Analysis 07-30-2019


The Evolution of Space War

Although generations have been raised on movies like Star Wars (and before that Flash Gordon), few appreciate the complexities of a war in space. And, although things like Death Stars and Tie Fighters may seem realistic, it is the dead hand of Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of gravity, that really control war in space.

A recent example was an article in the blog Defense One that saw the development of robotic repair satellites as a threat to America’s galaxy of defense and communication satellites.

The article said, “in the next few years, China and Russia will begin to launch a new kind of spacecraft; robotic mechanics that can repair or upgrade friendly satellites in orbit. Inevitably, these will also be able to use the very same rendezvous and robotic capabilities as killer spacecraft to get close to and disable American satellites.”

Admittedly, these satellites could incapacitate American satellites. However, why should the Russians or Chinese waste such expensive technology to kill an American satellite, when simpler and less obvious methods are available?”

However, the fact is that the next generation of space war has started. Last September, the French government accused Russia of an “act of space espionage,” when Moscow’s signals intelligence satellite Luch-Olymp was steered close to a French military communications satellite Athena-Fidus. The French accused Russia of trying to intercept the satellite’s communications.

Another Russian satellite, Olymp-K, also recently maneuvered close to two Intelsat commercial satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

The French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said, “Trying to listen to your neighbors is not only unfriendly, it’s an act of espionage.”

A couple of weeks ago, Parly announced details of a new “defense space strategy. It includes cameras, machineguns, and lasers on “sensitive satellites” so they can watch for threats and defend themselves. They also see defensive satellites that will surround important satellites like bodyguards and a fleet of satellites that can be quickly launched to replace satellites destroyed by an enemy.

France is also creating a Space Command that mirrors President Trump’s space force – a recognition that the rules of war have changed in space. The directive signed by Trump states, “Potential adversaries are now advancing their space capabilities and actively developing ways to deny our use of space in a crisis or conflict.”

The Chinese have become very active in pushing the border of what is acceptable behavior in space. In 2016, it launched a satellite designed (according to the Chinese) to test high performance solar cells and new propellants. However, once in orbit, it started maneuvering around other Chinese satellites. Experts wonder if it is designed to destroy another satellite, intercept the satellite communications, or position it in order to jam its communications in case of a war.

However, space war is more complicated than that. The first complication is the laws of gravity and space mechanics, which make destroying an enemy satellite complicated. The second problem is that space launches and orbiting objects are so closely monitored, that a “killer satellite” that destroys a military satellite will be as obvious as a Russian bomber flying over Fort Knox and dropping 500-pound bombs on it.

It is an unwritten rule that not only is an attack on another nation’s satellites a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, it is considered an act of war. Consequently, the traditional ‘killer satellites” that maneuver close to a satellite and explode, and the ground launched anti-satellite missiles that intercept a satellite are so obvious as to the country of origin that they are impracticable for the opening act of a war.

The other problem is space mechanics. Satellites don’t flit back and forth like the spacecraft seen in a Star Wars movie. Orbiting a satellite requires a lot of kinetic energy and changing their course mid orbit requires a lot of energy. Consequently a “killer satellite” in space needs a large amount of fuel in order to change orbit and chase down an enemy satellite. That’s one reason why ground based anti-satellite missiles are so attractive.

However, ground based missiles have their problems too. Solid fuel, the preferred fuel for quick response missiles, don’t contain enough energy to reach the highest orbiting satellites like those in geosynchronous orbit. That preempts a quick hit on the critical communications and warning satellites.

This means the only way to hit a geosynchronous orbit satellite is to use liquid fuel rockets that take time to launch and are easier to destroy before launch. And, even if the launch is successful, it takes time for the killer satellite to enter a geosynchronous orbit, which allows the target satellites to take evasive action.

So, how does one attack and destroy an enemy’s satellites without being discovered?

The answer isn’t blowing up the satellite but using less aggressive methods like cyberattacks that interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations. These attacks are opaque enough to keep the nation under attack from being sure who the attacker is.

The problem for America is that these sorts of attacks are already underway.

In 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites – satellites that can monitor activities in Russia and China. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands. It’s not clear if they could issue commands but chose not to.

The problem with these cyberattacks is that there is no proof about who initiated the attacks, although many think it was the Chinese. Imagine what could happen in the opening minutes of a war if this occurred. What would the nation under attack do?

Experts warn that cyberattacks could shut off a satellite’s communications, which would make it useless. Other options include ordering the satellite to use its remaining fuel to go into a useless orbit or ordering the satellite to point its sensors at the sun, so as to destroy the sensors.

Another method to attack a satellite in a less obvious manner would be to jam or spoof the satellite signals. The gear is commercially available and could be mounted on a vehicle. A vehicle with jamming equipment could be placed near a base station, which would prevent the satellite from communicating with it.

There are some that think that Russia has already executed this type of jamming of GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference and the US military regularly accidently jams its own communications satellites.

Since these jamming systems are so easy to build, experts think that they aren’t limited to Russia and China. The US Defense Intelligence Agency says North Korea has purchased some jamming equipment from Russia. The report also says that insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq have been known to use jamming equipment.

There are also reports that Russia uses spoofing of GPS signals to protect Russian President Putin as he moves around.

But the technology is not limited to Russian security agencies. In 2013, students at the University of Texas used a briefcase sized device to spoof a GPS signal, which caused a multi-million-dollar yacht to veer off course in the Mediterranean. The spoof wasn’t detected, and the students later announced what they did.

The US is responding to the threat by hardening satellites and making them tougher to spoof or jam. For instance, the NTS-3 GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022 will have steerable antennas and more usable frequencies that will allow it to counter jamming. It can continue operate even if it isn’t in communications with a ground station and it can detect efforts to jam it.

DARPA is also trying to make it harder for Russia or China to attack a few satellites and cripple the whole US military communications system. A DARPA project called Blackjack is designed to create a constellation of inexpensive military satellites in low earth orbit that can continue to operate even if several of the satellites are destroyed or made inoperable.

According to General John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command, the US must learn to not rely solely on hardened communications links for nuclear command and control.

Hyten said the US needs, “A near infinite number of pathways that go through every element of space: hardened military space, commercial space, different kinds of links…so that the adversary can never figure out how the message is getting though.

The Russians have headed in this direction already. Instead of relying totally on satellite communications, they have gone back to older methods like shortwave radio for backup. They have a station called UVB-76 (called the “Buzzer” by shortwave fans) which broadcasts on 4.625 megahertz and can be heard around the globe thanks to shortwave’s ability to bounce radio signals off the ionosphere. The frequency is used by the Russian armed forces and sends out a buzzing sound that lasts about one second. There are occasional verbal codes sent over the frequency.

It is assumed that this is a backup communications band in case other communications methods are unavailable.

There are two other Russian military stations that follow the same format, called “The Pip” and “The Squeaky Wheel.”

Shortwave communications were a major method of military communications before satellites. Shortwave stations could be moved and could change frequencies in order to avoid jamming.

It is obvious that the Russians have decided that while space communications offer many benefits, traditional methods like shortwave radio are less susceptible to hacking, spoofing, and jamming.

While the US appears to be focused on space based, space war solutions, it seems that some of the solutions to a war in space may be found back on earth.


Analysis 07-19-2019


   Cyber Warfare Comes to the United States

The problem of cyber security of America’s computer systems is a growing threat.

A week ago, a black-out in New York left the entire Manhattan area without electricity.  The incident occurred on the anniversary of the massive blackout that happened in 1977.  Although the electric power company, Con Edison, said it was a transformer failure compounded by the failure of several backups, it will take time until the investigation if finished.

Meantime, according to network security specialists at the International Institute of Cyber Security (IICS), some believe there could be a link between this incident and the cyberwar that has started between the US and Iran.  It is known that hacker groups sponsored by governments on previous occasions have targeted power grids with malware that could disrupt electricity.  In fact, the New York Times reported that the US government had implanted malware that could cripple the Russian power grid.

While the investigation continues, experts aren’t ruling out any reason for the NYC blackout.  The CSIS reports that the US is a cyberattack victim more than any other country in the past 13 years.  Meanwhile, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are the biggest offenders.

Hackers behind at least two potentially fatal intrusions on industrial facilities have expanded their activities to probing dozens of power grids in the US and elsewhere, researchers with security firm Dragos reported last month.

The Politics of Cyberwarfare

Meanwhile, the issue of cyberwarfare has become a political football.  The issue concerns a secret Trump memo that lifted restrictions on US Cyber Command’s operations against adversaries.  The previous memorandum, signed by Obama, restricted offensive cyber operations against adversaries.  The Obama memo called for coordination between agencies before offensive cyber operations could take place.

The Obama Administration was afraid that a cyberattack on an adversary’s computer system might inadvertently impact computer networks in neighboring countries.

The Trump Administration wants to have a more aggressive response.  National Security Advisor John Bolton said, “Our presidential policy directive effectively reverses these restraints…Any  nation that’s taking cyber activity against the United States, they should expect, and it is part of creating structures of deterrence so it’ll be known publicly as well, we’ll respond offensively as well as defensively.”

The Democratic controlled House of Representatives has asked the White House to share the document, which they have refused to do.  Meanwhile, the Republican controlled Senate seems satisfied with the Trump memo.

Most hacking attacks are kept secret.  However, one hack that took place a few years ago showed how they can impact national security.

In 2015, an American company called Tracking point manufactured a sophisticated sniper rifle that offered first shot accuracy.  The rifle cost about $12,000 and the company was targeting the US military for sales.

Not only did the rifle’s computer calculate where the bullet would hit based on distance, temperature, wind, etc., it could share the image the shooter was seeing though the telescopic sights with commanders back at headquarters.

It could also prevent the shooter from firing the weapon if the commanders decided to override the men in the field.

However, some American security researchers were able to hack the rifle through the communications link that allowed commanders to monitor the operation.  They showed how they could guarantee a miss by the shooter by subtly changing bullet weight or temperature. And, they could prevent the rifle from shooting if they wished.

The same type of hacking could be employed against drones or even manned aircraft.  This has led some national security experts to say the US is losing the defensive segment of cyberwarfare.

While the US is skilled in mounting cyberattacks on Russia and Iran, there aren’t as many protections in place in the US.  Part of that is because much of the American cyber grid is privately owned and many companies see cyber defenses as a drain on profits.

“I believe we are in a declared cyberwar,” said Michael Bayer, a Pentagon advisor who recently reviewed Navy cybersecurity.  “It is aimed at the whole of society and the state.  I believe we are losing that war.”

 American cybersecurity has many facets – private businesses, national defense and intelligence contractors, and government computer networks.  And America’s opponents have discovered that going after private companies and defense contractors is easier.

In 2018, China gained access to a Navy contractor’s computers that provided them with intelligence on anti-ship missiles and what the Navy knew about China’s maritime activities.

China has also reportedly stolen data on the F-35 fighter, littoral combat ships, anti-missile systems, and American drones.

A Navy cybersecurity review made public in March said defenses were lacking and Defense contractors were, “hemorrhaging critical data.”

This is one reason that Trump signed the new cyberwarfare memo.  Cyber defenses take time to put in place and the administration was making it clear that they wouldn’t hesitate in retaliating for a cyber-attack.  In fact, last month Bolton stated, “You will pay a price,” if a country carries out a cyber offensive on the US.

But, would a cyberattack leave the US unable to respond.  As we saw in the crippling of the sniper rifle, a hacker could stop US guns, missiles, and bombs from being used.

Pentagon auditors have found major weapons systems have been exposed to cyber attacks because of simple mistakes like a failure to use encryption, improper authentication protocols, proper passwords, or leaving servers unlocked.

