Russian campaign is solely directed against ISIS rather than an attempt to bolster Assad’s beleaguered forces. “The operation’s military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against the IS [Islamic State],” Ivanov told the Russian media. Ivanov added that the Russian operation is of limited duration, which seems to be consistent with the relatively limited size of Russia’s expeditionary force in Latakia.

What Can Russia Actually Do?:

While much of the media attention has focused on advanced Russian warplanes like the Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-H multirole fighter and Su-34 Fullback, U.S. Air Force officials note that there are only four each of those late-generation jets present in the theatre. Russia’s real combat power in the region comes from its force of two-dozen Su-25 Frogfoot close air support aircraft and Su-24 Fencer bombers.

Having four of each type would not allow the Russians to sustain airstrikes over a long period of time even with a well oiled logistical train comparable to the U.S. military. Thus the presence of the Su-30SM and Su-34 doesn’t add significantly to Russian combat power. “Combat turn patterns with four aircraft are not generally sustainable for long periods of time,” a senior U.S. Air Force official added.

Another recently retired U.S. Air Force official said, “Four jets might buy you eight to twelve sorties in a twenty-four hour period for a few days, but the pace wouldn't be sustainable,” the former official said. A typical squadron needs a minimum of six aircraft to sustain operations. “More likely they brought four to launch, plus two reserves—one spare and one in repairs.”

Russia’s real striking power in the region does not come from the advanced Flanker derivatives but rather the older and much less glamorous Su-25 Frogfoot and Su-24 Fencer. The Russian air force has a dozen of each type at Latakia, which could be used to sustain air strikes for a while—assuming Russia can sort out logistical, maintenance and spare parts issues. The Russian military has not conducted an overseas deployment like this in recent memory—and even then, the total Russian presence offers less combat power than an a single U.S. Navy carrier air wing.

While the Su-25 and Su-24 are still capable strike aircraft, it remains to be seen if the Russians have the ability to sustain those jets away from home. Further, it is not clear if the Russian aircraft are equipped with the types of sensors and precision-guided munitions required for this kind of a fight—and, moreover, if they have enough stocks of those precision weapons. There is also the unanswered question of how proficient Russian aircrews really are and if they will be working closely with ground controllers to identify targets for them. Only time will tell.

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

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Master Plan to Crush America in a War: Attack the Supply Chain?

The Buzz

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would like to stop buying and launching navigation satellites—at least as a military project. Sure, Lockheed is testing GPS III, and a team at the University of Texas is working on centimetric accuracy without differential. Through the MEOSAR project, the Canadian military will even use the new satellites to update the Cospas-SARSat system for geolocating search-and-rescue beacons. But GPS is looking more vulnerable to spoofing than we previously figured. So during a podcast hosted by venture firm Andreesen Horowitz in April, Carter argued that future forces would want their navigation on micro-electromechanical chips with inertials and precision clocks. Even just by reducing the need for constant updates from above, that sort of technology could improve the systemic defensibility of satellite navigation. 

At the same time, Carter pretty much wants to wrap electronics around everything, proliferating precision and combat-networking down to every Iron Man suit in the force. But does that make navigation and communication and everything else more or less secure? Note the contrast with the US Office of Personnel Management—after losing all the data, new management decided that all new security clearance work would be done with pens-on-paper. I can guarantee that the Chinese can’t hack my slide rule or my notebook, and to follow Patrick Tucker's recent advice, anything more “could get you killed”. So which is it?

There’s a long litany of scary stories to take for inspiration. Recall that opening scene of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1986), in which saboteurs destroy a Soviet petroleum facility by hay-wiring the control center. Think about the possibly less fictional story, from former Air Force Secretary Tom Reed, about how the US did that to a Soviet gas pipeline in 1982 by booby-trapping the control software the KGB was stealing. Or forego the stories, and just think about the havoc Stuxworm wrought on a uranium enrichment plant. Or how those two characters hacked into a moving Jeep Cherokee back in July. It’s enough to make you want to throw away your smartphone, and grab some paper maps and ledgers.

Adversaries with long view might thus be well advised to aim upstream, in part because the new Western war of war is so predicated upon protection. Fighting in southwest Asia has been greatly constrained with judicious rules of engagement. Profound concern for collateral damage has almost returned the micromanagement of the Johnson Administration in southeast Asia. With 98 percent of JDAMs and Brimstones hitting their targets, the statistical noise of occasional guidance failures rises to flag officer attention. But as bad as the Hanoi Hilton was, when allied aviators go down now, they get torched in a cage. One side here is playing total war, but the other isn’t and shouldn’t.

That means that a savvy adversary could try to muck with that kill chain by invading Boeing or MBDA’s supply chain. There are plenty of entry points—physical attacks against plant and personnel, cyber attacks against production equipment, or corrupting the operating software of the weapons themselves. With the JDAM and Brimstone lines working at full burn, interruptions could propagate quickly. What then, if the Coalition air forces could only use unguided bombs? Or even just laser-guided bombs? Either the rules of engagement would need to change—with a concomitant surrender of that moral high ground—or the adversary would gain sanctuary in time and space.

Safeguarding the global commons of the 21st century is a big job. Just safeguarding Mount Sinjar or lifting the Siege of Kobanî can seem a harder job, if you’re trying to do it entirely from the air. Pondering how long Volkswagen’s bogus engine control software escaped regulatory gaze can lead to a certain queasiness about the potential distribution of zero-day exploits. These sorts of problems aren’t going to get easier, and realistically assessing the threats is challenging. But it’s probably time again to consider the robustness that comes with multiple weapons, multiple sources, backup production sites, backup operating modes, and all sorts of Pearl Harbor file manual interventions for shaking off the unexpected. 

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security (where this first appeared), and co-author of Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare (Naval Institute Press, 2002). He thanks David Foster of Naval Air Systems Command for insights which led to this essay.

Image: Creative Commons.