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The CTBT Revisited: Has Anything Really Changed? September 22, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Iran, Israel, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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[This article was picked up by the Center for Vision and Values and is available here: http://www.visandvals.org/New_Life_for_the_CTBT.php]

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement which would ban all nuclear tests, may soon be revived from its purgatory in the Senate.   It was signed by President Clinton in 1996 and rejected by the Senate in October 1999.  The arguments that denied ratification by a 19 vote margin still ring true today.    In his Prague speech, however, President Obama called for prompt U.S. ratification of the treaty.  He is expected to do the same at the UN later this month.

In rejecting the CTBT, Senate opponents listed several concerns that motivated their decision.  They believed the CTBT was unverifiable and that others nations could easily cheat; the ability to enforce the treaty was dubious; the U.S. nuclear stockpile would not be as safe or reliable in the absence of testing; and the benefit to nuclear nonproliferation was minimal.[i]

Ten years later, many of these concerns are still relevant.  The issue of verification has been improved but not settled.  The CTBT Organization has set up a network of 228 monitoring stations around the world, but significant gaps still exist.[ii] There are no stations in India or North Korea, and only one in Pakistan and Turkey.  Sixty-one stations detected North Korea’s nuclear test in May 2009, but none detected radioactive gases to corroborate the seismic data.[iii] If North Korea was able to conceal such radiation, there is no reason to believe China or Russia could not as well.

As the continuing crises with North Korea and Iran illustrate, enforcing treaty obligations or punishing rule-breakers is not always effective.  It is often, in fact, completely ineffective due to a lack of international cooperation.  If a nuclear test were detected in Pakistan, India,[iv] or China, what would happen next?  If the record with Pyongyang or Tehran is any indicator, the violating state would take some rhetorical heat and little more than a toothless UN Security Council resolution (if that).  The CTBT will not immediately change other states’ policies.

The last decade has not been kind to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  Though the Stockpile Stewardship Program has successfully replaced older components, confidence in reliability has declined as the warheads age.[v] Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated that a credible U.S. deterrent cannot be maintained without testing or modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons.[vi] If modernization is not pursued, many experts believe testing will be needed to guarantee the weapons’ reliability.

Most significantly, the treaty’s perceived benefits toward enhancing nuclear nonproliferation are still debatable.  Pro-CTBT voices have made several valid claims to consider.[vii] They argue that without the CTBT the nuclear arms race will continue, especially in Asia, with more states hedging their capabilities to be able to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly.[viii] Treaty advocates are quick to point out that the U.S. has already received a benefit for pursuing ratification – the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.  The NPT, which divides the world into five nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the rest as non-NWS, is up for review in May 2010. The non-NWS are likely going to insist on CTBT ratification in exchange for nonproliferation cooperation.[ix]

These arguments still do not explain how the CTBT will be good for nonproliferation.  For one, the existence of a nuclear arms race (outside India and Pakistan) is suspect, given the fact that the U.S. and Russia are reducing their nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear hedging is a problem to be tackled by IAEA monitoring; not by attempting to ban nuclear tests (the NPT already does this for non-NWS).  Though the non-nuclears may insist on entry into force of the CTBT, there is little reason to believe they will take tougher actions on Pyongyang and Tehran once the U.S. ratifies it.  If unilaterally and bilaterally reducing nuclear arsenals and not testing for 17 years have done nothing to convince non-NWS of U.S. leadership, why will the CTBT?

The CTBT is simply not in the U.S. national interest.  The U.S. would not be guaranteed a seat on the Executive Council, which geographically would be unfriendly to Washington.[x] Since it requires North Korean, Pakistani, and Egyptian ratification (to name a few), the U.S. would be binding itself to a treaty unlikely to ever enter into force.  Though there would be a growing ability to detect nuclear tests, there would be no effective way to enforce the treaty.  The U.S. stockpile would continue to atrophy as explosive testing for reliability would be prohibited, which could spur proliferation.  The CTBT needs to be rewritten to mitigate these drawbacks, not “immediately and aggressively”[xi] brought before the U.S. Senate.


[i] Kathleen Bailey and Robert Barker, “Why the United States Should Unsign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Resume Nuclear Testing,” Comparative Strategy 22 (2003): 131.

[ii] Kathy Sawyer, “Experts say new sensing tools could help ease concerns on Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” AAAS News Release, 10 August 2009.

[iii] http://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/highlights/2009/experts-sure-about-nature-of-the-dprk-event/

[iv] “No CTBT, India needs more nuclear tests; Pokhran II coordinator,” Hindustan Times, 27 August 2009.

