Watch Out, China: American B-52s Just Did a Live Bombing Run in Australia

The Buzz

Two B-52 bombers conducted a live bombing mission in northern Australia earlier this month.

“Two B-52 Stratofortresses assigned to the 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, returned today from a 44-hour, non-stop mission to Australia,” U.S. Strategic Command said in a statement posted to its website on July 7.

During the flight, the B-52s conducted an inert conventional weapons drop on the Delamere Air Weapons Range in northern Australia, just south of Darwin where U.S. Marines are stationed on a rotating basis. The strategic bombers also performed a low-approach at RAAF Base Tindal during the flight.

The statement went on to say that the mission, which was conducted with Australian forces, “demonstrates the United States’ ability to project its flexible, long-range global strike capability and provided unique opportunities to synchronize strategic activities and capabilities with a key ally in the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) area of operations.”

The statement further quoted, Adm. Cecil D. Haney, the commander of Strategic Command, as saying, “These flights are one of the many ways the U.S. demonstrates its commitment to a stable and peaceful Indo-Asia Pacific region.”

He added: “In addition to strengthening aircrew skills and enhancing their familiarity with operating worldwide, combined training and theater security cooperation engagements with our regional allies serve to improve our interoperability and capability to respond to any potential threat together.”

The recent bombing run was first reported by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times.

In August 2014, the United States and Australia signed a new “force posture agreement” that allowed the United States to use the 200,000 hectare Delamere air weapons range for live bombing runs. The agreement specifically mentioned the B-52 bomber as one of the aircraft the United States would use for these bombing runs, according to Australian newspaper accounts at the time.

Last month, David Shear, America’s assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, sparked a controversy when he mistakenly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States planned to base B-1 bombers in Australia. "We will be placing additional Air Force assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft.” Shear said, according to Australian media outlets.

The Australian government immediately disputed Shear’s statement. While Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Shear had simply “misspoke,” an unnamed Australian official told Australian media that Shear was “off the reservation.”

“I'm not playing with words here. I can give you an absolute guarantee that there has simply been no discussion with the Americans formally or informally about bloody B-1s and surveillance aircraft. Basing is out of the question. I think this guy was off the reservation,” the official was quoted as saying.

An official from the U.S. embassy in Australia later confirmed Canberra’s statements, telling reporters: “the United States has no plans to rotate B-1 bombers or surveillance aircraft in Australia.”

However, many Australian defense analysts believe that the B-1 bombers will eventually be placed in Australia on a rotating basis. Greg Sheridan, for example, who is a prominent foreign affairs commentator in Australia, wrote:

“The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.”

Australia walks a fine line when it comes to its China policy. On the one hand, Canberra is greatly unnerved at China’s recent aggression, particularly in the South China Sea. It has repeatedly spoken out against Chinese provocations, stepped up its patrols of the South China Sea, and deepened its defense cooperation with countries like the United States and even Japan.

At the same time, China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, which forces Canberra to temper actions that might upset Beijing.

As such, the United States refused to identify a target for the recent B-52 bombing run, although it took place as U.S.-Chinese tensions have risen over the South China Sea. An anonymous Pentagon official later confirmed to Bill Gertz that the target was indeed China.  

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

Image: Wikimedia/U.S. Air Force

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Russia Opens Its Doors... To Asia

The Buzz

On July 13, Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed a law to establish a "free port" in Vladivostok, Russia's Pacific gateway. The free port opens for business on January 1, 2016. It will be a customs-free zone with an extremely low corporate income tax rate of just 5 percent.

Vladivostok is a city of 600,000 people that has often been called "the San Francisco of the East”—though not often by people who have actually been there. Famous as a bastion of conservatism, in the Russian revolution it was the last major city to fall into communist hands.

In 2003, the city fathers actually rebuilt a monument to Tsar Nicholas II that had been destroyed in 1930.

Still, the city has San Francisco's steep hills, San Francisco's foggy weather, and even some of San Francisco's old world charm. And now San Franciscans will have the opportunity to go see it for themselves. The open port initiative includes an 8-day visa on arrival. There is no word yet on what countries will be included, but if the Russian government is at all serious about the initiative it will include Americans.

