Could Iran Live Without Assad?

The Buzz

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on November 23 has triggered speculation that the two sides are weighing some serious policy choices about Syria. The key question, as always, is the fate of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

There is no doubt that Putin’s visit to Iran was of major import. The Supreme Leader’s Foreign Policy Advisor Alai Akbar Velayati claimed that the Russian president’s meeting with Khamenei was the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, explaining that Putin agreed that “no type of agreement [on Syria] would occur…without coordinating with Iran.”

Iranian coordination will almost certainly support the Syrian regime. When Velayati met with President Assad on November 29, he noted that Iran “will not accept any peace plan that has not been approved by the Syrian government and nation.” Iran maintains a firm redline that the Syrian president should not be forced to relinquish power, and must be allowed to stand for any election during a transition process. President Assad would have a good chance of winning any vote held in the coming months, due to the regime’s demographic manipulation of territory under its control and the displacement of nearly half  the Syrian population. There is no doubt Iran will fight hard for this option.

But what if Moscow forced Tehran to accept Assad’s departure as part of a negotiated settlement?

This is frankly a terrifying prospect for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders who manage the Syria portfolio. Tehran would need a candidate acceptable to a number of key constituencies within the Syrian regime including the army, the intelligence services, the minorities at the core of the Syrian state, and the remaining Sunni community that still back the President. At present, Assad is arguably the only candidate suitable for all these constituencies. Any other compromise candidate is unlikely to be able to unify diverse constituencies and avoid paralyzing infighting.

Assad has risked assassination since the civil war began in 2011, and Tehran has undoubtedly considered alternatives. What would Iran accept for a Syria without Assad?

Someone from Assad’s Inner Circle:

On the surface this would be preferred course of action. The problem is who. The paranoid Baathist regime in Damascus is not designed to groom successors. Rather, since the onset of the civil war it has focused on eliminating potential rivals. Some Iranian leaders have even admitted there is no one else viable at the top, despite their frustration with Assad’s leadership. Regardless, such an individual would likely be wholly unacceptable to the Syrian opposition groups and their Arab and Turkish backers.

Compromise candidate from one of the country’s minorities:

Another leader from Assad’s own Alawite community, or possibly even a Christian or Druze, would be attractive to most world powers, including Russia. But despite its close alliance with Assad, Iran has few inroads with Syria’s other minorities, and struggles to work with Syria’s other powerful (and nationalistic) Alawite families.

Sunni Syrian Army officer:

This is another option that could appeal to the Russians. It is hard to see how either the Iranians or the Alawite elites would trust such an individual, however.

Collective ‘junta’ system:

One possibility is decentralizing power to a group of army officers representing the each of the major Syrian communities. This only works, though, if Iran has assurance it can dominate the group’s decision-making.

Bet everything on the “Iranianization” of Syria:

The IRGC transformed the Syrian military by mobilizing over 150,000 local militia personnel to augment, and at times supplant, the ever-weakening Syrian army. Iran has also created an unprecedented integrated fighting force of IRGC, Lebanese Hezbollah, Syrian forces, and foreign Shia militia units from around the region. Tehran may hope it has made enough progress in the past few years that whoever is named “president” will be beholden to a security apparatus that largely answers to the IRGC.

None of these options beat Assad, however.

Moscow’s new interventionist Middle East policies are a potentially profound geopolitical shift in Iran’s favor. However, they also create an uncomfortable fear that a political decision on Syria will ultimately be driven by Russia, perhaps at the expense of key Iranian interests.

Tehran usually bets on multiple horses and is probably already laying the groundwork for an aligned post-Assad Syria, as difficult as it may be to achieve. If there is a Plan B for Iran, it probably incorporates elements from many of the five options above:

- Continue the fight on the ground to improve the Syrian regime’s position.

- Work with Russia to find candidates that have support from the army and the Alawite community.

- Prevent the emergence of any leader too popular or strong to potentially push Iran out of Syria later.

- Ensure Iran retains a veto over the transition process either directly or implicitly through threats of sabotaging any deal out of Vienna.

