Russia's Syria Operation Reveals Significant Improvement in Military Capability

The Buzz

Although relatively small in scale, Russia's military operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities.

Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration. It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability.

The initial air strike campaign successfully targeted weapons and equipment depots that opposition forces had captured from government forces earlier in the conflict. Once these targets were eliminated, Russian air forces then coordinated with Syrian and Iranian forces conducting ground operations against opposition forces in the northwestern part of the country.

The operation has highlighted advances in Russian weaponry, but also the limitations of these new capabilities. During this operation, Russian aircraft have used precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in combat for the first time. But only about 20% of strikes have used such modern weaponry, while the rest have been carried out with older unguided bombs. The operation has allowed the Russian air force to test its new capabilities, including both PGMs and the ability to carry out nighttime sorties, and to highlight their existence to potential opponents.

At the same time, the Russian military has sought to limit the amount of new weapons expended because these munitions are expensive when compared to unguided bombs and because the air force has limited quantities of PGMs in its arsenal and does not want to expend them on targets where the use of such weapons is not necessary.

A similar calculus was evident in the land-attack cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets launched from relatively small missile ships in the Caspian Sea, which were primarily intended as a demonstration of this capability to potential opponents. They were not necessary for the success of the operation, which could have been carried out perfectly well by Russian aircraft already present in Syria. The real goal was to show military planners in NATO member states and Russia's other neighbors that Russia could threaten targets in their countries from ships that could not easily be destroyed by enemy forces.

The operational tempo of Russian air operations in Syria has been quite high, with an average of 45 sorties per day in October carried out by a total of 34 fixed-wing aircraft and 16 helicopters. Furthermore, the pace of the operations increased over time, rising from approximately 20 sorties per day at the start of the operation to around 60 per day at its peak later in October. It has since declined, most likely because the easiest and most obvious targets have all been hit already while opposition forces have adapted to Russian air attacks and are not operating out in the open as much as they were in September and October. The high operational tempo was especially surprising considering the rash of crashes Russian military aircraft suffered earlier in 2015, which had been blamed by many experts on the strain put by an increase in operations on an aging fleet of aircraft.

The operation in Syria has highlighted advances in integration among Russia's military services. This was one of the goals of the military reform undertaken after notable failures in this area revealed during the war in Georgia. While the air force is carrying out the active combat operations in this effort, it has shown an ability to work with both other services and with foreign forces.

The Russian Navy, for example, has not only provided sealift for the operation, but is also responsible for providing long-range air defense with the S-300 system based on the Black Sea Fleet's flagship Slava-class cruiser Moskva. Having a ship-based long-range air defense system allows Russia to provide defence against potential attacks by Western strike aviation operating in the area while avoiding tensions with Israel, which would be unhappy if Russia provided such systems to Syrian forces.

Although Russian ground forces have played a relatively limited role in the conflict so far, they have been important for defending the air base. More significantly, the Russian air force has shown an ability to coordinate its operations with Syrian and Iranian ground forces units, which have begun an offensive against opposition positions with the Russian air force providing air support.

Until September, most analysts (including myself) argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood because its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theatres of operations. The Russian military was able to transport the necessary equipment and personnel by pressing into service the vast majority of its large transport aircraft and almost all of the naval transport ships located in the European theatre. Furthermore, it reflagged several Turkish commercial cargo vessels as Russian navy ships and pressed them into service to transport equipment. While it remains the case that Russia remains almost completely dependent on its rail network for military transport, the operation in Syria has shown that it has sufficient sealift and airlift capability to carry out a small operation away from its borders and that it can increase that capacity in innovative ways when pressed to do so.

