Zambia’s Perfect Storm

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu addressing UN General Assembly, September 20, 2016.

Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu addressing UN General Assembly, September 20, 2016.

Since gaining independence from the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland – and by extension the British Empire – in 1964, Zambia has been a relatively peaceful oasis in southern Africa. The sole exception to this came in July 1990, when Zambian troops responded violently to protests for the ouster of then President Kenneth Kuanda and the establishment of multiparty democracy. However, tensions have begun to simmer, drawing concern from such international actors as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – a multilateral body comprised of Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

There are three main factors contributing toward Zambia’s slide into instability. The most immediate cause of dissent is the general election held on August 11, 2016. According to the official results of the vote, President Edgar Lungu was re-elected with 50.3% of the vote, defeating challenger Hakainde Hichilema, who received 47.6% of ballots cast. Hichilema disputes the official results and has accused the governing Patriotic Front of rigging the vote, though his appeals have been rejected by the High Court of Lusaka. For its part, a Carter Center election observer mission led by Sylvie Kinigi, the former Prime Minister of Burundi, assessed the vote as “satisfactory” but raised concerns about the safety of journalists while a SADC mission to observe the vote also reported the election was peaceful, free, and fair.

Presidential election results map. Blue denotes constituencies won by Lungu, and Red denotes those won by Hichilema. With a such distribution, tensions are almost inevitable.

Presidential election results map. Blue denotes constituencies won by Lungu, and Red denotes those won by Hichilema. With a such distribution, tensions are almost inevitable.

The dispute over the election results reflects the intense polarization of Zambian politics. In the east of Zambia, support among the Bemba, Nyanja, and Tumbuka speaking communities is squarely behind President Lungu and the centre-left Patriotic Front. Meanwhile, in the western regions of the country, support among the Tonga, Lozi, and Lunda speaking communities is almost uniformly behind Hichilema’s centre-right United Party for National Development (UPND). That the ideological differences between the UPND also touches on tribal and linguistic divisions gives these new tensions in Zambia some lasting power, especially as the opposition seems unwilling to abide by court rulings on the validity of the election results.

A second and equally important factor is a drought that has persisted in Zambia and elsewhere in southern Africa since 2013. The severe lack of rainfall has left water levels at the Kariba Dam, one of the world’s largest hydropower stations, at the minimum operating level. As such, rather than exporting part of the 6,400 gigawatt-hours (GWh) produced annually by the facility, Zambian communities suffer intermittent blackouts, especially in the summer months. Agricultural production, an important contributor to Zambia’s economic growth has also suffered to such an extent that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to grow only 3.6% in 2016 and 4.9% in 2017, compared to average annual growth rates of 6.7% in the years preceding the drought. The persistent drought could also potentially impact Zambia’s balance of trade, returning the country to the status of a net food importer rather than a net exporter and worsening the employment prospects for a significant number of Zambians.

Finally, the fall in copper prices globally has crippled the rural economy, particularly in the western regions of Zambia that have so strongly thrown their support behind Hichilema and the UPND. Copper is valued at approximately $2.07 US per pound as of this writing, whereas it was valued at roughly $4.50 US per pound in 2011. Producing more than 710,000 metric tons of the mineral each year, Zambia is among the world’s largest sources of copper and, on the African continent, is second only to the Democratic Republic of Congo for its scale of copper production. Despite the negative trend in copper prices, Zambia is doubling down on its production of the mineral and the government expects Zambian copper production to exceed 1 million metric tons in 2017. This will only serve to further depress prices for copper and is not likely to correct Zambia’s current economic trajectory, which entails rising unemployment and diminishing returns for those entrepreneurs who hopped to form part of Africa’s emerging middle-class.

Pherry Mwiinga, a hydrologist, looks out over the Zambezi River in Zambia, where water levels are at record lows (Photo: Joao Silva/The New York Times).

Pherry Mwiinga, a hydrologist, looks out over the Zambezi River in Zambia, where water levels are at record lows (Photo: Joao Silva/The New York Times).

Unless the re-elected Patriotic Front can find some means of correcting Zambia’s economic course or reach a power-sharing agreement with the UPND, the civil strife will only continue to worsen. Fortunately, the Zambian Defence Force (ZDF) is not likely to become a factor in determining where political power is vested in the near future. As Zambia does not exercise conscription, the ZDF lacks the mass infantry necessary to seize power and control the country as part of some military junta. However, on the other hand, the relatively small size and poor equipment of the ZDF also means that the formation of paramilitary groups by either or both of the main political parties could have severe consequences for the maintenance of law and order in the country. A diplomatic effort by the SADC or the African Union is necessary to avoid such an eventuality.

Posted in English, Paul Pryce, Zambia | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Russia’s SU-27 Probably Departed Belarus

DigitalGlobe imagery from June 2016 shows the departure of Russia's SU-27SM at Baranovichi. Three overhauled Belarusian MIG-29 fighters were parked on the apron at the time of capture.

DigitalGlobe imagery from June 2016 shows the departure of Russia’s SU-27SM at Baranovichi. Three overhauled Belarusian MIG-29 fighters were parked on the apron at the time of capture.

The Russian Air Force appears to have recalled their Su-27SM from Belarus, a review of satellite imagery of the 61st Fighter Airbase in Baranovichi suggests.

Russia had 4 Su-27SM Flanker parked in revetments on the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) apron since December 2013. The multi-role fighters originally deployed as part of an advanced element that would eventually form a full forward deployed squadron.

Space snapshots acquired between May and September have not shown the return of the aircraft to the apron. A review of other active and reserve airfields also indicate they were not redeployed within the country.

Although no official reporting has mentioned the relocation, their absence may be a further sign that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko managed to quell Russian plans for an airbase on the territory.

Further yet, Belarus may have even found a way to get new equipment to support the declining air defence arm. Earlier in February, the country signed a deal with Irkut to procure new Su-30SM fighters, despite lacking funds for the purchase. Details regarding their potential sale were not made public.

The SU-30SM are expected to replace Belarus’ ageing MIG-29 of which 10 were recently refurbished by the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant. Five of the aircraft were recently pulling QRA duty with the Russian fighters. Kazakhstan also took delivery of four SU-30SM fighters from Russia last year.

Looking Ahead
Expectations going forward remain murky. Russia’s move to support separatists in Ukraine has created additional unease in Minsk. As a result, Lukashenko’s loyalty doesn’t appear to be what it once was. A battered economy highly exposed to Russian sanctions has pushed Eastern Europe’s last strongman to consider further Western style reforms.

Between 19 September – 01 October, Belarus is hosting another IMF mission in the attempts to secure a $3 billion loan. The Washington-based organization is hoping to push for greater structural changes which, inter alia, include increasing the role of private companies and reducing that of state owned enterprises.

Nevertheless, we can’t count Russia out just yet. Despite a growing divide, Moscow’s ability to help re-arm the Belarusian military through either hefty subsidies or donated materials remains an important bargaining chip to bring the country back into the fold. In addition to the SU-30SM, the country recently took delivery of former VKO-operated S-300. Imagery already shows the units actively deployed to Belarusian border regions.

But it’s not just the carrot to watch for. Russia also has other levers to influence Belarus’ decisions and further promote its own interests. The supply and subsidy of Russian oil and gas, for example, is a tried and true measure that highly affects Belarus’ GDP growth. Q4 oil supplies from Russia were recently announced which put overall oil deliveries to the country at 18 million tons, down from the scheduled 24 million. This year oil cuts alone have accounted for a Belarusian GDP reduction of .03 per cent, according to the Belarusian Prime Minister.

Bottom Line
Russia’s neighbor is economically vulnerable. With Belarus decommissioning a sizable part of its air force — its entire fleet of Su-24s and Su-27s — developments with Russia, air defense and otherwise, remain important to watch.

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Turkey’s eternal search for an adequate air defense system

A picture shows two Russian S-400 Triumf missile systems at the Russian Hmeymim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015 (Photo: Paul Gypteau/AFP/Getty Images).

