Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Future of Iraq

As stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement, US forces have started to withdrawal from major cities within Iraq. US forces will still be in the country, but today certainly represents a new day for the Iraqi people. While there was some violence in Kirkuk, pulling the troops out of Iraq is still the correct decision.

But while the withdrawal is an important event, the future of Iraq is clouded with many questions. One of the effects of the "surge" was establishing Iranian strategic dominance in Iraq for the next 10-15 years with Prime Minister al-Maliki. The US withdrawal immediately makes Iraq Iran's problem. With all of Iran's internal issues at the moment, this could present an insurmountable challenge for the ruling theocracy in Tehran. I'm not sure if this will result in a shifting of the balance of power in the Middle East, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.

The prospects of long term stability in Iraq is also a serious question mark at this point in time. Progress has been made to some extent, but one of the side effects of the occupation was rekindling the ethnic rivalries between Sunni, Shia, and the Kurds. We're seeing a similar situation emerge now in Bosnia & Herzegovina, where the ethnic rivalries between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are threatening to tear the country apart once again. This is happening even in the relative stability of Europe. Middle Eastern politics are famous for their combustibility, so the relationships between the ethnic groups will be vital for the future of Iraq.

Where does the United States go from here? I think it will make the US more hesitant to engage in prolonged occupations in the future. Nobody is interested in repeating the problems experienced in Iraq, and future administrations will no doubt notice the negative shift in public opinion which has effectively ruined the Republican party in the short term. I also think the US will devote more time and resources to learning effective post conflict stability operations. The US lost the will of the Iraqi people when it had no plan after the initial invasion and removal of Saddam.

But this is a seismic event in the history of Iraq, and it's going to be worth watching our the events in Iran effect the transition in Iraq.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Terrorism & Failed States

The United States has given around $10 million in small arms and munitions to help the Somali government fight against al-Shabaab, widely seen as a proxy for al-Qaeda. al-Shabaab controls most of southern Somalia, and nearly all of the capital Mogadishu. War has engulfed the east African nation for years, and the US is no stranger to the country, having intervened in the early 1990's.

I'm not sure that aiding the Somali government is something the United States should be actively doing. Officials in the State Department and the Pentagon have predicted Somalia as the next terrorist incubator for years now. If Somalia falls to radical Islamists, is the United States adversely effected? I think the whole failed states as terrorist havens is an idea that dominates most of the foreign policy establishment, but is severely misguided. Terrorism is a phenomenon that can exist in a variety of states. The liberal democracies of western Europe were home to numerous terrorist groups between the 60's and 90's, so it's not an occurrence isolated to third world countries. And while the United States has not had the same experiences of domestic terrorism as some other countries, several groups from Puerto Rican nationalists to Aryan Nations have been able to operate successfully.

Look at Afghanistan. al-Qaeda was able to set up a permanent base for operations only with the help of the Taliban, which exerted powerful rule over the country. Terrorists need a stable environment, it does them no good to be involved in civil wars, as that only misdirects their energy and resources. We should keep an eye on Somalia, but this sort of offshore balancing is not likely to help either the Somalis or Americans.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The F-22 & Choices

It increasingly looks like the F-22 will be saved, as the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the FY2010 Defense Authorization Bill provided funding for seven more fighters. The Washington Times ran an op-ed that calls on Congress to save the F-22 program. It features some common mistakes and misguided warnings.

Debate has been vigorous, but the F-22 line enjoys bipartisan support and the availability of reasonable, unobligated funding options in fiscal 2010 and the possibility of production in fiscal 2011

What funding options are the authors talking about? They've cried foul when other programs are in danger of being cut (see here and here), so what exactly are they proposing we get rid of?

The continuing development of advanced fighters and proliferation of surface-to-air missile systems abroad is increasingly placing American air superiority in question

This is an interesting statement. What we have to consider is that due to the F-22's runaway costs, the Air Force has reduced pilot's training to only about 10-12 hours a month. The surest way to put US air superiority in question is to rob our pilots of training, rather than procure more of the F-22.

Existing fourth generation fighters from China and Russia can already challenge our legacy platforms. Their fifth generation aircraft will be even more formidable

Again, why are we naturally assuming that we are going to face China or Russia in an imminent total war? Our fourth generation fighters are miles ahead of anything coming out of China or Russia. And if we procure more of the F-35 (which I don't think is a great air craft either, but it is much better than the F-22), then that should be more than enough to deal with threats from across the spectrum. Having an imagined war with China or Russia drive our defense budget is a recipe for disaster. Do we want more conventional funding or more counterinsurgency funding? The hawks can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More on the F-22 & Defense Spending

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who despite being pretty terrible on spending in every other part of the federal government, has always proposed cutting our bloated defense budget. Today, he advocated eliminating the $369 million earmarked for continued procurement of the F-22 Raptor, the disastrous fighter that has no relevant mission in the 21st Century.

Speaking to the Center for American Progress, he said,

I am of course struck that so many of my colleagues who are so worried about the
deficit apparently think the Pentagon is funded with Monopoly money that somehow
doesn't count.

This is a pretty good assessment of the problems at the Pentagon. Neoconservatives have made it their modus operandi to criticize President Obama's spending plans, but continue to want even higher defense spending, claiming we need to be spending at least 4% of GDP on national defense, even though that argument is incredibly misguided. The F-22 is at the heart of this argument. It might sound over-dramatic, but I think the F-22 will tell us exactly where the Pentagon is going to go.

Pakistan and Blowback

The New York Times is reporting that US drones have killed 60 people at a funeral in South Waziristan. If true, this would make it the most deadly attack carried out by a UAV under either the Bush or Obama administration. I've never understood how drone strikes were supposedly advancing US interests in Pakistan. Everytime I read something about them, there seems to be alot of collateral damage, resulting in civilian casaulties.

I suppose the United States still hasn't learned the principal of blowback. For every civilian or even "terrorist" we kill, we create 50 more. We've seen this happen in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The US military doesn't need to be continually involved in Pakistan. We have a national security interest, as the FATA regions in Pakistan harbor terrorists, but coordinated intelligence and police efforts can better combat the problem.

Strategic Changes at the Pentagon?

It's been widely reported that the next QDR (which drives military spending, force readiness, and training), will reflect a shift in strategic thinking at DoD. The common assumption is that the military will have to simultaneously prepare for conventional, set piece battles with nation states like China and counterinsurgency operations.

This new idea of "hybrid warfare" I think presents the United States with a multitude of problems. Part of this stipulates that the military has to prepare to fight more than two wars at a time. One lesson I would hope we have learned over the last 6-7 years is the strategic blunder of fighting multiple wars at once. The inability to focus on one conflict is likely to encourage missteps in planning and execution. This is typified in the oft-cited example of abandoning the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to go to war against Iraq.

We also have to acknowledge that the concept of "hybrid warfare" also is likely to continually drive up defense spending for the foreseeable future. If we view every failed state, rogue state, and emerging power as a threat, then we are not likely to cut our bloated defense budget. The structure of the international system will ensure that conflicts continually emerge, and military planners will want to make sure that the United States is prepared to deal with every possible challenge. This almost sounds like the classic "Dick Cheney Doctrine" where if there's a 1% chance that a terrorist attack will occur, then we have to treat it as if it's a certainty. Of course there's a chance that China could eventually threaten the United States. But it's not likely, even for the next several decades.

I also thought this part of the article was interesting:

But powerful constituencies in the military and in Congress continue to
argue that the next war will not look like Iraq or Afghanistan, and they say
the military is focusing too much on counter-insurgency and losing its ability to
defeat a traditional nation-state.

To a certain extent, I think this is correct. I don't believe that the next conflict will resemble Iraq. Planners and strategists will not want to repeat it. Aside from the usual neoconservative apologists who continue to espouse the greatness of the Iraq War, I don't think the common politician or citizen is really interested in occupying another Muslim country. But I'm not so sure that the next conflict will resemble this grand battle against another power either. Future conflicts I think will be predominately civil wars, border skirmishes, and asymmetrical surgical strikes.

Since the end of the Cold War, we've seen hosts of civil wars that have lured the great powers into entering (the Yugoslav wars of the early 90's, the Somali Civil War) and ones that have been shunned by the international community (i.e. Darfur, Rwanda). I think this pattern will continue. Some civil wars will entice the United States into entering, and some will repel intervention.

Border skirmishes are likely to be the most dangerous form of future warfare, though I don't think the United States needs to necessarily be involved in these types of conflicts. Remember, the geostrategic position of the United States is extremely favorable. I would consider the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006 and the South Ossetia War in 2008 as border skirmishes that escalated very rapidly. The two wars differ in context, though not by much. The Pentagon has looked towards the Israel-Lebanon War as a model for future conflict, but I think this is misguided. The one border problem the United States has is all the drug violence coming from Mexico, but aside from a few shootouts and isolated kidnappings, I think this is more of a problem the police, and to a limited extent DHS should be dealing with rather than the military.

Asymmetrical surgical strikes, like what we see happening in Northern Iraq and during the NATO strike on Kosovo, are also likely to continue in the future. US aerial dominance will encourage this type of behavior, and I wouldn't be surprised if this type of action continues and possibly grows in Pakistan. It's also going to take some time for enemy air defenses to be able to successfully counter US stealth technology on a consistent basis, so not much will deter such action in the future.

So, what does all this mean for the United States? Luckily, if policymakers and politicians are smart (and this is assuming an awful lot), we don't necessarily have to be involved. Civil Wars and failed states are not likely to threaten our national security no matter what fear mongers might tell you. And while border skirmishes can escalate into full scale wars, the United States is in a benign threat environment, surrounded by allies and weak militaries. And politicians might be willing to pull the plug on UAV missions in Pakistan if public opinion continues to nosedive. In general, the United States does have potential threats and adversaries, but fortifying itself in places around the world is not likely to make us any safer.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Logic of CTBT

Last week, Secretary General of the UN Ban ki-Moon tried to persuade the general assembly to adopt the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty was originally signed in 1996, but it does not come into force until 44 nations sign and ratify it, and there have been some notable absentees from the list, including the United States, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.

On a strategic level, would adopting CTBT make sense for the United States? Would it make sense for the other nuclear nations? I think alot depends on how the international community is actually going to enforce this. Persuasion is a very difficult thing to achieve in international politics, and persuading states to not test nuclear weapons might be a difficult sell. This is especially true when you talk about North Korea and Iran, who are more than likely the real targets of CTBT. But we already know that North Korea and Iran are willing to violate resolutions, as there is not much to dissuade them from proceeding with their programs. Sanctions don't work on an already isolated North Korea, and military action would be a huge miscalculation. So I think the effect of CTBT on rogue states is limited at best until the international community can find suitable means to enforce it.

I do think ratifying CTBT makes sense for the United States. After all, the United States has not conducted nuclear tests since 1992. It's often said that in order to have effective deterrence, you have to be willing and able to use your weapons. If you have functional weapons but your opponent knows you won't use them, deterrence fails. Likewise, if you are willing to use your weapons but they do not work, deterrence fails. But every Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy for the past decade or so has stated that our strategic forces are operable and capable and will remain that way for a long time. In addition, the Stockpile Stewardship program (comprehensive report here) is the right way to proceed with ensuring weapons capability without resorting to testing. It would be a tad hypocritical for the United States to be yelling at Kim Jong-il for testing nuclear weapons and then subsequently carrying out tests of our own. This is one of the issues that we can find common ground with the rest of the world, as most of the world wants such a treaty in play. After the numerous foreign policy disasters by the Bush Administration, finding this common ground is absolutely essential.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

US & Russian Nuclear Stockpiles

Dmitriy Medvedev has given his clearest indication yet that Russia is willing to significantly reduce its strategic force size ahead of the expected START negotiations. Under the framework of the negotiations, Russia said it would eventually reduce its stockpile to around 1,500 warheads by 2012 or so.