Beyond its purely geopolitical goals, Russia's operation in Syria has been designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities that have resulted from the military reform carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. While the jury is still out on how successful the operation will be in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its various opponents, it has already shown that the military reform has resulted in a significant increase in Russia's warfighting capability.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle EastEurope

ISIS Is Hurting in Syria and Iraq...and Striking Back Globally

The Buzz

As French authorities attempt to gather a complete picture of the tragic events in Paris last Friday that led to the deaths of at least 129 people, and more than 350 injured, there’s little doubt that the threat we thought ISIS posed has shifted considerably. This shift creates acute problems for the security apparatus of the state and poses serious questions about how to deal with ISIS in the longer term.

Over the past 18 months, the reach of ISIS into ‘western’ nations had been via attempts to inspire ‘lone actors’ to carry out attacks against authorities and civilians in any way possible. ISIS thus focused on the creation of a so-called ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria. That threat manifested itself in attacks in Australia, Belgium and Canada, amongst others. But we now see a threat that’s morphing and is likely to intensify over the coming months.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for a range of attacks over the past two weeks that illustrate this change. The downing of a Russian aircraft killing 224, suicide bombings killing 43 in Beirut, and now the attacks in Paris, have demonstrated ISIS’s ability to extend its geographical reach and its operational capability.

From an operational capability perspective, over the past two weeks, we’ve seen ISIS’s ability to conduct a range of terrorist operations; placing an explosive device on an aircraft and circumventing airport security in the process, conducting multiple suicide bombings, and carrying out coordinated multiple-target operations in urban environments including hostage taking and executions.

ISIS has clearly advanced its capacity to conduct a range of mass casualty attacks with a high degree of coordination and planning and an ability to conduct those operations in short thrift. Let’s be clear, even at the height of its powers, this wasn’t something that al-Qaeda could or had even attempted to achieve.

Those actions are directly related to fact that ISIS is hurting in Syria and Iraq—they are wounded, losing territory and support. Allied airstrikes combined with increasingly effective local ground forces are demonstrating significant results. But ISIS’s response is clear: ‘take the battle to its enemies’. It is an act of desperation, but one which will be attempted again and that presents significant problems in responding.

In the wake of any terrorist attack government security agencies will diligently go through a ‘lessons learned’ process, meaning that they will assess if they are prepared for the type of attack they have just witnessed. Such a process was conducted after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Police agencies subsequently trained in military tactics and upgraded their weaponry in order to counter this type of marauding attack.

Australian security forces need to quickly and systematically assess if they’re ready for such a multi-pronged attack, and begin to plan for this kind of eventuality, even though the probability of it taking place is relatively low.

The Paris tragedy illustrates just how difficult it is to respond, despite having trained for such eventualities, to multiple trained attackers who are intent on dying and are striking multiple targets. The problem for our agencies is that they will now have to assess their ability to respond to a complete range of attack types, potentially in multiple locations, which will fully stretch their resources.

For Australia the level of risk is lower than that faced in France. France has in the region of 1,200 nationals who have fought in Syria and Iraq with approximately 250 who have returned that are known to authorities. French intelligence agencies warned in August that they were over-stretched in their ability to keep eyes on all those they suspected of being involved in some form of terrorist activity, suggesting that France was heading for a large-scale ‘9/11’ scale attack. The sheer numbers of those involved married to the availability of weapons from the Balkans and Libya in France created a dangerous blend. Those conditions thankfully don’t exist here, but doesn’t mean that we should be any less vigilant and prepared.

Our strongest weapon in pre-empting any potential terrorist attack is through robust intelligence information. The struggle for any agency currently is being able to sift through the sheer volume of information flows between fighters in Syria and Iraq and sympathizers, and potential terrorists abroad. Deciphering what constitutes actionable intelligence and what’s just background noise is extremely difficult, and presents problems for intelligence agencies. In combating this threat, international intelligence coordination is going to be vital, and domestically creating granulated intelligence pictures even more so.

Over the coming days and weeks, governments, especially the French, will face acute pressure to respond robustly to the attacks. It’s hard to envisage that governments won’t, at the very least, step up the ferocity of their air strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Calls will intensify for full-scale military intervention in Syria and Iraq to remove ISIS from its heartland. While this will be tempting in the wake of such tragic events, there’s absolutely no way that this should be considered unless there’s a clear and plausible understanding of what the plan on the ground will be following such military action. ISIS needs to be stopped, and a strong military component is required.

