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Europe After the INF Treaty

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The cancellation of the INF Treaty will have a significant impact on defense and security policies in Europe. Last year’s demise of the treaty will lead to a massive loss of predictability and military transparency. It will almost certainly trigger ultimately a new arms race in Europe. Nevertheless, few European leaders have chosen to contest U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to renounce the treaty in response to Russia’s refusal to withdraw prohibited systems. However, there have also noticeably been no appeals from Western European politicians for the U.S. to go ahead and match the Russian deployments of intermediate-range missiles, in order to maintain deterrence and show transatlantic solidarity. One possible explanation for the lack of enthusiasm or an outraged reaction on behalf of Western European leaders might be that they may not view today’s Russia as posing the same threat as the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s. In the mind of most Western Europeans, the Cold War is history. Surely the Poles and Baltic states, but also Romania, Bulgaria, and even the Scandinavian countries may have a different perspective.

The gloomy truth is that West European apparent indifference to the end of the INF Treaty is neither based on confidence nor a professional assessment of security policy in Europe, but on a deep-seated reluctance to accept that military issues are back on the agenda across Europe. Granted, for Europe, the issue of missiles is no longer as central as it was thirty or forty years ago when NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other on a line dividing all of Europe. But the end of the INF Treaty is by no means without consequences for Europe. Most of all, Western European leaders seem to lack a complete understanding of what a post-INF Europe could look like. This stems in large part from the INF discussion in Europe being held on the wrong premise. The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, for example, warned last year of a new arms race, stating that he believed that European security will not be improved by deploying nuclear-armed, medium-range missiles. Western Europe appears to be solely concerned that the nuclear element is coming back to the forefront of European security. The media, politicians and populations in countries like Germany, France or Italy, connect this nuclear element with something that goes back to the Cold War, something dangerous and fearful that had been eliminated from the European reality decades ago. The chance that this danger could come back is of course paired with emotion and met with opposition. Pictures of the European protests of the 1970s and 80s come to mind, when thousands protested against U.S. missiles being stationed in Europe.  However, by mistakenly classifying the INF debate as a nuclear debate, the Europeans are narrowing the discussion and missing the main point. We are no longer in the 1980s, but it seems as if the general understanding in Western Europe regarding missile capabilities and the strategic employment of missiles is stuck in that time. While the disposal of a treaty that also admittedly limited the development of nuclear weapons may be unnerving, it must be understood what post-INF Europe will really look like, in order to be prepared. The nuclear issue itself is no longer at the heart of the debate – conventional attack and defense capabilities are front and center (even if some of these missiles are dual-capable). This should in no way discount the potential dangers that could arise for Europe. Conventional long-range missiles were not relevant at the time of the implementation of the INF Treaty because, before precision guidance, it took a nuclear warhead to guarantee an effective hit on a target thousands of kilometers away. But now conventional long and medium-range missiles have become increasingly central to a new era of warfare. Reduced costs and substantial improvements in the accuracy of conventional missiles of all ranges have made them very attractive. Low-flying cruise missiles are very difficult for ground radars to detect, and despite their relatively slow speed of travel, the defense against them proves challenging. Ballistic missiles, by contrast, move at high velocity and can potentially hit targets with minimal warning. The new arms race that is expected in Europe will certainly not unfold according to the classic Cold War model. It will not, for the most part, involve Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons systems in Europe. In addition, the numbers of these missiles are unlikely to run into thousands or even hundreds. Nevertheless, this new round of proliferation will be no less dangerous or intense.

Without the INF Treaty, there are no limitations to new land-based missile systems. The U.S. Department of Defense has already tested a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile last year. This new cruise missile has a range of around 1,000 kilometers and could be deployed by early 2021. The U.S. has thus validated Russia’s claim that the United States did not necessarily adhere to the INF Treaty to the letter either. Russia denounced previous U.S. missile tests as violations and accused the U.S. of stationing launchers as part of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense facilities in Europe, capable of firing intermediate-range missiles. Russia insisted on the dual-use capability of Mk 41 (Aegis Ashore) anti-missile launch facilities in Romania and Poland. The Obama administration on the other hand had always claimed that they were purely defensive and could only be utilized for launching SM-3 interceptors to defend against missile attacks. The logic of the Russians in this matter was that the Mk 41 launchers on the Aegis ships were used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles as well; therefore, they also have this capability as part of the land-based Aegis Ashore system. The U.S. always denied this and argued that this would require a massive modification of the software and wiring, and was also not possible because it would require a change in the bilateral stationing agreement with Poland and Romania. However, that this capability apparently does exist as demonstrated, with the latest test, has gone unnoticed in the mainstream European media.

The U.S. also tested new surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, one of which – the replacement for the Army Tactical Missile System, with a planned range of 700 km – could be deployed as early as 2023. Another one – a ballistic missile with a much longer range (3,000-4,000 km) – will not be ready for deployment until 2025. Other types of missiles are currently in the planning stage. With China and Russia investing heavily into Anti-Access/Area Denial anti-aircraft systems, ground-launched missiles have become an attractive option for the U.S. military, rather than the conventional use of air power.

