Sunday, May 31, 2009

Modernizing our Strategic Forces

The Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which was slashed in President Obama's FY2010 budget, has always been the subject of intense controversy. The RRW's supporters claim that it is a cornerstone of America's deterrent strategy, as deterrence only works if your opponent believes you are willing and able to retaliate. Detractors say that the RRW is like many other weapons programs; its sole purpose being maintaining jobs in Congressional districts. Additionally, they say that the RRW is likely to anger our allies and rogue nations.

I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. We have to ensure that our strategic forces are functional to serve the purposes they were built for, namely providing stable deterrence for the United States. On the other hand, our strategic forces are already incredibly capable, and are able to respond to a variety of threats across a full spectrum. Both the Secretaries of Energy and Defense have certified for the past 9 years that our forces meet acceptable standards.

We have to make sure our nuclear weapons are safe and reliable, but I'm not sure the RRW is effective at doing this. New facilities to process plutonium and uranium would be required, and that is not likely to be cheap. In addition, if we went about replacing warheads on 2,000 nuclear weapons, extensive testing would have to be done, and I don't think the President, Congress, or DOD is interested in doing that.

Our strategic forces and delivery systems are easily the most advanced in the world, and we should not look to modernize for the sake of modernizing. In addition, the use of PALS and other security measures ensure that these weapons don't detonate accidently and if a mishap does occur, then the effects are minimal. At some point in the future, we might need to upgrade to the W76 warhead, but right now, it doesn't make much sense.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Defense Finance Reform

John Murtha (D-PA), one of the most powerful members in Congress due to his position as Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has caught flack in recent weeks for allegedly doling out no-bid contracts and contracts of questionable relevance to national security back to his district in Pennsylvania.

At his annual defense expo today, Murtha was very bullish on these allegations. He came out with this:
"So what's that got to do with me?" he said, when asked by a reporter about the investigation. "Wait a minute. What do you think, I oversee these companies? That's the Defense Department's job. That's not my job. You guys write these stories [but] you don't have a clue what this is all about."
No, you don't oversee the companies personally John, but you do appropriate them money. And when you are giving out money to companies without a proper bidding process and when these contracts have little to no value for US national security, then people have to ask questions.

Sadly, as this article points out, this practice of awarding dubious contracts is all too common at Congress. While some mavericks at least acknowledge the wasteful Pentagon spending like Gene Taylor (D-MS), many such as Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) simply want to funnel as much defense pork into their state even if the programs are wasteful and irrelevant (in Chambliss' case, the disastrous F-22).

The Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 (summary here) is a decent first step, but there are still too many loopholes and easy ways out. In order to have timely and cost effective weapons systems, the Pentagon has to make giant changes and has to make a giant shift in thinking. I don't want to get into the whole "conventional vs. COIN" argument here, but there can be a healthy balance between the two schools of thought.

Europe Grows Up

The rise of a new security/military force in Europe is bound to ask some serious questions about the relevance of NATO in the 21st Century. The European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), established in 1996 under control of the European Union, is Europe's force for a variety of stabilization and peacekeeping missions. And while there are issues of overlap right now, I think the ultimate goal is eventually getting rid of NATO and calling on Europe to deal with its own problems and provide for its own defense. ESDP puts us on a path to do that.

ESDP has undertaken stabilization and peacekeeping missions in places like Macedonia and Chad, exactly the kinds of conflicts I would like to see the United States avoid. In addition, the ESDP might actually get European nations to pay for their own defense, something they have not had to do in quite awhile. It's been well known that the major nations in Europe free ride on the US security guarantee, and hopefully the ESDP assumes more responsibility for the security and protection of Europe.

Turning the attention to NATO, its relevance died after the end of the Cold War and the destruction of the Soviet military establishment. After that point, it has engaged in missions that are specifically not within its original parameter, and it has been largely ineffective in fighting the wars it was designed for.

