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Australia’s Grand Strategy Challenge

The Buzz

It’s time for Australians to come to grips with their more troubling security outlook and debate how best to strengthen their deterrence and defensive capabilities. That’s the core message in my essay Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy, which was recently published by the Menzies Research Centre. Let me summarize a few of the key points for fellow readers of The Strategist.

What are some of the major changes in Australia’s security outlook? Let me touch on just six.

First, Australians need to appreciate that the Western allies no longer dominate the Western Pacific economy. The global balance of power is shifting markedly.

Second, we need to appreciate the unusual nature and massive scale of China’s military expansion. In particular, the People’s Liberation Army is not trying to match the US ship-for-ship, aircraft-for-aircraft or tank-for-tank. China’s asymmetric strategy rather places emphasis on building surveillance, missile, submarine, counter-satellite, cyber, and other capabilities that place the Western allies’ concentrated bases at risk, conventional force structures, and vulnerable logistic systems.

Beijing’s assertive international strategy is an even more fundamental change in Australia’s security environment. From a largely introverted posture 20 years ago, the regime in Beijing is now championing nationalist causes offshore, largely to reinforce its domestic legitimacy. That has driven the Chinese to launch aggressive cyber operations against Australia and its close allies, engage in dangerous confrontations with Japanese forces in the East China Sea, harass American ships and aircraft and dredge up new islands to reinforce its assertion of sovereignty over 80 percent of the South China Sea.

A fourth major change is that the US has morphed into a less confident and more hesitant ally. While Washington has announced a rebalancing of its forces to the Pacific, with some 60% of US naval and air assets planned for deployment to the theatre by 2020, the resources to implement the rebalance have been limited. US readiness levels have fallen and Washington has shown itself to be easily distracted by crises elsewhere.

In short, the strategic tides in the Indo–Pacific have been flowing against the US and its allies. Symptomatic of the shift is that during the last decade China’s defense spending quadrupled whereas US defense spending rose by a total of only 12%.

For Australia, the strategic implications of these developments are profound. During the Cold War, the center of superpower competition, tension, and potential conflict was in Central Europe. Australians became used to being located in a strategic backwater. But now the situation is markedly different. Whether we like it or not, we now find ourselves close to the center-stage of major power competition, international tensions and potential conflict.

Japan, India, and most countries in Southeast Asia broadly share Australia’s unease and in differing ways are taking steps to reinforce their security.

What should be the core themes of Australia’s grand strategy in this new era?

There’s clearly a need to accelerate the strengthening of Australia’s independent defense capabilities. At a minimum, this will mean boosting defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2022, as currently planned.

Given the heightened security concerns of most of our neighbors, there’s a strong case for further strengthening Australia’s security partnerships in the Indo–Pacific to reinforce regional resilience and confidence.

Several specific initiatives deserve considerations that have the potential to turbo-charge the Australia–US alliance.

First, Australia could reinforce American, Singaporean, and other regional efforts to enhance the maritime domain awareness of partner countries in the Indo-Pacific. Working with regional partners to develop a common operational picture of the maritime domain would strengthen local defenses, reinforce practical cooperation and help to bolster regional confidence.

Second, the United States and most of Australia’s other security partners currently have difficulties accessing a comprehensive network of military exercise and range facilities in the Indo–Pacific. This is a growing problem for the United States as it looks to position the bulk of its naval and air forces to the theatre. Relocating extra forces forward is one thing, but maintaining them in this theatre in a high state of readiness is another challenge altogether.

Australia already possesses exercise and range facilities that are large, relatively uncluttered, and feature diverse air, sea, and land environments. Australia could readily establish an Indo–Pacific Exercise and Range Complex that could be made available to its close allies and security partners on agreed terms and conditions. This would make extended American force deployments to Australia and its surrounding region much easier, more effective, and less expensive.

Third, the major changes under way in the Indo–Pacific are already forcing Australian and US defense planners to re-think many assumptions about future operations in this theatre. In consequence, there would be benefit in forming a small, high-quality Australia–US Strategic Planning Group.

Fourth, there is scope for Australia to exploit its strong track record for quality intelligence products, its geo-strategic location, its high quality workforce, and its technological sophistication by investing strongly to become the intelligence hub for close allies in the Indo–Pacific.

Fifth, Australia already hosts a number of facilities that support US and allied space programs. There’s scope for Australia to do more in this field to strengthen allied command resilience and operational capabilities in the Indo–Pacific.

Finally, the Pentagon is facing dilemmas as it contemplates basing modes in the Western Pacific for the coming half century. US basing in the region is currently over-concentrated and operationally constraining.

Canberra could assist greatly. Lowy Institute polling reveals that more than 80% of Australians support the alliance with the US, and well over 60% support the idea of US forces being permanently based in the country. What’s more, this friendly sentiment is mutual. US service personnel consistently rate Australia as one of the most desirable overseas locations to visit.

There now appears to be scope to negotiate extended deployments of US forces at joint Australia–US facilities. This could ease pressure on American basing in the Indo–Pacific, provide a much firmer, more dispersed, and more resilient allied operating presence and reinforce allied deterrence in the theatre.

The bottom line is that it’s time for Australians to consider how best to ensure the country’s security in a far more challenging Indo–Pacific region.

Let the debate begin!

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Office of the U.S. Secretary of State. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsOceania

South China Sea and Beyond: Why China's Huge Dredging Fleet Matters

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China's burgeoning dredging fleet adds another piece to the country's 'Swiss Army Knife' of infrastructure developmental tools that are driving its controversial island building in the South China Sea. 

Long after the sediment settles in those formerly pristine waters, China's 'Maritime Silk Road' strategy and related economic diplomacy is poised to drive major dredging demand in the form of port construction and channel widening. This is part of a larger pattern in which Beijing is able to capitalize on a key strength: parlaying broad economic, industrial and technological development into advancement of specific, yet evolving, geostrategic goals: the protection of what China believes are its maritime rights in the South China Sea and the advancement of its Maritime Silk Road initiative.

Land reclamation in the South China Sea became a hot topic at the recent 48th ASEAN Foreign Minister's Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Several countries, including normally quiet Malaysia, refused to remain silent despite Chinese requests to not broach the sensitive issue. ASEAN went as far as to include “land reclamations in the South China Sea” explicitly in the meetings' resulting communiqué.

The contentious issue of island building has strained China's relationships with its neighbors and the U.S., and while China has correctly noted that it is not alone in building new land in the Spratlys, the situation on the (newly-created) ground shows what can be accurately described as no contest. Where Vietnam has reclaimed 60 acres at one spot in five years, Malaysia 60 acres at one spot over 30 years, and Taiwan 5 acres at one spot over two years, China has effectively run away with the game, reclaiming nearly 3000 acres over the last 18 months.

These 'islands' did not simply appear at Beijing's whim. Their construction required the use of a large and impressive fleet of dredging ships that did not exist 15 years ago.

Starting in 2001, China made a conscious effort to expand and improve its then-poor-quality dredging fleet in a bid to both meet growing domestic demand for deeper waterways and ports (expected to hit 5–7.5 billion cubic meters a year by 2015) and to secure a place in the rapidly growing global dredging market. Through this investment, China managed to more than triple its annual dredging capacity from 300 million cubic meters in 2001 to over 1 billion cubic meters in 2009, becoming the world's biggest dredging country in terms of annual capacity.

China did not climb to the top of the dredging pyramid by simply having more ships than everyone else, but by building much larger and much more sophisticated dredgers. Between 2005 and 2012, China built 20 trailing suction hopper dredgers with hoppers of 9000m3 or larger. From 2004–2011, China launched at least 44 large cutter suction dredgers, including the world's third-largest self-propelled cutter suction dredger, Tianjing, in 2010.

China's announcement at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting that its reclamation activities in the South China Sea had halted came as little surprise, as Beijing had announced in June that it would finish reclamation work and move on to the next phase of construction. However, it does indicate that China's fleet of dredgers just became more readily available for their other intended purpose: helping to pave the Maritime Silk Road. 

China has invested heavily in port expansion and development throughout Southeast and South Asia. This includes over US$1 billion in Kuantan, Malaysia, to expand its port; the 2013 opening of a 2.4 million-container-a-year-capable terminal in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the reported berthing of a Chinese submarine there last year. Then there is the expansion of the port in Gwadar, Pakistan, which, when combined with other investments, is reportedly designed to allow for an overland oil route to Kashgar, China (impractical though that may be).

Besides keeping China's dredging fleet busy, these investments also tend to come with beneficial port operating contracts for Chinese state enterprises, including a 35-year terminal operating lease in Hambantota, Sri Lanka anda 40-year agreement in Gwadar

In the short span of a decade, China has thus created and deployed a fleet that is literally altering geography and leveraging broad economic, industrial and technological development to advance China's geostrategic goals. Such capability could also easily be leveraged to build an overseas naval base, or even simply to expand existing commercial ports to a large enough size as to host a PLA Navy ship for replenishment, thereby increasing the PLA Navy's far-seas capability. 

Andrew Erickson is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Kevin Bond is a research intern at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Why (Almost) Everything You Hear About the Digital Economy Is Wrong

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When most people think of the Internet they think of what they use—search engines, social media, online and streamed video and audio services and email. This is undoubtedly a big part of the reason why policymakers think that the digital economy is dominated by these “business-to-consumer” services.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, business-to-business digital commerce is ten times the size of the business-to-consumer space according to the UN Commission on Trade and Development’s Information Economy Report 2015. Seventy-five percent of the economic value of the digital economy goes to traditional bricks and mortar businesses and not Internet companies. This is true worldwide, not just in developed economies.

I’m a proud European so allow me to focus on the tragic discussion of the Internet economy in Europe, where policymakers obsess over the activities of a handful of U.S. multinationals instead of focusing on what really matters. According to the OECD, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, while growing rapidly, only employs three percent of Europeans. Small to medium sized enterprises are critical to every economy and account for more than ninety-nine percent of all businesses in many developed and developing countries and are the primary source of GDP growth and employment—not multinationals.

Thanks to the Internet, many services can now be exported in a way previously unthinkable. Outsourcing is a case in point: the Internet has facilitated the rise of businesses that provide payroll services, legal discovery services, and customer relationship management. These facts explain why services have become the largest segment of the world economy in GDP terms. According to the International Labour Organization’s Global Employment Trends 2014, it is also the largest employer: services are forty-five percent of employment and growing, whereas agriculture is thirty-one percent and falling, and non-services commerce twenty-three percent.

The Internet has also made possible the rise of global value chains (“GVCs”), a development which has led to an astonishing reality: services account for roughly a third of the inputs in tangible goods, such as cars, televisions, or pharmaceuticals. Pfizer is a perfect example of the Internet and GVCs. The pharmaceutical giant has transitioned its entire global supply chain and logistics to a cloud service-based system.

While the business-to-business portion of the digital economy is larger than its counterpart, business-to-consumer services can have a profound multiplier effects on other types of commerce. It’s worth understanding why these multiplier effects exist and how they contribute to growth in an economy—not just the ICT sector.

Let us imagine a debate about the digital economy that was driven by such pragmatic concerns rather than the almost Alice-in-Wonderland-discussion we have now, and again allow me to take my fellow Europeans as an example. A healthy and balanced European discussion should focus on:

- Identifying how traditional services can leverage the digital environment to compete, innovate and export, and the role ICT services can play to make this happen given that the European services industry accounts for seventy-three percent of the Euro area’s economy, not the single-digits that the ICT services sector represents.

- Developing ways to help traditional industries leverage the digital economy to compete. For example, Volvo, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial diesel engines, offers a 100 percent uptime guarantee thanks to sophisticated technology in their vehicles that indicates when parts need service before they fail. These service-enabled products are central to competitiveness and most European countries have national champions just like this.

- Analyzing what kind of data flows across the Internet and why. If e-commerce between businesses is ten times that between businesses and consumers, it is logical that a large proportion—and almost certainly a large majority—of data flowing across borders does not consist of personal information—Volvo’s engines reporting back to Volvo being a perfect example. The challenge of finding information on the proportion of data flows that is not personal tells us that we’re missing an important element of the discussion.

Europe is far from alone in suffering from an unhealthy economic debate on regulating multinational foreign business and consumer tech giants. Throughout the world policies being proposed as solutions—like demanding data to be hosted locally irrespective of any practical benefit to doing so—actually create far greater burdens on domestic competitiveness than on foreign multinationals. After all, multinationals have the economies of scale to afford burdensome data localization requirements. Of course when it comes to regulation, SMEs are often the very segment of the economy that suffers most despite being the most economically important.