[v] William Perry and Jim Schlesinger, America’s Strategic Posture, May 2009.

[vi] “Inside Obama Administration, a Tug of War over Nuclear Warheads,” Global Security Newswire, 18 August 2009.

[vii] Raymond Jeanloz, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Security,” in Reykjavik Revisited, 2008.

[viii] For a discussion on nuclear hedging, see Ariel Levite, “Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited,” International Security 27, no. 3 (Winter 2002/03), 59-88.

[ix] William Perry and Brent Scowcroft, commissioners, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, 55.

[x] “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ctbt/text/ctbt1.htm

[xi] See text of President Obama’s “Prague Speech.”

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The F-22 Raptor Suffers Friendly Fire July 21, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Iran, Politics, Russia, U.S. Budget, U.S. Government.
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Perhaps you were not aware of it, but today was a great day for Russia and China.  The party elites and defense establishments in Moscow and Beijing surely looked on with glee as the Senate voted 58-40 in favor of the McCain-Levin amendment to halt production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 planes.  This contrasted with the House defense authorization bill which allotted funding for an additional 7 of the $150 million planes.  The bill will now have to go to conference committee for the House and Senate to work out their differences between the bills.

The opponents of the F-22 make three main charges – that the jet costs too much, is not being used in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the money could be better spent on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Though the pricetag of the jet is significant (around $150 million), it is a lot of bang for the buck.  It is literally the only fifth-generation fighter that is operational and ready-for-use today.  Its capabilities are through the roof – stealth that reduces its radar signature substantially, the ability to cruise at high speeds and high altitudes, and a maneuverability and advanced avionics that allow it to outfight any jet in the world.  Though the $1.5 billion for the additional jets may seem like a lot in a time of deficit spending (but compare it to the stimulus or auto bailout for some perspective), it is necessary to keep the expertise and suppliers available for future fighter production.  If the F-22 assembly line is shut down, valuable engineering skills and unique material suppliers will scatter to different employers or go out of business, making a reversal of this decision very difficult.  Given the long amount of lead time in government defense contracts (the F-22 was 20 years in the works), shutting down production would spell the end of the quick replacement ability necessary for unforeseen contingencies.

The charge that the Raptor is not being used in Iraq or Afghanistan, made especially by Senator McCain, is true but misleading.  McCain is suffering from this-war-itis as he charges defense contractors with “next-war-itis.”  The F-22 is designed primarily for air superiority missions.  Obviously insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have no air force or contested airspace.  But Iran, thanks to Russian suppliers, is equipped both with Russian-modified jets and surface-to-air missiles.  If a strike was deemed necessary to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, a jet like the F-22 would be necessary to supress enemy air forces and destroy anti-aircraft installations before the strike fighters would fly in.  Beyond that, the F-22 chiefly serves to deter conventional aggression by China and Russia.  Since those nations may be at least a decade away from fielding their own fifth-generation fighters, the American Raptor force serves as a reminder that they would be denied air superiority in any future conflicts over Eastern Europe or Taiwan.

Many F-22 detractors also claim that the money for additional planes would be better spent on funding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which every branch of the military will field, as well as many U.S. allies.  The F-35, though also a fifth generation stealth jet, is not designed for air superiority missions and is not as maneuverable or able to travel at the same speeds or altitudes as the F-22.  Moreover, the F-35 will not be operational on a significant scale for at least a couple of years (once the assembly lines reach full capacity, they will be able to produce approximately 350 planes a year).  The F-22 and F-35 are a great “team” due to synergy – by having a mix of both planes, they are more effective and less are needed overall.  Emphasizing the F-35 too much while the F-22 is kept at a small force (less than half what the Air Force deems necessary) will reduce the overall potential effectiveness of the U.S. Air Force.  For further analysis on the distinction between the F-22 and F-35, see David Centofante’s column here.

The F-22, a perennial punching bag, was beaten today, not by enemy air forces, but by a misguided United States Senate.  Part of it may be a lack of public understanding about the Raptor’s importance, as a highlighted in this earlier post.  Part of it is surely a knee-jerk distrust of big government contracts and expensive defense systems (witness the recent fate of missile defense).  But most of it is a lack of leadership on the part of U.S. politicians.  Too concerned with spending money that will benefit them (or their districts) immediately, they are neglecting the long-term health and vitality of the country.  Also, they are far too negligent about the capabilities and intentions of our adversaries in Moscow and Beijing.  After all, if a defense amendment is going to benefit Russians and Chinese, shouldn’t a good leader question its prudence?

