Authors: Ruslan Mamedov and Olga Pylova*
For many years, the Black Sea has been a platform for the military exercises of Black Sea region countries and their partners. For instance, in September 2018, the strategic command staff exercise Cossack Freedom — 2018 was held and involved Ukrainian troops. A few months prior, in July 2018, the joint Ukraine–US Navy exercise Sea Breeze 2018 was held in the Black Sea. In 2018, Georgia, Ukraine, France, and the US held joint exercises controlled by Romania’s Navy. The press service of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet also reports about regular exercises: on January 29, 2019, a planned drill involved the ASW corvette Kasimov entering a combat training sea range to perform training missions.
Certainly, these events have a special significance for their participants, who exchange information and expand cooperation. The Blackseafor was established for this purpose in 2001 and had Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Georgia participate. Today, we can hardly say that the states of the Black Sea region have a complete understanding on security matters: joint exercises with the participation of all states have not been held since 2014. The Blackseafor has essentially become defunct after Ukraine refused to take part in the group’s events. Therefore, close cooperation between the states of the Black Sea region on security matters has been suspended since 2014, but they continue to cooperate in other formats.
Georgia’s policy regarding the Black Sea region has been laid out in several documents, primarily the National Security Concept of Georgia adopted in 2011. The Black Sea region and security therein are mentioned in the introduction to the document referring to the desire of Georgia’s people to become fully integrated into NATO and the EU and to contribute to maintaining security in the Black Sea region. Additionally, other parts of the Concept state that Georgia supports the integration of all Black Sea states into the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance. According to the document, such measures will give a significant boost to the security of the Black Sea region as Europe’s south-eastern border. In particular, the Concept states that NATO is capable of providing aid in the fight against illegal trafficking of arms and drugs as well as combatting slave trade and terrorism in the Black Sea region.
It should be noted that cooperation with the Black Sea region is considered separately in conjunction with collaboration with Ukraine and Turkey, but other regional states are not mentioned. Russia is mentioned in conjunction with cooperation in order to preserve and deepen good-neighbourly relations.
In June 2014, the government of Georgia adopted a new National Military Strategy. It was a revised version of the 2005 Strategy and is largely based on the National Security Concept. It mentions the Black Sea region only once in conjunction with discussing the need to cooperate with other regional states to maintain security. It is noteworthy that the Strategy primarily emphasizes the need to cooperate with NATO member states. Thus, Georgia’s authorities link security cooperation in the Black Sea region primarily with NATO and the EU. Military documents rarely refer to immediate cooperation with neighbours within specialized regional alliances.
Ukraine’s Navy has currently set several objectives at once such as defence of the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, ensuring the inviolability of the state border, protecting the state’s sovereign rights in its exclusive (maritime) economic zone, participating in international (joint) operations under the auspices of NATO and the EU and developing deployment infrastructure.
As of today, Ukraine’s naval surface forces comprise two surface ship brigades, two defence and supply battalions and a search and rescue battalion. The Hetman Sahaidachny frigate (U130) is considered to be the Navy’s flagship. According to official data, the US has proposed providing deliveries to Ukraine’s defence property and new navigation complexes by 2020.
The principal mission of Ukraine’s Navy is to provide joint duty with NATO’s Response Force and the EU’s HelBRoC Battlegroup, to systematically hold drills of the PASSEX type in the north-western part of the Black Sea, to comply with the Plan for Achieving Partnership Objectives through the Forces and Means of the Ukrainian Navy Assigned to Participate in the NATO’s Process of Force Planning and Assessment (PFPA) and Operational Capabilities Concept (OCC), to practically apply state-of-the-art experience in preparing for and participating in multinational forces conducting peacekeeping missions, to coordinate Sea Breeze international exercises in Ukraine and to participate in NATO’s anti-terror Operation Active Endeavour and Turkish Navy’s Operation Black Sea Harmony. Additionally, the official objectives and goals of Ukraine’s Navy are most frequently connected with “containing the Russian threat.”
As for Ukraine’s Military Doctrine (as amended in 2015), it gives scant treatment to the issues of security in the Black Sea region and when it does so, it goes in the context of countering Russia’s actions in the region. In particular, the document speaks about the unresolved issue of delimitating Ukraine’s state border in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov; it states that the unfinished legal framework concerning Ukraine’s state border with the Russian Federation, the Republic of Belarus and the Republic of Moldova is a military and political challenge that might grow into a threat of using military force against Ukraine. Additionally, the Doctrine mentions the Black Sea region as one of the crucial operational and strategic frontiers and areas. Reviving the country’s naval potential, developing Ukraine’s Navy for it to be ready to defend the coastline of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, taking part in international operations of the EU and NATO is listed as one of the objectives on the path toward achieving the goals of Ukraine’s military policy.
Ukraine has recently been striving for closer cooperation with the US, NATO, and the EU in the Black Sea, explaining its stance by the need to counter the “Russian aggression” in the region. All the drills Ukraine’s military take part in are held without Russia’s participation, but with the involvement of external actors such as the US, member states of the European Union, and NATO. It should be noted that Ukraine’s Military Doctrine does not treat the Black Sea region extensively: regional security and the region in general are mentioned solely in conjunction with more global issues.