A picture shows two Russian S-400 Triumf missile systems at the Russian Hmeymim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015 (Photo: Paul Gypteau/AFP/Getty Images).

Following Turkey’s controversial downing of a Russian bomber over its border with Syria last November Russia deployed advanced S-400 air defense missile systems to its main airbase in Syria’s coastal Latakia province. Turkey had reason to fear this deployment, variants of these missiles can take down airborne targets from over 200 miles (approximately 322 km) away.

Relations between Ankara and Moscow have thawed since that tense time, despite this the missiles remain in place in Syria. Turkey’s neighbour Iran is scheduled to receive four S-300PMU-2 Favourite systems – the S-400’s older brother – by the end of the year (according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database). All the while Turkey remains with a very basic air defense system and no long-range surface-to-air missiles. Instead the country remains reliant on anti-aircraft guns like the M42A1 Duster (262 units according to the Military Balance 2016), Oerlikon 20 mm (439 units), Oerlikon GDF-001/-002/-003 35 mm (120 units) and Bofors 40 mm (L/60 and L/70; 843 units). With the exception of MANPAD’s the closest thing Turkey has to a formidable missile defense system are its medium-range American-made MIM-23 Hawks, short-ranged British-made Rapiers and other quite aged systems.

While these weapons are certainly better than nothing Turkey is heavily reliant on its air force to combat aerial threats. It has recognized this fact and tried to compensate for it, with no tangible success to date. Even though it has come a long way in the last 25 years, the Turkish military remains an blend of new and old. Its air force is relatively formidable, consisting of about 240 General Dynamic F-16 Fighting Falcons backed up by 108 modified and upgraded F-4 Phantom II and Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighters.

On the ground the make-up of Turkey’s armored forces is very informative, even though Ankara possesses over 700 Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks, the backbone of its armored forces remain older M48 and M60 Patton tanks, of which it has almost 2,000.

These forces are considerably competent, however Turkey doubtlessly wants to acquire or develop a substantial long range air defense capability. When spillover from the Syrian conflict began affecting Turkey’s frontier provinces (mortars and rockets, some stray some intentionally aimed at it, landed in Turkish territory) NATO-deployed Patriot missile systems to its southeast to reassure Ankara.

An HQ-9 portable launcher during China's 60th anniversary parade in 2009.

An HQ-9 portable launcher during China’s 60th anniversary parade in 2009.

However Ankara’s inability to deploy such weapons itself doubtlessly irks it. Back in 2013 it entered talks with the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC) to purchase four FD-2000 (HongQi 9 or HQ-9) long range air defense batteries, each consisting of missiles, launchers, radars, sensors, vehicles, and support systems. It is basically a clone of the S-300. This resulted in the US warning Turkey that it would withhold any funds it had in protest of this deal (the same firm had done business with Iran, Syria and North Korea, three countries the US has long leveled arms embargoes against) and American and European defense firms also warning it that cooperation could be jeopardized “in certain fields” if Turkey continued those negotiations and purchased that equipment. NATO also argued that the air defense system couldn’t be integrated into NATO’s joint systems and was therefore, at a $4 billion price tag, a gigantic waste of money. The Turkish military thought about acquiring the system despite this fact. (See also Ethan Meick, “China’s Potential Air Defense System Sale to Turkey and Implications for the United States“, China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Report, 18.12.2013).

Our plan is to completely eliminate external dependency on Defense equipment supply with ongoing plans and investments until 2023. — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the International Defence Industry Fair in Istanbul in May 05, 2015, cited in Alexander Murinson, “T-LORAMIDS decision points to Turkey’s strengthening bonds within NATO“, 15.02.2016.

It wasn’t clear how far Turkey would go with these talks, but those strong worded warnings were telling, and were likely noted in Ankara, which remains without the capability to independently deploy such weapons in defense of its airspace.

As Turkey’s patience with the US and Europe seems closer to its limit after the failed coup attempt it might not only seek to further diversify its military (clear steps are already being taken in this direction), but also to actively distance itself from the western powers and the NATO alliance by becoming a more independent and self-reliance power with less constraints and obligations free to pursue whatever policy it believes serves its political, security and strategic interests.

More information
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations and director of the Center for International Security Studies and Strategic Research at MEF University in Istanbul stated that Ankara had neither the intention nor the capacity for a dramatic departure from NATO’s defense infrastructure. All along, Turkish officials had planned to leverage its purchasing power to gain the know-how to develop its own long-range missile system and to expand the indigenous capabilities. According to him, Turkey had been forthright about these intentions. It repeatedly pointed that the Chinese were offering a lower price, favorable technology transfer conditions, and early delivery on the first batch of batteries. (Mustafa Kibaroglu and Selim C. Sazak, “Why Turkey Chose, and Then Rejected, a Chinese Air-Defense Missile“, Defense One, 03.02.2016).

Posted in English, International, Security Policy, Technology, Turkey | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Cold War is Back, and China’s Going to be a Bigger Player This Time

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in 2015.

On August 31, 2016 the U.S. Naval War College opened its new Russia Maritime Studies Institute, an academic center focused on the study of Russia’s approach to maritime issues. The institute’s director, Michael Petersen, told the Associated Press the resurgence of Russia’s military has enabled it to become more “adventuresome” with its foreign policy. He cited Russia’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine and its intervention in Syrian on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad’s government as two examples. Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia could easily be added as a third.

While Russia’s involvement in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine stand out as obvious sites of tension between Russia and the United States, there have been numerous other indicators that the two countries, and their allies, are gearing up for an era of increased hostilities. For instance, an August article in Newsweek by Nolan Peterson exclaimed “Europeans are quietly preparing for war with Russia“.

Peterson listed several examples of Russian “military brinksmanship” in Europe, such as Russian military aircraft buzzing NATO ships and aircraft, “subversive propaganda campaigns”, and cyberattacks intended to inspire separatist sentiments among minority Russian populations in eastern European nations. He also discussed NATO redeployments in Eastern Europe in “numbers unmatched since the Cold War“.

At the NATO summit in July in Warsaw, Poland, alliance leaders formally announced the planned deployment of four combat battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on a rotational basis beginning next year,” Peterson writes. “The battalions will be fielded by Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”

Soldiers from Poland's 6th Airborne Brigade and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the NATO allies' Anakonda 16 exercise near Torun, Poland, on June 7, 2016 (Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters).

Soldiers from Poland’s 6th Airborne Brigade and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the NATO allies’ Anakonda 16 exercise near Torun, Poland, on June 7, 2016 (Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters).

Announcement of the redeployment came only weeks after NATO carried out Anakonda-16 — a 10-day-long military exercise involving 31,000 troops and large numbers of vehicles, aircraft, and ships — in Poland. The U.S. Army Europe said the goal of Anakonda-16 was to “train, exercise, and integrate the Polish national command and force structures into an allied, joint multi-national environment“.

Russia saw the exercises as a provocation and accused NATO of threatening its security by expanding eastwards, according to an article from The Independent. Moscow warned of retaliation for such encroachment on its borders.

The Syrian Civil War Has Become Proxy War Straight Out Of The Cold War Playbook
Things are heating up outside of the European theater as well. While it’s common knowledge that Washington and Moscow have a difference of opinion regarding the preferred outcome in Syria, what’s not always obvious is how close the two military rivals have come to direct engagement with each other in Syria.

The last time a U.S. military warplane shot down a Russian—actually, Soviet—plane was in 1953, over Korea or China, depending on which historians you believe. The last time a Russian or Soviet warplane shot down an American aircraft was in 1970, when a U.S. Army plane strayed over Armenia. — David Axe, “U.S. and Russian Jets Clash Over Syria“, The Daily Beast, 20.06.2016.

In June, U.S. F/A-18 fighters and Russian Su-34s played cat and mouse in the skies near al-Tanf in Syria as the Su-34s bombed U.S.-allied rebels in the area, and even hit a secret base used by U.S. and British elite forces — twice, in two separate sorties — despite being informed of who used the base (see also here). The Su-34s left after the F/A-18s intercepted them and advised them to quit bombing the rebel targets, but they returned and continued bombing as soon as the F/A-18s left to refuel.

Most of the British and U.S. personal had left the base a few days before the bombing. Four U.S.-allied rebels were killed in the attack. If American or British soldiers had been killed or wounded, it would have created a diplomatic nightmare for all sides and made the Syrian quagmire even more complicated.

Troop redeployments and antagonisms between old military rivals in the midst of a proxy war are commonplace. Buzzings, cyberattacks, and one nation’s craft intercepting another’s happen, to varying degrees, all the time. Periodic escalations can be expected, and easily dismissed.

The Return Of Good Ol’ American Red-Baiting
Perhaps what’s more indicative of the changing climate of U.S.-Russia relations is an increase in inflammatory rhetoric from both sides, an upswing in the proverbial saber rattling.

When Wikileaks released a cache of internal Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails it received after someone hacked into the DNC’s system, both the Obama administration and U.S. presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton were quick to blame Moscow. They accused the Kremlin of meddling in U.S. elections, and made a point of noting that Clinton’s political rival, Republican nominee Donald Trump, had repeatedly praised Russian President Vladamir Putin. U.S. President Barack Obama noted that if it were indeed Russian operatives who perpetrated the hack, it would be among a “long list of issues” between the old foes.

The implications were clear: Russia is a threat to American democracy, and Trump’s qualifications to be president are questionable because he has said nice things about Putin, and perhaps has other links to him. The dialogue reeked of a slightly evolved version of classic Cold War red-baiting.

Red-baiting never totally died after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It frequently pops up in American politics, especially during election years. However, it has has become more prominent this cycle. “The degree to which Russia has taken center stage in the U.S. presidential election hasn’t been seen since the height of the Cold War,” Matthew Rojansky writes in a editorial for Foreign Policy.

In addition to accusing Russian operatives of perpetrating the DNC hack, Clinton has also called Putin a “bully” while on the campaign trail and implored world leaders to stand up to him for his actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult. But researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyberoperations at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. And metadata from the released emails suggests that the documents passed through Russian computers. Though a hacker claimed responsibility for giving the emails to WikiLeaks, the same agencies are the prime suspects. Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess. — David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, “As Democrats Gather, a Russian Subplot Raises Intrigue“, The New York Times, 24.07.2016.

Although Clinton was one of the architects of the efforts to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations early in her tenure as Secretary of State, those efforts had soured by 2012 and Clinton and other politicians and officials began openly criticizing Moscow once again. In a 2014 speech at the University of California, Clinton went so far as to compare Putin to Adolf Hitler after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea. “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s,” Clinton said. “Hitler kept saying: ‘They’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people.’ And that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.” While Russia’s actions were worthy of rebuke, the Hitler comparison was clearly off the mark and attracted considerable criticism.

These types of barbs are par for the course in U.S.-Russia relations, but the DNC hacks marked a turning point in the rhetoric, one in which both sides are now once again talking about direct conflict with one another.

Leaders In The U.S., Russia, And China Are Openly Talking About War — And Even Hinting At Nuclear War
In a speech to the American Legion’s national convention on August 31, Clinton openly threatened war, or at least “serious military responses,” against Russia and China for any future cyberattacks either of the countries may perpetrate. “Russia’s hacked into a lot of things. China’s hacked into a lot of things. Russia even hacked into the Democratic National Committee, maybe even some state election systems,” Clinton said at the convention. “As President, I will make it clear, that the United States will treat cyber attacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic, and military responses.”

The fact that the potential future president of the United States threatened military responses against two of the most powerful nations in the world should have attracted considerable media attention, but is somehow fell under the radar of American politics as observers focused more on Trump’s cartoonish foreign policy faux pas.

While Clinton’s and Obama’s comments may have been accusatory and belligerent from Russia’s perspective, Putin has been expressing a much darker, apocalyptic view of relations between Russia and the West. In a press conference held in early July, Putin advised Western journalists that if the U.S. continued with its policy of installing NATO missile defense system sites in countries that share boarders with Russia then a large-scale global conflict was imminent. He mentioned that Romania and Poland, specifically, could become targets for Russia.

From Russia’s perspective the missile defense system poses two threats. Putin argued that the missiles could easily be converted from defensive to offensive purposes and, perhaps more importantly, that they diminish or potentially even nullify Russia’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile threat to the United States and other potential enemies, thus eliminating the balance of power achieved by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. His comments centered on the the U.S. withdrawal from 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 under then-President George W. Bush.

It is only you that they [the governments of the U.S. and other Western states] tell tall-tales to, and you spread them to the citizens of your countries. Your people, in turn, do not feel a sense of the impending danger — this is what worries me. How can you not understand that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction? That’s the problem. Meanwhile they pretend that nothing’s going on… I don’t know how to get through to you anymore. — Russian President Vladimir Putin in a press conference held in early July, 2016.

In video of the press conference Putin’s typical bravado eludes him. Instead, he comes across as bewildered, crestfallen, and even scared. He ended his comments on an even more somber note:

From what I can see we are in grave danger… I don’t know how this is all going to end. What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves… But this is simply our response to your actions. Is it not obvious that I must guarantee the safety of our people? And not only that, but we must attempt to achieve the necessary balance of power… It was precisely this balance of power that guaranteed the safety of humanity from major global conflict over the past 70 years. It was a blessing rooted in a ‘mutual threat,’ but this mutual threat is what guaranteed mutual peace, on a global scale over the decades. How they could so easily tear it down, I simply do not know. I think this is gravely dangerous. I don’t only think that — I’m assured of it. — Russian President Vladimir Putin in a press conference held in early July, 2016.

Putin is not the only one growing anxious over the prospects of large-scale global conflict. A growing number of political and security analysts within Russia feel that the U.S. and NATO (its missile defense system in particular) pose an existential threat to Russia. “Of course they will say that all [the bloc’s] tanks in Estonia and Latvia, as well as war games are not meant to counter us, but instead serve to protect [the alliance] against Daesh [Islamic State] or some other terrorist group,” Political analyst Georgy Fyodorov told Radio Sputnik. “But we should have no illusions. All military and deterrent actions performed close to our borders are carried out primarily against us.” Defense analyst Igor Korotchenko echoed Fydorov’s sentiments: “Washington’s missile defense system is directed against Russia. euro-missile-defenseIts main goal is to offset our nuclear capabilities. The United States will invest in sea-based missile defense systems in the Baltic and the Black Seas. Then Washington will be able to blackmail Moscow.”

If the Russians seriously feel as threatened as they claim, if it’s not just a chess move of diplomatic theater, that’s not a good thing. Desperate nations act desperately, making conflict all the more likely. “If Clinton doubles down on U.S. involvement in proxy conflicts over Syria and Ukraine, as her comments on the campaign trail have suggested,” Rojansky writes in the Foreign Policy piece, “the Russians are almost certain to respond in kind, and direct U.S.-Russia confrontation could spiral quickly out of either side’s control.”

China Could Be The Wild Card In A Renewed Cold War
There have obviously been some major geopolitical changes in the past 25 years. Russia is not nearly as economically, militarily, or strategically powerful without it’s former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact satellites. Russia is still a formidable military force, but the U.S. and NATO would have a clear advantage. It would be clumsy to speculate at length on how a renewed “Cold War” would play out beyond that. There are, however, new factors that are worthy of discussion, and China is arguably the biggest of those factors. China looks like they’re ready to play ball instead of sitting on the sidelines this time. And they’re on Russia’s team, sort of.