F-22 Raptor, air dominance achieved

America’s Nuclear Deterrent 64 Years After Trinity July 16, 2009

Posted by SV in China, History, Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Government.
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Today, July 16th 2009, marked the 64th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  That test brought the world unambiguously into the Atomic Age.  Since that day nuclear weapons have played a critical role in U.S. defense policy, first as the ultimate tool with which to win the Second World War and almost immediately thereafter as a critical tool to deter aggression against the United States and its allies.  This mission became of even greater importance with the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb in August of 1949.

Despite serving as the most powerful deterrent against threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies, and by preventing a massively destructive conventional (or nuclear) war between the major powers, the nuclear deterrent of 2009 is atrophying and declining in reliability and safety.  As the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report, the current nuclear weapons complex suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of emphasis on maintaining the intellectual base, and an almost hostile attitude by policymakers.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jon Kyl and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle charged the president with neglecting to support a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as well as endorsing the unverifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999.

As the U.S. nuclear inventory continues to age, life-extension or stockpile stewardship programs continue in their attempt to increase the weapons’ service lives.  However, with each further modification, the weapon design is taken farther from the actual model that was proven successful through testing.  Also, each passing year sees more scientists who had experience with nuclear testing retiring.  Therefore the hands on expertise that was produced through a rigorous and scientific development and testing process is declining precipitously.  Crucial skills and knowledge, some of which may only be understood through testing, are being lost.

Though the proponents of a CTBT argue that it will strengthen Washington’s hand in promoting nonproliferation and tougher sanctions toward Iran and North Korea, there is little evidence to support this.  No matter if every other third-party nation suddenly endorsed U.S. nonproliferation efforts, as long as Russia and China continue to block effective measures, which have been within their interests, no amount of political good-will generated by CTBT ratification will stop proliferation.  Therefore, the CTBT could only bring into question more the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent.  If the U.S. is to deter aggression and assure its allies (so that they do not develop their own weapons), it will eventually have to test a new, modern, safe nuclear warhead design to replace the Cold War-era stockpile.

If one wants to reach a compromise position, I would suggest following the French example.  France conducted its last nuclear test in 1995, providing it with a modern, reliable, and proven warhead design that would serve French purposes for decades to come.  Within the next year it signed and ratified the CTBT.  The U.S. could develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that would have  a service life of decades, test it to verify its reliability and effectiveness, and then ratify the CTBT.  Though a skeptic or pessimist may still argue that the U.S. may need to test a new or different design in the future, there is a “supreme national interest” clause in the CTBT that would allow the U.S. to withdraw if it served to further U.S. national security.  International agreements, after all, should only be abided to in order to further the national interest.

Alamagordo brought the world, willing or not, into the Atomic Age, which we remain in.  The Trinity test was the epitome of the scientific process.  Theorize, hypothesize, predict, and finally test.  Testing, as with any military weapon system, is a crucial option to have available.  Theory with testing is science.  Theory without testing is theology.

Trinity Test

North Korea Conducts Another Nuclear Test May 25, 2009

Posted by SV in China, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 25 May 2009, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its second nuclear test in three years (as well as three short-range missile tests).  While South Korean security experts currently estimate the test was only several kilotons, Russian defense sources believe it to have been 10-20 kilotons (about equivalent to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  If this latter estimate is indeed true, or closer to the mark, it will signify a marked improvement in the DPRK’s nuclear capability since its October 2006 test.  For the full stories on the test so far, see here and here.

The question arising now is how the international community will respond.  President Obama has stated the DPRK is “directly and recklessly challenging the international community” and that it “constitutes a threat to international peace and stability.”  He further notes that “such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation.”  Thus while there is a clear recognition of the seriousness of these events, there appears to be no clear strategy for responding to them.

This problem cannot be laid entirely at Obama’s feet, however.  During the Bush Administration, Washington placed several clear redlines to North Korean behavior (stop the nuclear program, no more missile tests, and finally no nuclear tests).  When Pyongyang broke every one of these, the U.S. response was to call for a new round of Six-Party talks – which spent half their time trying to get the DPRK to the table.  In fact, it became evident that a clear motivation for North Korea to take these actions was that it received substantial aid (food, energy) in exchange for it showing up at the negotiations.  (If you go farther back, you can blame Former President Jimmy Carter for rushing to North Korea in 1994 to establish the Agreed Framework when the Clinton Administration was about to get really tough with the Kim clan).

Regardless of the history, the United States is now faced with a growing challenge.  Though North Korea has likely not miniaturized its nuclear warheads to the point when they could fit on a missile, it may only be a matter of time.  And though they may have only 6-10 nuclear devices, they may see that as enough to deter U.S. intervention in their attempt to force reunification of the peninsula.

