The Buzz

Why Is America's Lethal F-117 Stealth Fighter Back in the Sky?

The Buzz

The U.S. Air Force officially retired its 52 surviving F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters in 2008, transferring their radar-evading attack mission to B-2 bombers, F-22s and — eventually — F-35s.

The Air Force claimed it would preserve the F-117s for future use, but it’s possible most of the Nighthawks actually wound up in a landfill inside the Air Force’s highly secure Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. But the flying branch has held on to at least two of the sensor-dodging F-117s, which first entered service in the early 1980s.

Amateur plane-spotters packing powerful cameras have photographed and videotaped F-117s flying over the desert test range and taxiing on a remote runway, sometimes singly and sometimes in pairs. The most recent snapshot of F-117s in flight are dated July 22 and can be found here.

Why would the Air Force want to keep a few F-117s operational, despite their age, complexity, high cost and the fact that Serbian air-defense forces figured out how to detect the planes and actually shot one down during the 1999 U.S.-led air war on Serbia?

Aviation expert Tyler Rogoway has an idea:

On the radar and infrared tracking side of argument, the F-117 is also a near-perfect and highly available low observable aircraft to test everything from ground based radars and SAM systems, both foreign and domestic, AWACS modifications, fighter radars and even infrared search and track systems.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 


Why the $1,000,000,000,000 F-35 Stealth Fighter Might Be Good Enough

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The jet fighter can’t maneuver, the critics say. It’s based on a wrongheaded concept. It relies on unproved technologies. It’s a one-size-fits-all jet for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and yet it doesn't really meet any of their needs.

Is this Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter I’m describing? No, it’s actually the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the ubiquitous fighter-bomber, reconnaissance and radar-hunting aircraft that formed the backbone of U.S., NATO and Israeli air power in the 1960s and 1970s. More than 50 years later, the Phantom still flies, as evident when Syrian gunners downed a Turkish RF-4 recon plane last year.

While the Phantom still has many fans, it also had quite a few detractors. And many of those complaints are eerily similar to the criticisms now aimed at the Joint Strike Fighter. Is the F-4 a guide to what we can expect from the F-35?

The F-111 parallel

Comparing the F-35 to other troubled aircraft projects has become a favorite pastime of journalists, analysts and other experts. Most notable was a 2009 op-ed, in which famed aircraft designer Pierre Sprey and defense watchdog Winslow Wheeler made a compelling case that the F-35 is a reincarnation of the infamous F-111.

The swing-wing F-111 was originally conceived in 1960 as a long-range Air Force strike aircraft, until bean-counting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his staff decided that it should also be the Navy’s carrier-based interceptor.

But the Air Force and Navy had radically different requirements. The Navy backed out, and instead of becoming America’s primary tactical fighter, only 563 F-111s were built for the Air Force and Australia. The F-111 ended up costing far more than planned, suffered crippling design flaws and was ineffective in combat, Sprey tells War is Boring.

“Now change ‘F-111’ to ‘F-35,’” Sprey says. “Same consequences, same likely program result.”

If in fact the F-35 procurement is canceled or slashed, because of tighter defense budgets or a failure to meet performance goals, then it may become an expensive fiasco like the F-111.

However, suppose that all or most of the 2,443 U.S. F-35s, plus another 700 or so foreign orders, are actually built and deployed. That would make it the most common fighter among the U.S. and its allies. Just like the F-4.

Enter the Phantom

With nicknames like “Rhino,” “Lead Sled” and DUFF (“Double Ugly Fat F*cker”), and a shape that looked like a repeat offender against the laws of aerodynamics, the Phantom was proof that “a brick can fly if you stick a big enough engine on it,” to borrow one famous comment.

The F-4 was not pretty, but it was prolific. Some 5,195 F-4s were built, becoming the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter forces, as well as the main fighter in Israel, Britain and Japan.

The Phantom became an icon of Western air power, the jet that symbolized the air wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Despite its aesthetics, the F-4 still earns rough affection in numerous books, videos and Websites.

Yet it didn't start off as a popular aircraft. Just as the F-35 began as a Marine Corps strike aircraft until it became the multi-service Joint Strike Fighter, the F-4 was born in 1959 as a Navy carrier-based interceptor, until McNamara again wanted a common fighter for all the services.

Like the F-35, the F-4 was based on a conception—or a gimmick—of what future air combat would look like. The F-35 was born of the belief that fighters must use stealth and possess the ability to share tactical data with other aircraft—all in order to surprise and pick off their opponents.

For its part, the F-4 was based on the conviction that air combat would be waged from beyond visual range using long-range, radar-guided missiles.

We don't know if the F-35's design philosophy will prove correct, but we learned the hard way that the Phantom’s did not. The Sparrow radar-guided missile fizzled, and in any event U.S. aircraft were forbidden to conduct beyond-visual-range attacks over North Vietnam. Instead of long-range aerial sniping, U.S. F-4 pilots found themselves engaged in low-speed dogfights against less sophisticated but far more agile MiG-21s and MiG-17s.

Because combat was supposed to be long range, the Phantom initially lacked an internal cannon, so even if it could get on a MiG's tail, it was limited to Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Its two J79 engines provided much power but also much smoke, so that MiG pilots could see the Phantom from miles away.

The result was that Air Force Phantoms barely achieved a 2:1 kill ratio over North Vietnam. And at one point in 1967, the kill ratio actually favored the MiGs.

Sprey believes the F-4 was a mistake. He contends the U.S. would have been better off with the cheaper A-4 attack plane as its bomber and the low-cost and highly maneuverable F-5 as its dogfighter.

“Buying the F-4 for the USAF instead of the much more effective A-4 meant we delivered far less bombs on Vietnam targets at a cost two and a half times as high while losing at least three times as many of our aircrews,” he says. “You'd have done far better by giving the USAF 500 F-5s for air-to-air and 2,500 A-4s for bombing. That would have cost one-third of what we paid for 3,000 USAF F-4s, and we’d have destroyed far more Vietnamese ground targets and at least twice as many MiGs.”

As rough a time as the Phantom initially had over Vietnam, it sounds like a cake walk compared to what awaits F-35, according to its critics. They see the F-35 as dog meat in a dogfight against the faster and more maneuverable Russian Su-35 and Su-30 and the Chinese J-20. The F-35 already suffers from cost overruns, complex and unproven software and performance compromises to enable it to operate from Air Force bases, Navy carriers and Marine forward airfields.

If stealth doesn't work out as expected in the next air war, and combat turns into Vietnam-style knife fights, the F-35 could be in trouble.

