Kim Jong-un Looking at Things — one of the few information sources from North Korea

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.

It should surprise no one in 2017 that, politics notwithstanding, the internet loves pop icon and supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un, one of the few dictators whose online cult following rivals his cult of personality. Kim has evolved into such a meme in his own right that he has inspired sub-memes cherrypicked from photographs published by North Korea’s state-owned media. So it happened that, on December 18, 2011, the Tumblr blog Kim Jong-un Looking at Things began.

Kim Jong-un looking at an apparent hydrogen bomb.

Kim Jong-un looking at an apparent hydrogen bomb.

Kim Jong-un Looking at Things acted as the successor to Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, a blog with the same premise except that it followed Kim Jong-un’s father, whose death on December 17, 2011, brought the first entertaining venture to an end. Kim Jong-un Looking at Things, however, has remained active to this day, publishing its latest post about him looking at children on July 9.

The blog’s short “About” section reads, “The dear respected leader likes to look at things, too”. “Looking at babies“, reads a post from March 18. “Looking at a flight simulator screen“, says another from February 25. According to Kim Jong-un Looking at Things, the North Korean dictator has looked at a skybridge, a photograph (pretty meta), tile samples, a train car seat, and tree roots.

Because so little information escapes North Korea, which uses its own national intranet, Kwangmyong, South Korean and Western analysts must scour satellite imagery and state media to determine what they can about the hermit kingdom. Blogs such as Kim Jong-il Looking at Things and Kim Jong-un Looking at Things likely started as outgrowths of this phenomenon.

A computer room at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. The computers give access to the North Korean own national intranet, Kwangmyong, not the Internet. As of March 2014, the computers are set up with Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6.0. (Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; it is one photo out of 312 made during Tørrissen's trip through North Korea).

A computer room at the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. The computers give access to the North Korean own national intranet, Kwangmyong, not the Internet. As of March 2014, the computers are set up with Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6.0. (Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; it is one photo out of 312, made during Tørrissen’s trip through North Korea).

Copycats of the original blogs proved quick to spread. One, a website of the same name, stopped posting on June 30, 2015. Other websites have assembled their own lists, a trend that Euronews and The Daily Mirror soon joined. The Atlantic has even run similar articles on Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. The website Know Your Meme, meanwhile, has documented quite a few other examples.

BBC News reported last year that foreigners can access fewer than thirty North Korean websites (fewer than fifty by September 2017), speaking less to the country’s authoritarianism than to its backwardness and suggesting that Kim values the Internet far less than the trolls satirizing him and his quirks. “When North Korea brings up a new website they never publicise it,” Martyn Williams, a San Francisco-based expert, who runs the website North Korea tech, told BBC News. “Either someone finds it by accident or it might show up in a search engine”.

According to Vice News, North Korean officials enjoy better Internet access than the citizens whom they represent, using their connections to open Facebook and even watch pornography. “Our analysis demonstrates that the limited number of North Korean leaders and ruling elite with access to the internet are much more active and engaged in the world, popular culture, international news, and with contemporary services and technologies than many outside North Korea had previously thought”, reads a report by Recorded Future, a technology company specializing in real-time threat intelligence, which Vice News quoted. “North Korean leaders are not disconnected from the world and the consequences of their actions”. They will likely have seen the thousands of memes satirizing Kim, including Kim Jong-un Looking at Things. No one has hypothesized how the supreme leader might react, though.

The North Koreans have rarely taken Western satire well in the past. In 2014, the FBI and the White House alleged that Bureau 121, a North Korean cyberwarfare agency, which is part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau of North Korea’s military, hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment for refusing to pull The Interview, a comedy film about assassinating Kim Jong-un. Outside the Sony hack, Bureau 121 has tended to attack South Korea from offices in China.

There exists a North Korean GNU/Linux operating system: Red Star OS. A presentation, held by two German researchers (Florian Grunow and Niklaus Schiess) at the Chaos Communication Congress at the End of 2015, provides more detailed information about Red Star OS, how it invades users’ privacy and more generally, how an operating system designed by a totalitarian dictatorship works (see video below).

In another talk, Grunow and Schiess presented together with Manuel Lubetzki the North Korean Tablet PC, called Woolim, at last year’s Chaos Commincation Congress.

While Tumblr blogs may prove too obscure to provoke the supreme leader, the renewal of tensions between China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States could lead to another round of cyberwarfare. North Korea’s nuclear weapons have resulted in a series of verbal confrontations between Pyongyang and Washington in recent weeks. The New York Times reported in March that the Pentagon has been waging a virtual war against North Korea’s missiles and nukes for three years, meaning that, whether intentional or not, the Western world is in effect waging a two-front cyberwar against North Korea: one through covert, military means, the other through civil society and pop culture, represented online by humble but popular enterprises such as Kim Jong-un Looking at Things.

For now, online comedians seem all too happy to undertake the overt war against North Korean propaganda on their own, and the North Koreans will continue supplying them with material.

More information
Patrick Truffer, “North Korea’s atomic bomb: living with the status quo“,, 23.01.2017.

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How the United States and Iraq tried, but failed, to disband the Kurdish Peshmerga

by Paul Iddon.

Coming Monday, September 25, 2017, the Iraqi Kurds will hold a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan and the adjoining disputed territories (see also Patrick Truffer, “The Kurds in Iraq: Is Their Pursuit of Autonomy a Cause of Conflict?“,, 14.08.2017). History shows that the Kurds had time and time again to stand up for themselves — even with the United States. Moreover, on two separate occasions in the last 14 years the US and Iraq attempted to either disband the Peshmerga or take command and control over it from the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in traditional uniforms take part in a march to support the independence referendum in Erbil on September 13.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in traditional uniforms take part in a march to support the independence referendum in Erbil on September 13.

Kissinger’s betrayal and Bremer’s incompetence
Perhaps the most interesting, and least known, of these two episodes took place in 2003 when Paul Bremer headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which briefly governed Iraq during the immediate post-regime change transitional period. Bremer’s controversial decision to disband the entire Iraqi Army and putting 350,000-400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work is retrospectively viewed as one of the major blunders of the Iraq War (for a contrary view see: L. Paul Bremer and Malcolm McConnell, “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope“, 2007, p. 267).

Bremer also set his sights on the Peshmerga during his time as kingmaker in Iraq [1]. These hardened Kurdish fighters had fought several Iraqi regimes over the course of the 20th century using guerrilla tactics from their mountain sanctuaries. The Kurds welcomed the American-led invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein given his systematic mass-murder of over 182,000 of them in the infamous Anfal campaign of the 1980s. They also gave their support in creating a federal Iraq which included their region, autonomous since the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. One issue they would never waver on, however, was the status of the Peshmerga which had long fought in defense of their region against hostile regimes in Baghdad.

At least 50,000 of the militia belonged to the Kurdish Peshmerga who had fought alongside the Coalition to defeat Saddam. Because Kurdistan faced new security threats, especially from terrorists infiltrating from Iran and Syria, we did not expect and did not want to disband the Peshmerga completely. Rather, our aim was to bring a large number of them under the control of the national and Kurdistan regional governments, while retiring or retraining the rest. — L. Paul Bremer and Malcolm McConnell, “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope“, 2007, p. 272.

According to the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, Bremer sought to encourage him to disband the Peshmerga. He argued that this needed to happen given the fact he could not feasibly convince Shiite militias in the south to disband while the Kurds retained their own armed forces (see also: James Dobbins et al, “Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority“, Rand Corporation, 2009, p. 316). Bremer therefore asserted that the continued presence of the Peshmerga as a locally-controlled armed force constituted a “red line”. “I told him if it is a red line for you once, it is ten times more a red line for me”, Barzani recently recalled. “I stood up and said ‘I am going back to Kurdistan. If you are a man, come and disband the Peshmerga'”.

Kissinger bears the main responsibility for the disaster which befell the Kurdish people after 1975. In 1993, I was in Washington, and he asked to meet me, but I refused.For me, he is enemy number one. I will never forget what the Kurds had to pay as a result of his stances, maneuvers, and the deals he made without taking into consideration the suffering these caused. — Masoud Barzani in Hussein Askary, “The Tragic Modern History of the Kurds“, Executive Intelligence Review 31, no. 26 (2 July 2004): 64f.

Interestingly Bremer was a Kissinger protégé. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger betrayed the Kurdish insurgency against Baghdad in the Second Kurdish-Iraq War in the early to mid-1970s, which the US, along with the Shah of Iran and Israel, were covertly arming and supporting [2] (CIA’s covert action with the Kurds were revealed in the Pike House Committee Report investigating the CIA, for details see: Michael Gunter, “Mulla Mustafa Barzani and the Kurdish Rebellion in Iraq: The Intelligence Factor“, International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence 7, no. 4 (1994): 465–474). Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani led that revolt and had to flee to Iran. Kissinger later dismissed that monumental Kurdish defeat by declaring: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work” (“The CIA Report the President Doesn’t Want You to Read“, The Village Voice 21, no. 7, 16 February 1976, p. 71, 85).

