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Mark Your Calendars: A New U.S. Aircraft Carrier Is Coming in 2028

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 04:30

Kris Osborn

Aircraft Carriers, Americas

The US Navy is getting another aircraft carrier, get excited!

Here's What You Need to Remember: While there is naturally much focus upon the first-in-class USS Ford, which is nearing its first deployment, as well as the second-in-class USS Kennedy, the new USS Enterprise (CVN 80) is slated for delivery by as soon as 2028.

Progressing quietly beneath the ongoing discussion about just what the future may hold for America’s aircraft carriers, the Navy’s third Ford-class carrier is powering along toward being ready for duty.

While there is naturally much focus upon the first-in-class USS Ford, which is nearing its first deployment, as well as the second-in-class USS Kennedy, the new USS Enterprise (CVN 80) is slated for delivery by as soon as 2028. Construction on the ship began in 2017, and builders are now performing early manufacturing and structural fabrication, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) Vice President of New Construction Aircraft Carriers, Lucas Hicks, told The National Interest in a written statement.

Most of the technologies are expected to be quite similar to the first two Ford-class carriers, yet they will likely integrate more quickly given that the Navy has had practice with the Kennedy and Ford. There are also new shipbuilding methods which have been progressing throughout the trajectory of Ford-class development, according to Hicks, who said HII is incorporating a number of lessons learned from building the Ford and Kennedy. The “build strategy” improvements, he said, including more outfitted superlifts, described at larger and more complete than on prior carriers.

“It will be the first aircraft carrier built completely using digital drawings and procedures rather than traditional paper work packages and products. The use of digital data and digital tools is more user-friendly and intuitive, making the execution of shipbuilders’ work more efficient,” Hicks explained.

Some of these construction innovations have already been underway with the USS Kennedy, the second Ford carrier slated to hit the ocean in the next few years. It involves a process Newport News Shipbuilders, a division of HII, describe as “modular construction” wherein ship compartments are assembled together before moving them to the dock to expedite the building process. Smaller segments of the ship are welded together into a structural “superlift,” as Hicks described with the Enterprise, to advance construction before the ship is lifted up into drydock.

Construction begins with the bottom of the ship and works up with inner-bottoms and side shells before moving to box units. The bottom third of the ship gets built first. Also, some of the design methods now used for the Kennedy include efforts to fabricate or forge some parts of the ship—instead of casting them because it makes the process less expensive, builders explained.

HII is working to take some of these newer methods to a new level with the Enterprise, a process which is in large measure being assisted or improved through the use of digital modeling. The Enterprise’s keel is slated to be laid in 2022, HII reports.

The Enterprise is part of a Navy “two-carrier” buy plan designed by the Navy to lower production costs and streamline technological integration. The fourth Ford-class carrier, called CVN 81 is already progressing through several key planning and preparation phases.

Kris Osborn serves as Defense Editor for the National Interest. He previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also been an anchor and on-air military analyst for national TV networks.  

This article is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Flickr

Can the U.S. and China Avoid a Conflict?

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 03:30

James Holmes

China, Asia

Confrontation shouldn't be inevitable.

Here's What You Need to Know: If rivals see their courses as preordained and Thucydides’ supposed trap as inescapable, both will gird for what they regard as inevitable.

A 2018 panel at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis asked whether—as Professor Graham Allison’s book contends—China and the United States are “destined” for war. Indeed, Professor Allison numbered among the panelists who discussed the new China challenge.

The short answer from the gathering: maybe.

Commentators have held forth on this topic from antiquity till the present day. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus taught that character is destiny. Herodotus maintained that custom is destiny. We hear that geography is destiny, or demographics is, or some other factor is. This time of year sports commentators even tell us football teams can control their destiny—chiefly by winning every game against opponents that also want to win. In that spirit, one literature specialist counsels that destiny goes by many names, including “God, gods, fate, accident, fortune, necessity, [and] circumstance.”

An enormous amount turns on how you define terms like “destiny,” or the “trap” part of Allison’s signature catchphrase “Thucydides Trap.” The latter refers to the conceit of established great powers using armed force to maintain their standing atop the pecking order or when upstart challengers reach for the sword to seize that lofty status for themselves. Geopolitical asymmetries ensnare hegemons and would-be hegemons alike—speeding them along the path to war.

If rivals see their courses as preordained and Thucydides’ supposed trap as inescapable, both will gird for what they regard as inevitable. If they believe they enjoy some say-so over the workings of destiny, then they might find some way to navigate their differences. And if one contender accepts the logic of the Thucydides Trap while the other rejects it, watch out: strategic competition could take on a seesaw character as action begets misperception begets reaction, and on and on. The action-reaction cycle could set war loose through different understandings of the dynamics at work.

Far from an exercise in hair-splitting, then, this is a philosophical debate pregnant with fateful consequences. The central question: does destiny master us or can we master it? If America and China are captive to destiny and destiny is remorseless, then there’s little for the U.S. naval and defense establishment to do except get ready. The sea services and land-based arms of military might must ready themselves for inevitable combat. If force is the only option, then the only questions left involve where, when, with what, and with which allies the U.S. armed services will attempt to crush or dishearten the foe. The reciprocal is true for China’s People’s Liberation Army.

If on the other hand, it is possible for the contestants to take charge of their destiny—in whole or in part—then they might find some way through the quarrels and disparate visions that separate them. Some mix of deterrence, diplomacy, and economic outreach or coercion could forestall war.

Now, entertaining the possibility of peace scarcely exempts American military planners from getting ready. Not for nothing did founding father George Washington proclaim—channeling the classics—that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” After all, the point of peacetime naval and military diplomacy is to cast a “shadow” over an antagonist’s deliberations and actions. The greater the possibility of defeat appears to foes who square off against the U.S. military, the longer and darker the shadow cast—and the likelier they are to desist from actions Washington deems objectionable.

Here’s one way to think through this question of whether armed strife is preordained. Crudely speaking, scribes from Greek antiquity forward have crafted three ideas about destiny. The first is fate. Fate is implacable and inescapable. The concept of irresistible fate feels very Calvinist, entailing preordination. We are the playthings of fate. Vast forces sweep us along wherever they will. Think about Odysseus, buffeted around the Mediterranean Sea for twenty long years on his return voyage from the war against Troy. The adventurer from Ithaca could do little except comply with the whims of fate. Even the gods and goddesses of Olympus found it hard to speed his return home (in part because they were working at cross purposes, as was their wont).

The classics sometimes set forth a less fatalistic concept of destiny. Playwrights and philosophers commonly warn mortals not to choose to do things that offend the “deathless gods” lest the gods exact terrible vengeance and impose a bleak destiny on the offenders. Retribution for hubris—overweening pride—constitutes a staple of classical literature. Hubris brings on Nemesis as surely as night follows day. The Greeks never quite say so, but it is possible that other vices also elicit divine retribution. Bottom line, this variant of destiny permits human beings the power to choose. It’s up to them to exercise that power wisely.

And then there’s the manageable, if still stubborn, variety of destiny. Riffing on the classics, Niccolò Machiavelli terms it "fortune." Fortune, proclaims the Florentine philosopher-statesman, is like a violent river that sweeps everything and everyone before it after a storm. But Machiavelli adds that human beings can exercise foresight during tranquil times before the onset of a tempest. They can construct dams and other engineering works to block or divert flood waters when they come. We can master fortune, in other words, by peering ahead into the future and being venturesome in the here and now—guarding against its wiles. This is a comforting interpretation coming from a writer known for his bare-knuckles approach to politics.

So who’s right? Does destiny exist in geopolitics, and if so, how much scope for free will does it allow societies and statesmen? Is it possible for rising and falling nations and their allies to be destined for war? The answers potential antagonists give will prod them to design and deploy strategy, forces, and operational methods in a certain fashion. Believers that war is fated will comport themselves as though battle is imminent. Those convinced they can master fortune dwell in the realm where military implements can persuade or dissuade. Different strategies result.

What about the trap in Professor Allison’s Thucydides Trap? Enlightenment might likewise come from parsing this everyday metaphor. Traps come in endless varieties. People lay some traps. People stumble into others. Some are visible, others hidden. Some are inescapable, others easy to evade or escape. Some inflict fatal consequences; others exact lighter damage. Is the Thucydides Trap a steel trap that a hunter lays to pinion an animal’s leg? Or is it a sand trap that a dexterous golfer can exit without losing more than a shot or two from his overall tally?

These are questions of the significant moment. That being the case, it’s crucial for Washington to undertake some soul-searching as it declares that a new age of great-power competition is upon us, and as U.S. leaders try to discern how their counterparts in Beijing, allied capitals, and third parties see matters. This is no idle philosophical musing. It could shape Asia’s—and the world’s—future.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the PacificThe views voiced here are his alone.

This article first appeared in October 2018. It is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters

Is China's Abandoning Nuclear No-First-Use?

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 03:00

Kris Osborn

Chinese Nuclear Weapons, Asia

Why would any country need more than a small number of weapons in their arsenal?

Here's What You Need to Remember: “I am reacting to what they are doing, which is significantly increasing their nuclear force with silo-based ICBMs. Several years ago they made a decision to move in the direction of a much larger ICBM force. Policies are declarations of intent, but intent can change very quickly,” Kendall said. 

China’s massive and fast-paced push to add more nuclear weapons to its arsenal is fast changing the threat equation for U.S. leaders who see the country’s ongoing large-scale increase in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) as a very “destabilizing” event. 

U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says China’s move to add hundreds of new land-based, fixed ICBM silos amounts to their developing a “first-strike” capability. 

“Most of their weapons have been mobile ICBMs, so this is a very destabilizing move and I am not sure they understand the risk they are taking. Whether they intend it or not … their move creates a first-strike capability. If they continue down this path to increase their ICBM force, then that is a de facto first-strike capability,” Kendall told reporters at the Air Force Association Symposium. 

Kendall may have been referring to an event described in August at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium by the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Adm. Charles “Chaz” Richard. 

“Only four months ago, commercial satellite imagery discovered what is accepted to nuclear missile fields in western China. Each has nearly 120 ICBM silos. Now these compliment and are added into what they already have,” Richard told an audience at the symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. 

Sure enough, Richard's mention of Chinese ICBM silos being detected by commercial satellites is something that aligns entirely with the information referred to by Kendall.

China’s clear ambition to massively expand its nuclear arsenal is something that has been on the Pentagon’s radar for some time, as it was cited as a serious concern last year in the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Report.  