- Above all, focus on the continued building of a new Iranianized military and intelligence “deep state” in Syria that guarantees freedom of movement for the IRGC and Hezbollah and long-term resistance to Western, Saudi, or Israeli power.

Remolding Syria from a secular Baathist Arab state to a more Iranian style government has always been Iran’s long game. But there remains for Khamenei an even scarier prospect than Russia caving on Assad: A Russia not very keen on an Iran-driven Syria Plan. 

This piece first appeared on AEI's website here

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

What if America Had Selected the X-32 over the F-35 Stealth Fighter?

The Buzz

In October 26, 2001, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that Lockheed Martin’s X-35 had won the Joint Strike Fighter contest over Boeing’s X-32.

The win secured Lockheed’s future as the manufacturer for all of America’s fifth-generation fighter platforms. But Lockheed’s resultant F-35 has suffered myriad delay, technical glitches, unrecoverable technical shortfalls and massive cost overruns. Already the largest ever defense program with an estimated price tag of $233 billion in 2001 for a total of 2,866 aircraft, the F-35 program is now estimated to cost more than $391 billion for 2,457 jets, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Moreover, while the short-takeoff vertical landing F-35B was originally projected to achieve initial operational capability with the U.S. Marines in 2010, it only reached that milestone in 2015—five years late. Meanwhile, the conventional F-35A and the F-35C carrier variant were both slated to achieve initial operational capability with Block 3 software in 2012—but that software block is now scheduled to be delivered for operational testing in 2017 at the earliest.

Would Boeing have done any better? Hard to say—the Joint Strike Fighter was always a technically challenging and extraordinarily ambitious program. It is likely that Boeing would have run into similar but different technical and budgetary problems. The fundamental issue with the Joint Strike Fighter was that is was always an overambitious program to replace multiple specialized types with one aircraft in the hope that it could perform every role equally well. The result is predictably a jack-of-all-trades but master of none.

One of the main reasons why Lockheed Martin’s design was selected over Boeing’s was because the X-32’s direct lift system—which uses engine thrust to lift the aircraft—is prone to pop stalls. That’s a phenomenon where hot exhaust gases are reingested into the engine causing a power loss. There were also questions as to whether the engine would be powerful enough to lift a fully operational F-32—the prototype had to have parts removed to ensure it would fly. It probably didn’t help Boeing’s case that it had to redesign the X-32 to meet the modified JSF requirements. An operational F-32 had a very different configuration from the X-32.

Even if Boeing managed to solve the airframe issue, they would have had to deal with the extremely complex sensor fusion software. The software was always going to be a challenge under the best of circumstances. The only edge Boeing had was that it had developed the Lockheed Martin F-22’s avionics package—but the JSF is much more complex.

Overall, it is very likely the Boeing would have run into the same sort of technical hiccups, cost overruns and delays as Lockheed did on the X-32. Lockheed mismanaged the F-35 program to an extent, but the Pentagon’s requirements for a all-in-one wonder plane is what caused the programs problems. With either company, the JSF program was almost certainly going to be late and over budget—it just a question of by what margin.

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


Is More 'Jointness' the Answer to DoD Acquisition Waste?

The Buzz

The winds of Department of Defense (DoD) reform are gathering on Capitol Hill, with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) holding a series of hearings in November on the topic. Although the ultimate outcome of reform efforts is unclear, two distinct camps appear to be forming on the issue. On one side there are those that favor strengthening the current “joint” structure of the DoD embodied in the Goldwater-Nicholls Act of 1986. On the other are those who see “jointness” as primarily the cause of, not the solution to, DoD inefficiency and waste.

While the service branches of the armed forces—the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force—have been organizationally integrated at the departmental level as a joint warfighting force since the enactment of Goldwater–Nichols, individual services still retain a large share of autonomy over capability development and materiel acquisition that falls under the purview of service-specific warfighting requirements. Thus, as ably reported by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post, the SASC held hearings on November 5th to discuss the nexus of inter-service rivalries and duplicative acquisition policies. Despite past attempts to synchronize the acquisition of joint capabilities, inter-service rivalries still lead, in the words of Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), to “inter-service fights over resources that get papered over in the belief that everyone can do everything with roughly equal shares of the pie.”

