Saturday, April 30, 2016

Knight to F3 - the Game between the US and Russia plays on

The chess game between the U.S. and Russia has advanced another turn, as two USAF F-22 Raptors touched down in Lithuania. After the Russian fly by fiasco in the baltics it was only a matter of time till the US started flexing back, and the arrival of arguably the most powerful air asset in US military history in Putin's backyard sends a pretty clear message message. Though it is plain as day what the US is trying to accomplish with the maneuver, it is unclear what the russians next plan of action will be. Upon the landing of the two fighters were greeted by the Lithuanian president himself, who stated "Without singling out any neighbor, I would like to say that no one has any right to poke their noses into here... This is a demonstration that the United States is honoring its commitments and is ready to protect our region with all the most modern measures."

Putin and the Russian elite will no doubt refuse to let this just slide. It is likely that they will retaliate in kind soon enough, but it is unsure how much effort they will be muster as the resources they have for all these shows of force are beginning to wear thin, despite public opinion remaining strong and feeding off of these exchanges with the west. Modernization efforts have already began to suffer from the massive increase in stress, and the F-22 is more modern than anything Russia will be able to crank out in the next decade much less year. At this rate, it is only a matter of time till the US can put Russia back into check.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Isolationism as Defense

“Our moments of greatest strength came when politics ended at the water’s edge.” 
This was a statement made by Donald Trump during his recent foreign policy address.  This address was actually a formal speaking engagement, written ahead of time and given with the help of a teleprompter.  Because of this, we know that at least a decent amount of planning had to go into this speech and the policies put forth in it.

This particular statement is particularly troublesome.  There have been times in the past when the United States had an isolationist foreign policy.  The most memorable of these is before the U.S. joined World War II.  During those years, President Roosevelt had to finagle a way to offer assistance to the British, in the form of the Lend-Lease Act, and at one point a ship carrying Jews was forced to turn around and take them back to Europe, the very place they were trying to escape from.  This is what an isolationist foreign policy looks like.

I understand that citizens of the United States have grown tired of acting as the world’s policemen.  The appeal of Trump’s isolationist policy is a direct result of this tiredness.  Just because this seems appealing in our fatigue over too many years of war, that does not mean that it will result in an actual good foreign policy.  Instead, it will result in a sharp decline in American influence, which I do not believe is the goal of either Mr. Trump or his supporters.  Before we commit ourselves to any kind of isolationist foreign policy, we need to consider all the possible long-term consequences of this policy, not just the immediate feeling of security we might gain from it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

One Plane to Fool Them All: The Troubled Path of the F-35

It’s the next generation of fighter plane. It’s one fixed-wing airframe, utilized across three U.S. services and nearly a dozen nations. It’s got stealth. It’s got VTOL. It can launch from carriers and airfields. It represents the future of air warfare, and it has the price tag to prove it. We are talking, of course, about the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

So what do you get when you ask for an aircraft that does everything that everyone needs it to do, talking seamlessly across services and looking really, really cool? You get the most expensive weapon program in U.S. history at almost a trillion and a half U.S. dollars. You get a tenth the promised number of aircraft delivered by 2016. You get a next generation fighter that does everything it’s asked, a fraction as well as its customers would like. You get Lockheed Martin laughing all the way to the bank as it cashes its checks while delivering these $100 million aircraft for the next three decades.

Program costs have spiraled out of control, with unit costs now nearly double projections from a decade ago. Fewer than two hundred of the promised 1000+ have been delivered as of now, and over 2400 have been ordered. The Air Force’s F-35s aren’t slated to reach initial operating capability until this October, while Navy variants won’t be usable until 2018.
So where do we go from here? It’s not like you can take 15 years of work, thousands of skilled laborers and hundreds of billions of dollars and just flush them. John McCain called the program in its current state a “scandal and a tragedy in respect to cost, schedule and performance”. It’s more of the same rhetoric.  True as his statement may be, the F-35 is here to stay; the debate is moot. It isn’t the first bloated jack-of-all-trades defense program to blow its budget and miss its deadline. It’s simply the biggest.  It’s been wasteful, it’s been inefficient, but if the end product is half the fighter it is supposed to be, it may actually survive the three decades it is slated to be produced.