The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was the first major test case for the organization after the Cold War. But did the bombing violate NATO's own charter? Article 5 reads,

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Serbia did not attack any member of the alliance, even though we might detest and disagree with Milosevic's regime and antics (I do). But when a purely defensive organization turns into an offensive organization, that dramatically expands the responsibilities and the number of quarrels in which NATO could get involved.

You could argue that the invocation of Article 5 for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was justified (I think it was), but the inefficiency of NATO in Afghanistan has been well documented for some time. Some countries refuse to participate in combat operations, and some even refuse to have their troops go out after dark.

Hopefully ESDP eventually phases out NATO and the US can stay out of peacekeeping operations in countries in which we have no security interests, and nation building missions. Doing this increases US security and decreases US taxpayer responsibility for our European allies.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Arms Race in South Asia

One of the effects in seems of North Korea's nuclear test is supposedly an arms race beginning to take shape in South Asia between India and Pakistan. It's been reported that there are two simultaneous developments that the US should be worried about. The first is that Pakistan is developing more plutonium for its existing nuclear arsenal. The second is that India is developing cruise missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads, as well as working on a new SLBM based on the Agni ballistic missile.

Do these developments raise the plausibility of nuclear war in South Asia? Will a security dilemma ensue, where both states build up their "defenses" to the point where it results in an engagement, and perhaps a war? Again, the actors in the game might have changed, but the rules have not. There is no evidence to suggest that deterrence in South Asia will be any different than deterrence between the Soviet Union and the United States or deterrence between the Soviet Union and China. We even have historical precedences to look towards, namely the 1998 Kargil War, which occurred while both India and Pakistan were nuclear. That war did not elevate because both countries knew the risk of doing so.

What about nuclear terrorism? The worry over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal for many years has been whether the weapons would fall into the wrong hands. After all, Pakistan is not exactly the most stable place on the planet, with several coup d' etats and military dictatorships throughout its history. But this is one issue I think is of mutual importance to both India and Pakistan. A nuclear Taliban is hardly in India's best interests, so I think bi-national cooperation is possible in the future to ensure that does not happen. Also, Pakistan's arsenal is equipped with PALS, the nuclear safeguard system that was supplied by the United States after 9/11. This system would make it extremely difficult for terrorists to get ahold of and potentially use the nuclear weapons. It's safeguarded by a series of codes, and if the wrong code is entered, the weapon immediately shuts down and becomes inoperable. In addition, maintenance and operation of nuclear weapons takes many specialized people performing a multitude of tasks over a long period of time. Who are we to think that the Taliban potentially has these sorts of resources?

Nuclear accidents are also an issue of concern in South Asia, but the Soviet Union and the United States were able to go 40+ years each armed with 20,000 nuclear weapons without an accident, those chances diminish greately when talking about the few dozen weapons that India and Pakistan have.

We should not going into meltdown over an arms race in South Asia. A new Indian cruise missile and more Pakistani plutonium does not really alter the equation in a dramatic fashion. It's almost unthinkable that these new developments constitute an act of war.

The Forgotten War & the Myth of the Surge

There are some troubling new developments in Iraq this week, now considered America's "forgotten war" because of the emphasis the Obama administration has placed on the conflict in Afghanistan. At this same time last year, Iraq was the main source of discussion and Afghanistan was the "forgotten war" so it's interesting to see the roles reversed considering how diastrous the Iraq War has been. But make no mistake, no matter what the neoconservative apologists might say, the situation in Iraq is still very combustible. The success of the so called "Surge" has been blown out of proportion by most of the people on the right, and some on the left.

This article at DoD Buzz summarizes the recent violent attacks in Baghdad in the month of April. While the attacks are not near the level they were pre-surge, the violence is still comparable to that going on in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties in Iraq are higher than in Afghanistan over the past few months. In addition, AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) have increased the number of suicide bombing attacks over the course of April-May. It amazes me when people trump up the recent advancements made in Iraq in the face of stories like these.

But the problems in Baghdad do not tell the entire story. The Turkish military has bombed targets in Northern Iraq, more specifically, PKK rebels. While Turkey may be threatened by the PKK (especially in southeastern Turkey), I'm skeptical as to how effective these air strikes actually are. Ahmet Turk, a leader of a Kurdish political party said in the wake of the attacks, "As long as the deaths continue, none of our problems can be solved."He has a point. The aerial strikes are not likely to be a solution to the problem of Kurdish statehood in the short or long term. The principal of blowback applies here; taking out these Kurdish rebels is only likely to create more resentment and will likely cause more attacks in southeastern Turkey, exactly what the Turks are trying to avoid. Furthermore, how can Iraq expect to be a stable, functional democracy when its sovereignty is consistently violated by Turkish warplanes?

So the next time somebody trumps up the success of the surge, you would do well to remind them of three consequences. We have established Iranian strategic dominance in Iraq for the foreseeable future with the installation of the al-Maliki government, suicide bombings are on the rise and AQI has reemerged, and the Turkish incursions into northern Iraq represents problems of both state sovereignty and properly dealing with terrorist threats without inviting retaliation.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Shield Makes the Sword Usable

In response to North Korea's nuclear tests, Japan has been urged to totally revamp their missile defense system. MP Gen Nakatani, who is a former defense minister and the ruling head of the Liberal Democratic Party, has been a vocal supporter of the shift:
"We have no choice but to consider switching from the existing passive missile defence to an active missile defence, where launch targets on enemy ground can be directly attacked."

As of right now, Japan has two different layers to its missile defense program, which has been active since the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") under Ronald Reagan. The Japanese currently operate the PAC-3 surface-to-air missile system for terminal phase defense and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system for sea based mid-course phase defense. Both these systems have been extensively tested by the Japanese military, although the success rates vary widely depending on who you listen to. That being said, the systems have not been extensively tested by the Japanese in a combat scenario, so it's really anyone's guess as to how they would perform if a North Korean IRBM was headed towards Tokyo.

On a strategic level, what does all of this really mean? Japan's politicians are doing what one would expect, talking up a missile defense system in order to give a sense of security to the people. Going back to a previous post, would an enhanced (and effective) Japanese BMD system foretell the acquisition of nuclear weapons? Does the shield make the sword usable? And what to make of Nakatani's comments?

I think boost-phase missile defense is probably a bad idea for Japan to employ against North Korea. For one thing, that technology is highly risky and even war provoking on some level (especially against the belligerant DPRK government). The Boeing YAL-1 is one of the few developed boost phase missile defense systems, but that has been targeted by Sec. Gates for discontinued production. In addition, boost phase defense only leaves you about 2-3 minutes to take our your target, so planning has to be extremely accurate.

In the end, instead of building an "offensive" missile defense system, Japan should take the initiative with China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to deal with the North Korea issue. The condemnation by Beijing and Moscow cannot be underlooked, this has huge strategic importance, because with their presence, North Korea has nobody else to turn to. Overreaction is a much worse strategy than underreaction in this instance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The F-35 Disaster

The GAO issued a report on the F-35 (or Joint Strike Fighter) last week, and the conclusions were all too familiar. Here's an excerpt: "JSF development will cost more and take longer to complete than reported to the Congress in April 2008, primarily because of contract cost overruns and extended time needed to complete flight testing."

Cost overruns and extended time for testing seem to be recurring themes at the Pentagon. In fact, the Pentagon is going to produce around 500 copies of the F-35 with only around 2% of testing completed. Engineers already found problems with the engine and avionics during the initial testing phase, so it can be logically assumed that by the time the rest of the testing is finished, a magnitude of problems will arise that will only shoot the cost up to astronomical levels. You can find similar construction mismanagement throughout the services; there is another report documenting the waste and inefficiency of Navy shipbuilding.

Winslow Wheeler at CDI does a good job running through the reasons that the F-35 is not likely to be a good replacement for our existing 4th Generation fighters. At $122 million per unit, you should be getting a great replacement for the F-16, A-10, F/A 18, and AV-8B, but this is not the case. It was designed to essentially be a "Swiss Army Knife" of the 5th Generation fighters, but it results in the F-35 being a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Of particular concern is its replacing of the A-10, which is a highly capable air-to-surface fighter that is highly specialized in bombing operations. According to Wheeler, the F-35 can only hold two 2,000lb bombs in its internal bay, far fewer than any other specialized bomber the USAF deploys. The F-35 is also too fast to conduct close ground support operations, rendering it pretty much useless in conflicts such as Afghanistan. This is troubling when you hear Gates say that the Pentagon is only going to buy weapons for the conflicts America is likely to face.

The stealth technology is also questionable. The air craft has to fly in certain postitions in order for it to be effective, and after the shootdown of a F-117 during the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999, it has been proven that stealth technology really isn't as impenetrable as we all like to think it is.

We have to get serious. We have not faced an enemy with a functional air force in decades, and that doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon. We have a huge advantage in fighters compared to places like China, so it really would be wise to scrap the F-35 and let it go the way of the F-22. After that is finished, we should design an aircraft that can meet the demands of the USAF and Navy as well as be cost effective. That combination is possible I think.

The Decay of the Russian Military

It's been well known since the end of the Cold War that the Russian military establishment has gone through some rough patches. Not only are their troops discontented, but their equipment is rapidly becoming obsolete, according to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The military campaign in Georgia and South Ossetia last year also revealed serious flaws in terms of equipment, coordination, and intelligence.

This is to be expected, I suppose. At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, the Soviet Military boasted manpower of around 4.5 million soldiers. Now, that number is significantly lower at around 1.2 million. Granted, it's only Russia as opposed to the entire Soviet Union, and there has been significant population drops in Russia since the end of communism, but those numbers are striking.

In addition, since Russia still heavily relies on conscription, the quality of soldiers is lower because they end up being less motivated, less educated, and stay in the services for less time. If you needed any evidence that the quality is poor, this article talks about how Russia fired several of its senior military officers because they failed an aptitude test.

On the equipment side, the things Russia is buying are not even effective at fighting small militaries like Georgia's. The Russian air force lost 4 aircraft in the South Ossetian operation, all shot down by inferior Georgian anti-aircraft equipment. The operation also revealed that Russia has not changed its military strategy since the Soviet days. The victory was based on overwhelming manpower strength compared to Georgia, not precision guided weapons or any type of "Shock and Awe" campaign. Moscow's planning, which used to be reknowned for its complexity and detail, is now an impeding force because it is extremely unflexible, something that will impede your ability to adapt to modern warfare. Mobile dispersed warfare is now dominant, engagements between nations will not resemble the conflicts Russia built its military for.

Serdyukov and Medvedev have both supported the modernization of Russia's forces by 2011, but the fall of the price of oil and the global economic crisis (which has hit Russia especially hard) will make this goal fairly hard to achieve. Unless the leadership in Moscow dramatically shifts its thinking, then its armed forces will continue to rot for the next several years. We will know the extent of the damage by the time their defense budget for FY2011 is released, because the decay will have taken full effect by then.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Test of Japan's Will Power

In the wake of North Korea's nuclear test earlier today, which caused the UN Security Council to actually issue a condemnation letter, serious questions are bound to be asked of Japan. Specifically, in the wake of these new tests, will Japan be motivated to acquire nuclear weapons?

Several issues are in play here. The first is domestic. Since Japan is the only country to ever be on the receiving end of a nuclear explosion, one could understand why the population has a deep reluctance to proliferate. That being said, the country's leaders have maintained that if and when the US security guarantee can not be trusted, Japan will proliferate. A secret report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a 1969 memo:
"For the time being, we will maintain the policy of not possessing nuclear
weapons. However, regardless of joining the NPT or not, we will keep the
economic and technical potential for the production of nuclear weapons."

Next, the security environment in East Asia is much different now than it was after World War II. There are several competing powers and several potential trouble spots. China and Taiwan have engaged in sabre-rattling with each other, there is the troubled issue of the Korean Peninsula, and several smaller potential conflicts, such as the dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. With this many potential problems, can Japan afford not to proliferate?

So we've established both that Japan has the economic/technical capacity for nuclear weapons and a sufficient threat environment. But does all that add up to certain proliferation? I'm not sure. The US security guarantee is probably enough to keep Japan from proliferating in the short term, but in the long term, Japan could certainly acquire WMD if the security threats in the region continue to fester. Prime Minister Aso has taken a hardline against North Korea, but whether that means WMD or more money for conventional forces is anybody's guess. One thing is for sure, even though the Japanese population has historical/cultural factors for not like nuclear weapons, if they are facing a grave danger, they will want protection.

For good discussions of this topic, see both Kenneth Waltz's "Structural Realism After the Cold War" and Japan's Nuclear Option: Security, Politics, and Policy in the 21st Century

North Korea's Nuclear Test

North Korea has conducted a second nuclear test, as part of a response to the international criticism aimed at their supposed "satellite" launch in early April. The immediate question is, how should we deal with this? Is it a threat?

Well, I think that it's probably better that North Korea doesn't have nuclear weapons, but I just don't think that Kim Jong-il would openly risk destruction of the regime he and his father created. What we need to understand is, this nuclear test and the missile tests in April are all part of his scheme to legitimize his power to the North Korean population. If Kim Jong-il was seen as weak and not a "major player" on the international scene, his power would not be legitimized to his own people.

What about more sanctions? Sanctions seem to be the most predictable response, but do they actually work? The answer is no. Kim Jong-il doesn't care about the economic well being of his state, as long as the military is powerful. In fact, this is the basic strategy behind the Songun doctrine, which is a "military first" policy. Additionally, economic sanctions are not likely to have much of an impact on a closed economy like North Korea has. We can also look to how well sanctions have worked over the past 40+ years in Cuba...

Ignoring North Korea might be the best short term solution. The only realistic targets of a North Korean nuclear strike are South Korea and maybe Japan. Both countries have economies at least 40X as powerful, and have some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world, provided by the United States.

The credibility of North Korea's delivery systems must also be questioned. As we all know, their test in April of a long range ICBM failed. Making a bomb is one thing (and if reports are to be believed, their nuclear bombs are a fraction as lethal as the ones dropped on Hiroshima), but without functional delivery systems, having a nuclear weapon doesn't really mean that much.

The presence of theater missile defense systems in the region is also likely to act as a countermeasure to DPRKs nuclear ambitions. Since the only viable delivery system they are reported to have are SRBMs, then both Japan and South Korea would be able to succesfully counter the threat. As I talked about in a previous post, the technology in the theater level is much more promising than on the national level. Theater systems worked in the Gulf War against Iraqi Scuds, and 15+ years of additional technological advancement certainly couldn't have hurt.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reducing Our Force Committments

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Peter Chiarelli told lawmakers this last week that increased demands on our troops and numerous committments around the world have created an Army that "remains out of balance."

This is hardly surprising. We have been over stretched for decades now, and the problems have only intensified since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan started. The answer, however, is not more troops through increased recruiting, etc., but a radical reworking of what we expect them to do. We should withdraw all of our forces from outposts of the Cold War and World War II (Germany, Japan, South Korea) and from our recent ventures (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia). We would have no problem defending the homeland with our current levels, and this is what we should be aiming for, not exercises in nation-building and liberal interventionism.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A New Strategy for the Navy?

Today at the Hudson Institute there was a forum on the future of the Navy, and some very interesting points were raised.

Former Naval Secretary John Lehman had the most scathing criticism, saying, "Clearly, we have a problem, a deep endemic problem...Acquisition problems are the most important problem facing the Navy." It's easy to see where Lehman is coming from, as two of the more disastrous acquisition blunders in any of the services come straight from the Navy: the littoral combat ship and the DDG-1000. Both these ships have been plagued by high costs and inefficient assembly, often being built before the designs were actually finalized. On top of that, the actual relevance of these ships to modern naval warfare should also be questioned. Why do we need a specialized ship to operate in the littorals? Can't existing frigates and Burke-class destroyers do this? Is there a need for 50+ of these ships like Gates is requesting? If we want a ship to patrol the coast, isn't this a function the Coast Guard should be undertaking? The Coast Guard performed missions like this in Iraq and had good results. We have plenty of ships that can perform the tasks the LCS was supposedly built for.

Speaking of having plenty of ships, the 313 ship goal for the Navy is entirely unfeasible. At the same Hudson event, chief Naval analyst from the CBO Eric Labs predicts that to reach this goal and taking current shipbuilding costs into consideration, the Navy will likely need $800 billion over the next 30 years. On face value, it can be said that this is entirely too much money to devote to a service that has been scrambling to find relevance since the end of the Cold War. We are simply not likely to face direct naval threats from places like China for a very long time. And if we do, we will not need 313 ships. We can easily survive with 7-9 carriers instead of 11, and around 35-40 attack submarines. This is especially true when you consider there have been mixed signals that China is debating heavily whether it wants to build its first aircraft carrier.

Cutting Nuclear Weapons?

The START treaty is due to expire soon, and the US is negotiating with Russia to renew the treaty. President Obama has already made it clear that he envisions a nuclear free world, and I suppose this is the first important step in that process.

It is thought that both sides would be willing to drop down to around 1,500 tactical nukes from the current levels in the mid 2,000's, but I don't see these negotiations as revolutionary or even a big step towards Obama's goals. The idea of a nuclear free world is more a pipe-dream than anything else. The technology is already out there, we simply cannot disinvent these things. Furthermore, countries will simply not want to give up their nukes. Why would they want to significantly weaken their own security? 1,500 nukes on both sides (and that's not counting warheads in storage, which are not part of the reductions) is still plenty enough to do significant damage.

I would tend to agree with the archdeacon of realism, Ken Waltz, who talks about the positive effects of nuclear weapons. Although his theory is extreme in some parts, the basic message prevails. These weapons make conventional wars less likely to occur, and they prevent limited wars from growing into full scale wars (see the Kargil War and the Soviet-Sino Conflict for examples of this practice).

Gates and Missile Defense

Ever since the defense budget was released a few weeks ago, there has been much controversy about the cuts made to missile defense programs. Amid this criticism, Gates has defended the cuts, reassuring that he will boost spending to counter long range "threats" from rogue states like North Korea and Iran.

While it is true that both North Korea and Iran have recently tested long range missiles, the hysteria surrounding these developments is misplaced to me. Deterrence is still a relevant strategy in the 21st Century. In the absence of security, states will move to fill that void. The only way for Iran to be sure that the United States or Israel will not attack them is to acquire nuclear weapons. People talk about the supposed irrationality of regimes like the one in Iran, but why are we to think that the rules of the game are so much different now than during the tensions of the Cold War? States will act to ensure their survival. The surest way for the Ayatollahs and Ahmadinejad to lose power is to attack Israel or the southeastern cone of NATO.

On the prospects of a national missile defense shield, I think the technology on a restricted theater level is much more effective than any of the models being floated around for a national missile defense shield. In this instance, Gates is correct to restrict the funding. If a superpower was ever stupid enough to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, a national missile defense shield would do nothing. The superpower could simply launch dozens and dozens of "dummy" warheads to distract the missile shield, thereby letting a few functional warheads through to cause destruction.