Imagery acquired during October 2015 shows the Bayraktar TB2 parked at Batman. (DigitalGlobe).
As Turkey pushes toward becoming a major player in the UAV industry, seeing more of their drones on satellite imagery beyond test airfields should come as no surprise. DigitalGlobe space snapshots from October 2015 captured one of the country’s latest drones, the Bayraktar TB2, complete with its ground control station, parked in front of an aircraft shelter at Batman air force base.
The TB2, a medium altitude drone developed by the Kale-Baykar group, is a twin-boom, push-propeller UAV which first took to the skies back in 2009. According to the manufacturer, the platform has a length of 6.5m, wing span of 12m – both confirmed on imagery – and a maximum take-off weight of 630kg. The unmanned aircraft can fly up to 22,500 feet (6,800km), loiter for more than 24 hours on station at a range of 150km from the ground station. It’s equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors, a laser designator and laser range finder.
Highly capable, Ankara has plans to make it one of the country’s front line UAVs. Domestic press reports say that the platform will conduct orbits along the Iraqi border. Batman, located less than 60 and 90 miles from the Syrian and Iraqi borders, respectively, also hosts the IAI-built Heron. Turkey acquired two Heron systems in 2010 after significant delay integrating Turkish components. Up to four of the Israeli-built platform have been observed at the airbase in previous imagery.
Like the UAE, Turkey turned to the domestic private sector to develop its own platform of surveillance and strike drones after Washington turned down requests to buy armed Predators and Reapers. So far, the country’s done pretty well advancing the tech. In December 2015, Turkey conducted its first armed UAV test flight using locally developed smart micro munitions (SMM) fitted to the TB2. Targets were struck with pinpoint accuracy, according to Turkish press reporting. The initial drop test utilized a variant of the air launched anti-tank missile, the UMTAS (or Mizrak), which is infrared seeker and laser seeker capable.
The UMTAS is made by the Turkish armor and missile manufacturer Roketsan and was designed for Turkey’s homegrown T-129 ATAK combat helicopters, a locally produced version of the Agusta A129 Mangusta. A second test in May 2016 (see video above) saw a live warhead fitted with the SSM completing the trials. Notably, handhelds showed the drone armed with the unpowered variant at two hardpoints underneath the wings, a similar carriage configuration to the U.S. Predator.
However, unlike their U.S. counterparts, each Bayraktar TB2 system is comprised of six aerial vehicles while U.S. systems typically have four drones. Additional equipment for the Turkish platform includes two ground control stations, three ground data terminals, two remote video terminals and other support equipment.
As of 2016, press reporting suggests that two systems are operational with the land forces where they’ve already been used in operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 2014. Rumors even suggest that the platform may have made a foreign appearance recently during Turkey’s Jarabulus operation. Outside of the military, other operators include Turkey’s Police who received at least two systems this year.
Batman air force base, the location the drone was observed, is the HQ of the 14th Unmanned Aircraft System Command.
by Laura Cesaretti. Laura is Freelance Reporter in Middle East and South Asia, currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Kharim Ahmad, 22, suffered shrapnel wounds on his face and the loss of a leg from fighting in Sangin. He was being treated at the Emergency hospital in Lashkargah on March 25, 2016 (Photo: Paula Bronstein for the Pulitzer Center).
There is a reason why you can find a cold Guinness in the unstable and alcohol-free Afghan capital Kabul: Globalization. For many, it is a refreshing relief from their daily struggles, which help them to cope with a life full of renunciation. Normally, those people are the humanitarian workers, who have moved to Afghanistan in the name of highest values, career building, or more cynically, the opportunity to have a generous wallet in their pocket. For others, globalization is the process whereby their own culture is weakened and questioned by an unknown outside agenda. “I have a message to send to the world. Please, stop this fight against Afghanistan. We are simple and poor people, the only thing we got is our homes”, says Mahmud.
Mahmud is one of the thousands victims of the fight between the post-2001 governmental forces and the Taliban in Helmand, a troubled province in southern Afghanistan. His brother was killed in a crossfire inside the war-torn district of Marjiah. The wife is still suffering from the many injuries caused by the bullets that crossed her body. But she doesn’t even think about crying. Although she lost a husband and her elder child, she is patiently breastfeeding her younger baby, wrapped in badages in a hospital bed in Lashkargah, the provincial capital.
Emergency NGO Medical Coordinator Luca Radaelli, center, listens in as doctors and nurses make their morning rounds at the Emergency Hospital in Lashkargah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Wednesday, August 21, 2013.
