The Buzz

A 'Nuclear Pearl Harbor': America's Master Plan to Nuke Japan's Navy

The Buzz

Less than a year after the formal end of World War II the United States tested its new superweapons in peacetime. Operation Crossroads in 1946 at Bikini Atoll tested the effects of nuclear weapons on naval fleets and harbors.

While burrowing through the vast Manhattan Project archives historian Alex Wellerstein turned up evidence that Bikini wasn’t the first Pacific island in the atomic crosshairs. Another atoll may have been the earliest target considered by the Manhattan Project.

For a time before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States considered nuking the Japanese fleet at anchor — a kind of reverse, radioactive Pearl Harbor.

When the Manhattan Project got off the ground in 1943, both the atomic bomb and the defeat of Japan looked like a long time and a lot of work away.

Hard fighting that year in New Guinea, Bougainville, the Solomons and Tarawa showed just how much time and work. But U.S. Navy planners thought the biggest target and the hardest nut in the Pacific was the huge Japanese naval base at the remote Micronesian atoll of Chuuk, once known as Truk.

After ruling Micronesia for a quarter century, the Japanese navy had turned Chuuk into its own version of Pearl Harbor.

The atoll – a 40-mile-wide lagoon ringed and dotted with tall green tropical islands – sheltered everything from battleships to transports. Drydocks and tank farms supported the ships. Airfields serviced hundreds of planes. A fleet radio station reached across the entire Japanese island frontier.

The carriers that fought in the Coral Sea and the battlewagons that savaged Guadalcanal came from Chuuk.

During a May 5, 1943 meeting the Manhattan Engineering District’s Military Policy Committee decided:

The point of use of the first bomb was discussed and the general view appeared to be that its best point of use would be on a Japanese fleet concentration in the Harbor of Truk. General Steyer suggested Tokio [sic] but it was pointed out that the bomb should be used where, if it failed to go off, it would land in water of sufficient depth to prevent easy salvage. The Japanese were selected as they would not be so apt to secure knowledge from it as would the Germans.

After the meat grinder battle of Tarawa in November 1943, Chuuk loomed over the western horizon. However, this early decision to nuke an atoll instead of a city fell by the wayside as the war continued. By early 1944, America’s burgeoning carrier strength in the Central Pacific allowed commanders to attack Chuuk using conventional firepower.

Between Feb. 17 and 18, 1944, Operation Hailstone’s 500 aircraft, five fleet carriers, four light carriers, seven battleships and an armada of other ships pounded the Japanese base into rubble and scrap. American bombs, torpedoes and gunfire sank 12 warships, 32 transports and destroyed 270 planes.

However, just as the Japanese attack on Hawaii missed the U.S. carriers, so the American attack on Chuuk missed Japan’s capital ships — they’d withdrawn to Palau just days before. The attack cut the atoll off from its supply lines and its garrison eventually starved. The American campaign rolled west towards the Marianas and Chuuk became forgotten.

However, the idea of nuking a fleet at anchor popped up again. Lewis Strauss, a future chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission worried about the atomic bomb’s effects on the U.S. Navy:

If such a test is not made, there will be loose talk to the effect that the fleet is obsolete in the face of this new weapon and this will militate against appropriations to preserve a postwar Navy of the size now planned.

Just weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Connecticut senator Brien McMahon called for such a test. The Army Air Forces brass and the Joint Chiefs concurred and by November 1945 plans were underway.

The military chose Bikini Atoll for its remoteness and prevailing winds. A native Bikinian population of only 146 simplified relocation for Operation Crossroads, though with tragic consequences for the exiled Bikinians.

The vast seaborne operation also tested the remnants of the vast U.S. Navy armada that won the Pacific War. Despite a massive demobilization after September 1945, the Pentagon put together a joint task force of 42,000 men, 242 ships and 156 aircraft and sent them off to blow up paradise.

The 71 vessels anchored in Bikini’s 180-foot-deep lagoon were hit by bombs identical to the Fat Man device dropped on Nagasaki. Weaponeers wanted the best comparison possible between a nuked city and a nuked fleet.

The first test, Shot Able on June 30, 1946, fell from a B-29 and landed 2,100 feet off its target. The screw-up marred the test data and provoked a military investigation. Shot Able nevertheless sank five ships and consumed the “demon core,” the plutonium that had already killed two Los Alamos scientists.

Wartime studies of underwater explosions in support of the plan to nuke Chuuk helped plan Shot Baker, Crossroads’ underwater test. Baker produced what is perhaps the most iconic image of a mushroom cloud, its size made even bigger by its eruption from a vast lagoon, hurling seawater and coral reef and whole battleships into the sky.

The great bombings left the lagoons of both Bikini and Chuuk littered with shipwrecks. Nature has miraculously restored their waters and made the sunken fleets among the greatest diving destinations in the world. Despite the thriving population and a developing economy, Chuuk Lagoon remains a wonderland of sea life and corals grown up over the corpses of warships, transports, trucks and planes.

Sea life thrives amidst the giant wrecks of Bikini too, but without rather than in spite of people. The Bikinian exile which began 69 years ago may become a permanent diaspora as the rising sea claims the atoll.

Though it’s safe to dive the lagoon, radioactive contamination prevents human resettlement.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Coming Crackdown in Iran

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The recent arrests of Iranian journalists and businessmen have sent chills through Tehran. Are the string of detentions merely a coincidence, or the beginning a larger crackdown? The arrests occur against the backdrop of a larger, more dangerous, political drama centered on the character of a post-nuclear deal Iran, yet the conflict remains far from settled.

The heart of the current fight is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s campaign against foreign influence, or nafooz in Persian. Khamenei blessed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in order to resolve Iran’s standoff with the world powers over its nuclear program. For the ayatollah, however, the deal is a double edge sword. With sanctions relief comes eventual re-integration into the global economy. The consequent flood of international investment and consumer goods may also bring political and cultural ideas the Islamic Republic’s leaders fear will undermine the strength and legitimacy of their regime.

For President Hassan Rouhani and many of his allies, this is a problem that can be managed. Since his election in 2013, Rouhani has pursued a policy of détente--or more accurately tanesh-zadayi (relaxation or de-escalation of tensions)--with the West. This is not a show of good will towards the United States or its allies, but rather a cold calculation that the regime’s survival requires Iran to strengthen its economic foundation by decreasing the pressure from sanctions and thereby lessening the country’s isolation. There is historical precedence for this approach. Iranian academics have noted that Tehran saw relative economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s after normalizing relations with most European countries following the Iran-Iraq War. Rouhani hopes to improve upon earlier efforts by extracting economic value from international engagement, without risking the threat Western influence poses to the government’s stability.

Opposed to him are those in Iran who see engagement with the West as inherently hazardous and ideologically unacceptable, even if they buy into the idea of economic improvement though greater foreign investment. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is leading the charge on this front, along with other so-called principalists, hardline politicians, and conservative members of the judiciary and the clergy. On November 2, IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari argued the nuclear agreement has ushered in a period of major subversion in the Islamic Republic, and criticized Rouhani’s government for “trusting the West and believing in liberalism.”

The game is being played out on more levels than one, however. There are strategic arguments about how can best resist financial coercion by the world power. Iran’s reformists and pragmatists argue Iran should develop an economy deeply integrated with global markets, while more conservative voices urge less entanglement and greater self-sufficiency. The restrictions on foreign direct investment and contracts with major international firms are the battlegrounds here.

Rouhani has also picked fights with the Guardian Council, the body that determines who is allowed to run for office, in the lead up to the February 2016 elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts (which will chose the next Supreme Leader). The president knows he has popular support, but fears his allies will be prevented from running.

The arrests of Iranian journalists and business people with significant international ties is merely another escalation a long-standing conflict. The Guard is responsible for the recent arrests, and remains very worried about the political forces the JCPOA and Rouhani’s polices have unleashed. In the eyes of the IRGC’s leadership, progressive journalists and Western-linked businessmen are conduits for destructive foreign influence. They are also the types of people needed for Rouhani’s vision for Iran’s economic and political growth. The president is boldly pushing back, implicitly criticizing the IRGC for stifling the media for false reasons. Rouhani likely recognizes that a campaign by his political opponents to root out foreign influence could become an uncontainable beast that could consume him and his allies.

The stakes in this contest are very high. Both camps anticipate the potential existential challenge for the Islamic Republic when Khamenei passes, likely in the next few years. Each side foresees disaster for Iran--and loss of their own power--if the other side ‘wins’ through shaping the selection of the next Supreme Leader and altering the post-JCPOA political and economic landscape in its favor.

Supreme Leader Khamenei has still not weighed in on this most recent domestic spat. How long he will allow this internal struggle to continue is the central question right now. With the elections and major foreign investment choices quickly approaching, a decision will be needed soon. Khamenei will side with whomever he feels will best uphold the status quo of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani, as well as those Western actors who hoped the nuclear deal would open a new era in relations with Iran, should be very nervous.

This piece first was first posted on AEI's website here

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Need a Cheap Fighter Aircraft? The JF-17 Might Work

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The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and its and its partner, the Pakistan Aeronautical complex (PAC) Kamra, is once-again reiterating that it has signed a deal to sell the JF-17 Thunder to an unnamed customer at the Dubai airshow.

Pakistan and China had previously made similar statements at the Paris airshow earlier in the year. China has geared the lightweight fighter—which is also known as the FC-1 Xiaolong—to aim for the low-end of the international fighter market.

“After several years’ co-development and marketing, China and Pakistan have signed a contract with third party customer for the purchase of JF-17 Thunder,” reads a statement released by AVIC. “As China and Pakistan improve their ability and skills in co-developing JF-17 Thunder, the aircraft is becoming a ‘Blue Ocean product’ with much market potentials as an ideal replacement for second-generation fighters in many countries’ air force.”

Though billed as a development partner, Pakistan—which co-produces part of the aircraft—was essentially the first and only customer for the Chinese jet—which is not operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The JF-17 is replacing a host of aging warplanes in Islamabad’s arsenal including the Chengdu F-7, Mirage III, Mirage V and the A-5 Fatan strike aircraft while complementing the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon.

According to AVIC statement—Pakistani Air Vice Marshal Arshad Malik said that the Pakistani air force currently has sixty JF-17 fighters in its inventory. The service is planning to buy forty more jets in the future. Malik indicated that later model JF-17s will be upgraded with in-flight refueling capability, an advanced data link, more capable electronic warfare systems and a host of new precision-guided weapons in the future.  Malik also said that a combat-capable trainer is expected to fly next year. Pakistan will buy the two-seat version of the jet.

The JF-17—especially the early Block 1 model—is a basic low-cost fighter aircraft. A Russian-made Klimov RD-93 engine producing roughly 19,000lbs of thrust powers the aircraft, which gives it a max speed of Mach 1.6. The airframe offers an eight G capability, which combined with the PL-9C high off-boresight missile gives the aircraft decent capability within visual range. It is equipped with the Chinese-built KLJ-7 radar—which is compatible with the PL-12 active radar-guided missile—which affords the jet beyond visual range capability. It also has

The improved Block 2 version of the jet is the version with in-flight refueling capability and improved avionics that Malik was referring to earlier. A third Block 3 variant is also under development allegedly with a Chinese-built active electronically scanned array radar, helmet-mounted cueing system, an infrared search and track system and a host of new weapons. The improved variant might also replace the Russian-made RD-93 with a Chinese Guizhou WS-13—assuming China manages to complete development of that engine.

The Chinese are developing the jet incrementally—upgrading the plane over time with new avionics and weapons—which is a smart move. But the JF-17 will never be a world beating fighter. It may not even be a good fighter—it’s designed for the low-end of the market. But it is designed to be “good enough” for nations that need decent capability that won’t break the bank. But the jet is in production after a relatively quick development cycle, it is being built in numbers and is more than competitive with its nearest potential adversary. In that respect, the program is a success, especially if China can find more buyers. AVIC anticipates a market for at least 300 JF-17 Thunder fighters.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The F-23 Fighter: The Super Plane America Never Built

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The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is the best air superiority fighter ever built, but could America have done better?

When the YF-22 prototype won the contract for the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) in April 1991, it was a lesser plane compared to the Northrop YF-23 in many ways. Though the YF-22 was a more maneuverable aircraft, the YF-23 had far greater supersonic cruise capability—especially when outfitted with the General Electric YF120 variable cycle engines. Even when powered by the less powerful Pratt & Whitney YF-119, the YF-23 had the ability to fly an entire sortie at supersonic speeds above Mach 1.4 (explained to me sometime ago by Barry Watts at the Wilson Center—who was an analyst on the Northrop team at the time). The sleek prototype jet could also cruise at slightly more than Mach 1.8 when equipped with the YF-120.

“I don’t recall Barry Watts, although the name has a familiar ring. He was right about supercruising for the whole sortie, as that’s the definition (Ps=0), but he was wrong about the number,” Jim Sandberg, test pilot of the YF-120 powered YF-23 told me a few years ago. “The one you quoted was just a bit shy for our PAV-1 that was equipped with the relatively underpowered YF-119 engines developed by P&W.  ‘My’ airplane, PAV-2, equipped with the more powerful YF-120 engines developed by GE supercruised quite a bit faster—‘very fast’, as the USAF censors advised us to say.”

The final production version of the F-22 Raptor also cruises at speeds greater than Mach 1.8 without afterburner—but its endurance is much more limited. In fact operational Raptor pilots tell me that it’s not very useful during real world missions. “Supercruise is impressive on paper but not very practical in a fighter with limited fuel,” a senior Air Force F-22 pilot said. “I would much rather have an aircraft that accelerates and gains energy back quickly than one that supercruises.”

The YF-23—contrary to popular belief—did not have an overall top speed that was any faster than the YF-22. Both jets were limited to an aerodynamic max speed of about Mach 2.2 as a result of their fixed-ramp external compression inlets. In fact, operational F-22 Raptors are “red lined” at exactly Mach 2.0 with an artificial placard because the aircraft’s stealth coating are prone to delamination if the jet went any faster—particularly around the canopy. The Northrop design also had better range compared to the YF-22, and was arguably a stealthier design.

But why did the YF-23 get beat by the Raptor?

On the surface, the decision to go ahead with the YF-22 might seem like a vote in favor of a more conservative design since both jets grossly more than exceeded the Air Force’s requirements. But there was much more to the Air Force’s decision than aircraft performance. Three major factors played in Lockheed’s favor.

This being Washington, politics matter. Northrop and partner McDonnell Douglas had antagonized the Air Force and Pentagon leadership with their performance on the B-2 bomber and A-12 naval strike aircraft, Watts explained.

The second factor was the U.S. Navy. Even though the service had dropped out of the ATF program, the U.S. Navy still had a vote on which aircraft would be selected. The Navy’s choice was the naval variant of the YF-22 design, which looked like bizarre hybrid of a Raptor and F-14 Tomcat with variable geometry wings. “The team, working hard on every detail of our NATF [Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter] design in late 1989 and early 1990, produced a very stealthy swing-wing fighter that could supercruise. It was very suitable for carrier operations,” according to Sherm Mullin, the Lockheed Skunk Works lead for the ATF program. “The Navy still got a vote in the ATF competition, and, as we found out later for certain, it cast it for our F-22 team.”

The Navy was not fond of the naval derivative of the YF-23, which had a canard configuration the service found less than appealing. In fact, because the Navy’s reaction was so favorable, Lockheed later pitched a modified version of its NATF proposal for the ill-fated AF-X project that the Navy was ultimately forced to cancel in favor of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Some Navy officials are bitter about that fact to this day.

The third major factor was that while Northrop adhered strictly to the requirements, Lockheed had the foresight to engage Tactical Air Command (and its successor Air Combat Command (ACC)) on what the Air Force actually wanted. While theoretically the YF-23’s combination of sheer speed, altitude and stealth should have carried the day; ACC operators had not fully bought into the fact that stealth would actually work.

Instead, ACC operators wanted to be sure that the ATF was maneuverable enough to defeat any comer in a visual range dogfight—and moreover—those pilots wanted a jet that would have grossly superior agility at all speeds, altitudes and angles of attack. Lockheed more than delivered on the Air Force’s desire for an extremely agile fighter with the thrust-vectoring Raptor.  Watts described the YF-22 as a “super F-15”—which was exactly what the operational Air Force wanted.

Once the YF-22 was officially selected for the ATF program, it was designated the F-22 Raptor. Pratt & Whitney won the engine contest with its F119—which while not as powerful, was far more reliable than General Electric’s novel variable-cycle YF120. Ultimately, Lockheed Martin did deliver a world beating air superiority fighter that offers performance that is unmatched by anything else fly. However, one can still wonder, what would an operational F-23 have looked like?

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


The Master Plan to Upgrade Taiwan's Military: New Submarines

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The South China Sea remains the most contested region in the world. If recent signals from the Obama administration are credible, it’s about to become more contested as the U.S. challenges China’s island-building campaign in the international waters of the South China Sea. 

Many nations dispute claims over groups of islands, reefs, atolls, seabed mineral rights, and large swaths of the South China Sea that are important for economic, navigational, and security reasons. The disputes continue to increase tension in the region. Vietnam has purchased Kilo submarines; Malaysia is upgrading its coastal navy; the Philippines are weaponizing their AW109helicopters; and Japan continues its naval buildup. 