Should the United States reduce its strategic force stockpile? I think there are a couple of important issues to address. I can't help but think that any sort of reworking START is blinded by Cold War era thinking. Russian and American stockpiles have a sort of symbiotic relationship; there's an assumption that both countries strategic forces have to be equal in size and scope. 20 years after the Cold War, is this still a rational approach to arms control? Why does Russia still need to maintain parity with the US arsenal? I suppose the rational answer is say Russia feels like it has to maintain the balance of power in Eurasia, but even saying that is Cold War minded.

The next issue is what the proper number of delivery systems should be. There have been talks of eventually outlawing the use of MIRV ICBMs, and moving to single warhead missiles. I'm not sure how relevant this approach is; it seems more symbolic more than anything. Indeed, the reason Obama and Medvedev are probably proposing this is because they know that the diplomatic non-proliferation leverage from moving to single warhead missiles will be massive, and they won't really be giving up any firepower. This all goes back to the Waltz argument that there's not much more you can do with 2,000 warheads that you can't do with 250-300 or so warheads. There are warheads (like the B83)in the US arsenal that have a potential payload of 1.2 megatons. This pales in comparison to the 15 or so kiloton bomb that was detonated in Hiroshima in 1945 and dwarfs the 1.5 to 3 kiloton bomb the North Koreans supposedly detonated a month ago.

I think these talks are a fundamentally good thing for the future of US-Russian relations. I still think it makes sense for both countries to have a minimal deterrent, but in the current threat environment, it's now possible for both countries to work towards stockpile reductions. Hopefully these negotiations go well, as the United States desperately needs Russian support on a host of issues, from ending the war in Afghanistan to dealing with regional nuisances like Iran.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Continued Saga of the F-22

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rolled out his FY2010 budget, he made the call to halt F-22 Raptor production at 187 units. After all, the F-22 has not flown a single sortie in Iraq or Afghanistan, having been designed to go up against Soviet MiGs when it was conceived in the 1980's. But yesterday, Congress went against Gates' demands and put in $369 million for continued production of the jet.

There are two different issues to discuss with regard to the F-22. First is the way in which the military industrial complex is in full swing. Congressmen like Saxby Chambliss (D-GA) have been touting the F-22 as vital for our national security for quite some time, but in reality Chambliss' interests are much more self centered. The F-22 is primarily assembled at a Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta, and if funding was cut, then jobs might be lost. What Chambliss fails to address is that the cuts in F-22 are practically being offset by the increases in F-35 production, so these jobs won't exactly wither up and die instantly if production on the F-22 was ceased. This is not about national security for Chambliss, it's about jobs. But why should hundreds of millions of Americans continue to subsidize a plane that it doesn't even need? This brings us to our second point, effectiveness of the F-22 in modern warfare.

To put it bluntly, the F-22 has no effectiveness in modern warfare. Due to the runaway costs of the F-22, less money is available for the USAF to properly train new pilots. Any military aviation strategist will tell you it's more about the level of training the pilot has rather than what kind of equipment. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the IDF was 82-0 in aerial combat exchanges against Syrian MiGs, and IDF officials said the results would have been the same if the pilots switched aircraft because of the superior training. The F-22's sluggish size and poor maneuverability mean that it would struggle against fourth generation aircraft. The F-15 and F-16 have performed far better in agility tests. In addition, the "stealth" of the F-22 hinders its combat performance; all weapons systems must be kept behind doors, which negates the F-22's ability to engage in instantaneous engagements.

Going back to what I said earlier, the fact that the F-22 has not had one single mission in either Iraq or Afghanistan is very worrisome when considering building more of these planes. What kinds of conflicts are we expecting to fight? As I've said before on this blog, the imagined confrontation with China or Russia simply isn't likely to happen for a very long time. In the absence of World War III, the kinds of conflicts the US is likely to get dragged into will probably be missions that are heavily dependent on counterinsurgency strategy. Ground forces will be dominant, with USAF and Naval aircraft more likely to be involved in close air support and bombing missions. Air to air combat will not play a dominant role, as our enemies either do not have air forces or have very weak air forces.

The F-22 needs to be completely scrapped; it's time to go back to the drawing board and design an aircraft that can be both cost-effective and combat-effective. The US has enormous aerial superiority, and can use this as an invitation to design better aircraft in the time being. The F-22 and the equally disastrous F-35 Joint Strike Fighter need to be eliminated if we ever want to get serious about fixing the problems at the Pentagon and making this country safe.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Shield for Central Europe & Alternatives

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lind told Congress yesterday that the United States plans to integrate Russian radar installations into a missile shield that would cover most of Central Europe. Currently, there is a radar installation in the Czech Republic and ground based interceptors in Poland. When the missile defense shield was announced in 2007, there was the predictable firestorm of controversy, with analysts pointing out (correctly, in my view) that the shield was provoking to Russia.

While this new approach is certainly refreshing from the Bush doctrine of wanting the missile shield in Europe no matter what Russia thought, is it really the best option for dealing with the supposed threat from Iran or North Korea?

Theodore Postol, who is a professor of science, technology, and international security at MIT, wrote an op-ed a couple of months ago that outlines a good approach for this issue. If there really has to be a missile shield in Central Europe, it might as well be one that makes sense strategically and technologically. Postol's idea is for a boost phase defense with UAVs. He says,

...it would take advantage of the fact that long-range missiles built by Iran
or North Korea would be large and cumbersome, have long powered flight times
and could take off only from well-known launching sites.

The defense would have fast-accelerating interceptors that could home in on
and destroy the large, slow and fragile ICBMs. The interceptors would weigh
about a ton and could achieve a top speed of five kilometers per second in tens
of seconds. They would be carried by stealthy unmanned airborne vehicles that
look like B-2 bombers, but are smaller and carry much smaller, though still
substantial, payloads. Such vehicles already exist.

Only two of these armed drones, controlled by remote teams of operators,
would be needed to patrol within several hundred kilometers of a launching site.
At these ranges, it would be possible to shoot down an ICBM, with its nuclear
warhead, so that the debris falls on the territory of the country that launched
it. Only five drones would be needed to maintain a continuous patrol for
extended periods. But the system would have to operate only when satellites and
reconnaissance aircraft indicate that an ICBM is being prepared at the launching

There have been proposals for boost phase defense, primarily from the Boeing YAL-1, which was slashed in Gates' FY2010 budget, but this one seems logical and comparable to the threat. Deterrence should be enough to take care of these rogue states, but in some wild scenario, perhaps a power struggle or massive internal conflict, and the nukes get launched, then a UAV with boost phase capabilities makes sense. The fact that this technology already exists makes it appealing, as hundreds of millions of Pentagon dollars don't need to be funneled into the program; minor tweaks could make the system operational and deployable. What makes this system additionally appealing is that it poses no threat to Russia or China. This way the US gets what it wants, it can tell the public that it is dealing with potential threats, while not threatening Russia or China, whose cooperation we need on a host of issues.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More on Missile Defense

The House Armed Services Committee is marking up the 2010 defense authorization bill today, and there is expected to be an amendment that would restore funds for ground based interceptors, which lost some funding in Gates' FY2010 request.

HR 2845 has some interesting provisions in it,

1) Includes a Statement of Policy that Congress-
• acknowledges that North Korea’s and Iran’s long-range ballistic missile technology is improving and could be used to deliver chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons;
• expresses concern that North Korea’s and Iran’s long-range ballistic missile technology poses a real threat to the United States homeland;
• realizes missile delivery technology and warheads could be passed along to state and non-state actors; and
• supports ballistic missile protection of United States allies and forward deployed forces but believes it should not come at the expense of the protection of the United States homeland.

The first point is pretty vague. By "improving," the amendment fails to recognize that North Korea has had a total of two long range ICBM (Taepodong-2) tests since 2006, and both have failed. The one in 2006 failed in the boost phase and the more recent one in April crashed in the ocean after a couple of minutes. As of now, North Korea cannot attach their warheads on their long range ICBMs, and this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Iran's long range capability (mainly the Shahab or Sejil class) can threaten the region, but it cannot even come close to reaching the United States. States do not acquire nuclear weapons to use them, they are mainly political tools, to improve their own security. The surest way for a country to put its security in jeopardy is to launch nuclear strikes. In addition, we don't have any indication that either North Korea or Iran has capabilities for chemical or biological strikes, that seems like old fashioned fear mongering, something the Republicans have become very adept at peddling.

The second point I think really explains how inept our Congressional leaders are at talking about threat perception. It's quite clear none of them understand deterrence theory. Do North Korean/Iranian ICBM's pose a threat to the homeland? If either country were foolish enough to launch a strike on the United States, they would be instantly eliminated. Neither North Korea nor Iran possess any substantial military capability, and both have near destitute economies. Risking a war with the world's hegemonic power would have disastrous consequences for North Korea and Iran.

The third point is interesting. Could North Korea or Iran pass along their nuclear weapons (which Iran doesn't have yet) to non state actors (i.e. terrorists)? The idea of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons has been one of the hot topic issues in national security since 9/11. Prof. John Mueller at Ohio State has done a lot of work on this subject, and I tend to agree with his basic conclusions that the likelihood of a group acquiring these weapons is getting smaller, and the technological expertise that a terrorist group would have to have in order to operate nuclear weapons is practically unattainable (for Mueller's full report, see here). In addition, in several years when both North Korea and Iran could potentially have weapons, they are only going to have a handful. Why then would they want to decrease their own security by giving their weapons away to unpredictable terrorist groups? When countries proliferate, there comes added responsibility. For example, if the United States was the victim of a terrorist nuclear attack tomorrow, Iran would not be suspected, because they do not have nuclear weapons. But in 4-5 years, Iran would no doubt be at the top of a very short list of suspects.

The fourth and final point seems to fail to understand the necessary defense choices we are going to have to make in the next several years. At some point we are going to have to cut spending. In the post 9/11 climate of fear, any reduction in defense spending (whether or not that spending actually aids in the fight against terrorism) is seen as a sign of weakness. I would prefer that the troops come home from Afghanistan immediately as I think it's turned into a state building exercise, but if they are going to be there, we have to make sure they have the tools they need. This means we have to make some tough choices. Gates and DoD have correctly (in my opinion) identified that the threat of North Korea and Iran has been exaggerated, and we can reduce missile defense funding, because it just isn't practical now.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Note on Iran

After weeks of heated campaigning in Iran between incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad won reelection by an apparent 63%. This is not the result that the United States wanted, for obvious reasons, but I'm hesitant to think that Mousavi would have been monumentally better than Ahmadinejad. For one thing, for the issues the United States really cares about, i.e. Iran's nuclear program, getting help on regional problems like Iraq and Afghanistan, a change in president would likely have not shifted policy all that much. Iran's nuclear program has alot of political capital invested in it, and that would have been incredibly hard to reverse, even if Mousavi had won the election.

Second, the Ayatollah is still in power. Nothing has changed at the top. The president of Iran has no real power when it comes to any foreign policy issues, everything must be approved the Ayatollah. Ahmadinejad might have been given a longer leash when it comes to things like domestic policy and social issues, but the Ayatollahs get the final word on Iran's relations with the rest of the world.

That being said, I still think that this election has some significance in the grand scheme of things, and I don't think it's akin to the kind of "rubber stamp" elections held in places like Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Belarus, even if Ahmadinejad's reelection had some irregularities. Over the last few weeks, the political culture of Iran has grown to heights rarely seen in the Middle East. Besides having record turnout, televised debates were shown for the first time. These factors are likely to have at least a marginal positive impact in the future.

What does this mean for the United States? President Obama and the people at the State Department know they are going to have to deal with Ahmadinejad for another four years. As I've stated before, I don't believe Iran's nuclear program poses the threat that many people would have you believe, and from a security perspective, I can understand why they would want nuclear weapons. That being said, they are still a few years away from producing an active bomb, and they are legally able to produce nuclear power for peaceful purposes. The best way for the US to get what it wants is to continue on in the diplomatic route. The "bigger carrots and bigger sticks" approach of the Bush administration is certain to push the two countries further apart, and we need Iran's help on the critical regional problems I mentioned earlier.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bunker Busters & North Korea

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency issued a report which outlined its goals for creating much more powerful so called "bunker buster" nukes- 5X more powerful by the end of 2009 and 10X more powerful in 2013. The premise of bunker busters is to have the ability to neutralize WMD silos under ground. This issue has resurfaced since North Korea's nuclear test last month. Being able to take out DPRK's nukes without having to send boots on the ground would obviously be appealing to many on the right and the left.

However, would the United States actually authorize such a move? I think it would be extremely risky to do such a thing. Intelligence in North Korea isn't exactly reliable, so how could the United States be confident in destroying all the nuclear installations? If the US were to authorize a bunker busting strike, and is moderately successful, then North Korea would be backed into a corner, and desperate to cling to power, might launch retaliatory strikes against Seoul.

I'm sure it could be argued that bunker busters are inherently offensive rather than defensive weapon systems, as I think their existence circumvents traditional deterrence methods. If you know your opponent has something to neutralize your primary bargaining chip, then the rules of the game can dramatically shift. In the context of North Korea, I don't think the US would risk such a move, at least not know. The internal situation in North Korea is very combustible, if Kim Jong-il (who's questionable medical status has reemerged) were to die, and a struggle for power were to ensue. I'm not saying that's likely or possible, but it's something that needs to be acknowledged. Bunker buster strikes at this point would do much more harm than good.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Securing Pakistan's Nukes

A senior defense official called the proposed plans for a military intervention to secure Pakistan's nukes "wildly hypothetical and speculative." This is reassuring to say the least. A military intervention in Pakistan to secure access is flawed on several levels.

On a political level, I don't think it would be wise to intervene in Pakistan in any capacity. When you look at how popular the US drone attacks are, you can safely assume that any intervention would be met with extremely harsh criticism. Furthermore, Pakistan is supposedly our ally, and using military force inside their country is unlikely to improve those relations.

On a strategic level, do we have the resources to secure a country as large as Pakistan? Remember, it took close to 20 combat brigades to secure Iraq, a country with around 25 million people. Pakistan has close to 170 million people, how do expect to secure the entire country? If the US redeployed its forces from all over the world and called up all of its reserves, it would only have around 75-80 combat brigades, far below what it would take to confidently secure Pakistan. Securing parts of the country would not make much sense, so you would almost have to have SOF (special operations forces) do the work. If Pakistan were to "fail," how would SOF get deep inside the country (where the weapons probably are)? Getting to the weapons would be a problem, and getting the weapons out would be a problem. You are looking at using helicopters, and considering the nuclear weapons installations are likely to be heavily guarded, the probability of success rapidly dwindles.

While Pakistan is not a model for stability at the moment, we should not overestimate or overreact to the potential threat. Make no mistake, if Pakistan imploded, and the military split into factions, then that is a very worrying scenario. But if a state actor got control of the weapons, I would think that conventional deterrence theory applies. The threat of radical military factions giving the nuclear weapons to terrorists is also of concern. Pakistan only has a handful of operational weapons, why would the radical faction willingly give some up when possessing the weapons gives them a legitimate grip on power?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Worldwide Military Expenditures

The Swedish think tank SIPRI released their annual report on worldwide military spending yesterday, and the results are to be expected. The United States still vastly outspends everybody else in the world, and China's budget is growing. While it is no longer true that the US still spends more than everybody else in the world combined, most of the other countries in the top ten are NATO allies, so it's more or less a misnomer.

If you take all of the countries that are widely accepted to be the United States' "rivals" such as China, Russia, Iran, Syria, etc., the numbers don't even come close to matching the US, and that's if you use the high end estimates for both Russia and China.

The report also concluded that worldwide military expenditures have risen about 45% in the last decade. Why is this? I found this quote in the report very troubling: "The introduction of the idea of 'the war on terrorism' has encouraged several countries to see their problems from a very militarized perspective, and is used to justify high military spending." That line is by Sam-Perlo Freeman, who authored SIPRI's study. I think that reason for more spending is largely true, but is it necessary?

Boosting defense spending isn't likely to curb terrorism, especially if we spend it on things that are not even applicable to the fight against terrorism, such as the F-22, which has never been used in a single sortie in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Streamlined intelligence and coordinated police efforts have been proven to be more effective ways to combat terrorism rather than huge military budgets. The US was spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense, and that did not stop 9/11 from happening, and it has not stopped the emergence of China.

So what is the right amount of defense spending? Well, that would depend on what you see is the proper role of the United States in the world. If you think that the US should engage in small proxy wars on nearly every continent, then you need a high level of military spending. On the other hand, if you think that the US would be safer if it kept its nose out of other country's civil wars and internal conflicts, then a massive reduction in spending is possible. Projecting massive military power around the world is likely to result in us being less safe. If we want to stay safe, then preventive wars, offshore balancing, and power projection are not the answers. Restraint is a better path towards a long lasting peace.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Iran, Israel, Nuclear Weapons, and Air Strikes

A new report was issued this week that suggests that Iran has enough centrifuges to manufacture nuclear weapons in a few month's time. But the report also noted that the inspectors had found no evidence that Iran was shifting the fuel in order to make weapons. These events don't exactly shift the equation, and they do not tell us anything we didn't already know. Iran is allowed to have nuclear power as it is a signatory of the NPT. And if they were to ever weaponize, I don't think anybody would be shocked, but more importantly, we should not overreact. Any sort of unilateral US or Israeli air strike on Natanz would be incredibly counterproductive and is exactly the kind of operation Obama and Netanyahu should avoid.

The NY Times article linked also talks about how George W. Bush refused technological support for the Israelis in the event of a unilateral air strike on Iran. If true, this is one of the few things Bush actually did right during his presidency. President Obama has to make it clear to the Israelis that the United States will not tolerate unilateral action against Iran.

What many fail to realize is that an air strike on Iran is not likely to have positive results. Iran probably wants nuclear weapons for their own security. In international politics, states are motivated by their own survival and their leaders are rational and also focused on survival. Iran's military is not able to project dominance in the Middle East region, and I don't really see any signs that they are militarizing for a strike on Israel or U.S. interests. An aggresive Israeli air strike against Iran would likely motivate not only Iran, but the wider Muslim world. Iran would find allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan and would probably be able to counterbalance against Israel. In addition, the presence of Hamas and other militants inside Palestinian territory would also work against Israel. Having to fight a multifront conflict would be disastrous for Israel. The combination of these factors would likely dwarf the conflicts in 1967 or 1973.

The surest way for Israel to ensure its survival is to keep a watchful eye on Iran, but not to do anything overly aggressive. Israel has every right to preserve its security, but air strikes are just likely to anger the entire region, and potentially drag the United States either directly into a conflict, or in some kind of offshore balancing (sort of like the Lend/Lease acts with the UK around WWII).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Nuclear Triad

The Nuclear Triad in the Post Cold War Era

Throughout the Cold War, the nuclear triad was considered by policymakers and military strategists as a key capability in preserving both the United States’ deterrent and second strike capability. The combination of nuclear armed submarines, land based ballistic missiles, and aerial strategic bombers enabled a steady deterrent to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the decline of the Soviet military establishment and the absence of a major threat, however, the traditional nuclear triad is no longer a relevant approach to deterrence for the United States. Countries such as the United Kingdom and France are able to maintain a deterrent with an incomplete triad; would the United States be able to do the same? With Russia and the United States willing to reduce their nuclear arsenals and an increase in global strike capabilities, will the United States be able to solely use one part of the triad? This paper examines each part of the traditional nuclear triad in the context of modern U.S. nuclear strategy and advancements in military technology. Then, an alternate way to think about the nuclear triad and deterrence in the 21st Century is proposed.

Nuclear armed submarines, or SSBNs, are perhaps the most capable leg of the traditional nuclear triad. As of 2008, there are 14 nuclear armed Ohio-class submarines in the U.S. fleet, and they carry close to 38% of operational strategic forces.[1] The submarines carry up to 24 tactical D5 (TRIDENT) missiles each with MIRV capabilities, providing for an enormous amount of firepower.[2] SSBNs possess numerous advantages over land based ballistic missiles or aerial strategic bombers. Of most importance is a submarines ability to operate close to undetected over an enormous area, namely the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This sea roaming capability has two direct consequences. First, an SSBN is able to get in close proximity to its intended target, which in turn increases the lethality and accuracy of the SLBMs. Second, the broad range of operations makes it difficult for enemy navies to react and mobilize effective countermeasures.

That being said, there are still two major proposals which aim to neutralize the effectiveness of SSBNs, but in reality, reflect dated Cold War thinking about naval strategy. The first is the issue of communications between national command authority and the captain of the submarine. If submarines are unable to communicate with command and confirm their orders, then they are not of much use. In addition, they could theoretically become more dangerous if there were orders to treat a breakdown in communications as evidence of an attack. This logic is rooted in a Cold War era mindset. Over the past 15-20 years, there have been great advancements made in naval communications. Systems such as TACAMO aircraft and various satellite and shore based transmitters work concordantly to ensure communication linkages to SSBNs are not compromised. These developments are proven to be 99.99% reliable according to U.S. Naval estimates.[3] In addition, the development of the Extremely Low Frequency Communications Program allows SSBNs to operate at lower depths and at faster speeds while retaining the ability to receive low frequency messages.[4] Another school of thought is the advancements made in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in the last decade. China’s navy has added ships with increased ASW capabilities[5], but it will take some time for any opposing navy to successfully countermeasure the U.S. strategic submarine fleet.

The second leg of the traditional nuclear triad, the strategic bomber capability, is both highly accurate, and highly vulnerable. Currently, the United States deploys three separate LRSA (long range strike/action) aircraft: 65 B1-B Lancer, 19 B-2A Sprit, and 67 B-52H Stratofortress.[6] Strategic bombers are highly accurate, perhaps even more so than SLBMs, and they can deliver their payload to a precise location in enemy territory, primarily due to the advancements in stealth technology. Also critically important is that strategic bombers can be recalled at the last minute if hostilities cease. In the nuclear age, there is always the slight possibility of an accidental launch or misuse of a nuclear weapon.[7] When a ballistic missile is fired from either land or sea, it cannot be taken back. But as with nuclear submarines, there are risks associated with relying on strategic bombers. First, there is the chance that the bomber could be shot down. While USAF stealth technology is highly advanced, it is not infallible, as was the case when Serbian militias downed an F-117 stealth bomber in 1999 during the NATO bombing of Kosovo.[8] Another issue is strategic bombers take a long time to reach their target, while ballistic missiles can strike a target in a matter of minutes. Advancements in fuel technology have helped out somewhat, but bombers launched from the United States still must be refueled in flight, and they still take a long time to reach their objective. Offshore air bases pose their own sets of problems, as it can be difficult to secure access to them.

The third and final leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), consists of LGM-30 Minuteman III missiles. As of 2008, there are currently 488 deployed Minuteman IIIs, each armed with the W62, W78, or W87 warhead.[9] Under the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the idea of single warhead nuclear weapons was put forward by the United States, but this idea has been reversed somewhat in recent years, with an eventual goal of 500 warheads on 450 missiles by the end of SORT in 2012. This would greatly reduce the use of MIRVs on ICBMs, decreasing both their lethality and reducing the risk for disaster. Even if plans to reduce the number of warheads on ICBMs occur, there are still advantages. U.S. ICBM silos are heavily fortified and are built to withstand heavy firepower. Also, ICBM silos are deployed at several places within the country, and a first strike on U.S. territory would be very unlikely to destroy them all. As of yet, directed energy and national missile defense is not at a point to severely limit a ICBMs capacity, but the technology is in place to make a difference in the future.

Now that each leg of the U.S. nuclear triad has been discussed, what is the way forward? The United States could easily maintain a successful and powerful deterrent by solely relying on SSBNs. From a strategic standpoint, the United States is blessed by the two large oceans which surround the continuous American territory and SSBNs are able to fully utilize this advantage to respond to a variety of threats. In addition, a reduced number of nuclear weapons scattered around in various locations is just as effective as having massive arsenals and an array of delivery systems.[10] SSBNs can combine the speed and lethality of ICBMs with the accuracy and survivability of strategic bombers. This versatility allows the United States to take a more restrained posture when it comes to our nuclear deterrent.

Going to an all SSBN force would also have other non-strategic implications. For one, the cost savings of maintaining a handful of submarines are much less than maintaining and modernizing ICBMs, silo maintenance, and upgrading strategic bombers. Second, an all SSBN force would decrease the likelihood of a nuclear disaster, going by the simple equation of less nuclear weapons equals a less chance of something going wrong. Finally, reducing the triad would give the United States significant diplomatic leverage in nuclear non-proliferation.

The model of the United Kingdom is one that the United States should look towards when thinking about the future of deterrence. Currently, the United Kingdom deterrent consists of four Vanguard class submarines with D-5 SLBMs. SIPRI estimates the UK to have around 185 active warheads.[11] In a geopolitical sense, the strategic position of the United States and United Kingdom is quite similar. Both countries have large maritime borders and a benign threat environment, which would allow for a reduction in strategic forces and delivery systems. In addition, it is necessary to look at who exactly needs to be deterred.

In the 21st Century, the United States is unlikely to face the types of threats confronting us in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. A reduced U.S. strategic posture relying on SSBNs would be able to deter rogue states such as Iran and North Korea as well as an emerging China and a regressing Russia. To reflect this shifting paradigm, the nuclear triad has to be reduced. A continuing reliance on all three legs no longer makes strategic sense in the post Cold War era. It is now feasible to do more with less.


[1] Norris, Robert S. and Hans M. Kristensen. 2008. “U.S. nuclear forces, 2008.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64 (1): 50-53.
[2] “SSBN-726 Ohio Class FBM Submarines.” Global Security, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/systems/ssbn-726 Accessed June 2, 2009.
[3] Mies, Adm. Richard M. “The SSBN in National Security.” The United States Navy. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_5/ntlsecurity.html Accessed June 3, 2009.
[4] Aftergood, Steven. “Extremely Low Frequency Communications Program.” Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/c3i/elf.htm Accessed June 2, 2009.
[5] Economy, Elizabeth and Michel Oskenberg. 1999. China Joins the World: Progress and Prospects. New York: Council on Foreign Relations
[6] The International Institute for Strategic Studies. 2009. The Military Balance 2009. London: Routledge
[7] For a detailed discussion, see: Sagan, Scott. 1995. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[8] Schmitt, Eric. 1999. “Downing a Stealth Jet: Shrewd Tactics or Lucky Shot?” The New York Times. 11 April 1999.
[9] Norris, Robert S. and Hans M. Kristensen. 2008. “U.S. nuclear forces, 2008.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64 (1): 50-53.
[10] Waltz, Kenneth N. and Scott D. Sagan. 2002. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
[11] SIPRI. 2008. “United Kingdom’s Nuclear Forces.” http://first.sipri.org/search?country=GBR&dataset=nuclear-forces Accessed June 3, 2009.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Russia, the CSTO, and War Games

Probably in response to NATO exercises in Georgia, the Russian military, alongside many of its closest allies in the region (Kazakhstan, Belarus, etc.) will conduct extensive war games under the banner of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). The logic here seems fairly simple. Russia is trying to flex its collective muscle by creating an organization similar to NATO. And much like the United States does within NATO, Russia will dominate over the other members, who are probably just looking to Moscow for security.

Does a functional CSTO pose any sort of threat to Europe or NATO? The answer is no. As I've pointed out in a previous post, the Russian military has been slowly decaying since the end of the Cold War, and due to the harsh economic conditions in Russia, their defense spending will probably decline significantly over the next few years. And while I would be supportive of NATO ceasing to exist, I don't think that would encourage or bait the Russians to do anything stupid. They know what their capabilities are, are nobody looking at them really believes they have any real capabilities.

Russia's power projection does not extend past their previous sphere of influence during the days of the Soviet Union, so I don't really see the worry about them banding together with a few insignificant former Soviet republics and running war games. We all know Russia has tried to meddle in the affairs of the various republics, but it's usually a desperate attempt to reassert their dominance.

In addition, Russia wants to reset relations with the United States and make sure they can sell their oil to the rest of Europe. Starting another war severely damages those objectives.

The United States & Cuba

I've tended to write more about security/military issues, but I felt this was important enough to merit its own post.

At a meeting between the Organization of American States, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton has been urged to readmit Cuba to the OAS after a 47 year absence. Also, the US and Cuba are set to resume talks over immigration between the two nations. These developments are important first steps, but there is still a long way to go, and I don't think anybody's forgotten that. The embargo has been a flat out disaster for the United States, and it has had terrible consequences on the people of Cuba.

We have to ask ourselves a very simple question, why is the embargo still there? What purpose does it serve? I think it primarily exists due to the influence of the Cuban lobby in Florida, but there are signs that is on the wane, as most of them are becoming older. In addition, President Obama, who won Florida in the 2008 election, was able to do so taking a more moderate approach on Cuba, something that would have been unthinkable in previous elections.

The embargo also speaks to the utter hypocrisy of US foreign policy. Are we really still that mad about the Cuban Missile Crisis? Do Fidel and Raul Castro really still bother us after all these years? It's ironic that the US is perfectly okay being friendly with brutal rulers like King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarek in Egypt, or any of the Central Asian tyrants like Nazerbayev from Kazakhstan or Karimov from Uzbekistan, but the regime in Cuba is entireably intolerable.

On a deeper level, the sanctions do not actually work. Barring trade from Cuba does nothing to bring regime change to the island, as democratic reform in Cuba has not gained much ground in the preceding four decades when the embargo has been in place. Their is almost no internal democratic reform movement in Cuba, why? Most of the ones that really hate Castro have left to move to the United States, because of the harsh economic conditions in Cuba....that the United States created.

If the US wants to continue to pretend like it's a bastion of free markets and capitalism, lifting this repressive and counterproductive embargo on Cuba is a good first step.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mitt Romney is Crazy

Just in case you forgot, Mitt Romney is crazy.

Here are a few of my favorite tidbits from Romney's speech to the Heritage Foundation.

- A $50 billion a year increase in defense modernization. Erm....what? We already approximate what the rest of the world spends on defense, and most of our nearest "competitors" are our allies such as the UK, Germany, and France. If you add up all the "bad guys" (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and let's throw in Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and Libya for fun) it doesn't even come close to approaching the US defense budget. Our forces are already incredibly advanced and are capable of dealing with a wide range of threats. We spend over $650 billion a year on defense, and that number creeps over $800 billion if you add in war supplements, DHS, Veterans Affairs, and some other funds. The only way you can justify more defense spending is if you openly admit that you are a fanatical supporter of the military industrial complex.

-Regime crippling sanctions against North Korea. North Korea is perhaps the world's most isolated economy. They are not a part of the global economy. So what are sanctions going to achieve? Oh wait, sanctions worked so well in Cuba, forcing the Castro regime to democratize in a timely fashion...

-Full funding for missile defense. I've already spent a few posts talking about the fallacy of a national missile defense system, and how it would likely not stop countries like Iran and North Korea from proliferating. Again, the only justification Romney seems to give is old fashion fear mongering.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Missile Defense vs. Rogue States

One of the more interesting aspects about missile defense for me has been whether or not it works against rogue states. In the wake of North Korea's nuclear test and their supposed upcoming long range missile test, recently desposed head weapons tester at DoD Charles McQueary said that the US would have a "reasonable chance" at intercepting a long range missile. While he can be confident of such a result, I think the testing would say otherwise. To date, there have only been 13 tests of the system since 1999, with 8 confirmed interceptions. There are two issues at stake, can we trust a system that's only been tested 13 times, and is a 62% success rate good enough?

There have been some good, quantitative studies done on the effectiveness of national missile defense (see here), and the results tend to say that missile defense enhances the stability of deterrence, but that the current limited system is ineffective against the large arsenals of Russia and China.

But what about rogue states? So far, Japanese theater missile defense has not dissuaded DPRK from attempting to build up its nuclear arsenal. Similarly, the missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic has not halted Iran's hopes of acquiring nuclear weapons. In these two cases, existing missile defense systems, which by all accounts would be able to sufficiently deal with the threat, have not dissuaded potential challengers.

This leaves a couple of conclusions. First, the desire for Iran and DPRK to proliferate is primarily based on defensive security factors. If either country was wanting to launch offensive strategic forces against selected targets, then they would be dissuaded by existing missile defense systems (the theater based systems in Japan/Eastern Europe are more effective than the national model discussed above). And while defensive security factors play a role, domestic politics do play a part here I think. Iran wants nuclear weapons as part of a grand strategy of becoming the leader of the Muslim world, and being the first Muslim country to acquire nuclear weapons surely boosts their credentials. In North Korea's case, the reappearance of their nuclear weapons program could be an attempt to leave Kim Jong-il's successor with a bargaining chip with the West.

Second, I don't think missile defense alters the equation with Russia or China. We can be reasonably assurred that deterrence works with both countries, and the presence of NMD or TMD doesn't change that. China has maintained a relatively restrained arsenal, while Russia's has been primarily focused on maintaining equivalence with the United States. In neither case does NMD or TMD play a determining factor in reducing or increasing strategic forces.