Why Is America's Lethal F-117 Stealth Fighter Back in the Sky?

The Buzz

The U.S. Air Force officially retired its 52 surviving F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters in 2008, transferring their radar-evading attack mission to B-2 bombers, F-22s and — eventually — F-35s.

The Air Force claimed it would preserve the F-117s for future use, but it’s possible most of the Nighthawks actually wound up in a landfill inside the Air Force’s highly secure Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. But the flying branch has held on to at least two of the sensor-dodging F-117s, which first entered service in the early 1980s.

Amateur plane-spotters packing powerful cameras have photographed and videotaped F-117s flying over the desert test range and taxiing on a remote runway, sometimes singly and sometimes in pairs. The most recent snapshot of F-117s in flight are dated July 22 and can be found here.

Why would the Air Force want to keep a few F-117s operational, despite their age, complexity, high cost and the fact that Serbian air-defense forces figured out how to detect the planes and actually shot one down during the 1999 U.S.-led air war on Serbia?

Aviation expert Tyler Rogoway has an idea:

On the radar and infrared tracking side of argument, the F-117 is also a near-perfect and highly available low observable aircraft to test everything from ground based radars and SAM systems, both foreign and domestic, AWACS modifications, fighter radars and even infrared search and track systems.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 


The Iran Issue and the Exploitation of Ignorance

Paul Pillar

Polls of American public opinion on the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program have produced widely varying results. One can find polls to support whatever position one would like to portray as the prevailing public view on this issue. Poll results on this subject are especially sensitive to the wording of the question that is asked. This has meant fertile ground for push-polls, in which questions are worded in a way designed to bring about the result that the sponsor of the poll seeks.

High sensitivity to the wording of the specific question a pollster asks reflects low public knowledge of the subject at hand. It means many members of the public have not focused on the subject enough to form a view that is either strong or well-informed, and that the responses of these people are thus easily swayed by the last words they hear from the poll-taker before answering. It is not surprising that this pattern should be true of opinion on the Iranian nuclear agreement, which involves numerous technical matters well beyond the normal cognizance of most Americans.

Low knowledge of the Iranian nuclear topic has prevailed for some time with the American public, even without getting into technical details of the current agreement. Three years ago the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans, in a multiple choice question, what was the assessment of the U.S. intelligence services about Iran's nuclear program—an assessment that has been constant over the last several years and repeatedly expressed publicly in statements and testimony. Only 25 percent of respondents picked the correct answer: “Iran is producing some of the technical ability to build nuclear weapons, but has not decided to produce them or not.” A mere four percent erred in the reassuring direction by choosing “Iran is producing nuclear energy strictly for its energy needs.” A plurality, 48 percent, incorrectly chose “Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so, but does not yet have nuclear weapons.” An additional 18 percent chose “Iran now has nuclear weapons.”

It is easy to see how deficient public knowledge on such a subject undermines support for an agreement such as the one before Congress. If one believes that Iran is intent on finding a way to acquire nuclear weapons—or even worse, as nearly a fifth of respondents believed, that it already has such weapons—that puts the agreement in a very different, and unfavorable, light than if one understands that the agreement is a bargain that trades sanctions relief for Iran committing itself to remain a non-nuclear-weapons state and subjecting itself to restrictions that ensure it remains one. And in general, greater knowledge about the agreement and the issues it entails is associated with support for the agreement, and lesser knowledge is associated with opposition to it.

This pattern has been reflected in polling results that have shown greater public support for the agreement when some explanation of what the agreement is about is offered than when no such explanation is given. The pattern was particularly clear in a recent CNN poll that split the sampled population in two and asked each half a different version of the question about support for the new agreement. One-half was asked a bare-bones version of the question: "As you may know, the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons before it can take effect. Do you think Congress should approve or reject the deal with Iran?" Among these respondents, 41 percent said accept and 56 percent said reject. The question presented to the other half provided just a bit more explanation: "As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran while that country has nuclear facilities which could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons. Do you favor or oppose an agreement that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?" Here the result was 50 percent saying favor and 46 saying oppose.

To CNN's credit, the second question does not seem to be slanted either for or against the agreement. If one were to get very picky and try to find any such bias, one would be at least as able to see a slant going against the agreement as in favor of it. After all, the question points out that Iran's program includes facilities that "could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons" and that the agreement would "not end [the program] completely". And yet, even the very small amount of explanation yielded significantly more support for the agreement than the other question did, to the extent that the plurality was reversed. (To its discredit, CNN then in its own news coverage focused on the half of the poll result that showed disapproval and ignored the other half.)

Mustering support for the agreement thus has consisted in large part of educating the public about the deal itself and about the issues at stake regarding its fate in Congress. Mustering opposition to the agreement has consisted of whatever is the opposite of public education. That has included obscuring the basic nature of the issue at stake, especially by criticizing terms of the agreement without noting how the alternative of no agreement would be distinctly worse on the very points on which the agreement is criticized. It has included throwing every possible argument against the agreement up on a wall and seeing what sticks, without regard to whether the entire barrage has any coherence or internal consistency. It has included encouraging the public not to learn about the agreement so much as merely to feel disgust at doing any business with a detested Iranian regime. And it has included seizing on any detail or leak that, if creatively misinterpreted, can be portrayed as a major flaw.

That last tactic has been much in evidence regarding international inspections in Iran. It was in evidence most recently with the accusation that Iran would be allowed "to do its own inspections" at a non-nuclear military facility that has been the subject of old accusations about work said to have been done there years ago. The accusation is simply untrue, and there is no reason to believe, even taking the leaked supposed fragment of a draft agreement at face value, that inspection arrangements at that facility or anywhere else in Iran will depart from well-established standards of scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The tactic also has repeatedly surfaced with what became the "24-day" issue on inspections. The provision in the agreement that was seized upon in that case has nothing whatever to do with inspection of Iran's declared nuclear facilities, which will be subject to continuous monitoring. Even with undeclared, non-nuclear facilities the required advance notice is 24 hours, not 24 days. The provision that has been seized upon, far from being a loophole, was added as a further safeguard so that in the worst possible case, if Iran balked at a demanded inspection, a procedure would be in place to ensure that Iran would be outvoted and the inspection would take place (or in the very worst possible case, Iran would be found to be in violation with everything that implies regarding sanctions). Issues regarding inspection of undeclared facilities also have been treated in an anti-educational way by opponents of the agreement in that attention has been diverted from what really matters in any worrying about potential Iranian violations. What matters is not some single piece of work or equipment that could evade both inspectors' environmental swipes and the scrutiny of national intelligence services but rather a Manhattan Project-scale infrastructure—which would be too big to evade detection, especially with the enhanced international monitoring of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The chief consequence of the exploitation (and encouragement) of public ignorance and misunderstanding by opponents of the nuclear agreement is that the matter has become a much closer call in Congress than it ever should have been, especially given that the agreement is not at all risky for the United States because the United States is not giving anything up except for some of the punishment it doles out, and that the agreement is clearly superior to the alternative of no agreement and no special restrictions on the Iranian program. A subsidiary consequence is the corruption and degradation of public debate, as illustrated by the aforementioned inspection issues.

That in turn has led to a lot of debate about the debate, and not just about the substantive issues. President Obama has taken criticism for the candid way in which he has spoken, especially in his speech earlier this month at American University, about the nature of the opposition to the agreement. The criticism is valid only insofar as the president could have given more of a nod to those who are genuinely confused or conflicted, are sincerely trying to arrive at a well-founded opinion about the accord, and amid the confusing arguments have honest concerns and reservations. They are the victims of the exploitation of ignorance, not the exploiters. With regard to the exploiters—those driving the opposition to the agreement—the president was speaking the truth.

The message that members of Congress ought to take away from the polls is that as far as public opinion is concerned, members have ample space to make a principled decision about the nuclear agreement. They do not have to fight against some well-entrenched public view. They will not suffer a backlash of public opinion—genuine public opinion—if they do their own part in educating the public and explaining the reasons for their position.

A gold standard for such education and explanation was set by Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who last week accompanied his announcement of support for the agreement with a remarkably thorough 5,200-word statement giving the reasons for his decision. The statement is one of the most insightful analyses of the relevant issues to come out of Congress or anywhere else, and it is very useful reading for any citizen looking for guidance and education on the subject. Not every member of Congress can be expected to be as thorough and diligent as Nadler has been, but he has shown what can be done along this line.

Members who come out differently are not necessarily intellectually lazy or incapable of understanding the relevant issues—and most of them aren't—nor are they misreading the public opinion polls. But they are being subjected to pressures that involve the role of money in politics, the Citizens United decision, and related matters that go beyond the direct influence being exerted on the Iran nuclear issue. This gets into reasons why even on some issues on which the American public does have a firm and reasonably well-informed prevailing view, such as Social Security, there still are significant political forces pushing in a different direction. It is for those general reasons, as well as the more specific sources of opposition to the Iranian nuclear agreement, that some members of Congress are exhibiting profiles in lack of courage. They are missing a good opportunity to show real leadership of the American public.

TopicsIran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East

Why the $1,000,000,000,000 F-35 Stealth Fighter Might Be Good Enough

The Buzz

The jet fighter can’t maneuver, the critics say. It’s based on a wrongheaded concept. It relies on unproved technologies. It’s a one-size-fits-all jet for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and yet it doesn't really meet any of their needs.

Is this Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter I’m describing? No, it’s actually the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the ubiquitous fighter-bomber, reconnaissance and radar-hunting aircraft that formed the backbone of U.S., NATO and Israeli air power in the 1960s and 1970s. More than 50 years later, the Phantom still flies, as evident when Syrian gunners downed a Turkish RF-4 recon plane last year.

While the Phantom still has many fans, it also had quite a few detractors. And many of those complaints are eerily similar to the criticisms now aimed at the Joint Strike Fighter. Is the F-4 a guide to what we can expect from the F-35?

The F-111 parallel

Comparing the F-35 to other troubled aircraft projects has become a favorite pastime of journalists, analysts and other experts. Most notable was a 2009 op-ed, in which famed aircraft designer Pierre Sprey and defense watchdog Winslow Wheeler made a compelling case that the F-35 is a reincarnation of the infamous F-111.

The swing-wing F-111 was originally conceived in 1960 as a long-range Air Force strike aircraft, until bean-counting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his staff decided that it should also be the Navy’s carrier-based interceptor.

But the Air Force and Navy had radically different requirements. The Navy backed out, and instead of becoming America’s primary tactical fighter, only 563 F-111s were built for the Air Force and Australia. The F-111 ended up costing far more than planned, suffered crippling design flaws and was ineffective in combat, Sprey tells War is Boring.

“Now change ‘F-111’ to ‘F-35,’” Sprey says. “Same consequences, same likely program result.”

If in fact the F-35 procurement is canceled or slashed, because of tighter defense budgets or a failure to meet performance goals, then it may become an expensive fiasco like the F-111.

However, suppose that all or most of the 2,443 U.S. F-35s, plus another 700 or so foreign orders, are actually built and deployed. That would make it the most common fighter among the U.S. and its allies. Just like the F-4.

Enter the Phantom

With nicknames like “Rhino,” “Lead Sled” and DUFF (“Double Ugly Fat F*cker”), and a shape that looked like a repeat offender against the laws of aerodynamics, the Phantom was proof that “a brick can fly if you stick a big enough engine on it,” to borrow one famous comment.

The F-4 was not pretty, but it was prolific. Some 5,195 F-4s were built, becoming the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter forces, as well as the main fighter in Israel, Britain and Japan.

The Phantom became an icon of Western air power, the jet that symbolized the air wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Despite its aesthetics, the F-4 still earns rough affection in numerous books, videos and Websites.

Yet it didn't start off as a popular aircraft. Just as the F-35 began as a Marine Corps strike aircraft until it became the multi-service Joint Strike Fighter, the F-4 was born in 1959 as a Navy carrier-based interceptor, until McNamara again wanted a common fighter for all the services.

Like the F-35, the F-4 was based on a conception—or a gimmick—of what future air combat would look like. The F-35 was born of the belief that fighters must use stealth and possess the ability to share tactical data with other aircraft—all in order to surprise and pick off their opponents.

For its part, the F-4 was based on the conviction that air combat would be waged from beyond visual range using long-range, radar-guided missiles.

We don't know if the F-35's design philosophy will prove correct, but we learned the hard way that the Phantom’s did not. The Sparrow radar-guided missile fizzled, and in any event U.S. aircraft were forbidden to conduct beyond-visual-range attacks over North Vietnam. Instead of long-range aerial sniping, U.S. F-4 pilots found themselves engaged in low-speed dogfights against less sophisticated but far more agile MiG-21s and MiG-17s.

Because combat was supposed to be long range, the Phantom initially lacked an internal cannon, so even if it could get on a MiG's tail, it was limited to Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Its two J79 engines provided much power but also much smoke, so that MiG pilots could see the Phantom from miles away.

The result was that Air Force Phantoms barely achieved a 2:1 kill ratio over North Vietnam. And at one point in 1967, the kill ratio actually favored the MiGs.

Sprey believes the F-4 was a mistake. He contends the U.S. would have been better off with the cheaper A-4 attack plane as its bomber and the low-cost and highly maneuverable F-5 as its dogfighter.

“Buying the F-4 for the USAF instead of the much more effective A-4 meant we delivered far less bombs on Vietnam targets at a cost two and a half times as high while losing at least three times as many of our aircrews,” he says. “You'd have done far better by giving the USAF 500 F-5s for air-to-air and 2,500 A-4s for bombing. That would have cost one-third of what we paid for 3,000 USAF F-4s, and we’d have destroyed far more Vietnamese ground targets and at least twice as many MiGs.”

As rough a time as the Phantom initially had over Vietnam, it sounds like a cake walk compared to what awaits F-35, according to its critics. They see the F-35 as dog meat in a dogfight against the faster and more maneuverable Russian Su-35 and Su-30 and the Chinese J-20. The F-35 already suffers from cost overruns, complex and unproven software and performance compromises to enable it to operate from Air Force bases, Navy carriers and Marine forward airfields.

If stealth doesn't work out as expected in the next air war, and combat turns into Vietnam-style knife fights, the F-35 could be in trouble.

The F-4 Redeemed

It’s hard to find a silver lining when America’s premier aircraft now will cost more than a trillion dollars. Also, aircraft, weapons and enemies have changed since in the half-century since the Phantom first took flight. Yet in the end, while aircraft designers may wake up screaming from dreams of ugly Phantoms in the night, the F-4 didn’t do so badly.

When the Navy pioneered Top Gun air combat training, U.S. kill ratios soared in Vietnam. Israeli pilots muttered at first about losing their zippy little Mirage fighters in the late 1960s, but they grew to love the Phantom’s versatility and durability.

This doesn’t make the F-4 a great aircraft or excuse its design flaws. Everyone wants the best fighter, but there is truth in the adage that better is the enemy of good enough; there an infinite number of brilliant aircraft that never flew off the drawing board. Whatever the Phantom’s problems, they were not so bad as to prevent properly trained pilots from carrying out their missions.

If the F-35 does prove flawed, at least the Phantom shows that even a flawed aircraft can be redeemed. No doubt the Russians and Chinese feel the same way, because only a propagandist or career pessimist would believe that the advanced MiGs and Sukhois don't have their share of bugs and unfulfilled expectations.

Whether the American taxpayer should spend a trillion dollars on a flawed jet is another matter. But if the F-4 is a guide, the F-35 may yet prove good enough.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here


Russia's Blast from the Past: Beware the Tu-95 Bear Strategic Bomber

The Buzz

At first glance, the Russian Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber looks like a 59-year-old flying anachronism, a Cold War leftover that has outlived its usefulness in a century when stealth is king.

The Bear is showing signs of its age. In recent months, two Tu-95 crashes led to the grounding of the entire fleet of more than 50 aircraft to resolve mechanical issues. Besides, there is nothing stealthy about the Bear.

Even when the bomber is in top-notch shape, the turboprop-powered Tu-95 is loud … really loud. In fact, it’s so noisy that listening devices on submerged U.S. submarines can hear a Bear flying overhead.

Furthermore, it has the radar signature of a flying big-box store. The plane is huge.

Photos of lumbering Bear-H bombers intercepted by sleek U.S. or NATO warplanes as they flew toward protected airspace are some of the most recognizable images of the East-West nuclear stand-off during the 1970s and ’80s.

But Cold War aviation genius Andrei Tupolev was no fool. He designed an adaptable plane that can carry one Hell of a load-out when it comes to bombs and missiles, fly thousands of miles from bases in Russia, loiter on the edges of enemy airspace, and deliver megatons of nuclear destruction.

As recently as July 4, multiple Bear bombers flew into U.S. air defense identification zones off California and Alaska. In fact, some of the Bears flew within 40 miles off the California coastline.

Technically, the bombers were still within international airspace. But call it Cold War 2.0 — the Kremlin is sending the same message the bomber has always sent.

“The current missions being flown by the Tu-95 are absolutely designed and principally intended to appeal to Russian pride and national identity,” said Scott Palmer, professor of history at Western Illinois University and author of Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia.


In 1956, the Soviet Military Air Forces wanted a replacement for the Tu-4 Bull, the USSR’s first nuclear-capable bomber. The Bull was a copy of the B-29 – Tupolev used crashed and interned examples of the B-29 as the basis of his reverse-engineered design.

But even though it was a clone of the same kind of aircraft that dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons, the Bull did not have the range necessary to strike targets within the United States if it was flown from Russia.

The new Soviet bomber would need to have a range of at least 5,000 miles and carry a nine-ton bomb load.

Tupolev’s new design was big even by contemporary standards. The Bear’s narrow fuselage is more than 150 feet long with a 164-foot wingspan. What’s more, the wings are swept back at a 35-degree angle to reduce drag.

In addition, the Bear possesses a 9,000-mile range without refueling. Because it was originally designed to carry 1950s nuclear gravity bombs, it has a large bomb bay and plenty of room on its wings to accommodate newly added hard points.

Today, that means the modified Tu-95MS can carry 16 AS-15 Kent cruise missiles — six internally in an MKU 5-6 rotary launcher, and 10 on external wing pylons. Each missile is capable carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead, a yield roughly equal to 10 times the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

Last year, Russia upgraded eight Tu-95s to cruise missile-carrying MS status with 10 more modified Bears scheduled for deployment by 2016.

During the 1950s, the real technical innovation was the Bear’s 14,000 horsepower turboprop engines. The four Kuznetsov NK-12M engines each with two contra-rotating propellers are the most powerful turboprop engines in the world.

In fact, the engines are so powerful the tips of the 20-foot long propeller blades break the sound barrier when the pilot throttles up — one of the reasons the aircraft is so deafeningly loud.

Noisy as it is, the Bear’s seven-man crew can fly a number of Tu-95 variants configured not only for strategic bombing but also for maritime patrol and photo intelligence. There was even a version used as a passenger aircraft, and a specially modified Bear dropped the Tsar Bomba — the world’s most powerful nuclear bomb ever exploded — during its 1961 Soviet test detonation.

Despite its drawbacks, what explains the Bear’s longevity? Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, told War Is Boring the Russian Federation doesn’t have much choice.

The Russian defense industry fell into disarray after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has not recovered enough to sustain a new bomber program, Kristensen said. The Russians are developing a next-generation jet bomber that is expected to start test flights in the early 2020s, but it remains to be seen what they can build and how soon it can be deployed.

“Generally, airplanes can fly for a very long time, as long as spare parts are available,” he said. “Propeller engines are generally speaking less complex to operate than jet engines and many modern aircraft types also use propellers.”

“Moreover, although a Bear would not last long against a modern air defense system, it is equipped with long-range cruise missiles that provide considerable stand-off capability. So for now, the Bear serves Russia’s needs for standoff air-delivered weapons, signaling and national prestige.”

It may be flawed, but the Bear bomber will be going strong as both a weapons platform and a symbol of Russian might for years to come. Even with plans to build a jet-powered bomber during the next decade, upgrades will allow the Cold War giant to keep flying through the 2040s.

It’s old, it’s obvious and it has mechanical problems — facts hard to ignore while the Tu-95 plays a key role in a highly orchestrated and much exaggerated effort by the Kremlin to impress its foreign rivals.

But it’s equally hard to ignore a bomber that can fly within miles of your shoreline armed to the teeth with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

“The Tu-95 is a flying anachronism,” Palmer said, “though one that remains an essential component of the Russian strategic air arm.”

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Is This China and Russia's "Nonaggression Pact” for Cyberspace?

The Buzz

On May 8, 2015, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China signed a bilateral agreement on cooperation in the field of international information security. The treaty, which some have dubbed a “nonaggression pact” for cyberspace, details cooperative measures both governments pledge to undertake, including exchange of information and increased scientific and academic cooperation. With this, Russia and China continue to advance their vision of “information security,” a view of security concerns in cyberspace that is markedly differentfrom Western approaches of “cybersecurity.”

Many observers have characterized the agreement as a largely political move at a time of heightened tensions with the United States and Europe. The alignment of Russia and China is seen as a response to growing Western pressure. Accordingly, Russia’s pivot to the East follows Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.

However, a closer look reveals that the agreement follows a longstanding series of diplomatic initiatives launched by both countries. Already in 2009 Russia and China signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of international information security in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Later, in 2011 both countries submitted a proposal for an international code of conduct for information security to the United Nations. Although the proposal failed to garner sufficient support in the relevant Committee of the General Assembly, Russia and China redoubled their efforts. An updated version of the code of conduct is currently circulating in the UN in time for this fall’s General Assembly session. All these initiatives sought to advance Russia’s and China’s views on a variety of cybersecurity issues while shoring up their positions in international discussions. This year’s bilateral agreement is no exception in this regard.

Familiar Themes   

The treaty picks up on many of the themes from past documents. For one, the Russian-Chinese agreement continues to define “threats” in cyberspace broadly. While the treaty mentions threats that would also be of concern to the United States and Europe, the pact also defines cyber threats as the transmission of information that could endanger the “societal-political and social-economic systems, and spiritual, moral and cultural environment of states.” Obviously, this could be interpreted very broadly and Western countries have been concerned that similar provisions could be used to unduly restrict the free flow of information.

Second, the agreement between Russia and China also touches upon questions of Internet governance. Continuing previous efforts, the document calls for the creation of a “multilateral, democratic and transparent management system” for the Internet, giving states and their governments a greater, if not predominant, voice in the governance process. This view of multilateral Internet governance stands in contrast to the multi-stakeholder model preferred by Western states.

Novel Aspects

The treaty is most interesting for its novel aspects. Compared with past initiatives, the agreement details a remarkable level of cooperation. Whereas previous pledges of cooperation remained vague and somewhat aspirational, the current agreement provides a list of concrete measures and policies to be realized by both sides, coordinated and evaluated through two consultation meetings a year. These range from the creation of contact points and communication channels between various government entities to the realization of joint scientific projects.

Moreover, the agreement stands out for its normative aspects. It specifically provides that both countries shall cooperate in the creation and dissemination of international legal norms in cyberspace. This includes increased cooperation and coordination of positions in various international forums, including the UN, where both countries have been pushing for the negotiation of new international legal norms to regulate the use of cyber warfare.  The agreement thus formalizes their joint interest in shaping the international debate on norms in cyberspace.

Lastly, one provision has been widely reported as a “nonaggression” provision whereby Russia and China, for the first time, pledge to refrain from “computer attacks” against each other. In Article 4 the treaty provides that:

Each Party has an equal right to the protection of the information resources of their state against misuse and unsanctioned interference, including computer attacks against them. Each Party shall not exercise such actions with respect to the other Party and shall assist the other Party in the realization of said right.

The two sentences, in conjunction, could be read in a way to keep Russia and China from using “computer attacks” against each other. If so, this provision would be remarkable not only for its content but also for the kind of language it employs. Previously, particularly China has avoided the usage of language that could implicate the right to self-defense, which it interprets as legitimizing the use of offensive cyber activity in conflict.

On the other hand, the language of this provision is strikingly vague. Phrases such as “misuse” and “unsanctioned interference” could obviously be interpreted quite differently by both sides leaving significant loopholes in the scope of the provision. Given the magnitude of Russian and Chinese activities in cyberspace, including those directed against each other, this commitment and the seriousness with which it will be implemented are questionable. Thus, the characterization of this provision as a “nonaggression” pledge might be overstated.

Implementation Will Be Critical

Overall, the Russian and Chinese agreement continues many familiar themes. It echoes previous diplomatic initiatives that have united both countries in international cybersecurity discussions. Yet, it also offers a number of novel aspects.

In the end, however, the treaty itself is just the first step. The decisive aspect in evaluating the impact of this document will be its implementation. Particularly the implementation (or non-implementation) of the cooperation commitments, and even more so of the “nonaggression” provision, will decide whether the agreement really marks the beginning of a closer relationship between both countries or whether it will be relegated to a symbolic diplomatic effort overtaken by reality.

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

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia