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America's Master Plan to Crush Iranian Warships

The Buzz

The U.S. Navy appears to have a new low-cost plan to counter Iran’s fleet of speedboats.

As part of its asymmetric naval doctrine, Iran has amassed a fleet of Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) and speedboats equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles. The strategy aims to overwhelm U.S. warships operating in the Persian Gulf through the use of swarm tactics.

All signs suggest that this strategy could be highly efficient for Iran. As Brett Davis has recounted on the Center for International Maritime Security blog:

In 2002, a joint war game exercise, known as Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02), took place to gauge readiness in the event of a conflict with a hostile Middle Eastern nation. The results were disastrous for the U.S., with over a dozen ships destroyed and thousands killed or wounded as a result of asymmetric and unconventional naval warfare. 14 years later, Iranian asymmetrical warfare can still have a devastating effect on U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East.

The United States has thus been at pains trying to devise an effective strategy to deal with Iran’s swarm tactics. One aspect of the problem is that using Tomahawk or Harpoon missiles could prove awfully expensive as these missiles cost millions of dollars, far more than the Iranian speedboats.

As such, one possible solution the U.S. Navy has trumpeted in recent years is the use of lasers or kinetic-energy weapons. Indeed, it is notable that the first ship to carry laser weapons, the USS Ponce, is deployed in the Middle East.

Unlike most missiles, lasers are extremely cheap, costing only a few cents to fire. Moreover, whereas only a finite number of missiles can be carried on a ship, lasers give U.S. naval vessels a near infinite amount of ammunition. This is particularly important when dealing with the threat of a swarm of Iranian speedboats.

Lasers are not the only potential solution to the Iranian speedboat problem that the U.S. Navy is contemplating, however. One other venture is integrating the Longbow Hellfire missile system, designated as the Surface-to-Surface Missile Module (SSMM), onto America’s Littoral Combat Ships.

In that vein, the U.S. Navy recently announced the first test of the Longbow Hellfire missile system from a Littoral Combat Ship. The tests, which were announced at the end of last month, took place in mid-June, according to a Navy press release.

“During the mid-June tests off the coast of Virginia, the modified Longbow Hellfire missiles successfully destroyed a series of maneuvering small boat targets. The system 'hit' seven of eight targets engaged, with the lone miss attributed to a target issue not related to the missile's capability,” the press release said.

The Navy also explained in the statement that the test was designed to simulate engaging numerous fast-attack speedboats like the ones used by Iran. “Termed Guided Test Vehicle-1, the event was designed to specifically test the Longbow Hellfire launcher, the missile, and its seeker versus high speed maneuvering surface targets (HSMSTs). The HSMSTs served as surrogates for fast inshore attack craft that are a potential threat to Navy ships worldwide.”

As Motley Fool explained following the test, “Each Hellfire has a five-mile range, and will be self-guiding (i.e., 'fire-and-forget'). Once a threat is detected by shipboard or airborne radars, a Hellfire can be launched to destroy the target.”

Each LCS will be able to hold 24 Longbow Hellfire missiles, according to Motley Fool. One advantage the Longbow Hellfire missiles hold over other missiles considered, most notably Raytheon’s Griffin IIB missile, was that its “fire and forget” feature allows numerous missiles to be fired simultaneously. This was a point that Rear Adm. John Ailes, the then-program manager for LCS Mission Modules (PMS 420), emphasized when announcing that the Longbow Hellfire missiles had been chosen for the LCS’ SSMM.

“We have these 10,000 [Longbow] missiles, there’s no cost risk at all, it’s vertically launchable and you can shoot lots of them at same time and you don’t have to do that thing where you keep the laser on it,” Ailes said USNI News reported. That will be crucial in dealing with the Iranian speedboat threat.

The Navy press release from last month also emphasized this point, stating: “Integration of the ‘fire-and-forget’ Longbow Hellfire missile on LCS represents the next evolution in capability being developed for inclusion in the Increment 3 version of the surface warfare mission package for LCS. When fully integrated and tested, each 24-shot missile module will bring added firepower to complement the LCS's existing 57mm gun, SEARAM missiles and armed MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter”

The SSMM will be fully integrated and deployed on the LCS starting in 2017.

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

Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Get Ready, China: Taiwan's Navy Has Big Plans

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Taiwan lives every day with the threat posed by the increasingly capable armed forces of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Taiwanese Navy in particular has to consider both the prospect of a direct attack on the main island and the potential interdiction of its shipping, a critical problem for a country absolutely dependent on imported energy and resources.

This creates a constant tension between capabilities, which would prevent or delay an amphibious assault and those required for longer-range sea-control operations. There is, for example, a lively debate on the priority that should be given to mine warfare ahead of more expensive precision-guided weapons and targeting systems, and larger ships

Circumstances are pushing the Taiwanese Navy to a much greater level of autonomous capability development than it would want. Taiwan has long built its own surface combatants, but the difficulty of getting access to high capability designs is forcing it to be even more ambitious. While previous classes have been constructed to American or European designs, it now plans to build indigenous units, with a class of four 8000+ ton guided missile destroyers the centerpiece of the program, supplemented by high speed missile carrying attack catamarans, the first of which is in service.