The visa on arrival will be a welcome first for Russia. Citizens of most developed countries face a tortuous visa bureaucracy when visiting Russia. A visa on arrival—even if only for a week—will do much to improve Russia's prospects of integrating its Pacific territories with the rest of northeast Asia.

The free port itself is likely to be less important. Simply declaring Vladivostok open for business is not enough to turn it into a major Asian port. Serious infrastructure bottlenecks will almost certainly reduce the utility of the port, even though Russia just spent some $20 billion on infrastructure in the region in preparation for the 2012 APEC summit.

One beneficiary of that APEC binge was Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), the flagship educational institution of the Russian Far East. The university got to keep the summit site as a brand-new campus on pristine Russky Island, a former military reserve across the bay from Vladivostok. The campus is so nice that Vladimir Putin himself stays there when he is in town.

But over the last few years, Russians have learned the hard way that building a high-achieving educational institution is about much more than just constructing some nice new buildings. The building and the campus' park setting are very nice indeed. But faculty salaries are low and international linkages are relatively weak.

Building a high-productivity industrial cluster is just as difficult and depends just as much on the human touch. Low taxes are nice but low taxes alone do not incubate real industries. In business as in education and research, human mobility and human capital are all-important.

A looser visa regime will make it easier for schools, universities, and businesses of all kinds to attract international visitors and international staff. It will make it easier to bring in management and technical consultants from around the region. Head offices will be able to visit the local branch without advance warning. Businesspeople will be more willing to relocate to Russia if their families can visit anytime.

An eight-day visa on arrival won't change the world, but it may change Russia for the better. The heaviest millstone holding down Russian economic development is not an over-reliance on energy or even Western economic sanctions. It is Russia's lack of openness to the outside world. In Russia, a little openness may go a long way.

But a little openness is only a start. If the Vladivostok free port initiative is to amount to anything more than a massive duty-free shopping subsidy for the region's ill-conceived casino resort developments, it will have to be followed up by increasing openness and increased funding for the region's human and research infrastructure.

The worry is that in Russia, a special-interest tax concession is all the much-hyped "free port" will turn out to be. The real San Francisco thrives on its culture of openness and its investments in education and human capital. Las Vegas, with its low taxes and glitzy casinos, is a poor cousin to the Bay area.

Human capital may be expensive, but openness is cheap. The Russian Far East, 4,000 miles away from Moscow and sitting at the juncture of China, Korea, and Japan, may be the best place for Russia to open first. As Europe increasingly turns inward (and away from Russia), the countries of northeast Asia are turning ever more outward. Asia may turn out to be much more receptive to Russian business than Europe ever was.

Salvatore Babones (@sbabones) is an associate professor of sociology & social policy at the University of Sydney and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).

Image: Wikimedia/Qaramazov

TopicsEconomics RegionsEurasia

Does the F-35 Have a Fatal Flaw?

The Buzz

I read Australian MP Dennis Jensen’s article ‘Time to remember the Vietnam air war lesson’ in yesterday’s West Australian with interest. In essence, Dr. Jensen paraphrases the US Air Force experience in Vietnam as placing too high an emphasis on the technological promise of air-to-air missiles in the early stages, only to be brutally dragged back to the ‘fundamentals’ of close-in air combat in the form of maneuverability and bringing a gun to the fight.

Taken at face value, that narrative seems to suggest that the design of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is badly conceived, and that it ignores a vital lesson from history. If that analysis were true, it would indeed be a damning indictment on an aircraft Australia is about to spend well over $10 billion on. But there are two reasons to doubt Dr. Jensen’s conclusion. The first is that it’s not at all clear why a technological lesson from over 40 years ago tells us what to expect today. A look at pretty much any other modern electronics-based system compared to its ancestor from that time shows why. It’s a bit like studying copper wire telephony and drawing conclusions about the capabilities of smart phones.

The early air-to-air missiles were crude forerunners of today’s, were much more limited in their ability to lock onto a target anywhere but straight ahead, and were more prone to losing contact after launch. That might seem to suggest that a gun might be just as good, since you had to maneuver around to get a lock on in any case. But even so the missiles did pretty well, and they were progressively improved as the war went on. When they were introduced in 1972, later G-model Sidewinder heat seeking missiles substantially improved the ability to target off-axis and increased the hit rate compared to the ones first deployed into theatre in the 1960s.

