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Run Silent, Don't Run Japanese: Australia's Submarine Showdown

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Andrew Davies and Benjamin Schreer argue in their recent ASPI report on Australia’s submarine choice that there is a stronger strategic case for acquiring Japanese submarines than European ones (Option J).

But the opposite could well be the case—having Japanese submarines could markedly reduce our strategic flexibility in prospective future scenarios. In the uncertain strategic environment that exists in the region at present, Australia should hedge its bets and avoid a regional solution that has strategic "strings attached."

Andrew and Ben acknowledge there are "strings attached" with Option J, but they don’t look sufficiently far ahead at what the region might look like in 10–30 years’ time when the new submarines will be in service.

They take an essentially short-term view of the regional security environment. They acknowledge that American power is declining in relative terms but then don’t project forward to where that trend might lead. The more you look out to the longer term, the greater are the "strings" attached to Option J.

As I have argued elsewhere, there are four main "stumbling blocks" to reaching a way ahead with the submarine program: Australia’s unique requirement for a "big" conventional submarine; the downside of locking ourselves into American systems; the difficulties in making an accurate assessment of the future strategic environment; and trends in submarine detection that may make it more difficult for Australia to deploy submarines into East Asian waters.

The geopolitics of the region are changing faster than most anticipated. Credible scenarios for the longer term must include a significant decline in American power and influence as well as conflict between China and Japan in which Australia would not take sides. In these regional circumstances, Option J would involve some loss of long-term strategic independence for Australia. The European options bring with them longer-term strategic flexibility.

Japan is an inherently insecure country. In the current strategic environment a closer security relationship between Australia and Japan is more to the benefit of Japan than it is for Australia. Placing too much emphasis on a strategic relationship with Japan suggests a strategic inferiority complex on the part of Australia. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a security relationship with Japan, it’s only to say that we need to recognize that Japan is searching for friends for support in its fractious relationship with China. It’s not a matter of choosing sides in Northeast Asia as Andrew and Ben suggest—it’s more a matter of being able to maintain even-handed neutrality.

The argument in the ASPI report that Japan may replace China as Australia’s major trading partner is also open to question. China is also a buyer of Australia’s LNG. The report cited in the ASPI report originates from early 2014 before the global collapse in the LNG market. Latest indications are that Japan’s LNG demand is slowing as nuclear power stations come back on line under the Abe administration.

The last issue is the need to anticipate future developments in submarine detection systems and signal processing. The seas are becoming more transparent. Over the life of the new submarine, it may become impossible for Australia to deploy submarines covertly through the northern archipelagos and into the East Asian seas. Indonesia attaches considerable importance to monitoring naval movements through its archipelago but in the past, oceanographic conditions in its straits, such as Lombok and Makassar, have been too noisy for fixed underwater sonar arrays to detect submarine movements. However, this situation could well change as developments in signal processing make fixed arrays more effective.

Even if we wanted to deploy submarines to East Asia in 25 years’ time, we may not be able to do so with assured secrecy. If this were the case, then a smaller European submarine could well meet Australia’s requirements with a saving of billions of dollars to the Defense budget.

Sam Bateman is a professorial research fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and also an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Wikipedia

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

How America Can Save the Liberal World Order

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In a March 26 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, narrowed his defense priorities for the 114th Congress down to three categories: strategy, budget, and acquisition management reform.

McCain said that for the past three months, leaders in various sections of the United States all conveyed one similar message: the United States is experiencing a nearly unprecedented period of global turmoil that could undermine the liberal world order. He quoted Henry Kissinger’s remark to the Committee in January, saying that the United States has not faced more a diverse and complex array of crises since the end of World War II.

McCain worried that increased threats and American isolation could constitute the greatest challenge to the integrity of the liberal world order. He argued that in the past the United States has maintained global order through an emphasis on military strategies. “For seven decades, the liberal world order that America and our allies painstakingly built has expanded prosperity and kept peace,” he said, “we have deterred aggression, defended allies, defeated adversaries and built peace through strength.”

McCain particularly pointed out that “states like China, Russia, and Iran threaten to revise and roll back key tenets of liberal world order.” He admitted that every method, including diplomatic and economic approaches, should be incorporated into American strategy. However, “acknowledging that there is no military solution should not lead us to believe that there is no military dimension,” he added.

Referring to his second priority as Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, he emphasized the need for ending sequestration and putting a strategy-driven defense budget into place. McCain explained to the audience how sequestration has negatively impacted American power. “Sequestration has done lasting damage to the capabilities, readiness, morale, and modernization of American armed forces.”

With regard to the budget, he noted that the Republicans cannot only talk tough on defense, but also must be willing to pay for it. “This is a crisis of Washington’s own making,” he said, referring to sequestration. To solve this, Congress must rebuild the bipartisan consensus to sustain the liberal world order.

Finally, McCain spoke about his third priority—acquisition reform and technological innovation. “We must also establish alternative acquisition paths to get innovative capabilities to our warfighters in a month, not decades.” He pointed out that recently, technological innovations with defense applications have been swift, especially with regards with cyber-robotics and miniaturization, which the United States has failed to keep up with.

“In short, the [current] defense acquisition system itself increasingly poses a threat to our future military technological dominance,” McCain said. For the past few decades, U.S. adversaries have been rapidly improving their militaries to counter America's unique advantages. He also pointed out that the Department of Defense has gotten larger only to become more vulnerable to advanced technology. Sequestration is to blame, he argued. “We must create better incentives for innovation by removing unnecessary legislative and regulatory barriers.”

“A liberal world order is being seriously stressed,” McCain concluded. “It does not have to be this way. Nowhere is it preordained or inevitable that America power must decline. That is a choice and it is up to us. We can choose a better future for ourselves but only if we make the right decisions.” The United States ought to start making smart decisions to effectively counter threats to cherished American values.

Ju-Yeong June Shin is a senior at Seoul National University. She is an Asan young fellow from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and currently interning with the China and Pacific Team at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia/McCain


Iran: All About the Nukes?

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Imagine a fistfight between a National Football League lineman and say, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Imagine the lineman, after effortlessly decking the Senior Fellow, offering a second round, but with one key difference: each fighter would be armed with a .38 Special. Why, you may ask, would the football behemoth offer to level the playing field in such a potentially fatal manner? One might just as well ask why Iran—absent any credible threat of external regime change to the Islamic Republic—would want to prompt the proliferation of nuclear weapons in its neighborhood by acquiring one itself. Why would Iran, which uses its sheer size and weight to intervene with impunity where it pleases in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and elsewhere, wish to turn every such intervention into a potentially fatal nuclear encounter?

There is no doubt that Iran has sought—quite successfully—to get itself to the brink of being able to produce nuclear weapons. At one time, it was no doubt inspired by the Saddam Hussein rendition of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” To the extent that a final nuclear agreement moves Iran back from that brink by a year or so, existing regional appetites for nuclear proliferation might well be dampened. There is nothing wrong with moving Iran back from that brink. Those who criticize efforts to do so on the grounds that Tehran should be stripped naked of all weaponization capabilities make the unattainable perfect the enemy of the doable (and useful) good.

Still, President Barack Obama’s insistence that the alternative to an agreement months from finalization is some version of the apocalypse inevitably raises the question: with respect to Iran, has the United States been chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole? Again, there is nothing wrong with putting distance between Tehran and the nuclear weapons starting gate. But is it correct to say that, absent a deal, Iran will resume its march toward mounting a nuclear warhead atop a missile? Given the certainty of the regional reaction, would it still rush to trade in its impressive conventional advantages for neutralization by lacing the region with nuclear tripwires?

Countries do behave stupidly. The rational actor model is an imperfect guide. An agreement that would make Tehran’s stupidity visible to the naked eye is something worth having, but is the nuclear issue the true center of gravity when it comes to concerns—Western and regional—about Iranian behavior? For Israel perhaps it is, because Iranian nuclear weapons capability, even if never used, could provide a motive for Israel’s best and brightest—people with global options—to leave to pursue careers and raise families in better neighborhoods. When thoughtful Israelis speak of an Iranian nuclear threat to Israel’s existence, this—not some maniacal suicide attack—is what they mean. Israel, aside, however, is Iran’s relative proximity to warhead production the most vital of concerns?

If one truly believes that, given half a chance, Iran will mount nuclear tips on Shihab missiles then yes, the nuclear matter is arguably the top concern. If one believes, as many Iranians do, that Tehran has gotten away with murder without nuclear weapons and would only handicap itself grievously were it to acquire them, then the real remedy to the regional destabilization wrought by Iran lies elsewhere—again, without discounting the value of lengthening Tehran’s breakout time.

It will be interesting, for example, to see if the Obama administration’s tolerance of Tehran-abetted mass murder in Syria continues. With what appears to be broad agreement on nuclear principles in hand, will the administration continue to be operationally frozen, doing nothing to complicate the ability of the Iranian-propped Assad regime to visit mass terror on civilian populations? Will it now feel liberated to save lives in Syria, or will it see the June 30 deadline for a final nuclear agreement as an extended death sentence for Syrian children on the receiving end of barrel bombs? If June 30 is crowned with a final agreement, will Syria’s unabated agony be extended yet again for the sake of insuring Tehran’s full compliance as its coffers are replenished? 

