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Media Link: “A View from Afar” on PRC-Taiwan tensions.

datePosted on 14:50, October 14th, 2021 by Pablo

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the upsurge in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan and what are the backgrounds to and implications of them. You can check the conversation out here.

The price of neo-imperialist hubris.

datePosted on 14:21, August 15th, 2021 by Pablo

One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.

The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.

The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.

That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.

That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.

Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.

The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.

In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.

Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”

In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.

The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”

Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.

The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.

This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.

All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?

As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.

The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.

In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?

This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.

Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.

At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.

This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.

Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.

In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.

In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.

What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).

This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.

Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/

Nuclear strategy in a post-deterrence age.

datePosted on 14:20, July 9th, 2021 by Pablo

As circumstances would have it, while pursuing my Ph.D. I was a student of one of the US’s original nuclear strategists, someone who had been a targeter during the planning for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his old age he taught nuclear strategy and wrote several books and articles that outlined the logic of nuclear deterrence that obtained from the end of WW2 through the early 1980s (One was titled “Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd”). It was from him that I learned that the original logic of deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was being replaced as early as the late 1970s with something known as Flexible Response. That evolution continues to this day, with additional nuclear armed actors now factored into the equation.

I had already met some strategic analysts and active and retired military officers during my MA studies at a different university, something that had introduced me to the concept of MAD and piqued my interest enough to want to study under the famous nuclear strategist. Over the ensuing years after I graduated and before I immigrated to NZ I encountered several Air Force missile officers and Navy submariners who at various stages in their careers were responsible for deploying nuclear weapons in operational environments with the real possibility of their being ordered to launch. Without exception these were very sober people, and although they would not share secrets with me they confirmed in casual conversations that US nuclear strategy had come a long way since they days of dumb bombs and MAD.

One things that has remained constant, however, is the deterrent nature of nuclear weapons. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons, although offensive rather than defensive in nature due to their characteristics, are never to be used in anger. They are a form of protective shield for the States that have them, and designed to ward off attacks by more powerful actors or actors that may be inclined to launch nuclear strikes in opportunistic or otherwise irrational fashion. There is an old saying (often attributed to my former professor) in the nuclear strategic community that a maniac with one nuke puts everyone else in check. That is not exactly true for a variety of reasons, but having even a small but demonstrable nuclear force greatly complicates the strategic calculations and physical costs of would-be aggressors. Think of it this way: what if Saddam Hussein did in fact have nuclear weapons and could have delivered them on top of the Soviet SCUD replicas in his arsenal to other regional capitals? What if Gaddafi had that capability? How about the DPRK today or Iran down the road? Would anyone attack them knowing that they could and would retaliate with nukes but without being certain that an attack would fully eliminate their nuclear weapons before use? Who and under what circumstances would take that risk?

Then there is the NonProliferation Treaty (NPT). Entered into force in 1970 it recognized five nuclear states–the US, UK. Soviet Union (now Russia) China and France. They are included in the NPT in spite of their weapons status, so the intention of the NPT was to cement that status quo and direct non-proliferation efforts at other aspiring nuclear powers. Responsibility for controlling nuclear arsenals in the five nuclear states was left to their respective governments. The latter produced the strategic arms limitations (SALT 1 and 2 and START 1 and 2) treaties and intermediate range ballistic missile (INF) agreements between the US and the USSR/Russian Federation. No other multilateral nuclear arms limitation agreements have been signed, and over the years four countries have violated the NPT and developed their own nuclear arsenals: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. Iran may be on the cusp of doing so and from time to time threatens to do exactly that. To their credit, Argentina and Brazil began to develop their respective nuclear weapons programs but abandoned them by mutual consent in the 1980s. South Africa is reported to have detonated a nuclear device in the 1980s but never went on to developing a full-fledged weapons program.

When I arrived in NZ in 1997 I was surprised to learn that many Kiwis still believed that MAD remainedl the operative logic behind nuclear deterrence. In some quarters it remains a common belief even to this day. Rather than revisit the history of nuclear deterrence and strategy, I thought it would be worth while to break it down into component parts in order to get to the state of play in the current age.

First, a glossary:

ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. With ranges over 5,500 kilometres (currently reaching 15,000 kilometres), these missiles are the most powerful weapons ever developed. They are multi-stage boosters that use solid fuels that eliminate the need for rapid fuelling required by boosters that use liquid propellants and are launched into low altitude space orbits before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere and engaging targets. They are the subject of the START Treaties between the US and Russia.

