It’s time for an F-22 Raptor 2.0

When Lockheed shut down the production line for the F-22 Raptor, they kept much of the equipment and machinery necessary to reopen the line, should the prospect materialize.  There have been a few studies on doing exactly this and Congress actually ordered just such a study in April, 2016.  However, in spite of the moth-balled machinery & equipment, it was still deemed too expensive to restart the program.

Now, in the wake of the current geopolitical environment, it’s looking like it might be more of a possibility.  One of the original issues, though, is that Congress specifically legislated that the F-22 could not be exported, even to our closest allies like Great Britain or Israel.  Japan, for its part, really wanted the Raptor–and still does–and, given Chinese ambitions in the local area, Japan clearly has a need for an advanced fighter.  Japan has already ordered more than 40 of the F-35s but is still looking at the F-22 or a hybrid thereof.  More importantly, though, it sounds like they might even be willing to pony up some serious money to get an F-22-like program going – $40 billion dollars worth of capital for what Lockheed describes as an F-22/F-35 hybrid combining the best capabilities of each thereby making the new F-22 better than either of its parent designs.

Obviously, if Japan is willing to put up this type of money, the startup costs for the US for an improved F-22 is dramatically reduced.  In addition, an expanded F-22 fleet in the US inventory would be a very welcome enhancement, given that the Air Force only bought about 180 of the original F-22’s roughly a decade ago.  With the F-15 and the F-16 fleet aging–who’s designs are 40 years old–an expanded F-22 fleet could only complement the F-35.  Obviously, Congress will need to get involved but with President Trump actively supporting exporting US arms to allied nations I think the time is right to actively pursue the F-22 once again.  (See Tyler Rogoway’s excellent article from The War Zone here, from which much of the information above was used.)

Drone over Syria, II

Drone over Syria wTracking

Let’s see:  We have an unidentified aircraft that started tracking over northwestern Syria that is currently at 20,400′ traveling at 72 knots and with a heading towards Incirlik Air Force Base, interesting . . . .

Drone over Syria?

Drone over Syria.

Looks like there might be a drone over extreme northwestern Syria:  No call sign, flying at 22,400′ at 72 knots!  Hmm . . .  something in the works?

The Syrian Powder Keg – Has the Fuse Been Lit?

As most everyone knows by now, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad launched another chemical attack on Douma last weekend.   Roughly a year ago, Assad launched a previous chemical attack and this was met with close to 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles hitting the airbase where the chemical attack originated.  Now, in the wake of this most recent attack and Israel’s immediate response on Sunday night, the world is waiting for the next shoe to drop–and it appears that it will be coming based on President Trump’s tweets–though a few questions–and issues–obviously exist:  What’s going to be targeted this time?  Who’s all going to be involved?  How long will the response last – will this just be a once and done raid or will this happen over several days?  And, obviously, when will this happen?

Adding just a little bit of suspense to this is Putin’s claim that he’ll be targeting both the missiles themselves, as well as the vehicle that launches these missiles.  Russia installed their advanced S-400 air defense missile system at Hmeimim Air Base in northwestern Syria a couple years ago so it would appear that they have the capability to definitely reach out and touch someone.  (You can read all about that here, as well as its capabilities.)  The question is, though, if Russia does engage any of the attackers, would the US, and presumably any of the attacking coalition, respond in kind?  It would not be the first time US forces have engaged–and killed–Russian opposition forces in Syria.  Two months ago, Russian forces operating under the Wagner Group attacked US, and US backed, forces at a base in northeastern Syria.  The Special Forces commander called in air support from orbiting F-15E’s, AC-130’s, F-22’s and even some Reaper drones–all of this followed by Apache helicopters.  In the end, upwards of 350 Russian soldiers were killed.  Russia denied this action as all of the troops involved belonged to their private contractor Wagner.  However, things could be different this time.

Let’s also not forget that at the same time as the Russians were engaging the US outpost in Syria, Israel was attacking in Syria as well, including bases housing their Iranian allies.  This attack cost Israel one of their vaunted F-16I’s but this amounted to their most widespread bombings in Syria since it destroyed almost all of Syria’s air defenses in 1982.  Of course, Israel launched an immediate attack last Sunday but this seemed to be rather limited in nature, given the capability the Israelis have, and have used in the past.

Not to be outdone, Bloomberg  is reporting that the Houthi’s in Yemen have launched another ballistic missile – and drone – attack against the Saudis just yesterday.  The Saudi’s apparently took out several, if not all, of the inbound missiles and drones.  However, is it too much to think that Iran urged the Houthi’s to initiate this attack to keep the Saudi’s preoccupied in the Peninsula?   Maybe, maybe not.

The bottom line:  There’s more to think about than simply retaliating against Assad’s use of chemical weapons – as deplorable as this is.  Should we attack?  Personally, I think so.  And, it would seem that Putin is expecting the attack as the entire Russian fleet has vacated their naval base of Latakia.  However, we need to be prepared for a Russian response and Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick have an excellent article in what Putin’s response could look like.

 

“Operation Orchard”

About eleven years ago, September 5-6, 2007 to be exact, Syria’s attempt to become a nuclear power came to a screeching halt thanks to the Israeli Air Force.  On that night, four F-15I’s, four F-16I’s and, most likely, some serious Electronic Warfare aircraft took to the skies above Syria, and then Turkey on their way home, and thoroughly demolished the still under construction nuclear reactor located at Al Kibar, near present day Deir al-Zour in extreme northeastern Syria.  Not surprisingly, this nuclear reactor bore a striking resemblance to one in Yongbyon, North Korea – especially since the North Koreans provided a great deal of assistance with the construction.

Up until this past week, everyone knew that the Israelis took out the reactor, though absolutely no one in Israel would even comment on this.  Many articles have been written about this raid and I even alluded to it in The Gambit.  Now, Israel has come out and told the world of their involvement and Joseph Trevithick of the War Zone has an excellent summary of it.

The obvious question about all of this is, why now?  Is Israel sending a message to Iran that we’ve now done this twice before (remember the Osirak raid in Iraq back in 1981 which doomed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions?) – and we’re more than willing, and capable, of doing it a third time?  Anthony Cordesman wrote an interesting piece on just this subject back in 2009 and can be seen here.  That was nine years ago; if Israel had the capability then, I would expect that they haven’t been too idle simply waiting for what the Obama Administration had planned to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  I’m pretty sure acknowledging Operation Orchard now is intended as a clear message to Iran – we’ve done this before, and we’re certainly willing to do it again.

The Syrian Powder Keg – II

Things just got a little more interesting in Syria this week on several fronts:  1.) Word came out from a 200 page confidential UN report that North Korea has been providing the Syrians with materials needed for chemical and ballistic weapons production over the last five years, 2.) Iran has reportedly built a new airbase on the outskirts of Damascus, complete with two new hangars, roughly 60′ x 90′, plenty large enough for housing missiles capable of hitting Israel; and, 3.) Russia, according to General Joseph Votel, is playing “both arsonist and fireman.”

As for North Korea’s involvement in Syria:  According to the UN report, a Chinese trading company, Cheng Tong Trading Company, helped facilitate the shipments – at least 40 of them, the most recent of which came just last year.  In addition, North Korean missile technicians have reportedly been spotted at various known chemical weapons and missile facilities in Syria.  It is looking more and more like retired Admiral James Stavridis might very well be right when he claims that a naval blockade is the best option in dealing with North Korea.

Iran’s new site in Syria expands on another dimension in Syria.  Israel has repeatedly indicated that they will not allow Iran to gain anymore of a foothold in the country than they already have – this new base clearly represents an expansion of the Iranian foothold.  Iran, for its part, tends to view the Mediterranean Sea as the western periphery of its empire.  Three weeks ago, Israel launched one of their largest raids in recent history, taking out much of Syria’s air defense network and hitting four different Iranian bases at the same time.  Personally, it would not surprise me to see an Israeli airstrike on this base in the very near future, as well.

Then, there is Russia.  General Votel testified before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday and eloquently stated that Russia is playing “the role of both arsonist and fireman – fueling tensions and then trying to resolve them in their favor.”  According to Votel, the Russians are using the Syrian conflict to test new weapons and tactics. Indeed, over the past several years, the Russians have introduced several new weapons systems including long range cruise missile strikes, the first ever deployment of their only aircraft carrier and, most recently, the deployment of their 5th Generation SU-57 stealth fighters.  In addition, while stoking the fires of Syria, they are attempting to settle the disputes in their favor.  Part of this comes from their increased sale of military hardware such as the recent sale of their most advanced Air Defense system, the S-400, to Turkey, a NATO ally and where the US has its main airbase in the region–Incirlik.  Obviously, Putin is hoping that with the increased influence in the region, he can somehow use that influence to broker a peace agreement–all at the expense of the United States.

So, Russia now has their own advanced S-400 Air Defense Network established at Latakia and they have several of their advanced SU-57 fighters, also at Latakia.  Iran has established a brand new air base outside of Damascus, and Assad has once again used chemical weapons in an attack.  US Special Forces remain in the region, evidence most notably from their response to the February 7th attack by Russian mercenaries.  And, Israel has vowed to keep Iran from expanding their role in Syria.  What could possibly go wrong here?

The Syrian Powder Keg

Reports coming out of Syria this past week demonstrate just how much of a powder keg the country really is:

To break it down, Syria is in the midst of a civil war.  Bashar Assad virtually lost control of the country several years ago when the civil war erupted.  The rise of ISIS only compounded the issue for Assad – and the region.  ISIS has earned the wrath of most every country in the world.  Since this is first and foremost a regional threat, those neighboring countries that are able, have taken the fight to ISIS:  Syria (obviously), Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a few of the Gulf states.  Each of these countries has contributed in some way to the fight against ISIS over the past several years.  Then, you have the non-regional players, which adds another dimension to the mix:  Russia, the US and several of our European allies have joined the fight as well.

Russia, and the former Soviet Union, have been ardent supporters of the Assads in Syria for many, many years.  Recently, Vladimir Putin established one of the few, if not the only, Russian naval base outside of Russia at Latakia, Syria.  At virtually the same time, the Russian Air Force took residence here as well.  Clearly, Putin has dramatically increased his stake in the Syrian caldron.

The US, and our European allies are involved for several disparate reasons:  Turkey is a NATO ally, the terror and security threat posed by ISIS, to a few lofty – and very noble – humanitarian and cultural reasons.

Then there are the Kurds – the only major group fighting ISIS that does not have a state of its own.  The Kurds can easily be seen as a lit match ready ready to be thrown into this exposed powder keg.  Over the last few years, the Kurds have emerged as the only real effective fighting force against ISIS–and the US has steadily supported them for the duration of the fight.  However, no one in the region wants to see an independent Kurdish state–especially Turkey as a segment of the Kurds has been involved in an insurgency in Eastern Turkey for many years.  So, here we have NATO allies at direct logger-heads:  the US continues to aid and militarily support the Kurds in northeastern Syria while the Turks are openly fighting them in northwestern Syria.

As part of Russia’s involvement, Putin has apparently introduced an outfit called “Wagner”, a private company that on the surface might resemble Blackwater, though Wagner appears to resemble more of a mercenary outfit than anything, and possibly a state sanctioned private army.  Recently, as in last week, about 550 Russian/Syrian troops and Wagner private contractors decided to take on a Kurdish/American unit outside of Deir al-Zor.  The American advisers, most likely Special Forces, immediately called in massive amounts of fire power on the attacking force.  Bits and pieces of this confrontation hit the news the next day, but the mainstream media didn’t really pick up on it–or its significance.  Now, it is coming out that of the 550 troops involved in the attack, roughly 350 of them were either killed or wounded, including the outright destruction of two Wagner “tactical units.”  Whatever the situation, this is clearly the most significant incident involving American and Russian forces in direct combat.

At about the same time that the Russian and Kurdish/American forces were getting it on in NE Syria, Iran decided to take advantage of the situation and launched a drone over northern Israel.  Israel not only shot the drone out of the sky but they proceeded to take out the Iranian control vehicle operating the drone.  The Israelis then followed up with a massive response of their own in what is described as the most devastating attack on Syria since 1982!  in this attack, Israel also lost one of its vaunted F-16I Fighters, which, on the surface was bound to happen eventually.  However, Tyler Rogoway offers a unique view in that Israel might have been baited into this attack as Iran may have possibly introduced a new highly mobile SA-17 surface-to-air missile which is independent of any Air Defense Network.  Supposedly, there are reports out there that Iran has supplied these to Hezbollah as well–which if true, is definitely very bad news for Israel.

The bottom line:  Everyone is fighting ISIS; the Syrians, Russians and Turks are fighting the Kurds and Americans; Iran is fighting Israel; and, Bashar Assad – and Syria – is fighting for their life  – what could possibly go wrong?

North Korea: “When Will War Breakout?”

According to Alexander Vorontsov, the attitude, possibly even expectation, that the North Koreans pose:  “only one question remains: when will war break out?”  In his article in 38 North, Vorontsov points out that the US saber-rattling has gotten the attention of the NORKs:  the recent US Navy training exercise with three carrier strike groups in Korea’s East Sea and the recent US-South Korea air exercise which featured 230 aircraft, including many Stealth varieties are apparently seen as training steps for an incremental military operation.  Indeed, the last time the US held a training exercise with three carriers was in 2007 – and the last time the US trained with three carriers off of Korea was 1969!  The Korean peninsula obviously does not provide the opportunity for a military buildup as Saudi Arabia did in the wars the US has recently conducted in the Middle East.  Should the US engage in a similar type of build up, not only would the entire world notice but the Hermit Kingdom would most likely see this as an invitation to launch their own preemptive strikes – as Vorontsov claims in his article.  So, not surprisingly, these large training exercises – in lieu of a Middle East style military buildup – can certainly be seen as incremental steps as a prelude to a first strike, not dissimilar to the first strike the US took in its attempt to take out Saddam Hussein in the 2003 attack on Iraq.

The view from the South is likewise, equally sobering.  Uri Friedman has an excellent article here based on his interviews with Senator Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Ruben Gallego, both of whom recently returned from a trip to South Korea – and both noted that the US military in South Korea is “beyond the training stage. They’re at the getting ready for operational readiness state, with—and I heard this time and time again—hope that they never have to” fight.”   Moreover, both Duckworth – a retired Lt. Colonel – and Gallego fought in Iraq and both seemed to reach the same sobering assessment of the situation in South Korea.  Indeed, as Sen Duckworth noted, it’s not just the US that is ratcheting things up:  “all three of the major military actors—American, Korean, and Japanese—…more ready [for war] than they’ve ever been.”  While Duckworth noted that the drum beats are not booming, they are growing louder.  General Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, recently spoke at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and indicated that the US has done some logistical preparation that’s just prudent and has explored some “force deployment options” to “convey to the “other side” that “you really don’t want to do this.”  (all quotes taken from Friedman’s article)

As Neller alludes, the US goal is to demonstrate to Pyonyang that its allies are very much united in their stance towards the Hermit Kingdom and that they are prepared to meet the ultimate challenge the North could throw at them.  It’s a strategic dance that has many parallels throughout history – former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles referred to it as brinkmanship.  In this game of brinkmanship, it’s crucial that both sides have the same expectation as to where the brink lies – a miscalculation by either side could be catastrophic.  In this case, I suspect that the brink might not be the same for both parties.

US Aid to the PA

This past week, President Trump announced that he’d be withholding funds for the Palestinian Authority unless they’re willing to seriously negotiate for a peace agreement with Israel.  US aid to the Palestinians has averaged more than $400 million/year since 2008.  For their part, the Palestinians have broken off any sort of talks since the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital–something that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia may have tacitly supported.   The Palestinian Authority provides for the welfare of thousands of Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza:  education, medical clinics and hospitals, etc., so from a humanitarian perspective, the PA provides a lot of benefits.  However, the PA is led by Mahmoud Habbas–the leader of Hamas–the leading terrorist group in Gaza and the West Bank and responsible for countless attacks against Israel.

The PA’s withdrawal from peace talks after the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is not surprising.  However, it also appears that the Palestinians have probably overplayed their political hand:  the Egyptians apparently do not want much to do with them–after all, they built a wall to keep the Palestinian refugees out of Egypt.  Likewise, the Saudi’s are far more concerned with their neighbors across the Gulf and their regional ambitions in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to give anything more than an afterthought for the Palestinian Authority.

So, while the Palestinian Authority could probably find other donations to replace American aid, I think it is just one more indication that the Palestinians should recognize that there are bigger political issues in the region than their desire to push Israel into the Sea.

The North Korean Vancouver Summit

It didn’t get a lot of press this week but leaders from 20 different countries that fought in the Korean War gathered together in Vancouver this week to discuss further options on North Korea.  According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, all options remain on the table, though, the leaders of the summit encouraged the continuation of the dialogue between the two Koreas and further negotiations with the North.  “We all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation … We have to recognize that the threat is growing and if North Korea does not chose the pathway of engagement, discussion, negotiation, then they themselves will trigger an option,” Tillerson said.

The only problem with this, though, is that it represents more of the same–and you cannot continue doing the same thing and expect to get different results.  Everyone agrees that a negotiated settlement is the best outcome but the two sides are at diametrically opposite opening positions:  The US and its allies indicate that the NORKs need to first abandon their nuclear ambitions before talks can begin; as I’ve mentioned earlier, Kim Jong Un isn’t about to accept this fully mindful of what happened to Colonel Muamar Qaddafi & Saddam Hussein–both agreed to give up their nuclear ambitions and have now been relegated to the ash heap of history.  Bill Clinton tried negotiations and ultimately reached a settlement in the mid ’90’s, only to have the NORKs continue working on their nuclear program.  Throughout both the Bush and Obama administrations, though economic sanctions have dramatically increased, the results have remained the same–well, actually, they haven’t–North Korea is now on the verge of achieving their ambitions of having a nuclear tipped ICBM.

The bottom line, here, is that while everyone in Washington agrees that a nuclear armed Hermit Kingdom is unacceptable, very little in the way of new ideas has emerged.  The idea of a naval blockade, I believe is gaining momentum, but one thing is quite definite:  we cannot continue with more of the same and expect a different result.