Afghans, especially children, are used to never cry or complain. Many believe this is due to their pride and strong body shape. Most probably it is because mourning is a luxury that they still cannot afford. For decades, international NGOs have been filling this country with aid supplies, humanitarian services, and generous donations. However, the rapid proliferation of these NGOs has also been accompanied by the understanding that their activities on the ground would have been far from neutral. Allegedly international organizations, including non-governmental ones, were accused of aiming to change the behaviour of an entire population. In exchange, they would have provided security and economic development.
Something happened though. An unprecedented number of attacks on NGOs, humanitarian workers, and even international institutions, such as the United Nation, have shown the world that humanitarian inviolability was not to last in Afghanistan. With the rational incontestability of the NGOs purpose challenged, the “machine of aid” was sucked into the sadistic network of war itself. In a conflict where the line between civilians, fighters, criminals and politicians is blurred, they have became simply another actor, struggling between its good and bad side justified by the violence of the environment.
The dramatic use of private securities companies that accompany the humanitarian works in the provinces and the capital is one of the most outstanding evidence of that. Many organizations have also forced their international staff to leave the country, managing the local projects from Europe or other more safe locations. Others have focused their activities in the few districts where security could still be guaranteed. Where welcomed, it was mainly due to the opportunity of high salaries and local economic growth, creating a sickening dependency and the enrichment of certain tribes at the expense of others.
In the name of neutrality: No armed guards, no security cameras and no barbed wire — this is the „Emergency Surgical Center for Civilian War Victims“ in Lashkargah.
Emergency, an international medical charity founded in Italy, has helped heal war victims in Afghanistan since 1999, is one of the few, who have followed an opposite trend. As a policy, they refuse to have armed guards, security cameras or barbed wire that covers their medical and accommodation buildings. In the unstable southern province of Helmand, where Mahmud lives, they have located 10 internationals among doctors, nurses and logicians. In their guest house, based in the provincial capital of Lashkargah, even local kids can jump, out of curiosity, over the small walls that surround the building.
It took the organization 17 years, and an abundance of common sense, to gain this trust. When Gino Strada, renowned war surgeon and founder of the NGO, opened the hospital in Panjshir province in 1999, none would have bet that he would manage to run also a hospital in Kabul, the Taliban capital of the, at the time, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Panjshir at that time was the home of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan armed opposition that rejected violently the Taliban’s fundamentalist ruling. Yet, according to Strada, even Ahmad Shah Massoud, head of the movement and famous “Lion of Panjshir”, left his inseparable AK-47 outside the doors of the Emergency hospital.
It was in the name of neutrality, not security, that then, as now, Emergency has banned everyone from bringing arms inside their structures. It is also the same reason why the international staff are forbidden from going to areas in Kabul, where the night-life appeals to expats: “We cannot afford that our role could be questioned by the behaviour of a single individual”, explains Luca Radaelli, the country program coordinator.
In Afghanistan, as in other zone of crisis, the idea of purely neutral humanitarian relief has always been difficult to apply, especially when the services were closely associated with cultural and social questions. The realm of “do not harm” policy, to whom all NGOs are inspired to abide by, has been easy contradicted by the social intercourse of foreign entities with the natural development of extremely fragile societies. If this truth concerns certainly any non-governmental nation building effort, it doesn’t spare the basic humanitarian actions, such as medical aid.
The international staff of Emergency based in Lashkargah, Helmand.
Emergency, who have provided medical assistance to over 4 million people, knew that operating under the name of neutrality could cause mistrust, especially when it meant working on both sides of a war. After decades of conflicts, any violated society would have learnt that even good intentions have their price, and will become distrustful toward those, who claim the contrary. There were times when rumours spread regarding Emergency’s activities and the amputations they were carried in their operation rooms. Some believed that this kind of surgical removal aimed to weaken one of the opposite side of the conflict. Others found Emergency’s policy to cure everyone disturbing. Clearly, they were also saving the life of an enemy, allowing him to go in shape in order to kill again.
In our work, we keep asking ourselves: will you let your mother be operated here? — Luca Radaelli, Emergency NGO Medical Coordinator, Afghanistan.
Nowadays, however, Emergency is unquestionably the first hospital, where all victims of war are taken in Afghanistan. This is in spite of the availability of other public medical structures, often stationed nearest the location of an attack. In a civilian struggle, where brothers kill each other on the frontlines, their works proved that it is possible to help civilians, government soldiers and Taliban fighters, keeping all of them in nearby beds under the only principle of human care. In a society, which cannot provide adequate formative courses in many of the most basic fields, they found a way to transform almost illiterates into one of the most professional and respected team of health workers in the country.
Emergency has 46 first aid posts (FAPs), all run by a local team and available in the most remote and profoundly unstable areas of the country. “We go only where we are welcome”, explains Luca. In practice, it means never forcing the opening of a clinic according to a top-down organization assessment, but always replying to a demand made by the local communities itself. It is by following this simple rule that they reached otherwise inaccessible districts such as Sangin and Marjiah in Helmand. Those, as other places where their clinics are located, are normally the frontlines of the struggle between government and insurgency forces, inhabited by thousands of victims with war-related injuries.
The staff of the FAPs has to pass through different checkpoints with the risk to be unexpectedly caught in the crossfire with its ambulances, which bring patients to the three main Emergency hospitals, located in the Panjishir valley, Kabul and Lashkargah on a daily basis. In order to guarantee the right hygiene and professional quality standards, actual surgeries and intensive health assistance are provided just inside those structures: “In our work, we keep asking ourselves: will you let your mother be operated here?”, explains Luca. If the answer is yes, it is only thanks to this strict operative model, which takes little inspiration from the new humanitarianism theories, but instead has been developed along years of considerations, humility, and willingness of exposure.
Always behaving as a guest, Emergency have received the greatest feeling of openness by the Afghan community. Nevertheless, they never took a step back, when it was time to prove that there were no “weapons” hidden behind the people’s smiles. Even in the conservative Islamic Helmand, the local male staff do not show embarrassment in shaking the hands of their international female colleagues. An important effort, aimed simply to communicate appreciation and respect, not adaptation to others strangers beliefs. Indeed, for the humanitarian realm, this can be translated as a sign of the sacred obligation of hospitality — as a common worldwide certainty embraced by the old Greek western inspired civilization, as well as the historical eastern Afghan society, regardless the doubts that inevitably tie any relationship between host and guest.
In these constant daily actions, Emergency and the Afghan population are proving that something like “universal rights” exists. However these basic rights can only be identified, if a common ground of mutual respect between a foreign NGO and the local community can be found. In that sense, humanitarian assistance implemented in the name of liberal values without the regard for local social inclusion and coherence can no longer be considered as neutral. The balance between “harm and benefit” depends on this effort and on commonly defined ethical rules, rather than high budgets. It might require a deep articulate reform of the international humanitarian aims, but results prove that it is worthwhile.
Iranian coverage of the Simorgh & Saegheh UAVs in October 2016.
IHS Jane’s identified the test site of one of Iran’s latest UAVs, the Simorgh, through open source geolocation analysis.
Video released by several of Iran’s domestic broadcasters was used to determine that Kashan Airport is the location of the country’s Simorgh testing activities. The surrounding buildings, situated to the West of the runway and viewed from the landing gear, were a primary indicator confirming the site.
The Kashan airport, otherwise known as the Nasr airbase subordinate to the IRGC, is familiar to imagery watchers as a location already supporting Iran’s unmanned aircraft. Historical imagery available in Google Earth has shown equipment associated with Iran’s drones deployed at the site since at least 2010, if not earlier.
DigitalGlobe imagery of Kashan airport from April 2014.
Specifically, the country’s rail launched UAVs have been observed operating from the airport. Imagery from April 2014 shows a probable Ababil-2 in flight along with the platform’s rail launcher and support equipment parked near the runway. More recently however, we’ve observed ground control stations similar to the later variants of the rail-launched or landing gear-equipped Mohajer series. It’s possible these ground stations may also work with Iran’s Simorgh and related variants.
Video also released by the regime showed handhelds of one identified Simorgh variant, the Saegheh (or Thunderbolt). The drone was displayed on a stand and armed with four missiles. Unfortunately, there was no video evidence showing the drone in operation. However, we did notice a new bermed munitions storage area added to the site since 2014, which could suggest Iran is experimenting with the armed variant at the airfield. We look to future imagery to provide more insight.
Imagery from June 2016 shows Brazil’s Itaguaí shipyard and naval base under construction. (DigitalGlobe)
Construction activity at Brazil’s Itaguaí nuclear submarine shipyard continues to show signs of slowing, a review of recent satellite imagery suggests. Initially, Brazil was to have its naval shipyard and co-located submarine base ready to start initial vessel construction by 2016. As we moved along the project timeline, the country’s economic troubles and scandals made that less of a possibility. Space snapshots show that very little activity has occurred over the last several months. The installation of the syncrolift (or ship elevator), a notable milestone, did however proceed in Q2 2016. Imagery shows the Norwegian acquired winches and ship platform modules were in place by the end of May. Beyond the syncrolift, other structures appear incomplete, land reclamation activity has not progressed and building material storage shows little change.
In February, Bloomberg reported that Brazil had cut funding for its nuclear submarine project by 50 percent. With Brazil’s shrinking economy — six consecutive declines — high inflation, and higher borrowing costs, not to mention the Zika virus epidemic, things look dim for the project. Without any direct maritime threats, modernizing the country’s naval arm, especially with further undersea platforms, has become less of a priority.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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. Its 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.