As I wrote here recently, today’s air-to-air missiles are capable of being launched at a target from a much wider range of angles still. To a fair approximation, if you can see the other guy you can get a missile lock and launch. Modern within visual range air-to-air warfare isn’t a case of the best flyer in the most agile plane wins—it’s much more likely that everyone loses.

But the second reason to doubt the applicability to modern air combat of the Vietnam air war experience is that it seems to be mostly myth. To see why, look at the data in this table. It shows the kills by weapon type, including the later model Phantoms which had been fitted with an internal gun after lobbying from fighter pilots. (Earlier models had an external gun pod as an optional fit.) It’s true that the proportion of gun kills went up from 12% to 24%, but they were still well out-numbered by missile kills.

And if we need more evidence, the US Navy’s F-8 Crusader went to war with both internal guns and missiles—so there was no period where its pilot wanted a gun but didn’t have one—and still scored 80% of its successes with missiles. So the Vietnam evidence, based as it is on pretty primitive air-to-air missiles compared to today’s, is that the missile was the preferred weapon even then. The Crusader was dubbed ‘the last of the gunfighters’ and there was a good reason for that. The time of the gun in air combat had passed.

Those inconvenient truths shouldn’t be construed as a complete defense of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The development of that aircraft has seen a series of design compromises made that have undoubtedly reduced the potential effectiveness of the technologies that have been brought together. Trying to make it all things to all services has seen the development drag on for a decade longer than planned, and the rest of the world hasn’t been sitting still. When the F-35’s fielded, the environment will be a lot tougher than it was when the aircraft was conceived, and its stealth and electronic warfare capabilities will both face some significant challenges. But whatever other problems it faces, the lack of a gun in close-in combat won’t be near the top of the list.

Sources and further reading:

Source data: USAF Air-to-air encounters in Southeast Asia (large PDF)

Books: Vietnam Air War Debrief and F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War (see also the list of kills here).

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Revealed: How to Wage War Against the Islamic State Online

The Buzz

The media frenzy surrounding the rise of the Islamic State (IS) focuses heavily on the United States’ military strategy. But since IS’ influence transcends the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, it is equally important that the United States develop a coherent strategy to counter the group’s social media reach. The twenty-four-hour news cycle and the Internet plaster IS’ horrific beheading videos everywhere. President Obama’s July 6 speech at the Pentagon on his strategy to combat IS, as one example, enjoyed only a fraction of the media coverage IS beheadings have received.

In his remarks, Obama stressed the importance of a strategy to counter IS’ ideology that goes beyond a military strategy. However, the administration still hasn’t announced concrete measures to counter IS’ social media campaign.

The European Union has attempted to address this weakness through a new task force. But the so-called European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) will not make any real progress in its online efforts against IS because the unit’s objectives are misplaced. Europol Director Rob Wainwright stated that the aim of the EU IRU was to track and remove IS-affiliated online content. Rather than working with social media companies to create a counter narrative online, an area in which governments are particularly ill equipped, the EU plans to play a futile game of whack-a-mole, trying to take down the ringleaders of 90,000 IS-affiliated Twitter accounts.

How to Fight IS Online

Although it is tempting to take down the websites and social media accounts of those spreading IS ideology it is impossible to stop these ideas from cropping back up with new accounts. The nature of the Internet has fostered a new kind of guerilla warfare, one in which IS can recruit people from all over the globe. It is clear there is no simple solution, but here are two ways the EU and the United States could combat IS through social media:

First, take advantage of open-source intelligence. The EU should not take down IS-affiliated accounts or posts but instead work with the private sector, specifically social media companies, to use IS’ own posts against them. Using social media as a tracking device and window into the organization could be more harmful to IS than they anticipate. Even if it were possible, attempting to take down every tweet or “selfie” would prevent the US military and its allies from exploiting IS’ mistakes just as US warplanes did in June when they took out a command-and-control building a day after its location was revealed in a social media posting.

Meticulous analysis of the content, timing, and frequency of postings could help illuminate or even predict locations, movement, deaths, and other patterns that would be invaluable to the forces fighting IS on the ground. The Atlantic Council’s report “Hiding in Plain Sight,” where experts used geotagging to pinpoint the location of Russian troops and weapons in Ukraine, showcased the enormous value of meticulous open-source intelligence. Geotagging and other techniques, coupled with big data analytics, could reveal decisive information such as what role online ringleaders play in the organization offline, or clues to future IS attacks. 

Plenty of attention and personnel and large budget are devoted to the military strategy to take on IS. The EU IRU will only have fifteen experts working on social media. The EU should devote more resources to this unit and realign its objectives to track and study the motivations and modus operandi of the ringleaders they find on the web. And the United States would be wise to follow suit, allocating more manpower and leveraging open-source social media analysis that private social media companies have already mastered.

Second, rather than reactively taking down accounts with the help of private social media companies, use their expertise to construct a social media counter narrative campaign. US intelligence agencies should devote their energies to identifying and monitoring potential foreign fighters or homegrown terrorists, but the United States and its allies equally need to focus on educating the larger portion of the population that ostracizes the potential terrorists. The United States should spend more time and money promoting understanding and acceptance of Muslim communities. 

IS propaganda will continue to draw a limited number of recruits. But the best way to stop foreign fighters from ever leaving their home country or coming back from the battlefields to plan attacks at home is to create an environment that is more accepting than the rhetoric they see online. This, at the very least, should be at the top of the agenda when policymakers discuss how to stop IS’ long-term goals. 

It’s not enough to have the media’s incessant reminders of the horrors that is IS. We need to shed light on the positive aspects of the Muslim community and other minorities in our countries. Social media is the best avenue through which to start that pursuit.

Alexa Lipke is an intern in the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia's Stealthy New Nuclear Bomber Is in Big Trouble

The Buzz

Russia is delaying production of its new fifth-generation PAK DA strategic bomber, a senior Russian defense official has announced.

Speaking at the Samara-based Kuznetsov Plant of the United Engine Corporation, a Russian defense company, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov told reporters that production of the PAK DA has been delayed in order to resume producing Tupolev Tu-160M2 bomber.

“According to the plans, serial production of the [Tu-160] aircraft new version [the Tu-160M2] is to be implemented starting from 2023,” Borisov said.

When asked whether this would shift the timeframe of the PAK DA strategic bomber, Borisov confirmed that it would. “The PAK DA project will be somewhat shifted beyond [2023, when it is currently to begin entering service], otherwise there is no sense in it,” Borisov said.

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As The National Interest previously noted, back in May Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia had decided to resume production of the Soviet-era Tu-160 nuclear bomber, which NATO refers to as Blackjack.

Russia later revealed that the decision to restart production of the Blackjack bomber was made directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The supreme commander [president of Russia] and the Russian defense minister have taken a decision on reviving production of the Tu-160M aircraft,” Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s Air Force, said in late May.

The decision to restart production on the Tu-160 was made in part because of production delays in the PAK DA.

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However, Bondarev previously denied that the decision to restart production of the Tu-160s would delay delivery of the fifth-generation PAK DA bombers, as both would be produced simultaneously. "Of course, we have no right to do it otherwise," he said in response to a question about whether the two planes could be produced at the same time.

Borisov’s comments last week seem to directly contradict that, as the PAK DA bomber program will experience more delays in direct relation to the decision to restart the Tu-160 bomber production.

Borisov also recently told Vladimir Putin that other aspects of Russia’s military modernization program will experience delays as a result of international sanctions. “The objective reasons for the failure to meet state defense procurement orders include restrictions on the supply of imported parts and materials in connection with sanctions, discontinuation of production and the loss of an array of technologies, insufficient production facilities," Borisov told Putin by phone, according to a transcript made available by the Kremlin.

The Moscow Times reported that the programs that have experienced a delay as a result of sanctions include: “production of Navy guard ships, Beriyev Be-200 amphibious aircraft, Vikhr anti-tank missiles, remote control and radio monitoring equipment for Igla surface-to-air missiles, and weapon launch systems for Tupolev-160 strategic bomber planes.”

It’s also possible that the PAK DA strategic bomber will never seen the light of day. After all, the newly produced Tu-160 strategic bombers will incorporate a number of upgrades that will give them some of the capabilities envisioned for the PAK DA.

The new Blackjacks are also expected to have a service life of around 40 years, which will give Russia some breathing room with regards to the aerial leg of its nuclear triad. Amid tightening budgets, its possible Russia could scrap the whole PAK DA program in general in order to make room for other more pressing defense needs. At this time, however, this all remains speculation.

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

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Schleiffert/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia