Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Third Option

As sanctions and talks continue, viable military options against Iran’s nuclear program in case of diplomatic failure have been scarce. Not only that, but the language coming from the US and Israel seems to signal that both are waiting for the other to make a first move. The other option has been some variant on the deterrence theory, proponents advocating either confidence in missile defense or rationality in Iranian leadership. Both alternatives have substantial drawbacks as most likely any choice at this point will have.

In a Center for Strategic and International Studies roundtable dialogue (transcript or download audio), New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman played Nostradamus and put forth a third option, a fire at Iran’s Natanz nuclear reactor, or some sort of similar “accident”. Friedman thinks airstrikes are too risky for Israel because Iran can do substantial damage in a retaliatory stirke. “The beauty of an internal explosion,” Friedman says,"is that it makes the regime look weak and it’s impossible to retaliate.” Airstrikes can also strengthen the Iranian regime by rallying people against Israel. With opposition protests lingering, one would think individuals on the inside may be having second thoughts about the Revolutionary Guard and would be willing to listen to an offer from Mossad or the CIA. After all, you just need to install some bad wiring…

Problems with the idea aren't hard to find. Many believe Iran’s programs are spread out and that they possess duplicate facilities rendering an isolated case of arson meaningless. Plus while it might buy time, it doesn’t solve the problem. One wonders how many accidents there could be. But more time and a weaker Tehran might still be helpful. It might be all the US and its allies at the diplomatic table need to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Smart phone, smart sanctions...Smart Power?

We know what smart sanctions are, but what about “smart power”? Don’t google it because all you will find are web sites devoted to green energy. However, the Wall Street Journal explained the phrase relative to defense in this article last week (although Ted Galen Carpenter probably coined the phrase in his book Smart Power).

Adm. Mullen said. "Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish in time." State and DoD’s cure for this is moving funding from projects like the F-22 to those which exert more “soft power” in order to align target states with US strategic interests. To do this, Secretaries Gates and Clinton are calling on the biggie defense contractors to step in. For 2011 President Obama has requested $39.4 billion for civilian contracts abroad. We are not talking the “civilian” contracts of the Bush era which Blackwater made infamous. Think more along the lines of Peace Corps, legal aid, peacekeeper training—projects where, in the past, NGOs have dominated the field.

Aerospace companies like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have long been expanding their business development initiatives beyond the exemplars of force which made them DoD sweethearts. To date, NGC builds bomb dismantling robots for police in Europe and satellites for NASA communications. Still, these contracts do not radically deviate from what one traditionally associates with security. But only recently has there been something of a 180.

Continuing to produce things with lasers and missiles (it will long be lucrative to produce mechanisms to annihilate the enemy), top defense contractors are also bidding on (and are being encouraged to bid on more) contracts completely contrary to their combat roots. Instead of making their money developing technologies to win conflict, now they are charged with finding ways to avoid conflict altogether. This concept has permeated the foundations of these companies to the extent that NGC’s new motto is “a leader in global security” which still applies to the old stuff but is also inclusive of the radically new contracts it is pursuing.

This has all come to light due to the recent awarding of a contract to Lockheed Martin to train prosecutors in Liberia's Justice Ministry. This is not the first though; Northrop Grumman previously won a contract to train Senegalese peacekeeping troops in human-rights law. BAE Systems provided anthropologists to accompany U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to aid understanding of local cultures. DyneCorp recently bought a company which specializes in building up public-health and legal systems in the developing world.

Naturally, businesses as successful as the above mentioned have well learned to follow the money by now, continuously adapting their business model an innovating their technologies to remain attractive to the customer. Still, redefining the idea of security in a global context (rather than national) of organically avoiding conflict (rather than threat and force) seems revolutionary. And making development an honest-to-god for-profit business venture—this isn’t your grandpa’s Marshal Plan.

But don’t expect the State and DoD budgets to level out anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Census Attacks!

Are chemical/biological weapons making a comeback? The Baltimore Sun reports a recent scare (via Armchair Generalist):
Census officials say a suspicious envelope received at a huge data processing center outside Baltimore turned out not to be dangerous.

Census bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner says the white powder inside the envelope turned out to be coffee creamer. The completed Census form in the envelope also had a coffee stain on it.
But is such an attack - by Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist group domestic or foreign - plausible now? From the lecture and readings, particularly the Price piece, the chances of terrorist groups successfully carrying out a full scale biological or chemical (or nuclear, for that matter) attack are seemingly smaller and smaller.

Instead, we've witnessed different tactics, especially since the early 2000s, on behalf of Al Qaeda. With at least 2 different instances of underwear terrorism in the past 6 months, Al Qaeda appears to be on a path of transition. As posters of this blog have pointed out, Pakistani officials have been more cooperative in detaining Al Qaeda members. And the Saudi government recently broke up 3 Al Qaeda cells, 51 of the 113 total militants being Yemeni. Though separate from each other, two the terrorist cells "were in the initial stages of preparation for attacks on oil and security installations in the eastern region."

Clearly, change in Al Qaeda's tactics and operations are afoot, though the group certainly retains the same goal to "establish an Islamic caliphate." With more international cooperation to fight Al Qaeda, especially in the Arabian peninsula, is it possible that the group will indeed resort to "chemical" weapons? I would contend the answer remains no; even with the potential to acquire the means, due to the uncertainty of their impact, Al Qaeda will likely continue using conventional weapons despite the group's possible weakened state. And there is always the added "what if" bonus upon which they rely, thereby forcing intelligence communities and defense ministries worldwide to fund CW/BW preparedness.

In the meantime, don't drink your coffee too close to your census form.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

US Military Body Armor: A Worthwhile Debate

The 1991 Persian Gulf War was the first major conflict in which all US troops were provided body armor. Soldiers were issued torso-covering Kevlar vests capable of stopping shell and grenade fragments and, when fitted with ceramic plates, bullets. However, the fully loaded vests weighed close to 25 pounds making them undesirable to your average soldier.

Since the beginning of 2001, body armor with ceramic plates has been standard issue for every US soldier in both Afghanistan and Iraq, mainly due to advancements which have brought average body armor weight down to an effectively distributed 16 pounds. You can see from the picture (right) the newest additions include a layer of neck protection and two protective flaps, one for the backside and one for the goods (frontside). Heavy-duty shoulder and neck flaps are also available for soldiers guarding Entry Control Points (ECPs) and driving combat vehicles. And, appropriately, the heaviest protection goes to those soldiers who play with bombs, the initial testing of which left some non-Muslim livestock wondering what happened to their cousins.

US military issue body armor, like everything in life, is not without its debates, one of the more interesting ones being whether the use of body armor by US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq hurts the COIN effort. It is rather perspective changing to stop and think about what goes through a civilian Iraqi and Afghani's mind when an armored US Humvee with a mounted .50 Cal stops at the end of their street and four or five US soldiers step out wearing head-to-toe blast and bullet resistance armor carrying big guns. I venture to say I'd probably be wary of these armored foreigners myself.

The future of US military issue body armor is very exciting, with some pretty cool new stuff in the works. However, the current image of the future soldier doesn't really solve this issue; actually, he/she complicates it.

There is a very cool altern
ative route, straight out of Columbia, which probably will have more applicability in the other sectors, not the military necessarily. With that said, it would be interesting if the US military could apply some of the concepts of this alternative to its future personal protective equipment (PPE) to make a more receivable future soldier.

This is a important debate with merits on both sides and implications for the future of the entire US military. It is in our best interest to take the time and devote the resources to get it right.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Eide Speaks Out

Last fall, Pakistan launched an offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan which was welcomed by the U.S. as a critical step in cracking down on the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the border. When Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s number 2 commander, was arrested in Pakistan in February it seemed to be a sign of even more cooperation in the fight against the Taliban. The Pakistanis have arrested at least four other senior Taliban figures since then, including two shadow governors. It appeared that Pakistan was finally going to get serious helping the U.S. go after the Taliban inside Pakistan.

Yet Pakistan has not mounted a serious offensive in North Waziristan, where the “Afghan Taliban” is believed to be headquartered. And now the Pakistanis’ motivation in arresting Baradar and other Taliban leaders is being questioned. This week, Kai Eide, the former UN envoy to Afghanistan said that Pakistan arrested the Taliban leaders not to cooperate, but to undermine negotiations between the UN and the Taliban. According to Eide, the UN had been engaged in negotiations with senior Taliban leadership and those negotiations abruptly ended with the recent arrests. In an interview with the BBC Eide said that: “[The Pakistanis] must have known who they were, what kind of role they were playing, and you see the result today.” Eide suggested that Pakistan’s motivation was to ensure its own control over any future settlement.

U.S. officials have been downplaying Eide’s comments, saying that talks were preliminary and the arrests have not scuttled peace plans. This is undoubtedly correct; it is doubtful that the UN and the Taliban were close to any kind of deal. However, Eide’s comments underscore just how difficult it is to decipher intentions in the region. Pakistan has been playing all sides for years. Most experts agree that elements within Pakistan are still pro-Taliban and think that Pakistan’s best chance of controlling Afghanistan in the long run is to maintain covert ties with the Taliban. Perhaps Pakistan has arrested some leaders to shield them from drone strikes or to use them as pawns in a diplomatic game. They can relieve U.S. pressure through timely arrests. And as Eide suggested, perhaps they used arrests to undermine a peace deal that they couldn’t control. Whatever the case may be, Pakistani intentions remain opaque which is troubling since they are undoubtedly the key to any kind of lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who is this guy?

By all accounts (except this one!), incumbent Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki is heading for a second term as Prime Minister (PM). Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition is running strong in early vote counts and seems likely to edge out former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya party.

In a span of 3-4 years, al-Maliki has gone from an obscure party spokesman and deputy of then PM Ibrahim al-Jaafari to one of the, if not the, most powerful figures in Iraq. Clearly Al-Maliki’s position in Iraqi politics means that US success in the country is closely tied to his success leading his embattled nation. If al-Maliki fails, any gains made by the US over the last 7 years (OK, maybe 3 years, or 2…) will wither on the vine.

Given Al Maliki’s importance, one might suspect that US (or at least western) analysts have a strong sense of the man. Not so.

Several years and a (likely) reelection later, Nouri al-Maliki remains a mystery. His actions as PM are well documented, but the essence of the man---- how and what he thinks--- is as shrouded as ever (interestingly, President Bush never got a good look into his soul!).

This blog post will briefly examine just who al-Maliki is.

In 2006, when al-Maliki first emerged as a compromise PM, he was so little known in both the region and the world that there was some confusion about what exactly his name was (Jawad? Nouri?). His out of the blue candidacy sent western journalists scrambling. As a result, initial profiles on al-Maliki were conflicting, to say the least. The New York Times indicated that al-Maliki was direct, outspoken, and inflexible. Similarly, Salon reported that he was a sectarian who supported policies that would target Sunnis.

On the other hand, USA Today fired off a piece in which a prominent Sunni politician indicated that al-Maliki was more practical and flexible than his predecessor. Along these lines, the Washington Post and the BBC both published reports indicating that al-Maliki was a fairly reasonable person and an Arab nationalist.

Clearly, when al-Maliki was first introduced to the world, he was an unknown commodity. The picture of al-Maliki has not become much more clear during his first term as PM.

Some suspected that concerns about al-Maliki's supposed sectarian streak were laid to rest when he ordered Iraqi forces (with American backup) to attack Shiite militias in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra. Yet, he also failed to integrate the Sunni "Sons of Iraq" into the police and military forces with any haste. To further muddy the waters, al-Maliki recently supported an election ban on some supposed Baath party members----- while almost simultaneously reinstating 20,000 army officers who served under Saddam Hussein.

Seriously--- who is this guy?

A recent Time Magazine article likely offers the best perspective on al-Maliki's nature. Time suggests that al-Maliki is a "chameleon." The report quotes one western official suggesting that "...every six months we have a new Maliki... And as a political strategy, it's genius: in a country as divided as Iraq, it's the only was to appeal to all the people." 

Who is al-Maliki? In western parlance, it seems reasonable to describe him as a classic "politician."

In Iraq, after decades under Saddam Hussein, that may not be such a bad thing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

These are the Days of Our Lives

Now that spring break is upon us, I can take a bit more time to elaborate on the KC-X situation. As it is apparent by now, Northrop Grumman has elected not to submit a bid in response to the new tanker RFP. NGC will not file a protest either. CEO Wes Bush, while citing fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, has not been shy about NGC’s reasons: the new RFP is unfairly weighted towards Boeing.

Boeing Executive VP of Commercial Airplanes responded with "It's the longest-running soap opera since 'Days of Our Lives'. I'm not sure that we've seen the last episode." Days has been running since 1965…clearly someone has a flair for the dramatic. At least the media coverage on the matter is finally spicing up.

EADS has also released a statement to the effect that EADS North America will not make a go at the new RFP without NGC. EADS will be pursuing other contracts with the Pentagon and Homeland Security which are much smaller (1 billion-ish each). However, despite the plans to pursue more contracts stateside, none can compare to the growth the tanker contract would have provided for the consortium. The implication here is that the various platforms of EADS, heavily subsidizes by European governments, together would have experienced such organic growth from the KC-X contract that it would have significantly reduced its dependence on those contentious subsidies (or eliminated them altogether).

EADS North America CEO O’Keefe was careful to deny that this debacle was due to a movement of protectionism in the U.S. government. He instead cited the poor economic climate. Remember though, this drama far predates the bursting of any economic bubble.

The European side of EADS is not being so diplomatic about the issue. Retaliation is the impulse of the moment. Members of the European parliament are crying “protectionism” and both Prime Minister Brown and President Sarkozy have spoken out against the apparent outcome. “If they want to be spearheading the fight against protectionism, they shouldn't be setting the wrong example of protectionism…In life there is what you say and then there is what you do." Sarkozy said at a press conference held today with Brown.

There has been talk of retaliation by restricting the access of American firms to the defense industry of Europe. Coincidentally, this would seriously affect the bottom line of EADS ally and would be partner Northrop Grumman. NGC has sizeable contracts for Air Traffic Management, unmanned ground vehicles (and things with lasers that are beyond my tech capacity) in Europe. Meanwhile, NGC is moving its headquarters from LA to DC to get a better handle on Congress and the Pentagon.

Some are suggesting that the real motivator for the domestic preference is the USAF’s unwillingness to deal with WTO litigation against Airbus. Although not cited as a reason for the GAO ruling in favor of the unfairness claims of Boeing, the inclusion of the subsidized Airbus A330 in the NGC-EADS bid is in violation of federal acquisition laws. As long as we are going for the dramatic, this could be a grand production to avoid the legislative changes to make federal acquisitions law match trade policy discourse.

Bringing this blog full circle—if Boeing wants to make a Days of Our Lives reference, they should realize that they are Victor Kiriakis, a glorified drug dealer, and NGC is Stefano DiMira, the real boss in Salem who fakes his death, only to return more powerful than ever. Watch out Boeing, Alabama has your number (and they are bringing those dang Europeans as backup).

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tanker update: Pentagon vulnerable to highway robbery

For those of you who found my last post riveting:

NGC pulled out of the KC-X competition. Boeing will be the sole bidder...and the Pentagon is desperate for a new tanker as the old ones are falling apart. Now Boeing can rebid, charging the Pentagon whatever it wants. So much for competition: Market Fail!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Obama to Drop Nukes...the Number in Stockpile, That Is

President Obama is preparing the Nuclear Posture Review and Defense Secretary Gates is presenting the President with information regarding questions of US nuclear armament and US strategy pertaining to the circumstances in which it will use nuclear weapons.

Following class discussions about declaratory policy, a recent New York Times article identifies some of the pressing questions regarding the nature of US nuclear policy. In addition to considering the language, if the President establishes or changes the policy at all, whether or not to formally declare US policy is another question to consider.

In speeches that have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama indicated his commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. While this global transformation won't happen during his tenure, he is taking steps to work toward a reduction of the US nuclear arsenal. The anticipated policy set forth in the Nuclear Posture Review indicates steps toward arsenal reduction, and is in line with his rhetoric. However, the language of the Nuclear Posture Review with regard to declaratory policy may undermine his previous statements. Some critics, both within the Democratic party and elsewhere, cite that if President Obama retains ambiguous language about when the United States will use nuclear weapons, he will be retaining Bush-era policy and weakening his commitment to a non-nuclear world.

The primary debate centers around whether nuclear weapons are to be used only as a deterrent against nuclear attack, or whether they may be used in response to chemical or biological weapons as well. In answering this question, the President must assess the costs, both political and in lives lost, if the US is to use a nuclear weapon. Since he has cut funding for development of new nuclear weapons, specifically low-yield versions, the US retains a powerful although somewhat variable nuclear arsenal. The article references the idea of a Prompt Global Strike system introduced in the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which may offer a non-nuclear alternative should President Obama decide to declare that nuclear weapons are only to be used as a nuclear deterrent.

Even with the challenge of determining what US policy should be, there is debate as to whether this policy should be formally declared. Does a lack of declaration reduce or enhance deterrent effect? If potential enemies know exactly where the US stands, then there is no question as to what US response will be given certain situations. Yet if policy is not strictly defined, the US retains options and flexibility in light of unforeseen threats or attacks.

While deterrence theory is debatable, the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons is a positive step toward the peace that President Obama seeks. Let's just hope that the only nuclear dropping he declares is in the number of weapons in the US arsenal.