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Allies and Airpower

The Buzz

In discussions about the future of ANZUS last week, I introduced a discussion of Australia–US cooperation in air combat and strike. Because of recent force structuring decisions, I think Australia’s well set up to make substantial contributions to coalition air-power operations in the future, but it’s worth thinking through how we might best do that.

History provides some valuable lessons. Australia’s first air operations with the United States were during World War II’s Pacific campaign. Australia started the war with equipment that wasn’t up to speed, and relied heavily on imports from the U.S. and UK. Both of those nations had their own priorities and it took the RAAF some time to catch up.

As a result, the Australian contribution to the allied air campaign wasn’t always especially helpful. As aviation historian Michael Claringbould observes, turning up for coalition operations and bringing along outmoded equipment can be counterproductive:

The formation of 10 Operational Group in late 1943 hindered the [US] 5th Air Force… [T]he limited contribution the RAAF would make at Nadzab [PNG] was at the expense of valuable apron space, badly needed by advanced US types. The fact that No. 10 showed up with obsolete or superfluous types frustrated the Americans, [who] were forced to allow the RAAF to operate from Nadzab for reasons of political compromise, rather than contribution to the war effort.

Flightpath, February–April 2012

So it’s possible for an ally—especially the junior one—to be a nuisance rather than an asset if its forces aren’t what the local commander needs. Balanced against that is the political payoff in having allied support, and it can be a net positive if mere presence is sufficiently valuable. That wasn’t the case in WWII because it was a war of survival, but in operations of a more discretionary nature the calculus can be different. Many of the smaller contributions to coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan can be filed under "little or no operational benefit but politically valuable."

Of course, it’s better to make a valuable contribution to the politics and the operation, as Australia managed to do in subsequent wars. By 1945 the RAAF was the world’s fourth largest air force (admittedly after some of the former high-rung position holders were displaced with extreme prejudice), with an inventory of capable aircraft and experienced personnel. The Navy was assembling a capable air arm, and the RAAF and RAN were significant front-line contributors over Korea. The RAAF later took its Canberra strike bombers to Vietnam and worked successfully with American tactical air units, flying over 11,000 missions.

But those successful exercises in alliance air power haven’t been repeated. Australian defense spending fell dramatically after announcement of the Guam doctrine and the end of the Vietnam War, and by the 1990s, Australia’s defense forces were suffering from a scarcity of resources and the inevitable "hollowing out" of capabilities. The ADF played no direct combat role in the 1991 Gulf War and when an American request for Australian F-111s was made for Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the aircraft weren’t fit for purpose, lacking critical electronic warfare equipment. Similarly, the Australian contribution to the air campaign in the 2003 Iraq War came only after Iraq’s air defense system had been effectively eliminated by U.S. forces.

Together, those examples show that Australia has been a valuable contributor to air operations when it had capable and well-maintained equipment which allowed the RAAF to operate effectively alongside American forces. At other times we’ve been an ineffective but tolerated flag flyer (and in Desert Fox not even that).

Today, after a decade of investment into its air-combat capability and with more to come, the ADF is well-placed to be a real contributor to allied air operations, should the government of the day choose. Super Hornets put it on a par with the U.S. Navy air combat and strike capability, and early next decade the F-35 will move Australia further up the American capability curve.

But tactical strike fighters mightn’t be the most valuable contribution we could make. The US won’t lack those—it will have 600+ Super Hornets and more F-35s by early next decade. Turning up with "more of the same" could be useful, as it was in the widespread wars in Korea and Vietnam, but in a more focused campaign it could complicate American command and control while adding little extra combat capability. To avoid that we could instead contribute capabilities that are almost always oversubscribed in modern air warfare: electronic-warfare support, airborne early warning and control and air-to-air refueling. Again the RAAF is well placed, with small but capable fleets of all those types.

It remains to be seen whether the government will opt for further investment in alliance-specific capabilities. But if it does, the less glamorous but always-valuable air-combat support assets would be a good place to start.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia-Pacific

A Two State Solution Is the Worst Solution—Except for All the Others

The Buzz

Given the “facts on the ground,” Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue that Washington should recognize the two-state solution is dead and get on with burying it.  There are two problems with this. A one-state solution would be a calamity for both sides. Furthermore, the so-called “facts on the ground” as interpreted by the Leveretts hardly make it inevitable.  

 

While the Kerry Framework collapsed, this does not make a one-state solution the next logical step.  The historian Benny Morris points out that just as two-state solutions have failed, so have one-state solutions to the Arab-Israeli dispute.  Rather than leading to a lasting peace, a one-state solution would transform the former British mandate into another Yugoslavia. 

 

The international system has been repeatedly characterized as anarchic, where the life of states can be “nasty, brutish and short.”  However, warring groups have greater protection under anarchy than if they were forced to live under the same roof. 