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

This is not the limit of the Navy's ambitions. Replacement and expansion of the submarine force has probably the highest priority.

Taiwan would happily purchase submarines overseas but China's increasing global influence and economic weight have ensured that no submarine-building country has been willing to enter into an agreement with Taiwan, even for licensed manufacture. The only other potential provider, the U.S., has domestic restrictions on the building of non-nuclear submarines. Consequently, after much internal debate and several aborted projects, Taiwan has decided to go it alone, at least with the design and manufacture of submarine hulls and major systems.

(Recommended: 4 Chinese Weapons of War Taiwan Should Fear)

The Navy believes that Taiwan's high quality steel manufacturing and its commercial expertise with high pressure cylinders, underwater equipment and propulsion machinery give it the basis for the production of small submarines in the range of 1400 to 1800 tons. Eight are planned. The Taiwanese Navy is not entirely in the wilderness in relation to some of the associated elements of submarine technology and is likely to seek US support for weaponry and for sensors and systems such as optronic masts. It already has Sub-Harpoon missiles; deliveries of the first of 32 began in 2013 and should be complete by 2016.

In the meantime, the two ageing Dutch-built submarines will be refitted further. The Taiwanese Navy expects that experience with renewal of elements of their pressure hulls will help the development of expertise for the new units. Contrary to some reports, the pair of very elderly ex-US Navy Guppy boats will not be refitted. They are simply too old, at 70+ years (and, arguably, too primitive).

(Recommended: 5 Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear)

There is another element to Taiwanese naval planning than the defense of the island and its sea lines of communication.

Taiwan seeks every opportunity to demonstrate its presence internationally, something the People's Republic of China works hard to restrict. Taiwan would very much like to participate in international maritime security and anti-piracy operations, but China's influence is too powerful for this to be possible. However, it has not escaped Taiwan that seaborne humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) capabilities not only have domestic utility – particularly in a country prone to typhoons – but are a potential mechanism to remind others of Taiwan's existence.

A first step on this direction has been taken with the new 20,000 ton replenishment ship Panshih. The ship has extensive medical facilities including a four-ward hospital, as well as substantial fuel and dry cargo capacity, a helicopter hangar and flight deck. The Taiwanese Navy may well invest in a second unit, but it also plans to build at least one 11,000 ton landing platform dock. While this will replace some very elderly ex-US Navy amphibious units, such a ship also has obvious utility for HADR and for long-range peace missions. The Navy has even begun feasibility studies for a 30,000 ton landing helicopter dock (LHD) similar in size to the Spanish Juan Carlos and Australian Canberra.

Whether Taiwan has the design resources, let alone the funding, to manage every line of development that its Navy is considering is moot. Nevertheless, it is clear that Taiwan's defense planners are doing what they can to fulfill the intent of Taiwan's 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review to “gain multi-functional capabilities, and engage in close regional cooperation so as to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait, ensure national security, become a "peacemaker" in the international community, and contribute to peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Revealed: The Most Powerful Nuclear Bomb Ever

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Maj. Andrei Durnovtsev, a Soviet air force pilot and commander of a Tu-95 Bear bomber, holds a dubious honor in the history of the Cold War.

Durnovtsev flew the aircraft that dropped the most powerful nuclear bomb ever. It had an explosive force of 50 megatons, or more than 3,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima weapon.

Over the years, historians identified many names for the test bomb.

Andrei Sakharov, one of the physicists who helped design it, simply called it “the Big Bomb.” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev called it “Kuzka’s mother,” a reference to an old Russian saying that means you are about to teach someone a harsh, unforgettable lesson.

The Central Intelligence Agency blandly dubbed the test “Joe 111.” But a more popular name born out of Russian pride and a sheer awe sums it all up —theTsar Bomba, or “the King of Bombs.”

“As far as I can tell the term did not surface until after the end of the Cold War,” Alex Wellerstein, a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology and blogger, told War Is Boring. “Before that it was just called the 50 megaton or 100 megaton bomb.”

“I think we make a lot more of the Tsar Bomba today than anytime other than the immediate period in which it was tested.”

“Americans like to point to it as an example of how crazy the Cold War was, and how crazy the Russians are and were,” Wellerstein added. “Russians seem to take pride in it.”


On Oct. 30, 1961, Durnovtsev and his crew took off from an airfield on the Kola Peninsula and headed to the Soviet nuclear test area above the Arctic Circle at Mityushikha Bay, located in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

The test project’s scientists painted the Bear bomber and its Tu-16 Badger chase plane white to limit heat damage from the bomb’s thermal pulse. That’s at least what the scientists hoped the paint would do.

The bomb also had a parachute to slow its drop, giving both planes time to fly about 30 miles from ground zero before the nuke detonated. This gave Durnovtsev and his comrades a chance to escape.

When the planes reached their destination at the predetermined altitude of 34,000 feet, he ordered the bomb dropped. The chute opened, and the bomb started its three-minute descent to its detonation altitude two-and-a-half miles above the earth.

Durnovtsev pushed the throttles to the max.

Then the bomb exploded.

The five-mile wide fireball reached as high in the sky as the Bear bomber. The shock wave caused the Bear to drop more than half a mile in altitude before Durnovtsev regained control of his aircraft.