Romania addressed security issues in the Black Sea region in several official documents, including the 2016 Military Strategy of Romania compiled by the Ministry of National Defence, the governmental 2017 White Paper on Defence and the National Defence Strategy 2015–2019 by the administration of the President of Romania. The introduction to the National Defence Strategy 2015–2019 stipulates that Romania supports the collective security principle. However, Bucharest adjusts its priorities in matters concerning Euro-Atlantic interests proceeding from the premise that the priority means of ensuring the country’s security is its NATO and EU membership.
According to the White Paper, Romania has recently been facing increased comprehensive risks and threats, such as “the annexation of Crimea, the growing instability and the escalation of terrorism in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the impact of Islamic State activities on European states and the humanitarian crisis generated by the massive flow of refugees in Europe.” Bucharest believes that preserving frozen conflicts in the Black Sea region negatively affects security, while inter-ethnic frictions and the regional and local imbalances may result in new manifestations of instability. The White Paper proposes significantly increasing the profile of the Black Sea issue within NATO and interacting with individual NATO members in order “to ensure a visible Allied maritime presence in this maritime basin” while emphasizing the region’s importance for Euro-Atlantic security. It is worth mentioning that, according to the document, Turkey is Romania’s strategic partner in NATO. Bucharest’s dialogue with Ankara appears important in conjunction with stabilizing the situation and maintaining security in the Black Sea.
Romania’s Military Strategy mentions the Black Sea region several times, but it is interesting that the Russian Federation is mentioned here twice. In the first instance, Russia is mentioned in connection with European security threats for Romania: it appears necessary to find “a coherent solution to respond to Russian Federation and the effect of hybrid threats.” In the second instance, Bucharest notes regional security destabilization in the Black Sea Extended Region (BSER) “against the background of actions undertaken by the Russian Federation to strengthen its areas of influence.” The National Defence Strategy 2015–2019 also mentions Russia as an important actor in Euro-Atlantic security, and its actions in the Black Sea “have once again raised NATO’s awareness upon fulfilling its fundamental mission that is collective defence.” Moreover, there is a separate reference to “the validity of the security arrangements agreed upon with Russia at the end of the 20th century.”
The Republic of Bulgaria’s report on defence and the armed forces was published in 2010. Among other things, it describes Bulgaria’s vision of the Black Sea region’s development prospects. According to the Report, the geostrategic situation in the region affects the country significantly. In this connection, the Report makes separate mention of frozen conflicts, the activities of terrorist groups, ethnic and religious disputes, organized crime, the illegal sales of arms and drugs and human trafficking. The government of Bulgaria believes the Black Sea region is a generally favourable environment that allows the Republic to conduct a stable defence policy in the interests of national security with due consideration given to Bulgaria’s commitments to NATO and the EU. Even though there are no immediate military threats and threats to its territorial integrity, Bulgaria, according to the document, plans to maintain a defined potential that is commensurate with the aforementioned risks and threats.
The National Security Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria (2011) that followed the Report describes the state’s interests in the Black Sea region among “external security concepts.” The document states that Bulgaria considers the region in the European and Euro-Atlantic context promoting state-to-state cooperation in economy, trade and security. Particular attention is given to the importance of cooperation in transporting oil through the countries of the Black Sea region. The government of the Republic also believes that Bulgaria should protect “international peace” and the outer borders of NATO and the EU.
The Bulgarian government pays relatively little attention to matters concerning security in the Black Sea region. As a rule, the region is mentioned in conjunction with cooperation with the EU and NATO. It is noteworthy that the document does not mention the state’s bilateral or multilateral ties with its neighbours in the region in order to maintain security or counter emerging threats.
Tracing Turkey’s doctrine on the Black Sea region is extremely difficult. There is no programmatic document on the matter in open access for Turkish citizens and outside observers. The Defence White Paper 2000 was the last document published by the Turkish authorities. Therein, Turkey stresses its leading role in founding the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), its commitment to building confidence measures and security in the Black Sea region, its support for the Blackseafor activities and its desire to make the Black Sea a region of stability and prosperity. Apparently, the principles and strategies of Turkey’s foreign policy are set forth in classified documents.
Since 2000, many factors that specified threats to security and responses thereto have changed for Turkey. The Kurdish question and the crisis in Iraq and Syria, the neighbouring states on Turkey’s southern borders and the crisis that generated a million-strong flow of migrants into Turkey became the principal causes of concern for the Turkish authorities. Following the 2008 events in Georgia and the 2014 events in Ukraine, the Black Sea region still did not become a point of major tensions in Russia–Turkey relations, even though Ankara’s stance on those issues was diametrically opposed to that of Moscow.
Since 2015, Russia has moved beyond its traditional sphere of influence and sharply increased its maritime presence in the Eastern Mediterranean to conduct a military operation in Syria. It was the Bosporus that served as a venue for the so-called “Syrian express.” Turkey found Russia as its neighbour not only to the north and east, but also to the south of its borders. With its involvement in the Syrian affairs, building up military forces and deploying various weapons systems, including S-400, on Latakia’s coast, Moscow has radically changed the balance of power in the region. Ankara–Moscow relations became tense and even went through a crisis following the incident with the Russian plane over the Syria–Turkey border on November 24, 2015. The situation affected Turkey’s approach to security in the Black Sea region. There were calls to bolster NATO in the Black Sea to neutralize Russia’s influence, which, in turn, resulted in suggestions that a joint Bulgaria–Romania–Turkey fleet be established. Nevertheless, it never happened due, among other reasons, to Bulgaria’s refusal to participate.
