Analysis 05-30-2021


Palestinian Rocket Arsenal and The Iron Dome


Although the ceasefire between Palestinian resistance and “Israel” appears to be holding, it is obvious from the recent conflict that the resistance organizations in Gaza has a vast rocket arsenal as well as the ability to build rockets inside its borders.

This analysis looks at the type of rockets that have been used, which ones have been built in Gaza, and their capabilities.  It also looks at Israel’s Iron Beam anti-missile system and how the recent fighting may change Israel’s missile defense strategy.

Before going further, we want to look at the type of solid fuels used in these rockets because they determine the range and efficiency of the rockets.

The easiest fuel to make and the basic propellant for the Palestinian rockets made in Gaza, is what is commonly known as “Candy” propellants.  These contain an oxidizer (usually Potassium Nitrate) and a sugar fuel (dextrose, sorbitol, or sucrose), which are cast by melting the constituents, mixing them and pouring the liquid into a mold.  These are low to medium specific impulse fuels and are frequently used in amateur rocketry.  They have a specific impulse 30% lower than composite propellants that would be used in a more sophisticated rocket produced in Syria or Iran.

These sophisticated fuels use components like ammonium percholrate and aluminum or magnesium as a fuel.  Some contain a rubber binder like Hydroxyl-terminated polybutane.

As one can see, using a simple rocket fuel will seriously degrade the performance and range of the Palestinian built rockets.

Rockets used by Palestinians in Gaza.

Qassam 1

The oldest and most basic Hamas’s rocket design is the Qassam 1.  It has a diameter of 115 mm, is 1.8 meters long, a range of 4.5 km and carries a warhead of 5 kg.  It is made in Gaza and uses a “Candy” propellant. It is considered a less accurate rocket and has been superseded by better rockets.


107 mm rocket

This rocket is made in Iran and has better performance than the Qassam because of its composite propellant fuel.  It is less than a meter long, is 107 mm in diameter, has a range of 8.5 kilometers and a 18 kilogram warhead.  It is spin stabilized and is more effective than the Qassam 1.


Qassam 2

The Qassam 2 has a longer range than the Qassam 1.  It uses a “candy” propellant, is 1.8 meters long, 115 mm in diameter and has a 10 kg warhead.  Like the Qassam 1, it is made in Gaza.  However, it remains inaccurate and is unreliable.  It is used to target populated areas.


Qassam 3

The Qassam 3 is a family of improved rockets built in Gaza.  It is 2.2 meters long, 115 mm in diameter, and has a 20 kg warhead.  It is powered by “Candy” fuel like its predecessors and has a range of 16 km.  It has an estimated cost of $800.


122mm Rocket

This rocket is built in Iran or Syria and has a range of 30 km.  It has a diameter of 122 mm, length of 2.8 meters and a warhead size of 18.4 kg.  It uses a composite propellant.  It can carry a chemical warhead.



This missile was first used this year and was responsible for 2 Israeli deaths and 60 injuries.  140 were fired.  It is a new design, and little is known about it, however, its length is less than 3 meters and it has a range of 40 km.



The Fajr-3 is Iranian built but based on a North Korean design.  It has a range of 43 km, a diameter of 240mm, a length of 5.2 meters, weighs 407 kg, and carries a 90kg fragmentation warhead that contains 4 to 5 kg of explosive (the rest is fragmentation materials).  It is spin stabilized but doesn’t have any guidance system.  Its composite propellant engine burns for 4 seconds and reaches over 530 meters per second.



This is an Iranian built rocket.  Little is known about it.  It is shorter than 3 meters and has a range of 55 km.



This is produced in Gaza, using smuggled Iranian components.  It is less than 3 meters in length and has a range of 75 km.



This is a long range, one or two stage rockets with a length of 6.4 meters, with a diameter of 333mm.  It has a 175 kg warhead and a range of 75 km.  It is a Chinese design, and the critical components are made in Iran.

This rocket uses a double base propellant. These are usually compounding like nitroglycerin dissolved in nitrocellulose and have a specific impulse 10% higher than composite propellants.  However, a study of the Fajr-5 exhaust indicates that the Iranians have added aluminum to the fuel, which causes metal oxide nucleation, which will also boost the specific impulse by another 10%.

Some pictures show it has movable nose fins that indicate it may have a guidance system.  This is probably the Fajr-5C model, which uses GPS for guidance.  Without the guidance system, it is very inaccurate.

There is no evidence that the Fajr-5C has been acquired by  Hamas.



First fired in 2018.  It has a length of less than 3 meters and a range of 80 km.  It is produced in Iran and is reputed to be better at avoiding Israel’s Iron dome due to its trajectory.


Qassam Sh-85

First used against Ben Gurion International Airport in May.  It is 5 meters long and has a range of 85 km.



This Iranian built rocket is about 3.5 meters long and has a range of 90 km.



A rocket used in May 2021 is the A-120.  It is supposed to be built in Gaza and has a range of 120 km.



This is a Syrian built rocket that can deliver a 150 kg warhead up to 180 km.  It is 6.3 meters long and has a diameter of 302 mm.  It can hit any target in the entire occupied Palestine.


Ayyash 250R

Hamas recently announced that it was using a new rocket called the Ayyash.  It is reported that it can reach all of “Israel” from Gaza and it is thought to have been used to hit Eilat.  It is 7 meters long and has a range of 250 km.  It was made in Iran and its range is due to its size and the use of component propellants.

Little is known about some of these rocket families and it is possible that they are similar – differing only in warhead weight, fuel quantity, and some modifications in dimensions.  The modifications could be merely to boost range or warhead weight.


Iron Dome

Much is made of the number of Hamas rockets that penetrated the Israeli Iron Dome system.  However, the psychological and political effects caused by the rockets has the same effect if not more than inflicting a similar death toll that resulted from Air attacks by the Israeli planes on the Palestinians.  Needless to mention, the tradeoff between expensive Israeli interceptors ($40,000 each) and cheap ($800 each) Hamas rockets meant that Israel has spent more money than Hamas.

However, it is also important to remember the limitations built into the system.  It is designed to be part of a layered anti-missile system, including Arrow 2 & 3, Iron Beam, Barak 8 (a project between Israel and India), and David’s Sling that can intercept everything from long range ballistic missiles to drones.

One weakness that limits its sale to other nations is that each system only protects 100 – 150 square kilometers, which is ok for a small nation.  Thus, it can only be part of a more extensive layered air defense.

Although the IDF claims that 90% – 95% of the missiles aimed at populated areas were intercepted and destroyed, the cost is proving to be a problem.  As a result, Israel is pushing ahead on the Iron Beam System, which will defend against rockets, artillery, and mortars.  It will use a directed high energy beam to destroy targets up to 7 kilometers away.  The cost is about $2,000 per shot compared to the $40,000 per interceptor used in Iron Dome.

Given its limited range, it will be a “point defense” weapon and hundreds would need to be deployed to protect all of Israel’s populated areas.  That could make it as expensive as Iron Dome and its interceptors.

Iron Beam could be fielded along the Gaza border to destroy the rockets as soon as they are launched.  However, the Iron Beam laser must remain fixed on the rocket for a couple of seconds to destroy it.  Therefore, it is possible that the system could easily be swamped with more rocket targets than its laser could hit before they hit their targets.  That makes it useful as a “last ditch” system that could target the few missiles that would lead through the Iron Dome.  But it would not have the flexibility of Iron Dome.

The other problem is that Iron Beam has not been fielded yet. And, given the number of Hamas rockets that could be fired at one time, it may prove to be too limited for a practical rocket defense.  Israel may prefer to design an advanced “multi-laser” system that could acquire and target several rockets at a time.

As one American analyst observed, “in the end, the best investments for Israel are bunkers for its citizens to cower in”.

Analysis 05-25-2021


Western Militaries Speak Out


Western militaries tend to be apolitical.  While the soldiers and officers may have political opinions, they tend to hold them back and focus on their job of protecting the nation’s interests.  Commanders are told to focus on the task at hand and not the political beliefs of their subordinates.

Not anymore.  In the past few weeks, officers, and soldiers of two major NATO nations have spoken out about the political trends in their nations.  And, undoubtedly, there are several other Western nations who have retired officers that have serious concerns about the direction of their nations.

The first was an open letter by 20 retired French generals that warned of a civilian insurrection – fueled by claims of French President Macron’s concessions to fundamentalist Islam.  Polls taken since then showed that the French public agrees with the generals.

The next letter was published a week ago by the French publication Valeurs Actuelles by an anonymous group of soldiers serving in the army.  They noted that they have fought fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan and the Central African Republic, only to see Macron caving into radicals at home.

The letter endorsed the previous letter and criticized the president for disrespecting the officers.  However, the letter did note that the military will maintain order should civil war break out.

This is a dramatic course for a military that has stayed out of politics for 60 years – since the Algerian Civil War.

Now the US military has taken a similar turn – not only protesting national politics, but the politicization of the US military.

Just over a week ago, an open letter by from 124 retired generals and admirals complained about a political “hard left” turn in national politics and forced politicization of the US military.

The group called Flag Officers 4 America accused the Biden Administration of “Using the US military as political pawns…forcing politically correct policies like the divisive critical race theory into the military.”

“Under a Democratic Congress and the Current Administration, our Country has taken a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyrannical government that must be countered.”

The retired officers also questioned Biden’s “mental and physical condition” as Commander in chief.  “The mental and physical condition of the Commander in Chief cannot be ignored.  He must be able to quickly make accurate national security decisions involving life and limb anywhere, day or night.”

The letter also questioned the validity of the election.  It stated, “Without fair and honest elections that accurately reflect the ‘will of the people’ our Constitutional Republic is lost…Election integrity demands insuring there is one legal vote cast and counted per citizen…Today, many are calling such commonsense controls ‘racist’ to avoid fair and honest elections.

Amongst those signing was Lt. General Boykin, who was Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration and Vice Admiral Poindexter, who was Deputy National Security Advisor under President Reagan.

Although critics denounced the retired flag officers criticizing the president, these same critics approved of retired flag officers denouncing Trump – for instance, in 2017, 55 retired flag officers saying Trump was unfit to be president.

The criticism that the US military has become politicized was highlighted this week when Lt. Colonel Matthew Lohmeier of the US Space Command was relieved of his command of the 11th Space Warning Squadron.  He was removed for writing the book Irresistible Revolution: Marxism’s Goal of the Conquest & the Unmaking of the American Military, that claimed that the US military was promoting Marxist ideologies.  He noted that the Secretary of Defense said that extremist ideologies must be rooted out of the military.  Lohmeier maintained that Marxism is an extreme ideology.

Lohmeier maintained that the spread of Marxism in the military was not a new trend, but something that occurred over many years.  In 2017 it was revealed that a West Point cadet, now a commissioned officer in the Army was an avowed Communist.  He showed pictures taken during his commissioning with him wearing a t-shirt with the picture of Communist Revolutionary Che Guevara.  In the inside of his cap, it said, “Communism will win.”

The officer, Spensor Rapone, was discharged with a less than honorable discharge.  However, others asked how a communist could make it through a 4-year course without anyone of his fellow cadets or members of the faculty noticing.  Further investigation uncovered the fact that several members of the facility were Marxists and many of the cadets, who would become the leaders of the US Army, also had Marxist beliefs.

There are several instances that the military academies are encouraging principles of Marxism like systemic racism that is used to divide and create the dialectic that communists use to create revolution.  In June 2020, recent graduates of West Point (and now commissioned officers in the US Army) decried West Point’s many failures specifically in regard to systemic racism.  They demanded that the military academy “normalize anti-racism” and “racial inclusion.”  That would have institutionalized a witch hunt against anyone of a different skin color or political ideology.

The political desires in this West Point document mirrored those of the Port Huron Statement that led to the formation of the Socialist Student for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s.  The president of SDS, Carl Oglesby later publicly proclaimed that the organization’s intention was to destroy capitalism and “trying to launch” a communist civil war.

This radicalism is not limited to West Point.  The US Air Force Academy football team came out with a statement that it wasn’t enough to be not racist.  “It’s time to be anti-racist.”  In other words, any politics that were not “anti-racist” enough were to be condemned.  The team also endorsed the Black Lives Matter organization, which has been involved in numerous protests in recent years.

At the US Naval Academy, a midshipman was expelled this year for expressing pro-police and anti-riot views – an unsurprising stand since both of his parents were police officers.  His discharge was delayed until Biden was in office so the midshipman couldn’t be pardoned by Trump.

Some conservative analysts claims that this Marxist ideology has hit more than the military academies.  Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are leaving the military in large numbers because they oppose the new political ideology being thrust on them.  Even veterans, who have been responsible for encouraging young people to join the military, are telling potential recruits to avoid the current politicized military.  The result is that enlistment and reenlistment rates are down, and the US military finds itself unable to meet its manpower needs.

They believe also that the result is that the world’s most powerful military is undergoing a transformation that will weaken it.  Only third world nations cull military members that support the opposition candidate.  And the result is a substandard military that is only useful for suppressing domestic opposition.

In Lt. Colonel Matthew Lohmeier’s book Irresistible Revolution, he notes Americans are becoming radicalized and shifting to either the extreme left or right.  In many cases, it is respected flag officers that are causing the extremism.  General Stanley McChrystal, who headed operations in Afghanistan, compared Trump voters with al Qaeda in Iraq.

These are not words that will smooth the political waters or encourage national unity, since more than 75 million American voted for Trump.

So, what is in the future?  In their letter, the French soldiers note that the military will maintain order should civil war break out.  However, the American military, as it is currently being politicized, will not do the same.  They are more likely to pick their side based on political considerations, not the Constitution which every soldier swears an oath to support and defend.

Analysis 05-13-2021


Britain’s New Aircraft Carrier
and the Growing Naval Cooperation with US and Other Allies


The HMS Queen Elizabeth and her task force left the naval base of Portsmouth, England on May 1, 2021 for a worldwide cruise called Carrier Strike Group 21.  It is the first British naval aviation exercise in nearly a decade (since the last British carrier HMS Illustrious was decommissioned) and the largest naval task force in four decades – since the Royal Navy recaptured the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s.

The task force is international.  10, F-35 fifth generation fighters from the US Marine Corps are onboard the Queen Elizabeth, One of the three destroyers, USS The Sullivans, is American (providing the task force with protection from high altitude, long range ballistic missiles), and one of three frigates is Dutch (HNLMS Eversten).  During the cruise, ships from India, France, Australia, the US, Japan, and South Korea will be involved in joint naval exercises.

After NATO exercises in the North Atlantic, the task force will travel to the Mediterranean for exercises with the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle.  One British and one Dutch ship will detach to enter the Black Sea.  The task force will carry out air operations against ISIS before transiting the Suez Canal and stopping at a British naval port in Oman.  It will visit India and carry out joint naval exercises with the Indian Navy before travelling to Singapore.  It will then move to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises with US, Japanese, Australian, South Korean, New Zealand, Malaysian, and Singapore navies.

The operation is meant to be a show that Britain is committed to a global reach and is not limiting itself to an Atlantic mission.  Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander of the strike group said, “HMS Queen Elizabeth is at the center of this operation; it’s an international operation with the Americans and the Dutch, but to have the Royal Navy at the heart of something like this shows that we are well and truly back on the global stage.”

But, in an era where many navies, including small nations like Thailand, have aircraft carriers, is the new British carrier that much of a threat?  Or is it just a high-profile target?


HMS Queen Elizabeth – Not Just Another Small Deck Aircraft Carrier

The HMS Queen Elizabeth is named for Queen Elizabeth I, not the current Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.  Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) saw the rise of the Royal Navy as a force in naval power, especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  The first warship named the Queen Elizabeth was a WWI battleship.

Britain was a pioneer in naval aviation and still has corporate knowledge in the shipbuilding industry and the Royal Navy to build and operate large carriers.

In a world of many carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are larger and better than all but the American nuclear supercarriers.  It is the largest Royal Navy ship built and it displaces 66,000 tons.  That makes it larger than the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle at 42,500 tons, Russian Admiral Kuznetsov at 42,000 tons (this class includes the two active Chinese carriers), and the domestically built Chinese carriers of 50,000 tons displacement.