I think that we will look back in a decade on the public debate about the networked economy we are having today and ask ourselves: “What were we thinking?” We’re making rules about the digital environment right now that will have an enormous impact on our economies and our societies for decades to come. We need to stop allowing the economic tail to wag the dog.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsEurope

Revealed: How to Roll Back China's Misdeeds in the South China Sea

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Over the last six years, the South China Sea has become a boiling cauldron. China's expansive claim and stubborn assertiveness in this body of water, through which half of the world's shipping tonnage passes, have rattled not only littoral countries but also the world's major powers. What should these countries do to reverse China's assertive course and stabilize the South China Sea?

China's Winning Strategy 

China has a geopolitical design and a subtle strategy for the South China Sea. Beijing usually blames other countries for causing its assertive actions and denies allegations of strategic intentions in the South China Sea. However, playing the victim is no way to deceive public opinion. It is China's hope that a combination of "4 Ps"—power, proximity, patience, and persistence—would eventually make it the ruler of the South China Sea.

Like in a game of go, China slowly but surely put pieces in key positions on the board. Over several decades, China has invested heavily in modernizing its navy and developing a formidable flotilla of maritime enforcement vessels, big fishing fleets, and mobile drilling platforms to assert administrative control. Beijing has also built artificial islands and set up airfields, logistic facilities, and surveillance centers in the Paracels and the Spratly areas, which enable it to extend its reach and project power.

Southeast Asian Claimants' Helplessness:

ASEAN claimants often lag behind China's initiatives and respond with toothless measures. As all consider relations with a rising China important, they have been slow to realize that Beijing no longer subscribes to Deng Xiaoping's guidance to "hide capabilities and bide time."

Even when they realized that China has been more confident and assertive, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have failed to cooperate among themselves to define disputed areas, fearing that overreaction would harm their ties with China.

Even if they are able to fashion a unified tougher stance, a union of ASEAN claimants is not able to change China's approach. Even with some level of patience and persistence, they collectively cannot match China in terms of power.

U.S. Partial Responses:      

In this author's opinion, the United States, the only power that can check China's geopolitical ambition, has not had an effective, cohesive strategy for the South China Sea. Concerned about China's rise, the Obama administration has undertaken a "pivot" to Asia and the Pacific after a decade of putting priorities elsewhere. The U.S. is shifting 60 percent of its naval assets to the region, advocating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and is playing a more active role in ASEAN-led multilateralism to keep China in check. However, this pivot is more or less "tiptoeing around" China rather than a specific course of action to stall China's assertiveness in the maritime domain.

Washington did react strongly to China's recent assertive actions. It has sent warships and flown surveillance planes near China's artificial islands to assert freedom of navigation. Nevertheless, these measures were rather spontaneous and not part of a long-term plan to preclude China's calculated moves. In other words, the U.S. sustained commitment to defend the rule of law and the status quo in the South China Sea is questionable.  

In Search for Pacification-A Shared Vision and a Joint Strategy:

The South China Sea matter is broader than control of islands, rocks, and shoals, access to maritime resources, and freedom of navigation. It is an issue of international maritime order. Should the integrity of UNCLOS be compromised by Chinese coercion, Chinese rule begins.

In the South China Sea, China largely has an upper hand vis-à-vis other contenders because it has a strategy that plays to its advantages. Though the U.S. has some edge over China in terms of strategic power, the latter has clear advantages in terms of proximity, patience, and persistence. The Southeast Asian claimants equal China in these three metrics, but lag China in terms of power. These imbalances mean that there would be no chance for smaller claimants or the United States to stabilize the South China Sea if they work separately.

Southeast Asian claimants, the United States, and other seafaring nations have a shared interest in a stable and rule-based South China Sea. They are undertaking a range of dialogues and joint maritime initiatives, such as collaborative diplomacy, provision of patrol ships and military hardware, capacity building, and joint military and non-military exercises. However, these efforts fall short of a shared vision and a cohesive joint strategy, which is needed to roll back China's assertive course and prevent it from flexing muscle in the future.

Washington should show a proof of commitment by ratifying the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Then, the US, its allies, and Southeast Asian claimants should initiate and lead a discussion on a joint strategy among them to pacify the South China Sea.

A joint strategy needs to build on a shared vision. A shared vision for a long-term stable and orderly South China Sea should draw a line in the sand against all types of assertive activities in the South China Sea and map out avenues for compulsory peaceful resolution of all disputes. It should include deadlines for negotiations among claimants involved in disputes, and automatic transition to third-party arbitration if negotiations fail to meet these deadlines, with or without China's participation. This vision should also aim to protect the integrity of UNCLOS and operationalize it so as to define disputed maritime areas and non-disputed spaces. The issue of the legal regime to be applied to the Spratly and Paracel features could then be entrusted to a relevant arbitration court on the law of the sea.

Based on such a shared vision, a joint strategy would then be developed as an agreement among the United States and Southeast Asian claimants, which would include the following four basic elements:

1. An information center about activities in the South China Sea and a mechanism to share intelligence among the parties;

2. Concrete cooperation programs to strengthen maritime capabilities of Southeast Asian states to monitor and manage their EEZs and deal with incidents and face-offs at sea;   

3. A commitment to freeze current occupation and construction and a code of conduct among themselves to preserve the status quo and to speed up negotiations among claimants to resolve disputes. In this regard, the principle of self-restraint has to be translated into a list of do(s) and don't(s) that are applicable to all parties. This commitment should go with a mechanism to enforce it among Southeast Asian claimants, with or without the participation of China.

4. Most importantly, a commitment and a concrete plan of action that prescribe collective and concerted responses against any action that aims to alter the status quo and violate UNCLOS. For example, if a country decides to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea or move in uninhabited features, all parties will collectively protest and conduct defiant actions such as overflight and passage. Responses should be categorized into different levels, from joint diplomatic protests, and coordination in multilateral forums to concrete exchanges and joint legal, civil, and military actions.

To be clear: this shared vision and joint strategy are not a strategic alignment to contain China. It is a function-based coalition that aims to stabilize the South China Sea only.

The agreement can later be open to other seafaring nations with interests in the region, including China. 

Most importantly, the U.S., and Japan perhaps, should be part of the process, not just facilitators. A peaceful, open, and rule-based South China Sea is in the interest of all seafaring nations. The burden should not rest on the shoulders of Southeast Asian claimants alone.

Do Thanh Hai completed a PhD program at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University and is now a vacation scholar at the Australian Defense Force Academy, the University of New South Wales. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. This piece first appeared in PACNET Newsletter here.