At the same time, Turkey’s relations with other NATO countries deteriorated. The process was chronic. Back in 2003, Ankara was opposed to the US invasion of Iraq. The key discord factor within NATO was the support the US and its allies gave to the Kurds’ forces in Syria including providing them with weapons to fight the ISIS threat that was spreading in 2014. This is why Turkey’s NATO allies supported the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that were infiltrated by fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Ankara considered them to be terrorist organizations that threatened Turkey’s territorial integrity. At the same time, Turkey saw itself as the gatekeeper of European security.
The 2016 coup d’état attempt had a special impact on foreign policy and the perception of threats. The Turkish authorities accused the preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lived in Philadelphia (US), of instigating the coup. Shortly before that, Turkey–Russia relations had been restored, and following the military coup attempt, Turkey initiated closer collaboration with Russia on various issues, primarily in Syria. In April 2017, Turkey’s navy ships paid an unofficial visit to the Russian port of Novorossiysk and held joint exercises with their Russian counterparts. Moreover, Ankara and Russia reached an agreement on selling S-400 missile defence system to Turkey, which was an additional irritant in Turkey’s relations with the US, NATO’s leading state. However, it stresses the fact that the Republic of Turkey has its own agenda in ensuring its security since Turkey did not cease drills with NATO members or receiving NATO ships in its ports.
Even though Turkey is considered the largest actor in the Black Sea, the balance of power has been invariably shifting in favour of Russia since the late 2000s. To preserve its status, Turkey not only needs the support of NATO states, but also mobility to redeploy some of its navy from its eastern and southern borders in the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean Sea.
No matter how much NATO states wish to build up their potential in the Black Sea region, Russia and Turkey are finding points of contact on regional issues. This is largely due to the commitment to the principles of the Montreux Convention signed in 1936 in Switzerland. A special regime is in effect for non-Black-sea states. The regime does not allow for the deployment of aircraft carriers and warships in the Black Sea with tonnage of over 30,000 for a term exceeding 21 days. This undermines US efforts to maintain a permanent presence in the basin. Attempts to advance US interests via Black Sea states that are NATO members (Bulgaria and Romania) have failed, while Turkey’s concessions would automatically result in violating the Convention and, consequently, in the need to revise the status of the straits. Such an outcome would result in additional risks and increase conflict potential in the Black Sea region. The understanding of escalation risks force the countries with the first and second largest fleets in the Black Sea (Turkey and Russia, respectively) to neutralize them and to maintain the proper level of cooperation.
Russia’s strategy for the Black Sea region is set forth in several documents. The most important are the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation of 2015, the 2030 Framework of the Naval State Policy of the Russian Federation of 2017 (Framework 2030), the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation and the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation.
According to the Maritime Doctrine, “the national maritime policy in the Black Sea and in the Sea of Azov is based on expedited restoration and comprehensive strengthening of the strategic positions of the Russian Federation as well as maintaining peace and stability in the region.” At the same time, Moscow considers the advancement of NATO’s military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders as unacceptable. Moscow’s paradigm proceeds from the premise that the international legal regulation in the Atlantic region is imperfect and the need for improvement in various areas, including the Black Sea (the Kerch Strait is mentioned, for instance). The document pays significant attention to Crimea, which is considered in conjunction with the issues of Russia’s sovereignty over its territories and economic development plans. In addition to developing infrastructure, special attention is paid to the issue of “including ports of Crimea and the basin of the Black and Azov seas into Mediterranean cruise routes and developing multipurpose international-scale recreational complexes.” This idea is repeated twice in the text since it is also part of the National Maritime Policy for the Mediterranean.
In conjunction with challenges to international security and threats to Russia’s military security, Framework 2030 notes the “global strike” concept developed by the US. Russia views its Navy with its strategic nuclear capabilities and general-purpose naval forces as an instrument for containing and neutralizing the “global strike.” To maintain the second most powerful navy in the world, Russia will, after 2025, equip its submarine and surface forces with hypersonic missiles and various-purpose robotic equipment. Additionally, Russia plans to create a maritime aircraft carrying complex. Various estimates specifically attribute Russia’s regional supremacy to the aviation component of its forces in the Black Sea region. An overall analysis of the document shows that the Black Sea region and related issues are not given special attention therein. Russia’s goals and objectives formulated in this Presidential Executive Order are global and aimed at preventing immediate threats to Russia as it increases its influence throughout the world ocean in compliance with international law.
More general documents pay relatively little attention to the Black Sea region. The 2015 National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation does not mention the Black Sea region with the exception of the Ukrainian issues cited in conjunction with the West opposing integration processes in Eurasia. Regarding Russia’s principal tasks in containing and preventing conflicts, the 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation has a paragraph on bolstering the collective security system (CSTO, OSCE, CIS and SCO). It addresses, among other matters, interaction with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in order to ensure joint defence and security. Some positive element is added by the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation of 2018. As far as individual issues related to the Black Sea, Russia is in favour of the political and diplomatic settlement of conflicts. Moscow calls for the settlement of the Transnistria issue while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and the special status of Transnistria and normalizing relations with Georgia while further assisting Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their development. According to the Foreign Policy Concept, “Russia’s approaches to working with partners in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions will be formulated so as to reaffirm the commitment to the goals and principles of the Charter of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation and take into account the need to strengthen the mechanism of cooperation among the five Caspian States based on collective decision-making.”