British shipbuilders used new technologies in the Queen Elizabeth Class of carriers (the second ship of the class is the Prince of Wales, which is currently operational).  It has solved the age-old question of where the ship’s superstructure should be (forward for ship operations or aft for air operations) by building two superstructures – each with back up for the other superstructure in case of battle damage).  By making each superstructure smaller, it reduces air turbulence over the flight deck and provides more deck space for aircraft.  The super structures are also curved to improve “stealth” capabilities.

Although it is not nuclear powered, it does have a range of 10,000 nautical miles – further than that of its potential competitors (Russia and China).

To make it harder for enemy submarines to detect, it has integrated electrical propulsion, which lessens the engine noise because it decouples the engines from the electrically driven propellers.  It also has diesel engines for fuel conservation and gas turbines for high speed.

It was also designed to operate seamlessly with US nuclear carriers.  As a result, it was designed in conjunction with American Navy input.

The ship class has two ships, and it is planned that one ship will be always available for operations.

The ships were designed to carry about 36 F-35 joint strike fighters and launch 75 sorties a day for five days.  This, it was felt, would allow the ship to have the same “clout” as one of the American nuclear carriers, but without the extra classes of aircraft (ASW, transportation, helicopters, cargo, etc.).  Clearly, this ship class was designed to fill in for an American nuclear carrier – a class of ships which is frequently overextended in today’s volatile world.  In fact, the US had to call upon the French to deploy their carrier during the Afghan campaign.

What makes this ship class a serious strategic force is its use of the fifth-generation fighter the F-35.  Like the Harriers, which the British carriers used for vertical takeoff and landing, the F-35 can operate by taking off and landing vertically.  However, since vertical takeoff uses so much fuel, the Queen Elizabeth class of ships use a “ski jump” ramp that allows the aircraft to get airborne quickly without using as much fuel.

The ship uses what is known as a “rolling landing” to reduce fuel consumption during landing.

Except for US nuclear carriers, this is the only carrier class that is currently carrying a fifth-generation fighter.  The US and UK governments have signed an agreement that allows British F-35 aircraft to be stationed aboard US carriers, while US F-35 aircraft can be stationed onboard UK carriers (as is happening with the US Marine F-35s stationed onboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth for this deployment).

About 250 American Marines and sailors are currently onboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The ship also fields four Merlin helicopters that carry airborne radar (Crowsnest) that will be used as an airborne early warning system.  The British learned during the Falkland Islands operation that airborne radar is critical to protecting its task force from enemy aircraft.

The ship class can also integrate with the American E-2C airborne warning radar.

One of the interesting facts about the F-35 is that it appears to be the naval aviation fixed wing fighter choice of the West.  The two Italian aircraft carriers, Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi will be F-35 capable.  The Cavour (which has gone through its F-35 integration exercises in the United States) will be able to handle up to 15 F-35s in its hangar and on its flight deck.  It appears that Spanish and Australian carriers may also carry small numbers of F-35s.

Although the Japanese Constitution prevents the production of aircraft carriers, the Japanese have a helicopter class ship, (Izumo and Kaga) that is designed for anti-submarine warfare.  Despite some political opposition it appears that both ships are F-35 capable and could embark about a dozen F-35s per ship.

Japanese naval doctrine is to establish a blockade stretching from the Philippines to Japan and to pursue Chinese submarines that break that blockade.  The Japanese carriers would use the F-35 to provide air defense for a task force and establish air supremacy at a “theater level.”

So, what we see is not purely American naval aviation.  Several American allies are intending to use the F-35 as a quick way to establish a naval aviation presence.  At one end of the spectrum are the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are designed to fill in for an American supercarrier.  At the other end are American allies like Japan and Italy that can assist in naval operations.

Then, there are some allies like Spain and Australia that are still considering ship borne F-35s.

Despite stories of the aircraft carrier’s demise, they remain as popular as ever.  Although only the US and France can afford the cost of a nuclear carrier and only the US can build a large deck, multipurpose carrier air arm, several Western and NATO countries are investing in smaller carriers and modern fifth generation aircraft which will give them a serious combat capability and the ability to operate seamlessly with American naval aviation.

While the American nuclear supercarriers may remain the major target for Russia and China, it appears that there will be more than enough ships to base modern fighter aircraft in the world’s oceans.

It appears that the naval chessboard is getting more crowded.

Analysis 05-04-2021


Rare Earths – A Strategic Assessment


As concerns about open hostilities between China and the US increase, the issue of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) scarcity increases.  For years, China has managed to totally control the mining and refining of rare earths.  Given the importance of REEs in defense technology, it’s time to take a levelheaded look at REEs, defense technology, and whether or not America is facing a critical shortage of the group of elements.

Today, REEs are considered strategic minerals of the 21st Century.  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 actively restricted exports of rare earths to the US as the threat of a trade war has waxed and waned.

Two years ago, 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 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 are not 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.

But is it as bad as the US Government makes it?  In many ways, it is like looking at a glass of water – is the glass half full or half empty?

The US has world class REE mineral reserves, and the infrastructure is in place to exploit them.  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.

The key to America producing enough REEs soon lies in the REE mine at Mountain Pass, California.  Mountain Pass 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 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.


The problem for REE mining in the US

The Chinese have used their chokehold on REEs to maintain their dominant position in the industry, while discouraging development of a competitor that could mine REE ores and then turn them into “consumer ready” products.  For years, the Chinese would manipulate REE prices to maximize profits, while preventing development of a competitive REE sector in the US.  Even when the US managed to mine REE ores, the concentrate still had to be shipped to China for final refining.

That has changed.  MP Materials, which owns Mountain Pass Mine has acquired all the equipment for refining and is in the process of constructing a refinery on site.  The refinery is expected to be in operation next year.

“Our mission is to fully restore the [rare earth] supply chain to the United States of America,” said James Litinsky, MP Materials CEO.  “We are going to invest that capital.”

He continued, “We will ultimately, over time, make the magnets ourselves in the United States.”

Mountain Pass clearly can meet those goals.  The mine is the largest producer of REEs in the Western Hemisphere and produces 15% of the world’s production of REEs.

In September, President Trump signed an executive order to encourage REE production in the US.

The US government has also stepped in to ensure a constant supply of orders for the mine.  In November, the DoD gave the company nearly $10 million to begin refining the REEs on site.

Another factor that may help encourage mining at Mountain Pass is the recall election for Democratic Governor Newsome, whose environmental policies have discouraged mining in California.  If the California governor is recalled, a new governor may move to encourage REE mining.


But will that be enough?

While REE uses are critical in many defense technologies, it is easy to forget that REE demand is dominated by commercial demand – from electric vehicles to cell phones.

Litinsky noted that although Defense orders will be important, only about 1% of the REE demand is defense oriented.  The other 99% will be used for communications, wind turbines and electric vehicles.

So, is the US critically short of REEs?  No, it is not as bad as some articles make it out to be.  Not only is Mountain Pass producing REE ore, it will soon be producing refined REE products.  There is also the government’s strategic reserve of REE material.

There is also the option of recycling.  The rare earth element neodymium is used in powerful magnets is easily separated from consumer electronics.  The same is true for other REEs.

As we noted, rare earths are not rare.  There are mineral deposits across the world and China would be hard pressed to control all of them in a crisis.  Soon REEs would find their way from other countries to the Mountain Pass refinery.

Clearly, the REE crisis is a case of a glass that is half empty.  China still dominates the REE sector, but the US is moving quickly to establish itself as a major producer.  However, while it can supply defense needs, it still has a problem meeting all the consumer demand.

There is also the REE shortage outside the US, but still found in Western nations.  One must wonder if EU nations, without REE reserves, will modify their foreign policy towards China to keep the REEs coming.  Would German auto manufacturers, anxious to produce electric vehicles, push the government to make concessions to China?

That may be a bigger threat.

Analysis 04-27-2021


Syrian Missile hits near Dimona – The facts so far


On Thursday April 22, a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile (SAM) was launched from Syrian territory.  It proceeded to fly over Palestinian occupied territory and finally exploded over the northern Negev.

Before that, at around 1:30 am, Israeli jet fighters conducted a series of airstrikes on targets in Syrian Golan.  In response, Syrian Air Defense launched a salvo of Sam missiles at the attackers.  One missile continued flying over the occupied territory.  Although Israeli radar detected it, attempts to intercept it with Israel’s vaunted missile defense system failed.