IRBM: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. Boosters that have a maximum range of 5,500 kilometres. They are single stage, high altitude liquid or solid fuel propelled and may be armed with conventional as well as nuclear warheads. They are the subject of the INF Treaty between the US and Russia, but dozens of countries now deploy them with conventional warheads.

SLBM: Sea launched ballistic missile. These are boosters launched from surface or sub-surface maritime platforms. They can be ICBM or IRBM in nature and be propelled by solid or liquid fuels (note that liquid fuels are more unstable than solid fuels and hence riskier to deploy). Many SLMBs are conventionally armed but the ones under closest scrutiny are nuclear tipped. SLBMS may be used in “depressed trajectory” targeting where warhead throw-weight (see below) is traded off for the increased speed of a lower altitude path, thereby reducing the time between launch and impact. A scenario for such is a submarine penetrating close to hostile territory (say, a Russian submarine moving undetected close to the US East Coast) in order to reduce the warning time between the firing of an SLBM and the impact on designated strike targets.

TRIAD: The three legs of a nuclear force, comprised of air, sea and land-based launchers. The concept underpinning the triad is akin to putting eggs into different baskets, in this case in order to promote force dispersion, redundancy and second strike capabilities (see below). ICBMs (land) and SLBMs (sea) have longer reach; air-launched platforms have more flexibility in delivery and targeting options but are more vulnerable (this may change once space-based weapons systems are fully operationalised). The core idea is that a triad makes it difficult for an opponent to “kill” all of a nation’s nuclear forces, especially submarine-based boosters and those located in missile silos buried in thick concrete underground silos or deployed in other “hardened” facilities in remote locations. This allows a State to weather an attack, survive, and respond in devastating kind. That logic is at the core of MAD, but in the contemporary era there is a twist to it.

Throw-weight: The amount (weight) of fissile material a given warhead, also measured in kilotons or megatons of equivalent high explosive. The “Fat Man” plutonium (P-239) bomb that destroyed Nagasaki had a fissile core of 6 kilograms enriched P-239 and a throw weight equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT. The “Little Boy” enriched uranium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima contained 64 kilos of U-235 with a throw weight of 15 kilotons equivalent TNT. “Fat Man” was ten times more efficient that “Little Boy” in its weight to yield ratio, so became the core of the US nuclear arsenal for a decade after WW2.

MIRV: Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles. These are the warheads placed in the nose cone of an ICBM or SLBM. They can vary from 3-15 depending on the range of the booster and the throw-weights of the warheads. When the nose cone separates from the final stage of the booster, each warhead tracks to a different pre-programmed target or, if redundancy is deemed necessary (say, against a “hardened” command and control facility), tracks to a target “cluster” that can be hit more than once.

MARV: Manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles. Same principle as with MIRVs, but the warheads are guided in real time by human operators and can switch targets while in flight.

Circular Error Probable (CEP): The circular radius around a target in which a warhead is likely to hit. In the Nagasaki bombing the “Fat Man” bomb exploded at 508 meters above a tennis court located 3 kilometres away from its designated target (an airfield). It killed 140,000 people instantly. In the 1970s a Russian ICBM with a payload throw weight of 18-25 megatons (MT) was believed to have a CEP of +/-1 mile after a flight of 10-15,000 kilometres. Today, with various precision-guidance systems, the CEP for a US ICBM carrying <1 MT over 12000 kilometres is less than ten meters (most US nuclear weapons are less than 1 megaton in explosive strength). For cruise missiles and MARVs, CEPs are close to zero. In practice this means that throw weights can be reduced as accuracy increases. Along with advances in computer modelling, that is the main reason why the sort of large megatonnage weapons and huge thermonuclear explosions that characterised nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s-1980s are no longer seen today.

Counter-value strike: These involve nuclear strikes against population-heavy targets like cities and large urban centres. They use mid to low altitude air bursts in order to maximize blast damage on soft (non-hardened) objects and structures and help radioactive dispersal via air currents, thereby increasing human lethality. Their military value may be negligible but the physical and psychological impact of high value strikes is devastating to the targeted community whether they survive or not. The desired effect is to either annihilate an enemy society or reduce it to a hyper-vulnerable defenseless mass that can be subjugated. Although justified as military targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the victims of counter-value strikes.

Counter-force strike: These involve nuclear strikes against military targets, to include opposing nuclear and conventional armed forces and command, control, communications, computing and intelligence (C4I) centres. Ground-level and penetrative (bunker busting) strikes using shaped warheads focus the kinetic effect of nuclear blasts in order to overcome hardened defenses and structures and, as a secondary effect, reduce civilian collateral damage (because hardened many military-security sites are located away from population centres ). As with counter-value strikes, the characteristics of the target determine the throw weights deployed against them. The desired effect is to terminally degrade a States’s military capability and hold populations hostage to subsequent strikes pursuant to negotiating advantageous surrender terms.

First Strike/Pre-emptive strike: Launching a nuclear attack on an opponent without having been attacked first. This may be caused by imminent defeat in a conventional conflict or in an effort to prevent a nuclear strike, but in any case the concept is married to the notion of a

Second Strike/Retaliatory strike: A nuclear response to a nuclear attack. The premise is that the a State, via its deployment of a hardened and stealthy Triad, will be able to survive a first or pre-emptive strike and retaliate against a first strike opponent. Since the first strike opponent will have used most of not all of its nuclear arsenal in order to prevail without retaliation, failure to do so opens it (and the society that it represents) up to a devastating, even existentially threatening response.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD): The logic of deterrence underpinning the first 35 years of nuclear strategy and the so-called “balance of terror.” The logic is based on the first strike, second strike sequence outlined above and on the use of counter-value targeting matrixes.

Flexible Response: Premised on counter-force targeting, this is the strategic logic of nuclear deterrence for the large nuclear powers since the late 1970s/early 1980s. It is based on the belief that a full range of nuclear forces, from artillery fired battlefield nukes to strategic weapons, enhances the de-escalatory logic of deterrence through the full spectrum of force because the escalatory potential of first use in battlefield contexts can be limited to the tactical level and therefore avoid unchecked strategic confrontations. Even so, making it easier to introduce nuclear weapons into battlefields or low intensity conflicts can potentially escalate into strategic exchanges, depending on the command and control structures involved, so it places a premium on command and control self-discipline even in the face of conventional defeat or certain death.

Miniaturisation: The reduction in size of objects, in this case of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. “Nano” military technologies and platforms are already on battlefields, in the skies and out in space. Warheads are getting smaller, delivery systems more stealthy and less detectable, and C4I systems more sophisticated yet simpler to use. This all augers poorly for strategic arms control efforts.

Recent satellite imagery confirms that the PRC is building ICBM missile silo farms in Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province, adding to existing farms in Xinjiang and Qinghai Provinces. This will help strengthen the land based component of its triad because the silo farms’ remote locations are at the limits of US land-based ICBM ranges, will force the US to divert its current ICBMs from other targeting priorities, and are undoubtably hardened. If the silos in each farm are connected by underground transport as well as C4I systems, then the PRC can even play a shell game whereby it moves missiles between silos without having to fill all of them (that assumes that US and other Western sensor systems, be they infrared/thermal or radiation detecting, as well as less sophisticated intelligence gathering methods, are incapable of differentiating between “live” and “cold” silos). The Chinese Navy deploys SLBM carrying submarines and has a host of IRBMs as well, so the combination produced by doubling its land-based ICBMs is yet another measure of its move into Great Power status.

Contrary to much has been written, this may not necessarily be a bad thing if the PRC uses its strengthened land-based missiles as bargaining chips in renewed strategic arms limitation negotiations with the US, Russia and possibly other nuclear powers. Unlike the US, the PRC has a “no first strike” policy regarding its nuclear weapons. Whether one takes them at their word, the Chinese appear to have embraced the deterrent character of nuclear weapons, and given their recent upgrades, may feel more inclined to talk about arms control from a position of strength. In other words, they now have leverage, if not the inclination to use it.

Smaller nuclear states have slightly different logics. France and the UK are heavily reliant on their submarine forces for strategic nuclear deterrence because their land masses are too small for deploying a robust and redundant ICBM fleet. They also tie themselves to the US nuclear umbrella, something that seems increasingly questionable now that Donald Trump has exposed deep flaws in the US political system that undermine its position as a reliable ally. The latter is also true for non-nuclear states like South Korea and Taiwan that have US security and mutual defense guarantees.

Then there are the newer nuclear states. India and Pakistan (which does not have ICBMs at this point) are basically fixated on each other when it comes to nuclear targeting. India’s border conflicts with the PRC and Pakistan’s ties to China complicate the picture in the event of war between the two South Asian neighbours, but for the moment the second-strike, counter-value logic of nuclear deterrence appears to apply to them.

