The Buzz

America's Real Problem in Asia: Beware of the 'Assurance' Dilemma

The Buzz

The US ‘rebalance’ to the Asia–Pacific has been under way since late 2011. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in October 2011 of a “strategic turn to the region…to secure and sustain America’s global leadership”, and President Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament in November 2011 gave a presidential imprint to the policy. So, almost four years later, how’s the U.S. tracking in Asia?

The evidence is mixed. The U.S. is undoubtedly tracking better in Northeast Asia, where assurance concerns amongst Japanese and South Koreans have been quieted, though not resolved. Both countries remain anxious about the threat posed by North Korea and uncertain about China’s ambitions and future. But US actions, including Obama’s affirmation that the Senkakus are protected under the U.S.–Japanese security treaty, have bolstered Washington’s regional profile. And the faltering Chinese economy has suddenly lost some of its 30-year allure, blurring linear predictions about the strength of Beijing’s long-term challenge to the regional order.

Southeast Asia, though, tells a different story. If the U.S. has behaved like an ally in Northeast Asia, it’s behaved more like a peacemaker in Southeast Asia. In large part the difference turns upon the U.S. approach to disputed territories. Washington takes no position on the differing territorial claims in the South China Sea, and so often conveys the impression that it doesn’t stand behind its Southeast Asian allies and partners in their wrangles with China. And those wrangles seem likely to endure despite China’s economic volatility.

In terms of assurance, there’s a delicate balance to strike—on both sides of the relationships. Southeast Asian states want to feel assured that the U.S. will support them, but don’t want to be dragged into a conflict between the U.S. and China. In Washington, there’s a similar dilemma: the U.S. wants its allies to feel assured but doesn’t want to be dragged into an unnecessary conflict by an ally off on a frolic of its own. So it’s also torn between competing objectives. Are its security relationships in Asia sufficiently robust to assure allies of US engagement? And are they sufficiently flexible to ‘tether’ those allies—assuring them that their security needs are fulfilled without recourse to more extreme strategic options or policies of adventurism.

And so to Australia. Does our relationship with the U.S. show more of the Northeast Asian pattern or the Southeast Asian one? I’d argue the Northeast Asian. In some measure that’s because we’ve behaved differently to the U.S.’s Southeast Asian allies and partners, and aren’t claimants in the South China Sea. True, we live too far away from the critical regional strategic contests—those occurring along the Eurasian rimland—for us to be central to those contests. But ANZUS, a treaty concerned with security in the Pacific and not just the defense of Australia, is one of our strongest mechanisms for making a contribution to that broader regional order.

So when we ask how the U.S. is tracking in Asia, let’s keep the focus on the main question: how does the strategic balance—or perhaps more accurately the different strategic balances—look along the Eurasian rimland? The growth in Asian power is changing those balances. And some analysts argue that geographic proximity translates into greater commitment and resolve by Asian players in pursuing gains and running risks. China, for example, is typically said to be more resolute than the U.S. about strategic outcomes close its own shores, and hence a more determined competitor in the Western Pacific. Such perceptions are fatal for the US role in Asia. The U.S. must be seen to be just as resolute in its determination to maintain the current security order as China is to change it.

Of course, the U.S. can argue that its goal is not a strict continuation of the current system. That wouldn’t be realistic. Rather, it seeks more inputs from growing Asian states for an order that would still be stable, liberal and prosperous. That’s sometimes miscast as the search for a ‘responsible’ China. That’s part of it, but it’s also a search for a responsible Japan, a responsible India, a responsible Indonesia and a responsible Australia. In that sense, the ‘rebalance’ isn’t a vehicle designed to restore the U.S. to the position of pre-eminence it enjoyed in the 1990s. Rather, it’s a mechanism for buying time to allow the emergence of a set of more positive Asian actors—though Washington’s not so indelicate as to cast it that way.

Overall, we need to be nuanced in judging the future role of the U.S. in Asia. Its relative strategic weight is not slipping so fast as to encourage its allies and partners to pursue radical strategic repositioning. Still, it is slipping, encouraging perceptions of future orders that turn less upon U.S. pre-eminence. Those future orders are still uncertain—we can discern who the major players will be but not their roles. And that uncertainty, in turn, drives demands for greater assurance from the U.S.—even though its relative strategic weight is contracting. Indeed, such assurance anxieties seem likely to remain a durable feature of the regional security order in coming decades. If we feel anxious about Washington we should remember we’re not alone.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

America's F-35 Stealth Fighter vs. Russia's Su-35: Who Wins?

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While the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is slated to become the mainstay of the Pentagon’s tactical fighter fleet, not everyone nation on Earth can afford to fly an expensive fifth-generation fighter.

Even Russia and China are not likely to attempt to develop an all fifth-generation fighter fleet—instead, for the foreseeable future, the derivatives of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter will make up the bulk of their tactical air arsenals. The most potent Flanker derivative is the Su-35, which is a much-improved version with vastly improved avionics, engines and airframe. In the years ahead, this latest Flanker-E is likely to proliferate around the world.

To counter the proliferation of Flanker variants, the U.S. Air Force, Marines and to a far lesser extent, the U.S. Navy will have to rely on versions of the F-35 even though it was never intended to be an air superiority fighter. It was and continues to be a strike aircraft with a robust air-to-air self defense capability even though the Pentagon has pushed it to a be a jack-of-all-trades.

How would a group of four F-35s fare if it were confronted by a formation of four Su-35s? The most likely answer is that they would change course and call in the F-22 Raptors and F-15Cs, which are tasked with gaining and maintaining air superiority. Meanwhile, the F-35s would go on their merry way to their assigned targets.  

However, as history shows us, many times in war you do not always get to chose from the most optimal of solutions. If the F-35s were left to their own devices, they would probably be alright even against the Su-35––if they played their cards right. The F-35s pilots would have to use their stealth, onboard and offboard sensors and smart tactics that play to the F-35s strengths and avoid its weakness. That means using the jet’s stealth and sensors to engage enemy fighters from beyond visual range and avoiding a visual range turning fight where the F-35 is vulnerable.