Another problem is that skilled cybersecurity experts are more likely to work for private companies that pay more.

There is also the massive logistics tail of the US military that could be interfered with.  Food, water, ammunition, and fuel could be delayed or even diverted with the right malware.

Another concern is the US military’s reliance on satellite-based navigation like GPS.  Only recently has the military realized that a failure of the GPS system could cripple operations.  For the first time in a generation, Naval Officers who will be responsible for shipboard navigation will be forced to study celestial navigation – something that every Naval Officer was forced to master before receiving his commission thirty years ago.

Despite the problem, Congress and the Administration prefer to spend their money on tangible defense assets like aircraft and ships.  That’s why unclassified cyber spending in the federal government only accounts for 2% of the budget.

“We need to have the bombers and planes and missiles to make sure we can defend the country in a conventional conflict, but we also need to face the reality, and gray zone conflict is happening now and will continue to go forward, said Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

This is a bipartisan concern.  South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Cybersecurity Subcommittee states, “While we have made progress, it would be fair to say we have a long way to go.”

As the Monitor analysis mentioned a few weeks ago in the analysis on American-Russian nuclear arms treaties, the new first strike weapon of the 21st Century is a cyberattack, not nuclear weapons.

The last thing an American president wants is a cyberattack on the US and no viable response but nuclear weapons.  That could be a major reason for the new Trump memo authorizing a more aggressive cyber response against countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

Analysis 07-05-2019


Is a Nuclear Arms Race Picking Up Steam?

Several events this week highlighted the weakening nuclear balance.  Iran announced that it was exceeding its previously agreed upon limit on enriched uranium stockpiles.  There was a report that the Trump Administration was considering a deal with North Korea that would allow that nation to retain some nuclear weapons.  And, Russian President Putin signed legislation that suspended Russia’s participation in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

The INF had been signed in 1987.  It limited intermediate range nuclear weapons that were designed for targeting European targets in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.  It was the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of missiles – those with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The US administration pulled out of the treaty in February, accusing the Russians of violating the pact.  Specifically, they have identified the development of the 9M729 cruise missile, which has been deployed by the Russians

Of course, the Russians also accused the US of violating the treaty too by deploying anti-missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.  The Russians said the interceptor missiles could have an offensive role.

As if to highlight the withdrawal from the INF treaty, Russia publicized the test of a new missile – the A-235 Nudul, an anti-satellite missile.  The Russian Defense Ministry said, “The new missile, after several trials, has reliably confirmed its characteristics and successfully fulfilled the tasks by striking an assigned target with precision.”

But the US hasn’t been idle.  At the direction of Congress, the Defense Department began research and development on concepts and options for conventional intermediate range missile systems in 2017.

This isn’t the only nuclear treaty that is threatened.  The New START Treaty, which was signed in 2010 and is due to expire in 2021, probably will not be renewed.  Putin has accused the US of showing no interest in extending the treaty.

“If no one feels like extending the agreement – New Start – well, we won’t do it then,” Putin said.  “No one is holding any talks with us.  The negotiations process hasn’t been arranged at all.”

The New Start Treaty limits the number of strategic missile launchers, but not the number of inactive, stockpiled nuclear weapons. Nor does it limit tactical systems like fighter bombers like the F-35, the F-16, and the F-15.

The US has also accused Russia of conducting low-yield nuclear tests, which violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Although critics say the abrogation of these treaties risks a new arms race, others say it only recognizes the new reality of a multi-polar nuclear world.

When the Russian/US nuclear treaties were negotiated and signed in the late 20th Century, the US and Russia were the only nations with significant nuclear arsenals.  France, China, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan had nuclear weapons, but their arsenals were only a fraction of the superpower’s arsenals.  They also lacked the ability to deliver them with Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

Today, several nations have large nuclear weapons arsenals and the means to deliver them.  Consequently, limitations on Russian and American nuclear weapons have no impact on the development of these nation’s nuclear weapons.

This was recognized when President Trump noted that he was willing to renegotiate the INF treaty, if China was a signatory.

But there is the question of new technology and the effectiveness of the nuclear treaties.  Many think the old treaties negotiated as much as a half century ago are as obsolete as the Washington Naval Treaty limiting the size and number of battleships after World War One.

The suite of nuclear agreements was negotiated in an era when large yield nuclear weapons were loaded on long range weapons and designed for the destruction of major centers of the opposing nation and its allies.  One reason for that was that early generation ICBMs were inaccurate and large yield nuclear weapons were required to ensure the destruction of the target.

However, the race for larger nuclear weapons that envisioned total destruction is over.  Nuclear countries are focused on developing smaller yield weapons, that when married with high precision weapons need only destroy a smaller area.  Today’s nuclear weapons have yields that are no larger than explosive charges used today in open pit mining operations.

This also means large, slow ICBMs aren’t needed.  Smaller, hypersonic missiles can avoid conventional anti-ballistic missile systems, still carry a nuclear payload, and hit a target.

There are also new generation nuclear weapons that offer special effects.  Neutron bombs can kill soldiers in tanks without damaging as many structures.  In addition, they don’t produce as much radiation as other nuclear weapons.  Others nuclear warheads are designed to disable an incoming nuclear missile by irradiating it with neutrons, which disrupts the chain reaction and knocks out the electronics.  Other weapons designs can drastically limit the damage caused by the nuclear blast.

Then there are new technologies that were only on the drawing board when the treaties were signed.  Lasers can now destroy an incoming ballistic missile.  Satellites can monitor the movement of nuclear missiles as they travel across the country.

And, conventional explosives, with modern targeting can carry out surgical strikes around the world.

Then there is the new age of computers, where the computing power of a Minuteman missile of the 1960s is less than that found in a modern watch.

As a result of these technological developments, Russian and American strategists are rethinking nuclear strategy.  Rather than depending on large, intercontinental weapons, the focus is on small precise nuclear weapons.

This means that landmark treaties like SALT and START have large technological loopholes in them.  They focus on the launch systems and the nuclear warheads, while the key to modern warfare is in the computers, communications, and satellites.  That’s why Putin announced the suspension of the INF Treaty the same week as Russia launched a modern anti-satellite missile.

The meaning was clear – an anti-satellite missile can do more damage to a nation’s ability to defend itself than intermediate range nuclear missile.

Putin is right.  Today the destruction of an early warning or communications satellite can cripple a nation’s war making ability more than a 20-megaton bomb dropped on a major population center.

And, while the Russian/American treaties restricted large bombers like the B-52, they are inadequate when it comes to controlling nuclear capable stealth fighters or cruise missiles.

In order to be effective and not just publicity stunts, new nuclear agreements must face reality.  They must engage more nuclear nations, especially China.  And, they must reflect the reality of modern nuclear warfare.

One problem is that a treaty that limits tactical nuclear weapons and precision targeting may encourage nations to develop larger yield nuclear warheads.  And, while the thought of a war with tactical nuclear weapons seems unthinkable, they are at least cleaner and less destructive.

Nor is a treaty limiting nuclear materials necessarily effective.  While some nuclear materials like plutonium and uranium 235 are limited under several treaties, isotopes like tritium, which are critical for the nuclear detonator and fusion devices like the neutron bomb, are commercially available in watches.

Meantime, nuclear strategists are developing new tactics for World War Three.  Today, the nuclear bomb is less likely to be a first strike weapon.  Instead strategists see computer attacks on the enemy’s infrastructure – especially communications and the power grid.

These “hack” attacks will be married to anti-satellite missile launches against the enemy military satellite system.  This will not only cut off critical command and control communications, it will blind the enemy by eliminating reconnaissance satellites, early warning satellites, and signal interception satellites.

Meanwhile, conventional warhead hypersonic missiles can destroy critical military facilities like air defense, which will allow stealth cruise missiles and aircraft to hit other strategic targets.

All of this can be done without using one nuclear device.  And, if a nuclear device is needed, it will be a 4th generation device so small that it won’t break windows a mile away.

This is the new reality.  And, both Russia and America know it.  While they may complain about the other side violating nuclear treaties, they are both aware that these treaties are much like the ones written before WWII that limited battleships – obsolete.

After half a century of nuclear treaties between Russia and America, it’s time to face the realities of a new nuclear age.

Analysis 06-29-2019


Iran and the United States Military Options

With all the talk coming out of Tehran and Washington, one would think that the two nations are on the brink of war.

But, are they?  How would they benefit? And, what are the military options?  Some options like an Iranian missile attack on Israel or US forces in the region would be suicidal according to some US military analysts and despite the Iranian threats are not to be taken seriously.

Nor is the US or Trump willing to start a war with Iran that America could inflict serious militarily damage but lose politically and will be drawn to a long and open conflict.

Despite all the talk, the “fighting” between the two is non-human.  Iran has shot down a drone and the US has launched cyberattacks – hardly the reason for a bloody conflict. Both Trump and Iran’s talk seems more for public consumption and bluffing.

Trump is hardly eager to go to war.  Long before he became president, Trump made it quite clear that he opposed intervention in the Middle East.  And, these opinions still govern his actions.  On Sunday during a Meet the Press interview, Trump was asked if he felt that he was being pushed into a war with Iran.  Trump responded, “John Bolton [National Security Advisor] is absolutely a hawk.  If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, okay?”

Trump went on to say that he preferred to hear from both sides before making up his mind.  He also praised Bolton by saying that ultimately, “he’s done a very good job.”

So, it appears that neither side wants to find itself in a conflict.  However, as the events surrounding World War One show, it is easy to back into a war for the wrong reasons.  For the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was a desire to establish hegemony over the Balkans.

Which raises the question: Is Trump or Iran willing to risk a war to establish more influence in the Middle East?  In many ways, they are like the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 – militarily a paper tiger and economically weak.  Iran has no neighbor like Germany to assist it any conflict.  Russia will not risk its own policies for the Strait of Hormuz like Kaiser Wilhelm did for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

US pundits claimed that although Iran has a population of about 80 million and some impressive weapons like ballistic missiles, WMD, and Russian air defense systems, the nation is economically strapped by sanctions and much of their military is suffering from lack of logistical support.  Availability of aircraft, ships, and other military equipment is low.  And, any prolonged conflict would wear them out.

Also, they contend that Iran has specialized in asymmetrical warfare – mainly by the IRGC, not the military.  The military is lacking in training and the IRGC is limited to its experience in Yemen, Syria, etc.  Going up against a major power is a totally different scenario.

They assert that even the Iranian air defense systems, which are celebrating the downing of the American drone are less powerful than they might imagine.  The US knows that it was flying in Iranian airspace, which is considered acceptable in peacetime – especially beyond the three-mile limit but didn’t expect the Iranians to attack them. According to some Washington analysts the Iranian success was due more to surprise than technological superiority.

Iranian air defense forces aren’t as good as the Russian forces, yet Israeli aircraft regularly penetrated them in Syria.  No doubt they are claiming, if American wants to enter Iranian airspace for military operations, the Iranian air defense system will not be able to stop them.

On the other hand, the US isn’t invincible.  It has a large military that is currently spread thin cross the world.  Assets like aircraft carriers are potent but can’t be sent to the Middle East quickly.  A build up of forces can take months as it did in both invasions of Iraq.

The current American fleet can carry out operations in the region but will quickly “wear out” if they don’t get reinforcements.

Military Options

So, if neither Iran nor the US is prepared for a major conflict, what realistic options are available for both sides?

For the US, the obvious choice is the typical American response – a massive cruise missile attack.  This was pretty much implied recently when President Trump said any military option wouldn’t mean “boots on the ground.”

However, if the United States launches air strikes on Iranian targets or leadership, Iranian cyber action is likely.  Iran has probed U.S. critical infrastructure for targeting purposes. How successful an attack would be is another matter. The kind of massive denial of service attacks Iran used against major banks in 2011-2013 would be less effective today given improved defenses. The most sophisticated kinds of cyberattack (such as Stuxnet or the Russian actions in the Ukraine) are still possible based on some Iranian capabilities, but poorly defended targets in the United States (of which there are many) are vulnerable—smaller banks or local power companies, for example, or poorly secured pipeline control systems.

Are there military options that don’t include a cruise missile or cyberattack attack?

The obvious location for any military action is the Strait of Hormuz.  It sees 21 million barrels of oil going through its narrow passage each day.  That is about 25% of the world’s oil consumption.  Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia have oil pipelines that bypass the Strait of Hormuz, the unused capacity can only accommodate about 19% of the oil that passes through the strait.

Most of the oil going through the Strait of Hormuz is destined for China, India, Japan, and South Korea.  That means that any attempt by Iran to cut off the oil shipments will probably lead to these nations helping the US break any embargo.  And, this doesn’t include likely help from NATO (Britain has already pledged to help).

The most logical Iranian move would be to block the Strait of Hormuz with its navy, IRGC boats, and mines.  However, the tanker war of the 1980s showed that in the long term, it was unsuccessful.  In fact, it encouraged the US Navy to expand its anti-mine warfare capability.

During the “tanker wars” of the 1980s, the U.S. allowed foreign-oil tankers to reflag as American ships. In addition, the U.S. adapted oil-platforms in the Gulf to use as surveillance posts, monitoring and responding to shipping threats.

The US Navy, along with other nations could break any blockade of the Strait.  GCC nations, NATO navies, and other involved Asian nations could escort oil tankers through the Omani side of the Strait.  Land based aircraft and aircraft from any carriers could provide air support against any attempt to “swarm” the convoys by IRGC boats.  The American amphibious forces currently in the region could board any Iranian ships.

Iran would find itself limited in response.  Although they can harass shipping in their own territorial waters, which cover half of the Strait, they would risk a major conflict if they try to harass any shipping in Omani waters.

This leaves Iran with only one option that avoids a direct conflict – mine warfare.  As they appear to have done with some of the tankers in the last month, Iran can seed part of the narrow waterway with mines.  This gives them plausible deniability for any tanker damage caused by them.

This explains the drone incident.  Half of the waters of the Strait of Hormuz belong to Iran.  However, the US doesn’t want Iranian submarines or ships to transport mines through the Iranian part of the Strait and into the open sea east of the Strait.  It was the drone’s job to remotely inspect Iranian traffic for any potential mines.

The Iranians didn’t want any American surveillance of traffic in their part of the Strait.  And, one way to “push back” the American Navy without causing casualties was to shoot down the drone in Iranian airspace.  However, that will only hamper surveillance a bit.  American aircraft can still monitor ships from Omani and UAE airspace.

Also expect American destroyers and frigates to patrol close to Iranian waters in order to carry out anti-submarine patrols.  As we noted in an earlier analysis, the Iranian Navy has focused on sonar warfare in the Gulf region and they are very likely to use that knowledge to sneak out of the Gulf and into open water.

There are few viable military options for either side.  Most center around the Strait of Hormuz, but in the end, the West can keep control of the Strait, although it will see some casualties – especially amongst oil tankers.

Are there other options?  Iran could encourage their allies in Yemen to make more trouble for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.  Additionally, they could directly or indirectly target American installations and bases in the region.

The Iranians could launch missiles from their islands in the Gulf like Abu Musa,, but that would only encourage the US and UAE to attempt to target missile batteries there and wage a campaign to regain control of the Island and that would lead to open conflict to target UAE cities.

The US could carry out air strikes on Iran, but as Trump discovered last week, they come with a political cost – both internationally and domestically.  The war between Iran and the US has been waged by artificial proxies.  Drones and computers are easy to replace, and the citizens of both America and Iran aren’t too bothered with those type of losses.

Although the rhetoric can get hot between Iran and the US, both sides realize the reality of conflict is much more dangerous.  Neither side wants to antagonize the other side with human casualties.  That’s why the tanker war of the last few weeks has been murky enough to tie it to Iran.  And, that’s why both sides seem committed to letting technology and artificial intelligence fight this conflict instead of humans for now.



Iran and Trump – Here’s What’s Really Going On

By James Carafano

Heritage Foundation

June 20, 2019

There are wars and rumors of war. And then there is Trump’s policy toward Iran, which fuels endless speculation. Despite much public handwringing over the announcement that the Pentagon is sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Gulf region, there are no signs the U.S. plans to escalate the stand-off with Tehran. I spent 25 years in the Army, but it doesn’t take a military career and a war college diploma to deconstruct what is going on. Let’s start with numbers. A thousand troops do not an invasion force make. Even counting the additional troops deployed last month on the strength of intelligence concerning an Iranian threat to shipping and (potentially) U.S. forces and assets in the Middle East, the number of U.S. boots on the ground are far too small to suggest a build-up for any major offensive action. Now, let’s look at the kind and scale of troops being sent. They are completely consistent with what is required for “force protection”—defending U.S. forces in the region, as well as policing the Hormuz against malicious attacks on shipping.

Read more at:

U.S. Should Lead Patient But Firm International Response to Iran’s Provocations

By James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

June 21, 2019

The slow-motion confrontation between Iran and the United States has accelerated in recent weeks. Iran’s June 19 shoot-down of a U.S. Navy surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz, and a series of attacks on ships in the Gulf of Oman off Iran’s coast, have ratcheted up tensions on many fronts. The U.S. and its allies need to respond effectively to Iran’s covert maritime threats, and as they do so, they should bear in mind that Iran’s most potent threat is on the nuclear front. Tehran has threatened to exceed the limits established by the nuclear agreement if the European Union fails to protect Iran from U.S. sanctions by July 7. Washington must calibrate its response to the drone and tanker attacks with an eye to mobilizing international support in the approaching crisis over Iran’s surging uranium-enrichment operations, a much more important issue, which has triggered Iran’s bellicose maritime threats.

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Erdogan Loses Istanbul: Reasons and Implications

By Bulent Aliriza

Center for Strategic and International Studies

June 25, 2019

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who was backed by most of the other political parties opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), won the Istanbul mayoral repeat election on June 23, forced by the AKP’s challenge to the original result on March 31, with 54.2 percent of the vote against the AKP candidate Binali Yildirim’s 45 percent. The difference of over 800,000 votes between the candidates served to underline the severity of the electoral setback for Erdogan and the AKP, as the gap announced by the YSK after a recount of the first vote was only 13,000. The AKP lost votes in all 39 of Istanbul’s districts, while the CHP exceeded the AKP vote in 11 districts that the latter had won on March 31. With an insurmountable gap impervious to another challenge, there was also no repeat of the controversy provoked by the official Anadolu Agency’s inexplicable delay in providing results in the last election. Yildirim conceded early into the count and Erdogan followed up with a brief congratulatory tweet.

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Iran and Cyber Power

By James Andrew Lewis

Center for Strategic and International Studies

June 25, 2019

Iran has rapidly improved its cyber capabilities. It is still not in the top rank of cyber powers, but it is ahead of most nations in strategy and organization for cyber warfare. Iran has a good appreciation for the utility of cyber as an instrument of national power. Its extensive experience in covert activities help guide its strategy and operations using cyber as a tool for coercion and force, and it has created a sophisticated organizational structure to manage cyber conflict. This means any attack on the United States will not be accidental but part of a larger strategy of confrontation.  Iran sees cyberattacks as part of the asymmetric military capabilities it needs to confront the United States. Iran’s development of cyber power is a reaction to its vulnerabilities. Iran is the regular target of foreign cyber espionage. Iran and Israel are engaged in a not-always covert cyber conflict. Stuxnet, a cyberattack on Iranian nuclear weapons facilities, accelerated Iran’s own cyber efforts. What Iran’s leaders fear most, however, is their own population and the risk that the internet will unleash something like the Arab Spring. Iranian security forces began to develop their hacking abilities during the 2009 “Green Revolution” to extend domestic surveillance and control. These domestic efforts are the roots of Iran’s cyber capabilities.

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US finds itself isolated in Iran conflict

By Lawrence J. Haas

American Foreign Policy Council

June 22, 2019

President Trump’s opportunity at next week’s G-20 summit to reset U.S. relations with close allies is a particularly timely one, for it comes as Washington suffers the downsides of its frayed relations in connection with one of its biggest global challenges of the moment — its rising tensions with Iran. After launching a pressure campaign against Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 global nuclear deal and re-imposing economic sanctions that are squeezing Iran’s economy and causing serious hardship among its people, Washington is now blaming Tehran for recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman and sending another 1,000 troops to the region to monitor Iranian activities and protect the troops already there. And yet, in its efforts to force Tehran to negotiate new limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and to abandon its wicked ways in the region and beyond, it is Washington that finds itself largely alone. Particularly telling are the suspicions in European capitals and elsewhere that Trump’s fingering of Tehran for the tanker attacks looks eerily like the events of 1964 that prompted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution — which gave President Lyndon Johnson broad authority to wage the Vietnam War.

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Iran-Backed Militias Test the Credibility of Iraq’s Prime Minister

By Michael Knights

Washington Institute

June 19, 2019

On June 19, an unidentified militia fired a rocket toward the heart of Iraq’s oil sector in Basra province, with the munition landing just one hundred yards away from accommodation facilities used by U.S. and international engineers working on the country’s largest oil fields. It was the eighth rocket attack on U.S.-linked facilities in Iraq this year, directly following strikes on coalition training facilities in Taji and Mosul on June 17-18. Although no foreign nationals were killed in this week’s strikes, two Iraqis were injured, and the incidents have disrupted Washington’s local diplomatic presence. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil are on half-manning after all nonessential staff were withdrawn in early May due to security fears. Previously, the Basra consulate was shuttered last September after receiving rocket fire. The Mosul and Basra strikes are particularly troubling because they follow a stern warning from Prime Minister Adil Abdulmahdi that all Iraqi militias should cease independent military operations, not just at home but across the Middle East.

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Analysis 06-15-2019



America, Russia, and the Tussle for Turkey

Turkey, which has been westward looking since the days of Ataturk, has become NATO’s fickle partner since Erdogan has come to power.  That is best seen in the fight over the Russian S-400 air defense system and the American F-35 fighter aircraft.

Although Turkey had ordered F-35 aircraft from America years ago, a snag has occurred with Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia and his order of the Russian S-400 air defense system.  Many in America fear that some of the secrets of the F-35 will end up in Moscow, negating much of the technological advantage of America’s (and NATO’s) next generation aircraft.

There is also considerable concern about Turkey’s foreign policy, which has moved from a closer relationship with Europe towards a more active role in the Middle East and closer relations with both Russia and China.  The result is that many are concerned about Turkey’s continued role in NATO as the southern anchor of that alliance.  There is also concern about how Turkey’s Syrian policy will impact both Russia and America.

There is also growing political polarization in Turkey, which can impact national leadership.  The local elections in March saw 6 dead and 115 people injured.  The death toll increased a few days later when an opposition politician of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was nearly lynched by pro-Erdogan crowds.

Violence is expected later this month in the mayoral election rerun – especially if anti-Erdogan candidates win.

But, the biggest impact at this time is that Turkish pilots training on the F-35 in Arizona have been grounded.  American Wing Commander Brigadier General Todd Canterbury not only grounded the six Turkish pilots, but he restricted their access to secret and classified materials on the F-35.

