The Growing Threat from China’s Air Force

by Michael Auslin

China watchers have been fixated on the maiden voyage of Beijing’s first aircraft carrier this month. However, U.S. and Asian defense planners should take care not to ignore another aspect of China’s growing military might. The Chinese Air Force may one day play the most significant role in challenging America’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, looming cuts to the U.S. Air Force may wind up reducing its ability to protect American interests.

As the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center put it in a report last year, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, or Plaaf, has been “transforming itself from a poorly equipped and trained organization into an increasingly capable fighting force. Dramatic changes have occurred, and continue to occur, in the areas of mission, organizational structure, personnel, education, training, and equipment.”

Today, the Plaaf remains years behind the U.S. Air Force in experience, training and operational planning. But it is emphasizing those areas in an attempt to catch up.

The rest of this article may be read with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal site.

(flickr/Fir Z)

While the news of the day has been focused on Libya and the seemingly imminent demise of the Khadafy regime, this past weekend’s news also contained a reminder of the other side of the coin from the “Arab Spring”—Iran’s announcement that it was moving uranium enrichment centrifuges from its site in Natanz to the facility near Fordo, twenty or so miles north of the city of Qom. What’s especially problematic about the move is that the site is carved deep in the mountainside, making it very difficult to strike militarily from the air. This is just another (but crucial) piece of evidence that Iran has every intention of moving forward with creating a nuclear weapons capability.

Equally worrisome is the staid reaction of Washington and allies regarding the program’s progress. On Monday, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, said in the wake of the news that “The Iranian nuclear program offers no plausible reasons for its existing enrichment of uranium up to nearly 20 percent, nor ramping up this production, nor moving centrifuges underground….its failure to comply with its obligations to suspend its enrichment activities up to 3.5 percent and nearly 20 percent have given all of us in the international community reason to doubt its intentions.” “Reason to doubt its intentions”—no kidding! The U.S. and the international community have had reasons to doubt Iran’s intentions for nearly a decade, even while allowing the program to grow in size and sophistication.

One reason for the recent complacency is the view that covert efforts from a country or countries outside of Iran have been able to put a severe crimp in the program through planting a computer virus (dubbed “Stuxnet”) in the operating system at the enrichment facility. This led many to argue that the program’s enrichment effort had been set back by more than a year—perhaps even two. However, a recent report issued by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and authored by RAND senior adjunct defense analyst Greg Jones raises questions about whether that optimism is warranted. According to Jones, not only has the cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program not appreciably slowed its progress in enriching uranium but there are plausible scenarios that he outlines by which Iran could have enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon in two months rather than the year or so that most analysts and governments now estimate. Not to put too fine a point on the implications of his findings, Jones concludes by saying, “it is unclear what actions the U.S. or Israel could take (short of militarily occupying Iran) that could now prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. The reality is that both the U.S. and Israel have failed to prevent Iran from gaining the ability to produce nuclear weapons whenever Iran wishes to do so. It is time to recognize this policy failure and decide what to do next, based on a realistic assessment of Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts.”

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(flickr/user Daniella Zalcman)

China Doesn’t Have a Plan

by Michael Auslin

Vice President Biden’s trip to China would have been as forgettable as most high-level U.S.-China dialogues were it not for the Beijing Brawl and the Press-Conference Pusher, which revealed the biggest challenge we face in dealing with China: its attitude. When the People’s Liberation Army basketball team started stomping on Georgetown University players after what even a casual fan could see was the most biased officiating since Roy Jones Jr. was robbed of a gold medal in boxing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the imperative for the Chinese to humble their visitors was evident. Just as egregiously, Chinese security officials started physically shoving foreign reporters and then White House and U.S. Embassy staff out of the conference room where Biden was giving his prepared — and hence expected — remarks along with Xi Jinping, the putative next leader of China.

The optics of the trip now set, the rest of Biden’s visit only confirmed in the eyes of some the relative decline of the United States and rise of China. One Asian observer wrote that Biden came as a “supplicant,” not quite the image of building a personal relationship with Xi that the White House had hoped for.

For the past several years, China watchers have engaged in “Beijingology,” the successor to the Cold War Kremlinology, wherein every pundit worth his salt tried to explain what was going on in Moscow through supposed clues such as who stood next to whom on top of Lenin’s Tomb. Like priests in ancient Rome, today’s Beijingologists divine through signs and portents, though not yet bird entrails, what the leaders inside the Forbidden City are really thinking. Every action must have some grand ulterior plan; every slight, like those which marred Barack Obama’s 2009 trip to Beijing, is a move in a game of geopolitical go whereby China not only is increasing the territory it controls on the board of the Indo-Pacific, but is simultaneously reducing American maneuvering space.

Yet if we see all of China’s leaders as budding Henry Kissingers, we miss that China has an attitude problem as clear as the Bayi Military Rockets basketball team’s anger-management problem. China is like a lottery winner who goes from being the weak and regularly dissed George McFly in Back to the Future to being Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield’s nouveau-riche country-club boor in Caddyshack.

China may indeed want to supplant America on the world stage, but it is doing so at least as much through an unpredictable, often reflexive, attitude that is both opportunistic and emotional as it is through any master orchestrated approach. How else to explain China’s foreign minister telling Southeast Asian nations that China was big and they were small, the diplomatic equivalent of saying, “We really hope nothing happens to your nice new car”? Or Beijing’s refusal to let U.S. Navy ships in distress haul into the nearest port? Or Beijing’s choosing the visit of America’s secretary of defense as the best moment to unveil its new stealth fighter?

Beijing’s plan since the early 1980s has been clear: Get strong. But in its success, China has developed the idea that the world’s rules don’t apply to it. Imagine a China that respected human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. A China that pressured North Korea, Burma, Sudan, and Iran to behave responsibly, instead of acting as a sugar daddy to them. A China that protected intellectual property rights and upheld its contracts in foreign joint ventures. A China that didn’t point more than a thousand missiles at Taiwan. Instead, today we have a China that is undermining the global system that allowed it to get rich and powerful, a China that now feels a sense of grievance every time it is called to account for its disruptive behavior.

Yet in another way that psychologists love, we can see that China’s attitude stems not from its strength, but from its weaknesses. The Communist party is a brittle oligarchy distrusted if not hated by millions and millions of the people it rules. Thousands of protests and revolts reverberate through China each year, while ethnic and religious separatists in Xinjiang, Tibet, and other regions keep alive the great fear of civil war and the splintering of the country. When China’s rulers say their country is still weak and developing, they mean it. They know just how tenuous their hold on power is, and how much they depend on continued economic growth. Hence, trash talking about the U.S. and smacking down some American college basketball players (along with jailing Nobel Prize winners) is a way of showing everyone that this is a country not to be trifled with.

Of course, Washington is encouraging China’s attitude by ignoring its bad behavior, and it is making it easy for Beijing to act the responsible world power (and lecture us) by bankrupting our country and refusing to recognize it. When we follow that up by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the budgets of our Navy and Air Force, which keep the big peace in Asia, then the Chinese seem to be making a pretty good calculation that they just have to wait us out for a while before we’re too weak to oppose whatever whim they have on a given day. While they’re at it, they may as well kick sand in our faces if that will get us to go home more quickly.

Joe Biden’s trip and the China-U.S. Basketball Friendship Match simply confirmed for the Chinese that attitude is what you need. Maybe in this media-driven world they’re right. But more likely they’re wrong, because if you don’t have the seasoning to know when to pack it in, someone someday will call your bluff. And that may be a very messy day.

Cross-posted from National Review Online.