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Watch Out, China: America Sends Most Advanced Bombers to Asia-Pacific

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The United States sent three of its most advanced bombers to the Guam base this week, according to the U.S. Air Force.

In a press release published on its website on Monday, U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command said that “Three B-2 bombers and approximately 225 Airmen from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Aug. 7 to conduct familiarization training activities in the Pacific region.”

The statement added: “This training deployment demonstrates continuing U.S. commitment to regular, global strategic bomber operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”

No other details were provided in the statement, however, it is likely that the bombers were on a routine training mission. Indeed, in early August 2014, three B-2s deployed to Guam from Whiteman Air Force Base as part of an Air Force Global Strike Command training exercise.

The United States has hosted a bomber fleet at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam since 2004, according to The Aviationist. These normally stationed bombers, however, usually consist of the less advanced B-1 and B-52 bombers.

The United States used to keep B-2 bombers deployed in Guam, but they were removed from regular rotations in 2010 following an engine fire in one of the B-2s. In addition, a B-2 crashed in Guam in 2008.

The United States has undertaken a military buildup in Guam since the early years of the 21st century. In the initial years of the buildup, U.S. officials cited North Korea and tensions over Taiwan as the main rationales driving the military buildup.

Guam’s importance has only grown in importance since the Obama administration initiated its rebalance to Asia policy in 2010. U.S. officials, including then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, have regularly referred to Guam as a “strategic hub” of operations for U.S. military forces operating in the Indo-Pacific region. Andersen Air Force Base is located roughly 1,800 miles (2,900 km) east of China.

The United States has regularly flexed its bomber muscle in the Asia Pacific in recent months. For example, as The National Interest previously noted, last month two B-52 Stratofortresses conducted a live bombing in Australia.

“These flights are one of the many ways the U.S. demonstrates its commitment to a stable and peaceful Indo-Asia Pacific region,” Adm. Cecil D. Haney, the commander of Strategic Command, said at the time of the live bombing drill.   

The B-52s took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and conducted a non-stop 44-hour flight to participate in the drill.

The B-2 is the Air Force’s most advanced bomber. As Dave Majumdar has noted on The National Interest:

“The Air Force’s tiny fleet of twenty Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bombers is the only long-range penetrating strike asset in the service’s arsenal. No other aircraft in the Air Force inventory has the range to take off from the continental United States and strike at targets on the other side of the globe inside highly contested airspace. The B-2 has an unrefueled range of around 6000 nautical miles, but that can be extended to around 10,000 with aerial refueling.”

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

Image: Flickr/AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon

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This Is Why a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea Can't Wait

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At regional meetings in Kuala Lumpur recently, China attempted to reassure regional nations of its peaceful intentions and deflect attention from its destabilizing activities in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea. Speaking to reporters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing had halted dredging sand to build artificial islands. “China has already stopped. You just take an airplane to take a look,” he maintained.

But Wang said nothing about ongoing construction and militarization of several land features. A 10,000-foot runway is nearly complete on Fiery Cross Reef, and according to Pacific Commander Harry Harris, the Chinese appear to be building hangars for tactical fighters. Satellite imagery also suggests that China may be getting ready to build a second runway on nearby Subi Reef. Early warning radar stations, military barracks, helipads, and lookout towers have been installed on several features and harbors large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants are being built.

Wang Yi’s remarks were timed to coincide with a series of high level meetings in Malaysia this week led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in which the United States participates. Pressure has been building on China to exercise self-restraint and engage in purposeful dialogue aimed at lowering tensions in the South China Sea.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for an “immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants” and a halt to “further militarization of dispute features.” Earlier this week, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh criticized Beijing for “eroding the very trust and confidence . . . between ASEAN and China” through its “reclamation activities, illegal fishing bans and the harassment of fishermen.”

Despite Chinese insistence that ASEAN should not discuss the territorial disputes at the annual ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting, which wass attended by 10 Southeast Asian nations that comprise the organization, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, host of this year’s series of meetings, said publicly that it was time for ASEAN to “take a more active role” in managing “overlapping claims” and safeguarding regional security.

Sensing the rising angst in the region about its island building in the South China Sea, in the run-up to the meetings this week China attempted to signal a willingness to work with regional players by agreeing to establish hotlines among foreign ministries to respond to maritime emergencies. The efficacy of such hotlines is dubious, however, since coast guards, navies, and maritime militias are not administered by foreign ministries. Moreover, China’s foreign ministry is known to be institutionally weak and is rarely put in charge of handling crises. A maritime rights leading group headed by Xi Jinping is far more powerful.

More importantly, what is urgently needed is a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) to replace the voluntary 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC). In talks between China and ASEAN this week, Beijing agreed again to speed up consultations on a CoC, but in practice it is unlikely to do so, at least until it has completed its near-term plan, which may include establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea and creating the infrastructure to enforce it.

China appears to be increasingly uncomfortable with the growing chorus reproving Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Beijing’s agreement to establish hotlines and quicken the pace of CoC discussions suggests that the Chinese recognize that their behavior is causing greater anxiety amongst their neighbors than they anticipated. So far, however, the pushback has not been sufficient to change China’s calculus, which is that in the long term, Southeast Asian nations will be compelled to accommodate to Chinese interests in the South China Sea. Therefore, greater efforts are needed to persuade China to adopt a more compromising approach that truly emphasizes peaceful management of disputes and respects the interests of all the players regardless of size and military capabilities. To achieve this goal, ASEAN must demand conclusion of a binding CoC before the end of 2015 that contains risk-reduction measures and a dispute settlement mechanism. If China is unwilling to do so, ASEAN, or a sub-group of like-minded members, should proceed unilaterally. The US should do its utmost to help forge this consensus.

This piece first appeared on ATMI’s website here

Image: U.S. Navy/Flickr. 

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It's 2026 and the U.S. Is About to Invade Iran: Operation Iranian Freedom

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My father told me this would happen — he said the conflicts in this area of the world would never end. He served in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom; I was only five years old when he went on his first deployment. I’ve been told that it was the worst time to be in Iraq. It was 2006 and the violence was at an all time high. He went back two more times, in 2009 when I was just eight, and again in 2018 when I was a senior in high school. Each time he went he stayed for a year or more. The justification for the invasion of Iraq during my father’s time was that Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq, had violated United Nations (UN) resolutions as part of his weapons of mass destruction program. The invasion of Iraq led to many years of conflict in that country, and the broader region, before the UN-backed partitioning in 2020.

My father told me that when the Ba’ath party fell following our invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was an intense power vacuum. Saddam Hussein may have been an evil tyrant, but he was able to keep the state of Iraq stable, forcing the disparate Sunni, Shi’ia, and Kurdish factions to live together under a single government. After the removal of Saddam Hussein, various groups vied for power over the years, each backed by various external actors — Iran being the most tangible and concerning, given their role in killing Americans in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and the later Operation Just Recovery.

It was only after the second Sunni Awakening in 2017, a response to the tyrannical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that Iraq began to stabilize. After the U.S. government decided to arm the Sunnis independently and recognize their right to self-governance, the tribes and moderate elements of the former Ba’athist regime rose up and defeated the “Islamic State” in western Iraq one village at a time. Once they resumed control over Anbar, Salah al Din, Ninewa, Diyala and the Western half of Baghdad, Iraq’s Sunni Arab leaders declared their independence from the central Iraqi government. They vowed to never again let themselves be persecuted by a ruling Shi’ia body. Shortly thereafter, the Kurds followed suit into the partitioned Iraq that we have today.

Though the fighting internal to Iraq has largely ceased, with the exception of some ethnically motivated border raiding and infrequent incursions into the now-Shi’ia controlled Baghdad, the partitioning had a serious effect on the balance of power within the region. Largest among these effects is Iran’s continuing consolidation of regional hegemony. Their support of the Iranian-leaning Kurdish elements, the Shi’ia in Southern Iraq, and the everlasting Alawite regime in Syria have all but ensured their dominance in the region. No amount of cash from the oil-rich Gulf States has been able to halt their progress. The Kurds have generally kept to themselves over the past decade, reaping the benefits of the first peace they’ve enjoyed since Iraq’s 1920 revolution a century before. The peace wasn’t perfect, however. The Kurds stayed internally divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which favors Turkish hegemony, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which tends to bend towards Iranian interests. But, the wealth of the region, and the balance of power between the two factions has served as a catalyst for economic growth.

The biggest success story in the region is the area I’m in sitting today. To the great surprise of many policy makers during my father’s time, the National State of Iraq (NSI) is now the United States’ strongest ally in the region. My father still calls it “Sunnistan,” but this term is not politically acceptable. The “grand bargain” of 2018, after the tribes and former Ba’athists took back their territory from the Islamic State as part of Operation Just Recovery has created unparalleled economic growth in Anbar province. Looking at Fallujah and Ramadi today, it is hard to imagine the blood that was shed here only one generation ago. The peace treaty opened up the ability for the U.S. and European Community (EC) to conduct natural gas exploration, and pump Anbari gas in pipelines that were built directly through Jordan and Israel to the Port at Haifa. In Haifa, the gas is containerized and shipped across the Mediterranean into Europe. The gamble paid off. Between the natural gas shipments endowed by the U.S. shale gas boom beginning in the mid 2010s and the NSI exports, the Europeans no longer had to rely on Russian natural gas by 2020. The foreign direct investment into Anbar, coupled with Israeli shipping technology, cut the EC’s natural gas expenditures by nearly 60%. It is amazing what less than one decade of economic growth can accomplish.

In 2015, Iran signed a deal with the United States regarding their nuclear program. Part of the agreement dictated inspections similar to what the UN attempted with Saddam Hussein. Initially, the Iranians were compliant, and allowed International Atomic Energy Agency weapons inspectors access to their key facilities. Over the years, however, the Iranians pushed back on inspections. Despite several U.N. Security Council Resolutions demanding weapons inspectors have unfettered access to nuclear facilities at Nantanz, Fordow and Arak, Iran has demurred. The 2015 agreement stated that Iran be given 24-days notice before an inspection. Over the years, Iran has not complied with this window, and there is mounting evidence that Iran’s nuclear scientists have been enriching uranium in undisclosed, underground locations. Iran’s gross violations of the agreement are why we are here now, in the NSI. Preparations for invasion are underway.

Compared to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this will be much more challenging. Unlike then, the U.S. does not have assured access to the Persian Gulf. Iran’s anti-ship missiles and air defense systems have made the Navy and Air Force skittish at the prospect of sending their multi-billion dollar platforms into harm’s way. Even if the Kuwaitis were willing to host the buildup of U.S. forces, not a terribly likely prospect since the rape and murder of a young university student in Kuwait City by a U.S. contractor in 2019, getting equipment there would be an operational nightmare. Fortunately, at least for the air campaign, our lingering air bases in Afghanistan provided a less dangerous air corridor into Iran. Long-range air strikes emanating from Shindand and Bagram Air Bases are planned to support the land campaign as part of the eastward march. There was more to worry about than simply Iran, however.

For the past thirteen years, the predominantly Shi’ia provinces in Iraq have acted as an Iranian puppet and buffer zone. We no longer call this area Shiastan, like my father does. Iraq’s Shi’ia government officially changed the name of this region to Sumer in spring of 2021. Sumer’s leaders saw the U.S.’s support of the Sunnis as outwardly aggressive, and instead of dealing with the U.S. for weapons, they turned to the Russians and the Chinese. My father told me that the Sumeris had procured F-16 fighter aircraft from the U.S. around the same time of the historic nuclear deal, but the Sumeri government did not budget for training and maintenance. The F-16 aircraft quickly fell into disrepair. We do know the Sumeris have T-90 main battle tanks from Russia, modified Soviet-era T-72’s, and two dozen JH-7 Xian fighter aircraft from the Chinese. The Russians and Chinese are earning more on their maintenance contracts than the weapons themselves.

The first challenge for the U.S. will be to simply get to the Iranian border without succumbing to a spoiling attack from the forces of Sumer. I think this will go well, as we have the U.S.-trained and equipped NSI Army supporting us. There is still a high level of military tradition and proficiency with Sunni Iraqis dating back to the Saddam Hussein era. The Sumeris never institutionalized traditions across their military services; they are much more disparate and militia-oriented. Our intelligence predicts they will fold quickly. Our biggest opposition comes from Hashim al Sadr’s militia, Sayara al Salaam. Hashim’s father, Moqtada al Sadr, was a firebrand religious cleric during my father’s time. My father told me stories of the legendary Jaysh al Mahdi, a notorious Shi’ia militia operating from the slums of northeastern Baghdad. Our intelligence sources tell us Hashim never developed the same passion or charismatic following as his father; but we are prepared for any asymmetric attacks Sadr could use during our push through the eastern provinces.

While the average Iranian is no fan of their authoritative, theocratic regime, there is little support for a U.S.-led invasion. I don’t know how our presence will be perceived. The White House has wasted precious few words beyond their policy desire to remove the current regime from power. U.S. policy makers have been working with exiled opposition groups in Paris and London, but it’s questionable whether or not they will be credible with the political elite in Iran, let alone the average citizen on the street. Hopefully the majority of the civilian institutions will remain intact and we will not experience the same environment my father experienced after the Ba’ath party was dissolved in Iraq. My father said in retrospect to ensure continued regional stability we should have pursued a change of command from Saddam Hussein to someone else versus a complete regime change and eliminating the entire Ba’ath Party. It took the U.S. until 2018 to learn this lesson; the Ba’ath party was so well organized and institutionalized across so many layers of society, only they had the ability to quell their radicalized front.

This is all hundreds of miles and many deaths in the future, however. Despite my lofty thoughts, it’s the everyday pre-combat activities that are occupying all my time and energy. I cannot fail. There’s too much riding on my ability to perform better than my peer commanders. While we’ve had female commanders in many other branches since the 1970s, it was only after combat roles were opened to women following Operation Just Recovery that we got our chance to command infantry and other combat troops.

I remember when the first female soldier graduated from the Ranger Course. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. We were stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; my dad was in my granddad’s old unit, the 1st of the 502nd. Granddad was the Brigade XO during Desert Storm. Neither my father nor my grandfather ever thought a woman could graduate from Ranger school; they just did not think that females had enough muscle mass and stamina to compete with the men. I remember the shock on their faces that summer! But, granddad always told me I should try to “be all I could be.” Now, my peers call an assignment to the mechanized infantry unit “the great equalizer” among the sexes; and I agree with them.

As I walk through my company’s assembly area, I face the insomnia and nervousness that millions of people have faced throughout history. I wonder if I have done enough to prepare my soldiers. I wonder how my father and my grandfather felt when they stood on this ground decades ago. I worry that I won’t bring credit upon the U.S. Army, my family, my fellow female commanders, and myself. No matter what the party line is, I know the actions taken by women in Operation Iranian Freedom will receive a high level of scrutiny. While I worry about the second and third order effects in this operation, especially the interactions between Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the Iranian Shi’ia, I know I can only focus on what I can positively control. I can control my actions, I can influence those around me, and I can set a positive example for my soldiers.

Time to go rally the troops. We cross the line of departure in four hours.

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. He blogs at

Diane Maye is a PhD candidate in Political Science at George Mason University.

Nathan Finney is an officer in the United States Army. He tweets @nkfinney.

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone. This article does not contain information of an official nature and does not represent the United States Government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization.

This piece first appeared in the Strategy Bridge here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tim

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

This is Why Russia's T-80 Tank Is a Total Disaster

The Buzz

The T-80 is a glaring lesson in why heavily-armored tanks can hide major weaknesses. Once considered a premium tank by the Russian military establishment, T-80s suffered savage losses to lightly armed guerrillas during the First Chechen War. The tank’s reputation never recovered.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The T-80 was the last main battle tank to come out of the Soviet Union. It was the first Soviet tank to mount a gas turbine engine, giving it a top road speed of 70 kilometers per hour and an efficient power-to-weight ratio of 25.8 horsepower per ton.

This made the standard T-80B one of the most nimble tanks to come out of the 1980s.

The Chechen rebels’ combat prowess–and poor Russian tactics–was more responsible for the T-80’s losses than the inherent design. Though, it did have one major flaw. But in the end, it was too expensive and guzzled too much fuel. The Russian military grew to favor the more economical T-72 series instead.


The T-80 was an evolution over its predecessor, the T-64. As the most modern tank design of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the T-64 was a departure from the Soviet penchant for simple armored vehicle designs, such as the T-54/55 and T-62.

For instance, the T-64 was the first Soviet tank to replace human loaders with mechanical autoloaders, reducing the crew from four to three. The T-64’s second trend-setting innovation was the introduction of composite armor, which layered ceramics and steel together to provide superior resistance compared to only steel.

Further, the T-64 had lightweight, small diameter all-steel road wheels in contrast to the large, rubber rimmed ones on the T-55 and T-62.

The first mass produced variant, the T-64A, mounted the huge 125-millimeter 2A46 Rapira main gun, which was so popular that it came included on all subsequent Russian tanks … up to the T-90. Remarkably, the T-64A packed all of this potential into a petite 37-ton package–relatively light for a tank of this size.

But as marvelous as these innovations were, the T-64 had a sensitive 5TDF engine and unusual suspension–both prone to breaking down. As a result, the Soviet army deliberately assigned the tanks to units stationed close to its manufacturing plant in Kharkov.

Even worse, rumors circulated that the T-64’s new autoloader chomped off the arms of crew members who strayed too close. It’s a plausible scenario given the T-64’s tiny internal space.

While fixing the T-64A’s automotive maladies, the Soviets developed an interest in developing a new tank with a gas turbine engine. Gas turbines have high acceleration and an efficient power-to-weight ratio, can start quickly in cold weather without prior warm-up–a necessity in Russia’s frigid winters–and they’re lightweight.

On the downside, gas turbines guzzle fuel and have higher susceptibility to dirt and dust owing to their voracious air intake compared to conventional diesels.

The original base model T-80 didn’t enter active service until 1976–much later than planned. The Soviet tank industry had its hands full working out the T-64A’s kinks and gearing up for producing the T-72 as a cheaper backup option. At the same time, the Soviets were building more T-55s and T-62s for Arab allies which had lost hundreds of tanks during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The early-model T-80s also had their problems. In November 1975, the USSR’s then defense minister Andrei Grechko blocked the tank’s production because of its wasteful fuel consumption and few firepower advancements over the T-64A. Five more months passed before Grechko’s successor, Dmitriy Ustinov, authorized the new tank to go into production.

The original T-80’s production line continued for two years–not long–as it was already outclassed by the T-64B tank, which featured a new fire control system that could fire 9M112 Kobra missiles from its main gun. More serious, the T-80 was nearly three-and-a-half times more expensive than the T-64A.