The blast broke windows more than 500 miles away. Witnesses saw the flash through heavy cloud cover more than 600 miles from the blast site.

Its mushroom cloud boiled up into the atmosphere until it was 45 miles above ground zero — essentially, on the lower boundaries of space. The top of the mushroom cloud spread out until it was 60 miles wide. The nuke’s thermal pulse burned the paint off of both planes.

And that was small compared to the Soviets’ original plan.

The designers originally intended the bomb to have a 100-megaton yield. They used a three-stage Teller-Ulam lithium dry-fuel configuration — similar to the thermonuclear device first demonstrated by the United States during the Castle Bravo shot.

Concerns about fallout prompted Russian scientists to use lead tampers that dialed down the yield to half of the bomb’s capabilities. Interestingly enough, Tsar Bomba was one of the “cleanest” nuclear weapons ever detonated, because the bomb’s design eliminated 97 percent of the possible fallout.

Even its size was monstrous. It was 26 feet long, about seven feet in diameter and weighed more than 60,000 pounds — so large it couldn’t even fit inside of the bomb bay of the modified Bear bomber used to drop it.

The Tsar Bomba was so big, it’s doubtful whether it could ever have been a practical weapon delivered by a Soviet bomber.

Because of the distance from the Soviet Union to America, removal of the fuselage fuel tanks to accommodate the bomb — combined with its sheer weight — meant that a Bear bomber wouldn’t have sufficient fuel for the mission even with aerial refueling.

However, the CIA investigated whether the Soviets planned to place similar warheads on super-powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles that would target American cities.

The reason was accuracy. Or rather, the lack thereof. Because of the NATO alliance’s nuclear advantages, the U.S. could place bombers and intermediate range ballistic missiles fairly close to Soviet targets in Eastern Europe.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. placed intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the Thor in the United Kingdom and Turkey, and Honest John and Matador missiles in West Germany.

The shorter flight distance for those missiles meant they had a better chance of delivering their nuclear warheads effectively on target.

Russian nuclear weapons had further to travel, so there was more chance of missing the mark. But for a 100-megaton warhead … close enough will do.

Consider the damage a 100-megaton version of the Tsar Bomba could inflict on Los Angeles — say, if detonated directly above the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

On a clear day, an airburst at 14,000 feet above ground level would produce a nuclear fireball two miles wide that would be hotter than the surface of the sun, reducing concrete and steel skyscrapers to ashes.

Within five miles of ground zero, everyone not killed by the blast and heat would receive a lethal dose of 500 rems of high-energy radiation. Up to 20 miles away from the detonation, the blast wave would gut every building — even concrete and steel reinforced buildings.

Up to 50 miles away, anyone exposed to the flash of the weapon would receive third-degree burns. In short, a Tsar Bomba warhead would completely devastate the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area.

In 1963, Khrushchev said the Soviet Union possessed a 100-megaton bomb that it deployed to East Germany. But the premier’s claim has divided historians on whether it was true, or was just boasting.

As for Sakharov, his experience building and testing Tsar Bomba changed his life, prompting him to abandon weapons research.

He became an outspoken critic of Soviet efforts to create an anti-ballistic missile defense system, an advocate for civil rights in the Soviet Union and much-persecuted political dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

And Durnovtsev? Immediately after successfully dropping Tsar Bomba, the Soviet air force promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In addition, he received the Hero of the Soviet Union award, the highest honor bestowed for service to the Soviet state.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here


Watch Out, America: China Unveils New Massive Missile Launcher

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China has built a massive new mobile missile launcher likely intended to carry its new anti-ship missile.

This month, Chinese citizens began posting pictures of a new Transporter Erector Launch (TEL) vehicle seen driving on the streets of China. The new TEL is much bigger than China’s current TELs used to carry CJ-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM).

As Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer note on their spectacular Eastern Arsenal blog:

This new TEL vehicle is similar to the all-terrain 8X8 TEL for the CJ-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM), but it's much, much bigger. It appears to share a similar powertrain to the CJ-10 TEL and has the same width, but it's much longer; it has 6 axles with 12 all-terrain wheels. There's an extended section above the first and second axles, which would likely hold additional personnel and equipment for missile launch and flight corrections.   

The authors go on to point out that the new TEL “has a satellite communications dome, suggesting that it requires higher bandwidth for datalinks necessary to operate a more sophisticated missile.”

Furthermore, China’s current CJ-10 TELs carry three missiles, while the new one only has two canisters. These canisters are both wider and longer than the CJ-10 TELs. Lin and Singer write that “the new canisters appear to be about 9-10 meters long, compared to 7 meters for the CJ-10 LACM canister.”

From this, Lin and Singer speculate that the TEL is built to carry China’s new YJ-18 anti-ship missile, which is based off the Russian Klub anti-ship missile. “Given that the longest Klub missiles are about 9 meters in length (including booster), the new TEL could be for the YJ-18 anti-ship missile,” they write.  

On the other hand, they note that the greater diameter of the canister suggests it could be intended to carry China’s “long-range surface-to-air and anti-ballistic HQ-26 missile, an ultra long-range (4,000km+) cruise missile, or another large supersonic cruise missile.”

