The security condition in the South and East China Seas has worsened over the past few years as territorial disputes have increased and mistrust deepened. China has grown increasingly assertive in each of the seas, which has caused suspicion among key states in the region. Moreover, regional institutions have had little impact, international law is being disregarded, and Sino-American relations appear increasingly driven by competition rather than shared interests.
The stakes for the United States in the South China Sea are high. Freedom of navigation through the sea facilitates $5.3 trillion in global trade each year, $1.2 trillion of which passes through American ports. The South China Sea is considered by many to be a “strategic bellwether” for assessing the future of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to some analysts, whether the Western Pacific remains a peaceful maritime commons or a flashpoint for conflict between the U.S. and China, reminiscent of Cold War tensions, is likely to be decided in the South China Sea. The U.S., therefore, must preserve free access to these critical sea-lines of communication (SLOC) to maintain peace and prosperity throughout the region. However, the inability for the U.S. to project sufficient military power into the South China Sea would dramatically alter the state of affairs for the entire Asia-Pacific region. The balance that must be assessed is the ability of the U.S. military to project whatever military power it might require to prevail in a future armed confrontation with China. Equally, China’s ability to disrupt or deny U.S. force projection must also be assessed.
A cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy since World War II has been the ability to rapidly project military power worldwide to protect the nation’s interests. These interests include, but are certainly not limited to, spreading and protecting democratic governance, preserving access to strategic trading partners and resources, and reassuring allies and partners who cooperate with the United States in protecting common interests. Throughout the Cold War era, the Soviet Union presented a formidable military challenge to American power-projection capabilities. Fortunately, the superpowers succeeded in avoiding a major conflict. Even so, the U.S. military’s unrivaled ability to project and sustain large military forces around the globe was demonstrated in wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, as well as in numerous other, smaller conflicts. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s downfall the U.S. military’s power-projection abilities in defense of the nation’s interests were essentially uncontested.
This state of play is clearly coming to an end, with major implications for U.S. national security. With the diffusion of innovative military technologies to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, the U.S. military’s ability to maintain military access to the Western Pacific region is being increasingly tested. While China proclaims nonthreatening intentions, “it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight—especially in authoritarian regimes—one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.”
Without question, preserving the U.S. military’s power projection capabilities will be crucial to maintaining military preeminence well into the twenty-first century. Since force projection remains foundational to U.S. defense strategy, the nation’s rebalance to the Asia- Pacific region not only revalidates this posture, but it also marks a shift that stresses the necessity for far-reaching naval and air force capabilities. This shift was made clear in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which stressed that “U.S. maritime forces will be characterized by regionally concentrated, forward deployed task forces with the combat power to limit regional conflict, deter major war, and should deterrence fail, win our Nation’s wars as part of a joint or combined campaign.”
There were two events in the 1990s which served as the impetus for China to develop an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. First was the overwhelming success of the U.S.-led 1991 Persian Gulf War. PLA analysts were forced to rethink their ability to fight an adversary armed with technologically advanced weapons. Operation Desert Storm did conform to the Chinese view of modern wars as being fast and intense. However, the effectiveness with which the U.S. military employed airpower and joint operations to destroy an Iraqi army that was sometimes armed with Chinese weapons caused worry within the PLA that it was grossly ill prepared (both in terms of technology and military doctrine) to fight and prevail in a similar kind of war. According to one Chinese analyst:
[w]hat PLA analysts saw was not a war of the future, but a war as it could be fought today by a post-industrial power. Little the PLA had achieved by reorganization, modifying its force structure, building a better educated officer corps, reconceptualizing the manner it planned to conduct future wars, and more realistic training could offset the impact of technology on operations by well-trained, properly organized joint forces exploiting the technological sophistication of their armaments and supporting systems.
The PLA study of the Gulf War devoted significant attention to the role of the U.S. military’s intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets. The role of airpower garnered attention for its ability to destroy air defense and command-and-control (C2) nodes, while the U.S. use of stealth aircraft and cruise missiles underscored the problems the PLA would have in defending against an attack from a technologically advanced air force.
The U.S. reliance on force projection and forward deployment to prosecuting that successful campaign was not overlooked by PLA planners. Should a technologically and militarily superior adversary such as the U.S. be allowed to “arrive in force and on time, it will almost certainly prevail.”12 Moreover, for the U.S. to arrive in force and on time, it must have the “ability to deploy forces into theater with little risk of hostile interference.” Likewise, should war occur with the United States, PLA planners have concluded that “The U.S. military deployment process must be disrupted or neutralized and [the PLA] have successfully developed and fielded military capabilities designed to fulfill this need.”
The second event motivating the development of A2/AD strategies was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Furious that Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui had been granted a visa to speak at Cornell University, China, fearing promotion of his nation’s independence movement, conducted missile tests in the Strait to deter the island nation from promoting its pro- independence inclinations. Consequently, the U.S. responded by deploying two aircraft carrier strike-groups into the area as a reminder of its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of hostilities. The U.S. response “lit a fire under the Chinese military and civilian leadership,” which convinced them to develop “a variety of capabilities intended to target American aircraft carriers.” Therefore, China concluded that it was necessary to “limit America’s access to critical battlefield areas.”
The means for the United States to project sufficient military power in response to a new crisis in the South China Sea or anywhere else along China’s littorals rests largely on three pillars: carrier strike-groups, bases in Okinawa, Japan and the U.S. island territory of Guam. As China continues to invest heavily in new A2/AD capabilities, all three will become increasingly vulnerable.16 Therefore, it is worth recalling the warning issued by US Pacific Command (PACOM) in 2010:
China continues to develop weapons systems, technologies and concepts of operation that support anti-access and area denial strategies in the Western Pacific by holding air and maritime forces at risk at extended distances from the [People’s Republic of China] coastline. The PLA Navy is continuing to develop “Blue Water” capability that includes the ability to surge surface combatants and submarines at extended distances from the [Chinese] mainland.
Some ways to measure the balance
A. What are the long-term strategic goals of the U.S. and China in the Western Pacific?
B. Is it possible for both to achieve its goals short of armed conflict?
C. How has China’s A2/AD strategy developed since 1995 and how has the U.S. responded militarily, economically and politically?
D. What will the competition will look like in 5-10 years based on the previous twenty? Who has/will have the advantage?
E. How would the U.S. and Chinese fight? Knowing how critical force projection is to the U.S. military, would China attack preemptively to deny U.S. access to regional basing? Should the U.S. attack preemptively to ensure access to basing?
F. Have the Chinese embarked on a cost-imposing strategy vis-à-vis the U.S. by pitting inexpensive missiles against expensive missile defenses?
G. What is the role of U.S. allies and partners in the region?
The nature of China’s emergence as a strong regional power has presented the United States with a major challenge. Although China has been a great beneficiary of the U.S.-led international order in the Asia-Pacific, it has been reluctant to embrace all aspects of that system. Indeed, China perceives aspects of the system as threatening and objectionable, and because of its growing power it is increasingly willing to challenge the status quo – from unification with Taiwan to territorial claims and maritime rights in the South China Sea – make
China a formidable rival. China’s external objectives are clearly to exercise greater control over its periphery, achieve unification with Taiwan and to become the dominant power in Asia – objectives that will necessitate the diminishment of U.S. power and influence throughout the region. China’s achievement of these objectives would severely damage U.S. security by enabling China to become the first East Asian power to threaten the Western Pacific and the U.S. homeland since 1941.
The U.S.-China strategic competition is therefore driven by competing visions for Asia and how to achieve national security. The objectives of the U.S. are to preserve the post-war status quo in the Asia-Pacific. That is, a region that consists of strong, independent, democratic, and free-market states that are free from domination by China or any regional hegemon. Alternatively, China’s overriding objectives are to safeguard the Chinse Communist Party’s (CCP) hold on power; maintain domestic stability; sustain economic growth and development; defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity; secure China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence; and safeguard China’s interests abroad. It has seemingly determined that these key strategic objectives are best served by completing its task of recovering territory lost in past wars, controlling its periphery, and slowly becoming the dominant power in Asia – for reasons of strategic culture China believes this is a position it should naturally assume.
