Defense Statecraft

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Chengdu J-20 and Area Impact

The Chinese have developed a new stealth fighter called the Chengdu J-20. It's raised several eyebrows with its capabilities and features.The J-20 has a ventral and two lateral weapons bay. It has electro-optical infrared sensors (EO IRST) and Xband Active Electronically Scanned Aray Radars (AESA); 360 degree spherical coverage via 6 electro-optics centers; an advanced communications suite and is build with the WS-15 engine (Chinese made). The new engine will allow for supersonic travel, increased fuel efficiency, and will allow the aircraft to fly faster for longer.

For the non-mechanical and weapons enthusiasts, this will be the first stealth fighter produced by China that is supposed to be multirole. It can out shoot the F-35 by approximately 113 miles. It is designed for overall stealth and maneuverability. Excited, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Senior Colonel Shen Jinke said that this aircraft will enhance the capability of the Chinese Air Force exponentially.

With this new release, the Economist claims that China will now have air power that will challenge if not surpass the West's. They argue that the J-20, along with several air to air missiles (AAM) that China is employing, will rival American power. It is true that the J-20 is the most advanced aircraft to be used by any East Asian power. As of right now, the USA has the only 5th generation fighter while Russia, Japan, and India's are in development.

However, the PLAAF has several problems and US aircraft still are not counted out. The F-35, while may be out shot, has better avionics, sensors, engines, and a better man-machine interface. Additionally, the round nozzle of the J-20 may end up compromising stealth.  China may be exerting air dominance in the West, but it still far behind the West.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Long Way Home


The South China Sea will be hosting a new warship in March. Britain has announced the plans to sail a warship through the disputed waters next month. The Royal Navy Type 23 frigate HMS Sutherland will voyage through the South China Sea while returning from Australia. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed these claims on Tuesday. He stated the Sutherland will be traversing the waters as an act of asserting their freedom of navigation. This is not the first time the UK has made these claims. Last year Michael Fallon (former Defense Secretary) stated the UK will not be intimidated from sailing through the South China Sea. It is unclear how close the ship will sail near disputed land, but it is clear the UK supports the United States presence in the region.

Numerous claims have come out condemning the statement the UK has made. Chinese media outlets are calling it a political stunt; a way for the UK to reclaim a place on the global stage. Statements were made using derogatory language to undermine the British plan. Chinese writers even stated the journey may be too difficult for the British Royal Navy considering their recent struggles, which include budget cuts as well as an aircraft carrier with a leak.

Perhaps this is a strategic move to show the UK’s right to navigate these waters. British officials, among others, are calling this a freedom of navigation (FON) operation. Perhaps the Chinese see it for what it really is, a political move to put Britain back in the headlines of global, international news. Skeptics wonder if this could be a play for the long run. Britain will be leaving the European Union next year and will be in search of potential partners in the future. It is no secret that China has lent their ear to British officials for discussion on this matter. China is a very possible trade partner for the British going forward. In fact, earlier this month Prime Minister Theresa May visited the nation. British international trade secretary, Liam Fox, publicly stated that people should pay attention to May on the world stage.

The true motives for the non-traditional passage of the South China Sea by the HMS Sutherland remains unclear. Whether it is a tactic fueled by military strategy, political notoriety, or a combination of the two is of little importance. The importance, and the fact, is that next month a British warship will be navigating the highly disputed waters regardless of what critics and naysayers may think. This leaves us with a number of questions, will this inspire other nations to practice FON operations, will the plan be a waste of time and resources, will the UK gain more international media attention? Only time will tell what impact this may have on the “big picture” and whether or not taking the long way home will be truly worth it.


Image Credit: BBC

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Throwing Money at the Problem: collisions of US Navy and the proposed 2019 budget

Summer 2017 was an embarrassing and tragic one for the US Navy. It was marked by two deadly ship collisions (June 17, August 21) resulting in not only large dents and damaged pride but the loss of multiple sailors' lives. The visual in both cases is a bit a ridiculous: two, very large vessels in the middle of large body of water moving slowly toward one another yet unable to avoid impact. I'll be the first to admit that I initially found the incident(s) funny- until I heard about the casualties. How could a navy as highly skilled and equipped as ours fail to avoid another vessel in the course of normal movements about sea? This question has no simple answer.