 

Neither side can credibly commit to the safety and security of the other.  If a single, binational state were created, the Palestinians would form the majority.  However, it is unlikely that the Jewish minority would be able to trust such a government.  A unitary state would demand the Jewish minority disarm its military forces in exchange for a binational one, leaving them vulnerable to future attacks.  (Similarly, the Palestinian side would have no recourse other than violence if the Jewish minority decided to renege on its end of the bargain.) 

 

Under a two-state solution, both sides can mitigate the consequences of receiving the sucker’s payoff should one of them decide to cheat on an agreement.  They can bolster their defenses, formcounter-balancing alliances, and raise (or hold onto) their national defense forces.  They can raise the costs of aggression by bringing in third-party monitors.   These are just a handful of the strategies states use to ensure that their rivals comply with their agreements.  While none is foolproof, they afford greater protection for both sides than unilateral disarmament and a one-state solution.

 

On the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated several of his longstanding positions in a press conference, including his support for a two-state solution.  The facts on the ground give credence to several options that would ultimately separate the two sides. 

 

Albert B. Wolf is a Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael

Asymmetric Warfare in Gaza

Paul Pillar

The score, as of late Friday, in the contest being waged in the Gaza Strip and Israel was 114-0, with the side in the lead continuing to run up the score. This is not some nightmare of a Brazilian soccer fan, but instead the deaths of men, women, and children, more than three-quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office. All of them are Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; so far in this match no Palestinian rockets have killed any Israelis.

The term asymmetric warfare is commonly used, of course, but to refer to different techniques for inflicting violence for political purposes. What is going on now in Gaza is highly asymmetric in terms of the amount of death, injury, destruction, and overall misery being inflicted by one side on the other. Perhaps the usual use of the term asymmetric warfare has contributed to warping our ability to evaluate what has been going on in this conflict. There is a tendency to think of death inflicted overtly by an F-16, at least if it is operated by someone labeled an ally, as somehow more legitimate than whatever a clandestinely deployed rocket can inflict.

We have curious habits in how we regard symmetry and asymmetry in armed conflicts and especially the unending series of conflagrations between Israel and Palestinians. In contrast to the assumed asymmetry about the legitimacy of different ways of inflicting violence, in other respects we speak as if there is perfect symmetry. It has become de rigueur to criticize excesses on both sides, which of course there have been, and to appeal for reasonableness on both sides, which of course there should be.

In major, glaring respects, however, this conflict is highly asymmetric, and not only in one side's physical ability to inflict far greater destruction on the other side. The larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which the far more powerful actor is occupying (in the case of the West Bank) or strangling (in the case of the Gaza Strip) the other side. It is also a conflict in which for many years now, one side and its Arab backers have repeatedly indicated their willingness to make a complete peace as long as this side can have its own state on the small part of Palestine left after Israel's war of independence, while the other side, through its actions on the ground as well as statements of its leaders, indicates its intention to hold on to all the land it has captured through force of arms, save perhaps for some carefully controlled bantustans.

Speaking in symmetrical terms carries a sense, even if a false sense, of fairness and equanimity, and of getting beyond squabbles and trying to achieve peace and stability. Parents exhibit this tendency when they tell squabbling children that they don't care who started the argument and instead just want both kids to behave. One can sympathize with John Kerry, and other diplomats who have tried to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if they feel the same way as parents.

But who started a fight does matter in how we should judge it and react to it, especially if it is a fight in which scores of innocent people are getting killed. Any careful and objective review of events leading up to the current conflagration (the timeline compiled by John Judis is one of the best) leads to the inescapable conclusion that this war is being fought because the government of Benjamin Netanyahu chose to launch it, capitalizing on grief over the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers to strike another blow against Hamas and even more so against its most recent unity agreement with Fatah, as well as providing another excuse for occupying the West Bank indefinitely. The conclusion is supported not only by the sequence of events but also by Netanyahu's immediate blaming of Hamas for the crime without—still—providing any evidence; all indications are that the perpetrators of the kidnapping were rogue actors who may have had their own reasons to try to subvert the unity deal. The conclusion also is supported by the Israeli government's extraordinary tactic of not informing the Israeli public or even the families of the victims when it knew the teenagers were dead—all the better to try to justify the government's wholesale actions in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed and, in what amounts to a reneging on a previous prisoner exchange deal reached with Hamas, hundreds more have been incarcerated.

By contrast, before all this started Hamas was giving no indication that it was looking for an armed conflict. Besides reaching the unity deal under which it would support Mahmoud Abbas's negotiating approach toward resolving the conflict with Israel, Hamas was observing a cease-fire. Until the Israeli government's forceful moves after the kidnapping/murders last month, Hamas had not fired any rockets into Israel since that cease-fire was reached in November 2012, despite several earlier Israeli provocations that Hamas considered to be violations of the cease-fire. Hamas even tried to restrain other groups from firing rockets after Israel had begun its wholesale incarcerations in the West Bank.

This is not, of course, the version of events that one hears from the Israeli government, and thus from most American politicians, and that is thus heard by most of the American public. According to this other version, the Israeli onslaught followed, and is only a response to, Palestinian rocket fire. This discrepancy between beliefs and facts gets to other major asymmetries, which involve the role the Israeli government plays, and no Palestinian entity does, in American politics.

American habits in perceiving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dull not only American policy judgment but also Americans' moral sense. The Netanyahu government's wreaking of death and destruction today in the Gaza Strip is condemnable. It is wrong, in multiple senses of the word, for the U.S. House of Representatives to endorse that infliction of death and destruction, as it did on Friday.

Pretending to be fair by treating something as symmetrical when it is not impairs the ability to distinguish right from wrong, of which there is plenty of both in the world.              

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

America’s Dangerous $5 Trillion Dollar Bet in the South China Sea

The Buzz

Over $5 Trillion dollars of goods move across the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea on an annual basis—and China seems focused on turning the area into its special sphere of influence.

Tensions have been steadily rising over the last few years in what Robert D. Kaplan has dubbed Asia’s Cauldron, and so far Washington has been unable to find the magic formula to get Beijing to back off. A new U.S. plan reported by the Financial Times will do little to change Beijing’s calculus. In fact, it could make matters far worse.

This supposed new strategy will focus heavily on surveillance flights and what might be dubbed a simple “shaming” strategy. FT reports that Washington will step up its use of surveillance assets in the area which “could be coupled with a greater willingness to publicize images of videos of Chinese maritime activity.”  It goes on to note, “some US officials believe the Chinese might be given pause for thought if images of their vessels harassing Vietnamese or Filipino fisherman were to be broadcast.”

This is not all:

“The US military’s Hawaii-based Pacific command has also been asked to co-ordinate the development of a regional system of maritime information, which would allow governments in the western Pacific detailed information about the location of vessels in the region. Several governments say they have been caught unawares by the surprise appearance of Chinese ships.

The US has supplied the Philippines, Japan and other countries in the region with improved radar equipment and other monitoring systems and is now looking for ways to build this information into a broader regional network that shares the data.

The Pentagon has also been working on plans for calculated shows of force, such as the flight of B-52s over the East China Sea last year after China declared an exclusive air defense zone over the area. The potential options involve sending naval vessels close to disputed areas.”

While such a plan clearly shows Washington is doing what it can to demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region in an attempt to deter Beijing, there are many pitfalls that should be considered—especially when it comes to the wider use of surveillance assets. For one, the U.S. would obviously have to place men and women in harm’s way in contested waters time and time again in order to enact this part of the plan. You don’t have to be a bookie in Vegas to understand the odds of some sort of tragic incident occurring are quite high. In this case, the goal of “doing something” might actually be worse than doing nothing. As history tells us quite clearly, wars can start from a small incident where tensions are running high. The consequences can be dire.

The ultimate challenge for American leaders is that they have devised a plan of action to only deal with scenarios where U.S. and Chinese forces would come into direct, kinetic conflict—the hotly debated Air-Sea Battle operational concept, something I strongly support. However, as Zachary Keck noted in these pages several months back “the problem with ASB (and its main competitors) is that they are only designed for high-level conflict, and thus can only be implemented if the U.S. and China move from a state of tense peace to a state of total war.”  Keck continues, explaining that “unless China takes a brazenly provocative action such as invading Taiwan or parts of Japan, ASB is more or less useless. No U.S. president is going to order the U.S. military to take the extremely provocative actions that ASB would require because of, say, recent actions by China setting up an oil rig in waters that it disputes with Vietnam.”

So far, Washington has been unable to deter Beijing from using a whole host of non-kinetic actions—sometimes referred to as “small-stick diplomacy”—to fundamentally alter the status quo in the South China Sea and make provocative moves to the north in the East China Sea. What to do in an area of the globe where multiple nations have various disputes with China and each other over the waves that control vital sea lanes, small islands and reefs, as well as possible riches in the form of natural resources. The Obama administration has been more focused on the bigger picture, that if the winds of war ever came to the region, Washington would have a plan of action for negating Beijing’s growing anti-access/area-denial arsenal. American can pivot, rebalance or pronounce its intentions to make the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific its main focus all it wants, however, if it can’t prevent China from altering the status-quo, its bumper sticker foreign policy pronouncements are painfully meaningless.

If you want to use the shame game to alter Beijing’s strategic calculus, there might be a better way.  There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions. This may just have the same or greater impact than if the U.S. attempted to use surveillance flights to embarrass Beijing—without the possibility of an incident spiraling into a possible conflict no one wants. While Manila has already filed its own claims against Beijing and Hanoi seems likely to follow suit, a joint claim or multi-party suit would be much more powerful. China should realize its neighbors have the ability to resist its claims without resorting to kinetic means.

While even this might not stop China’s moves to enforces its claims in the area around its nine or ten-dash line around the South China Sea, if shaming Beijing is the goal, and considering the stakes (not just who controls sea lanes worth trillions of dollars, but the very idea of the global commons, space that no one owns), this might be just the best way to do it.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth China Sea

"Iranians are Terrified": Iran's ISIS Nightmare

The Buzz

Iran is stuck between a rock and a hard place on ISIS and Iraq. Taking responsibility for security in Iraq – or even significantly contributing to it – would be a huge undertaking. But a fragmented Iraq on its border is a first-order concern for Tehran - it can’t just sit by with fingers crossed. The choice is complicated by Syria. Iran can’t continue to pursue its interests in Syria at the same level if it is mired in Iraq as well. It is likely that Tehran will have to choose, and it will choose Iraq.

To Iran, Iraq and Syria are similar challenges, except today’s crisis in Iraq is harder to solve and matters more. Until recently, Assad’s Syria has been a good friend and ally to Iran and still today, a conduit to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah. But Iraq is Iran’s backyard.

Iran has a lot to lose in Iraq by inaction. Last time Iraq’s interests were fundamentally opposed to Iran’s, there was a devastating 8 year long war. ISIS threatens Iran’s vast interests in Iraq: its significant influence over politics, in fact the country as a whole, including symbolic religious shrines, and trade, which reached $12 billion in 2013. Unlike in Syria, the majority Shia population in Iraq represents a real constituency for Tehran. Iraqi fragmentation threatens to stir up desires for independence amongst other minority communities, including in Iran, and force Tehran to double up efforts and resources in order to maintain its influence in Iraq. ISIS gains have peaked American interest in Iraq once more. Iran does not want any increased role for its US adversary in neighboring Iraq again. More importantly, the crisis threatens to spill over the 910 miles of porous border, which is poorly defended by the Iraqi police. 

Iranians are terrified. Many question Iran’s involvement in Syria, but they support involvement in Iraq. Syria is an optional war: a crisis where Iran can dial its involvement up or down based on its policy preferences. It is not an existential issue. But ISIS activities in Iraq pose a real threat and a genuine sovereignty concern, something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.

To date, Iran has invested a great deal in Syria: money, equipment and above all, political capital. While many argue this policy succeeded, it’s clear that the cost is high for Tehran. Iran’s presence in Syria has caused its regional popularity to plummet, discord amongst the elite, and rising discontent amongst ordinary Iranians questioning the use of public funds to prop up a dictator. Iran sustaining a regime it wants in power is part of its capacity to lead in the region, and so far it’s working.

But getting the result Tehran wants in Syria has been difficult. Today, it is a drain on Iranian resources and political capital. It’s no surprise that Tehran doesn’t want a repeat of Syria in Iraq. But containing the crisis in Iraq will be much harder, with many more potential pitfalls.

Today, Iran is trying to broker cooperation between all factions in Iraq against ISIS. But it is also assisting Maliki in pushing ISIS back. Tehran is providing intelligence and advisors, including commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Qassem Soleimani himself since mid-June, and military assistance. Reports confirm Iranian Su-25 aircrafts were shipped to Iraq in early July, while the first Iranian military casualty was reported a few days later. But overt Iranian involvement in Iraq further risks polarizing Iraqis and deepening sectarian tensions. In addition, Maliki’s stubbornness and overly sectarian style of governing no longer makes him a safe bet for the Iranian government, which must now find ways to ensure the survival of the current Shia-led structure.

Iraq is also high stakes because of the impact failure will have on Iran. If Iran has the kind of experience in Iraq that America had in Afghanistan and Iraq - running a shattered country - there won't be a lot left over to do much else. Involvement in both Iraq and Syria will continue to erode resources while making it impossible for Iran to pull out after such investment.

Iran cannot afford to be involved in a long, drawn out conflict on two fronts. While it is improbable that ISIS will sustain its current course, it was also improbable that they would take a quarter of Iraq. But they have and Iran is worried. Tehran can’t afford to let the crisis run its course because the risks are too high. Over the years, Iran has invested patiently in both Iraq and Syria. That's why it’s so difficult for Tehran to give either of them up. But Iran will have to choose because its resources and abilities are finite.  It will likely choose Iraq. 

Image: Office of the President, Iran. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

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