Sunday 7 January, 2018 Update: Baltic Air Policing Starts New Rotation This Week

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This week will mark the end of NATO’s current Baltic Air Policing rotation which stood began in September, 2017. USAFE F-15C Eagles of the 493d Fighter Squadron spent the rotation operating from Šiauliai air base in Lithuania, and Belgian F-16A MLU Falcons flew from Amari air base in Estonia. Later this week Danish F-16AMs will replace the US fighters, and Italian Air Force Typhoons will assume BAP duties from the Belgians. The September-January time period was a busy time in the air over the Baltics. US fighters were scrambled 30 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying near the airspace of the Baltic nations. Most of the activity took place in September around the time of Zapad ’17. Overall, the numbers are similar to those of recent BAP rotations, but still significantly higher than what they were in the days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

The Baltic States are not the only area NATO conducts air policing missions. Iceland is another. The USAF ended the practice of rotating fighter squadrons to Keflavik in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Russian aircraft began to make incursions into Icelandic airspace. As a result, NATO stood up the Icelandic Air Policing mission in 2008 and has been rotating fighter detachments from member nations ever since.

The air policing rotations safeguard the sovereignty of air space for member nations that do not possess their own air arms, as well as provide valuable experience for pilots and ground personnel deployed. In a time of crisis, the numbers of NATO fighters operating from the Baltics and Iceland would increase. Therefore, it is heartening to know that there is a good amount of aircrews and support personnel who are familiar with operating from these locations.

The next Baltic Air Policing rotation will run from this coming week until May, 2018.

NATO Slow In Waking Up to the Russian Military Threat

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Contrary to what its press releases, and statements by alliance officials proclaim, NATO has been playing catchup to Russia in the military arena since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead of taking steps which would seize the initiative from Moscow and serve to dictate the flow of events, the alliance has been doing the exact opposite. It is no secret that NATO’s options are limited. After all, it is a defensive alliance in title, and purpose, having been created  as a counterweight to the expansive policies and actions of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War revamped NATO’s priorities and mission. Western Europe no longer needed defending to the degree that it had from 1949 to 1991. Peacekeeping in the Balkans, and an expanding role in the Global War on Terror defined NATO over the next twenty three years. During that time, the once massive military infrastructure that had been created to challenge Soviet military power was downsized, or dismantled, and largely forgotten.

As Russia began emerging as a viable military threat in 2014, NATO was slow to react. New missions, and duties were not provided with the necessary support and command infrastructures. During the Cold War years, every military unit assigned to NATO belonged to a respective parent command, was keenly aware what its role and mission would be in a time of conflict, and practiced incessantly to master that role if the balloon ever went up. In recent times this has not been the case. Ground, air, and naval units have been tagged for missions they’ve never previously undertaken or trained for, with little or no support from the alliance.

Now, as 2017 is nearing an end, NATO looks eager to start rectifying the command dilemma. Since November, the alliance has been working on a plan to stand up an entirely new naval command, likely to be labeled the North Atlantic Command. Russian naval activity in the Atlantic has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. The latest concern is Russian submarine activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. The importance of these cables cannot be overstated. They carry nearly all of the communications on the Internet. Cutting them would bring the web to a crashing halt. Tapping them would provide Moscow with valuable insights on global internet traffic.

This activity, as well as other maneuvers by Russian attack submarines is compelling NATO navies to refocus on Anti-Submarine Warfare, or ASW as it is commonly labeled. There has been little, if any emphasis on ASW since the Cold War ended. There was little need. For most of the 90s and 00s, Russian subs rarely ventured out into open ocean. Since 2014, however, Russian sub activity has been on the rise, ops tempos have increased dramatically, and new subs are coming on line at a rapid pace.

In early 2018 it will be useful to take a detailed look at how NATO intends to deal with the growing Russian threat at sea, as well as in the air, and on land. Although the attention of the world will continue to be focused mainly on what’s happening in North Korea, the chill in US-Russia relations, and recent moves concerning the situation in Ukraine suggest  a flare up in Eastern Europe or at sea between NATO and Russian forces is very possible.

 

 

Tuesday 26 December, 2017 Update: Javelins to Ukraine

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In an effort to help Ukrainian forces even the odds on the battlefield, the Trump administration has approved a plan to send Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The move follows months of debate within the Defense Department and White House on whether or not to sell lethal arms to Kiev. The Javelin ATGMs will be included in a package of arms that will be provided to Ukraine for the first time. Up until now US assistance has been confined to training and support equipment.

The Javelin is a highly effective missile that has been proven in combat. It is known to be effective against most tanks and armored vehicles in the Russian arsenal. For the duration of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian-provided –and in many cases crewed– armor has often tipped the scales in the direction of the separatists. Kiev had requested Javelin shipments from the Obama administration since the beginning of the conflict, though the previous administration refused for fear of escalating the conflict. The current administration’s decision to provide the Javelins now is going to give Ukraine a weapon that will help even the odds against Russian armor on the battlefield.

Predictably, Russia has not reacted positively to the US move. Not long after the US State Department announced the intentions to provide lethal arms to Ukraine, Moscow warned the move will cause new bloodshed in the fighting, and possible escalation. “The United States has crossed a line by announcing its intention to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Saturday. “U.S. weapons are capable of leading to new casualties in our neighboring country, and we cannot remain indifferent to that.”

US-Russian relations have grown chillier in recent months. The Trump administration is obviously adopting a tougher stance towards Russia and the Javelins are a clear sign of this. As 2017 is coming to an end, events in Ukraine, and US-Russia relations are again taking priority in the minds of policymakers and analysts in Moscow, Washington DC, and Europe.

 

 

Monday 4 December, 2017 Update: Vigilant Ace 18 Begins in South Korea

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Vigilant Ace 18 is underway in South Korea, and the large US-ROK exercise has not gone unnoticed by North Korea. Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise held to increase interoperability between the US Air Force, and RoK Air Force, though aircraft from the US Navy and USMC will also participate. As is the case with every major military exercise that takes place in or around Korea, this one has drawn the ire of North Korea’s leadership. Pyongyang labeled the exercise as a ‘grave provocation’ that could escalate tensions to ‘the brink of nuclear war.’ In a statement released by state-controlled media, it was noted this exercise is happening at a time ‘when insane President Trump is running wild.’ This sort of commentary is standard fare when US and ROK forces stage military exercises. The current crisis in the region adds a dramatic flair to the Pyongyang’s recent statements, of course.

With the rising tensions caused by North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test, the inclusion of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning II aircraft in Vigilant Ace is quite possibly causing sleepless nights for many North Korean generals. Despite their propaganda boasts that suggest otherwise, North Korea deeply fears US airpower. A future US military action against the North will be heavily reliant on airpower, and include large numbers of the latest generation US fighters. The fact that a respectable number of these aircraft are now in theater gives Pyongyang food for thought.

In Washington over the weekend, remarks by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seem to suggest the White House is resigning itself to the grim reality that the North Korean crisis will probably not be resolved favorably through peaceful means alone. The Trump administration has certainly allotted a respectable amount of time to pursue more stringent economic sanctions, and potential diplomatic resolutions. Sadly, there has been minimal progress on either front. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs continue ahead at full speed. Depending on how close Pyongyang is to reaching their goal of obtaining an operational ICBM, the United States could be forced to move militarily sooner rather than later.

The prospect of military action in the near future gives Vigilant Ace 18 added priority and deepens the sense of urgency which seems to be gathering around the crisis at the moment.

 

Monday 20 November, 2017 Update: US Troops in Okinawa Restricted to Quarters, Alcohol Banned

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US military personnel on the Japanese island of Okinawa have been banned from drinking, and restricted to their bases or off-base residences following an automobile crash involving a local man and a US Marine. The Okinawan was killed, and the 21-year old Marine was arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving. Incidents between US troops based on the island and local residents are nothing new, and the relationship between the two groups has always been strained to say the least.  With 25,000 US soldiers, and 1,000,000+ Okinawans occupying a relatively small island, tensions are expected. Criminal actions by US soldiers, unfortunately, have become a common occurrence and only serve to increase the amounts of tension and distrust. US commanders realize there is a problem and that it is not going away. “When our service members fail to live up to the high standards we set for them, it damages the bonds between bases and local communities and makes it harder for us to accomplish our mission,” U.S. Forces Japan said in a released statement Sunday night. “We are committed to being good neighbors with our host communities.”

Unfortunately for Okinawans, the US military presence on their island is not going to diminish anytime soon. The situation with North Korea in the short term, and the potential future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China will ensure Okinawa remains vital to American defense plans in the Pacific. In view of this reality, it is in the best interests of all parties to find a way to peacefully co-exist.

Operationally, the forces stationed on Okinawa represent a sizeable fraction of US power in the Western Pacific. 62% of US military facilities in Japan are located on the island. At Kadena Air Base is the US Air Force’s 18th Wing, comprising two F-15C Eagle squadrons, one squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers, a detachment of E-3C Sentry aircraft, and other attachments. The US Marines have the bulk of the 3rd Marine Division, and main elements of III MEF based on Okinawa. The US and Japan have agreed to relocate 5,000 US Marines from Okinawa to other locations in the Pacific to help ameliorate the tense relationship between US service personnel and local residents. The relocations are not expected to begin until 2020 at the earliest.