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Drilling for Oil in the Arctic: An Environmental and Climate Nightmare?

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On Monday, the Obama administration gave Shell conditional permission to move forward with Arctic oil drilling. The New York Times captures a common sentiment well in identifying this as a “tricky intersection of Obama’s energy and climate legacies”. The reality, though, is that this intersection isn’t nearly a fraught as many assume: decisions about offshore drilling in Alaska are indeed difficult, given the local economic and environmental stakes involved, but climate isn’t a central factor.

I’m ambivalent when it comes to federal decisions on offshore Arctic drilling. The Arctic is a special place. I saw that first hand when I visited with the Coast Guard in 2008 – a trip on which I also learned how challenging oil spill response there can be. (I also learned that a buoy tender isn’t the ideal place to spend your first night ever at sea.) Opposing offshore Arctic oil development is a reasonable position. At the same time, with the right precautions, spill risks can be substantially reduced, though inevitably not eliminated. And there’s a federalism issue (perhaps not in the legal sense but in a more basic one): it’s easy to be strident in taking positions from Washington, DC, but this is a much more intimate economic and environmental issue for Alaskans – so presumably their preferences should have some special say.

Navigating these tradeoffs is difficult. But throwing climate change into the mix as a central consideration lacks empirical foundation. (Perhaps that’s why that Times article doesn’t follow through on its headline’s promise.) Yes, at a global level, more oil production means more oil consumption, and hence greater carbon dioxide emissions and worse climate change. But more oil production in one place generally means less oil production elsewhere – that’s how markets and prices work – which substantially blunts the effect. Bill McKibbendrills home the conventional wisdom in a Times op-ed, blaming Obama for “climate denial” by claiming that “you can’t deal with climate on the demand side alone”, backing that up by citing a study that was unable to identify any “climate-friendly scenario in which any oil or gas could be drilled in the Arctic”. True! Also true: that claim was based on looking at a whoppingtwo scenarios. (From the original: “none [of the oil or gas] is produced in any [Arctic] region in either of the 2C scenarios before 2050”.) And, most important, the study never asked what would happen to emissions if the Arctic oil were put off limits. Had it done so, it would have found more oil production elsewhere, and minimal net emissions impact. What the study really found – and what is entirely reasonable – is that if the world gets serious about reducing emissions, oil prices will fall, and companies won’t want to develop most Arctic oil anyhow. That points to demand-side policy, denigrated by many who are painting the Alaska decision as climate apostasy, as critical.

There is one theoretical exception. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, and a bunch of other oil producers could team up to jointly restrict oil production. That prospect, of course, makes U.S.-China-India-Europe cooperation to reduce emissions through demand-side policy look like a cakewalk by comparison.

Navigating the local economic and environmental tradeoffs involved in Arctic oil development is difficult enough without turning every decision into a climate litmus test. And getting serious on climate change is plenty tough without pretending that playing fossil fuel whack-a-mole whenever possible will be effective in reducing emissions. We’ll have better policy, and better outcomes, if we don’t make every difficult energy and environment decision about climate change too.

This piece first appeared on CFR’s website here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0

TopicsEnergy Regionsarctic

Watch Out, America: China Launches New Submarine 'Killer'

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China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy commissioned its latest anti-submarine ship, according to local media outlets.

As IHS Jane’s and others reported, citing Chinese state-media outlets, the PLAN officially commissioned its latest Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvette last week. The Huangshi was inducted into service by the PLAN Northern Fleet, the reports said.

Type 056 vessels are 60 meters long and displace 1,500 tons. They “carry one 76 mm main gun, two triple-tube torpedo launchers, and four containerised YJ-83 anti-ship missiles,” IHS Jane’s reported. The report went on to note that the Huangshi’s flight deck enables it to operate a Z-9C helicopter, although the vessel lacks a hanger and therefore its ability to operate helicopters is limited.

Although the Huangshi is the twentieth Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvette that China has commissioned, it is just the fourth of the class to be fitted with towed array and variable depth sonars. This makes it likely that the ship’s primary purpose will be to conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

As IHS Jane’s previously reported of the Type 056 corvettes, “The addition of a VDS will significantly enhance their potential detection capability, specifically when compared to the smaller, rudimentary equipped submarine chasers they are replacing, such as the Type 037 (Hainan) class.”

The launching of the new ships is indicative of China’s growing concern about its paucity of anti-submarine warfare capabilities, particularly further away from its coast. As The National Interest has repeatedly noted, many of the countries locked in maritime disputes with China see submarines as a crucial asymmetric capability they can use to beat back their larger neighbor’s military challenge. Consequentially, there is something of a submarine arms race currently engulfing Asia, with countries as diverse as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, India, Australia and even Taiwan all seeking to beef up their undersea capabilities.

This is not limited to small Southeast Asian nations or larger regional countries like Japan and India, however. Even many in the United States believe submarines will be essential if Washington is to contend with China’s growing military might. As Dave Majumdar previously argued on The National Interest: “A new class of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines could be the key to maintaining America’s future naval supremacy as new weapons increasingly challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers.”

In general, the Type 056 corvettes are expected to be increasingly important to China’s navy in the coming years. As Sputnik News, a Russian-state media outlet, has noted, the “Type 056 Corvette was designed in 2012 to replace the older Jianghu class frigates and type 037 model. The Corvette was the first Chinese modular warship that can be deployed as an offshore patrol vessel or multi-role frigate. Designed and built by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), Type 056 Corvettes are set to become the backbone of the PLAN, with a class of more than 30 anticipated.”