The F-4 Redeemed

It’s hard to find a silver lining when America’s premier aircraft now will cost more than a trillion dollars. Also, aircraft, weapons and enemies have changed since in the half-century since the Phantom first took flight. Yet in the end, while aircraft designers may wake up screaming from dreams of ugly Phantoms in the night, the F-4 didn’t do so badly.

When the Navy pioneered Top Gun air combat training, U.S. kill ratios soared in Vietnam. Israeli pilots muttered at first about losing their zippy little Mirage fighters in the late 1960s, but they grew to love the Phantom’s versatility and durability.

This doesn’t make the F-4 a great aircraft or excuse its design flaws. Everyone wants the best fighter, but there is truth in the adage that better is the enemy of good enough; there an infinite number of brilliant aircraft that never flew off the drawing board. Whatever the Phantom’s problems, they were not so bad as to prevent properly trained pilots from carrying out their missions.

If the F-35 does prove flawed, at least the Phantom shows that even a flawed aircraft can be redeemed. No doubt the Russians and Chinese feel the same way, because only a propagandist or career pessimist would believe that the advanced MiGs and Sukhois don't have their share of bugs and unfulfilled expectations.

Whether the American taxpayer should spend a trillion dollars on a flawed jet is another matter. But if the F-4 is a guide, the F-35 may yet prove good enough.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here


Russia's Blast from the Past: Beware the Tu-95 Bear Strategic Bomber

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At first glance, the Russian Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber looks like a 59-year-old flying anachronism, a Cold War leftover that has outlived its usefulness in a century when stealth is king.

The Bear is showing signs of its age. In recent months, two Tu-95 crashes led to the grounding of the entire fleet of more than 50 aircraft to resolve mechanical issues. Besides, there is nothing stealthy about the Bear.

Even when the bomber is in top-notch shape, the turboprop-powered Tu-95 is loud … really loud. In fact, it’s so noisy that listening devices on submerged U.S. submarines can hear a Bear flying overhead.

Furthermore, it has the radar signature of a flying big-box store. The plane is huge.

Photos of lumbering Bear-H bombers intercepted by sleek U.S. or NATO warplanes as they flew toward protected airspace are some of the most recognizable images of the East-West nuclear stand-off during the 1970s and ’80s.

But Cold War aviation genius Andrei Tupolev was no fool. He designed an adaptable plane that can carry one Hell of a load-out when it comes to bombs and missiles, fly thousands of miles from bases in Russia, loiter on the edges of enemy airspace, and deliver megatons of nuclear destruction.

As recently as July 4, multiple Bear bombers flew into U.S. air defense identification zones off California and Alaska. In fact, some of the Bears flew within 40 miles off the California coastline.

Technically, the bombers were still within international airspace. But call it Cold War 2.0 — the Kremlin is sending the same message the bomber has always sent.

“The current missions being flown by the Tu-95 are absolutely designed and principally intended to appeal to Russian pride and national identity,” said Scott Palmer, professor of history at Western Illinois University and author of Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia.


In 1956, the Soviet Military Air Forces wanted a replacement for the Tu-4 Bull, the USSR’s first nuclear-capable bomber. The Bull was a copy of the B-29 – Tupolev used crashed and interned examples of the B-29 as the basis of his reverse-engineered design.

But even though it was a clone of the same kind of aircraft that dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons, the Bull did not have the range necessary to strike targets within the United States if it was flown from Russia.

The new Soviet bomber would need to have a range of at least 5,000 miles and carry a nine-ton bomb load.

Tupolev’s new design was big even by contemporary standards. The Bear’s narrow fuselage is more than 150 feet long with a 164-foot wingspan. What’s more, the wings are swept back at a 35-degree angle to reduce drag.

In addition, the Bear possesses a 9,000-mile range without refueling. Because it was originally designed to carry 1950s nuclear gravity bombs, it has a large bomb bay and plenty of room on its wings to accommodate newly added hard points.

Today, that means the modified Tu-95MS can carry 16 AS-15 Kent cruise missiles — six internally in an MKU 5-6 rotary launcher, and 10 on external wing pylons. Each missile is capable carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead, a yield roughly equal to 10 times the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

Last year, Russia upgraded eight Tu-95s to cruise missile-carrying MS status with 10 more modified Bears scheduled for deployment by 2016.

During the 1950s, the real technical innovation was the Bear’s 14,000 horsepower turboprop engines. The four Kuznetsov NK-12M engines each with two contra-rotating propellers are the most powerful turboprop engines in the world.

In fact, the engines are so powerful the tips of the 20-foot long propeller blades break the sound barrier when the pilot throttles up — one of the reasons the aircraft is so deafeningly loud.

Noisy as it is, the Bear’s seven-man crew can fly a number of Tu-95 variants configured not only for strategic bombing but also for maritime patrol and photo intelligence. There was even a version used as a passenger aircraft, and a specially modified Bear dropped the Tsar Bomba — the world’s most powerful nuclear bomb ever exploded — during its 1961 Soviet test detonation.

Despite its drawbacks, what explains the Bear’s longevity? Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, told War Is Boring the Russian Federation doesn’t have much choice.

The Russian defense industry fell into disarray after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has not recovered enough to sustain a new bomber program, Kristensen said. The Russians are developing a next-generation jet bomber that is expected to start test flights in the early 2020s, but it remains to be seen what they can build and how soon it can be deployed.

“Generally, airplanes can fly for a very long time, as long as spare parts are available,” he said. “Propeller engines are generally speaking less complex to operate than jet engines and many modern aircraft types also use propellers.”

“Moreover, although a Bear would not last long against a modern air defense system, it is equipped with long-range cruise missiles that provide considerable stand-off capability. So for now, the Bear serves Russia’s needs for standoff air-delivered weapons, signaling and national prestige.”

It may be flawed, but the Bear bomber will be going strong as both a weapons platform and a symbol of Russian might for years to come. Even with plans to build a jet-powered bomber during the next decade, upgrades will allow the Cold War giant to keep flying through the 2040s.

It’s old, it’s obvious and it has mechanical problems — facts hard to ignore while the Tu-95 plays a key role in a highly orchestrated and much exaggerated effort by the Kremlin to impress its foreign rivals.

But it’s equally hard to ignore a bomber that can fly within miles of your shoreline armed to the teeth with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

“The Tu-95 is a flying anachronism,” Palmer said, “though one that remains an essential component of the Russian strategic air arm.”

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Is This China and Russia's "Nonaggression Pact” for Cyberspace?

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On May 8, 2015, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China signed a bilateral agreement on cooperation in the field of international information security. The treaty, which some have dubbed a “nonaggression pact” for cyberspace, details cooperative measures both governments pledge to undertake, including exchange of information and increased scientific and academic cooperation. With this, Russia and China continue to advance their vision of “information security,” a view of security concerns in cyberspace that is markedly differentfrom Western approaches of “cybersecurity.”