How should the Obama Administration react to these developments then?  Reinforcing the importance of the Six-Party talks is a waste of time.  This should only be pursued if Washington has an absolute guarantee from Beijing and Seoul that they will cut off all aid and assistance to the DPRK.  Emphasizing irrelevant steps like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also detrimental to U.S. security.  The U.S. has not conducted a nuclear test in over 15 years, and still the DPRK conducts tests – ratification of the CTBT will give the U.S. nothing in its toolbox to deal with North Korea while unnecessariliy constraining U.S. options (especially as its nuclear deterrent atrophies).  So unless President Obama wants to do this same song and dance throughout his presidency (DPRK provocation, 6-Party Talks, DPRK aid), he will have to take forceful and concrete steps now, whatever they may be.  North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in history, sanctions to isolate it further are next to impossible to enact.  Exhibit leadership, consider all U.S. options, for the good of the national interest.

Why Americans Aren’t Sold on the F-22 March 31, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Russia, U.S. Budget, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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The F-22 Raptor is the next generation fighter jet that has been designed to ensure American air superiority against any foe during the next several decades. Its advanced technology and tactical capabilities allow it to be part of a first-wave (counter)attack that could achieve penetration of enemy airspace and get a first look at the situation and strike multiple targets while maintaining low observability and high speeds. Yet the Air Force has only been able to acquire 181 of the 381-minimum it argues it needs to fulfill its objectives. Despite full-page ads in the national papers and relentless advertising, a significant groundswell of support is still lacking. Why, then, does the public not seem sold on the need for at least 200 more F-22s?

The answer is not principally the jet’s heavy price tag, a question of its capability, or any alleged mismanagement of the procurement program. The major objection is the one of utility. People simply want to know, “what do we need another fighter jet for?” This response should not come as a surprise. To the general public, exposed to the popular news media and statements by their elected officials, the main threat facing the United States is the one posed by terrorism. Defeating a heavily defended North Korea or Iran is scarcely discussed. The need to defend against the possibility of a resurgent Russia or rising China is not even mentioned. If the only threat on the horizon is terrorism, they reason, why do we need a next-generation fighter that cannot attack terrorists any better than the current jets we employ?

The Air Force, however, has thought about the possibilities of facing a rising peer competitor. They know that the record of American air dominance is something that must be maintained and not taken for granted. The US has not lost a single soldier to hostile military aircraft since the Korean War and has not had a pilot shot down since the Vietnam War. Such an achievement was due to vigorous R&D that produced top-of-the-line fighters that were able to achieve and hold air dominance after each of those respective conflicts. It is the judgment of the USAF that it could not reliably sustain global air dominance into the mid-21st century without the 381 F-22s. Without adequate numbers, those records may be broken and American servicemen will be paying the bill with their lives.

What, therefore, is the solution to this problem? Respected military commentators like Ralph Peters are telling Americans that the F-22 is a “supremely unnecessary air superiority fighter” because no power can match our control of the air at this time. Without a visible, clearly existential threat like the Soviet Union in existence, Americans tend to revert to their tradition of experiencing free security and expecting peace to be the norm in international relations. The threat inflation surrounding terrorism may cause many to realize the importance of a strong defense, but they are not putting their trust on something they believe is not useful in the War on Terror. The solution is, as Herman Kahn struggled to get across to the American public in the 1960s, to think about the unthinkable; in this case great power rivalry or war.

This is not to suggest by any means that supporters of the F-22 and other future combat systems should insist that war with China or Russia is inevitable and that is why this new and expensive fighter is needed. Rather, elected officials and defense experts should insist on a return to the strategy of deterrence. They must make the argument that not only will the Raptor ensure air superiority for 40 years, but that it is necessary to have that capability for dissuasion and deterrence. A strong case can be made that the F-22 will dissuade rising competitors like China from challenging the US in the realm of air combat. Its advanced avionics and high technology can also deter a resurgent (and uppity) Russia from seeking a fait accompli in any future aggression against Eastern Europe (assuming F-22s are deployed in Europe).

To conclude, the F-22 is in trouble because Americans simply do not understand its utility and believe it is an unnecessary Cold War relic. This impression can only be reversed by policy-makers and experts insisting that the US return to a strategy of deterrence and dissuasion in order to defend against future peer competitors. If the US does not develop this fighter, its record of sustaining air superiority in every conflict since Vietnam may be at risk, or at least heavily compromised. Investment in the F-22 is a form of insurance, and the public must understand that, though it may seem like a high premium for a low-risk possibility, it will have a huge pay-off in direct (conflict) and indirect (deterrence and dissuasion) results.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card at 50 Days March 11, 2009

Posted by SV in Asia, China, Iran, Japan, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, United Nations.
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A brief look at President Obama’s foreign policy performance over the first 50 days of his tenure in office in no particular order:

Russia: D+

Main issue: There are no mulligans in international relations.