China’s first Type 056 Corvette entered service in 2012. China has also exported variants of the ship to a number of other countries, including Thailand, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/樱井千一

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Is 'Shock and Awe' Military Strategy Dead?

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I was recently asked to give a lecture at ANU about the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). For those born after 1990—of which I encounter a distressingly large number in my professional life these days—RMA was the buzz-phrase du jour for military types entranced by the clinical performance of American forces and technology of the Gulf War in 1991. Predating the popularization of ‘shock and awe‘ by over a decade, the application of advanced sensors, stealth and precision weapons including cruise missiles seemingly heralded a new wave of warfare in which strategic aims could be easily achieved through technology, and with remarkably few losses. (On the winning side at least—the other guys didn’t fare so well.)

So striking was the coalition victory at the time, that embarrassing failures like the ‘great Scud hunt‘ barely registered. And since there was no full-scale invasion of Iraq, the profound difficulties of counterinsurgency, even for RMA-enabled forces, didn’t spoil the celebration. It was difficult for the few hardy souls swimming against the tide to get a hearing. Israeli scholar Martin van Creveld managed to publish a major book arguing that high-tech state on state war was so yesterday about the same time that Iraq was running up the white flag in 1991:

We are entering an era … of warfare between ethnic and religious groups. Even as familiar forms of armed conflict are sinking into the dustbin of the past, radically new ones are raising their heads … Already today the military power fielded by the principal developed societies in both “West” and “East” is … more illusion than substance.

Van Creveld’s timing might have been poor, but his message was eerily prescient viewed from 2015. His prediction of the coming of low-tech adversaries who aren’t state-based, but instead spring from tribal and religious groups was spot on. I well recall him speaking to a packed audience of Australian Defense Force (ADF) capability developers back in the mid-1990s. They were falling over themselves to sign up for the RMA, especially Air Force—always the first in line for new technology. As a budding professional contrarian, I was learning at the feet of the master when he flicked through a few ‘ooh-ah’ slides of precision guided weapons and other sophisticated weaponry before dismissing it contemptuously as ‘high-tech junk’.

As we now know, the past 20 years has been as much van Creveld as RMA. ‘High tech junk’ carried the first phase of the second war against Iraq, but it proved remarkably ineffective in the later insurgency phases, which are arguably still running today. In fact, you don’t hear RMA mentioned much anymore. Partly that’s because fashions change and new buzzwords take over—anyone for network centric warfare?—but partly because it never was what it seemed at the time.

The largely futile hunt for Scuds in the deserts of Iraq in 1991 actually better represented the long-term trends in warfare than did the hideous tactical error of Iraqi forces in concentrating their forces and digging into well-defined positions. That just made them a perfect showcase for the effectiveness of superior ISR in finding them and precision firepower in destroying them. As I’ve written in the past, the trend in warfare over centuries has been towards an ever more rapid deployment of ever more accurate and lethal weaponry. The RMA was simply ‘more of the same’ in those trends. The result has been an ever-greater dispersion of forces in order to limit exposure to the new technologies, resulting in lower daily casualty rates.

When operating against technically sophisticated adversaries, irregular forces take that advice to heart, melting away into the jungle, mountains or the civilian population. Ambushes and raids by small groups who choose the time and place of engagements are the order of the day. Even groups such as ISIL who aim to seize and hold territory can minimize their exposure to coalition air strikes by staying close to civilian centers. They’ve also modified their combat tactics to be less obvious targets when maneuvering in battle.

The response to these tactics can’t be even more investment in ‘silver bullet’ platforms, doubling down on ‘high-tech junk’. The answer to a foe that’s highly dispersed and adaptable isn’t ‘shock and awe’, it’s ‘here and now’—the ability to be there to act decisively when they fleetingly show themselves. If you look at the platforms that have been most effective in the Afghanistan and Iraq–Syria theatres, you’d conclude that the persistence and ability to hit a target with adequate (rather than awesome) force that a Reaper drone brings with it is preferable to the greater firepower but ephemeral presence of a $100 million fast jet. Both use the ISR and precision weapons of RMA, but one does it far more efficiently.

Of course, that’s only one facet of modern warfare. The danger of state-on-state confrontation hasn’t gone away, and there are different challenges to face in that realm. But for reasons I’ll explain in my next post, some of the answers might have more in common with the prosecution of irregular warfare than you’d first think.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here


Get Ready: China Eyes Strategic African Naval Base

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China may build a permanent naval base in a strategic African port.

On Sunday, Ismail Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, told AFP that “discussions are ongoing” over Chinai building a military base in his country, adding that Beijing’s presence would be “welcome.” The country also hosts American, French and Japanese military installations.

“France's presence is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region," Guelleh said during the interview.

“The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy — and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome," he added. The report went on to say that China would likely establish the base at Obock, Djibouti's northern port city.

When asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying refused to deny its veracity, and in fact stopped just short of confirming it.

“We have noted the relevant report,” Hua said, before adding:

China and Djibouti enjoy traditional friendship. Friendly cooperation between the two sides has achieved constant growth over recent years, with practical cooperation carried out in various fields. What needs to be pointed out is that regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries and meets the aspirations shared by China, Djibouti and other countries around the world. The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end (emphasis added).

China has long participated in an international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, near where Djibouti is located. As Hayes Brown notes over at Buzzfeed, some in China have previously raised the possibility of Beijing establishing naval bases on the African contentintent. About five years ago, one top Chinese admiral was quoted as saying that ““I think a permanent, stable base would be good for our [anti-piracy] operations.” However, China’s Defense Ministry quickly shot down the idea, stating that: “Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking (in the Gulf of Aden region).”