Should China succeed in becoming the dominant hegemon in Asia the consequences for the U.S. could be quite severe. An Asia-Pacific dominated by China would likely develop economic and military spheres of influence where the U.S. would be essentially “boxed-out” – an outcome that would radically alter the international economic and security orders.24 The U.S. therefore has a vital interest in both preventing a hegemonically dominated Asia and in promoting an Asia “whole and free,” consisting of democratic nations trading among themselves and incorporated into the international economy. For the foreseeable future at least, the U.S. will need to maintain its role in preserving the status quo in the Asia-Pacific. For it to do so, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to develop new and innovative ways to continue to deter conflict and coercion, reassure allies, and to project military power into the Western Pacific in the event of conflict.
If the U.S.-China strategic competition is about competing visions for Asia, then it is also about access. China’s objective is to deny the U.S. access into many critical areas of the Western Pacific where the U.S. military will need to continue operating. The primary implements for the U.S.-China military competition will be maritime and shore-based forces with the ability to influence events in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese have two mutually supporting concepts that appear to drive their strategic approach to areas on their periphery. First, the PLAN’s objective is to establish “control” over the waters extending 200 nautical miles out from China’s coast to freely conduct what it calls “independent operations.” These operations include the ability to attack Taiwan for the purposes of reunification and to secure and develop claims to maritime resources in those waters. Second, the Chinese have been shifting slowly to an “offshore defense strategy” meant to engage potential enemies at greater distances from its major urban areas along its coast. This strategy not only emphasizes the Second Artillery Force’s (SAF) missile-centric approach to both denial and coercive operations but also its so- called string of pearls strategy of establishing relations along the Indian Ocean to lay the foundation for greater control over the Malacca Strait and other critical transit nodes (air, sea and land) into East Asia.
Considering China’s aggressive military modernization plans and its stated objective to “contest” the “second island chain,” it is wise to expect that China will seek to develop capabilities that both deny U.S. access to areas within the Western Pacific and pose a credible conventional threat to the U.S. homeland to discourage U.S. intervention in a potential Chinese sphere of influence closer to China’s littorals.
Indeed, one of the key takeaways for China from the Taiwan Strait crisis was that “aircraft carriers [are] a key element of the U.S. ability to project power.” Therefore, considerable effort is being dedicated to ways of neutralizing the combat effectiveness of carrier battlegroups. Chinese analysts are studying what they believe to be key vulnerabilities of carriers and their supporting vessels. According to these analysts, carrier battlegroups are especially vulnerable when being redeployed, during resupply, transiting a narrow waterway, [such as the Malacca Strait] or during poor weather conditions. The PLAN has observed that the U.S. derives as much as 80 percent of its airpower from carrier based aircraft during combat operations in littoral areas. Consequently, the PLAN describes U.S. carrier battlegroups as “a great threat to anti-air operations in littoral areas and should be resolutely countered.”
Looking out to 2020-2025, the military competition will be characterized by increasing Chinese efforts to control its periphery for extended periods, to intimidate U.S. allies and attempt to weaken U.S. influence, and to project power to defend its increasingly widespread economic interests.The U.S. will work to preserve its position in the region, reassure allies of its willingness and ability to defend them, and complicate China’s capability to project power in ways that threaten U.S. interests.
Trends and asymmetries
China is making substantial investments in military programs and weapons designed to improve extended-range power projection, anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), and operations in emerging domains such as cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. China’s military modernization has already weakened the U.S. ability to project power into the Western Pacific, a trend that will be difficult to reverse given the prevailing technological, geographic, and financial constraints. Recent trends in China’s weapons development not only improve China’s capabilities to deal with contingencies along its periphery, such as a new Taiwan crisis, but will also allow the PLA to conduct a range of military operations in Asia outside China’s traditional territorial claims. According to one China analyst, “A key trend in [Asia-Pacific] is the shift from a traditional focus on territorial defense towards power projection – [t]his is new for the region and is likely to increase military-to-military contact between states.”
China’s defense spending is expected to balloon to $233 billion in 2020, up from $123 billion in 2010, according to a new report by IHS Jane’s. Important systems that either have been fielded or are under development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship versions), anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, new surface ships, nuclear submarines, and an aircraft carrier.
The necessity to protect key trade routes, principally petroleum supplies from the Middle East, has driven the PLAN to conduct counterpiracy operations around the Horn of Africa. Clashes with Japan over maritime claims in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian claimants to all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea have caused increased tensions in these areas. Volatility on the Korean Peninsula such as the collapse of the North Korean regime could also produce a regional crisis involving the PLA. The CCP has also tasked the PLA with developing the expertise required for missions such as UN Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKO), Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR), and counterterrorism operations. These capabilities will enhance China’s options for using its military influence to support its diplomatic agenda, press regional and international interests, and resolve disputes in its favor. Simultaneously, China is surrounded by other regional powers that likely have an incentive to balance against its rise, many of whom are already U.S. allies or emerging strategic partners. Furthermore, even more so than the U.S., China is confronting a number of challenges (social, economic, demographic) that cast doubt over its ability to sustain its decades-long growth – challenges that could spark widespread internal dissent.
As of this writing U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump maintains that his goal of abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be his first order of business upon entering the oval office in January 2017. TPP (which excludes China) aims to deepen economic ties between its twelve member states, reducing tariffs and promoting trade to spur growth.
Members had also hoped to develop a closer relationship on economic policies and regulation. The agreement was designed to potentially create a new single market, something akin to the EU. TPP members have a population of roughly 800 million people (nearly twice the size of the EU market) and presently account for 40% of global trade – therefore the significance of the agreement is difficult to understate.
Although TPP is an economic agreement it is considered by some in the U.S. defense community to have significant security value. In a speech delivered on April 6, 2015 regarding the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter commented on the strategic value of the agreement to the U.S.:
[TPP] is probably one of the most important parts of the rebalance, and that’s why it has won such bipartisan support. In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier. It would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific. And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.
In fact, Carter may be understating the strategic value of TPP in that the agreement is probably as important as several aircraft carriers. The collapse of TPP leaves a void in Asia that certainly undermines U.S. economic power and possibly its military power as well – a void that will certainly be filled by China. The objective of TPP was always partially strategic. The U.S. and others alongside it, from Australia to Singapore, hoped the agreement would allow them to shape the structure of international trade in Asia and beyond. It was also meant to signal the U.S.’s long-term commitment to the region – something that allies and China are now understandably questioning. Consequently, the collapse of TPP may represent a fait accompli for China in damaging U.S. power and prestige in the Asia-Pacific.
Asymmetries to Consider
Although it is outside the scope of this writing to provide a complete and comprehensive assessment of all the trends and asymmetries defining the U.S.-China military competition, the author believes there are two that are especially challenging to U.S. forces and thus deserve special attention. First, is the transformation of the Second Artillery Force (SAF) – the branch of the PLA responsible for most of China’s conventional and nuclear ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles – one of the pillars of China’s military modernization effort. China has rapidly advanced from a limited and vulnerable nuclear ballistic missile capability to one of the most imposing nuclear and conventional ballistic missile programs in the world. According to a recent U.S. Department of Defense report on the PLA, “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile programs in the world.” In doing so China has managed to exploit restrictions placed on the U.S. under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. As a signatory to the treaty, the U.S. (and Russia) is prohibited from producing nuclear and conventional ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 300-3,400 miles and was forced to destroy existing stockpiles. Chinese ground launched cruise missiles at the upper limit of these ranges have the ability to hold at risk or attack fixed bases and ships at distances well beyond the second island chain.
With the overarching goal of denying the U.S. military access to the Western Pacific in mind, the PLA has paid particular attention to acquiring systems with the capability to detect, track and engage U.S. carrier battlegroups at greater distances from its littorals – increasing the costs of entry for the U.S. at minimal cost to China. According to the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), China is “developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading certain missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.” To accomplish the goal of increasing the cost of entry China has embarked on a cost imposing strategy vis-à-vis U.S. carrier battlegroups. According to U.S. naval strategist James Holmes, the U.S. is burdened by a huge cost disadvantage in its maritime competition with China. In The State of the U.S.-China Competition, Holmes points to the estimated $10.5 billion cost of building the next generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford – not including its air wing or escort ships. He estimates that if the average PLA antiship cruise missile (ASCM) costs as much as a U.S. Navy Harpoon Block II ASCM (which he doubts) the PLA Navy could afford 8,750 missiles for the price of a single Ford-Class carrier.
