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U.S. Walks Away from the Missile Defense Third Site (and European Allies) September 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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In an excellent WSJ article, Peter Spiegel details the reasons behind the Obama administration’s shelving of the missile defense third site in Central Europe.  Though they are claiming that it was based on a technical assessment and that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program is proceeding slowly, it should be apparent to the casual observer that this has been Obama’s plan since January 20th.  In a move to appease Russian objections to installing U.S. military assets in their “sphere of influence,” the U.S. has walked away from defense commitments made to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations within range of Iranian missiles.  This decision is misguided and dangerous for several reasons.

First, the procurement issue.  Even if you accept the delay in Iranian ICBM capabilities until mid-2010s, due to the slow acquisition process (and slower deployment timetable), that is about the time the Third Site would become operational.  By shelving the plans, the U.S. will be putting itself in the position where it finds the Iranian missile program progressing faster than its missile defense deployment.  In the time period between Iranian long-range missile capability and U.S. BMD deployment, Iran may be able to coerce the U.S. or Europe by threatening unprotected European cities.  Their stopgap measure of rotating terminal-phase missile defenses (those that intercept the missile in its last minutes of descending flight) through Europe will leave plenty cities vulnerable and will take just as long to deploy (and probably cost more).

Second, the timeline issue.  The 2007 national intelligence estimate, which had a lot of political influences, delayed the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.  However, it failed to account for technical surprise, and it is likely the missile estimate failed to do so as well.  In 1998 virtually every intelligence agency in the world was surprised when North Korea launched a three-stage ICBM.  In 2003 the unraveling of (some of) the A.Q. Khan network revealed how private individuals could essentially proliferate nuclear weapon technology to any country with cash.  The point is that a significant surprise – such as North Korean or private-network assistance, could propel Iran to an ICBM capability far sooner than the intelligence currently suggests.  The third site would have provided valuable insurance against this possible eventuality.

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

Third, the allies’ defense.  True, the administration is pledging to deploy some missile defenses, like terminal-intercepts, but this is a far cry from the planned midcourse-intercept system that could have provided coverage of virtually all of Europe.  Terminal systems have a small “footprint” that can only cover smaller areas, like a city.  In a must read letter to the Obama administration, current and former leaders of Central and Eastern Europe basically ask not to be forgotten or sacrificed.  They state “all is not well in our region or in the transatlantic relationship…storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon… [Russia] at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, increasingly acts as a revisionist [power].”  They worry that Russia’s intimidation and influence-peddling will lead to a neutralization of their region.

Regarding the missile defense site, they pointedly write that “regardless of teh military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has become a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region… The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this.  We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic pluses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations.”  They conclude on this subject that “abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the U.S. across the whole region.”  Central and Eastern Europe would know about Russia’s operations.  They lived under their iron boot for generations.

Finally, the Russian problem.  The Russians have protested loudly to the planned third site since it was first announced, despite the fact it is only 10 defensive interceptors that would be incapable of countering one SS-18 or even catching up with its missiles if they headed out over the polar routes.  Once again, our allies understand the situation: “When it comes to Russia, our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well.”  This would require firmness in negotiations with Putin and Medvedev.

The third site was likely the price the Obama administration figured it could pay to get Russian assistance on sanctions against Iran and in order to conclude the START follow-on.  If anyone is convinced the Russians can exert the leverage to make the Iranians comply with their obligations (forget the UN Security Council, China will still block that), they have not been paying attention.  Short of a crippling cut-off of all gasoline imports or nuclear reactor fuel from Russia, Iran is unlikely to even consider talks about its nuclear program.  As I stated in a previous post, linking the new START to removal of the missile defense site from Europe would be unacceptable.  Linking offensive and defensive weapons is walking right back into the Cold War paradigm the Clinton and Bush administrations did so much to end.

This is perhaps the administration’s worst foreign policy action to date.  It delays deployment of a real capability that could not only defend European allies but also the eastern United States from Iranian missiles.  It cannot be viewed as anything other than backing away from commitments made to Central and Eastern European allies and ignoring their legitimate concerns.  The Senate should reject ratification of the START follow-on treaty and mandate the deployment of the planned missile defenses as the price for their support.  Given this decision and the administration’s likely objection to warhead modernization, it will be hard to get 67 votes to ratify START.


Obama’s Moscow Summit – Which Way to START? July 5, 2009

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Moscow to discuss a successor to the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).  On the table for consideration (according to U.S. and/or Russian officials) are levels of deployed and stockpiled strategic nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and bombers), and missile defense.  Off the table are nonstrategic (short-range) nuclear weapons, which the Russians hold in abundance.

Truly understanding the situation between Washington and Moscow requires a brief look at the numbers.  The United States deploys around 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads (and ~ 2,500 reserves) on less than 1,000 missiles and bombers.  Russia deploys about 2,700 strategic nuclear warheads (and thousands in reserve) on roughly 650 missiles and bombers.  In nonstrategic nukes, Russia holds a massive advantage (3,000-5,000) over the United States (400-500).  In terms of strategic delivery systems, the U.S. still has decades before most of its systems will need replaced, while many Russian systems will reach the end of their service lives within the next decade, reducing their numbers to around 330.

The Obama Administration, in its rush to conclude the START follow-on by the current treaty’s expiration date on December 5th, is therefore playing into the Russians’ hands.  By pushing for deep warhead cuts (the Russians will not go below 1,500 deployed) and considering a further reduction in the permitted number of strategic delivery vehicles, U.S. negotiators are essentially getting nothing for something.  Since the Russians will have to eliminate many of their aging warheads, missiles, and bombers with or without an arms control treaty, they are trying to maintain parity with the United States through a new START accord.  In return, the U.S. is getting something it would have gotten without having to reduce the survivability and flexibility of its nuclear arsenal.

Until recently, the Obama Administration was seemingly giving credence to Russian objections to a third missile defense site in Central Europe.  Even former Secretary of Defense (and nuclear abolitionist) William Perry (D) stated in House testimony that trading missile defense for Russian promises was absolutely unreasonable.  The president’s special assistant, Michael McFaul, stated last week the U.S. was “not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense.”  This is a step in the right direction.  Tying defensive conventional systems to offensive nuclear systems, which President Medvedev is still insisting on, is a relic of the Cold War “mutually assured destruction” thinking.

Therefore, the U.S. approach to the START follow-on has been fundamentally flawed.  By agreeing not to include nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the limits, the U.S. allowed Russia to maintain its biggest geopolitical advantage.  Many experts believe it is these “battlefield” nuke stockpiles that will be the likely source of any future nuclear terrorism or nuclear use by a state (Russia explicitly states they would be used to “de-escalate” an invasion of their homeland).  Furthermore, once U.S. warhead and delivery system levels have been drastically reduced, Washington will little leverage to urge Moscow to reduce its tactical nukes.

The arms control process is also misguided in the link some are attempting to make between a new START and “global zero,” the nuclear abolitionist movement.  The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission determined that complete nuclear disarmament required a “fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  Guiding a new treaty along what optimists consider a decades-long goal is a recipe for miscalculation and bad decisions.  The Obama Administration needs to take a step back, assess U.S. interests over the long term, and proceed with a modest START follow-on from there.  Idealism is one thing.  Dealing with the Russians about nuclear weapons is entirely different.

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.

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.

What Hath 90 Years Wrought? November 11, 2008

Posted by SV in History, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, United Nations.
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Europe in 1907

Europe in 1907

At 11:00 AM on November 11th, 1918, the guns of August were finally silenced as an armistice brought a cessation to hostilities in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the world’s oceans. Within the following year, the Versailles Treaty would be signed, empires would collapse, others would rise, and events would be set in motion that continue to reverberate through today. The importance of Veterans’ Day is therefore not just honoring all those that have served this country for over 200 years, but also remembering the lessons of history that were shaped from June 28, 1914 until June 28, 1919.

In the immediate political context, alliances between great powers that had difficulty communicating with each other and with their rivals led to deadly consequences. War was triggered over misperceptions, misinterpretations of messages, and ironclad/set-in-stone war plans. After four years of bloodletting and a year of treaty negotiations, the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires collapsed. The British and French Empires were fatally weakened, and would collapse entirely within fifty years after the second bloodletting known as WWII. The Great War also witnessed the outbreak and success of the October Revolution that brought Lenin and communism to power in Russia and the emergence of the United States as a great power that could play a role in the European balance of power.

Deeper than this, mass social movements, of the kind not seen since the French Revolution, broke out during the course of the war. Nationalism became a force to be reckoned with that prevented the leaders of Europe, some of them related to one another, from calling a conference to settle their disputes peacefully. Nationalism also served to dissolve the multi-ethnic empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans, who famously faced the “revolt in the desert” led by Lawrence of Arabia. Disaffection with the war and dissatisfaction with the czar’s leadership led to the ouster of Nicholas II from Russia, the brief installment of a democratic transitional government, and then the October Revolution that brought Lenin and the Soviets to power. From November 7, 1917 until December 26, 1991, Russia and the Soviet Union would be a constant threat to the order and stability of the Western World.

As far as the context of international relations is concerned, the Great War was also another turning point. Germany was crippled but not divided, leaving it the ability to rise again and threaten regional hegemony with the rise of Hitler to power. Russia/USSR became a rather large and powerful revolutionary state that sought to export its ideology and undermine the rule of Western governments. France and Britain were weakened to the point that they barely held tentative control over their colonial empires. A power vacuum opened up in Eastern Europe as a rush of new (and weak) states (inspired by Wilson’s call for self-determination) emerged. The Japanese Empire got its first taste of significant Pacific expansion as it gobbled up German colonies and sought to increase its position vis-a-vis China. And the United States, in its intervention, indicated that it would not stand for the existence of a European hegemon and set the precedent for a US role in European affairs that is still in effect today.

Looking back 90 years later, what is the significance of the Great War, and what lessons can we draw from it? Other than the historical firsts it brought about (use of chemical weapons, development of the tank, use of the airplane, submarine blockades, etc.), it illustrates that the international system cannot be governed by a world body like the League of Nations or United Nations. States will not give up their sovereignty or power because they do not trust other states to do the same. Other lessons? You must have accurate, direct, and constant communication between friends and foes. Miscommunication can often be the greatest culprit of war. Also, do not have your war plans set in stone, and especially don’t let them be drafted and directed solely by military personnel. As Clemenceau famously quipped, “war is too important to be left to the generals.”

So what does this mean for the world situation today?  For one, there is a constant, predictable, and consistent element to world events: uncertainty.  The fog of war is hazy some of the time, and impenetrable much of the time.  Nations must prepare for the unexpected, and not go to war with high expectations and happy assumptions (WWI: “home by Christmas;” Iraq: “oil will pay for reconstruction”).  If you leave a powerful nation feeling resentful and vengeful, they will rise again and bite as soon as they can (WWI: Germany under Hitler, Soviet Union under Stalin; today: Russia under Putin).  And lastly, America can get dragged into a war that started in a far, heretofore unheard of corner of the world (WWI: Sarajevo, Serbia; today: Georgia, Lithuania?).  Though we persevered, and found out the extent of our strength, unless we continue to maintain a sound economy, a strong military, and a forceful international stance, we are fated to get pulled into a war not of our choosing and, perhaps, one we cannot end acceptably.

So on this Veterans’ Day, remember all the heroic men and women that have served this country in uniform.  Remember the last doughboy, Frank Buckles, who is 107.  And constantly remember the significance and lessons of that “war to end all wars.”  War was thought unthinkable in 1907, all the economies were interconnected and peace abounded, but in just over a decade that map was drastically revised.  It has happened since (WWII, Indochina Wars, decolonization), it can happen again.