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Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority

Credit: U.S. Air Force

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Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms.[1] Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority,[2] the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues[3] for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

——————

“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”

General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976[4]

Meanings of Decisional Irrationality

Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition.[5] Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.

               This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.

               How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.

               By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.[6]  From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons.  I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.

               In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran.[7] Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place  variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran;[8] or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.[9]

In the Beginning

               Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.[10]

Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie.  For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”[11]

               It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.

               There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.

               Not a one.

Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president.[12]  Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.

International Law and US Law

Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States.[13] Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of  the law of the land.”

These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.

               Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked.[14] As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.[15]

               For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality,[16] or military necessity.[17]

               Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense.[18] Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”

               Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.[19]

Matters of Chronology and Crisis

               What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?[20]

               In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption[21] that any  president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.

               This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.

               There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.

               Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.

The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter           

               Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.

               Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946)[22] that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere)  to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.[23]

               Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.

Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning.[24] That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by  visceral expectations of American “mass.”[25]

               Then it would be too late.

 American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable.[26] For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.

But what should we do now?


[1] For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres,  The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975);  Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: 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); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[2] This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.

[3] These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.

[4] General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.

[5] “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”

[6] This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[7]Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) see: 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. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.

[10] One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[11] Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.

[12] Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.

[13]  See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).

[14] For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[15] See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.

[16]  The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.

[17] The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.

[18] Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.

[19] The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.

[20] Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use. https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-lieu-senator-markey-introduce-restricting-first-use-0

[21] In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”

[22] See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).

[23] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.

[24] “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

[25] The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres,  https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/02/emptiness-and-consciousness

[26] There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

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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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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