Many observers have characterized the agreement as a largely political move at a time of heightened tensions with the United States and Europe. The alignment of Russia and China is seen as a response to growing Western pressure. Accordingly, Russia’s pivot to the East follows Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.

However, a closer look reveals that the agreement follows a longstanding series of diplomatic initiatives launched by both countries. Already in 2009 Russia and China signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of international information security in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Later, in 2011 both countries submitted a proposal for an international code of conduct for information security to the United Nations. Although the proposal failed to garner sufficient support in the relevant Committee of the General Assembly, Russia and China redoubled their efforts. An updated version of the code of conduct is currently circulating in the UN in time for this fall’s General Assembly session. All these initiatives sought to advance Russia’s and China’s views on a variety of cybersecurity issues while shoring up their positions in international discussions. This year’s bilateral agreement is no exception in this regard.

Familiar Themes   

The treaty picks up on many of the themes from past documents. For one, the Russian-Chinese agreement continues to define “threats” in cyberspace broadly. While the treaty mentions threats that would also be of concern to the United States and Europe, the pact also defines cyber threats as the transmission of information that could endanger the “societal-political and social-economic systems, and spiritual, moral and cultural environment of states.” Obviously, this could be interpreted very broadly and Western countries have been concerned that similar provisions could be used to unduly restrict the free flow of information.

Second, the agreement between Russia and China also touches upon questions of Internet governance. Continuing previous efforts, the document calls for the creation of a “multilateral, democratic and transparent management system” for the Internet, giving states and their governments a greater, if not predominant, voice in the governance process. This view of multilateral Internet governance stands in contrast to the multi-stakeholder model preferred by Western states.

Novel Aspects

The treaty is most interesting for its novel aspects. Compared with past initiatives, the agreement details a remarkable level of cooperation. Whereas previous pledges of cooperation remained vague and somewhat aspirational, the current agreement provides a list of concrete measures and policies to be realized by both sides, coordinated and evaluated through two consultation meetings a year. These range from the creation of contact points and communication channels between various government entities to the realization of joint scientific projects.

Moreover, the agreement stands out for its normative aspects. It specifically provides that both countries shall cooperate in the creation and dissemination of international legal norms in cyberspace. This includes increased cooperation and coordination of positions in various international forums, including the UN, where both countries have been pushing for the negotiation of new international legal norms to regulate the use of cyber warfare.  The agreement thus formalizes their joint interest in shaping the international debate on norms in cyberspace.

Lastly, one provision has been widely reported as a “nonaggression” provision whereby Russia and China, for the first time, pledge to refrain from “computer attacks” against each other. In Article 4 the treaty provides that:

Each Party has an equal right to the protection of the information resources of their state against misuse and unsanctioned interference, including computer attacks against them. Each Party shall not exercise such actions with respect to the other Party and shall assist the other Party in the realization of said right.

The two sentences, in conjunction, could be read in a way to keep Russia and China from using “computer attacks” against each other. If so, this provision would be remarkable not only for its content but also for the kind of language it employs. Previously, particularly China has avoided the usage of language that could implicate the right to self-defense, which it interprets as legitimizing the use of offensive cyber activity in conflict.

On the other hand, the language of this provision is strikingly vague. Phrases such as “misuse” and “unsanctioned interference” could obviously be interpreted quite differently by both sides leaving significant loopholes in the scope of the provision. Given the magnitude of Russian and Chinese activities in cyberspace, including those directed against each other, this commitment and the seriousness with which it will be implemented are questionable. Thus, the characterization of this provision as a “nonaggression” pledge might be overstated.

Implementation Will Be Critical

Overall, the Russian and Chinese agreement continues many familiar themes. It echoes previous diplomatic initiatives that have united both countries in international cybersecurity discussions. Yet, it also offers a number of novel aspects.

In the end, however, the treaty itself is just the first step. The decisive aspect in evaluating the impact of this document will be its implementation. Particularly the implementation (or non-implementation) of the cooperation commitments, and even more so of the “nonaggression” provision, will decide whether the agreement really marks the beginning of a closer relationship between both countries or whether it will be relegated to a symbolic diplomatic effort overtaken by reality.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Net Politics here

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

How Fast Could America Build More Aircraft Carriers?

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On Saturday, Newport News Shipbuilding will hold a keel-laying ceremony for USS John F. Kennedy, the second of the Gerald Ford-class carriers. Ohio Governor John Kasich is running for president, and he wants yet more aircraft carriers. About five more super-carriers, though over time, as he was careful to stress at a Republican Party forum in South Carolina on Monday. Left unclear in his remarks was just how much time he meant. Cutting the carrier fleet has occupied most of that sort of discussion recently, but let’s also consider how feasible expanding it might be. Building a bunch more Fords would take decades, but the Navy could get some smaller ships much more quickly.

How’s that? Consider the investment during the Cold War. Between 1968 and 2009, Newport News built, and the Navy commissioned, ten Nimitz-class carriers—about one every four years. The Navy currently buys one every five years. Just about everyone at Huntington Ingalls Industries would be delighted to return to the faster building rate, but that’s still just an extra ship every twenty years. At that pace, the Navy would graduate back from 10 to 15 carriers, Fords or follow-ons, in about a century. That’s probably not what the governor had in mind.

To further illustrate the challenge of what Kasich is recommending, consider doubling the current rate of super-carrier construction. Whether the work is entrusted to another firm with its own learning curve, or to the incumbent with a bigger monopoly, is a significant strategic decision. Either way, super-carriers aren’t Liberty Ships, so they can only be built so fast. Thus, you’ll first need to build another dry dock the size of that monster in Hampton Roads. Then, expand the work force—even the current yard would experience a long lead time in hiring and training more staff, and without unduly disrupting construction of the Kennedy. The entire supply chain would experience a similar surge, almost of wartime proportions. Then, in spending more than another $2 billion annually on aircraft carriers—not crews or planes or escorts—the Navy would get back to 15 super-carriers in perhaps 22 to 27 years. That might be closer to what the governor had in mind, but it’s still not swift.

But for that matter, is another yard even a plausible option? Every one of those Nimitzs, and both Fords so far, have been products of Newport News. The US Navy hasn’t bought a super-carrier from another builder since 1961, when it got the Kitty Hawk from New York Shipbuilding and the Constellation from the New York Naval Yard. Both those facilities are long since closed, and the work forces highly retired. Other American yards can build big ships, but not that big. Kasich did clearly mean Ford-class ships for “projecting power,” but what if he could temper his enthusiasm, and just ask for more carriers?

