Chinese Military Progress Can Worsen Sea Disputes

This past week has seen developments for the military of the People’s Republic of China that could eventually alter the balance of power between states that are engaged with it in disputes in the South and East China Seas.

On Wednesday, new pictures were released of a Chinese stealth fighter prototype taxiing near a testing and development site.

The press leak that revealed the existence of the plane, an aircraft thought to be the Shenyang J-21/J-31 outcome of the country’s domestic stealth fighter jet competition, corresponded with the visit of American defense secretary Leon Panetta and clearly showed a design different from last year’s J-20. According to experts familiar with fifth-generation fighter design, the plane shares airframe characteristics with fighters like the American F-22 Raptor, even down to the twin engine design of the platform’s rear. Read more “Chinese Military Progress Can Worsen Sea Disputes”

Libya Consulate Attack Could Force Deeper US Engagement

On Wednesday morning, the Reuters news agency reported that four Americans, including the country’s ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, had been killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the cradle of last year’s revolt against the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The ambassador and members of his staff were killed when unidentified men stormed the grounds of the diplomatic site, armed with small weapons and homemade explosives. Though no official details have emerged on how Stevens and the three members of his staff died, Libyan sources have indicated that a volley of rocket fire may have been responsible. It is thought by most commentators that protests against an American film said to insult the Prophet Muhammad served as the primary motivator for the assailants.

The tragic development is the latest in a series of attacks against international and government personnel across the Middle East and North Africa. From an assault on a Red Cross convoy carrying British diplomats across Libya to recent violent protests at American and other embassies in Cairo, Egypt, disturbances clearly indicate that the political and social fallout of last year’s upheaval in the region has yet to dissipate.

Indeed, given the severity of today’s criminal act and the grave impact that diplomatic deaths can have on a country’s policy actions, it is likely that the near term future may see an American refocusing of efforts on dealing with unrest and other ongoing issues in the new and established countries of the Middle East.

More violent than the protest movements in Tunisia and even Egypt, the 2011 international campaign in the skies above Libya was seen by many as having been relatively successful for the United States and its coalition partners in terms of remaining relatively withdrawn from invasive operations in support of democratic regime change.

Unlike the campaign on the ground for rebel forces, the conclusion of Libya’s “Arab Spring” movement turned out to be a discreet coup for the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Although expensive, both the support of various Arab League and NATO partners and the clear mandate to avoid ground missions allowed the United States to act in a limited fashion, intervening without the need to stall ongoing operational rebalancing to priorities in Asia and the Pacific.

This kind of intervention capacity, one that includes a level of reliance on the support of responsible international partners, may be increasingly valuable as America restructures its commitments in the wake of a political decision to focus on East Asia and the ongoing focus on budgetary austerity across the Western world.

However, in the context of the embassy attack, it seems likely that the challenge for American administrations will lie not only in deploying such intervention capacity but also having to affect involvement in a region whose priority status was envisioned to be diminishing. After all, with unrest and uncertainty presently peaking in events like those that killed Ambassador Stevens, it is undoubtedly the case that the United States will need to devote significant and visible efforts to encouraging and supporting the construction of institutional stability in countries in both Africa and the Middle East.

One point to consider is that, given that most recent dissident acts of violence have come from the general citizenry, as opposed to official government or third party groups, the United States will be incentivized to lend significant support to local governments in the form of security advising and engaging with stakeholders to crack down on factions that are contributing to instability across the region. Those factors include and are exacerbated by the fact that large segments of Arab population remain in possession of arms that were used during protests and rebel actions last year.

The basic fact is that the attacks on American diplomatic sites in Egypt and Libya communicate a continued need for American engagement in the Middle East. It seems likely that policymakers, particularly given upcoming elections in the United States and obvious corollaries to the situation in Syria, will quickly address the previously waning topic of how security aid can be directly rendered to those states that emerged from the Arab Spring.

Indeed, popular dissension and dangerous circumstances for international actors imply that the United States might even have to throw stabilizing efforts into high gear in the short term to assure both regional partners and new acquaintances alike.

The question will inevitably be whether or not America can adapt to such a diffusion of national security priorities. Can Washington act to adopt appropriate granular approaches to affecting policies in the Middle East that can, at the same time, both guide broad confidence building initiatives and keep resource commitments, and thus the viability of achieving other global goals, in check?

Given the escalation of localized unrest these past few days and the sudden impact it has had on international diplomacy, we will surely find out in the weeks and months to come.

Canada Closes Embassy, Joins Isolation of Iran

Canada announced on Friday that it will be closing its embassy in Iran. All Iranian diplomatic staff in Canada will be expelled soon due to ongoing concerns about international security and the safety of embassy personnel currently in Tehran.

The government’s move to affect a political disconnect with Iran came by means of a statement made by the foreign minister, John Baird. It effectively puts Canada on the same level as the United States when it comes to dealings with the Islamic republic — no diplomatic engagement alongside an official position of disapproval.

In the text, Baird lambasted Iranian leaders’ “racist antisemitic rhetoric and incitement of genocide,” a clear allusion to comments directed by religious leaders against the state of Israel. He also cited ongoing support for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, who is battling an uprising against his regime, and resurgent concerns about restrictions placed on International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors as the primary catalysts of the Canadian decision.

Perhaps most dramatically, Ottawa officially listed Tehran as a state sponsor of terrorism and placed warning based travel restrictions on Canadian nationals seeking to visit the country.

Though it takes away some flexibility of discourse when it comes to Canadian concerns over regional issues concerning Iran, the decision is clearly one that reflects understanding of a broader trend of distancing that is underway in international affairs.

With Iran allegedly closing in on achieving the necessary conditions to build an explosive nuclear device, many countries fear that the security situation in the Middle East may degenerate toward one of instability and crisis. When viewing this potential trend with historical instances of upheaval and anti-foreign assertiveness by Iran, including the storming of American and British embassies at various points in the last three decades, it is easy to see why a country may be inclined to adopt, at minimum, a cautious standoff position.

The wording of Baird’s statement was powerful and indicated strong support of the positions held by Israel and the United States. Most significant, though, is that the move shields Canadian personnel and institutions from political and diplomatic harm in a future crisis to a greater degree than had been possible before.

Canada’s position indicates where the holding point of international actors’ relationships with Iran seem destined to rest.

In recent months, countries across the globe have joined the United States in sanctioning the Islamic regime for its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Neighboring states like Saudi Arabia have indicated a willingness to support Western economic and political action against Tehran, while Asian and European countries have taken the flexible position of counseling for restraint on all fronts.

However, the main question to come out of Ottawa’s decision has to be whether or not protecting the personal security of diplomatic staff is a good enough reason to shut down the lines of communication. Canada’s last ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, asked that very question Monday in a The Globe and Mail piece that challenged the efficacy of the government’s decision.

Mundy argues that Canada has removed itself as a stakeholder in the country, even if it was only able to act in a limited fashion. Following events on the ground in Tehran will become more difficult without dedicated representation there.

Moreover, Ottawa will no longer be able to liaise with new leadership following upcoming elections, something that precludes Canada from being able to offer assessment of issues and candidates to the international community.

Perhaps most importantly, severing diplomatic ties and removing personnel security from the list of concerns that Canada has about Iran merely serves to exacerbate another issue. Officials can no longer lobby for or take action on behalf of Canadian citizens in Iran, including those in prison. And though the country has issued a cautionary statement to its nationals, travel to Iran is still possible and there are a number of dual citizens present in the Islamic republic.

Canada was one of the few remaining Western nations to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran. The choice to isolate it not only removes potential paths for dialogue; it illustrates the international community’s polarization on the issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

After all, since states have historically been reluctant to sever ties with those partners seen as adversarial, Canada’s actions do little to indicate anything other than what many around the world have feared for some time — that the writing, with regard to taking action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, is on the wall.

The Navy’s Drone Fighter Almost Ready for Testing

After years of design work, virtual simulations and basic field testing, DefenseNews reports that Northrop Grumman’s X-47B is almost set for scheduled active at sea trials this coming year.

The plane, actually an unmanned drone, is the Navy’s attempt to design a combat platform suitable for takeoff and landing operations aboard an aircraft carrier and is likely just the first of what will end up being the next generation of air combat capabilities for the United States Navy.

Sea trials will take place aboard the Nimitz class supercarrier Harry S. Truman sometime next year and will test a variety of mechanisms and features common to carrier-based jet fighters, including the ability to use launching catapults and arrestor wires. Most of these features, unseen in prior unmanned aircraft designs, have represented an added layer of complexity for the designers of the X-47B, as the intricacies and nuanced interactions of the plane with shipboard systems must be performed with a much higher degree of precision and coordination than is typically seen in land based aerial operations.

That being said, while it may seem that unmanned platforms are only just catching up to the performance capabilities assumed to be normal for manned planes, nothing could be farther from the truth. Read more “The Navy’s Drone Fighter Almost Ready for Testing”

A New Air Force Procurement Strategy for Taiwan

It is reported that Taiwan has more than halved the number of F-16 fighter planes it requests from the United States government, from 66 down to 24.

The China Times based in Taipei quotes a supposedly authoritative military source on the matter. That source, in citing budgetary concerns as the primary reason for the reduced order, indicates that the combined cost of indigenous defense programs and other international purchases would not leave sufficient funds over the course of near term fiscal periods to accommodate a large purchase.

While the Taiwanese government has denied the report, other news outlets, citing multiple sources, have picked up on the news. In many ways, a reduction in F-16 purchases does make sense. Read more “A New Air Force Procurement Strategy for Taiwan”

What Role for China’s Second Stealth Fighter?

In June, a video appeared on YouTube that showed Chinese military equipment being transported down a major highway. Upon close examination, it became obvious to many in the blogosphere that the tarpaulin covered vehicle was a jet fighter, one that matched descriptions and previously seen renders of the fifth-generation J-21 “Snowy Owl” stealth fighter.

The Air Force of the People’s Republic of China is known to be encouraging the development of fifth-generation stealth capable aircraft, having last January publicly engaged in initial flight testing for the Chengdu J-20 “Black Eagle,” a twin engine plane with conformal weapons storage and a stealthy shape reminiscent of the American F-22 Raptor.

Indeed, despite the general knowledge that two companies have been competing to design China’s first stealth fighter, repeat sighting of the J-20 and reports that a second prototype has entered full testing led many commentators to conclude, until now, that the Chinese army’s choice was made. Read more “What Role for China’s Second Stealth Fighter?”

Stretching Navy Budgets Too Far?

In an era where austerity measures and budget stretching has seen the United States Navy send vessels on prolonged and increasingly wearing deployments, it is reported that one major ship seems to have been left behind. Navy spokesmen this week responded to queries about the status of the USS Wasp, a 41,000 ton big deck amphibious assault ship that hasn’t been deployed for a major cruise in almost eight years, amid concerns about the operational condition of the vessel’s combat system.

The ship, which is currently being used as a testbed for the technologies and operations systems to be deployed fleetwide with the rollout of the vertical takeoff and landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter, has not been used to carry a Marine Expeditionary Unit as part of an Amphibious Ready Group since 2004. All other big deck amphibious ships in the Navy have acted in that role several times throughout the same period, with the deployment schedule of most topping eight months for each cruise. In contrast, the Wasp‘s cruises have not lasted for more than four months in years. Read more “Stretching Navy Budgets Too Far?”

Budgetary Gamble of the America Class Warship

This week, the United States launched the first of a new breed of assault ship, the America class, from drydock at the Ingalls shipbuilding facility near Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship is designed primarily to support the Marine Corps and could represent the start of a significant redistribution of power projection focus within America’s armed forces in the near to medium term.

The United States are forging ambitiously ahead with plans to develop their amphibious assets. The launch of the mammoth USS America follows last week’s announcement of a $2.4 billion contract between the government and Ingalls for the construction of the USS Tripoli, the second ship in the America class.

As amphibious assets, the two 45,000 ton ships will provide air support, command coordination and shallow water backing for Marine operations abroad.

These vessels differ from previous amphibious assault ships in one critical way — they are geared toward aviation. Read more “Budgetary Gamble of the America Class Warship”

A Temporary Reprieve for the Philippines

China and the Philippines agreed this week to exercise restraint in all statements and for all actions regarding their ongoing bilateral dispute in the South China Sea. As the result of an incident in which Chinese surveillance vessels interceded to prevent the arrest of fishermen by a Philippine navy ship, both countries have had naval assets stationed near an island chain for some weeks and have actively engaged in a war of words centered around one question — who owns the Scarborough Shoal?

While Beijing continues to claim that the territory, deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, is inalienably Chinese, it is clear that both sides are wary of escalating tensions any further.

The announcement, made Tuesday by the Philippine defense minister following talks with his Chinese counterpart, plainly aims to mitigate the possibility of sudden escalations over contested seabed territories and pave the way for a successful diplomatic outcome. Read more “A Temporary Reprieve for the Philippines”

A Precedent-Setting Sale in the Taiwan Straits

The House of Representatives in the United States ordered the sale of more advanced F-16 multirole fighters to Taiwan this month. The move, a big step forward for Taiwan in preparing for the future, may be precedent setting in more ways than one and could inspire new thinking in both Beijing and Taipei.

While the sale of warplanes to Taiwan is yet to be approved by the Senate and the president, congressional success in the lower house represents a breakthrough for those Republican leaders in Washington who have long favored greater military and financial support for the island based Republic of China. Read more “A Precedent-Setting Sale in the Taiwan Straits”