Syria Attack 2018

Following the Douma sarin attack, eyes have once again focused on the prospect of military action against the Assad regime. President Trump expressed revulsion at the attack and continues to threaten military action through his Twitter account.

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We Don’t Need to Restart the Nuclear Arms Race

About a week ago retired Navy Vice Admiral named Robert Monroe penned possibly the worst opinion piece I have ever read. Entitled “Only Trump can restore America’s ability to win a nuclear war” the article was riddled with factual inaccuracies and terrible policy perceptions.

Here I’m going to take a few quotes from the article and demonstrate exactly why it’s such rubbish.

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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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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.

us-soldiers-manbij
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.

 

 

 

 

 

Russia is Massing Forces on the Ukrainian Border.

Over the past week the situation along the Ukrainian border has been worsening. Following the capture of alleged Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea, Moscow has escalated both rhetorically and militarily against Ukraine. Reports have surfaced off new Russian troops near Donetsk. Meanwhile Conveys made up of troop transports and BTRs have been filmed moving into Crimea along with S-400 Air defense systems, warplanes and frigates in the Black Sea.

Russia build up
An info-graphic from the Institute for the Study of War showing the Russian build up.

In the preceding months, two Motorized Rifle Brigades and a Motor Rifle Division have been deployed to the border, along with the creation of three new divisions, each totaling around 10,000 troops. Along with recon, EW and a tank unit in Moldova’s Transnistria region, Russia has all of the components necessary for an invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, troops have been placed on high alert as fears mount of an imminent invasion of southern and eastern portions of the war torn nation. Such fears have a basis not just in the reality of Russia’s military build up but the timing as well. Russian attacks and invasions have become know as August surprises because they tend to fall in the mouth of August while the world is distracted with presidential elections and the Olympics. Such was the case when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

Putin has also laid the rhetorical and political groundwork for such an invasion. The capture of “Ukrainian spies” makes a good pretext for action. Following the incident he accused Ukraine of terrorism and proclaimed that he will not let the offense “slide by”. He has also changed his position on the Minsk talks, and now calls them “pointless.”

The political motives behind the build up and possible invasion have been the subject of vast speculation. However, there are several rational reasons that Putin would invade or feint and invasion of Ukraine.

Inside Russia, his control over Russian media allows him to spin the West (or the “fascists” in Ukraine) as the aggressor. This gains him popularity  and primes his party’s victory in the upcoming 2016 legislative elections in December.

Externally, aggression puts pressure on the United States and the NATO alliance. It will bring the pro-western government in Kiev under pressure, and  further stain the already overstretched Ukrainian army even if the conflict stays at the level of armed observation and a full scale invasion is not launched.

Remember that Putin primary objective in Ukraine is to regain influence salvage the country as a Russian client state. Beyond that, he wants to destabilize NATO and the EU in Europe while bolstering his regime inside Russia. The more chaotic the situation the greater the advantage for Putin.

 

 

 

Don’t Involve Congress in Nuclear Decision Making

As concerns over a Trump presidency grow, more and more people have become concerned about the power of the executive. One of the most talked about concerns has been Trump’s control over America’s vast nuclear arsenal which many fear an unstable Trump could use disproportionately or in a fit of rage.

In response, Representative Ted Lieu has proposed legislation that would require the President and the Secretary of Defense to consult with congressional leaders before launching a nuclear strike. Currently, launching a nuclear attack requires only two people; the President and the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense. While two people are involved the Secretary is an appointee of the president and therefore somewhat beholden to him (or her).

As the General Hayden noted this system is designed for decisiveness, not debate. The reason for this is simple; in many scenarios there is simply no time for such debate. With only 30 minutes between the launch of an ICBM to detonation, this idea is unworkable under most circumstances.

“Launch under attack ” is one such case. In this scenario, enemy forces will have already fired off dozens of missiles armed with hundreds of warheads. Because of detection, confirmation and the process of going though the command, control and communications infrastructure,  the president will have a maximum of just two minutes to decide whether to launch the missiles before the enemy warheads hit American missile solos and destroy them.

Lieu’s proposal would involve having to having to consult with at least one more person during the decision making. Having to locate and consult the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader and receive their concent could easily eat up those two minutes, making a timely response impossible.

Even if launch under attack were to be taken out of the equation, there are other problems with this proposal. Having to consult congressional leaders on nuclear use would mean limited flexibility in other situations that could embolden American adversaries like Russia and China.

In a limited use scenario time may also be critical. The addition friction created in the decision making process could seriously damage the credibility of our deterrent. What would happen if the President and Secretary of Defense have a different strategy than the House Majority Leader and that disagreement stalls action? How long would it take to reconcile those opinions?

If Putin, for example, knew that it might take several hours, or even a day to respond to a limited nuclear strike, it would give him more reason to conduct one. This would be especially true in an escalate to deescalate situation where Putin could conduct a limited strike, then, while leaders debate a response, Russia could use the extra time to sue for peace, solidifying gains before a response could be implemented.

As the Daily Beast noted, there are other ways to derail a delusional president than get Congress involved. A nuclear attack certainly meets the definition of an imminent threat that is firmly within the realm of an executive’s power to react to without asking for the consent of congress.

This should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of Lieu’s idea. If American and Russian weapons were not on hair trigger alert and more time was available to plan a response from the moment of re-alert, then a congressional approval process would have more merit. In a “first use” case as well, where time is less restricted and an unstable president is most likely to abuse power, giving congressional leaders a veto might be beneficial to global security.

That said, in most cases centralized decision making is necessary in wartime and especially in a nuclear crisis. Military command is a process that cannot be democratized; and the more critical the situation, the less room there is for debate. In that sense, launch under attack may be considered a logical extreme that demands the utmost speed an decisiveness.

The Kremlin Candidate

During a New York Times interview. presidential nominee (ugh) Donald Trump suggested that he would consider holding back military aid to the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion. Stating that he would only help “if they fulfill their obligations to us”. The remark  drew in intense criticism from all sides, including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, John Kerry, Mitch McConnell, John Kasich and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Trump doubled down this remarks during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, implying that all allies, not just the Baltics, would be subject to the same reservations.
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How Big Does America’s Army Need To Be?

As the military budget shrinks and the need for modernization increases, the U.S Army has been caught in middle. A recent article pointed out two major problems facing the American Army; readiness and size. The article traces both problems back to sequestration efforts following the formal end of the occupation of Iraq. In terms of size; the U.S Army is expected to shrink to only 450,000 troops, about 30,000 troops smaller than it was before the 9/11 attacks. 
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