Run Silent, Don't Run Japanese: Australia's Submarine Showdown

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Andrew Davies and Benjamin Schreer argue in their recent ASPI report on Australia’s submarine choice that there is a stronger strategic case for acquiring Japanese submarines than European ones (Option J).

But the opposite could well be the case—having Japanese submarines could markedly reduce our strategic flexibility in prospective future scenarios. In the uncertain strategic environment that exists in the region at present, Australia should hedge its bets and avoid a regional solution that has strategic "strings attached."

Andrew and Ben acknowledge there are "strings attached" with Option J, but they don’t look sufficiently far ahead at what the region might look like in 10–30 years’ time when the new submarines will be in service.

They take an essentially short-term view of the regional security environment. They acknowledge that American power is declining in relative terms but then don’t project forward to where that trend might lead. The more you look out to the longer term, the greater are the "strings" attached to Option J.

As I have argued elsewhere, there are four main "stumbling blocks" to reaching a way ahead with the submarine program: Australia’s unique requirement for a "big" conventional submarine; the downside of locking ourselves into American systems; the difficulties in making an accurate assessment of the future strategic environment; and trends in submarine detection that may make it more difficult for Australia to deploy submarines into East Asian waters.

The geopolitics of the region are changing faster than most anticipated. Credible scenarios for the longer term must include a significant decline in American power and influence as well as conflict between China and Japan in which Australia would not take sides. In these regional circumstances, Option J would involve some loss of long-term strategic independence for Australia. The European options bring with them longer-term strategic flexibility.

Japan is an inherently insecure country. In the current strategic environment a closer security relationship between Australia and Japan is more to the benefit of Japan than it is for Australia. Placing too much emphasis on a strategic relationship with Japan suggests a strategic inferiority complex on the part of Australia. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a security relationship with Japan, it’s only to say that we need to recognize that Japan is searching for friends for support in its fractious relationship with China. It’s not a matter of choosing sides in Northeast Asia as Andrew and Ben suggest—it’s more a matter of being able to maintain even-handed neutrality.

The argument in the ASPI report that Japan may replace China as Australia’s major trading partner is also open to question. China is also a buyer of Australia’s LNG. The report cited in the ASPI report originates from early 2014 before the global collapse in the LNG market. Latest indications are that Japan’s LNG demand is slowing as nuclear power stations come back on line under the Abe administration.

The last issue is the need to anticipate future developments in submarine detection systems and signal processing. The seas are becoming more transparent. Over the life of the new submarine, it may become impossible for Australia to deploy submarines covertly through the northern archipelagos and into the East Asian seas. Indonesia attaches considerable importance to monitoring naval movements through its archipelago but in the past, oceanographic conditions in its straits, such as Lombok and Makassar, have been too noisy for fixed underwater sonar arrays to detect submarine movements. However, this situation could well change as developments in signal processing make fixed arrays more effective.

Even if we wanted to deploy submarines to East Asia in 25 years’ time, we may not be able to do so with assured secrecy. If this were the case, then a smaller European submarine could well meet Australia’s requirements with a saving of billions of dollars to the Defense budget.

Sam Bateman is a professorial research fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and also an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Wikipedia

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

How America Can Save the Liberal World Order

The Buzz

In a March 26 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, narrowed his defense priorities for the 114th Congress down to three categories: strategy, budget, and acquisition management reform.

McCain said that for the past three months, leaders in various sections of the United States all conveyed one similar message: the United States is experiencing a nearly unprecedented period of global turmoil that could undermine the liberal world order. He quoted Henry Kissinger’s remark to the Committee in January, saying that the United States has not faced more a diverse and complex array of crises since the end of World War II.

McCain worried that increased threats and American isolation could constitute the greatest challenge to the integrity of the liberal world order. He argued that in the past the United States has maintained global order through an emphasis on military strategies. “For seven decades, the liberal world order that America and our allies painstakingly built has expanded prosperity and kept peace,” he said, “we have deterred aggression, defended allies, defeated adversaries and built peace through strength.”

McCain particularly pointed out that “states like China, Russia, and Iran threaten to revise and roll back key tenets of liberal world order.” He admitted that every method, including diplomatic and economic approaches, should be incorporated into American strategy. However, “acknowledging that there is no military solution should not lead us to believe that there is no military dimension,” he added.