Unlike a Raptor, which was designed from the outset as an air-to-air killer par excellence—the F-35 was not. The Raptor combines a very stealthy airframe with a high altitude ceiling and supersonic cruise speeds in excess of Mach 1.8. Compared to that, the F-35 can  just barely touch Mach 1.6 in full afterburner. Further, the F-22 possesses excellent maneuverability for close-in visual-range dogfights––it crushes the competition in terms of turn rate, radius, angle-of-attack and energy addition at all altitudes.

Whereas a four-ship flight of Raptors cruising at high supersonic speeds in the rarified atmosphere above 50,000 feet can effectively choose when and where to fight, a flight of slower, lower-flying F-35s might find themselves forced to react to better-performing enemy planes if they are not careful.

Moreover, the F-35 does not have the speed or altitude to impart as much launch energy to the AIM-120 air-to-air missile as the Raptor can, which means the missiles will have less range when fired from a JSF. Nor can the F-35 carry as many air-to-air missiles—which is a problem given that digital radio frequency memory jammers can wreak havoc with the AMRAAM’s guidance system.

Close in, the JSF does not have the maneuverability of the Raptor––or even a F-16 or F/A-18. If forced into a dogfight, an American F-35 pilot’s superior skills and experience might be the only factor that might save him or her from being shot down. The fact is that an F-35 in stealthy configuration armed only with internal weapons cannot currently carry the AIM-9X high off-boresight missile. If the AIM-9X were one day integrated into the weapons bays, it would come at the cost of an AIM-120 rail—which is arguably a better weapon for an aircraft like the F-35. Basically, an F-35 pilot should avoid a close in fight at all costs.

It is highly unlikely that a U.S. Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) would assign an air superiority mission to an F-35 unit if alternatives were available. But given the tiny fleet of Raptors and dwindling F-15C fleet, it is possible that the JFACC could be forced to use the F-35 as an air superiority asset. However, that being said, the real threat to American air power in most regions around the world is not enemy air power—but rather advanced enemy integrated air defense systems.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Russia's Lethal T-90 Tank vs. ISIS' Captured M1 Abrams: Who Wins?

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With Russia’s surprise move to deploy ground forces to Syria, the remote possibility that Russian forces might confront Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operated M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks emerges.

According to numerous media reports, the Russian military has deployed a half dozen T-90 main battle tanks, 15 self-propelled heavy artillery pieces and thirty-five infantry fighting vehicles along with about 200 naval infantrymen—basically marines—into the war ravaged nation. The Russian forces appear to be building an airbase as a staging area to bring in additional military supplies for the beleaguered Syrian government.

While the chances of a direct confrontation between Russian forces in the area and ISIS operated armor are fairly remote, there is a small possibility that could happen. ISIS has destroyed or captured a number of the Iraqi Army’s 140 M1A1 SA Abrams tanks. While many of these tanks were destroyed using anti-tank missiles, at least a few were captured and may continue to be operated by the terrorist organization. Most of those Abrams tanks are probably operating in Iraq (if they are still functional), but it’s not completely inconceivable that ISIS might move some into Syria.

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So how would ISIS’ Abrams fare versus the best Russian-owned and operated tanks? Probably not very well—the Russian crews are professional soldiers, with proper training, tactics and a functional logistical train.  ISIS, meanwhile, might have some veterans of Saddam Hussein’s army, but they aren’t exactly experts at employing an Abrams or even mechanized warfare in general given their past performance.

Unlike in previous encounters between Russian-built hardware and U.S.-built machines, the Soviet-built machines were generally export models that didn’t feature the most advanced equipment. Moreover, crew training, tactics, maintenance, spare parts availability and logistical support may have been subpar—like Saddam Hussein’s army when it faced off against the U.S. Army in the first Gulf War.

(Recommended: Russia's Most Lethal Warplane

In this case, ISIS’ Abrams would be the export models that were sold to Iraq. While the M1A1 SA has many advanced features, it lacks the heavy depleted uranium armor matrix found on the U.S. Army’s own tanks. Further, the Iraqi Abrams were not equipped with features such as explosive reactive armor that would have helped those vehicles survive in combat against ISIS or other insurgent groups’ anti-tank missiles from various angles. But even then, the Iraqi Army is losing to ISIS not because of its equipment, but because it lacks the discipline, tactics, training and procedures to fight and win.

While ISIS likely has the motivation and discipline to put up a fight, what the group doesn’t have is the logistical train to operate the Abrams. The Abrams is a complex, maintenance intensive machine that requires a steady stream of spare parts and ammunition. Moreover, its 1500hp gas turbine engine also burns fuel at a rapid clip—so a steady supply of JP-8 fuel is a must. At the end of the day, the Abrams is designed to operate as part of a large conventional army—which ISIS is not.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War America Should Fear

ISIS is not a conventional fighting force—in many ways it’s a hybrid between a conventional army and an insurgency. While the group may use armor captured from Iraqi or Syrian stocks, it’s not going to employ tanks in massed armored formations like the U.S. Army or Russia. ISIS doesn’t have enough tanks or the training to undertake such an endeavor even if they can learn to operate an individual Abrams as a vehicle. Fighting as part of a conventional mechanized force is a lot more complicated than just learning operate a single vehicle—it takes a lot of coordination and training.

Overall, if there was an encounter between the Russian T-90s and group of ISIS operated Abrams, it’s likely that a force of trained Russian soldiers would prevail. The problem for the Russians is probably not going to be ISIS tanks but rather the hordes of ISIS soldiers armed with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank missiles and explosively formed penetrators that they might face-off against.

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

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

We’re Losing the War Against ISIS in Iraq

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My last post examined Islamic State as a global terrorist entity—a complex and constantly evolving threat. This two-part post focuses more tightly on the unfolding war against ISIS in Iraq. Here things are much clearer: we’re losing.

Anyone reading this already knows much of the history, but to recap: ISIS exploited Iraqi government ineptitude and sectarian division after US forces left in 2011, and used the sanctuary created by the Syrian civil war to grow from an urban guerrilla group—small cells, civilian clothes and vehicles, light weapons, operating mainly by night with asymmetric (i.e. terrorist) hit-and-run tactics—into something more like a conventional light armored cavalry.