Djibouti already hosts Camp Lemonnier, which serves as the primary base of operations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the horn of Africa. The base is used primarily to conduct counterterrorism operations in the region, including launching unmanned drone attacks.

Japan opened its own base in Djibouti back in 2011 to bolster its ability to conduct anti-piracy operations in the region. Before then, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) had been using Camp Lemonnier as its base of operations. Earlier this year, Japan’s Defense Ministry announced that it would be expanding the operations it conducts from its lone foreign operational base.

The negotiations over establishing a naval base in Djibouti underscores China’s desire to bolster its presence in Africa. Back in 2014, China and Djibouti inked an agreement that gives the Chinese military access to Djibouti port. China is also heavily invested in infrastructure projects in Djibouti’s landlocked neighbor, Ethiopia.

As I’ve previously argued, China is better positioned to prevail over the United States in their ongoing competition for influence in the region.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales​

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfrica

Geopolitics Is Back—and Global Governance Is Out

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As the Middle East implodes and the planet bakes, one wishes the world would stand still long enough for governments to catch up. Today’s most burning issues—from terrorism to climate change—loom larger than ever. Worse, by definition, these transnational problems cannot be solved with national approaches alone. They require unprecedented cooperation among the world’s most influential countries.

The problem, though, is that geopolitics is back. The world turns out to be a lot more red in tooth and claw than many had anticipated, and international cooperation is suffering as a result. Strategic rivalry is heating up. The geopolitical clash in Ukraine is the perhaps clearest instance, but it is only one example of the growing gulfs between the West and strategic competitors, not least Russia and China. Beyond the risk of major confrontation, these tensions are preventing effective responses to transnational threats.

The world is left to muddle through, even as countries face mounting crises within their borders that are heavily influenced—even caused—by events in neighboring countries or across oceans.

Today, the Council of Councils, a network of think tanks spanning twenty-six countries, released a Report Card documenting the troubling consequences of waning international cooperation. The leaders of these institutions judged the international community’s recent performance to be severely lacking—barely deserving a gentlemen’s C.

Across the board, experts expressed extreme concern about the grinding conflicts in Syria and Ukraine—and at the apparent inability of the United Nations and other cooperative mechanisms to respond to them.

This is not the world the Obama administration trumpeted in its first National Security Strategy in 2010. Back then, the White House described a new global era in which the primary objective of statecraft was no longer to temper geopolitical rivalry but to manage shared dilemmas of interdependence. “Power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game.”

Alas, neither the Russians nor the Chinese (among others) got the word. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the South China Sea, great power frictions are not only exacerbating regional insecurity but also bleeding over into other realms, handicapping joint efforts to address transnational threats like cyber-insecurity.

In the background, a historic diffusion of power to emerging economies has chipped away at U.S. supremacy, leaving the world without a clear leader. Since 2000, the world has experienced the fastest and most dramatic redistribution of economic might in history. In principle, this would allow  rising players to do their fair share. But in practice, emerging and established powers are colliding both on their policy preferences and their willingness to assume new responsibilities.

Climate change is one prominent example, where major developed and developing economies remain split about how to share the burden of the painful cuts required to preserve the planet. Meanwhile, the momentum for economic cooperation generated by the Great Recession has almost entirely faded. The U.S. failure to approve reforms to the International Monetary Fund has only validated Chinese doubts that the West would ever integrate rising powers.

In response, China is leading a charge to create parallel institutions, which the United States is resisting—revealing a potentially dangerous fissure in the international economy.  Similarly, on cyber-security, competitive posturing between major players like China, Russia, and the United States—as well as radically different views about citizen rights—are preventing countries from negotiating norms to reduce the risk of a major conflict online that spills into the real world.

Given these tensions, unfortunately, prospects for addressing the world’s most explosive problems, such as the wave of conflicts in the Middle East, appear grim. The central body set up to preserve international peace and security—the UN Security Council—is paralyzed when its members believe that their core interests are at stake, and thus was powerless to address the conflagration in Syria—to say nothing of Ukraine.

The return of geopolitics portends a rocky road for international cooperation, which has always depended on a convergence of great power interests. We should not be surprised to see deepening strategic competition bleed over into areas, including those—like counterterrorism cooperation—that have been relative bright spots.

Still, the report  identifies important opportunities for breakthrough that U.S. policymakers can and should capitalize on. These include expanding global trade through the TPP/TTIP negotiations, pushing through reforms to bolster the World Health Organization’s capacity to respond to crises like Ebola, and working toward mutual commitments to combat climate change. Finally, the negotiations with Iran present an unprecedented opportunity to address one of the most intractable risks to international peace and security in decades. Forging ahead with international cooperation on these issues may even help calm the tensions preventing progress in other areas. 

Stewart Patrick is a senior fellow and Isabella Bennett is an assistant director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Niruku


The Masterplan for Stopping North Korea's Deadly Underwater Nukes

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North Korea's apparently successful test of a workable submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was big news over the weekend.

Signs that North Korea had been working on designing and testing both an SLBM and a submarine with the vertical missile launch tubes capable of firing them have been circulating for some time. In March, Admiral CD Haney, commander of US Strategic Command, warned that Pyongyang was working towards a sea-based deterrence capability. Some South Korean defense officials say that North Korea could have a functioning submarine and ballistic missile in 2-3 years. Whether Pyongyang is able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead in that time is up for debate.

Robert Kelly yesterday wrote a great analysis of the security and political ramifications stemming from the launch. I believe he is right in that this development will be fodder for American hawks, particularly with a presidential campaign coming up next year.

However, I disagree with Kelly's argument that North Korean SLBMs “cannot be targeted for preemption: that is the whole point of SLBMs.” I would argue that the mere existence of SLBMs, while certainly complicating defense planning for the US and South Korea, will not eliminate the preemptive strike option in the minds of policy-makers in Washington or Seoul.

The guaranteed nature of the second-strike depends on the quality of the submarine as much as on the SLBM.

'Noisy' submarines can be tracked, trailed and if need be destroyed by anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces. It appears that the submarine the North Koreans intend to use for their SLBMs is based on an old Yugoslav navy design from the late 1970s. This will likely make it vulnerable to modern ASW.

Pyongyang's test is likely to spur increased development of ASW forces in South Korea, something that has already begun happening since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. Seoul may now have more cause to increase its cooperation in this area with the US, as well as Japan, the two most significant ASW powers in the region, if not globally.

Kelly also argues that North Korean second-strike capabilities will lead to greater pressure from the US on South Korea to deploy land-based missile defense systems. I think this is true, but South Korea is more likely to push for greater cooperation with the US on sea-based missile defenses.

One of the advantages of mobile missile-launch platforms such as submarines is their ability to relocate to different azimuths in order to gain an advantage over static land-based BMD systems. But if you know the rough location of the submarine through ASW trailing, destroyers equipped with BMD systems can close in on the likely launch point and take out the missiles in the vulnerable ascent phase. South Korea already has three KDX-III class destroyers with some BMD capability, and is investing in more Aegis-equipped cruisers, with six planned by 2019.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

Russia's Armata T-14 Tank: A Super Weapon?

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There has been significant coverage on the newest addition to the Russian family tree of armored vehicles, the T-14 Armata. Purported by the media to be a super tank, the credibility of the T-14 is now being seriously questioned due to the Armata that broke down during the a recent rehearsal for Russia’s VE Day Celebrations. The West should not be distracted by the Armata's recent public relations disaster. Instead, it is important to examine how this new tank reveals key changes in Russian military doctrine. The Armata represents Russia's dedication to developing a professional army capable of fighting in large scale and low-intensity regional conflicts.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear)

The Armata is a direct product of an effort by the Russian Federation to professionalize its armed forces. This shift in doctrine developed after Russia's wars in Chechnya revealed dramatic deficiencies in its military's ability to fight low-intensity wars. The Russian army was pushed back by a stateless enemy, weak in numbers, weapons, and supplies. From December 1994 to August 1996, the Russian army took just over 60,000 casualties: 5,500 killed, 52,000 wounded, and 3,000 missing. Russia's ill-trained conscript army, conventional Cold War tactics, and poor equipment produced catastrophes: in the battle of Grozny 1994, nearly 70% of the 200 Russian tanks involved were destroyed. After their poor showing, Russia has sought to revamp its armed forces with a new doctrine emphasizing professionalism and incorporating modern equipment.

The design of a new tank is crucial to the efficacy of a Russian professional army, which is increasingly prioritizing the survivability of its personnel. Survivability for a professional army means assuring more trained soldiers are able to fight another day. Russia's newest iterations of its aging tank designs, the T-90 and T-72B3, employ upgraded survivability capabilities, notably explosive reactive armor. However, at their core, they retain characteristics that make them more suitable for a conscript army and mass armored warfare. The older tanks are less suitable for a professional army, particularly in low-intensity conflicts.

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

Unlike the T-90 and T-72B3, the Armata's design and capabilities mirror the threats it is intended to face. The Armata incorporates modern principles of survivability, such as being built around a fully automated turret, sealed away from the crew, which reduces the danger posed by the detonation of ammunition. Like its Western counterparts, the Armata is a high-profile tank, relying on heavy layers of composite and reactive armor. This is unlike the T-90 and T72B3, which relied on a low profile for slower hit probability. Anti-missile countermeasures, are also integral to the Armata's design.

(Recommended: The Real Reason the West Should Feat the Armata Tank)

Western tank designs, built upon similar principles, have demonstrated significant crew survivability against insurgency tactics in low-intensity conflicts. The Israeli Merkava, the Armata's direct inspiration, is particularly exemplary of Western tank design and has boasted exceptional performance against asymmetric threats. It features a high profile and composite armor, built from the ground up prioritizing crew survivability, much like the M1 Abrams, Leopard 2, and other modern Western designs. The Merkava also incorporates unique features into its doctrinal interpretation: a forward-located engine provides additional crew protection, and anti-missile countermeasures similar to those the Armata design features prominently. Conflict in Lebanon in 2006 would prove the value of this Western doctrine and Israel's own design against insurgency threats. The Israeli Defense force experienced many setbacks, exemplified by the Russian military in the First Chechen War: armor was deployed conventionally and crews were primarily conscripts. However, casualties were significantly mitigated, due in large part to the Merkava's design emphasis on crew survivability. The 401st Armored Corps Brigade, the IDF's spearhead force in the operation, reported only eighteen tanks severely damaged, two completely destroyed by heavy IEDs, and twelve soldiers killed.

Production of the Armata also reveals Russia's regional foreign policy objectives. While many are terrified of Russian allusions to the use of nuclear weapons, Russia's most recent military doctrine implies the developed use of conventional forces. Russia's nuclear strategic forces may ensure its territorial sovereignty, but their usefulness for regional power projection is limited. Russia is most interested in reasserting control in its historic borderlands, what they call the Near Abroad. As such, the Russian military appears to be preparing for multiple hybrid war scenarios. Toward this purpose, there is the need for soldiers trained in irregular warfare and for mobile armor capable of addressing a variety of threats. Whether a hybrid action like in Ukraine, open warfare with a neighbor, or low-level terrorism threats in the Caucasus, the Armata would be extremely useful for the Russian military. To date, the T-90 is already more than enough to deal with most armor threats in the conflict in Ukraine. The Armata would be even more formidable.

Many specifics on the Armata remain unknown. While on paper the Armata is a wonder tank, its actual capabilities are still untested. The focus on innovative weapons systems like the Armata, which emphasize quality over quantity, show that Russia is serious about modernizing its military and projecting into the Near Abroad.

This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council’s website here. This is reposted with their consent. 

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsDefense RegionsEurope

What Does the Pentagon Think about China's Rising Military Might?

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It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has just released its annual report on Chinese military and security issues. It documents important trends in this area using information often publicly available nowhere else. Amid the usual dump of fascinating data, several broad themes stand out:

- The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues brisk, broad-based modernization.

- It has already achieved progress that the vast majority of militaries could only envy.

- In recent years, it has consolidated core capabilities.

- The PLA’s central focus remains two-fold:

  1. Safeguarding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s ruling position by guaranteeing domestic stability in conjunction with internal security forces as necessary
  2. Increasing ability to exert leverage over disputed border areas, Taiwan, and unresolved island and maritime claims in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China Seas).

- But is also developing a new outer layer of power projection and influencing capability, becoming far broader-ranging in operational scope.

- Efforts are underway to make the PLA a great power military with global reach, even if it will not be globally present or capable to U.S. standards.

In what follows, I survey the report’s key findings before assessing its limitations, and its contributions writ large.

Geographic Dynamics

In the Near Seas, China is using low-intensity coercion to further its position in maritime and territorial disputes. Overall, DoD assesses, “PLA ground, air, naval, and missile forces are increasingly able to project power to assert regional dominance during peacetime and contest U.S. military superiority during a regional conflict.” Among the most sobering shifts is the erosion of many of Taiwan’s traditional defense factors by concerted PLA development and an official defense budget alone that is ten times greater than Taiwan’s. In a likely testament to identity factors that render cross-Strait issues complex, Taipei now spends only ~2% of GDP on defense, a target level for European members of NATO who face no such existential threat.

In peacetime, Beijing uses incremental salami-slicing tactics to assert effective control over contested areas and features. In this regard, DoD highlights Chinese efforts to prevent Philippine resupply of Second Thomas Shoal, and mentions Luconia Shoals and Reed Bank as potential future flash points. To facilitate such gains while avoiding escalation to military conflict and direct U.S. intervention, ships from the consolidating China Coast Guard (CCG) man the front line. The PLA Navy (PLAN) remains ready back stage in a monitoring and deterrent capacity. Rapid South China Sea island reclamation stands to facilitate even more continuous presence for all such forces.

China’s “whole-of-government” approach to sovereignty assertion, and the escalatory dangers therein, were underscored in 2014 when China National Offshore Oil Company began drilling with its HYSY-981 oil rig roughly 12 nautical miles (nm) from an island disputed with Vietnam and only 120 nm from Vietnam’s coast. There China announced a security radius six-times the 500 m safety zone allowed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It used “paramilitary ships” (CCG and fishing boats) to fend off Vietnamese vessels with water cannons and ramming, while PLAN ships conducted “overwatch” and PLA fighter and reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters patrolled above.

In the Far Seas, Beijing is gradually extending its reach and influence with growing power projection capabilities and soft power influence. “The PLA’s growing ability to project power,” DoD judges, “augments China’s globally-oriented objectives to be viewed as a stakeholder in ensuring stability.” In 2013-14, China sent its “first” submarines to the Indian Ocean. A Shang-class (Type 093) nuclear-powered attack submarine conducted a two-month deployment. ASong-class diesel-electric submarine made the first foreign port visit by a PLAN submarine, calling twice on Colombo, Sri Lanka. Far more than their ostensible contribution to PLAN counter-piracy escorts, these new steps offered valuable area familiarization and operational experiences to Chinese undersea forces, while producing a new symbol of Chinese power projection in service of sea lane security. Meanwhile, the PLA is increasing its soft power by training foreign military officers, including those from “virtually every Latin American and Caribbean country” at its Defense Studies Institute.

Sectoral Hierarchy

China’s defense industry has improved remarkably overall. “Over the past decade,” DoD judges, “China has made dramatic improvements in all defense industrial production sectors and is comparable to other major weapon system producers like Russia and the European Union in some areas.” Still, its capabilities remain uneven and patterns of disparity prevail.

The High Ground: Space, Missile, and Cyber Systems

Following a decades-long pattern, China’s space and ballistic and cruise missile sector remains firmly in the lead. There are many concrete manifestations of its superiority. China has deployed 1,200+ short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) opposite Taiwan. The CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) it has “fielded” in small numbers “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships in the western Pacific Ocean” “within 900 nm of the Chinese coastline.” Its ICBM units are benefitting from improved communications links. The DF-5 ICBM is equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), and the new-generation DF-41 under development is “possibly capable of carrying” them as well. China is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles, and tested one in 2014. It boasts the JF12 Mach 5-9 hypersonic wind tunnel, reportedly the world’s largest.

To support what has been “extraordinarily rapid” development of conventionally armed missiles and other long-range precision strike (LRPS) capabilities, as part of the “world’s most rapidly maturing space program” China is lofting surveillance satellites in rapid succession. Gaofen-2, launched in August 2014, became “China’s first satellite capable of sub-meter resolution imaging.” It plans to launch successively improved variants of this satellite in coming years. China gained the ability to send even greater payloads to even higher orbits with the completion of a fourth satellite launch facility, Wenchang on Hainan Island, in 2014. Launches of the Long March-5 and -7 heavy lift boosters are scheduled to commence there by 2016.

Even as it increases its own use of space assets for military purposes, China is strengthening its ability to hold those of potential opponents such as the United States at risk. It is developing a range of counter-space weapons. Unusual launch patterns and activities in space suggest efforts to test such capabilities. When queried by Washington about these actions, Beijing declines to disclose details. Meanwhile, the PLA emphasizes electronic warfare capabilities, and is deploying “jamming equipment against multiple communication and radar systems and GPS satellite systems” on sea- and air-based platforms.

Chinese cyber capabilities have recently joined the top tier as well, with DoD long subjected to numerous intrusions. Beijing is also attempting to use its position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other international fora to promote conditions whereby sovereign states can wield greater control over cyberspace governance, both within their borders and even beyond.

Steaming Smartly Ahead: Maritime Systems

Maritime hardware comes next. Warship quantity is impressive: “The PLA Navy now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia.” But quality is emphasized even more; China is replacing older platforms with newer, more capable ones. China’s shipbuilding industry has finally begun series production of multiple vessel classes. The Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyer, which first entered service in 2014, has a vertical launch system capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and “antisubmarine missiles.” The Type 055 guided-missile cruiser slated to begin construction in 2015 will wield similar armaments. These include the submarine- and ship-launched YJ-18 ASCM, which DoD terms a “dramatic improvement” over the already-potent SS-N-27 that China previously purchased from Russia with eight of twelve Kilo-class submarines. This will greatly strengthen area air defense capabilities: Chinese naval task forces will increasingly be able to take a protective “umbrella” with them to distant seas far removed from the 300 nm-from-shore envelope of China’s extensive land-based Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). In addition, DoD judges that such warships may be close to fielding LACMs, which would give the PLAN its first capability to strike shore targets Tomahawk missile-style.

While civil maritime vessels are far less sophisticated than their naval counterparts, and typically lack major armaments, within this lower-intensity context the CCG is enjoying a buildup far more quantitatively impressive than that of the PLAN. It is already the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet, with more hulls than all its neighboring counterparts combined—and that includes the rightly-respected Japan Coast Guard. From 2004-08, it added nearly twenty ocean-going patrol ships; by the end of 2015, it is projected to have added another 30+ new vessels of this type. Together with the construction of “more than 100 new patrol craft and smaller units,” this will produce a total force level increase of 25%—growth simply unparalleled anywhere else on the world’s oceans. And that is even as many older platforms are replaced by new, improved ones; with many more having helicopter embarking capability than previously.

Gaining Altitude: Aviation Systems

Lower in achievement thus far but improving rapidly is Chinese military aviation. Quantitatively, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is Asia’s largest, and the world’s third largest. The PLAN has an aviation force of its own, which is growing to provide air wings for the “multiple” carriers DoD believes China may build over the next fifteen years. Limitations persist: Beijing’s first carrier,Liaoning, is not expected to embark an air wing “until 2015 or later.” China remains weak in aeroengines, and may soon import perhaps two dozen Russian Su-35S fighters in part for their advanced engines and radars. Yet the PLAAF “is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities.”

China “is the only country in the world other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs.” DoD anticipates the maiden flight of the fifth J-20 low-observable fighter prototype in 2015, while the J-31 fighter may be offered for export. Variants of the Y-20 transport—which may be commissioned in 2016—could provide badly needed troop movement, refueling, and airborne early warning and control (AWACs) capabilities. New variants of the venerable H-6 bomber have been exquisitely retrofitted to serve as tankers and to carry significant weapons load outs, including the YJ-12 supersonic ASCM and the CJ-20 LACM.

Meanwhile, China is placing major emphasis on UAVs. DoD cites a 2013 report by the Defense Science Board, which judges that “China’s move into unmanned systems is ‘alarming’ and combines unlimited resources with technological awareness that might allow China to match or even outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems in the future.” No fewer than three long-range precision-strike variants under development. The BZK-005 UAV has already been observed conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) over the East China Sea. Without elaboration, DoD notes: “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.”

Finally, as part of China’s IADS, the PLAAF also maintains one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range SAMs. China is not as strong in SAMs as it is in other ballistic (and cruise) missiles, but is acquiring the long-range S-400 system from Russia, even as it continues to develop long-range indigenous systems such as the CSA-9 for IAD and ballistic missile defense (BMD).

Ground force materiel is typically last in sophistication, although the report offers few specifics. It does draw attention to China’s prioritization and rapid deployment of internal security forces. This pattern has only intensified in response to dozens of deaths from domestic unrest and terrorism in recent years, particularly in conjunction with Xinjiang.

Weaknesses and Attempts to Rectify Them

On the hardware side, China is still missing some critical technologies, industrial processes, and related knowhow. It “continues to lack either a robust coastal or deep water anti-submarine warfare capability,” and its ability to collect and disseminate targeting information in real time under wartime conditions remains uncertain. 

Through determined multi-pronged effort, however, Beijing is progressively closing many of the remaining gaps. It continues to obtain significant technologies, components, and systems from abroad. As in the 1990s (albeit to a less extreme degree today), Russian and Ukrainian economic woes facilitate Chinese access to advanced expertise and systems (including S-400 SAMs, Su-35 fighters, and the Petersburg/Lada-class submarine production program from the former; assault hovercraft and aeroengines from the latter). Much technology acquired for commercial aircraft and other civilian programs has military applications. Along the way, DoD documents multiple cases of Chinese nationals seeking to transfer foreign technology illegally. Finally, China is consolidating its own state S&T research funding. Having bet big on nanotechnology, for instance, it now trails only the United States in research funding for that field.