If the TEL is intended to carry the YJ-18 ASCM, it would be a significant development for the U.S. Navy. As Lyle Goldstein noted on The National Interest back in June, the Pentagon estimates “the range of YJ-18 at 290 nautical miles—more than double that of its likely progenitor, the Russian SS-N-27 Klub ASCM (export version).  If correct, moreover, this new range will, in the near term, more or less quadruple the range of the standard ASCM fired from most PLA Navy submarines.”

Like the Klub ASCM, the YJ-18 is also believed to be a partially supersonic missile. As Goldstein noted, Chinese-language articles refer to the YJ-18 as a “dual-speed” missile, and speculate “that [the] YJ-18 would have an initial subsonic phase estimated at .8 Mach similar to the Klub of about 180km, but 20km from the target would unleash the supersonic sprint vehicle at speed of Mach 2.5 to 3.”  

Chinese-language press have also claimed that the YJ-18 improves upon the Klub missile in the areas of “digitization, automation, as well as providing more intelligent flight control and navigation technology.”

The mobility of the TELs would make it easier for China to conceal its YJ-18s from the U.S. military or any other adversary in the event of conflict. Placing them on Hainan Island or other parts of southern China would be consistent with China’s desire to implement an anti-access/area-denial strategy against the United States.

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

Image: Wikimedia/Jian Kang

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Get Ready, America: China Has Its Own Lethal B-52 Style Bomber

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Today just three countries operate long-range heavy bombers. Russia has 170 or so Bears, Backfires and Blackjacks. America fields 160 swing-wing B-1s, radar-evading B-2s and stalwart B-52s.

China’s bomber force is smaller with around 130 H-6s. And most of the H-6s, copies of Russia’s Cold War Tu-16, lack the long range and heavy payload that many of the Russian and American bombers boast.

But that’s changing. After years of work, the Chinese air force has reportedly outfitted two regiments—together possessing around 36 bombers — with a new, much more capable “K” version of the H-6.

The H-6K is Beijing’s B-52 — a far-flying, fuel-efficient heavy bomber combining a simple, time-tested airframe with modern electronics and powerful, precision weaponry. Although to be fair, the B-52 flies much farther with more bombs and missiles.

Still, over the vast Pacific Ocean, where the tyranny of distance prevents most aircraft from operating efficiently, the H-6K could prove to be one of China’s most important planes in wartime.

But the H-6K could have a big weakness — one that actually has little to do with the bomber itself.

Tupolevs Forever

The H-6K is a 21st-century version of a Soviet bomber that first flew in April 1952. The Tupolev design bureau’s Tu-16 was the Soviet Union’s first big, jet-propelled bomber. Powered by two AM-3 turbojets buried in the wing roots, the subsonic Tu-16 could haul up to 10 tons of bombs — nuclear or conventional.

With a standard bombload and no aerial refueling, a Tu-16 could fly more than 1,000 miles before needing to turn back.

The Tu-16, which NATO called “Badger,” proved to be a solid, reliable airplane, much like the United States’ B-52, which first flew in 1954 and, with lots of upgrades, is still going strong.

Moscow quickly developed different versions of the Tu-16 for reconnaissance, electronic warfare, aerial refueling and to haul cruise missiles for attacks on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

Faster and more modern Tu-22Ms and Tu-160s — NATO designations “Backfire” and “Blackjack,” respectively — replaced the Badgers as the Cold War ended. But the Tu-16 soldiered on … in China.

Beijing’s Heavy Bomber

China bought the rights to the Tu-16 in the late 1950s. Over the next 60 years, state-owned manufacturer Xian churned out nearly 200 copies of the redesignated H-6.

Like the Soviets, the Chinese modified the basic, four-person H-6 for a wide range of missions. The H-6A was an atomic bomber. The H-6B was a recon plane. The H-6C was a conventional bomber. There’s an H-6U tanker version. The H-6H, M and K models carry cruise missiles.

But until the H-6K first flew in 2007, all of Beijing’s bombers were still 1950s-vintage Tu-16s in their guts. Swapping old engines and electronics for modern gear, the H-6K represents a huge evolutionary leap over the old Xian bombers.

The H-6K replaces the original AM-3 turbojets — which one analyst called “thirsty and maintenance intensive by current standards” — with much more efficient D-30 turbofans. Without aerial refueling, an armed H-6K can cruise 1,900 miles or so before needing to turn around — a big improvement over older models.

Even more impressive, an H-6K that refuels in mid-air twice can reportedly range 3,100 miles from base while hauling 12 tons of weapons, including up to six YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missiles or CJ-20 subsonic land-attack cruise missiles, capable of striking targets 250 and 1,500 miles away, respectively.

Supported by tankers, an H-6K armed with YJ-12s or CJ-20s could venture deep into the Pacific, hunting for American ships or even flying within striking distance of America’s own main bomber outpost in Guam, some 3,000 miles from the Chinese mainland.

“That is, if it can slip through air defenses,” analyst Hans Kristensen pointed out. But Jon Solomon at Information Dissemination assumed Chinese fighters would accompany the bombers in order to protect them. “H-6Ks can be escorted thousands of miles out to sea by J-11s,” Solomon wrote.

Targeting Dilemma

But it’s not enough to just safely fly that far. Long-range strikes — especially against moving ships at sea — require careful planning and precise targeting. The H-6K sports a new nose radome housing a modern air-to-ground radar, which might help guide a YJ-12 but undoubtedly lacks the power to spot targets for a CJ-20.

Instead, the CJ-20 probably requires mission planners to pre-load precise coordinates into the missile’s computer prior to launch. The YJ-12 has its own seeker but the bomber needs to lob the missile into the right general area for the munition to have any chance of detecting and hitting a ship.

“It is not clear whether China has the capability to collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes in sea areas beyond the first island chain” — that is, a couple thousand miles from the Chinese coast, the Pentagon explained in its 2013 report on China’s military.

Targeting, more than the physics of flight and fuel consumption, is likely the current practical limit on the H-6K’s reach, and thus its wartime usefulness to Chinese commanders.

In battle, a long-range bomber is only as good as the intelligence that tells it where to strike. And when it comes to intel for bomber raids, China might not be quite ready to steer its new H-6Ks.

Just wait. According to William Murray from the U.S. Naval War College, “it seems reasonable to assume that China has assessed what is necessary and is investing aggressively to satisfy those requirements.”

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Revealed: Russia's Mighty Pivot to Africa

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From 1961 to 1992, one of Moscow’s most prestigious schools bore the name of Patrice Lumumba, the Soviet-supported Congolese independence leader brutally executed in 1961. Patrice Lumumba University recruited and educated generations of foreign leaders, especially African leaders, and was just one of the many ways in which the Soviet Union cultivated ties with Africa. Then with the fall of the Soviet Union, after years of pouring money, arms, and manpower into left-leaning anticolonial movements, Russia’s presence in Africa, and Lumumba University, nearly disappeared overnight. But today, two decades later, Russia is once again working to establish a foothold on the continent.

Russia’s interests in Africa are manifold. As economic sanctions constrict its trade with the West, Africa is becoming an increasingly attractive investment opportunity. At the same time, Africa’s fifty-four countries represent a political opportunity to relieve Russia’s isolation and build support for its actions in the UN. Finally, Russia’s prominence in Africa lends credibility to its reassertion of world power status. The effectiveness of Russia’s re-engagement policy is still in question, but its progress is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

According to the Atlantic Center’s Africa Center Director J. Peter Pham, between 2000 and 2012, Russia’s trade with Africa increased ten times over. Russia has invested heavily in raw resource megaprojects, signing a $4 billion deal with Uganda in February to build and operate a crude oil refinery and $3 billion deal with Zimbabwe to develop a platinum mine.

Some of its trade has been more overtly political. Russia is a major supplier of arms to both North and sub-Saharan Africa. Russian arms are an increasingly popular alternative to U.S. weaponry, which still dominates the market despite higher monetary and political costs. When the United States rejected a Nigerian request for Cobra attack helicopters in 2014 for instance, Nigeria responded by cancelling a U.S. military training program to fight Boko Haram and investing in Russian aircraft. Now, Russia trains Nigerian Special Forces. The true extent of Russian security deals is difficult to measure because their opaqueness. In at least one case, an African country’s civilian intelligence agency was forced to spy on its own military counterpart and Russia just to figure out what kind of surveillance system they had purchased for $100 million.

There are still some transparent indicators of Russian military presence in Africa that speak to the scale of Russia’s commitment. As Pham has noted, Russian soldiers involved in peacekeeping operations in Africa surpass those of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States combined.

Russia’s outreach goes further than financial and military bonds. Russian leaders visiting Africa capitalize on a narrative that emphasizes their historical support for African independence. At a time when the United States designated Nelson Mandela a terrorist for fear of his socialist sympathies, the Soviet Union actively trained and armed the African National Congress, now the ruling party of South Africa, to fight apartheid. Soviet support helped fuel liberation struggles across Africa. At the same time, Russia today pays little attention to undemocratic practices and human rights abuses that often hinder U.S. efforts on the continent. This strategy of combining historical moralism with present-day moral relativism has had some limited success. Although the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine by a large margin, two of the ten countries that voted with Russia were African, while a large portion of the rest of Africa abstained.

Despite formidable investments in Africa, Russia is still eclipsed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and China. Unlike those countries however, Russia’s own abundance of natural resources may convince it to focus more on exporting arms. These weapons seem as likely to enforce stability and repress militants, as they are to fall into the wrong hands and spread instability. Russia’s deteriorating economic situation, and more pressing concerns on its borders, may mean the current relationship won’t be sustainable. Nevertheless, the current trend seems toward greater involvement, which makes Russia an important player in any long-term view of U.S. policy in Africa.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Africa in Transition here

Image: Office of the President, Russia. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfrica

The U.S. Air Force's Ultimate What If: No F-35 and Many More F-22's

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The idea hasn’t gotten beyond the Duffel Blog and this column, but what if the USAF had long ago dropped the F-35A? As I noted last month, had the Pentagon foregone developing a wholly new fighter jet, the $100 billion it has spent to date on the F-35 project would have bought about 740 Eurofighter Typhoons. Euro-anything, of course, is hardly the USAF’s style, and the War Department hasn’t bought a French fighter since 1918. Doing so today is about as likely as Rob Farley getting a “Friend of the Air Force” award from General Welsh. So what else might the USAF have done? As a first-order vignette in this alternative history, let’s assume that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wouldn’t have ended the F-22 program in 2009 at 187 aircraft. That said, the answer was never just a lot more F-22s.

