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The US Navy Is Building Precision Laser Weapons

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The U.S. Navy has awarded Boeing a $29.5 million contract to build a prototype of a system that will provide the service with precision-guided laser weapons.

The company announced the contract in a press release on Tuesday. The statement said in part that, “Boeing will begin to design a prototype High Power Beam Control Subsystem (HP BCSS) that’s compatible with High Energy Lasers (HEL) based on solid-state laser (SSL) technology.”

The contract was awarded as part of the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program, which aims to “develop and mature high-energy laser technologies into a prototypical weapon system for use and installation on the Navy’s surface combatants.”

Boeing said in the press release that “the resulting beam control system will focus and hold a laser on a moving aimpoint long enough to disable the target. Doing that with a ship-based laser is particularly challenging, given the maritime environment and constant movement of an at-sea vessel.”

The U.S. military has been investing in laser and directed-energy technologies since the 1960s, but it’s only been in the last few years that rapid progress has been made. Notably, in 2009, the U.S. Navy's Laser Weapon System (LaWS) Program first successful tracked and destroyed an unmanned aerial vehicle while at sea. The LaWS program continued to be tested over the next five years and was declared operational and ready for use at the end of 2014. It is currently deployed on the USS Ponce Afloat Forward Staging Base.

Similarly, in April 2011, ONR and its industry partner, Northrop Grumman, successfully tested a solid-state, high-energy laser (HEL) at sea. During that test, a surface ship used the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) to eliminate a small boat.

Lasers are almost certain to play a large part in protecting the Navy’s surface fleet in the future as they offer a number of major advantages over traditional kinetic weapons. Perhaps most importantly, lasers are a fraction of the cost of kinetic weapons. Indeed, a laser costs roughly a dollar to fire while the Navy’s medium and long-range interceptors cost several millions of dollars per missile. This creates an opportunity to overcome the mathematics that has long been the Achilles’ heel of missile defense.

Equally important, whereas surface vessels can only carry a very limited number of interceptors to defend themselves against enemy missiles, lasers would give ships a nearly unlimited magazine capacity. This is particularly crucial at a time when countries like China are building formidable anti-ship missile arsenals. In addition, by freeing up space normally reserved for interceptors, lasers would greatly increase the offensive capability of America’s surface vessels.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Russia Developed New Fuel to Power Mach 5 Hypersonic Missiles

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Russia’s Defense Ministry has developed a new hypersonic missile fuel, a senior defense official has announced.

According to Russian state-media outlets, Army General Dmitry Bulgakov, the deputy minister of defense, told reporters on Tuesday that the ministry has developed special new fuel to enable missiles to fly at hypersonic speeds.

“The recipe has been created and the energy accumulated in this fuel will help our vehicles exceed the speed of Mach 5," General Bulgakov said, the Moscow Times reported, citing TASS News Agency.

Russia is one of a number of countries including the U.S., China and India that are in a race to develop hypersonic capabilities. Hypersonic missiles travel at at least five times the speed of sound (Mach 5, 6,125 kilometers per hour) or more. NASA further categorizes speeds as hypersonic (between Mach 5 and Mach 10) and high hypersonic (between Mach 10 and Mach 25).

(Recommended: A Mach 5 Arms Race? Welcome to Hypersonic Weapons 101)

Unlike the U.S. and China, both of whom focus their hypersonic development efforts on boost-glide vehicles, Russia and India are seeking to build hypersonic cruise missiles. The two countries already developed the BrahMos missile together. Considered the fastest cruise missile in the world, BrahMos has achieved speeds of Mach 3 (3,675 m/h).

BrahMos Aerospace, the Russian-Indian joint venture that produced the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, claims to be hard at work developing the BrahMos-II hypersonic cruise missile. According to the company's website, the BrahMos-II will be powered by a scramjet engine instead of a ramjet one. "As a variation of the ramjet," the company explains, "scramjets allow combustion to occur in a supersonic airflow, thereby expanding the operating range above Mach 4."

(Recommended: No, China Can NOT Shoot Down 90% of Hypersonic Missiles)

Indian officials have claimed that the BrahMos-II will be tested sometime in 2017, although this is likely an overly optimistic timeline. The U.S. and China have both already tested boost-glide vehicles.

Russia is also developing the P-800 Onyx, which some experts suspect could be a hypersonic missile as well. "It could be a fundamentally new missile, possibly hypersonic. One should not forget that NPO Mashinostroyenia has been actively working in this area, and it was not too long that ago mockups of the joint Russian-Indian hypersonic rocket BrahMos-II appeared at exhibitions,” one Russian defense expert told Russia Beyond the Headlines last October.

Image: Wikimedia/One half 3544

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

If America and China Went to War: Would India Join the Fight?

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Shashank Joshi makes a good case for the importance of Obama's visit to India last month, and against my view that there is much less to the U.S.-India alignment than meets the eye.

My argument is that their underlying strategic objectives remain too different for real strategic alignment. Shashank says that sets the bar too high. Without fully sharing America's aim of preserving its primacy in Asia, he says, India 'can take a range of other steps, from aligning itself to U.S. allies to strengthening a diplomatic consensus against China, that together contribute to (U.S.) primacy in a more diffuse, politically acceptable manner.'

It's a reasonable point, but I don't buy it.

We differ on this because we seem to see what is happening in Asia today differently. I think Asia's international order faces a fundamental challenge, whereas Shashank's argument suggests that he believes it remains essentially intact.

(Recommended: Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear)

If Shashank is right, we can safely expect that issues in dispute between the region's major powers will be resolved by diplomacy operating within the status quo; business as usual, in other words. If so, the kind of low-stakes diplomatic alignment that Shashank describes might indeed make a real difference. The kind of low key, low cost diplomatic support India might offer the U.S. will be enough to help the U.S. preserve primacy, because its primacy would not face any serious challenge.

But what is happening in Asia today is not business as usual.

The regional order based on U.S. primacy is under direct and fundamental challenge from China. It wants to change the framework of norms and expectations within which regional diplomacy takes place. That is why we cannot assume that the issues raised by China's challenge will be resolved by routine diplomacy. China is aiming to change the way diplomacy in Asia works by changing the regional order.

(Recommended: Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear)

That has big implications. The prevailing order in any international system is defined ultimately by what the major powers in the system are prepared to go to war with one another over. As that changes, the order changes. Rising countries challenge a prevailing order by showing they are willing to go to war over issues that they previously would not have.

In 1972 China transformed the Asian order when it decided that it was not willing to risk war with America over anything except Taiwan. Now China is showing that it wants to change the order again. By undermining the credibility of Washington's alliances, Beijing shows its willingness to risk war to degrade America's position in Asia.

India's new alignment with the U.S. will only make a real difference if it is credibly willing to support America militarily against China if and when U.S. primacy is at stake. Diffuse and politically acceptable diplomatic support won't cut it at a time like this. So the test of the U.S.-India alignment is simple: does anyone think India would send forces to help America defend Japan's claim to the Senkakus, or the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea, or Taiwan? If not, how does India's support help America deter China from challenging U.S. primacy in these flashpoints? And if it doesn't do that, what use is it to Obama?  

(Recommended: Five Chinese Weapons of War India Should Fear)

That's why Obama's bid for India's support shows the weakness in America's position, without doing anything to strengthen it. The deeper problem is that lining up countries like India against China, even if it worked, would not help America find a stable, sustainable relationship with the country which is both its most important partner and its most serious rival. The only way to do that is to start talking to China in a new way.

Hugh White is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.

Image: Flickr/Slipshod Photog

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Better Off Alone: Sweden Makes Single Work

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It’s hard to be single on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much Buzzfeed tries to cheer you up. But with pizza and bitter, lonely tears, you’ll pull through. There are even people who prefer being alone on the big day. The same is true for countries: across history, many have deliberately stayed out of alliances. A few have even tried to cut themselves off from the outside world entirely. It doesn’t always go well—to paraphrase an apocryphal Leon Trotsky quote, you may not be interested in the world, but the world is interested in you. Neutral Belgium and Luxembourg got steamrolled at the beginning of both World Wars. The United States and the Soviet Union were painfully drawn into the Second World War after trying to stay out. But a few countries have made single work—with Sweden among the most successful.

Believe it or not, Sweden was once a major European power—an empire, no less, ringing the Baltic with its possessions in the seventeenth century. Yet a string of setbacks saw Sweden beaten back and, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, deprived of some of its core territories. A new approach was needed—but first, some cleanup. The Swedes joined the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon, kicked his Danish friends out of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and forcibly took the Norwegians under their wing. Sweden hasn’t done much since.

It’s gone well for the Swedes—it kept them out of the conflicts of the middle of the nineteenth century and both of the World Wars, with their most major deviation (a somewhat sympathetic approach to Germany in WWI) being abandoned when it started to hit the pocketbooks of ordinary people. Remaining neutral in the Second World War was a major achievement, given that all of Sweden’s neighbors participated in the conflict at one point or another. Keeping out wasn’t easy or cheap: the Swedes increased their defense budget more than tenfold and had to navigate both Allied and Axis demands. Yet the benefit was great: while the lands around them were torn, while cities were reduced to ash, while the Holocaust murdered millions, Sweden was safe. At the margins, they were able to extend their safety to others, taking in refugees and extending diplomatic protection to thousands of Jews inside the Third Reich.

They continued their neutral approach during the Cold War, leaning slightly to the West and weathering numerous crises, including a 1981 incident in which a Soviet submarine became trapped inside Swedish waters for days. There were costs—for example, the Swedish foreign ministry has been accused of soft-pedaling the case of Raoul Wallenberg, who had disappeared into Soviet custody at the end of WWII, in order to preserve relations with Moscow. But there were benefits, too—Sweden developed an impressive arms industry as it prepared to keep NATO and the USSR at bay, and it preserved its independence and democratic institutions at a time when many European states suffered from superpower interference in their politics.

The Cold War’s end didn’t get the Swedes out of the woods. They still face violations of their territory by Russian and NATO forces operating in the tense Baltic, and loose immigration policies are causing tension in a once-homogenous society. But Sweden’s leaders have to be commended for their approach, which delivered them into the twenty-first century as a prosperous, democratic country. This happy fate was not always in their own hands. During the World Wars and the Cold War, the great powers clashing all around them could have forced Sweden to join in. But a strong military and deft, sometimes painfully pragmatic diplomacy augmented Stockholm’s main asset: luck.

Today, Sweden’s neutral approach doesn’t mean isolation. They trade actively with the world—hello, IKEA—and carry out peacekeeping operations. Their neutral status has also allowed them to play a mediating role in international disputes—they help keep the Korean DMZ quiet, for example, and they have served as a diplomatic protecting power for several Anglophone nations in North Korea and for the British in Iran, allowing limited contact and consular services to continue through crises. Sweden is also an EU member, giving it a more salient role in foreign affairs than a truly neutral country, but even here its instinct for aloofness has served it well—the Swedish people voted to stay off the Euro in 2003.

Other countries have made the best of singledom. Finland preserved itself during the Cold War, although it enjoyed less political autonomy than Sweden; a host of others stayed out of the World Wars. Switzerland took to neutrality earlier than Sweden, and with more conviction—it didn’t even join the United Nations until 2002. But it’s also been a more cynical actor, hosting ill-gotten financial gains and the occasional fugitive from justice, and its record during the Holocaust was far from sterling. The Swedes make the stronger claim to greatness in neutrality.

Like being single on Valentine’s Day, neutrality and isolation are rarely anyone’s first choices. But Sweden has shown that a little loneliness need not be cause for tears.

John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tonyingesson. CC BY-SA 4.0.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsSweden

Silent but Deadly: Korea's Scary Submarine Arms Race

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A number of recent events underscore South Korea’s plans to establish a formidable submarine fleet to counter North Korea and other regional security threats.

Last week, South Korea established its first independent submarine command to conduct “more integrated, efficient and stable submarine operations.”

“The launch of the submarine force command is a clear display of our will to perfectly defend our East, West and South Seas through the enhanced quality and quantity of our submarine capabilities," the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy said in a press release announcing the command. “With the command, we have secured capabilities to more proactively deter North Korean threats by effectively controlling and managing our submarine forces ― strategic weapons systems that could stealthily strike the heart of enemy forces.”

The new command will be headquartered at Jinhae Naval Base in South Gyeongsang and will have a fleet of 13 submarines with ambitious plans to expand in the coming years. South Korea is just the sixth country to have an independent submarine fleet after U.S., Japan, France, Britain and India, South Korean media outlets reported. Other local media reports said that Rear Adm. Upper Half Youn Jeong-sang, a former deputy naval operations commander, would head up the new command, which will be tasked with “maintaining deterrence against the North, conducting wartime missions to strike strategic enemy targets, and protecting sea lines of communication.”

Indeed, on Thursday of this week the South Korean military announced it is developing a new comprehensive submarine operation plan. “The comprehensive operation plan on submarine capabilities to be based upon the existing one aims to counter not only threats by North Korea but potential danger to be posed by neighboring countries," an anonymous ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) official told Yonhap News Agency. “The military will also continue to develop precise and powerful underwater weapons to attach them to our submarines.”

The announcement of the revised operations plan coincided with Adm. Choi Yun-hee, the chairman of the JCS, visiting the new submarine command. Speaking to sailors at the command, the chairman instructed them to take a “one shot, one sink" mentality.

"As our military's key capabilities in operational and strategic terms, the submarine command needs to materialize the proactive and offensive concept of operation suitable for the combat circumstances of our time," Choi said, according to Yonhap.

South Korea’s submarine push comes at a time when there is growing concern about North Korea’s undersea capabilities. North Korea is believed to have over 70 submarines, many of them midget subs, but also around 20 Russian-built 1,800-ton Romeo-class submarines. There is also growing concern that North Korea is seeking submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which theoretically could be armed with nuclear warheads in the future.

Even before these concerns began to surface, South Korea had been amassing a formidable undersea fleet. As noted above, Seoul currently boasts thirteen submarines. Nine of these are 1,200-ton Chang Bogo class diesel-electric attack vessels that are the export versions of the German Type 209 class submarines. According to Naval Technology, the Chang Bogo class has a single hull and “a length of 56 m, a beam of 6.2 m and a draft of 5.5 m.” In terms of weaponry, the Chang Bogo class vessel boasts eight 533 mm tubes and 14 Surface and Underwater Target (SUT) Mod 2 torpedoes, each of which has a range of 28 km. Some of them can also fire Harpoon cruise missiles and all can hold mines instead of torpedoes. Their diesel-electric propulsion system enables them to travel at a maximum speed of 22 knots when submerged, with a range of 595 km.

Since 2007, South Korea has commissioned four 1,800-ton Son Won-Il class Type 214 submarines (and launched a fifth), which hold a number of advantages over the Type 209 vessels. For one thing, the Type 214 submarines are equipped with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), which allows them to stay submerged for two weeks at a time. They also have a diving depth of 400 meters, although their underwater speed is reportedly only about 20 knots. Their ISUS 90 submarine combat systems allow the Type 214 vessels to engage 300 targets simultaneously.

The navy has also said it will commission five more of the Type 214 submarines by 2019. The following year it will begin work on the first of nine indigenous 3,000-ton submarines, which will be capable of launching ballistic missiles.

Image: Craig P. Strawser, U.S. Navy

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

Ukraine or the Rebels: Who Won in Minsk?

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Comparing the “Package of Measures to Ensure the Implementation of the Minsk Accords” to the Protocol Document submitted by the representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics, it is readily apparent that the document signed on February 12 is largely based on the rebels’ proposals.

The only omission worth noting is the absence of any mention of ending the military campaign in the East, which is referred to by Kiev as the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). This is understandable, since it is highly unlikely that such a measure could pass in the Ukrainian parliament, where several influential political actors, including Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, and the former speaker, now head of the National Security and Defense Party, Oleksandr Turchinov, are on record as committed to military victory in Donbass.

The most significant rebel achievement was getting Kiev to recognize a second de facto demarcation of force line, and a withdrawal of forces to the maximum line of separation of forces, which will now be between 70 and 140 kilometers. This concession by Kiev allowed the negotiations to proceed without getting bogged down in disputes over territory which, in any case, are supposed to be resolved by the Law on “Temporary status of local self-administration in certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast,” commonly referred to as the Law on Special Status.

Yet, it should be noted that the proposals presented by the rebels in their Protocol Document made a number of significant concessions to Kiev at the very outset. Among these:

– No mention of federalism or autonomy. The rebels even used Poroshenko's own term—"deep decentralization"—to define regional self -government.

– No mention of language, cultural, or religious rights;

– Specific dates for the withdrawal of forces, passage of the Law on Special Status, and passage of an amnesty law. These laws have already been passed by the parliament, just not signed into law and implemented;

– The holding of internationally monitored local elections under Ukrainian law , specifically the Law on Special Status;

– OSCE monitoring of border between Ukraine and Russia now under rebel control, after full implementation of the peace plan.

It so happens that language rights, a key issue in this conflict, were added into the notes in the Package of Measures, but they were already mentioned in the Law on Special Status.

Thus, one might say that, while the latest accords follow the blueprint laid out by the rebels, that blueprint was already quite favorable to Kiev. Angela Merkel suggests that this was due, at least in part, to Putin’s pressure on the rebels.

The most vexing issue that now remains is whether the sides are actually willing to withdraw to their respective demarcation lines. Power abhors a vacuum, and, frankly, it is surprising that some sort of external peacekeeping forces were not a part of this agreement. Their absence is clearly a weak point, since the implementation of the original Minks accords broke down almost immediately because of the unwillingness of the parties to disengage.

Second, there is the broader question of President Poroshenko’s ability to deliver on the promised constitutional reforms, which involve decentralization and special status for these regions. In fact, his foreign minister already appears to be walking away from this crucial commitment.

There is intense political infighting within the current parliamentary coalition and, at this point, it is hard to imagine a majority in the Rada agreeing to designate which territories fall within the Law of Special Status, and therefore where local elections under Ukrainian law ought to be held. Point Four of the “Package of Measures,” however, stipulates that this must be done within thirty days, and this will be the first real test of the political feasibility of these accords.

Will this new agreement prove to be the long awaited road map to peace in Ukraine? Past evidence suggests that it will not. The willingness of the conflicting parties—Kiev and Donbass—to reach a settlement is still absent. The key to success lies, first, in placing a peacekeeping buffer force on the ground between the two armies; and second, in the willingness of the members of the Trilateral Contact Group to put direct pressure on their respective constituencies (the EU and United States on Kiev; Russia on Donbass) to abide by the political and economic portions of this agreement.


TopicsDiplomacySecurity RegionsBelarusUkraineEuropeRussia

Does Russia Need a Chinese Bailout?

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Russia’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen by nearly one-third since October 2013; they’ve fallen 20 percent just since September 2014.  Whereas the country still has over $300 billion in reserves, about $150 billion of this may be illiquid; it also has close to $700 billion in external debt.

Whom would Russia turn to for dollars in a crisis?

The IMF is the most obvious place.  The IMF approved lending to Russia of about $35 billion (SDR 24.8 billion) in the 1990s. With the sort of “exceptional” access that the Fund has granted to Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Ukraine, Russia could potentially borrow up to $200 billion today, as shown in the figure above.  But when it comes to Russia, the United States and Europe are not in a generous mood at the moment.  Moscow would almost surely want to look elsewhere.

What about its new BRICS friends?  Putin had said in 2014 that the new BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) “creates the foundation for an effective protection of our national economies from a crisis in financial markets.”

Russia could potentially borrow up to $18 billion through the CRA.  But here’s the rub: it can only do so by being on an IMF program.  Without one, Russia could only borrow a mere $5.4 billion – chicken-feed in a crisis.  In fact, borrowing such a pitiful sum might only precipitate a crisis by hinting that one was coming.

What about China?  Here, things get interesting.  Under a central-bank swap line agreed in October, Russia could borrow up to RMB 150 billion – the equivalent of $24 billion at current exchange rates. China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng has reportedly said the swap line could be expanded.

What would Russia do with RMB, though?  Why, sell them for dollars, of course – as Argentina has likely been doing.  China might be happy for Russia to do so, as it would put downward pressure on the RMB without implicating Beijing in “currency manipulation.”

“Russia plays an indispensable role as a strategic partner of China in the international community,” according to a December 22 editorial in China’s Global Times. “China must hold a positive attitude to help Russia out of this crisis.” In short, China may well have both economic and geopolitical reasons for offering Russia a helping hand.

This post first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Geo-Graphics blog.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum

TopicsEconomics RegionsAsia-PacificEurope

Russia’s Nuclear Forces Begin Their Largest Drill Ever

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Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces are conducting their largest drills ever, according a state-run media outlets.

On Tuesday, Col. Igor Yegorov, a spokesman for the Strategic Missile Forces, told Interfax-AVN that the unit began the largest drill in its history on Thursday. According to Yegorov, over 30 missile regiments and both road-mobile and silo-based missile systems are expected to participate in the massive drills.

The exercise it taking place across a vast sway of territory, covering an incredible twelve different regions in the country, from Tver region in western Russia to the Irkutsk region in the east. According to Google Maps, that’s a distance of about 3,998 km (2,484 miles).

Yegorov said the drills will test the Strategic Missile Forces’ preparedness for a wide variety of potential scenarios.

"Strategic missile units are practicing a broad range of missions, including red alert, maneuvering in actual combat and deterrence of sabotage units and precision-guidance attacks of a simulated enemy," Interfax quoted Yegorov as saying.

The spokesman for the unit went on to explain that the first day of the drill was devoted largely to defending deployed road-mobile missiles from sophisticated enemy sabotage attacks. “According to the drill scenario, sabotage groups of the simulated enemy laid mines on combat patrolling routes [of missile units] and applied poisonous chemicals to the area adjacent to their field positions," Yegorov said, Interfax reported.

The drill’s focus on protecting deployed road-mobile missile units is indicative of Russia’s desire to better operationalize its strategic forces to execute its nuclear doctrine. Although the Soviet Union maintained a no-first use military doctrine, the erosion of Russia’s conventional military power following the Cold War has forced Moscow to increase its reliance on its nuclear weapons to defend itself. As such, Russia abandoned its no-first use pledge in 1993 and, following NATO’s interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s, issued a new National Security Concept in late 1999 (officially adopted in 2000).

This document lowered the threshold for when Moscow would consider using nuclear weapons to include “preventing aggression on any scale… against Russia and its allies.” In this sense, Russia’s nuclear doctrine is similar to the one the U.S. quietly used throughout most of the Cold War to “offset” the Soviet Union’s numerically superior conventional forces in Europe.

Despite its greater reliance on these weapons, for many years Russia’s nuclear capabilities continued to atrophy, even as arms control agreements with the United States greatly reduced the size of Moscow’s strategic arsenal. In fact, by the middle of the 2000s some U.S. security analysts argued America had achieved nuclear primacy.

Since securing his third term as president in 2012, however, Vladimir Putin has sought to reverse this trend by modernizing Russia’s nuclear forces. Indeed, shortly before the 2012 presidential elections in Russia, Putin pledged, “We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak. We will, under no circumstances, surrender our strategic deterrent capability. Indeed, we will strengthen it.” Similarly, just last December Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, said that the country’s nuclear modernization will be the Defense Ministry’s top priority in 2015.

True to their word, Russia has undertaken an ambitious effort to modernize all three legs of its nuclear triad by 2021.It has also announced plans to add an additional 8,500 troops to the Strategic Missile Forces by 2020.

As part of this larger effort, Russia has been conducting increasingly frequent and more sophisticated snap nuclear exercises like the one that is currently taking place.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

North Korea's Most Dangerous Weapon (Hint: It's Not Nuclear)

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The cyber attack on Sony Pictures by North Korea in response to the film The Interview (which opens in Australian cinemas today; see my review) came after a series of North Korean hacks of institutions in South Korea. It appears North Korea is improving its cyber capabilities and widening its target list. The decision to strike the private sector outside of South Korea is a new development with disturbing ramifications.

The Sony hack got global attention because it showed Pyongyang's new willingness to target high-profile, non-Korean, private companies. All this raises major questions about Pyongyang's asymmetric efforts against the South, and now for foreign firms operating in Korea.

There remains some disagreement over whether it was in fact North Korea that hacked Sony. Recently, the Director of the FBI felt compelled to come forward with more evidence in support of the U.S. government's claim, and President Obama has repeatedly spoken with great confidence that North Korea was the perpetrator. Furthermore, it is scarcely disputed that hacks of South Korean institutions, such as the nuclear power industry, banks, and broadcasters, were performed by North Korea.

North Korea's use of the cyber domain to contend with its opponents – South Korea, Japan, the U.S., and now perhaps their firms – is a new development.

For much of the internet age, North Korea has been so far behind South Korea and others technologically that cyber was not an area in which it was expected to thrive. Indeed, it may be that North Korea contracts out its hacking requests to specialist, third-party “hacktivist” groups like the Lizard Squad or Anonymous. Yet Pyongyang has repeatedly surprised observers with its technological leaps. North Korea beat South Korea in drone development, and of course, it has developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It therefore seems likely that cyber is an emerging arena of North Korean activity.  Governments, and now business, will be forced to defend themselves.

Indeed, cyber is an ideal arena for North Korea for many reasons.

It is a twilight space with few agreed rules and much room for plausible deniability.

Predictably, Pyongyang immediately disavowed the Sony hack, and many have questioned the U.S. evidence. But unlike easily recognizable traditional aggression in the physical world, it is hard for non-experts to grasp virtual “aggression.” Anyone could see the sunken South Korean destroyer Cheonan in 2010 and make the reasonable conjecture that North Korea torpedoed it. But few have the ability to understand the nuances and details of cyber-hacking. It is not immediately evident that hacking is even “aggression.” Is leaking private photos and emails, or knocking out a bank website for a few hours, an attack or industrial espionage? Should it invite a defensive, perhaps military, response?

Cyberspace attacks allow North Korea to wreak havoc, but with only oblique links between its action and real-world consequences such as injury or property damage. For example, if a patient dies in a hospital whose power was cut in a hack, whose fault is that? Perhaps the hospital should have had stronger redundancy systems or better trained staff, because power failures happen anyway.

There are no good answers yet to questions such as these, which also explains why Chinese hacking of U.S. institutions has been met with such a confused policy response. Traditional international law and organizations cover “real world” conflict issues (eg. rules of war, war crimes, the treatment of prisoners of war). But given the sheer novelty of cyber war, there are no clear norms for what constitutes aggression, defense, proportional response, and so on. In short, the vague, hard-to-attribute, poorly regulated, twilight character of cyber provocation is likely very attractive to Pyongyang.

Finally, cyber-hacking fits longstanding North Korean preferences for both the asymmetric harassment of South Korea and criminal activity.

North Korea (probably) cannot win an open conflict with South Korea. This is well known even among Pyongyang elites, who have consistently stepped back from the abyss of their own rhetoric, such as in the 2013 spring war crisis. But North Korea is built around an enemy image of South Korea and anti-Americanism. These are central tenets of its post-communist, nationalist ideology. Regular tension with the South, and the U.S. and Japan, helps justify why North Korea exists despite the end of the Cold War, and why unification – ostensibly the regime's stated goal – never occurs.

The dilemma then for Pyongyang is how to gin up enough tension to justify North Korea's existence as a separate, poorer Korean state, but not produce so much that war breaks out. Here again, cyber is a great fit. Its twilight nature allows regular action against the South and U.S., but without the clear-cut fallout which might provide a casus belli. The Interview, which mocks the leadership that North Korean propaganda treats as semi-divine, was an ideal target for such action.

Finally, hacking is a congenial choice for a regime already steeped in criminal gangsterism. North Korea produces methamphetamines, counterfeit dollars and RMB, proliferates military technology, engages in insurance fraud and so on. As a rogue state that already rejects the basic rules of the global economy, cyber-hacking is likely just another technique.

Both the governments and businesses in South Korea, Japan, and the West will have to prepare for North Korean cyber-harassment and debate the manner of response.

Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.

This piece was first posted on the Lowy Interpreter. 

Image: Flickr/ rapidtravelchai

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

Bashar al-Assad: A Clever Sociopath

The Buzz

President Bashar al-Assad has been a busy man over the past several weeks.  In addition to bombing civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately and starving out his opponents and the civilians who happen to live under their domain, Syria’s strongman-president has conducted several interviews with the western press.  And, in each of these interviews – despite tough questions and pushback from the interviewers – Assad’s strategy is the same: deny that his government bears any responsibility for the absolute destruction of Syria and the suffering of its population.

As one person out of many who has monitored Bashar al-Assad’s demeanor and behavior during this horrific war, it’s a tried-and-true tactic that has worked for him in the past and continues to work for him in the present.  The man has single-handedly killed over 200,000 of his own people with some of the most indiscriminate and inhumane weapons that mankind has to offer (guidance-free barrel bombs casually rolled out of helicopters; chemical weapons that have been banned by the international community, including sarin and nerve agent; chlorine dropped from Syrian aircraft; starvation; the withholding of medical equipment, etc.), yet has consistently acted as if the humanitarian watchdogs, governments, and multilateral organizations accusing him of these things are crazy, naïve, or drinking Kool-Aid created and sold by the United States and its Arab “puppets.” 

If you were expecting anything differently from the most recent interview Assad gave to Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, you will be sorely disappointed.  Indeed, despite constant pushing and probing by a very capable interviewer and journalist, Assad sat in the fancy chair inside his presidential suite composed, calm, and collected, as he always is and always appears to be in public.    

When you think of a bloodthirsty dictator that has cut the lives of hundreds of thousands of people short, most people think about manic and aggressive personalities like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Muammar QaddafiBashar al-Assad’s behavior, however, is precisely the opposite, which is why studying him is so interesting.  He doesn’t yell, scream, or jester violently in the air with his arms when he’s confronted with tough questions.  Nor does he restrict the kinds of questions that journalists ask.  Every topic that a journalist wants to talk about is on the table, which can only be viewed as part of a strategy to make him seem like a credible leader who can defend himself against challenges from prosecutorial reporters.  All of this says something about Assad as a person: he is as clever as he is brutal.

Over the past four years, Assad has allowed four big-name western journalists to interview him.  Barbara Walters interviewed him in December 2011, Charlie Rose talked to the Syrian president a few weeks after the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks, Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Affairs met Assad last month, and now Jeremy Bowen took a stab at him this week.  But while the questioners were different, the way Assad acted was very much the same: he spoke in a soft voice, presented himself as a statesman instead of an isolated dictator, chuckled to make himself more personable, and parsed words to muddle the definitive and evidence-based claims that his government is committing widespread, merciless humanitarian atrocities against innocent human beings. 

Assad’s time with Bowen is the latest case in point. 

On Syria being a failed state:

No, as long as the government and the state institutions are fulfilling their duty towards the Syrian people, we cannot talk about failed states. Talking about losing control is something completely different.

On Syrians peacefully demonstrating for greater rights:

You in the West called it, at that time, and some still talk about that period as "peaceful-demonstration period" and I will tell you that during the first few weeks, many policemen were killed, shot dead. I don’t think they were shot dead and killed by the sound waves of the demonstrators.

On the use of barrel bombs:

We don’t have barrels. Again, it’s like talking about cooking pots. So, we don’t have cooking pots.

On evidence from the OPCW that chlorine gas was deployed last year:

Chlorine gas exists in any factory, in any house in Syria, in anywhere in the world. It’s not a military material.

On allegations verified by the United Nations that the Syrian army is besieging rebel-held areas in an attempt to starve the population into submission:

[I]f we can prevent the food from accessing those areas, can’t we prevent the armaments from accessing the same areas?

On schools being struck by Syrian artillery and aircraft:

What is the aim of shelling schools, realistically? Why would a government shell a school? What do we gain from that?

Writing in The Washington Post about his experience speaking with Assad in Damascus, Jonathan Tepperman aptly concluded that the man is one of two things: either a “sociopath” who is lying through his teeth or a “delusional psychopath” who actually believes what he’s saying. 

From the outside looking in, we don’t know which diagnosis is correct.  But judging purely from the act that he’s trying to sell in public, one thing is abundantly clear: Assad does not look and speak like your typical tyrant.

Image: Wikimedia/Ricardo Stuckert/ABr - Agência Brasil

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East