Bestride the Narrow World like a Colossus: US Latent Naval Supremacy over the Maritime Sea-Lan

A 2005 report on US naval doctrine stated that protecting US shipping and the transit of international trade is a vital national security interest of Washington.  It also recognized the necessity of US naval strategists better preparing for the defense of allied merchant marine in future conflicts.  While recognizing the importance of maintaining parity with Chinese and Russian rivals, a recent plan proposed by the admiralty also urged for greater consideration of the changing strategic environment of the world’s oceans, as limited budgets, burgeoning technologies, and new sea-lanes present novel challenges for the next generation’s leaders.  Nevertheless, the overarching objectives ultimately remain the same.  In peace or future conflict, US naval operations must ensure the unimpeded movement of the goods, supplies, and troops of itself and its allies while destroying or containing those of its adversaries.  Given the predominant role played by the US navy in maintaining global access to maritime trade and sea-lanes, however, the US stands poised to capture a commanding position over the world’s maritime sea-lanes in the event of a future large-scale, conventional conflict.
The United States, in conjunction with its allies, has enjoyed naval supremacy since the end of the Cold War, with fleets larger than even a combination of competitors.  Overall, in addition to supplying and transporting troops and material to bases or conflicts around the world, it has maintained a policy of maintaining free maritime access of the sea-lanes for international trade as a global public good for which it receives limited recognition.  This gives it a global predominance over the corridors of international trade.  Yet, to date Washington has so far not integrated this policy with the broader benefits it provides to its own naval strategy.  This is surprising, for at present the US protection of the ocean’s major sea-lanes allows for the easy transition from maintaining access, to dominating, the key corridors of naval traffic.  Given its preponderant position, US naval doctrine should better direct its naval focus to rapidly transitioning towards controlling these strategic locations in the conflicts of the future

            Based upon Mahanian theories of naval operations, US strategy recognizes the value of seizing or protecting the narrow places of the world like the Straits of Malacca, the Dardanelles, or the Suez and Panama Canals.  These choke points serve as funnels that channel the world’s traffic from one ocean to another, and which are far easier to block or control than traversing the open sea.  It is for this reason that pirates often haunt these locations, hoping to prey upon the numerous vessels forced to pass by their shores.  By a similar token, the US boasting the largest fleet afloat and deployed naval vessels constantly protecting the seas, Washington inadvertently holds the key to dominating these waters in the face of sudden conflict.  At present, no other state stands ready to assume or share in this role of protecting the global commons sea-lanes.  Moreover, with a world reliant on US maintenance of the sea-lanes, few nations stand ready to contest this maneuver as hostilities commence.  Thus, no other nation is in such a position to seize control of these areas in the event of open conflict. 

Be Wary of that Tiger you are Riding: Political Effectiveness amongst Dictators’ Armed Forces

 This January marks the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s first coup, an event that occurred shortly after its first steps towards independence and democracy.  Unfortunately, such violence became the norm across Africa as each countries’ first, violent transfers of power initiated ‘coup traps’ that continue to plague Abuja and other capitals across the continent in places like Chad, Uganda, Liberia, and other African dictatorships.  The majority of these leaders rose to power with the fickle support of the military, which just as often later orchestrated the leader’s own downfall by backing a new, more promising figure to assume the reins of power.  These forces are thus politically useful and effective, right up until the moment when they are not, resulting in the overthrow and replacement of the autocrat with one more amenable to the military’s own interests.