Following the publication of this report, senior Pentagon weapons developers and experts added even more specificity and expansion metrics describing China’s ambitious nuclear weapons expansion. 

“We do believe that over the next decade, that China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history, China’s history,” Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told reporters last year according to a Pentagon transcript. “An ability to double the stockpile demonstrates a move away from their historical minimum deterrence posture.”

At the moment, China is known to have an official “no first use” policy with nuclear weapons. However that position does not appear to remain the case, Kendall explained. 

“I am reacting to what they are doing, which is significantly increasing their nuclear force with silo-based ICBMs. Several years ago they made a decision to move in the direction of a much larger ICBM force. Policies are declarations of intent, but intent can change very quickly,” Kendall said. 

Kendall’s concern about Chinese ICBMs aligns in several respects with the Pentagon’s 2020 China Report which adds that the number of Beijing’s ICBMs capable of threatening America will likely grow to 200 in the next five years. As an element of this expansion, China is increasing its inventory of long-range land-fired DF-26 Anti-Ship missiles able to fire both conventional and nuclear missiles.

If merely a few nuclear weapons could unleash massive, unimagined devastation upon cities and even entire countries, why would any country need more than a small number of weapons in their arsenal?

In keeping with Ancient military philosopher Sun Tzu’s famous “Mass Matters” concept, Richard said, “it does not matter if your weapons are superior if you do not have enough of them.”

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This article is being reprinted for reader interest.

Image: Reuters

Can China's People Liberation Army Fight in the Mountains?

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 02:30

Kris Osborn

Chinese Military, Asia

Slinging load and airdrop in mountain areas is no easy task.

Here's What You Need To Remember: Does China have anything like the U.S. Chinook helicopter, which is able to airdrop mobile artillery or rocket launcher systems? Maybe not. That is a potential problem for a Chinese force that might have few options when it comes to deploying this kind of land firepower at mountainous altitudes greater than five thousand feet.

The Chinese military is firing off new rockets and artillery in its Western plateau region. This is the country’s latest effort to demonstrate high-altitude mobility and lethality near its border with India and other countries to the West.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired off its new PHL-11 self-propelled multiple rocket launcher, PCL-161 self-propelled howitzer, and PHL-03 long-range multiple rocket launcher, according to Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times. The weapons conducted numerous live-fire exercises at high altitudes, the report said.

The emerging Chinese weapons all participated in wargaming exercises and simulations intended to refine the PLA’s ability to conduct precision-maneuver warfare at high altitudes in mountainous terrain. Interestingly, while China has also been acquiring ruggedized high-altitude combat vehicles for plateau transport and ground combat, the existence of these new weapons systems may face a deployment problem. Does China have anything like the U.S. Chinook helicopter, which is able to airdrop mobile artillery or rocket launcher systems? Maybe not. That is a potential problem for a Chinese force that might have few options when it comes to deploying this kind of land firepower at mountainous altitudes greater than five thousand feet.

China does have its Z-8 cargo transport helicopter, however, it is reported to operate with about one-half of the maximum take-off weight of the U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook. The Chinook can take off with as much as fifty thousand pounds, whereas public information specs on the Z-8 say its maximum take-off weight is twenty-eight thousand pounds. This differential may mean that the Chinese military may indeed be quite challenged to move its ground war forces and assets around mountain areas as its ability to sling load and airdrop appears much more limited than the U.S. Chinook. For example, a Chinook can carry an M777 mobile Howitzer or even several tactical wheeled vehicles up into mountainous areas to airdrop firepower. China operates its large Y-20 cargo aircraft however, as a fixed-wing asset, it is unlikely it would be able to hover sufficiently near active combat areas, land vertically, or airdrop essential weapons during conflict.

Certainly, on the surface, these kinds of Chinese weapons maneuvers could be aimed at deterring any potential rival from contemplating a land invasion of China, something which could be called extremely unlikely given the country’s terrain and the sheer size of its available military. Any attack on China is much more likely to be predominantly from the air, at least for quite some time until the possibility of land occupation becomes feasible.

However, the effectiveness of the new weapons and their live-fire exercises may ultimately be of little consequence, given that China may lack the means to successfully transport the assets at high altitudes and achieve the needed combat maneuver capacity.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This article is being reprinted due to reader interest. 

Image: Reuters.

This Taiwan Strait Crisis Almost Led to Nuclear War

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 02:00

Kyle Mizokami

Taiwan, Asia

The PLA Navy deserves credit for learning from this incident and now, twenty-two years later, it is quite possible that China could seriously damage or even sink an American carrier.

Here's What You Need to Remember: The People’s Liberation Army, unable to do anything about the American aircraft carriers, was utterly humiliated. China, which was just beginning to show the consequences of rapid economic expansion, still did not have a military capable of posing a credible threat to American ships just a short distance from of its coastline.

More than twenty years ago, a military confrontation in East Asia pushed the United States and China uncomfortably close to conflict. Largely unknown in America, the event made a lasting impression on China, especially Chinese military planners. The Third Taiwan Crisis, as historians call it, was China’s introduction to the power and flexibility of the aircraft carrier, something it obsesses about to this day.

The crisis began in 1995. Taiwan’s first-ever democratic elections for president were set for 1996, a major event that Beijing naturally opposed. The sitting president, Lee Teng-hui of the Kuomintang party, was invited to the United States to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University. Lee was already disliked by Beijing for his emphasis on “Taiwanization,” which favored home rule and established a separate Taiwanese identity away from mainland China. Now he was being asked to speak at Cornell on Taiwan’s democratization, and Beijing was furious.

The Clinton administration was reluctant to grant Lee a visa—he had been denied one for a similar talk at Cornell the year before—but near-unanimous support from Congress forced the White House’s hand. Lee was granted a visa and visited Cornell in June. The Xinhua state news agency warned, “The issue of Taiwan is as explosive as a barrel of gunpowder. It is extremely dangerous to warm it up, no matter whether the warming is done by the United States or by Lee Teng-hui. This wanton wound inflicted upon China will help the Chinese people more clearly realize what kind of a country the United States is.”

In August 1995, China announced a series of missiles exercises in the East China Sea. Although the exercises weren’t unusual, their announcement was, and there was speculation that this was the beginning of an intimidation campaign by China, both as retaliation against the Cornell visit and intimidation of Taiwan’s electorate ahead of the next year’s elections. The exercises involved the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps (now the PLA Rocket Forces) and the redeployment of Chinese F-7 fighters (China’s version of the MiG-21 Fishbed fighter) 250 miles from Taiwan. Also, in a move that would sound very familiar in 2017, up to one hundred Chinese civilian fishing boats entered territorial waters around the Taiwanese island of Matsu, just off the coast of the mainland.

According to Globalsecurity.org, redeployments of Chinese long-range missile forces continued into 1996, and the Chinese military actually prepared for military action. China drew up contingency plans for thirty days of missile strikes against Taiwan, one strike a day, shortly after the March 1996 presidential elections. These strikes were not carried out, but preparations were likely detected by U.S. intelligence.

In March 1996, China announced its fourth major military exercises since the Cornell visit. The country’s military announced a series of missile test zones off the Chinese coastline, which also put the missiles in the approximate direction of Taiwan. In reality, China fired three missiles, two of which splashed down just thirty miles from the Taiwanese capital of Taipei and one of which splashed down thirty-five miles from Kaohsiung. Together, the two cities handled most of the country’s commercial shipping traffic. For an export-driven country like Taiwan, the missile launches seemed like an ominous shot across the country’s economic bow.

American forces were already operating in the area. The USS Bunker Hill, a Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, was stationed off southern Taiwan to monitor Chinese missile tests with its SPY-1 radar system. The Japan-based USS Independence, along with the destroyers Hewitt and O’Brien and frigate McClusky, took up position on the eastern side of the island.

After the missile tests, the carrier USS Nimitz left the Persian Gulf region and raced back to the western Pacific. This was an even more powerful carrier battle group, consisting of the Aegis cruiser Port Royal, guided missile destroyers Oldendorf and Callaghan (which would later be transferred to the Taiwanese Navy), guided missile frigate USS Ford, and nuclear attack submarine USS PortsmouthNimitz and its escorts took up station in the Philippine Sea, ready to assist Independence. Contrary to popular belief, neither carrier actually entered the Taiwan Strait.

The People’s Liberation Army, unable to do anything about the American aircraft carriers, was utterly humiliated. China, which was just beginning to show the consequences of rapid economic expansion, still did not have a military capable of posing a credible threat to American ships just a short distance from of its coastline.

While we might never know the discussions that later took place, we know what has happened since. Just two years later a Chinese businessman purchased the hulk of the unfinished Russian aircraft carrier Riga, with the stated intention of turning it into a resort and casino. We know this ship today as China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, after it was transferred to the PLA Navy and underwent a fifteen-year refurbishment. At least one other carrier is under construction, and the ultimate goal may be as many as five Chinese carriers.

At the same time, the Second Artillery Corps leveraged its expertise in long-range rockets to create the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile. The DF-21 has obvious applications against large capital ships, such as aircraft carriers, and in a future crisis could force the U.S. Navy to operate eight to nine hundred miles off Taiwan and the rest of the so-called “First Island Chain.”

The Third Taiwan Crisis was a brutal lesson for a China that had long prepared to fight wars inside of its own borders. Still, the PLA Navy deserves credit for learning from the incident and now, twenty-two years later, it is quite possible that China could seriously damage or even sink an American carrier. Also unlike the United States, China is in the unique position of both seeing the value of carriers and building its own fleet while at the same time devoting a lot of time and resources to the subject of sinking them. The United States may soon find itself in the same position.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This article first appeared a few years ago and is being reposted due to reader interest. 

Image: Reuters

The US Navy Is Looking to this Missile for Counterattacks

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 01:30

Kris Osborn

Naval Strike Missile, Americas

An island NSM might receive targeting specifics from an aerial drone, submarine or ship-based radar system.

Here's What You Need to Remember: For example with proper networking, a land-based NSM could function as a critical defense “node” within a broader meshed system of sensors, meaning that its targeting technology might be in a position to locate launching enemy weapons and pass that information to allies with assets in the region.

The Navy and Marine Corps are continuing to find new uses and potential adaptations for the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), which arms the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The Marine Corps wants to widen its mission envelope to encompass a greater sphere of attack possibilities such as amphibious attacks, more varied maritime attacks and mobile ground-based anti-ship missile fires.

The NSM, a Raytheon-Kongsberg weapon in development for many years, arms the LCS and provides an over-the-horizon attack option to the ship. This is something that gives commanders the ability to track and destroy incoming anti-ship missiles at safer ranges. Additional uses for the weapon include the engineering of new variants that can fire from land to destroy anti-ship missiles from different vantage points. Additional adaptations to the weapon include wider distribution across the LCS fleet and perhaps various electronic enhancements or software upgrades to improve guidance, reliability or range.

The NSM first emerged in 2012. It consists of a 156-inch missile powered by a launch phase solid-propellant rocket motor booster and a turbo-jet engine fueled by JP-10. This enables it to fly at subsonic speeds for long periods of time. Most weapons are rarely referred to as stealthy; however, the NSM was designed to have a lower radar signature by virtue of being able to attack close to the surface in sea-skimming mode, essentially below the aperture of many ship-based radars. Additionally, the weapon has a range of up to one hundred nautical miles as well as advanced seeker technology, Raytheon developers said.

“It climbs and descends with the terrain and performs evasive maneuvers to counter the world’s most capable defense systems. NSM possesses the capability to identify targets down to ship class—a feature that is vitally important to warfighters who must strike only specific, selected targets in congested, contested and denied environments,” according to Navy Recognition.

In terms of production, Raytheon invested in domestic manufacturing facilities to meet the production demand of the Navy, Marine Corps and other customers. Since the Navy and Marine Corps are buying the same missile and using the same contract vehicle, they could save money through reduced unit prices and logistics commonality. Logistics commonality helps support the Navy and Marine Corps’ multi-domain warfare strategy. For example with proper networking, a land-based NSM could function as a critical defense “node” within a broader meshed system of sensors, meaning that its targeting technology might be in a position to locate launching enemy weapons and pass that information to allies with assets in the region. 

What is more likely, however, is that an island NSM might receive targeting specifics from an aerial drone, submarine or ship-based radar system.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. 

Image: Flickr 

Are Aircraft Carriers Becoming too Expensive?

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 01:00

James Holmes

Naval Warfare, United States

The answer may lie within naval history. Look at what happened to the Battleship.

Here's What You Need to Remember: A likewise dismal destiny could await the Ford-class aircraft carriers if fleet design is undergoing another phase change. If the CVN is no longer a capital ship in Corbett’s sense—if it no longer spearheads the fight for nautical command—then lawmakers and ordinary citizens may ask why they should bear the expense.

Iowa-class fast battleships were castles of steel built for an era of flux in naval warfare not unlike our own. In fact, battleship history casts doubt on the future of über-expensive behemoths like the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs). The question isn’t just whether the aircraft carrier is obsolete, a floating target in the missile age. That reduces the question to technology. The question is whether the carrier is worth its cost in strategic and political terms. If flattops remain survivable enough to bear the brunt of dueling the Russian Navy or China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy for maritime command, they may remain a worthwhile investment.

If not, the carrier fleet’s outlook darkens. Taxpayers and their elected representatives have priorities, winning foremost among them. Justifying carriers’ expense is tough if other implements of war—submarines, small surface craft, whatever—will fight for maritime supremacy while carriers shelter out of harm’s way until the seas and skies are safe enough for them to do their work. Try explaining to the American people or Congress why they should plunk down $15 billion for a single hull when that hull won’t do the heavy lifting in combat. CVNs might still have value, in other words, but not enough to justify their mind-boggling price.

That was battleships’ fate. They never lost their value as fleet workhorses, even after naval aviation displaced them from frontline status during World War II. While battleships remained in the inventory, navies found uses for them. And why not? They had been bought and paid for. They served intermittently into the early 1990s. But new ones were never built. Nowadays few—not even the most fervent enthusiasts—argue for constructing new dreadnoughts. Their price would run to many billions per copy, a forbidding sum for a warship expected to play only a secondary part in sea battles.

A similar fate may await the CVN. The Ford-class may not be obsolete. But other ships or weapon systems could eclipse the CVN as a combat platform—meaning taxpayers would find themselves paying exorbitant sums for a nice-to-have but ancillary capability. That would make little budgetary sense.

You have to credit interwar naval architects for foresight. Conceived during the 1930s, the Iowa class was the Swiss army knife of dreadnoughts. Warship design is a matter of managing tradeoffs among speed, protection, and armament. Back then it remained unclear whether advances in aircraft design would superempower carrier warplanes, extending flattops’ striking range and hitting power. (Spoiler alert: yes.) Shipwrights hedged against uncertainty, drawing up blueprints for a ship class versatile enough to flourish in a variety of potential futures.

The four sister ships constituting the Iowa class boasted firepower and rugged construction sufficient to reprise the role played by armored capital ships for the previous half-century—dishing out and taking punishment in a firefight against battlewagons from the Imperial Japanese Navy or German Kriegsmarine. If armored dreadnoughts remained capital ships without peer—the fleet’s chief repository of battle strength—then the Iowa class was fit to don that mantle. If not—if naval aviation fulfilled its promise—then Iowa-class battlewagons housed steam propulsion plants powerful enough to let them keep up with fast-moving aircraft-carrier task forces.

Iowa designers, that is, constructed gunships able to provide value in a world where naval aviation ruled the oceans. Like past battleships, Iowa-class vessels were fitted with gunnery, radar, and fire control heavy-hitting and accurate enough to conduct shore bombardment. Battleships went on to support amphibious landings throughout the Pacific, Mediterranean, and Atlantic theaters of World War II, as well as fleet engagements against Japan. The fledgling class of battleships, in other words, could contribute to the fight for sea command, regardless of what the future held. And they could perform a variety of functions once command belonged to the U.S. Navy. Iowas were as complete a package as designers could devise.

Hedging—diversifying a vessel’s portfolio of functions and technical attributes to fit a variety of circumstances—only makes sense. For instance, interwar submarine designers intended the U.S. Navy’s Gato-class fleet boats to raid Japanese battleship or cruiser formations. But Gatos could also assail mercantile shipping if deftly handled. These were midsized boats with middling capability by such metrics as tonnage and cruising range. Design choices suited them for a variety of missions—reducing the likelihood that some future evolution of sea warfare would render them useless. Enterprising skippers ravaged Japanese merchantmen throughout the Pacific Ocean.

Indeed, Gato-class subs rank among the most successful classes ever to take to the depths. Their combat performance is a tribute to the naval architects who dreamt them up. There is more to fleet design than newfangled widgets. Hedging is an art—and an attitude—worth rediscovering.

Now look at ship design through the prism of sea-power theory. Maritime strategy comes in threes for historian Julian Corbett. Roughly speaking, naval wars unfold in three phases. A weaker navy can dispute a stronger navy’s command of important waters, denying the opponent victory while buying time to turn the tables and make itself the stronger contender. A stronger navy bids for maritime command when opportunity beckons. It strives to solve a multitude of problems in an afternoon. And, having won command of important waters, the victor reaps the fruits of victory. It enjoys options such as landing troops, bombarding hostile shores, raiding hostile shipping, and on and on. It holds down the vanquished foe while doing as it pleases on the briny main.

To perform these three functions, says Corbett, fleet designers craft three types of ships: capital ships, “cruisers,” and the “flotilla.” Capital ships serve in the battle line, vying for command of the sea against enemy battle fleets. These are the navy’s brawlers. Cruisers are smaller, more lightly armed, cheaper craft. They’re affordable enough to build in bulk. They, not capital ships, are the true executors of maritime command for Corbett. Cruisers—akin to frigates or corvettes in today’s lingo—fan out in large numbers to police the sea. They safeguard the sea lanes for friendly shipping while barring the sea to antagonists. Flotilla craft are still smaller, cheaper, unarmed or lightly armed vessels that can likewise be built in bulk. They conduct the mundane administrative chores all navies must conduct.

In effect the carrier’s debut as the premier capital ship demoted battleships to secondary status in U.S. naval strategy. Iowas steamed with carrier groups in the Pacific, using their abundant secondary armament to protect flattops against air assault. Battleships resumed their place as capital ships from time to time, but only when the battleground was relatively safe from hostile aircraft. In October 1944, for instance, Admiral Jesse Oldendorf oversaw a surface task force that repulsed a Japanese battleship group making its way through Surigao Strait in the central Philippines. By then, though, gunnery duels had become the exception rather than the rule in naval warfare.

At most battleships—even the vaunted Iowa class—hovered at the fringes of Corbett’s capital-ship contingent.

Technology and tactics, then, had reduced battlewagons to subordinate status—to a fleet auxiliary bearing a hefty price tag. Much like Corbett’s cruisers or flotilla ships, they furnished naval gunfire support and performed other duties aftercarrier planes had rendered embattled expanses mostly harmless for surface vessels. Their capabilities were wildly excessive for such modest missions—which is why the final two Iowas, Kentucky and Illinois, were canceled along with plans for the future Montana class. Their subsidiary functions in the fleet simply weren’t worth the expense. Lesser craft would do.

A likewise dismal destiny could await the Ford-class aircraft carriers if fleet design is undergoing another phase change. If the CVN is no longer a capital ship in Corbett’s sense—if it no longer spearheads the fight for nautical command—then lawmakers and ordinary citizens may ask why they should bear the expense.

If the march of technology has relegated flattops to auxiliary status, then Corbett’s fleet-design precepts should apply. Top priority should go to capital ships, whatever they may be in the future. Today as always, winning the battle for command is Job One. Meanwhile the U.S. Navy should acquire smaller, less pricey flattops that can be built in batches to perform support duty. A capital ship may be worth $15 billion if it can sally out to crush the likes of Russia and China in high-seas combat. That’s a tough sell for a fleet auxiliary.

The battleship’s past could be the carrier’s future. Plan accordingly.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, released last December. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Reuters

Weaponizing Space Is Next for the U.S. Air and Space Forces

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 00:30

Kris Osborn

Outer Space, Outer Space

Needless to say this is uncharted territory.

Here's What You Need to Remember: This latter possibility, Kendall further explained, might prove to be a more survivable method of attack as newly engineered space-traveling weapons might be able to operate with an ability to adjust trajectory to avoid a more traditional ICBM flight path. This could enable an offensive weapon to potentially avoid missile warning systems and function with a greater likelihood of traveling through to hit a target. 

The U.S. Air Force and emerging Space Force are venturing into previously uncharted territory. The two branches are exploring the conceptual and technological parameters of more fully “weaponizing” space with offensive attack technologies. 

Space travel has of course long been crucial to Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) flight and Missile Defense efforts to track and destroy incoming ICBMs in the “mid-course” phase of flight. Now, the prospect of sending new technologies into space to operate offensively as “attack weapons” is now very much under exploration by the Pentagon. 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall confirmed that the possibilities were indeed being explored as what he referred to as “global strikes from space.”  Kendall did not go into much detail, which is not surprising given the obvious security sensitivities surrounding the issues. But he did articulate a few significant parameters regarding how space weapons might operate in the future. 

“There is potential to put weapons in space and potential for a weapon to be launched into space as a system that goes into orbit, then de-orbits to hit a target,” Kendall said.

This latter possibility, Kendall further explained, might prove to be a more survivable method of attack as newly engineered space-traveling weapons might be able to operate with an ability to adjust trajectory to avoid a more traditional ICBM flight path. This could enable an offensive weapon to potentially avoid missile warning systems and function with a greater likelihood of traveling through to hit a target. 

While Kendall himself did not elaborate much beyond those few remarks, the possibility of further weaponizing space certainly inspires the imagination in several key respects. Technologies such as Ground-Based Interceptors, ground-launched anti-satellite weapons, kill vehicles for missile defense, decoys and countermeasures, and of course, ICBMs have been well known as space weapons systems for many years. What could be new?  Could armed drones travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere to track and destroy enemy ICBMs, hypersonic missiles, or even spacecraft and satellites? What about laser weapons, as they are widely known to be well suited for space operations given that beam attenuation is much less of a factor beyond the earth’s atmosphere? What about arming satellites themselves with interceptors able to launch from space? Or perhaps integrating long-range missiles and launch systems into satellites to destroy enemy satellites, spacecraft or even ground-based targets should the range and precision accuracy be sufficient. This kind of possibility seems entirely realistic given how close existing space-based sensors can “zoom in” on the earth’s surface. The Missile Defense Agency, for example, is already working on “power scaling” to assess the feasibility of using space or even surface-ship-fired lasers for ICBM defense and attack operations beyond the earth’s atmosphere. 

Interestingly, one of Kendall’s most significant and telling remarks was that he said when it comes to possibilities for space weapons,  there is “no question about the technical feasibility.”

Kendall’s remarks on space war were closely mirrored by U.S. Space Force Commander Gen. John Raymond, who made it clear that space is a warzone

“If you look at what China is doing and what Russia is doing. They will not take us on in the air, because they know we will ‘kick their butt,’ so the only way they think they can challenge us is to take out our space assets. They are developing capabilities to rival us in space,” Raymond said at the Air Force Association symposium.  

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This article is being reprinted for reader interest.

Image: Flickr

Does China Have Enough J-20 Fighter Jets?

Wed, 17/11/2021 - 00:00

Kris Osborn

J-20, World

The U.S Air Force's F-35 fleet is almost double China's J-20.

Here's What You Need to Remember: How fast could China close the gap or in any way attempt to respond to its massive deficit when it comes to the production of 5th-generation stealth fighters? That isn't clear. However, China is known to have an ability to “flex” industrial capacity when it comes to military platforms, particularly in the realm of shipbuilding. 

China is moving quickly to massively rev up production of its J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter jet in what could be viewed as a transparent effort to keep pace with the large numbers of F-35s now arriving to U.S. and allied forces. 

Irrespective of any kind of performance comparison, there is at the moment a staggering difference in numbers. As of 2021, China has only built 150 J-20 stealth fighters, whereas the U.S. Air Force already has more than 280 F-35As and plans to acquire 1,763. 

This is the Air Force alone, meaning the number does not include the growing number of F-35Bs traveling on amphibious assault vehicles with the Marine Corps or the now arriving carrier-launched F-35C Navy aircraft. Overall, current force plans call for 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs for the Corps, and 273 F-35Cs for the Navy. 

On top of this, the number of allied countries now quickly adding F-35s is growing at an alarming rate in terms of planned fleet size and arriving aircraft. Overall, at least 13 countries operate or plan to operate F-35s. South Korea operates sixteen F-35s so far and Denmark and Norway are receiving and operating their F-35s. Many other countries are at various stages of acquiring healthy numbers of the jet to include Switzerland, Japan, Israel, Poland, Australia, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.  Japan, for instance, plans to acquire roughly 200 F-35s to include a mix of F-35As and F-35Bs and the UK already owns 21 F-35s with plans to acquire more. 

What all of this means is that J-20 production is massively behind current F-35 production, something of great significance given that China intends for its J-20 to rival a U.S. F-22 or F-35.  

This circumstance might help explain why the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper is quoting experts talking about a significant acceleration in J-20 production.  

“China's aviation industry can satisfy any level of demand from the PLA (People's Liberation Army) Air Force,” a Chinese J-20 production official told the Global Times.  The paper goes on to say that the developmental curve for the J-20 is, in terms of production, getting much faster and more efficient due to advances in industrial technology. 

"Particularly for equipment like the J-20, we need to do it faster in all aspects, including designing, production, testing, and crafting," Wang Haitao, deputy designer of the J-20, told the paper. 

How fast could China close the gap or in any way attempt to respond to its massive deficit when it comes to the production of 5th-generation stealth fighters? That isn't clear. However, China is known to have an ability to “flex” industrial capacity when it comes to military platforms, particularly in the realm of shipbuilding. 

However, China has a long way to go, and many modern military leaders, strategists, and tacticians stand by Sun Tzu’s famous warfare maxim that “mass matters.” This may be particularly true when it comes to the F-35 given the range of its sensors and ability to network across formations of aircraft with a secure Multifunction Advanced Datalink. This of course expands the operational envelope and allows attack air forces to disperse while coordinating targeting and other mission specifics. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This article is being reprinted for reader interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Why the Aging Arleigh Burke-Class Destroyer Just Won’t Die

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 23:30

Caleb Larson

Arleigh Burke Destroyers , Americas

The ship is still pretty capable.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Navy has squeezed out all the performance they can from the Arleigh Burke-class.

The Arleigh Burke-class of destroyers are old. Though there are several variants of the venerable ship, the Navy drew up the original blueprints in the mid-1980s and the first hulls were commissioned later that decade. Still, they’re pretty capable.

The design incorporated lessons learned from the Royal Navy’s brief foray into Latin American during the 1982 Falklands War. Shipbuilding began to favor aluminum superstructures on top of steel hulls as a weight-saving measure, but the British experience revealed that aluminum was significantly less resistant to fire and other battle-related damage than an all-steel design. The Arleigh Burke-class opted for an all-steel hull and superstructure.

It was also one of the first ship designs in the Navy to incorporate some degree of stealth into its design. The mainmast, which houses the ship’s bridge and communications equipment, was angled slightly upwards to better deflect enemy radar and consequently makes the ship less visible.

Replacement

The Arleigh Burke-class was slated for replacement by the troublesome Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers this year, though that did not happen. The Zumwalts suffered from extreme cost overruns—astoundingly, an individual Zumwalt ship costs more than a nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarine. Rather than the Navy buying a planned thirty-two Zumwalt hulls, a mere three were ultimately laid down and put into service.

With the Zumwalts out of the picture, the Navy’s Arleigh Burkes are supposed to be replaced by the still-under development Large Surface Combatant ship. The LSC program was intended to replace the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers by 2023, though that date has now been pushed back to 2026 or later.

The Navy is currently dealing with different priorities. During a naval meeting, a senior naval official explained what these different priorities mean for the LSC:

“We’re even considering right now, as we have these conceptual discussions on the Large Surface Combatant, do we need something beyond even a Flight III [the latest Arleigh Burke-class variant] on the 51s? And again, I tell people, the budget always gets a vote, so you’ve got to think about what the Navy is doing over the next five to ten years in terms of ship construction: we’ve got frigates coming online, Columbia [ballistic missile submarines] hands down is the top priority, we’re recapitalizing the sealift fleet, we need to continue building Virginias [attack submarines], we just executed a two-carrier buy.” For now, it seems, Arleigh Burkes will just have to keep on keeping on.

Postscript

By 2034, the Navy plans on being a 355 ship fleet. In order to get to that mark, they’ll have to put ships into the water, ready or not—and the Arleigh Burke-class will have to get them there. Still, the class has already been improved almost to the maximum. The design’s internal space limitations don’t allow for improved power generation onboard, and newer communications, radar, and propulsion systems can’t be installed, as they require more juice. The Navy’s directed energy weapons, still in development, likely won’t be able to be installed on the class either.

The Navy has squeezed out all the performance they can from the Arleigh Burke-class. Let’s hope that the LSC can be put into service before America’s Arleigh Burkes have to go to war.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

This article first appeared in June 2020.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan Utah Kledzik

China May Opt for an Unconventional War

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 23:00

James Holmes

China, Asia, China

Just because a concept isn’t a shiny new bauble doesn’t mean it has lost value.

Here's What You Need to Remember: PLA strategists seem to have taken their cue from the Western concept, right down to making the nomenclature their own.

So “systems of systems”—not individual warriors or ships, planes, or tanks—go to war? Good to know. That’s what China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) thinks, at any rate. China’s 2015 Military Strategy, for example, vows to employ “integrated combat forces” to “prevail in system-vs-system operations featuring information dominance, precision strikes and joint operations.” This is how China’s armed forces intend to put the Maoist “military strategic guideline of active defense”—the “essence” of Communist China’s way of warmaking—into practice. They will fabricate systems-of-systems for particular contingencies and send them off to battle. Once there they will strive to incapacitate or destroy enemy systems-of-systems. Firm up your own weak spots while assailing an opponent’s and you shall go far.

You might call this “joint operations with Chinese characteristics” after the Chinese fashion. Earlier this year RAND analyst Jeffrey Engstrom’s monograph Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare shone a spotlight on this dimension of Chinese strategic and operational thought. Engstrom consulted primary-source debates about systems-of-systems to assemble his report, letting Chinese engineers and strategists speak for themselves.

The observations put forth in Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare are at once banal and enlightening. They’re banal in part because system-of-systems engineering is nothing new. It has been around in the West for decades. It got its start among academic engineers in the late 1970s and found favor in the Pentagon during the “transformation” era that came soon after the turn of the century. Almost precisely a decade ago the Defense Department published a Systems Engineering Guide for Systems of Systems, which investigated the rigors of systems-of-systems engineering and explained how to put the concept into effect.

PLA strategists seem to have taken their cue from the Western concept, right down to making the nomenclature their own. Nor is this out of the ordinary for them. Certain imported ideas and phrases resonate with PLA thinkers—sometimes more than with their framers. For instance, PLA officials still use the American acronym MOOTW, for “military operations other than war,” long after it stopped being a fixture in U.S. discourses about military endeavors.

Engstrom’s treatise is also banal because of course metasystems go to war—and always have. An armed host that sends individual weapon systems or soldiers onto the battlefield without integrating their combat power into a unified whole is a force fated for slaughter. It’s little more than a rabble without mutual support among its components, no matter how formidable each warrior or weapon. Disciplined foes strike down fragmented opponents fragment by fragment, soldier by soldier, and widget by widget. Unifying and directing effort has comprised the art of command since antiquity. Only the slogan “system of systems” is new.

Think about seaborne forces. A naval fleet is a system-of-systems that brings together such freestanding complex systems as aircraft carriers, combat aircraft, picket ships, and logistics vessels. The fleet commander oversees the system-of-systems, integrating unlike constituent parts into a whole whose martial strength—if all goes well—is greater than the sum of its parts. Throw in remote sensors and land-based assets that support the fleet, and you have a genuinely intricate system-of-systems. (See below for one such metasystem, from page thirty-nine of the DOD Systems Engineering Guide.) The same could be said of fleets, air forces, and armies since the dawn of the industrial age if not before.

Jeffrey Engstrom renders good service by spotlighting system-of-systems thinking in China. Just because a concept isn’t a shiny new bauble doesn’t mean it has lost value. Novelty is overrated. A vintage concept may not be banal; it may be proven or at least accepted as such. In fact, an idea with staying power across years and decades—active defense, system-of-systems—is worth studying even more than the latest idea. The former may be engraved on a prospective antagonist’s way of marital affairs. The latter could be flotsam, destined to be washed away when the next fad comes along.

Exploring system-of-systems thinking thus furnishes clues into time-tested PLA methods for waging war. And it demands that American and allied forces gaze in the mirror, undertaking some introspection about the robustness and resilience of their own systems-of-systems and their capacity to dismantle and defeat metasystems brought against them. So rather than duplicate Engstrom’s research, let’s review some of the older writings about systems-engineering theory. Doing so will reveal what Chinese engineers and strategists may have divined from these writings, what dangers the metasystems approach poses for the allies, and what opportunities it presents them to exploit.

One of my favorite articles about systems-of-systems engineering appeared in Engineering Management Journal this time in 2003, courtesy of a team of scholars at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. It’s worth your time. Here are a few takeaways I gleaned from it that seem relevant to U.S.-China strategic competition. First of all, metasystems engineering poses a tough intellectual challenge. Engineering a standalone complex system is hard enough. My own background is in gunnery and marine engineering. Think about an old-school steam engineering plant. A main engine connects to a shaft that turns the screw and impels the ship’s hull through the water. Simple. But it takes boilers to generate the steam that supplies the motive force to run the engine. And boilers need constant supplies of fuel and freshwater, as well as auxiliary systems to condense exhausted steam back into freshwater for reuse and to perform other services around the margins. That demands a host of pumps, heat exchangers, and on and on. Go below the next time you visit a historic ship and prepare to be bewildered by interlocking piping systems, valves and sundry contraptions.

You might say that even a freestanding weapon system or platform is a system-of-systems. Now try operating a variety of dissimilar systems in concert with one another for tactical and operational effect. The ODU coauthors cite a 1979 book likening a system-of-systems to “a jigsaw puzzle that is about five miles across.” Rather than looking down on the puzzle from aloft to see how to arrange the pieces, “we are standing on the ground trying to see how to fit it together.” It’s hard to see the whole from ground level, especially since our visual horizon is limited. Nor, they go on to suggest, do the puzzle pieces constituting a system-of-systems fit together neatly. Just the opposite.

Second, writings about systems-of-systems are abstract in the extreme. They impart little sense of the surroundings where metasystems do their work. Ripping things out of context may be unavoidable given the sheer variety of complex systems that military services must mix and match to prosecute operations. The Old Dominion team starts out promisingly—they even cite the aircraft-carrier task force as an example of a metasystem—but then lapse into abstractions for the rest of the article. There’s more concreteness to the DOD Systems Engineering Guide and the Chinese writings surveyed in Engstrom’s RAND monograph, but not enough to give readers much sense of how to put system-of-systems theory to practical use. The chasm between theory and practice could pose a weakness for friendly use of the concept, as well as a frailty to exploit in hostile metasystems should a foe fail to knit its systems together tightly enough.

Third, analysts and practitioners treat systems-of-systems almost exclusively as an engineering challenge. One jargon-laden DOD definition of the phrase depicts overseeing metasystems as “an interdisciplinary engineering management process that evolves and verifies an integrated, lifecycle balanced set of system solutions that satisfy customer needs.” Surveying the literature reveals that proponents of the concept likewise regard it overwhelmingly as an engineering problem. The nonengineering disciplines referred to by the adjective “interdisciplinary” are STEM disciplines—mathematics and the physical sciences for the most part. (The Purdue College of Engineering, which runs a program on this topic, does allude to bringing sociology into the mix.) The ODU coauthors, by contrast, espouse a “transdisciplinary” approach that shreds traditional academic boundaries.

And that makes sense. Systems-of-systems do their work beyond the purely scientific-technical realm, don’t they? Generally speaking, engineering systems prefer steady-state operations. They dislike transients. And they especially dislike operating conditions prone to changing around them, as the strategic environment does. Machinery is designed to perform routine tasks the same way, over and over again. Rejiggering or reinventing a machine amid fluid circumstances poses daunting challenges indeed. That’s doubly true when opponents are out there deliberately trying to cause our system to malfunction to their own tactical or operational benefit.

In short, there are perils to viewing a system-of-systems like a carrier task force or an air-force expeditionary air wing entirely as a creature of engineering. Doing so suggests that assembling and operating a metasystem is a scientific endeavor governed by the rational rules that apply to laboratory or field trials. Yet systems-of-systems deploy in mercurial settings pervaded by chance and uncertainty, dark passions, and thinking foes bent on thwarting our will. The context is nonrational. Paradoxical logic—not the linear logic of engineering systems built for steady-state operations—prevails on battlegrounds. Much as Carl von Clausewitz notes, warfare represents a composite of science and art—but the grandmaster of strategy proclaims that getting your way in chaotic surroundings demands more art than science from commanders.

In short, this is a technical undertaking that unfolds in the topsy-turvy demesne of strategy. That’s one reason the ODU coauthors’ findings appeal to me. They don’t go quite so far as to urge system-of-systems engineers to bring the social sciences and the liberal arts into this endeavor—but it’s reasonable to extrapolate such a recommendation from their praise of the transdisciplinary outlook. The coauthors acknowledge the technical dimensions, which are inescapable, but maintain that “just as important are the contextual, human, organizational, policy, and political system dimensions.”

Huzzah! They testify that systems engineering tends to neglect the context in which systems-of-systems must function, and they pay tribute to the ambiguity and complexity pervading that context. Hence they castigate the “linear pattern” of thought whereby engineers design systems for optimal performance in predictable surroundings. Clausewitz—the father of nonlinear thinking about armed combat, and a founder of complexity theory in mathematics—could only applaud. The ODU team observes that system-of-systems operations demand the willingness to “satisfice” rather than work toward optimal performance, and to improvise on the fly when circumstances change. That may be heresy from a STEM standpoint, but it’s the nature of operations in surroundings where science meets art.

Let’s bring this inquiry back toward the operational realm in closing. What can American and allied strategists and tacticians learn about themselves and the potential PLA adversary by applying system-of-systems thinking? First and foremost, that we should firm up whatever interweaves our systems-of-systems together while hunting for ways to unravel PLA metasystems to our advantage. When you look at U.S. diagrams of complex metasystems you often see lightning bolts connecting the nodes in the array. That signifies that information technology—electromagnetic emissions, GPS position data, whatever—is what binds together the system-of-systems. Loosening or breaking those bonds impairs the network.

Sage PLA strategists will craft tactics to disrupt those information links or disable them altogether. Fragment the enemy network and you can fall on the fragments and eradicate them one by one. Or, better yet, if the PLA can sow paralysis in an enemy system-of-systems for long enough to accomplish its goals, then it may not need to bother trying to annihilate individual units. Why risk major combat over, say, a Taiwan contingency if you can slow down the U.S. Pacific Fleet and associated joint forces long enough to conquer the island, and hand the U.S. Navy a fait accompli when its task forces arrive on scene?

American and allied strategists must repay the favor, searching out ways to cripple or destroy PLA systems-of-systems. That might mean launching strikes against some node in the metasystem in hopes of creating disproportionate impact on the metasystem’s workings. But systems warfare need not involve seeking a hard kill against an enemy platform. It could also mean interrupting connectivity between the nodes and, in the bargain, reducing those nodes to isolated clots of combat power that can be overpowered one by one until PLA commanders say uncle.

Devising methods for disabling enemy systems-of-systems is nothing new. The German Army pulled it off vis-à-vis the French Army along the Meuse River in 1940. German tactics in effect decomposed the French Army, cutting units off from mutual support from fellow units. The French Army remained mostly intact in a material sense, suffering light casualties and equipment losses. But it ceased to exist as a fighting force—much as Clausewitz defines destruction or annihilation of an enemy force not as wholesale slaughter but as destruction of that force’s capacity to resist our will.

Or if you prefer sci-fi warfare, my go-to example is Cylon tactics against the Colonial Fleet of battlestars in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Cyborg information warriors insinuate computer viruses into the human fleet, cutting off capital ships and fighters from one another while disabling navigation, sensors and weapons. Colonial Fleet pilots are more than a match for the Cylons in one-on-one fights. Incapacitate their instruments of war and the command-and-control system that unites them, though, and you set their battle advantage at nought. Since the Cylons are intent on genocide, they crush individual Colonial Fleet units at their leisure—annihilating the fleet except for a rabble of fugitive vessels that escape through happenstance or sound network defenses. But they could have imposed their will on the vanquished short of a wholesale massacre.

That’s systems-destruction warfare to a tee, isn’t it? If indeed PLA strategists and their political overseers are serious about implementing the concept—and there’s little reason to doubt them—then their writings open a window into their thinking that could help China’s foes derive methods and hardware for hardening their own systems-of-systems while assailing PLA metasystems. Revisiting Western engineers’ musings about complex systems could bestow strategic advantage on allied forces in future contingencies—repaying the effort.

Make it so.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” in the current issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. The views voiced here are his alone.

This article is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.

How the Spanish-American War Forged the US Superpower

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 22:30

Kyle Mizokami

Spanish-American War, Americas

Spain was viewed as powerful global military at the time of the conflict, and America's victory made the world take notice.

Here's What You Need to Remember: The handing over of Guam and Philippines would have greater repercussions down the road, as placed the United States on a collision course with another rising, expansionist country: Japan.

The end of the Second World War is often considered the defining moment when the United States became a global power. In fact, it was another war forty years earlier, a war that ended with America having an empire of its own stretching thousands of miles beyond its continental borders. The Spanish-American War, which lasted five months, catapulted the United States from provincial to global power.

The Spanish-American War was a classic example of the “Thucydides Trap,” in which tensions between a declining power, Spain, and a rising power, the United States, resulted in war. By the end of the nineteenth century, Spain was clearly in decline, and Madrid’s grasp on its empire was increasingly tenuous. Cuba and the Philippines both experienced anti-Spanish revolts, and Spain’s difficulty in putting them down merely illustrated to the rest of the world how frail the empire actually was.

Meanwhile, in North America, the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny had run its course. The admission of Washington State to the Union in 1890 had consolidated America’s hold on the continent. Americans with an eye toward expanding America’s business interests and even creating an American empire couldn’t help but notice weakly held European colonial possessions in the New World and the Pacific. The march towards war in America was multifaceted: even liberal-minded Americans favored war to liberate Cuba from a brutal military occupation.

The sinking of the battleship USS Maine on February 15 was the last straw in a long and increasingly tense series of crises between Washington and Madrid. In Havana harbor at the request of the American ambassador, the Maine was reportedly struck by an underwater mine, although it seems far more likely in hindsight the sinking was the result of an accidental onboard explosion. The destruction of the ship, as well as the deaths of 266 sailors, made war inevitable even for those, like President William McKinley, who wished to avoid it.

On April 19, 1898, President McKinley’s request to intervene in Cuba on behalf of the rebels was approved by Congress. The U.S. Navy began a blockade of Cuba two days later, and Spain replied by declaring war on April 23. The United States replied by declaring war on the twenty-fifth.

At the time war broke out, Spain maintained 150,000 regular ground forces and eighty thousand local militia in Cuba. An impressive force on paper, in reality it was poorly trained and supplied and more of a garrison force to protect landowners from insurgents. It was not an army capable of fighting a conventional war. Spain maintained weak naval squadrons in both Cuba and the Philippines, but distance rendered it unable to reinforce either in any meaningful sense.

The United States was equally ill-prepared. Never before had the United States attempted war on such a global scale. The entire U.S. Army consisted of only 28,747 officers and men spread through the country in company-sized formations. Following the end of the Civil War, the Army had optimized itself for small-scale insurgency warfare against Native American tribes in the West and had distanced itself from large-scale conventional war. With war imminent, the Army and Marine Corps began a rapid buildup during which it was besieged by amateurs and recalled Civil War veterans to regain knowledge on large-scale conventional operations. The U.S. Navy was in better shape, with sufficient ships to take on a blockade/sea control mission around Cuba.

The first action of the war was on May 1 in the Battle of Manila Bay, in which Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron quickly defeated the local Spanish fleet and shore defenses. This severed Madrid’s sea lines of communications to the Philippines, and consequently its hold on the entire archipelago. U.S. ground forces arrived in July, and after token fighting, the Spanish government in the Philippines surrendered.

The actual war in and around Cuba was brief. The land campaign started on June 22, as the U.S. Army’s Fifth Corps made an unopposed landing east of Santiago. Another landing was by U.S. Marine at Guantanamo Bay and another on the island of Puerto Rico. Working with indigenous Cuban troops, the Army marched on Santiago and forced a series of battles that, while not entirely successful, demonstrated that Spain’s hold on the island was permanently broken.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Caribbean Squadron was destroyed on July 2 at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, and after bombardment by the U.S. Navy, Santiago surrendered on the seventeenth. Despite the briefness of the campaign thus far Spain’s defeat was clearly imminent. American forces only grew stronger and Spanish forces only grew weaker, and thanks to the blockade the latter had no prospect of relief. On July 18, the Spanish government sued for peace, and negotiations to end the war ceased on August 12. As a result of the war the United States annexed the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, and occupied Cuba until 1903. Although Washington granted Cuban independence, it retained a say in Cuban affairs.

The Spanish-American War made the United States a global power. The defeat of a continental European power, Spain, was a major military accomplishment. The handing over of Guam and Philippines would have greater repercussions down the road, as placed the United States on a collision course with another rising, expansionist country: Japan. Like many conventional state-on-state conflicts, the Spanish-American War upset the old order and set the stage for a new one.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This article first appeared several years ago and is being reprinted due to reader interest.

Image: Flickr.

Russia Is Practicing Its Arctic Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactics

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 22:00

Mark Episkopos

Russian Navy, arctic

Corvettes from the Northern Fleet conducted drills with the Typhoon-class submarine Dmitri Donskoi.

Here's What You Need To Remember: Moscow has recommitted to ramping up its Arctic military activity in recent months, with Deputy Chairman of  the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev saying during an earlier session of Russia’s Arctic Commission that Russia “must continue its work on the strengthening of Arctic troops equipped with modern types of armament.”

The Onega and Naryan-Mar Grisha III- class corvettes launched torpedo attacks against a notional enemy’s submarine in the White Sea, according to the Northern Fleet’s press office. The Typhoon-class submarine Dmitry Donskoi played the role of the enemy vessel, the Northern Fleet specified. "The warships searched for the submarine using onboard sonars and launched a torpedo attack against it. The heavy nuclear-powered underwater cruiser Dmitry Donskoi operating at a depth of over 100 meters simulated the underwater enemy for the small anti-submarine warfare ships," read the press statement. The dummy torpedoes fired against Dmitry Donskoi were recovered and brought back to base following the exercises. The drills were staged out of the Northern Fleet’s Belomorskaya naval base, located in the Arkhangelsk region of northwestern Russia. The Northern Fleet is headquartered in the Murmansk region’s town of Severomorsk, not far off Russia’s state border with Finland.

The Grisha III class is a line of Soviet-built, dedicated anti-submarine corvettes, six of which are currently active in Russia’s Northern Fleet. The ships boast two RBU-6000 anti-submarine rocket launchers, carrying a total of ninety-six rockets, as well as two standard 533 torpedo tubes and a 9K33 “Osa” surface-to-air missile launcher. The Grisha class has been succeeded by the Steregushchiy corvette class, which is not specifically an anti-submarine vessel but offers a versatile enough armament loadout to serve in that role. The Paket-E/NK system of the latter provides what is an overall more effective solution against submarines, boasting anti-submarine MTT torpedoes with an operational range of up to 10,000 meters. Onega and Naryan-Mar are part of a naval task force that conducted artillery fire exercises against sea and air targets, as well as anti-submarine operations. It is unclear what other ships were included in this task force and how long this ongoing set of exercises will run.

Dmitri Donskoi is the sole remaining Typhoon-class nuclear-powered heavy ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). Laid down in 1976, it held—and by some measures, still retains—the title of the largest military submarine ever built. The Typhoon-class is being replaced by the newer and more capable Borei-class SSBNs, with Donskoi reportedly scheduled to serve through the mid-2020s.

These exercises follow a series of Russian bomber drills conducted earlier in 2021, which involved Tu-160 and Tu-95MS planes launching cruise missiles during a live-fire session at an Arctic firing range. The Northern Fleet announced that it will be hosting a new wave of drills this autumn, nominally aimed at protecting Russia’s Northern Sea Route. The route provides commercial ships in the Saint Petersburg area with a greatly expedited form of transit to East Asia through the Bering Sea.

Moscow has recommitted to ramping up its Arctic military activity in recent months, with Deputy Chairman of  the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev saying during an earlier session of Russia’s Arctic Commission that Russia “must continue its work on the strengthening of Arctic troops equipped with modern types of armament.”

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.

This piece first appeared in July 2021 and is being reprinted due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.

The True Value of a Long-Range Precision Strike Missile

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 21:35

Kris Osborn

Army, Americas

The Army wants to present multiple “dilemmas” for an enemy.

Why is the Army acquiring long-range Precision Strike Missile when the Navy can launch a Tomahawk land-attack missile from the ocean at land targets up to nine hundred miles away and Air Force bombers can fire air-launched cruise missiles against fortified ground targets at great distances? 

Recently, Army leaders have had to answer questions about the expense of new weapons systems. Its most senior members explained that it was crucial for the Army to have weapons systems that can complement or pick up missions for similar weapons systems employed by other services.

“When I look at the battlefield, whether it is potentially in Indo-PACOM or whether it is in Europe, there are going to be more than enough targets to shoot at for the whole joint force. All of us need to be looking at how we can bring long-range Precision Fires capabilities. It is not something that should be left to just one service,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told reporters, according to an Army transcript. 

Wormuth cited the complexities and interwoven, multi-domain challenges associated with the current global threat environment. She noted that commanders need multiple options when participating in joint operations. Perhaps a Navy submarine or ship might not be in a position to fire upon or reach a highly crucial enemy target such as inland air defenses. Perhaps advanced air defenses cannot prevent aircraft from flying within range to attack? What if sea and air assets are not in a position to reach a target that advancing armored forces need to see destroyed at safer stand-off distances? Or perhaps, as Wormuth suggested, there are simply so many targets emerging that not having long-range land-attack options could greatly imperil a mission.  Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville has noted that the military wants to present multiple “dilemmas” for an enemy.  

“When you think about us providing options, really what it’s about is providing options to the combatant commander. And so, if you think about it, he has capabilities from the air. He has capabilities from the sea,” McConville said, according to the Army transcript. “He has capabilities from the land. There are also capabilities from cyber—and all those present multiple dilemmas to our competitors, and it does not allow them to focus on one option when it comes to a future situation.” 

There is also the additional advantage of networking weapons systems, newer kinds of data-sharing technologies are increasingly able to connect weapons sensors and targeting systems to one another across otherwise disparate or unreachable nodes across an area of operations.  
 
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. 

Image: Reuters

Go, Joe! Biden's Infrastructure Bill Finally Passed—But What's In It?

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 21:33

Trevor Filseth

Infrastructure Bill,

Of the $1.2 trillion set aside in the bill, only around half amounts to new spending at all, so where does the rest of it go?

Following the passage of the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” President Joe Biden’s long-awaited bipartisan infrastructure bill, the United States will spend roughly $1.2 trillion on American infrastructure. The spending will be divided between improving physical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and waterways, and “core infrastructure,” referring to necessary goods such as water, electricity, and internet access, each of which the government helps to procure.

In each category, the United States sorely needs additional infrastructure investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, regularly grades America’s infrastructure network for durability, efficiency, and functionality; this year’s grade, issued in March 2021, was a C-, the highest grade that the U.S. had ever received (it is usually in the “D” range). Early estimates suggested that the problems with infrastructure would take at least $2.5 trillion in spending to fix.

Of the $1.2 trillion set aside in the bill, only around half amounts to new spending at all. In addition to investments in new infrastructure, the bill assumes the cost of maintenance on America’s existing infrastructure—a task that regularly costs the U.S. government billions of dollars per year. In total, the bill sets $284 billion aside for upkeep on existing conventional infrastructure, and $266 billion for upkeep on core infrastructure, according to CNBC

Of the money included within the appropriation, $40 billion of it is specifically devoted to bridge repair and maintenance, as well as the construction of new bridges. This number is included within the $110 billion set aside for concrete infrastructure in general, also including roads and highways—around twenty percent of which are crumbling or in danger of disrepair, according to the White House, in addition to 45,000 bridges nationwide.

Another major problem that the bill is concerned with combating is climate change, which Biden administration officials stressed could cause damage to existing infrastructure through severe weather events. Another $16 billion was also set aside for “megaprojects” existing outside the scope of normal funding programs. Nearly $40 billion is provided for public transit projects, which are perceived to sharply cut the consumption of fuel.

The Biden administration did not accompany the bill with a tax increase, claiming that the bill would pay for itself in a number of ways, including through increased efficiency. The Congressional Budget Office argued in turn that it would increase the national debt by $256 billion over the next decade.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters

Artificial Intelligence Drones May Prove Useful Against China

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 21:30

Kris Osborn

Drones, World

This possibility seems, at very least, to be under consideration at the Pentagon due to both the pace and seriousness of the threat.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Simply put, when confronted by this kind of high-speed lethal attack, there simply may be no chance for a human to respond with any kind of decision.

What if waves of hundreds of autonomous, integrated artificial intelligence (AI)-capable mini-drones were closing in upon a forward Army unit, Air Force base or Navy ship at staggering speeds, presenting unprecedented complexity for defenders? Perhaps they are programmed with advanced algorithms such that they operate in close coordination with one another? Perhaps hundreds of them are themselves engineered as explosives to close in upon and explode on target?

Simply put, what happens when computerized swarms of enemy drone attacks exceed any human capacity to respond in time?

“When you have little drones operating in different patterns and formations, all talking to each other and staying in sync with one another...imagine that with the ability to create lethal effects on the battlefield. There is no human who will be able to keep up with that,” Gen. John Murray, Commanding General, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.

Drone and hypersonics weapons defenses, among other things, are taking on new urgency among Pentagon technology experts who increasingly recognize the growing urgency with which high-speed, computer enabled attacks need to be defended.

Therefore, given this circumstance, the emerging question is clear: When it comes to increasingly autonomous and coordinated drone swarm attacks, is there a basis to employ advanced, super high-speed AI-enabled defensive systems to find, track, attack and destroy the drone swarm without needing human intervention?

“I think its a conversation we are going to have eventually. I think the conversation needs to be about when you’re talking about a decision that involves another human life. I think that is clearly in the human domain. But when you are talking about small swarming UAVs where there is not a human life involved… can we allow a machine to make the initial decision about which effectors are used or in what order defenses are employed to destroy the swarm with no loss of human life allowed?” Murray said.

This possibility seems, at very least, to be under consideration at the Pentagon due to both the pace and seriousness of the threat and the promise of AI-enabled autonomy regarding weapons systems.

The technological ability of a robotic platform to surveil, find, track, target and actually destroy a target without human intervention, is basically here. What does this mean for Pentagon futurists and war planners seeking to prepare for and anticipate enemy attacks and threats in coming years? Particularly when it is widely recognized that potential rivals are not likely to allow for or consider ethical questions related to the use of this kind of technology in warfare?

Of course, the Pentagon maintains strict adherence to its existing doctrine which specifies that, when it comes to the question of the potential use of “lethal force,” a human must always be “in-the-loop.” However, the prevailing consensus appears to be that, despite the disturbing reality that enemies may not share this kind of doctrinal approach grounded upon ethical considerations.

But what about non-lethal force? That is the question. Certainly, the pace, complexity and anticipated lethality of future attacks introduces new warfare dynamics of fast-increasing complexity for defenders. Think, for instance, about the pace of an approaching hypersonic missile attack at closer-in distances? Simply put, when confronted by this kind of high-speed lethal attack, there simply may be no chance for a human to respond with any kind of decision.

AI-capable drone defenses can already gather, pool, organize and analyze an otherwise disconnected array of threat variables, compare them against one another in relation to what kinds of defense responses might be optimal and make analytical determinations in a matter of milliseconds. As part of this, AI-empowered algorithms can analyze a host of details such as weapons range, atmospheric conditions, geographical factors and point of impact calculations, all in close relation to one another as part of an integrated picture, examine and compare what has worked in specific previous circumstances and scenarios to determine the best defensive response.

Murray’s thinking parallels current Department of Defense initiatives now taking up the question of defensive, non-lethal employment of autonomous weapons.

Given the short-term promise of this kind of technical capability, perhaps there may indeed be some tactical circumstances wherein it is both ethical and extremely advantageous to deploy autonomous systems able to track and intercept approaching threats in seconds, if not milliseconds. A recent Pentagon report says there is now an emerging area of discussion pertaining to the extent to which AI might enable “in-the-loop” or “out-of-the-loop” human decision making, particularly in light of threats such as drone swarms.

“When you’re starting to see swarming activities of hundreds or potentially thousands [of UAS] in the future, obviously you want your system to operate as fast [as possible] to provide those weaponeering solutions to the operator, or operate within a set of parameters,” Col. Marc E. Pelini, the division chief for capabilities and requirements within the Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, told reporters during a teleconference, according to a Pentagon report.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This article first appeared in March 2021 and is being reprinted for reader interest.

Image: Reuters.

Russia’s Checkmate Stealth Fighter: A Fighter Sales Hit?

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 21:20

Caleb Larson

Checkmate Stealth Fighter, Eurasia

Early reports indicated the stealth fighter would be an export—but it has found interests at home too.

Rostec, the Russian industrial conglomerate, confirmed that the Russian Defense Ministry is mulling the decision to acquire the new Checkmate stealth fighter. 

“They wanted to have some, of course. We recently discussed with the minister [of defense] that they need to come up with mission requirements stating what configuration they are looking for in the jet,” Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov told reporters at the Dubai Airshow, according to Russian news organization TASS. “The configuration that we have made now was funded by us and the Russian Industry and Trade Ministry.” If confirmed, then the Russian Defense Ministry’s interest in the Checkmate would be a big wing for the fledgling fighter. 

Checkmate 

While stealthy, Russia’s newest stealth fighter appears to be a compromise design aimed at squeezing the most out of basic stealth features to produce an affordable baseline design. 

Like many stealth fighters, the Checkmate features stealth fuselage contouring and a nose chine. The fighter’s single-engine air intake forms a chin below the nose and appears to hide turbine blades from enemy radar. The airframe also makes use of ruddervators, which combine the rudder and elevator characteristics. The design offers radar fewer right angles and offers stealth advantages. 

Price Points 

And those features are reflected in the Checkmate’s price tag: an estimated $30 million. That is significantly less than the world’s most prolific stealth fighter, the F-35 fighter jet family, which can cost around $90 million apiece depending on the variant. 

The relatively low price point reflects the fighter’s export orientation, a fact reinforced by the media blitz surrounding the fighter before it was officially unveiled. Promotional material showed pilots from the Middle East, Latin America, India, and other countries, perhaps a marketing gag to pique interest for the fighter in those places. 

Build, Build, Build 

Sukhoi, the Russian aerospace firm behind the Checkmate design, is already building flight prototypes at United Aircraft Corporation’s manufacturing plant at Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Siberia, according to Aviation Week. Yuri Slyusar, UAC’s General Director, told reporters that “the plant at Komsomolsk has started to build a few prototypes for the starting batch.” 

This information about the Checkmate prototypes confirms that the Checkmate airframe display first unveiled at the MAKS Airshow was a static model and not a flight-worthy prototype, though the model could potentially be made flightworthy. 

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates could end up being the first country to import the Checkmate. The UAE’s current fighter inventory includes American F-16 Fighting Falcons and French Mirage 2000s. 

Securing a first export customer would be a big win for the Checkmate program—a fresh cash injection could pave the way for broader export. 

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer for the National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society. 

Image: Reuters

How the Legendary M16 Rifle Came to Be

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 21:00

Kyle Mizokami

M16, Americas

The M16 helped fill an important need for America's military after WWII.

Here's What You Need to Remember: The weapon which had garnered such glowing reports from American advisers and Vietnamese troops would fall victim to fatal, last-minute decisions and rumor that fueled bad choices at the troop level. The M16 rifle was headed into choppy waters.

The M16 rifle is one of the most iconic weapons of the post-World War II era. American fighting men have carried the M16 in one form or another into combat for more than fifty years, from Vietnam to the present day. The story of the original M16, whose descendants the M16A4 and M4 carbine today fight in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State, goes all the way back to the 1950s and the institutional soul-searching that came after another war—Korea.

In the aftermath of the Korean War, the U.S. Army took stock of its small arms arsenal. The Army’s M1 carbine, M1 Garand rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle squad automatic weapon and machine guns were all some variation on .30 caliber. The Army needed a new rifle and carbine, ideally a single weapon, but the data suggested that the lighter, slower .30 caliber round of the M1 carbine was less useful than the .30 and .30-06 rounds used in other small arms.

At the same time, influential studies by Army ordnance engineers suggested that a soldier using a small caliber, high-velocity rifle of about .21 caliber would expect to kill 2.5 times more targets than with the M1 rifle. The average infantry engagement took place at 300 yards or less, and the average expert rifleman's marksmanship declined sharply beyond 100 yards. Therefore the utility of a heavier round requiring heavier bullets and a heavier recoil—but capable of killing targets at 500 yards—was questionable.

If the studies were true, a smaller, lighter round fired from a lighter rifle was the future. Although smaller, such a bullet would be more practical at realistic engagement ranges. Soldiers would find a small caliber weapon, with its lighter recoil, easier to shoot prompting them to shoot more often. Soldiers could also carry more of the lighter cartridges than the big .30-06 rounds of the M1 Garand.

The reports also suggested that a weapon that fired a slightly dispersed pattern of bullets—or projectiles—could compensate for near-misses on the battlefield. An infantryman might miss an enemy soldier's head by two inches, but if his weapon fired multiple projectiles that fell into a tight pattern around the aiming point, that infantryman might still hit his target. Hence, the armed services plowed considerable effort into exploring weapons that had multiple barrels, cartridges that held multiple bullets, and steel dart “flechettes” that could solve the dispersion problem, but after seven years the research bore no operational weapon. The simplest, most obvious way to achieve a slightly dispersed pattern was through burst fire from a small-caliber, high-velocity weapon.

Meanwhile, a new rifle design from the ArmaLite corporation was gaining a lot of attention. Developed by small arms designer Eugene Stoner, the AR-10 rifle was a lightweight rifle that fired the 7.62-millimeter NATO cartridge. The 7.62 cartridge (.308) was similar to but less powerful than the .308 Winchester hunting cartridge. The weapon featured a pistol grip, carrying handle, and loaded from a twenty-round magazine. The weapon used a novel gas operated, direct impingement design, in which gunpowder gasses were diverted via a tube to push the bolt carrier group, unlocking the bolt from the breech face and sending it rearward to eject the empty casing and chamber a fresh cartridge.

The AR-10 experienced considerable teething problems but the sleek, space-age design still had its backers. The AR-10 lost the competition for the next U.S. Army rifle to the T-44 rifle—later designated the M-14 battle rifle. Despite this, on May 1, 1957, ten days after the M-14 was chosen the U.S. Army ordered ten AR-15 rifles—virtually the same rifle but ported to the smaller .222 Remington round—for testing and evaluation.

The AR-15 design was purchased from Fairchild/Armalite in 1959 by legendary arms maker Colt. In the early 1960s, the AR-15 design was refined, the cartridge renamed .223 Remington, and the cocking lever relocated from the top of the rifle to behind the carry handle. Tests in Asia proved the lighter, smaller caliber weapon was popular with shorter-statured Asians, but buyers could not qualify for U.S. military aid funding because the U.S. military did not use the AR-15.

In 1962, the U.S. Air Force purchased 8,500 AR-15s, but the rapidly escalating situation in Vietnam saw many of these rifles diverted to arm South Vietnamese Army, as well as U.S. Navy SEALs and U.S. Special Forces operating in Vietnam. The encouraging feedback from these units, fighting enemies armed with the AK-47 assault rifle at close range, led the Army to a “one-time” purchase of 104,000 rifles, renamed the M16 and M16E1, in November 1963. The obvious advantages of the M16 over the larger, heavier M14 in Vietnam, as well as the large number of U.S. troops deployed to Southeast Asia, led to further purchases and eventually the M16 overtook the M14 completely.

A comparison between the M14 and M16 is illustrative. The M14 rifle weighed 9.32 pounds unloaded to the AR-15/M-16’s 6.35 pounds. An M14 rifle with 120 rounds loaded in magazines weighed 18.93 pounds, while the M16 weighed just 11.04 pounds. The M16 was also nearly six inches shorter. Furthermore, thanks to its smaller cartridge, the M16 in automatic fire mode produced shot groups half the size of the bigger rifle.

As U.S. forces streamed out of bases in the United States bound for Southeast Asia, few would have imagined the M16 rifle, which seemed to have such a rosy future, would encounter such controversy. The weapon which had garnered such glowing reports from American advisers and Vietnamese troops would fall victim to fatal, last-minute decisions and rumor that fueled bad choices at the troop level. The M16 rifle was headed into choppy waters.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This article first appeared several years ago and is being reprinted for reader interest.

Image: Reuters

Goodbye, F-35? How a New Stealth Fighter Might Be Born

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 20:30

Caleb Larson

Stealth Fighters, Americas

Speculation has run rampant.

Here's What You Need to Know: A California-based aerospace company recently put a mysterious new prototype up into the air.

The airframe in question, Scaled Composites’ Model 401 first flew in 2018, though details on what the prototype plane is intended for are scant. The plane, tentatively called the “Son of Ares,” is a single-engine design that uses the same engine that Cessna’s Citation business jet used.

Interestingly, the engine’s air intake forms an arched arrangement on top of the plane’s fuselage and can reportedly propel the plane up to Mach 0.6 speeds. It has a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet.

Stealthy?

Scaled Composites specializes in quickly getting unusual-looking and novel designs from the prototype stage into the air. One of their stated missions is to “demonstrate advanced, low-cost manufacturing techniques and to provide aircraft for research flight services to industry partners and the United States government.” With Washington as a customer, the question of stealth understandably comes up.

This could be a project that Scaled Composites is well prepared for. As the company name suggests, one of their specialties is manufacturing advanced airframes out of composite materials rather than the metals like aluminum or titanium that typically go into building airframes. Some composite materials also have the advantage of being harder to detect with radar. 

Indeed, the so-called Son of Ares appears to incorporate some low-observable features into its design. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the plane’s nose. The 401’s chined nose is reminiscent of the F-22 Raptor, which also features noticeable chines running from the nose into the body.

The 401 also has steeply swept wings that angle upwards. It’s been pointed out that this wing sweep and upward, or dihedral, angle might be to give pilots good horizontal visibility and an unobstructed view from both left and right sides. This may make sense considering potential belly-mounted payload or pods.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

A photographer managed to snap some photos of a pair of 401s flying over the Mojave Desert in Southern California. This time though, the 401s had some odd markings painted onto their fuselages. One of the airframes had a highly reflective type of material either painted or affixed to a patch below the cockpit on the plane’s left side. This mirror-like finish contrasted sharply with the other 401, which was painted matte grey, though it had several diamond-shaped patches of brown and a different shade of grey near the cockpit and tail.

Speculation has run rampant, though one of the more likely theories for the odd jet’s livery involves testing the Legion Pod, a relatively new infrared search and track system that Lockheed Martin developed. As of now, the system is compatible with F15C and F-16 aircraft. The mirror finish might be a way to test the Legion Pod’s capabilities, with the non-mirrored airframe acting as a control or baseline jet.

This is all still speculative. Stay tuned for more on the mysterious Son of Ares.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

This article first appeared in June 2020.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth

The Road to Damascus Will Be Paved by China’s Belt and Road

Tue, 16/11/2021 - 20:00

Adnan Nasser

Syria, Middle East

China is patiently playing a long game when it comes to improving relations with Syria and the Middle East as a whole.

As Damascus’ forces gradually recover more territory, with Idlib province being the last rebel stronghold, Syria is now entering a “postwar” phase. Yet while Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces have prevailed on the battlefield, his victory has come at a heavy price. The ten-year Syrian Civil War has killed over half a million people and displaced at least another 6.6 million. Syria remains under robust international economic sanctions; its reconstruction is in a state of inertia.

Over time, the Syrian government managed to regain most of the country back, thanks to a compilation of pro-Assad military forces buttressed by Russia and Iran. However, the war is winding down and Syria’s economy is in dire need of rebuilding. Assad has said the nations that contributed to the defeat of his “terrorist” enemies will be given priority in economic investments and reconstruction, but Iran and Russia alone can’t foot the bill—estimated between $200 to $400 billion—that Syria’s reconstruction requires. Both are struggling to keep their populations satisfied and facing economic troubles of their own. However, there is one country with deep pockets that has shown interest in rebuilding Syria: China.

Historically, Beijing has not considered Syria to be a top foreign policy priority. In fact, Syria is a member of the “Russian camp.” However, with the passing of time and changing conditions on the ground, both Syria and China have sought to improve their ties. Throughout the civil war, China has defended Assad internationally, even when he was accused of the most heinous of crimes. Alongside Russia, Beijing vetoed a United Nations resolution to impose sanctions against Damascus after a UN investigation found the Assad regime guilty of dropping chlorine gas from helicopters on civilians trapped in the northwestern city of Idlib. 

On a trip to Damascus, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with government officials including Assad and said that China is against regime change in Syria and is committed to improving the lives of all Syrians. China wants to have a larger say in Middle East affairs—especially in the heart of the Levant region—and wants to secure the business opportunities that Syria’s destruction has created by offering the Assad regime reconstruction aid without political preconditions on matters such as human rights. China is also concerned that Uighur separatists have traveled to Syria to fight alongside Islamist groups seeking to replace Assad with a theocratic government. Reports of Uighur fighters participating in the raging Syrian conflict have had the Syrian Civil War take on new importance in Beijing. 

On January 21, 2016, President Xi Jinping spoke in Cairo, Egypt, to the Arab League about how the Middle East is a land of abundance and both China and the Arab world should join hands to maximize the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative. Critics will argue Beijing’s intentions to embrace Assad will legitimize the latter’s hold on power and permit his continued reign without accountability for the deaths of countless innocent civilians. They are correct in the short term: This is not an ideal situation for Syrians who have suffered a decade of endless killing. However, it may be the single greatest opportunity for ordinary Syrians to salvage their future prosperity. Assad and his top followers are already doing their utmost to bypass the U.S. Caesar Act’s sanctions—which although it was designed to punish the regime and its partners for crimes against the Syrian people, has only further starved the people of the financial and economic assistance they so desperately need to reconstruct their country. 

U.S. policymakers have put too much thought into symbolic flexing, while the Chinese have already put a down payment of $2 billion on future economic projects in Syria. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Syrian hospitals, the Chinese rushed to deliver precious medical equipment. This is what Syrians need right now, not more counterproductive and ineffective sanctions that impress upon Syrians that the West is conspiring against them, which is just the kind of conspiracy that the regime loves to peddle.

China is patiently playing a long game when it comes to improving relations with Syria and the Middle East as a whole. It wants to approach the governments in the region with an open hand of friendship. Nevertheless, if Beijing loses sight of how the local populations feel about their own leaders and how they govern, then, any “positive” relations will be superficial.

It must be clear that no government can survive with violence if it loses popular support among its people. A political solution must be reached that will ensure justice for the victims of this war and long-term stability. With China having a larger say in the Arab world, it can accelerate a demand for Assad to make the necessary concessions in return for greater international protection and finance for his national reconstruction plans. These concessions would most likely be made to pardon opposition figures and combatants, to maintain public order, and provide social cohesion to allow trade to flourish. Will it though? That remains to be seen.

The author would like to thank More Perspectives (@morepersps) for assisting in editing the article.

Adnan Nasser is an independent Middle East analyst. He has a BA in International Relations from Florida International University. Follow him on Instagram @revolutionarylebanon or contact him at Anass018@fiu.edu

Image: Reuters.

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