Archive for the ‘Naval Operations’ Category

Missile Defenses in the Middle East

February 1, 2010

Administration and military officials have announced that the US is deploying additional missile defense systems in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.  The deployments include Patriot missile batteries in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain (similar batteries have long been stationed in Israel and Saudi Arabia), as well as Aegis cruisers armed with missile interceptors that are positioned in the Persian Gulf.  The moves are intended to counter the threat posed by Iran’s short -range and medium-range missiles; Western leaders fear that the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear warheads (Iranian leaders deny that they seek to acquire the Bomb) that could be launched by the aforementioned delivery vehicles against other countries in the region or America’s military forces. 

The US wants to prevent Iran, which is viewed as a hostile nation, from joining the nuclear club.  The administration has tried to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and threats of economic sanctions if the Iranian regime does not agree to take steps that would make it difficult for its scientists to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.  In December of last year, Tehran accepted a deal to ship its unprocessed uranium abroad but backed out before it was finalized.

According to administration officials, the US is deploying the missile defense systems for the following reasons:

1. To reassure its Arab allies and dissuade them from building their own nuclear arsenals for deterrence purposes.

2. To deter Iran from developing the Bomb or using it against American interests in the region.

3. To persuade Israel not to launch a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

It is doubtful if the deployments will have much of an effect on the situation.  They might provide a modicum of psychological comfort to Arab leaders, but American security guarantees (i.e., promises to come to the defense of its friends and allies in the event of an Iranian attack) would better achieve that purpose.  The US has already suggested that it would retaliate against Iran if the Islamic Republic launched a nuclear strike, and that threat should be sufficient unless Arab governments do not consider it to be credible.

When it comes to deterring Iran from creating an atomic arsenal, missile defense systems will not likely change the decision calculus of Iranian leaders, who understandably fear that America will invade their nation and almost certainly want nuclear weapons to protect themselves from perceived external threats; such weapons would be a good deterrent because no country would want to invade a nuclear Iran and risk suffering an atomic counterattack even if the invading forces, or its allies, possessed missile defense systems that could lower the chances that a nuclear-armed missile would get through.  As far as dissuading Iran from launching a first strike, the threat of nuclear retaliation alone would be enough to deter the Islamic Republic, so Patriot missiles are superfluous in this regard.

Israel already had Patriot missiles before the US put more in the region, and putting interceptors in Arab countries and the Persian Gulf would not substantially change Israel’s security status because Israel is not very close to the Gulf and Patriots are terminal-phase defense systems (meaning they are designed to destroy incoming warheads shortly before they detonate in the target area), so basing them in Arab states would not protect Israel.  Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, but if the Jewish state still feels like that is not enough to deter Iran from hitting Tel Aviv with atomic weapons the mere presence of more Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers will not stop Israeli leaders from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Nuclear weapons would not be the greatest threat to American interests emanating from the Islamic Republic if Iran becomes a nuclear power.  The country’s ability to use terrorist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies, foment instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and close down the Straits of Hormuz, through which a large percentage of the world’s oil supply transits, are much more plausible methods that Iran could employ against the US and its partners in the region. 

However, theater missile defense systems are not without purpose.  They could be useful in knocking down Iranian missiles armed with conventional warheads in the event of a conflict.  Although the odds that Iranian leaders would launch a nuclear first strike are extremely low (unless their country were invaded), there is a significant probability that they would use regular missiles to attack American military bases, large ground formations or the cities of US allies if a war involving the Islamic Republic broke out in the Middle East.

Containing a Nuclear Iran

January 19, 2010

Last Friday, ForeignPolicy.com published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.

China Accused of Launching Cyberattacks

January 15, 2010

Today, the New York Times published an article by David Sanger and John Markoff in which they discuss cyberattacks against Google that were allegedly launched by Chinese hackers who were probably supported by the Chinese government if the allegations are true.  The reporters speculate that the intruders were trying to do one of the following things:

1. Gain commercial advantage.

2. Insert spyware.

3. Break into the email accounts of Chinese dissidents and American experts on China who frequently exchange email messages with administration officials.

Other technology companies might also have been targets, including Yahoo, Symantec, Adobe, Juniper, Northrop and a prominent research organization with ties to the White House. 

Aside from the commercial implications of the attacks, there are also national security aspects to cyber threats.  Two years ago, a computer system in the Office of the Secretary of Defense was penetrated, and US officials believe the Chinese government was behind the effort, although there was no definitive proof that China was culpable.  The difficulty of pinpointing the exact source of an attack complicates the task of defending against them and taking retaliatory measures. 

There is a high probability that cyberwarfare would be part of any Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan or take away its de facto independence through coercion, and American military forces could be vulnerable in the event of a conflagration because they rely heavily on computer systems for things like communication and targeting.  China has already successfully tested anti-satellite missiles that could take out military hardware in space and seriously disrupt US naval and air operations if America intervened in the conflict, and there is strong reason to believe that the Chinese would use non-kinetic means for similar ends.

Naturally, American defense personnel are waging defensive cyberwarfare against hackers from China and elsewhere.  After the aforementioned incident at the Department of Defense, the US reportedly warned Chinese officials that further attacks against America’s national security apparatus would not be tolerated, which suggests that America maintains offensive cyberwarfare capabilities that could be used to retaliate against attackers or preemptively in the early stages of a conflict.

US Sells More Arms to Taiwan

January 13, 2010

On Monday, the Chinese government responded to America’s decision to sell Patriot missile defense batteries to Taiwan by testing a land-based missile defense system of its own, according to Chinese officials.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has placed hunderds of missiles within striking distance of Taiwan, which is one reason why the island wants a missile defense system.

Most Chinese consider Taiwan to be a renegade province that should be part of the People’s Republic, whereas the US treats Taiwan like a separate country despite its so-called “One-China” policy, according to which America supports the idea of a peaceful reunification of the two territories at an indeterminate point in the future.  For decades the US has sold weapons to its longtime ally, which infuriates Chinese leaders.  Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after America recognized the communist regime in Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government and closed its embassy in Taipei, the US is obligated to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature and maintain the capability to respond militarily to any use of force or coercion that threatens Taiwan’s security or independence.

Taiwan has no inherent strategic value to the US.  But the American government offers support to the de-facto nation for three main reasons:

1. It wants to deter a Chinese attack that could destablize the East Asia region, where the US has vital economic and security interests.

2. The ability to provide or withhold specific weapons systems to Taiwan is a diplomatic bargaining chip that can be used in negotiations with China.

3. Pro-Taiwanese  and anti-Chinese constituencies in the US encourage American politicians to help Taiwan improve its defensive posture.

It is unclear if the Obama administration or its successors would intervene with force in response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan.  They would not be legally obligated to do so by any treaty, and the American government maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity”  toward this potential conflict to insure political flexibiliy.  

The desire to protect Taiwan’s independence would not justify a war with China, which is one of America’s most important international partners.  A military conflagration with the People’s Republic could prove costly to US forces, especially since the PLA has been procuring area denial weapons like submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles that could target American naval vessels, including aircraft carriers (a few years ago a Chinese diesel submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier battle group before it was detected).  Moreover, America’s security commitments to its other allies in the region would still be credible if the US did not join the fight because of the unique nature of Taiwan’s situation; in fact, a battle between China and Taiwan would probably strenghten the US-Japanese alliance, which has been somewhat weakened lately, partly due to a dispute over the location of a Marine air base on Okinawa.

Combating Somali Pirates

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, an oil tanker headed to the US from Saudi Arabia was hijacked by Somali pirates.  The attack was another addition to the long list of such incidents in the past decade (10 ships have been hijacked in just the last two month). 

The pirates have increased their capability and range over time.  They now mount attacks from mother ships stationed in the middle of the ocean, from which they launch smaller vessels against their targets.  The tanker captured Sunday was seized 600 miles off the coast of Somalia where the pirate bases are located.

Piracy has flourished in the Indian Ocean between the Gulf of Aden and the Seychelles islands despite increased naval patrols.  This trend may be the result of a flawed strategy pursued by concerned powers.  Navy vessels from the US and other countries cruise off Somalia’s coast and other parts of the ocean looking for pirates, but the area that the US Fifth Fleet and foreign navies have to patrol is 2.5 million square miles, which makes their task daunting to say the least.

A better method of combating the pirates would be to set up a convoy system like the Allies did in World War Two to reduce the effectiveness of German submarines.  A convoy strategy would force hijackers to take on warships rather than evade them as they have been doing.  The odds that pirates could successfully capture oil tankers or other vessels that were guarded by destroyers are very low, so using convoys would almost certainly limit the ability of the hijackers to kidnap people and disrupt trade.