It’s important that Western governments don’t play into the hands of ISIS, whose aim, as stated through their own publication Daqib, is to "bring division to the world and destroy the greyzone everywhere," the ‘greyzone’ being ISIS’s description of Muslims that it perceives have settled and adopted ‘Western’ patterns of life. As they have done in Iraq and Syria in expanding sectarian divisions, ISIS are looking to create large divisions within our own societies, so it’s vital that decisions taken to respond to ISIS don’t play to its aim.

Immediate responses have been to appropriate a portion of blame to the influx of Syrian refugees for the attacks in Paris. That is simplistic and doesn’t reflect the disdain that ISIS have for those millions who are leaving Syria, demonstrated through various ISIS propaganda videos and talks on this topic. While a Syrian passport was found on the body of one of the attackers, there are question marks over the validity of the passport. Don’t think for a second that an enemy that thinks so clearly about the propaganda impact of everything it does wouldn’t want to capitalise on the unease within European nations about the migrant issue.

ISIS wants nothing more than to promote division and hostility to refugees flooding into Europe. It wants the far right to grow in strength which will cement growing political divides. We can be sure that there will be more attacks aimed at sowing these divisions, most likely in Europe.

Australia needs to support in every way it can how France and Europe respond in the coming months.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Paris Attacks and the Demand for Action

Paul Pillar

As usual after a terrorist event as salient and jarring as the attacks in Paris, instant analysis and exhortation have gotten well ahead of the availability of information about the genesis of the attacks. A claim statement, a general pronouncement by the French president, and the few investigative tidbits that have become public so far are not nearly enough to reach sound conclusions about exactly where and how this operation was conceived, prepared, and directed, and thus what the most appropriate policy responses to it will be. The way that the name Islamic State or ISIS has been used to date leaves a range of possibilities in that regard. Nonetheless a strong public consensus has quickly been reached that this attack was ordered and organized by the people who, under that name, have been trying to run a radical mini-state from Raqqa, Syria. That may turn out to be the case, but whether it does or doesn't, Western policy-makers have at least a political imperative to respond as if this were already established fact.

The dominant theme in the surge of commentary in the first couple of days after the attack has been that ISIS is a global threat, not just a regional one, and must be confronted as such. Policy-makers will be expected to respond in a way consistent with that theme, too. As they do, however, they should be wary of the common conflation between military outcomes in other regions and terrorism and counterterrorism in the West. Any escalation of military efforts in Iraq and Syria should be undertaken with our eyes open to two realities. One is that we may be sustaining the motive for ISIS to strike back in retaliation in the West, even though the group earlier had every reason to stay focused on trying to build its so-called caliphate in the Middle East rather than to embark on a campaign of transnational terrorism. We may already be seeing a pattern in that regard with what has happened in the last two weeks in Beirut and the Sinai as well as Paris. The West and especially the United States already has crossed this particular Rubicon, however, and so the practical effect of awareness of this reality may be nil.

The other reality is that military success on a distant battlefield is not to be equated with elimination of a terrorist threat at home. Despite all the attention given to terrorist havens, possession of a sandy and distant piece of real estate is not one of the more important variables that determine who poses or doesn't pose a terrorist threat to one's homeland. The motivations and the tactical opportunities that are more significant variables will still be there. The chief beneficial effect, as far as transnational terrorism is concerned, of any military success against ISIS is to refute the belief that the group's expansion is inevitable and thus to dampen the group's attraction to would-be recruits.

Years of experience confronting Al Qaeda provide some relevant lessons in this regard. One is that smashing a center does not eliminate transnational terrorism from the periphery, with a group such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula having become more significant in that regard than Al Qaeda central. (And lest we forget, ISIS was once one of those Al Qaeda affiliates.) Another lesson, looking at such post-9/11 anti-U.S. terrorists as Faisal Shahzad and Nidal Hasan, is that lethality does not necessarily correlate with training received from a group overseas.