President Obama recently said, “The nuclear deal that we’ve put together is not based on the idea that somehow the [Iranian] regime changes.” That is reassuring. But what are the implications of an unchanged Iranian regional outlook on a region—beginning with Syria—that has suffered immeasurably from its sectarian barbarity? President Obama says he is “not counting” on “forces inside of Iran” to refocus the nation away from the “lens of [the] war machine.” Good. Will he exert even a quarter of the effort to save Syrian lives that the Supreme Leader has expended to imperil them? 

In his recent interview with Thomas Friedman, President Obama said about Syria, “But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done?” It is a fair question. Some Syrian Arabs have done so, albeit with scant, half-hearted assistance from Washington. Then, at the very end, he dropped something of a bombshell. Saying that American core interests in the region are not related to oil or territory, he observed “Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it [the region] is orderly, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.” Fine: what will the United States actually do with respect to this core interest?

Almost all of the debate on the nuclear framework understanding to date has focused on what has been agreed and not, and whether or not the things that appear to be agreed will—if embodied in a final agreement—move Iran’s breakout time for weaponization sufficiently backward. As Syrians witness hundreds of thousands lives lost and ruined by the Assad regime in the course of a survival campaign orchestrated by Iran, the debate over centrifuges seems not trivial, but just a bit esoteric. Iran has done very well indeed without nuclear weapons—arguably much better than if every bloody-minded act of Iranian aggression would have had to be contemplated in the context of neighbors with nukes; neighbors inspired by Iranian nukes. Making sure Tehran is more than arm’s-length from the .38 Special is fine. Protecting innocent people from a brass-knuckled lineman run amok ought to be of some interest to an administration working on a foreign policy legacy. Indeed, the president has elevated civilian protection to a core interest. Now what will he do?

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's Website here

Image: Creative Commons 2.0. 

TopicsDefense RegionsMiddle East

America's Air Force Is Getting Really Old

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U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah James visited the Council on Foreign Relations late last month to discuss the present and future of the Air Force. James, who was confirmed as the twenty-third Secretary of the Air Force in December 2013, spoke on a number of capabilities and institutional challenges within the Air Force, everything from the nuclear enterprise reform to proposed platform retirement. Her bottom line—repeated often—was that available resources are falling far short of the Air Force’s growing responsibilities.

- In operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Air Force has conducted 70 percent of the roughly 2,800 coalition airstrikes across  Iraq and Syria. Additionally, the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms have helped coordinate the missions and actions of all other coalition partners.

- Less visibly, the Air Force has also provided virtually all aerial refueling—95 percent of all tanker sorties—throughout Operation Inherent Resolve. This has formed the logistical backbone of the entire operation.

- This sustained capability comes at a cost. The U.S. Air Force is the smallest it has been since its inception in 1947. The aircraft are the oldest they have ever been; the average aircraft is twenty-seven years old.

- The equivalent of the sixth-generation fighter, intended to ensure air dominance past 2030, may not be an aircraft at all. Hypersonics, quantum computing, and directed energy are just some of the potential “game-changers” under discussion. James emphasized the need to combine air, space and cyber in order to make this happen.

- Nuclear capability is the Air Force’s number one modernization priority. In the FY16 budget, as well as the accompanying five-year plan, there is an additional $5.6 billion allocated for nuclear enterprise. In addition, James would like to bolster the 8,800 airmen currently assigned to the mission.

- Impossible choices loom in the event of budgetary sequester. The Air Force has requested $10 billion dollars above the Budget Control Act’s mandatory caps. If a compromise is not reached, according to James, the Air Force must make ends meet with likely elimination of the U-2, Global Hawk Block 40, and KC-10 fleets.

The bottom line is that the current political and budgetary environment—rife with conflict, scarce on resources—has thrown the Air Force a curve ball. Air Force officials intended to reconstitute the force as the war in Afghanistan wound down. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State, and the Ebola emergency response have thrown that plan out the window. More needed than ever, the Air Force is steeling for another tough year ahead.

This piece first appeared in CFR's Defense in Depth here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

War in Yemen = Peace in Libya?

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With the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) wreaking havoc in the Levant, Syria reeling from a devastating civil war, and a political crisis in Libya devolving into an entrenched armed conflict, ultimately it was the Houthi takeover in Yemen that galvanized a pan-Arab coalition and military intervention. Led by Saudi Arabia, nine countries have joined Operation Decisive Storm in an effort to drive back the Iran-supported Shia Houthis. Egypt, which has long sounded the alarm about the instability in neighboring Libya and provided assistance to the non-Islamist, Tobruk-based government, has committed its air and naval forces to the mission in Yemen. This could have ramifications over 2,000 miles away in Libya: with Egypt devoting significant military resources in Yemen, it will inevitably have to divert some attention away from its more immediate neighbor, which may help to open the space for success of UN-led negotiations to resolve the Libya’s crisis.

For more than a year, Libya’s transition has seen severe setbacks as rival political factions—the elected, internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk and the revived, rump General National Congress in Tripoli—vie for power. What is in essence a political struggle has manifested in an armed conflict that has pitted the non-Islamist Operation Dignity against the Islamist Operation Dawn and Misratan brigades. Over the course of the last several months, these rival armed groups have become increasingly aligned with and ultimately coopted by the political camps, within which hardliners have felt emboldened to pursue a military solution. Increasing aerial strikes and clashes between ground forces have stalled oil production and displaced thousands of citizens. 

Against this backdrop, the United Nations is brokering negotiations, convening delegates from the major Libyan parties to forge consensus on a national unity government as a way to bring the country back from the brink. Unfortunately, moderate Libyans participating in the negotiations exert little influence over the political hardliners and their armed allies. Meddling by regional actors has further entrenched rival factions, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates assisting Tobruk and Turkey and Qatar supporting Tripoli (albeit to a lesser extent). Competing regional support has increasingly stripped the stakeholders of any incentive to negotiate, as each side believes it can overpower the other. Of course, such conviction has not translated into reality, as protracted battles continue with no one camp making significant gains.

A divisive narrative to describe the crisis has taken hold—initially promulgated by General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, and continuously perpetuated by elements of the Tobruk camp. When he first launched Operation Dignity last year, Haftar declared that his objective was to purge Benghazi and the eastern part of Libya of Islamists. Making no effort to distinguish between moderate political Islamists and more extremist groups, he cornered the heterogeneous demographic, which loosely coalesced into Operation Libya Dawn as a response. Divisions persist, but Dignity’s rhetoric remains about fighting “terrorists,” thus painting Islamists with one broad brush. Despite the ISIS presence in Libya that targets both rival political and armed camps, the conflation has continued in an effort to impress upon Tobruk’s international and regional allies the urgent need for intervention. 

Such calls have gone unheeded. Western states have consistently reaffirmed their support for UN-led negotiations. Regional actors pay lip service to the importance of peace talks, but have provided armed assistance based on their geopolitical interests; Egypt in particular cites significant national security threats. Nevertheless, these countries have stopped short of a full-blown armed intervention. The Houthi takeover in Yemen has galvanized an Arab/Sunni Muslim coalition, suggesting that fears of a sectarian threat and growing Iranian influence trump concerns over ISIS. 

The incursion into Yemen risks sparking a wider sectarian conflict, but it may provide a small silver lining with regard to Libya’s prospects for a return to stability. The allocation of significant resources to operations in Yemen inevitably means fewer resources for the involved states to commit to their respective proxies in Libya. As Cairo considers providing ground troops in Yemen to secure its Gulf benefactor’s interests, its resolve toward Tobruk will likely weaken. The partial withdrawal could potentially puncture the perception that rival sides in Libya have the external military assistance with which to win, shifting their calculations in favor of committing to a negotiated, political solution to the crisis.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a focus on the politics and economics of North Africa. This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's website here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsYemen RegionsMiddle East

3 Ways to Judge the Iran Nuclear Deal

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Last week's announcement that the P5+1 and Iran had reached agreement on the parameters for a comprehensive nuclear deal has, unsurprisingly, provoked heated debate. This is despite the fact that there is still no deal yet.

Although the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action say a lot – perhaps more than we were expecting – about what a deal would look like, the detail still needs to be negotiated (by the end of June). This has not stopped people rushing to judge the parameters. It helps, of course, if you have already made up your mind about whether negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program is a bad thing or a good thing.

I would argue that there three ways to judge the Parameters: on its own merits; in comparison to alternatives; and in the context of future US policy in the Middle East.

Before examining each of these I want to be clear about my assumptions. First, whatever justification Iran has provided for its nuclear program (everything from energy production to national technical achievement, any of which may be true to some degree), a key purpose of Iran's nuclear program is to furnish Tehran with the technical means to produce a nuclear weapon.

My second assumption is that, because Iran has a track record of deceptive conduct with respect to its nuclear program and has been caught out a number of times, there is little ground for trusting Iran and good reason to assume it will cheat.

My final assumption is that Iran's nuclear program is just one part of the threat the Iranian regime poses to Middle East security and stability. Its support for terrorism, its denial of Israel's right to exist, its threats to the internal stability of many of its Arab Gulf neighbors, and its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East are other key elements.

