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A Summit of Consequence? Great Power Diplomacy and Inadvertent Nuclear War

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In a surrealist year…. some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

While serious questions continue to emerge from the recently-completed Geneva summit,[1] one concern should remain front and center. This is the more-or-less calculable prospect of inadvertent nuclear war, an existential hazard that is integral to America’s deterrence-based framework of national security. This prospect is still expanding.

A Process of Continuous Reassessment

What can be done? For clarifying analyses, periodic re-assessments will be needed. To begin, though an accidental nuclear war would always be inadvertent, not every inadvertent nuclear war need be the result of an accident. Other forms of unintentional nuclear conflict would be the outcome of human misjudgment and/or technical miscalculation. This is the case whether a bellum atomicum were spawned by singular nation-state error or both sides to an ongoing two-party nuclear crisis escalation.

               Also significant here could be various “synergies” (whether foreseen or unanticipated) arising between particular misjudgments or miscalculations.

               Conceptual understanding will always be key. In synergistic intersections, the cumulative “whole” of any specific combination must be greater than the sum of all pertinent “parts.” The quantifiable outcome of two discrete national decisions would be more consequential than a result suggested only by arithmetic summations. Moreover, this heightened importance could be tangible, intangible or somewhere in-between.

Needed Analytic Clarifications

               Above all, these are complex intellectual or analytic issues. They are not mundane or trivial matters amenable to narrow political resolution. The abundant risks of deliberate nuclear war and inadvertent nuclear war could be assessed independently of one another.[2] Accordingly, US President Joe Biden should prepare to deal systematically with variously plausible manifestations of cyber-attack and cyber-war. And these high-technology threats ought to be considered in conjunction with simultaneously expanding activities of “digital mercenaries.”

               In science, language matters. Dangerous false warnings could be generated by different types of technical malfunction or by third-party hacking interference, but should not be included under the causes of an inadvertent nuclear war. Rather, these false warnings would present as cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war. Always, both narratives warrant intellect-based elucidations. While now sounding obvious prima facie, national security decision-making during the Trump era was often incoherent and generally disjointed.

               There are also issues of geometry. Recognizing the territorial loci of prospective nuclear threats to the United States, these corresponding issues should focus especially on Russia, China and North Korea. Concessions offered to Mr. Biden by Russian President Putin might not be meaningfully reassuring vis-à-vis variably unpredictable perils originating from China and/or North Korea. Reciprocally, Mr. Putin could have good reason to be concerned about US concessions offered on behalf of South Korea, Japan and/or specific NATO member states.

               In strategic terms, there is more. Metaphorically, for the United States, there are additional “flies in the ointment.” In coming years, partially because Trump-era “toughness” was wholly contrived and effectively accelerated Iran’s determined efforts at nuclearization, that country, now led by a more conspicuously hardline president, will more likely and more expeditiously join the “nuclear club.” For both President Biden and President Putin,[3] such membership will substantially complicate certain critical elements of national security decision-making.

               Miscalculation and Escalation Dominance

                For Joe Biden’s senior policy planners, conceptual clarity should become a more evident sine qua non for resolving national security problems. In this regard, most worrisome among credible causes of an inadvertent nuclear war would be various errors in calculation committed by one or both sides. The most evident example here would likely involve those assorted misjudgments of adversarial intent or capacity that emerge in determinable conformance with crisis escalation. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an amplified desire by one or several crisis-contending parties to achieve “escalation dominance.”[4]

               Plausibly, in such foreseeable crisis conditions, all rational contenders would strive for escalation dominance without risking high odds[5] of total or near-total destruction. Expectedly, of course, wherever one or several contending adversaries would not appear suitably rational, all usual deterrence “bets” would be off. Most immediately worrisome for the United States should be North Korea. Former US President Donald Trump’s statement that he and Kim Jung Un had “fallen in love” at the Singapore Summit provides no reasonable comfort for still-thinking Americans.[6]

               None at all.

               Nonetheless, false comfort remains a plausible American objective. Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               There exist other potential causes of an inadvertent nuclear war. These causes include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings;  an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one side or the other (or both); adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état among contending adversaries; and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among pertinent presumptive foes.[7]

               There is more. Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by the United States itself or by any of its relevant adversaries. Recalling Carl von Clausewitz On War, even the “simplest” problems could sometime prove “very difficult.”

Rationality and Irrationality

               Strategic thinking would never be “simple.” A potential source of inadvertent nuclear war involving the United States could be “backfire” effect from variously untested strategies of “pretended irrationality.” In principle, at least, a rational enemy that had managed to convince Washington of its decisional irrationality could sometime spark an American military preemption. Conversely, an adversarial leadership that had begun to take seriously any hints of decisional irrationality in Washington might be frightened into striking first itself.

               “Everything is very simple in war,” says von Clausewitz, “but even the simplest thing is very difficult.”

               Once again, metaphor may be instructive. Joe Biden must be wary of “nightmare.” According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary says this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which regarded nightmares as the product of demons. This would make it a play on, or a translation of, the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In all such interpretations of nightmare, the inherently non-rational idea of demonic origin is central.

               Today, for the United States, the demons of nuclear strategy and nuclear war take a markedly different form. For the most part, their mien is neither confused nor frightful, but rational and ordinary. If these demons are ever thought to be sinister, it is not because America’s adversaries necessarily crave war or wanton bloodshed, but because they may be seeking maximum safety amid a rapidly growing global chaos.[8]

               That primal search could be rational.

               While the state of nations has always been in the “state of nature”[9] – at least since the seventeenth century and the historic Peace of Westphalia (1648) – current conditions of nuclear capacity and worldwide anarchy portend an expanding cauldron of possible aggressions.[10] Among other things, the correct explanation for such dire portents lies in the indispensability of rational decision-making to viable nuclear deterrence,[11] and in the interpenetrating fact that rational decision-making may suddenly become subject to massively corrosive deteriorations.

The Importance of Synergy

 Now, even after surviving a persistently dissembling Trump strategic policy, America faces formidable national security risks that remain immediate and existential. Such risks can be fully understood only in light of believable or at least conceivable intersections arising between them. Such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion based on formal logic, and not on any actual history); on occasion, some of these reinforcing intersections could prove synergistic. Contradicting what we first learned in primary school, this means that the “whole” of  intersectional risk effects could be greater than the discernible sum of all component “parts.”[12]

 Presumptively, under US Constitutional law (Article l), holding Congressional war-declaring expectations aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would warrant obedience. To conclude otherwise in such incomparably dire circumstances would be law-violating. In essence, any chain-of-command disobedience in these circumstances would be impermissible on its face.

Ordering an American “First Use”

 There is more. Any American president could order the first use of American nuclear weapons if this country were not under actual nuclear attack. In principle at least, some further strategic and legal distinctions need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.” While there does exist an elementary but still-substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that former President Donald Trump failed to understand. The nation survived this experience with a profoundly unsuitable president, but previous episodes of luck need not be meaningfully predictive.

               Trump is gone.  Still, with even a more reasonably thinking president at the helm, structural decisional risks obtain.[13] Quo Vadis? Where should President Joe Biden go from here on managing such plainly urgent security issues? A coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared in response to the following basic question:

               If faced with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such variable expressions of disobedience?

               In such unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of principal possible outcomes. This is because all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. Any other bases could provide only a more-or-less intelligent guess.

               In any prospectively relevant matters of nuclear war, there could be nopertinent past events. Though this is a fortunate absence, of course, it remains one that would stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. Whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is the present.

Facing Already-Nuclear North Korea

               In the specifically urgently matter of North Korea,[14] President Biden must take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants Trump-style calculations. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own willingness to push the nuclear envelope, America’s current president could sometime find himself faced with an intolerably stark choice. This would be deciding between outright capitulation and nuclear war.

How to choose?

               To avoid being placed in any such portentously limited option environment, Mr. Biden should understand from the start that having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button,” to use his predecessor’s unfortunate metaphor) might not bestow any bargaining advantage. To the contrary, it could generate or reinforce unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and certain resultant forms of strategic miscalculation. In any such unfamiliar, many-sided and basically unprecedented matters, size might truly “matter,”but inversely.

Although counter-intuitive and ironic, a nuclear force of exclusively high-yield destructiveness could appear militarily less credible and/or diplomatically less persuasive.

               Within the broad parameters of Realpolitik[15] or geopolitics, the field of nuclear policy decision-making is largely without tangible precedent. While the search for “escalation dominance” may be common to all imaginable sorts of military deal-making, the plausible costs of nuclear bargaining losses would likely be incomparable. After all, no other losses could reasonably be compared to losses in a nuclear war, whether intentional, inadvertent or accidental.

               Never.

               In such a war, whether occasioned by miscalculation, human error or hacking-type interference, there could be no identifiable “winner,” Even after the United States was able to survive the egregious moral and intellectual debilities of Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of significant and generic risks continue to obtain. Looking ahead, the very best way for America to forestall being placed in extremis atomicum is for President Joe Biden to stay focused on intellectual[16] and analytic explanatory factors. On all such complex matters, narrowly political judgments should always be deemed unworthy and extraneous.

Turning to the Poets

               Sometimes the poet sees more clearly than the policy-maker.[17] Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti, America should never allow itself to be caught unaware on the “nineteenth green.”[18] In playing such high-stakes “games” as nuclear strategy and escalation dominance, there could be no comforting “do overs.” Instead, at any late stage of bargaining and brinksmanship, even a single and seemingly minor “loss” could prove grievously lethal and irreversible. If the recent June 2021 Swiss summit between Presidents Biden and Putin is ever to be regarded as successful, there will first have to be determinably calculable progress on several intersecting fronts.

Most important of all, perhaps, will be the prevention of inadvertent nuclear war.[19]


[1] See: https://geneva.usmission.gov/genevasummit/

[2] The respective physical harms of course would be the same. For earlier looks at the expected consequences of  nuclear war effects by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986). 

[3] Ipso facto, this “joining” would significantly impact Israel, and its own still-evolving nuclear strategy This author, Professor Louis René Beres, was Chair of “Project Daniel” (PM Sharon) in 2003-2004. See his Report to Mr. Sharon, Israel’s Strategic Future (ACPR):  http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm.  See also: Louis René Beres,  https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol37/iss1/2/; Louis René Beres,  https://besacenter.org/us-iran-war-israel/; and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016 (2nd ed. 2018):  https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy.

[4] This goal would be a specific iteration of a traditional search for “victory.” But on pertinenhttps://besacenter.org/us-iran-war-israel/t risks, by this author, see, at Oxford University Press, Louis René Beres:  https://blog.oup.com/2016/04/war-political-victories/

[5]The measurable criteria of “severe risk” here would necessarily remain subjective.

[6] When meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un on June 11, 2018, Trump dismissed all usual presidential obligations to prepare. Instead, he emphasized offhandedly: “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s all about attitude.”

[7] The problem of such pre-delegations was examined by this author much earlier in his Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980) and in articles co-authored with General John T. Chain, a former Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command: See Professor Beres and General Chain: https://besacenter.org/living-iran-israels-strategic-imperative-2/  See also Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely deter a Nuclear Iran? The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel; and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. Though dealing with Israeli rather than American nuclear deterrence, these articles are fundamentally conceptual and clarify variously common analytic policy elements.

[8] Whether it is described in the Old Testament or any other major sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can be viewed as something positive, even a source of human betterment. Here, chaos is taken as that which prepares the world for all things, both sacred and profane. As its conspicuous etymology reveals, chaos further represents the yawning gulf or gap wherein nothing is as yet, but where all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate. Appropriately, the classical German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic which stands at the roots of the things and which prepares all things.” Even in the pagan ancient world, the Greeks thought of such a desert as logos, which should indicate to us today that it was never presumed to be starkly random or without evident merit.

[9] Says Thomas Hobbes: “But though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet in all times, Kings and Persons of Sovereign Authority, because of their Independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another…(Leviathan).

[10] On the actual crime of aggression under international law, see: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[11] In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on very specific meanings. More precisely, an actor (state or sub-state) is presumed determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of conceivable preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[12] See earlier, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School): https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[13] See by this author, Louis René Beres, at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:  https://thebulletin.org/biography/louis-rene-beres/; and Louis René Beres,  at US Army War College, The War Room: https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/

[14] See, by this author, at Yale Global: Yale University: Louis René Beres, https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/too-late-north-korea-denuclearization.  See also, by Professor Beres, at War Room (West Point):  https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/author/louis-rene-beres/

[15]  The classic statement of Realpolitik or power politics in western philosophy is the comment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” (See Plato, The Republic, 29, Benjamin Jowett, tr., World Publishing Company, 1946.) See also: Cicero’s oft-quoted query: “For what can be done against force without force?” Marcus Tullus Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to his Friends, 78 (D.R. Shackleton Baily tr., Scholars Press, 1988).

[16] The Founding Fathers of the United States, including early presidents, were intellectuals. More precisely, as explained by American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[17] Before “Beat” poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, there was the avant-garde of Zürich Dada, most notably Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. Like “Beat,” Dada urged an expanding relationship between life and art, one where art can not only enrich life, but help to better understand and elucidate it.

[18] Underlying the technical issues here are individual citizen identifications with sentiments of belligerent nationalism, identifications that were strongly encouraged by former US President Donald J. Trump. In the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[19] The emphasis here on inadvertent rather than intentional nuclear war reflects this author’s subjective judgement of relative probabilities. Also, acknowledging world politics as a system, Washington will increasingly have to consider the role of Israel’s nuclear strategy vis-à-vis a still-nuclearizing Iran, a role with patently serious and substantial implications for America’s nuclear strategy. See, for example, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres,,https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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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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