By late 2013, when ISIS fighters mounted a major push against the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Fallujah, their tactical style had settled into a pattern. A main force, often comprising dozens of trucks and troop-carrying technicals, would move in compact formation on highways and secondary roads. Ahead of it, and to the flanks, a swarm of gun trucks—technicals with anti-armor weapons, heavy machine guns, radios and a few dismounts—ranged widely across the landscape, scouting routes, securing chokepoints, and looking for targets of opportunity or soft spots. When they spotted one, they would either “bounce” and overwhelm it with their own resources, or pull the main column onto it using radio and cellphone messages. Teams of two to three technicals, each carrying six or eight fighters ready to dismount, would swarm onto a target, coordinating their fire to overwhelm it. This is classic maneuver warfare—in the business, it’s known as “recon pull”—and it looked a lot like Soviet-style mission tactics, which was unsurprising given the number of Ba’athist officers now on the ISIS payroll.

But there were a couple of variations. First, ISIS columns at this time (we’re talking early 2014 now) operated in much tighter formations than a western armored force would do, clumping together in relatively large columns. They had little to fear from Iraqi air power or artillery: instead of dispersing to protect against these kinds of threats, their formations were optimized for mutual support against a ground-based enemy. Second, unlike conventional troops (or, even, many guerrilla organizations) they made extensive use of suicide bombers, often in improvised armored vehicles, as primitive guided weapons—leading assaults, clearing roadblocks and obstacles, and creating shock effects that could be exploited by the main column to bypass strongpoints or seize defended locations.

Beyond the main force, ISIS maintained a guerrilla capability in and around Iraqi cities, with a network of intelligence sources, safe houses, bomb-makers, snipers and terror cells. These guerrillas fought alongside the main force when it was in their area. But their primary task was harassment, intimidation, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and propaganda (including information warfare and “propaganda of the deed” killings).

In the first half of 2014, ISIS used these tactics to seize and hold a huge swathe of ground, applying a flexible, mobile defense to defeat Iraqi government counter-attacks. They also captured and put into service increasing numbers of Iraqi armored vehicles including tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, MRAPs, up-armored Humvees and self-propelled artillery. They also captured numerous heavy and medium towed artillery pieces, mortars and other equipment (mostly of US origin), which was supplemented with Syrian equipment including heavy artillery and Russian-manufactured armored vehicles. This allowed them to create large formations supported by tanks and artillery, making them an extremely formidable adversary. By mid-June, they’d captured Mosul, threatened the outskirts of Baghdad and Ramadi, seized Tikrit and most of Fallujah, and were pushing against the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

This success—which amounted to a conventional blitzkrieg-style offensive across most of western Iraq—prompted the US and its allies (including Australia, Canada and the UK) to intervene with airstrikes in August-September 2014, followed by advisors, trainers and certain special operations capabilities come October. The initial goal was to blunt the ISIS advance, and this succeeded. The Kurdish front stabilized into a form of trench warfare north and west of Irbil, Mosul Dam was recaptured, and Iraqi forces (a combination of demoralized regular troops and increasingly well-armed and assertive Iranian-backed militias known as the “Popular Mobilization”) retook ground around Baghdad, relieving pressure on the capital.

US leaders spoke confidently at this time of rolling back ISIS, rebuilding the Iraqi army, and then recapturing Mosul with the support of international airpower and advisors. In response, ISIS dropped back an evolutionary stage into guerrilla mode. It went back to small teams in civilian clothes, blending into the population and employing night operations and asymmetric attacks. The large formations dispersed into smaller, platoon-sized combat groups, each comprising a few vehicles and 20-40 fighters, and its leaders went underground.

After a few weeks of this, however—and after suffering a few losses—ISIS leaders realized that coalition air activity was going to be relatively easy to handle. Lacking forward ground observers, and operating under highly restrictive rules of engagement, coalition aircraft could only identify and strike a very limited number of targets—on average, from September 2014 to June 2015, the coalition was only able to mount roughly 10-14 strike sorties per day across both Iraq and Syria. (For comparison, during Operation Unified Protector in Libya the daily average was 48; in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the average number was roughly 110; and in the Kosovo campaign of 1999 it was closer to 250.)

In response, ISIS has developed a hybrid approach, which we might characterize as applying “conventional tactics with unconventional means”. The new formation of choice is the platoon plus combat group, comprising 30-40 fighters, a couple of armored vehicles and several technicals, snipers, heavy weapons teams, an artillery piece or two, and backup supplies of ammunition, fuel and water in a supply truck.

Again, that’s a very conventional maneuver approach, but ISIS has supplemented it with very large numbers of IEDs—sometimes emplaced in belts several hundred deep to channel and block attackers—and with suicide bombers in coordinated groups. With a dozen or more of such combat groups working together, but dispersed and maintaining communications so that they could concentrate on targets of opportunity, ISIS could mass substantial force against selected objectives and avoid too serious losses from airstrikes. The number of up-armored suicide bomb trucks was increased, including heavily armored semi-trailers with more than a ton of explosives and armored cabs to protect the drivers as they got as close as possible to their targets. Heavy artillery has been dispersed among the combat groups, and advanced anti-air and anti-armor weapons have made an appearance.

This is the structure—modified slightly through recent fighting—that ISIS is using as it defends its recent gains around Ramadi and pushes against Iraqi forces around the Haditha dam and Bayji oil refinery. The organization’s resilience and success in these battles shows how effective its adaption has been.

In my next post I’ll look at how the Iraqi government and its coalition partners are responding to the evolving military threat posed by ISIS.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here. 

Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

China's Fake Islands in the South China Sea: What Should America Do?

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While China conducts innocent passage around real U.S. islands of Alaska, the U.S. is apparently unable to do so around China’s fake islands in the South China Sea. The transit by Chinese warships in innocent passage through the territorial sea of Attu Island in the Aleutian chain has added an additional wrinkle to U.S. policy in the South China Sea.

