Revealed: The Gulf States are Buying Tons of American Smart Bombs

The Buzz

The tragedy of Paris this past weekend may eventually prove to have been the beginning of the end for the Al-Baghdadi Gang in Al-Raqqah.

Wantonly attacking the citizens of two UN Security Council members in a week wasn't just heinous, it was stupid. So if the Coalition air forces have been running through a lot of ordnance pummeling troops and infrastructure, the pace is only stepping up. Getting them the weapons, though, hasn’t been easy. As Air Force Secretary Debbie James stressed at last week’s Dubai Air Show, her department has been trying to speed up its part of the export review process. Some of the bureaucratic anguish is about maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME), an American policy since 1968, and a matter of law since 2008. At a certain point, however, obsession with Israel’s security undermines American efforts to help Arab states help themselves, and Arab security calls out for whatever America can reasonably send.

This week, it’s the Saudis who are buying a lot of bombs. As noted by Andrea Shalal at Reuters, the US State Department has just approved the sale of 22,000 bombs, including 5,000 GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) from Boeing, and 1,000 laser-guided Paveway IIs from either Raytheon or Lockheed Martin. The total bill will come to about $1.29 billion. The Houthis are absorbing a lot of damage, and now there will be more coming their way. It’s not clear just when that request went in, but we can imagine how the interagency ground its gears on this one. As William Wunderle and Andre Briere of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper in 2008, the process by which State and Defense have sought to determine just what might breach that QME hasn’t always been rigorous. But it’s important to remember that a qualitative edge doesn’t necessarily demand a quantitative edge, so at least large munitions sales have been getting through.

The United Arab Emirates, after all, have been getting resupplied with what they need. Back in October 2013, the Defense Department reported to the Congress that the UAE had applied to undertake a huge shopping trip with American weapons manufacturers: 5,000 of Boeing’s Small Diameter Bombs, 1,200 of Raytheon's JSOW-C glide bombs, and 300 of Boeing’s SLAM-ER cruise missiles. The Emiratis already had gobs of Textron’s Sensor-Fuzed Weapons—antitank cluster munitions that can take out whole squadrons of vehicles at once. The UAE Air Force also already had the fighter-bombers to drop them: about 79 F-16E/F Desert Falcons, and 68 Mirage 2000s.

It’s true that at one point, much of the Arab world had large air forces. Egypt still does. But these days, some of the less developed countries are spending much more on their armies than their air forces, because their security problems are mostly internal. The lingering big inventories of old aircraft will not be replaced; outside the Gulf, none of the countries can afford it. Consider that the Libyan Air Force under Qaddafi had about 400 jets—rather few of them flyable, of course. Even before the place fell apart, according to the Libyan Herald and other sources, the long-term plan for the Libyan Air Force included only 30. Those squadrons upon squadrons were built up only because the Soviets were spending about 25 percent of their GDP on military hardware, and giving a lot of it away at “friendship prices”. That gravy train left the station twenty-five years ago. It's not just that the inventories today aren't going to be replaced; after 1989, they were never going to be replaced.

The mere size of an air fleet and its munitions, of course, hardly captures its military power. In “Lessons from Ground Combat in the Gulf: the Impact of Training and Technology” (International Security, Fall 1997), Daryl Press argued that training is what matters most, given reasonably good equipment. In Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2006), Stephen Biddle argued that what matters is actually a closely coupled combination of training and technology. There is the separate problem that bombing can prevent al-Baghdadi’s maniacs from taking any more territory, but only boots on the ground can take the territory back. So far, those boots have been mostly Kurdish, and while the Peshmerga are tough, they are not legion.

So bean-counting doesn’t produce a meaningful answer, for few Middle Eastern countries can handle even the equipment they’ve got today. When planes are needed in Syria, Assad gets a fighter-bomber regiment direct from Russia. The regime probably doesn’t have the absorptive capacity to fly even another two dozen jets on its own. But there’s a marked contrast in what’s happening in the Gulf States. The Emirates have already figured out how to integrate drones into their airspace, while the FAA in the more spacious USA cannot. There was the arms deal signed with Ukraine in February—a rare show of support for the embattled European state. Alenia is pitching  gunships to the Emirati air marshals, and for good reason, they’re interested. That sale of V-22 Ospreys has been rumored for about three years now, and there’s an understandable need. Indeed, American arms makers are setting up not just sales offices, but the beginnings of more serious facilities. For as my colleague Bilal Saab has written, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE is one of the few places in the Arab world with a budding arms industry.

Indeed, that confluence of capabilities is already far ahead of what most countries in the region can manage. Almost everywhere else, either the armed forces lack the institutional capacity to wage modern war, or their treasuries lack the monies to pay for it. In some cases, it’s both, and that doesn’t add up to too a worrisome threat to Israel. But that also means that if the Emirates and the rest of the GCC can continue to improve their military performance by concentrating on training, doctrine, and organization, they should be able contain threats with much less outside assistance. Together, they have almost the population of Iran, and more disposable income. At this point, if Iran is no longer the clear and present danger, Daesh is. Either way, since 1991, we've known that tanks and technicals coming across the desert make really good targets for precision weapons. So let’s continue to get them the weapons they need.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Does NATO Require America to Go to War over the Paris Attacks?

The Skeptics

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s tragic attacks in Paris, several commentators suggested that NATO should invoke Article 5, treat the attacks on France as the functional equivalent of an attack on all 28 member nations, and immediately prepare military action. Retired Navy Adm. and Former NATO Supreme Commander James Stavridis explained that “NATO can no longer pretend the conflict does not affect its most basic interests,” and urged the alliance “to defeat the Islamic state in Syria and destroy the infrastructure it has created there.”

NATO historian Stanley Sloan is skeptical. He notes that France is jealous of its sovereignty, and therefore not particularly enthusiastic about a NATO-led mission, given that such a mission “would likely be dominated by the United States.” NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR), recall, “is, and always has been, American.” “French President Francois Hollande,” Sloan predicts, “most certainly would like U.S. and allied support and cooperation but also would like to be seen as taking strong national action, not just as a member of a NATO operation.”

The suggestion that NATO should invoke Article 5 after the terrorist attacks in Paris is curious in several other respects. Although NATO countries did invoke Article 5 after 9/11, they did not do so after the 7/7 attacks in London or the attacks in Madrid in March 2004, nor, for that matter, after numerous IRA bombings in the UK in the 1970s, or the Libyan-sponsored bombings in Berlin in 1986. In that last case, a number of countries, including France, did not support the use of force against Libya in retaliation. U.S. jets launched from Great Britain were required to fly around French airspace to carry out their strikes.

Others have suggested that the attacks require a response, and that the North Atlantic Treaty explicitly empowers the President of the United States to circumvent Congress, and thus avoid a messy public debate. At the Washington Post online, Ilya Somin claimed that the Paris attacks gave “the Obama administration an opportunity to legalize its previously unconstitutional war against ISIS.” And that Article 5 “gives him the same authority to use force as he would have in the event of an attack on the United States itself.”

But NATO members who do invoke Article 5 are not obligated to carry out an armed response. The precise form of support for an ally attacked is solely at the discretion of each member state, and, as noted by international legal scholar Julian Ku, “Article 9 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that “[t]his Treaty shall be ratified and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.” (emphasis added).”

This would appear to contradict Somin’s claim that Article 5 was meant to circumvent each member countries' established legislative processes.

Given that NATO’s Article 5 does not obligate the United States to wage war on France’s behalf, Congress should debate whether that is the best course of action. A declaration of war, or, at a minimum, a renewal or replacement of the 2001 AUMF, would be needed to prosecute such a war. Such a debate is in fact long overdue, as Sen. Tim Kaine noted at the Cato Institute in August. Perhaps the terrible events in Paris will prompt Congress to finally do its job?

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force. 

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The Chinese Navy and the Quest for Access

The Buzz

In a quiet but undoubtedly significant event, Admiral Wu Shengli (吴胜利), commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and a member of the PRC’s Central Military Commission recently visited Malaysia with an entourage of 10 senior officials. During his visit, Admiral Wu secured agreement from the Malaysian Navy for the ships of the PLA Navy to use the port of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo as a "stopover location" to "strengthen defence ties between the two countries."

What’s remarkable is the environment in which this agreement has been reached. China’s military vessels have been active in Malaysia’s territorial waters off Borneo from 2011. Since 2013, the number of Chinese naval and coast guard vessels patrolling and anchoring around Malaysia’s Luconia Shoals and James Shoal, both of which are within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, has increased greatly, and PRC territory markers have been erected on the latter.

In June, National Security Minister Shahidan Kassim said that Malaysia would protest to China about the PRC Coast Guard ship long anchored in Malaysian waters at Luconia Shoals, while legislators voiced their unhappiness with the situation. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry has more recently been lodging weekly protests with Beijing over the presence of the Chinese ship in the area. While the anchored PRC ship is being monitored, there have been reports that Malaysian fishermen are still being driven away from the shoals by Chinese threats to facilitate Chinese fishing boats’ exploitation of the area.

Further, only a day after Admiral Wu left Malaysia, the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, visited Sabah and started berating ‘a regional superpower’ which has built facilities on three atolls just 155km from Sabah and "3,218km from its mainland.' "To claim this part of the South China Sea as theirs due to historical narrative is invalid," the Deputy Prime Minister Zahid noted.

Why then do we have this agreement now by the Malaysian Navy for Chinese navy port access to Sabah? And which part of the Malaysian administration was responsible for approving it?

Access to a northern Borneo port has long been an ambition of the PLA Navy in its efforts to expand control in the South China Sea. Two years ago, in a Strategist posting entitled Xi Jinping and the Sabah enigma, I noted how Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Sabah (subsequently aborted) reflected PRC efforts to increase links with that key region of northern Borneo. Chinese naval personnel first visited Kota Kinabalu in August 2013.

Later that year, direct contact between Malaysia’s Naval Region Command 2 (Mawilla 2) and China’s Southern Sea Fleet Command was initiated and Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein invited China’s Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan (常万全), to visit the Royal Malaysian Navy base in Teluk Sepanggar, Sabah, to jointly launch the tie-up. At the same time, Malaysia and China announced joint military exercises for 2014, eventually held in 2015 in the Strait of Malacca. A PRC consulate was established in Kota Kinabalu in April 2015 and the new consul-general began by urging that Chinese-language signs be erected across Sabah.

But back to Admiral Wu’s journey. During his current peregrination, Admiral Wu is visiting Malaysia, Indonesia and the Maldives, undoubtedly reflecting Chinese naval access aspirations in those three regions. This is one of three trips to neighbouring countries by senior PRC military officials this month. Admiral Sun Jianguo (孙建国), Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Department, accompanied Xi Jinping on his visit to Vietnam in early November. General Fan Changlong (范长龙), Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, is also currently leading a military delegation to Pakistan and India. A Global Times commentary suggests that all three trips are related to expanding China’s maritime interests.

In the light of these visits and increasing PRC maritime assertiveness, only the most innocent would, on observing the location of Darwin between the South China Sea and the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, conclude that the PLA Navy would not likewise be interested in securing access to and facilities in the port of Darwin. Particularly if it was under the control of a Chinese enterprise for the coming century.

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

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France's Charles De Gaulle Aircraft Carrier: The Good, the Bad and the Nuclear

The Buzz

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle (R91) is the centerpiece of the French navy. The 42,500-ton ship is set to play a key role in Paris’ war on the Daesh terrorist network in Syria and Iraq following Friday’s deadly attack on the French capital.

Though the ship is proving to be a capable warship with its relatively powerful air wing, which consists of a maximum of forty Dassault Rafale M strike fighters, Super Étendards Modernisé strike aircraft, Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes and a host of helicopters, Charles De Gaulle has faced a difficult path to realizing its full potential. During construct, the ship ran into huge cost overruns totaling roughly eighteen percent and several major delays. In fact, work had to be stopped on four separate occasions.

But Charles De Gaulle faced difficulties even once the ship was completed. The ship had to be fitted with better radiation shielding after inspectors found higher than expected radioactivity onboard—the ship had been in construction so long that safety standards had changed. Moreover, the ship’s flight deck had to be extended by about fourteen feet to accommodate the Hawkeye. The vessel had originally been designed to launch and recover the Super Étendards Modernisé, the Rafale and the US. Navy’s F/A-18C/D—the requirement to operate the Hawkeye was only added in 1992, which necessitated the refit.

The carrier also faced tremendous problems with its propulsion system initially. The ship had issues with vibration, and indeed during one well-publicized incident, the propellers literally snapped. The problem was traced to faulty manufacturing—there were air pockets in the cast copper-aluminum alloy. Worse, the blueprints for the propellers had been lost in a fire, which meant that the ship had to be refitted with hand-me down screws from Foch and Clemenceau. That cut her speed down from twenty-seven knots to about twenty-four knots—which was unfortunate since she is already considerably slower than her predecessors which steamed at thirty-two knots.

Charles De Gaulle was eventually refitted with new propellers in 2007 during her first refueling. The Charles De Gaulle’s advantage over conventional carriers is that she doesn’t need as much logistical support compared to her predecessors due to her nuclear propulsion. However, the French opted for a reactor that needs to be refueled every seven years. By comparison, an American carrier is only refueled once during its fifty-year lifespan. The refit also added a host of improvements that allowed the French to finally exploit its full potential. But even then, Charles De Gaulle suffered another embarrassing electrical fault in the propulsion system in 2010 that cut her deployment short—literally to one day.  At this point, however, most of the bugs seem to have been ironed out.

Charles De Gaulle is not the equivalent of a Nimitz or Ford-class carrier. The ship is less than half the size and it doesn’t have the deck space to accommodate as many aircraft or launch and recover those jets at the same rate, but it is a relatively capable vessel. The flight deck is not long enough to conduct simultaneous launch and recovery operations, but at maximum capacity, it can carry forty aircraft and launch 100 sorties in a single day. But that’s at maximum capacity; in reality Charles De Gaulle doesn’t carry nearly that many planes at any one time. What she does do is give France an independent strategic power projection capability—which is Paris’ first and foremost defense policy objective.

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

Image: Creative Commons. 


The Folly of an Expanded U.S. War in Syria

Paul Pillar

President Obama has repeatedly made adjustments to what he probably considered privately to have been the best U.S. policy toward armed conflicts overseas, as he has had to cope with the pressures from public discourse in Washington, to count his available political capital, and to decide which political battles to fight at home while also deciding which military battles the United States should fight abroad. He has adjusted too much in the view of some of his critics on the left, who have not been happy about the extension of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan or the reinsertion of some U.S. troops into Iraq. Far louder criticism, however, has come from the opposite direction and has called for more, not less, use of military force in foreign conflicts, especially conflicts in the Middle East.

This latter criticism is partly a matter of the usual reflexive rhetorical attacks with a heavy partisan tinge, which seem to have become especially habitual when aimed at the current president. But there is an additional dynamic that comes into play no matter who is in the White House and that produces a bias in the Washington discourse in favor of more rather than less use of military force, notwithstanding the notice that may be taken from time to time of the public's lack of appetite for getting involved in another costly ground war. This dynamic partly comes out of the tendency to look at any problem overseas as not only a U.S. problem but also a problem the United States ought to be able to solve, and thus a black mark on whoever happens to be U.S. president. It comes as well from the false equating of doing something visible and forceful with the solving of a problem. There also are false equations between the use of military force and being tough, and between being tough and exercising leadership. There is the further luxury in opposition of being able to carp and criticize without the responsibility of implementing a policy that will actually improve matters. All of these patterns are accentuated at times of high emotional reaction to salient, jarring events, which is why they are especially apparent now in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Mr. Obama, to his credit, is not adjusting his course in response to the current pressure to make the pseudo-tough move of significantly escalating U.S. military operations in Syria to battle the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, beyond the current carefully targeted airstrikes and the small special forces contingent that is already there. In particular, putting U.S. ground combat forces in Syria would be a bad idea for multiple reasons.

One reason is that it would not resolve the problem that it ostensibly would be intended to deal with, which is anti-Western terrorism conducted under the banner of ISIS. Whether an ISIS mini-state lives or dies in northeast Syria is not a critical variable that will determine whether radical and resourceful individuals and small groups determined to wreak havoc in Western cities will do so. Maybe something will yet emerge from investigation of the Paris attacks to suggest that the fate of the mini-state is such a variable, but so far nothing has. So far the picture is one of a Belgium-based gang being responsible for the attack, with only vague connections to Syria and not necessarily to an ISIS decision-making structure. If there is any evidence (and an after-the-fact claim statement is not it) of an order from an ISIS high command in Raqqa to conduct this operation, we in the public have not been told about it.

An expanded U.S.-led military operation would play directly into narratives favored by ISIS and like-minded radicals, about Middle Eastern Muslims being the targets of forceful domination by a predominantly Christian West. The United States should stand side by side with France with regard to the latter's role as a victim of terrorism. The United States has no interest in identifying with France as a colonial overseer of Syria in the interwar years, or a France that might be seen as trying to re-assert its dominance there. Problems of mistaken beliefs about a religious dimension of American intentions are made only worse by the abominable call from some presidential candidates to apply a religious test to decisions whether to admit refugees from Syria.

An expanded U.S.-led military expedition expands the radicalizing resentment, and the resulting recruiting ability of ISIS and extremist groups, from collateral damage from the military operations. This would be a result not only of a ground war but also a more indiscriminate air war. It certainly would be a result of following Ted Cruz's foolish advice that we should just not care about collateral damage.

The direct costs to American blood and treasure are what should be an obvious reason not to embark on something like a ground war in Syria, especially given the historical record of costs in such endeavors going well beyond what was originally projected. James Jeffrey, who calls for just such a U.S. ground war in an op ed in the Washington Post, assures us that this time would be different because, you see, an offensive in Syria would not be like those other messy endeavors but instead would be a “short,” “crisp,” “rapid takedown” of ISIS. We have heard similar assurances before. Reality has had a way of becoming much different from the images in the pre-war assurances. Shock and awe, anyone?

A reality in Syria is that rapidly taking down ISIS would leave the sort of chaos in that part of Syria that is itself fuel for radicalism, at least as long as the rest of the multifaceted Syrian war continues, and at least without a long foreign military occupation that would have huge direct costs as well as providing still more fuel for radicalizing resentment. Jeffrey is remarkably casual in brushing aside such considerations. All he has to say is that “while figuring out the 'day after' might be difficult and implementing any solutions costly,” he thinks a continuation of ISIS would be worse.

President Obama spoke trenchant truths at his press conference in Turkey on Monday. In response to a series of questions that were all just reworded versions of “Gee, those Paris attacks were really awful—don't you think you should do something much different from what you have been doing so far about ISIS?” Mr. Obama demonstrated much better understanding of the challenges involved than his “do something—anything” critics. In describing the nature of the terrorist threat we face, he explained, “It’s not their sophistication or the particular weapon that they possess, but it is the ideology that they carry with them and their willingness to die.” He acknowledged that the success of ISIS in establishing and maintaining its so-called caliphate is indeed a factor in the terrorist equation, but mainly as matter of perceptions; it makes the group “more attractive to potential recruits.”

Given that this is largely a problem of perceptions and beliefs and related emotions and resentment, it is important not to do things that only make matters worse along that dimension. In that regard, the president observed, “We play into the [ISIS] narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.” As for launching a U.S.-led ground war, Mr. Obama accurately said, “ We can retake territory. And as long as we leave our troops there, we can hold it, but that does not solve the underlying problem of eliminating the dynamics that are producing these kinds of violent extremist groups.”

The president also indirectly commented on the false equations that so much of the carping in Washington involves. He will not do things that “somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough.” He is not interested, he said, “is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people.”

One of the oft-voiced but invalid comments about the previous administration's signature military adventure is that the escalation, several years into the Iraq War, that became known as the “surge” was an “act of courage” on the part of President George W. Bush. It was nothing of the sort. It was a way to tamp down temporarily the surging violence in Iraq and to hold it at a less egregious level long enough to get out of Washington and bequeath the remaining mess, including all the still-unresolved political problems in Iraq, to the next administration. President Obama, with just 14 months left in his presidency and getting all the political flak he is getting about ISIS, must feel tempted to do the same sort of thing now in Syria.

Think about it: if he did so he would not only take wind out of the sails of hawkish critics but also be able to claim a place in history as the leader who smashed ISIS. Of course, the terrorism and the chaos would still be there, as would an even messier and more complicated situation than before in Syria. But that would all be a problem for the next administration.

We should be glad that President Obama is showing enough responsibility and true leadership not to do anything like that.    

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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