Of course, one can dispute these and even point to examples of other states in the Middle East posing similar threats (some of them are Western allies). Nevertheless, because Iran is seen as a threat in these and other respects by many of its neighbors, these are fears that must be dealt with in any effort to build a more stable order in the region.

On the Merits

Judged solely on its merits, the deal places significant obstacles in the path of any Iranian effort to build a nuclear weapon, but leaves much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in place. In doing so it places an substantial burden on whatever mechanisms are put in place to both ensure that Iran does not cheat and to ensure it is punished if it does cheat.

Iran will have fewer (and older) centrifuges with which to enrich uranium, and will not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium at its Arak reactor, which will be re-built. But these concessions are balanced by the fact that Iran will keep most of its nuclear infrastructure in place, including the underground facility in Fordow that it built in secret. Most of the measures are also time limited, so that after 15 years the restriction on enrichment levels and stockpiling of enriched uranium will end.

What the parameters are least clear on is what would happen if Iran cheated. President Obama has promised a snap-back of sanctions. In theory, military action remains on the table. But unless any cheating is really egregious it will be hard to get international consensus on what to do about it, particularly since, once sanctions are lifted, commercial and other national imperatives will come into play.

The Parameters also say nothing about other negative aspects of Iranian behavior, from its support for terrorism to its threats against Israel and its Arab neighbors. Supporters of the agreement are right to say that dealing with these issues would make any deal impossibly complex to negotiate. But it is also true that any nuclear agreement will end Iran's political and economic isolation. Even if it limits Iran's nuclear ambitions (at least for a while), any agreement would leave Iran stronger at a time when its reach and influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is already leaving its neighbors feeling deeply threatened.

So, judged by its merits alone, the Parameters do not appear to block every possible pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon, as President Obama has suggested. Nor is it likely to make Iran's neighbors feel much safer, which is critical to ensuring that any deal does not result in others in the region building their own nuclear weapon.

Comparing the Alternatives

The agreement does, however, get higher marks when compared to the alternatives. There are two of these: bomb Iran's nuclear facilities and/or continue sanctioning Iran until Tehran offers deeper concessions.

It is possible to bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure, although it would take the US, rather than Israel, to do it real damage. Estimates as to how much this would delay any Iranian effort to produce a nuclear weapon vary. Some say 2-3 years, some much longer. But it is unlikely to be any longer than the 10-15 years that the Parameters provide for.

More importantly, without having at least attempted an agreement in good faith, it will be difficult for the US to gain support for military action. This matters for a whole lot of practical reasons, from the basing and overflight rights necessary to carry out an attack, to the support needed for sanctions to ensure that Iran did not rebuild its nuclear program quickly after a military strike.

And this is to say nothing of the consequences of a military confrontation in the Middle East involving the US at a time when the region is already in flames.

Others have argued that the international community should stick with sanctions and extract a better deal. The problem is, we have been down this path before. In the early to mid 2000s the Bush Administration insisted Iran would have to give up its right to enrichment as a precondition for negotiations. That principled insistence, backed by a growing regime of sanctions, had only one unfortunate result. In the early 2000s the two sides were negotiating over a few hundred Iranian centrifuges; today Iran has 19,000.

Sanctions have done nothing to slow down Iran's nuclear program. It is true that financial and oil sanctions of recent years have had a deep impact on the regime and the country. This has been supported by an unprecedented international consensus. But using sanctions to get the Iranian regime to the negotiating table is one thing; using sanctions to get the regime to capitulate is another altogether. The Iranian regime is perfectly willing for its people to suffer even deeper economic distress to protect its core interests. And sustaining really tough international sanctions over a prolonged period is difficult, as the gradual erosion of the sanctions regime on Iraq showed.

Moreover, all the things that critics of the current parameters point to — from the possibility of Iran cheating, to the difficulty of proving and sanctioning cheating when it does occur — are possible and in fact more likely under a continued sanctions regime.

US Policy in the Middle East

So the Parameters raise questions when judged by their own merits, but look better when compared to the alternatives. How do they fare when examined in the context of future US policy in the Middle East?

Many of America's Middle Eastern allies fear that a nuclear deal with Iran is either a prelude to greater strategic cooperation between the US and Iran or a pretext for an American withdrawal from the region.

Concern about the latter, caused by Obama's efforts to extricate the US from Middle Eastern conflicts, has already driven competition between Sunni Arab states and Iran in the region, from Syria to Yemen. And in the deeply conspiratorial mindset of the Middle East, there remains a real fear that America would love to return to the days of the Shah when Iran was a pillar of US policy in the Middle East.