The governor, after all, also spoke of “ensuring the free flow of commerce,” and reminding China and Iran that “that the global commons are, in fact, just that: the world's shared real estate.” As Robert Rubel wrote in Naval War College Review in 2011, American aircraft carriers have had five doctrinal roles over time: as (1) scouts for the surface fleet, (2) hit-and-run raiders, (3) capital ships for the destruction of the enemy fleet, (4) nuclear strike platforms, and (5) mobile floating airfields for conventional strikes ashore. The Fords are optimized for this last role, but it’s not the wisest role on the first day of a war with China. Before fighting across the shore, enemy defenses must be rolled back, and that calls for roles (1), (2), and (3) as well. Other countries with smaller carriers also consider theirs mobile airfields for anti-submarine hunter-killer groups. This falls into category (3), and is pretty important for ensuring that free flow of commerce, particularly against that huge Chinese submarine fleet.

The US Navy also has nine helicopter carriers of the Wasp and America-classes, mostly for troop-ferrying helicopters, but also for jump jets. The first two ships of the class, the in-service America and the under-construction Tripoli, lack well decks and have smaller hospitals than other assault ships, and thus have more room for aircraft. After some uproar in the Marine Corps, all further ships of the class are now planned with well decks and full-sized hospitals. But a future administration could direct the Navy to build, in parallel with those future Americas, a whole further flotilla of aviation-only ships on the original pattern. America and Tripoli can each carry a large squadron of 20 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and a pair of search-and-rescue MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Alternatively, they could each carry a large group of submarine-hunting MH-60s. In either role, those ships would be very useful in a big war in the Western Pacific, either accompanying the super-carriers forward, or sweeping up submarines in the rear. The Japanese Navy, after all, is very enthused about its new Izumo-class submarine-hunting aircraft carriers, and thinks about that Chinese threat every day.

Fairly, none of the ships described are super-carriers. Those F-35Bs will have only 60 percent of the range and half the payload of the big carriers' F-35Cs. The America’s harrier-carrier air group would be only about one-third the size. But an America costs less than a third what a Ford does, and requires about a third the crew. For that investment, the Navy picks up an asset that can relieve the rest of the fleet on some of its “presence” missions around the world. When not on those sorts of missions, the ships would expand the Navy’s amphibious fleet, the size of which the Marines are always complaining about. Critically, smaller carriers would also be easier and quicker to build. If Huntington Ingalls could not handle all the work in Pascagoula, the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) would assuredly bid for it in San Diego. There’s no need to build and install atomic reactors—the ships are powered by more readily available gas turbines. In a long war, further ships faster would be useful for replacing what Commander Phillip Pournelle of the Office of Net Assessment has ominously called “the inevitable losses of combat”. One of the problems with the American super-carrier fleet is its enormous concentration of power on single decks. A single spread of torpedoes can ruin any ship and its air wing quite suddenly.

Of course, there’s yet another way to add some small carriers to the fleet, and fast. The French government has two Mistrals for sale, at the very good price of perhaps €650 million each. Those ships are yet smaller, but very efficiently designed—at 20,000 tons, they can still carry a large squadron of helicopters, and on a navigation crew of just 160. France already has a fleet of three in Toulon, so some of the fixed costs of maintenance could be shared if two American ships were based with the Atlantic Fleet. All that makes for a rather reasonable investment for carrying a flag through another expanse of water, anywhere around the world. For as the Pentagon wonders whether its recent doubling-down on bigger, more expensive super-carriers was wise, a more modest outlay for supplementing them may not be so crazy.

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

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class M. Jeremie Yoder.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Revealed: America’s Cold War Nuclear Satellite-Killer

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In 1962, U.S. president John F. Kennedy was in a bind. He was eager to negotiate a nuclear test ban with the Soviet Union. But the Soviets had recently shattered a three-year test moratorium and now Kennedy was under pressure to respond with a display of strength.

One eventual result was America’s Cold War nuclear satellite-killer—a missile that could lob an atomic warhead into Earth’s orbit and fry enemy spacecraft. So-called Program 437 was active between 1963 and 1975 and remained a secret for a full year.

Bowing to pressure from his more hawkish advisers, Kennedy approved the Project Starfish atmospheric nuclear tests. The tests had an interesting and frightening side effect, as the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon wrote:

At least six satellites were victimized by Starfish Prime: the British Ariel I, the U.S. Traac, Transit 4B, Injun I, Telstar I and the Soviet Kosmos 5. The most famous victim of Starfish Prime’s electromagnetic pulse effects was Telstar, which enabled the transmission of images across the Atlantic, just as the British music invasion of the U.S. airwaves was building.

Before the Beatles scored their first number-one hit and transfixed viewers on the Ed Sullivan Show, another British band, The Tornados, topped the U.S. charts with Telstar, an instrumental inspired by the satellite. Telstar was dying from nuclear effects while it was #1 on the Hit Parade.

The Pentagon was thrilled at the accidental proof that a nuclear device exploding in the high atmosphere could knock out spacecraft. Now America had a way of shooting down Soviet satellites. U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel Clayton Chun described the resulting Program 437 in a paper for the Air University Press in 2000:

The Air Force was able to rapidly cobble together an operational system out of deactivated missile components, existing launch pads, and a space tracking system to create the capability to use nuclear antisatellite weapons in a direct ascent mode to destroy orbiting space vehicles. …

[Air Force] Secretary [Eugene] Zuckert’s operational concept for the program incorporated two bases, Johnston Island and Vandenberg [Air Force Base]. The Johnston Island site provided launch pads for two Thor [anti-satellite] boosters on continuous alert. The Air Force would use Vandenberg AFB as the support and training facility for Johnston Island.

The Air Force planned to airlift Thor boosters, crews, nuclear weapons and support equipment to Johnston Island as needed. As envisioned by Zuckert and others, the location of Johnston Island, west southwest of Hawaii, would allow the Air Force to intercept a hostile satellite before it reached the continental United States.

The Air Force established the 10th Aerospace Defense Squadron to operate the satellite-killers and conducted a series of non-nuclear tests.

In 1964, the Pentagon revealed the program to the public. But there were problems, Chun explained:

The use of an atomic weapon to kill an enemy satellite might inadvertently signal the start of a nuclear war. The U.S. might launch such an attack suspecting that the Soviets were launching a surprise strategic attack from space. The USSR in turn might react by launching an all-out nuclear offensive thinking the United States was preparing for a nuclear first strike.

Even if an ASAT mission were successful and did not start an all-out nuclear war, the residual radiation and EMP effects likely would have had unintended consequences. For example, such an ASAT attack might accidentally destroy friendly satellites as had happened during the Starfish Prime test.