Amelioration of software weaknesses requires laborious human capital investment and wrenching organizational reforms, but the PLA and its civilian masters are clearly determined to prevail even here. As part of enhancement of training realism emphasized by Xi, the PLA is increasing “joint” pan-Military Region exercises. Further reforms likely under consideration include reducing non-combat forces and the relative proportion of ground forces; elevating the proportion and roles of enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers vis-à-vis commissioned officers; bolstering “new-type combat forces” for naval aviation, cyber, and special operations; establishing a theater joint command system; and reducing China’s current seven Military Regions by as many as two.

Finally, if Beijing is to secure the overseas influence and reach it increasingly desires, foreign policy adjustments will be required. Logistics and intelligence support remain key constraints on Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. To remedy this, DoD assesses, Beijing “willlikely establish several access points in this area in the next 10 years. These arrangements likely will take the form of agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and low-level maintenance. The services provided likely will fall short of permitting the full spectrum of support from repair to re-armament.”

Positive Chinese Contributions and Bilateral Military Relations

Despite the above concerns, DoD also takes pains to recognize positive, growing Chinese contributions to international security and military-to-military relations with the U.S. It documents in exhaustive detail the frequent exchanges and discussions between the two militaries, as well as bilateral and multilateral military exercises dating to 2008. It clearly strives for a balanced approach: “As the United States builds a stronger foundation for a military-to-military relationship with China, it must also continue to monitor China’s evolving military strategy, doctrine, and force development, and encourage China to be more transparent about its military modernization program. In concert with its allies and partners, the United States will continue adapting its forces, posture, and operational concepts to maintain a stable and secure Asia-Pacific security environment.”

Limitations of the Report Itself

Like many products of complex bureaucratic exercises amid far greater competing priorities, this report suffers slightly from omissions, small weaknesses, and inconsistencies. The Maritime Militia, an important component of China’s Cabbage Strategy of enveloping disputed features in layers of non-military forces that opponents might hesitate to use force against, is not mentioned once. With regard to shipbuilding, DoD’s broad brushstrokes obscure lingering unevenness. It names China “the top ship-producing nation in the world,” but omits the critical qualifier that this is in terms of gross commercial tonnage; not sophistication, systems, technology, or quality. Ranges quoted for anti-ship cruise missiles are not explained; some may be debatable in practice depending on the assumptions used to calculate them. Likewise unexplained is DoD’s methodology for calculating China’s total 2014 military spending at $165 billion (against the official figure of $136.3 billion for that year).

Moreover, Pentagon reports are typically stronger in analyzing hardware than software, and this one is no exception. The disparity manifests most prominently in two instances. First, DoD offers incomplete, seemingly uncritical analysis of the “new type of major power relations” advocated by Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials. This may be part of a larger pattern in which the Obama Administration has fallen into the trap of appearing to embrace this loaded meme, whichcarries Chinese expectations of Washington accommodating China’s “core” sovereignty interests without reciprocal concessions from Beijing. It is arguably somewhat disjointed for DoD to express such significant concerns about Chinese weapons systems, while avoiding critical analysis of some of the very policy approaches that inform their threatened worst-case use. Second, the report misses a chance to put in full context the important keynote address that Xi delivered at the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference in 2014. While the full text remains unavailable in public, subsequent bureaucratic activities and official statements suggest that it may represent a watershed in Xi’s exhorting officials to propose more considerably more assertive external policies. Given the clarity it brings to details of Chinese security hardware, it is unfortunate that DoD could not shed more light on the high-level policies that inform its development and employment.

Undeniable Contribution

All told, however, DoD’s 2015 report continues its useful contribution to vital public knowledge of China’s military-security development. It is far more substantive than any public Chinese documents, including the much-touted Defense White Papers. Such knowledge remains far more limited than the vast sea of information available to anyone interested in the U.S. military, a great proportion of which is translated into Chinese on a regular basis.

Chinese government spokespeople will now predictably denounce DoD’s publication self-righteously in official media, but their talking points will appear generic, as if merely dusted off from years past. Behind this querulous façade, and unwillingness to engage the report’s specifics, likely lies an inability to disprove anything more than a few technicalities. What apparently bothers Beijing far more than any facts revealed is the very notion that Washington would have the temerity to bring transparency and open discussion to the state and trajectory of what is now the world’s second military by many measures. All the more reason why DoD’s slightly imperfect yet irreplaceable contribution is invaluable yet again.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and a core founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008, he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson is also an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. This piece first appeared on Dr. Erickson's website here. The views expressed here are those of the author alone. They do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

$2.1 Billion Spent & 9 Months In: How Goes the Air War Against ISIS?

The Buzz

We recently passed the nine-month anniversary since the start of the U.S.-led air campaign, later named Operation Inherent Resolve, against the self-declared Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The air war, which Secretary of State John Kerry then described as definitively not a war, but rather “a heightened level of counterterrorism operation,” shows no sign of ending. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Services Committee in March, “The enemy is now in a ‘defensive crouch,’ and is unable to conduct major operations.” The Pentagon has released a series of maps that purportedly detail the loss of territory under control by IS. However, the number and competence of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces required to ultimately defeat IS militants on the ground, and then control, secure, and administer newly freed territory, are lacking. In an unnoticed indicator found in the prepared testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, two U.S. Air Force lieutenant generals acknowledged: “These combat operations are expected to continue long-term (3+ years).”  

U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to emphasize the contribution of coalition members in conducting airstrikes against IS, and, in September, even refused to expand the scope of its targets until those partners publicly committed their support.  It is no surprise, given its vastly larger and more proficient aerial capabilities, that the United States has been the primary source of all airstrikes against IS, even while the number of participating militaries has increased from nine to twelve since September. The table below breaks down coalition support for the 3,731 air strikes.

One concern relayed to me from CENTCOM officials was that the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen would cause the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition members to redirect their combat sorties from bombing IS toward striking Houthi militants in Yemen. It appears that this concern has not yet become a reality. Between March 25, when the GCC intervention in Yemen began, and May 7, a total of 791 airstrikes were conducted in Iraq and Syria, 74 percent by the United States and 26 percent by coalition members, according to data provided to me by the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). This is a slightly increased contribution from non-U.S. coalition members.

It is possible that the slight increase in coalition contributions since March 25 reflects Canada’s April 8 decision to expand its kinetic operations into Syria—becoming the only other country, besides than the United States, to do so. As of May 5, Canada had conducted 564 sorties by CF-188 Hornet fighter-attack aircraft. However, the Canadian military does not disclose how many of those sorties resulted in the actual dropping of bombs, so the percentage of overall coalition airstrikes that it is responsible for cannot be attributed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has documented that lots of people and things are being destroyed. For a military that often claims it does not do “body counts,” it has done so repeatedly. Most recently, General Austin declared in March that 8,500 IS militants had been killed. The Pentagon lists more than 6,000 IS targets as having been destroyed. Most notably, CENTCOM press releases indicate that more than 500 “excavators” have been destroyed—as if IS is the world’s first terrorist landscaping company. All of this destruction is coming at a direct cost to taxpayers of an estimated $2.11 billion, or $8.6 million per day. How this open-ended air war will shift when the United States begins providing close air support for trained Syrian rebels in a few months is unknowable.

This piece first appeared courtesy of CFR here. It is republished with their expressed consent. 

Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

The Real Reason Asia Should Fear North Korea's Sub-Launched Missiles

The Buzz

North Korea's nuclear and missile programs continue apace. In the last few days, the North has tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Specifically, it was an “ejection test” to see if the missile's propulsion was strong enough to break the surface of the water (it was).

North Korea is on its way to an “”assured second strike” capability — SLBMs can survive even a massive first strike by an opponent and allow the attacked state to respond with nuclear force. SLBMs also offer greater range. North Korea has worked on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) but has struggled with multi-stage rockets that could actually traverse the atmosphere at great distance. A North Korean submarine on station off the continental US would not need long-range missiles to bring most US cities within range.

I see three medium-term consequences to this SLBM evolution:

1. It will drive American paranoia over North Korea to new heights:

American cities have thus far been exempted from the North Korean missile threat that looms over Japan and South Korea. So SLBM development does little to change their threat perception and strategic situation. Instead, these SLBMs are clearly pointed at the US. They improve Northern deterrence by signaling that American cities will suffer retaliation if “regime change” is tried. (NB: the Pentagon claims North Korea already has an operational ICBM but South Korean officials reject that.)

But I do not think the North realizes how much this will push America toward even more hawkish positions. SLBM deployment would almost certainly lead to more sanctions and the accelerated pursuit of North Korean money in Asian banks. The US will also accelerate missile defense development and arm-twist South Korea on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. And it will push the American defense debate to the right and help ultrahawkish GOP presidential contenders.

Is this really what Pyongyang wants? Do they really want John Bolton working for another White House?

2. It will encourage South Korean missile-defense development:

SLBMs will also push the THAAD debate in South Korea toward deployment, yet another unintended consequence for Pyongyang. The South Korean left has managed to forestall THAAD so far, in part by arguing that North Korea is unnecessarily provoked by South Korean and American hawkishness. But SLBMs weaken that position.

At the outermost limits of rationality, one might argue that North Korea could objectively want some nuclear weapons, given the American dalliance with regime change, and how far behind Pyongyang is in conventional military power. But even by that generous standard, there is no defensible reason for North Korea to seek ICBMs, SLBMs, dozens or even hundreds of warheads, and so on. Even Beijing sees this. And now, if North Korea's nuclear weapons are immune from pre-emptive strikes because they are underwater and impossible to find, then the debate on missile defense in South Korea has essentially been won by the hawks.

3. It may prompt Seoul to think about pre-emptive strikes:

Elsewhere I have argued that North Korea's spiraling nuclear and missile programs would slowly push Seoul toward pre-emption. I have long thought that a South Korea without a missile defense 'roof' or its own nuclear weapons would feel acutely vulnerable to North Korean nuclear missiles. And just as the Americans considered preemptive air strikes on Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 before they became operational, or as Israel did in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), so I imagine a rising temptation in South Korea to strike before the Northern program really gets out of hand, with hundreds of missiles and warheads.

SLBMs change this in two ways. First, if North Korea can actually deploy them reliably, then the value of preemptive strikes declines dramatically. Under-sea launchers cannot be targeted for preemption; that is the whole point of SLBMs. At that point, missile defense is the only possible strategic response, and one can foresee an accelerating missile vs missile-defense technological race among the two Koreas and the US.

A second, more frightening prospect is that SLBMs set a timeframe on the North's vulnerability to air strikes. A closing window of opportunity might therefore encourage Southern air action sooner (as was the logic of Germany in 1914; it believed that it could not defeat Russia once Moscow's western rail system was completed).

Increasingly, I cannot see how this ends well. No matter the consequences, the North seems hell-bent on hugely threatening nuclear deployments that will only further entrench hawkish, confrontational elites in South Korea, Japan, and the US.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. It is republished with their expressed consent. 

TopicsNorth Korea RegionsAsia