To add further insult to injury when Bremer headed the CPA he once seriously asked Barzani, upon seeing a portrait of his father, “Who’s that?” (Peter W. Galbraith, “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End”, Simon&Schuster, 2006, p 148).

Bremer ultimately backed down and the Peshmerga remained in place. Iraqi Kurdistan remained relatively secure and stable throughout the Iraq War and required no US military presence to secure it. Had Bremer gotten his way the Kurds may well have felt subjected to a repeat of the 1975 betrayal if the Iraqi Army failed to protect their region, as it did when the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (ISIS) rose to worldwide infamy as a result of its genocidal rampage across Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.

Iraq's outgoing overseer Paul Bremer chats with head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani (L), during his Kurdish visit on June 22, 2004 in Erbil.

Iraq’s outgoing overseer Paul Bremer chats with head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani (L), during his Kurdish visit on June 22, 2004 in Erbil.

Al-Maliki’s inflexibility
After the Americans pulled out all their forces from Iraq in December 2011 the status of the Peshmerga would again come into question.

In November 2012 then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the Kurdistan Regional Government were in violation of “the constitution by controlling the weapons left behind by the former Iraqi army, including tanks, artillery and rocket launchers, while the other federal [entities] are getting armed with light weapons”. The Peshmerga captured some old Soviet-made armor from the arsenal of Saddam’s crumbling army in 2003, the only real armor they’ve had to date.

Maliki also sent the Iraqi Army to Kurdistan’s frontiers and said they had every right to enter the major Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaimani if they chose to. Likewise, he sent the Iraqi Army to Kirkuk, a disputed territory between Baghdad and Erbil, and said Baghdad had every right to send regular forces anywhere in Iraq, including any part of Kurdistan. “The federal army has the right to have a presence in Basra or Zakho, and no one has the right to prevent it constitutionally,” Maliki said, referring to the southern Iraqi oil city and the northwestern Kurdish border-city.

Column of ex-Iraqi Army Peshmerga T-55 tanks.

Column of ex-Iraqi Army Peshmerga T-55 tanks.

The Peshmerga responded by declaring that: “we will not allow the Iraqi Army to approach one inch inside Kurdistan territories from al-Khabour to Khanaqin.” Furthermore, the Kurds disparaged the very idea of having the Peshmerga placed under the control of the Iraqi Army, describing it as “an illusion and pure fantasy.

Tense standoffs ensued and Maliki ultimately completely failed to take command and control over the Peshmerga away from Erbil. ISIS militants would soon thereafter overrun Mosul. The Iraqi Army infamously fled ahead of the militants’ advance and the Peshmerga seized a historic chance to gain full control over Kirkuk, often called the “Kurdish Jerusalem” in light of its immense importance to Kurdish nationalists. The US fired the opening shots of its ongoing war against ISIS when the group massacred the Yezidi people of Sinjar and threatened Erbil. Early in the war, with the Iraqi Army in disarray, the US provided air support to the Peshmerga who successfully prevented ISIS from seizing any additional territories.

Retrospectively it’s clear that had Maliki gotten his way less than two years beforehand Kirkuk, with its vast oil reserves, and the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan may well have fallen to ISIS. Instead the Peshmerga afflicted several setbacks against the militants with US support, defending a 1,000 km front and securing territories which allowed the Iraqi Army, in April 2016, to begin building up their forces around Mosul. Cooperation between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga on the eve of the Battle of Mosul on October 2016 was certainly historic.

While Barzani is now adamant about holding a referendum on independence he has affirmed that military cooperation against common threats will continue between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga, as well as support to Maliki’s much more moderate and conciliatory successor Haider al-Abadi.

April 2015 graduation ceremony of Peshmerga soldiers outside Iraqi Kurdistan's capital Erbil.

April 2015 graduation ceremony of Peshmerga soldiers outside Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil.

[1] Bremer’s position was aptly described as the “most powerful foreign post held by any American since General Douglas MacArthur in Japan” after its Second World War defeat (Carmel Borg and Michael Grech, “Pedagogy, Politics and Philosophy of Peace: Interrogating Peace and Peacemaking“, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, p 67).
[2] “Paramilitary support by the CIA to the Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi government from 1972 to 1975, which cost some $16 million, was initiated at the request of the Shah of Iran, then engaged in a border dispute with Iraq. Once the Iraqis agreed to a settlement favorable to Iran, the Shah had the support to the Kurds cut off. The rebellion collapsed, over 200,000 Kurds became refugees, and neither Iran nor the US set up adequate refugee assistance.” — Gregory Andrade Diamond, “Gregory Andrade Diamond, The Unexpurgated Pike Report: Report of the House Select Committee on Intelligence“, 1976, 1992, p. xiii).

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Operation Barkhane’s Secret to Success

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.

Member states of G5 Sahel.

Member states of G5 Sahel.

More than three years ago, France launched Operation Barkhane, intended to combat terrorism throughout West Africa. Although the mission was initially launched in response to the threat posed to Mali by a collection of militant Islamist groups – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine, and Al-Mourabitoun – some of the approximately 3,500 French troops participating in Operation Barkhane have also been stationed in Chad, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. Furthermore, the French deployment to the region has provided support for the development of the Group of Five Sahel (G5S) joint force, which will be comprised of 5,000 soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and will be capable of pursuing threats across national boundaries, at least among the G5S.

As such, Operation Barkhane has been deservedly lauded by observers for its innovative approach to fighting asymmetric threats. Whereas the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has proved ineffective, particularly because it is limited from carrying the fight to secessionist and extremist forces in the country’s north, Operation Barkhane’s French irregulars have been able to take away much of the initiative and momentum once enjoyed by the terrorist elements menacing the Sahel. The value of this asymmetric response to asymmetric threats cannot be under-stated, though there are certainly other factors at play, such as the role French airpower has played in supporting advanced by conventional West African troops.

Operational locations, resources deployed and missions as constituted in July 2017.

Operational locations, resources deployed and missions as constituted in July 2017.

However, the secret to Operation Barkhane’s success has less to do with advancements in French counter-terrorism doctrine and more to do with the failures of the region’s various insurgencies. A 2003 RAND study indicates that successful occupations or nation-building exercises have generally required a ratio of 20 soldiers per thousand civilians in the host country. It is difficult to say whether the American-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq conform to the conclusions of this study or if revisiting the issue of successfully occupying a country, particularly as instability persists in both Afghanistan and Iraq, would result in the conclusion that a lower ratio would be needed. Regardless, the terrorist elements in the Sahel have failed to gather the critical mass of fighters and resources necessary to establish an “Islamic Caliphate” in the region.

According to the US State Department, AQIM had not more than 1,000 members at its height, most of whom were located in Algeria. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Dine had approximately 300 fighters in northern Mali prior to the French intervention. Estimates as to the size of Al-Mourabitoun’s fighting force are vague, but French sources have the group at no more than 100 members concentrated on the Niger-Mali border. On 2 March 2017, the three groups committed to band together as “Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin“, more colloquially known as Nusrat al-Islam, and was recognized by al-Qaeda as its regional affiliate a little over two weeks later. Despite this, these Islamist and secessionist forces lack the resources necessary to mount a serious challenge to the sovereignty of any of the G5S countries.

If even the most generous estimates of Nusrat al-Islam’s resources are to be taken at face value, the organization has no more than 4,000 members. The combined population of the G5S is just over 75.6 million people, and so Nusrat al-Islam would require a force of more than 1.5 million well-trained and well-supplied fighters to successfully occupy and govern the whole region, based on the findings of the 2003 RAND study. If the Islamist coalition were to lower its sights to simply occupying Mali, a force of 360,000 fighters would still be needed to keep the country of 18.0 million people in check. Even holding the northern Malian territory of Timbuktu against a determined insurgency or a foreign intervention would be beyond Nusrat al-Islam’s resources: such a task would require almost 14,000 fighters.

In a very real sense, Operation Barkhane succeeds because it does not seek to project power throughout the Sahel; it merely sets out to deny militant Islamist organizations from doing so. With so few fighters to draw upon, and with its resources spread across thousands of kilometres of desert, it is unlikely Nusrat al-Islam or any of its constituent organizations will ever be able to seriously challenge a G5S country for sovereignty. This seems to have been implicitly recognized by Nusrat al-Islam’s leadership, as much of the recent activities conducted by the organization have been reverted to isolated attacks, mainly intended to terrorize civilian populations or challenge the legitimacy of UN forces, rather than mounting any assault intended to seize territory or resources. For example, in June 2017, Nusrat al-Islam launched a series of mortar shells at a UN camp near Kidal, Mali that killed three peacekeepers while several gunmen attacked a resort complex outside the Malian capital of Bamako, reportedly killing three civilians and two Malian soldiers. These attacks, while tragic, represent an entirely different scale of operations to the rebellion that drove government forces out of northern Mali in January 2012.