Israel and the DPRK are a different kettle of fish. It is an open secret that Israel has nuclear tipped ICBMs/IRBMs and the will to pre-emptively use them on Iran should Iran drive closer to a nuclear weapons capability of its own. In fact, it has a strong incentive to undertake a counter-force strike against Iranian nuclear and other military facilities before the latter acquires its own nuclear weapons. After all, who will retaliate in kind against Israel given the US security guarantee extended to it? The question is whether, should it launch a first strike on Iran arguing that the Iranians were about to attack them (and Israel has a history of pre-emptive strikes against adversaries), that will open the escalatory Pandora’s box. The answer is probably not, although a counter-value first strike on, say Tehran, might open the door to large-scale counter-value attacks on Israeli soft targets. And if nuclear retaliation on behalf of the Iranians is not an option, who might come to Iran’s aid and by what means? Would China and Russia risk nuclear escalation by retaliating with conventional force against Israel, thereby bringing the US into the fray? What if Iran responds unexpectedly but not entirely surprisingly by attacking the Saudis, Emiratis or Jordanians (or US regional installations) rather than try to get back at Israel itself? Where will that end?

Iran has indicated that it considers acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a move towards deterrence via a second strike option. But with hardliners calling for Israel’s extermination and the Revolutionary Guard controlling its nuclear program, there may be those in its command and control structure who think that, given the considerable difference in size of their respective land masses, that a counter-value first strike that cripples Israel is feasible, especially if the US proves to be a fickle nuclear ally (or just a paper tiger). Given its constant skirting of prohibitions governing production of weapons grade fissile material and active IRBM and ICBM development programs, trust in Iran to “do the right thing” should it acquire an operational weapons capability is minimal at best and in the case of Israel, non-existent.

As for the DPRK, it is very difficult to ascertain what their strategic logic is because regime preservation and saving face (as opposed to societal survival) appear to be compelling factors in their calculus. It is unclear if Kim Jung-un and his military commanders accept the “no first strike” premise or if they have the ability to shift from a MAD to a flexible response posture given their strategic disadvantage vis a vis the US. Moreover, they have the PRC on their side, so may believe that they have a degree of impunity should they launch a pre-emptive nuclear first strike on the US, South Korea or a regional target. What is clear is that a DPRK nuclear attacks will likely be counter-value in nature. The question is against who and what consequences would they bring? Would a strike on Seoul necessarily bring US nuclear retaliation in the face of PRC warnings against it and threats of escalation? Would saving face or the need for a diversion in the face of an uncontrolled pandemic coupled with famine make the Kim dynasty feel compelled to go out in a blaze of (self-perceived) glory? Here the strategic logic of deterrence employed by the Great Powers may not necessarily apply.

Therein lies the rub. The second-strike, counter-value premises of original nuclear deterrence strategies may no longer apply in every instance. First strike considerations, which have always been (the unspoken) part of the strategic logics employed by the Great Powers, may increasingly seem plausible, especially if weapons are miniaturised and attribution of attacks can be plausibly denied and disguised (e.g. via the use of non-state irregular proxies or surrogates). Moreover, autonomous non-state actors with access to (black market) nuclear materials and delivery technologies (even if of the “dirty bomb” type) and without territories to defend have no reason to fear the “return to sender” problem posed by a non-crippling first strike against a nuclear armed opponent. In light of this, the moment has arrived where consideration must be made to not only “broadening the tent” covering those included in strategic and other arms talks, but broadening the scope of the (event if dual use) technologies employed by them.

Turning back to the NPT. It entered into force in another era when less sophisticated weapons technologies were in play and where miniatuarisation was a concept only known to hairdressers (look it up). It has been violated repeatedly, continues to be so and a new nuclear status quo has developed as a result. As the first non-nuclear state New Zealand was a champion of the NPT until the trade obsession the late 1990s and 2000s displaced non-proliferation as a foreign policy priority. Now, with its non-proliferation experts purged and retired from the diplomatic ranks, NZ has only its historical reputation to stand on when addressing the new dangers of a world without effective strategic arms control.

But that could be a starting point for the reform, renewal and revitalisation of the NPT as a multilateral approach to controlling the inexorable technological advances of strategic weapons systems (and perhaps more). Because of its pandemic response and its reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2019, NZ may have a window of opportunity in which to parlay its enhanced international stature into a megaphone for multilateralist bridge-building and peace-making. Given Covid’s global dislocating effects and the failures of international governance systems and practices, to say nothing of the decline of democracy world-wide, perhaps a NZ-inspired move to promote multilateral consensus on curbing some of the less savoury aspects of human endeavour might just be the tonic needed to make the world a safer place.

From darkness, perhaps a light will come.

For a discussion of these themes, please have a listen to the latest “A View from Afar” podcast.

Selwyn Manning and I focus the discussion of the internal and external power struggles that could ensue once the US military leaves. You can find it here.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.

Not wanting to get into an endless debate here, but as a political person I cannot pass on making a small comment on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not pretend to be a subject expert on the tortured history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and am not about to get into the finger-pointing and “whataboutism” surrounding the latest precipitants of collective violence, but as a student of armed conflict (yes, there is such thing), here it goes.

Among many others, there are two principles embedded in the laws of war (jus in bello): in the conduct of armed operations the use of force must be proportional and discriminate; and collective punishment of unarmed populations must be avoided. Even when not specifically phrased in these terms and whether done by state or non-state actors, behaviour that violates these principles are classified as war crimes. The legal work on this subject is voluminous.

Unfortunately, these norms continue to be regularly violated. In the desire to apply superior asymmetric force to an adversary, armed forces lacking a firm moral compass or professional ethos disregard these principles as a matter of course and yet at their peril (think of the Syrian military as a recent example). Conversely, weaker armed groups use disproportionate and indiscriminate force against non-combatants to compensate for their inability to prevail in a conventional (and rules bound) force-versus-force confrontation (think of Daesh). Whichever the reason, disproportionality and collective retribution lead to indiscriminate violence against innocents, which opens up the perpetrators to legal consequences or replies-in-kind should there be no legal consequence.

If eye-for-eye retribution is to be avoided, regardless of who they are and the cause that they espouse, those who order and carry out attacks in violation of these principles must be legally held to account. If not addressed by their own judicial means, there is a place for that to happen. It is called the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, there is a problem with adjudicating justice via the ICC because it depends on it being recognised by sovereign states and objectively supported by the most powerful among them. Unfortunately, countries like Israel, Iran, Russia, the PRC, Turkey, most Sunni Arab states and the US do not recognise the ICC, so its scope of authority is limited at best.

The Palestinian Authority recognises the jurisdiction of the ICC but Israel and Hamas do not. Israel argues that Palestine is not a sovereign state in spite of its non-member observer status in the UN (the ICC is a dependency of the UN) so cannot be party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. It also argues that Israel has its own investigative bodies so does not need ICC interference in its affairs. Hamas is not recognised as a sovereign governmental body even though it administers the Gaza Strip (in a division of authority with the Fatah-led Ramallah-based administration that is recognised as the Palestinian Authority), so is excluded from ICC jurisdiction even if its members can be prosecuted by it (as is the case with Israelis). In addition, because it is not a party to the Rome Statute, Hamas refuses to recognise the ICC as an instrument of accountability. Because of the lack of universal recognition, the ICC cannot gain UN Security Council (or even General Assembly) approval to extend its jurisdiction to non-signatory states.

Even so, the ICC has (perhaps as an aspirational rather than practical goal) on-going investigations against both Hamas and Israel dating back to 2014 and has launched another against both sides as a result of the current conflict. It is more than likely these will be fruitless unless the international community coalesces around a demand for accountability for war crimes in this ongoing tragedy. Specifically, the time has come for larger powers to use their diplomatic strength to support the ICC investigations against Hamas and Israel and thereby put on notice those on both sides who order and carry out war crimes that they will be prosecuted for their actions.

Again, this is not about who started what or re-litigating historical grievances. It is about trying to stop the commission of war crimes once armed conflict is engaged. The ICC can investigate the veracity of claims of civilian targeting and can charge commanders and political leaders on both sides for authorising attacks on them (the evidence is already available on video). It can then issue international arrest warrants for the accused that, if not enforced inside of their own territorial jurisdictions, will be enforceable if they try to leave the safety of them (think of Pinochet when he went to visit Maggie Thatcher and wound up under de facto house confinement for months because he could not leave Britain without risking arrest for crimes against humanity–in his case against his won people). This type of move is therefore a holding to account for current and past crimes and a deterrent against future crimes. The impediments to doing so are many but the need to do so is even greater.

The desire to use the ICC as an agent of justice and deterrence may be wishful thinking given contemporary realities but it seems that with enough support in the wider international community, such an ICC intervention could be a prelude to the political settlements required for peace. And even if its potential use only helps stop the current fighting, then a small defense of humanity will have been served.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the ethics and practicalities involved in the so-called “conflict industry.” It includes a discussion of the who and what of the “kill chain” and the implications of Rocket Lab’s position as a major US military logistical provider. You can find it here.

Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.

datePosted on 15:46, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

Although I had the fortune of being a graduate student of some of the foremost US nuclear strategists of the day (1970s) and later rubbed shoulders with Air Force and Naval officers who were entrusted with parts of the US nuclear arsenal, I seldom get to write or speak about the subject nowadays. However, in this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning, we discuss the evolution of nuclear strategy and the impact of technology on logics of deterrence. It is all-too-brief but I think we got to the gist of the matter.

You can find the podcast here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

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