Few observers are surprised by the poor effectiveness of these regimes’ forces.  As clearly illustrated by the pathetic performance of cases like Egypt’s wars with Israel or the inability of Zairian or Rwandan forces to fight off rebel groups, autocratic armies are simply not designed to compete with other countries in an inter-state war.  Instead, dictators like a Mobutu, Nasser, Amin, Bokassa, or more recently, Nkurunziza in Burundi make a conscious trade-off between their armies’ tactical, operational, and strategic effectiveness for political reliability to keep them in power.  Indeed, as noted by a recent article by War on the Rocks, these troops’ sole purpose is to maintain the control of a brutal autocrat and the corrupt system he controls.  Yet as history demonstrates, these forces can ultimately prove as dangerous to the leader as the people he rules should he run out of the funds to pay his generals.  When that occurs, the officers can easily find another aspirant willing to assume command and provide better benefits to the armed forces.
Wikimedia Commons (Democratic Republic of the Congo Military)
            The militaries autocracies are thus often highly successful in terms of political effectiveness, in so far as it balances the ‘national’ goal co-opted by the leader of keeping himself in power with the second requirement of ensuring a consistent source of revenues for the generals.  Thus, in contrast to the institutionalized civil-military framework of western democracies, autocratic militaries play a careful game in which they sacrifice their tactical, operational, and strategic capabilities to ensure the political survival of their benefactor.  Yet when their patronage comes in doubt, the military moves to replace the autocrat with another more willing to provide greater benefits, whereupon they once again resume the political goal of ensuring that new leader’s political survival.
Wikimedia Commons (Mauritanian coup d’├ętat)

            Growing trends over the past half decade, however, suggest that the risk of political coups may decrease, ultimately enhancing the political effectiveness of these autocratic militaries.  An article back in April 2014 noted that African countries were arming faster than any other continent.  Current signs also suggest that a host of African nations will soon find themselves awash in growing oil wealth from the East Africa, further fueling the growth of the region’s security/military forces at the hands of the petty dictators that tentatively control them.  While most of the past half century clearly shows that these troops have been nearly as dangerous for the leaders that control them, these funds will relieve pressure on the military’s benefits, thus strengthening its own political effectiveness towards securing its autocrat’s political survival.  In comparison to their resource-rich countries, however, those African dictators that rode to power on the army’s support may soon fall prey to the tiger they have used to reach this position that is now jealous of the greater wealth of their resource-rich counterparts.  

Contractor Capers: The Danger of Private Military and Supply Company Corruption in Nigeria

In a country renowned for the endemic corruption of its resource and public sectors over the past four decades, the recent discovery of widespread contract fraud should come as little shock to observers familiar with Nigeria’s moribund political economy.  Yet even in a state with such persistent corruption, the collective defrauding of $241 million dollars in revenue from the state by an assortment of 300 firms, individuals, and army officers almost beggars the imagination.  While contractor fraud is admittedly unsurprising in a society where the comprehensiveness of anti-corruption legislation is matched only by the vigor of regime’s public officials in looking the other way, it does raise a further concern regarding the use of private contractors for developing states.  To what extent do private military, security, and supply companies pose a threat of corruption to the regimes they service?  Given the case of Nigeria, it would appear that this question ultimately depends upon the client, as the risk of contractor corruption looms largest in the very societies already plagued by corruption throughout their society.

Bribery, Fraud, and Corruption are serious challenges plaguing Nigeria’s political and economic system (Wikimedia Commons).

On its surface, relying on professional corporations specializing in providing weapons, equipment, and other services to bolster an otherwise bungling Nigerian military seemed like a winning strategy against the resilient terrorist group Boko Haram.  Indeed, as recently as the mid-1990s, Nigeria witnessed the effectiveness of modern private military corporations in its own backyard as contractors from Executive Outcomes saved the Sierra Leone regime from certain defeat at the hands of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).  Dealing with its own ongoing battle with a surprisingly resourceful rebel group able to kidnap over a hundred schoolchildren in northern Nigeria, hiring professional corporations to equip its armed forces theoretically offered a valuable force multiplier for Nigeria’s troops and operations.
 File:Boko Haram (7219441626).jpg
The terrorist threat posed by Boko Haram is a serious security threat to Nigeria (Wikimedia Commons).

Yet Nigeria’s political economy and society are neither prepared nor equipped to monitor these contractors.  Nigeria already suffers from widespread corruption despite the best efforts of domestic and international anti-corruption campaigns.  Resource revenues from the state’s oil windfalls over the past decades, for example, were a source of corruption for the regime and companies alike.  Moreover, corruption by public officials remains commonplace and Nigeria consistently scores poorly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.  In a state with such lucrative opportunities for corruption, it is no wonder that government arms and equipment contracts provided yet another source of fraud to exploit.

File:Corruption Perception index 2013.png
2013 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (Wikimedia Commons)

It would thus appear that the threat of contractor corruption is most dire in societies already suffering high levels of corruption and where the preexisting weak institutions, rule of law, and civil society permit fraud to flourish.  Powerful and developed countries like the United States are other western democracies have little to fear.  Fortunately, they possess the resources and institutions to monitor and catch such corruption before it reaches this stage, as the $35 million Nigeria has recovered is a pittance of what its people know it lost.  Nevertheless, this incident should serve as a valuable reminder that their agents to do not always act in their best interest. 

However, the question remains as to Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram.  Fortunately, news from the front over the past year suggests that the war is progressing well.  Abuja’s necessity for contractor services may thus continue to decline.  If demand remains, however, Nigeria can always resort to the tried and tested method of acquiring equipment and training by partnering with other international state actors interested in its security.  Indeed, both France and the United States in particular would likely be eager to assist Abuja in combating Boko Haram, and at a far cheaper cost and the outright theft of their non-state competitors.  

The Poor Man’s Blitzkrieg: Modern Warfare by Pickup Truck in the World’s Global South

            Biddle’s work on the characteristics of successful modern militaries argues that an army’s ability to achieve breakthroughs against enemy positions relies on the inter-related concepts of modern technology, suppression, cover, rapid maneuver, and force concentrations of massed firepower.  Yet with technologically sophisticated Western nations utilizing heavily armored tanks and top-of-the-line aircraft, it would seem that Third World militaries are hopelessly condemned to wage asymmetric warfare against their more powerful foes.  However, by merging the less sophisticated, yet highly destructive weapons available on the international arms markets with the tried and tested technology of the redoubtable Toyota pickup truck, these armies can present a threat to even the most modern militaries.  The US and other developed nations would thus do well to observe these startling developments, as even the most outdated pickup trucks combined with today’s weaponry and tactics may soon give Third World militaries the ability to punch far above their weight in the conflicts of the future.
Untitled Wikimedia Commons
            Until more recently, militaries lacking the latest weaponry appeared unable to engage in the modern warfare style described by Biddle.  Indeed, while even the plodding foot soldier of the Ludendorff Offensive could even breakthroughs by employing the tactics of concentrated forces/firepower, cover, maneuver, and suppression fire, these gains generally paled in comparison to the advances of mechanized forces of the Blitzkrieg campaigns or the First Gulf War.  In an age where US, Russian, and other troops ride across the battlefield in tanks, armored personnel carriers, and supported by aircraft, Third World militaries seemed destined to be confined to the asymmetrical warfare of guerrilla or terrorist campaigns.  Yet a seemingly simple combination of the ordinary pickup truck fitted with the destructiveness of modern weaponry now gives these armies a newfound power, something that should be of notice to more advanced militaries that may soon face greater risks in their peacekeeping and interventions.  In short, the increasing combination of modern technology with the Toyota truck as a weapons platform provides a cheap, reliable, rapid, and rugged combat vehicle that can threaten the more technologically advanced forces of western nations or middle-tier countries.  Indeed, with the addition of even previous generation armaments like Stinger rocket launchers, MILAN anti-tank missiles, RPGs, AA guns, or other black-market weapons, previously under-gunned combatants can now strike swiftly and even destroy some of the best tanks, airplanes, and armored personnel carriers (APCs) of western arsenals.  Indeed, from its effectiveness in the Chadian-Libyan ‘Toyota War’ to its increasing use amongst ISIS and Syrian rebels, the pickup truck has truly become the “War Chariot of the Third World.”
Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons
This does not mean that the Third World militaries of a Chad or rebel/terrorist groups in Somalia or ISIS actually pose a threat of defeating a determined western opponent.  What it does suggest, however, is that militaries should be aware of the greater risk now facing their forces.  Again, with almost total air superiority and qualitatively better troops, developed nations still far outperform soldiers of the Global South.  Nevertheless, these weapons-mounted trucks provide a mobility, flexibility, firepower, and simple effectiveness previously unseen by Western military troops on the ground in peacekeeping or anti-insurgency operations.  They also allow Third World forces to contest the West’s access to the air and land battle-space through these weapons, even if they themselves are unable to openly reoccupy this territory.  Where in the past the greatest threat came from small arms fire from rebels on foot, future peacekeeping operations may entail greater risks as insurgents have the speed and weapons to attack and retreat quickly after causing serious damage.  Modern militaries would thus do well to observe this trend, as the combination of this cheap and deadly technology may soon raise the risks of interventions and peacekeeping in the years ahead.
Untitled Wikimedia Commons

Disinclined to Hibernate: Russian Military Spending in a Time of Shortage and NATO’s Response

The Russian bear has come through the past year far leaner than before, yet still plans to maintain much of its high projected defense spending over the next decade.  Indeed, the combination of plummeting oil prices alongside crippling economic sanctions severely diminished the funds available for military procurement.  Even now, with prices seeming to stabilize, Moscow’s revenues are a shadow of their former scale and it will face massive economic dislocations that will tax Moscow’s capabilities for at least the next few years.  Instead of expanding Russian budgets, one ought to expect a shift towards austerity and receding international commitments.  However, Moscow has instead substantially expanded its military budget that is only now beginning to slow, regardless of the fact that such military expansion and interventions in the years of slim pickings may ultimately undermine the state. 
       Russian Defense Spending

It is in this climate that NATO vows to reduce cuts, or even increase its own defense spending.  Yet, engaging in an arms race to spend Russia into oblivion is hardly sound policy if divorced from strategy.  Prompting regime collapse is not a prudent course, as chaos in a large state with high tech weapons and nuclear capabilities is a far greater threat than Moscow currently poses.  Alternatively, matching Russia is pointless if it cannot even maintain its own spending levels, let alone make headway in its long race towards parity.  Yet, if part of a broader negotiation, western nations need to consider concessions they would hope to trade for slowing their defense budgets. 
A Map of NATO.  Russia perceives this organization as an anti-Russian alliance expanding into its ‘Near Abroad” (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet NATO has few options.  Crimea remains fully ensconced under Russian control and economic pressure and confrontation short of war are unlikely to change the status quo.  Even Syria is a non-issue, as Putin already retained his vital base in the Mediterranean, projected Russian power despite economic impediments, and bolstered the Assad regime.  This raises few hopes, and little benefit, within Washington to change the situation now.  What then is the utility in bolstering NATO defense budgets to counter a Russian investment in research, technology, development, and procurement already lagging behind Western levels and predicted to exceed Russia’s current ability to pay for it? 
File:T-90S (4716200435).jpg File:Vigilant Eagle.jpg 
A Russian T-72 Main Battle Tank and a Su27 Fighter, the latter involved in exercise Vigilant Eagle in 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)

The real opportunity, if NATO nations remain wedded to expanding defense budgets, is to moderate this economic pressure just enough so that Washington can leverage its greater spending for policy concessions elsewhere.  For example, while chasing the Russian bear out of Crimea is unfeasible, increasing economic pressure and then reducing it can guard against further encroachments into Ukraine or other non-NATO countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.  This is particularly effective if combined with credible threats of NATO expansion.  The result will be a cash-strapped Russia under pressure and ready to cooperate on certain agreements.  The real benefit of a potential arms race deliberately fueled by NATO to maintain high, and ultimately unsustainable, Russian defense budgets is therefore to manipulate this pressure for rollbacks of Russian influence or other concessions where possible in the years ahead.  Such efforts will require nuanced diplomacy and careful timing to succeed.  Without this, Washington should simply leave Russian military budgets alone to bankrupt the state, and focus its own substantial revenues for better use elsewhere.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Drone Punk

There have been many interesting reactions to the rise of drone use across the globe. While there are many criticisms and praises for the use of UAS by the defense industry, and many who could complain or commend ad nauseum the growth of the consumer drone industry, there are only a few who have taken action and done something about it.

In London yesterday, an Airbus coming into Heathrow Airport is believed to have been hit by a drone flying 1,300 feet above the legal limit for consumer drone use in the UK. In reaction to this and other drone incursions, London police are brainstorming ways to prevent or interfere with drones presenting a safety/security risk in the future. One option discussed has been referred to as the "Death Ray" for drones. Although this method sounds very future-tech, sci-fi movie-esque, it is actually a known method for interfering with drone usage, which relies upon the use of technology to jam the radio signals which control the drone, making it effectively impossible to fly.

Almost more exciting is the approach being taken in the Netherlands. The Dutch police have been working with a local company to train falcons and eagles to retrieve drones mid-air and bring them back to a designated 'safe spot' for the police to collect them – and, of course, to reward the birds. These large birds of prey are capable of doing certain things that other technology is not. They can not only stop the drones, but are able to physically capture them and remove them from the area to a safe spot, as opposed to knocking the drones out of the air and creating a potential safety risk for citizens below. They are also much more nimble and accurate than other ideas considered, such as using larger or multiple drones and netting in order to capture the targeted drone.

While an actual death ray has yet to be built, the use of attack-eagles has certainly brought the discussion about drones and security risks to a new level of comedy – and, let's admit it, respect. This is a hilarious, awesome, and as far as I can tell, a very effective method of eliminating potential security threats posed by drones.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Predicting the Future and Threatening the Defense Budget

What effect will the rising predominance of non-state actors have on the allocation of money in the defense budget?  The era after the Cold War has brought a different setting to the international political scene.  With that different setting, we also see different military needs than the U.S. had up to and through the 1980s.  Whenever the enemy of the moment is no longer a state, but instead is an insurgent or terrorist group, how does that change where we should allocate money for defense spending?

Whenever we are fighting groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS, how useful are aircraft carriers?  How useful are nuclear weapons?  How useful is airpower?  Are either bombers or fighters more or less useful?  No matter what the answers to these individual questions are, will the defense budget be adjusted accordingly, so that it allocates money to the most useful areas for the war we are currently fighting?  Unfortunately, probably not.  Instead, each branch of the military will fight tooth and nail to maintain their piece of the budgetary pie.

So, does maintaining the status quo on military spending hurt U.S. fighting power?  Or does it maintain balance for the long term and save us from a readiness stumble in the future?  If we did adjust defense spending so that it was directed toward fighting non-state actors most effectively, could that hurt us in the long run if conflict patterns change in the future?

The answer to this and what we should do about allocation of money in the defense budget depends on where and how we think conflicts are going to happen in the future?  Is conflict going to continue to surround non-state actors?  Or is conflict going to revert back to being between states?  How confident are we about our answers to these questions?  We need to use the answers to these questions to make decisions about the future of the defense budget, but we need to be very confident that our answers are correct before we use them for this purpose.