Indeed, more than anything, this agreement will need to be judged not by what is in it, but by what the US does around it. Washington will need to promise its allies that it is not going to strike regional strategic deals with Iran that cut across their interests. It will need to help allies defend themselves against Iran's conventional and covert threats to their security, and not just the nuclear threat. And most of all, the Obama Administration and its successors will need to reassure America's allies in the Middle East that it will not leave them to face Iran alone.

Anthony Bubalo is the Research Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is also the Director of the West Asia Program covering the Middle East, Central and Southwest Asia. His research focuses on Australian policy towards West Asia and the linkages between West Asia and East Asia. He has produced research on Islamism, democratisation and energy security, with a particular focus on Egypt, Israel and the countries of the Gulf. He comments regularly on Middle Eastern politics for the Australian and international media outlets.

This piece firsts appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

TopicsDefense RegionsMiddle East

Will Israel's New Advanced Submarines Carry Nuclear Weapons?

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The first of Israel’s new super advanced submarines is about to enter service, according to local news reports.

In recent days, a number of Israeli and other news sources have said that the INS Tanin is nearing the end of its testing, and will soon enter service with the Israeli navy. The Tanin first arrived in Israel from Germany in September of last year. It is the first of three new Dolphin submarines that Tel Aviv is purchasing from Germany.

“Israeli Navy personnel – together with crews from the defense industry – are executing the final sets of tests of the advanced weapons, communications, and intelligence systems added to the sub after its arrival from Germany in September,” YNet news outlet reported last week.

Compared to the three conventional Dolphin submarines Israel already operates, the INS Tanin and its two sister ships hold a number of advantages.

(Recommended: 5 Reasons Israel Won't Attack Iran)

To begin with, the new ships are much larger. Whereas Israel’s existing submarines are just 57 meters (187 feet) long, the new Dolphins measure in at 68 meters (223 feet) in length. This should allow them to carry more torpedoes and missiles.

Most notably, the Tanin and its sister ships are powered by an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, compared to the Jewish state’s existing submarines, which are conventionally powered. AIP systems allow submarines to operate much longer and in near silence. This should provide Israel with a critical advantage.

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As David Salamah, the commander of the Haifa naval base, told Israeli news outlets, the country’s undersea fleet, “operates deep in enemy territory — secretly, efficiently, and lethally.” In this regard, Salamah noted, the AIP Dolphins will be a huge asset. "We are talking about a major upgrade to the navy and the entire IDF, in the face of the challenges posed to the State of Israel.”

Another anonymous Israeli naval officer was even more explicit, stating that the new AIP Dolphins have “extended by several days our ability to operate silently and secretly in enemy territory."

(Recommended: Would Iran Start a Nuclear War?)

The most critical mission for the new submarines will be to serve as the most survivable leg of the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Although cloaked in typically vague language because of military press censorship in Israel and the fact that the country doesn’t admit to having nuclear weapons, YNet reported:

According to foreign reports, the newest set of submarines is the strategic arm of the Israeli military, the country's "second strike" force, meant to retaliate against aggressors in the worst case scenario of a nuclear attack.

The technical crews and engineers have been working overtime to assure all systems are synchronized and operating flawlessly on the IDF's most expensive, and secretive, weapon – with a price tag estimated at half a billion dollars.

The three new AIP Dolphins are built by Germany's Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW). According to Nuclear Threat Initiative, they are being sold to Israel for $1.8 billion, with the German government covering a third of that cost.

(Recommended: 5 Iranian Weapons of War America Should Fear)

The second of the new submarines, INS Rahav, is expected to arrive in Israel sometime later this year, with the third and final one coming sometime in 2018 or 2019.


Does the U.S. Navy Need Nukes in Asia?

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One of the advantages of modern technology is that it offers good access to distant conferences. Internet users already have access, for example, to a mixture of transcripts, audio files and videos from the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference held in Washington in late March. The collection’s worth a browse for anyone interested in nuclear issues. But I’d like to concentrate today on just two of the panels: one on what allies want from extended assurance and a second on what they should expect from the same.

I think the first of those sessions was comparatively disappointing. The panel was composed of three ambassadors: an Australian, a South Korean and a German. Ambassadors are by nature centrists, skilled at blurring unpopular messages. And extended nuclear assurance is a tough topic. The overall result was an audience left with only a thin appreciation of what allies want. True, in just about every US ally nowadays there’s a spectrum of views about where nuclear weapons fit in the future of their alliance relationship. But even an unpacking of that spectrum and the associated political drivers animating its diverse components might have made for a more interesting panel.

I also think the question of what allies want from extended nuclear assurance can be answered simply and directly. Allies want credible signals from Washington that the US’ willingness to run nuclear risks on their behalf remains strong during a transformational strategic environment. Their anxieties on that question are quickened by the pace of transformation, a growing ambivalence in US declaratory policy, and the multi-decade shrinkage in the US theatre- and tactical-range nuclear arsenal.

