We are at a pivotal moment in history as the consequences of a global pandemic have created turbulent waters in a wide variety of areas from international trade to socio-economic concerns. China’s increasingly assertive nature has been regarded as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past eighteen months. However, the fact of the matter is that China’s emergence was preordained by two decades of inconsistent and short-sighted US policies and actions. As I mentioned over the past weekend, China has reached a point now where it confidently views itself to be an ascendant superpower, while regarding the United States as a declining power. This new ethos, whether an accurate assessment of the global picture or not, raises the prospect of the People’s Republic of China resorting to military force in to achieve its expansionist-minded ambitions.
The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. For the United States military, the prospect of having to square off against China is hardly new, whether Washington is keen to admit it or not. Unfortunately, the current condition of the US military leaves much to be desired. On the surface, its branches make up the most powerful military force that the world has ever known. With a potential war with China on the horizon, the Pentagon’s priorities are out of order. Rather than concentrating on repairing readiness issues and preparing for the next war, the current Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their civilian leaders in the Defense Department are fixated with implementing ‘woke’ and socially popular policies upon the troops. Even more damning is the fact that every effort to construct and implement a sound doctrine for conducting a future war in the Western Pacific region against the People’s Republic of China has been stillborn or developed into a half-baked abortion of failed past tactics and amateurish concepts on the future of warfare that its growth was stunted.
The failed efforts of the Pentagon, and the dangers of the US entering into a conflict against a near-peer opponent without a plan to win will be discussed at length through 2-3 entries next week. I have not forgotten about North Korea and will return to it by Christmas. But for now, exploring the troubles facing US military efforts to develop both a doctrine and the forces necessary to defeat Chinese forces in a future war seems a more pertinent research topic for November.
Less than one month after exiting the INF Treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) the United states has conducted its first post-treaty test of a ground-based cruise missile. The test was conducted on San Nicolas Island and took place on the afternoon of 18 August. San Nicolas is a small island located roughly 60 miles off the coast of California and is part of the Pacific Missile Range. The weapon was a variant of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) which will likely prove to be the foundation of the new system. It was launched from a Mk 41 VLS (Vertical Launch System) cell set up on a trailer. Following over 500 kilometers of flight the missile impacted its target accurately.
The Trump administration and Pentagon have wasted little time in moving forward on testing, and design of missile types once prohibited by INF. This was to be expected given that Russia has had a significant head start in designing, testing, and ultimately producing missile systems in direct violation of the treaty. Now, free of the shackles that INF imposed, the United States is rapidly playing catch up.
Predictably, Russia and China have condemned the US for this test. Both nations released separate statements criticizing Washington, and warning that this could bring about a new arms race. Moscow and Beijing conveniently forget to mention that they’ve both been developing similar missiles for some time. It’s the same old story, similar to what took place in the early 80s when the Reagan administration addressed the gap between US and Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Europe at the time. The Soviets had deployed the SS-20 missile in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and it was considerably more capable then the Pershing I missile fielded by the US and NATO at the time. Reagan closed the gap by deploying the Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) to Europe amid anti-nuclear protests across Western Europe, and much anxiety in Moscow. It was the fielding of these two systems that directly led to the INF Treaty being signed in 1987.
This time around, things are different. Yet it heartening to see the United States is moving in the right direction at the moment.
New threats by Iran against US troops in Iraq have prompted a very public surge of US forces to the Persian Gulf region. On Sunday evening, the White House and Pentagon announced that the USS. Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, and a USAF bomber force would be moving into the Persian Gulf area immediately. The decision to expedite the movement of these forces came after new intelligence made the possibility of hostile action against US forces in the near future seem imminent. There’s also been concern about Iranian maritime activity in the Strait of Hormuz, and Persian Gulf over the weekend and it’s probable this concern also helped to prompt the US military movements. National Security Adviser John Bolton summarized the threats as “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
Additional reports from the region on Monday appear to indicate the current standoff between the United States and Iran could very well be escalating soon. Reports from Iranian state media have suggested that Tehran intends to announce a reduction in its compliance with the 2015 Nuclear Agreement. An announcement could come as early as Wednesday which, ironically enough, marks one-year anniversary of the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal. This particular detail makes Iran’s intentions questionable. Will Iran reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal, or is this move simply a response to the latest US moves?
Scrutiny will be fixed upon the Strait of Hormuz in the coming days as the already-jittery global markets watch for any signs that Iran could be moving to restrict movement through the strategically-important strait, or possibly close it entirely.
The looming Syrian offensive into Idlib presents a challenge to the United States. If Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, as he has done twice so far during the tenure of President Donald Trump, how should the US react? The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in April, 2017, and the Douma attack one year later both brought about US military action. The 2017 US response was a unilateral Tomahawk missile strike against Shayrat airbase. One year later in April, 2018, the US, Great Britain, and France carried out a series of air and missile strikes against targets in Syria in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. If Assad’s forces chose to employ chemical weapons in Idlib will it provoke another US military action? If so, what shape will it take? More importantly, will it run the risk of provoking a Russian response?
The Pentagon and White House are already weighing these questions, and the Pentagon is starting to examine what military options the US will have available if Assad uses chemical weapons in Idlib. Given the Syrian leader’s track record it’s only prudent for the US to begin planning now. If chemical weapons are used again, the White House will want to move swiftly and decisively.
Unfortunately, Assad may not be able to be dissuaded. Idlib province is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. When it is pacified, it will leave the rebels with just a few isolated pockets of territory. An end to the seven-year old conflict will finally be in sight with Assad’s control of Syria all but guaranteed. International concern that the coming offensive could trigger a humanitarian disaster have done nothing to deter the Syrian government, or its Russian and Iranian backers.
With that in mind, any US threats of military action should Syria use chemical weapons are unlikely to dissuade Assad once hostilities begin in Idlib.
Through August, this blog will be going through some renovations in order to make it more manageable and user friendly. Today’s DIRT is in need of some tender loving care, namely in the forms of aesthetic and organizational upgrades. As I try different formats and ideas some aspects of the blog will change. However, the content will remain much the same. I will not make any permanent changes until after Labor Day. One change I am initiating immediately is the inclusion of a monthly brief. It will include details on planned or upcoming articles. Updates will continue to be posted as events around the world occur, but the articles are going to be in depth pieces on a host of defense and IR topics.
Upcoming Articles For August
Ukraine: Casus Belli On The Horizon – Russian military intervention in the conflict seems more likely as the days pass. The pieces appear to be lining up across the board. As forces mass on the border, and the separatists suffer defeats at the hands of the Ukrainian military, Moscow is beginning to voice its concerns about the ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ building in the eastern Ukrainian provinces. The hardships being endured by the residents of Donetsk could give Russia with a justification for hostilities. An intervention under the pretext of a peacekeeping mission to alleviate the suffering of the people in Donetsk, for example, could provide Russia with a thick enough blanket of legitimacy for overt military intervention to begin.
US Defense Policies & Doctrine: New Threats Equal New Ideas – A resurgent Russia, Chinese territorial expansion and the emergence of ISIS come at a time when the Obama administration is trying to tighten the belt on defense spending. The Pentagon is in the process of formulating new doctrines and long term acquisition plans to sculpt a military that is prepared to meet an abundance of capable, aggressive potential enemies. New ideas are desperately needed. This article will examine what paths the Pentagon should explore in the coming months and years.
Europe’s New Defense Realities: A Second Look – The reemergence of the Russian Bear is forcing European nations to reexamine their shrinking defense budgets and outdated doctrines. In the face of an aggressive Russia, what role will NATO assume? The European nations willing to undergo the rearmaments that will be needed to contend with the potential threat forming in the east?