The missile exploded in flight over the Negev, sending fragments crashing down on the community of Abu Qrainat, about 30 kilometers from the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona.  No one yet, including the Israelis, think the missile was targeting Dimona.


What is the SA-5 Missile?

Developed by the Soviets in the 1960s, it was the premier Soviet air defense system for decades and remains a key part of air defense systems of former Soviet client nations like Syria.  The radar and command and control function allow it to fire and control several missiles at the same time.  It was designed to provide long range protection of critical cities or military bases.

The SA-5 missile is designed for medium and long-range attacks.  Its range is 300 kilometers, and its ceiling is 40,000 meters.  It has a 200+ Kg warhead.  The warhead is detonated either with a proximity fuse or a command from the ground.

If the missile fails to reach its target it is designed to self-detonate when its fuel runs out.  Although the missile is launched with four solid fuel boosters, it sustains its flight with a liquid fuel motor.

It is reported that the Soviets had made this type of missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.


Could the SA-5 have been used to attack Israel?

Yes.  The Soviets had given it a secondary mission capability as a surface-to-surface ballistic missile.  The 300-kilometer range is relatively modest by today’s standards.  But it was also incapable of reliably hitting any small target.  However, it was more than capable of hitting large targets like military bases or urban areas.

The warhead, which was designed for bringing down aircraft would also work well against soft targets like urban areas or buildings.  The warhead had 217 kg of high explosives and 37,000 steel pellets.  Nearly everyone within 125 feet of the explosion of the warhead would probably be hit by these pellets of 2 and 3.5 grams.  At about 100 feet, about 50% would sustain wounds that would be fatal.

Of course, a SA-5 missile could have been used to target Dimona, but since reports indicate all the sensitive nuclear weapon production equipment is underground, the missile would have inflicted some damage to the surface structure.


Was this intentional or an accident?

Some experts point their assessment toward an accident.  The missile is supposed to explode when its fuel runs out and it appears to have done that at about 300 km from the launch site.

“Runaway” SA-5 missiles are not unusual.  On July 1, 2019, a Syrian SAM missile flew over the Mediterranean and exploded in the air above Northern Cyprus.

Since it appears that the missile exploded in the atmosphere by itself, it is likely that it followed directions and self-destructed when the fuel ran out.


Why didn’t Israeli air defense shoot the missile down?

This is one question many people – especially the Israelis – are asking.  At this point in time, we do not know what system was responsible for the failure, although there are reports that it was the American made Patriot Theater Ballistic Missile System that is responsible.

If that is so, it points out a major flaw of the Patriot that other missiles like the SA-5 could take advantage of.

The Patriot is designed to intercept ballistic missiles like the Scud missile and Iran’s Shahab missile family.  These missiles are launched in a high ballistic trajectory that takes the missile out of the atmosphere, high into space and then back towards earth and its target.

This is a far different flight path taken by the SA-5 in normal operations.  The SA-5 follows a propelled flight path that is nearly parallel to the ground compared to the elliptical path of a traditional ballistic missile.

Sophisticated missile defenses focus more on ballistic missiles and their flight path.  Their radar stations and software are designed to give them their best results in these scenarios.

It also must be remembered that the SA-5 can operate in a ballistic missile mode at heights that are lower than many air defense missiles that aren’t purposely designed for low altitude targets like cruise missiles.


Lessons learned.

For all the money spent on air defense systems, they remain very vulnerable.  They may be able to intercept a ballistic missile coming in from an expected path, but that same system cannot intercept a cruise missile one mile away, ten feet off the ground, and heading towards the command vehicle at 600 miles per hour.  Nor can it stop a drone flitting 50 above the radar unit.

Modern air defense systems have impressive capabilities if they face what they are expecting – ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, etc. – and the physics that govern them.

Israel has focused its missile defense against the Iranians and their missiles.  And, although the average layman does not realize it, the physics of launching a ballistic missile from Iran towards Israel fits a narrow band of trajectories – like the limited options for a basketball player taking a last second shot from the other side of the court.  Israel has invested much of its anti-missile defense in detecting and destroying missiles coming from those areas, at certain altitudes and at certain speeds.

Israeli may try to justify their failure by claiming that In this case, a missile came from an unexpected point in Syria.  It did not take the traditional ballistic course because it was using powered flight.  Its course was also headed for an isolated part of Israel, the Negev, instead of a population center.

A final lesson is that many weapons systems have alternate uses – uses that many tend to forget about.  In 1956, obsolete Israeli P-51 Mustang aircraft cut Egyptian telephone lines in the Sinai with their propellers in Operation Kadesh.  Similarly obsolete surface-to-air missiles like the SA-5 have other applications that military people forget.

War is not always about the best equipment, but it is about making the best use of equipment in ways that will surprise your enemy.


Israel’s damage control

Israel’s military spokesman Hidai Zilberman downplayed the likelihood of a deliberate attack. “There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” he told reporters.

A senior US general also speculated that the incident was not intentional, but rather indicated a lack of Syrian air defense capability.

“I think it reflects actual incompetence in Syrian air defense… I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” marine general Kenneth McKenzie, head of US central command, said during a senate armed services committee hearing.

Whether it was intentional or an accident the effects of this incident will force the Israelis to examine their failure to intercept similar missiles in the future and may rethink their strategy of continuous attacks on Syria.

Also, it is likely that the Syrians discover that they can use this option of directing their SA-5 missiles like surface to surface to gain a deterrent against future Israeli attacks.

Analysis 04-19-2021


Afghanistan – a Retrospective and Military Lessons


Biden has announced that the United States will pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th – the twentieth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack and the twentieth anniversary of the US decision to invade Afghanistan to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The American invasion (and retreat) also marks another chapter in Afghanistan’s successful opposition of foreign invasion that goes back over 2,000 years to Alexander the Great.  America has joined the Greeks, the English, and the Soviets in wasting lives and treasure in trying to conquer the Afghans.

Much has changed in the last 20 years – nearly all bad.  Today Americans are routinely spied upon by American intelligence agencies.  Until 9-11, it was illegal for the NSA and CIA to spy on Americans.

Today there security checkpoints everywhere not only around government sites and the Capitol.  Americans must show identification to board trains, airplanes and even interstate busses.  Invasive body searches are now accepted.

America has now turned its national security agencies on its own citizens, with widespread fear and danger of “domestic terrorists” a term that has been used lately by government and security officials.

The payoff for all of this has been minimal.  The Taliban still is found in Afghanistan.  And there are even more radical Muslim groups today like the resurgent ISIS.  Except for a few buildings, the impact of the Americans on Afghanistan will disappear within a few years.

Why did this happen?

A lot of the lessons are contradictory.  In the 1990s, the US ignored the turmoil that was occurring in Afghanistan.  They understood that Afghanistan was a quagmire that was best to avoid.  One the other hand, by ignoring what was happening a price had to be paid later, which it was.

One problem was that the US entered the war without strong goals.  Yes, there was the desire to find and capture bin Laden, but the US was throwing Special Forces units into Afghanistan within days to the 9-11 attack without knowing what the goal of the invasion was.

Rather than focus on attacking the al Qaeda strongholds, the US focused on a political win by capturing the capital of Kabul and other key cities that had nothing to do with the war on bin Laden.

The problem is that Americans used in their intervention the cover of being strong advocates of democracy and freedom.  Suddenly, political leaders who had wanted a “hands off” approach to Afghanistan were pushing for invasion to introduce democracy and human rights.  However, that goal quickly disappeared as Obama said he was elected to end the war and the nation building effort was needed at home.  He remained, however, committed to the Afghan war even after bin Laden was found and killed.

Trump also wanted to withdraw, only to find himself fighting his own generals, who wanted to remain.

The reality is that Americans and the West were not ready for the commitment needed to stop transnational terrorism.  President George W. Bush warned Americans that this would be a “lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”  British Defense Chief Adm. Michael Boyce warned in 2001 that the war on terrorism “may last 50 years.”

In this way, the war on terrorism, which was frequently fought in Afghanistan, was more like the Cold War, which occupied generations of American soldiers and sailors.  Although money was spent, and people died (especially in Vietnam) the war was ideological.  Much of the focus was on bolstering our allies politically and spreading the advantages of democracy and “evils of communism”.

This “Battle for the Minds” failed in Afghanistan.  And that contributed to the eventual pull out of American forces without a clear victory.


Military lessons

Wars need clear goals.

There was never a clear goal in Afghanistan.  It started out to kill or capture bin Laden.  Then it was to cripple al Qaeda.  Then it was to topple the Taliban.  Then it was to install a friendly government.  Then it was to turn Afghanistan into a functioning nation.  No wonder that the small military footprint that saw most of the American victories in 2001 was replaced with a military presence that was more reminiscent of the Vietnam War – without the jungle.

Americans established large military camps and carried out operations away from those bases.  It seemed that these bases had more in common with the massive facilities at Da Nang, Vietnam.

Forget clear cut goals.  For many career soldiers, going to Afghanistan was the key to promotion.  For politicians and bureaucrats, it was the statistics – numbers of Taliban killed and the amount of new investment in Afghanistan.

When presidents like Trump or Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan, there were no clear-cut reasons to stay.  Generals did not tell their leaders that staying in Afghanistan for another six months would achieve a certain goal.  Instead, they spoke of potential long range problems and outbreaks of terrorism elsewhere – very reminiscent of the “Domino Theory” given as a reason to stay in Vietnam.

The American military will pay a considerable price for its time in Afghanistan.  When the war began, it carried out an invasion on the other side of the world that no other nation could do.  It parked aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea that launched hundreds of Special Forces into the country to assist pro-American tribes.

As the mission evolved from finding bin Laden, the shape of the military force changed.  Special Forces who worked with the tribes became less important than a large military force that could occupy large parts of the country.

Equipment priorities also changed.  American tanks were too heavy for many roads and bridges in Afghanistan, so lighter armored equipment like the Stryker was deployed.  And, as more improvised mines were encountered, mine resistant vehicles (MRAPS) were used.

There were some problems with these new vehicles.  To keep them light enough to be airmobile, their armor became so light that heavy Russian machineguns could penetrate their armored skin.  Of course, there were kits of additional armor available, but that added to the weight and kept them from being as mobile.

Military doctrine also evolved.  The Air Force did not need to establish air superiority in the sky over Afghanistan, so they focused on bombing and ground support.  Meanwhile, the Army was focused on a military designed to fight insurgencies, so they did away with the “division” concept and established brigades that could move quickly by air to a developing country with an insurgency problem.

Even the Navy has problems as it has invested in inexpensive “littoral combat” ships that are best used in low threat naval operations around countries that have insurgencies.  Some of these ships will be decommissioned early because they do not fit the Navy’s needs.

The problem now is that the Afghan War is over, and the US military finds itself with equipment and tactics far different from the conflicts they may face in the near future.

Both Russia and China are focused on establishing air superiority in any potential conflict and the wargames that US generals and admirals play show that the US may have problems controlling the air, even over its own naval task forces.

Meanwhile, the US Army has large numbers of light armored vehicles that will easily blow apart in the face of Russian main battle tanks.  They are so unfit for conventional combat that the US has started giving them to local police forces, which only allows the police to become more aggressive in the face of popular protests in parts of the US.

There is also the problem of the military personnel and their training.  Although the Afghan War has provided good combat experience for a cadre of Army and Marine soldiers, there is a big difference between breaking down the door of an Afghan family hut in search of weapons and facing Russian soldiers with more modern weapons.  Can a pilot who has spent the last ten years providing ground support to the US Army go head-to-head with a fifth-generation Russian fighter aircraft?

America’s generals have spent nearly all their careers fighting in Afghanistan.  Can they adjust to fighting a conventional war in Europe?

The Army is slowly evolving away from an insurgency mode of combat.  Last year, before the Covid epidemic, the US Army carried out a major movement of US ground forces and equipment (including main battle tanks) from the United States to Europe.  Although the movement was cut short, it did demonstrate that the military is beginning to move away from the Afghan experience.

If the US military can start preparing for the next conflict – one that will probably involve China or Russia, at least they will have learned one lesson – prepare for the next war, not the last one.

Analysis 04-12-2021


Hypersonic Weapons – Fad or Fact?


At the beginning of WWII, it was tanks.  After WWII, it was nuclear weapons, bombers, and missiles.  In the past few years, it has been drones.

Now it is hypersonic missiles.  China, Russia, and the US are engaged in a race to field the first practical hypersonic missile.

According to military experts, hypersonic weapons are the latest “leading edge” technology.  Travelling at five times the speed of sound, they are harder to detect and considerably more difficult to shoot down.  Russia sees them as the answer to America’s missile defense of North America and China sees them as the “golden bullet” that will defeat America’s super carriers.

The problem, however, is that hypersonic weapons are neither new, nor do they offer anything that current technology does not offer – for less money.

Hypersonic technology is about 80 years old and was first explored as a weapon technology during WWII.  Nazi Germany, who was the leader in rocket technology at that time, had considered it when looking at ways to attack America from Germany.  The first solution was a long-range bomber, but they took time to cross the Atlantic and were vulnerable to Allied long range air patrols.

The solution was a rocket that could travel at hypersonic speeds.  The Germans conceived a hypersonic boost glide missile called the Silbervogel (Silver Bird).  The problem was its cost, compared to the size of the weapons payload.

The post WWII era saw a demand to quickly hit distant targets in the most efficient way possible.  The answer was the ICBM.  It flew a ballistic flight plan, went up to a thousand miles in space at hypersonic speeds and landed with a degree of accuracy – at least accurate for nuclear weapons.  It was also the most economical solution.

The US continued to look at hypersonic flight and developed the Dyna-Soar hypersonic glider.  The program was cancelled because of its cost and the fact that there was no clear objective to the weapon.

The fact is that hypersonic weapons use nuclear technology from the 1950s, boost technology from the 1950s, and hypersonic glide technology from the 1960s – hardly a revolutionary weapon system.

However, afraid that it will fall behind, the US is pushing to develop a hypersonic missile as quickly as possible, and with the minimal testing.  The pace of testing indicates that this week’s hypersonic missile test failure off the coast of California will not be the last one.  The missile is designed to target high value strategic targets.

The Army hopes to field its first missiles in FY 23.

The US is focusing on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the air launched AGM-183A Rapid Response Weapon.

The Defense Department plans up to 40 hypersonic missile tests in the next five years – a fast track that could lead to problems if there are any test failures.  There are also few places like hypersonic wind tunnels that can test such a weapons system.

Russia has already fielded hypersonic missiles for strategic purposes – like replacing its current ballistic missiles.  The two missile systems are the Avangard and the Kinzhal.  The Kinzhal reportedly has speeds of up to Mach 10 and a range of 1200 miles.

The Russians are also testing an air-to-surface hypersonic missile for use on the Russian SU-57 jet fighter.

The Chinese are behind and are developing a hypersonic missile with a different tactical application.  They are developing an inexpensive Mach 5 scramjet, the SF-17.  Since it is cheaper, it can be deployed in massive attacks that could overwhelm the defense systems of an American carrier task force.  It is expected to enter service in the late 2020s.

The British and French navies are working on a hypersonic missile to replace the Harpoon and Exocet anti-ship missiles.  The missile, Pursues will have a ramjet engine and is expected to enter service in 2030.

For all the optimistic talk, hypersonic weapons face an invincible foe – physics.  That is why they were considered impractical in the 20th Century,

Hypersonic weapons will launch like traditional ICBMs.  However, instead of taking a ballistic path as an ICBM, the warhead will be attached to a hypersonic glide vehicle that can ride the shockwaves created by its high speed as it flies through the atmosphere.  Unlike ICBMs, it will fly at a much lower altitude, which will be below many missile defense system envelopes.

The key is the hypersonic glide vehicle, which is quite maneuverable at hypersonic speeds.  In a long-range flight, it skips across the edge of the atmosphere until it approaches its target.  Then, it rolls over and dives into the atmosphere.  It can maneuver by rolling clockwise or counterclockwise.  It does the same in a short-range missile, except it will stay in the atmosphere.

These glide vehicles have problems though.  As they fly through the atmosphere, they are subject to atmospheric drag and temperatures of thousands of degrees.  If one were to shape the glide vehicle to reduce the drag, it loses its hypersonic glide ability.  And, although it can maneuver at hypersonic speeds, doing so drastically reduces the speed and range.  Hypersonic flight depends on a narrow band of atmospheric density and speed.

This narrow band of atmospheric density and hypersonic speed drastically limits the ability of the missile to travel faster than the conventional ballistic missile taking the traditional ballistic flight plan.  This negates the argument that hypersonic missiles are dramatically faster than conventional ICBMs.

Although these hypersonic glide vehicles are fast, the heat created leaves a heat signature that is visible to satellites from thousands of miles away.  Both the US and Russia have early warning satellites that look for large heat signatures like those from ballistic missiles.  These thermal signatures are quite visible to satellite both in the boost phase and as the glide vehicle flies through the atmosphere.  Admittedly, modern anti-missile systems may not be able to intercept these fast-moving vehicles, but they can track them.

Hypersonic weapons are also subject to the age-old physics equation; Energy equals mass times velocity squared.  If one wants to make an object that travels Mach 1 to go Mach 5, the energy needed equals 5 squared, or 25.  That means that pushing a hypersonic glide vehicle at hypersonic speeds throughout its powered flight requires 25 times more energy then moving the vehicle at Mach 1.  No wonder the engineers of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the US moved away from hypersonic weapon technology back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The high speeds and heat incurred during its travel through the atmosphere also tests the structural integrity of the vehicle.  ICBM nosecones reach temperatures of a few hundred degrees Celsius.  Hypersonic vehicles will have skin temperatures of thousands of degrees Celsius.  Small imperfections in the skin can cause catastrophic failures.  Small pieces of shrapnel from an interceptor warhead will also cause a failure of the glide vehicle.

There is also the high temperature plasma that surrounds the glide vehicle during any high-speed flight in the atmosphere.  This is what causes the blackout with manned spacecraft reentering the atmosphere at the end of a mission.  This plasma will hinder communications and navigation.  This might preclude remote guidance changes or allow for the vehicle to use navigation satellites to make course corrections.

In the end, hypersonic flight represents a set of tradeoffs – tradeoffs that engineers felt was not worth it for several decades.  Drag forces at low altitudes reduce speed, which is only obtained by the considerable expenditure of fuel.  There are tradeoffs between speed, altitude, and maneuverability.  High speed through the atmosphere produces immense amounts of heat, which are detectable by satellites.

The key advantage of hypersonic flight is that current missile defenses cannot intercept them due to speed, flight paths that go under the envelope of defensive missile, and remarkable maneuverability.

However, as nations develop and perfect hypersonic missiles, there is another race going on to develop defenses that will negate the hypersonic missile.  Directed energy weapons and particle beams are already in the testing phase.

In the end, much depends on solving several major technological problems.  These problems were once faced by some of the greatest rocket scientists of all time, and they opted for simpler solutions.  Will this generation of scientists succeed when those others failed?

Analysis 04-05-2021


US Army Europe Raises Threat Level
Over Increased Russia-Ukraine Tensions

While most of the world is focused on China, its regular incursions into Taiwanese air space, the status of unoccupied Japanese islands, and the number of Chinese boats in the South China Sea, tensions in Europe over increased fighting along the Russian-Ukrainian border has forced the US Army in Europe to increase its threat level to the highest level – “Potential Imminent Crisis.”

In the past few days, the New York Times has reported that four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two more seriously wounded in a mortar barrage during a battle against Russian backed “separatists” in the Donetsk region.  The fighting was along the “Line of Contact” which stretches 250 miles between the two fighting forces.  Unlike much of the recent skirmishing of the past few months, this fighting included artillery fire.

This recent escalation in fighting appears to abrogate the cease fire negotiated last July.

Observers have also noticed new Russian manufactured weapons with the “separatists”.

The Ukraine Parliament issued a statement noting a “significant increase in shelling and armed provocations by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”  They also called on Western nations to “continue and increase international political and economic pressure on Russia.”

Although fighting has been occurring for several years, there have been some recent activities that led to the US Army increasing its threat level.

A few weeks ago, the Russian military announced airborne exercises that targeted water canals supplying the Crimea from the Dnieper River in Ukraine.  The regiment sized airborne exercise was held in conjunction with Russian Black Sea Fleet amphibious exercises.  The airborne units were to seize Ukrainian objectives and set up a defensive perimeter until relieved by other Russian units, possibly Russian marines.

Most worrying for NATO has been the increase in Russian military aircraft incursions into NATO airspace.  This week, NATO fighter aircraft were scrambled 10 times within a six-hour period on Monday.  The incursions were in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Black Sea areas.

The incursions included TU-95 Russian bombers nearing the Norwegian coast.  After being intercepted by Norwegian F-16s, they flew south, over the North Sea, prompting the scrambling of British and Belgium fighters.

Other Russian incursions included two Russian Blackjack bombers entering Norwegian airspace, three Russian aircraft in the Black Sea, and a Russian maritime patrol over the Baltic Sea, which was intercepted by Italian aircraft.

NATO has also been concerned about the buildup of Russian military units along the Ukraine border.  Units that participated in maneuvers along the Ukraine border have not been withdrawn, eliciting allegations from Ukrainian military leaders that Russia has intentionally massed more troops on the border.  There are also unconfirmed reports that trains are moving heavy armored equipment like tanks up to the Ukrainian border.

Russia responded to these accusations with the comment, “The Russian Federation transfers the Armed Forces on its soil as it wants to.  This should not concern anyone, and this is not posing any threat to anyone.”

The US has also pushed tensions.  Biden has always been a supporter of the Ukraine and has said, “Crimea is Ukraine,” – a comment bound to infuriate the Russians and Putin, who Biden insulted recently by calling him a “killer.”

In the past few weeks, the US has also delivered 350 tons of arms to the Ukraine military.   This included at least 35 military Humvees, which are designed to carry heavy weapons like heavy machineguns, anti-tank missiles, and rapid-fire cannon.

The Ukraine military has also announced exercises in the flatlands north of the Crimea, which would be an important target in any conflict between the two nations.


Increased Threat Level

All of this caused the US Army in Europe to increase its threat level from “Possible Crisis” to “Potential Imminent Crisis,” which is its highest level.  “We’re discussing our concerns about this increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with our NATO allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

In addition, US Secretary of State Blinken called his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kulbea.  And, US Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, called top military leaders in both Russia and Ukraine – Russian General Gerasimov and Ukraine General Khomchak.

How the change in threat status impacts US forces in Europe is a closely held military secret.  This type of threat level is quite different than those caused by a terrorist threat.  Terrorist threats focus on force protection (limiting access to military bases and protecting personnel) instead of a response to an external conventional military threat by another country.

However, we can deduce some of the possible responses by American forces in Europe to this increased threat.

Increased manning of headquarters and communications commands.  Many headquarters and communications commands work at a peacetime level on a regular basis.  However, as the watch level has increased, it is likely that manning will be increased during the higher threat level.  Liberty may be cancelled, which will have an impact as this weekend is the high point of Holy Week activities.

Alternate headquarters and communications locations may also be activated.

Larger number of aircraft put on alert.  It is normal routine for NATO air forces to have several alert aircraft on standby in order to intercept Russian military aircraft entering NATO airspace.  However, given the higher watch level, more aircraft will probably be put on the highest alert status.  There is also the possibility that some of the aircraft may be deployed to other airfields for security purposes.

Weapon loads for the alert aircraft may also be modified.

One theater where the alert status of NATO aircraft will be higher will be in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  NATO regularly keeps squadrons in these nations to discourage Russian aircraft incursions.

Dispersion of ground forces.  Military ground forces that are near Russia may be ordered to leave their bases and to disperse in the countryside, especially in strategic areas near borders.  This prevents a surprise attack on the forces and leaves them well placed in case of invasion.

As we noted with NATO aircraft, the likeliest theater where military dispersion will take place is in the Baltic nations.

Activate air and missile defenses.  This is most likely in areas around Russia.

Increased airborne and satellite-based reconnaissance.  The focus will be on units that appear to be moving closer to the Ukraine border.  If Russian railroads are moving heavy armor to the border, intelligence can judge the potential threat.

Putting rapid response forces on alert.  If the situation deteriorates, moving a rapid response force into the theater can show the Russians that NATO is willing to defend its territory and interests.  In addition to units in Europe, there is also the possibility that airborne units of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions may be deployed.


Are NATO, Russia and the Ukraine overreacting to the crisis?

Although there has been fighting between Russia and Ukraine for several years, is the current situation that critical?  Some analysts say no.

Retired Lieutenant General Fredrick Hodges is the former commander of the US Army in Europe.  He says, “This could be posturing, but the Kremlin is testing the new Administration.”  He continues that Russia has no interest in real peace in the Ukraine and wants to keep the country destabilized.

That, however, could be a viewed as an escalation by Putin.  Biden has a record of supporting the Ukraine since his time as Vice President and was influential in increasing military aid to the Ukraine from non-lethal aid to high tech weapons like the Javelin anti-tank missile.

The American embassy in Kiev has also taken a strong stand.  A statement from the embassy said that the US was, “Deeply saddened by the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers today due to shelling near Shumy, Donetsk.  Russia must observe ceasefire measures, end daily violence that is causing senseless suffering, engage constructively in peace negotiations, and end its aggression in Ukraine.”

American Defense Secretary Austin spoke to Ukraine’s defense minister on Thursday and expressed “unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Although it is easy to downplay this as posturing, repeated Russian military aircraft incursions, military maneuvers, and the recent history of invading the Crimea and supporting “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine demonstrate that there is a potential for miscalculation and escalation.

Anyone who thinks that there is no chance of a crisis which will escalate into open conflict may want to remember the beginning of WWI.  The assassination of the Hapsburg heir and the future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, was not considered a major international incident.  The Archduke’s liberal politics and marriage to the Duchess Sophie made him unpopular in the royal family.  His removal from the Hapsburg’s line of succession was welcomed by many.

However, many of the same people who did not like Franz Ferdinand wanted to use the Archduke’s death for political and territorial gain in the Balkans.  The result was a major bloodbath in Europe.

Analysis 03-30-2021


Maritime Chokepoints and their Influence on World History
Why the closing of the Suez Canal means a lot?

“Yet, by 1706, instead of seeing the navy of France riding upon our coast, we sent every year a powerful fleet to insult theirs, superior to them not only in the ocean, but in the Mediterranean, forcing them entirely out of that
sea by the mere sight of our Flag.”

On the impact of capturing Gibraltar
The Influence of Sea Power upon History
By Alfred T. Mahan

300 years ago, the War of Spanish Succession was to have a major impact on the history of Europe and the influence of British naval power.  In return for being allowed to have a king from the Royal House of Bourbon, Spain ceded ownership of Gibraltar, which controlled the western entrance to the Mediterranean, to the British.

300 year later, Spain has a king from the Royal House of Bourbon, King Felipe VI, and Britain still controls Gibraltar.  And, if anyone thinks that control of the Strait of Gibraltar does not mean anything in today’s modern world, they only must look back to 2019, when British Commandos launching from Gibraltar captured an Iranian tanker bringing oil to a Syrian refinery.

Alfred Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783 is considered the greatest book written on naval strategy.  Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his naval officers to read it and it impacted Germany’s push to build a large surface fleet before WWI.

President Theodore Roosevelt read it and wrote to Mahan calling it a “naval classic.”  As president, he used the principles in the book to reconfigure the American Navy to become a major naval power – the main reason one of the most powerful warships in the world, the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is named after him.

Ironically, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently in the South China Sea facing off against the Chinese navy, which also uses the naval principles of Mahan too.

The Influence of Sea Power upon History focused on how geography determined the commercial maritime influence and naval power of nations.  And, with the shipping accident in the Suez Canal, we see how the geography of maritime chokepoints can seriously impact maritime shipping and projection of naval power.

It is estimated that 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea and the major maritime link between Europe and Asia goes through the Suez Canal.  In 2019, 19,000 ships carrying 1.25 billion tons of shipping went through the Suez Canal between Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal.  13% of the world’s trade is expected to be hampered by this accident.  Ships that will have to head around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope will need an extra 15 days to make the trip.

But the Ever Given accident isn’t just a civilian maritime problem.  It has caused a major problem for the US Navy, which has ordered a team of American naval personnel to travel to Egypt to help solve the problem.

At a time of increased tension between China and the US, the Suez blockage has seriously impacted the ability of the US to reinforce its fleet off China.  The aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower is currently in the Mediterranean and was scheduled to transit the Suez to carry out exercises in the Arabian Sea.  It was also tasked to be reinforcement in the South China Sea, if conditions called for it.  Although the USS Ronald Reagan is stationed in Japan, the USS Eisenhower would be likely to arrive on station in the South China Sea before the Reagan could finish scheduled repairs and modernization and set sail.

For centuries, naval officers have known that controlling the oceans is too big a task.  Therefore, control of the seas requires controlling chokepoints.  Some of the critical ones are the Strait of Gibraltar, Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, English Channel, Malacca Strait, Strait of Bab al Mandab, and the Taiwan Strait.

There are several reasons why controlling one of these chokepoints is critical.  First, it allows a nation to control maritime shipping – allowing the movement of friendly shipping, while restricting the shipping of the enemy.  This has been the primary use of Gibraltar.  Over the last 300 years, it has restricted commercial shipping of nations like France during the Napoleonic Wars.

Second, it allows a small naval force to stop the movement of an enemy naval force through the chokepoint.  During WWII, the English Channel and the British Navy were able to prevent a German invasion of that island nation.

Finally, a chokepoint is an ideal place to carry out an amphibious invasion.  In 1944, the Allies were able to use the narrow seas between France and England to launch the D-Day landings in Normandy.

The most important chokepoint in terms of commercial traffic is the Malacca Strait.  It is the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans.  94,000 ships pass through the strait each year and it carries about 25% of the world’s traded goods.  It carries about one quarter of the oil from the Middle East to Asian countries.

The amount of traffic also makes the strait highly congested.  Near the south of the strait, the channel narrows to only 2.8 kilometers wide.  On August 20th, 2017, the US Navy warship USS John McCain collided with the merchant ship Alnic MC, leading to the death of 10 American sailors.  Eventually the blame was placed on the US ship and the lack of training of its bridge crew.

In terms of potential threat, there is nothing that is considered more critical than the Strait of Hormuz.  It is the only passage to the open sea for several oil producing nations.  35% of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through the strait, of which 85% goes to Asian markets.  There is currently new tension between Israel and Iran concerning several explosions onboard their shipping.

The Strait of Hormuz is currently patrolled by a multinational naval task force.  Currently the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle is the capital ship of the force.

Like the Suez Cannel, the Panama Canal is manmade and very vulnerable to breakdowns.  In 2016, larger locks were built to allow larger shipping to transit the canal.

Although the Panama Canal remains a critical chokepoint, some ships from Asia stop at American Pacific ports and allow the cargo to be transported to the East Coast by rail.

The Taiwan Strait has been a historic strategic chokepoint.  In WWII, Japanese maritime trade used it as a protected passage from the islands in the south and the Japanese Islands.  Cutting the supply of oil and raw materials from its colonies of Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) was considered so important that America debated whether Taiwan or the Philippines should be invaded.

The Taiwan Strait remains of strategic importance as it would be the route of a Chinese amphibious assault against Taiwan.

The Bosporus separates Europe and Asia as well as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.   It has a long history in terms of invasions between Europe and Asia.  The ancient Greeks got their grain from Black Sea ports and the Persians invaded Greece across the Bosporus several times.  Its importance caused Roman emperor Constantine the Great to establish Constantinople (Modern Istanbul) there.  It was subject to the largest amphibious invasions during WWI (Gallipoli).

The Bosporus has been a long-term strategic goal of Russia as it has always been desirous of a warm water port that does not freeze in the winter.

The English Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean and is the busiest shipping area in the world.  Its narrowest point is the Strait of Dover, which is only 21 miles.  It has been the “moat” that has protected England from invasion since the last successful invasion in 1066 by William the Conqueror.  Since then, it has stopped the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and Hitler.

Gibraltar is the gate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  Much of the maritime traffic that goes through the Suez Canal transits the Strait of Gibraltar and goes to northern European ports like Hamburg.

As the capture of the Iranian oil tanker proved, Gibraltar still has strategic significance.  It monitors Russian submarine movements in the Mediterranean by tracking submarines that leave the port of Murmansk and then transit the strait while submerged.  It remains a Royal Navy port and is frequently used as a training area and a stopover for units, ships, and aircraft heading east of the Suez Canal.

There are hundreds of chokepoints for local and limited maritime traffic.  However, an accident like that in the Suez Canal, or war can make anyone of them important.

One such chokepoint that only had importance for a couple of years in WWII was in the Solomon Islands.  During the Battle of Guadalcanal and later amphibious landings by American Marines, the channel between the islands would be called “The Slot.”  Allied and Japanese warships would battle regularly over control of these waters and so many ships would be sunk in the waters that it would later gain the name of “Iron Bottom Sound.”

So, while some chokepoints like the Strait of Gibraltar will remain chokepoints over the centuries, we can never be sure what the next critical piece of ocean will be.

Analysis 03-22-2021


America, China, and Taiwan – A Potential Tinderbox?


At a time when Chinese American relations are at their lowest ebb since the Tiananmen Square Crisis, the US and China met in Alaska to try to resolve some of their issues, which include trade, intellectual property issues, human right abuses in China with the Uighur minority population, abrogating the human rights treaty with the UK on Hong Kong, the South China Sea, border issues with India, and the status of Taiwan.

In addition to several high ranking Chinese officials, the meeting included US Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan.

Before Alaska, Blinken and Austin met with the Japanese, who “condemned China’s aggressive international moves”.  Austin then headed off to India, which also has territorial issues with the Chinese – issues that led to skirmishes along their border with China.

However, for all the hope of the Alaska meeting, the talks were described as “frosty.”  China’s attitude was outlined by a foreign Ministry spokesman, who said, “China will take strong measures as appropriate to resolutely defend national sovereignty, security, and development issues.

The US responded by placing sanctions on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Of all the issues to be discussed, the most explosive appears to be Taiwan, or the Republic of China, as it bills itself.  China considers it a breakaway province, while the Taiwanese consider themselves a sovereign nation.  And, although the US has diplomatic relations with mainland China, it has guaranteed, by treaty, that a Chinese invasion will elicit an American military response.

The US is also the major weapons supplier to Taiwan.

Many observers have been surprised that the Biden Administration has indicated it will continue with the tough stance on Taiwan’s independence. “War over Taiwan would be unthinkable” said Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute.  “The [Chinese Army’s] capabilities have now matured to such a degree that this is no longer a dilemma we can afford to push off.”

A Pentagon official told Politico that, “China has built a global sized navy for a regional mission…we just don’t have the same kind of capabilities against China that we used to because of numbers.”

However, a strong response is needed.  As the Politico noted, “the US can’t afford to do nothing.”

The seriousness of the Chinese challenge was highlighted by documents that show that in a conflict with China over Taiwan, the US would lose.  The war games suppose a massive military Chinese exercise that would hide the deployment of an invasion force.  Missile and biological strikes against US bases and warships would paralyze the US while the Chinese carry out an amphibious assault on Taiwan.

The US forces would lose with a serious number of casualties amongst manpower and weapons systems.

Lt. General Hinote told Yahoo in an interview, that the US was, “Not just losing, but we were losing faster…After the 2018 war game, I distinctly remember one of our gurus of war gaming standing in front of the Air force secretary and chief of staff and telling them that we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen.  The definitive answer if the US military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast.”

In Senate testimony, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson warned that China might try to annex Taiwan this decade – possibly within the next six years.

Without releasing the results of the war games, the Trump Administration took action by increasing naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait, not to stop any invasion, but to illustrate the American determination to defend Taiwan.

The US military has also initiated a program called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, for which they are requesting $4.6 billion for this next year.  It will increase the number of ground-based cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles in areas close to China.  The US Marine Corps has also completed construction of the first permanent base in the Indi-Pacific region since 1952.  The military is also improving its ability to quickly build military airfields on islands much like the US did during the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific in WWII.

There are also plans for other bases that will be close to the “First Island Chain” near China.

More important was the increased supply of American arms to Taiwan – a move that was supported by both the Republicans and Democrats since a stronger Taiwanese military reduces the risk for the US.

The arms sold to Taiwan were designed to enhance Taiwan’s ability to withstand a Chinese invasion.  In fact, over $5 billion in arms were sold to Taiwan in 2020.

To stop a Chinese amphibious assault on the island, the US sold 100 Harpoon coastal defense systems.  These are the state-of-the-art missiles, and the type II Harpoons are designed specifically for littoral anti-ship capability, which is ideal for an engagement in the Taiwan Strait.  They have improved targeting and better anti-electronic countermeasures abilities.  Since they are designed to fly close to the surface of the water, they are harder to detect and defeat.

Taiwan also purchased in 2020 the standoff land mobile rocket artillery systems, which can be used against any Chinese land forces that have landed on the island.  They are also effective against stationary ships offloading soldiers.

Taiwan also purchased the Mk-48 submarine launched torpedo, which would make it harder for Chinese amphibious ships to transit the strait.

In 2019, Taiwan purchased Stinger man-portable missiles that have a well-documented record against Russian and Chinese aircraft.  They also bought over 100 M-1 Abrams tanks, which would make it difficult for the Chinese to maintain any foothold on the island.

Probably most important, the Trump Administration and the Congress approved the sale of 66 F-16 fighters.  These are the same aircraft that the US is currently purchasing, and the Taiwanese versions have a low radar cross section and improved electronics.  They are the main fighter for the Taiwanese air force and are frequently used to intercept Chinese aircraft flying too close to Taiwan.  They would make it difficult for the Chinese to maintain air superiority, a prerequisite for covering an amphibious operation, especially since the F-16s would be operating over their own territory and would have longer loiter times than the Chinese fighters.

This will give Taiwan over 200 modern fighters to China’s 600.  The Chinese J-11 is its most modern fighter and is based on the Russian Sukhoi SU-27 fighter, which was introduced in 1984.  Russia intends to replace the SU-27 with the SU-57 fifth generation fighter.

The Chinese J-20 fifth generation fighter aircraft are entering the Chinese air force in small numbers (20 so far) and, with their stealth capability, would be a part of any attempt to invade Taiwan.

However, the Chinese military has weaknesses that are frequently ignored.  The Chinese air force is designed for air superiority.  It has no close air support ability, which would be critical for a land war on Taiwan.  This implies that the Chinese do not see a conventional war with opposing armies.  Their assumption is that surface to surface ballistic missiles, bombers, and the neutralization of American forces in the region would cause the Taiwanese to capitulate without fighting.

The Chinese also lack a precision bomber strike ability and rely on conventional ballistic missiles without stealth capability.

The Chinese don’t have much satellite reconnaissance capability, which means they rely on ground and air-based systems that can be easier to take out.

China has few 5th generation stealth aircraft and would be hard pressed to get into an arms race with the US.  The US has about 500 5th generation fighters and is producing about 40 more a year.  They are also selling them to allies like Japan, Britain, Australia, and South Korea that could very well join the US in any conflict with China.

The ability of the F-35 to penetrate modern air defenses was proven with the report that three Israeli F-35s flew to Tehran and back in 2018. It was claimed that the mission led to the firing of the Iranian air force chief.

So, is the US and Taiwan that vulnerable?  May be not.  The US has been too focused on the Middle East in the past and is now more focused on China as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative demonstrates.  In the most recent war game, the US tested some Pacific Deterrence Initiative concepts and forced the Pentagon’s “Red Team leader” to forego an attack because there was too much uncertainty.

The strategy that stymied the Red Team leader, focused on long range anti-ship missiles (remember the sale of Harpoon missiles to Taiwan), mobile rocket artillery systems (another Taiwanese purchase), and surface to air missile batteries (They have the Patriot missile system and are buying man-portable missiles too).  There was also more focus on surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to give policy makers more information faster.

In the end, the US posture (along with Taiwan’s upgraded military capabilities) was able to create enough uncertainty to make it unprofitable to invade Taiwan.

Which also answers why the results of a secret war game was released.  The US is recalibrating its military from operations in the Middle East to more conventional operations around China and Russia.  Releasing the results of the war games will provide the information to encourage Congress to redirect defense spending.

In the short run, that may be the only way to discourage Chinese ambitions in Asia.