The first problem is procurement and operating costs. The USAF might have aimed for the 322 that it had wanted for much of the 2000s. Indeed, half that $100 billion could have bought them. The trouble is that the Pentagon couldn’t have indefinitely afforded those aircraft—the F-22’s size, twin engines, and low observability maintenance requirements mean operating costs of about $44,000 per flight hour. Much of that cost is fixed, and admittedly spread over a relatively small fleet; the incremental cost may be just half that. Just how much or little is impossible to know without auditable accounts, but an F-22 was never going to cost as little to operate as an F-16.

The second problem may be over-investment in a particular style of warfighting. The complaint that the F-35 is much less maneuverable than the F-22 has persisted for years. Editorializing in The West Australian just last month, Dennis Jensen of the Australian Federal Parliament again asked whether it was “time to remember the Vietnam air war lesson”—how F-4s with radar-guided missiles, though intended as standoff killers, had to fall back on dogfighting MiGs when those missiles didn’t work. But in The National Interest the next day, Andrew Davies of the ASPI offered the counterpoint: air battles over Vietnam actually were mostly about missiles, not guns. The Phantoms just had trouble getting into firing position. With modern all-aspect missiles, firing position is basically anywhere within physical range—and that’s longer from straight ahead, where the missile takes advantage of the relative closure speed. Indeed, as John Stillion of the CSBA showed with his recent study on air-to-air combat, most aerial engagements these days are face-shots. Almost no one has fought dogfights for decades, and aerial cannons are used about as often as bayonets.

Bombs are used a lot, however, and on the margin, $150 million is a lot of money for an airplane that can drop just two thousand-pounders. That revisits the first problem—the F-22 is so expensive both because it’s stealthy and such a dogfighter. Building a radar-evading aircraft with control surfaces that large necessarily means building a big aircraft. As Stillion wrote, the consistently more powerful engines and stronger aero-structures of fighters have meant aircraft that are faster, higher-flying, and more maneuverable, but also “an almost unbroken trend toward ever-higher aircraft empty weight”—and thus greater cost. After spending money on more F-22s, the USAF may not have sought the capability of another huge and agile dogfighter, but the capacity of more air-to-ground bang for the million bucks.

Had the Pentagon not pursued the F-35, the USAF today might have those 322 F-22s, but an old fleet of A-10Cs, F-15C/Es, and F-16C/Ds. The A-10Cs might plausibly not have attracted quite as much opprobrium from the brass as soon as they did. But the generals would be all the more worried about the survivability of all those older aircraft against long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Lockheed’s mooted idea of an FB-22 might have gotten more traction. The current project for a new long-range stealth bomber might have gotten going earlier. But someone by now also would have pitched another stealthy light bomber

This strike aircraft concept certainly would have come without a lift fan, as a joint project with the USMC was clearly never going to produce that kind of plane. The aircraft would thus have come with that bubble canopy, whether it’s needed anymore or not. With less heed paid to dogfighting at all, the designers might have de-emphasized speed and maneuverability, and aimed for longer range. It could still have been a joint project with the Navy (whatever RAND says), as the scar weight for arrested landings might have been reasonable. That could have produced the long-range light bomber that the Navy finds itself needing now in the Pacific, and the USAF will wish it had there too. Maybe then, with the right marketing, the JSF could have been the JSA—the Joint Strike Aircraft—just without all the hand-wringing about what sort of dogfighter it is.

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

Image: Wikicommons. 


Get Ready, China: Carly Fiorina Talks Tough on the South China Sea

The Buzz

The Iran nuclear deal has certainly dominated headlines, and rightly so considering the stakes involved. However, it seems at least some of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates are beginning to make their opinions known on what could be only described as America’s ultimate foreign policy challenge in an area of the planet that offers economic opportunity as well as deep tensions.

While many of the 2016 Presidential hopefuls on both sides of spectrum have been mostly silent on matters in the Asia-Pacific region—and specifically on China—one candidate seems to have offered at least some indication of her approach to Asia: Carly Fiorina.

Fiorina, rising in the polls thanks to a strong debate performance in Cleveland that many had her winning in dominant fashion, came out swinging over China’s actions in the South China Sea, cyber spying and its overall aggressive stance in the region. While somewhat vague in specifics, she did offer some clues on what she might do as President.

“We are going to have to be more aggressive in helping our allies in the region push back against new Chinese aggression, whether those allies are Australia, or Japan, or the Philippines,” Fiorina explained to CBS News in a recent interview. “Now that China's economy is wavering a bit, I would be conducting more flyovers on the South China Sea. We cannot permit China to control a trade route through which passes $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year.”

The former CEO of HP did not stop there.

“Chinese cyber-attacks are an act of aggression on the United States, and it must stop,” Fiorina said. “It is also true that our government has to be more competent about detecting and repelling those attacks.”

Fiorina's comments match the tone and substance of another top-tier GOP candidate who has essentially called for a tougher line on China: Scott Walker.