The T-80B succeeded the baseline model in 1978. As the most advanced “premium tank” in the East, the Soviets beginning in 1981 assigned most T-80Bs to its highest risk garrison–the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany.

Its high speed earned it the nickname “Tank of the English Channel.” In Soviet war game calculations, T-80Bs were able to reach the Atlantic coast within five days–assuming that they didn’t run out of fuel.

This new variant borrowed from the T-64. In addition to firing conventional sabot, shaped charge and anti-personnel fragmentation shells, the T-80B’s 125-millimeter 2A46M-1 smoothbore gun could launch the same 9K112 Kobra missiles.

Since this anti-tank guided missile was considerably more expensive than regular tank shells, the tank only carried four missiles compared to 38 shells. The missiles were intended to swat down attack helicopters or ATGM-capable vehicles beyond the range of the T-80B’s conventional gun rounds.

A co-axial 7.62 x 54-millimeter PKT and 12.7 x 108-millimeter NSVT Utes machine gun for the commander’s cupola rounded off the tank’s anti-personnel weapons.

While the T-80B boasted advanced composite armor, it had even greater protection through its Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor, or ERA. Arranged in the same horizontal layers as late production T-72A tanks, ERA-equipped T-80Bs were called T-80BVs.

In 1987, the T-80U succeeded the T-80B in production, if not absolute numbers.

Externally, the T-80U mounted Kontakt-5 reactive armor. This was an improvement over Kontakt-1–which used an add-on array of explosive filled shingles. Instead, Kontakt-5 was a factory applied set of plates pointing forward to maximize the deflection angle of incoming rounds. Kontakt-1 was only useful against shaped charge warheads, while Kontakt-5 added resistance to kinetic energy sabot rounds as well.

Internally, the T-80U traded the T-80B’s 1A33 fire control system for the more advanced 1A45. The engineers swapped out the Kobra missiles with the laser-guided 9K119 Refleks guided missile–a more reliable, longer range and harder hitting weapon. T-80Us crammed in seven more rounds of 125-millimeter shells than the T-80B.

But the T-80U didn’t last long in production. Its new GTD-1250 turbine was still too fuel hungry and maintenance heavy. In its place came the diesel powered T-80UD. This represented the last T-80 variant to be produced in the Soviet Union. It was also the first of its kind to see action outside of a training school … if “action” meant blasting tank shells into the Russian parliament to settle the October 1993 constitutional crisis.

The December 1994 separatist war in Chechnya was the first action for the T-80 where the shooting was going both ways … and it was an epic disaster.

When rebels in Chechnya declared their country’s independence, Russian president Boris Yeltsin ordered troops to bring the former Soviet republic back to the fold by force. These troops took T-80Bs and BVs with them. The soldiers had never trained with the T-80 before. Ignorant of the new tank’s gluttony for fuel, they ran their engines dry while idling.

The Russian advance into the Chechen capital Grozny was a near massacre for the invaders–nearly 1,000 soldiers died and 200 vehicles were destroyed from Dec. 31, 1994, to the following New Year’s Day evening. As the most advanced vehicle in the Russian assault force, the T-80B and T-80BVs suffered horrific losses.

While impervious to direct frontal hits, dozens of these tanks were destroyed in catastrophic explosions, their turrets blowing off after sustaining multiple strikes from the Chechen rebels’ RPG-7V and RPG-18 rocket launchers.

It turned out–the T-80’s Korzhina autoloader had a fatal design flaw. The autoloader stored ready propellant in a vertical position, with only the tank’s road wheels partially protecting it. RPGs striking the T-80 in the sides above the road wheels were likely to set off the propellant, resulting in the tank’s explosive decapitation.

In this respect, the T-72A and Bs–which received the same kind of punishment–had a marginally higher probability of surviving flanking strikes because their autoloaders stored propellant in a horizontal position below the rims of their road wheels.

A second major fault of the T-80, like previous Russian tanks, was minimal gun elevation and depression. The tank’s gun could not fire back at rebels shooting from upper story rooms or basements.

To be fair, T-80 casualties were more likely the fault of ill-prepared crews, inadequate training and disastrous tactics. Such was the haste of Russia’s rush to war that T-80BVs entered Grozny without the explosive filler in their reactive armor panels, making the armor useless. It was even alleged that some soldiers sold off the explosive inserts to supplement their salaries.

The Soviet army had long forgotten the hard lessons of urban warfare from World War II. During the Cold War, only Spetsnaz commandos and the Berlin garrison had trained for serious city fighting. Expecting little resistance, Russian forces drove into Grozny with infantry buttoned up inside their BMP and BTR transports. Their commanders got lost because they didn’t have proper maps.

Since Russian soldiers were reluctant to exit their transports and clear buildings room by room, their Chechen adversaries–who knew the weaknesses of Russian vehicles from Soviet-era conscription–were free to turn the tanks and other armored vehicles into crematoriums.

It was easy for the Russian high command to blame the T-80’s design for the Chechen disaster–as opposed to clumsy operational planning and tactical inadequacies. But ultimately, it was a lack of money which caused the cheaper T-72 to displace the T-80 as the preferred choice for Russia’s export sales and its post-Chechen wars.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia lost the T-80UD production plant in Kharkov to the newly independent Ukraine. The T-80U factory at Omsk declined into bankruptcy, while the Leningrad LKZ plant no longer made the earlier T-80BV.

For Russia to have three tank types–the T-72 (A and B), T-80 (BV, U and UD) and T-90 (a rebrand of the T-72BU)–made no financial or logistical sense. Each tank had the same 125-millimeter 2A46M gun and similarly performing gun-launched missiles. But they all had different engines, fire control systems and chassis.

In simpler terms, these tanks offered commonality in capabilities but diversity in spare parts, rather than common spare parts and diversity of capabilities. Since the T-80U was far more expensive than the T-72B, it was only logical for a cash-strapped Russia to favor the T-72.

But Moscow continued to experiment with its T-80s, adding active protection systems–which use millimeter-wave radar to track incoming missiles before launching explosive countermeasures. The resulting T-80UM-1 Bars was revealed in 1997 but did not enter production, probably again because of budget cuts.

Russia did not use the T-80 during the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000, or the brief 2008 conflict with Georgia–as far as we know. T-80s have so far not joined the war in Ukraine.

The author is a follower of various science fiction and modern warfare topics like small arms, armor, air power and Middle Eastern conflict.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Hollow Point Ammunition for the U.S. Army: A Good Idea?

The Buzz

With the minimum of fanfare, the U.S. Army has made an announcement that challenges a long-standing prohibition in international humanitarian law: the banning of ‘expanding’ or hollow point ammunition from the battlefield. The announcement came in the context of a presentation on the updated requirements for the next-generation U.S. Army handgun—designated the XM-17—which took place at a Picatinny Arsenal Industry Day last month.

Earlier discussion of the requirements for the XM-17 suggested strongly that the new handgun would need to be at least .40 or .45 caliber to achieve the ballistic effects specified by the U.S. Army solicitation. However in this new statement, the U.S. Army spokesman quietly added another consideration: that the new handgun be compatible with “special purpose ammunition,” specifically jacketed hollow point (JHP) ammunition. For those companies planning to submit one or more designs for the XM-17 competition (success in which will result in a massive order of 280,000 handguns at a minimum) this means that handguns chambered for the NATO standard 9mm round are now serious contenders alongside .40 or .45 caliber guns. That’s because JHP ammunition dramatically increases the lethality of ammunition, such that a smaller round like the 9mm can achieve effects similar to significantly heavier bullets like those fired from .40 or .45 caliber pistols.

How does it work? Put simply, hollow points expand on impact. The design of JHP rounds means that the bullet typically turns into a mushroom shape when it hits its target, resulting in a larger wound channel than would be made by an equivalent full metal jacket (FMJ) round. It was precisely this tendency to create more significant wounds that led to the inclusion of clause IV, 3 in the 1899 Hague Declaration, which states that “the Contracting Parties agree to abstain from the use of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core or is pierced with incisions.”

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It’s noteworthy that the “special purpose ammunition” announcement by the U.S. Army, though low-key, was accompanied by a presentation by a representative of the Army Judge Advocate General’s Office. While no transcript of that presentation is currently available, at least one firearms focused media outlet reports that the legal justification given is essentially two-fold: first, that the U.S. is not a signatory to declaration IV, 3 of the Hague Conventions and so isn’t bound by its constraints; and second, that hollow point ammunition, because it transfers more of its energy into the target when it impacts, is less likely than FMJ to penetrate through the intended target and continue on, posing a risk of causing harm to non-combatants.

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As a military ethicist, I welcome this move. There’s a good reason that police forces almost universally use hollow point rather than FMJ ammunition. The danger of over penetration with FMJ is significant—unacceptably so in a context where there is the real possibility of causing casualties among innocent bystanders. Unlike the situation at the turn of the 20th century when the Hague Conventions came into effect, today’s soldiers find themselves increasingly engaged in conflicts in built-up areas where non-combatants are around every corner. If the principle of discrimination—that which requires that combatants take every reasonable effort to avoid harming non-combatants— is to be taken seriously, then allowing the use of hollow point ammunition seems to be not only ethically acceptable, but under some circumstances ethically mandatory.

The fact that hollow point ammunition creates larger wound channels than FMJ, while obviously an unpleasant thought, doesn’t count against it. JHP doesn’t create superfluous wounds that simply add to the target’s suffering, without any further purpose—that would clearly be unethical. Instead JHP rounds increase the likelihood of killing or disabling one’s opponent, which is an entirely legitimate outcome to seek in a military engagement. In military use handguns are, in most cases, last-ditch weapons, employed in situations of emergency (such as when the soldier’s rifle suffers a stoppage), and having a greater chance of neutralizing opposing combatants under such circumstances should be embraced.

(Recommended: U.S. Army's 5 Most Lethal Weapons of War)

The big question, of course, is whether Australia will follow suit.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 


Russia Sends Two Warships to Iran

The Buzz

Two Russian warships are making a port call to Iran, according to local media outlets.

The Russian Navy has sent two Russian warships—the Volgodonsk and Makhachkala—to the Anzali port in northern Iran, numerous Iranian media outlets are reporting.

“The maritime relations between Russia and Iran will be expanded and we will go ahead with our official and unofficial visits to Iran,” Capt Kirill Taranenko, the head of the Russian fleet, said upon arrival. He added that the two sides planned to hold joint naval drills while there.

The ships arrived in Anzali on Friday and planned to stay for three days. Some 130 Russian sailors were part of the flotilla.

Anzali is on the Caspian Sea, an area where Iranian and Russian leaders have pledged greater cooperation in recent years. For example, during a speech in Russia last September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated, “The Caspian Sea should be the center of development and welfare, and the symbol of peace, security and cooperation among our nations.”

This is the third time that a Russian flotilla has docked in the port in Anzali in the last decade. The first such visit occurred in 2007, while the second one didn’t take place until October of last year.

Rear Admiral Afshin Rezaei Haddad, the commander of Iran’s fourth maritime zone in the port city of Anzali, announced during the visit that an Iranian naval delegation would visit Russia in October of this year.

“Iranian forces will most likely pay a visit to Russia in mid-October,” Haddad said.

The visit comes at a time when Russia and Iran appear to be increasingly their military cooperation, a move that is likely to greatly unsettle the United States. For example, General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, visited Russia last month where he reportedly met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The trip, which Iran later confirmed but Russian officials continue to deny, violates the United Nations’ travel ban against General Soleimani.

"We have seen the same reports that you refer to. Qasem Soleimani is subject to a U.N. travel ban, and this travel ban requires all states to prohibit QS from traveling to their nation. The only exception to that is if the Iran sanctions committee grants an exemption. To our knowledge no such exemption was granted. We would know. So these are very concerning reports but we are still tracking down the facts," Samantha Powers, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters after the story first surfaced.

While in Russia Soleimani undoubtedly discussed the ongoing negotiations over a potential sale of Russia’s S-300 air and missile defense system to the Islamic Republic. Russia had earlier axed the deal for the S-300s under U.S. pressure but it is now trying to revive it.

Russia and Iran are also cooperating closely in trying to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, including by fighting the Islamic State. One Russian security expert who spoke to Reuters indicated that this was likely a topic of discussion between Soleimani and his Russian interlocutors.

"Russia is cooperating with Iranian authorities to stop Islamic State. Any meetings that help these efforts can only be good," the expert said, according to Reuters.

Since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal last month, there has also been a flush of renewed diplomatic activity over trying to find a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war. Possibly finding a way to ease out of the Assad government as part of a peace deal might have been one of the topics of discussions Soleimani had while in Moscow last month. As the leader of the Quds Forces, Soleimani is Iran’s point man on its policy towards Syria.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East