Talking to the Taliban Has Backfired

by Ahmad Majidyar

Last night, the British embassy in Kabul hosted an Iftar party on the occasion of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The guest list included senior ex-members of the Taliban regime. One photo from the event shows British ambassador William Patey posing cheerfully with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan.

The Taliban’s response to the embassy’s goodwill gesture is telling. Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the British Council office in Kabul this morning, killing at least eight Afghan policemen and taking over the compound for several hours. The Taliban’s spokesman said the group carried out the attack to mark the anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Great Britain in 1919.

With public support for the war in Afghanistan at an all-time low, U.S. and NATO military and civilian officials are desperately trying to reconcile with the Taliban to end the decade-long war in the country. Pres. Hamid Karzai’s government, too, is increasingly focusing on reconciliation with the Taliban at the expense of alienating ethnic minority leaders, who are rearming in fear of a Taliban comeback. But appeasement and unilateral concessions to the Taliban — such as freeing Taliban prisoners, removing their leaders from an international sanctions list, and offering Taliban leaders senior positions in the government — have not only failed to change the Taliban’s behavior but have also emboldened the terrorist group. Recently, the Taliban has stepped up violence and assassinations of government officials and further deepened ties with international terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

In his June 22 troop-withdrawal speech, President Obama stressed the need for a “political settlement” in Afghanistan and added that “America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” U.S. officials were optimistic that their “confidence-building” talks with Tayeb Agha, a former bodyguard of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, will lead to a diplomatic breakthrough with the Taliban. But the talks have stalled as Tayeb Agha has disappeared. Last year, a senior Taliban leader transported in a NATO helicopter to Kabul for peace talks turned out to be an impostor — a shopkeeper from Quetta, in Pakistan.

Today’s attack indicates that the policy of appeasing the Taliban has failed. Diplomatic engagement with the Taliban will not produce any results until the terrorist group is defeated militarily. One-sided engagement policy is not an exit strategy but a recipe for failure. It bolsters insurgents’ confidence, divides and weakens the Afghan government, and gives incentives to Pakistan to continue backing the Taliban for its “strategic depth” once foreign troops leave the country.

Cross-posted from National Review Online’s “The Corner.”

(flickr user Defence Images/British Ministry of Defence/Sgt Rupert Frere)

Why Tea Party should resist gutting defense

by John R. Bolton

Two recent, seemingly unrelated events weigh heavily on the question of whether America will remain able to protect its national security or languish in failed policies and a federal debt crisis that has led to our credit rating being downgraded.

First was the downing by Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan of a Chinook helicopter carrying members of Navy SEAL Team 6, inflicting the greatest loss of life ever suffered by that elite military unit.

Second was the appointment of a bipartisan congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. If the committee fails to do so, a “trigger” in the debt deal will force mandatory across-the-board cuts, half to come from defense.

This would mean cutting $500 billion to $600 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade. Those cuts would take place without respect to risk assessments or security needs, in spite of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; an increasingly menacing Iran intent on possessing nuclear weapons, as North Korea already does; an “Arab Spring” that may lead to a destabilized Middle East; and an ongoing global war on terrorism.

Many Tea Party supporters opposed the debt deal because they thought the spending cuts were largely illusory, postponed well into the deal’s later years. But now, with the deal in place, Tea Party activists and their allies must make clear that it undermines national defense, one of the few powers our Founders saw as truly critical for the federal government.

The Tea Party has had a major impact on Washington, shifting the terms of the national debate from how much to spend to how much to cut. This is a significant achievement. American liberty is only as strong as our ability to defend it, and a hollowed-out military is a disservice to both the cause of freedom and the Framers’ vision of the Constitution.

The Constitution clearly lays out the federal government’s responsibility to “provide for the common defense.” Of the 18 paragraphs in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, enumerating the powers the Congress, six-fully one-third-explicitly bear on national defense. Article II states expressly, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States [when in federal service].”

In Federalist No. 41, James Madison explained, “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.” To treat national defense as just another wasteful government program is not only unwise policy, it runs counter to the Framers’ basic constitutional priorities.

Madison explained further in Federalist No. 45 that the national government’s muscular exercise of its responsibility for national security made it less likely to infringe on the liberties of the people or the states. “The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense,” he argued, “the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.”

It makes no sense to put our military on the chopping block when any objective analysis shows the real culprit is entitlement spending. The Heritage Foundation predicts that between 2010 and 2015, total defense spending will fall from 4.9 percent to 3.6 percent of gross domestic product. Meanwhile, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid surpassed defense spending in 1976 and have grown unchecked since. These three programs alone risk completely crowding out the government’s primary constitutional obligation: defending our country.

That brings me back to the tragic loss of Navy SEALS recently in Afghanistan. This attack should have been a wake-up call to those who think special operations are fail-safe and the war on terrorism can be won on the cheap. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some in Washington believe we can fight guerrillas with a hollowed-out military geared toward special operations. But the elite forces that target terrorists on dangerous night missions require next-generation attack helicopters to transport them, drones to track the enemy, fighter aircraft like the F-18 and the F-35 to protect them, modern tankers to refuel the jets and bombers providing air support, and sophisticated command-control communications and intelligence systems to support them. Cutting those programs will leave our best soldiers, sailors and Marines sitting ducks in the most dangerous parts of the world.

George Washington said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” He was right, and his wisdom should inspire Tea Party members and other conservatives to oppose gutting our military.

Cross-posted from the Washington Times.

(flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25 /U.S. Army photo/Specialist Teddy Wade)

The Morality of Drone Warfare

by Sadanand Dhume

Last week, the London-based nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a series of articles accusing the U.S. of covering up civilian casualties caused by drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, President Obama’s former director of national intelligence, declared that America’s drone campaign “is eroding our influence and damaging our ability to work with Pakistan to achieve other important security objectives like eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.”

In reality, drones represent the most discerning–and therefore most moral–form of aerial warfare in human history. In Pakistan, they keep terrorists on the run. They also help Washington to pressure an ostensible ally that doesn’t respond to carrots alone.

According to the Bureau’s journalists, drones have killed at least 45 civilians over the past year. This flatly contradicts White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who said in June that drones have not caused “a single collateral death” since last August.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article here.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

In “Should the IDF’s storied Druze Battalion have a future?”, I examined the Israel Defense Force’s unique battalion dedicated to its Druze minority.  The IDF has a similar unit designed for its Bedouin citizens, called the Desert Scout Battalion, or Battalion 585. The battalion made history recently, installing the first Bedouin from the Negev desert as battalion commander.

Formally created in the 1980s, and based on earlier Bedouin formations that had fought alongside the Jewish population in Israel since the pre-state days, 585 is designed to accomplish a number of goals. It is a symbol of pride for Israel’s Bedouin, a sector as traditional as it is poor. Many Bedouin, especially from the south, serve as trackers, utilizing skills learned from growing up with traveling herds of livestock. Other opt for Battalion 585. The unit makes army service easier for Bedouin, many of whom barely speak or read Hebrew. Language courses, familial support, job training, and opportunities for career service are all offered in the 585.  For example, though the IDF relies on a small conscript regular army and a large reserve force, the Desert Scout Battalion has an entire company of career privates and sergeants, unheard of elsewhere in the army. Perhaps most importantly, the unit provides a pathway for Bedouin youth to integrate into Israeli society. Growing up as shepherds in tin shacks in the desert, many southern Bedouin see the IDF as the best means to learn Hebrew and learn a profession. Often taking multiple wives and bringing up families with over 15 children, young southern Bedouin men have limited options, with some turning to smuggling to support their households.

Though the unit faces its share of problems- including violence between its Bedouin and non-Bedouin Arab soldiers, theft of ammunition, and sometimes lax standards- it continues to play an important role in the identity of the Bedouin and their relationship with the state. The new Battalion Commander, Wahid al-Hozeil, is an example of what the unit can accomplish for a young Bedouin man.

Al-Hozeil, a hulking man with a gentle demeanor, joined the army at the late age of 22. He hails from Rahat, a large, poor Bedouin city in the northern Negev desert. He rose through the ranks patiently, and saw intense fighting in the Gaza Strip. He was one of the first to respond to the Gilad Schalit kidnapping in 2006. Seventeen years after enlisting, he is the first battalion commander from the southern Bedouin tribes. Prior commanders were either Jewish or came from the more affluent and integrated northern tribes.

Al-Hozeil’s appointment brings great pride to his community, and displays the special place the unit holds in the hearts of many Israeli Bedouin. Remembering the 1984 ceremony to mark the new Bedouin unit, Segev Shalom Regional Council head Amar abu Muamar said, “My late father, Sheikh Auda abu Muamar, matched alongside General Moshe Brill Bar Kokhba, and this was a great pride for all of us. Since that impressive ceremony, the Bedouin hoped that one day a Bedouin from the Negev would be appointed commander of the battalion, and that day has arrived.” The appointment has brought great excitement to Rahat as well, and many leading personalities from the town attended Al-Hozeil’s installation ceremony.

Though the  Desert Scout Battalion, dedicated to a minority community, might seem an anachronism in a modern democratic state, some of Israel’s unique minority communities have found in the army the smoothest path to advancement in a sometimes unwelcoming society. The 585 affirms to the Bedouin and to Israeli society that the Bedouin have a place in modern Israel, that they desire to contribute as much as Israel’s Jews, and that, given the opportunity, their achievements can do a great deal for the IDF and for the Bedouin community.

(Ma’ariv/Yehuda Lichiani)

A Welcome Convert

by Tom Donnelly

There is a certain irony, as well as much truth, in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s drumbeat of warnings about the consequences of further cuts to U.S. military budgets of the sort threatened under the current deficit reduction law.

In an appearance yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the National Defense University, Panetta rightly observed that the “kind of massive cut across the board — which would literally double the number of cuts that we’re confronting — that would have devastating effects on our national defense.” Panetta has vowed to fight against the $500-to-$600 billion in further cuts that would come either from the automatic “sequestration” mechanism in the law or the negotiations of the so-called “Super Committee” of 12 members of Congress to reach the mandated deficit-reduction targets.

But Panetta’s concerns, well founded as they may be, come rather late in the day.  On its own, the Obama Administration reduced planned defense budgets by a total of more than $400 billion in 2009 and 2010.  The president’s April deficit-reduction speech called for another $400 billion in cuts, which – not surprisingly – has been adopted as the new baseline budget from which the Super Committee will work.  AS a matter of fact, the Super Committee will have to work harder to truly “double” the Obama cuts thus far.  Having pushed the American military to the edge of the cliff, the defense secretary doesn’t want to leap over the precipice.  But it would be far wiser to avoid such risks in the first place.

And if he were really serious, Panetta would remind his president and his former colleagues in Congress that defense spending, when measured as a proportion of American wealth, has been declining since the end of the Cold War – even as the pace of military operations has risen.  Alone among agencies of the federal government, people in uniform are doing more with less, giving a “peace dividend” measured not only in dollars but in actual peace and security.

The truth is that any further reductions in U.S. military spending will have consequences measured in lost American power, influence and security.  Panetta, who by all accounts did a find job as CIA Director, has the liberal-Democrat-from-San-Francisco political credibility to tell the White House and the Nancy Pelosi Caucus in Congress that the time has come to balance national security – a public good enjoyed not just by Americans but the planet – against Social Security – a public good enjoyed by only some.

If the secretary of defense won’t defend defense, who will?

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(flickr user US Army/DoD photo/Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, U.S. Air Force)

We Must Stop the 2012 Defense Budget Train Wreck

by John R. Bolton

The risks of debilitating cuts to our national-security budget will be a critical issue for Congress when it reconvenes after the August recess. While the media focus as Congress adjourned earlier this month was on the big-picture implications of the legislation lifting the federal debt-ceiling, we cannot lose sight of the difficult — and imminent — struggles just ahead in September.

Critical appropriations measures for Fiscal Year 2012 (“FY 2012,” beginning October 1) will have a major impact not just in the immediate future, but will also set the stage — and budget baselines — for future force levels, research and development, weapons procurement, and budget allocations.

Resources for the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are, of course, also critically important, and should reflect what is necessary to support our troops fully. But we must also necessarily keep our ongoing defense needs in the center of any broader budget decisions. Dollars well spent for our national security are simply not fungible with expenditures elsewhere in the federal budget.

The central point of concern in September will be the Senate Appropriations Committee. Many analysts believe that the Committee’s budget allocation for FY 2012 defense spending will be approximately $525 billion, or roughly $ 4 to 5 billion below the level appropriated for FY 2011, the current fiscal year. (Other estimates place the figure as low as $ 520 billion.) A basic defense spending level of $ 525 billion for FY 2012 amounts to a reduction of approximately $ 28 billion from even President Obama’s request level of $ 553 billion.

The House appropriations level for FY 2012 is $530 billion, essentially the same as the current fiscal year, despite the House’s own endorsement of the President’s level when it adopted Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget resolution.

Thus, whether Congress accepts the House number for FY 2012 ($23 billion below the Obama level) or an even lower Senate number, there will be substantial defense cuts below even the parsimonious Obama request. Also at risk under both the House and Senate numbers are funds required for nuclear weapons and infrastructure modernization, provided in another appropriations bill.

These near-term cuts for defense are disproportionate and unsustainable. They will cause palpable damage to our defense capabilities now and well into the future.

In March, 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Gates said that “it is my judgment that the Department of Defense needs an appropriation of at least $ 540 billion for FY 2011 for the U.S. military to properly carry out its mission, maintain readiness, and prepare for the future.” (emphasis added)

But neither the House nor projected Senate levels for FY 2012 are at $ 540 billion, nor do they include even a minimal increase in Secretary Gates’ benchmark level to adjust for inflation over the prior fiscal year.

This looming debacle must be a priority for House and Senate Republicans when they return from the recess. While national-security authorizers and appropriators will be responsible for the budget specifics, they cannot guarantee adequate top-line defense spending without the fullest support and protection from both their leaderships and the full party caucuses in both the House and Senate. Pro-defense Democrats must also step forward, especially in the Senate where their party holds the majority, and effective control of floor debate.

The upcoming crucial battles over appropriations levels for FY 2012 will almost certainly foreshadow the negotiations in the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction established by the federal debt-ceiling legislation.

If we fail to protect America’s defenses in the FY 2012, budget, we can only expect to fail in the Joint Committee’s deliberations, and thereby fall prey to the budget guillotine inherent in the debt-ceiling legislation’s “trigger mechanism.” That trigger could produce even further defense cuts in the range of $ 500 to 600 billion.

Hollowing out America’s military would be a catastrophic mistake in a dangerous world. Recent press reports alone have highlighted, among other threats and challenges:

(1) The continuing dangers in Iraq and Afghanistan from terrorists and their state sponsors.

(2) Al Qaeda’s ongoing and very active efforts to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, most recently Al Qaeda in Yemen’s efforts to produce the pathogen ricin.

(3) The grave nuclear proliferation threats embodied in North Korea and Iran; and…

(4) China’s and Russia’s continuing assertive and even belligerent diplomatic offensives and the build-ups in their respective conventional and strategic weapons forces.

However important it is to restrain federal spending — and it is more important now than in living memory — it is not the time to skimp on defending America. September will be a critical month.

Cross-posted from Fox News.com

(flickr/user gregwest98)