Wear and tear and funding cuts took their toll on the Thor missiles, and in 1975 the Pentagon shut down Program 437.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here



Revealed: North Korea's 5 Most Lethal Weapons of War

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Tensions are certainly rising in Asia--especially on the Korean peninsula--and the world is watching to see what could happen next. 

North Korea, for lack of a better term, is one hell of a hot mess. And its one that if South Korea and its ally the United States ever had to go to war with would create all sorts of problems.

From a leader who has more in common with the fictional Dr. Evil than any other normal head of state to rants about going to war against the United States and South Korea on an almost weekly basis to much more serious and deadly temper tantrums (like attacking a South Korean naval vessel and opening up its artillery to shell islands), one never knows what Pyongyang is capable of—just look how it treats it own people.

And that is what makes it one of the most dangerous regimes on the planet today.

But in a straight up war with Seoul and Washington, many military minds are of the opinion that Pyongyang would lose—and lose badly. Sure, North Korea could come out swinging, launching a massive strike across the DMZ, firing off a blistering artillery barrage at Seoul that would induce panic on par if not worse than 9/11 and maybe even have the guts to use those nukes the Kim regime has been threatening the world with for years. But in the end, most agree Kim Jung-un would be signing his own death certificate.

History tells us though that not all heads of state are rational actors. Our history books are riddled with the tails of dictators and rogue regimes who think they can overcome the impossible. What if Kim Jung-un one day felt he was backed into a corner—that his regime was in mortal danger—and decided to strike South Korea decisively and essentially?  

While his military is not of a superpower pedigree, he could set the conditions to do an insane amount of damage quickly and create mass panic the likes we have not seen in decades—maybe just enough to give the North Korean military a slim chance at some measure of early success. And such early success could cost millions of people their lives.   

This article will look at five specific weapons or capabilities that North Korea could use in a surprise attack as part of an invasion of the South. These five weapons could be used in various combinations— in one massive strike or used on their own— as the opening salvo of an invasion.

Such weapons would be used with the goal of creating fear and mass panic in South Korea— so much so that it would create adverse conditions making an effective multi-domain kinetic counterattack difficult to execute. This would help a North Korean invasion take as much early territory as possible and make the always important “fog of war” that much thicker. ROK and American forces would be fighting one of the toughest challenges ever devised— a nightmare scenario for certain.   

Dirty Bombs

Instead of trying to strap a nuclear weapon on a missile that might not hit its target, North Korea could decide to send multiple teams of commandos on a trip through secret tunnels under the DMZ and fan out across South Korea— all armed with nuclear materials. Their mission: to detonate deadly atomic packages in the five most populated cities of South Korea.

Their goal would not be to strike a military target, but to simply create havoc throughout the country. Pyongyang could even deliver such a blow though short or medium range missiles armed with nuclear material— no special teams or tunnels needed and no super accuracy would be necessary if all you were trying to do was hit a big target like a massive metropolis like Seoul.

Chemical Weapons:

We all know from the conflict in Syria the hell chemical weapons can rain down on a population. Unfortunately, North Korea seems to have invested considerable time and resources into developing its own stockpile of these weapons of mass destruction. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Pyongyang possesses the 3rd largest chemical weapons stockpile on the planet. NTIs analysis also notes that:

North Korea may possess between 2,500 tons and 5,000 tons of CW agents. The South Korean government assesses that North Korea is able to produce most types of chemical weapons indigenously, although it must import some precursors to produce nerve agents, which it has done in the past.  At maximum capacity, North Korea is estimated to be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons of CW. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX are thought be to be the focus of North Korean production.

So how could Pyongyang strike South Korea with maximum impact using such deadly weapons? Well, for starters, a massive folly fired from artillery shells or missiles is always the most thought of approach. However, with a little ingenuity, North Korea could also spread small amounts of chemical weapons in some of the largest cities in the ROK using teams as I laid out above. With a little planning and ingenuity, Pyongyang could use such a plot to create panic and slow the response times of ROK and U.S. forces— a fog of war thickened by deadly chemical agents hanging in the air.

A Nuclear Strike on America?:

Yes, we all know North Korea has been testing long range missiles for years. But could North Korea actually plant a nuclear missile on U.S. soil?

Although it cannot at at this point, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the future. General Vincent Brooks, the Commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, sure doesn’t. Indeed, at a recent event here in Washington, Brooks warned that Pyongyang’s capabilities are becoming a physical threat to U.S. territory.

Here is a possible scenario: Pyongyang could have the ability to launch a long-range, nuclear armed or nuclear material tipped weapon at Hawaii or Alaska. They don’t have to be picky about the target if the goal is just to incite fear and panic while launching some combination of the attacks I lay out in this article as part of an invasion.

If one is simply aiming at Anchorage or one of the more densely populated Hawaiian Islands there is the possibility— all be it, an unlikely one at this point— they could get through U.S. missile defenses. Stretch this scenario out 5-10 years, and North Korea could very well have a large and diversified enough missile arsenal to oversaturate U.S. missile defense systems and land a fatal nuclear blow.

An Artillery Strike:

This scenario has been around for awhile. Pyongyang launches a massive artillery barrage on Seoul. The chaos that would result would be massive. Imagine millions of people flooding out of one of Asia’s largest cities. If one wanted to induce sheer panic and hence help your invasion strategy, this would be an effective way to do it.

While many point out that U.S. and ROK forces could quickly take out such artillery pieces once they fire their deadly barrage, enough damage would already be done to cause a massive exodus as Seoul residents attempt to make their exit. The mass of people stampeding any and all exits out of the capitol would act as its own weapon— panic and fear always are.


In my humble opinion, this is the great unknown when it comes to North Korea’s military capabilities. Yes, we know Pyongyang has struck out using its army of hackers several times in recent years, but just how good are they?

Could they, for example, take down South Korea’s electricity grid? Could they inject crippling Malware into critical command and control nodes needed to effectively launch a counterattack against Pyongyang?

Does North Korea have cyber agents in other countries ready to strike or armies of computers infected with dormant malware and viruses ready to attack using denial of service methods against targets of importance? Could Kim strike U.S. military facilities with Malware or hard to cure computer viruses?

While there is lots of different expert opinions on this, I think it is safe to say we don’t have as good of an idea as we should— and that fact itself should have you concerned.

Parting Thoughts:

North Korea is the pandora’s box no one wants to open. Yet, we must consider the possibility that Kim Jung-un or some other future North Korean dictator just might do that for us if he feels his regime is either about to crumble or some how misinterprets allied intentions and decides to strike first.

Whether part of a massive strike using all of the above five weapons or part of some stand alone attack— all the opening salvo of an invasion— North Korea has potent capabilities to inflict great harm against Seoul and Washington. While no one wishes for such a conflict to occur, one must always prepare for the possibility. The five above weapons and how they could be used were dreamed up in just a few hours; North Korea has had decades to stew on such scenarios. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Editor's Note: This piece is being reposted due to reader interest and was originally posted on March 9, 2015. It has been lightly edited to take into account recent events. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Get Ready, NATO: Russia Plans to Build Nuclear-Powered Battlecruisers

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The Russian defense industry has always had a flair for the dramatic. The Soviet military-industrial complex carried so much sway in the Politiburo that at times, it operated with little oversight from the General Secretary. It produced wonder weapons and prestige platforms with little regard for their cost and strategic value.

The past few years have seen a resurgence of this mindset. Russia has embarked on a massive recapitalization project, seeking to replace aging Soviet-era platforms that were often built to lax production standards. Their military-industrial complex takes great pride in trumpeting its achievements and ambitious projects through Russian language media and state-owned foreign language outlets, such as While it is important to listen to what an adversary is saying, it is also important to see what is behind the bluster. In fact, many of Russia’s wonder weapon projects are far too grand to come to fruition — and may even signal a revival of the same discord within the Russian defense industry that plagued the Soviet Union; a discord that acted as a key forcing-function in the destabilizing Cold War arms race that brought the world to the brink of ruin.

Consider the notional future Russian Federation Navy (RFN). Their fleet, once outnumbering the U.S. Navy 3.5:1, now spends most of its time in port. Russia’s major shipyards are now going full tilt, building frigates and nuclear powered — and armed — submarines. Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.

Dubbed the Lider class, these warships would feature the nuclear power and armament capacity of the massive Soviet-era Kirov battlecruisers. For reference, the 28,000 ton Kirov class has thrice the displacement of and carries roughly twice the armament of its nominal U.S. Navy counterpart, the AEGIS cruiser. Cutting a distinctive silhouette, the Lider would easily outgun the largest ships in the U.S. or Chinese arsenals. Their nuclear power plants would allow them to sortie worldwide, limited only by food and ammunition supplies — the finest naval power projection to be found outside of aircraft carriers.

Given the grandiose design of the ship, it is worth examining whether the Russian military intends for it to ever exist at all or if it is nothing but a propaganda piece. Recently, the Russians have announced truly fantastic projects, such as a fleet of supersonic stealth transport aircraft capable of covertly inserting an armored division overseas. Open sources show that the RFN has desired a next-generation, medium to large surface combatant for years, and that more reasonable proposals gained traction before losing out to the current design. Additionally, a video about the Lider focuses on the wide array of Russian corporations contributing to its construction rather than the ship’s actual capabilities. Moreover, it was produced by an industry-focused media concern rather than the expected propaganda outlets, such as RT.

Russian officials announced they will build twelve of these battlecruisers. Realistically, most observers should expect to see one or two. A ship’s size tends to drive the cost of constructing it, and there’s a catch to building ships with the massive weapons capacity and power plant of the old Soviet battlewagons: they’re probably going to be about the same size. Some sources suggest they’ve even been designed by the same firm responsible for the Kirovs. This implies the Lider will be a budget breaker like its predecessor.

Russian designs on this Lider class represent a gulf between strategic direction and capabilities. Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity. If the RFN succeeds in acquiring them, it will find itself with a handful of massive power projection tools unsuited to any of the conflicts it is most likely to fight.

The Russians are setting themselves up for a major discontinuity between ends and means. A recent statement by the CEO of Russia’s state owned shipbuilding conglomerate reveals that his view that future submarine construction should focus on defending ballistic missile submarines, a mission that would take place relatively near to Russian territorial waters. The acquisition of the Lider battlecruisers — plus recently announced plans to acquire a nuclear powered supercarrier — may suggest the forces that drive the development of the surface fleet are not in synch with the forces driving the submarine fleet. One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all-new doctrine based on power projection. Neither of these tracks would be of much value should Russia attempt to invade one of the Baltic states, a prospect that recently gained some overt support in the Russian government.

The Russian military is at a conventional disadvantage against NATO. As oil money begins to dry up and sanctions take their bite, the Russians do not appear to be adjusting their acquisition efforts to compensate. On one hand, they appear to be gravely concerned about the security of their nuclear deterrent. The Strategic Rocket Forces, fearing U.S. missile defense efforts, have invested heavily in new ICBMs. Similarly, the submarine force is building new ballistic missile submarines and advanced new missiles to go with them. On the other hand, the Russians are also attempting to achieve some kind of conventional parity with NATO by producing new stealth fighters, tanks, and apparently battlecruisers. A budget is by definition zero-sum, and as Russia’s economy slowly recovers from its free-fall, the money to build all their desired means simply will not exist. This could leave Russia with an arsenal of top-of-the-line nuclear weapons while intensifying its conventional disadvantage against NATO.

So, what is there to worry about here? Why not celebrate as the Russians procure themselves into the hole, spending exorbitant sums to acquire prestige platforms that do not contribute to their strategy? Because Russia may well attempt to achieve its ends through whatever means are available. The weaker and less focused its conventional forces are, the more likely it is to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to win a conflict with NATO. Painted into a corner by their belligerence and poor acquisition decisions, Russia may become dangerously prone to acting upon its “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.

Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism. It seeks to achieve ends (building a “buffer zone” of pro-Russian states by force while protecting its nuclear deterrent) through dangerous ways (“hybrid” and conventional warfighting, with the option to “escalate to de-escalate”) without the means to fully execute those ways. The end result could be disastrous for all involved.

Ben Hernandez is one of the hundreds of students under instruction at Naval Station Newport, R.I. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

This piece first appeared on The Strategy Bridge here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

A Frightening Thought: Congress’ Flip Flop on War and Diplomacy

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Little should now surprise us about politics in Washington, D.C., but we must note when it upends the historical balance of power between the President and Congress on matters of national security and foreign policy.  With its silence on authorizing the use of force against ISIS and arguments opposing a diplomatic deal with Iran, such actions would surely confound the Founding Fathers, who explicitly vested solely Congress with the power to declare war, while giving the Executive Branch wide latitude to negotiate treaties and reach international agreements. That Washington has strayed so far from such a deep-seeded historical precedent speaks volumes about not only today’s dysfunctional politics, but also the increasing primacy of the Executive Branch in matters of national security.