There is no doubt that Russia has been violating the INF Treaty for some time and the Russian violation is part of a deliberate policy. In 2003, Moscow apparently began to develop a new family of land-based cruise missiles. This development may be interpreted as a result of a combination of several factors: while Moscow might have officially strongly condemned the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, in reality it never cared much for the treaty itself. The growing strength of China’s armed forces, including its vast arsenal of land-based medium and intermediate-range missiles (95% of which would be in violation of INF, had China been a signatory), has Moscow concerned they could be at a disadvantage. In its defense planning, Russia needs to consider how to potentially handle a Chinese military threat if it ever materializes. Additionally, its southern flank, with Iran as a major missile producer, is also a growing potential concern to Russia. This explains why Moscow, as early as 2007-2008 raised the possibility of a joint withdrawal from the INF with the United States. In addition, there may also be domestic reasons. Vladimir Putin is allowing its traditional defense industry to maintain significance in Russia. This is part of a calculated policy of preserving the Russian industrial complex, recapitalizing the Russian military, and being able to develop long-range dual-capacity strike capabilities. These include surface-to-surface missiles, in line with Russian traditional military preference, as well as for cost reasons. It is also, in a sense, a retribution on behalf of the Russian military establishment against the policies of Gorbachev, who withdrew Soviet SS-20 missiles from Europe and negotiated the INF. These policies are viewed as weakness toward the West. They resulted in the demise of the Soviet Union, the loss of Russian power, and the strengthening of the West at the cost of Russian security, in the eyes of many within Russia.

The dispute over Russian compliance with the INF Treaty had intensified since 2014, especially after the United States officially alleged a Russian violation. Informed by the Obama administration about the issue since 2013, a year before making public its formal assessment of the violation (U.S. Congress had been informed as early as 2011), Europeans were initially unconvinced. American allegations increased since 2017, when Russia began deploying a ground-launched cruise missile, the 9M729, capable of traveling within the treaty’s prohibited 500-5,500 kilometer missile range. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the Russian military deployed four battalions of 9M729 missiles (including one test battalion). The missiles can be nuclear-capable, but according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, they are most likely conventionally armed. Eventually in 2019, European doubts were dispelled and several European intelligence agencies independently validated the American judgment with a high degree of probability. Russia initially denied the existence of a new missile, but then finally admitted it, arguing that the new missile was in conformity with the INF Treaty. In January 2019, it presented its arguments in detail to the international press, claiming that the missile has a range of only 480 kilometers.

Moscow could have politically capitalized on the U.S. position of unilaterally cancelling the treaty, proclaiming it would prefer to remain bound by the INF Treaty. Vladimir Putin actually suggested this possibility in December 2018. But Russia eventually acted differently: while publicly blaming the United States, it followed the exact U.S. position by announcing it was suspending its obligations as well. This while stating at the same time that it will not deploy missiles of that range if the U.S. refrains from doing so. But further deployments of 9M729s are likely to follow, since Russia claims that these missiles actually do not violate the ranges laid out in the INF Treaty. In addition, Moscow could develop a new version of the SS-26 Iskander surface-to-surface missile (whose maximum range is currently estimated at 500km) and transform it into an intermediate-range category missile. Without the constraints of the INF Treaty, the development and deployment of multiple types of missiles (including hypersonic missiles) to address objectives and threats in the 500-5,500 kilometer range is now possible with less geographical constraints.

The issue of the INF Treaty must be viewed in a global perspective, with missile proliferation, quantitative growth, and increased sophistication of Asian and Middle Eastern arsenals largely explaining the current situation. The 1987 strategic solution at the implementation of the INF Treaty became a strategic problem from Moscow’s and Washington’s perspectives. That there is no longer an INF Treaty in practice is the product of a new reality and a new context. This development is just as much about Russia’s increasing military power as it is about the American perception of many Cold War arms control treaties being outdated and being viewed as “shackles” that are unfavorable for the United States. But above all, this development is due to the new strategic landscape in Asia.

Even before Donald Trump became president, the Pentagon regarded the restrictions due to INF responsible for the imbalances between Chinese and North Korean missiles and U.S. systems in the region. For quite some time, the INF Treaty was a constraint preventing the United States from acquiring appropriate defenses necessary for a changing context in Asia. Within America, many political ideologues have long advocated for the United States to free itself from INF restrictions, regardless of Russia’s compliance or acceptance. The announcement of the cancellation of the INF Treaty also revealed the fundamentally ideological nature of a decision consistent with the disdain of international treaties perceived as constricting the United States by a large part of the American conservative camp. Consequently, like the ABM Treaty in 2002, when the Bush Administration decided to field the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the INF Treaty appeared to be a constraint preventing America from acquiring the necessary means to adapt to the changing context and a new security environment.

Right now, Asia, not Europe, appears to be the primary geopolitical emphasis of post-INF missile development in the United States. In this regard, it is also not surprising that China was outspokenly supportive of the United States and Russia saving the INF Treaty, while at the same time categorically ruling out its own participation, in order to maintain its own strategic advantage. However, in Asia, aside from the U.S. territory of Guam and other small U.S. Pacific island territories thousands of miles from the Chinese coast, deployment of American ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles is extremely limited by geography. The United States instead relies on air- and sea-based platforms for long-range power projection in Asia. American basing options for post-INF missiles in Asian countries also appear very limited, geographically as well as politically. However, the day after the formal U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that he was in favor of deploying conventional ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia sooner rather than later.

Europe, on the other hand, with its landmass adjacent to the Russia, seems predestined for the stationing of U.S. land-based missile systems in the long run. The question remains, however, where in Europe should these missiles be deployed. The Trump administration has not yet held talks with any European governments, at least not publicly, on hosting new missiles. Another consideration is the terms on which Washington may be willing to support and carry out a missile deployment to Europe. The United States certainly will want its own troops in Europe to be equipped with the new missile systems, but will there also be an option or a push to sell or lease systems to interested European governments? The Pentagon, in any case, is already attempting to calm the potential debate and any resulting anxieties by constantly emphasizing that none of the planned missiles are nuclear systems.

How open Europeans would be to U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments will vary significantly from country to country. Some NATO countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, which are already within reach of Russia’s shorter-range missiles, like the SS-26 Iskander, are viewing the development of Russian intermediate-range missiles as an opportunity to attract a more robust and permanent U.S. military presence in their countries. Other countries, such as Germany and France, however, will be cautious of escalating the intermediate-range arms race and will have to internally deal with populations that will be opposed to missiles in their territories. During the 1980s, U.S. missile deployments caused major protests in Western Europe. This means for Russia in return, that if it wants to exploit Western European skepticism and opposition, it must strike a delicate balance between expanding its own intermediate-range missile deployments with maintaining its current outward propaganda advantage. In the Eastern European NATO countries, the situation and sentiment are entirely different, especially in Poland. Due to its history and proximity to Russia, Poland has been wary about Russia’s intentions and has advocated for a resolute, sometimes even provocative policy toward Russia. According to some Polish defense analysts, Russia has already gained a considerable military advantage, because it has medium-range missiles in Europe while NATO does not. But this Russian advantage could be easily curtailed with American missiles in Europe. In their view, the end of the INF treaty is an opportunity for Eastern Europe. It could lead to a stronger alliance between the United States and Eastern European countries. If Western Europe is opposed to the stationing of medium- to intermediate-range missiles from the U.S., Poland and other countries of NATO’s eastern flank may not refuse U.S. missiles on their soil. Some Polish defense planners are even going so far to recommend missiles in Ukraine or Georgia to clearly restrain Russia. They dream of Poland playing a pivotal role in the defense of Europe. For geopolitical reasons, and with American military presence, in their mind, it will become the hub for redistributing security to the whole region by strongly limiting Russia and its ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe. In a similar line of thought, a stronger alliance between the United States and the countries of Eastern Europe would potentially prove far more valuable than a broken, outdated U.S.-Russia treaty would ever be.

Therefore, as Western Europeans may be opposed to any U.S. missile deployments in Europe, the perception in Eastern Europe is quite different. Also, Western European dreams of a common defense and security policy across EU countries are very far from reality. Pro-European voices who claimed that the cancelation of the INF Treaty could be a chance to come up with the creation of a “Euro-deterrent” and European strategic autonomy in a 21st century Europe that will exercise strategic sovereignty will be quickly reminded of the realities in a post-INF Europe. There is no united European position on the defense of Europe. It is telling that the Eastern European countries in the past often turned directly to the U.S. for defense matters and not to the EU or even NATO. Poland and the United States, under President Obama, in 2010 agreed to rotate American Patriot units from Germany to Poland (resulting in Russian threats to move Iskander missiles to the Kaliningrad Oblast) as part of the so-called Patriot to Poland mission. This, for example, was a bilateral agreement between Poland and the United States. There was no NATO involvement. Poland and Romania are already hosting the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense systems. Although integrated into a NATO missile defense architecture, make no mistake, these are U.S. systems. The U.S. AN/TPY-2 (FBM) radar, which functions as the primary sensor for these NATO defense systems is located in Turkey and is operated by U.S. soldiers only. The actual radar and the immediate area where it is located is only accessible to U.S. personnel; no NATO member state has access to it, and this is no different for the sites in Romania or Poland. The operations for the radar in Turkey are coordinated and controlled by U.S. personnel at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany. All the data that the radar provides is collected by U.S. personnel and only then passed on to NATO. Contrary to what many Europeans may want to think, NATO has no direct command or control over any of the U.S. missile defense assets in Europe. The U.S. shares information with NATO and takes NATO into consideration. That is the extent of NATO involvement. All of the assets are American and potential strategic engagements to defend Europe from ballistic missile attacks are controlled and carried out by the U.S. military.

Realistically, the Europeans are only bystanders when it comes to their strategic missile defense. The Europeans were bystanders when the stability of Europe was determined by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987 with the INF Treaty and the Europeans are bystanders now as well as Russia and the U.S. figure out how a post-INF Europe may look. Today, they remain essentially spectators, even though in 2018, the United States obtained pro forma NATO’s open support for its position. The INF crisis is not a central strategic issue for Europe, also because Europe really has very little strategic say. For Europeans, the consequence and direct impact is political: the INF Treaty symbolizes the end of the Cold War and the start of a new era. The American withdrawal may lead West European populations to view the White House – which, in terms of public relations in Europe, made a big mistake by unanimously cancelling the INF Treaty – and the Kremlin – which now has the higher ground from this point of view – on an equal footing. The consequences for the already strained transatlantic relations are therefore not positive, at least not in Western Europe. Moscow has largely managed to shift the blame for the treaty’s collapse mainly on Washington in the eyes of many Europeans. The abrupt U.S. withdrawal without making much effort to negotiate and discuss the allegations of breaches by both sides has fueled the perception that the U.S. is mainly responsible for the INF’s failure. Therefore, Russia will continue to portray itself as simply reacting to U.S. aggression if it further deploys its own intermediate-range missiles to maintain this perception. Thus, Russia is trying to minimize European irritations at its own missile deployments while at the same time driving a wedge between the United States and its West European allies. Nevertheless, the mysterious explosion at a Russian navy’s testing range last year that had been surrounded by secrecy and increased radiation levels may have drawn some attention to the fact that Russia is also very much engaged in testing and establishment of offensive capabilities and may not be so innocent after all.

One overlooked feature of the INF Treaty in the debate of post-INF Europe is that it was not entirely bilateral anymore after the fall of the USSR. After the USSR ceased to exist, it also covered former Soviet states in whose territories the production or testing of intermediate-range missiles once took place. Among these states is Ukraine, a country with a very strong domestic industrial base for the production of missile systems. Ukraine could now see the collapse of INF as an opportunity to gain some deterrent capability towards Russia with its own ballistic missiles. Kiev has already stated that it reserves the right to now develop its own missiles as necessary. With its economy in dire straits, it may also consider export of such missiles. Potential buyers in Europe would be Poland or the Baltic states, who are eager to bolster their own defenses against Russia.

Another country to consider is Turkey. Turkey too may influence future European missile proliferation. With the launch of its domestically produced Bora ballistic missile in combat against Kurdish assets in northern Iraq, Turkey has joined Syria, Iran, Israel and Russia in making use of ballistic missiles in combat in the region. Turkey is currently in the process of establishing a domestic independent defense industry. The combat use against the Kurds in northern Iraq was just as much a sales pitch, as it was an actual military operation. Turkey has announced its intention to export its missiles and it is working on more advanced ranges and precision. In the past, Turkey had planned to develop a missile with a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers. Further indicating Turkey’s intention to earn offensive missile capabilities was the construction of the first Turkish satellite launching center to bolster the country’s satellite programs. It could be suspected that Ankara may be intending to use its launching pad to fire the long-range missiles the government hopes to build in the long term. Turkey justifies its ballistic missile ambitions by pointing to its neighbors Iran and Syria and their missile programs. However, Turkey also views Armenia, which possesses Russian Iskander missiles, as a potential threat. With Greece being within range of Turkish ballistic missiles, the prospect of an Aegean arms race, if Greece feels compelled to acquire new weapons against its traditional rival Turkey, is not inconceivable either.

The disappearance of the INF Treaty marks the end of the post-Cold War strategic relationships. The nuclear issue itself will not be the actual topic of the debate, but rather the conventional attack and defense capabilities, something that is gravely misunderstood in Western Europe. The end of the INF Treaty reveals many things: the evolution of the international context with China’s rise to power, the disinterest of Russia and the United States in Cold War arms control treaties, the deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States, the division between Western and Eastern Europe, and the powerlessness of Europe in international military matters.

Michael Unbehauen, is the founder and president of Acamar Analysis and Consulting, an independent U.S.-based think tank and consulting firm. During his military career, he supported U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM ) in the fields of strategy, policy, and plans for global integrated missile defense, was the lead planner for Air and Missile Defense Theater Security Cooperation in Europe, as well as the commander of a strategic U.S. missile defense radar station in Israel. He further served as a crew member on a GMD crew and as the Planning Officer of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade (GMD).

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Will India be sanctioned over the S-400 Air Defense System?

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The Russian S-400 air defense system has emerged as a serious concern for US policymakers. Amongst other states, US allies are seen purchasing and acquiring this state-of-the-art technology despite Washington’s objections.  Earlier in 2019, Turkey received the S-400 setting aside American concerns. India, a critical strategic partner of the US, also secured a $5.4 billion deal for the system in 2018 despite US opposition.

The US administration was considerably confident that it would succeed in persuading India to abandon the deal. The Indian government was warned by the Trump administration that the purchase of S-400 may invoke sanctions under the ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA). It was also communicated to the Indian government that presence of Russian S-400 is likely to increase the vulnerability of American weaponry stationed in India which could limit the extent of US-India cooperation. The threat was largely ignored and India went ahead to pay an advance of $800 million to Russia for the system which is indicative of India’s desire to maintain strategic autonomy and its reluctance to form an official military alliance with USA.

When President Biden took office in January 2021, efforts were made once again to convince India to let go of the deal. Then-Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III discussed the air defense system with Rajnath Singh during his visit to India in March 2021. However, India showed no willingness to change its stance over its S-400 policy. 

The issue was also discussed during the three day visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on 6th October, 2021. She commented that the decision over the sanctions related to S-400 will be made by the US President and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She further added that the US policy regarding any country that uses S-400 is considerably evident and the air defense system is not in anybody’s security interest. 

Historically, Indian air defense systems have largely comprised of Russian equipment and the Indian Air Force (IAF) predominantly operates Russian systems. India is unlikely to recede to American demands of abandoning the S-400 deal which is evident from the recent statements of two senior Indian officials. While addressing the Indian media on the 89th anniversary of IAF on 8th October, 2021, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari stressed that the S-400 should be inducted during the same year. Similarly, shortly after Wendy Sherman commented on S-400, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson gave a statement suggesting that the government was in negotiations with the US. Responding to a question on the S-400, Arindam Bagchi stated, ‘This has been under discussion between our two countries for some time. It was raised and we have discussed it and explained our perspective. And discussions on this are ongoing.’

Noting that India may receive the systems by the end of year, the US will soon be in a position where it will have to make a decision over whether to sanction India or not. The Indian attitude towards this issue suggests that it sees itself in a position where it can get a waiver by the US administration despite disregarding the latter’s concerns. Sanctioning India will erode the bilateral relationship of India and US at a time when Washington needs New Delhi in its larger objective of containing China. This is especially relevant since India is the only QUAD member which shares a border with China. Therefore, this option is not in American interest taking into account the current geopolitical situation.

The US President has the authority to waive off CAATSA sanctions if deemed necessary for American strategic interests. However, in February 2021, US openly declared that a blanket waiver was not a possibility for India. The rationale behind not providing a blanket waiver is that such an action can motivate other states to opt for the same in the hope of a potential waiver since countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown interest in acquiring the S-400 air defense system. This factor will also be taken into account while devising the sanctions.

It is likely that India may be sanctioned under CAATSA but the sanctions will largely be symbolic with little long-term implications. However, the Indian policy of strategic autonomy raises questions on the extent of the envisaged partnership between India and the US. Increasing dependence and use of Russian equipment will become a concern owing to the interoperability problems vis-à-vis US military systems. The role of India as an effective strategic ally against China is also questionable noting its strategic decisions which will harm American interests in the region. 

As a strategic partner, India has placed the American leadership in a difficult situation by purchasing the S-400 system. It will be interesting to see how the US articulates the sanctions against India over this purchase.  

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American submarine mangled in the South China Sea

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Tensions in the western Pacific have been simmering for the past many months. The western world led by the United States has begun to transfer more assets into the Indo-Pacific, in a bid to contain, if not restrict, the rampant rise of Chinese power in the volatile region.

The Americans have continued to expand their naval presence in the Western Pacific and the China seas. In October 2021, two carrier strike groups of the Nimitz-class supercarriers were deployed around the first island chain, led by the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). The British, in an attempt to regain lost momentum in the Indo-Pacific, deployed the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), which sailed through the South China Sea earlier last month. The aforementioned vessels also sailed through the Philippine Sea alongside the Japanese MSDF Hyuga-class helicopter-carrier JS Ise (DDH-182), as part of multilateral naval exercises.

These actions, however, cannot be viewed as an unprecedented act of offence against the People’s Republic of China. The mainland Chinese have since late September been upping the ante in its long-lasting dispute with Taiwan. The Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has been consistently violated by aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. On 4 October 2021 for instance, 52 aircraft of the PLAAF were identified in the southwestern sector of the Taiwan ADIZ. This included 34 Shenyang J-16 multirole fighters, 12 Xian H-6 nuclear-capable bombers, 2 Sukhoi Su-30 MKK multirole fighters, 2 Shaanxi Y-8 ASW aircraft and 2 Shaanxi KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft.

Figure 2: Illustration of PLAAF incursions into Taiwanese airspace on 4 Oct 2021 (Source: Ministry of National Defense, ROC)

Actions on such a massive scale are becoming increasingly frequent and are posing a serious threat to Taiwanese sovereignty and independence. The dynamics in the region are quickly evolving into a scenario similar to that of the cold war, with the formation of two distinct blocs of power. The United States and its allies – especially Japan – are keeping their eyes peeled on the developments taking place over the airspace of Taiwan, with the Chinese completely bailing out on promises of pursuing unification through peaceful means.

This aggression emerging from the communist regime in Beijing must be met with in order to contain their expansionist objectives. In pursuit of containing Chinese aggression and expansionism, the US Navy deployed the USS Connecticut (SSN-22) – a Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine – on patrol in East and Southeast Asia. It made stops for supplies at Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan, and US Naval base Guam, before departing for the South China Sea. While the public announcement was made on 7 October 2021, the USS Connecticut was struck by an unknown underwater object, while submerged in the disputed region, on 2 October 2021. The incident did not affect the nuclear plant of the attack submarine, nor were there any serious injuries reported.

While the US Navy has not yet disclosed locations of where the submarine incident took place, Chinese think tank South China Sea Probing Initiative made use of satellite imagery to spot what they suspect as being the Seawolf-class submarine sailing 42.8 nm southeast off the disputed Paracel island group[1].

Figure 3: (Left) Map released by SCSPI marking claimed location of USS Connecticut on 3 October 2021 (R) Satellite imagery of suspected Seawolf-class submarine (Source: SCS Probing Initiative)

If this information is accurate, one cannot rule out the chance of this incident being in fact offensive action taken up by the Chinese against an American nuclear submarine sailing so close to a disputed group of shoals and isles over which Beijing adamantly claims sovereignty. But then again, the South China Sea is well known as being a tricky landscape for submarines to sail through submerged, with sharp ridges and a seabed scattered with shoals. Hydrographic and bathymetric failures have taken place in the past, resulting in devastating consequences. For instance, the USS San Francisco (SSN 711) collided with a seamount southeast of Guam in 2005. If one is to compare and contrast the claimed location of the USS Connecticut in Figure 3, with the bathymetric map of the South China Sea in Figure 4, it can be seen that the claimed sighting area is home to tricky geography, with steep ridges connecting waters as shallow as 1300 m to as deep as 3500 m.

Figure 4: Bathymetric of the South China Sea (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, given the vast improvement in the gathering of bathymetric and hydrographic data by US Navy Hydrography vessels, it can be possible to rule out the scenario of the USS Connecticut colliding with submarine features. One must then look into other possibilities and scenarios that incurred heavy damage onboard the USS Connecticut, which resulted in injuries to 11 of its sailors.

The possibility of this incident being the result of a nefarious Chinese attack on an American nuclear submarine sailing near territories claimed and occupied by Beijing must not be ruled out. The Chinese have exponentially increased their military aggression and activity over the past months and years, as can be viewed on the Indo-Sino border in the Himalayas and the cross-strait aggression in Taiwan. In the South China Sea, uninhabitable shoals have been converted into military bases supporting aerial capabilities as well as housing advanced radar systems and barracks. A submarine, warship, or any other vessel for that fact, can be considered to be ‘sailing behind enemy lines’.

Among several possibilities, one can be that the Chinese made use of unmanned underwater vehicles to counter the American submarine. In 2019, the PLA Navy put on exhibition its first autonomous underwater vehicle named HSU-001 (Figure 5). Submarine authority H I Sutton’s analysis of the paraded AUV described it as being worthy of long-range operations, with side-scanning sonar arrays and a magnetic anomaly detector to detect underwater targets. Such a vessel can be used for a vast variety of operations including marine surveying and reconnaissance, mine warfare and countermeasures, undersea cable inspection, and anti-submarine warfare.

Figure 5: Two of the HSU-001 AUVs on display in Beijing, 2019 (Source: Forbes).

The Chinese have also developed smaller underwater glider drones. In late December 2020, Indonesian fishermen fished out the ‘Sea Wing’ (Figure 6), which is an entirely different type of drone with no powerhouse to propel its movement. The Sea Wing family of underwater gliders depend upon variable-buoyancy propulsion that makes use of an inflating and deflating balloon-like device filled with pressurised oil, causing them to sink before rising to the surface again, moving along, aided by wings. Unlike the HSU-001, the Sea Wing is much smaller in size and does not support any fittings for combat missions.

Figure 6: Indonesian Fishermen caught a Chinese underwater glider drone in December 2020 (Source: The War Zone)

In July 2021, the communist regime in China in an unprecedented move declassified detailed results of an experimental project that has apparently spanned through decades. The results showcased the field test of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), seemingly in the Taiwan Strait in the year 2010. Reports stated that the UUV currently operates individually, but with future upgrades could be capable of operating in packs. The document stated that the UUV pointed its sonar arrays to various sources of sound, while artificial intelligence tried to filter out ambient noise and determine the nature of the target, firing a torpedo upon verification. The ability to fire, assumably a standard-sized torpedo, would suggest that the UUV in question would be of a larger size than the Sea Wing glider. It could, perhaps, be even larger than the HSU-001, given the physical largeness of earlier technologies. Sophisticated technologies of today, however, are also being diverted to reduce the size of torpedoes without impacting their effectiveness.

UUVs are undoubtedly going to change the path of modern warfare, being used for both detecting targets and, in the future, also eliminating them. Military designers and researchers are paying an increasing amount of attention and resources into the development of advanced platforms and assets, keeping in mind the concepts of high precision, small loss and big technology. These assets will prove to be invaluable in shallow seas, and indeed the South China Sea, with all of its treacherous hydrographic features, and being easily modifiable for mission requirements.

One remote understanding of the incident that took place in the South China Sea involving the USS Connecticut can be that the Chinese made use of a UUV to attack the American SSN. Several analysts and submarine experts in the field including former American submariner Aaron Amick suggest that the bow dome of the Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine was severely damaged. Since no explosions were reported, we can rule out the possibility of the use of torpedoes to attack the American vessel. It could also not have been a ‘dud’ torpedo fired at the American submarine since such a non-lethal thin-metal structure could barely have a major impact on the two-inches thick HY-100 steel alloy that comprises the hull of the Seawolf. This leaves us with the scenario of a drone being used to physically ram the hull of the submarine. It is unlikely that the Chinese made use of a Sea Wing glider given its small size and nature of operations. It would be more probable that if such a scenario did take place, it involved the PLAN making use of a UUV as large as the HSU-001, if not larger.

This would raise the question of what went wrong with the equipment aboard the Connecticut? How is it that the advanced sensors and sonar array could not pick up on an incoming object? Or in the case of a collision with geographical features, what went wrong with the hydrographic and bathymetric systems onboard one of the most advanced nuclear attack submarines in the world?

Submarine navigation is a highly sensitive field of expertise requiring extremely thorough and comprehensive data of the areas in the vessel’s immediate surroundings. Navies across the world maintain classified databases storing detailed hydrographic and bathymetric data that are invaluable for submarine operations. However, submariners also make use of high-frequency sonars that calculate water depths and surrounding features to verify chart data. Active sonar pulses are used to reveal nearby underwater objects including submerged objects such as mines, wrecks, other vessels, as well as geographical features.

The USS Connecticut, alongside other vessels of the Seawolf-class SSNs, began its life with the BQQ 5D sonar system. The Seawolf was refitted with AN/BQQ-10(V4) systems which is an open architecture system that includes biennial software upgrades (APBs) and quadrennial hardware upgrades. The new system, however, continues to make use of the 24 feet wide bow-mounted spherical active and passive array and wide-aperture passive flank arrays installed on the submarine. The class of vessels was also to be retrofitted with TB-29A thin-line towed array sonar systems, developed by Lockheed Martin. The successor of the Seawolf-class – the Virginia-class – has also been fitted with the AN/BQQ-10(V4) sonar processing system, making use of a bow-mounted active and passive array, wide aperture passive array on the flank, high-frequency active arrays on keel and fin, TB 16 towed array and TB-29A thin line towed array. The Seawolf and the Virginia are both fitted with the AN/BQQ-10(V4) system and the TB-29A towed array sonar system which could become worrisome for future operations since this is a relatively newer system.

Operators of the system must look into strengthening any blind spots that the system may possess. There may also be the minute chance that the Chinese have identified such a blind spot and have attempted to exploit it. These systems have been developed by Lockheed Martin in Virginia, USA – also the developer of the F-35 Lightning II JSF. Further alleviating suspicions is the fact that the Chinese have in recent months boasted claims of having developed radar systems that are capable of detecting the most advanced and stealthy of American combat jets, including both the F-35 as well as the F-22 Raptor. This, as per the Chinese, is now possible through the use of their latest radar system – the YLC-8E – which was developed by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). The research team at Tsinghua University said that the platform generated an electromagnetic storm which would serve to acquire the location of incoming stealth aircraft. To engage in the highest degree of speculation, could China have managed to acquire sensitive data from one of the largest US defence contractors, enabling it to detect and even malign some of the finest American technological suites onboard various platforms?


[1] SCS Probing Initiative [@SCS_PI]. (2021, October 8). Is this USS Connecticut? Which is reported to suffer an underwater collision in the #SouthChinaSea Oct 2. Satellite image from @planet spotted a suspected Wolf-class submarine, sailing 42.8NM southeast off the Paracel Islands, Oct 3. Retrieved from Twitter.

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Defense

The Road Leading Nowhere

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A few days ago, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, announced the expulsion of several diplomats from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Organization. The only justification NATO could muster up for this was the traditional rhetoric of Russia’s alleged “malign activities” in NATO member states. As it so usually happens, no evidence or illustrations of such activities were ever provided. It is almost as if NATO’s leadership is consistently trying to destroy everything that Moscow and Brussels have built to bolster European security architecture through joint efforts during the last two decades.

Russia launched its Permanent Mission to NATO in 2003 following the establishment of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) on May 28, 2002 in Rome. Prior to that, Russia’s ambassador to Belgium had also acted as the nation’s non-resident ambassador to the Organization. The establishment of the NATO–Russia Council was a momentous event, which is evident by the fact that the heads of state and government of all NATO member states as well as the president of the Russian Federation gathered in Rome to sign the Declaration on “NATO–Russia Relations: a New Quality” at an official ceremony.

I happened to be present at that ceremony in Rome. The atmosphere was very spirited, and the leaders were quite optimistic about the prospects of the new mode of cooperation between Russia and the West. Those present at that memorable event unanimously welcomed the new mechanism, while U.S. President George W. Bush stressed that should Russia be left behind the alliance would fail in resolving the issues facing the world in the new century and responding to the new security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic region and beyond. Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada, noted that NATO was “opening a new chapter in strengthening our ties with Russia,” emphasizing that the surest way of responding to the challenges of the 21st century would be to coordinate the efforts of the international community at large. He concluded, “It was high time that Russia be involved in the process.”

For his part, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia expected “the Rome Declaration to be a sound solution to work in a cooperative and constructive spirit rather than a mere statement of intentions.” He went on to say that Russia and NATO have a fraught history—however, the two had made real headway, shifting the paradigm “from opposition to dialogue, from confrontation to cooperation.” The Rome Declaration, Russia’s leader argued, was only to mark the beginning of the endeavours to arrive at fundamentally different relations.

While the reason why the two parties agreed two decades ago to establish the NATO–Russia Council and the extent to which the new joint mechanism indeed proved an agent of change for the military and political situation in the Euro-Atlantic (and globally) remain subject of persistent speculation, I believe it would be hard to refute the idea that the old shibboleths of the Cold War needed to be revised amid the evolving circumstances at the dawn of the new millennium. First and foremost, this had to do with security issues. By that time, sober-minded politicians in the West came to realize that Russia was far from what posed threats to world peace and international security. The foreground now featured a new set of global challenges, such as terrorism, WMD proliferation risks, illegal migration and regional crises, with no nation—even the largest and most powerful among the powers that be—able to counter them on their own. Russia was the first to face the challenge of global terrorism. Following hard on Russia’s heels, this threat engulfed the United States and other countries in its most cruel and dramatic form.

In accordance with the Rome Declaration, Russia and NATO member states committed to cooperating as equals in areas of mutual interest. The members of the Council, acting in their national capacities and in a manner consistent with their collective commitments and obligations, agreed to take joint decisions and bear equal responsibility, individually and collectively, for the decisions to be implemented. The Council saw some 25 working groups and committees established to foster meaningful cooperation in critical areas.

Following a meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson in November 2002, President Vladimir Putin offered the following vision of Russia’s relations with NATO, “Never before have we raised the question of our full-fledged participation in NATO. Nor do we raise that matter today. Should our relationship, should our cooperation develop as positively as is the case now… And if NATO as an alliance transforms in implementing institutional reforms… And as long as our cooperation is in line with Russia’s national interests, meaning that we’ll see that this framework could serve a tool to pursue our own interests… Then our cooperation with NATO will surely be changing to encompass a broader involvement and participation.”

It has been some 20 years since the NATO–Russia Council was established. Can we deem this experiment to be a success? Both a “yes” and a “no.” On the one hand, we all could see for ourselves that dialogue and cooperation were, in fact, possible. Over the years, joint working groups were offering decisions whose implementation was in line with the fundamental interests of both parties. These included combatting terrorism, engaging on the Afghanistan dossier, enhancing military and technical cooperation, addressing arms control in Europe as well as other issues.

On the other hand, we also discovered that the old stereotypes were deeply entrenched in the minds of some strategists in the West who still believe Russia to be the principal and indispensable factor to cement “Western solidarity.” Otherwise, how can we account for the fact that NATO’s leadership chose to freeze all the Council’s proceedings and contacts with Russia contrary to what is stipulated in the Rome Declaration that provides for an urgent session of the NATO–Russia Council in the events such as brutal conflicts in South Ossetia or Ukraine?

NATO’s only approach to Moscow as of today is to expel as much staff as they can from Russia’s mission in Brussels. The purpose of all this is not hard to guess. NATO is busily getting ready for its next Summit, which is due to be held in 2022 in Madrid. At that summit, NATO plans to approve a new strategy for the alliance to make it “even stronger.”

This will not be an easy task in the wake of the alliance’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is why it has been taking strides to shift attention and search for an adversary whose presence would justify the organization’s continued existence as well as another hike in military budgets of its members. Individual statements make it clear that the new conceptual framework should bring NATO back to its former rhetoric of approaching Russia (and China) as a threat.

Apparently, the alliance would rather wave a final goodbye to the NATO–Russia Council by the time of the upcoming summit. This explains why they are trying to elicit a response from Moscow, which will definitely happen in the near future, likely to affect both Russia’s mission to NATO in Brussels and NATO’s Information Office in Moscow. It seems to be obvious that the only way an international organization can be effective is if this is indeed what all the parties want—in deeds rather than in words. If NATO has for whatever reason decided that it no longer needs the NATO–Russia Council, NATO should then be responsible for dismantling it.

However short-sighted and dangerous such a step on the part of NATO could be, this does not erase from the agenda the question of what the Euro-Atlantic security architecture would look like in the future. New challenges and threats continue to undermine the entire system of international security. Therefore, the feat of building a full-fledged and equal dialogue between Moscow and the West on a whole range of strategic stability issues is more relevant than ever. Under the current circumstances, such a dialogue being absent is fraught with risks that are too high for all the parties. These problems can surely be covered up and left to fester beneath the surface. For how long, though?

From our partner RIAC

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