In the meantime, China continues to grow its stockpile of missiles across the Taiwan Strait and refuses to disavow force as a means of settling its dispute with Taiwan. Faced with the possibility of a future blockade or amphibious attack, and unaided by its friends in a decades-long effort to build a defensive submarine force Taiwan has chosen to upgrade its naval capabilities by building its own submarines. 

Despite the shadowy security environment where U.S. support for Taiwan flickers according to American administrations’ judgment of the PRC, a robust Taiwanese defense is a strong interest of the U.S.  Taiwan is located at the center of the first island chain that brackets the Asian mainland. Its population is almost entirely dependent on imported food and energy. A recent Taiwanese Ministry of Defense (MND) Report states the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will exploit this vulnerability in a conflict, likely using a combination of blockades and threats against supporting nations to choke Taiwan’s economy before launching an attack against military and political centers. 

According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report on China, if war were to break out Taiwan would face upwards of 34 Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines. A dozen subs connected with advanced sensors and weapons could contest the PLA for control of the waters surrounding Taiwan. No other Taiwan platform could oppose a maritime blockade as effectively. The ability of submarines to act autonomously and stealthily would give Taiwan an effective defense against a real threat. The inability of hostile forces to detect submarines also helps assure the uninterrupted flow of sea-borne commerce.  Taiwan is the U.S.’s 10th largest trading partner.  A modern, deployable fleet of submarines is critical to the sustained defense of Taiwan. 

International pressure has limited Taiwan to two WWII-era Guppy submarines received in 1972 from the United States and two new Zwaardvis-class submarines from Holland.  These fall far short of Taiwan’s 12 boat minimum requirement. Most submarine-producing countries have continued to operate within the constraints of the Shanghai Communique of 1972 in which the U.S. acknowledged the “One-China” policy. This means that they will not assist Taiwan by selling boats, designs, or equipment needed to build subs.   

The United States has historically been the source of many of Taiwan’s self-defensive capabilities. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 considers any non-peaceful means to influence Taiwan a threat to the security of the Western Pacific and a U.S. concern.  Section 3(a) of the Act states that the U.S. will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and services necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability at the president and Congress’s discretion. 

This de facto policy has remained in practice with significant U.S. arms deals to Taiwan despite a lack of official diplomatic relations. However the U.S. has hedged on the sale of submarines as an arguably offensive weapon, barred within the restrictions of the Taiwan Relations Act.  The U.S. Navy’s submariners are famously skeptical about designing, building, or operating non-nuclear-powered subs. Assisting Taiwan with its effort to build conventional-powered subs would cross this line. The closest Taiwan has come to success thus far was during the presidency of George W. Bush who initially agreed, but then backed away from an arms deal that included eight diesel submarines. 

Submarines have become the weak spot of the robust and very capable Taiwan navy. In the face of a long-standing inability to meet a critical need, Taiwan announced a plan to develop its own submarines. ROCN chief Admiral Chen Yeong-kang released the indigenous plan Forces Structure and Planning Concepts for the Future ROCN in January of 2014.  The plan called for refurbishing the obsolete Guppy-class submarine with new steel plates and pressure hulls and extending their life as training vessels.  The ROCN would invest $450 million dollars in the China Shipbuilding Corp (CSBC) and the Ship and Ocean Industry R&D Center (SOIC). In August this year the Ministry then submitted an $89 million proposal for an indigenous submarine design. The program includes a separate plan to extend the life of the two Zwaardvis-class submarines with estimated budget of $90 million.​

In November 2014, a seminar on the indigenous defense submarines (IDS) program brought experts and officials from the U.S., Germany, France, Sweden, Netherlands, Italy, and Australia to Taiwan. The IDS program subsequently aimed to develop submarines that displaced between 1,500 and 2,000 tons with the first boat scheduled for completion in 2024.  In December, the Ministry of National Defense, (MND), the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Science and Technology, the China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC), and Ship and Ocean Industry R & D Center (SOIC) met with the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign and Defense Affair Committee.  In the hearing, Vice Admiral Kao Tein-Chung revealed that the after a comprehensive evaluation the best approach for the IDS program would be to build the submarines in Taiwan with the technical support of the U.S.  

Submarine design and production are formidable challenges. Ten to fifteen years is a reasonable amount of time to develop a new type of submarine, with two thirds of it devoted to design. A 2011 RAND analysis estimated that with sufficient software and facilities 600 to 900 professional designers are required to complete the design stage. 

Australia’s experience is instructive.  In recent years, the government in Canberra has built a 3,600 ton frigate and the Collins-class submarine.  The submarine required almost triple the number of suppliers, called for almost triple the time of construction, and needed more than double the hours of assembly.  Over 33,000 drawings and 5,000 work orders were produced before construction of the Collins-class submarine could begin.  The Collins-class submarines faced a multitude of problems, from welding of the hull, to excessive engine noise, to a faulty combat system, and a propulsion plant that was prone to failure.  Even after completion, the Australian Collins-class faced serious operational issues. In 2009, only one submarine (out of six), HMAS Farncomb, was capable of sea duty.​

Many Taiwanese officials have spoken of their intent to secure international assistance before developing an IDS submarine. The United States has not constructed a diesel submarine since the late 1950’s, but could provide design engineers.  The U.S. could work with Japanese shipbuilders who make excellent submarines.  The U.S. could also relax export controls on items needed to build the submarines.  Several U.S. defense contractors have solid working relationships with Taiwan. In 2002, when the U.S. Navy discussed options with the RoC Navy (ROCN), General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon all expressed interest in being the prime contractor. All of these companies have maintained interest in Taiwanese defensive abilities. Working with a U.S. company to design an ROCN submarine could set Taiwan on an accelerated path towards development while giving Taiwan control over production and manufacturing. 

Another option is to use the blueprints of an existing model and customize it to fit the ROCN’s requirements. Japan is both capable and possibly willing—with the right encouragement—to assist Taiwan in constructing diesel-electric submarines. A transnational industrial cooperation with Japan could help strengthen security partnership between defense ministries that face the same threat. 

A redoubled Taiwanese effort to engage Japan’s assistance in building the indigenous submarine is worth the effort.  The timing is propitious. Tokyo is understandably and increasingly concerned irritated by China’s aggressive naval activity that frequently encroaches on Japanese territory. A strong naval presence in the South China Sea that is friendly to Japan and the U.S. is worth incurring China’s displeasure. By providing the framework for a bolstered RoC Navy Japan would improve its security without having to dedicate more resources to its own defensive structure. As Taiwan remains a vital component of U.S. naval strategy, Japan’s genuine interest in adding toTaiwan’s defensive ability complements the U.S. obligation to protect both Japan and Taiwan.

We are still living in a time when the U.S. is the strongest global power as well as the world’s pre-eminent seapower.  Helping Taiwan acquire modern capable submarines materially adds to both our security and that of our allies and partners in East Asia. 

Seth Cropsey is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.  He served as a naval officer and as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.

This piece first appeared in RealClearDefense here.


Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

America's Zumwalt-Class Destroyer: Too Few, Too Advanced and Too Late?

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The U.S. Navy’s first DDG-1000 destroyer Zumwalt (Note; It’s not USS until the ship is commissioned) is set to undergo an initial set of sea trials in December.

The ship is one of three DDG-1000-class vessels the service is buying—which effectively means that the ships are glorified technology demonstrators for the various high-tech innovations found onboard.

“We’ve got a builder’s sea trial with a notional start of the 7th of December,” said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition in an interview with Defense News. “That is the critical milestone in terms of being able to deliver in the spring. We need a successful trial. We’ll learn things from the trial, we always do. First-of-class, we expect to learn a lot.”

The roughly 15,700-ton vessel has been years in the works and features a host of new technologies including an Integrated Power System—which generates 100 percent of the electricity needed for each vessel's propulsion, electronics and weapons. According to Raytheon—one of the key subcontractors—the system provides 58 MW of reserved power while “steaming” at 20 knots.

Advanced Induction Motors (AIM) provide the actual propulsion for the ship using electromagnets to turn the drive shaft. The ship was originally expected to use much more capable and compact permanent magnet motors—but the development program failed to deliver. The next application for such technology is the Ohio Replacement Program ballistic missile submarine.

The Zumwalts also feature a “Total Ship Computing Environment” which is a single, encrypted network that controls all shipboard computing applications for everything from machinery controls to the radars and weapon systems. It also has a pair of 155 mm guns capable of firing long-range projectiles that can strike a target from a distance of sixty-three nautical miles and eighty missile tubes. Those tubes carry the standard variety of naval missiles including the Standard and Tomahawk.

”Everything is new,” Stackley told Defense News. “From the propulsion plant, the power distribution – the whole integrated power system – the extraordinarily unique features of the hull form that provide the degree of stealth and survivability, the radar system, the degree of automation that’s incorporated into the ship to enable the reduced-size crew – it’s all new.”

While the ship is set for sea-trials, she won’t be ready for war even after the vessel is delivered. Instead, mission systems will be installed later in California once the ship is transferred to San Diego. Bath Iron Works—which builds the ship in Maine—is only responsible for the ship’s hull, mechanical and electrical system. The mission systems—which include the ship’s combat systems, radars and other sensors—are Raytheon and BAE Systems’ responsibility.  “This two-phased delivery approach has been in place since the contract was first struck,” Stackley said.

The Navy plans to build only three DDG-1000s. Originally, it had planned to build thirty-two ships. That was later reduced to twelve and later to just three. The Navy simply couldn’t afford the ship’s astronomical price tag—each vessel costs roughly $4 billion not including research and development. Total program costs are near $23 billion.

Additionally, the DDG-1000 design is not particularly well suited for the ballistic missile defense role. The ship relies on the AN/SPY-3 X-band active electronically scanned array radar—which can provide guidance for the SM-2 and the Evolved Sea Sparrow, but it can’t provide area air defenses because it lacks volume search capability. Originally, the ship was supposed to have an S-band radar as part of an integrated dual-band system called the SPY-4—but that ran into technical trouble and cost issues. It was removed in 2010. The Zumwalts also need a slightly modified version of the Standard missile to be compatible with the vessel’s fire-control system—which is a logistical problem.

The dual-band radar was superseded by the Gallium Nitride-based technology, which will be used on the Flight III DDG-51’s Air and Missile Defense Radar. Because of the growing ballistic missile threat, the Navy has opted to build Flight III DDG-51s instead of more DDG-1000s. But the DDG-1000’s technology will live on and will likely be used on a new Future Surface Combatant.

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


America vs. China: Showdown in the South China Sea?

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“Expect more.”

That is the succinct response of a senior U.S. defense official when asked informally whether the dispatch in October of a U.S. Navy ship within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s newly constructed islands in the Spratly Island chain was a one-off event. Officials in the Obama Administration seem well aware that failure to follow on with their highly publicized freedom of navigation operations will send a signal of irresolve to China and Asia. The sail-through did little to settle the issue of Sino-U.S. tussling over the South China Sea, and the question now, is how will China respond.

From one perspective, the length of time that it took Washington to make the decision to send the USS Lassen near Subi and Mischief Reefs itself is an admission that the Obama Administration remains wary of provoking China. Months of public comments by officials from the president on down resulted in no action until last week, and even then, it was but a lone U.S. destroyer sent to transit what until a few months ago had always been considered international waters. Even worse, claims that the destroyer engaged simply in “innocent passage” as opposed to any legally-allowed military activity on the high-seas further undermines the administration’s argument that it is not tacitly conceding China’s territorial claims.

From another angle, though, the sail-through was an acknowledgment that U.S. policy has failed. China has successfully built and militarized islands on what were formerly shallow reefs, and in doing so far dwarfed the efforts of other claimants in the disputed Spratlys. More pertinently, it has changed the “facts on the ground,” and created for itself power projection bases that greatly extend the reach of the Chinese military.

This is significant because no other nation makes claims nearly as expansive as China does, nor does any other nation have either as many territorial disputes or fields a military that it increasingly active in the region. China is qualitatively different, not just quantitatively, from its neighbors, and its policy of building militarized outposts astride the world’s most heavily-trafficked waterways must be understood as a potential threat to freedom of navigation and the maintenance of peace in Asia. By acquiescing in the existence of these outposts, the region accepts a greater degree of risk today than it did five years ago.

In many ways, the struggle over the Spratlys is less about the United States and China, than it is about China and its neighbors. Few observers expect Washington entirely to abandon its allies, reduce its presence, and alter its maritime operations. It is almost certain, moreover, that the next U.S. president will act with more firmness than the current one.

Yet China’s goal in the short-run is not to get the U.S. Navy to stop transiting the South China Sea. Rather, it is to alter the behavior of its neighbors and force the other claimants in the Spratlys to de facto surrender their positions. Such an achievement would both give China the dominant military position in the region, and also wind up isolating the Americans. After all, if other nations have given up trying to prevent China from altering the balance of power, then how can the United States act alone?


Thus, the assertion by the U.S. official above that Washington is just beginning its policy of pushing back against China. Freedom of navigation operations are as much about politics as they are about military maneuvers. Proving to allies such as the Philippines and potential partners such as Vietnam or Malaysia that the U.S. is serious about upholding international law and preserving the rules-based order that underpins Asian trade, is a crucial step to ensuring that China does not browbeat its neighbors into submission.

That is one reason that Washington needs to operate more with its allies and partners, and should conduct any future demonstrations with other nations who also feel threatened by China’s actions.

And what about increased risk, now that U.S. Pacific Command seems set on further operations? China angrily denounced the U.S. sail-through, and stated that in the future it would seek to prevent such actions. There is indeed a greater chance of an accident or skirmish between China and the United States. Both sides have ratcheted up their rhetoric to the point where even the attempt to peacefully resolve the situation can be interpreted as backing down.

Just as vexing will be “gray zone” situations. U.S. planners must prepare for a scenario where dozens of “private” Chinese fishing vessels seek to impede the safe passage of U.S. ships. Will the U.S. Navy run the risk of damaging or sinking ostensibly civilian vessels, no matter how dangerous to safe navigation?

The proof will be in the pudding. Either the U.S. Navy goes back into contested waters or it doesn't. And either China tries to stop it or not. With the world watching, it will be very clear just who has the greater will.

Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Asia Bubble (forthcoming, Yale). You can follow him on Twitter: @michaelauslin.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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Exposed: Are Secret U.S. Spy Planes Flying Over the Pacific?

The Buzz

The Pentagon is unflinchingly tight-lipped about any new, high tech planes it has in the works. But every so often, a bit of information manages to squeak out into the public domain.

In 2013, the U.S. Air Force sent a secret spy plane out over the Pacific region. The unknown aircraft – possibly a drone – flew “national collection missions” – a euphemism for strategic intelligence against states like North Korea or China.

It was one of five different types of aircraft flying these missions. The Pentagon’s top headquarters asked the flying branch to use its U-2 Dragon Ladies and RC-135V/W Rivet Joints to take high resolution pictures and scoop up radio chatter, according to an official history of the Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency – a.k.a. AFISRA – for that year.

“Other USAF aircraft flying national collection missions included the RC-135U Combat Sent, the RC-135S Cobra Ball and the aforementioned [redacted],” the history stated.

War Is Boring obtained the heavily redacted historical review through the Freedom of Information Act. In 2014, the flying branch renamed AFISRA as the 25th Air Force.


The Combat Sents have special fine-tuned hardware to analyze foreign radars, while the Cobra Balls keep tabs on ballistic missile launches. We don’t know the identity of the fifth and final aircraft the censors decided to scrub from the document. We have a few guesses, and we do know what it’s not.

In the same paragraph, the history mentions by name all of the Air Force’s manned aerial spooks that it admits to having with the exception of the tiny MC-12W Liberty. While specific details are classified, the flying branch makes no secret of the high-flying U-2, the airliner-sized RC-135s or their regular usage around the world.

So what is the mystery aircraft? The blacked-out portion of the document suggests the missing portion is five to seven characters long. With that in mind, the super secret RQ-170 Sentinel – a six character designation that would fit in the redacted segment – is one possibility.

Lockheed built an estimated 20 to 30 RQ-170s – also known as Wraiths – for the Air Force sometime in the early 2000s. The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada owns all of these bat-winged pilotless spies.

In 2007, journalists first spotted the Wraith at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan, earning the nickname “the Beast of Kandahar.” On Dec. 4, 2009, the Air Force formally announced the Sentinel to the world … and little else.

That same year, the drones were flying missions in the Pacific from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam and Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, according to previous Air Force histories we obtained through FOIA. During the latter deployment, the Wraiths likely gathered information about North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile and space programs.

In December 2011, one RQ-170 crashed in Iran.

And as of April 2014, at least one of these stealthy flying wings was still on duty, according to an accident report in Combat Edge, Air Combat Command’s official safety magazine. ACC owns the bulk of the Air Force’s combat aircraft, including its spy planes and the RQ-170s.

If the RQ-170s are still in service, the flying branch would have every incentive to keep using them. And the Sentinels and their crews already had experience in the Asia-Pacific theater.

Of course, the censored plane could be something entirely new. For decades, the Pentagon and the CIA have repeatedly acknowledged advanced aircraft projects — after the fact — only to decline to release any significant information about them.

In 1956, Washington tried to hide the true purpose of the U-2. Despite internal disagreement over the cover story, officials initially referred to it publicly as the WU-2 and called it a high-altitude, weather reconnaissance jet. The Air Force had said an earlier spy plane design was a purely experimental aircraft.

The same was true of the CIA’s A-12 Oxcart and its better known successor, the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird. In a speech during the 1964 election campaign, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson revealed the SR-71 and the YF-12A fighter jet to the public to counter criticisms from Republican challenger Barry Goldwater.

At that time, pilots had already been testing the still-secret Oxcarts for two years. While there was some real interest in a high-speed interceptor, the YF-12A project’s main job had been to hide the A-12 from prying eyes.

Despite the public admissions and much speculation, the Pentagon did its best to keep much of the SR-71 and its missions under wraps for more than a decade after Johnson’s speech. “In 1975, … I decided I wanted to apply for what was referred to as ‘The Program,'” former Blackbird pilot Air Force Col. Frank Stampf wrote in the forward to Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions.

Currently, there may be as many as three different top secret designs in some sort of testing. In December 2013, veteran Aviation Week reporters Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler declared the existence of a successor to the Sentinel dubbed the RQ-180.

With an estimated wing-span of 130 feet, Northrop Grumman’s so-called “cranked kite” stealth design – similar to the B-2 bomber – was larger and likely more capable than Lockheed’s Wraith. When the story came out, Sweetman and Butler figured the Air Force might get their first RQ-180s – another six character nomenclature that would fit in our document’s blacked out portion – by the end of this year.

The month before, Lockheed announced it had been working on its own new design. Billed as a successor to the Blackbird, the SR-72 would have a top speed of Mach 6 – nearly twice that of the Cold War-era spy plane. Since the late 1980s, rumors have swirledabout Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works design arm cooking up a new, super-fast stealth jet.

In October, the Air Force also announced that Northrop Grumman had won the contract to build the new Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B. While there have been few firm details, it’s possible that this bomber could double as a spy plane … and we don’t know how many prototypes there might be already.

“I think you suggested when we talked to you last week that you would give us a number for the … aircraft involved in the … EMD contract?” Sweetman asked Air Force officials at the Pentagon’s LRS-B press conference on Oct. 27, referring to the initial engineering and design phase of the project. “So we did talk about that, but we are not going to release that number, sir,” Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, quickly told him.

If what is known about the U-2, SR-71 and RQ-170 projects is any indication, the Pentagon could easily have unknown jets in development or flying real missions. They might be related to other top secret designs like the RQ-180, SR-72 or LRS-B … or not.

What is clear — a secret spy plane was already snooping around the Pacific two years ago.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

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Need Your Air Force Upgraded on the Cheap? Call Israel

The Buzz

While glitzy new jets like the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Russian PAK-FA capture the lion’s share of attention, most of the world’s air forces don’t need the latest and greatest toys. Often, something much more basic is more than sufficient for the purposes of most nations.

A lot of air arms don’t even need or even want the latest fourth-generation fighters on the market like the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed F-16V “Viper,” Saab JAS-39 Gripen or even a Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 or Su-35. Moreover, many countries simply can’t afford such extravagances. But even those nations have options—one doesn’t have to buy a top-of-the-line F-35 stealth fighter to obtain decent capabilities. Often, refurbished older aircraft can offer capabilities that are comparable to their new brethren at a fraction of the price.

Israel has often capitalized on that part of the international fighter market. Tel Aviv’s defense industry has sold or upgraded a host of aircraft for air arms around the planet. Those aircraft have ranged from its own homegrown products to upgraded Soviet-built MiGs for former Warsaw Pact member like Romania.

In fact, Romania still operates a number of Israeli-upgraded MiG-21 Lancers that incorporate modern Elta EL/M 2032 pulse-doppler radars and a partial glass cockpit. Those jets can also carry the Rafael LITENING targeting pod and a host of laser-guided bombs and the Python-series dogfighting missiles. Effectively, Romania received good, modern capability for a fraction of the price of a new fourth-generation fighter.

India also operates an extensively upgraded version of the antiquated MiG-21 called the Bison, which has proven to be surprisingly effective—if crash prone. With their upgraded Phazotron Kopyo radar—which is capable of simultaneously tracking eight targets—the Indian MiG-21s are able to attack targets beyond visual range with Russian-made Vympel R-77 radar-guided missiles.

The Indian MiG-21s also incorporate helmet mounted cueing systems and the ability to carry the R-73 Archer dogfighting missile. That combination makes the aged jet a formidable adversary close in even against a much more modern aircraft. In fact, the Indians MiG-21s fared well even against Boeing F-15C Eagle during a Cope India exercise in 2004—granted the U.S. Air Force was operating with restrictive rules of engagement.

However, while the Romanian and Indian MiGs were upgraded with new avionics, not much was done to upgrade their airframe structure. But conceivably, the even the ancient MiG-21 would still be viable with a refurbished airframe and cutting edge avionics. While no nations has opted to do that, Israel made a deal to supply fourteen refurbished and extensively modernized Israel Aerospace Industries F-21 Kfir fighters to Argentina—which is also a forty-year-old platform.  The airframe is being completely refurbished to an almost “new” state and the aircraft’s General Electric J79 turbojets will be supplied in a “zero-hour” condition after a complete overhaul, according to my colleague Arie Egozi at Flight International. An engine replacement/overhaul would be required after 1,600 flight hours.

The Mach 2.0 capable Kfir first flew in 1973, but the aircraft is an unlicensed derivative of the French Dassault Mirage V—which first flew in 1967. The Mirage V itself is a ground attack version of the Mirage III, which first flew in 1956. Thus, the Kfir design ultimately originates in the 1950s, but nonetheless, the latest Israeli modifications to the jet make the ancient fighter viable even in the 21st Century—and against much newer fourth-generation fighters. Even if the Kfir is old, it was always a fairly capable airframe. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps leased Israeli Kfirs under the F-21 designation for use as aggressors during the 1980s against American fourth-generation fighters like F-14, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18.

Argentina’s Block 60 Kfir will be fitted with an Elta Systems EL/M-2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which can simultaneously track sixty-four targets. The new radar can also simultaneously operate in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes—and it can support the latest air intercept weapons like the Israeli Darby active radar-guided missile (or AMRAAM if the U.S. were willing to sell it to Argentina). The jet is also being fitted with state-of-the-art electronic warfare systems for protection against air and surface threats. The Kfir will also be able to carry a host of Israeli-made air-to-ground weapons—and it offers a comprehensive suite of data-links.

It’s not clear if the Argentinian Kfirs are being upgraded with a helmet-mounted cuing system, but there is no technical reason that would prevent the integration of such a system along with the Python-5 high off-boresight missile. The integration of those systems would make the Kfir an extremely formidable opponent in a close-in dogfight. But the Israeli jet does use open architecture avionics—which makes it easy to upgrade. So even if it’s not immediately going to be equipped with those weapons, they could be added later.

Israel has other potential customers who might be interested in the Block 60 Kfir. Colombia is upgrading its Kfirs to a similar a standard as the Argentine jets while Ecuador—which operates an earlier version—may also want to upgrade its planes. But Israel’s sales focus has been on the Asia-Pacific region where there are a number of countries that need capable jets but which don’t have the money for an expensive top-of-the-line fighter like the F-16.

Only time will tell how much success Israel will have in resurrecting the four-decade old Kfir for the 21th Century. But if other jets are out of many nations’ price range, Israel may have a winner on its hands.

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


China's Great South China Sea Challenge: What Next and How to Respond

The Buzz

China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea has generated concern across Asia about China’s challenge to U.S. strategic primacy in the Western Pacific. The U.S. has belatedly responded to this challenge with a single ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operation (FONOP) that saw the deployment of the USS Lassen within the 12nm limit of Subi Reef on 27 October. So what might happen next?

The U.S. has indicated further FONOPs will occur at roughly the rate of two every quarter, which hopefully will send a clear message that clarifies mixed signals emerging from the first deployment. Australia must choose whether it will join this effort by deploying its own vessels to reinforce a collective message that China’s claims to maritime rights under UNCLOS around artificial islands are not accepted by the region. Japan must also consider its response, given that Chinese assertion of control over the South China Sea—through which vital Japanese sea-lanes of communication run—would be an intolerable threat to Japan’s economic stability and national security.

When those events are taken together with the Philippine’s recent success in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which has declared it has jurisdiction and will hold hearings on the dispute, it’s clear that at a political and strategic level, China’s heavy handedness in building new islands is counter-productive.

China however doesn’t look set to back down, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry reasserting its “indisputable sovereignty” and calling on the U.S. to “refrain from dangerous or provocative actions” in the future. John Chen and Bonnie Glaser suggest three possible paths forward for China should it choose to militarize its new islands. The first would involve deployment of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the new islands that would give China superior situational awareness, intelligence gathering and vital targeting information when necessary. The second path could involve deployment of missile systems—surface to air missiles (SAMs) and land-based anti-ship cruise missile (ASCMs) capabilities which could threaten aircraft and naval vessels of regional states, the U.S. Navy and its allies including Australia. Finally, China could use airstrips and deep-water ports to support PLA Navy and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) operations within the South China Sea and beyond, including potentially against Australia in a future crisis. Notably, Chen and Glaser cite the example of PLAAF H-6K bombers equipped with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) bringing Australia within range.

Furthermore, the islands may continue to expand in size, with Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange suggesting Fiery Cross Reef may be potentially transformed into a military base twice the size of Diego Garcia. Erickson recently stated that the reclaimed land could be used to support the imposition of a South China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in a manner that would allow China to claim airspace within its self-declared nine-dash line as its territorial airspace; strengthen its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities to support bastions for its Jin-class SSBNs; and, reinforce its anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capability.

Clearly things have moved on from the rather rosy and optimistic perspective on China’s rise suggested in Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper. The next Defense White Paper must acknowledge that Australia’s security environment is now more challenging, uncertain and complex, with greater risk for major power competition in coming years. The cockpit of this competition is likely to be the South China Sea, given its geostrategic significance in terms of energy and commerce. In this environment the U.S. will expect, and Australia must be prepared, to do more to deter and dissuade China from more opportunistic land grabs in the future.

What does this mean for Defense planning after the next White Paper? While Australian defense planning should never be determined by a single issue, it would be unwise for the next Defense White Paper to downplay China’s challenge in the same way that the 2013 White Paper did. Most importantly, the idea of Australia distancing itself from the U.S., or promoting an accommodation of an assertive and rising China through convincing the U.S. to cede strategic presence and influence, should be strongly resisted. Instead, Australia’s future defense policy needs to be more forward orientated and focused on Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Australia must strengthen its ability to support the U.S., as well as its key regional allies in ASEAN, Japan, India and South Korea, including in asserting key principles such as freedom of navigation of the seas.

Our traditional defense strategy that focuses on the defense of Australia’s air and maritime approaches needs to be updated because the potential military threat is no longer distant. China’s construction of new islands which could be militarized in a manner suggested above, its expanding naval, air and long-range missile capabilities, and its growing strategic interests along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road means that far from Australia benefiting from a historical tyranny of distance, our proximity and relevance to events in a contested Asia has never been closer.

China’s desire to project military power and presence at long range have forced the U.S. to consider new strategic approaches, notably the ‘Third Offset’ strategy as part of the Defense Innovation Initiative, to mitigate risks posed by PLA counter-intervention (A2/AD) capabilities. Australia now faces similar risks as Chinese military power extends from the South China Sea, through the vital waterways in Southeast Asia and out into the Indian Ocean.

Therefore Australia would be wise to expand its efforts to reinforce the U.S. rebalance to Asia not only by offering greater access to Australian facilities for U.S. air, land and naval forces, but also to seek opportunities for participation in the Defense Innovation Initiative. This could realize future long-range military capabilities to offset growing Chinese A2/AD and power projection potential, and which could lead to future ADF force structure development beyond the limits envisaged under Force 2035.

Malcolm Davis is assistant professor in International Relations and post-doctoral research fellow in China-Western Relations at Bond University.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

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