On May 12, the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had asked his staff to “look at options” for exercising the rights and freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZ, to include flying maritime patrol aircraft over China’s new artificial islands in the region, and sending U.S. warships to within 12 nautical miles of them. Later that month, a P-8 surveillance aircraft with a CNN crew on board, was repeatedly warned to “go away quickly” from Fiery Cross Reef, even as it flew beyond 12 nm from the feature. Fiery Cross Reef is a Chinese-occupied outcropping that has been fortified by a massive 2.7 million square meter land reclamation into an artificial island with a 3,110-meter airstrip and harbor works capable of servicing large warships.

Warships and commercial vessels of all nations are entitled to conduct transit in innocent passage in the territorial sea of a rock or island of a coastal state, although aircraft do not enjoy such a right. Ironically, the website POLITICO reported on July 31 that the White House blocked plans by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, to send warships within 12 nm of China’s artificial islands – features that may not even qualify for a territorial sea. By blocking such transits, military officials apparently suggest that the White House tacitly accepts China’s unlawful claim to control shipping around its occupied features in the South China Sea. Senator John McCain complained that the United States was making a “dangerous mistake” by granting de facto recognition of China’s man-made “sovereignty” claims.

It is unclear whether features like Fiery Cross Reef are rocks or merely low-tide elevations that are submerged at high tide, and after China has so radically transformed them, it may now be impossible to determine their natural state. Under the terms of the law of the sea, states with ownership over naturally formed rocks are entitled to claim a 12 nm territorial sea. On the other hand, low-tide elevations in the mid-ocean do not qualify for any maritime zone whatsoever. Likewise, artificial islands and installations also generate no maritime zones of sovereignty or sovereign rights in international law, although the owner of features may maintain a 500-meter vessel traffic management zone to ensure navigational safety.

Regardless of the natural geography of China’s occupied features in the South China Sea, China does not have clear legal title to them. Every feature occupied by China is challenged by another claimant state, often with clearer line of title from Spanish, British or French colonial rule. The nation, not the land, is sovereign, which is why there is no territorial sea around Antarctica – it is not under the sovereignty of any state, despite being a continent. As the United States has not recognized Chinese title to the features, it is not obligated to observe requirements of a theoretical territorial sea. Since the territorial sea is function of state sovereignty of each rock or island, and not a function of simple geography, if the United States does not recognize any state having title to the feature, then it is not obligated to observe a theoretical territorial sea and may treat the feature as terra nullius. Not only do U.S. warships have a right to transit within 12 nm of Chinese features, they are free to do so as an exercise of highs seas freedom under article 87 of the Law of the Sea Convention, rather than the more limited regime of innocent passage. Furthermore, whereas innocent passage does not permit overflight, high seas freedoms do, and U.S. naval aircraft lawfully may overfly such features.

In response, it might be suggested that while the United States may not recognize Chinese ownership of the rocks, it must realize that some country, perhaps one of the coastal states actually located in the vicinity of the feature, has lawful title, and therefore the U.S. Navy is bound to observe a putative territorial sea.

It is possible, however, that there is no state that has lawful title, and indeed the swirling debate and paucity of evidence rendered by claimants suggests this may be the case. Before World War II, few if any of the features were effectively governed by anyone, except Japan, which illegally occupied them during war. Tokyo gave up its claim after World War II. Similarly, actions taken by states after 1945 to seize maritime features using armed aggression are prima facie unlawful under article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations. Furthermore, actions taken by a state to fortify its claim after there is a dispute are similarly void of legal effect. In any event, the strongest claims appear to flow from the doctrine of uti possidetis, which stipulates that lawful possession is assumed by colonies after they become independent states. Prior to 1945, conquest was a lawful means of acquiring title to territory, so the European colonial powers certainly enjoyed legal title to the features they controlled. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam derive their title to features from Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

More importantly, even assuming that one or another state may have lawful title to a feature, other states are not obligated to confer upon that nation the right to unilaterally adopt and enforce measures that interfere with navigation, until lawful title is resolved. Indeed, observing any nation’s rules pertaining to features under dispute legitimizes that country’s claim and takes sides. This point is particularly critical for commercial overflight since states already manage international air traffic through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the worldwide air traffic control regions. Finally, there is a policy reason that supports this approach. Given the proliferation of claims over the hundreds of rocks, reefs, skerries and cays in the South China Sea, if the international community recognizes the maximum theoretical rights generated by each of them, the oceans and airspace will come to look like Swiss cheese and be practically closed off to free navigation and overflight.

Distinguished American historian Samuel Flagg Bemis called the doctrine of freedom of the seas the “ancient birthright” of the American Republic. This birthright faces its gravest risk since unrestricted submarine warfare. Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into World War I to vindicate a Fourteen Point program for peace. Point number 2 was for “freedom of navigation … in peace and in war.” Similarly, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that set forth principles for a new world order – a united nations. Principle Seven committed them to freedom of the seas. Maritime freedoms and the law of the sea are at an inflection point. The United States and the international community must take action now to operate with regularity on, under, and above the surface of the South China Sea, persistently and routinely in the vicinity of China’s artificial islands. Only a normalized presence today will ensure predictability and stability tomorrow. 

This piece first appeared in AMTI's website here

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Beware of China's "Little Blue Men" in the South China Sea

The Buzz

While Russia has employed “Little Green Men” surreptitiously in Crimea, China uses its own “Little Blue Men” to support Near Seas claims. As the U.S. military operates near Beijing’s artificially-built South China Sea (SCS) features and seeks to prevent Beijing from ejecting foreign claimants from places like Second Thomas Shoal, it may well face surveillance and harassment from China’s maritime militia. Washington and its allies and partners must therefore understand how these irregular forces are commanded and controlled, before they are surprised and stymied by them.

China has long organized its civilian mariners into maritime militia, largely out of necessity. Recent years have seen a surge of emphasis on maritime militia building and increasing this unique force’s capabilities; however it is difficult to ascertain who or what entity within China’s government has ordered such emphasis. One can point to Xi Jinping’s visit to the Tanmen Maritime Militia in 2013, after which maritime militia building oriented toward the SCS has seen growth in places like Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi. Yet local militia training and organization plans prior to this date had already emphasized the training of maritime militia units.

Unit Composition and Organization:

China’s militia has two major subcomponents: an “ordinary” reserve of registered male citizens akin to the U.S. Selective Service pool, and a “primary” force more readily mobilized to respond to various contingencies. The primary force receives dedicated resources, troops demobilized from active duty, and training. Within the primary force, maritime militia units—formed solely at the tactical level of organization—are smaller and more specialized on average than their land-based counterparts. Within the maritime militia, a small but growing elite set of units are the ones most likely to be deployed on more sophisticated operations that involve monitoring, displaying presence in front of, or opposing foreign actors. They do so in part by supporting China’s navy and coast guard in such efforts. Some cities with large mobilization potential—i.e., a large maritime industry or fishing community—will form battalion-sized units. Most localities create company-sized units, however. These companies are divided into platoons and squads, with the smallest grouping based on each individual vessel.

Chain of Command:

Militia management begins broadly at the General Staff Department’s Mobilization Department, which oversees and formulates regulations for nationwide militia work. Uniquely a local military force, the maritime militia falls within the hierarchical People’s Liberation Army (PLA) army local force command structure that runs through all levels of local military organs. As stipulated in China’s “Militia Work Regulations,” real command of the militia begins at the Provincial Military District (MD) level and below. The thousands of county- and grassroots-level People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD) established in county-level cities, townships, villages, and maritime enterprises (fishing companies, shipyards, etc.) directly execute the organizing and training of maritime militia. Grassroots-level PAFDs report to county-level PAFDs, which report to Military Sub-district (MSD) Headquarters, themselves reporting to MD Headquarters. Maritime militia building also receives attention by Military Region-level Command, albeit in a supervisory fashion. Higher levels of military commands likely view the maritime militia as a subset of military organization within the broader ecosystem of local militia, with particular focus on broader mobilization efforts. Additionally, militia battalions and companies form party branches to ensure Party control at the grassroots levels.

It must be emphasized that maritime militia command authority resides within multiple entities, including both the local military organs (MD, MSD, PAFD) and their government/party counterparts. This is referred to as “双重领导” in Chinese, connoting the “dual-leadership” system by the local military and government’s principal leaders. It is thus common to see a city party secretary acting in his role as first-party secretary of the local military party committee overseeing the PAFD’s efforts at managing the maritime militia. An easily visible example: Sansha City’s mayor/party secretary Xiao Jie and his military counterpart Commander Cai Xihong both attended the founding ceremony of Sansha City’s Maritime Militia Company. “Dual-leadership” is further reinforced by the fact that local governments fund militia construction.

Since both military and government leaders are involved in local armed forces building, the National Defense Mobilization Committee System (NDMC) established at each corresponding level plays the critical role in binding them into one decision-making body. The NDMC brings together these leaders to organize, direct, and coordinate nationwide national defense mobilization, ensuring that national resources can be rapidly mobilized for defense or emergency needs. Local NDMCs can also establish civilian-military joint command structures facilitated by national defense mobilization communications networks. As a militia force, the maritime militia would need a specified duration to mobilize and gather in the area designated by their superiors. Localized mobilization orders transmitted to the maritime militia could originate from a variety of sources. Regardless, they would be sent down the chain and delivered to the maritime militia via the PAFDs managing them.

While county-level PAFDs are manned by active duty PLA officers, grassroots-level PAFDs are manned by civilian government cadres. Training and education efforts target a “select group of militia cadres” (专职人民武装干部), units’ leaders (company, platoon, and squad) and “information personnel” (信息员). This group of personnel forms the backbone of the maritime militia and helps implement party control, command and control, and maintain unit cohesiveness. Essential to successful command and control of the maritime militia are the “boat captains”—often termed “船老大”—and the information personnel, which provide dedicated personnel for onboard leadership, identification, and communications. This is further facilitated by increasing incorporation of satellite communications technologies into the fishing fleet and thereby into the maritime militia.

Mission-based Command Authority:

Although maritime militia are built out of the regular command structure of coastal military organs, they also serve naval and maritime law enforcement forces (MLE). The command relationships for the maritime militia may vary with the mission they are employed in. For example, maritime militia reconnaissance detachments report their findings directly to MD Headquarters, while another detachment summoned to assist with maritime law enforcement would be commanded by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) “in cooperation with their MD.” Similarly, support detachments serving roles for China’s navy would be under the command of the PLA Navy in cooperation with the detachment’s MD. It is clear that the maritime militia are controlled by their land-based local military organs, an arrangement flexible enough to serve a variety of supporting roles for the Chinese Navy and MLE forces. Many Chinese sources use a phrase that succinctly states such arrangements: “the military organ expresses its requirements, the NDMC coordinates, and the government implements” (军事机关提需求、国动委搞协调、政府抓落实), referring to the cooperation that occurs between civilian and military leaders in building the maritime militia.

More than One Way to Tie the Knot:

Organization and command of maritime militia likely varies by locality. This stems largely from a given locality’s maritime industry and its influence on militia composition, requiring local leaders to plan maritime militia missions from what is available. Making command and decision making arrangements based on local conditions is critical to the proper functioning of such a force. Many ad hoc leading small groups are formed to handle a certain issue area, or provide temporary guidance for certain missions. The multiple organizations supporting maritime militia building (e.g., the CCG, Fisheries Bureau, and Maritime Safety Administration) are likely to enter these command structures in some fashion.

The 300,000-troop reduction that Xi announced at Beijing’s September 3 military parade will likely send additional personnel to the maritime militia, and could even further shape their command and control. Specifically, efforts to streamline the current long reporting chain through land-based forces might ensue. All the more reason that it’s vitally urgent to understand how China’s “Little Blue Men” get their sailing orders, and what those orders might be.

This piece first appeared in ATMI’s website here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

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Russia's Armata T-14 Tank vs. Germany's Lethal Leopard: Who Wins?

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Developed and built by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH, Germany’s Leopard 2A7 is arguably the best operational tank in the world. Like all German tanks, it is an exceptionally well-balanced and well-engineered design, but it comes at a price. Russian tanks on the other hand have traditionally emphasized quantity over quality, but the T-14 Armata seems to break with that tradition. In many ways, it’s more like a Western machine, and won’t be built in huge numbers like the T-72.

While it’s probably still not as good as the Leopard on a one on one basis, the Armata could be a formidable threat since Moscow is not that far away from Germany—and having Russian tanks driving into Berlin is not exactly an unprecedented feat. While the chances of Russian and German tanks meeting in some future war in Europe is extremely remote (a better chance if foreign buyers purchase them and they go head to head), Berlin's tanks in a theoretical match-up would face a problem. While the Leopard is probably overall more than a match for the Armata—it doesn’t have the right ammunition to defeat the T-14.  

The Leopard 2A7 is the latest in a long lineage of German tanks designs that started with the diminutive Panzerkampfwagen I, which was developed in secret due to the limitation imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The Panzer I was an unimpressive vehicle, but it was the first in a series of armored combat vehicles that included the fearsome Panther and King Tiger tanks of World War Two. In many ways, the Panther—which could argue was the forerunner of the modern main battle tank--set the pattern for post-war Western tank designs.

The first post-war German design was that Leopard 1, which set the standard for Western tank designs when it was first introduced in 1965. Originally, Germany had intended to replace the Leopard 1 with a tank it was jointly developing with the United States—the MBT-70. However, after it became clear that the MBT-70 was an epic disaster, Germany developed the Leopard 2 while U.S. Army developed the M1 Abrams. The key differences were that the Leopard 2 used a more efficient and reliable diesel power plant and a much more potent Rheinmetal 120mm L44 cannon that was later retrofitted to the American tank. The Germans correctly believed that the larger weapon was needed to counter improvements in Soviet tank design.

Over the years, the Leopard 2 has been improved with a longer L55 cannon that offers far better performance against more heavily protected enemy tanks. One of the self-imposed limitations of the Leopard 2 is the fact that Germany refuses to use depleted uranium for its tank rounds (or armor for that matter)—which means that Bundeswehr has to find alternative materials. As such, German tank rounds are made out of tungsten—which does not quite offer the performance of a depleted uranium sabot round like the U.S. Army’s M829A3 or future M829E4 (A4 when operational).

Because of the limitations of tungsten ammunition, the Bundeswehr has some doubts as to the ability of its penetrator rounds to punch through the armor of the latest Russian tanks. Specifically, there might be instances where German ammunition might not have enough kinetic energy to ensure a kill against the T-80, T-90 and obviously the Armata.

One option for the Germans is to test and certify American ammunition like the M829 series or develop its own depleted uranium sabot rounds. However, there are political and technical challenge that would have to be overcome. Firstly, there is strong political resistance to developing depleted uranium ammunition in Germany. Secondly, using American ammunition might be difficult since those rounds are built to such tight tolerances—it’s not clear it the M829 would be compatible with the longer L55 barrel on the newest Leopard 2 variants.

The German response to renewed Russian challenges in Eastern Europe and renewed emphasis on tank development has been to start a new armored vehicle project of its own. Provisionally called the Leopard 3, it’s not know what the new German tank will look like, but if the Bundeswehr is prevented from using depleted uranium ammunition, it will like have to move up to a 140mm cannon.

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

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RIP Nuclear Disarmament?

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There’s an unfortunate truth about nuclear disarmament: it’s further away now than it was in 1995 when the NPT was indefinitely extended. NPT extension capped a number of positive milestones, not least the end of the Cold War. Things have soured over the past 20 years. They’ve even soured over the last six, so disarmament’s also further away now than it was in 2009, when President Obama spoke so warmly in Prague about the objective. And that suggests the tide’s going out on nuclear disarmament, not coming in. If so, should we be lowering our expectations in the arms control field to something a little more achievable, namely a safe, secure and resilient nuclear order?

What determines whether a nuclear order’s resilient or not? We don’t have a large number of such orders to investigate empirically, so this post is intended to unpack four factors which I believe determine resiliency: geopolitical settings, technologies, actors and norms.

Geopolitically, the world’s turbulent. Great power tensions are rising, not receding. They’re indisputably rising between the U.S. and Russia, but I think they’re also rising between the great powers of Asia. That might yet have implications for how nuclear weapons are seen in Asia: previously they’ve been seen primarily as a sub-regional problem (for Northeast Asia and South Asia). Moreover, there’s a worrying dynamism about conventional force relativities. Not too many years ago, it was a standard Western argument in favor of nuclear disarmament that the U.S. was preeminent at the conventional force level. Now that’s less certain, and the case for disarmament seems to have a stronger humanitarian flavor. And, finally, the Asian security system seems to be moving from a US-centred one towards a condition of loose balancing, which is making it more difficult for Washington to assure its partners and allies. In short, geopolitical turbulence seems to be driving a reprioritization of nuclear weapons and strategies.

Technologically, nuclear arsenals are experiencing a wave of innovation. Especially in Asia, we’re seeing the emergence of MIRVed and MARVed ballistic missiles, and mobile and sea-launched missiles. Precision-strike conventional weapons and gradually improving ballistic missile defenses complicate the picture. There are opportunities for arms control in that technological space, not least because one innovation can sometimes be traded off for another, but a high technological churn factor—added to existing historical asymmetries—also makes broad agreements difficult.

By contrast, the actors in the nuclear world are changing only slowly. There are more of them than you might think, though. If we’re looking for states whose security policies are entangled with nuclear weapons, that’s not just the nine nuclear weapon states. It also includes potentially ‘repentant’ states among the NPT signatories—like Iran—plus the nearly 40 states who benefit from extended nuclear assurance relationships with the U.S. Sub-state actors might eventually join that list, but—thankfully—haven’t so far. Still, the list of nuclear ‘actors’ is typically worrisome for two reasons: number and identity. In recent decades, we’ve seen the actual nuclear club become less exclusive, and that trend looks likely to continue.

And, finally, I think nuclear norms are changing slowest of all. Those norms suggest that direct use of nuclear weapons should be an option of last resort, that nuclear weapons require special efforts to ensure their safety and security, and that possession of nuclear weapons is an abnormal rather than a normal feature of statehood (unlike passports and national airlines). All seem comparatively durable, bringing a degree of ballast to the nuclear order.

So what’s the key challenge? It seems to me that the pace of strategic change and technological innovation are the two factors powering the Bunsen burner under the current nuclear order. The actors and norms are a little more settled—sources of ballast among the turbulence. True, a less settled strategic environment might well constitute an important driver towards nuclear proliferation, especially if US allies start to worry about the credibility of U.S. assurances in a less U.S.-centered world, so we can’t be complacent about actors. But if we’re aiming for a safe and secure nuclear order for the foreseeable future, we need to grapple principally with shifting strategic relativities and technological developments.

The problem, of course, is that those factors aren’t easily tamed. We can and should work the problem of great-power relationships, both within Asia and beyond. And we might be able to add more transparency to force balances and technological innovation, but attempts to do so are scarcely novel. Finally, we need to revisit existing crisis stability arrangements, accepting that a riskier world lies before us and building structures and arrangements we can use when things go awry. None of those approaches will bring nuclear disarmament much closer, I’m afraid. But they just might help us navigate some turbulent waters.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

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Coming Soon: Russian Su-35s to Pakistan and American F-35s to India?

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Russia seems to be eager to antagonize both friend and foe alike these days.

In a move that seems to be completely inexplicable, Russia is apparently negotiating to sell Pakistan advanced Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighters along with Mi-35 Hind-E attack helicopters. Perhaps more amazingly, the Russians don’t seem to grasp that their Indian allies are likely to react extremely negatively at the prospect of such a deal.

“I do not think that the contracts under discussion will cause jealousy on the part of any of the two sides,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told state-owned Russian media outlet Sputnik on Sept. 9.

Despite the fact that the two South Asian nations share linguistic, cultural, geographic and economic links—and are part of the same civilization—they have fought three full-scale wars over the past several decades. At the best of times, their relationship has been fraught with hostility and suspicion—and that probably won’t improve until the generation that lived through the 1947 partition of India passes on. As Australian defense analyst Brian Cloughley told Defense News: “The Indians would be extremely upset, to the point of a major diplomatic rift.”  

An Edge for Pakistan?

Acquisition of the Su-35 would probably give Pakistan a marginal edge in terms of capability over India’s two-seat Su-30MKI if it is bought in numbers, but the newer Flanker model only offers modest improvements over its predecessor. Most of those could likely be retrofitted to the Indian Air Force (IAF) Flanker fleet. In fact, there are indications that Russia and India are discussing modernizing the IAF Su-30 fleet.

How Would India Respond?:

However, Russia’s move to supply India’s archenemy with advanced weapons could lead to the nascent South Asian giant turning further towards the United States and Europe. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has already signaled his intention to purchase 36 Dassault Rafale multirole fighters off-the-shelf from France after the cancellation of the long-running Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) debacle. And there are some signs that a deal could be imminent.

If Russia starts to sell weapons to Pakistan, that could mean that France and the Eurofighter consortium will be in a far better position for when India inevitably issues another tender to replace its dwindling and increasingly decrepit fleet of antiquated Soviet-built MiG-21s and MiG-23s. Moreover, the prospect of Su-35s in Pakistani hands could prompt the Indians to act with a sense of urgency as they watch their perceived advantages erode away.

Another possibility is that because India urgently needs to start recapitalizing its rapidly dwindling fighter inventory, they could opt to simply extend the Rafale buy to the original numbers envisioned for the MMRCA program. It would be an expensive proposition, but national security concerns might force India’s hand. In any case, the Rafale offers better technology and is probably a more effective aircraft overall than the Russian fighter.

Would India Purchase U.S. Jets in Response?:

There is also the prospect that India might move to buy fighter aircraft from the United States once it restarts the MMRCA program. The Lockheed Martin F-16IN and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet were both rejected last time around, but the United States does not have to offer the India a fourth-generation plane.

The United States could offer India participation on the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Frankly, the United States has the wherewithal to offer India access to much better technology than Russia could ever hope to with the F-35 and follow-on projects. For India, the F-35 would kill two birds with one stone: access to advanced technology, and a trump card over Pakistan and China (in some respects). The only downside is that India would have to abide by U.S. restrictions on the aircraft--which it has traditionally resisted.  

In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter—when he was still the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics had expressed his willingness to sell India the fifth-generation stealth fighter in response to a question I had posed to him during an event at the Carnegie Endowment in January 2011.

"There is nothing on our side, no principle which bars that on our side, Indian participation in the Joint Strike Fighter. Right now, they're focused on these aircraft (F-16IN and F/A-18E/F) which are top-of-the-line fourth-generation fighters," Carter had said at the time.

Only time will tell if Russia ends up selling advanced weapons to Pakistan and driving India into a closer relationship with Europe and the United States. But, if Russia sells Su-35s to Pakistan, there is a chance one might see F-35s wearing IAF colors one day in the not so distant future.

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

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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What if the Aircraft Carrier Had Never Been Invented?

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Aircraft carriers are multi-billion dollar investments—in the case of USS Gerald Ford, some $12 billion. They take years to build—in the case of the French ship Charles de Gaulle, twelve years. They take a long time to repair—USS Eisenhower is just back from a two-year stay at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. And as the U.S. Navy is remembering in its Optimized Fleet Response Plan, training their crews is difficult and costly. As Michael Horowitz wrote in The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton University Press, 2010), they pose serious organizational challenges to any navy. So what if all these problems had been deemed too daunting back in the 1920s? What if the world had taken a collective pass on the aircraft carrier? The balance of bureaucratic and international rivalries would have produced alternative histories, and some intriguing military-technological trajectories.

The aircraft carrier is indeed a challenge—thus today, only Brazil, China, France, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States operate fixed-wing aircraft from ships. Brazil’s membership in that club is tenuous, as its 55 year-old second-hand French carrier, the São Paolo (formerly the Foch), has been under almost continuous repair for the past fifteen years. Soon enough, the United Kingdom will operate a fixed-wing carrier again (HMS Queen Elizabeth); currently (with HMS Ocean) sits with Japan, South Korea, and Thailand as operating carriers, but only with rotary-wing aircraft. Operating helicopter carriers is challenging too, but the flight deck and hangar bay choreography is not on the same order of complexity.

Several countries have operated carriers and quit. Canada paid off HMCS Bonaventure in 1970. The Netherlands bought HMS Venerable in 1948, and operated her as the Karel Doorman, before selling her onto Argentina as ARA Veinticinco de Mayo in 1969. During the Falklands War in 1982, lurking British submarines chased her back into port. Aftewards, the Argentines hardly operated her, and effectively got out of the business, scrapping her in 1999. Australia sent the old HMAS Melbourne to a Chinese yard for scrapping in 1985. In the process, the Chinese Navy got to see her taken apart level by level (see Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: Seeking Truth from Rumors,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, p. 79).

In a big war, some carriers will indeed need repair. As Andrew Krepinevich of CSBA wrote at length last year, operating any naval surface force in narrow seas invites attack. In the Mediterranean, from 1941 through 1943, this mostly kept the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina at arms' length from one another. That’s one reason that Italy, Spain, and France don’t operate more than one or two carriers each. Around the periphery of the Mediterranean, the cost tradeoff just doesn’t merit a large investment in floating (and thus sinkable) airfields. The trouble is that increasing missile ranges are making all the oceans narrower.

So without carriers, what would have been different? Obviously, no Pearl Harbor raid. In his 1925 novel The Great Pacific War, Hector C. Bywater under-appreciated the future of airpower at sea. He suggested that the Japanese surprise attack would come from a floating bomb of a freighter against the Panama Canal, while the main force attacked the Philippines. (Think of his book as the last century’s Ghost Fleet.) An attack on Hawaii might only have been a submarine minelaying operation to block the channel. (That’s less Ghost Fleet.) The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Top Gun would have been Air Force movies. (That’s just harsh.) Over Vietnam, without Navy carriers on Yankee and Dixie Stations, the Air Force would have had to run the entire bombing campaign from Thailand and Guam—though perhaps without the benefit of the Navy’s investment in the Sidewinder missile.

Just possibly, though, the USAF would have been providing fighter cover out of Da Nang for the Navy's battleships, as they fired 16-inch shells into Haiphong. This is not to suggest that battleships would have proven as effective as submarines and aircraft. As Robert L. O’Connell recounted in Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (Oxford University Press, 1991), only one American battleship (the West Virginia) ever sank an enemy battleship (the Yamashiro) in combat (at the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944). As in the Second World War, aircraft (land-based) and submarines would have still constituted the major threats at sea. But without sea-based aircraft, navies might have put more money into rocket-boosted, guided sub-caliber rounds and even railguns. Given the ongoing problems with these technologies, it’s not obvious that they would have worked, even with greater investment. But differential investment does explain why American artillery remains outranged by many adversaries' cannons, and how the South Africans came to specialize in long-range guns. The former has abundant airpower, and the latter not. Why still do Russians like rockets so much? Because their Air Force is overmatched by NATO’s, so a GLONASS-guided Iskander is a surer way of hitting a target.

Surface ships would have gotten a partial pass in the open oceans, outside the range of land-based bombers—at least until the development of long-range radar-guided anti-ship missiles in the 1960s. That 1982 Falklands War would have been even more challenging for the Royal Navy. The fleet would still have traveled south—Admiral Woodward admitted in his memoir that he and the entire naval staff had badly under-appreciated Argentine airpower. But area air defense would have rested entirely on Sea Dart missiles, and without air cover from Sea Harriers, the whole affair might not have gone well. As it was, two of the seven Type 42 destroyers that went south were sunk, bagging only three Argentine aircraft in return. Their missiles, however, did force the attackers down to low altitude, where the fleet's anti-aircraft cannons could do their work. Would navies have put more money into air defense research? Almost certainly. With profitable results? That’s yet another question.

For a chance at fending off those Mirages, airborne early warning would have been accomplished with radar-carrying helicopters—as from the Royal Navy's carriers today—lingering within the missile envelopes of their destroyers. Eventually, we might guess, that mission would have gone unmanned—navies began experimenting with drone helicopters in the 1950s. Another alternative would have been flying picket boats, and accompanying seaplane tenders, again within the missile umbrellas of the surface ships. In the late 1940s, the US Marines seriously considered seaplanes as an alternative to the helicopter for increasing the range of amphibious assault. With a stern refueling connection from the fleet oiler, and a big crane for winching one aboard in an emergency, the concept might have been developed further than just the Martin Seamaster and the Beriev 200.

In 1986, the USAF would have run the entire raid on Libya, but the Navy might have agitated more for trying out its newfangled land-attack missile, the Tomahawk. In the U.S., part of what held up that inter-service challenge was the intra-service resistance of the carrier admirals. The intervention of Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Clements was necessary to get the program going in the 1970s. If the angry aviators had all been wearing light blue, then perhaps the Navy would have put its mad money on cruise missiles. Would the Navy have considered bigger ones? Could they have been made reusable? Would clever contractors have devised crosslinks and auto-routing as an early form of drone swarming?

Regardless of how far the technology could have been pushed, most American punitive bombing expeditions over the past few decades would have been cruise missile barrages, rather like the Bush-Clinton raids of the 1990s. Sometimes those have refocused local potentates’ attention, but they have lacked sustainability. From the sea, that’s what fixed-wing carriers bring. When ISIS was threatening Baghdad last year, and the Iraqi government dawdled in approving American requests for local basing again, a single supercarrier ran the air war. Without American carriers comfortably offshore, Arab allies might have to decide on whether to face existential threats alone, or allow American forces ashore.

None is this to suggest that any other kind of surface ship would have been more survivable than carriers, but they’d still be necessary. Surface vessels are the infantry of a navy—they need air cover, and take the most casualties, but they’re also the arm that holds a position, without which military action is not about control, but merely denial. In peacetime, like the carriers, frigate fleets mostly go about their business unmolested. And with more, smaller ships, perhaps the US Navy would be spending more time policing what Ian Urbina of the New York Times has recently called “The Outlaw Oceans”.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security (where this first appeared), and Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas. In the early 1990s, he served as a naval officer aboard a helicopter carrier.