United Kingdom’s Greatest Military Challenge (And It’s Not Russian Bombers)

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Amidst increasing alliance concern that the United Kingdom is approaching the point at which ‘little Britain’ may, in military terms, be both perception and reality, the British government has embarked upon a new Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR). The auguries aren’t good for Defense, which has already had to find £500 million to satisfy the Treasury.

For the defense effort as a whole, the key problem is the need to replace the four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. This program can’t be delayed without risking the continuous at-sea deterrent, the holy grail of the British deterrent, which has been sustained, albeit sometimes under great strain, for more than four decades. Both the Conservatives and Labour have committed to the successor force, while a number of studies have confirmed that the submarine-borne ballistic missile remains the most effective mechanism for maintaining a nuclear strike capability.

What has also been confirmed—to the Navy’s relief—is that there will be four boats, the practical minimum for surety of operational availability. After the scarring experience of the Astute-class nuclear attack submarine program, which suffered the effects of a gap in submarine design and construction, the approach will be conservative, building as much as possible on the Astute experience. London will cooperate with Washington on both the missiles and the nuclear reactor, while there will be consultation, as was required with Astute, on detailed design problems.

This program lies like a shadow over the conventional forces for two reasons. The first is cost. It will be an impost when all three Services require investment. The second reflects the problems of scale, all too familiar to Australia, with which Britain must now deal. The technical and production capacity of the UK is limited, as is the capacity of Defense and the Royal Navy to provide the expertise required. The demand on human resources will not only be substantial but, given the reductions in recent decades, represent a much greater relative call on the whole than did the two predecessor deterrent force programs.

Reducing UK capacity to be a ‘parent’ to different capabilities is something that the British are starting to realize. It’s manifested itself in debates over industry, but all three Services are beginning to understand that they no longer have the ability to generate the back-rooms needed to maintain nationally autonomous support for every force element. The UK will have to work with both the USA and Western Europe to solve this conundrum.

The Army may be most in need of a renaissance. The Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Sir Nick Carter, author of the current ‘Army 2020’ concept, has been arguing for change, particularly to revive ‘a modern general staff’, with the intellectual commitment that this will require. The Army seeks to retain the “ability to generate a warfighting division in an expeditionary context.” The problem is, even with an approved regular ceiling of 82,000 and reserves of 30,000, its ability to generate and sustain such a force is, at best, doubtful.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army consistently achieved a much less effective roulement than the Royal Marines. The regimental system in particular has great value instilling esprit de corps, but may have contributed to a less than efficient army structure. There remain no less than 18 infantry regiments, providing 32 regular and 13 reserve battalions, plus six companies (the majority of which are Guards’ units for ceremonial duties).

The reserve is also under stress. In part, the last government’s commitment to an Army Reserve of 30,000 was a way of maintaining overall numbers on the cheap. Apart from the fact that the relationship between readiness and resources has never been clearer for land forces, the scheme may be in trouble because of the difficulty of recruiting enough suitable reservists for the infantry. The talented and capable are usually the least likely in a modern economy to have the free time to acquire and maintain the skills required for the combat arms, as opposed to the successful use of professionals such as doctors and lawyers in their specialist roles.

Weight may also be in question. The second arm of Army 2020 is an ‘Adaptable Force’ to focus on conflict prevention and international engagement. This will have obvious utility in many contingencies but the difficulty is, whether remaining combat-ready or not, such forces may not be ideal for the higher intensity warfare which state (and some non-state) threats imply. This adds another element to the readiness problem. The reformist CGS may well prefer that the traditional constituency for preserving regiments, strongly represented in the Conservative party, give him room for maneuver in exchanging people for equipment, weapons, vehicles and ammunition.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has its own challenges. It’s missing a key element in the absence of maritime patrol aircraft. SDSR 2010 saw the capability abandoned as a cost saving after the effective failure of the modernization of the aged Nimrod. Following the even more ill-starred Nimrod AEW project, the effort to renew a design half a century old was a good demonstration of the perils of supporting national industry without adequate thought to the alternatives. The MPAs’ removal was intended to be temporary and expertise is being maintained with the help of personnel loans to partner MPA forces, but a replacement has yet to appear. This is apparently a high priority for SDSR2015, as it should be, given increasing Russian activity around British waters and the potential vulnerability of the ballistic missile submarine force in particular.

The Air Force also needs to consider its position on the Navy’s new aircraft carriers and the F-35. The original 1998 SDSR concept was for a close relationship between RAF and Navy that would create air groups of sufficient size to be a significant strike and air defense capability in their own right. The RAF’s original view that carrier aviation, if used, had to done properly was one driver in making the two Queen Elizabeth-class the size they are.

Financial stresses caused the Air Force to walk back from this—to the point where the maintenance of as much as possible of the land based fighter/strike force became a higher priority than retention of the Harriers intended as the initial air element of the first carrier and the precursor of a powerful RN-RAF F35 carrier air group. It may be time for the RAF to recommit and give the carriers a higher priority than the current intended effort of one RN ‘heavy’ and one RAF ‘heavy’ squadron.

At this point, the carriers are likely to deploy with a dozen F-35B, but would be much more powerful signals of British intent—and much more useful in higher intensity and larger scale operations—if they could go close to matching the American concept of 36 embarked fighter/strike. The RN has been discussing the regular embarkation of USMC F35B, but there are complications to such an approach—and the possibility that the Marine Corps’ aircraft may be committed elsewhere.

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

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While China's AIIB Makes Headlines...BRICS Bank Moves Ahead

The Buzz

While Beijing's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has won overwhelming support (to the surprise of many, including China itself), another bank headquartered in China seems to be flying under the world's radar.

Few people have heard of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB). This was the strong impression I got after visiting Washington, Sydney and Canberra over the last couple of months.

The NDB idea was proposed in 2011 by the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, and it initially encountered the same cynicism as the AIIB. The five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) were not deterred, however, and finally converted intention into reality in 2014. Progress on the NDB inspired the AIIB initiative intellectually, and also provided some momentum for the AIIB's launch in 2013.

The relative lack of attention given to the NDB compared to the AIIB is understandable. Geopolitically, the AIIB is about the China-U.S. relationship, the most important bilateral relationship in the Asia-Pacific and perhaps the world. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the NDB's slower progress is a signal that there is no place for it.

The BRICS countries share a common interest in 'rebalancing' the international financial system – getting their money back from the Western banking system to finance their own infrastructure and development, and enhancing the resilience of their financial systems. It is these common interests that drove the NDB project, notwithstanding the fundamental differences between its five members.

South-South cooperation remains an important step for more balanced global economic development, where the NDB will be relevant. In addition, the NDB can play a role in geographic regions that the AIIB will not focus on, such as Africa.

The real issue now is how to make NDB a success. So far, it is moving ahead in stages.

Kundapur Vaman Kamath, the most prominent private banker in India, has been nominated as the first president. This is good news, not only because Kamath was considered the least controversial candidate but also because his identity can send a message to the world that the NDB is to be managed as a bank rather than maneuvered as a diplomatic instrument. Russia may want the NDB to serve its geopolitical interests, as indicated by the fact that it has invited Greece to become the sixth member, but this proposal will not be accepted by the other BRICS countries.

Undoubtedly the strongest support for the NDB will come from China, despite the fact that it has the same formal decision-making power as the other four BRICS countries.

Within China, the NDB is seen as one package with the AIIB, and both banks are still at the preparatory stage. The Shanghai municipal government has given strong support to the NDB as the first international organisation headquartered in Shanghai and the first international financial organisation headquartered in China. The NDB is expected to help strengthen efforts to build up Shanghai as an international financial centre. What the Chinese and Shanghainese governments should provide is more entrepreneurship and intellectual leadership in defining the mandate of the bank. The fact that all the BRICS countries are now founding members of the AIIB could also help the NDB develop a consistent and complementary relationship with that organisation.

It is neither surprising nor necessarily a bad thing that the NDB is going unnoticed. After all, the world's largest multilateral development bank, the European Investment Bank, has a low profile too.

This piece first appeared in The Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

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Russia's Lethal Nuclear Arsenal Gets an Upgrade: Should NATO Worry?

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Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave brief remarks at the opening ceremony of ARMY-2015, an exposition where Russia’s defense contractors demonstrated new military technology for foreign weapons buyers. The speech was relatively sedate. It omitted much of the aggressive rhetoric that has become commonplace for the Kremlin, amounting to little more than a sales pitch for Russia’s military systems. Highlighting several pieces of Russia’s plan to modernize its military, Putin mentioned that, “This year we will supply more than forty new intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] to our nuclear force.”

This simple statement ignited a minor fervor in NATO countries. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that, “Nobody should hear that kind of announcement… and not be concerned.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified…. It’s also one of the reasons we are now increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces.” Reuters says Russia is “beefing up” its arsenal, CNBC asked whether it meant a new cold war, and many others worried about the prospect of a new arms race.

Reading through these statements, you would think that Russia had announced a new arms buildup that posed a significant threat to the West. In fact, Putin’s announcement was entirely in line with previous expectations and did not add major new capabilities to his nuclear arsenal. Russia continues to comply fully with the New START treaty, which limits strategic launchers like ICBMs. Because their Soviet-era ICBMs are aging out of service, Russian nuclear forces must take delivery of forty new ICBMs each year just to replicate their existing capability. Far from a threat, Russia’s ICBM modernization may actually make their arsenal more vulnerable. In short, the speech was barely an announcement and, because it held a moderate line on nuclear modernization, probably more good news than bad.

Let’s take a closer look. Under New START, Russia must decline to reach an aggregate limit of 700 deployed launchers (meaning ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers) by 2018. Both Russia and the United States are on track to meet these commitments. In fact, according to the latest data, Russia is far below this limit, holding its aggregate number of launchers steady at 515. The forty “new” ICBMs do not increase the number of ICBMs deployed, but simply replace old missiles that have been in service since the 1970s.

It is entirely reasonable for Russia to replace its Soviet-era SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25 missiles with variants of the new SS-27 and the Sarmat heavy ICBM. The replacement process, which Russia hopes to complete by 2022, decreases the number of missiles in total, but packs more warheads onto each missile, a vulnerability that the United States would never accept in its own arsenal because it means that more Russian warheads can be attacked by fewer U.S. warheads.

Russian ICBM modernization is reasonably well understood and proceeding as expected, which is why veteran nuclear watcher Hans Kristensen noted last month that that Russia was expected to deploy forty ICBMs per year on average. If anything, last week’s announcement represented a step back from Putin’s pledge last year to deploy fifty new ICBMs this year, a clear concession to the acute fiscal pressures that are hemming in Russia’s military modernization. Furthermore, the United States should welcome any Russian effort to be transparent about its nuclear arsenal. The information transmitted through New START inspections and in public announcements like these is reassuring to both parties. It should be applauded rather than criticized, especially if they do not announce new capabilities.

Even if Russia were somehow to accelerate its nuclear modernization efforts, the U.S. Department of Defense recognizes that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty.”

To summarize: Russia could deploy many more missiles and still remain behind the United States in numbers of launchers and under the New START caps. Even if it cheated on the New START treaty and deployed still more, the Pentagon does not believe that this would significantly affect the strategic balance.

Last week’s announcement should fall somewhere between mundane and reassuring. Instead, much of the West took the bait. Putin clearly hopes that his irresponsible talk about nuclear weapons will strike NATO like a drum, sending fear and awe resonating through the alliance. He hopes to provoke a reaction that will distract attention from his conventional and hybrid aggression, raise Russia’s stature in Eastern Europe, solidify his rule at home, and allow him to impose even greater military expenditures on his citizenry.

With the United States prepositioning heavy weaponry to its NATO allies in the Baltics and NATO itself planning to more than double the size of its NATO Response Force (NRF), Russian rhetoric will only grow more shrill, reckless, and urgent in the coming year. And with the U.S. presidential election kicking off, Putin is likely to find an audience that is ready and willing to amplify his alarmist rhetoric.

To be sure, Russia has made deeply dangerous moves with its nuclear arsenal. Itsabrogation of the INF treaty and apparent lack of interest in returning to compliance undercuts U.S. confidence that it is possible to reach negotiated solutions with Russia. Furthermore, Kremlin officials have also proven anxious to inject nuclear threats into non-nuclear crises, as when Putin rather strangely claimed to have prepared to raise the alert level for his nuclear forces to cover his aggression in Ukraine.

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry told a meeting in Vienna this week, “We are about to begin a new round in the nuclear arms race unless some brake is put on it right now.” With rhetoric reaching a fever pitch, it is important to remember that the goal is not to plunge eagerly into a new arms race, but to prevent one.

The episode of the forty ICBMs firmly underscores the need to be clear about Russia’s actions, to demarcate the trivia from the substantive, the rhetoric from the threat. The United States has no interest at all in indulging Putin’s effort to create tension at the nuclear level and every interest in confronting to Russia’s aggression at the conventional level. To date, the White House has been exemplary in drawing this line, responding patiently but firmly to INF noncompliance while refusing to rise to Putin’s nuclear threats. In response to a question about the forty ICBMs, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “We’ve seen these reports. I don’t have a specific reaction to them.”

At the same time, the White House has moved assertively to strengthen NATO’s ability to respond to aggression on its own terms, pledging to contribute high-end assets to the NRF’s spearhead force. This Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) will benefit from U.S. special operations forces, logistical, artillery, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

There are already calls in the United States to fight fire with fire and add to our own nuclear forces. However, there is little reason to believe that building new nuclear capabilities or forward-deploying the ones we already have would restrain Russia. There isevery reason to believe that Putin would take these steps as license to divert attention to the nuclear balance, to abrogate existing arms control treaties, to launch a new arms race, and to use his nuclear arsenal to cover aggression at lower levels—in short, to start a new Cold War.

It is better to fight fire with cold water. The United States should firmly resist Russian aggression by deploying conventional forces in Europe and just as firmly resist the urge to respond to nuclear provocations. It will certainly not help to worry about “new” nuclear threats where there are none. The best way to prevent a new arms race is to refuse to engage in one.

Adam Mount is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where this piece first appeared) where he is writing a profile of nuclear disarmament in the United States. He holds a PhD in Government from Georgetown University.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

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U.S. Air Force Rehearses Bombing Iran's Buried Nuclear Targets

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In the last year, the U.S. Air Force has conducted at least three trial runs of a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a report in Politico Magazine.

“At least three times in the past year, a B-2 stealth bomber has taken off from an Air Force base in Missouri and headed west to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. For these missions, the $2 billion plane was outfitted with one of the world’s largest bombs,” the report by Michael Crowley said, referring to the Pentagon’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bomb.

“Those flights were, in effect, trial runs for the attack on Iran that President Barack Obama, or his successor, may order if diplomacy can’t prevent Iran from trying to build a nuclear weapon.”

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that the Pentagon had done a trial run of the MOP back in January. That report noted that B-2s carrying the bomb had taken off from an Air Force base in Missouri but said the location of the test was unknown.

The White Sands Missile Range is surrounded by mountains, which would help the Air Force simulate bombing Iran’s Fordow enrichment plant near the city of Qom. The Fordow enrichment plant is buried more than 250 feet inside a mountain. It is also likely reinforced with concrete.

The MOP is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in existence. Weighing in at some 30,000 tons, the bomb can reportedly burrow through 200 feet of earth and 60 feet of concrete before detonating.

The aforementioned Wall Street Journal report said that, “to destroy or disable the underground facilities, the Pentagon envisages guiding two or more of the bunker busters to the same impact point, in sequence, extending the weapon’s burrowing power.”

The same report said that the MOP had received upgraded electronic countermeasures to prevent the Iranians from using jammers to disrupt the bomb’s internal guidance systems. The guidance systems themselves, the report added, have been upgraded to give them enough precision that B-2 bombers could drop one of top of the other.

The U.S. Air Force’s bombing runs have taken place as Iran and the P5+1 powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) have made significant progress towards reaching a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. In April, the two sides reached a framework agreement for the deal and negotiators are currently trying to hammer out technical details ahead of a June 30 deadline for reaching a final, comprehensive agreement.

Both sides have indicated that they are willing to negotiate past the deadline if a deal isn’t struck by June 30.

President Obama has repeatedly said “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, indicating that he would order air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran made a dash for the bomb.

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

Image: United States Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III


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The Ghost of Thucydides: Is War in Asia Inevitable?

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ASEAN’s leaders are worried about what history tells them about the future of Southeast Asia. The fears about the lessons of history are a discordant note as ASEAN steps up to a great moment in its history—the creation of an economic, political-security and social Community in December 2015.

Perhaps this moment of historic creation is partly driven by dark understandings of history. As ASEAN embraces a date with regional destiny, its leaders are invoking some tough history as reference points.

The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, stirs headlines by comparing China with Hitler’s Germany. In this metaphor, the Philippines has the role of Czechoslovakia. Aquino ran this line last year to The New York Times and during his recent visit to Japan.

The point about Aquino’s history isn’t just the Germany–China analogy, but the casting of the US in the Britain/France role—the great powers that stood mute while the small state (the Philippines as Czechoslovakia) got monstered.

Another history that keeps popping up is Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war 2,500 years ago, the conflict between Athens and Sparta. The Thucydides trap that ASEAN sees is different to the Thucydides trap that worries China and the US. Different aspects of history for different folks.

Professor Graham Allison’s version of the trap is the danger posed when a rising power confronts a ruling power.

For Allison, the crucial news is this line: ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.’ Applied today, this becomes China’s rise, US fear and inevitable conflict:

"Never has a nation [China] moved so far, so fast, up the international rankings on all dimensions of power. In a generation, a state whose gross domestic product was smaller than Spain’s has become the second-largest economy in the world. If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred."

The trap has captured the attention of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He told the Berggruen Institute:

"The argument that strong countries are bound to seek hegemony does not apply to China. This is not in the DNA of this country given our long historical and cultural background. Also China fully understands that we need a peaceful and stable internal and external environment to develop ourselves. We all to need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap—destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves."

When ASEAN leaders go to Thucydides, however, they are interested in a different trap – what big powers can do to the small.

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, had his Thucydides moment at the Asia Pacific Roundtable last year, with this bit of dark history:

"Imagine a world where institutions, rules and norms are ignored, forgotten or cast aside; in which countries with large economies and strong armies dominate, forcing the rest to accept the outcome. This would be a world where, in the words of the Greek historian Thucydides, ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’."

Going Peloponnesian a few weeks ago, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, worried about the same history:

"It should not be a world where might is right, where the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. It should be a world where legitimacy and constructive engagement are the international norm, and every country, big and small, can compete peacefully for the chance to prosper."

The strong doing as they will and the weak suffering as they must is what Athens told the small state of Melos in the Melian dialogue, demanding surrender and payment of tribute. Melos refused to yield, claiming the right to remain neutral (or lean towards Sparta) on grounds of justice and honor. After a siege, Athens infamously carried out its threat to kill every Melian male of arms-bearing age and sold the women and children into slavery.

Such history speaks to core aims of ASEAN neutrality and centrality. Neutrality for individual ASEAN states has a distinct Melian flavor—the right to stand aloof or to lean between China and the US, depending on the issue. The ASEAN fear is of not being central to decisions and being forced to pick sides under duress.

The ASEAN version of the Thucydides trap is another version of the conundrum expressed by Wang Gungwu: ASEAN’s problem is to form a realistic assessment of China’s intentions and America’s resolve.

Musing on the prospect of tough choices is such a habit it qualifies as part of the ASEAN way. Coral Bell’s line was that NATO is ever in crisis; in the same manner, ASEAN is ever tormented by existential angst. The history lessons feed the angst.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

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