The US has given Turkey until July 31 to change their policy and cancel the S-400 air defense system, which may be delivered to Turkey as soon as this month.  There could also be additional sanctions which would further damage Turkey’s fragile economy.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Andrews said, “Without a change in Turkish policy, we will continue to work closely with our Turkish ally on winding down their participation in the F-35 program.”

This move was prompted when America discovered that Turkish military personnel had gone to Russia to begin training on the S-400.

Does this mean that Turkey will find itself pushed out of NATO?

Not likely.

Turkey is more likely to become a “non-participating” member until a more favorable government comes to power or the Turkish/Russian love affair falters.

For instance, French President De Gaulle withdrew France’s troops from NATO on June 21, 1966.  This decision complicated relations between the U.S. and Europe during the height of the Cold War.  Though France remained politically in NATO, its actions cast doubt onto the organization’s future as a counter to Soviet military power and influence.

This move by France was a major military problem for NATO.  EUCOM, the European command was in France and had to be moved to Germany.  Communications lines from military commands to EUCOM had to be replaced.  In addition, all communication lines from the NATO units on the front lines had to be rerouted through Belgium.

Interestingly, despite the political disputes between the leadership, the NATO bureaucracy continued to work.  According to Ambassador to NATO Robert Ellsworth,

“The departure of France was designed by de Gaulle to destroy NATO, but it didn’t destroy NATO.  And it wasn’t long – in fact by the time I got there in 1969, there was already extensive collaboration and cooperation between the French military forces and the forces of NATO. And that has, of course, continued and even deepened to this very day.”

France would only rejoin NATO as a full-fledged member in 2009 – nearly a generation after the Cold War ended.

So, will Turkey eventually reconcile with NATO and the US?  Or, is the Turkish/Russian relationship expected to strengthen and become long term?

Odds are that Turkey will find itself back in the NATO fold eventually – just as France found itself.

Russia and Turkey have been traditional enemies for hundreds of years.  Parts of what is now southern Russia and southern Ukraine were part of the Ottoman Empire.  It wasn’t until Peter the Great in the late 1700s, that Russia gained access to the Black Sea.  There were several Russo-Turkish wars between the 17th and 20th centuries and these military conflicts are the longest in European History.

Russia and Turkey remain on different sides when it comes to several foreign policy issues.  These include Syria, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Armenia.  The interpretation of the Montreux Convention on the movement of warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits also remains a sore point with the two nations.

Relations under Erdogan and Putin have also been tumultuous.  In November 2015, Turkish fighter aircraft shot down a Russian military aircraft – leading to Russia imposing sanctions on Turkey and restricting travel.

Relations were normalized in June 2016, only to suffer another rift when the Russian ambassador to Turkey (Andrei Karlov) was assassinated in Ankara in December 2016 by an off-duty policeman over the Syrian issue.

Putin and Russia glossed over the assassination by calling it an attempt to damage Turkish-Russian ties.

From Russia’s point of view, Turkey offers several geopolitical advantages.  It makes it easier for the Russian Navy to move in the Eastern Mediterranean and gives Russia a say in Middle Eastern affairs.

Just as important, it gives Russia an opportunity to weaken NATO.  Not only is Turkey the southern anchor of NATO, it has NATO’s second largest military (after the US).  And, as America fears, Russia’s access to Turkish military officers gives it a chance to learn NATO secrets.

Weakening NATO’s southern flank becomes even more important as President Trump is moving to strengthen NATO in Central Europe.

On Wednesday, President Trump met with Polish President Andrzej Duda and they signed an agreement that will send an additional 1,000 troops to Poland on a rotational basis (there are currently 4,000 US troops there).  Poland is also purchasing up to 35, F-35 fighter aircraft from the US.

Consequently, it looks like Russia is gaining strength on its southern flank, while facing a new threat in its center.  While Turkey has a large military, so does Poland.  Poland also has the second largest armored force in Europe (Russia has the largest), which would be critical if Russia tries any aggressive moves in Central Europe.  Poland’s army is more professional, and its soldiers have a higher educational level than Turkish soldiers.  The new agreement with the US makes it more likely that Poland will be the keystone of NATO defense in Eastern Europe.

So, has a new set of long-term alliances been formed?  Has the US traded a Turkish alliance for Poland, while Russia has picked up Turkey?

If history is any indication, the answer is no.  Russia and Turkey have centuries of conflict behind them – most on regional issues that remain current today.  There is also the fact that much of the current friendship is based on Turkish President Erdogan – who appears to be facing eroding popularity, if recent elections are any indication.  If Erdogan leaves the Turkish political scene, it is easy to see a new Turkish government renewing its relationships with the US, Europe, and NATO.

Meanwhile, Polish/Russian relations have been equally tense for centuries and many Poles remember that Russia has controlled much of Poland during that time.  However, it was the US and NATO that stood up to the Soviet Union and supported Polish resistance towards the USSR.  The end of the Soviet Empire is only 30 years ago, and many remember the Soviet occupation and are eager to have American forces in Poland in order to prevent any Russian aggression in the future.

Sidelining Turkey will not damage US relations with other NATO nations or even the EU.   In fact, the EU has indefinitely postponed Turkey’s request to join the European Union due to Turkey’s political situation and the human rights issues.

Although Turkey appears to have lost the F-35 in return for the Russian S-400, this is likely a temporary situation.  National leaders are destined to lose power or die.  The same is true with Erdogan – especially if he allows for free elections soon.

In that case, Turkey may still get its F-35s – just a few years later.



Is There a Thing as a Trump Doctrine in Foreign Policy?
By Kim Holmes
Heritage Foundation
June 12, 2019
Interview by German Marshall Fund

To begin with, would you say there is such a thing as a Trump doctrine in foreign policy?

A Trump doctrine is probably not something as sophisticated or intellectual as the word “doctrine” might imply. But there are themes that those who wish to create a doctrine might use, as a way of intellectualizing what is already there. First is an emphasis on national sovereignty, which in the U.S. political and historical context is not a dirty word. It is so in Europe due to historical factors – the success of the European Union, and in overcoming nationalism’s role in creating wars and dividing the continent. But in the U.S. context, in the Trump context, the term “national sovereignty” is often used as a way of emphasizing the right of the United States to make its own decisions in its own national interest, and according to its own values. This rubs a lot of people in Europe the wrong way.  The liberal international order as defined here in Europe is based upon consensus, on multilateralism. When we come together on climate change or the Iran nuclear accord or other issues, in Europe it’s pretty much assumed that is a litmus test for whether you’re adhering to the order or not. And Donald Trump came in and said: “You know, no, that’s not the way we’re going to do business.” That’s the second part: challenging multilateralism as it has been practiced in the past between the United States and Europe.

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Turkey’s Arms Deal with Russia Is an Affront to NATO
By James Phillips
Heritage Foundation
June 6, 2019

The Turkish government Tuesday reaffirmed its intention to complete the controversial purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, a move appropriately drawing the ire of both parties in Washington. Both Congress and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have warned of punitive action should Turkey follow through on the purchase, which Turkey says could be completed as soon as next month. “Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 would be incompatible with its commitments to NATO,” Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., Jack Reed, D-R.I., James Risch, R-Idaho, and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., wrote in a New York Times op-ed in early April. Yet, despite this widespread U.S. criticism and the Trump administration’s promise of a punitive response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the purchase “a done deal” and has already begun preparing his nation for retaliatory U.S. sanctions once the Russian missile-defense system is delivered. Congress is right to oppose the deal. As was noted last year in the National Interest, the S-400 is a “real game changer” with exceptional anti-aircraft capabilities and a wide range of other advantages, from the ability to detect stealth aircraft to the ability to detect, target, and engage non-stealth aircraft at a greater range than that of its American competitor, the Patriot system.

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Syrian WMD Proliferation Could Set the Middle East on Fire
By Peter Brookes
Heritage Foundation
June 11, 2019

It’s hard to conceive that the situation in Syria could get any worse—but it might.

Besides the tremendous bloodshed during the eight-year-old civil war—that included the rise and fall of the Islamic State—the world witnessed the Syrian regime’s almost unbridled use of chemical weapons to savagely work to break its opponents’ will. Indeed, the regime’s use of chemical weapons such as chlorine, mustard gas, and sarin nerve agent may not be over. Just last week there were reports that the regime used chemical weapons again, this time in the northwest part of the country. The regime’s fondness for chemical weapons has long been known. Besides previous allegations of chemical weapons use in the civil war, Syrian government forces infamously struck with sarin at Ghouta in 2013. That brought pressure from the United States, which led Syria to agree to declare its holdings, make them available for destruction and accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It turned out to be a ruse.

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The Strategic Threat from Iranian Hybrid Warfare in the Gulf
Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 13, 2019

The threat of war with Iran may seem distant to many in American and Europe, but its strategic implications became all too clear only hours after two freshly loaded tankers – the Frontline and the Kokuka Courageous – were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on June 12, 2019 – just outside the “Persian” or “Arab” Gulf. These attacks came less than a month after four previous attacks on tankers near a port in the UAE, and after months of rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear programs, the war in Yemen, and the growing arms race in the region. The fear of further attacks, and interruption in the continued export of petroleum sudden raised the global price of crude oil by 4% – a global price rise that everyone in the world must pay – including Americans – regardless of the fact the U.S. is no longer a major petroleum importer. The reasons why such incidents can lead to immediate price rises, as well as growing concerns over far more serious patterns of conflict are simple. First, the military confrontation between Iran, the U.S., and the Arab Gulf states over everything from the JCPOA to Yemen can easily escalate to hybrid warfare that has far more serious forms of attack. And second, such attacks can impact critical aspects of the flow of energy to key industrial states and exporters that shape the success of the global economy as well as the economy of the U.S.

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The Real Iran Threat to the Strait of Hormuz (Causing Oil Prices to Skyrocket)
By Ilan I. Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
April 30, 2019

Late last month, the Trump administration kicked its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran into high gear when it announced that it would no longer provide waivers to countries like China, India and Japan to continue buying Iranian oil without facing sanctions. These countries and their respective companies now face the prospect of being excluded from the American market if they don’t immediately stop buying Iranian crude. The push is part of the White House’s effort “to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero” as a way of ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran’s ayatollahs, National Security Adviser John Bolton has explained. Iran, meanwhile, has responded to the Trump administration’s recent decision by reviving an old threat. “If we are prevented from using it, we will close it,” Alireza Tangsiri, head of the IRGC’s navy, told Iranian media. Tangsiri was referring to the Strait of Hormuz, a key strategic waterway through which roughly one-fifth of the world’s oil passes.

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The Face-Off Over Gulf Arms Sales: ‘Emergency’ or False Alarm?
By Dana Stroul
Washington Institute
June 10, 2019

On June 5, a bipartisan group of senators announced twenty-two separate joint resolutions of disapproval aimed at blocking various U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This unusual move came in response to the Trump administration’s May 24 use of the emergency exception granted under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA), which governs how the United States sells weapons to foreign governments. By declaring this “emergency” and forgoing the required fifteen- or thirty-day congressional review period, the administration created a path to move forward with an estimated $8.1 billion in arms sales. To justify the move, officials emphasized the need to bolster regional allies against the increased threat from Iran.

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The Race for Istanbul: Erdogan’s Plan A and B
By Soner Cagaptay
Washington Institute
June 10, 2019

In Istanbul’s mayoral race redo, polls indicate that opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu is pulling ahead of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim. Although Imamoglu won the first race on March 31, the country’s electoral board voided the election, alleging irregularities regarding the formation of ballot commissions in some Istanbul districts, and called for a revote on June 23. Considering that Istanbul accounts for a third of Turkey’s economy and that Erdogan was Istanbul’s mayor before he became prime minister in 2003, this election could serve as a platform for Imamoglu to challenge the president nationally. Yet Erdogan—who controls many of Turkey’s institutions, including much of the media, courts, police, and election boards—has two plans to win Istanbul, one formulated before March 31 and one after.

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Analysis 06-07-2019


China Threatens American Defense
with Rare Earth Embargo

Throughout history certain metals have been critical for defense.  During the Greek era, it was bronze.  During the Roman Empire, it was iron.  In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, it was copper.

In fact, copper was so critical during the American Civil War that the Confederates sent agents to the Carolinas to confiscate copper turpentine and alcohol stills.  It was critical for everything from cannon production to parts for the first operational submarine – the CSS Hunley.

Today, it is rare earths that are considered strategic minerals.  This is a dramatic change for a group of elements that were once considered merely chemical curiosities.  China is threatening to use rare earths as a “nuclear” option in their growing trade riff with the US.  China accounts for more than 70% of global output of rare earths and it has prepared a plan to restrict exports of rare earths to the US if the trade war continues.

This week, the Commerce Department released a report requested by President Trump to investigate US access to rare earths in an emergency.

The report said, “The United States is heavily dependent on critical mineral imports…If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period – similar to China’s rare earth embargo in 2010 – an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks.”

Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are relatively unknown to the average person.  Names like europium, praseodymium, neodymium, lanthanum, samarium, cerium and gadolinium rarely get mentioned in chemistry classes, much less normal conversation.  Although called “Rare Earths,” they are abundant in the Earth’s crust.  It was the fact that they were hard to extract and purify that led early scientists to think they were rare.  Before World War Two, the world’s supply of many of these elements was measured in grams and merely laboratory curiosities.  And, the lack of samples guaranteed that scientists didn’t spend much time studying their properties.

The growth in electronics in the post WW II age changed all that.  Today REEs are critical for optics and electronics.  Europium, for instance provides the red phosphor in color cathode-ray tubes and liquid crystal displays used in computers and televisions.  There is no known substitute.

Rare earths aren’t just important for our cell phones, computers, and DVD players.  They are increasingly important in America’s national defense, which leaves the Department of Defense concerned that the United States may not have enough rare earths to wage a war, especially if China cuts off our supplies.

U.S. military technologies such as anti-submarine warfare, smart bombs, and night vision rely heavily upon rare earth elements.  But rebuilding an independent U.S. supply chain to protect the country from foreign dependency could take up to 10 years, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).  The GAO report was commissioned to look at national security risks that could arise from our dependency upon rare earth elements.

These are some of the military technologies that could be hurt with a rare earth embargo.

Rare earth elements are a critical part of devices such as lasers, radar, missile-guidance systems, satellites and aircraft electronics. And many military systems also rely upon commercial computer hard drives that use rare earth magnets.  Specific examples of rare earth-driven technologies include the navigation system for the M-1 Abrams battle tank, and the electric drive for the Navy’s DDG-51 destroyers.   The GAO report states, “Defense systems will likely continue to depend on rare earth materials, based on their life cycles and lack of effective substitutes.”  The rare earth element neodymium, for instance, is very magnetic and is used in everything from computer hard drives to wind turbines and hybrid cars.

The U.S. once supplied most of the global supply of rare earth elements and manufactured rare earth products such as the neodymium magnets.  But rare earth processing has largely shifted to China since the 1990s.

Fortunately for US, Mountain Pass, California is perhaps the largest non-Chinese rare earth deposit in the world.  For years, the United States was self-sufficient in the mining of REE thanks to the Mountain Pass deposits which were discovered in the 1949.  Two prospectors were looking for uranium deposits, when their Geiger counter detected high radioactivity in a rock outcropping.  The prospectors staked a claim and sent off ore samples.  When the assay results came back, they discovered that they had discovered a rare earth mineral called bastnaesite, which was worthless at the time.

Mountain Pass was developed at a critical time.  By the 1960s color televisions were finding their way into every American household and europium was critical for their television tubes.  As the mine developed more efficient solvent extraction processes to extract europium, they produced in turn more REEs, which allowed scientists to find new uses for them.  Many of these new applications were in defense industries.

For the next generation, Mountain Pass was the major source for rare earths for the world.  However, the increased demand for them caused geologists to find new deposits for them, especially in China, which soon became the major rare earth producer.

Today, Mountain Pass is the only rare earth mining and processing facility in the US.  The mine is currently operating, but its output must be shipped to China for refining.  However, the owner, MP Materials has said it will start its own refining operation in 2020.

 Mountain Pass doesn’t supply all the rare earths that the Department of Defense needs.  It doesn’t produce “heavy” rare earths like terbium and dysprosium. Dysprosium is used in the production of lasers, nuclear control rods, and hard discs.   Terbium is used in solid state devices and as a stabilizer in fuel cells.  Just as important for national security, it is also a component of Terfenol-D, which, expands or contracts in the presence of a magnetic field.  This makes it critical for naval sonar systems.

Another rare earth deposit in Idaho – Diamond Creek – may solve some of the heavy rare earth shortage.  Approximately 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements (REE) exist within known deposits in the United States, according to the first-ever nationwide estimate of these elements by the U.S. Geological Survey.  The report describes significant deposits of REE in 14 states, with the largest known REE deposits at Mountain Pass, Calif.; Bokan Mountain, Alaska; and the Bear Lodge Mountains, Wyo. Additional states with known REE deposits include Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina

China is also investing in rare earth mining around the world (it also is a minority shareholder in MP Materials and at one time, it even tried to buy the Mountain Pass mine).

China Minmetals Group of China has financed Upland Wings, Inc. and Wings Enterprises, Inc., which owns rare earth deposits at Pea Ridge, Missouri.  In 2009, the China Investment Corp bought a 17 percent stake in Teck Resources Ltd., which owns rare earth deposits in Iron Hills, Colorado.

Although other countries like France, Estonia, and Japan have REE deposits, much of their production is also sent to China as concentrates for refining.

One reason some consumer electronic production like cell phones is centered in China is because it makes it easier for the manufacturers to access the REEs they need.

But it isn’t just China’s attempt to corner the REE mining sector that is worrying the US.  It has also focused on finding new applications for REEs and is now a rare earth technology leader.  REEs are critical to several defense technologies and American military leaders are uncomfortable with China’s lead in this critical technology.  Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, recently cautioned members of a Congressional panel that “rare-earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare-earth separation, processing of the oxides into metallic alloys and other useful forms, substitution, and recycling is virtually zero.”

The REE Embargo Threat

So, what would happen if China restricted REE exports to the US?  The first impact would be in consumer electronics, which would become more expensive or even difficult to acquire.

The US government has modest strategic reserves, which have been built up recently.  The reserves include Dysprosium, Europium, and Yttrium Oxide.  The FY 2019 budget provides for additional acquisitions, but the amount that will be purchased is currently unknown.

Although the US and other Western nations don’t have large official REE stockpiles, it is awash in out-of-date consumer products that can be recycled if the price is right.  This occurred several years ago, when China raised prices on its REEs.  Discounts on new cell phones for turning in old cell phones, would bring in the stock of obsolete or broken cell phones squirreled away in American consumer’s drawers.  Those discounts would help offset the increased prices of new consumer electronics.

The American defense industry would be better protected against a REE embargo.  Not only is there the US stockpile, the pipeline from REE mine to final defense product is long.  The defense contractors could also outbid consumer producers for old consumer electronics.  With the inevitable prioritizing of REE mining and refining by the government, by the time the US stockpiles start running out; domestic production would be ramping up.

In the end, since the US has large Rare Earth reserves in the ground, it would suffer less than many other nations.

Since the Chinese raised REE prices in 2010, the US has focused on boosting REE production and, on streamlining the permitting process for rare earth miners.

Since the US has vast rare earth mineral reserves, the only issue is building refining plants, which could be completed in a short time, because the US has rare earth refining technology (although it may be older than Chinese technology).

There is also the issue of sanction busting.  Rare earths are easier to move around the world than products like petroleum, which Iran has little problem smuggling.  The US could easily find sources of Chinese rare earths if necessary.

The Chinese threat to cut back on its exports is a two-edged weapon.  China can temporarily cut its REE exports, which would raise prices and impact American consumer electronics production.  It, however, will put a major pressure on American defense establishment to come up with alternative solutions to its military needs.

Analysis 05-31-2019


Mueller Makes Public Statement on Investigation of President

On Wednesday, Special Prosecutor Mueller made his first (and probably only) statement on his investigation of President Trump.  An observer noted that basically all he said was; “Read the report, I’m going fishing” (“going fishing” is an American idiom for retiring and not wanting anyone to bother them in the future).

Although the statement was concise legalese, there was enough for both sides to pick out phrases that justified their narrative.

Democrats focused on the fact that Mueller mentioned that some Russians had been indicted for interfering in the 2016 election.  They also focused on the statement by Mueller that he couldn’t indict a sitting president due to Department of Justice regulations that stated an indictment was unconstitutional.

Mueller also said that he couldn’t exonerate Trump for obstruction of justice – although US criminal law makes it clear that it isn’t the job of the prosecutor to exonerate – just indict or not indict.

This was enough for many Democrats.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D NY) released a statement that said, “Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the President, it falls to Congress to respond…and we do so.”

Senator Kamala Harris (D CA) tweeted, “What Robert Mueller basically did was return an impeachment referral. Now it is up to Congress to hold this president accountable. We need to start impeachment proceedings. It’s our constitutional obligation.”

However, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham released a statement via twitter saying, “Today’s statement by Mr. Mueller reinforces the findings of his report.  And as for me, the case is over.  Mr. Mueller has decided to move on and let the record speak for itself…The report shows there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and any member of the Russian government.  However, there was a systematic effort by Russia to disrupt our election.”

Here were the key points of the Mueller statement

Mueller is resigning, formally shutting down his office, and returning to private life.  This makes it clear that from his point of view, there is nothing else for his office to do.

Mueller also said he would not tell congress anything beyond what the Department of Justice (DoJ) had made public.  He made it clear he had no problem with what the Attorney General publicly released and that he had no intention of speaking publicly again.

Mueller reiterated that he was bound by DoJ regulations against charging a sitting president with a crime and therefore did not decide whether he committed a crime.  He noted that Congress has another way to address the conduct of presidents through impeachment.

Mueller also closed the door on further speculation by saying, “We will not comment on any other conclusions or hypotheticals about the president.”  He also said, “It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no resolution of a charge.”

Mueller mentioned that Russia did try to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, which he said, “deserves the attention of every American.”

Mueller said he still expects Democrats in the House to insist on his testimony.    He stated categorically, “I will not provide information beyond what is already public before Congress…The report is my testimony…I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to speak further.

Although this statement will enrage House Democrats, that implies that Mueller has no problem with the conclusions by the Attorney General.  And, as a private citizen, requiring his testimony is much harder.

There was considerable criticism that Mueller had side stepped the issue in order to support the Democratic side.  Former US Attorney Andrew McCarthy countered what Mueller said about indicting a sitting president by noting, “The guidance doesn’t say the president can never be indicted.  It says a sitting president can’t be indicted.  And, the prosecutor who has the investigation has the job of making that determination. Do we have a case or not?”

McCarthy continued, “If you decide you have a case and the Justice Department wants to invoke the guidance that says that a sitting president can’t be indicted, then so be it.  But Mueller’s job I think was to find out, do we have a prosecutable case or not?”

In a joint statement by the Justice Department and the Special Counsel’s office Wednesday evening, both offices insisted that there was no conflict.  In typical legalese, the statement said, “The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice.”

Some republicans are claiming that the vocal Democratic reaction to the Mueller statement may be designed to cover up a growing controversy about the intelligence and law enforcement involvement in spying on the Trump Campaign, in order to help the Clinton campaign.

Since the Mueller report came out saying that there is no proof of the Trump campaign colluding with the Russians, the question has been raised about how this story of collusion was put forward.

Trump supporters point out that it is now known that the Steele dossier, which was used to gain approval from a FISA judge to spy on the Trump Campaign, was paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign.  Nor, was there probably cause, which is needed for a judge to sign a warrant giving such approval.  That’s why Attorney General Barr has stated in testimony before Congress that the FBI was spying on the Trump campaign.

This represents a serious charge that unelected officials tried to change the election results – an illegal and unconstitutional action.  Attorney General Barr has assigned US Attorney Durham to investigate the charges.

However, the real question is how this whole issue will impact the 2020 presidential election.

Although there remains a lot of talk about impeachment, Democratic leaders like Speaker of the House Pelosi oppose it.  Pelosi thinks the Democrats should campaign on issues, not just opposition to the president.

It appears that the Democrats have an uphill climb to change the minds of voters, so they vote Democratic next year.  The Gallup poll showed that Trump’s popularity shot up after the Mueller report.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that the majority of likely voters – both Republican and Democrat thought the Mueller report was fair.  That means voters are unlikely to believe wild charges from Democrats.

Just as important for Democrats was the Washington Post/ABC News poll finding that 56% of Americans think Congress shouldn’t start impeachment proceedings.  In fact, a CNN poll showed that a majority of Americans (69%) think there should be an investigation into why the DoJ started an investigation of Trump in the first place.  This will give Trump and Barr the political cover to investigate the FBI and intelligence community collusion to spy on Trump.

This investigation is probably a major threat to many Democratic presidential candidates, although none are directly involved in the investigation.  All of the candidates have in some degree or another insisted that Trump is guilty and deserving of impeachment.

The issue of unelected officials spying on Americans only reinforces the Trump issue that Washington is a swamp and that the “swamp must be drained.”  A Monmouth University poll showed that 82% of Americans believe the US government is watching them.  74% believe there is a “deep state” of unelected officials determining policy.  The Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray said, “There’s an ominous feeling by Democrats and Republicans alike that a “deep state” of unelected operatives are pulling the levers of power.”

Consequently, an investigation that reveals some sort of spying on the Trump Campaign or Americans in general will only solidify Trump’s standing with the voter and hurt the Democratic challengers who are ignoring the issue.

There is also the fact that Americans are tired of the Russian collusion issue.  A Harvard/Harris poll showed that 80% of Americans want their, “congressional representatives working more on infrastructure, health care, and immigration [than] investigations of Trump.  The poll also showed that 55% of respondents say think “bias against President Trump in the FBI played a role in launching the investigations.”

As a Washington Post editorial said, “Americans don’t want Congress to impeach, but Democrats aren’t listening.”

Although opposition to Trump is the thing binding Democrats together, American voters have made it clear that they prefer legislative progress, not investigations.

The problem is that the season for legislation is practically over.  The presidential and congressional election season is nearly upon the US and once it starts, no measurable legislative progress is expected until after the election.

Talk about opposing Trump and impeaching him may play well to the hard-core Democratic base, but it doesn’t resonate with the independent voter who regularly decides elections. That means all the Congressional “swing districts” that went Democratic in 2018 are at risk of switching to Republican in 2020 (traditionally, if the incumbent president wins reelection, his party will pick up seats in the House and Senate).

That means the Democratic focus on Mueller’s statement this week only hurts them in the 2020 election.

In other words, Democrats should start looking at infrastructure legislation and stick with Mueller’s view, “Read the report, I’m going fishing.”



Treaties in the Age of Donald Trump

By Theodore R. Bromund

Heritage Foundation

May 29, 2019

When President Donald Trump said last month that the United States was dropping out of the arms trade treaty, The Washington Post sighed that it was “the latest illustration of his aversion to international agreements and world governance.” Obviously, Trump doesn’t like some treaties. But would it surprise you to learn that he’s approved only one fewer treaty in his first two years than President Barack Obama did in his last two? Here’s what Trump’s done — and what it means. So far, the Senate has ratified and Trump has approved six treaties since March 2017. Now, the point of treaties is not to sign lots of them. The point is to sign good treaties. This isn’t a competition between Trump and Obama. Still, Trump has approved six treaties that the Senate has ratified. That doesn’t sound like a president who’s averse to international agreements. It sounds like a president who likes some treaties and not others.

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Trump Knows What He Is Doing on Iran

By James Jay Carafano

Heritage Foundation

May 30, 2019

Perhaps it’s only natural that the media indulges in some hyperventilating when talking about foreign policy and volatile actors such as Iran. But it doesn’t help. It’s time for fewer histrionics and more sober assessments. Deconstructing the current head-butting between Tehran and the White House is a case in point. For starters, Washington is no better at predicting war under President Donald Trump than it was the results of the 2016 elections. On at least three occasions now in the nascent era of Trump, everyone has been beating the war drums except the parties that were supposed to be going to war. In 2017, when Trump called Kim “little rocket man,” there were warnings to head to the bomb shelters. More prudent assessments held the prospects for serious escalation looked unlikely. Fast forward, and we find the United States and North Korea holding serious negotiations for over a year—the dire warnings of the inevitable escalation to war long forgotten.

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Trump Gets an “F” for Libya

By James Jay Carafano

Heritage Foundation

May 24, 2019

Getting grumpy over the administration’s Libya policy is a just cause. There is no nostalgia for President Barack Obama’s “lead from behind” policy that left the country in ruins, an American compound in flames, and a U.S. ambassador and other brave Americans dead. But let’s be honest, President Donald Trump hasn’t done much better at making things better. This is not just about grading presidents. There are good reasons to get U.S. policy for Libya right. Trump gets an “A” for his instincts on the Middle East. This region is strategically important to the United States. That said, the U.S. is not the region’s babysitter. What is needed is sustainable regional security solutions that deal with the twin great dangers: the destabilizing actions of Iran and organized campaigns by transnational Islamist terrorists.

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Win, Hold, Fold, or Run? Afghanistan in the Spring of 2019

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

May 13, 2019

The United States currently is pursuing a peace settlement that so far excludes any formal participation by the Afghan government. Its FY2020 budget request does not call for major change in the U.S. posture in Afghanistan, but press reports indicate that the U.S. is considering 50% cuts in its Embassy staff and would like to make major cuts in its military forces and effort. The Afghan government has made its own attempts to define a peace settlement but remains deeply divided and faces a Presidential election in September 2019 that raises serious questions about Afghanistan’s future leadership and unity. Afghan security forces are making progress in some areas, but no reliable open source data is available on many aspects of Afghan capacity and no reliable estimate exists of government control and influence over given Districts and the Afghan population. Afghan progress in improving governance and the living standards of the Afghan people seems to be grinding slowly at best, and Afghan ability to meet U.S. demands for improved security forces, governance, and economic progress remains unclear.

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Erdogan’s Failure on the Nile

By Soner Cagaptay

Washington Institute

Spring 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the most consequential leaders in the history of the Turkish republic. Over the past two decades, he has gradually parted ways with Kamal Ataturk’s West-centric and inward-looking foreign policy model, instead embracing an activist and neo-imperialist foreign policy. He has accordingly pivoted Turkey to the Middle East to build influence over the politics of the region. Often dubbed “neo-Ottomanist,” Erdogan’s foreign policy toward the region is informed by his belief that Turkey can rise as a great power if it becomes the leader in the Middle East first.  At home, Erdogan has consolidated power while defanging the secularist Turkish military and, through that, undermining Ataturk’s secularist legacy in the country. In a set of trials between 2008 and 2011, collectively dubbed Ergenekon, Erdogan locked up nearly a quarter of Turkey’s generals with the help of prosecutors and police aligned with the movement of political Islamist Fethullah Gulen, his ally at the time. In the summer of 2011, the Turkish military’s top brass resigned en masse, recognizing that Erdogan (and Gulen) had won. Around that time in 2010, Erdogan passed a referendum with help from his allies in the Gulen movement, which gave him the prerogative to appoint most judges to the country’s high courts without a confirmation process.

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Palestinians Need to Get Real About Israel

By Walter Russell Mead

Hudson Institute

May 20, 2019

As Palestinian officials nervously await the Trump administration’s peace plan, one fundamental reality shapes their long and bitter contest with Israel. Diplomatically, economically, militarily, Israel has never been stronger than it is today. By contrast, the Palestinian cause has never been in worse shape. Neither Hamas, which alternates between firing rockets and begging Israel to admit to Gaza the supplies it needs to stay in power, nor the Palestinian Authority, which is compromised by corruption and divided by factionalism, can find a viable policy either to defeat the Israelis or to make peace with them. One result—as I saw on a recent visit sponsored by the Philos Project, a nonprofit Middle East engagement organization—is that Palestinians, especially young people, are increasingly giving up on having a state of their own. Instead they favor a “one-state solution”—a single, binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet in meetings with senior Palestinian Authority officials and political observers, it was clear that this is more a cry of despair than a serious political program. A Palestinian return to the policy of rejecting the two-state solution may spur American campus activists to new denunciations of “Israeli apartheid,” but it won’t help the Palestinian cause in the real world.

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Analysis 05-24-2019


What are America’s Military Options in the Gulf?

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that thanks to the military buildup in the Gulf, the US had thwarted potential Iranian attacks on Americans in the Middle East.

Defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Iran was forced to “put on hold” plans to harm American troops and their allies in the region.

The SecDef claimed, “I think our steps were very prudent and we’ve put on hold the potential for attacks.” He added that Iran was ultimately forced to recalculate its aggression in part to the recent deployment of the aircraft carrier battle group, the amphibious group and the B-52 bombers.

However, were these military deployments responsible for the lessening of tensions?  Could this American show of force really have done much in the Gulf?

The fact is that the show of force was much smaller than many thoughts.

Admittedly, the American aircraft carrier task forces are incredibly powerful, with carrier air groups larger and more powerful than the air forces of most nations.

However, as the American carrier aircraft attacks on Syria showed, bomb damage by aircraft doesn’t stop a determined ground force by itself.  It takes ground forces to take advantage of that air power. And, Americans are loath to commit ground units to fight in other nations.

That’s why the addition of an American Marine amphibious force was important and why the aircraft carrier task force and the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group held exercises just outside the Gulf, off the coast of Oman in recent days.

According to the Navy, “Sitting just outside the Persian Gulf, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group with embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit practiced rapidly aggregating and establishing a joint command and control environment, as well as a range of air and surface warfare skills.”

Rear Adm. John Wade, the commander of the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, said in the release that “the exercises and training we are doing with Amphibious Squadron Six, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Kearsarge are aimed towards increasing our lethality and agility to respond to threats, and deterring destabilizing actions in this important region.”

“The exercise included both relevant skills if the two groups were called to respond to an emerging crisis in the Persian Gulf, as well as skills that aren’t typically rehearsed due to the carrier and surface combatant community and the amphibious warship community having separate training cycles and focusing on different warfare objectives in training.”

In addition, two US destroyers, the USS McFaul and USS Gonzales transited the Strait of Hormuz without any Iranian “harassment”.  “It was the quietist transit we have seen in a long time,” a US defense official told the Wall Street Journal.  “The deterrence part of this is going well.”

This exercise by the two Arliegh Burke class guided missile destroyers would familiarize the ships with convoy operations if it becomes necessary to escort oil tankers out of the Gulf.

However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps deputy for parliamentary affairs did warn that Iran’s missiles could hit US warships in the Gulf.  But both ships have defense systems that can confront Iranian missiles.

“On the surface warfare side, a maritime raid force from 22nd MEU conducted visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) training and a fast-roping exercise with Bainbridge.”

Although this sounds impressive, what does this really mean?

A Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is the smallest air-ground task force in the United States Fleet Marine Force.  Each MEU is a quick reaction force, deployed and ready for immediate response to any crisis, whether it be natural disasters or combat missions.  Generally, two are always deployed – one in the Pacific (covering the Asia and the Indian Ocean) and one in the Atlantic (covering the Mediterranean too).  The one currently off the Gulf is the Atlantic force.

There are seven of these MEUs.  In addition to the two deployed ones, there are usually one or two in readiness, if necessary.

The MEU consists of a Marine infantry battalion (designated as a Battalion Landing Team) as the ground combat element, a composite aviation combat element, a combat logistics unit, and a company-size command element serving as the MEU headquarters group. Troop strength is about 2,200, although many of these are non-combat personnel.  Unlike other forces from other branches of the US military, all these falls under one command.

The unit deploys from Navy amphibious ships and is usually covered by an aircraft carrier task force.

However, as impressive as this sounds, the unit is very limited in its capabilities.  The MEU’s ground combat element also combines artillery, light armor and tanks at a much lower level than in American Army units.

For instance, the MEU only contains 4 main battle tanks along with 7 to 16 light armored vehicles.  The ground combat unit has between 600 to 800 Marines.  It also has one battery of artillery (6).

Air power consists of about a dozen helicopters, a dozen tiltwing aircraft, and 6 Harrier light attack aircraft.

This is a unit that would be hard pressed to attack and capture a small island like Abu Musa for example.

So, what are MEUs capable of?  According to the Marines, they are designed for amphibious assaults or raids, humanitarian operations, civilian evacuations, and security.

However, in a militarized area like the Gulf, the possibilities of operating without significant support from GCC nations is limited.  For instance, operations against an island in the Strait of Hormuz like Abu Musa would require major assistance from the UAE.

One practical type of operation would be occupying oil platforms in the Gulf.  In fact, one exercise carried out last week by the American Marines was, “maritime raid force from 22nd MEU.”  They, “conducted visit, board, search and seizure training and a fast-roping exercise.”

This type of operations could also be used against IRGC boats that approach/harass US warships.

If tensions grow, the MEU could be used to evacuate US civilians from unstable areas.  The MEU would establish an occupied zone in the port area of a major city and then send out armed convoys to places where US citizens would congregate like embassies and consulates.  Helicopters would be used to evacuate Americans from more remote areas in the interior.

A MEU could also be used to stabilize a shaky regime or even evacuate members of a friendly government.  Marine airborne forces could land and secure a perimeter around government buildings and palaces – denying control to hostile forces.  If the situation grows more unstable, the Marines could evacuate government officials and their families.

An often-forgotten mission of the MEU is the humanitarian assistance mission.  In case of earthquakes or violent weather, the MEU can land in the affected area, build a mobile hospital, along with providing electrical power and fresh water.

Although the MEU can carry out amphibious assaults and raids, the militarization of the region prevents any major assault by the American MEU.  Although the force would have overwhelming air power, it’s hard to believe that 600 Marines and 4 tanks could occupy any town in the region, even with scores of American aircraft.

So, what does the American show of force really mean?  It does make the oil platforms in the Gulf a bit more secure from Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats.  As the transit of the two US guided missile destroyers showed, it also allows for convoying of oil tankers if Iran becomes threatening.

Obviously, the American carrier air group can support the military of GCC nations if there is some sort of Iranian inspired unrest (which hasn’t happened).

If anything, it proved to the GCC nations and Iran that the US is committed to maintaining some stability in the region.  The MEU is less of a major ground force in case of hostilities than a tripwire that Iran must consider.

Although President Trump and American voters are loath to get involved in new hostilities in the region, an attack on American soldiers stationed in the region would quickly turn American opinions.

This is undoubtedly something Iran has wisely considered.

Analysis 05-17-2019


Does Iran have a Secret Weapon?

There is considerable turmoil and confusion in the Gulf region.  Several oil tankers have been damaged and the prime suspect according to some U.S. pundits is sabotage by Iran or its “proxies”.  The US has sent bombers, an aircraft carrier battle group, and an amphibious Marine battalion to the Gulf region.  The Spanish Navy has withdrawn a Spanish frigate from the battle group because the Spanish government doesn’t agree with the American mission.  Yemen resistance have destroyed part of the Saudi oil infrastructure with drones.  The US is evacuating employees from the Baghdad embassy and the consulate at Erbil. And, there is talk of the US sending 120,000 troops to the region.  But British commanders downplay any threat.

What is going on?  And, what should we be focusing on and what should we be ignoring?

The 120,000 US troops going to the Gulf region is one piece of information to downplay.  There are undoubtedly contingency plans to send troops to the region if hostilities with Iran occur.  However, the US military has contingency plans for a multitude of scenarios, and such plans don’t mean that there is any great chance that they will take place.

The scope of fighting Iran in a conventional war setting is mind boggling.  Since Iran is on the northern coast of the Gulf, it would require a major amphibious operation to move 120,000 Americans to the Iranian coast in an invasion.  In fact, such a move would be the equivalent of the D-Day landings in Normandy 75 years ago.  In that case, it took 5,000 ships to land 155,000 American, British, and Canadian troops on the Normandy beaches.  Not only doesn’t the US have 5,000 ships, the D-Day invasion took 3 years to plan.

Trump called the report “Fake News,” and boasted that if a war with Iran started, more than 120,000 troops would be sent.

One solid fact though is that Spain has ordered its naval frigate, the Mendez Nunez, out of a US aircraft carrier battle group in route to the Gulf, citing, “It will not enter into any other type of mission in the Persian Gulf region.”

Spanish Minister of Defense Margarita Robles said, “The United States government has embarked on a mission that wasn’t scheduled when the agreement was signed.”  Spain wants to avoid being dragged into any kind of conflict with Iran and has made it clear that it is only bound by EU and NATO commitments.

The decision was made during a meeting of European Union defense ministers this week.

Germany and the Netherlands have joined Spain in pulling out their small contingents of soldiers in Iraq.

“The German army has suspended the training,” defense ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff announced, citing the “general heightened alert awareness.”  Flosdorff also noted that there was “no concrete threat at the moment.”

“Germany has no indications of its own of attacks supported by Iran,” Reuters quoted him as saying.

America, however, remains firm about the level of the threat.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence showed Iran-backed militias moved missiles near bases housing American forces.

Pompeo made the disclosure to Iraq’s leaders during his surprise visit earlier this month, Reuters reported. The revelation comes just hours after all non-emergency personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq were ordered to leave the country.

He asked the military officials to keep the “Shi’ite militias” in control as they are expanding their presence in the country and now are part of the country’s security apparatus. Pompeo warned that otherwise, the U.S. would have to use force to tackle the security threats.

However, the British commander in charge of the anti-ISIS coalition disagreed.

“No, there is no increased threat from Iranian backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” British Army Major General Christopher Ghika asserted.

For all the saber rattling in the Middle East, the stock markets are remarkably calm – something unusual when tensions boil over.  West Texas Intermediate Crude oil, the American petroleum benchmark, remained relatively stable despite the bombings of the oil tankers in a UAE port.

It seems that the markets consider a major conflict in the Gulf to be a remote possibility and consider a trade war with China a bigger concern.

The reality is that much of what we are hearing is the traditional political “saber rattling.”  The US is more powerful but is committed to lowering its military presence in the region – something the American voters want.  Short of a “major Iranian provocation”, the US will try to keep a lower military profile than it has in the last 20 years.

On the other hand, Iran is aware that the US is more powerful and has an interest in keeping its action within bounds.  “Twisting the American tail” is allowable, but any attempt to threaten American lives could invoke an American response that Iran likely to avoid with the exception it U.S initiate any attack.

However, as seen with the attacks on the oil tankers and the drone attacks on the Saudi oil infrastructure, there is a strong possibility that US intelligence has good information that Iran is a suspect in backing attacks on the US and its allies – attacks that fall short of invoking a major conflict in the area.

Does Iran have something up its sleeve?

A US military expert responded to the Monitor inquiry:” It does appear that either Iran or some of its proxies are trying to attack the Middle East oil supply in order to raise petroleum prices, which would help Iran”.

“Yemen’s Iranian backed Houthi rebels carried out drone attacks on two Aramco pipeline booster stations, which were intended to disrupt world oil supplies” according to Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih.

The Houthi sources said seven drones were used against seven targets.

The most notable attack this week, however, was on four ships near the Strait of Hormuz.  The official US assessment suggested that Iran was most likely to be behind the attacks.  However, others said it was possibly a false flag event.

Imagery of one of the tankers, the Norwegian Andrea Victory, showed a hole at the waterline in the stern.  The hole was too small for a torpedo and appeared to have been caused by a swimmer-carried magnetic mine that was attached to the hull.

If this is so, it raises the question of how the diver got into Fujarian port.  Scuba divers only have a short range and can’t swim against any current.  It’s possible that they started in the port, which raises questions about port security.

If accusing Iran has any validity, it is very likely possibility that they launched from an Iranian submarine, which raises questions about American and GCC anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and Iran’s submarine warfare capabilities.

Although the US Navy is recognized as being the master in ASW, their expertise has been in tracking Russian (or Soviet) submarines in the deep waters of the Pacific and Atlantic.

The Gulf is quite different.  It is a long, narrow body of water, with high salinity and extremely warm waters.  This causes problems for detecting submarines with sonar.  The Gulf’s thermoclines can transmit submarine noises long distances; however, the thermal layers also mean that a submarine can hide from surface ships by remaining under one of these layers.

There is also the noise of tanker traffic and oil rigs that can hide and confuse sonar.

A review of Iranian academic papers shows considerable interest in sonar detection in the Gulf.  The Iranians are working on advanced ways of detecting targets in the Gulf with advanced algorithms.  A paper last year by Iranian Doctors Alaie and Farsi showed that the Iranians can improve sonar detection by 24%.

Such research could also lead to new techniques to hide Iranian submarines.

Iran has also claimed that it has built a sonar evading submarine.  If the claims about this small sub are true, it could have been an ideal carrier for scuba divers to enter the UAE port and attach mines to the tankers.

Given Iranian research on sonar and operating submarines in the Gulf, it isn’t hard to imagine that Iran may have a technical superiority in ASW and submarine operations within the Gulf.

This can pose a problem for American and GCC ships in the Gulf if hostilities break out.

Although many American ships tend to stay in the Gulf of Oman in order to lessen the risk of attack by Iranian submarines or IRGC boats, US warships do patrol the Gulf.  And, if hostilities do break out, the US Navy may be forced to send additional ships into the Gulf in order to escort tankers.

If Iranian ASW has advanced as a result of their research, these American and GCC ships may face a greater risk from Iranian submarines.  There is also the greater possibility that warships and tankers could be attacked in port with mines – as we saw this week in the UAE.

Although the current events in the Middle East are more likely to be the typical saber rattling, we have seen over the decades, the risk of serious hostilities must be taken into account.

While the US remains the major power, we can’t ignore the possibility that Iran has the proverbial “ace up its sleeve.”

Analysis 05-10-2019


US Makes Military Moves Against Iran

On Sunday night National Security Advisor John Bolton issued a statement announcing that orders were given to deploy  the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group and four B-52 bombers to the Middle East “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on the United States interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Secretary of State Pompeo, who had cancelled a meeting with Merkel in Germany in order to go to Iraq, said, We’ve seen escalatory actions from the Iranians and…we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests…(if) these actions take place…We will  hold the …Iranian leadership directly accountable for that.”

According to some reports, the warning came from Israeli intelligence and may have involved Iranian civilian ships carrying missiles.  CNN reported, “Intelligence showing that Iran is likely moving short range ballistic missiles aboard boats in the Persian Gulf was one of the critical reasons.”

The Iranians called the deployment a “bluff.”  Iran’s top security body called it “psychological warfare meant to scare and intimidate Tehran.”  They said the carrier deployment was using a routine deployment as a pretext for heightened pressure.

Iran also announced that it would start retaining its enriched uranium and heavy water stocks instead of selling them.  Iranian President Rouhani also threatened to increase enriched uranium production unless other treaty partners met their commitments in terms of oil purchases – something that they are unlikely to do as US pressure is forcing them to join the US in imposing sanctions.

However, Iran is hoping to break the sanctions by offering tempting oil exploration contracts and possibly offering to pay fines imposed by the US for sanction busting.  It is also holding out the bait of lucrative defense contracts for Russia and China.

The Meaning of American Military Deployments

The IRGC doesn’t think the US will launch military action against Iran unless it closes the Strait of Hormuz.  They have also downplayed the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group to the region and insisted it is only a scheduled move.

The aircraft carrier deployment was also questioned by the Washington media, who said the announcement was meaningless since the USS Abraham Lincoln was going to the Middle East anyway.  However, the Washington media has no military experience as previous generations of reporters did.

Since the Lincoln was scheduled to move to the Middle East in two weeks, no one in the Washington media saw the significance in the early move.

Aircraft carriers have well planned and tight schedules.  The USS Abraham Lincoln is shifting its homeport from the Atlantic to the Pacific and circumnavigating the globe on its trip.  During the trip, it will be visiting several “hot spots.”

The Lincoln has a multitude of operational commitments during its trip.  After entering the Mediterranean and before transiting the Suez Canal, it had several tasks.  While in the Western Mediterranean, it would carry out exercises with other NATO nations and its Marine detachment would probably carryout maneuvers in one or more NATO countries.  The Lincoln air group would also operate with NATO air forces and carry out simulated missions – likely against “hypothetical” enemies like the Russians.

In addition to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the carrier task force would also have commitments in the Far East with Asian allies like Australia.  It would also likely have some operations in the South China Sea and the strait between Taiwan and China.

While in the Eastern Mediterranean, the carrier task force was to observe the increased Russian naval presence. They would try to learn Russian naval tactics and the proficiency of their ships’ crews.

The electronic surveillance aircraft onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln would monitor Russian airstrikes around Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo.  They would also be available for operations if a serious American military presence was needed in the eastern Mediterranean.  This would include cruise missile attacks on Syria if Trump find it necessary.

By moving the USS Abraham Lincoln to the east and away from the Mediterranean, the US Navy had to cancel several NATO exercises and its monitoring of Russian activity in Syria – hardly inconsequential.

Since the battle group would have resupplied before transiting the Suez Canal, Underway Replenishment and Vertical Replenishment would have to be pushed forward because Europe is a better supply source.  If it is delayed until the ships reached the Gulf region, the battle group faces a longer logistics tail and slower delivery of supplies.

The movement of the four B-52s was also interesting even though bombers are frequently moved to the region.  B-52s can carry out bombing missions from the US, so deploying them to the Middle East, along with their support teams, means they are scheduled to stay for a while.  It also means that the US wants a fast reaction force that can carry out bombing missions within hours and is flexible in its response.  The B-52, which has the largest practical payload in the US Air Force, can either hit targets with precise cruise missile, carry out massive airstrikes, with each bomber carrying about 35 tons of explosives, deploy bunker buster bombs that could penetrate deep underground facilities, or carry out maritime reconnaissance.

Along with the wide assortment of aircraft on the Lincoln, this gives the White House a wide spectrum of military actions.

Obviously, the most likely response is purely as a show of force – one that aimed to convince the Iranians to limit any potential actions.

However, according to military experts close to the administration thinking, the White House can use aggressive force in many ways.

The least confrontational action would be a cruise missile attack on Iranian targets outside Iran like perceived military presence in Iraq or Syria.  In order to limit political fallout, the US forces could limit their role to neutralizing air defenses while IAF aircraft carryout the actual attack.

Same experts asserted that if Iran decides to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers, the carrier battle group, which would remain outside the Gulf, could provide air cover for navies of the GCC nations carrying out convoy duties.  Since the B-52 can loiter, they could remain aloft and carry out strikes as necessary.  While the boats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard can harass ships, they are easy targets against the high-flying B-52 and its guided weapons.

Even of Iran doesn’t carry out any actions, the B-52 and its maritime role would be an asset to intervene in stopping armed shipments from reaching Yemen.

While aircraft from the USS Abraham Lincoln, cruise missiles from other US warships, and even B-2s from the US attack air defense systems along Iran’s border, the B-52s could penetrate Iranian airspace and attack critical Iranian targets.

Whether the US would carry out such an attack is unknown, but the threat is serious and Trump has shown that he is willing to make such a move for his own political considerations.

In conclusion, the US military deployment shouldn’t be underestimated.  The US deployment meant the cancellation of several NATO exercises in the Mediterranean.  It meant cancelling important surveillance of Russian ships in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Most important, it meant it couldn’t observe Russian aircraft carrying out combat operations against Syrian rebels.

Finally, it limited the American response if there is a crisis in Syria.

The deployment also meant moving several air crews and support personnel to the Middle East, along with the B-52 bombers.  This is not a minor issue, which is why bombers normally carry out their sorties from US bases in America.

In other words, this was more than a domestic political move, although Trump always aiming in his foreign policy approach to serve his political and electoral agenda.



Trump Tries Gunboat Diplomacy with Iran – Here’s Why He’s Doing It

By James Jay Carafano

Heritage Foundation

May 8, 2019

The United States is sending a Navy carrier group to the Middle East. Why? Because it can. It’s a continuation of the tit-for-tat struggle between the White House and the regime in Tehran that’s been going on for over a year – ever since the U.S. withdrew from the Obama-era Iran Deal. Washington has no confidence in that deal, which gave Tehran hard cash and sanctions relief up front in exchange for weak restrictions, with sunset clauses, on its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, Iran’s conduct since signing the deal – its support for surrogate forces terrorizing the region and its attempt to use Syria as a strategic corridor for threatening the survival of Israel – has further dismayed the U.S.  Tehran wasn’t happy when Trump pulled out of the deal. The regime faces troubles from within: protests, a tanking economy and botched responses a natural disaster. And it is now more isolated from the international community, due to Washington’s leadership.

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Maximizing Pressure on a Terrorism Importer

By Edwin J. Feulner

Heritage Foundation

May 1, 2019

Maximum pressure.” That’s how the Trump administration describes its approach toward Iran—and lately, it’s really been living up to that billing. Early in April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard was being designated a foreign terrorist organization. And now administration officials have ratcheted up the pressure even more: Eight countries that import Iranian oil won’t continue getting waivers from U.S. sanctions. Turning the screws tends to get people’s attention, so it wasn’t surprising to hear Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif decry this latest move. To hear him tell it, it’s either a clumsy attempt at regime change, or outright war-mongering by the U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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After the Caliphate: Factors Shaping Continuing Violent Extremism and Conflicts in the MENA Region

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

May 6, 2019

The report provides a series of metrics that measure the extent of civil unrest and instability by region and by country. The break-outs by country are critical to understanding the forces at work. The MENA region is often described as Arab – despite the existence of Israel – and as Muslim despite the presence of large Christian and other minorities in many states and the diverse nature of sects within Islam. As the maps in this section show, however, it consists of highly a diverse mix of nations with different neighbors, populations, political and economic conditions, and often major ethnic, regional, tribal, and sectarian differences. In practice, this makes national vulnerability to extremism and terrorism highly case specific, and involves intangibles that cannot be easily quantified, if at all. At the same time, there are many problems and issues in the civil structure of MENA states and other heavily Islamic states that can lead to political upheavals, extremism and terrorism, and civil conflict. The UN’s Arab Development Reports have long warned about these problems, and so have a wide variety of outside intelligence reports, and academic and think tanks studies. As has been noted in Part One of this survey, these problems have been so serous in countries like Syria and Iraq that they qualify as “failed states.” Few analysts would argue that Libya and Yemen do not qualify as further examples – along with other largely Islamic states outside the MENA region like Afghanistan and Somalia.

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Nine Reasons Why Declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization Would Be a Mistake


Carnegie Endowment

MAY 3, 2019

There are legal, diplomatic, pragmatic, and civil rights reasons why such a designation would undermine efforts to keep Americans safe from terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) does not fit the legal definition of a foreign terrorist organization. There is no credible evidence that, as an organization, it is using violence to pursue political aims, and it has not deliberately targeted Americans. The few offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood that have become violent—Hamas, Hassm, Liwa al-Thawra—have already been designated as terrorist organizations. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly would not give the United States added tools to go after these groups. Sweepingly targeting the Muslim Brotherhood would create a cascade of diplomatic problems because political parties with Brotherhood roots serve in parliaments and even governments in many countries. But even a narrower designation of a single Muslim Brotherhood chapter, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, would still do just as much damage to U.S. interests for all the reasons that follow.

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China’s Risky Middle East Bet


Carnegie Endowment

APRIL 29, 2019

China is making a risky bet in the Middle East. By focusing on economic development and adhering to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs, Beijing believes it can deepen relations with countries that are otherwise nearly at war with one another—all the while avoiding any significant role in the political affairs of the region. This is likely to prove naive, particularly if U.S. allies begin to stand up for their interests. In meetings I attended earlier this month in Beijing on China’s position in the Middle East, sponsored by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, Chinese officials, academics, and business leaders expressed a common view that China can avoid political entanglement by promoting development from Tehran to Tel Aviv. China may soon find, however, that its purely transactional approach is unsustainable in this intractable region—placing its own investments at risk and opening new opportunities for the United States.

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Why Erdogan Will Win in Istanbul, and What This Means for Turkish Democracy

By Soner Cagaptay

Washington Institute

May 7, 2019


On May 6, Turkey’s election board canceled the outcome of Istanbul’s March 31 mayoral race, in which opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu defeated Binali Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by less than 1 percent of the vote. The ruling came shortly after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleged that the race was “stained” and demanded that it be re-run. Signaling the strength of his hold on the country’s institutions, Turkey’s election monitoring body has announced that a new Istanbul election will in fact be held on June 23. Imamoglu faces a seemingly unwinnable battle in his quest to win again, since Erdogan will pull out all the legal, political, and diplomatic stops to bring his candidate (perhaps Yildirim again) to victory.

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A Real Plan to End the War in Yemen

By Michael Knights, Kenneth Pollack, and Barbara Walter

Washington Institute

May 2, 2019

The Saudi-led intervention may have exacerbated the situation in Yemen, but it did not start the war. Getting the Saudis to pull out will no more end the bloodshed in Yemen than getting the United States to abstain from the civil war in Syria halted the violence there. Nor will a Saudi withdrawal lead to a negotiated settlement. Instead, the fighting will go on, and innocent Yemenis will continue to die until one side—most likely the Houthis—has won…

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