Iran Update 22 July, 2019: US Military Preparations Underway in the Gulf Region

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In light of the worsening situation in the Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern waterways, United States efforts to build a multi-national naval force dedicated to the protection of oil tankers are ramping up. The Trump administration has approached a number of NATO allies as well as American allies in the Middle East. The creation of a naval force is the next logical step in the drama unfolding in the Persian Gulf. Iranian actions against oil tankers in the Gulf continue and Tehran shows no indications of easing anytime soon. Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises and operations have become a regular part of the US Navy’s playbook and they will be used to one extent or another in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) is preparing to reactivate Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. PSAB, as it is affectionately known to most folks who’ve been there was the predominant US air installation in the Middle East until 2003. In the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom operations at PSAB were transferred to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Since then, Al Udeid has been the main US airbase in the region.

Now US access to Al Udeid is no longer guaranteed. Qatar has been moving away from its traditional Gulf State allies since the Saudi-sponsored embargo, and towards Tehran in some ways. As a result, the Qataris could possibly place restrictions on US air operations at Al Udeid. Such restrictions would have an adverse effect on all US military operations in and around the Persian Gulf. Instead of running that risk, the US is preparing PSAB in case it is needed. And according to some sources at CENTCOM, Prince Sultan is slated to become the main hub of US air activity in the Middle East regardless of what happens with Al Udeid and the Qataris.

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.

 

Friday 1 September, 2017 Update: As Zapad ’17 Approaches, US Fighters Arrive in the Baltics

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With Zapad 17, the major Russian military exercise that has the Baltic states. and Eastern Europe on edge, set to begin in two weeks, US airpower is making an appearance in the region. NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission has just gone through a rotation of forces. Spanish F-18s and Polish F-16s, which have guarded the airspace of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia over the summer of ’17 have been replaced by a contingent of 4 Belgian F-16s and 4 USAF F-15C Eagles. The Belgian -16s will be based at Amari Air Base in Estonia while the US fighters bed down at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. The US will assume overall mission command for this BAP rotation, which will run from 30 August until late December, 2017 or early January, 2018. The US F-15s belong to the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron, like its parent unit the 48th Fighter Wing, is no stranger to deployments. Its aircraft have taken part in air policing rotations in the Baltic and Iceland in recent years.

With Zapad 17 coming closer, Russian air activity over the Baltic Sea has been increasing. The number of interceptions carried out by NATO over the summer was larger than it had been at the same time last year. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of fighting in Ukraine, the Russian air force has kept NATO Baltic Air Police pilots on their toes. As tension goes, so does the number of interceptions. If the numbers lately are any indication, relations between NATO and Russia are anything but harmonious at the moment.

 

October 28, 2015, Midweek Update: Playing Hardball In The South China Sea, First Russian Death in Syria

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Well, perhaps not hardball yet, but tensions are rising. The sail-past of disputed islands by the destroyer USS.Lassen last night has ruffled feathers in Beijing. Lassen actually moved inside of the 12 mile territorial limit claimed by China around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. The United States does not recognize the formation of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea as sovereign territory. Beijing, predictably, did not respond well to the action, which it viewed as the US Navy trailing its coat along Chinese territory. The US ambassador to Beijing was summoned by the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister and told that the Lassen’s actions were ‘extremely irresponsible.’ This was the first time since 2012 that US naval units traveled within the 12 mile limit. By all accounts, the practice will become a regular occurrence in the future. A Chinese guided missile destroyer and patrol ship shadowed Lassen during its transit, keeping a safe distance and limiting its involvement to issuing warnings.

The South China Sea is an area where China has been concentrating a large amount of military activity in recent months, including the expansion of reefs to accommodate runways and support facilities for aircraft.

Russia’s military has suffered its first death…that we know of….since becoming involved in the Syrian conflict. The Ministry of Defense has announced that a soldier committed suicide at the Russian base in Latakia, Syria. The announcement was made after sources revealed the name of the soldier: Vadim Kostenko and indicated that the man’s relatives and colleagues began mourning his death last weekend. The family is disputing the reported cause of death. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported the death of a Russian serviceman due to ‘careless weapons handling.’

Russia has a history of being cryptic when it comes to discussing combat casualties. During the early stages of the conflict with Ukraine, Moscow had much difficulty holding back news about Russian combat deaths. In a conflict that Russia officially claimed its soldiers were not fighting, the number of fresh graves rose at a number of military cemeteries across Russia.

The US Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman with the contract for the Long Range Strike Bomber. The LRS-B will be a heavy bomber capable of launching from the United States, reaching targets anywhere in the world and in the process, penetrating heavily defended airspace. The mission profile of this aircraft is no different from the profiles of the bombers currently in the US inventory. The difference will come in the defensive and offensive capabilities that the LRS-B will have to offer.

The Air Force and Navy are moving ahead with plans to modernize America’s strategic forces despite consistently shrinking budgets. Programs for new SSBNs and ICBMs are in development. Contracts will not be rewarded for some time, however, it is refreshing to see that the US is moving in the right direction. Today, more than ever since the end of the Cold War, the US nuclear deterrent needs to be seen as a credible force.

A Quick Look Around The World: Ukraine, ISIS and the Baltics

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2014 has been a dangerous year thus far. Crises and conflicts have been cropping up across the globe at an almost regular pace. From the Middle East to Europe, conflicts rage and crises simmer, threatening to explode into regional conflagrations at any moment.  With the final two months of the year approaching, it does not seem that the trend will change anytime soon. At the moment, ISIS and the Ukraine are the two most significant international crises in the world.  Ebola, despite the danger it poses, is a healthcare crisis and cannot be included in the same category as the aforementioned. Recent events in the Baltic Sea area suggest the potential formation of a new regional crisis by the end of the year.

Below is a quick overview of each of the three crises that currently hold the world’s attention.

Ukraine

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Putin continues to successfully play the Brinkmanship card in the Ukrainian Crisis.  An energy deal between Russia and Ukraine is yet to be completed with winter fast approaching. Russia is demanding assurances on how Ukraine will find the money to pay in advance for November and December gas supplies. The Ukraine is requesting an additional 2 billion euros in credit from the EU to cover the costs. If Kiev receives the credit, Gazprom is prepared to reopen the gas flow shortly thereafter. There are serious concerns in Europe that energy supplies from Russia to Europe –piped through Ukraine – will be disrupted if a deal is not struck soon.  Putin is threatening an energy crisis in Ukraine and Europe in order to ensure that Russia is paid.  Some would consider this to be a Realpolitik approach to the problem while others consider it blackmail. I see it as Brinkmanship and so far it is working well for Putin.

Officially, the faltering ceasefire agreement (Minsk Memorandum) is holding. Sporadic fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces has continued off and on, however. Today, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donestk People’s Republic announced that the rebels are ending the ceasefire agreement. With parliamentary elections coming soon, this appears to be an attempt to influence the outcome of the voting, orchestrated by Russia. Ukrainian law enforcement and security apparatuses are increasing their readiness in anticipation of possible terrorist attacks by the pro-Russian separatists.

ISIS

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The light footprint has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy doctrine. Militarily, the idea behind a light footprint is to achieve large results with small means. The concept was brought to the forefront by Donald Rumsfeld, yet President Obama has adopted and tailored it to fit not only military policy, but foreign policy as well. The results have been mixed to say the very least. In Libya, a light US footprint helped to remove Gaddafi from power. In Pakistan, a light footprint utilizing mostly drones led to some large achievements in the War on Terror. However, there were pitfalls to the use of drones, namely in the form of collateral damage.

The light footprint behind Operation Inherent Resolve has not yielded significant setbacks to ISIS yet. The reasons for this are diverse. In short, the campaign against ISIS will be almost impossible to win without the introduction of ground forces in substantial numbers at some point. With the exceptions of Desert Storm and Allied Force, airpower alone has never been responsible for singlehandedly winning a military campaign. Iraq in 1991 and Serbia in 1999 were relatively modern militaries. ISIS, despite its claims, is not a modern military force.

Airpower alone is not going to keep ISIS from expanding its influence and territory. The performance of the Iraqi military still leaves much to be desired and the Kurds, while excellent fighters, do not have the numbers to stand up to ISIS on a large scale. ISIS has to be stopped on the ground and eventually it will be up to the US to bear the burden. Unfortunately, the political will for such a move does not exist at the moment. In all likelihood, that will not change for some time, if ever.

Sweden and the Baltic

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In October 1981, a Soviet Whiskey class diesel submarine hit an underwater rock and had to surface a few kilometers from Sweden’s main naval base and in Swedish territorial waters. The event was not the first instance of foreign submarines being detected in Swedish waters. Throughout the Cold War, a number of foreign submarines (For the most part Soviet/Russian) invaded Swedish waters to conduct surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. Now, decades after the Cold War came to an end, Sweden is enduring another submarine ‘chase’ in its territorial waters. Or is it?

The truth is that no one knows for certain. Most people assume the submarine is Russian. Unfortunately, there is no solid proof that the object is a submarine or submersible, let alone one of Russian origin. Civilian sightings, as well as some photographs that show something on the water, have sparked the biggest Swedish naval operation in years. The problem is that defense cuts have all but gutted the Swedish Navy and Air Force. ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) platforms such as ASW helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft are practically non-existent. The Swedish Navy does not have any warships dedicated to ASW.

That is not the only military activity going on in the Baltic neighborhood either. Swedish and NATO fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian Il-20 Coot intelligence aircraft that briefly entered Estonian airspace. Danish F-16s from Denmark, and then Portuguese F-16s, operating with the Baltic air policing program, were scrambled. The Danish F-16s first intercepted the Coot and it turned north towards Swedish airspace. Swedish fighters then intercepted it and the Coot turned south again and entered Estonian airspace. Portuguese F-16s then intercepted it and led the Il-20 away from NATO airspace.

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Since the beginning of the Ukrainian Crisis, interceptions of Russian military aircraft by NATO have become regular occurrences.  This encounter was different in that the aircraft actually violated the airspace of a NATO nation. At a time when tensions are increasing over the Ukraine and the submarine hunt in Swedish waters, encounters like this do nothing to decrease the tension level.