The flip-flop in divisions of power has been in sharp relief for the past year, as Congress continues to ignore Authorizations for the Use of Military Force against ISIS that were suggested by the Obama administration and proposed by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on a bipartisan basis. The delay is often ascribed to the fact that Republicans want a clearer strategy on defeating ISIS, while Democrats want a finite scope to such an authorization.  Unable to compromise on either matter, Congress achieves neither.  This deadlock results in an abdication of responsibility in weighty matters of war.

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the War Powers Clause was being created, delegate Elbridge Gerry stated that he “never expected to hear in a Republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war.” Such a mindset helps to explain why Congress was granted the sole power to declare war, “raise and support Armies,” and “provide and maintain a Navy.”  When advocating for the ratification of the Constitution, the authors of Federalist No. 74 only briefly discuss the Presidential role of Commander in Chief for the purposes of unity of command.  (In fact, far more time is spent discussing the importance of the Presidential ability to issue a pardon in time of civil conflict.)  From this context, it’s clear that the authorization for the President to exercise his powers as military commander is rooted in Congressional authorization for war.

Congress, for example, was outraged by the perceived overreach of Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos, and in response passed the 1973 War Powers Act strictly limiting the President’s ability to commit U.S. forces to combat in the absence of Congressional approval. Nixon’s subsequent veto of the legislation was answered by a Congressional override and, although later Presidents have espoused the unconstitutionality of the War Powers Act, all have complied with the legislation with the exception of the Kosovo War in 1999 and the 2011 bombing of Libya.  Even in the highly politicized environments before both Iraq Wars, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush first sought Congressional approval for military action.

Historically, the President has enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy in the exercise of diplomacy; only the Senate was given a limited role in treaty ratification and Ambassadorial appointments.  Through history, Congress as a whole has rightfully gained a strong voice on foreign affairs.  However, the opprobrium during negotiations with Iran strays far from both the Founders’ intentions regarding diplomacy and the example of recent history.

Again the Nixon administration provides a case in point; simultaneous to its passage of the War Powers Resolution, Congress gave great leeway to the Nixon administration’s decision to “go to China.” That diplomatic initiative represented a momentous geopolitical shift every bit as seismic as the Iran deal now before Congress. 

Even with a strong pro-Taiwan lobby in the Congress, there was little opposition to Nixon’s shift from Nationalist Taiwan to Communist Mainland China.  Because it was seen as part of the broader Cold War balance of power, and as a potential avenue to regional peace, Congress actually supported the President’s diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia and later legislated that the recognition of Communist China would not prevent the United States from coming to the defense of Taiwan.

No one denies that it is within the prerogative of Congress to debate the merits of the Iran deal, and to try to block it if a majority of members believe it unwise.  However, our leaders must also be careful to ensure that they do not project an image of divided government, where foreign leaders can play one faction off another.  That weakens a United States that used to at least pay lip service to the idea that politics ended at the water’s edge.

Winston Churchill once said “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Today it seems that Congress is far more interested in debating the motives of the President’s willingness to “jaw-jaw” rather than exercise their important role in decisions of “war-war.”  Far from being just a partisan issue, that emphasis raises significant questions about Congress’ ability to uphold the oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, with its carefully enumerated separation of powers.

Putting aside the relative merits of the war against ISIS and the Iran deal, this flip flop in Congress’ traditional role in matters of war and diplomacy should signal to American leaders of all political stripes that the separation of powers dynamic in Washington—particularly on matters of national security—has undergone a major historical shift and is fundamentally askew.

Dan Mahaffee is the Vice President and Director of Policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC).

Congressman Dan Maffei is a CSPC Senior Fellow, and he represented the New York 25th and 24th Congressional Districts in the 111th and 113th Congresses.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

Dreams from a Deal with Iran

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The other night we had a dream. We dreamed that the negotiations with Iran had produced a comprehensive agreement that not only credibly contained the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons forever but also effectively checked its regional ambitions. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu came close to endorsing the agreement, taking credit for having pressed hard for some of the limitations that the agreement enshrines. President Obama received congratulations from almost every corner of the earth and even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a dramatic announcement of support, stressing that the agreement was a turning point in his country’s history. He noted that the deal represents the ultimate failure of those who have sought all along to topple Iran’s regime and that it would in no way diminish Iran's deeply held suspicions of the "Great Satan". Khamenei claimed that the agreement signed leaves his country as the acknowledged regional power and critical global power. He announced the appointment of the Head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force Genaral Qassem Suleimani as his personal envoy to promote a peaceful settlement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, implying that even a long-term armistice with Israel could be part of this initiative, provided the "Zionist entity" would discontinue its “creeping annexation” of the West Bank and its “aggression” against Gaza.       

In the wee hours of the morning very noisy garbage trucks outside our respective homes woke us up to the realization that this was a mere fantasy – that the achievable deal yielded neither a verifiable Iranian commitment to restrict its nuclear endeavors to the parameters of a peaceful energy program nor a mechanism that reliably prevents Iran from funneling the enormous unfrozen funds provided to it to all the wrong causes. Moreover, Iran has already begun to set limits on the access rights of the IAEA to its facilities, to violate with impunity the ban on arms transfers to and from Iran, and to create “facts on the ground” ahead of the deal's entry into force. Within 10-15 years it was to become a legitimate nuclear threshold state, weeks away from nuclear weapons. And Iran’s Supreme Leader continued his virulent attacks and relentless diatribes against the U.S. and the Israel – the greater and smaller Satan respectively.

The following night we had another dream. In it the negotiations yielded a highly flawed deal, one that would expire after only seven years and that contained few real limitations on Iran's nuclear fuel cycle and weaponization activities. It also lacked any extraordinary verification arrangements. Iran was not required to convert or dispose of much of its enriched uranium stockpiles, or to mothball more than a third of the centrifuges at its disposal. It was permitted to operate a third of its spinning centrifuges in the relatively immune Fordow facility near Qom, and to sustain the Arak heavy water reactor with only symbolic (and reversible) modifications. Moreover, the measures put in place to monitor the mothballed centrifuges seemed almost amateurish. Astonishingly, no meaningful restrictions were placed on Iran’s ability to research, develop, test and eventually deploy much more advanced centrifuges, thus making the limited quantitative restrictions placed on its existing centrifuges almost meaningless.  

The President defended the flawed deal, arguing that the sanctions regime was already under duress, making this deal the only viable alternative to war. He further submitted that the deal would encourage the moderates within the Iranian leadership, and would pave the way for Iran to play a more constructive regional role, first and foremost in Syria. Finally, the President reiterated the assurance that U.S. would, if the need arose, employ all the means at its disposal to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. 