This is clearly an unfavorable ratio and considering the cost of the USS Gerald R. Ford has ballooned to nearly $13 billion since Holmes’ writing, it is even more so.
Second, the Chinese have made significant investment in various types of antiship mines with an arsenal estimated to range from 50,000 to 100,000 individual weapons. Sea mines are growing more sophisticated and their development is outpacing countermeasures in mine detection and clearing technologies. Modern sea mines possess stealthy shapes and nonmagnetic materials to prevent detection, delayed activation timers, ship counters, rocket propulsion, and sophisticated multisensory detonators. More advanced versions will have the capability to bury themselves in the seabed and reposition after initial planting, while others will target ships with torpedoes.
The U.S. Navy has acknowledged the severity of the sea mine threat. According to the 2010 Navy Operations Concept (NOC), the sea mine is considered “the greatest area-denial challenge in the maritime domain … capable of constraining maneuverability from deep waters past the surf zone to the maximum extent of the littoral.” James FitzSimonds agrees. A research professor with the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College, FitzSimonds posits that “among all the naval warfare areas, the mine versus mine countermeasures competition might represent the most radical war-fighting asymmetry and the most disproportionate offense-defense cost exchange ratio.” That is, a mine costing a few thousand dollars has the potential to achieve at the very least a “mission kill” against a U.S. aircraft carrier costing several billion dollars. Even so, U.S. and Chinese mine capabilities are moving on opposite trajectories as the U.S. has significantly underinvested in this area. Although the U.S. confronts a potentially severe mining threat from China, it has no comparable capability either to deter China or to divert China’s military resources. FitzSimonds concludes that the principal reason for this huge disparity is a culture within the U.S. Navy that has failed to embrace mine and countermine operations as a primary focus. Unlike surface ships, aviation and submarines, there is no officer career path in mine warfare and therefore no established body of expertise that is developed and maintained within the U.S. Navy officer corps. Consequently, it may require the outbreak of hostilities to incent the U.S. Navy to develop a competitive mine warfare strategy vis-à-vis China.
HOW CHINA VIEWS THE MILITARY BALANCE
The History of the U.S.-China Maritime Competition
Although the U.S.-China strategic competition dates back to the Chinese Civil War when the U.S. (1945-1949) directly supported Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces against Mao’s communists, the military competition as we understand it today began in earnest for the Chinese in the early 1990s. As was noted above, there were two events that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership regarded as pivotal to its long-term strategic competition with the U.S. – the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis – the latter event fully exposing PLA weaknesses vis-à-vis the U.S military. It was the Chinese response to these events a quarter century ago which largely defines today’s U.S.-China military competition in the Western Pacific.
The overwhelming success of the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War forced PLA analysts to rethink their ability to fight an adversary armed with technologically advanced weapons.
Although the war did conform to the Chinese view that modern wars were fast and intense, the effectiveness with which the U.S. military employed air power and joint operations to destroy an Iraqi army that was sometimes armed with Chinese weapons, caused worry within the PLA that it was grossly ill prepared (both in terms of technology and doctrine) to fight and prevail in a similar kind of war. Chinese strategists studied the failings of the Iraqi army in great detail and concluded that China must build a professional, mechanized, and “informatized” military to compete with the U.S. in the Western Pacific.
As surprising as the outcome of the Gulf War was to the PLA, it was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis that set in motion today’s maritime competition. In an attempt to intimidate Taiwanese voters who were preparing to elect pro-independence presidential candidate Lee Teng-hui, the PLA Second Artillery Force lobbed several ballistic missiles into the Strait.
Consequently, the U.S. responded by deploying the USS Nimitz and USS Independence aircraft carrier battlegroups into the area to deter further Chinese aggression. The PLA found itself unable to detect or even target the enormous U.S. task forces patrolling the waters of Taiwan. The U.S. response “lit a fire under the Chinese military and civilian leadership,” which convinced them to develop “a variety of capabilities intended to target American aircraft carriers.” Determined to prevent a repeat of this humiliation, the Chinese military concluded that it must deny the U.S. Navy some control over its coastal waters and deter it from intervening in future crises. Therefore, from the perspective of China’s leadership, the long-term competition with the U.S. has already been underway for several decades.
How China Views U.S. Maritime Strategy
The 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, stresses that “U.S. maritime forces will be characterized by regionally concentrated, forward deployed task forces with the combat power to limit regional conflicts, deter major wars, and should deterrence fail, win our Nation’s wars as part of a joint or combined campaign.”
Although China is never mentioned specifically, many Chinese strategists, such as Lu Rude, perceive U.S. maritime strategy in the Western Pacific as part of a ploy for “implementing strategic encirclement of different kinds of maritime flashpoints and ‘potential enemy’ through military deployment in ‘chokepoints’ of navigation and strategic nodes.”
Furthermore, Chinese experts view the 2012 U.S. rebalance from Europe to Asia “as an offensive policy meant to contain the rise of China as a world power.”77 China’s 2013 defense white paper explicitly mentioned the U.S. in this way, indirectly criticizing the U.S.’s growing presence in the Asia-Pacific region as well as stressing the growing complexity of international relations:
There are signs of increasing hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism. Local turmoils occur frequently. Hot-spot issues keep cropping up. Traditional and non- traditional security challenges interweave and interact. Competition is intensifying in the international military field. International security issues are growing noticeably more abrupt, interrelated and comprehensive. The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers. The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes. ….
Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser. On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some neighboring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation….
Major powers are vigorously developing new and more sophisticated military technologies so as to ensure that they can maintain strategic superiorities in international competition in such areas as outer space and cyber space.
China’s media and population have also voiced apprehension over the US rebalance to Asia. China does not publish official assessments of U.S. military strategy and plans like those the U.S. Department of Defense publishes on Chinese strategy and military forces. At the same time, China does firmly dictate what its press is allowed to publish, and the following quotes – characteristic of many comparable examples – suggest that China’s strategic patience with the U.S. has limits that are important in considering how China may view the military balance:
Renmin Ribao, January 30, 2013:
The United States is boosting old military alliances, damaging the political foundation of East Asian peace, sharpening the territorial sovereignty contradictions between China and the countries around it, building a united front aimed at China, forcibly pushing the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, and disrupting the self-determined cooperation and regional integration process between the East Asian countries…in order for China to achieve strategic balance in the Asia Pacific region, it must greatly increase its military presence…. [China] should give full play to the strategic role of Russia and DPRK.
People’s Daily Online, April 10, 2013:
Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama proposed the high-keyed “return to the Asia- Pacific” at the end of 2011, the U.S. has begun to frequently organize joint military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region. For those exercises conducted in 2012 by the U.S. in the Western Pacific region alone, there were as many as 17 code names. Why is the U.S. so interested in Asia-Pacific region? Why does it frequently conduct such “exercises”? In a geostrategic sense, containing China in the Asia-Pacific region is the basic content of the U.S. policy toward China. There are three major means for the U.S. to conduct deep involvement in the Asia-Pacific region: first, wide alliance to win over various countries in the Asia-Pacific region; second, military forward deployment to realize strategic “rebalancing”; and third, occupy a “leading” position in the region to play “pro-active role.”
Scenarios and implications
Although it is beyond the scope of this assessment to cover the full breadth of possible scenarios in the U.S.-China military balance, this section will briefly examine one of the most persistent: a major conflict with China over Taiwan
Taiwan appears to represent an imbalance of sorts between the U.S. and China. For China the matter of Taiwan is clear – it considers Taiwan a breakaway province and it wants the island unified with the mainland. For the U.S. the issue is one of strategic ambiguity. Policy statements say little more than committing the U.S. to the peaceful resolution of differences between China and Taiwan. Therefore, an imbalance exists in how the U.S. and China view the value of Taiwan and to what extent each will go to achieve its objectives. For China there appears to be far more at stake, which would affect its decision calculus to go to war over the issue as well as the capabilities it may bring to bear in a war.
As the U.S.-China competition intensifies, however, it is possible that Taiwan could play a more prominent role in U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy in the years ahead. President-Elect Trump’s recent telephone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen challenges the decades-long “One China” policy and it could mark the beginning of an increasingly confrontational U.S.-China relationship under the new U.S. administration. According to An Fengshan, a spokesman for China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, he has warned of more serious consequences should the U.S. alter its policy. Mr. An commented:
Upholding the “One China” principle is the political basis of developing China-US relations, and is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.”If this basis is interfered with or damaged then the healthy, stable development of China- U.S. relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted.”
The circumstances under which the CCP has historically warned it would use force have evolved over time in response to Taiwan’s declarations of its political status, changes in PLA capabilities, and China’s view of Taiwan’s relations with other countries. These circumstances have included:
• Formal declaration of Taiwan independence
• Undefined moves toward Taiwan independence
• Internal unrest on Taiwan
• Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons
• Indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification
• Foreign intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs
• Foreign forces stationed on Taiwan
Article 8 of the March 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that China may use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces… cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China,” if “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession” occur, or if “possibilities for peaceful reunification” are exhausted. The ambiguity of these “redlines” preserves China’s flexibility.
For U.S. allies and partners in the region, the forcible reunification of China and Taiwan could be seen as an advanced warning that China may also use force to settle other disputes. China scholar Dan Blumenthal suggests that an attack on Taiwan could be perceived as an attempt to alter the balance of power in Asia for four reasons. First, although U.S. policy toward Taiwan is intentionally ambiguous, allies in the region have long considered Taiwan an ally of the U.S. and the Taiwan Relations Act essentially as a defense commitment. A scenario in which China forcibly unifies with Taiwan may be viewed by allies as irreversible Chinese domination. Second, key allies such as Japan could view the prospect of Chinese control over Taiwan as a serious threat to Japanese security. Should China militarize Taiwan, it could pose a direct threat to Japan’s sea-lanes of communication and on the Ryuku island chain. Third, control of Taiwan would enable China to exert far greater control over the South China Sea. Lastly, China’s concept of operations concerning Taiwan may have the effect of forcing the U.S. into a war.
Although China could try to limit an attack to Taiwan, it could also carryout preemptive strikes against U.S. bases in the region and Japan to prevent forces from these countries from intervening. Indeed, China could carry out air and missile strikes on the Kadena and Iwakuni air bases in Japan, despite the escalatory risks of striking Japanese territory. Should China deem it necessary to engage U.S. forces to prevail in Taiwan, the PLA will certainly execute a sea denial strategy that threatens U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups. China can use land-based attack aircraft to launch cruise missiles, attack submarines, and land-based ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable warheads against ships at sea. The PLAN is likely to use submarines armed with ASCMs and torpedoes to attack carrier battlegroups operating within tactical aircraft range of China’s mainland. The PLAN’s submarine force could also try to execute a blockade that threatens commercial shipping in and out of Taiwan. In conjunction with its sophisticated mining capabilities, PLAN submarines have the capability to effectively cutoff maritime trade to Taiwan.
Because China has developed effective air and missile capabilities, the U.S. cannot rely upon purely defensive measures to end an air and missile assault against Taiwan. The U.S. Navy and Air Force would likely be forced to “shoot the archer” rather than the arrow to stop or at least limit those assaults. This scenario raises the risks of serious escalation. Shooting the archer requires striking a large number of targets on mainland China (command and control nodes, storage facilities, ISR, airbases and industrial facilities) that directly support PLA air and missile operations. Carrying out deep strikes against a nuclear China might represent the sort of risk that the U.S. may be unwilling to take.
For China to carry out a successful operation against Taiwan, it may have to inflict extensive damage on the U.S. and Japan. Successful strikes against U.S. bases and maritime forces would force the U.S. to project power from distances beyond the second island chain to suppress China’s air defenses and air and missile forces. For the U.S. to mount an effective
counterattack it may have no alternative to striking targets on mainland China.
Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese should assume a high nuclear threshold in such a scenario. Punishing strikes on the mainland or on U.S. bases and maritime forces that inflict heavy losses could increase the potential for miscalculation leading to potentially grave consequences.
Overall, the balance of power between China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the first and second island chains, and the ability of the U.S. to project power into the Taiwan Strait to defeat a Chinese attack, has significantly shifted, and in a way that raises doubts about strategic stability. China has the capability to carry out devastating preemptive strikes against U.S. forces throughout the Western Pacific and on Taiwan. It can raise the costs of entry considerably for U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups and other forces attempting to intervene in the conflict, conduct a blockade against Taiwan, and shield its strike assets behind a sophisticated air defense system. China may determine that these capabilities will prevent the U.S. from defending Taiwan. However, it is also possible that the U.S. will view a Chinese attack on Taiwan through the lens of increased Chinese assertiveness and a perception that China is attempting to dominate the Western Pacific. In this scenario, the U.S. retains several advantages it can leverage to sustain its power projection capabilities. Among the most important are its numerous allies and partners who share U.S. concerns about an aggressive and potentially hegemonic China.
Conclusions and final thoughts
China’s apparent goal of exercising military control over significant parts of the Western Pacific is certain to be the cause for increased regional tensions and instability in the coming years. China has invested heavily over the past two decades in order to challenge U.S. military dominance in the Asia Pacific. During this time the U.S. has been focused mostly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has only responded in recent years to the shifting military balance. The overall assessment is that the military balance in the Western Pacific has shifted dramatically in favor of China and against the U.S. and its allies.
Although it is generally believed that the U.S. combined with its allies far outspends China in overall defense, this net assessment briefly analyzed two key asymmetries in the areas of ASBMs and sea mines that reveal a disturbing trend in the military balance – large U.S. defense expenditures may not translate into military effectiveness. Naturally this raises not only serious questions concerning the ability of the U.S. to maintain the status quo in the Western Pacific, but also to assure allies as well as defend U.S. territory in the region from attack. If over the next five to 15 years, U.S. and PLA forces continue on approximately current trajectories, “Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance,” one RAND Corporation report concludes. To shift the balance back in its favor, the U.S. must take measures to restore its historic advantages in power projection. To do so, it will have to develop not only more innovative alliance strategies that exploit both their growing capabilities and their weariness of China, but the U.S. will also need to develop innovative military capabilities to restore its dominance.
Pakistan Test Fire of Shaheen 1A: Revalidating the Minimum Credible Deterrence Posture
Very recently, on 26th March 2021, Pakistan has successfully conducted flight test of Shaheen- 1A nuclear-capable surface-to-surface ballistic missile. The missile was first tested in 2012, and has a reported range of 900 km, with 10,000 kg weight, is a road-mobile launched and solid-fueled ballistic missile. It is an enhanced version of Shaheen-1 and has the capability of hitting the target with high precision, because of its sophisticated and highly developed guidance system, which inculcates it amongst the most accurate missile systems. The test, according to ISPR, was conducted to revalidate the design and technical parameters of the ballistic missile, along with the advanced navigation system. The missile tests are being conducted to validate the operational readiness of the missiles and to enhance Pakistan’s posture of credible minimum deterrence. In South Asia, such missile tests are routinely being conducted by both states, of which they notify each other well in advance as per the 2005 bilateral missile test pact.
Several factors account for the strategic policy making of Pakistan with regards to India. These factors include geographical proximity, relations with other states, economic and military aspects. The foreign policy of Pakistan is based on all these factors, and given the confrontational and antagonistic relations with India; Pakistan essentially has to reform its military capabilities, to come at par with the years-long rival. This animosity and historical rivalry between India and Pakistan has created such a strategic culture that compels the latter to embark upon the policy of minimum credible nuclear deterrence as a defensive strategy.
The paramount purpose of nuclear deterrence is essential to deter wars. Pakistan deems nuclear weapons as ‘weapons of mass destruction’, however, ostensibly reserves the option of First Use against the nuclear-weapon state. As, India’s military posture is aggressive, which aggravates a dire need to re-check the operational preparedness of Pakistan’s military forces. Pakistan is bolstering its capabilities in view of India’s military and technological advancements. These advancements create strategic pressure on Pakistan, for the reason Pakistan attempts to comply by taking essential strategic measures, within the stated framework of minimum credible deterrence.
Pakistan maintains the policy of minimum credible deterrence and emphasizes the sole purpose of nuclear weapons be based on security vis-à-vis India. Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is of minimum credible deterrence. As many believe, the ambiguity surrounding the nuclear force posture of Pakistan makes it challenging to unravel the ‘minimum’ and ‘credible’ in its force posture, which is dynamic, subject to the advancements made at the adversary’s end; therefore the particular number of weapons can’t be quantified. The minimum credible deterrence aims to serve as the stabilizing factor in the strategic environment of South Asia. Pakistan has developed this posture as a counter to India’s conventional superiority, hence created a playing field at par with the adversary. This believes to have coped up with the conventional superiority of Indian military forces, and has emasculated India of its military superiority in conventional vein, and has thus wiped the chances of all-out war in south Asia.
The nuclear posture is contingent on capability, credibility, and communication. Hence, the credibility of the capability of the nuclear arsenals needs to be ascertained and should be well communicated to the adversary for maintaining the deterrence. The demonstration of the capability is essential for signaling the capabilities of a state. The missile tests are believed to be a way of communicating the capability, as a signal to the adversary of its effective capability. The test fires are conducted to communicate the capability, which should be credible enough to deliver unacceptable damage to the adversary. This is the essence of nuclear deterrence and has become vital in the view of emerging technological developments in South Asia.
The unstable peace between the two South Asian nuclear rivals remains vulnerable to competition and animosity. Since overt nuclearization, the chance of an all-out war between the two nuclear states has considerably been reduced. Peace and security in South Asia depend on strategic stability and nuclear deterrence robustness. The nonpareil conventional military superiority of India vis-à-vis Pakistan compelled India to go for aggressive military doctrines and force postures. The acquisition of such weapons helps Pakistan in achieving its desired deterrence stability in the region, and it offsets any kind of enemy’s aggression against the sovereignty of Pakistan.
A Provident Posture for Israel: Facing Nuclear Iran as an Intellectual Problem
“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” Sun-Tzu, The Art of War
Mitigating Trump-Policy Mistakes
Though Donald Trump sought to convince Israel that US withdrawal from the Iran pact would be gainful, the opposite was actually true. Subsequent to his artless American departure from JCPOA, Tehran merely accelerated its ongoing processes of nuclearization. Among other things, the former president’s argument that leaving a presumptively inadequate pact in place was worse than having no pact at all turned out to be evident nonsense. Prima facie, Trump’s politics-driven abrogation of the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement diminished Israel’s national security.
To be sure, in such weighty matters, what’s done is done. Still, what is past here can also be prologue. By openly ignoring all proper considerations of history, logic and intellect, Trump’s seat-of-the-pants strategic reasoning could only have exacerbated Israel’s security situation. But while these once-avoidable Trump-inflicted harms were not immediately remediable, Jerusalem could still act to prevent assorted worst case scenarios.
Going forward, details matter. How, precisely, shall Israel best compensate for its Trump-accelerated losses of security preparation and strategic initiative? At this point,the odds of Israel launching any full-blown preemption against Iran,possibly a proper act of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law, are understandably low. Though Israel could still plan on undertaking intermittent episodes of Iranian nuclear reactor sabotage (e.g., along the lines of its earlier Stuxnet interventions and (probably) more recent cyber-attacks against Natanz enrichment processes), such a piecemeal strategy would display the significant defeats of any “infinite regress problem.”
This common problem is discoverable in science, engineering and philosophy.
At best, this strategy would have to be regarded as a self-limiting option.
At worst, it could precipitate its own catastrophic consequences.
“The worst,” we may now be reminded by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.”
The Primacy of Intellect in National Nuclear Strategy
What next? At this point, prudence dictates that Jerusalem back away from its traditional posture that Iran never be allowed to “go nuclear,” and replace this no longer feasible position with suitably intellectual preparations for comprehensive nuclear deterrence. The traditional Israeli stance was more impressively “hard-nosed” and seemingly steadfast, of course, but maintaining any such stance today would be crude, provocative and infeasible.
Back in 2003-2004, as Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon), this writer(Professor Louis René Beres) was openly convinced that prospective irrationality could make an Iranian nuclear adversary intolerable. Today, this once-ominous prospect is substantially less credible. For various reasons concerning ordinary Realpolitik, it appears that the Islamic regime in Tehran would calculate in roughly the same fashion as any other rational state decision-maker in prioritizing national survival. Initially, perhaps, there was ample good reason for Israel to fear a “suicide bomber in macrocosm,” but this is no longer a convincing case.
What should now be expected/calculated in Jerusalem? Earlier inclinations to Trump-style bombast and bravado notwithstanding,Israel willmost urgently need to make appropriate preparations for sustaining long-term co-existence with an Iranian nuclear adversary. As part of any such necessary preparations, Israel will have to continue with its impressive developments in both offensive missile technology and ballistic missile defense (BMD.) Although Israel’s well-tested Arrow and corollary interceptors would never be fully adequate for “soft-point” or city defense, these advanced systems could still enhance the Jewish State’s increasingly vital nuclear deterrent.
The rudiments of Israeli nuclear deterrence are easy to identify. By forcing an Iranian attacker to calculate and recalculate the complex requirements of “assured destruction,” Israeli technologies could make it markedly unrewarding for Tehran to ever strike first. Knowing that its capacity to “assuredly destroy” Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces with a first-strike attack could be steadily eroded by incremental Israeli deployments of BMD, Iran would likely conclude that any such attack would prove costlier than gainful. Any such relatively optimistic conclusion would be premised on the antecedent assumption that Iran’s decisions must always be rational.
But what if such a promising assumption should not seemingly be warranted?Inter alia, in such cases, irrationality would not be identical to madness. Unlike a “crazy” or “mad” adversary, which would have no discernible order of transitive preferences, an irrational Iranian leadership could still maintain a distinct, consistent and sequentially ordered hierarchy of “wants.”
There are further relevant particulars. It is reasonable to expect that even an irrational Iranian leadership would hold in unwaveringly “high esteem” its own primary military institutions. Ipso facto, this leadership would remain subject to Israeli deterrence created by various compelling Israeli threats to these institutions.
Civilian targets would be excluded from any relevant Israeli attack. Any such calculated exclusion would not only be in Israel’s overall strategic interests. It would also be necessary to ensure normal Israeli compliance with the authoritative law of war, that is, with a commendably exemplary adherence to binding military rules. Law-based conduct is very deeply embedded in Israeli operational planning. This moral imperative is well-known to every soldier of Israel as Tohar Ha Neshek, or the “purity of arms.”
Rationality and Irrationality
Iran needn’t be irrational to represent a lethal danger to Israel. A nuclear Iran could still be perilous to Israel if its leadership were able to meet all usual criteria of decisional rationality. Miscalculations or errors in information could sometime lead a fully rational Iranian adversary to consider striking first. In these worrisome circumstances, even the best anti-missile defenses could be inadequate in providing adequate population or “soft-point” protections.
Among other things, if Iran were presumed to be rational in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, Jerusalem could then consider certain more-or-less plausible benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli General Moshe Dayan warned prophetically: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” In this crude but potentially insightful metaphor, Dayan acknowledged that it can sometimes be entirely rational for beleaguered states to pretend irrationality.
What if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most a bout its own national survival? In this aberrant but still conceivable case, there could be no discernible deterrence benefit to Israel in assuming a posture of pretended irrationality. Here, by definition, the more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel would be no more persuasive to Tehran than if Iran’s self-declared enemy were presumed to be rational.
“Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?” inquires Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV. While this pithy theatrical query does have some residual relevance to Israel’s mounting security concerns with Iran, the grave strategic challenges issuing from that country will more likely come from decision-makers who are rational and who are not mad. Soon, with this clarifying idea suitably in mind, Israel will need to fashion a more carefully focused and formal strategic doctrine, one from which aptly nuanced policies and operations could be expertly drawn and reliably fashioned.
Among other things, this doctrine would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; preemption; active defense; strategic targeting; nuclear war fighting) with all critical national survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these discrete but sometimes intersecting strategic options. At times, these interactions would be authentically synergistic; here, the “whole” effect would be greater than the mathematical sum of all relevant “parts.”
Calculating these complex interactions will present Israel with a computational task on the highest order of intellectual difficulty. In synergistic cases, it may develop that the anticipated entirety of Iranian-inflicted harms would be greater than the technical sum of their discrete components. For Jerusalem, recognizing this task as a preeminently scientific problem represents the necessary first step in meeting Israel’s variously imperiled survival goals.
In broadest possible decisional terms, Israel has no real choice. Nuclear strategy is a “game” that sane and rational decision-makers must play. But in order to compete effectively, any would-be adversary must first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality.
The issues are daunting. These are interpenetrating and generally imprecise forms of assessment. They represent challenging but vital judgments that will require accompanying refinements in both intelligence and counter-intelligence. Also needed will be carefully calculated, selectively partial and meticulously delicate movements away from Jerusalem’s extant national policies of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Taking the Bomb out of the “Basement”
Soon, for Israel, it will no longer be sensible to keep its “bomb” in the “basement.” Moving carefully toward selected levels of nuclear disclosure could usefully complement any renewed Israeli efforts at diplomacy, e.g., resurrecting or updating certain still-acceptable terms of the Trump-destroyed JCPOA agreement. It would be a delicate balance.
More than likely, Israel’s longstanding “red lines” posture notwithstanding, Iran will manage to join the “nuclear club.” At that point, how will Tehran’s key leadership figures proceed to rank order their country’s critical security preferences? To answer this question – and very precisely this question – should immediately become a primary policy obligation in Jerusalem.
To survive into the future, Israel’s leaders must first come to terms with the knowledge that noad hoc process of interminable preemptions could possibly keep Iran from achieving nuclear status. For Jerusalem, the only sensible option is to prepare for viable long-term nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis Tehran, and to base such necessary preparations on capable intellectual processes.To Israel’s considerable benefit, the anti-science Trump Era of contrived US remedies is over. Accordingly, Israel now has a not-to-be-forfeited opportunity to undertake various still-meaningful strategic initiatives. Any further efforts at preemption, whether incremental (resembling Stuxnet and Natanz hacking) or “all-at-once,” (resembling Operation Opera and Operation Orchard)would be transient and of limited utility.
Exploiting Regional Sunni-Shiite Geopolitics
There is more. The recent Abraham Accords and other bilateral agreements with certain Sunni Arab states are generally “good news” for Israel.Still, these agreements may make Israeli security increasingly dependent upon consistent cooperation with newly-designated Sunni “allies” and simultaneously isolate the nuclearizing Shiite regime in Tehran. Whether or not such expected isolation would actually be net-gainful for Israel remains to be seen. Conceivably, it could at some point prod Iran to act more aggressively and more precipitously against Israel.
There are potentially intersecting issues. The now impending full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will likely strengthen Taliban fighters and – reciprocally – certain militias and terror groups (both Sunni and Shiite) sometimes siding with Iran. This dissembling effect would give Jerusalem renewed and reasonable apprehensions about “spillover” Islamist adversaries acting in its own more immediate region. Of particular and prompt concern for Israel should be any related Palestinian resurgence of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Fatah forces in Judea, Samaria and/or Gaza. In short order, such a resurgence could create its own escalatory momentum, generating not only additional instances of terror-violence, but also wars between states that become bewilderingly complex and more-or-less indecipherable.
“Next door” to Afghanistan, in Pakistan, an already nuclear Islamic state in protracted nuclear standoff with India has expressly tilted toward “usable” Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNW). Since Pakistan first announced its test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile back in 2011, that country’s emphasis on TNW appears intended to most effectively deter a catastrophic conventional war with India. By threatening, at least implicitly, to use relatively low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons in retaliation for major Indian conventional attacks, Pakistan seemingly hopes to simultaneously appearmore credible and less provocative to Delhi. Over time, though unintended, this calculated strategy to protect itself from any Indian nuclear strikes (whether as aggressions or reprisals) could elicit various Israeli imitations or replications. For the time being, however, it is plausible that Israel has not adopted any openly “warfighting” or “counterforce” nuclear strategy.
“In war,” says Clausewitz, “everything is simple, but the simplest thing is still difficult.”Until today, in principle at least, Israel’s national nuclear doctrine and posture have remained determinedly ambiguous. Simultaneously, traditional ambiguity was effectively breached at the highest possible level by two of Israel’s former prime ministers, Shimon Peres, on December 22, 1995 and again by Ehud Olmert on December 11, 2006. Peres, speaking to a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, affirmed publicly: “…give me peace, and we’ll give up the atom. That’s the whole story.”When Olmert later offered similarly general but also revelatory remarks, they were widely (but perhaps wrongly) interpreted as “slips of the tongue.”
Today, a basic question should once again be raised and examined in Jerusalem: Is comprehensive nuclear secrecy in the verifiably best survival interests of Israel?
The central importance of any codified military doctrine lies not only in the particular ways it can animate, unify and optimize national forces, but also in the efficient manner it can transmit variously desired “messages” to enemy states, sub-state enemy proxies or state-sub-state enemy “hybrids.” Understood in terms of Israel’s strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could prove net-injurious to the country’s national security rather than net-gainful. Though possibly counter-intuitive, this is likely because any truly effective deterrence posture could sometimes call for military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by certain adversary states and by certain sub-state insurgent/terrorist group foes.
Moving Beyond Too-Much Secrecy and Excessive “Friction”
There is more. In any routine military planning, having available options for strategic surprise could prove helpful (if not fully prerequisite) to successful combat operations. But successful deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first – in these circumstances a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion – projecting too much secrecy could prove counter-productive.
In the matter of Israel and both its historic and current enemies, any tangible military success must lie in credible deterrence and not in any actual war-fighting. Examined in terms of ancient Chinese military thought offered by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” With this worthy dictum in mind, there are imaginable times when successful Israeli deterrence policies could require deliberate “loosening” of information that had formerly been “tight.”
Such information could concern Israel’s capabilities, its intentions or both of these complex qualities taken together. To be deterred by Israel, a newly-nuclear Iran or any other newly nuclear adversary (potentially, one of the major Sunni Arab states also worried about Iran) would need to believe that (at least a critical number of) Israel’s retaliatory forces would successfully survive any enemy first-strike and that these forces could not subsequently be stopped from hitting their pre-designated targets in Iran or elsewhere. Regarding the “presumed survivability” component of such adversarial belief, continuously reliable sea-basing (submarines) by Israel could provide a relevant case in point.
Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness, or partial nuclear disclosure could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel, at least to the extent that pertinent enemy states were made appropriately aware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. The presumed operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from certain deliberate flows of information about assorted matters of dispersion, multiplication and hardening of its strategic nuclear weapon systems, and about certain other technical features of these systems. Most important, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering enemy state doubts about Israel’s strategic nuclear force capabilities and also its plausible intentions.
Left unchallenged, such doubts could literally and lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.
A key problem in purposefully refining Israeli strategic nuclear policy on deliberate ambiguity issues has to do with what the Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, famously calls “friction.” No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel’s nuclear doctrine must somehow be encouraged to combine adequate tactical flexibility with a selective doctrinal openness. To understand exactly how such seemingly contradictory objectives can be reconciled in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv now presents a distinctly primary intellectual challenge to Israel’s national command authority.
Preventing Inadvertent and Accidental Nuclear War
In the end, Israeli planners must think about plausible paths to a nuclear war that include relevant risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. It is entirely possible (even plausible) that risks of any deliberate nuclear war involving Israel would be very small, but that the Jewish State might still be more-or-less vulnerable to such a war occasioned by a mechanical/electrical/computer malfunction on one side or another and/or by assorted decisional errors in related reasoning (miscalculation).
To properly assess the different but intersecting risks between a deliberate nuclear war and an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war must be regarded in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv as an absolutely overriding obligation. These risks could exist independently of one another, and could be impacted in various ways by Cold War II alignments. Moreover, Israel – like the larger United States – must increasingly prepare to deal with issues of cyber-attack and cyber-war; issues now to be considered together with the unpredictably destabilizing advent of “digital mercenaries.”
There is one more core conceptual distinction that warrants mention at this concluding point of our assessment. This distinction references the difference between inadvertent and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would need to be inadvertent. Conversely, however, an inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be accidental. False warnings, for example, which could be generated by various types of technical malfunction or sparked by third-party hacking/digital mercenary interference would not be included under causes of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.
Instead, they would represent cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war.
Most critical among the causes of any inadvertent nuclear war would be errors in calculation by one or both (or several) sides. The most blatant example would involve misjudgments of either enemy intent or enemy capacity that would emerge and propagate as any particular crisis would escalate. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an understandably amplified desire by one or several parties to achieve “escalation dominance.”
Always, in any such projected crisis condition, all rational sides would likely strive for escalation dominance without too severely risking total or near-total destruction. Where one or several adversaries would not actually be rational, all of the usual deterrence “bets” would be “off.” Where one or several sides would not be identified as rational by Israel, Jerusalem could then need to input various unorthodox sorts of security options, including some that could derive in whole or in part from prevailing alignments.
Still other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war involving Israel could include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings; an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one or several sides (including Israel); adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état among adversaries and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among apparent foes.
Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by Israel itself or by any of its relevant adversaries. These problems could also be encouraged by too-optimistic assessments of alliance guarantees. An example might be an intra-crisis judgment in Jerusalem that Washington stands firmly behind its every move during an ongoing crisis, up to and including certain forms of reprisal that are more reasonably imagined than genuine.
Because a prospective nuclear threat from Iran might not be from a “bolt-from-the-blue” attack, but originate instead from a series of interrelated escalations, Israeli nuclear deterrence ought always to be viewed as part of afar wider spectrum of strategic dissuasion. In this connection, Israel’s military planners willhave to inquire whether nuclear deterrence could ever be meaningfully persuasive in cases of conventional military or large-scale terrorist threats. Although the plausibility/credibility of any Israeli threats of nuclear retaliation or counter-retaliation would be greatest where the aggression itself was identifiably nuclear, there could still be circumstances wherein a massive non-nuclear aggression would warrant a limited nuclear response. In these improbable but still conceivable circumstances, Israel would need to clarify all such inherently problematic reasoning “in advance.”
Significantly, as any such situations would be unprecedented or sui generis, nothing prospectively remedial could be calculated by Israel with genuine measures of decisional confidence.
In sum, though reluctantly, Israel will sometime have to accept a nuclear Iran as fait accompli, and then plan to suitably blunt corresponding or correlative security risks via refined deterrence. To accomplish this indispensable objective, Jerusalem will first need to back away from its traditionally successful preemption tactics and implement credible deterrence policies vis-à-vis Tehran at all levels of prospective conflict. These would range from major terrorist assault to country nuclear attack. Ipso facto, focusing exclusively on more explicitly immediate nuclear threats would ignore a core axiom of contemporary strategic planning: A “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack is not the only way in which Israel could become vulnerable to a nuclear war.
Left unreciprocated or unmanaged, even “only” a conventional military attack on Israel (including major terror attack) could conceivably escalate in increments to full-scale atomic conflict.
Whether or not the parties to the 14 July 2015 JCPOA are actually able to renegotiate or reinvigorate the original agreement on terms more favorable to Israel, expert diplomacy could usefully complement Jerusalem’s multi-faceted deterrence posture. Here, however, the Trump-era “Abraham Accords” should be considered as conspicuously minor augmentations. In the final analysis, let this analysis be clear, Iran will not be deterred from steady nuclearization by any US-contrived coalition of Sunni Arab foes cooperating with Israel.
Always, sensible defense policy requires vigorous antecedent thought.“Subjugating” Iran’s potentially nuclear assets “without fighting” does indeed represent Jerusalem’s only prudent and persuasive strategic option, but this sought-after subjugation must first be recognized as an inherently intellectual task. For Israel, as for any other beleaguered state on planet earth, political measures that are conceptualized and initiated by an allied country’s openly anti-intellectual leaders are likely without any tangible advantage. In the case of recent Trump-negotiated pacts for the Middle East, they could even be destined to fail.
“It must not be forgotten,” instructs French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917), “that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”
For authoritative assessments of the probable consequences of nuclear war fighting by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA; Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed., Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA: Lexington Books, 1986).
 “Classical” examples of such a defensive first-strike are Israel’s Operation Opera(against Iraq) and Operation Orchard (contra Syria).
See, on this issue: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/Res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “Think Anticipatory Self-Defense,” The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009; and Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Defending Israel from Iranian Nuclear Attack,” The Jewish Press, March 13, 2013. See also: Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?” The Atlantic, August 9, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, “Living with Iran,” BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, May 2014.
The most precise origins of anticipatory self-defense in customary law lie in the Caroline, an incident that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain appropriately defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require any prior military attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).
From the standpoint of international law, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking an enemy first, in the expectation that the only alternative is to be struck first oneself. A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack. A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance. Hence, in a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is very short, while in a preventive strike the interval is considerably longer.
Donald Trump did manage to move the US Embassy marker tile from a building in Tel Aviv to another building in Jerusalem, but no serious analysis could regard such a minor and superficial movement as authenticIsraeli “victory.” Similarly, the net benefit to Israel of Trump- negotiated agreements with a few minor Sunni Arab states must be assessed vis-à-vis the corresponding costs toIsrael-Iran relations. Even the appearance of a US-concocted Sunni-Israel alignment will further exacerbate already hostile strategic postures obtaining between Tehran and Jerusalem.
See, by this author, Professor Louis René Beres: https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol37/iss1/2/In the considered words of the Project Daniel final report, Israel’s Strategic Future: “The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.”
 Says Karl Jaspers in Reason and Existence (1935): “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it. The only question is, in what form the other appears, how it remains in spite of all, and how it is grasped.”
 See, for example, Louis René Beres, “Religious Extremism and International Legal Norms: Perfidy, Preemption and Irrationality,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 39, No. 3., 2007-2008.
Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different and sometimes overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).
The belligerent nationalismof Donald Trump stood in marked contrast to authoritative legal assumptions concerningsolidarity between states. Thesejurisprudential assumptions concern a presumptively common legal struggle against both aggression and terrorism. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925)(1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).
Israel’s anti-missile defense shield has four recognized layers: The Iron Dome system for intercepting short-range rockets; David’s Sling for medium-range rockets; Arrow-2 against intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and Arrow-3 for deployment against ICBM’s and (potentially) satellites.
On pertinent background issues of rational vs. irrational adversaries, consider Oswald Spengler: “`I believe,'” says the author of The Decline of the West, “is the great word against metaphysical fear, and at the same time it is an avowal of love.'”
Crimes of War concern (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and known thereby as the Law of Hague and the Law of Geneva, these rules seek, inter alia, to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into belligerent calculations. On the main corpus of jus in bello, see: Convention No. IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, With Annex of Regulations, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, T.S. No. 539, 1 Bevans 631 (known commonly as the “Hague Regulations”); Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3114, T.I.A.S. No. 3362, 75 U.N.T.S. 85; Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3316, T.I.A.S. No. 3364, 75 U.N.T.S. 135; Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516, T.I.A.S. No. 3365, 75 U.N.T.S. 287.
See, by this writer, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School: Louis René Beres, https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/
 For this writer’s most recent and most comprehensive assessment of these complex issues, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 167 pp (2nd ed., 2018). https://www.amazon.com/Surviving-Amid-Chaos-Strategy-Destruction/dp/1442253258See also: https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/surviving-amid-chaos-israels-nuclear-strategy
The actual security benefits to Israel of any explicit reductions in nuclear secrecy would remain dependent, more or less, upon Clausewitzian “friction.” This refers to the inherently unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties; on Israeli and Iranian under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence, and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.
 On identifying alternative nuclear disclosure options, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: Updating Intelligence Community Responsibilities,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2015, pp. 1-16.
 For earliest published writings by Professor Beres on the Iranian nuclear threat, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel, Force, and International Law: Assessing Anticipatory Self-Defense,” The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Vol. 13, No. 2., June 1991, pp. 1-14; Louis René Beres, “After the Gulf War: Israel, `Palestine,’ and the Risk of Nuclear War in the Middle East,” Strategic Review, Vol. XIX, No. 4., Fall 1991, pp, 48-55; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Prospects for Nuclear War in the Middle East,” Strategic Review, Vol. XXI, No.2., Spring 1993, pp. 52-60; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Nuclear War: A Tactical and Legal Assessment,” Jerusalem Letter, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem, Israel, November 1993, pp. 1-7; Louis René Beres, “North Korea Today, Iran Tomorrow,” Midstream, June/July 1994, pp. 5-7, co-authored with COL. (IDF/res.) Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto (former Chief of Planning, Israel Air Force); Louis René Beres, “The Security and Future of Israel: An Exchange,” Midstream, Vol. XXXXI, No. 5., June/July 1995, pp. 15-23, a debate between Professor Beres and Maj. General (IDF/res.) Shlomo Gazit, a former Chief of IDF Intelligence Branch (Aman) and later, military advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Nuclear War: A Jurisprudential Assessment,” UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, Spring 1996, Vol. 1., No. 1, pp. 65-97; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Preemption: Choosing the Least Unattractive Option Under International Law,” Dickinson Journal of International Law, Vol. 14, No. 2., Winter 1996, pp. 187-206; Louis René Beres, “The Iranian Threat to Israel: Capabilities and Intentions,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 9., No. 1., Spring 1996, pp. 51-62; Louis René Beres, “The Iranian Threat to Israel,” Midstream, Vol. 44, No. 6., September/October 1998, pp. 8-11; Louis René Beres, “Security Threats and Effective Remedies: Israel’s Strategic, Tactical and Legal Options: A Comprehensive Master Plan for the Jewish State in the Third Millennium,” The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel), ACPR Policy Paper No. 102, April 2000, 110 pp; Louis René Beres, “Iran’s Growing Threat to Israel,” Midstream, Vol. XXXXVI, No. 7, November 2000, pp. 2-4; and Louis René Beres, “Israel and the Bomb,” a Dialogue with Professor Zeev Maoz, International Security (Harvard University), Vol. 29, No.1., Summer 2004, pp. 1-4.
 See https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/operation-opera-raid-on-iraqi-nuclear-reactor; and see also: Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Israel’s Strike Against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor 7 June 1981, a collection of original articles and lectures by Yitzhak Shamir, Rafael Eitan, David Ivri, Yaakov Amidror, Yuval Ne’eman, Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, and Louis René Beres. Also: Louis René Beres and COL. (IDF/ret.) Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” 9 Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, 437 (1995).
See https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ These agreements refer only to relations between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and UAE. Also to be considered as complementary here is the Israel-Sudan Normalization Agreement (October 23, 2020) and Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement (December 10, 2020).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s steady insistence that any Palestinian state remain “demilitarized” is not merely unrealistic; it is potentially inconsistent with pertinent international law. On this point, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal,Winter, 1998, pp. 347-363. See also, by Professor Beres and AMB. Shoval, at West Point (US Department of Defense): https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/ Zalman Shoval was two-times Ambassador of Israel to the United States.
 This was a major conclusion of this author’s Project Daniel Report (2003) to then Prime Minister Sharon. It was titled Israel’s Strategic Future. http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm
 See, on such basing imperatives: Louis René Beres and Admiral (USN/ret.) Leon “Bud” Edney, “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine Basing,” The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, “A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel,” Washington Times, September 5, 2014. Admiral Edney served as SACLANT, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic.
In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically (Pensées): “All our dignity consists in thought…. It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.
War to End or War to Follow?
“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1st deadline”. These were the recent words of US president Joe Biden in his address to the impending US withdrawal of Afghanistan. Whilst his opinion paints a ghastly picture for the forthcoming months, the negotiations run rampant to strike the common ground. However, with continued attacks being launched by the Taliban followed by incessant threats to the US regime to withdraw its troops by the agreed deadline, a hard stance seems legitimate both from the US front and the NATO: both facing a quandary that could either end the decades’ long warfare or fuel insurgency for decades to come.
The US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11th Attacks in 2001. Although the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 followed a similar suit, the stint lasted only 26 days in a massive scale drive to disarm Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction; allegedly in tandem with the looming threat posed to the United States by the World Trade Centre debacle. However, the invasion of Afghanistan proved to be one of the costliest wars; both in terms of artillery and military men.
Cited as one of the rarest areas of agreement between President Biden and his predecessor, Mr. Donald Trump, both favoured the ‘Bring an end to the endless war’ slogan. Before leaving the office, Mr. Trump signed a waiver to ordain the Pentagon to level down the US troops in Afghanistan to 2500 troops, bypassing the reservations of the congress to retain the level at 4000 troops. President Biden, despite being prudent of the hasty withdrawal, rejoiced the idea to bring the soldiers back. In line with his narrative, the US recently proclaimed to withdraw the remaining combat forces from Iraq whilst retaining only the training forces in the country. The 3rd round of talks between Washington and Iraq culminated with the joint statement: “Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF [Iraq Security Forces], the parties confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks”.
It is evident that the US wants to enact the plan to bring back the troops, however, Afghanistan poses a paradox in comparison to Iraq. While alleged Iran-backed militants continue to lock horns with both the ISF and the US troops, the US has consolidated a stronger hold evidenced by the recent rebuttal via airstrikes against the Iran-backed militants in Syria. The US holds the premise that Iran seeks economic relief and thereby has no incentive to disrupt the peace but to maintain it. Similarly, the US wants to make a compromise with Iran via renegotiating the JCPOA accord, with a possibility of stretching the ambit to include Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program and the regional proxy wars purportedly financed by Iran, before a hard-line administration takes over the Iranian parliament later this year. So, with a fledgling Iraqi military and expanding prospects of negotiation with Iran, the US could safely pull out the troops whilst still maintaining pressure and presence in the guise of militaristic training in Iraq.
Afghanistan paints a graver reality in contrast. Despite rounds and rounds of negotiations over months, the continued violations of the agreement by the Taliban are making it riskier to draw out the troops. While the US wants to maintain its presence in the country, the wavering Ghani-administration adds oil to fire. A war that has claimed more than 2500 US soldiers and millions of civilians could face an impasse as the 3-week timeslot narrows over the decision-makers. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, has repeatedly claimed that the Taliban have not fully lived up to the commitments they made in the February 2020 agreement: “Violence levels are too high for a durable political settlement to be made”.
The Biden administration, CIA, and NATO face a dilemma to decide the mechanism of withdrawal before the clock ticks through. As the terror groups propagate in the neighbouring Middle East, an unplanned withdrawal could drive the entire region into jeopardy. This might be the primal concern of president Biden and the Pentagon. The flailing ISIS could find haven in the political fiasco the unravels after the US completely withdraws from the country, leaving the Afghani government at the whims of the insurgents. However, expecting a complete withdrawal is just naivety. The US is known to covertly operate hundreds of secret bases in cahoots with NATO throughout the infringed nations. While it’s supposedly claimed that the Taliban are privy to the location of the bases in Afghanistan, nothing definitive could be added in edgewise to the argument.
An alternative, and quite a plausible notion at present, could be an outright refusal to withdraw the troops before the Taliban strictly adhere to their side of the deal. The resulting warfare would subsume the past 2 decades of mayhem. The deal would most likely completely crumble and perish. The evidence is scattered over the last three months. In March, the attack on the Afghan security checkpoint in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz left 6 soldiers dead. An attack a few days ago in the province of Herat left 9 Afghan police personnel dead when the Taliban militants targeted two police checkpoints. The recent blow came when the Taliban attacked the NATO airbase in Kandahar: a base frequented by 100s of US troops. The brazen attitude and timing of the attacks could not send a clearer message of warning to follow the deadline.
President Biden faces a choice now. While the cards are clustered and the consequences are muddled, the foremost decision hangs: How to go about the negotiations? Whilst made abundantly clear that the troops might not withdraw completely from Afghanistan, he confidently patched his perspective by adding:“Can’t picture the US troops still being in Afghanistan next year”. So, while the agreement stands to make a safe withdrawal, the deadline of May 1st poses a challenge if the exceeding violence alludes to any clue. With mounting pressure from the republicans and a synonymous example of withdrawal in Iraq, President Biden should ideally emphasize on withdrawal of the troops, even if not entirely. This would allow the Biden administration to elongate the negotiations to quench violence instead of retreating without question. However, execution is the key. Deviating from the agreement forged by Mr. Donald Trump or taking an aggressive stance could easily incite the chaos further: making the Afghan war translate into Biden’s war for decades to follow.
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