Most of the effective counterterrorist work against the universe of radicals operating under the ISIS label will involve the same unspectacular security work that is commonly performed outside of public view. This fact will be a frustration for policy-makers looking for more visible ways of responding to demands for action. The incidence of terrorism in the West under the ISIS label also will involve, as such terrorism always has, social and economic issues within Western countries. One does not have to be a Le Pen-style exploiter of the Paris tragedy to note that according to one of those early tidbits, one suspected perpetrator was a French citizen with a long criminal record who had been on an extremist watch list since 2010.

We should also think about the diplomatic effects of the Paris attacks, especially given how efforts to counter ISIS have been badly impeded and confused by other quarrels involved in the complicated war in Syria. Secretary of State Kerry is correct that continuation of that war provides continued opportunities for ISIS. This is one example of how such strife has traditionally aided radical groups, both by breaking down whatever order would have prevented them from emerging in the first place and by enabling them to fill the role of the most forthright opponent of a despised power structure. In the case of ISIS, the group was born under a different name as a direct result of the internal warfare touched off by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it got a later boost by exploiting the civil war in Syria.

Curbing such benefits for ISIS is the principal reason for the U.S. to expend much effort on multilateral diplomacy aimed at somehow resolving the Syrian conflict. The idea is that if some workable compromise can be reached among the other players, both internal and external, a more organized and coherent effort against the ISIS presence in the country can ensue. The concept is sound as far as it goes, but it risks holding a coherent anti-ISIS effort hostage to resolution of other disputes that are so messy and involve such irreconcilable players that a stable and lasting compromise might not be achieved for years.

An alternative approach would be to devote more effort searching for ways to make the anti-ISIS effort at least marginally more organized even in the face of continued disagreement over the other power struggles in Syria. This approach has plenty of problems as well, and obvious formulas for implementing it do not present themselves. But the Paris attacks have strengthened arguments that could be used in favor of moving in this direction. Western governments can say, with even more conviction than before, to the other players both inside and outside Syria, “Look, the main reason we are interested in this mess is because of the connection it may have to threats against our citizens back home. Compared to that issue, we really don't care much about disputes over who has how much power in Damascus. We will deploy our resources, our leverage, and our attention accordingly.”

Such a message ought to have some resonance among other important outside players. The Russians say they are concerned about countering ISIS, and they may have received a taste of how ISIS-related transnational terrorism can affect their interests with the plane crash in the Sinai. The Iranians received a taste with the attacks on their Shiite and Hezbollah friends in Lebanon last week.                                       

TopicsTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

A 'Nuclear Pearl Harbor': America's Master Plan to Nuke Japan's Navy

The Buzz

Less than a year after the formal end of World War II the United States tested its new superweapons in peacetime. Operation Crossroads in 1946 at Bikini Atoll tested the effects of nuclear weapons on naval fleets and harbors.

While burrowing through the vast Manhattan Project archives historian Alex Wellerstein turned up evidence that Bikini wasn’t the first Pacific island in the atomic crosshairs. Another atoll may have been the earliest target considered by the Manhattan Project.

For a time before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States considered nuking the Japanese fleet at anchor — a kind of reverse, radioactive Pearl Harbor.

When the Manhattan Project got off the ground in 1943, both the atomic bomb and the defeat of Japan looked like a long time and a lot of work away.

Hard fighting that year in New Guinea, Bougainville, the Solomons and Tarawa showed just how much time and work. But U.S. Navy planners thought the biggest target and the hardest nut in the Pacific was the huge Japanese naval base at the remote Micronesian atoll of Chuuk, once known as Truk.

After ruling Micronesia for a quarter century, the Japanese navy had turned Chuuk into its own version of Pearl Harbor.

The atoll – a 40-mile-wide lagoon ringed and dotted with tall green tropical islands – sheltered everything from battleships to transports. Drydocks and tank farms supported the ships. Airfields serviced hundreds of planes. A fleet radio station reached across the entire Japanese island frontier.

The carriers that fought in the Coral Sea and the battlewagons that savaged Guadalcanal came from Chuuk.

During a May 5, 1943 meeting the Manhattan Engineering District’s Military Policy Committee decided:

The point of use of the first bomb was discussed and the general view appeared to be that its best point of use would be on a Japanese fleet concentration in the Harbor of Truk. General Steyer suggested Tokio [sic] but it was pointed out that the bomb should be used where, if it failed to go off, it would land in water of sufficient depth to prevent easy salvage. The Japanese were selected as they would not be so apt to secure knowledge from it as would the Germans.

After the meat grinder battle of Tarawa in November 1943, Chuuk loomed over the western horizon. However, this early decision to nuke an atoll instead of a city fell by the wayside as the war continued. By early 1944, America’s burgeoning carrier strength in the Central Pacific allowed commanders to attack Chuuk using conventional firepower.

Between Feb. 17 and 18, 1944, Operation Hailstone’s 500 aircraft, five fleet carriers, four light carriers, seven battleships and an armada of other ships pounded the Japanese base into rubble and scrap. American bombs, torpedoes and gunfire sank 12 warships, 32 transports and destroyed 270 planes.

However, just as the Japanese attack on Hawaii missed the U.S. carriers, so the American attack on Chuuk missed Japan’s capital ships — they’d withdrawn to Palau just days before. The attack cut the atoll off from its supply lines and its garrison eventually starved. The American campaign rolled west towards the Marianas and Chuuk became forgotten.

However, the idea of nuking a fleet at anchor popped up again. Lewis Strauss, a future chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission worried about the atomic bomb’s effects on the U.S. Navy:

If such a test is not made, there will be loose talk to the effect that the fleet is obsolete in the face of this new weapon and this will militate against appropriations to preserve a postwar Navy of the size now planned.

Just weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Connecticut senator Brien McMahon called for such a test. The Army Air Forces brass and the Joint Chiefs concurred and by November 1945 plans were underway.

The military chose Bikini Atoll for its remoteness and prevailing winds. A native Bikinian population of only 146 simplified relocation for Operation Crossroads, though with tragic consequences for the exiled Bikinians.

The vast seaborne operation also tested the remnants of the vast U.S. Navy armada that won the Pacific War. Despite a massive demobilization after September 1945, the Pentagon put together a joint task force of 42,000 men, 242 ships and 156 aircraft and sent them off to blow up paradise.

The 71 vessels anchored in Bikini’s 180-foot-deep lagoon were hit by bombs identical to the Fat Man device dropped on Nagasaki. Weaponeers wanted the best comparison possible between a nuked city and a nuked fleet.

The first test, Shot Able on June 30, 1946, fell from a B-29 and landed 2,100 feet off its target. The screw-up marred the test data and provoked a military investigation. Shot Able nevertheless sank five ships and consumed the “demon core,” the plutonium that had already killed two Los Alamos scientists.

Wartime studies of underwater explosions in support of the plan to nuke Chuuk helped plan Shot Baker, Crossroads’ underwater test. Baker produced what is perhaps the most iconic image of a mushroom cloud, its size made even bigger by its eruption from a vast lagoon, hurling seawater and coral reef and whole battleships into the sky.

The great bombings left the lagoons of both Bikini and Chuuk littered with shipwrecks. Nature has miraculously restored their waters and made the sunken fleets among the greatest diving destinations in the world. Despite the thriving population and a developing economy, Chuuk Lagoon remains a wonderland of sea life and corals grown up over the corpses of warships, transports, trucks and planes.

Sea life thrives amidst the giant wrecks of Bikini too, but without rather than in spite of people. The Bikinian exile which began 69 years ago may become a permanent diaspora as the rising sea claims the atoll.

Though it’s safe to dive the lagoon, radioactive contamination prevents human resettlement.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Coming Crackdown in Iran

The Buzz

The recent arrests of Iranian journalists and businessmen have sent chills through Tehran. Are the string of detentions merely a coincidence, or the beginning a larger crackdown? The arrests occur against the backdrop of a larger, more dangerous, political drama centered on the character of a post-nuclear deal Iran, yet the conflict remains far from settled.

The heart of the current fight is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s campaign against foreign influence, or nafooz in Persian. Khamenei blessed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in order to resolve Iran’s standoff with the world powers over its nuclear program. For the ayatollah, however, the deal is a double edge sword. With sanctions relief comes eventual re-integration into the global economy. The consequent flood of international investment and consumer goods may also bring political and cultural ideas the Islamic Republic’s leaders fear will undermine the strength and legitimacy of their regime.

For President Hassan Rouhani and many of his allies, this is a problem that can be managed. Since his election in 2013, Rouhani has pursued a policy of détente--or more accurately tanesh-zadayi (relaxation or de-escalation of tensions)--with the West. This is not a show of good will towards the United States or its allies, but rather a cold calculation that the regime’s survival requires Iran to strengthen its economic foundation by decreasing the pressure from sanctions and thereby lessening the country’s isolation. There is historical precedence for this approach. Iranian academics have noted that Tehran saw relative economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s after normalizing relations with most European countries following the Iran-Iraq War. Rouhani hopes to improve upon earlier efforts by extracting economic value from international engagement, without risking the threat Western influence poses to the government’s stability.

Opposed to him are those in Iran who see engagement with the West as inherently hazardous and ideologically unacceptable, even if they buy into the idea of economic improvement though greater foreign investment. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is leading the charge on this front, along with other so-called principalists, hardline politicians, and conservative members of the judiciary and the clergy. On November 2, IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari argued the nuclear agreement has ushered in a period of major subversion in the Islamic Republic, and criticized Rouhani’s government for “trusting the West and believing in liberalism.”

The game is being played out on more levels than one, however. There are strategic arguments about how can best resist financial coercion by the world power. Iran’s reformists and pragmatists argue Iran should develop an economy deeply integrated with global markets, while more conservative voices urge less entanglement and greater self-sufficiency. The restrictions on foreign direct investment and contracts with major international firms are the battlegrounds here.

Rouhani has also picked fights with the Guardian Council, the body that determines who is allowed to run for office, in the lead up to the February 2016 elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts (which will chose the next Supreme Leader). The president knows he has popular support, but fears his allies will be prevented from running.

The arrests of Iranian journalists and business people with significant international ties is merely another escalation a long-standing conflict. The Guard is responsible for the recent arrests, and remains very worried about the political forces the JCPOA and Rouhani’s polices have unleashed. In the eyes of the IRGC’s leadership, progressive journalists and Western-linked businessmen are conduits for destructive foreign influence. They are also the types of people needed for Rouhani’s vision for Iran’s economic and political growth. The president is boldly pushing back, implicitly criticizing the IRGC for stifling the media for false reasons. Rouhani likely recognizes that a campaign by his political opponents to root out foreign influence could become an uncontainable beast that could consume him and his allies.

The stakes in this contest are very high. Both camps anticipate the potential existential challenge for the Islamic Republic when Khamenei passes, likely in the next few years. Each side foresees disaster for Iran--and loss of their own power--if the other side ‘wins’ through shaping the selection of the next Supreme Leader and altering the post-JCPOA political and economic landscape in its favor.

Supreme Leader Khamenei has still not weighed in on this most recent domestic spat. How long he will allow this internal struggle to continue is the central question right now. With the elections and major foreign investment choices quickly approaching, a decision will be needed soon. Khamenei will side with whomever he feels will best uphold the status quo of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani, as well as those Western actors who hoped the nuclear deal would open a new era in relations with Iran, should be very nervous.

This piece first was first posted on AEI's website here

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East