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US Air force : Competing with rivals or creating a new weaponry market?

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US President Donald Trump has once again stressed the need for formation of US space force, reasoning that Russia and China are pioneers in the area.

The US Space Force, which is intended to have control over military operations in outer space, would be a new branch of the military by 2020, on par with the army, navy, air force, marines and coast guard.

Trump’s remark proves that Washington’s main objective of the space force is not to lag behind in the competition with its traditional rivals.

This is the first time since the adoption of National Security Bill in 1947 that a new branch of military is added to the US Armed Forces. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), sometimes referred to informally as US Space Command, will be a major branch of the United States Air Force, with its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. This command intends to support US military operations worldwide with a variety of satellites and cybercrime operations. Approximately 47,000 people in 88 locations throughout the world will carry out AFSPC operations.

Trump believes that a mere US presence in space is not enough,  that it must dominate it as he does not want to see the dominance of China and other countries in space.

The new space force will have the same power as the other branches of the US Armed Forces, and will monitor space and cyber-attack operations, including satellite management and launches, including launches of ballistic missiles. But unlike NASA, which focuses mainly on space exploration and scientific discovery, the new space force will focus on military aspects and space defense.

Adversaries

The BBC writes that military and non-military operations in space carried out by the US Global Positioning System (GPS) could interfere with each other. Satellite navigation uses GPS, which the US military invented and is used by civilians, too.

“People are unlikely to know that space is now a military environment,” said Alexandra Stickings, research analyst for Space Policy and Security within the Military Sciences team at RUS, explaining that this has been going on for decades.

During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union weren’t fighting in space but used spy satellites. At that time, Washington had deployed an anti-satellite rocket in the Pacific Ocean, and Moscow developed a weapon that could destroy a satellite in orbit.
According to Secure World Foundation, China, Russia and the US have the technology to destroy satellites. These weapons are missiles thrown directly from earth to a satellite in orbit.

These weapons are known as “same orbit” and are actually satellites launched by rockets from the ground. After the missile is separated, the satellite will target itself to the orbit of the satellite and will either connect to it or collide with it.
In 2007, China launched an anti-satellite rocket to destroy a meteor orbiting 800 kilometers above Earth. The experiment succeeded.

Meanwhile, Washington has claimed that Russia is developing a laser aerial system designed to disrupt US space systems. The Pentagon also claims that Moscow is creating missiles that can be launched from fighter planes to destroy US satellites.

Cecil Eugene Diggs Haney, a retired US Navy admiral who previously served as Commander, United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), said that the US should study raise funding for space programs and overall preparedness.

Fruitless efforts to demilitarize space

Although the US is pursuing military goals in space, under the pretext that China and Russia are taking military action there, in 2008 Moscow and Beijing proposed a draft international agreement to prevent the deployment of weapons in space. To this day, Washington has made various excuses and has not signed the agreement.

In 2014, Russia presented another draft resolution to prevent the deployment of weapons in space to the UN General Assembly, which once again faced opposition from the US and its allies.

In line with that, Reuters writes that evidence suggests the Trump Administration has defined space as a new battlefield. In his speech in the Pentagon, Mike Pence said: “History proves that peace only comes through strength. And the next generation of Americans to confront the emerging threats in the boundless expanse of space will be wearing the uniform of the United States of America as well.” Trump’s vice president several months ago also said that the US should strengthen its space force in the future as much as its ground forces.

Many people like Pence believe the US will face new threats in space soon. The Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General David Goldfein, recently delivered a speech at the Air Force’s annual meeting where he said that mankind will eventually face space warfare that must use information from all areas, including air, cyber, land, sea and space, to increase its military strength.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has recently announced that the Pentagon agrees with the plan to form a space force and considers space a new battleground and that it plans to create a combat command. He added that the Pentagon fully understands Trump’s concerns about protecting U.S assets in space, thus the US intends to take this into account because other countries have shown that they can attack these assets.

NASA chief told CBS News in an interview last month: “Our very way of life is dependent on space. If we lose the GPS signals, there are no interbank transfers, and no food in the stores among other things, which is why hostile countries around the world are taking steps to harm US capabilities.”

Some argue that the formation of a space force is time-consuming and requires a huge effort. Some political observers have also warned that a space force could trigger an arms race in outer space. Critics believe that many of the assigned missions are already being carried out by the other branches of the US military, and that a “space force” is unnecessary and too costly.

Former US Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has claimed that few or no one in the Pentagon wants President Trump’s Space Force. “None of them are in favor of a Space Force, I say none of the top leaders, but they’re stuck.”

She also said that close to 35,000 people are already working in the US Air Force and formation of a new military wing could be disruptive.

Since Democrats in the US Congress also do not support Trump’s plan, formation of a US space force may also face a legal barrier. For example, Senator Brian Emanuel Schatz has called establishment of US Space Force a stupid idea and predicted that it would never be realized.

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has also criticized the plan saying, “Maybe, just maybe, we should make sure our people are not dying because they lack health insurance before we start spending more billions to militarize outer space.”

Farid Karimi writes in Zoomit:  “The United States now has more than 800 satellites in total, but while the US Army will not need any new satellites, it cannot form a space force overnight.  The formation should be approved by the Congress, just as the US Air Force separated from the Army long ago with Congressional approval.

A new weapons market

In addition to the US, Russia, and China, many other states such as India, Iran and Japan have been operating in space and have launched satellites. No doubt they will also try to improve their defenses against their enemies in space. This will ignite a weapons race and a new weapons market.

The US, Russia and China are three of the world’s largest arms manufacturers and the world’s weapons market is in their hands. The formation of a new arms market puts more profits into the pockets of arms manufacturers.  That may be one reason for Trump’s insistence on the development of US space forces.

First published in our partner MNA

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Defense

Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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