https://media2.s-nbcnews.com/j/msnbc/components/video/201708/2017-08-22t22-36-03-1z--1280x720.nbcnews-ux-1080-600.jpgIn the case of the June 17th collision of the USS Fitzgerald with an MV Crystal cargo ship, the Navy cited the "poor seamanship" of the officer on deck and others who failed to maneuver, raise alarm, notify his commanding officer, or even radio the crew of the Crystal. The result was the deaths of seven sailors. While the Crystal also failed to take action, the Navy accepted the brunt of the blame because its sailors proved themselves to be unprepared and deficient in their training. On August 21st, the USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel, killing ten men this time. The Navy report cited similar failures in ship's operation, following international maritime procedures, and "situational awareness."

https://media2.s-nbcnews.com/j/msnbc/components/video/201708/2017-08-22t22-36-03-1z--1280x720.nbcnews-ux-1080-600.jpgBoth collisions resulted in senior officers being relieved of duty and lower officers being reprimanded in varying degrees. Republican Senator Ben Sasse took advantages of these events and spoke out about the military being underfunded and that it was the cause of the lack of "training, readiness, and maintenance" at the heart of these tragedies. But why is this all relevant now? The answer is twofold but it looks like Senator Sasse may be granted both of his wishes. 

First: this week the Navy released word that, in response to these collisions (it mentions only the USS Fitzgerald by name), it has formed the Readiness Reform and Oversight Council (RROC). Its purpose is to ensure the Navy makes changes to prevent future (very avoidable) tragedies like these and will be expanding its scope in order to oversee and enforce the roll out of new readiness strategies. 

Second: also this week, news hit of the Navy's proposed 2019 budget- and it's big. $686 billion to be exact and with it hopes to get back to what James Mattis called, it's "position of primacy." It's goal is to have "more sailors, more pay and higher incentives for those joining the service or staying in," which they defined as around 7,500 more sailors and a 2.6% pay increase over 8 years. It cites the lower national unemployment rate (aka other job options) as the need for the Navy to step up their game and make enlistment more appealing: a new ad campaign (launched in December) and more incentives to join and stay. It should be noted that nothing is concrete, not even the Navy's 2018 budget, but as it stands it seeks to end the former focus on "asymmetric warfare" and slow the alarming tempo that the military has been functioning since 9/11. If Sasse's theory is correct (and in some proportion it may be), then the budget increase and change in oversight of Navy might just solve the failings that were exposed last summer and save lives. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Approaching China and the South China Sea


            The South China Sea is one of the most hotly disputed areas of the world. There are six different countries at odds over the South China Sea. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei all have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims in the region. Although China insists it has indisputable sovereignty in the region, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has ruled in favor of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei on their claims of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). They have this right under UNCLOS.


            China’s claim has no legal basis. This is only disputed by China itself. For China, the islands of the South China Sea hold much more strategic value than any land border. A claim to all the sea gives China a power projection into the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as control over some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Don’t forget about the hydrocarbons located there. It has been estimated that the amount of oil and natural gas in the South China Sea is similar to the Middle East (Stavridis, 2017). The area is so important to China that they ignore legality and are prepared to back its claims with military power. What is concerning about a military conflict in the South China Sea is all the artificial islands China has already constructed plus the islands they have beefed up militarily. Imagine a hundred islands acting like unsinkable aircraft carriers scattered throughout the region. This definitely shifts the balance between two competing militaries.

            What should the United States do in regard to the South China Sea? First, communications between the US and China need to remain open in order to reduce the chance of inadvertent collision, especially between China and its immediate neighbors. The US also needs to strengthen its relationships with key allies and partners in the region. They will be essential to US policy on the South China Sea. The US should remain steadfast in reminding the international community how China’s approach to the area is against the tenets of international law. They should also finally sign the UNCLOS in order to legitimize themselves in arguments on international sea law. Finally, the US should continue freedom of navigation operations to show China that their unjustified historical claims hold no water.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Justified Intervention?

As the world’s most influential super power, the United States has a lot to offer the world in terms of aid both militarily and financially. The nation sees these as humanitarian efforts. We are intervening to help solve an issue in other country…  We are intervening to help others and spread democracy.. Helping  to create a more politically stable world order. 
But aren’t there legal ramifications to this? A country’s sovereignty is challenged when others intervene, especially when not called upon to do so. Under international law, using any formal military forces in a country that the United States is not already at war with, in fact, constitutes as an ACT of war. The lines become blurred when distinguishing between national and international. A consistent motto of the US, some would say is “Whatever it takes!”. Whatever it takes to protect our nation or help struggling ones, we will deal with the consequences later. Now it is true, that the majority of the time there is a larger forum of domestic and foreign support which constitutes the bending of rules sometimes.
What does this mean for national credibility? It depends each time.  And do the means outweigh the costs? Remember, whatever it takes right…
After the fallout of Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia (estimated 300-500 killed), the US decided not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide (estimated 500,000-1,000,000 killed).  Was the ‘you live and you learn’ approach justified? Interventionism will always bare this inevitable question and the matter of civil liberties and accountability will remain disputed. If operations do not succeed is it worth defending others, when it is our troops on the ground? Well, one way to minimize casualties and resources is through the use of small, elite SOF units. 
The use of special operations forces will always remain on blurred lines.
Thomas Aquinas’ Just-war theory inspired a set of three criteria: 
1.       The action must be last resort 
2.       There must be a great chance of success
3.       The damage the act causes must be proportionate to the injury or injustice that caused it
                                          Do we use SOF or not? That depends...

“The world is flat, except when it is round” – Fredric Manget

Photo Credit: Reform

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Unconventional warfare is not a new concept.  States such as Iran, Russia, France, and the United States have utilized unconventional warfare to achieve national interests.  However, the effectiveness of unconventional warfare has been questioned by some.  Unconventional warfare is a valid strategic option; but, to be effective it must be with a whole-of-government approach and preparations must be made well in advance.
               Unconventional warfare (UW) is not waged solely by Special Operations Forces (SOF).  To truly be successful, it must incorporate all aspects of national power to include diplomatic pressure, economic coercion, information dominance and military engagement.  Russia’s recent use of what some have termed ‘Hybrid Warfare’ is an example of how an unconventional warfare campaign can secure national interests.  Iran is currently locked in an unconventional warfare campaign in Yemen as well.  Iran has supported Houthi rebels with drones, ballistic missiles, and small arms.  Iranian officials have even made public their support for Houthis (although they still deny arming them). 
               Indeed the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) address the issue of unconventional warfare.  In the 2017 NSS, the DoD is specifically tasked with sustaining its competencies in irregular warfare (IW)−UW is a subtask of IW – and acknowledges the need for long term planning.  The NSS further highlights the need to combine the tools of economic, information, and diplomatic statecraft as an important part in a “broader strategy to deter, coerce, and constrain adversaries.”  To meet the intent of the NSS, preparations must be made well in advance.
               To mount a successful UW campaign, SOF soldiers must invest significant time and effort in the potentially denied area.  This requires SOF to conduct operations in countries prior to hostilities, during steady state operations.  It is during this time when SOF troops make significant contributions in developing the human and infrastructure capital that is needed to execute a UW campaign.  Trying to establish a network once a conflict has started greatly increases the chance of failure and limits the use of UW as a strategic option.

               Unconventional warfare is not the panacea for international challenges.  However, it is an effective option when confrontation between the U.S. and another state is deemed unfeasible or politically imprudent due to the potentially catastrophic consequences.  Indeed, the use of UW to coerce or disrupt an adversary may likely prove the best option when it looks like a military confrontation is inevitable, such as preventing an attack on a U.S. ally.

What are our boys up to now? SOF in Syria

When last we left our heroes, the U.S. special operations forces, or SOF, had defeated ISIS’s hold on Raqqa, their ‘capital,’ late last year. The hope had been that the NATO reclaiming of Raqqa would mark a swift end to ISIS in Syria, with declining forces that would eventually die out.

Fortunately, taking back Raqqa did reduce the state like behavior that ISIS was acquiring. Unfortunately, this dissipated bulk forces and pushed the terror organization underground. Yes, thousands of fighters are fleeing Syria, but the fighting is far from over. Syrian ISIS members are going online and underground, even regrouping with Al-Qaeda in order to revamp their fight. Many ISIS members are returning to bombing soft targets in favor of NATO forces.



With this, the U.S. faces a growing issue in their management of COIN as a tactic on terrorist organization in the Middle East. US SOF have elicited contempt and fear throughout the Middle East by not only civilians but journalists. Aljazeera portrays SOF as out of control “bad-asses” that are not held accountable by the international community.

While SOCOM admits that SOF have been the “major supporting effort for U.S. [violent-extremist organization] focused operations” in the Middle East, they have been working to train NATO and other members, such as the Kurds, to aid in the fight in Syria. While SOCOM may claim SOF are here to aid the situation, the overall opinion is that SOF may be encouraging greater conflict, encouraging terrorist activity rather than quelling it.

So what are our boys up to now? SOF remain in Syria as boots on ground, hunting terrorists as reported in the news. However, they are doing more than simple search and destroy mission. Quietly, US forces have started nation building. Hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being given to Syria in efforts to build security forces and a stable government.


Photo Credit: CNN

Friday, February 02, 2018

COIN: Don't Stop While We're Winning

     My esteemed colleague, Alice Reichert, recently argued that the United States Military is focusing far too much on COIN and not nearly enough on the fundamental skills of conventional war. Ms. Reichert is concerned that the United States is losing its ability to wage a major war against belligerents such as North Korea. Of course, no commander in their right mind would completely eschew the training of conventional skills, especially when these skills form the foundation for fighting Big War and for conducting COIN. We must however remember that the impetus behind FM3-24, the Surge and the wide adoption of COIN was the failure of pure conventional tactics in a changing battlefield.

     First and foremost, COIN has been successful, both in older historical contexts and in recent wars. The British of course are famous for their successes in Malaysia against the Malayan National Liberation Army and in Northern Ireland against the Irish Republican Army (their day did not come). The United States has been successful in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, during the Reconstruction after the Civil War, and yes, most recently in Iraq. Indeed, careful use of COIN tactics should prevent insurgencies in the Western Sahel from becoming as strong as examples in the Middle East. Finally, the U.S. Military should not abandon just as it is on the cusp of victory, as they did after the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. In that example, the U.S. Military, in conjunction with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) largely crushed the Viet Cong (VC), but withdrew from the country (a political move) before total victory could be achieved.
ARVN forces repel the VC during the Tet Offensive

     It is said that armies always prepare for the last war that they fought. In the interwar period, several countries developed heavy line breaking tanks for extensive trench warfare which never materialized again. After World War II and the Korean War, U.S. military leaders attempted to fight the same war in Vietnam. Some military scholars, such as Gian P. Gentile, are concerned that the U.S. is placing too much emphasis on COIN in the face of future threats of conventional war; however, asymmetric warfare is not behind the U.S. yet. The U.S. must prepare for the wars which it is now faced rather than the prospect of a Big War with China, Russia or North Korea. Of course, completely focusing on COIN at the expense of conventional warfighting capability would be a mistake: the military must continue to train soldiers in the fundamental skills necessary for conventional war. Nevertheless, we must continue to engage in COIN for the foreseeable future: for as long as there are insurgencies, militaries must be able to crush them and provide security for the state. We are winning, but we haven’t won yet.

Graduate Level War or Just Another Piece of the War Puzzle?

In the midst of fighting an amorphous war on terror focused in the Middle East, scholars and soldiers alike have debated endlessly on the role of counterinsurgency, or COIN, and its role in the way Americans fight war. One school of thought believes that COIN has become more of an overarching strategy than a relied upon tactic, and that this specialization of military capability could thus damage our ability to wage conventional war. The opposition believes that COIN is the "graduate level" of fighting wars. It seems that while COIN can prove efficient in achieving certain wartime goals, it should remain as more of a tactic than a progression of warfare when faced with different adversaries.

Gian Gentile suggests that the tactic of COIN has been utilized as a strategy fighting insurgency. He claims that an open reliance on FM 3-24 has geared the army to specialize in what should be a tactic of war. He warns that creating an army built to defeat one enemy will hamper the ability to counter a different opposition. For example, Israel developed their military to fight one single conventional foe, resulting in a large scale inability to fight the Hezbollah.

It's true that COIN has become a large focus for our military in both training and practice. The military used to have soldiers read The Defense of Duffer's Drift as a teaching tool. A new version of the book, The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, was published that modernized The Defense of Duffer's Drift in a way. The 'updated' copy focused on COIN operations and the teachings learned from that to instruct troops.

Justin Lynch agrees that an over-investment of COIN may prove disastrous if in conflict with a conventional force, but he asserts the necessity and usefulness of the tactic. Even Nagl, who created the FM3-24 manual, agrees that COIN does not need to be the sole focus of the military, but instead, it needs to be a tool that should be continually redesigned based upon the geography and culture of the fighting. He does also state that conventional tactics should be taught in order to avoid the mentality that you should train to fight the last war.

I argue that COIN is necessary to utilize as a tactic in fighting unconventional foes; however, we should learn from Israel's mistakes and make sure conventional warfare is taught and practiced, especially with more conventional threats looming in America's horizon.

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army