Referring to his second priority as Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, he emphasized the need for ending sequestration and putting a strategy-driven defense budget into place. McCain explained to the audience how sequestration has negatively impacted American power. “Sequestration has done lasting damage to the capabilities, readiness, morale, and modernization of American armed forces.”

With regard to the budget, he noted that the Republicans cannot only talk tough on defense, but also must be willing to pay for it. “This is a crisis of Washington’s own making,” he said, referring to sequestration. To solve this, Congress must rebuild the bipartisan consensus to sustain the liberal world order.

Finally, McCain spoke about his third priority—acquisition reform and technological innovation. “We must also establish alternative acquisition paths to get innovative capabilities to our warfighters in a month, not decades.” He pointed out that recently, technological innovations with defense applications have been swift, especially with regards with cyber-robotics and miniaturization, which the United States has failed to keep up with.

“In short, the [current] defense acquisition system itself increasingly poses a threat to our future military technological dominance,” McCain said. For the past few decades, U.S. adversaries have been rapidly improving their militaries to counter America's unique advantages. He also pointed out that the Department of Defense has gotten larger only to become more vulnerable to advanced technology. Sequestration is to blame, he argued. “We must create better incentives for innovation by removing unnecessary legislative and regulatory barriers.”

“A liberal world order is being seriously stressed,” McCain concluded. “It does not have to be this way. Nowhere is it preordained or inevitable that America power must decline. That is a choice and it is up to us. We can choose a better future for ourselves but only if we make the right decisions.” The United States ought to start making smart decisions to effectively counter threats to cherished American values.

Ju-Yeong June Shin is a senior at Seoul National University. She is an Asan young fellow from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and currently interning with the China and Pacific Team at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia/McCain


Iran: All About the Nukes?

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Imagine a fistfight between a National Football League lineman and say, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Imagine the lineman, after effortlessly decking the Senior Fellow, offering a second round, but with one key difference: each fighter would be armed with a .38 Special. Why, you may ask, would the football behemoth offer to level the playing field in such a potentially fatal manner? One might just as well ask why Iran—absent any credible threat of external regime change to the Islamic Republic—would want to prompt the proliferation of nuclear weapons in its neighborhood by acquiring one itself. Why would Iran, which uses its sheer size and weight to intervene with impunity where it pleases in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and elsewhere, wish to turn every such intervention into a potentially fatal nuclear encounter?

There is no doubt that Iran has sought—quite successfully—to get itself to the brink of being able to produce nuclear weapons. At one time, it was no doubt inspired by the Saddam Hussein rendition of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” To the extent that a final nuclear agreement moves Iran back from that brink by a year or so, existing regional appetites for nuclear proliferation might well be dampened. There is nothing wrong with moving Iran back from that brink. Those who criticize efforts to do so on the grounds that Tehran should be stripped naked of all weaponization capabilities make the unattainable perfect the enemy of the doable (and useful) good.

Still, President Barack Obama’s insistence that the alternative to an agreement months from finalization is some version of the apocalypse inevitably raises the question: with respect to Iran, has the United States been chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole? Again, there is nothing wrong with putting distance between Tehran and the nuclear weapons starting gate. But is it correct to say that, absent a deal, Iran will resume its march toward mounting a nuclear warhead atop a missile? Given the certainty of the regional reaction, would it still rush to trade in its impressive conventional advantages for neutralization by lacing the region with nuclear tripwires?

Countries do behave stupidly. The rational actor model is an imperfect guide. An agreement that would make Tehran’s stupidity visible to the naked eye is something worth having, but is the nuclear issue the true center of gravity when it comes to concerns—Western and regional—about Iranian behavior? For Israel perhaps it is, because Iranian nuclear weapons capability, even if never used, could provide a motive for Israel’s best and brightest—people with global options—to leave to pursue careers and raise families in better neighborhoods. When thoughtful Israelis speak of an Iranian nuclear threat to Israel’s existence, this—not some maniacal suicide attack—is what they mean. Israel, aside, however, is Iran’s relative proximity to warhead production the most vital of concerns?

If one truly believes that, given half a chance, Iran will mount nuclear tips on Shihab missiles then yes, the nuclear matter is arguably the top concern. If one believes, as many Iranians do, that Tehran has gotten away with murder without nuclear weapons and would only handicap itself grievously were it to acquire them, then the real remedy to the regional destabilization wrought by Iran lies elsewhere—again, without discounting the value of lengthening Tehran’s breakout time.

It will be interesting, for example, to see if the Obama administration’s tolerance of Tehran-abetted mass murder in Syria continues. With what appears to be broad agreement on nuclear principles in hand, will the administration continue to be operationally frozen, doing nothing to complicate the ability of the Iranian-propped Assad regime to visit mass terror on civilian populations? Will it now feel liberated to save lives in Syria, or will it see the June 30 deadline for a final nuclear agreement as an extended death sentence for Syrian children on the receiving end of barrel bombs? If June 30 is crowned with a final agreement, will Syria’s unabated agony be extended yet again for the sake of insuring Tehran’s full compliance as its coffers are replenished? 

President Obama recently said, “The nuclear deal that we’ve put together is not based on the idea that somehow the [Iranian] regime changes.” That is reassuring. But what are the implications of an unchanged Iranian regional outlook on a region—beginning with Syria—that has suffered immeasurably from its sectarian barbarity? President Obama says he is “not counting” on “forces inside of Iran” to refocus the nation away from the “lens of [the] war machine.” Good. Will he exert even a quarter of the effort to save Syrian lives that the Supreme Leader has expended to imperil them? 

In his recent interview with Thomas Friedman, President Obama said about Syria, “But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done?” It is a fair question. Some Syrian Arabs have done so, albeit with scant, half-hearted assistance from Washington. Then, at the very end, he dropped something of a bombshell. Saying that American core interests in the region are not related to oil or territory, he observed “Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it [the region] is orderly, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.” Fine: what will the United States actually do with respect to this core interest?

Almost all of the debate on the nuclear framework understanding to date has focused on what has been agreed and not, and whether or not the things that appear to be agreed will—if embodied in a final agreement—move Iran’s breakout time for weaponization sufficiently backward. As Syrians witness hundreds of thousands lives lost and ruined by the Assad regime in the course of a survival campaign orchestrated by Iran, the debate over centrifuges seems not trivial, but just a bit esoteric. Iran has done very well indeed without nuclear weapons—arguably much better than if every bloody-minded act of Iranian aggression would have had to be contemplated in the context of neighbors with nukes; neighbors inspired by Iranian nukes. Making sure Tehran is more than arm’s-length from the .38 Special is fine. Protecting innocent people from a brass-knuckled lineman run amok ought to be of some interest to an administration working on a foreign policy legacy. Indeed, the president has elevated civilian protection to a core interest. Now what will he do?

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's Website here

Image: Creative Commons 2.0. 

TopicsDefense RegionsMiddle East

America's Air Force Is Getting Really Old

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U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah James visited the Council on Foreign Relations late last month to discuss the present and future of the Air Force. James, who was confirmed as the twenty-third Secretary of the Air Force in December 2013, spoke on a number of capabilities and institutional challenges within the Air Force, everything from the nuclear enterprise reform to proposed platform retirement. Her bottom line—repeated often—was that available resources are falling far short of the Air Force’s growing responsibilities.

- In operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Air Force has conducted 70 percent of the roughly 2,800 coalition airstrikes across  Iraq and Syria. Additionally, the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms have helped coordinate the missions and actions of all other coalition partners.

- Less visibly, the Air Force has also provided virtually all aerial refueling—95 percent of all tanker sorties—throughout Operation Inherent Resolve. This has formed the logistical backbone of the entire operation.

- This sustained capability comes at a cost. The U.S. Air Force is the smallest it has been since its inception in 1947. The aircraft are the oldest they have ever been; the average aircraft is twenty-seven years old.

- The equivalent of the sixth-generation fighter, intended to ensure air dominance past 2030, may not be an aircraft at all. Hypersonics, quantum computing, and directed energy are just some of the potential “game-changers” under discussion. James emphasized the need to combine air, space and cyber in order to make this happen.

- Nuclear capability is the Air Force’s number one modernization priority. In the FY16 budget, as well as the accompanying five-year plan, there is an additional $5.6 billion allocated for nuclear enterprise. In addition, James would like to bolster the 8,800 airmen currently assigned to the mission.

- Impossible choices loom in the event of budgetary sequester. The Air Force has requested $10 billion dollars above the Budget Control Act’s mandatory caps. If a compromise is not reached, according to James, the Air Force must make ends meet with likely elimination of the U-2, Global Hawk Block 40, and KC-10 fleets.

The bottom line is that the current political and budgetary environment—rife with conflict, scarce on resources—has thrown the Air Force a curve ball. Air Force officials intended to reconstitute the force as the war in Afghanistan wound down. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State, and the Ebola emergency response have thrown that plan out the window. More needed than ever, the Air Force is steeling for another tough year ahead.

This piece first appeared in CFR's Defense in Depth here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

War in Yemen = Peace in Libya?

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With the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) wreaking havoc in the Levant, Syria reeling from a devastating civil war, and a political crisis in Libya devolving into an entrenched armed conflict, ultimately it was the Houthi takeover in Yemen that galvanized a pan-Arab coalition and military intervention. Led by Saudi Arabia, nine countries have joined Operation Decisive Storm in an effort to drive back the Iran-supported Shia Houthis. Egypt, which has long sounded the alarm about the instability in neighboring Libya and provided assistance to the non-Islamist, Tobruk-based government, has committed its air and naval forces to the mission in Yemen. This could have ramifications over 2,000 miles away in Libya: with Egypt devoting significant military resources in Yemen, it will inevitably have to divert some attention away from its more immediate neighbor, which may help to open the space for success of UN-led negotiations to resolve the Libya’s crisis.

For more than a year, Libya’s transition has seen severe setbacks as rival political factions—the elected, internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk and the revived, rump General National Congress in Tripoli—vie for power. What is in essence a political struggle has manifested in an armed conflict that has pitted the non-Islamist Operation Dignity against the Islamist Operation Dawn and Misratan brigades. Over the course of the last several months, these rival armed groups have become increasingly aligned with and ultimately coopted by the political camps, within which hardliners have felt emboldened to pursue a military solution. Increasing aerial strikes and clashes between ground forces have stalled oil production and displaced thousands of citizens. 

Against this backdrop, the United Nations is brokering negotiations, convening delegates from the major Libyan parties to forge consensus on a national unity government as a way to bring the country back from the brink. Unfortunately, moderate Libyans participating in the negotiations exert little influence over the political hardliners and their armed allies. Meddling by regional actors has further entrenched rival factions, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates assisting Tobruk and Turkey and Qatar supporting Tripoli (albeit to a lesser extent). Competing regional support has increasingly stripped the stakeholders of any incentive to negotiate, as each side believes it can overpower the other. Of course, such conviction has not translated into reality, as protracted battles continue with no one camp making significant gains.

A divisive narrative to describe the crisis has taken hold—initially promulgated by General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, and continuously perpetuated by elements of the Tobruk camp. When he first launched Operation Dignity last year, Haftar declared that his objective was to purge Benghazi and the eastern part of Libya of Islamists. Making no effort to distinguish between moderate political Islamists and more extremist groups, he cornered the heterogeneous demographic, which loosely coalesced into Operation Libya Dawn as a response. Divisions persist, but Dignity’s rhetoric remains about fighting “terrorists,” thus painting Islamists with one broad brush. Despite the ISIS presence in Libya that targets both rival political and armed camps, the conflation has continued in an effort to impress upon Tobruk’s international and regional allies the urgent need for intervention. 

Such calls have gone unheeded. Western states have consistently reaffirmed their support for UN-led negotiations. Regional actors pay lip service to the importance of peace talks, but have provided armed assistance based on their geopolitical interests; Egypt in particular cites significant national security threats. Nevertheless, these countries have stopped short of a full-blown armed intervention. The Houthi takeover in Yemen has galvanized an Arab/Sunni Muslim coalition, suggesting that fears of a sectarian threat and growing Iranian influence trump concerns over ISIS. 

The incursion into Yemen risks sparking a wider sectarian conflict, but it may provide a small silver lining with regard to Libya’s prospects for a return to stability. The allocation of significant resources to operations in Yemen inevitably means fewer resources for the involved states to commit to their respective proxies in Libya. As Cairo considers providing ground troops in Yemen to secure its Gulf benefactor’s interests, its resolve toward Tobruk will likely weaken. The partial withdrawal could potentially puncture the perception that rival sides in Libya have the external military assistance with which to win, shifting their calculations in favor of committing to a negotiated, political solution to the crisis.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a focus on the politics and economics of North Africa. This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's website here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsYemen RegionsMiddle East