The second panel, composed of three non-ambassadors, was more engaging. In one particularly thoughtful burst on the Asian environment, Brad Glosserman (of the Pacific Forum CSIS) outlined a set of things that he believed allies shouldn’t expect. That list included ‘details’ about US deterrence arrangements, forward-deployed US nuclear weapons, a comprehensive US strategic doctrine for Asia, clarity in the US-China relationship, and an end to political dysfunction in Washington.

I’m not sure there’s much demand here in Australia for greater details about US nuclear-weapon systems and arrangements. Nor do I think the final three points on the list are particular expectations in Canberra. Yes, a more comprehensive US strategic doctrine for Asia would be nice but, as Brad points out earlier in his presentation, the rebalance already offers a US leaning forward in Asia. But there is, I think, both in Canberra and in other allied capitals, an interest in strengthening the credibility of US extended nuclear assurance. Credibility turns on clear signals of commitment. And commitment might well include a greater level of forward deployment.

That’s where I part company with Brad. So far, the reach-back model of US theatre- and tactical-range nuclear weapons in Asia turns solely upon air-delivered munitions flown into the theatre during crises. There aren’t land-based nuclear weapons already situated on the territories of America’s Asian allies. And the US Navy hasn’t carried non-strategic nuclear weapons since the early 1990s. It’s that absence of naval-based weapons that concerns me. The Asia–Pacific’s still, for most American allies, primarily a maritime theatre. If the US Navy isn’t going to be a contributor to extended nuclear assurance, that’s going to leave a substantial gap in the fabric.

Nuclear weapons deployed on naval vessels—and, no, I’m not just talking about strategic ballistic missiles deployed on submarines—would offer a variety of gains. They would increase US nuclear presence in the region, while minimizing the possibility of terrorist seizure of the weapons. They would allow the same set of weapons to play a strategic role across a set of different bilateral alliances in the Asia–Pacific. Mobile platforms help offset the theatre’s vast size. And naval basing allows the US to exploit its naval strength in a maritime strategic environment.

It’s been clear for some time that the US Navy’s not a fan of nuclear weapons. At the tactical level, it’s long been believed that it has significant advantages in relation to a conventional conflict—in acoustics, for example—that would be lost in any crossing of the nuclear threshold. But if the Asian strategic environment continues to darken, reintroducing nuclear weapons onto naval vessels might be the easiest way to strengthen US extended nuclear assurance in Asia. Maybe the environment doesn’t require a full return of numbers and types of naval nuclear weapons deployed during the Cold War. Still, crossing off the list of possible US actions in the Asia–Pacific even a small increase in such weapons seems too hasty.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Australia's Desire for Japanese Submarines: A Big Mistake?

The Buzz

In their paper supporting Option J, Andrew Davies and Benjamin Schreer don’t just rebut some of the strategic arguments raised against it, but also provide their own argument on strategic grounds in its favor. Their rebuttals offer much to debate, but their positive argument is more important and more revealing, so let’s focus on that.

The argument is essentially as follows. Australia’s interests are best served by the creation of a strong coalition of democracies that would preserve the US-led order in Asia by resisting China’s growing power and ambition. Creating this coalition requires a more strategically-active Japan and closer US-Japan-Australia strategic cooperation, both of which would be encouraged by Australia buying Japanese submarines.

Underlying this argument is an assumption that Australia’s future security is best served by trying to perpetuate the US-led order which has kept Asia stable for 40 years. There’s no doubt this would be the best outcome if it can be achieved, but for that to happen, China must be either convinced or compelled to abandon any ambitions to change that order and take a bigger leadership role for itself. The strategic policies of Washington, Tokyo and Canberra today all presuppose that Beijing will back off if they stand together and firmly refuse any concessions to these ambitions.

The more confident one is that this is right, the more credible the assumptions underlying Ben and Andrew’s strategic argument for Option J becomes. But Ben and Andrew offer no support for their assumptions, and, as I have argued elsewhere, there are compelling reasons to suggest that they are wrong. If so, then the present policies will not preserve Asia’s peace and Australia’s security, but lead instead to an escalating rivalry and an increased danger of major war. And in that case, Option J would undermine Australia’s security by deepening our support of US and Japanese policies which are not in our interests.

Moreover, if Andrew and Ben are wrong and China can’t be forced to accept the old order, then we face a strategic future in Asia, which, one way or the other, will be very different from what we have known. Whichever of the wide range of possible outcomes materializes, it’s quite likely that the strategic interests of both Australia and Japan won’t remain nearly as closely aligned as Andrew and Ben believe them to be today.

This matters to the submarine project to the extent that our future submarine capability under Option J would depend on maintaining a close strategic relationship with Japan. Andrew and Ben argue that it wouldn’t, because we wouldn’t depend on Japan’s cooperation to support and operate our boats provided that we secured the technical information to allow us it do it ourselves.

But how confident can we be of that? As Ben and Andrew acknowledge, both Tokyo and Canberra seem to expect that despite the so-called "competitive evaluation process", Option J, if it proceeds, would be based on a government-to-government deal. It’s very clear that this would lead to the details of the deal being hammered out in a non-competitive, sole-source negotiation in which Australia would have a very weak bargaining position, with little leverage to press for the transfer of sensitive technical information.

And we can be sure the Japanese side would be determined to transfer as little of that information as possible, not just to protect the operational security of their own submarine capability, but also to maximize our dependence on Japanese submarine support.

After all, why is Tokyo is so keen on Option J, when the commercial incentives are fairly modest and the potential risks of sharing its most sensitive military technology seem so high? The clearest reason is that Abe wants to use Option J to tie Australia as closely as possible to Japan strategically. He will therefore have strong incentives to keep Australia’s submarine capability as dependent as possible on Japan, and hence, to share as little information with us as he can.

So there’s a serious risk that Option J would leave our submarine capability vulnerable to future differences in Australian and Japanese strategic priorities. Moreover, that risk is highest in precisely those circumstances in which Australia’s submarines would be most important to us. The bigger the shifts on the region’s strategic order, the more we’ll rely on our submarine capability, and the bigger than risk that strategic differences between us and Japan will undermine it.

There’s no risk-free way to buy submarines, but Option J carries whole categories of strategic risk that the other options do not, and those are very likely indeed to outweigh the technical advantages, if any, that Option J offers.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Public Domain. 

TopicsDefense RegionsIndo-Pacific

Could This Be America's Best Kept Economic Secret?

The Buzz

The U.S. economic recovery and current strength reflect in large part advanced industries. As other sectors faltered, both employment and output in these businesses grew. In 2013, they employed 12.3 million workers (9 percent of the U.S. workforce), who made on average $90,000 (compared to the U.S. mean of $51,500). These industries generated $2.7 trillion in output (17 percent of U.S. GDP), and indirectly supported an additional 14.3 million jobs.

Central to this classification, as developed in a recent Brookings report, is innovation. Participants stand out on two criteria—over 20 percent of their workers are science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) professionals and all spend $450 or more in R&D per worker. The authors classify some fifty different industries—from aerospace to semiconductors, satellite telecommunications to software publishers—across manufacturing, energy, and services as advanced sectors.

These companies—think Boeing, Sirius Satellite Radio, and Google among the thousands of lesser known names—cluster in cities. 70 percent of their jobs are in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Here they can link to local universities, benefit from a skilled pool of labor, and learn from other nearby firms.

Spillovers from this sector help support the broader local economy. Advanced industry supply chains purchase on average $236,000 in goods and services per worker from other businesses (compared to $67,000 in other industries). And the higher salaries and profits feed back through greater tax intakes.

Nationally these industries help maintain the U.S. competitive edge—they account for 90 percent of private-sector R&D and 85 percent of all U.S. patents. And they dominate exports, producing 60 cents of every dollar of products sent abroad.

Still, when measured against other countries, U.S. advanced industries are losing ground. Jobs and output as a share of GDP are down. This has potential knock on effects for innovation, given the dominance of these businesses in R&D spending, and for future long term economic competitiveness and growth.

As with so many other economic challenges today, better education matters. The United States ranks 23rd among developed countries in terms of annual STEM graduates per capita, behind South Korea, Portugal, and Poland. As a result, U.S. advanced industry employers often struggle to find qualified workers. The authors recommend the United States expand early education, improve the quality of schools, and encourage more students to study STEM areas to diminish the deficit.

Foreign policy issues too can make a difference, especially with regards to U.S. neighbors. According to the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force report, North America: Time for a New Focusstronger ties enhance the United States’ ability to compete in a dynamic and competitive world economy. Export data shows that of the over $1 trillion in advanced manufacturing industries exports (which doesn’t include energy and services), roughly one third head to Canada and Mexico. This number rises to more than half for motor vehicle, railroad, and computer parts. This back and forth between the three nations in the actual manufacturing process reflects a deepening of regional supply chains and the important, if often overlooked, role U.S. neighbors play in supporting “domestic” advanced industries. As Washington debates broader trade, immigration, and security issues, the economic ramifications of these policy choices for our most dynamic industries shouldn’t be forgotten.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Latin America's Moment here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

Topicseconomy RegionsUnited States