It’s not entirely fair to say that China sat out the Cold War, but China did play a relatively passive role considering it’s size, it’s communist government, and its (sometimes friendly) relationship with the Soviet Union. For much of the 20th century China tended to keep its military and foreign ambitions close to home, remaining somewhat isolationist and focused on the internal strife and struggles it faced. It’s greatest involvement in foreign conflict came when it sent hundreds of thousands of troops pouring into North Korea to push back South Korean, U.S., and allied forces to prevent the U.S. from establishing a toehold on its doorstep.

In 1989 Beijing acknowledged it also sent over 300,000 troops to fight alongside the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, another conflict taking place right across China’s borders.

Other than those involvements, China’s reclamation of Tibet in 1951 and long-running dispute with Chiang Kai-shek’s exiled government in Taiwan, were the greatest points of contention between China and the U.S.

But China is changing, and so is it’s military and foreign policy. In 2013 China sent infantry units to serve in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. It was the first overseas deployment of Chinese combat troops in a peacekeeping role. China has since deployed peacekeepers to Liberia and Sudan as well.

Chinese UN peacekeepers in South Sudan.

Chinese UN peacekeepers in South Sudan.

In March, it was announced that China would be opening it’s first overseas military base in Djoubti, on the Horn of Africa. The base will house 4,500 troops and support staff dedicated to counter-terrorism operations in the region. The opening of the base marks the first permanent foreign troop deployment by China.

There have also been reports that China plans to send troops to the Balochistan region of Pakistan to help the 15,000 Pakistani soldiers stationed there protect the 3,000-km-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has invested heavily in the $46 billion CPEC project, which will include a highway running from Kashgar in China to Gwadar in Balochistan, a southwestern district of Pakistan with a lengthy coast on the Persian Gulf. Balochistan is in the midst of both an indigenous uprising led by Baloch separatists and a Taliban insurgency. Chinese nationals working on CPEC have been targeted by both groups.

Map of the The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Map of the The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

A major expansion of the port at Gwadar is also part of the project, and that’s the larger concern for the U.S. “The massive project is about more than simple trade — its backers hope that once finished, it will bolster Pakistan’s economy and potentially give China’s navy access to the Indian Ocean,” Wajahat S. Khan wrote for NBC News in May. “The plan would also strengthen both countries’ positions versus India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy and China’s strategic rival, and hedge against U.S. influence in the region.”

Pakistan and China have declared themselves “all-weather friends” as CPEK has increased their economic and military ties. Pakistan accounts for more than a third of Chinese weapons sales. In recent months Pakistan and China have conducted joint military exercises in Pakistan, China, and, for the first time, in the East China Sea, Reuters reports.

In July, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Pakistani border police carried out joint patrols along their shared border for the first time. The patrols took place near the Kashmir region, an area claimed by both India and Pakistan.

South China Sea Remains A Potential Flash-Point
In a more curious development, China has undertaken huge dredging and construction projects to expand or create several small islands in the South China Sea so that the islands can support military outposts and airfields.

China dug deep channels to provide access to these outposts and also created artificial harbors, dredged natural harbors, and constructed new berthing areas to allow larger ships to access the bases, according to the Pentagon’s annual “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” report released in May.

The three largest outposts will have airfields with 9,800-feet-long runways (approximately 3 km), long enough to allow for the take off and landing of advanced fighter and bomber aircraft, the report said.

Fiery Cross Reef being fortified by the People’s Republic of China in 2015/16.
Left: March 2015 / Right: May 2016

The South China Sea is the site of ongoing territorial disputes between China and several other nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S. and China have repeatedly butted heads over the dispute on the diplomatic front.

The Pentagon has interpreted China’s military build up in the South China Sea as an indication that China intends to take a more active and assertive role in global affairs. “China continues to invest in military programs and weapons designed to improve power projection, anti-access area denial and operations in emerging domains such as cyberspace, space and the electromagnetic spectrum,” Abraham Denmark, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, said when the Department of Defense’s report on China was released.

China took umbrage at Denmark’s comments and essence of the report. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun expressed “strong dissatisfaction” and “firm opposition” to the Pentagon report, which he argued “misrepresented China’s military development,” according to the government-run Xinhua News Agency. “China follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. Moves such as deepening military reforms and the military build-up are aimed at maintaining sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing China’s peaceful development,” Yang said, adding “the U.S. side has always been suspicious.”

Even if China’s new military initiatives are strictly “defensive in nature,” there is still cause for considerable concern.

Russia And China Strengthen Military Ties As China Warns It Is Ready To Battle The U.S.
China and Russia “vowed to strengthen global strategic stability” in a joint statement signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 25 during Putin’s visit to Beijing, Xinhua reported.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Middle of September, Russian and Chinese forces began joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. The eight-day exercises will include live-fire drills, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island defensive and offensive exercises, Chinese navy spokesperson Liang Yang said in a report from Xinhua. Chinese and Russian surface ships, submarines, planes, helicopters, and amphibious armored vehicles will be used in the exercises.

China and Russia have held six joint naval exercises since 2005. The increased military collaboration is due in part to China feeling increasingly threatened by the U.S. and NATO over the South China Sea dispute. Reports from official government news agencies suggest that the People’s Republic is indeed preparing for potential conflict. “China should speed up building its military capabilities of strategic deterrence,” reads a July editorial from the Global Times, a publication run by the Chinese government. “Even though China cannot keep up with the US militarily in the short-term, it should be able to let the US pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force.”

The Global Times editorial alternated from insisting on China’s peaceful intentions to veiled threats against the United States. “China is a peace-loving country and deals with foreign relations with discretion, but it won’t flinch if the US and its small clique keep encroaching on its interests on its doorstep,” it continued. “China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks, but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations.”

The underlying message of China’s actions and statements regarding the South China Sea, as well as its increased military and economic ties to Russia, could be summed up as: China is ready to fight if it has to, and Russia is on its side. The strength of any commitments of mutual defense between Russia and China remain questionable. Syria, of course, could prove to be the testing ground for how the U.S., Russia, and China navigate their rivalries and alliances in a theoretical new Cold War.

In August, Beijing and Damascus agreed to allow China to provide humanitarian aid in Syria and to potentially start training Syrian troops. This would put China and the U.S. on opposing sides in what has become one of the most complicated and convoluted conflicts in recent history. China, along with Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran, would be training the soldiers of the Syrian Armed Forces, who are fighting against the Free Syrian Army, a U.S. ally.

Again, China and the U.S. were on opposite sides of the line during the Vietnam and Korean wars, but both of those conflicts were on China’s borders. Syria is in another region of the world. If China’s actions there — as well as in Pakistan, the South China Sea, and Africa — are any indication, we are looking at an emboldened and more ambitious China, one whose foreign policy objectives extend well beyond its borders.

When considered in light of Russia becoming increasingly “adventuresome,” and with a possible (albeit undoubtedly tenuous) military alliance between Russia and China thrown in the mix, a potential renewal of Cold War animosities becomes not only probable but also deeply unsettling.

Posted in China, Darien Cavanaugh, English, Russia, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

USNS Invincible Back at Bahrain

Imagery acquired during May 2016 shows the USNS Invincible berthed in Manama, Bahrain.

Imagery acquired during May 2016 shows the USNS Invincible berthed in Manama, Bahrain.

Some of the latest commercial satellite imagery confirms that the USNS Invincible is currently operating from Manama, Bahrain—home of the U.S. Navy’s fifth Fleet. Subordinate to the naval arm’s Military Sealift Command (or MSC), the ship functions as a “missile range instrumentation ship” capable of collecting ballistic missile launch data over 2,000km away. The vessel is equipped with a dual S- and X-band Gray Star radar which is tasked and serviced by the U.S. Air Force. The S-band acquires and tracks a potential target while the X-band collects signature data. With Iran’s recent missile tests, there’s little surprise the vessel is back in the region, ready to scoop up data and transmit the acquired info to interceptors, inter alia, across the Strait.

According to online AIS data, the vessel traversed the narrow maritime chokepoint and arrived by early April after making a stop at the UAE’s Fujairah port, possibly for bunkering. The vessel is often tasked to the Persian Gulf but also the Indian Ocean, where it makes regular stops at Diego Garcia, the leased British outpost in the region. The U.K. lease is expected to expire in December 2016. Mobile ship-borne platforms like the Invincible are increasingly cost-effective, given the alternative of their land and space-deployed counterparts. They have the agility to deploy where and when additional coverage is required.

The arrival of the vessel back in the Gulf comes as Iran continues to test-launch its “nuclear-capable” ballistic missiles, despite signing last year’s landmark nuclear deal. Western diplomats, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, say that the tests are inconsistent with the “spirit of the deal”, citing UNSC Resolution 2231 Annex B, paragraph 3. However, the annex uses weak language and does not fall under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which remains the means to take action under articles 41 and 43, the use of sanctions and military force, respectively.

Iranian coverage about the IRGC Qiam ballistic missile launch from Jam, Bushehr province, in March 2016.

The latest launch occurred in March, though some sources report a July test. If confirmed, it would be the fourth test-launch since the nuclear agreement was signed last year. According to IHS Jane’s, the March test occurred from an underground launch facility located to the southwest of the city of Jam in Bushehr province. The exact geolocation (27.7882N 52.3228E) shows it less than 15km from the coastline and nearby to the important Pars Special Economic Energy Zone. If the USNS Invincible was in the region at the time, the facility would have been an easy target on which to collect missile data. Unfortunately, we lack historical AIS records to confirm.

The Gray Star radar is an improvement over the original Cobra Gemini, both built to support the strategic warning mission. The longer range radar replaced the older one on-board the vessel, which had originally been fitted in the late 1990s. Last year, the Air Force awarded Raytheon a $24.6 million contract to continue to service the system.

Posted in Chris Biggers, English, International, Iran, Sea Powers, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pulling nuclear bombs out of Incirlik now could further shatter Turkey’s confidence and trust in the United States

Following the coup attempt in Turkey last July justified concerns and questions arose about the future of the fifty or so US B-61 nuclear bombs stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase. It gave impetus to other more longstanding questions about the wisdom of storing such weapons there in the post-Cold War world, especially questions pertaining to the usefulness of having those non-conventional weapons weighed against the risks.

Image of a B-61 thermonuclear weapon. In the back it is assembled, in the middle it is divided into its major subcomponents, in the front it is almost completely disassembled. The warhead is contained in the bullet-shaped silver canister.

Image of a B-61 thermonuclear weapon. In the back it is assembled, in the middle it is divided into its major subcomponents, in the front it is almost completely disassembled. The warhead is contained in the bullet-shaped silver canister.

Incirlik is not the only base in which the US stores nuclear bombs. Within NATOs nuclear sharing the US has stored all in all 180 B-61 bombs in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey — with the exception of Turkey — including aircraft capable of carrying them to their targets. Turkey has 50 of these bombs on its territory but does not permit warplanes belonging to other NATO countries that can carry them to be based on its territory, nor does it itself possess bomber aircraft capable of delivering these bombs to their targets. Meaning that if NATO had to fight a nuclear war its aircraft would have to fly to Turkey to pick up the B-61’s stored at Incirlik before then flying on to their target. A mind-bogglingly impractical set-up.

On the military side the risk of keeping these weapons in Turkey far outweighs the benefits, that’s quite salient. Given the constant security threat in Turkey’s southeast region – between the threat from the Islamic State (ISIS) and the ongoing war between Turkey and Kurdish militants – the US has already pulled out all the families of US military personnel there. A move which demonstrably showed how concerned they are over security in that increasingly volatile and dangerous region.

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, "B61-12: The New Guided Standoff Nuclear Bomb", Federation of American Scientists, 02.05.2014.)

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, “B61-12: The New Guided Standoff Nuclear Bomb“, Federation of American Scientists, 02.05.2014.)

Obviously even running the slight risk of those nuclear bombs falling into the hands of Islamist terrorists, or renegade elements in the Turkish military (after all the coup plotters managed to commandeer F-16 jet fighters from that very same base) rather than simply take those weapons out of Turkey would amount to wanton and almost criminal negligence.

However there is another side to being cautious and withdrawing those weapons from an increasingly unstable Turkey which should not be overlooked, and that’s the political side. On that side the US risks further reducing the already diminished confidence Ankara has in it at a critical time.

The Turkish government was disgusted at the tepid response the Europeans and the US had in the aftermath of the coup attempt when it came to giving solidarity with the Turkish government. From Ankara’s perspective neither of them fully appreciated the fact the Turkish people successfully foiled a military coup and secured civilian control over the government. Instead all Ankara heard were warnings from both about its post-coup crackdown, which the Turkish government sees as wholly necessary given the threat it has faced down.

The striking fact that the US continues to host the man Turkey blames for the coup attempt, the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, also angers Ankara. Giving rise to claims that the US was behind the attempt.

This coupled with the rapprochement it began with Russia earlier this summer is seeing Turkey feel more reassured by Tehran and Moscow – both of whom unequivocally condemned the coup attempt and reiterated their support to the incumbent Turkish government, despite their many differences with it – than by the US and Europe. It’s also worth noting that after the coup the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to only visit those two countries, priorities of this kind can be very informative.

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, "Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk", Federation of American Scientists, 10.09.2015).

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, “Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk“, Federation of American Scientists, 10.09.2015).

This is the political backdrop to which the US is pulling out these nuclear weapons from Turkey. And while Turkey is a NATO member country – and also the only Middle East country with which the US actually has any form of an official military alliance – pulling these weapons out now would symbolize a waning commitment to protect Turkey’s security. Regardless of the fact that removing these weapons would not make an iota of difference to Turkey’s security, especially regarding the kind of threats Turkey will face in the foreseeable future.

Since the Syrian crisis began Turkey’s American and European allies sought to assuage Turkey’s concerns about the security situation south of its border by deploying Patriot air defense missile batteries to show its commitment to that NATO ally’s defense and security. In late 2015 when those NATO allies determined the missile threat from Syria to be a minimum they decided to pull those missiles out of Turkey, however they did their utmost to stress to Turkey that removing them did not mean they reneging on their commitment to safeguard Turkey’s security and territorial integrity.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States deployed thousands of shorter-range nuclear weapons with U.S. forces in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, and on ships around the world. These weapons were intended to extend deterrence and defend allies in Europe and Asia. While most were withdrawn in the 1990s, the United States retains around 200 B61 bombs in Europe. These serve not only to deter potential aggressors, but also as an important element in NATO’s cohesion. — Amy F. Woolf, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Turkey“, CRS Insight, 02.08.2016.

In this case however Ankara may see them doing just that, at a time when reassurances in both the political and security arenas are absolutely essential. Even though all the bombs belong to the US, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) will have a say in any withdrawal of these weapons, since these US nuclear bombs are designated for the alliances’ use. But if the US pushes for a withdrawal of these weapons — possibly without the consent of the NPG — at a time when the Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump questions the usefulness of US commitments to NATO that may not only send the wrong signal to Turkey, but to the rest of the NATO alliance. A withdrawal of these weapons in the near future would also come at a time when the eastern NATO member states are increasingly worried about Russia’s aggressive posturing, meaning any US drawdown in the foreseeable future could potentially send shock-waves throughout the alliance.

In the light of rising doubts about the US’ will to defend the European NATO member countries in case of a massive Soviet military aggression, the UK and France developed their own nuclear weapon program, Germany was integrated into NATO in 1955 and the US came up with the concept of nuclear sharing within NATO as a way of nuclear deterrence in Europe. Since then, US nuclear weapons stationed in Europe are a symbolic reassurance of the willingness to defend NATO member states, which doesn’t possess nuclear weapons on their own.

The US and its NATO allies need to carefully weigh the military necessity of pulling these nukes out of Incirlik against the political risk involved. Otherwise they risk further alienating what amounts to its most strategically-important member state east of Germany.

More information
In August 18, 2016, EurActiv reported that the US moves its nuclear bombs from Turkey to Romania, citing two independent sources. First of all, it is very unlikely that Romania would become a destination of US nuclear weapons given the fact there is no appropriate storage vault for such weapons on Romanian soil. Secondly, the stationing of nuclear weapon there would be a blatant breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and a harsh provocation of Russia. After the NATO Summit 2016 in Warsaw early July, where NATO member states remained loyal to the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a unilateral move like this on the part of Washington is highly unlikely. Accordingly, the Romanian foreign ministry strongly denied reports that its country has become home of US nukes. Romania’s Minister of Defense, Mihnea Motoc has stated that “[t]here is no thinking, no plans in this direction. We can only call this information a speculation”.

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There is a lot going on at the Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti

by Dan Gettinger. He is co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.


A drone circles the Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti looking for suspicious activity. Not an aerial drone, but an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) called the Mobile Detection Assessment Response System (MDARS). These self-driving vehicles provide perimeter security to a hub for U.S. drone operations in the Horn of Africa and one of the largest U.S. military drone bases. The primary responsibility of the MDARS is to conduct patrols to deter anyone from entering the base.

“We can pretty much send [it] everywhere,” James Bowders, the lead operator of the MDARS, explained in the video below released by the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. “So it can go into harm’s way as opposed to a soldier or an airman.”

The new robots aren’t the only additions to Chabelley Airfield. Satellite imagery from July 1, 2016 reveals new drone hangars and a great deal of ongoing construction taking place at the airfield. Three large construction projects totalling an estimated $18.1 million are either currently underway or planned for the next year. Here’s what you need to know about the latest changes to America’s drone hub.

The MDARS in Djibouti is made by Land Sea Air Autonomy, a Westminster, Maryland-based company. The MDARS deployed to Chabelley features an intruder detection system payload that consists of a radar, night-vision camera, and two-way audio system. The system is integrated onto a Polaris Ranger Crew, an off-road vehicle which can normally carry four passengers. Land Sea Air Autonomy’s “Robotic Autonomous Platform“, the system upon which the MDARS is based, can also be integrated into other land or maritime vehicles.

The deployment to Chabelley is the culmination of an effort to create a robotic security system that began as early as 1985. The MDARS program, which is a joint Army and Navy effort, was formally initiated in 1988 with the goal of building a security robot for indoors, namely large warehouses and storage areas. The robot was based on the K3A Navmaster robot made by the Virginia-based technology company Cybermotion, Inc. In 1999, the Army awarded General Dynamics Robotic Systems a contract for continued engineering and manufacturing of the MDARS-Interior. However, Cybermotion folded in 2003 and the Army suspended the MDARS-Interior program.

The MDARS-Interior program was the subject of a 2006 audit by the DoD Office of Inspector General which found that poor program oversight by the Army contributed to the failure of the program. Between 1999 and 2003, the Army continued to award General Dynamics contract and milestone extensions as a result of testing failures. A total of $4 million was awarded, up from an initial award of $1.7 million, without any additional oversight by the Army program office.

Following the audit, the Army formally cancelled the MDARS-Interior program, but continued development of the MDARS-Exterior. The MDARS-Exterior program began in 1993 after the Army Program Office awarded General Dynamics Robotics Systems in Westminster, MD a contract to develop an outdoor robot that can maneuver autonomously. A prototype of the platform was successfully demonstrated in 2000 and, by 2007, the Army had ordered half a dozen of the robots for continued tests. In 2010, the first MDARS dneploymet was to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site), where it provided 24-hour patrols.

Land Sea Air Autonomy was founded in 2011 by a team that included some former members of General Dynamics Robotics Systems. In 2012, LSA Autonomy produced the MDARS Increment II, the second generation of the long-running patrol vehicle. The MDARS Increment II has an upgraded detection and assessment capability and the ability to provide less lethal response. Unlike the Increment I MDARS, the Increment II robots were created using a commercial platform, the Polaris off-road buggies. The focus of the Increment II is on the autonomous driving and detection capabilities.

Chabelley Airfield
A satellite image from July 1, 2016 reveals changes at the Chabelley Airfield U.S. drone base in Djibouti. The image, which was accessed on Google Earth, shows a base buzzing with activity. Several construction projects are either underway or have been recently completed.

The latest construction is evidence that the U.S. military is readying Chabelley Airfield for continued drone operations in the Horn of Africa. When it was first set up in 2013, Chabelley was only meant to be operational for two years. In March 2014, however, AFRICOM reclassified Chabelley as an Enduring Support Location with a life expectancy of up to 10 years. Around the same time, construction began on an expansion of housing facilities at Chabelley, the first physical signs of the transition to a longer-term deployment.

In contrast to Pakistan, where the number of drone strikes has plummeted, U.S. drone operations in Yemen and Somalia — which are likely staged from Chabelley — have remained relatively steady, according to data compiled by “New America“. In fact, there have already been more drone strikes in Somalia in 2016 than in 2015, and twice as many operations overall. Other nations besides the United States have also deployed drones to Chabelley: between September 2014 and February 2015, the Italian Air Force deployed MQ-1 Predator drones to Chabelley to support counter-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa.

US Drone Strikes in Pakistan Yemen Somalia

The satellite image from July 1, 2016 shows that a project to add additional aircraft aprons and hangars has been completed. Historical satellite imagery reveals that construction began to expand the northeast corner of the base in November of 2014. The first two additional hangars were added in the spring of 2015 and the July 1 image reveals that work has finished on the final two hangars. In addition to the drone hangars, communications equipment and ground control stations for launching the drones have been set up adjacent to the aprons. The finished construction brings the total number of hangars currently in use to 12.

According to the Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17) military construction budget, the U.S. Air Force has proposed spending $6.9 million on paving the parking aprons and taxiways with asphalt or concrete. Currently, the base is constructed using AM-2 metal matting, 12-feet-long (3.7 m) aluminum panels that are used to rapidly build aircraft parking pads and taxiways. The AM-2 matting, which the Air Force has been using since the 1960s, is not intended for permanent use, and it can damage the aircraft if it is not maintained.

The FY17 budget proposal includes $3.6 million to pave the 3.4 mile (5.5 km) gravel access road between Camp Lemonnier, the much larger U.S. military base that adjoins Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport, and Chabelley Airfield. Currently, the road is subject to protruding boulders, edge washout, and potholes. Construction on internal access roads linking parts of Chabelley Airfield has already begun. On April 30, 2016, the Air Force issued a $22,272 contract to MGT Djibouti SARL for gravel for roads at Chabelley Airfield. The satellite image shows a walled staging area for construction vehicles near the entrance to the airfield.

U.S. Sailors from the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 22 use a grater to spread a mixture of sand and gravel in the first step of creating a makeshift road May 2, 2016, at Chabelley Airfield, Djibouti. The road creation process includes leveling the sand and gravel mixture, then applying water before compressing it with a vibratory roller. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Eric Summers Jr. / U.S. Air Force)

U.S. Sailors from the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 22 use a grater to spread a mixture of sand and gravel in the first step of creating a makeshift road May 2, 2016, at Chabelley Airfield, Djibouti. The road creation process includes leveling the sand and gravel mixture, then applying water before compressing it with a vibratory roller. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Eric Summers Jr. / U.S. Air Force)

The July 1 image shows a construction vehicle working on what will eventually be a 7,720-meter-long perimeter boundary surrounding the base. Currently, the main areas of the base are individually bounded by walls and a road is patrolled by security vehicles, but the base as a whole lacks a protective boundary. In a June 25, 2015 letter of notification to U.S. Representative Charles W. Dent, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Committee on Appropriations, DoD comptroller Michael McCord determined that the $7.6 million project to build the wall was necessary to meet DoD requirements for physical security. It will be constructed out of four layers of concertina wire, six-foot (1.8 m) metal fence posts and will include pedestrian and vehicle entrances, defensive fighting positions, and an upgraded entry control point. On September 29, 2015, the U.S. Navy awarded ECC-MEZZ LLC, a California-based construction company, a $6.96 million contract to construct the perimeter boundary. The July 1 image shows that part of an existing road in the northeastern corner of the base has been rerouted to make way for the construction of the boundary. According to military construction status reports, this project is expected to be completed in March 2017.

More information
Chris Biggers, “African Drone Apron Update”,, 20.08.2016.

Posted in Dan Gettinger, Djibouti, Drones, English, Intelligence, International | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The fatal problems with Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy


US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s sinister excuses for the atrocities of various dictators in the world has been one of his many alarming policy proposals and rhetoric over the course of his presidential campaign. However his aversion to long established alliances such as NATO and proposal to radically upend the post-Second World War-era have been much more worrying.

Never one to miss an opportunity to opine about America’s decline and suggest that the antidote to it lies in more focus on domestic policies, at the direct expense of foreign affairs, Trump has consistently been paving the way for foreign policy which will, whether he intends it to or not, enable autocratic polities across the world to strengthen at the expense of, mostly, democratic American allies.

At the end of the Cold War the US was not only the lone superpower the whole world, but a hyper-power in a world without any superpowers, by some estimates it was the only time in history the world was as unipolar as it was since the times of the Roman Empire.

Today while the US remains the most militarily powerful country in the world it no longer lives in a unipolar world. A resurgent and more autocratic Russia has emerged under its President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia has, just in the last three years, forcibly staked its claim in eastern Ukraine and has also flexed its military muscles at its former Eastern European Soviet satellite states – many of which are NATO member states.

This also comes as China is blatantly and unapologetically flouting international law (just last July it refused to recognize a ruling against it in The Hague over territorial disputes with its neighbours) and staking its claims in the South China Sea, which has worried many countries who are US allies in that region.

In other words, this is one of the worst times imaginable to espouse, as Trump does, Charles Lindbergh-esque isolationist “America First” rhetoric. His proposal also comes as the number of democratic countries in the world begins to pale in comparison to the number of autocracies and dictatorships. One estimate found that over the course of the last 15 years 27 countries which were previously democracies became autocratic states. The trend looks set to continue and will likely speed up if a President Trump has his way.

trump-putin-imageTrump’s fondness of Putin is particularly worrying. If the real estate dealer does become the 45th occupant of the Oval Office will his foreign policy really entail throwing America’s commitments to protect smaller nations like the Baltic states and Taiwan from larger and potentially aggressive countries like Russia and China?

Leaving aside reports that hackers employed by the Russians leaked sensitive material belonging the Democratic National Committee — the governing body of the United States’ Democratic Party — to potentially tilt the balance in Trump’s favour, it seems to be clear that a Trump presidency will — probably unintentionally — serve the interests of the Kremlin and other emergent authoritarian powers willing to coerce or even actively threaten their neighbours to get their way.

A more bipolar world isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However that’s not what Trump is railing against. He favours an America which will be willing to unnecessarily leave longstanding allies to the mercy of increasingly aggressive neighbours. However what Trump is advocating could make the world a far more dangerous place. A world where Eastern Europe is left vulnerable to Russian pressure, and even threats, and China’s neighbours are told they will have to deal with a hostile Beijing on their own will be a much more dangerous world.

Trump’s loose talk about how current American allies will have to rue the day when they cannot count on American support to defend themselves against potential aggressors is a worrying one. It could mean in the long-term that to deter Iran the Saudis opt to acquire their own nuclear weapons (something Trump says he is fine with since it is “going to happen anyway”). The world will be further destabilised by a Trump policy which could well mean that most countries in China’s reach will seek their own nuclear weapons; countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan who have never sparked a major nuclear arms race with China by developing their own nuclear weapons arsenals since they could count on the fact they were safely under Washington’s nuclear umbrella.

The post-Second World War order has had its many imperfections, but making a complete U-turn on it, as Trump is adamantly proposing is bound to do a lot more harm than good. If Trump was prudent when it came to lessening the reliance many of America’s allies have, he would do it in an incremental fashion, delegate more responsibilities to them when it comes to maintaining their conventional means of defense while guaranteeing to deter any aggressor who tries to threaten them with the use of non-conventional weapons.

In other words a “Trump Doctrine” should be more like a “Nixon Doctrine“. When the Nixon administration was gradually reducing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam, US President Richard Nixon outlined a strategy which saw more responsibilities delegated to America’s allies vis-a-vis defense. In no uncertain terms Nixon told America’s allies around the world that the fighting and defense of their lands in any future war against the Soviets, or Soviet supported proxies, was a task which had to be borne by them while America would guarantee their protection under the nuclear umbrella and provide economic and military assistance wherever necessary, the nation under threat in turn would have to provide the vast bulk of the manpower needed to defend themselves.

That would be a sensible policy to follow for an administration which wants to lessen America’s role in the world and involvement in the various issues around it. A rapid de-escalation and radical overhauling of this six-decade-old international status quo is simply asking for trouble, and the man who is so passionately proposing it, is not fit to be the next President of the United States.

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Iran Bushehr Shipyard Update


Imagery acquired during May 2015 shows the launching of the Shahid Nazeri. (DigitalGlobe)

An update for Iran’s southern shipyards couldn’t come at a better time. Last week, Iran unveiled the “Shahid Nazeri”, a high-speed catamaran helicopter carrier (video below). Space photography available in Google Earth (28°58’33,96″N 50°51’22,68″E) shows the first signs of the new vessel’s construction back in November 2014. At the time, imagery captured the boat’s hulls protruding from a shipyard workshop in Bushehr. However, the vessel was under construction much earlier as the bridging superstructure was fitted not long after their appearance. Imagery also shows that the vessel was first launched in May 2015, berthed adjacent to the nearby ship elevator (or synchrolift), and subsequently returned to the workshop. While exact build estimates are difficult to ascertain, the Middle Eastern country has previously built catamaran vessels for the civilian sector.

Little supplemental information has been made available. Iran’s domestic press reports say the vessel can carry up to 100 people and reach speeds up to 28 knots. As far as armaments, none have been observed at this time. After the inauguration, which took place on September 13, 2016, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Navy Admiral Ali Razmjou, commander of the 2nd naval zone, commented that the vessel will add to the country’s deterrence capability. It goes without saying, the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf remains a source of tension between the two countries, despite the landmark nuclear deal signed last year. Several confrontations at sea have occurred subsequently. FARS News, a government of Iran mouthpiece, further framed the boat’s construction in terms of Iran’s naval strategy by highlighting the recent construction of additional speedboats equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles and other armaments. Iran plans to swarm would-be adversaries in the strait should tensions result in conflict.

Meanwhile, the Sadra island shipyard has made further progress on the construction of the country’s oil and gas platforms. The company, controlled by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ engineering firm, Khatam al Anbiya, is responsible for building platforms for the South Pars gas field, specifically phases 13, 22, 23, and 24. Sadra is one of three companies that have formed a consortium to develop facilities for the field. Pipeline construction for those phases was recently finalized, according to project reports. When complete, Phase 13 will produce 50 MMcm/d of natural gas and 80,000 b/d of gas condensate. The remaining phases are expected to produce 56 MMcm/d of sour gas, 75,000 b/d of gas condensate, 400 tons a day of sulfur, as well as 1 million tons a year of ethane and 1.1 million tons a year of liquefied petroleum gas. In June, total natural gas recovery from the field crossed 431 million cubic meters per day, managing director of Pars Oil and Gas Company said in a statement.


Imagery acquired during July 2016 of Sadra Island Shipyard at Bushehr. (DigitalGlobe)

As far as the shipyard, no additional construction has been observed in the dry dock further confirming the death of the Iran-PDVSA deal signed back in 2006. As previously reported, the first Aframax tanker, the “Sorocaima”, was never delivered thanks to a weak Venezuelan economy and Western sanctions which, inter alia, made it too expensive to insure. The boat has since been renamed — the “Arita” — and now flies the Iranian flag. Given available AIS data, it would appear the vessel functions as floating storage. Plates of the remaining vessels still lay next to the dry dock. The Goliath gantry crane, which was erected back in 2012 to support the Aframax construction, has yet to be utilized, as far as we can tell. Imagery shows that the crane’s track has yet to be completed. Since building the first Aframax tanker, Iran has still not finished work on its first homegrown tanker which has been under construction since 2009 at the ISOICO shipyard. This may suggest that Iran failed to acquire the necessary knowledge to do so despite hiring outside consultants for the Venezuela project.

Relatedly, Iran continues to ramp up exports since implementation day, according to a recent Reuters report. Iran’s August crude oil exports jumped to more than 2 million barrels per day, a 15 percent increase from July. Iran exported 1.9 million bpd and 1.83 million bpd in June and July, respectively. Data clearly shows that August export levels rose predominantly due to higher imports from India. The South Asian giant received about 576,000 bpd in August, up from 199,000 bpd delivered a year ago when sanctions were still in effect. Before sanctions, the country was Iran’s second largest importer of crude. Essar Oil, a private firm, was the top Indian importer in August, followed by Indian Oil Corporation and Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd.

While exports were up, production however remained flat in August with the country pumping 3.6 million bpd, according to OPEC estimates. Despite an ongoing global crude glut, Iran won’t even consider measures to support the crude price until it returns to pre-sanction production levels. If and when that will occur remains unknown. The country plans to complete a new export terminal by the end of the year and has recently inked an agreement with Russia’s Krasnye Barrkady (Red Barricades) to construct additional rigs for exploration in the region. Never mind, the order for at least 10 new petroleum tankers from South Korea.

Posted in Armed Forces, Chris Biggers, Energy Security, English, India, Intelligence, Iran | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Confirmed: New Su-25 Delivered to Iraq (Updated)

Iraqi Su-25 (SEPT 2014)

Iraqi Su-25 at al Rashid airbase (SEPT 2014)

Satellite imagery confirms that Iraq has received additional Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft. Heavily armed, the new attack jets will allow Iraq’s air arm to increase pressure on the Sunni militant group, the Islamic State. Recent imagery suggests that two shipments have occurred since the beginning of the year.

The first, comprised of three aircraft, was delivered by Russia and announced on April 17th, the same day the aircraft arrived. Imagery acquired late in the month showed the total number of Su-25 based at the airfield increasing from 16 to 19.

Subsequently, further deliveries may have occurred. New imagery purchased by shows a total of 21 x Su-25 parked on the apron in late July. This suggests that at least five aircraft have been delivered since 2016, two more than previously announced. Who delivered the aircraft remains unknown; however Russia seems a likely source.

According to comments made by the Russian ambassador to Iraq, the country is expected to provide between 5 and 10 of the platform in a second batch. The new aircraft may be part of this second batch, adding to the five Frogfoot Russia previously delivered in June and July 2014. They join an existing inventory of Su-25KM, Su-25UBKM, and Su-25SM variants, already in operation.

Further to Russian deliveries, Iraq is believed to have also received  refurbished Su-25s from Iran. Iran delivered five by July 2014, a month after Islamic State overran Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Iraq’s neighbor provided three more plus a replacement aircraft, after a Frogfoot was reportedly damaged. Islamic State also claimed to have shot down a Frogfoot near Ramadi last June.

DG (29JUL16) Al Rashid

The Su-25, the Russian equivalent of the US-built A-10 Warthog, provides dedicated close air support. The twin-engine Sukhoi has five hard-points underneath each wing for carrying weapons and an array of attachments. The aircraft first proved itself in the 1980s during Soviet counter-insurgency missions in Afghanistan, and has since joined the inventories of countries around the world.

Iraq’s Su-25 are subordinate to the 109th Attack Squadron based at Al-Rashid airbase.

• • •

Russian Sukhoi Su-25 planes on the tarmac at Al Muthanna military base in Baghdad, July 2014.

Russian Sukhoi Su-25 planes on the tarmac at Al Muthanna military base in Baghdad, July 2014.

Update: September 20, 2016
Arnauld Delalande, a military aviation enthusiast for over 25 years, criticized the article above in a piece for War is Boring (WiB), titled “Let’s Account for All of Iraq’s Tank-Busting Jets“. Before the publication, Delalande reached out to the author of the article above, but neither the author nor could incorporate his additional information since the source of his information was anonymous Iraqi pilots, and thus unverifiable.

Actually, we are not even sure if he really has any sources in Iraq. After the publication of his article, Babak Taghvaee, a military aviation historian, tweeted to the editor in chief at WiB, that his source information had been used without citation or permission. Correctly, WiB subsequently added Taghvaee as a co-author.

Instead of relying on unverifiable sources, we would prefer to use satellite imagery, a proven source of intelligence that is gaining a wider audience as of late. The author of the above article has almost 10 years of experience in analyzing satellite imagery for government and clients alike. Because of missing reliable collateral and according to conventions in imagery intelligence, he never concluded that Iraq had received additional Su-25 Frogfoot in 2016, but that satellite imagery “suggests” this possibility. He clearly wrote that further deliveries “may have occurred” since the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, Delalande completely misread that.

Frankly, we don’t know when the aircraft arrived, as we lack sufficient coverage of all of Iraq’s airfields. But this information gap can’t be filled with some disputable comments from Iraqi pilots. Setting aside the citation issues, we also have to assume that Iraqi pilots have no concept of operations security. Not to belabor the point, but the only thing that we explicitly state is that additional deliveries have occurred.

The intent of above article was to provide watchers of the Iraq conflict — the critiquing author included — tangible evidence of the delivered aircraft. From Delalande’s own research, it’s very clear that before the above article went public, he was not aware of Iraq’s full complement of Su-25, despite claims of knowing pilots in the target country. This is demonstrated in the author’s most recent work published in June 2016, in the magazine Combat Air. An excerpt is provided below for reference. It was published after the recent and very public delivery of three additional Su-25 from Russia in April.


In the short piece, the author reports on the Iraqi deliveries but only provides a count as high as 16 aircraft, which he repeats in his critique. As Delalande states in the June report, Iraq received (in the order quoted):

3 x April 17, 2016 – from Russia 3 x July 1, 2014 – from Iran
2 x June 2014 – from Russia 4 x July 2014 – from Iran
3 x June/July 2014 – from Russia 1 x July 2015 – from Iran

The 2014 deliveries have been mentioned by entries in the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database while others were also mentioned in an article by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. Imagery baselines created by prior to April 2016 consistently showed 16 of the aircraft at various times at the airfield, accounting for forward deployments or potential maintenance. After April those numbers grew to 19 and eventually 21 aircraft. In other words, Delalande was short 5 aircrafts before we published the article above.

Delalande writes in his critique that he “asked Iraqi pilots about [and they] confirmed that Iraq has received 21 Su-25s. But they also claimed that there was no recent new batch after the delivery in April”. Why didn’t he give an account of 21 aircrafts in his June report? We agree with him in one point: “curious”.

Furthermore, in his critique he says that he will provide a better account of the aircraft but instead co-opts info provided by Mr Taghvaee and new information presented at while leaving WiB readers — myself included — without any definite answers. This is evident when he writes:

The three other “missing” units almost certainly arrived aboard An-124s from Russia between August and October 2015 together with serial 2501 and 2502. Thus there was no second delivery in 2016.

In other words, Delalande simply provides another possible explanation, but no verifiable sources or any other evidence, which back-up his assertions. To be clear, we’re not saying he’s wrong, but we certainly don’t know if he’s right.

Nevertheless, we appreciate that WiB posted Delalande’s critique as it allowed us to correct a mistake in the article above. We initially said that a Su-25 was downed near Kirkuk. That was actually an AC-208 Caravan, as clearly stated in the published link. That was an error in our tracking document that has since been rectified.

Posted in Chris Biggers, English, Intelligence, International, Iraq | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments