Indications from the Persian Gulf region point towards a growing likelihood of Iranian action as the one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination approaches. Tension between the US and Iran have been on the rise in recent weeks, as we have discussed recently. Over the last few days, however, signs of Iranian military preparations have become known. Air defenses, naval units, and security forces inside of Iran have increased their alert levels. The air defense revisions, curiously enough, include more combat air patrols over Natanz and other nuclear facilities in central Iran. Add to that the recent reports from the intelligence community advancing the theory that construction at the Natanz facility is presently ramping up.
In short, Iranian action is expected on or around 3 January. If it materializes, the United States has stated a military response will be forthcoming. Some critics of the US have wasted little time in branding potential military action against Iran a last gasp by the Trump administration. Others have warned that the administration is determined to leave US-Iran relations severely damaged so the incoming Biden administration will be unable to resurrect US involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA).
On Wednesday US B-52 bombers undertook another show-of-force mission in the region. For the third time since late November, B-52s have flown within 50-70 miles of Iranian airspace. The latest mission was a 36-hour sortie that saw the -52s take off from Minot AFB in North Dakota, fly to the Persian Gulf region and then return home. The purpose of these missions is to showcase US airpower to both allies and adversaries. In this instance, there are assuredly many men watching carefully from Tehran.
The People’s Republic of China has adopted a somewhat sanctimonious position regarding the militarization of the South China Sea. It is perfectly acceptable for Beijing to transform the sea into a veritable lake for Chinese military forces, and to construct islands for the sole purpose of using them to project military power. Yet when other regional powers, or the United States wishes to sail warships, or fly combat aircraft over the SCS, it is nothing short of a provocation aimed directly at China. There have been a number of instances in the past few years when US Navy ships have conducted freedom of navigation exercises in the area, or US aircraft fly in close proximity to Chinese military bases there. Each one has prompted a sharp diplomatic response from Beijing.
This week the US military conducted flights in the vicinity of the South China Sea. B-52s from Andersen AFB in Guam transited the airspace as part of regularly scheduled exercises, according to the Pentagon. With the US and China embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war, and tensions between the two nations heightening, the flight is likely to be seen by Beijing as a response to its decision not to allow the USS Wasp to dock in Hong Kong. That decision was made in response to the US placing punitive sanctions against the Chinese ministry’s Equipment Development Department (EDD) for China’s purchase of Russian fighter planes, and SAM (surface-to-air missile) systems.
China has complained about the sanctions, and considers the US action an attempt to undermine its defense capabilities. China is likely viewing the situation in the wrong context. Russia is the real target of the sanctions. They’re aimed at punishing Moscow for a host of activities aimed against US interests ranging its military intervention in the eastern Ukraine, to the attempts at interfering with the 2016 US presidential election.
This evening multiple media outlets, many being UK publications, are reporting that the United States Air Force is preparing to resume the 24 hour alert mission for a portion of the B-52 fleet. This mission would be very similar to the one carried out by US strategic bombers for much of the Cold War. Back then, a fraction of a bomb wing’s force of B-52s was loaded with nuclear weapons and prepared to take off within minutes if the klaxons went off and the subsequent message orders from SAC headquarters ordered them into the air. The bomber crews spent week long shifts in a nearby alert facility that included dorm rooms, showers, and recreational rooms. After a week the crews would come off of alert and be replaced by crews from another squadron in the wing. The purpose of the alert was to ensure that a portion of US strategic bombers could be launched quickly and survive a bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear strike by the Soviets.
I will not delve into the accuracy of these news reports. However, if they are true, it represents a logical next step the preparations being made by the United States to respond to a potential nuclear attack against the US or US military installations in the Pacific. It also sheds light on how gravely the US is taking the probability of North Korea obtaining hydrogen weapons and ICBMs in the near future.
Make no mistake, there is much going on behind the scenes in military, and political circles from Washington to the Western Pacific. North Korea chose not to test a missile or weapon earlier in the month as many observers had expected. Rumors have been circulating that Pyongyang was warned by Beijing that Washington’s trigger finger is growing itchy and any further tests could assure a US military response. Given that a moratorium seems to have been placed on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing, there could be some truth to these rumors.
In any event, it is safe to say that the North Korean nuclear crisis has entered a new phase. The potential dangers and consequences are not apparent to the media and public right now. That could change at any given time though. If the USAF does place B-52s back on alert in the near future and publicly announces the move, it will serve as a message putting Kim Jong Un on notice that a US response to any attack will be swift and devastating.
The US response to last week’s North Korean claimed test of a hydrogen bomb came this weekend in the form of a low-level flight by a B-52H bomber over the Republic of Korea. The bomber arrived in South Korean airspace for an exercise with allied forces, culminating with a low-level flyover of Osan Air Base with ROKAF fighters in accompaniment. The brief show of force exercise was touted by the US Pacific Command and the White House as an example of the continued US commitment to its allies in the ROK (South Korea) and Japan, as well as its dedication to the peace and stability of the entire region.
It remains to be seen how North Korea will react to the show of force demonstration. However, judging by similar US actions in recent months, it is doubtful there will be a positive reply by Pyongyang. North Korea will likely view the action as a threat and point to it as a justification to expand its saber-rattling in the coming days. The B-52s based at Andersen AFB in Guam have been quite active lately in the show of force role. In November of 2015 a B-52 flew a similar mission over islands constructed by China in the South China Sea and in 2013 B-52s took part in exercises in South Korea, partially in response to North Korean actions at the time.
While the show of force demonstrations succeeded in publicly showcasing the US commitment to its allies, beyond that they have not produced concrete results. China has not been deterred from continuing its activities in the South China Sea and North Korea has certainly not reduced its aggressive rhetoric or actions. The B-52 flyovers are a potent public relations tool but are not providing anything substantial. The deterrence factor is not obviously not working and that single fact is inherently destabilizing to regional security.