Today, we can also say that Russia does not pay sufficient attention to cooperation in the Black Sea region. As a result, joint exercises of regional states and NATO member states without Russia’s participation have become increasingly frequent precedents. The trend for rapprochement between the North Atlantic Alliance and Black Sea region states in their efforts to maintain security is further confirmed by the latter’s official documents. They speak with increasing frequency about the need for rapprochement with NATO and the EU (as do the documents, for instance, of Bulgaria and Romania) and taking a stand against Russia (as do the documents of Ukraine).
Ignoring the recent challenges in the Black Sea region, Russia is increasingly losing out to NATO in matters of influencing the region. To expand its cooperation with Bucharest, Sofia, Kiev and Tbilisi, Russia needs to add “strategic depth” to inter-country relations. That is, despite the political situation, work should be launched on strategic elements of the relations that would buttress security in the region. Pre-emptive measures are required to prevent the situation from deteriorating into a severe escalation and the existing conflicts from unfreezing. Working along the lines of track 2 diplomacy can offer opportunities for achieving greater understanding between parties.
For NATO members that are also countries of the Black Sea region, maintaining special relations with Russia appears important. Despite the desire of several Black Sea region states to demonstrate NATO’s expanded role in the region, it appears it would be appropriate for Black Sea region countries to approve such steps.
*Olga Pylova, Program Assistant at the Russian International Affairs Council
First published in our partner RIAC
Military Modernization of ASEAN States: The New Agenda
The discourse about the international security and defense affairs have always been impregnated with the dynamics of security dilemma. Even today, when complex interdependence has connected states in multiple ways, the global politics still tends to favor Machiavellian norms. Therefore, it is forcefully propagated that the security of the state depends upon the strength of their armament. Apparently, it sounds perfectly reasonable, to have the recent generations of arms in abundant quantity to deter the ‘enemy. But what if a state has no enemy? Or at least does not have any immediate enemy in the general sense of the term. Should such a state focus its resources to build a mighty defense sector and take part in an arms race? The answer that might pop in our minds is No. Unfortunately, this is true in the case of South East Asian states. In the last few years, the ASEAN states’ military spending has nearly doubled. Most notably, Thailand and Indonesia’s military budget has been snowballing at the rate of 10% on a year by year basis. It is interesting to note that Vietnam arms import has spiked 700% over a decade, making it one of the top 10 purchaser of arms. Other ASEAN states have been increasingly importing fighter jets, frigates, helicopters, submarines and the like.
The emerging situation in the region could be analyzed from these three different perspectives. Firstly, South East Asian states have increased their military spending as a consequences of US withdrawal from the region and mounting concerns about China’s growing regional as well as global influence. As ASEAN states generally enjoy cordial relations among themselves and the spirit of regionalism is very much prevalent in both their bi and multi-lateral relations. Besides, these states have, by and large, remained peaceful in world affairs. Therefore, considering this first perspective has its own problems, it might be true to some extent, that the recent surge in spend spending is aimed at countering China, with which they share friendly ties, or filling some security void. Secondly, some experts argue that south East Asian states’ military spending is according to their GDP rate, and has remained stable over the period. Therefore, this ‘surge’ is normal. Lastly, according to some scholars, we need to look at what these states are actually buying to understand the whole situation. These scholars argue that, these states have been spending the money on ‘modernizing’ their armament that have, otherwise, been hardly functional for years. So, for this standpoint, this surge in military spending is nothing more than normal efforts to modernize state weaponry.
Nonetheless, this is where the actual problem lies. Why should states seek to modernize their weaponry when there is no such apparent reason and when this weaponry has been “barely functional for years”? Armaments, like other machineries, need constant maintenance, supervision and regulation. And all of this requires a lot of resources. Even if a state’s military spending is in accordance with its GDP, armament or its modernization, whether qualitatively or quantitatively, must not be ‘justified’. Since cold war, international politics has seen many disarmament efforts, be it conventions on chemical or biological weapons, denuclearization zones, Arms trade treaty or Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. It is a high time that instead of making it customary to have some modern armament, states must come together to break this norm. Particularly, South East Asian states, that have no deeply embedded antagonism, neither within the region nor outside it, could have reversed the norm of owing “modern military weaponry”, that would most likely again remain ‘barely functional for years’ on end.
Moreover, as previously mentioned, what these states have been importing is telling. However, how this modernization in armament has been reoriented is equally important, as many of the regions military strategies are shifting their focus away from countering insurgency to external defense and conventional warfare. While domestic factors do play a key role here. For instance, Thailand doubled its military spending after the military coups of 2006 and 2014. And Myanmar has justified its arms buildup on the pretext of having to deal with various insurgent groups within the state. Though particularly in Myanmar’s case, instead of spending heavily on military and committing gross atrocities against its very own Rohingya community, it should have provided shelter to them.
Although various studies refute that there is any instrumental link between armament and warfare. But given that, when such efforts are aimed at strengthening capabilities for external warfare, it is likely that it might spike some mutual distrust at some point in the future. But it’s not simply the matter of the conflict that ‘might emerge’, the problem here is, an undaunted prevalence of spending on weapons at international level that has quietly legitimized, justified and warranted the buying and selling of lethal weapons. So much so that, such a state of affair is usually vindicated and rationalized into a ‘broader context’ of necessities of owning vast weaponry to secure stability. Sadly, such broader context is rarely ‘broad enough’ to include human rights and humanitarian perspectives in the contours of world politics.
The South East Asian States are engulfed in an unending arms race for their survival. To sum up, the discourse on international security and defense that focuses so much on arms buildup needs to be realigned with the new realities of the time. South East Asian states should come up as a norm changer by diverting their resources from extensive defense spending to the human resource development. Progress and development in economy, society, science and technology will pay off in much better ways than investment of precious resources in arms race.
Gambling with the Nuclear Button in South Asia
Over the last decade, India’s rapid expansion of its conventional and nuclear arms capabilities have presented a worrying dilemma with regard to the South Asian region’s security and stability. This holds especially true considering how its clear ambitions to translate its economic rise into a menacing projection of hard-power have remained on full display particularly under the BJP’s tenure. While many observers have come to regard these ambitions as the ruling party simply pandering to the populist vote, the steady consistency with which this policy has been carried throughout the last decade represents a dangerous mindset that appears to have become deeply engrained within India’s civil and military bureaucracy. This mindset and its obsession with external hard-power is further evident in the institutionalization of concepts such as Cold Start and Surgical Strikes both of which have been formalized as part of the Indian State’s official policy as well as its military doctrine.
For instance, both these concepts have been defined at length in the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces that was released in April 2017 as well as the Indian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine that was published the following year. As a clear signal of its regional ambitions, both these documents have also unmistakably identified Pakistan and China as India’s principle source of threats. In order to counter these threats these same documents advocate the development of military strategies aimed at pre-set and purportedly restrained instances of minimal force projection that allow India to remain well within the nuclear threshold. This threshold that currently pervades throughout India’s strategic rivalry with both Pakistan and China is arguably the key to maintaining the delicate strategic balance that currently pervades throughout the South Asian region. A region that otherwise comprises of a key locus for the world’s future economic growth and development.
However, the fact that India’s stated policy is to radically alter this strategic balance represents a dangerous mindset, that is based more on its own solitary potential for growth rather than that of the wider region. In what can be termed as nothing short of a myopic outlook to the entire region’s trajectory, India’s efforts at enhancing its force projection capabilities and tilting this delicate balance in its favor is replete with risks. Risks that are in turn deeply rooted in unqualified and broad-ranging premises that assume both Pakistan and China to remain as passive spectators to its aggressive military posturing.
Hence, by constantly aiming to raise the nuclear threshold, the above-mentioned concepts of cold start and surgical strikes are in essence aimed at downplaying the risks of a potential nuclear exchange in South Asia. From a purely rational perspective, this policy while appearing as nothing short of madness, openly flirts with the grave sanctity of the escalation ladder on which the region’s strategic planners and decision-makers rely on when calculating the possibility of a potential nuclear first-strike. As a Nuclear Weapons’ State (NWS) that shares disputed borders with two other Nuclear Weapons’ states, India’s dangerous posturing is thus heavily dependent on it being perceived as a responsible Nuclear power to both Pakistan and China. However, it is this perception of being a responsible NWS which India is actively working to negate as evident in its leaders’ jingoistic saber-rattling.
These include regular statements by Indian leaders in which by openly alluding to the death and annihilation of its strategic rivals, one can witness a certain normalization of nuclear brinkmanship which has become a modus operandi of sorts for Prime Minister Modi. Similar allusions to India possessing the ‘Mother of all Bombs’(in the form of perhaps thermo-nuclear weapons) also represents a kind of posturing that is aimed at upending the status-quo and provoking a response. These statements when coupled with the Indian military-bureaucracy’s clear allusions to reneging its No First Use policy, have further led to even greater ambiguity with regard to India’s strategic calculus. As a result, all these instances represent a dangerous precedent being set for what is considered as ‘acceptable risk’ by India’s strategic planners.
While such negative posturing has been successful in communicating India’s increased risk-appetite to its strategic rivals, what’s unclear is whether these risks are based on a credible deterrence capability or quite simply, the egoistic hubris of its elected leaders and bureaucratic machinery. In what can perhaps only be described as an infantile staring contest; in which one’s sole chance of survival from a nuclear holocaust is counting on the other party’s willingness to blink first, the Indian state’s projection of hard-power seems to be based on more of a wild gamble than the well-thought out contingencies of a major nuclear power.
Hence, with the Indian leadership’s official preference of a defence policy steeped in the risks of nuclear exchange, the merits of institutionalizing its approach to brinkmanship is something that appears downright non-sensical in this day age. Especially during a time where economic growth and human development remain as some of the region’s most pervasive challenges, India’s aggressive regional posturing hark back to the politics of a bygone era in times that otherwise require a visionary approach to fostering regional peace and stability.
The Global Hypersonic Race
Prominent Western politicians have launched a global discussion about the risks associated with Russia developing hypersonic weapons. Arms control experts are attempting to estimate the potential of these new weapons, but attempts at this stage are hindered by the absence of important technical data and the lack of specialized terminology in this field.
The discussion of the threats posed by hypersonic weapons was triggered by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, described the impressive capabilities of Russia’s new Avangard and Kinzhal strategic missile systems as follows: “The glide vehicle strikes its target like a meteorite, like a fireball, with its surface temperature reaching between 1600 and 2000 degrees Celsius, while remaining completely controllable at the same time.”
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany Heiko Maas attempted to take the lead in discussing the destabilizing new technology. In March 2019, he hastily organized the “2019. Capturing Technology. Rethinking Arms Control” international conference in Berlin. In his opening speech, Maas said: “Manoeuvrable missiles travelling at many times the speed of sound barely leave time for considered human responses. The fact that we are not just talking about science fiction here is demonstrated by Russia’s announcement that the first Avangard systems will be entering service this year. I would therefore also like to seize this conference as an opportunity to establish an international missiles dialogue that takes into account both the challenges posed by new technologies and the dangers of their proliferation. The experts gathered here today could form the backbone of this kind of global Missile Dialogue Initiative.”
However, the subsequent discussion at the conference demonstrated that many of the participants were unfamiliar with the topic of hypersonic weapons. Recognized experts on missile control proved unprepared to hold a substantive conversation about hypersonic technology. As a result, the dialogue was reduced to discussing the INF Treaty.
At the end of the conference, the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden signed a political declaration stressing the “need to build a shared understanding of how technologically enhanced military capabilities may change the character of warfare and how this will influence global security.”
In the United States, where hypersonic technology has already been developing at a rapid pace, including as part of the Prompt Global Strike programme, Putin’s announcement was used as a pretext for investing more in the Pentagon’s projects. “We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics [but] we have not lost the hypersonics fight,” said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva. Meanwhile, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, for his part, has identified hypersonics as his top priority and called for an industrial base to be established that could support the development and production of thousands of deterrence hypersonic vehicles.
Mike White, the Pentagon’s assistant director for hypersonics, announced that the department had a three-step plan for the development of hypersonic weapons that involves investing generously in offensive capabilities, then in defensive systems, and finally, at least ten years from now, in reusable airborne hypersonic vehicles. The Pentagon’s spending on hypersonic projects has increased from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, and the overall cost of the program is estimated at $2 billion.
China has been no stranger to this “war of words,” with several fantastic reports emanating from the country about “successful tests of hypersonic flight vehicles,” the creation of a material capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 3000 degrees Celsius, and even the development of a universal engine that can accelerate a vehicle from zero to hypersonic flight. Japan has stated its intent to create a High-Speed Gliding Missile, an equivalent of Russia’s Avangard.
Minister of the Armed Forces of France Florence Parly has announced the country’s plans to use the ASN4G supersonic air-to-surface cruise missile as the baseline for the V-MaX supersonic glider that could travel at a speed of over 6000 km/h. The project is being led by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, and the first test flight could take place in late 2021.
In the meantime, the global expert community has yet to come up with a clear scientific definition for the term “hypersonic vehicle.” Hypersonic flight is conventionally understood to mean atmospheric flight at speeds higher than Mach 5, that is, five times the speed of sound. The second important feature of a hypersonic aircraft is its ability to maneuver with the use of aerodynamic forces, rather than merely adjusting the target accuracy. This entails longer atmospheric flight times and greater susceptibility to the destructive factors associated with atmospheric flight.
At present, only a handful of countries are close to creating effective hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons engineers are faced with some very unique technical challenges. To begin with, there is the problem of ensuring controlled and sustained flight in a rarefied atmosphere whose density varies with altitude. Among other things, this creates difficulties for propulsion systems that consume oxygen.
Also, the friction created by the hypersonic airflow around the vehicle’s surface generates a sheath of ionized plasma, with the nose fairing temperature reaching up to 3000 degrees Celsius. Even vehicles made of ultra-heat-resistant alloys or composites lose their shape and original aerodynamic characteristics due to the heating and ablation. For example, the U.S. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird high-altitude supersonic reconnaissance aircraft would become 10cm longer in flight owing to thermal expansion, and fuel would seep from its seams on landing.
Controlling a hypersonic vehicle from launch to target impact is a separate problem, as the plasma sheath blocks radio signals. Solving this problem requires complex and expensive research. Even US engineers have not yet found a solution to this problem.
Another challenge is linked to the fact that the plasma sheath significantly complicates navigation, which for a strike vehicle must be autonomous, prompt and very accurate. Plasma makes electro-optical and radio-frequency homing impossible. Inertial navigation systems cannot provide the required accuracy at long distances. A solution to this problem has yet to be found.
The traditional types of aviation fuel (jet fuel and methane) are unsuitable at hypersonic speeds. A hypersonic vehicle needs a special kind of fuel. Also, a universal propulsion engine capable of accelerating a vehicle from zero to hypersonic speeds has not yet been created. At present, militaries have to make do with rocket boosters or supersonic aircraft to accelerate vehicles to speeds at which their supersonic combustion ramjet engines can be engaged.
When it comes to the flight mode, there are three different types of hypersonic vehicles. The first type is an unpowered glide vehicle, which rides a ballistic missile to an altitude of approximately 100km, separates, and performs a maneuverable flight in the upper atmospheric layer at speeds between Mach 8 and Mach 28. By skip-gliding along the atmosphere like a skipping stone along the water surface, such a vehicle can increase its flight range by several times. The second type is a scramjet-powered vehicle, which can only fly in the atmosphere because its engine needs oxygen. The third type is a quasi-ballistic or semi-ballistic missile that mainly follows a shallow ballistic trajectory but can also maneuver to evade enemy missile defenses. One example here is the Russian Iskander-M missile, which flies at hypersonic speeds of between 2100 and 2600 m/sec (Mach 6 to Mach 7) at an altitude of 50km.
Experts sometimes use the term “aeroballistic.” However, this definition is not applied to the speed of flight, but rather to the mode of travel: namely, it implies a combined mode of partially traveling along a ballistic trajectory and partially employing aerodynamic control surfaces and jet vanes for steering. An aeroballistic vehicle does not necessarily have to be hypersonic, as the term can also be applied to slower vehicles, although it is now widely used in the context of the hypersonic Kinzhal and Iskander-M missiles.
Hypersonic vehicles have one distinct feature which traditional exo-atmospheric ballistic missiles do not. While most ballistic missiles develop speeds of dozens of Machs (i.e., they also travel at hypersonic speeds), they are not described as hypersonic unless they or their warheads are capable of aerodynamic maneuvering in the atmosphere.
Some ballistic missile warheads are capable of terminal trajectory corrections. They are not classed as hypersonic vehicles, since the purpose of their maneuvering is not to increase the flight range or evade an anti-missile attack, but merely to reduce the circular error probable (CEP).
All hypersonic vehicles can be subdivided into five categories depending on their mission:
- Manned aircraft (the first and so far only example here is the U.S. North American X-15, which set the world airspeed record of Mach 6.72 in 1967)
- Unmanned vehicles (mainly experimental projects such as the Boeing X-43, which reached Mach 9.6 in 2004)
- Scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles (such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon)
- Hypersonic glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard or the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon)
- Air- or ground-launched spaceplanes (the Soviet Buran and U.S. Space Shuttle vehicles, which reach speeds of Mach 25 upon re-entry).
Military hypersonic vehicles fall into the following three categories:
1. Reconnaissance vehicles
At present, only one purely reconnaissance hypersonic vehicle is known to be under development: the Lockheed Martin SR-72, which can theoretically travel at speeds of up to 7400 km/h. This vehicle is expected to be better at monitoring mobile missile systems than reconnaissance satellites. It could also eventually be equipped to carry a charge for a pinpoint strike.
Another experimental orbital hypersonic vehicle is the Boeing X-37B. Although little is known about its intended mission, it could also serve as a reconnaissance platform.
2. Hypersonic kill vehicles
Scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles that can be launched by an aircraft, a sea-surface ship or a submarine (the Russian 3M22 Zircon or the U.S. X-51A Waverider, which is currently under development) can be used to destroy enemy missile early warning systems, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses, airfields, hardened command posts and critical facilities.
Glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard; the U.S. Lockheed Martin Falcon, HIFiRE and HSSW/TBG [High-Speed Strike Weapon/Tactical Boost Glide]; and the Chinese WU-14/DF-ZF) are primarily intended as nuclear strike weapons.
Quasi-ballistic missiles (the Russian Kinzhal and Iskander-M; the Indian Shaurya tactical missile; and the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile) are relatively difficult to detect by radar thanks to their shallow trajectory. Their warheads can change trajectory, so enemy missile defenses cannot calculate the exact target, and the warhead’s maneuverability considerably complicates interception.
3. Hypersonic interceptors
These are surface-to-air missiles designed to intercept ballistic missile warheads, normally in their terminal, atmospheric phase of trajectory. The most advanced interceptors can engage ballistic missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes and even shoot down low-orbit satellites.
To stand a chance of intercepting a ballistic target, an interceptor must not only develop a high speed, but also launch promptly and maneuver actively. U.S. RIM-161 SM-3 Block IIA missiles of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System can travel at speeds of up to Mach 15.25; the Russian S-400 48N6DM missiles have a speed of Mach 7.5, and the future S500 77N6-N1 missiles will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 21.
Advantages of Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic missiles have several obvious advantages over ballistic missiles. First, they follow significantly shallower trajectories, so ground-based radars detect them later into the flight. Second, thanks to their maneuvering, high speed and unpredictable trajectory, the enemy cannot be certain of the hypersonic vehicle’s target, whereas the trajectory of a ballistic missile is currently fairly easy to calculate. Third, ballistic missile interception experiments have been conducted since the 1960s, and there are plenty of reports on successful trial intercepts. However, intercepting a high-speed maneuvering atmospheric target is extremely difficult and is believed to be impossible at present. Also, the mass production of hypersonic vehicles is expected to be cheaper than that of ballistic missiles. Despite the challenges associated with developing scram engines, such jets have virtually no moving parts and their cross-sections represent special configuration tubing. According to analysts at the U.S. company Capital Alpha Partners, “If hypersonic weapons can be produced with unit costs of $2 million, or less, they will impact some of the outyear weapons plans. A weapon that travels at Mach 5, or faster, and that can maneuver will see strong U.S. demand in the later part of this decade.” Finally, the kinetic energy of a hypersonic missile is so high that its release will be enough to destroy certain types of targets even without using a charge. This gives experts reason to state that hypersonic missiles might become an alternative to nuclear weapons in certain situations.
Shortcomings of Hypersonic Missiles
As for the shortcomings of hypersonic missiles, experts point out that they cannot offer high target accuracy because it is almost impossible to fit such a missile with a homing head, and its high speed will result in an increase in targeting error. A hypersonic vehicle is believed to have a CER of between 30 and 50 meters. Furthermore, high-speed missiles will have a large infrared signature due to frictional skin heating, making them easily detectable by IR sensors. Designers will need to find a compromise between the high impact speed and the high probability of standoff detection. Also, a scramjet-powered missile must be initially accelerated to a speed of about Mach 3. This complicates the use of such weapons, which require a rocket booster or a high-speed air-launch platform. Experts believe that, due to a plethora of technological problems, hypersonic weapons currently have a relatively limited effective range (some 1000km for scramjet-powered missiles). However, the veil of secrecy surrounding this type of weaponry provokes rumors and excessive fears, and this destabilizing factor could prompt the enemy to resort to a pre-emptive strike.
Challenges for International Security and Stability
The U.S. expert community has carefully studied the potential of Russian hypersonic weapons in terms of how they could affect the balance of forces and concluded that, in general, they do not pose an existential threat to major nuclear powers. Thus, fitting Avangard missiles with glide vehicles will not increase the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, nor will it extend the effective range of the missiles, their range of action or their strike speed. The United States and other nuclear powers will still be able to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.
U.S. experts admit that maneuvering hypersonic vehicles are almost impossible to intercept. However, given that the U.S. missile defense system has very limited intercept capabilities when it comes even to Russian ballistic missiles, the introduction of Avangard hypersonic missiles changes little in the nuclear war scenario. For the United States, this is more of a technological challenge, with which both the Pentagon and the White House are fairly unhappy. Dominance in military technology has remained a priority for the United States for decades, ever since the launch of the first Soviet satellite. Therefore, the news of Russia’s hypersonic achievements does not sit well with Washington. At the same time, it has provided the United States with an opportunity to study the possibility of extending missile defense to near space. Megawatt laser weapons are believed to be capable of destroying both ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The current level of U.S. technology already allows for equipping different types of ground transport with lasers generating in excess of 50kW of power, while sea-based lasers can generate over 150kW. Under the current trend, laser power increases tenfold every three years. In this sense, within five years, we can expect U.S. laser technology to reach a level that where the Pentagon may be confident in the possibility of building lasers that are capable of shooting down hypersonic devices. The next step will then be to deploy laser weapons in the Earth’s orbit.
In light of the above, the emergence of hypersonic weapons will introduce a number of destabilizing factors for international security. First, countries possessing such weapons will have an asymmetric advantage over other developing countries. Second, it will trigger the deployment of the space-based laser component of the missile defense system. Third, it will provoke a new global arms race, including with regard to laser weapons, hypersonic anti-missile systems, cyber-weapons, railguns and unmanned delivery platforms for strike weapons. Moreover, for non-nuclear powers, hypersonic missiles may become a serious instrument of deterrence or power projection. It should also be noted that hypersonic missiles could be used in a pre-emptive strike against an enemy whose main weapons are situated within their effective reach (at present, within a radius of up to 1000km). That is, the deployment of hypersonic weapons can be considered as a critical threat to the country’s immediate neighbors. Finally, there are global risks to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The secret hunt for missile components such as fuel, alloys, electronics and airframe blueprints has never stopped. In the new environment, even those countries that are signatories to the MTCR are interested in obtaining prompt global strike technologies.
The current leaders of hypersonic weapons research are, in addition to Russia, the United States and China.
Despite its ambitious statements, China has not yet rolled out a reliable prototype of a hypersonic vehicle. Chinese engineers have developed the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, but the country’s military currently only has subsonic ground-based cruise missiles in service. It may be the case that Beijing hopes to leap from subsonic straight to hypersonic, skipping supersonics altogether.
China is believed to be working on at least two hypersonic programs. Since 2014, it has been testing the DF-ZF (dubbed Wu-14 in the United States) hypersonic glide vehicle complete with the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile for the launch vehicle (eventually to be replaced by the DF-31 missile). The second project, the air-launched CH-AS-X-13 missile, is primarily intended against aircraft carriers. According to a representative of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Mechanics has created a turbine-based combined-cycle engine capable of accelerating a vehicle to Mach 6.
As part of the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the United States Air Force are working on three hypersonic concepts. The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) combat vehicle riding a solid-fuel rocket booster, under development by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is planned as an equivalent to Russia’s Avangard. The Boeing Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) will have a combined-cycle engine (the turbine will accelerate the vehicle to Mach 2, after which the scramjet will further propel it to hypersonic speeds). According to some reports, the vehicle may be reusable. Northrop Grumman Corporation is working to design the combined-cycle Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) for HAWC under a contract with DARPA. Finally, the reusable unmanned craft under development as part of the HyRAX project and the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane program will be used as an inexpensive launch vehicle to insert dual-use satellites into low-Earth orbits.
The HSSW program is aimed at designing and testing a hypersonic strike vehicle by 2020. The key specifications include speeds of Mach 6 to 10, an effective range of over 1000km, a CEP of under 5m and a variety of warhead types (penetrator, HE-fragmentation or cluster).
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is looking into the possibility of creating a combined-cycle propulsion system for reusable vehicles, including by way of integrating scramjets with reheated bypass turbojets.
In addition to DARPA, hypersonic weapons are being developed by the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command in conjunction with the Sandia National Laboratory under the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon project, which calls for the creation of a hypersonic glide vehicle with a precision terminal guidance system.
Russia’s breakthrough in the hypersonic weapons race may have shaken the global balance of forces, but it has not reshaped it. The United States is not far behind Russia technologically, and may even be ahead in certain aspects of hypersonic weapons, including when it comes to making combined-cycle or hybrid propulsion systems for hypersonic vehicles that would allow a reusable reconnaissance/strike vehicle to be created. Nevertheless, the Russian achievements came as an unpleasant surprise for all the leading world powers.
The situation appears different for those nations that do not command massive nuclear arsenals. The Russian example opens a window of opportunities for them. Hypersonic weapons may appear to be an excellent solution for ensuring a decisive military advantage over a technically lacking adversary. Those countries lagging behind in the arms race may perceive hypersonic weapons as a critical and potentially disarming threat to an unfriendly neighbor.
In the art of war, uncertainty often drives progress. As the leading analytical centers are working to collect relevant information and understand the scale of possible threats, politicians and militaries are approving investment in new defense programs. A new item on defense budgets around the world has appeared.
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