While Goldwater-Nichols was intended to mitigate the effects of inter-service rivalries and competition on acquisition policies, the advent of “jointness” could never fully eliminate this competition. Rather, following Goldwater-Nichols the site of competition was destroyed at one level and rebuilt at another. Inserting an additional layer of organization—the revamped structure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and supporting organizations such as the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC)—mean that the theoretical savings of joint procurement will never be fully realized. Inter-service competition, rather than solely directed at influencing the civilian management of the DoD such as the Secretary of Defense, or externally directed at Congress, is now also focused on capturing joint processes such as the Joint Capability Integration and Development System (JCIDS) that help govern how big a slice of both the joint and service specific procurement pie individual services receive.

What then is the solution to the dilemma of duplicative and wasteful acquisition? One possible answer would be to double down on “jointness” and strengthen the intent of Goldwater-Nichols. Expert testimony by retired Lieutenant General of the Air Force David Deptula highlighted the prospects of a joint solution, noting that service roles and missions needed to “evolve their relationship from one of interoperability…to one of interdependency” while disapprovingly noting that “we have moved further away from the intent of Goldwater-Nichols [regarding “jointness”] than we have closer to it.” Sen. McCain also hinted towards increased “jointness” through advocating for potential new service branches. Currently “new and untraditional missions” such as space and cyber capabilities are easily “orphaned within services that will undercut them in favor of parochial priorities.” The creation of new services would inevitably require additional new layers of “joint” bureaucracy for the synchronization of planning, preparation, and execution across an increased number of services.

Still, if “jointness” deserves at least partial blame for enabling, if not causing, the continuation of duplicative and wasteful capability development, should more “jointness” be seen as an acceptable solution? A recent panel discussion hosted by the Niskanen Center raised the question of whether less “jointness,” and increased inter-service competition, would lead to better procurement outcomes. Robert Martinage, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argued during the Senate hearing that what is needed is “competitive jointness” whereby “crowding into each other’s battlespace” could “keep the Services on their toes, foster innovation, and lead to a more robust future force.”

The problem with such arguments against “jointness,” however, is that critics of Goldwater-Nichols have yet to sufficiently articulate how the productive inter-service competition that they laud will differ from the counter-productive competition that has led to current duplicative and wasteful capability development. Absent a consistent, concise, and compelling argument to explain away this apparent discontinuity, there is little chance of reform advocates convincing either decision-makers on Capitol Hill or the general public of the need to move away from the current DoD organizational structure. Institutional and bureaucratic inertia are not easily overturned, and given the sheer weight of the opposition arrayed against them, critics of the status quo arrangement inside of the DoD will need to hone their arguments to a much finer point in order to have any chance of implementing substantive change.

Alexander Kirss is a Resident Junior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. 

Image: Department of Defense Flickr. 


F-35 JSF: The Jet That Ate the Pentagon

The Buzz

The Lexington Institute’s Dan Gouré says that the much-ballyhooed Third Offset “will fail unless it first defeats the DoD's acquisition system.” The department has again missed its goals for competing enough contracts. I myself have lamented how broken the acquisition system is. But as a retired Air Force general patiently countered to me last week, it may not be so broken as it once was. Perhaps, as outgoing Air Force acquisition chief Bill LaPlante told Breaking Defense in his last interview, “we used to suck, and now we don’t suck as much.” What’s his evidence? “Our net costs continue to come down,” he told National Defense; “I have all the data.” That’s encouraging, but addressing cost specifically does beg the question about how many ways one can suck, and what exactly constitutes not sucking.

Take the convenient target of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Three years ago, the always-balanced Winslow Wheeler called the JSF “the jet that ate the Pentagon.” Today, the USAF’s F-35As may still cost a lot, but they're costing less, and projected to cost yet less. Just how much less is still debatable, but the rest of LaPlante’s data (and projections) are easy enough to imagine. The current actual costs and future expected costs of current programs are decreasing. The expected costs of future programs may also be decreasing. There may be many reasons for this relative success, but I can highlight two. Bureaucrats across the department have learned lessons about the challenges of concurrency in development and production, and of trying to bundle all that capability into a single plane or program.

That lesson on concurrency, though, does point to a second classic category of procurement performance: time. To start with, as Fred Beach of the University of Texas has highlighted, time is money too. Over the past sixty years, the Defense Department has experienced a steady increase in bureaucratization and a commensurate decrease in technical proficiency of managers in its processes for weapons development. The resulting do-overs have sometimes come with big price tags. There’s an even bigger problem for the friendlies: as David Deptula once remarked, “Al Qaeda doesn’t have a JCIDS process.” Overall speed-to-fielding still looks bad: the Defense Department is now about twenty years into that JSF effort. But as the program office and Lockheed Martin are suitably quick to note, the schedule hasn’t slipped much further in the past five years. So, in addition to LaPlante’s cost data, we should also want to see the numbers on whether particular parts of the acquisition process are moving faster.

The lesson on the diseconomies of scope points to a third and thorniest problem set: quality. Wars are audits, and while it’s fortunate that the big ones don’t come so often, that also leaves the most important capabilities untested. Has Chinese Intelligence really stolen the the JSF's source code? Just how much would that matter? The maintainability of the F-35 hasn’t been demonstrated, so will it really be more affordable than the maintenance-budget-eating F-22? The newer fighter jet is also not actually invisible, so just how deadly will it be? With years of exercises involving the older plane, the USAF can have some confidence about the lethality of a stealthy fighter with AIM-120 missiles and an APG-77 or -81 radar. The trouble is that the findings are not broadly sharable, and exercises are just that, so this last hypothesis is not so testable.

None of these problems are new. Take another favorite target, as David Axe recently highlighted in Robert Farley’s findings about “what happened after Peak Battleship,” that point in 1918 “when 118 dreadnoughts served in 13 different navies.” Sixty-three were in service in 1939, and another 24 were built in the war to replace the 23 that were sunk. What few expected was that almost all of those were taken by aircraft and submarines. After 1945, the dénouement was swift; within a decade, almost none were left. In retrospect, we knew how long battleships took to build (that’s time), but the problem wasn't primarily that they took too long. We also knew pretty much about how well they could shoot (that’s quality), but the problem wasn't just that the guns couldn’t range as far as aircraft and missiles. The main problem was cost: all that steel and fuel and crews was too much to justify within the residual mission of shore bombardment.

In pounding the table about data, LaPlante laments the overuse of cliché and innuendo in criticizing procurement officials and their performance. As he focuses on cost, one could claim that he’s looking for his keys under the lamppost—measuring what’s measurable, whether or not it’s relevant. What’s encouraging—and in turn lamentable about his departure—is LaPlante's aim to be “confident [but] not cocky about anything.” So whether we were to analyze the knowable Montana-class battleships or some unknowable future F-35Ds, we should pursue the right combination of due diligence and intellectual humility. We should strive for relevant schedules, and care how knowable our costs are, but acknowledge that the unknowables of quality are what will eventually hurt us.

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


TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Russia’s Nuclear Torpedo Promises “Extensive Zones of Radioactive Contamination”

The Buzz

The appearance on Russian TV stations Channel One and NTV of the plans for a nuclear torpedo/unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) has prompted much interest among observers. The leak occurred on the last day of a three-day-long defense policy meeting, while President Putin was vacationing in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Among other aspects, its probably salted warhead attracted much attention, the addition of Cobalt-59 ensuring long-lasting radiation designed to render a wide area uninhabitable for years. By exploding in shallow water, it could generate a greater amount of fallout than an equivalent device exploding in the air high above its target, the reason lying in the particles scooped up from the ground or seabed, irradiated and thrown into the atmosphere. The July 1948 Baker test in Bikini Atoll illustrated the effects of a shallow underwater explosion. Missile defense experts have noted how, in line with Russian commentary, the system seems to be designed to bypass Western progress in this field. There’s another significant aspect of the possible construction of this weapon: its impact on the international law of the sea.