In an interview with The National Interest back in July, Walker explained his own vision when it comes to relations with Beijing:

“The communist regime in Beijing has exploited the hollowness of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s “pivot” to Asia and the regime poses a serious challenge to American interests. In order to push back against China’s growing assertiveness, the U.S. must rebuild our defenses in Asia, develop a cyber deterrent that punishes China for its hacking, and continue to cultivate a coalition of free Pacific nations that stand for democracy, peace, and open markets. We must also stand up for human rights and speak out against the abysmal lack of freedoms in China.”

Walker did hint that there are areas of mutual interest where both America and China should cooperate:

“At the same time, we do not seek conflict with Beijing, and there are several areas where we both stand to benefit from close cooperation, from trade to dealing peacefully with the North Korean threat. But the truth is, conflict in the Asia-Pacific region will be less likely if China understands that we are ready to defend our national security interests and those of our friends and allies.”  

While debate over the Iran deal, ISIS, and even aggressive Russian actions in and around Ukraine seem destined to be the dominant foreign policy items of contention in the weeks and months to come, debate over the future of U.S.-China relations has the potential to become of greater importance—with one prominent expert declaring China “The sleeper issue of 2016.”

In a featured piece for Politico Magazine, Princeton Professor and respected scholar Aaron L. Friedberg laid out the challenge in compelling fashion:

“With the United States constrained by tight budgets and preoccupied with other problems, China has been pushing hard, and with some success, to change the status quo and shift the balance of power in its favor. While some China watchers continue to argue otherwise, it has become increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to displace the United States and resume its traditional position as the preponderant power in Asia. This is a strategic challenge of historic dimensions.”

With Beijing recently devaluing its currency putting pressure on U.S. exports, multiple areas of economic competition and what seems like always simmering tensions in the South and East China Sea all aspiring presidential candidates must ensure they have a plan of action when it comes to what can only been seen as America’s biggest foreign policy question--a rising and increasingly assertive China.

Harry J. Kazianis is Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at The Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

America's Future Aircraft Carriers Will Pack Tons of Firepower

The Buzz

Despite the proliferation of precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft carriers are far from obsolete.

That was the message Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, commander of Naval Air Forces, sought to deliver this week.

Writing in a commentary piece on DOD Buzz, Shoemaker argued that: “Today, more than ever, U.S. national interests require the speed, endurance, flexibility and autonomous nature of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered aircraft carrier, which deploys, operates and is prepared to fight as part of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG).”

He added: “Operationally, the combined strength of the CSG remains vastly greater than the sum of its parts. As a complex, joint force multiplier, with command and control and organic logistical capabilities, there exists no comparable way to quickly generate the effects crucial to American diplomatic and economic interests that carrier aviation offers.”

Furthermore, Shoemaker stated, carrier strike groups are more than able to defend themselves even in contested environments. “Even when faced with contested waters and airspace, the composition and maneuverability of a CSG ensures survivability of the carrier while its embarked carrier air wing uses its integrated capabilities to project power, thus enabling the U.S. to continue its role as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world.”

Still he admitted that “After nearly 14 years of sustained combat operations, Naval Aviation forces must reset and recapitalize in an effort to ensure readiness in the future.”

In both the DoD Buzz op-ed, as well as at an event this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, Shoemaker outlined how the U.S. Navy intends to transform its CSGs in the coming decades to keep them relevant.

This begins with the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, the successor class to America’s Nimitz-class carriers. “A truly innovative ship, the Gerald R. Ford-class CVN will be the nucleus for our future carrier strike groups and a critical enabler of U.S. naval power for the 21st century. A major redesign of the Nimitz-class, Ford incorporates visionary advances in technology resulting in significantly improved combat capability and enhanced service life,” Shoemaker wrote on DOD Buzz.

Aircraft carriers are only as effective as their air wings, the future of which Shoemaker discussed in both his DOD Buzz op-ed and at the CSIS event. Regarding firepower, Shoemaker mentioned both the F-35C and the UCLASS program, which is aimed at designing a long-range carrier-based stealth drone.

“Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike will be the next step in the Navy’s revolutionary integration of unmanned air systems into the CSG and will provide the strike group commander with persistent ISR plus time critical targeting and precision strike capability,” Shoemaker wrote. “The real advantage this system brings to the fleet is its ability to operate in anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environments and provide increased situational awareness of potential threats ahead of the CSG, essentially serving as the commander’s initial “eyes and ears” in contested air and water space.”

He also discussed the F-35C, which should reach initial operational capability in 2018. Although the F-35C will enhance CSGs’ stealth abilities, and be able to carry greater amounts of ordnance that current air wing aircraft, its greatest contribution to the CSG will be as a force multiplier.

“The most important thing that the F-35C brings is the ability to fuse information, collect the signals and things that are out in the environment and fuse it all together and deliver that picture to the rest of the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker said at the CSIS event, according to a report in DOD Buzz. This will enhance the lethality of the F/A-18 Super Hornets that will form the backbone of the future carrier air wings.

America’s CSGs will also boast greater anti-submarine warfare capabilities thanks to the upgraded MH-60R helicopter. “The R (MH-60R) comes with a very capable anti-submarine warfare package. It has an airborne low-frequency sensor, an advanced periscope detection system combined with a data link, and forward-looking infrared radar. With its capable electronic warfare suite, it is the inner defense zone against the submarine for the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker told the audience at CSIS this week.

America’s future CSGs will also be able to wage electronic warfare more effectively, according to Shoemaker. He noted that the U.S. Navy was currently finalizing the transition from the  EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft to the EA-18G Growler aircraft. “EA-18G Growlers will dominate the electromagnetic spectrum, providing advanced airborne electronic attack capabilities, screening CVW and CSG assets conducting their missions, and protecting joint forces operating ashore by disrupting enemy communications.” he wrote in the op-ed.

Shoemaker also noted that CSGs’ ISR capabilities will be improved by the retiring of the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft in favor of the upgraded E-2D variant.

“E-2D Hawkeyes have new radars that significantly improve their ability to search for and track targets while providing critical CSG command and control, and coordination of a range of missions, including integrated air and missile defense, and long range anti-air and anti-surface warfare,” Shoemaker wrote.

Watch Shoemaker discuss the future of the carrier air wing below:

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

Image: Wikimedia/U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

Watch: China's Shocking New Military Recruitment Video

The Buzz

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) last week released a new recruitment video that is unlikely to assuage growing fears in the region over an increasingly nationalistic and expansionist China.

The slick 4 minute 16 second video opens with the header “Our Dream.” Accompanied by a surprisingly restrained soundtrack, this section appeals to China's youth. We see young Chinese graduating from university and engaging in various sports, including snowboarding. This is interspersed with images of Hong Kong's retrocession, all meant to cultivate pride in a “new” China. “We were born in the 1990s,” the accompanying text says, in Chinese. “By then, China had already risen...with bright dreams, we want to shine like the new century...we want to become very strong.”

It doesn't take long, however, for the video to shift to bombastic music and visuals of a very different nature. The appeal to nationalism—and to China's territorial claims—is hard to miss, what with footage of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Japan and Taiwan, as well as various features in the South China Sea, a source of rising tension in recent years.

There are a few glimpses of the PLAN's humanitarian role, but this is contrasted with, and overtaken by, unmistakable militarism: endless footage of bombs falling, rockets being fired, things being blown up. There is definitely an element of signaling, and it's not meant to be reassuring. If we put this together with a campaign that included a video, aired on CCTV early last month, of exercises ostensibly simulating an assault on Taiwan's Presidential Office, the intention is to scare potential opponents, perhaps to win a war without having to fight.

In line with the martial video, the accompanying text shifts to something more troubling. Titled “Call of Duty,” part two tells us “Seventy-one percent of the globe we depend on is blue water...wherever there is blue water, we will be there to secure navigation...China's oceanic and overseas interests are expanding rapidly...our land is vast but we will not yield an inch of our territory to foreigners.”

The text then claims that China has 3 million square kilometers of ocean under its jurisdiction, a territory that includes as many as 6,700 islands. “The struggle over our sea rights is not over,” it continues. “We will not yield even the tiniest speck of our resources.” Note that the text says “resources,” not “territory,” though the latter is implicit. In other words, territory and the resources it contains are China's alone. According to a recent report on the PLAN by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, the references by Chinese commentators to China's “3 million square kilometers of blue territory” would incorporate “nearly 90 percent of the area within the major bodies of water within the First Island Chain, including the Bo Hai, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea.”

The third section of the video is titled, ominously, “The Honor Gene.” “Thousands of sea battles forged very bloody blood and the smell of gunpowder, we kept working hard, we kept growing....the passionate efforts of youth...forging in trials made possible the breakthrough...we maintain combat readiness...we are prepared for war,” the text says.

The last part of the video, “Seeking the Blue Dream,” has a less alarming tone. “Here with us, we will let you demonstrate your extraordinary talents...we give you the chance to sprout wings...the eyes of the entire world are watching us!... a strong motherland needs a strong navy...let us realize the dream of the great Chinese renaissance together,” it intones.

In reality, there are doubts as to whether Beijing, the Central Military Commission, or even the PLAN itself really has the intention of turning the Navy into a global force, especially not in the current geopolitical context, where such an endeavour would risk increasing tensions with the United States and and other Western navies.

This is partly the result of a lack of capabilities. Although the PLAN has conducted a number of live-fire exercises in the Western Pacific in recent years, that is a far cry from actual long-distance, months-long deployments. We are still probably years away (ONI says a decade) from the PLAN having the capability, cohesion, and interoperability for long-distance blue water missions. So at this point claims of a blue water PLAN are unrealistic. At best, the PLAN is a green water navy that is gradually moving away from its traditional role as a littoral combat force. Its ability to engage in combat in distant theatres of operation is even more questionable, and it will be several years yet before the PLAN can compete with better trained and more experienced opponents such as the U.S. Navy or the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, let alone a combination thereof.

Bombast and appeals to nationalism make all the sense in the world as part of a campaign to recruit young people. However, the undeniably martial tone of the video, combined with references to blood and genes, will hardly contribute to China's efforts to dispel rising apprehensions about its future intentions.

This piece originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter, here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia