Russia's Air War in Syria: A Chance to Spy on America's F-22 Fighter?

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Russia may be using its air campaign in Syria as an opportunity to gather intelligence on U.S. forces and gain operational experience on their latest hardware. Gathering information on the U.S. Air Force’s stealthy fifth-generation F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter is of particular interest to the Russian military.

Nonetheless, the Russian expeditionary force largely follows traditional Soviet doctrine and consists of a mix of combat aircraft, air defenses and a heavily armed ground security element. “While it appears the Russians are following their standard doctrine with regard to the deployment/employment of their ground and air assets, it’s certainly not out of the question to use their newer air-to-air assets as a form of ‘operational testing’ in the real world environment,” one senior U.S. Air Force intelligence official told me. “In a sense, we're doing the same thing with our F-22s.”

Though gaining operational experience on the Sukhoi Su-30SM and Su-34 is likely an important aspect of the Russian deployment, the Russians might have another objective in deploying their latest jets to the theatre. “It may be a way for them to ‘characterize’ the F-22’s radar emissions on their radar warning receivers (RWR) in a real-world environment,” the senior Air Force intelligence official said.  “Not traditional intelligence collection per se, but could be a way to see how their RWRs receive and display an F-22's radar emissions.”

Another senior U.S. Air Force aviator offered a more succinct assessment. “They probably aren't planning on getting into any air-to-air engagements with ISIS,” the pilot said. “$100 says their air players are there to soak up trons from our fifth-gen stuff.”

But not everyone shares that opinion. “I am skeptical that the Su-30s are there purely to collect ‘intel.’  Presume that the Russians have other traditional ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] collectors to do that,” the senior intelligence official said. Russian forces generally use specialized aircraft like the Ilyushin Il-20M Coot-A to collect electronic intelligence—and it would make sense to assume the Russian air force has deployed such assets to the region.

Conversely, the presence of the latest Flanker variants in Syria might be to ward of Western intelligence assets that might attempt to close in to gather data on the Russian deployment. “The Flankers are not present for defensive counter-air purposes, but instead, their presence is probably meant to harass and push back air breathing intelligence collection craft that might venture too close to their base of operations,” a third Air Force official said.


Other U.S. Navy and Air Force aviators agreed. “The four jets may be postured to sit on an alert/scramble notice.  It would be very challenging for them to fly sustained combat ops with only four fighters,” one F-22 Raptor pilot said. “I would submit they'd be able to fly a two-ship once a day to provide escort/over watch of the primary air-to-ground players and not much more.”


But another U.S. Air Force official cautioned not to underestimate the Russians. “Remember they have more interoperability between their planes and they were designed to be easy to work on.” The Russians might be able to generate more sorties than many expect—which would be many more than a comparable force of four Raptors. “The Raptor requires extensive logistical support to keep it flying… Just think of the Low Observable (LO) work that needs to be done between sorties,” he said. “If you just want to fly at a marginally capable rate, you need engines and flight controls, not fifth-gen avionics and LO coatings.”

Overall, the consensus amongst U.S. Air Force and Navy officials I spoke to is that the Russian expeditionary force is too small to be genuinely effective. But if Russia is serious about its Syrian air campaign, the Russian presence will likely grow significantly. “While the amount of aerial firepower is significant, I'd still watch for more in order to run sustained around-the-clock sortie generation,” a U.S. Air Force official said. “If the Russians are as serious about this as they say they are, more aircraft should show up as base infrastructure is improved.”

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

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How China is Using 'Science' in the South China Sea to Gain Control

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Publications often view the South China Sea as a source of constant security tension whereas analysis of scientific cooperation in the region, on the other hand, is rare, thinly spread and short. However, scientific cooperation in maritime matters does exist; ‘collective research and knowledge’ is even considered by neighboring nations as a means of gathering together—a functional bridge—indispensable in de-politicalizing reoccurring tensions. Disputes between parties continue to poison bilateral relations and negotiations on a Code of Conduct are tested by significant political questions while scientific programs link an extensive network of scientists and bureaucrats covering complex maritime questions, resource management and sharing a common interest for fragile ecological balances.

Scientific programs obviously serve the interests of both China and the Southeast Asian countries: areas of cooperation are numerous and the easiest ground to establish regional cooperation regimes. In this sense, collective scientific work or the adoption of functional standards could contribute towards defusing threatening attitudes.

The numerous projects initiated demand time (they run over several years) and a substantial financial investment. They can only start once all parties (including those currently in conflict) strike an agreement, to avoid risk to their smooth running. Chinese proposals are non-stop, at every level and in every domain. They cover a very wide scope of research from tectonics, currentology, sedimentology, marine geology to prospecting and exploration programs or fight against pollution and environmental warming.

Yet, as my ASPI Strategic Insight paper demonstrates, scientific cooperation endorses the reality of the relationship, which is that of ‘unequal interdependence’ or asymmetry. No effort equals in size nor in quality the one sustained by the Chinese. China is the main initiator, orchestrator and financial sponsor of regional scientific cooperation programs. As a country where the Science & Technology development model forms part of a more global strategy to validate its status as a powerful nation, China has actively supported research through the funding of institutes, universities’ programs, infrastructure and specialists education. President Xi Jinping is involved in the elaboration and supervision of different programs such as the state program for ocean development—2006 to 2020—or the five-year improvement plan for oceanic development. Scientific research is clearly viewed as an instrument of power more than a vector of cooperation (nevertheless a useful ‘façade’); in the domain of scientific cooperation, as in others, China plays on the weaknesses of its partners.

China-led scientific cooperation programs serve three aims: first, to control the data for the area to enhance all the options; second, to use research as a demonstration of power—the submarine Jialong is one such example; or third, to reaffirm Chinese sovereignty through the bias of holding on to selected scientific data. Scientific cooperation becomes a strategic asset and a tool that fits into the overall strategy for non-military coercion.

The evidence shows that China uses its rapidly developing scientific and military prowess in a synchronous timing to dissuade rivals, give credibility to its arguments and secure its regional space and supply routes. After 20 years of research programs in the South China Sea, the space is effectively starting to become well controlled. But this control isn’t really the product of scientific cooperation. It’s rather the result of China leading research programs and banging the drum. It’s therefore reasonable to question the link between the understanding of the maritime space that this research has enabled and its use for gaining power. Besides, scientific cooperation hasn’t reduced mistrust and facilitated the agreement on a Code of Conduct.

But China’s strategy of ambiguity is best illustrated by its reclamation activities. Not only has the construction of artificial islands been made possible under the guise of scientific cooperation (the Chinese started discretely with Fiery Cross, from 1988, when China participated in the construction of a marine observation station for UNESCO) but the dramatic bio-physical and geo-physical impact of such transformation, which extends well beyond the area, may be the most convincing argument that Beijing isn’t working for the ‘common good’ but looking only after its own ambitions.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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Mexico: From Cold War to Drug War

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Earlier this summer, I participated in the Library of Congress’s first ever ScholarFest. My conversation partner, UVA’s Professor William Hitchcock, and I spent ten minutes discussing whether the Cold War still mattered. I imagine that very few people in the audience were surprised to hear two historians argue for the continuing relevance of the Cold War. They were surprised, however, by some of the reasons we gave.

What I told the audience was this: in the United States, in Latin America, and around the world, the wars that we are fighting today on drugs and terrorism both grew out of and bear a striking resemblance to the Cold War. Not only that, but many of the same people and groups that fought the Cold War are now fighting today’s wars, using the lessons they learned and the power and influence they gained from that earlier struggle.

The Cold War in Mexico:

Mexico provides a perfect example: understanding the dynamics of the Cold War in Mexico provides important insights into why Mexico is currently losing its war on drugs. In Mexico, as in much of the rest of the world, the Cold War was a complex geopolitical and local contest over questions of security, ideology, economics, and culture. International events, like the Cuban Revolution, had local repercussions, and at the same time domestic politics shaped the Mexican government’s foreign policy. Mexico’s leaders believed that the greatest threat to the nation was internal opposition. Fearing a repeat of the Cuban experience, they targeted leftist groups and beefed up security capabilities, especially in the areas of surveillance and counterinsurgency.

While the specter of the communist guerrilla haunted the pages of the Mexican press and the speeches of the country’s leaders, it was actually the government that escalated the violence of Mexico’s Cold War and unleashed terror upon its own citizens. Soldiers and special agents assassinated political activists like Rubén Jaramillo, they massacred untold numbers of student protesters in Mexico City’s Plaza of Tlatelolco in 1968, and they tortured, ‘disappeared,’ and murdered thousands of residents of Guerrero in the 1970s. The hidden, undeclared nature of the Cold War made secrecy a priority for all sides. Opposition groups and government agents alike operated in a clandestine world of shifting loyalties and secret agendas.

Eventually, Mexico’s government demolished the few guerrilla groups that actually existed and won Mexico’s Cold War. It was clear by the beginning of the 1980s that Mexico would not follow the same fate as Cuba, but instead would remain capitalist, conservative, and allied with the United States.

Exit Cold War, Enter Drug War:

But as the Cold War came to a close for Mexico, a new war was ramping up that would quickly eclipse the earlier struggle. Like the Cold War, the War on Drugs has grown into a complex geopolitical and local contest. International events, like the recent soaring demand for heroin in the United States and the earlier crackdown on Caribbean smuggling routes and Colombian cartels in the 1980s and 1990s, have had significant local repercussions in Mexico. Even though the various sides are fighting for different goals this time around — the current war has much less to do with ideology and much more to do with wealth — the Drug War participants and their methods are remarkably similar to those of the Cold War.

In fact, some of the very same individuals most responsible for the violence of Mexico’s Cold War were also responsible for escalating Mexico’s Drug War. We now know that numerous government leaders and security agents who led the Cold War attack on leftist “insurgents” were also deeply involved in drug trafficking. Luis Echeverría, president of Mexico from 1970–1976, was rumored to have been linked through his wife to Cuban exile and drug king Alberto Sicilia FalcónMiguel Nazar Haro, the head of Mexican intelligence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used his position of authority to protect a stolen car smuggling ring and helped the Guadalajara cartel battle its competitors in Sinaloa. Some Mexican intelligence officials even conducted their own trafficking operation that involved sending tanker trucks filled with marijuana across the U.S.-Mexican border. Echeverría, Nazar Haro, and others led their country at a time when it was transitioning from Cold War to Drug War, and they played a significant role in enabling and accelerating that transformation.

Today, Mexico is engulfed in a drug war, and the nation’s leaders and security services are still engaging in similar questionable activities. In both the Cold War and the Drug War, corruption and subterfuge have obscured the real nature of government activities and undermined public trust in the nation’s leaders. President Enrique Peña Nieto has been accused of corrupt dealings involving his wife and their opulent mansion, but he has so far escaped substantial investigation. The Mexican army has been exposed for committing extra-judicial executions, just as it did during the Cold War. Studentsjournalists, and other members of society are being murdered and disappeared. And just as it did in the past, the Mexico’s justice system is failing to solve these crimes. Given the Mexican government’s past record of atrocities during the Cold War, one has to wonder about official attempts to deflect blame for Mexico’s current problems.

This piece first appeared on The Strategy Bridge here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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Bombs Away: Russian Air Strikes Reveal Bankruptcy of US Policy in Syria

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Just what Syria needed—another military actor on the battlefield.

After a three-week military buildup of about 30 warplanes in the northwestern coastal city of Lattakia in Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ally Russia began airstrikes in the country's central provinces late Wednesday Syrian time.

Russia launched the first round of air strikes by hitting eight targets in the northern countryside of Homs and Hama which it claimed were ISIS locations, just hours after President Vladimir Putin's request to use military force was approved by the Russian parliament. The Russian claim was immediately thrown into doubt. The areas around Homs and Hama are not ISIS hotspots. In fact they are known as a bastion for the U.S.-backed moderate rebel forces and an important strategic gateway to Assad's Alawite coastal heartland. 

Within an hour of the strikes occurring, the leader of the Western-backed anti-Assad opposition group on the ground claimed the strikes had killed at least 36 civilians.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters in Washington that the strikes occurred “where there probably were not ISIS forces.” He said the move was effectively “throwing gasoline on the fire” in Syria and that without efforts to replace Assad, it could “inflame the civil war in Syria.” The Wall Street Journal reported U.S. officials as saying that the targets had in fact been rebel forces backed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The strikes could lend credence to claims by Syria's opposition that, after promising for years to support the rebel cause, the U.S. has abandoned them to effectively side with Iran and Russia and preserve Assad's power. This could push more rebels to embrace ISIS, the al-Nusra Front and their allies as the only forces genuinely engaged in battle against Assad's forces. 

With the U.S. already conducting strikes in Syrian airspace, Russia's involvement also opens up the possibility of a military incident between American and Russian warplanes. 

Russia's initiative will undoubtedly buoy Assad ahead of any renewed diplomatic initiative and negotiated political transition. The US has consistently said that Assad cannot have any future role in Syria. But with the emergence of ISIS as a priority for the U.S., there have been signs that Washington may be more willing to capitulate on Assad's role in any future transition. Despite repeated condemnations of Assad, the Obama Administration has made clear it will not do very much to dislodge him. Washington's half-hearted and ill conceived US$500 million program to build a moderate rebel force of 5000 fighters is collapsing; just 54 vetted rebels graduated the program, only for their equipment to be taken by al Qaeda upon arriving in Syria. Russia's military presence will also most certainly serve as leverage in any transition discussion. 

Unfortunately, all of these possibilities would just add another chapter to the horror in Syria, which is snowballing into the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. 

The most immediate consequence of Russia's actions can be found in the timing of the move, which exposed the bankruptcy of American policy on Syria in the most deliberately brazen and embarrassing way possible.

Just hours after the strikes began, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared in what can only be described as a bizarre joint press conference in New York for the closing day of the UN General Assembly session, where the two superpowers have signaled a confluence of interest in destroying ISIS but traded potshots over who is to blame for its rise. 

Kerry said the U.S. would have “grave concerns” if Russia strikes “areas where ISIL and al Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating...Strikes of that kind would question Russia's real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime.” To strike the U.S.-backed rebels as talks were continuing in New York is defiant, to say the least. Yet there was Kerry, still saying he was willing to work with Russia on “deconfliction” in Syria and warning against escalation.

As the U.S. continues it's diplomatic rhetoric, Russia is not even pretending to hide its real intentions. More than at any other time in the conflict, Washington's tentative Syria policy calls to mind the fable of the emperor with no clothes. Russia, meanwhile, is holding all the cards.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

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The Russian Navy Is Back

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Considering that he earned his spurs in the culture of the KGB, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated surprisingly strong navalist tendencies over the past eighteen months. Adding irony to this new focus on the sea, his presidency began with allegations that he mishandled the disaster of the sinking of the “Kursk” submarine in 2000, just three months after he was inaugurated as Russian president. However, last week’s deployment of Russian military forces to Syria confirmed that maintaining naval access has become a centerpiece of President Putin’s foreign policy and may shed light on future Russian foreign policy goals. Two other recent developments confirm this trend of restoring Russian naval power: the annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and the release of the Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020 in July of 2015.

The Russian annexation of Crimea restored firm Russian control over the port city of Sevastopol, which is the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol Shipyard. Sevastopol Shipyard played a key role in modernizing the Russian Navy over the past decade—even though it was located on sovereign Ukrainian territory but leased back to Russia under the Black Sea Fleet Agreement of 1997.

The Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020 leads off with the provocative phrase: “Historically, Russia—the leading maritime power…” and goes on to divide Russian naval policy between six regions: the Atlantic, Arctic, Antarctic, Caspian, Indian Ocean, and Pacific. Upon release of the Maritime Doctrine in July, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly that “…the Atlantic has been emphasized because of NATO expansion, the need to integrate Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base into the Russian economy, and to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean.”

That last phrase (“…to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean”) serves as a clear signal of one of the principal policy objectives of Russian military forces to Syria last week—the preservation of Russian naval access to the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. During remarks at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC on September 28, General Philip M. Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), said he believes Putin’s top priority is to protect Russian access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second priority, in service to the first, is to prop up Russia’s host, the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then third, he said, “After all of that, I think that they will do some counter-ISIL work to legitimize their approach to Syria.”

After Russian defense spending hit rock bottom in 1998, a decade of increased investment in modernization and maintenance has renewed Russian aspirations of exerting global influence with a similarly global navy. Although that navy is ready to sail, it still needs access to bases for logistics support for sustained deployments abroad. While the Russian Navy does not yet have the capacity to generate the scope and scale of Soviet Navy deployment patterns during the Cold War, it has restored its capacity to maintain presence where core Russian interests are at stake—such as in Syria.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy enjoyed access to bases in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Yugoslavia to sustain continuous naval influence in the Mediterranean Sea. The recent trend toward Russian maritime expansion could serve as a harbinger for future Russian foreign policy initiatives. In late August 2015, the Russians persuaded Spain—a member of NATO—to allow a Russian Kilo-class diesel submarine to refuel and re-supply on the Spanish island of Ceuta as it transited from the North Sea Fleet to the Black Sea Fleet.

Moving forward, keep an eye on Libya as another potential focus area for restoring Russian naval access. While the current political situation in Libya is tenuous, the conditions are set for Russia to attempt to restore its access to naval bases and further sustain naval presence in the western Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic oceans—all under the cover of “fighting international terrorism.”

Captain Sean R. Liedman, U.S. Navy, was the commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Eleven operating the P-8A and P-3C maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. He has twice served in the Air Warfare Division on the Chief of Naval Operation’s staff and also as the executive assistant to the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government. This piece first appeared on CFR’s website here

Image: Wikicommons. 

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