Numerous experts and Iran buffs came out in support of the agreement, hailing the diplomatic breakthrough as far superior to going to war, and arguing in favor of the timely substitution of sanctions for an agreement before the former would inevitably crumble. They noted that the concessions made were all warranted given the ability of the U.S. and the IAEA to monitor the agreement and the U.S. to act in case it would be violated. They further emphasized what they saw as new opportunities the agreement opened for mobilizing Iran to fight ISIS as well as its contribution to the strengthening of the so-called “moderates”, led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Well, at least this dream had a happy end. The Obama administration's claims, that the deal was the best that could be obtained under the circumstances and that the alternative was an inevitable slide toward war, were universally rejected. Palpable public outcry erupted over the provisions of the agreement – that in exchange for measures that would only extend Iran’s nuclear “breakout out time” by a mere two to three months, the P5+1 consented to opening the doors of hell by releasing tens of billions of dollars of frozen assets that Iran could immediate funnel to murderous organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. A very large number of high ranking retired U.S. military officers and other former defense and intelligence officials were to uniformly testify that the agreement reached was an unmitigated disaster. 

Responding to this criticism, no less than twenty-six Democratic Senators – twice the number needed – joined their Republican colleagues to over-ride President Obama’s veto of the Resolution to Disapprove tabled earlier by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Reluctantly, the administration announced that although Iran was unlikely to agree to go back to the negotiations table, the U.S. was prepared to do so. Astonishingly America’s other five partners went along and suspended all plans to implement sanctions relief and the unfreezing of assets.

Faced with this new reality, and desperately needing sanctions relief, the Islamic Republic announced that it, too, was prepared to go back to Vienna or Geneva and reopen a number of the issues already codified in the JCPOA but which have since proved to be highly objectionable in the U.S. In these renewed talks Iran relented, and a near perfect deal emerged.

But the sigh of relief on averting the worst outcome did not last long. Utterly exhausted from the previous dream we fell asleep again, this time experiencing an only modestly less troubling dream. Twisting and turning in our beds the rest of the night, half awake and half asleep, we dreamt that President Obama has just proudly announced the successful attainment of the landmark JCPOA. While the administration has immediately launched a campaign extolling the virtues of the agreement reached, closer scrutiny revealed its various shortcomings. That said, this agreement was unquestionably far superior to the one appearing earlier in our nightmare, not nearly bad enough to make it easy to build a consensus against it. The JCPOA, supported by many former American diplomats and non-proliferation experts and rapidly endorsed by the UNSC, was nonetheless rejected by comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress, largely along partisan lines. But the Congressional majority was not large enough to over-ride President Obama’s veto of the Resolution to Disapprove. Ultimately, however, the Congressional rejection hardly mattered. All of America’s partners to the P5+1 demurred, and the deal went into effect as originally stipulated, 90 days after the passage UNSC resolution. Most sanctions on Iran were removed shortly after the IAEA stipulated that Iran responded fully to all its pending questions. And all but the U.S. rushed to Teheran to seize on the business opportunities created by the insatiable demand of Iran’s population for investment in infrastructure and new capital goods.

President Obama, sulking and true as ever to his convictions, stretched his executive power to the maximum to honor the U.S. side of the deal by easing all the sanctions on Iran he could, including the highly meaningful ones pertaining to banks transfers to and from Iran. Meanwhile the government of the Islamic Republic got away with voluntary and eclectic implementation of its obligations under the JCPOA.

The rooster's call in the neighborhood finally appeared to wake us up but only to realize that the latest scenario was hardly a dream – it might still materialize. So throughout the hot August day we continued to sweat: Was this outcome inevitable and could we have made a difference? Supposed we had been called to testify in front of Congressional foreign relations and armed services committees ahead of the vote on the deal? Where would we have come down on the balance sheet between the agreement’s advantages and apparent flaws? How would we have responded to Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-VA) poignant question, if there was a feasible alternative – a deal that Iran might accept and which would buy more than 10-15 years? And what if Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) would ask us what level of confidence would we have that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would buy us more than 10-15 years? Conversely, what if the inquisitive Senator John McCain (R-AZ) would inquire whether vigorous U.S. intelligence monitoring on Iran's nuclear activity coupled with the sustained threat of a U.S. military attack and daring covert actions could not have reliably kept Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold for many years to come, just as they have done so since 2003, and without making so many concessions to Iran?

And what if Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the straight shooter Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would ask us whether we have any confidence in the estimates of how many billions of dollars the deal will place at Iran’s disposal and would we not have to admit that we have even less confidence in estimates of how much of these billions Iran would use to fund its terrorist allies rather than invest in its ailing economy?

And what if their House counterparts were to have pressed us with similarly legitimate questions? What if the eminently sensible Susan Davis (D-CA) would ask us if we have any confidence in the estimates of how China, Russia and the Europeans would react if Congress were to over-ride the President’s veto and the U.S. was accused of sabotaging a deal that its own government had negotiated? And what if Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the level headed Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee would press us whether we would not be better off if Iran were to respond to Congressional disapproval by scaling up the level of its nuclear activities – which clearly serve no current or imminent peaceful purpose – thereby exposing its true intentions?

Agonizing all day and finally ending up thanking God that we were not the ones actually having to make the call, we finally hit the bed early that evening hoping to get a good night sleep at last. But the issue that has been haunting us all through the previous days and nights would not go away. When we finally managed to get some desperately needed rest another Iran-related dream descended upon us. This one seemed especially surreal, bordering on the incredulous. In the dream we saw President Obama actually acknowledging the weaknesses of the deal with Iran – not only extolling its virtues – and leading opposing members of Congress conceding its advantages. Both proceeded to work together to let the deal go through while offsetting its weaknesses by enacting explicit legislation that would set ground rules for its implementation. It would also lay out clear understandings on how the U.S. would tightly monitor not only Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA but also the general orientation of its nuclear program – has it truly transformed its program into a peace-oriented one? It would further spell out how the U.S. would react, unilaterally if necessary, were Iran to encroach on the deal or misuse the resources that the sanctions relief would channel its way to further foment mischief in the region.  

Wait, the dream went even further. We saw the president actually employing the congressional platform to reassure America’s allies in the Middle East, especially about U.S. responses to Iran's subversive activities, and, unbelievably, the latter even welcomed the hand extended to them.  Finally, it saw the three European partners amazingly casting aside for a moment their business interests in Iran and pledging to work with the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the Islamic Republic would actually faithfully implement its side of the deal, or face severe consequences if it contemplated otherwise.

This sweet journey gave us a remarkable night sleep. It was only when we woke up that the sobering reality caught up with us. This must have been sheer fantasy – another “Dream from the Deal with Iran”? Or was it?

Shai Feldman is the Director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Ariel E. Levite is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran