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).
On April 4th 2017 the Assad regime conducted an assault on the civilians of Khan Shaykhun not far from the frontline in Idlib province near Hama.Read More »
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.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) March 4, 2017
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.
— aris roussinos (@arisroussinos) March 5, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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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In my last post, I wrote about how the United States could deal with the threat of conventional Russian cruise missiles arising from the failure of the INF treaty. However, If the treaty fails, there is a strong possibility that Russia could rearm it’s intermediate forces with nuclear warheads. Given Russian doctrine and the nuclear armed enemies it faces, this scenario is especially likely.
Such weapons would create a nuclear escalation dynamic where Russian weapons could strike targets in Europe, and leave NATO with only strategic nuclear weapons and slower reacting planes to respond.(think escalate to deescalate.) In this case, a deploying nuclear capable short range missiles to Europe is an option worth considering to create a sense of parity with the Russians.
Nuclearizing the ATACMS
The United States would still not need to violate the INF treaty if the Russians go nuclear. The MGM-140 ATACMS could be easily fitted with a nuclear warhead. In fact, there was originally a planned nuclear version of the MGM-140 which was cancelled after the Cold War ended and there is no evidence that it could not be equipped with such a warhead.
Finding warheads for the missile would be simple. There is a stockpile of hundreds of retired or non deployed W-80 warheads stored near Kirtland AFB. The W84 used on the GLCM is also still available. The W-80s and are extremely light and compact. Designed for use on nuclear cruise missiles the warhead weighs only 290 lb (131 kg), signifantly lighter and smaller than the current 230kg (500 lb)warhead fitted to the missile.
There was also version of the ATACMS fitted with a Mark 4 reentry vehicle loaded with conventional explosives. The same reentry vehicle is currently used for the W-76 nuclear bomb. Weighing just over 360 pounds (162 kg), the warhead would also be lighter than the current conventional versions, enabling it to be fitted to the missile.
The advantages of such a weapon are clear. The MLRS systems could be housed in NATO bases in Eastern Europe and dispersed in the event of a crisis. They are both highly survivable and mobile. Each launcher is also capable of firing up to two missiles in quick succession.
Unlike cruise missiles which are limited in speed and can take hours to reach their targets, the ATACMs missiles take a fraction of the time, allowing them to react quickly to threats. The range of the ATACMS is sufficient to hold vital targets at risk and would certainly increase because of the weight reduction that would come with nuclearization.
A hardened Mobile Launcher for the missile is already in service in the form of the M270 MLRS. The launcher can carry two missiles and is built on a Bradley IVF Chassis. With such a heavy duty chassis it should be no problem to add additional hardening for nuclear use if necessary.
A nuclearized MGM-140 would also be a fairly cheap missile to build and field. All of the components have already been in use for decades. The missiles, launcher, and warheads already exist. The only investment needed would be the cost of integrating the components.
Nuclearizing the ATACMS in the event of INF failure would have a lot of political benefits. Foremost, the U.S would not need to violate the INF to field the nuclear variant of the missile. NATO could still retain the moral high ground.
The missile could also be used as part of a second dual track strategy, like the one implemented to achieve the INF in the first place. The plan would combine a arms build up with diplomatic overtures. While such a policy would be initially destabilizing, it has been successful before and could be severely disruptive to Russia’s escalate to deescalate strategy.
Russia may think twice about employing nuclear escalation if it knows could be hit with a counterforce strike before it’s missiles reach their targets.
While mounting a nuclear warhead onto a interceptor evading missile like the ATACMS may not be the most calming prospect, it is an option. It could be done quickly, without the need for a lengthy acquisition process or designing a new nuclear warhead. It would disrupt Russian strategy, Reassure allies, and pressure Russia to abandon development of intermediate weapons.
Signs are emerging that Russia may soon pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. Should this occur, Russia would be free to build and deploy missiles that could directly threaten targets as far away as Iceland with nuclear or conventional weapons,providing Russia the ability to target the whole of Europe.
The consequences of this would be both dire and destabilizing; leading to a spiral of escalation. Russia’s Iskander missiles are designed to evade modern air defenses and destroy hardened targets like bunkers and airfields. Currently, NATO does not have a system that can reliably destroy these weapons. The mass deployment of Russian missiles would cause a fear of an air defense gap and missile gap; even if these weapons were not equipped with nuclear warheads.
In the panic created by a pullout NATO may decide that rearmament with intermediate range missiles is the best course of action to match the Russians. Such a rearmament could happen rapidly and abruptly. Many nations already have short and intermediate range missiles based on ships and bombers. The United States, for example, has the Tomahawk and JASSM-ER cruise missiles already active on destroyers and cruisers.
In my view, this would be a destructive and dangerous path to go down, creating the foundation for both a new arms race between the United States and Russia and a nuclear standoff between the two powers. It is also an unnecessary path, as there are other ways to protect our allies for intermediate range missiles besides parallel escalation and total rearmament.
One of the reasons Russia would pursue intermediate range missiles like the Iskander-k would be to create friction within NATO. This new threat would be employed to coerce members of the alliance.
Russia has already given us a preview of what this would like. Just recently, Putin threatened Poland and Romania with strikes because they agreed to let NATO build parts of a missile defense system in their countries.
To mitigate this threat, the first focus for NATO nations should be air defense. Point and area defense systems should be introduced and built up to offset the missile threat.The more reliable NATO’s intermediate missile defense is the less influence Russia will have.
Systems like the Patriot, Iron Dome, and IFPC could provide enhanced protection to European cities and key military installations. Most of these systems are already fully developed and could be easily fielded on preexisting bases.
Another way to fight this threat is to match it. In this case, the match does not have to be symmetrical. The geography of Europe doesn’t require NATO to field intermediate weapons. The Russians do not have as much strategic depth as the last time these weapons were deployed to Europe. An equivalent to the Perishing II is not necessary or advisable. The current short range MGM-140 ATACMS is sufficient provide counterforce capability against the Russian missiles if it could be based in eastern Europe.
The ATACMS is the rough equivalent of Russia’s Iskander. It is a quasi-ballistic missile designed to defeat air defense systems by maneuvering outside a predictable flight path. Although it only has a 300 km range, such a missile would be able to strike most missile bases in Russia’s from within NATO’s borders.Russian Intermediate missile are currently suspected to be based in Luga; well within range of the ATACMS.
Basing M142 and M270 MLRS systems in the Baltics, Romania and Poland would give the the U.S the ability to retaliate against Russia missiles and reassure members of the alliance closest to the threat.
A follow-on missile called the LRPF is expected to extend this to 500 km; the limit of the INF treaty. Such a missile could threaten targets as far away as Smolensk and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
For longer range targets in Russia’s Caucasus like Rostov and Stalin…I mean Volgograd, NATO warships in the Black Sea or fighter/bombers armed with JASSM cruise missiles stationed in Turkey are perfectly capable of attacking those targets with ease. A tomahawk has enough range to strike the Russia base at Volgograd from the Sea of Manama, Beyond Istanbul.
Whatever the scenario, America already has the tools to deal with a rearmed Russia. The addition of more air defense would help secure vital NATO assets while the deployment of short range missile will provide counterforce capability. Because of Russia’s decreased strategic depth since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the United States does not need to deviate from it’s current missile development path. NATO’s current missiles are up to job if they are deployed correctly.