Now that the New Year has arrived, we can expect to see the pace of papers coming out of Washington’s think tanks to increase.
This week’s analysis looks at several military technology issues in the Middle East, including the drone attacks on Russian bases in Syria and the use of technology by the Yemeni rebels against Saudi Arabia.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The American Enterprise Institute looks forward to Trump’s foreign policy in Year Two. They conclude, “An underlying foreign policy direction thus far emphasizing freedom of action, rebalanced and reciprocal alliance relationships, a blunt emphasis on US national interests, attention to the domestic economic sources of power, continuing forward military presence, counter-pressure against numerous foreign adversaries, and a new American nationalism — that is the signal. In this year and beyond when it comes to US foreign policy, consider focusing on the signal, not the noise.”
The Heritage Foundation looks at the protests in Iran and what the US should do. They conclude, “But the big question, of course, is what should the U.S. do about it? That could mean doing nothing, standing aside, remaining silent and letting Iranians sort things out — similar to the Obama administration’s approach during the 2009 protests.
While doing nothing is, in actuality, doing something, it shouldn’t be the course our nation takes — considering the threat the Iranian regime poses to not only human values, but to our security and that of our allies, friends and partners. Instead, the U.S. should speak out forcefully on human rights in Iran — whether the protests continue or not. Our government should push other states to express their support for the Iranian people’s aspirations, too, especially from the major, democratic capitals of Europe. We shouldn’t expect that the regime will relinquish its death grip on Iran, but it’s important that the Iranian people — and the world — understand that the United States backs their desire for political, social and economic rights and liberties. There’s no question about it: It’s just the right thing to do.”
The Washington Institute looks at Saudi Arabia’s evolving approach to counterterrorism and America’s response. They conclude, “Apparent shifts in the way Riyadh is approaching the terrorism challenge present opportunities for the United States to encourage broader and deeper changes that address longstanding American interests. One area to support is continued tightening of Saudi supervision over religious figures traveling internationally for work, over religious and educational materials sent abroad by Saudi institutions, and over religious figures doing media work—all toward the goal of restricting the export of extremist ideology. A related interest is accelerated removal of extremist content that remains in Saudi schoolbooks. Another area to support is added transparency and measurable advancement in new training, supervision, and reeducation of religious figures and teachers (or, if necessary, dismissal). The kingdom has already registered successes in these areas and is now building on them; further progress could be discussed during the first annual meeting of the U.S.-Saudi Strategic Joint Consultative Group expected later this year. Finally, given the divergence between U.S. and Saudi views on the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, Washington should work closely with its Saudi partners in Etidal to track the quantity, quality, and reach of content against top U.S.-designated groups such as IS and al-Qaeda.”
The CSIS says that true victory in Iraq after defeating ISIS must consider “economic, security, and social needs of much of the nation’s population.” They note, “Iraq provides a critical test case. Defeating ISIS in Iraq will not—by itself—deal with any of Iraq’s broader problems in politics, governance, and economics, and may well be the prelude to new forms of conflict between (and within) the Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, various extremist groups, and the remnants of ISIS. Iraq also offers unique opportunities relative to other conflict states. It does not face the same level of post-conflict challenges as Syria, Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, Yemen, or Afghanistan. It did achieve substantial levels of development relative to other “failed states” in spite of nearly a half century of revolution, turmoil, and war—and it has substantial petroleum income. This does not mean, however, that there is any guarantee that the defeat of ISIS will bring stability, recovery, or successful national development unless Iraq has substantial outside help. Iraq was a “failed state” in virtually every respect before ISIS invaded and is still largely a failed state.
The Washington Institute warns that Trump’s hardline attitude towards Iran could cause problems with Oman, which has been America’s backdoor to Iranian negotiations. They conclude, “Oman is being pulled in multiple directions at once, and it is unclear how these oft-competing priorities will affect its posture in the coming months. To the north, Saudi Arabia has tried to woo the resource-poor country into its camp despite their mutual distrust. This month, for example, Riyadh announced it would contribute $210 million to finance an industrial zone in Oman’s southern port of Duqm. At the same time, Oman has continued to coordinate its diplomatic, economic, and military activities with Iran in recent months, building on close bilateral ties that stretch back to the 1970s, when the shah sent thousands of troops and attack helicopters into Dhofar to help put down a tribal uprising…As for the West, official signals seem mixed at the moment…Yet ongoing developments in Yemen may soon spur Washington and its partners in Riyadh to increase their pressure on Oman. In recent weeks, Houthi militias have shot ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, including against Riyadh’s international airport. The Trump administration believes that Iran smuggled these missiles to the Houthis, and while it has not openly accused Oman of involvement in the transfer, clouds are beginning to form over the relationship.”
The Heritage Foundation looks at the cut off of aid to Pakistan by the US. They conclude, “The status quo, long viewed by Washington as lamentable but tolerable, will no longer be a costless affair for Pakistan. Whether this leads our two countries toward a vicious cycle of hostility and recrimination is entirely dependent on Pakistan’s behavior. As always, the path to stability, prosperity, and a true strategic partnership with America is clear: Abandon your support for Islamist extremists, end your paranoid infatuation with India, make peace with your Afghan neighbors, and respect freedom and religious liberty at home.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at Iran’s cyber threat. Incidents involving Iran have been among the most sophisticated, costly, and consequential attacks in the history of the internet. The four-decade-long U.S.-Iran cold war has increasingly moved into cyberspace, and Tehran has been among the leading targets of uniquely invasive and destructive cyber operations by the United States and its allies. At the same time, Tehran has become increasingly adept at conducting cyber espionage and disruptive attacks against opponents at home and abroad, ranging from Iranian civil society organizations to governmental and commercial institutions in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
The American Foreign Policy Council argues for “Unconventional wisdom” in the Middle East. They note, “For decades, foreign policy elites across the West have argued that Israeli-Palestinian peace will pave the way for broader Arab-Israeli peace, less terrorism, less anti-American animus, and solutions to such seemingly separate challenges as Iran’s regional expansionism and nuclear pursuits.” However, noting a New York Times article in December they note, “”[T]he Saudi Prince has made clear that his top priority in the region is not the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the fulcrum of Arab politics for generations, but confronting Iran,” the Times reported. “Regional officials and analysts say they believe he might be willing to try to force a settlement on Palestinians in order to cement Israeli cooperation against Iran. That is, rather than accede to longstanding Palestinian demands – whether reasonable ones like a contiguous state or unreasonable ones like a multi-generational right of return – Saudi officials would impose their own solution on the Palestinians to secure greater collaboration between Jerusalem and Riyadh.”
Military Technology Heats up Middle Eastern Conflicts
Swarms of drones attacking Russian bases in Syria, Yemeni rebels shooting down high tech Saudi aircraft, and precision Iranian missiles attacking Riyadh – the Middle East has become a testbed for high tech military weapons systems.
Yemen’s New Military Technology
A new report says that Yemeni air force and air defense units used a new domestically designed and produced missile system to shield the country’s capital and the northwestern provinces against airstrikes by Saudi military aircraft.
Yemen’s Arabic-language al-Masirah television network reported that Yemeni air defense forces, backed by fighters from allied Popular Committees, employed the system to intercept and target a F-15 fighter jet belonging to the Royal Saudi Air Force over Yemen’s capital on January 8.
This report came only hours after Yemeni air defense forces reportedly used the same missile defense system to shoot down a Tornado combat aircraft as it was flying in the skies over Yemen.
The Yemeni rebels showed video of the F-15 shoot-down by using an American FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) from an American made helicopter. The sensor creates an image from thermal infrared wavelengths. Apparently, Yemeni rebels, possibly with the help of outside advisors, were able to modify the system and place it on a ground based turret.
According to the internet publication “The Drive,” there is a distinct possibility that the United States might have supplied the FLIR System. In July 2009, the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales approved a deal that included three FLIR Ultra 8500 turrets. The full package, intended as an upgrade for Yemen’s Huey II helicopters, had an estimated value of more than $3.7 million.
Although there are some reports that the imager was critical in defeating the F-15 that is probably not true. Helicopter installed FLIR systems are too large to install in ground to air missiles. There are also considerable technical issues to tying a thermal imaging system to a computer system that can track and predict the movement of a flying high performance aircraft. There are also technical issues to tying such a system to servos that can maneuver a missile.
However, a FLIR system can be used to detect and warn short range air defense systems since it can see through smoke and haze.
There is the possibility that militants used a Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) as the Yemeni rebels claimed in the case of the MQ-9 drone shoot-down in October 2017. It is also possible that the Houthis may have modified infrared homing air-to-air missiles they captured from Yemeni government stockpiles, although such missiles wouldn’t have the ability to hit high flying aircraft..
Improvised air defense systems aren’t unusual. Serbian forces employed modified Soviet AA-8 and AA-11 types during the fighting in the Balkans during the 1990s.
The Houthis also claim to have reactivated at least one Russian SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile system, including its Fan Song fire control radar. The group said it used one of these radio command guided weapons to knock down an American drone in January 2016, but this claim remains unsubstantiated.
The use of a radar guided missile like the SA-2 would help explain why the missile was not confused by the release of decoy flares, and the reason that the pilot used the jet’s afterburners, even though doing so created a far larger infrared signature for a heat-seeking missile to home in on.
In other words, the F-15’s crew may have been confused about whether it was a radar or infrared guided missile.
Another piece of military technology being used by the Yemeni rebels is the advanced guidance system that is making Scud missiles more accurate. This has allowed the rebels to hit Riyadh, which is hundreds of miles from Yemen.
Although many questions remain it appears that the Scuds may have an aftermarket Russian optical seeker installed. The optical seeker would compare the image it sees with a terrain image inside the onboard computer.
The optical seeker is produced by Russia’s secretive Central Scientific and Research Institute of Automatics and Hydraulics.
Russian arms manufactures have been actively marketing upgraded weapons systems to Middle Eastern clients like Syria and Iran.
Most notably, Moscow has been offering the new optically-guided Scud missile that is ostensibly capable of penetrating US and Israeli-made missile defense systems. According to Victor Solunin, the director general of Russia’s Central Scientific and Research Institute of Automatics and Hydraulics, a Scud missile upgraded with an optically-guided warhead, disengages in the terminal phase of the missile’s flight, allowing it to avoid incoming defensive missiles.
Solunin, whose institute has been building Scud missiles since 1968, also said that the upgraded Scud is much more accurate than its predecessors, “with a miss distance not exceeding 10 to 20 meters, irrespective of the range.” The missile’s optical system has a photo receiver and digital mapping system, enabling it to scan terrain based on pre-programmed target information during its final approach, as well as a mid-course correction device to avoid obstacles. It is supposedly immune to signal jamming and other electronic countermeasures.
Syria Heats up
Last week, the Russian military in Syria thwarted a massive drone attack at the Khmeimim air base and Russian Naval point in the city of Tartus on January 6, intercepting 13 heavily armed UAVs launched by terrorists. Russia said that it shot down seven of the 13 drones and used electronic countermeasures to safely bring down the other six.
Russian news outlets have also reported two smaller drone attacks against Russian outposts in the provinces of Homs and Latakia.
While the Russian Ministry of Defense consciously didn’t point any fingers when talking about the January 6 attack, it pointed out that the technology used in the attack was telling. Advanced training in engineering in “one of the developed countries” would be necessary to program the principal controllers and bomb-release systems of an aircraft-type combat drone, the Russian statement stressed and added that “not everyone is also able to get exact (attack) coordinates from the space surveillance data.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense also declared that this is the “first time that terrorists massively used unmanned combat aerial vehicles of an aircraft type that were launched from a distance of more than 50 kilometers, and operated using GPS satellite navigation coordinates.”
The statement said the drones “carried explosive devices with foreign detonating fuses,” adding that the “usage of strike aircraft-type drones by terrorists is the evidence that militants have received technologies to carry out terrorist attacks.”
Shortly after, the Russian Ministry of Defense released new information, noting “strange coincidences” surrounding the terrorist attack: these included a US spy plane spotted in the area, namely a US Navy’s Boeing P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft on patrol between the Khmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base in Syria during the time of the attack. Russia also implied that the high technology found in the drone may indicate that America may be involved.
The Pentagon countered that while the US was “concerned” over the incident, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankin-Galloway, however, claimed that “those devices and technologies can easily be obtained in the open market.” He later also told the Russian news agency Sputnik that the US already saw what it called “this type of commercial UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology” being used in ISIS missions.
However, the attacks may also be from Turkey. According to a report Wednesday in the Russian Defense Ministry’s official Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, the drones were launched from a village controlled by the “moderate opposition” called Muazzara in southern Idlib province. Russia has sent a letter to Turkish authorities urging them to comply with Turkey’s obligations in the area under ceasefire agreements with Russia, the report said.
Trump Just Cut Aid to Pakistan. Why This Long-Overdue Move Could Have a Real Impact.
By Jeff M. Smith
January 5th, 2018
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s a lesson the U.S. government has learned the hard way in Pakistan. Fortunately, the Trump administration’s recent decision to suspend $255 million in aid to Islamabad serves as a welcome injection of sanity into the deeply dysfunctional U.S.-Pakistan relationship. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” President Donald Trump declared in a Jan. 1 tweet. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
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U.S. Must Condemn Iranian Regime, Back Protesters
By Peter Brookes
January 5, 2018
It’s not its perceived “enemies” in the United States, in Israel or Saudi Arabia that Iran really fears — it’s a liberating counterrevolution to the repressive 1979 Islamic Revolution that Tehran’s thuggish theocrats really dread. And rightfully so. The people of Iran have lots of good reasons to be fed up with the regime’s tyrannical political, economic and social policies that it has meted out on them without their consent for nearly four decades now. Just take a gander at the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report to Congress. It notes that the Iranian regime is responsible for “severe restrictions on civil liberties, including assembly, association, speech, religion and press.”
The State Department’s report also documents politically motivated violence and repression, disappearances, arbitrary arrests — with prisoners being held sometimes incommunicado. Security forces, it charges, continue to act with impunity and invasions of privacy are common. We also know that Iran is no democracy: Iranians don’t get to choose their government through open elections. The regime rules on who can run for political office — and you can bet every candidate is a loyalist.
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Iraq After ISIS: The Other Half of Victory Dealing with the Civil Dimension
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 9, 2018
The United States, its allies, and international organizations are just beginning to come to grips with the civil dimensions of “failed state” wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, Syria, and Yemen. In each case, it is clear that the civil dimension of the war will ultimately be as important as the military one. Any meaningful form of “victory” requires far more than defeating the current extremist threat in military terms, and reaching some temporary compromise between the major factions that divide the country. The current insurgent and other security threats exist largely because of the deep divisions within the state, the past and current failures of the government to deal with such internal divisions, and the chronic failure to meet the economic, security, and social needs of much of the nation’s population.
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Unconventional Wisdom in the Middle East
By Lawrence J. Haas
American Foreign Policy Council
January 9, 2018
Recent events across the Middle East put the lie to one of the foreign policy establishment’s most enduring tenets of conventional nonsense: that Israeli-Palestinian peace is key to greater regional peace and stability. Sharing concerns over hegemony-seeking Iran and radical Islamic forces like the Islamic State group and Muslim Brotherhood, the key Arab states of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are drawing ever closer to Israel – with officials appearing together publicly, meeting privately and collaborating to confront their mutual adversaries. That helps explain why, in the face of global opposition, the central committee of Israel’s ruling Likud Party, felt free to unanimously endorse a resolution the other day that called for annexing West Bank settlements, and why some leading Likud members now openly dismiss the viability of a Palestinian state.
Iran’s Cyber Threat: Espionage, Sabotage, and Revenge
By COLLIN ANDERSON and KARIM SADJADPOUR
January 4, 2018
Incidents involving Iran have been among the most sophisticated, costly, and consequential attacks in the history of the internet. The four-decade-long U.S.-Iran cold war has increasingly moved into cyberspace, and Tehran has been among the leading targets of uniquely invasive and destructive cyber operations by the United States and its allies. At the same time, Tehran has become increasingly adept at conducting cyber espionage and disruptive attacks against opponents at home and abroad, ranging from Iranian civil society organizations to governmental and commercial institutions in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
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Is Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Approach Shifting?
By Lori Plotkin Boghardt
January 9, 2018
The history of Saudi efforts to combat terrorism is mixed, but Riyadh has become a close U.S. partner on that front in recent years. A deadly series of al-Qaeda attacks inside the kingdom beginning in 2003 drove the Saudis to pursue more aggressive counterterror policies. Today, Washington and Riyadh see eye to eye on the Islamic State (IS) threat—of which the Saudis have been major victims themselves. The kingdom has also become a cooperative partner on counter-terrorist financing, which is important because of the vast sums of private money that have been funneled to terrorist groups from inside its borders. Washington has expressed a strong desire to see much more from the Saudis when it comes to groups like al-Qaeda and IS. This includes more vigorous delegitimizing of religious extremist ideology, as well as more candid acknowledgment that the kingdom has been part of the terrorist problem itself. Yet even in the context of U.S. concerns over some Saudi policies, Riyadh may be turning a corner as a result of changing perceptions about its own interests.
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Will the Trump Administration Force Oman to Choose Sides?
By Jay Solomon
January 9, 2018
The sleepy Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman has emerged as a wild card in the Trump administration’s push to roll back Iranian power across the Middle East. The country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is in many ways a weathervane for gauging the region’s shifting power balance amid Tehran’s worsening feud with Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a crucial U.S. ally in recent years, particularly by helping the Obama administration establish a secret diplomatic backchannel with Iran and pursue a negotiated solution to Yemen’s civil war. Today, however, President Trump’s hardline stance on Iran and his embrace of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman risk placing Oman in the crosshairs of an escalating proxy feud, according to U.S., Arab, and Israeli officials who work on Gulf affairs.
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The signal and the noise: Trump’s foreign policy in year two
By Colin Duech
American Enterprise Institute
January 10, 2018
As we enter the second year of US foreign policy under the current administration, sometimes it is hard to separate the signal from the noise. Is there a guide for the perplexed? The new National Security Strategy may be a useful starting point. Many of the administration’s opponents conceded that National Security Adviser HR McMaster and his staff, led in this instance by Nadia Schadlow, did excellent work in crafting a thoughtful and perceptive document. The usual suspects and critics of a Republican presidency denounced the strategy — critics including the People’s Republic of China, Vladimir Putin, prominent liberal Democrats, and strict non-interventionists on the Right. Another common theme emerged among critics that the document could not possibly represent the president’s actual beliefs on foreign policy. Interestingly, this is also the fear of some Trump supporters; they fear there is a “deep state” clique around the president.