North Korea Tests an ICBM

As if attempting to troll the United States, the DPRK test fired it’s first ICBM on the Fourth of July. The test was a high altitude “lobbed” trajectory affair that hit 2800 km at its apogee and landed 930 km downrange of the test site. If fired for distance at a normal trajectory the missiles range is estimated at between 6700 km and 8000 km; enough to strike Anchorage and Seattle respectively.

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The INF Is On It’s Deathbed

Since Donald Trump took office nuclear hawks have been on a quest to redevelop America’s nuclear arsenal and dismantle non-proliferation efforts. Senators like Tom Cotton have called for scrapping roughly 30 years of nuclear treaties dating back to the Reagan administration in response the Russia’s violation, with possibly the most important treaty on the chopping block being the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

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The GMD Finally Intercepts an ICBM (kinda)

On May 30th the Ground Based Mid-Course Missile Defense system (GMD) successfully intercepted it’s first ICBM. Authorized in 1999 by the Missile Defense Act and offically deployed over a decade ago, the GMD has been plagued with problems. The test on May 30th was the first time the system was successfully tested against the threat it was designed to defeat.

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Assaulting Hodeidah Is A Terrible Idea

After years of war Yemen is on the brink of catastrophe. Food and medical supplies are running low across the country. In the Houthi controlled areas and the nations medical infrastructure has been critically damaged by bombing from the Arab coalition and supplies cut off by the blockade.

Yemen was already on the brink of famine, but a few a weeks ago a new threat emerged: Cholera.

Transmitted through unpurified water. The disease causes severe dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea. In the west such a disease would be rare and relatively easy to contain, but in Yemen over half the population does not have access to clean drinking water, meaning the disease is spreading like plague.

The disease has already spread to tens of thousands and killed hundreds. Without adequate health infrastructure containment has failed. The fact that many Yemenis are already malnourished is no doubt exacerbating the deadliness of the disease. The result has been a four to five fold increase in the case mortality rate.

With a suspected 2,000 new cases a day, experts expect the disease could reach 300,000 cases in the next six months. If the math holds we can expect three to fifteen thousand fatalities from Cholera alone; more than those killed by the fighting itself.

With the food and medical food already a planned offensive against the port of Hodeidah is threatening to turn them in catastrophe. With malnutrition already rampant and many areas on the brink of famine, the planned offensive against the port of Hodeidah would threaten 70 to 80 percent of Yemen’s external trade, essentially cutting off food imports.

While the coalition claims the operation would only last for six weeks. A recent Vice article noted that this is wildly optimistic; and I agree.

Given the way the coalition has fought I see no evidence that they are capable of quickly capturing a complex urban environment or being able to avoid destroying vital port infrastructure necessary to keep Yemen from famine.

Such operations are possible. In World War II the allies captured the French Port of Brest in a similar time-frame and Cherbourge in half that duration. Before that, in 1940 the Wehrmacht secured several french ports as part of it’s thrust to cut off French and British forces. If an assault is coordinated well in both the operational and strategic sense, a port can be taken in a matter of days.

In the case of Yemen the circumstances are much different. Such an operation would require land based maneuver forces to land around the port or come in from the North from the coastal plain. The mechanized forces would then have to surround to port and quickly reduce the pocket in a series of coordinated combined arms assaults. Essentially they would have to fight like a modern western marine or army corps, not a slow moving tactically and operationally inept Arab army.

This is not purely conjecture; we already have a data point to work from. The battle to recapture the port of Aden in 2015 took nearly 4 months and the coalition still has not made much headway into the Houthi heartland. The idea they could launch a seaborne direct assault against a port and take without knocking it out for an extended period is fanciful.

 

There was a time not long ago when I did support a new American backed offensive against the Houthis to gain leverage over them and restore security to the Mandeb Al-Bab strait. That time has passed. The situation is so fragile that an intensification of the fighting could lead to the deaths of tens of thousands by disease and starvation.

In Hodeidah we must find another way. If we don’t the bodies could start to pile up very fast.

A Way Forward On North Korea

With North Korea on the precipice of an nuclear deterrent the United States will face some very tough choices in the coming years that will determine the course of the American policy in East Asia.

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THAAD systems rolling off of a Strategic lift aircraft in Osan Air Base South Korea. (source)

I’ll be frank; I have no confidence that we can stop the North Korean missile or nuclear program at this point with diplomacy or any other non-Kinetic means. Even with a whirlwind shift from both China and the Trump administration I don’t see a positive outcome given the time constraints and the political situation.

The window for denuclearization has passed. Even peace advocates agree that North Korea is unlikely to accept, or even consider such a proposal given the current state of their nuclear program and the investment in pro-nuclear propaganda both domestically and internationally.

The Perry doctrine then, where the end result of pressure and sanctions are negotiations to stall the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs is becoming increasingly unrealistic given the advanced state of those programs. Freezing this program where it stands is simply not a politically viable option. The North already has the ability to mount a warhead onto a missile that could reach American bases in the region.

An agreement to freeze their program would also come at the cost unacceptable political and military cost to the United States. Kim has made his demands clear: the U.S would be asked to abandon or roll back it’s commitments to South Korea and release most of the sanctions on the North in exchange for a deal that would allow North Korea to keep it’s nuclear weapons.

With political options lacking viability we find ourselves on the losing end of a stalemate, where the North Korean’s are able to use our  risk aversion of it’s advantage.

With the United States is in willing to accept a De Jure nuclear armed North Korea or lose face to the Kim Regime in the domestic or international arenas, the crisis has festered. As time passes Kim will continue to build up it’s nuclear program.

Trump’s Approach

Donald Trump’s approach to the DPRK is essentially a more aggressive rebrand of the failed Bush and Obama policies. Trump (really Mattis and McMaster) are sending carriers to the region and continuing to hold exercises with South Korea. There is also engagement with China to stop accepting coal shipments from the DPRK and new sanctions are being discussed. It’s what you might call “strategic impatience.”

Trump’s strategy, much like the past two administrations, is less of a strategy and more of a tactic. There is no clear political end game in mind. The U.S continues to impose sanctions and shift military assets around the Pacific as a show of strength hoping that Kim Jong Un will either be deposed or the regime will ask seek terms.  This is also highly unrealistic given the goals and strategic position of the regime.

Goals of the Kim Regime

The primary goal of the North Korean regime is to sustain itself regardless of the cost. With the bomb they see themselves as safe from an American intervention A la Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Grenada, Panama. etc.

In this calculus the needs of the North Korean people, biological or otherwise are not given much weight. Their society is militarized to the extreme. Billions of dollars out of North Korea’s tiny economy are spent on it’s nuclear program and the military even as basic needs like subsistence go unmet. Even with the food shortages the regime still pushes large families to keep the population up. Any argument that the regime sees the populace as anything more than potential soldiers is hardly a strong one.

Because of this, sanctions that effect the ability of the people to live will not weigh heavily on the regime unless the situation becomes completely unbearable as in the 1990s where an estimated three million people died of starvation.

There is little chance the people would rise up against the regime in any case. The DPRK is a sealed society based around the cult worship of the Kim family. The denizens of the DPRK are virtual slaves; many of which know no other reality than the one presented to them by the regime. A coup would only possible from the higher echelons of regime where the power is concentrated and then, only if they believed catastrophe was imminent.

The threat of force also has little effect on the regime. Kim knows the bluff. He knows the United States is hesitant to attack him when he has over 1100 pieces of artillery aimed at the South Korean capital, along with dozens of submarines and an arsenal of ballistic missiles that could kill thousands of Americans, Japanese and South Koreans.

To Kim, both approaches, the sanctions and the threat of force become two sides of same regime change strategy. He does not trust the United States to keep a bargain and every day the United States fails to topple his regime is a day the North gets closer to a functional nuclear deterrent. Kim has every reason to keep going ahead with his nuclear weapons program and very little reason to negotiate.

The Strategic Dynamic

Clausewitz noted that war (and politics by extension) is like a duel where two opponents actively attempt to overpower each other. American views of North Korea however, describe them as a problem, rather than as an active and dynamic opponent that has it’s own goals and will resist attempts to disarm it.

There is also an element of hubris that is blinding America to the reality of the situation. There is a belief that because the United States is so powerful it can exercise unlimited control over another country if it is willing to try hard enough. We see this today with people who still contend that we lost in Vietnam because we were unwilling to use enough force.

The same basic issue applies today in the politics of North Korea. Even though America’s power dwarfs the DPRK in nearly every dimension, the advantages of the defense put Kim on the high ground. America has limited goals but is unwilling to employ even limited force (i.e “all measures short of war”). North Korea on the other hand has even more limited goal (survival) and is willing to use unlimited force (i.e begin a nuclear war) to achieve to it.

There is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the DPRK’s nuclear program. It is not some token they are willing to part with, it is an integral part of their defense complex and increasingly, their society. They view it as an existential necessity and unless the U.S and South Korea are willing to wage total war there will be no disarmament. The force needed to take away the bomb is likely equivalent to the amount of force needed to topple the regime.

These strategic imbalances and misunderstandings make it impossible for the U.S to stop the DPRK nuclear program through current measures and has created a path toward continued nuclear weapons development in North Korea.

Conclusion

It’s time to admit that North Korea’s program cannot be stopped through non-kinetic means. The United States has nothing to offer the regime and they do not trust The U.S to keep promises. Nor do they care if their people starve. All of the pressure in the world is not going to make Kim humble himself and put a gun to his head, especially when he’s so close to a functional deterrent.

In short; the Kim dynasty has played their hand extraordinarily well and will likely achieve it’s deterrent. But, as Clausewitz said, one of the things that keeps war from it’s extremes is the fact that there is almost always a round two. This is next stage is what the United States needs to be preparing for, not doubling down on a failed policy with an unachievable goal.

 

American Armored Vehicles Enter Manbij

Several convoys containing a number of American Stryker APCs has been spotted driving from the eastern side of the Euphrates river in northern Syria and entering the Kurdish held city of Manbij. The vehicles were armed with a a 12.7 and 7.62mm machine guns, and bear clear unit markings. The Strykers were clearly identifiable as American due to the large American flags shown flying high over the several of the vehicles. Also shown are HMMWVs  bracketing the convoys from the front and rear.

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U.S Soldiers disembark from their HMMWVs near Manbij (source)

This is a big leap for American involvement in the Syrian conflict. While there have been Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Syria prior to this deployment, they kept a low profile and moved around in non-standard vehicles. The forces now in Manbij are not only using standard American equipment, but the equipment itself is also clearly marked with American flags and unit markings that overtly signal an American presence .

The reason for this deployment was made apparent shortly after first pictures emerged, with the U.S has announcing that it is increasing it’s presence in  Manbij to “deter hostile acts, enhance governance & ensure there’s no persistent YPG presence.” In other words, the troops are meant to assure the Turks that there are no YPG units operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces west of the Euphrates. Implicitly (and more importantly) ,the troops are also meant to deter Turkey from taking further action against the America’s partners in Syria.

As Turkey has expanded it’s zones of control it has attacked both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds, viewing them both as a threat to Turkish security. Recently, Erdogen vowed to take Manbij after the capture of Al-Bab was completed. With clashes ongoing around the edge of the salient it’s clear the Turkish president was serious about his threat.

Because the United States is relying on Kurdish forces to take the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Turkish aggression against the SDF is clearly damaging to American objectives in Syria. It appears that rather than try to talk Erdogan out of an offensive, the Trump Administration has decided to simply present him with a fait accompli, by placing American forces in the way of an Turkish/FSA advance.

With American troops now in Manbij, Turkish aggression against SDF forces has been all but ruled out, similar to how the introduction of Russian forces in regime areas ruled out western military action against Assad. The political risks are too high and diplomatic repercussions are simply too severe. This is especially given the fact the SDF has also invited Russian convoys and regime troops into the city and has agreed to hand over some areas west of the city to government control.

What this situation creates is a multi-national tripwire that will prevent Turkish-backed forces from attacking SDF controlled territory. With the regime controlling the western approaches to the city the introduction of Russian advisers to those areas is inevitable. If Turkey wants Manbij, they will have to go through Russian, Syrian and American troops to get to it.

The U.S has denied coordination with Russia and the regime and their presence seems to be of solely the work of the SDF. Turkey, for it’s part is now threatening to stop it’s military operations against ISIS unless the United States and Russia “cooperate” with Turkey on the issue. What will happen next is up in air, but for now, the SDF are safe from Turkish aggression and this will hopefully allow them to concentrate more of their forces against ISIS rather than having to leave them in the north to fight to FSA, who are nowhere near the ISIS capital in Raqqa.

A Hot Winter in Ukraine

Violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region has spiked following a call between President Trump and Vladimir Putin on the 28th of January. The attacks by Russian-backed separatists have already killed over a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and left over 100 more wounded.

Videos have emerged showing heavy artillery being fired from inside the separatist controlled region including barrages of GRAD rockets and howitzers. The projectiles have hit civilian areas in Ukraine very hard.

In the video below you can see a MLRS firing around 20 rockets from rebel territory into Ukraine.

The city of Avdiivka near Donetsk appears to be the primary target of the attacks. As shells rain down the city has been made virtually unlivable. Water and electricity have been cut and in -18 C temperatures  (-0.4 Fahrenheit) 12,000 people now need to be evacuated to stop them from freezing to to death.

As the civilians leave the Ukrainian Army is holding it’s ground. Having repelled a separatist ground assault the army has been filmed with tanks inside Avdiivka preparing to counter further attacks on the ground. The Ukrainians claim that their “tanks are ready” to fight and continue to move more heavy equipment into the area.

Fighting has also expanded to the north as far as Horlivka and to the south as far as Mariupol. During the first week of the assault the artillery fire was nearly continuous from dawn until nightfall.

The size of these forces and the depth and breath of the assault initially suggested a probing attack both in the military and political sense. As the week went on however, dozens of tanks, self propelled artillery and other mechanized forces and supplies have been reported moving towards the front in Donetsk. While the fire subsided somewhat, there is no indication that these forces are being pulled back.

If nothing is done to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine the separatists could begin pushing further west. As of February 3rd they appear to lack the mobile forces to break out of the Donbas. However, with amount of equipment now at the front they are certainly capable of launching limited offensives into Avdiivka and the Svitlodarsk bulge.

Russia’s hybrid forces on the front line are not designed for major long distance operations. However, with thousands of Russian troops are massed along the border with Ukraine it would be relatively easy to reinforce the separatists with the necessary equipment and personnel. Such action could be taken  under the cover of regular maneuvers like he ones the Russians are beginning in mid- February.

This aggression, along with a recent strafing of an American warship and the violation of the INF treaty, are clearly meant as tests for the Trump administration to see how far Putin can take his aggression.

Without a forceful response from both the United States and Europe the violence will continue. Even if Russia mysteriously pulls back it’s forces like they are prone to to doing, it will send a clear message that Russia free to attack Ukraine as it sees fit and do further damage to the world order and the stability of Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, this is this message that the administration has already sent. Despite Ambassador Haley’s condemnation at the U.N, no coherent response has yet emerged. All Trump has managed to do so far is display his profound ignorance of the situation.

First, Trump described the fighting as part of a border dispute, rather than an invasion. Then, he implied that he didn’t know if the separatists were really backed and controlled by the Kremlin. Finally, in a ham-fisted gesture, the administration demanded that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine and end it’s aggression in exchange for improved relations; basically, a return to the standard U.S position under the Obama administration.

Trump has now wasted weeks learning what he should have know when he began shooting his mouth off about Russia in the first place. Despite his boasts about improving U.S-Russia relations, it’s now painfully obvious that he never took the time to understand why relations were deteriorating in the first place.

Now, having shown his weakness and incoherence,  Putin is likely to exploit it. Already another challenge is brewing with the Russian deployment of intermediate range cruise missiles for the first time since the Cold War; A challenge Trump is clearly unprepared to meet.

 

 

 

 

 

Decoding Trump

If America is going to function for the next four to eight years there are some things we will need to understand  and accept a few things about how trump communicates his intentions and policies. The answer is fleeting and complicated, but it must be understood.

Right now there is so much spin on all sides of the political spectrum that any attempt at objective analysis of The President’s real goals and agenda has fallen by the wayside. As much as possible, It is my view that one should  attempt to view the world with an objective lens for the purpose of analysis, regardless of how you feel emotionally or politically. Bringing a clear view of the Trump administrations goals into focus is therefore extremely important to me. I cannot understand anything before I understand the basic reality.

To start; the focus must always be on Trump’s actions. From what I have observed throughout the campaign, Trump’s words are nearly meaningless. He uses them to signal his intent but rarely to describe actual policies.

Don’t try to understand his political hypocrisy either. Trump attacks people because it’s politically expedient, not because he has anything against them personally or ideologically. This is why he can call Romney and Obama traitors one month have dinner with them the next. It also explains why gave Hillary Clinton a standing ovation right after his inauguration despite having called for her to be jailed throughout his campaign.

Do not expect honesty or consistency from Trump. He is the political equivalent of a shady used car salesman. He will say anything to get the deal done (and sell you that dumb $200 pinstripe add-on with it).Trump’s campaign statements therefore need to be understood as signals to his supporters, not actual policy proposals or hard promises. This is the genesis of phrase “take him seriously, not literally.”

Be wary of absurd or blatantly unconstitutional statements. Sending federal troops to Chicago or utilizing powers that are clearly in the purview of congress are recent examples. Remember that Trump only controls a single branch of government and still has to content with the internal politics of his administration within that branch.

The fact that Trump has continued to use this dishonest and hyperbolic campaign rhetoric into his presidency means we must treat him differently than past presidents. Trump and his spokespeople many times operate outside the realm of reality in order to defend trump much in the way propaganda machines operate in countries like Russia.

As the President’s administration has decided to act like a tin pot dictatorship, we must observe it like one in order to understand it.

To understand Trump then, we must observe him like a black hole. In that sense we must look for what goes on around him rather than looking to him. Watch the people he appoints to cabinet positions along with the orders and legislation he signs. Watch his actions in critical situations and how he speaks to both American and world leaders. These are occasions where sales tactics and distractions are less effective and Trump will need to be more honest.*

Also check for leaks from within his administration. Trump will never admit fault in public or break his strongman persona, but privately, he is by all accounts much more open. Those who work with him are also much more reliable sources of information then the man himself. I most cases, they are also much more willing to divulge information, as seen in the constant stream of leaks that have come out since January 20th.

Most importantly, Do not become distracted by the propaganda his inner circle spews or the drama that constantly follows him. The media is not currently capable of dealing with Trump. A tweet at three A.M could easily dominate the news cycle over an important piece of legislation or a meeting with a foreign leader.

Following his inauguration his lies about crowd sizes and voter fraud have dominated the news cycle for five days and counting. During the same time period Trump has pulled out of TPP, instituted a federal hiring freeze (that includes the VA), approved two oil pipelines and shifted back and forth about whether he will move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

These petty lies have also distracted America from the incompetence of his administration in filling vital foreign and domestic policy posts along with Trump’s failure to divest from his business interests, numerous ethics violations and nepotism.

For these reasons we should be wary of fact checking Trump. We should not spend time attempting to counter every argument or statement he makes or attempting to read into the implications of each false statement. Many of lies are things Trump doesn’t believe or says only to protect his ego. Other times he will switch back and forth between positions to cover himself politically. Deep investigations will only serve to eat up time that should be used on more substantive issues.

For these reasons the President’s words should be one of the last places one should look to understand the man. Attempting to follow up and disprove each lie or boast has and will lead us to stray further from an objective understanding of Donald Trump’s goals and the reality of his administration.

While questing to make sure the truth wins in the small battles over crowd size we will lose or even miss the big battles over corruption, government transparency, free speech, international conflict, the economy and trade.

 

*Always remember to follow up anything Trump says with a look at what he does. We have been down this road before.

Turkey (Finally) Invades Syria.

Turkey has launched a military intervention to clear ISIS from the border region around the city of Jarablus in northern Syria. Dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield” 30005000 FSA fighters have entered Syria along with a 25 tanks, multiple IFVs, and Turkish special forces troops.

The ground incursion follows hours of bombardment by Turkish artillery and fighter jets which are still striking ISIS positions in area. Warplanes from the U.S-led coalition have also been carrying out airstrikes and the U.S has committed to support the operation from the air as it continues.

 

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A map from Liveuamap showing the intial assault. Note the heavy concentration of strikes. Most of these occurred within a few hours and represent multiple weapons being deployed.

Turkey’s interests in Syria are varied. Aside from the removal of Assad, one of Turkey’s main goals in Syria is to prevent the formation of a self-governing Kurdish entity on the border in Syria. While the U.S has backed the YPG/SDF against ISIS, Turkey still views them as an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish political party and insurgent group that they have been fighting for decades.

In the previous months the SDF has been quickly taking ground against ISIS in northern Syria with the help of U.S air power. Fresh from their victory against ISIS at Manbij the prospect that they could link their eastern territories with the enclave around Afrin is increasing by the day.

The Turkish assault against ISIS in Jarablus then, is widely seen as a ploy to prevent the SDF from taking the city first and denying the Kurds the ability to unify the Kurdish regions of Syria and create an independent state on Turkey’s southern border.

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A map of the current territorial distribution in Syria as of August 2016. Credit: @Arabthomness

So far Turkey has committed to securing a 70 km line between Marea (north of Aleppo) and Jarablus. Assaults on SDF positions can’t be ruled out though. Already,  clashes have broken out between the Turkish backed FSA with Turkish tanks firing on SDF fighters. The name of the operation also seems to hint at Turkey’s intention to push the Kurds across the Euphrates.

Erdogen has promised to target the YPG* and has threatened them with direct action if they refuse to withdraw to the western side of the Euphrates. The threat seems to have works as the YPG announced that they will pull back** from the western side of the Euphrates but the remaining SDF elements have stated that they will remain. Whether this will be enough to satisfy the Turks is unknown, but it’s clear the YPG do not want to fight the Turkish army directly or lose U.S support.

The question now is, how far will this intervention go? With the SDF marching toward the city of Al-Bab, the prospect of unifying the Kurdish territories still exists, even without direct YPG involvement.

From a military standpoint Al-Bab is a major junction in the area that links Manbij with Aleppo via the M4 and 212 highways. It also links the two Kurdish territorial blocks through a series of minor roads. If Al-Bab is captured by the YPG it will allow the flow of men and material through the Kurdish territories from Afrin to the Iraqi border.

If Turkey intends to stop the spread of the SDF’s territory then capturing Al-Bab will be necessary. There is also the possibility that today’s clashes along the front with the SDF foreshadow a larger offensive against them. If so, the line the Turks are drawing may be as deep as it is wide and could stretch to Manbij. 

*The YPG is a component faction of the SDF

**UPDATE: Now getting reports from the YPG spokesman that they will not pull out.