Analysis: At the suggestion of Vice President Biden that the US should somehow “reset” its relationship with Russia after the cooling tensions during the second term of the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Clinton had a red “reset” button made for her Russian counterpart to press.  Never mind that the translation was actually “overcharge” (as if that doesn’t sound bad enough), the issue is in the gesture.  As one should recall, the reason for cooling relations with Russia were mostly due to Russian provocations.  Let’s examine the record: attempted radiological assassination of dissidents in the UK or political opponents in Ukraine, a cyber attack on Lithuania, a coercive shut-off of European natural-gas supplies, and, most significantly, the invasion of Georgia during the “let’s-all-come-together” spirit of the Olympics.  If anyone should be coming to a meeting hat-in-hand and apologizing for past conduct, it should be the Russians.  That being said, improving relations with Russia is a worthy goal.  However, by going about it through new arms control and nuclear reductions treaties, the US is still stating that its relationship with Moscow is based on the number of warheads each country has pointed at the other.

Lesson: The Cold War is over.  Russia is fundamentally weak both economically and demographically.  Keep Moscow happy by making it feel like its opinion matters, even if it doesn’t (i.e., missile defenses).

North Korea: B+

Main issue: Satellite launches? Baloney – everyone knows what North Korean missiles are for.

Analysis: During her Asian tour, Secretary of State Clinton was preempted in her agenda by aggressive statements from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that threatened new ballistic missile launches.  Rather than discuss global warming and trade, (thankfully) she was forced to put her emphasis on security matters.  Secretary Clinton delivered a tough line by stating that the US would regard any new missile launches as hostile and damaging to the US-DPRK relationship.  She also wisely reassured Japan that the US would honor its nuclear guarantee to Tokyo, staving off talk about Japan becoming a nuclear weapons power.  Standard military exercises involving the US and Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) have continued despite routine yet dramatic objections from Pyongyang.  And the US has not (yet) taken the possibility of shooting down a North Korean missile off the table (thank you, President Bush for those missile defenses).

Lesson: Taking a tough line demonstrates resolve to North Korea.  Don’t make regime change the stated policy.  Keep the pressure up, get China and ROK to turn off the spigot of food and energy, and then maybe Pyongyang will disarm.

Iran: C –

Main issue: Once Iran enriches Uranium to 20%, its a matter of weeks until they have the bomb.

Analysis: Admittedly, Obama inherited a bad situation with Iran.  Trying to make the most of it, he has attempted to start up talks in secret and in public to get the Iranians to the table.  With every day that goes by (and especially without IAEA inspectors at Natanz), Iran comes closer and closer to enriching Uranium to the 20% level, after which it takes weeks to months to enrich it to 90%, which is weapons-grade.  What more, then, could Obama be doing?  It is clear to everybody; let me rephrase, to all members of the UN Security Council, that Iran is in clear violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and IAEA obligations.  With his supposed global popularity, Obama should be trying to get a resolution passed with teeth that mandates immediate inspections of Iranian facilities and places sanctions on Tehran’s critical nodes – oil technology, foreign investment, and nuclear-related equipment.  However, the Iranians continue to stall for time, endlessly playing the great powers off of each other and approaching that necessary enrichment level more and more.

Lesson: The time for open-ended diplomacy is at an end.  Iran needs to be presented with stark choices, juicy carrots or hickory sticks, and realize the threat of force from the global community is real.  Best outcome?  Iran verifiabily limits its nuclear program to civilian power.

China: C +

Main issue: You DO NOT mess with the US Navy.

Analysis: On 8 March 2009, 5 Chinese ships (some of them part of the PLA Navy) shadowed and harassed the USNS Impeccable while it was mapping the ocean floor in international waters in the South China Sea.  The US crew responded by shooting a water hose at the approaching Chinese ships, causing their sailors to strip off their clothes in taunting.  In response to this provocation, Secretary of State Clinton met with her Chinese counterpart and both agree incidents of this kind should be “avoided” in the future.  In the words of a second grader, “well duh.”  What would have been more meaningful would have been if the Chinese had issued an apology for harassing a US Navy vessel in international waters.  The US Navy is the most feared and respected navy in the world because people understand its awesome power.  Letting a state get away with this, and making it seem that both sides were at fault, undermines this image.  As far as the economic crisis goes, the Obama Administration has at least worked cooperatively with the PRC and prevented them from unloading some of their $1.5 trillion in US debt holdings.  So, for not making economic matters worse with our biggest trading partner, they get a C minus.