This may also go some way toward explaining the failure of other asymmetric security threats to mount a lasting challenge to state sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram has been largely dismantled through a coordinated military response from Nigeria and other regional partners, such as Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Recent estimates suggest Boko Haram has somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters within its ranks, whereas it was once claimed by Amnesty International that the group had more than 15,000 fighters. With much of its activities concentrated on Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram would have needed a force of more than 118,000 soldiers to bring the region fully under its control.

Operational locations and strength of the French Army worldwide as constituted in July 2017 (click on the image to enlarge).

Operational locations and strength of the French Army worldwide as constituted in July 2017 (click on the image to enlarge).

As such, elements like Nusrat al-Islam or Boko Haram must be seen less as potential challengers to state sovereignty, capable of supplanting or hijacking state institutions, and more so as particularly violent gangs. Though the stated goal of Nusrat al-Islam is to establish an “Islamic Caliphate” over millions of people and a vast swathe of territory, the resources available to such elements allow them only to sow chaos and loot communities in the near to medium-term. Beyond the act of pillaging, there is little that these organizations can do in the face of determined opposition from state institutions, like the G5S joint strike force or the Nigerian military.

Some militaries, such as the Canadian Armed Forces, have begun to tinker with the concept of “adaptive dispersed operations” (ADO), and it could be argued that Operation Barkhane is the truest expression of this concept on the modern battlefield. Under such an operational concept, a force is structured in such a way that it can be dispersed through an increased number of basic manoeuvre elements – in the case of the Canadian Armed Forces, four-soldier teams – that can be consolidated in the face or a major threat or re-deployed rapidly via light vehicles or tactical aircraft. Such an operational concept may change the arithmetic of successful occupations.

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Propeller planes instead of fighter jets? Rethinking by the US Air Force!

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; originally published in German). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

The military is increasingly focused on high-tech weapon systems. There are not only expensive, but also complex and very prone to malfunctions. The German Air Force can tell you a thing or two about that (for example regarding the Airbus A400M military transport plane or the NH90 helicopter). However, for certain scenarios, the US forces have now rediscovered a type of military equipment, which was long thought to be obsolete: light propeller combat aircraft.

In a remote area of the Hindu Kush, Afghan military combat pilots are training with their Super Tucano airplanes, under the guidance of US instructors, to attack Taliban units on the ground. The Super Tucanos are not high-tech jets, but small propeller planes – a combat aircraft type that had its heyday during the Second World War, and has since been considered obsolete. But propeller planes are currently undergoing a renaissance. For the fight against the Taliban, the US has equipped the Afghan Air Force with four of these aircraft, and another 16 will follow.

The US Air Force is now considering introducing light-weight propeller combat aircraft on a larger scale for itself. At the moment, interested manufacturers are launching their light propeller combat aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico (see here, here and here). The commander of the US Air Force, General David Lee Goldfein, is a fervent supporter of this project.

[This is a] great idea — and I tell you why — because I think we are 15 years into a long campaign in the Middle East this will continue to be a coalition fight and so we got to continue to evolve to look the way we prosecute and sustain this campaign against the power of extremism. […] So we are, actually, right now, looking at an experiment when we go out to the industry and say ‘what do you have commercial off the shelf low cost that can perform this mission’ — and we gonna do an experiment and see what’s out there. — General David Lee Goldfein, at the beginning of the year at an event in Washington on the future of the US Air Force, organized by the Think Tank American Enterprise Institute (Future of American Airpower: Conversation w/ Chief of Staff A.F. Gen. David Goldfein, 2017, ab 39’30”)

For the chairman of the Bundeswehr Association of Jet Pilots, Thomas Wassmann, using propeller airplanes is quite useful from the military point of view:

You need to imagine a fighter jet that is attacking: it will be going somewhere between 700 and 900 km/h. Propeller airplanes are flying about one third of that speed. That means they can observe the target area much more accurately. They can spend more time in sight of the target; because they don’t fly by it as quickly. They provide the option of flying much lower, in a terrain that is very mountainous and otherwise obstructed with obstacles. These certainly are a few advantages. — Thomas Wassmann.

A pair of Brazilian Air Force Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos in flight over the Amazon Rainforest.

A pair of Brazilian Air Force Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos in flight over the Amazon Rainforest.

For Hermann Hagena, a former combat pilot and general of the German Air Force, propeller aircraft are even superior to drones in some respects.

It can be said that drones are much more susceptible to ground based air defense. Because drones usually fly, as the aviator says, “straight on level” — without widely observing or dodging. And a plane like the Super Tucano is substantially more capable of surviving than any drone. And it has the additional advantage that the aircraft operator can immediately report what he is currently seeing to the forces on the ground, which have to deal with this threat. — Hermann Hagena.

All these abilities are necessary when military operations are to be successful in asymmetric wars. It is no longer a question of attacking cities or masses of hostile combat aircraft. Instead, the Air Force is meant to support special units in tracking down and eliminating opponents, who usually commit attacks in small groups and then immediately withdraw, such as the Taliban or, in some cases, the terrorist organization “Islamic State“.

For such counterinsurgency operations, the US Air Force likes to use propeller airplanes in the future again. Ultimately, the US government and the military are certain that the war on terrorism will take years.

Purchasing propeller planes for the military is also attractive for another reason, says the former German Air Force General Hermann Hagena:

If you want to continue to wage war in modern economies, then you have to try to lower system requirements, at least for the asymmetric ones, for small conflicts like Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria. And one of the ways to lower them is the propeller plane. — Hermann Hagena.

Propeller planes are significantly cheaper than jet aircraft when it comes to procurement and maintenance. The unit cost for the modern Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor for the US Air Force is 140 million US dollars. A propeller plane like the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II costs only 4.2 million. The T-6 is used by the US Air Force and also by the German Armed Forces as a training aircraft for young pilots. The manufacturer Beechcraft is now trying to offer the US Air Force an armed version.

An original T-6A Texan (front right) from the Second World War flies with a new US Air Force T-6 Texan II during an air show at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas in November 2007 (Photo: Steve White / US Air Force).

An original T-6A Texan (front right) from the Second World War flies with a new US Air Force T-6 Texan II during an air show at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas in November 2007 (Photo: Steve White / US Air Force).

Because of the low cost, there is already a niche market for propeller combat aircraft. Smaller countries, which are directly involved in asymmetric conflicts, have bought such planes. In Colombia and Peru, for example, the air force is chasing courier aircraft from drug smugglers with Super Tucanos in the Amazon region. In the Libyan Civil War, the United Arab Emirates supported their chosen side with a series of propeller planes – flown by mercenaries.

The inhospitable theatres of war in asymmetric conflicts, mostly in failing states or developing countries without a significant infrastructure, also support the use of propeller airplanes. Unlike high-tech combat aircraft, these planes are very robust. Thomas Wassmann from the Bundeswehr Association of Jet Pilots:

They have a relatively simple engine, so that they can be repaired with standard tools even in an emergency at the edge of the world, if they can land there. With fighter jets, the [technicians] first have to arrive with some laptops and the like, then take a reading of the plane to determine where the error could be. Because generally it isn’t about something mechanical, with a component, but about an electronic software error or something else. — Thomas Wassmann.

Militarily effective, cost efficient, and uncomplicated – for the US armed forces it makes sense to procure propeller combat aircraft for asymmetric conflicts. However, whether this will come about is still completely up in the air. It is true that the influential US Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, is making a push to buy 300 of these planes from 2022 onwards. However, supplying the few propeller combat aircraft to the Afghan armed forces led to fierce lobbying between the suppliers. The US Air Force respectively the Pentagon had to face a lawsuit from the US manufacturer Beechcraft, whose offered T-6 planes did not make the cut, in order to be able to buy the Brazilian Super Tucanos for Afghanistan. Although the purchase decision took place back in 2011, delivery of the planes to the Afghans was delayed by almost five years.

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Indonesia’s Construction Activity in Palu Bay

DG (05JUL16) Palu Bay: Indonesia’s submarine base during construction.

DG (05JUL16) Palu Bay: Indonesia’s submarine base during construction.

Last year, local press reports revealed that the Indonesian Navy was speeding up the development of a submarine base located in Palu, Central Sulawesi. With Asia’s underwater arms race accelerating, we’ve been monitoring the base’s construction. Indonesia, like many of the maritime countries in the region, is modernizing to maintain a credible naval force and safeguard the country’s interests.

Recent imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe shows that dredging and other clearing activity was complete on the new facility by May 2017. Imagery also confirms the presence of a new quay wall, which increases the berthing capacity of the base, as well as a new environmental shelter covering part of the recent expansion. Outside of additional support buildings, there was no new infrastructure, such as a synchrolift, that would enable out of water maintenance. Vessels requiring lengthy overhauls will need to relocate to other naval facilities. Indonesia’s existing submarines reportedly used the base as a forward deployment location.

Strategically located less than 12 nautical miles inside Palu Bay, the relatively small base cost the Indonesian Navy USD 1.5 million to expand. It provides access to the Makassar Strait, part of a shipping lane that some in recent years consider a replacement for the overcrowded Malacca Strait, the region’s main trading route. More importantly, the base is also near the Sulawesi Sea where Indonesia recently transferred the East Ambalat offshore oil and gas block to state-owned PT Pertamina. The block has caused much contention with neighboring Malaysia, a country with which Jakarta has been long in dispute. For example, Indonesia lost two islands to its neighbor in an International Court of Justice ruling in 2002 and continues to call Ambalat an issue of national integrity.

More broadly, Indonesia remains concerned about China’s nine-dash line, as it overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, but to date has not become a claimant  in the South China Sea dispute. However in July, the Southeast Asian country renamed a resource-rich section around the Natuna Islands—an area centered between Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam—as the North Natuna Sea, putting it in direct opposition to China’s claims. The move represented the latest in a number of attempts to reclaim perceived maritime territory following the Philippines’ “West Philippine Sea” and Vietnam’s “East Sea”. Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the islands last October during which his government announced that it would increase patrols around the islands in order to keep Chinese and other foreign fishing vessels out.

With Indonesia focused on becoming a prominent maritime power in the region to support its national interests, the development of the base and the acquisition of new submarines remain top of the agenda.

Nagabanda was launched at DSME in March 2016 and berthed near the shipyard's synchrolift (Source: Digitalglobe)

Nagabanda was launched at DSME in March 2016 and berthed near the shipyard’s synchrolift (Source: Digitalglobe)

Under Indonesia’s Minimum Essential Force plan, part of the broader Strategic Defense Plan, the country is to have 12 submarines in inventory to meet its naval requirement by 2024. That means acquiring at least 10 new submarines if the two existing German-made Type 209s Cakra class remain in operation past 2020, their slated decommissioning date. The old 209s previously completed refits in 2006 and 2012 which included new propulsion, sonar, radar, and weapons systems. They were originally built by Germany’s Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft and commissioned in 1981, which puts their operational lifespan near 40 years. Several navies however, operate the Type 209/1300 beyond that period.

As far as new stock, Indonesia will take delivery of three larger Type 209/1400 Chang Bogo class diesel-electric SSKs from its main ASEAN partner, South Korea. The first two submarines, Nagabanda (403) and Trisula (404), commission in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Nagabanda recently arrived in Surabaya in late August. They were built by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) at South Korea’s Okpo-based shipyard. A third and potentially a fourth—as well as any follow-on orders—will be assembled locally at Indonesia’s state-owned PT PAL through a transfer of technology agreement. According to Indonesian Chief Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, PT Pal has sent 206 workers to South Korea to undergo training in submarine construction.

Apart from South Korea, Indonesia has also been in talks with Russia for its Project 636 Varshavyanka, an improved variant of the Kilo class diesel-electric SSK. While an official proposed number of Project 636 has not been disclosed, the Jakarta Post reported that they too would join the new 209s at Palu Bay. Russia meanwhile continues selling other high-value military equipment to the southeast Asian country. For example, Indonesia operates a number of older and more modern Flankers and has recently expressed interest in Russia’s latest fighter, the Su-35. Rumors have already surfaced that the two may have signed an agreement for the acquisition.

In addition to Russia, Turkey and Germany recently offered the Type-214 diesel-electric SSK at IDEF 2017. According to the signed letter of intent, the first pair of submarines would be built at a Turkish shipyard, likely Gölcük, with follow-on orders constructed locally in Indonesia. Gölcük is currently building six Type-214 submarines for the Turkish Navy with the first vessel expected to launch in 2019. Beyond the joint offer, PT Pal also signed an memorandum of understanding (MOU) with France’s DCNS during a visit to Jakarta by French President François Hollande in March 2017. The MOU supports collaboration with the domestic shipyard to build submarines and eventually other surface vessels, like corvettes and frigates.

Six Vietnam Navy Project 636 Varshavyanka class berthed at Cam Ranh Bay (Source: DigitalGlobe).

Six Vietnam Navy Project 636 Varshavyanka class berthed at Cam Ranh Bay (Source: DigitalGlobe).

Nevertheless, submarines in particular remain in high demand in the region with a subsurface capability on the minds of most military planners. At the opening of the International Maritime Security Conference in May, the Singapore Minister for Defence mentioned submarine acquisition as an area of increasing complexity in the regional maritime order. Noting that another 50 submarines would be added to the inventories of the Asia Pacific by 2025, the Minister foresees increasing naval capacity and substantial modernization efforts as the grounds to pursue further maritime rules and codes of conduct.

However, with increasing regional competition—which some see as a reaction to China’s rise—the shifting security environment may make more comprehensive, mutually agreed-upon rules, difficult to achieve–let alone enforce. In fact, states may be caught up in an “armaments tension spiral” where the introduction of more advanced tech into a regional setting affects a state’s threat perception, thereby provoking counter-moves or a bandwagoning effect to negate the advantage. This spiral often worsens when many of the technologies acquired, submarine or otherwise, cut down on tactical decision making time, creating opportunities for mistakes or costly escalation.

The big push for submarines in the region highlights the desire to raise the costs and risks to an adversary who wishes to project power too close to a competitor’s home. Equipped for multiple missions, submarines support regional navies in their goal of exercising sea control and denying its use to a potential adversary. With more states pursuing these weapons, particularly those equipped with sea launched cruise missiles, a much broader target set is at risk, potentially raising their deterrence value. However, as the spiral indicates, these acquisitions and capabilities can easily be misinterpreted, increasing regional tensions. Of course, acquiring the hardware is a low fidelity measure for actually acquiring the capability. Investment in training and infrastructure remain paramount to employing the new equipment effectively.

The potential for increased tensions represents an example of the importance of exploiting open source technologies like satellite imagery that lower barriers to help discern preparedness and intentions. The most recent and visible example has been China’s island building efforts in the South China Sea. Exploitation of imagery, when combined with other spatial data, can provide insights that organizations and analysts would otherwise miss. Watching how states in the region build, operate, practice, and forward deploy their naval assets helps establish a more complete picture for policymakers and researchers alike.

As developments across the region unfold, the hope is that open source imagery will provide a level of transparency to further inform the public debate.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, Indonesia, International | Tagged | Leave a comment

Colombian Counter-Narcotics

by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets members of a special forces team during a counter-narcotics tour in Bogota, Colombia, on August 12, 2013.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets members of a special forces team during a counter-narcotics tour in Bogota, Colombia, on August 12, 2013.

International trends in the trade of coca and cocaine have generally been determined by shifts in demand and supply-side pressures. Supply-side pressure usually takes the form of governmental eradication and interdiction efforts which contribute to the “balloon effect”, the phenomena in which increased pressure in one location leads to increased illicit activity somewhere else. In this manner, localized pressure is more likely to force a move in illicit production rather than trigger a wider decrease. This pattern was illustrated particularly clearly when the “air bridge” between coca fields in Peru and processing facilities in Colombia was the subject of increased aerial interdiction. Coca cultivation shifted from Peru to Colombia for the duration of the interdiction campaign (United Nations and Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2016“, 2016, p. 35).

Colombian interdiction has been particularly effective, and between 2009 and 2014 was responsible for 56% of South American seizures and over a third of seizures globally. Much of this was made possible by foreign military aid, particularly from the United States as a part of Plan Colombia. With this assistance, Colombia was able to develop strong air and sea interdiction capabilities as well as grow and develop the security forces needed to combat insurgent groups as well as undertake an aggressive, though controversial, eradication campaign.

A primary strategy of Colombia’s eradication efforts since the birth of Plan Colombia has been aerial spraying of the chemical glyphosate, though it is also one of the most expensive options available. Economic estimates suggest it costs US$ 240,000 in aerial eradication to prevent growth equal to a kilogram of marketable cocaine. Conservative systematic evaluations conclude that 32 hectares of coca must be sprayed aerially to affect the destruction of 1 hectare. As the total cost of spraying one hectare is US$ 2,400, the cost of spraying 32 hectares and eliminating 1 is over US$ 57,000, while the gate price of a hectare of coca is only US$ 450. In addition to being an inefficient eradicant, glyphosate is linked to environmental and public health concerns and its use contributes to negative sentiment in regions where the Colombian Government struggles to establish political and administrative legitimacy (Daniel Mejía, “Plan Colombia: An Analysis of Effectiveness and Costs“, Brookings Institution, 2015).

Cultural politics over the licit or illicit nature of coca cultivation (it is an indigenously occurring crop in much of the Andes network of mountains) significantly complicate reactions to government eradication efforts. Andean communities have followed the practice of chewing hoja de coca, or mambeo (coca leaves) for centuries, and the Colombian Constitution protects the right of traditional use cultivation for indigenous communities. This right has been called into question, however, when indigenous groups market coca products outside of their geographically-defined reserves. In 2007 then-President Álvaro Uribe drew condemnation for the decision to outlaw all supply of legal coca products beyond reserve borders. The effectiveness and perception of eradication efforts is also limited by the economic realities facing farmers. Once coca crop has been destroyed, farmers face the same choice between coffee and coca and find coca is still the easier way to make a living (Laura Pereira, “Becoming Coca: A Materiality Approach to a Commodity Chain Analysis of Hoja de Coca in Colombia“, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 31, no. 3, November 2010, 384–400).

Because of these political challenges, and to support efforts to bring the conflict with FARC to a peaceful conclusion, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in 2015 shifted the nation’s counter-narcotics strategy to be more holistic and backed away from eradication campaigns (June S. Beittel and Liana W. Rosen, “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy“, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 10 March 2017). This was followed by a national increase in cultivation, as advocates of eradication expected. A second contributor to increased cultivation, however, could have been the belief that regions with higher levels of coca cultivation would receive more in the way of post-peace development investment and subsidies.

A Colombian anti-drug policeman stands guard in front of workers while they eradicate coca leaf plantations (Photo: Jose Gomez / Reuters).

A Colombian anti-drug policeman stands guard in front of workers while they eradicate coca leaf plantations (Photo: Jose Gomez / Reuters).

Investment and subsidies may be the most effective way to limit illicit cultivation, however. The high cost and limited effectiveness of eradication alone have raised the prospect of combining eradication with investment in a “carrot and stick” approach. While eradication has been found to deter expansion of coca production, it has not proven to be consistently effective in persuading farmers to decrease or convert the amount of land used for coca. Social investment and development has shown a stronger negative correlation with coca crops. Given the significant marginal profit between coffee and coca and the lack of market access in regions with intense coca cultivation even combining eradication with incentives would require a significant investment to change the financial calculus of farmers (50 cents spent in social investment yields only a .09 hectare decrease in cultivation). Economists have suggested that moral costs in fact play a significant role in deterring cultivations, and theorize that awareness campaigns could increase the effectiveness of anti-drug policies (Marcela Ibanez and Peter Martinsson, “Curbing Coca Cultivation in Colombia — A Framed Field Experiment“, Journal of Public Economics 105, September 2013).

Colombian Security
Colombia has benefited from decades of American training and assistance in counter-narcotics, counter-terror, and security. This has led to a high level of effectiveness and professionalism when compared to other military and police forces in the region, particularly among Colombian special forces and specialized counter-insurgency/counter-narcotics units. The specific strengths of the Colombian military can be deduced from international training exercises. Most of these exercises have been in counter-narcotics, humanitarian operations, and naval operations through the annual RIMPAC and UNITAS exercises. Colombia is also a regular participant in the Fuerzas Comandos special operations exercise conducted by United States Southern command, where in 2016 it took first place in an international skills competition. The short length of these exercises, however, leaves unproven Colombia’s ability to project and sustain a presence far from established support (such as former FARC territories) for long periods of time, and recent difficulties in establishing security in former FARC territories suggest it is underdeveloped. Given the overall level of training in Colombia’s military it is likely that if the projection problem could be solved with training it would have been resolved already.

Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, presents the first place trophy to the Colombia team that won the Fuerzas Comando 2016 competition. Fuerzas Comando is a U.S. Southern Command sponsored multinational special operations skills competition. (Photo: Jose Ruiz, SOUTHCOM Public Affairs).

Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, presents the first place trophy to the Colombia team that won the Fuerzas Comando 2016 competition. Fuerzas Comando is a U.S. Southern Command sponsored multinational special operations skills competition. (Photo: Jose Ruiz, SOUTHCOM Public Affairs).

The Colombian military has the capability to access its rural territories for short operations but not to maintain a permanent or semi-permanent presence to establish state institutions (Carl Meacham, Douglas Farah, and Robert D. Lamb, “Colombia: Peace and Stability in the Post-Conflict Era“, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2014). This suggests that the problem is not “how far” but rather “how often” and “with how much” they can transport resources. If improvements to the infrastructure of these regions is not made, the limited roads and airstrips will continue to be insufficient for what the Colombian military needs and rotary wing transportation will continue to be heavily relied upon.

Currently the heaviest transport helicopters in Colombia’s military are 86 Sikorsky UH-60/S-70i Black Hawk and 20 Mi-17 variants (according to the Military Balance 2017), both categorized as medium multi-use aircraft. Reliance on these platforms for maintaining a sustained presence in rural regions coming back under state control would be costly in fuel and maintenance (the UH-60 fleet in particular is aging). Maintaining this fleet under sustained transportation missions in the future will require an increase in maintenance funding beyond the current level, which was only reached with US support under Plan Colombia.

The recent ratification of the peace agreement by Colombia’s legislature now allows the Colombian-American cooperation to continue in the form of Paz Colombia, the successor to Plan Colombia. This package, $4.5 billion over 10 years, is intended to improve counter-narcotics efforts while supporting FARC reintegration, assist in the expansion of state authorities into the rural territories, and assist the judicial system in adjudicating cases that came from the conflict. These funds could help support either rotary aircraft operations or infrastructure development.

The solution to this problem must eventually be sustained without foreign assistance, and infrastructure development is likely the most effective option available to Colombia. Sustaining helicopter transportation indefinitely will continue to be resource intensive, while a substantial infrastructure development project would carry an immediate cost. Once completed it would only incur maintenance costs which would be supported by an improved economy in what are now severely impoverished territories with little to no market access.

Colombian special forces troops charge out of a military helicopter during a crackdown on an illegal gold mine at Puinawai Nature Reserve in May 2015 as part of Operation Anostomus, an offensive against illegal mining launched by the Colombian government in the jungles of the departements of Guainia and Vichada. The areas of illegal mining activities are mostly controlled by armed groups, guerrillas and criminal gangs.

Colombian special forces troops charge out of a military helicopter during a crackdown on an illegal gold mine at Puinawai Nature Reserve in May 2015 as part of Operation Anostomus, an offensive against illegal mining launched by the Colombian government in the jungles of the departements of Guainia and Vichada. The areas of illegal mining activities are mostly controlled by armed groups, guerrillas and criminal gangs.

Domestic Infrastructure
Though Colombia is one of South America’s most dynamic economies, its infrastructure is currently ranked 10th of 12. A significant challenge is Colombia’s difficult geography. Colombia’s population centers (Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín) are all in the mountainous Magdalena River region that lies between the port cities of the coastal plain and the inland expanses of fertile jungles and plains. This adds significant transportation costs to the export of agricultural products, principally coffee, and contributes significantly to economic disparities between urban and rural territories.

While the peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels is an encouraging advance in stabilizing the nation, coca cultivation will likely continue in impoverished regions with a weak security presence. The demobilization of FARC coupled with the inability of Colombia’s military and police to establish a meaningful presence in the remote rural territories will present an opportunity for other leftist insurgencies, paramilitary groups, and dissident FARC members who have not bought in to the peace process. These individuals could choose to continue participating in the coca trade, fomenting continued instability and establishing new criminal and insurgent networks due to grim economic prospects in the rural territories and the opportunities of coca cultivation.

A sizable funding package was announced in 2013, allocating nearly $30 billion for roads (the Fourth Generation, or 4G, Road Infrastructure Program) as part of $70 billion in overall transportation infrastructure development through 2035. This package is intended to improve economic dynamism, improve trade, and increase foreign investment by improving transportation between the Magdalena River region (the mountainous belt that stretches from the Ecuador border in the south to the South Caribbean Sea in the north and contains Colombia’s population centers) and the coastal port cities. There is a clear need for an infrastructure package, as the cost of shipping goods from Bogotá to the Colombian port city of Buenaventura is more expensive than forwarding the same goods to Shanghai. This cost puts an incredible strain on the agriculture industry, as most of Colombia’s land lies inland of the Magdalena River. 

4G may have limited impact on the military’s logistical difficulties or the local economies of rural territories, however, unless it is expanded beyond the highway system to include secondary and tertiary roads inland of the Magdalena River. While 4G may do some to decrease the cost of exporting agricultural goods (at least some of the route will include improved highways), its effect on logistical problems in the territories themselves will be limited without improvements to secondary and tertiary roads.

Colombia’s Fourth Generation (4G) road infrastructure program is the largest of its kind in Latin America today. It involves 47 projects spanning 8,000 kilometers of roadway and 3,500 kilometers of four-lane highways as well as expansion of ports and railways, all of which are to be completed by the end of the decade.

Colombia’s Fourth Generation (4G) road infrastructure program is the largest of its kind in Latin America today. It involves 47 projects spanning 8,000 kilometers of roadway and 3,500 kilometers of four-lane highways as well as expansion of ports and railways, all of which are to be completed by the end of the decade.

An understanding of the economic and political motivations to coca cultivation and coca-related violence is vital to effectively addressing coca cultivation in Colombia. Though a political agreement has been reached with FARC, many of the farmers doing the physical cultivation of coca plants in FARC territory are motivated by economic factors that are currently unaddressed. The agreement with FARC also does little to address the actions of profit-motivated actors such as narco-traffickers, international drug cartels, and Colombian paramilitary organizations, not to mention dissident FARC members unwilling to reintegrate into mainstream society. The demobilization of FARC will leave Colombian security forces to deal with willing cultivators and organizations eager to capitalize on the removal of a chief competitor.

To prevent this from occurring, the Colombian military and police will need to move quickly and effectively to establish security and administrative services in former FARC territory and fill the power vacuum Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization has left behind. Sustaining a presence in rural regions with poor infrastructure has proven to be difficult, however, and will be prohibitively expensive (unless US military aid is continued indefinitely) without significant infrastructure development.

Infrastructure development will also alleviate the economic difficulty in regions of intense coca cultivation. In communities with little to no market access, deterrent strategies such as eradication are of limited effectiveness due to the massive difference in potential profit between coca and legal crops such as coffee. Pairing deterrent measures with a strategy of investment and infrastructure development designed to decrease the transportation and operational costs of farmers and make licit crops economically viable has been shown to be more effective in decreasing coca cultivation than eradication alone.

The war against FARC was in many ways simpler than the post-peace era will be. The Colombian Government was previously able to utilize assertive, decisive, and violent strategies in FARC territory while allowing the guerrilla organization to “own” the economic and societal effects. That era of simplicity has ended, and holistic multi-dimensional strategies must be adopted if Colombia is to wrest control of former FARC territories from hungry competitors and effect a significant decrease in the Colombian coca trade.

More information
Michael Martelle, “Motivations and Effects of Coca Cultivation in Colombia“,, 10.08.2017.

Posted in Colombia, English, General Knowledge, International, Michael Martelle, Organised Crime, Security Policy, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Assad and the Russians turned their noses up at Raqqa operation

by Paul Iddon.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backer were extremely dismissive towards the United States-backed operation that is removing Islamic State (ISIS) from the group’s de-facto Syrian capital city Raqqa. At first, in last April he mocked the lengthy delay of the operation into Raqqa city, because the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) initially begun to isolate and cut off the city last November 7 but did not begin the operation into the actual city until early this June.

Shortly thereafter, Sergey Surovikin, the commander of the Russian military forces in Syria, quickly charged US-led coalition and the SDF of colluding with ISIS: “Instead of eliminating terrorists guilty of killing hundreds and thousands of Syrian civilians, the US-led coalition together with the Democratic Forces Union [sic] controlled by it enters into collusion with ringleaders of the ISIL who give up the settlements they had seized without fighting and head to the provinces where the Syrian government forces are active.”

Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) looking at smoke rising after an airstrike during fighting with the Islamic State in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, 12 August 2017 (Photo: Morukc Umnaber).

Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) looking at smoke rising after an airstrike during fighting with the Islamic State in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, 12 August 2017 (Photo: Morukc Umnaber).

Assad’s dismissal was quite hollow given his own record fighting the militants. Raqqa was the first of two provincial capitals his forces lost complete control over (the other being Idlib to Turkish-backed Islamist forces in early 2015). Raqqa later fell to ISIS by January 2014. Syrian forces were forced from the entirety of Raqqa province by ISIS in August 2014, when the militants captured the Al-Tabqa airbase after a lengthy siege. An ill-prepared attempt by the regime to reclaim a foothold in the province in June 2016 was completely repelled by the militants. Today all of Al-Tabqa, the airbase and the dam, is in the hands of the SDF.

Russia’s ridiculous claim of a kind of conspiracy between US-led coalition and ISIS is nothing new. For example, in December 2016 they alleged the US purposely done nothing when ISIS advanced on Palmyra, which they captured again from the Syrian military. Moscow also insinuated earlier that the US intentionally left Mosul’s western approaches open to enable ISIS to flee that metropolis over the border into Syria and then swamp Syrian Army positions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even went so far as to speculate that Washington may have done to provide a “respite” to the anti-regime forces the Russians were then bombarding in East Aleppo. Interestingly, there is substantial evidence that indicates the initial Russian-backed Syrian operation against ISIS in Palmyra on March 2016 was a success largely because they had negotiated an ISIS withdrawal in advance. In other words, people in glass houses should not throw stones!

However, there is a grain of truth to the claim that the western approach to Mosul was intentionally left open. An Iraqi special forces commander named Major Salam Jassim said as much just before the operation began. However Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, an Iraqi military spokesman, declared that if ISIS do try and flee “then this area will become a killing zone as we target them with our own aircraft.”

Even if it doesn’t appear at first glance, obvious escape ways are a tactical move to safely neutralize ISIS militants and avoid doing harm to civilians trapped in cities and towns held by the group. Already in late June 2016, the US-led coalition, along with the Iraqi Air Force, pulverized an ISIS convoy fleeing the western Iraqi city of Fallujah in late June 2016.

Iraqi aircraft targeting fleeing ISIS convoy from Fallujah in June 2016 (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

Iraqi aircraft targeting fleeing ISIS convoy from Fallujah in June 2016 (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

The SDF did indeed offer ISIS amnesties in return for pulling their forces out of population centers. In Al-Tabqa, back in May 2017, the SDF successfully got ISIS to surrender heavy weapons and even dismantle their own improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted around the city’s important dam. The US-led coalition were even able to target some of the fleeing militants who “could be safely hit without harming civilians“. Not a bad strategy since it can save civilian lives.

It seems as if a such strategy would even be in the interest of Russia. When the US-backed Iraqi military operation to remove ISIS from Mosul began last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he hoped that not many civilians would be killed. Later Russia condemned the US for the civilian death toll incurred during the battle. Of course, these statements could be interpreted as hypocritical rather than genuine concern for the welfare of innocent Moslawis considering the Russian/Syrian Air Forces’ simultaneous bombardment of East Aleppo with wantonly destructive weapons, such as cluster and incendiary bombs. Use of unguided conventional bombs over urban areas is bad enough, use of those kind of weapons is indicative of a callous disregard for civilian life.

The Iraqi Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries later rushed in to close Mosul’s unguarded western gap in October, completely encircling the metropolis. A Reuters report calculated that this action was bound to increase civilian casualties in the Mosul battle and make the battle longer since ISIS would have no choice but to fight to the last man inside the city. After all, bombing ISIS convoys outside the city in open areas could have resulted in far fewer civilian casualties than trying to target them in the city with air and artillery strikes.

Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter watches over Raqqa with his M4 Carbine assault rifle (Photo: YPG Press Office).

Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighter watches over Raqqa with his M4 Carbine assault rifle (Photo: YPG Press Office).

US and SDF conduct in Raqqa certainly isn’t perfect. Fighting ruthless militants in an urban environment is bound to incur civilian casualties. However this force, imperfect as it might be, is clearly the best available option to efficiently remove the militants and afflict another major territorial loss against them. One far more significant than any neither Assad nor the Russians have achieved to date, despite what their blithe and dismissive statements imply.

Dismissive statements aside there was a danger both powers would try to actively undermine the offensive. The Syrian Su-22 warplane the US shot down on June 18 was attacking SDF positions near Al-Tabqa, which one hopes they had honestly mistaken for ISIS. Any other such incident has the potential to spark a dangerous standoff in the area between US forces in Syria and Damascus, whose forces have advanced into the western countryside of Raqqa, and possibly even compromise this current operation. A horrid outcome which only ISIS would benefit from.

Rather than being so critical and dismissive toward the US-SDF effort in Raqqa, or worse risk thwarting it, Damascus and Moscow should instead focus on their joint efforts on removing ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. They have a strategic self-interest in doing so since it could give Assad a foothold back in eastern Syria and enable him to link-up with Syrian soldiers who have long been holding out against the militants in that city. ISIS has been attacking this garrison and could potentially overrun it if this force is are not substantially reinforced in the coming months. Such a defeat would give ISIS an alternative stronghold to Raqqa and forestall the complete destruction of the self-styled caliphate.

Presently the regime is marching south of Raqqa toward Deir Ezzor while the SDF makes headway in the ISIS capital, where they’ve reportedly captured almost half of the city. This is far more productive on their part than idly dismissing out of hand the honest efforts the US and their Kurdish-led allies have been making to defeat these marauding militants.

Posted in English, International, Iraq, Paul Iddon, Russia, Syria, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

FBI’s intelligence-gathering operation in Iraq

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Members of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team demonstrate close quarter battle training at the Tactical Firearms Training Center on Tuesday April 08, 2014 in Quantico, VA. (Photo: Matt McClain / The Washington Post).

Members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team demonstrate close quarter battle training at the Tactical Firearms Training Center on Tuesday April 08, 2014 in Quantico, VA. (Photo: Matt McClain / The Washington Post).

Six weeks before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko found himself posted to Saddam Hussein’s oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. Kolko’s job was to lead a team that would scour thousands of Iraqi government documents for evidence of espionage in or surveillance of the United States. Once he made it to Baghdad, Kolko said, analysts and special agents on his team sifted through literal truckloads of Iraqi intelligence alongside the American soldiers now responsible for governing and securing the country.

“We dressed army, lived army, and ate army while we were there,” Kolko told me of his stint as an FBI special agent turned soldier.

Kolko and his team uncovered an Iraqi spy ring spanning five states, leading to charges against 12 Iraqi immigrants. But the FBI’s mission in Iraq expanded far beyond counterintelligence, with work ranging from bomb analysis to how to establish some semblance of law and order in a foreign country rife with hostiles forces. In the process, the top domestic law enforcement agency in America emerged as a player in the Middle East, a region where it remains active to some extent even as it faces internal turmoil over the ouster of Director James Comey and the probe into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow.

What the team uncovered amid millions of documents gathered from warehouses, secret government stash houses and the Iraqi intelligence ministry was an extensive network of Iraqi spies operating in the United States. — Donna Leinwand, “FBI Team in Baghdad Uncovered Extensive Iraqi Spy Network in U.S.“, Deseret News, 03.03.2008.

In 2005, Special Agent Jim Maxwell joined the Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell (CEXC), a task force comprising experts from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF); and Western militaries. The group studied bombings in Iraq like crime scenes, applying forensic science and sharing their data with higher-ups at the Pentagon and in Quantico, Maxwell told me. He added that the CEXC’s insights and intelligence sharing saved the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and civilians back in the US, teaching law enforcement agencies how to counteract improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The highest-ranking FBI official in the country at the time was the legal attaché at the American embassy in the Green Zone. “The FBI’s Legal Attaché program was established to facilitate information exchange and the coordination of the FBI’s international activities, provide training and assistance, and enable criminal prosecutions of foreign subjects,” Bureau spokesman Andy Ames said in an email. “The Legal Attaché (LEGAT) is the FBI Director’s personal representative in the host country.”

The Intercept reported that legats may even recruit informants alongside the Central Intelligence Agency on foreign soil, an allegation that the FBI declined to address one way or another.

Many former special agents worked in Iraq as contractors, advising American soldiers and Iraqi policemen on how to establish and observe the rule of law in a country whose government the US Armed Forces had just overthrown and redesigned. Ed Guevara, a now-retired special agent who was under a contract with the Defense and State Departments, recalled advising Iraq’s interior ministry on transitioning its law enforcement agencies from operating under a military dictatorship to a state built on civil authority. “Since the war was ongoing, the assignment called for helping manage crises and their related consequences due to major attacks and bombings, keeping order in coordination with military forces, conducting investigations, and standing up the National Command Center as a functional national entity in intelligence and deployment of resources,” Guevara said.

Over two previous presidential administrations, the FBI, enabled by complacent congressional oversight in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has transformed itself from a criminal law enforcement organization into an intelligence-gathering operation whose methods are more similar to those of the CIA and NSA. With 35,000 employees and more than 15,000 informants, today’s FBI is an intelligence agency without a historical peer in the United States. […] As further proof of the FBI’s transformation from domestic law enforcement organization to global intelligence agency, the informant policy guide allows the FBI to deploy informants in countries around the globe and mentions no requirement that the agency notify the host country of their presence. FBI legal attaches, or legats, are central to this capacity. Legats are stationed in U.S. embassies and their official duty is to serve as liaisons between the FBI and the law enforcement agencies of other nations. But information from the informant policy guide and news reports in recent years suggests that legats function as the FBI’s version of CIA station chiefs — intelligence agents operating in other countries under nominal State Department cover. — Trevor Aaronson, “The FBI Gives Itself Lots of Rope to Pull in Informants“, The Intercept, 31.01.2017.

“We gathered evidence and assisted in obtaining evidence to be used in court,” added Jerry Howe, a former special agent embedded as an advisor to the US Army. “Once a terrorist or criminal was identified, we used available databases and coordinated with the Iraqi military to apprehend the subject.”

For his part, James Fitzsimmons was assigned by the Defense Department to the Commission of Integrity, an Iraqi government watchdog that investigated corruption, which evolved into such a controversial, dangerous enterprise that the Commission’s director and his deputy had to seek asylum in the US. According to Fitzsimmons, other former special agents worked alongside former employees of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service in the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an American government agency overseeing how the US financed the Iraq War.

“The basic goals of the FBI in Iraq were to reorganize the new government with proper training to re-establish law enforcement and security in the country,” said Ken Riolo, who participated in an FBI task force investigating some of Saddam’s crimes against humanity between July and October 2006, four months before the dictator’s execution. The special agent now heading the FBI’s Miami office, Arabic-speaking Lebanese–American George Piro, became known in the news media as Saddam’s interrogator.

Despite special agents’ individual successes, chronic problems endemic to their operating environment undermined progress on the some of the FBI’s long-term projects. Anti-American, Iranian-backed Shia militias managed to infiltrate the Interior Ministry and its corresponding law enforcement agencies, complicating the FBI’s efforts to shape an Iraqi security agency meant to embody the rule of law. Insurgents, meanwhile, engineered bigger, cheaper, deadlier IEDs capable of crippling expensive military technology, threatening to outpace the CEXC. They even wounded a special agent, leading some in the Justice Department to question the wisdom of the wider program.

When the US Armed Forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the FBI returned many of its responsibilities there to the Iraqis. In the years since, the rise of ISIS has challenged the longevity of the FBI’s accomplishments in Iraq. The Bureau’s most lasting achievements there may be the ones most connected to its missions of counterintelligence and counterterrorism in the United States. “The number of major crimes committed by Iraqis that had some nexus to US interests was overwhelming,” Fitzsimmons told me. Kolko added that the FBI often triaged documents revealing actionable intelligence related to the US.

Other domestic American law enforcement agencies, such as the New York City Police Department, have their own histories of operating abroad — but few outside the Drug Enforcement Administration have made such major contributions to foreign battlefields.

While most eyes in the United States are on the law enforcement agency’s investigation of the alleged relationship between Trump and Moscow, Trump, who has vowed to crush ISIS, may see fit to send the US’s top special agents back to troubled Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq. Then, it will fall to Trump’s nominee for FBI Director, Christopher A. Wray, a lawyer experienced in criminal law rather than counterterrorism, to lead the Bureau’s charge into one of the US’s longest wars.

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Personal Theories of Power: Space Power – Buttress of the Modern Military

This article is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at the end of his second mission. It spent 469 days in space during its mission. Later, during the fourth mission, the vehicle spent a record-breaking 717 days and 20 hours in orbit before landing at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility on 7 May 2017. The next mission is scheduled for September 2017.

U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at the end of his second mission. It spent 469 days in space during its mission. Later, during the fourth mission, the vehicle spent a record-breaking 717 days and 20 hours in orbit before landing at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility on 7 May 2017. The next mission is scheduled for September 2017.

The United States possesses the world’s leading military. It has the most sophisticated air, land, sea, and, now, cyber forces and wields them in such a manner such that no single nation, barring the employment of total nuclear war, approaches its destructive capability.

America’s military power in these realms is identifiable. Fighter jets, bombs, tanks, submarines, ships, and more — these are all synonymous with the Nation’s warfighting portfolio. And in the modern world, even though we cannot see a cyber attack coming, we can certainly see its results — as with the Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. To the public, these tools together are America’s “stick” on the global stage, for whatever purpose its leaders deem necessary.

Space is different. There are no bombs raining from orbit, and no crack special forces deploying from orbital platforms. The tide of battle is never turned by the sudden appearance of a satellite overhead. In fact, no one in the history of war has ever been killed by a weapon from space. There are actually no weapons in space nor will there be any in the foreseeable future.

Yet, America is the world’s space power. The Nation’s strength in the modern military era is dependent on its space capabilities. Space is fundamentally different than air, sea, land, and cyber power, and at the same time inextricably tied to them. It buttresses, binds, and enhances all of those visible modes of power. America cannot conduct war without space.

Simply, space is inherently a medium, as with air, land, sea, and cyber, and space power is the ability to use or deny the use by others of that medium. The United States Air Force (USAF) defined in its Air Force Doctrine Document 1 from September 1997 (page 85) military space power as a “capability” to utilize [space-based] assets towards fulfilling national security needs. In this, space is similar to other forms of military projection. But, its difference comes in how it is measured. When viewed in this context, space power is thus the aggregate of a nation’s abilities to establish, access, and leverage its orbital assets to further all other forms of national power.

Big Brother is Watching
It is important to note that space power is inherently global, as dictated by orbital mechanics. It is essentially impossible to go to space without passing over another nation in some capacity. Thus, the concept of peaceful overflight was established with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, when the United States did not protest the path of the satellite even as it passed over the Nation. This idea stands in contrast to traditional territorial rules in which it would be considered a violation of sovereignty to put a military craft on or above another nation without express permission.

This difference became especially obvious in 1960 when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 spy aircraft above the Soviet Union. Prior to that, the U.S. recognized that its missions over Russia were certainly a provocation and against international norms, but felt that the U-2 aircraft were more than capable of evading Soviet ground-based interceptors. The imagery intelligence (IMINT), they thought, justified the risk.

The downing and subsequent capture of Powers was a significant embarrassment for the United States, and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower immediately halted this practice. From that point forward, it became clear that the only viable way for the U.S. to gather substantial IMINT against an opponent with sophisticated anti-air capabilities was via satellite.

U-2 pilots in full pressure suits in front of a Dragon Lady on the Beale Air Force Base flightline. Pictured are 14 of a total of about 80 pilots qualified on the U-2 (as of 2012). After the NASA shuttle program has ended and with the exception of the individuals in the ISS, U-2 pilots are now the highest flying humans in the world (21,300+ m).

U-2 pilots in full pressure suits in front of a Dragon Lady on the Beale Air Force Base flightline. Pictured are 14 of a total of about 80 pilots qualified on the U-2 (as of 2012). After the NASA shuttle program has ended and with the exception of the individuals in the ISS, U-2 pilots are now the highest flying humans in the world (21,300+ m).

KH-4B, Corona
The best quantification of space power in its early days came just a few months after the Powers incident. The CIA-run Corona program produced the first successful IMINT satellite in history. This satellite, code-named Discoverer 14, obtained more photographs of the Soviet Union in just 17 orbits over the course of a day than all 24 of the previous U-2 flights combined. Electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites, such as the early generation GRAB program (which actually launched before Corona), helped map Soviet air defenses by detecting radar pulses, which enabled strategic planners to map bomber routes. Although air-and-sea-based reconnaissance craft had the capability to also detect radar pulses, they could only identify targets at a maximum of 320 km within the Soviet Union, far less than was needed to plan a secure route to interior targets. Space became more than just a one-to-one replacement of existing tools; it offered significantly more access to foes.

Superiority then became three-pronged: who had the broadest capabilities, who had the best technology in each form of space-based intelligence gathering, and who had the best coverage? Said another way, how well could a nation monitor all spectra in detail at all times everywhere that matters?

Nearly a decade after Corona transformed space into a viable form of power, the U.S. leveraged its first reliable weather monitoring and communications relay satellites in the Vietnam War. This expanded the role of space to that of an active component on the battlefield, rather than just a pre-conflict source of intelligence — an enormously important growth.

More than that, it represented a substantial evolution of war as a whole. The sudden enhancement of meteorological data due to dedicated satellites gave field commanders far greater clarity than in previous conflicts as to when would be the ideal windows to mount a strike or a longer campaign. This was especially important in Vietnam, which was often overcast.

Satellite communications also made their wartime debut in Vietnam. This capability offered the first true live link between war planners and field commanders, for the conveyance of orders and the timely distribution of sensitive intelligence. Whereas intelligence satellites broadened the world by opening up vast new areas to prying eyes, communications satellites dramatically shrank it. However, this new channel was offered only to the top commanders in any region, due to limitations in infrastructure. Soldiers in the field still used radios to communicate with base.

All these space capabilities continued their evolutionary growth for the next few decades. But, it was Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 that marked space power as a revolutionary change in the conduct of war. Called the “first space war” by some, this conflict was the first time that satellite communications and new position, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems were utilized in direct concert with military forces to monitor and direct an ongoing campaign at all levels. Space-based intelligence-gathering satellites mapped Iraqi strategic installations well ahead of the first shots and continued to track changes in enemy force distribution. Satellite communications systems enabled ground forces to transmit targeting data to en-route aircraft, substantially improving the accuracy of dropped munitions. In addition, while the constellation was not yet fully deployed, the Global Positioning System (GPS) conveyed coalition forces an enormous strategic advantage, by enabling ground forces to travel through previously unmapped territory and circumvent the heavily defended road system into Iraq.

The United States faces the greatest diversity of military threats in its history. At the same time, the military is undergoing a significant size reduction. Yet, more so now than ever, it possesses the ability to strike anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. It does not need to constantly maintain local forces when it has force projection. In the modern world, force projection would not exist without space power.

Special forces and drone operations have taken front stage in America’s Global War on Terror. IMINT and SIGINT satellites provide important intelligence about targets far below. GPS satellites enable drones to fly to areas of interest and, if necessary, guide their munitions to their final destinations. Drone operators are often far away from the craft they are piloting, many times even in a different hemisphere. This capability is only possible by utilizing high throughput communications satellites. For special forces, GPS is used to get the teams quickly to their targets. Further, portable satellite communications units allow them to relay updates to their commanders and call in support if necessary.

Space, a domain that no nation owns but on which all rely, is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. — Robert M. Gates and James R. Clapper, “United States National Security Space Strategy”, Unclassified Summary, January 2011).

These options are especially effective against non-space actors who do not have the capabilities to strike back. However, space is increasingly becoming “congested, contested, and competitive” — meaning a broader group of nations is doing more to leverage space for their own military power and deny others from doing the same. China stands out in this realm. While the nation (exclusive of nuclear weapons) stands no match against the United States in any conventional confrontation, it possesses counter-space technologies that would dramatically curtail America’s force projection strengths. In such a situation, America’s power abroad would decline dramatically, to such a point that along the Asian coasts, China may have local superiority.

As such, the definition of space power is expanding, to being the aggregate of a nation’s abilities to establish, access, leverage, and sustain its orbital assets to further all other forms of national power. Earth-shaking rocket launches aside, space is the silent partner in nearly American military endeavor today. Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent counterinsurgency operations that followed demonstrated that clearly enough. Space guides soldiers, sailors, airmen, and bombs to their targets, gives the photographs and signal intercepts to understand what enemies are planning, and provides secure, global communication in an era of global need.

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Shigatse During the Doka La Standoff

A flight of J-11 (Su-27SK) at Shigatse air base on 22MAY2012.

A couple weeks back, we jumped over the border and looked at India’s Hasimara airbase. This week we go back and touch on China’s Shigatse, a civil-military airfield less than 160 km west of Lhasa. Commercial imagery acquired during July and August 2017 has shown up to eight PLAAF J-10 multi-role fighters parked on the apron. They likely arrived between March and April after at least five Shenyang J-11, a modified and locally produced variant of the Russian Su-27SK, departed the airfield.

Similar to Gonggar, the fourth generation aircraft were also joined in late June by a rotation of MI-17 or MI-171 HIP, the latter an improved variant. At least two of the four HIP had weapons racks or winglets attached suggesting they could perform combat or transport roles. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and the PLA Aviation Corp operate the platform.

The deployment of helicopters to forward locations is notable, particularly as the PLA modernizes into a smaller more flexible force. As a part of the 2015 military reform, the PLA replaced its seven military regions with five new theater commands. The Tibet Autonomous Region, which falls under the Western Theater Command (WTC), recently began developing a joint operations framework. According to the PLA Daily, the WTC brought experts together in February 2016 from more than 100 schools to focus on a joint operations roadmap.

In addition to the helos, by 06 August 2017, we also saw the first known deployment of a drone to the airbase. A single CH-4 medium altitude long endurance UAV, joined the HIP on the western parking apron. A primary satellite link was also located at a leveled support area north of the runway. The presence of the satellite link suggests the UAV is piloted from the airbase. This is the first drone deployment at a forward airbase observed since the Doka La crisis was triggered.

Beyond aircraft, the airfield’s surface-to-air missile site, located west of the runway, had elements deployed throughout July and early August. In the past, radar and firing units have been observed in operation south of the runway near environmental shelters where they are believed to be stored. Also similar to observations at Gonggar, imagery confirms a deployment of the long range HQ-9 launchers. Unfortunately, full identification of all deployed assets on the hardstands could not be confirmed due to the employment of tarps.

Bottom Line – Despite SAM assets on alert throughout July, fighters deployed to Shigatse remained within baseline for the airbase. However, additional platforms deploying to this location should be watched closely as the the PLA operationalizes its new theater commands and tensions remain with India.

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