Monday, July 27, 2009

A Middle Eastern Defense Umbrella

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States would consider setting up a "defense umbrella" in the Middle East to thwart any potential attack emanating from Iran. The supposition is that the Obama administration needs to prove to Iran that it has the willingness to respond militarily. It seems that all the recent turmoil in Iran has somewhat shifted policy towards Iran.

Extended deterrence is an idea that has been a part of US strategy for decades dating back to the Cold War. The US continues to provide a nuclear umbrella to Japan and South Korea, and under NATO protocol in western Europe. But would this be a wise idea in the Middle East? Is a nuclear umbrella even needed?

The threat from Iran has, predictably, been overstated by many in the foreign policy establishment. A nuclear Iran would be balanced by Israel, whose military and economy are far superior to anything Tehran has to offer. Additionally, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all hostile to the rise of Iran, so why does the United States need to set up a nuclear umbrella? All of those countries mentioned have far greater interests in Iran than the US does. Deterrence works. Why are we to think that deterrence in the Middle East will be any different than it was between the US and Russia, India and Pakistan, and elsewhere?

The desire of Iran to acquire WMD was completely predictable. The Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld wrote that after the US invasion of Iraq, Iran would be foolish not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Not only are there US troops in Iraq, but there are bases scattered throughout Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other places in the region. Iran can be contained without an official "defense umbrella" being created.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Biden Supports Georgia in NATO

In a visit to Georgia, VP Joe Biden gave a speech at the parliament in Tblisi where he reiterated US support for Georgia joining NATO. The US has long supported NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and the issue became even more of a hot topic issue after the events of last summer. After the South Ossetian War, it puzzles me as to why this is even still being considered as a wise strategic move.

What value do Georgia and Ukraine give to the United States? I suppose there is the argument that having NATO on Russia's doorstep will ensure Russian oil gets pumped uninterrupted into Europe, but this is a weak reason to rush these countries into a security alliance. In the case of Ukraine, most of the country do not even wish to join the alliance, so we should not force a security agreement on the country if they do not want it.

Now on to Georgia. I think it's a very persuasive argument that Georgia is exactly the kind of ally the United States should try to avoid. We already know that the country's leadership is willing to act in an irrational manner, as indicated by the attempt to recapture Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And if Saakashvili were to do something rash again and provoke another conflict with Russia, should the United States openly risk war with a large (and admittedly) weakened giant? The sane answer would be no, and I think the American people would be very hesitant to go to war in a place where our security interests are weaker than they were in Iraq.

The future of NATO should be very subdued; we've seen it come under criticism for being ineffectual in Afghanistan, so I think very serious questions need to be asked with regards to its future as an organization. Do we need an organization to check Russian power in Europe? Not anymore, that need died with the Berlin Wall. The United States would undoubtedly be safer if it pulled back from NATO, and there was no longer an obligation to rush into war to protect non existent strategic interests.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Good News on the F-22

Today the Senate finally voted on the Defense Authorization Bill amendment which would eliminate the $1.75 bn set aside for more F-22s. In a 58-40 vote, the Senate made the sensible decision to halt production on the F-22 after intense lobbying from President Obama, Sec. Gates, and Vice President Biden. Ever since campaign season, both Obama and McCain have been fairly consistent in challenging the defense establishment over unnecessary programs, but this is a victory in a small battle in the midst of a much larger war.

Still too many expensive and unnecessary weapons programs remain. And the ones that are being looked at for the future (Joint Strike Fighter), are not necessarily the best equipment financially and strategically. The entrenched special interests still have significant clout when it comes to the defense budget, and we saw this in action over the fight for the F-22. Laws like the Levin-McCain Act are a good first step, but I'm not quite convinced they go far enough.

Until the iron triangle of Congress, defense contractors, and the Pentagon focuses on making the necessary difficult choices that every other branch of government has to make, the same problems will likely persist. We will continue to hear the same arguments that these weapons programs are integral to securing our nation, and thousands of jobs are going to be lost. It's the nature of the beast.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Boosting the Army & Counterinsurgency

Today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced plans to boost the size of the US Army by up to 22,000 troops. The goal of doing this is to ease the strain on troops who face constant deployment rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems sensible to do this, as we've asked alot out of our troops, but I'm wondering whether there are alternative motives in doing this?

If we want to continue to garrison the world, then you're going to have to boost the army. We've been told over and over again that successful counterinsurgency requires massive levels of manpower, but I think the more convincing argument is that coordinated intelligence and police efforts are better ways at handling and stopping terrorism. The presence of thousands of troops in a place like Afghanistan is only likely to increase resentment against us. We don't understand Afghanistan, much like we didn't understand Iraq, so it's rather pointless I think to try and simultaneously bring democracy and human rights while stamping out the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It's a fruitless endeavor, and we're likely to spend more blood and treasure trying to achieve the unachievable.

I've got no problem with trying to help out the troops, but the best way to do that is to not send them into places where we don't need to be. We don't need the massive size of the US Army in Afghanistan, we need cooperation from Afghan security forces and we need to give the people a reason to turn their backs on extremism. We could easily reduce the size of the Army by 50% or more if we adopted a more sensible approach to combating terrorism and did away with most of our Cold War era security commitments.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

F-22 Update

It seems the debate for the F-22 is reemerging in Congress this week. A vote to strip funding for additional fighters was postponed by the SASC. It still strikes me as odd that this is still even an issue, considering all of the supposedly influential people that are against it.

I'm rather pessimistic about this issue, I think the specialized interests in Congress will be enough to put this funding through, and we will be left with planes that we don't need. As I've mentioned before, the high cost of the F-22 results in less training time for the pilots, something that you do not hear people like Saxby Chambliss mention. Air-superiority will certainly be key to future conventional conflicts, but can we really assume that it will be necessary in conflicts against terrorist groups and other sub-state actors? Fourth generation fighters should be sufficient in the conflicts we are likely to face in the next 10-15 years, and if more F-35s are procured (and I'm not saying it is the answer), then that should be enough to maintain aerial dominance for the foreseeable future while looking for an alternative fighter.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Trouble In Iraq?

Today was the deadliest single day in Iraq since US forces withdrew from major cities. A double suicide bombing in northern Iraq killed 34, while there were also attacks both Sunni and Shi'a parts of Baghdad. Can we expect a prolonged campaign of violence?

Even though US forces withdrew from cities, I think it was naive to assume that everything would be rosy and peaceful in Iraq. Yes, the Iraqi people celebrated the withdrawal, but there was always going to be a de-stabilizing factor- the various insurgent groups. That being said, I think the United States made the right decision to leave. These various insurgent groups will fail to mobilize enough support for the long haul. If a mutual understanding between the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'a can be reached (and it doesn't have to be anything monumental or groundbreaking), then insurgents will lose the will to fight. If the al-Maliki government remains stable, then I think the pieces will fall into place.

Also, I think it was a mistake to disband the regional security arrangements utilized famously in Anbar province. These groups can act as sufficient checks against the government's security forces, where there is already suspicion that they may have been penetrated by insurgents.

It's important to let the Iraqi government and military work out the kinks and for the US military not to recommit, no matter how bad the violence gets. I have the feeling violence will perhaps intensify for the next few weeks, but will gradually die down.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Reports emerged today that over the weekend computers in North Korea initiated denial of service attacks against targets in South Korea and the United States. For better or worse, these kinds of attacks will probably raise many questions about cyberwarfare in the weeks and months ahead. Should cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism be a top security priority for the United States? What is an appropriate response?

It seems most of the cyberwarfare attacks can be divided into either denial of service attacks (where a website is blocked for a period of time, but no information is stolen), propaganda (distribution of political/religious ideology), or cyber espionage (where sensitive information is compromised or stolen).

The first two appear to be more annoying than anything else. They don't really pose any security threat to the United States. And remember this is through the public domain. What does North Korea gain if public citizens can't access the State Department's website for a couple of hours? Inconveniencing Americans, if anything.

Look at one of the most well known instances of cyberwarfare, the 2007 Cyberwar between Estonia and Russia. The only result of this "war" was the spamming of Estonian websites and denial of service. No deaths, no destruction. Why are we to think cyberwarfare should be anywhere near the top of our national security priorities?

Cyber espionage sounds dangerous, and by all means, sensitive information within the government's servers should be secured using advanced technology. But government servers are going to have a higher level of security than anything in the public domain, so the notion that North Koreans, Chinese, or anybody else could hack into DoD and steal all of our nation's secrets is implausible at best. Much like terrorists acquiring and using nuclear weapons, there seems to be a lot of Cheney's "1% Doctrine" in discussions about cyberwarfare.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Obama Goes to Russia

As President Obama heads to Russia this week to discuss a variety of issues, the stakes couldn't be higher. Nuclear disarmament will be high on the list, as will other pressing issues, such as supply routes to Afghanistan, Georgia (where tensions are running high), and the proposed missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The fact that Russia has allowed the US to fly in its territory to deliver supplies to Afghanistan is a significant olive branch. This was a contentious issue between the two countries, and the fact that Russia has essentially conceded shows a willingness to perhaps compromise in other areas. Perhaps Russia is not as worried about the US projecting power in the former stomping grounds? Or perhaps they simply don't have the influence and resources they once had, so they had no choice but to concede.

The discussions of nuclear arms reductions have several different angles to look at; the missile shield in Eastern Europe and the actual size of the proposed stockpiles. I think the Russians have sufficient reason to be threatened and upset at the proposed missile defense shield in Europe. Like I argued a while back, the best way to reach a compromise is to do something similar to what MIT's Ted Postol is proposing, which is to use specialized UAVs (which already exist) to neutralize the "threat" from Iran and North Korea. The missile technology of these rogue states is limited, and they can only launch from a handful of sites. This system poses no threat to Russia, who has far more advanced missile technology and an abundance of sites to launch from.

With regards to the potential stockpile levels, I think this is a very superficial discussion. Reducing to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads is important politically, but it really does nothing strategically. Showing the world a willingness to reduce arms is important if we're going to continue to preach the benefits of arms control, but in reality, the difference between 5,000 and 2,000 warheads is minimal. That being said, it's important for Medvedev and Obama to update START, as this is an issue the world seems to be united behind, and we really can't afford to throw away opportunities like this.

Issues like human rights/democracy and the situation in Georgia will also be discussed, but I think Obama should really minimize these issues. We're left open to charges of hypocrisy if we emphasize the lack of human rights/democracy in Russia, but continue to keep quiet over Iran (which I think is the correct course of action). With Georgia, Obama and McCain rushing to Saakashvili's side during the South Ossetian War last year was a grave miscalculation, and so was all of the talk about expanding NATO to include Georgia. In reality, I think it was mixed US signals that caused Saakashvili to make the decision to attempt to retake South Ossetia in the first place. The future of South Ossetia and Saakashvili really has no significance to US security interests, so the less it's talked about, the better I say.

All in all, this next week will be vital to the Obama administration on numerous fronts, and it's an opportunity to make serious headway after Russian-US relations were fractured under Bush.

The Littoral Combat Ship

Adm. James Lyons has a pretty good op-ed in the Washington Times about the current and future prospects for the littoral combat ship, one of the hot-button issues in today's naval discussions. Lyons runs through the familiar arguments against procuring more of the LCS, namely its high cost- nearly $700 million for the first couple of ships built.

What interests me is whether or not this ship is functional in modern naval warfare. Basically, the LCS is a small surface vessel designed to operate in the littoral area (close to the shore) and perform a variety of functions- a Swiss army knife of the navy. It can be configured for anti-submarine operations, mine clearing, and the deployment of SEAL teams near the shore. There are some drawbacks though. The LCS was designed with speed and compactness in mind, and as a result, its endurance is only around 20-25 days. If DoD is really serious about shifting to alternate models of warfare, shouldn't they be pushing for a ship that can last longer-something necessary to conduct naval counterinsurgency?

I don't think it's been adequately addressed whether or not the existing frigates, destroyers, and Coast Guard vessels can handle the tasks the LCS was designed for. Before we build dozens of these ships and deploy them as part of a new naval strategy, these questions, as well as the ever increasing cost, have to be addressed.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Escalation in Afghanistan

The United States launched a massive operation in southern Afghanistan this week, apparently aimed at defeating Taliban strongholds. This is a coordinated effort between the Marines and indigenous Afghan forces in an operation called Khanjar, or "Strike of Sword." This operation reveals a fatal flaw in US strategy in Afghanistan. Sergeant Charles Marsh said of the operation,

The combined U.S. and Afghan mission is to provide security for population
centers along the Helmand river valley and to connect local citizens with their
legitimate government while establishing stable and secure conditions for
national elections scheduled in August as well as to enhance security in the

How is this advancing vital US security interests? This is no different from any nation building missions of the 1990's. It's simply not the responsibility of the United States military to ensure stable conditions for elections or democratic processes. Obviously we would like to see a stable, peaceful, democratic Afghanistan emerge, but history suggests that is a triumph of hope over experience. Indeed, powerful nations like the British Empire and the Soviet Union were caught in the Afghan quagmire, and both learned the same lesson: Afghans do not like foreign occupiers. The United States is destined to learn this lesson the hard way.

Furthermore, why are we so concerned with the Taliban? Prof. John Muellar of Ohio State pointed out correctly that the so called risks associated with letting the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan is not worth a long war it will take to remove them from power permanently. The Taliban isn't stupid, they're not going to let al-Qaeda prop back up, considering that's what go them thrown out of power in the first place. They are merely concerned with their own security and legitimizing their power within the territorial constraints of Afghanistan.

If we want to preserve the security of Americans, the best way to do that is to de-escalate from Afghanistan, not adding tens of thousands more troops like the Obama administration wants. War in Afghanistan is a fruitless endeavor as we don't understand the culture (much like Iraq) enough to stabilize democracy and advance our security interests. A compromise could be to leave residual forces in (special ops perhaps) to work in coordination with the Afghan police to counter whatever terrorists remain in the country.