Lesson: Primacy is a difficult burden to bear, but if you begin to relax it, other states get uppity.  Insist on respect to the US armed services deployed around the world and that any “rogue commanders” are publicly reprimanded.

United Kingdom: A –

Main issue: I know we’re in a recession, but that’s not an excuse for being a cheapskate.

Analysis: Though little covered in the American press, more was made of the exchange of gifts between President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK media.  While Obama received a pen carved from a 19th-century ship used to suppress the slave trade, Obama’s gift to Brown was a collection of 25 DVDs (I don’t know if they were region 1 or 2) of American classics.  That’s not to denigrate the gift; the films were all undisputably American classics (actually they’re the top 25 from AFI’s 2008 list of the top 100 American films), some of them the best films ever made (see: Casablanca and The Godfather).  Though, I might be worried that Brown would attempt to burn the White House down (a la the War of 1812) if he is subjected to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  On more meaningful matters, the alliance still holds and economic cooperation is continuing.

Lesson: Rookie mistakes are embarassing but seldom have long-term consequences.  I know money’s tight, but show some class in your gift-giving.  Don’t tempt foreign prime ministers to be re-gifters.

Average: C+

Room to improve, but the sooner Obama gets his sea legs and stops making amateurish mistakes, the better for everyone.

The Illogic of “Going to Zero” in Nuclear Weapons February 4, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Japan, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Obama has announced his intentions to cut the number of nuclear warheads by around 80%, bringing the total down from the approximately 5,000 in the inventory to about 1,000.  This intention flows from his hope in achieving a nuclear weapons-free world, a philosophy that is very attractive and has gained a lot of support, especially with the influential article “The Logic of Zero” by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal.  There were indications that Sen. John McCain even supported this idea.  The reason for its broad support is clear.  Who wants to have nuclear weapons around anyway?  They are massively destructive, they are indiscriminate, they damage the environment, they haven’t been used in war in 64 years anyway, and the only reason states still have them is because of the massive US and Russian stockpiles.   It is an attractive argument, but in the next five points I’ll attempt to point out its inherent flaws and lack of foresight in this argument and in President Obama’s plans for deep reductions.

First, the American nuclear arsenal is growing more obsolete and unreliable by the day.  Since it has been several decades since the last US nuclear test (due in part to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), there is growing uncertainty over the reliability of the US nuclear arsenal.  The failure of the Congress to approve the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which would have updated US warheads to make them safer (for storage, maintenance) and more, well, reliable, has brought into question the credibility of Washington’s nuclear deterrent.  If a problem were discovered in one of our warhead designs, the US could lose up to one-third of its operational capability while the problem was being fixed.  The US is currently the only nuclear weapons state that is neither producing new weapons nor actively upgrading its existing ones.

Second, the arms race action-reaction cycle in which the US is the cause of other states building nukes has been disproved.  This was the logic behind much of the Cold War-era arms control negotiations, and the Logic of Zero debate, that holds that the rest of the world continues to pursue and build nuclear capabilities because the US, the most powerful state in the system, has them.  The fallacy of this should be evident immediately.  As President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, stated (here) when talking about the US and Soviet Union arms races: “when we build, they build, and when we stop building, they continue building.”  Currently, notes Adam Hebert of Air Force Magazine, “despite 16 years of American cuts and testing moratoriums, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea have not slowed their own [nuclear] programs.”

Third, such a move will greatly disadvantage the US in terms of the balance of nuclear forces.  By going to 1,000 warheads, and assuming the Russians comply with their obligations to do likewise, the US will be in a vastly weaker situation in East Asia.  China currently has approximately 200 warheads, and is building more, so it is imaginable that by the time the US has reduced to 1,000 warheads, China will possess close to 250.  That would give the US a scant 4-1 advantage over Beijing (and some US nuclear forces will not even be in the Asian theater), compared to its more than 25-1 current advantage.  Such a drastic change will likely give the regime in Beijing the ability to exercise a freer hand in East Asia, particularly with regards to US allies like Japan and Taiwan.  North Korea, which currently faces over a 300-1 disadvantage, would find itself in about a 60-1 disadvantage, which could only help but make Pyongyang feel more secure.

Fourth, such deep cuts to the American inventory will actually cause nuclear proliferation to speed up.  Already, US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, doubtful of the strength of the diminished US nuclear umbrella in the face of a nuclear Iran, are making decisions to pursue the foundations of their own nuclear programs.  If the US brings its numbers so low that China will be close to achieving parity, allies such as Japan, South Korea, or even Taiwan may decide to go nuclear (For those who think a China with a 4-1 disadvantage would not be a threat, keep in mind the USSR had a 6 or 7-1 disadvantage with the US at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis).  Therefore the goal of reaching a nuclear weapons-free world will be self-defeated as more countries decide to pursue a nuclear capability.  The world is simply too dangerous a place for states to give up their nuclear weapons.

Fifth, and finally, eliminating (or drastically cutting) nuclear weapons will only make the world safe for conventional warfare.  For decades during the Cold War, America’s nuclear forces deterred aggression, reduced the risk of conventional attack in Europe and elsewhere, and held invulnerable enemy targets at risk.  The death toll of the 20th century before 1945 was tragic, with war deaths in the tens to a hundred million range.  After 1945, the death toll due to war was kept around 1 million a year, most of that due to low-intensity proxy wars or ethnic conflict.  The truth is, nuclear weapons have kept great powers from going to war, and this promise should be enough to continue to maintain them for an effective deterrent posture.  Conventional war is ugly, nuclear war may be uglier, but the existence of nuclear weapons produces a higher probability of preventing either from breaking out on a massive scale.

The Cold War may in fact be over, but the world is still a dangerous and far-from-perfect place.  As US Strategic Command commander Gen. Kevin Chilton has noted, the security environment today is different “purely [in] intent – not capability… intent can change overnight.”  As long as intent can change overnight, because nations cannot trust each other completely, then the US needs to maintain an effective, robust, and significant nuclear deterrent.  Nonsolutions to securing the strategic environment, like reducing nukes to zero, only will hurt the national security of the US, and lead to nuclear proliferation and the increased risk of war.

Avoiding the ‘End of History’ Syndrome: The US Military of the 21st Century December 22, 2008

Posted by SV in Asia, China, History, Iran, Nuclear Proliferation, Russia, Terrorism, U.S. Government.
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The New York Times ran an op-ed recently (“How to Pay for a 21st-Century Military”) that erroneously recommends how to modernize the US military. The NYT uses the Global War on Terror as the basis for its suggestions of how to cut costs and increase effectiveness in the military. To do so is to repeat the error made by Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s of suggesting we had reached “the end of history” with the fall of the Soviet Union. GWOT is a temporary divergence from the norm of warfare, and the military must remain prepared to engage in inter-state war if America is to remain the strongest power.

Why the New York Times article is wrong (it would be beneficial to read the original op-ed):

1. Great power war is still a possibility. The recommendations to halt production of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, cancel the DD-G 1000 Zumwalt class destroyer, and stop churning out Virginia class submarines are all naive in the extreme. These weapons systems have critical roles to play in the contingencies of great power conflict.

The F-22 is the top of the line fighter that can achieve air supremacy and defeat an enemy air force more quickly and efficiently than the slightly-less capable F-35. As the F-16s age and grow increasingly less effective for counterinsurgency and inter-state operations, the F-22 is needed to maintain the Air Force’s comparative advantage over a host of possible rivals.

The Zumwalt class destroyer, which the Navy is only getting two of, would play a vital role in a conflict in which the US had long sea-lines of communication (i.e., in the Middle East or Asia). The Navy’s current program seeks to maintain a fleet of 313 ships, close to an all-time low. To cut it even further risks stretching it too thin to respond to a range of possible crises.

The writers’ recommendation to cancel production of the Virginia class attack submarine also reflects their lack of understanding of future conflict. Though they rightly point out that it is a public works project and designed for operations against China, they neglect why these are positive aspects. After a US nuclear submarine sunk with crew and engineers on board, after the US had stopped building submarines regularly, it was decided that we needed to continuously build subs so that the technical experience, facilities, and infrastructure were not lost. Also, subs would play a pivotal role in a conflict with China, and more are needed if that contingency would occur.

Regarding their criticism of “premature deployment of missile defenses,” see my post on “Defanging Deterrence.” The Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, though there is almost no comparable aircraft, could likely be cut without impacting the Corps’ overall effectiveness. It has had 25 years to be perfected, and still has safety and reliability issues.

2. Reducing nuclear weapons further would contribute to proliferation. After the Moscow Treaty of 2002 that set the number of nuclear warheads for the US and Russia at 1700-2200, there were opposing calls to cut the numbers further or to stop cutting them. Though it is fashionable to believe nuclear weapons no longer have a role to play, they are essential to deterrence and non-proliferation.

Cutting the inventory further would undermine deterrence because without a diverse and robust arsenal, other nations may not find our deterrent as credible as it once was. Also, reducing the reserve stockpile could be disastrous. Since the US has not tested any of its nuclear weapons since the early 1990s, if a problem were discovered with one of the few types of warheads, the reserve would have to temporarily fill-in on the missiles until the error were fixed. Cutting the reserve requires an end to talks of a comprehensive test ban treaty, something the NYT is unwilling to discuss.

Reducing the number of nuclear warheads in the US arsenal is also something many of our allies will not tolerate. Under the “deal,” the US would retain nuclear weapons so that they would not need to. If the US cuts its numbers further, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Egypt, Germany, and Poland may decide to acquire a nuclear capability. Many of these allies were upset with the Moscow Treaty, and do not want the US to cut its inventory further. To stop proliferation of nuclear weapon states, the US needs a large arsenal.

3. The Global War on Terrorism is not the defining model of warfare for the 21st-century. Though it has dominated the first decade, the GWOT will likely remain a low-intensity, long-term action that will not warrant drastic changes in the military.

Increasing the size of the Army and Marines is a good step towards modernizing the US military, but not at the cost of the Navy or Air Force. All services play an important and interconnected role in conducting operations. Like a three (or four)-legged stool, if one of the legs is shortened or lengthened while the others are not, it will not remain efficiently functioning.

The editors’ calls to expand the Navy’s littoral combat ships and resupply the National Guard and Reserves are all important actions, but they cannot expect to cut vital weapons programs to meet those goals. America still has very dangerous potential enemies in the world, and terrorists, while a considerable threat, are not an existential threat.

In conclusion, the writers of this op-ed are still stuck in the “end of history” thesis. They believe that because most of these weapons systems were designed for conflict with the Soviet Union, they are now obsolete. They ignore the peril posed by aggressive states like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and potential adversaries like Venezuela or Pakistan. If they want to cut costs or make the military more effective, they need to focus their attention on bloated bureaucracies, red tape around weapons development, and cutting select programs like the Osprey, airborne-laser, etc.

Warfare for thousands of years has normally been between states or nations. To suggest that this notion is obsolete in the 21st-century is to neglect the lessons of history. Similar feelings were the rage in Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after WWII in 1945, and with the fall of the Soviet Union. Even President Jefferson believed in the future states would wage war solely through economic means. History has not come to an end, and neither has traditional warfare, therefore the United States should be prepared to fight and win any conflict that erupts, whether counterterrorism or inter-state.

Our Own Backyard No More December 6, 2008

Posted by SV in China, Immigration, President Obama, Russia, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On Friday, 5 December 2008, the Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko traversed the Panama Canal, the first time a Soviet or Russian warship has crossed the canal since WWII.  Though the Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis stated that the only signal of this was that “the canal is open to all the world’s ships,” it is really indicative of the waning of American influence in Latin America.  This comes after the Russiasn Navy conducted joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy, an action clealry intended to signal Moscow’s growing assertiveness and Venezuela’s desire to thumb its nose at the United States.

So why is a Russian destroyer crossing the Panama Canal or joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises a cause for concern?  The US has essentially been neglecting Latin American relations while other great powers are conducting their own “charm offensives” among the governments south of San Diego.  While the anti-immigrant movement and anti-NAFTA rhetoric within the US is part of the problem, most of the blame lies with an inattention to our neighbors to the south.  Not only has Russia been active in the region with such welcoming countries like Cuba and Venezuela, but China has also been investing heavily in many of the Central and South American countries, especially Panama.

Though it may sound good that the canal is “open to all,” that means it no longer serves US interests primarily and, in fact, could be closed to the US in the event of a conflict.  China is not making diplomatic trips and investing in Latin America because of their good nature, it is attempting to tear down the fence around our backyard and redefine where the property line runs.  These Russian and Chinese actions spell what could be the death knell of the Monroe Doctrine if significant action or responses are not taken in the next administration.  Powers from outside the Western Hempisphere are being allowed to get involved in Latin American affairs, and the US response is nonexistent.

The truth is that this is not the end of a waning American influence across the world.  As US primacy recedes, our rivals will attempt to take as much of it as they can.  If Russia can conduct military exercises in the Caribbean, it is only a matter of time before it sends forces to the Mediterranean (it announced on Friday it would send its sole aircraft carrier to the Atlantic and Mediterranean for “combat training”).  If China can gain influence over the operation of the Panama Canal, it should be relatively easy for Beijing to gain de facto control over some of the other “keys that lock up the world,” such as the Straits of Malacca off of Singapore or the Suez Canal (should Mubarak’s government ever fall).   Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is going to be left with the task of reasserting American primacy in Latin America and working to keep key nations like Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil in the US camp.