The leaked chart included some text, outlining the capabilities of ‘Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6’, designated as ‘Kanyon’ by the Pentagon. Designed to cause ‘assured unacceptable damage’, its detonation ‘in the area of the enemy coast’ would prompt ‘extensive zones of radioactive contamination’, preventing ‘military, economic, business or other activity’ for a ‘long time’. Some analysts are calling it a ‘Doomsday weapon‘, with and U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) labeling it ‘destabilizing‘.

From an international law of the sea perspective, there are at least three issues that need discussion: whether a submarine carrying nuclear torpedoes may carry out innocent passage through another country’s territorial waters, the 1971 treaty banning nuclear weapons on the seabed, and whether a coastal state may restrict the presence of submarines carrying nuclear torpedoes in its EEZ.

The issue of submarines operating near enemy ports was discussed both during and after the Cold War, although the context was usually U.S. attack submarines tracking Soviet strategic boats, and Moscow’s fear of losing the latter. In 1998 Eugene Miasnikov said that “an agreement between the U.S. and Russia on limiting submarine covert operations at certain areas could be a substantial addition to the bilateral Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas.” As its name implies, this treaty didn’t cover submarines, and despite some incidents “neither side has pushed the issue.”

Article 19 of UNCLOS deals with innocent passage through territorial waters, stating that it “is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State,” and adding that it “shall be considered” to be so if it engages in a number of activities, which include “any threat or use of force” (a), “any exercise or practice with weapons of any kind” (b), and “the launching, landing or taking on board of any military device” (f). While launching a nuclear torpedo within territorial waters would clearly fall outside innocent passage, things get more complex if it’s an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV). In that case, there’s no ‘launching’ of a military device, since the vessel itself is the device. Could that UUV conduct innocent passage? Or would it be considered an autonomous torpedo? What if the warheads were detachable, consisting of either torpedoes or mines (two concepts that are gradually converging)? Article 20, usually disregarded, says submarines must emerge when conducting innocent passage. It’s unclear whether this also applies to unmanned systems.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Seabed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof doesn’t seem to ban Status-6-type weapons. The reason for this is that UUVs are designed to sail underwater, rather than be statically placed on the seabed or drilled into it. However, in contrast with a normal torpedo (even of the nuclear kind deployed in Cuba in 1962), or a nuclear mine or depth charge, they aren’t meant to explode in contact with or near a vessel, but rather land and the seabed. Not just to make sure the explosion takes place close to a coastal city, but to guarantee plenty of fallout, which together with the Cobalt-60 (half life 5.27 years) resulting from the explosion would render a large area uninhabitable. An expansive interpretation of the Treaty might therefore also cover strategic (that is, city bound) nuclear torpedoes. Furthermore, nuclear drones could be seen as falling more clearly within the treaty if they were seafloor-crawling or rested on the seabed.

Concerning the rights of coastal states in their EEZs, the United States has consistently pressed for a wide interpretation of freedom of navigation, rejecting the restrictive views held by countries such as China. Washington has resisted Beijing’s attempts to restrict intelligence collection in its EEZ, a dispute that has led to some incidents. We may ask ourselves whether the deployment of nuclear drones may prompt U.S. policymakers to pragmatically moderate their enthusiasm for freedom of navigation. That could perhaps take the form of some sort of informal understanding, for which a precedent may be that concerning the non-deployment of ballistic missiles in Cuba, settling the 1962 crisis. The understanding was confirmed during the 1970 Cienfuegos Crisis, when Washington successfully pushed Moscow to terminate work on a strategic submarine base in that Cuban port.

We need to remember that international law isn’t immutable, but subject to myriad factors, including technological developments and changes in relative power. Thus, the development of strategic nuclear drones may prompt questions concerning existing rules, and perhaps their evolution.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defense policy, international law and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Strategist blog.


TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia