American Bomber Overflights Challenge Chinese Air Control

A B-52 Stratofortress bomber aircraft leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets in a flight over Guam in the Pacific Ocean, February 21, 2011
A B-52 Stratofortress bomber aircraft leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets in a flight over Guam in the Pacific Ocean, February 21, 2011 (US Air Force/Staff Sergeant Angelita M. Lawrence)

America sent a strong signal on Tuesday of its position in a territorial dispute between China and Japan when it conducted bomber overflights of the Senkaku Islands. The island chain has been at the center of tensions in the Sino-Japanese relationship for some years and lies at the heart of an Air Defense Identification Zone that China declared just days ago.

Chinese authorities’ announcement of the ADIZ unilaterally requires all aircraft wishing to operate within a broad zone of the East China Sea to register their flight plans and other identifying information ahead of time. Failure to comply would, according to the government in Beijing, lead to proportionate responses from its armed forces. The implication being that this applies to the military and merchant aircraft that regularly service and patrol the Senkaku Islands which are administered by Japan and known in China as the Diaoyu Islands.

The Japanese and United States governments both rejected China’s move. Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe told parliament that China’s statements “have no validity whatsoever on Japan” and demanded that it “revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international airspace.” Chuck Hagel, America’s defense secretary, paralleled Abe’s statements in a press release and emphasized that the the United States “view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”

The Pentagon, addressing questions as to the reasons behind Tuesday’s overflight of two B-52 bomber aircraft, said that the American air presence in the region was the result of a long planned training mission and not an attempt to challenge China’s effort to politically constrain Japan’s ability to defend its claim to the island chain. Nevertheless, American military officials did take care to point out that future operations would follow the standard operating procedures of not filing official flight plans.

Behind the veil of diplomatic discourse, China’s declaration of an ADIZ is part of a broader effort to establish greater control over the country’s offshore spaces and push back the intrinsic threat of American naval dominance in the Western Pacific. Indeed, the announcement mirrored other, less formalized steps that China had taken in recent months to try to regulate more effectively the passage of public and private vessels in areas it considers to be of strategic interest, from stretches of the country’s littoral waters to disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly responded on Tuesday, saying “Japan has no right to make irresponsible remarks or wage deliberate offenses over China’s establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ.” It claimed Japan’s “groundless accusations” were the real potential source of “frictions” that could “undermine regional stability.”

But it is clear that the United States see the ADIZ as a step too far. A White House spokesman insisted that China’s attempts to regulate international airspace, particularly in a region where such actions carry significant external implications, is “unnecessarily inflammatory” and its commitment to this course of action could prove to be extremely “destabilizing.”

The appearance of the B-52 bombers is perhaps the surest sign to date that America, both a treaty partner of Japan’s and a country technically and decidedly neutral in terms of regional territorial disputes, is not prepared to allow an unreasonable escalation of tension.

America’s Cool New Destroyer, Coming Soon

Artist rendering of the Zumwalt class destroyer
Artist rendering of the Zumwalt class destroyer (US Navy)

The United States Navy’s coolest and most controversial new surface combatant is just months away from leaving drydock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine, according to Navy officials, despite delays caused by the recent government shutdown.

The USS Zumwalt, the first of the new DDG-1000 class of destroyer, is expected to put to sea for tests and shakedown in the first few months of 2014, moved back from the original October 19 launch date.

At a little more than 15,000 tons at full displacement, the Zumwalt will be one of the biggest non-aircraft carrying surface combat ships to be produced by the United States since the Second World War. The class features a new “tumblehome” design, which will improve upon ship stability by allowing new destroyers to pierce and pass through waves rather than cresting them, as well as extremely advanced electronic warfare systems that might be adapted to carry new types of weaponry developed in the future.

In design terms, much more of the Zumwalt‘s weighted hull falls beneath the water’s surface than is usual in a kind of compromise between surface and submarine designs. The result of this is a lower radar crosssection, making the boat much stealthier than similar ships, and a look that is as different from contemporary vessels as were ironclads and dreadnoughts from their predecessors. The broad surface of the destroyer will not rise far above the surface while the deckhouse, sporting advanced sensor packages built into the hull and with a shape reminiscent of the USS Merrimack (renamed the CSS Virginia), remains elevated. Read more

What Iran’s New Drone Aircraft Mean for Israel

A General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone aircraft
A General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone aircraft (US Army)

During televised press briefings on the 33rd anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War and with demonstration videos on hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran last week announced the production of three lines of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that could see deployment within the year. The drones, dubbed the Yaseer, the Ra’ad-85 and the Shahed-129, have apparently been designed to perform in both reconnaissance and combat roles and will allow Iran greater capacity to monitor and enforce activities at home and, potentially, across the region.

UAV technology has not, until now seemingly, been effectively deployed by Iran. Patrolling sovereign airspace and undertaking aerial strike missions, like those prosecuted during the Iran-Iraq War, has for years been the responsibility of Iran’s missile corps and, with aging planes like the F-14 Tomcat and the MiG-29, the air force’s manned fighter fleet.

New unmanned systems would, if feasible in their deployability, allow for a significant expansion of the country’s capacity to both gather intelligence and surgically project power at home and in its near abroad. After all, from the lightly built Yaseer to the heavy Shahed, each of Iran’s new drone systems will have advanced reconnaissance suites, including high resolution cameras and communications equipment, as well as the capacity to launch precision strike munitions. Read more

New Choppers, New Capabilities on the Horizon for US Army

A Black Hawk helicopter prepares to take off from Forward Operating Base Bostick, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, July 16, 2012
A Black Hawk helicopter prepares to take off from Forward Operating Base Bostick, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, July 16, 2012 (US Army)

After more than fifty years of remarkable service from helicopter combat and airlift platforms like the Apache and the Black Hawk, the United States Army has taken the first crucial step toward obtaining replacements for decades to come. The Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center recently issued four contracts to major development firms to begin work on designs for a family of future helicopters that would be phased into service sometime after 2030.

Development of the “next generation” family of helicopters will begin immediately and testable prototypes are expected by 2017. The new choppers will eventually replace all current medium-lift platforms and the vast majority of those combat models presently in use. Read more

Navy’s Drone Carrier Test Points to Robotic Warfare Future

Sailors move an X-47B demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, May 14
Sailors move an X-47B demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, May 14 (US Navy/Timothy Walter)

A milestone in the development of unmanned aerial technologies was passed recently when the United States Navy’s sea based drone strike platform, the experimental X-47B, was successfully launched from and recovered aboard an aircraft carrier.

Testing of the Navy’s prototype drone took place aboard the USS George H.W. Bush and mirrored earlier tests undertaken at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. As was the case in previous trials, this most recent undertaking examined the plane’s ability to take off and land using the assistive catapults and wires needed to fly from seaborne runways. Unlike earlier trials, however, this test was without simulated variables — the drone was actively tasked to consider and calculate the movement of a ship at sea.

The success of the test is significant for a number of reasons. Perhaps foremost among these is the way in which the Navy test — in essentially proving that launching drones from aircraft carrying ships is viable — highlighted America’s relatively near term ability to field the advancing capabilities of unmanned planes like the X-47B and those future variants likely to be designed around it.

Unlike the fleet of drones utilized by the United States in recent wars in both global surveillance and surgical strike roles, this new generation of drones exhibits characteristics of more traditional combat fighter platforms and will benefit from the greater power and mission flexibility afforded by an air frame built for combat. Read more

Taiwan’s Defense Review Consciously Vague

A Taiwanese Mirage 2000 fighter jet takes off from Hsinchu Air Base, June 2, 2012
A Taiwanese Mirage 2000 fighter jet takes off from Hsinchu Air Base, June 2, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense released its second Quadrennial Defense Review. The document, in addition to discussing the state of defense policies in the present political environment, examines the challenges facing the island and reports on the condition of national military preparedness.

Beyond minor changes in the language describing the local threat environment, there is very little new content over what was in the 2009 version. Indeed, the only substantial changes come in the form of a renewed focus on mainland China’s strategic transformation from a focus on near shore power projection to far sea perimeter defense.

This, of course, will guide Taiwanese defense planning and preparedness calculations in the future. But details on how that will translate into what new capabilities are to be pursued are thin on the ground and commentators have been quick to suggest that proposed spending levels and a lack of decisive developments could leave the island vulnerable to Chinese attack.

Why is this? After all, one might think it the case that a country so existentially challenged would have the greatest interest in deterring aggression and projecting an image of readiness through the effective broadcasting of its capabilities abroad.

One need only look at the report’s language and broad geopolitical observations to understand why the details of strategic planning and new defense apparatus development might increasingly lose a measure of effectiveness if exposed to the public limelight, however.

In recognizing China’s transformation of capacity and focus toward far seas anti-access missions, Taiwan is almost certainly also recognizing that Chinese area denial and conventional first strike capabilities, including sophisticated ballistic and cyber forces, are lengthening the shadow of the future for the island in conflict scenarios. A successful response to any degree of direct aggressive action on China’s part would undoubtedly require American intercession. Taipei’s forces would have to capably blunt or derail an attack long enough to allow the United States to deploy appropriate force.

New hardware, much of which was generally commented on in the defense report, is certainly needed to ensure that Taiwan’s conventional military units remain effective against Chinese counterparts. Anti-submarine warfare capabilities, advanced ballistic missile defense platforms, more surface combatants and stealth fighters, if they can feasibly be bought or built, will all boost the island’s survivability.

But many of the steps to be taken to transform Taiwan’s national-security capabilities and enable the possibility of sustained resistance beyond the opening phases of an assault are those that require or benefit from more clandestine preparation.

In particular, cyber defense capabilities benefit from the lack of a public profile of any kind, as Taiwan’s military leadership undoubtedly wants to avoid allowing China the ability to adapt or compensate for any online weapons the island might be able to bring to bear.

This is perhaps most important in the realm of focused offensive cyber assets that Taiwan could develop. After all, active defense of infrastructural and military systems is to be expected by China in the event of an assault on the island but any ability that Taipei might produce to disrupt counterpart military or intelligence systems, particularly those that are increasingly tying China’s over the horizon radar and communications platforms together to improve command and control awareness, need obscurity and confidentiality if they are to stand a chance of proving effective.

Furthermore, installation hardening and alternative infrastructure development projects are most likely best left unenumerated. While China is certainly aware of the drills that Taiwan has undertaken to assess the feasibility of military aircraft using highways in place of airfields assumed to be destroyed in an opening attack barrage, it would clearly be unwise to publicly indicate the location or nature of contingency assets, infrastructural and otherwise, that could simply be added to a list of sites to be targeted in a ballistic assault.

Finally, the problem of domestic threat awareness might benefit, at least in terms of the island’s international relationships, from an avoidance of the limelight.

The issue of popular complacency and willingness to shelf national security priorities in favor of more conservative outlooks on the prospect for conflict, laid out in a very brief paragraph in the defense review’s first chapter, is to be tackled in the future in several ways.

Notably, Taiwan aims to actively integrate defense education resources, increase popular awareness of threats from espionage and leverage increasing understanding of the island’s threat environment to gain support for future national-security improvement spending.

And that is about as specific as the leadership in Taipei likely wants to get. The diversion of defense funds to what could be construed as a politically motivated drive to galvanize nationalist support for greater military spending and an expansion of the national-security apparatus would almost certainly draw sharp criticism, and perhaps even further redistributions of force to coastal areas, from China.

Moreover, indications of a drive to institutionalize nationalist sentiment, even to improve threat awareness and create opportunities for intraregional security cooperation, could introduce an element of uncertainty to the calculations of policymakers from the United States and other potential partners. While many would value a strengthening of Taiwan’s capabilities and diversion from other pressure points in East Asia, nobody wants to see the development of a national mindset likely to provoke conflict.

So, whether Taiwan’s vague report is the result of poor planning development or of something more calculating, it is clear that the increasingly encircled nature of the island’s security environment generates both a significant need for unconventional defenses and for the secrecy to ensure that they remain effective options for the future.

North Korea Cancels Peace Pacts, Threatens Nuclear Strike

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a military parade in Pyongyang, April 14, 2012
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a military parade in Pyongyang, April 14, 2012 (AP/Han Guan)

Days of escalatory remarks and posturing on the Korean Peninsula culminated on Friday with the North announcing that all peace pacts with the South will be called off and threatening a nuclear strike against the United States. The move follows the unanimous approval of new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council as a punitive measure for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons test last month.

A spokesman for President Barack Obama stated in response that the United States can defend against any North Korean attack and that Pyongyang’s rhetoric is not unusual. However, the threat of nuclear assault is a serious problem for regional and international security. Could the rogue regime actually deliver a nuclear device to American soil? If not, could it hit treaty partners like Japan and South Korea?

North Korea has a mixed portfolio when it comes to the development and deployment of long range ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead. The vast majority of all attempts to test such delivery weapons, usually labeled as satellite launch systems for the purpose of seeing off international rebuke, have failed before the rocket entered orbit.

The first attempt to test a rocket in 1998 ended when the missile that was used disintegrated before leaving the atmosphere. A 2006 test of a more advanced missile platform resulted in the unit exploding less than a minute after takeoff. Successive attempts to launch increasingly sophisticated missiles last year all suffered from major mechanical failures, notably faulty ignition boosters.

However, the most recent missile test in December did result in a satellite package being delivered into orbit. The orbiting platform did spin out of control and burned up shortly thereafter but the delivery system was validated as at least being tentatively capable of performing the missions it was designed for.

The estimated flight range of the missile, some 10,000 kilometers, puts it as capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, in range of cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.

But a major factor in determining North Korea’s ballistic nuclear capabilities is in the marriage of the missile and explosive technologies involved. It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will be able to fit a warhead on such a rocket in the near future without fully succeeding in miniaturizing the explosive component. That process has many obstacles and experts deem it improbable that the regime has been able to produce a sufficiently advanced device that could be delivered.

That doesn’t preclude the possibility of an attack against American allies Japan and South Korea. While successful major conventional incursions into the South can be discounted, the potential for damage that could be wrought by the North’s estimated six to eight nuclear devices is worrisome. Both countries are easily within range of the short and medium range missiles in Pyongyang’s arsenal, missiles that are reliable and suited to carry nuclear warheads.

Japan’s missile defense system could be effective in shooting down such ballistic missiles and most of the North’s conventional missile corps poses no nuclear threat. However, the possibility that a single device hits a major target is almost certainly enough to motivate continued militaristic posturing and build up on the part of America’s allies.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that North Korea can realistically threaten the United States with a nuclear attack in the foreseeable future. But the chance that such an attack succeeds against the regime’s neighbors is a tangible one that will likely be the driving force of continued adversarial tête-à-tête in the region, particularly because the United States cannot write off the direct security implications of an attack against South Korea where thousands of American service personnel are stationed as a “tripwire” force to ensure the nation’s involvement in any conflict on the peninsula.