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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.

An indictment by another name.

datePosted on 16:11, August 5th, 2020 by Pablo

After I noticed that my name had been taken yet again in vain by my friendly antagonist Tom Hunter over at No Minister, I went over to see what the fuss was about. Nothing much, but then I discovered a post about the Operation Burnham Inquiry by Psycho Milt. I made a comment (now several comments) in response, then decided to edit the original comment, add a few things and make it a short post here that outlines what to me is the bottom line of that report. Here it is:

As the old saying goes, “the original sin was bad, but the cover up was worse.” Had the NZDF simply come out after the 2010 engagement and said that there were civilian casualties resultant from the “fog of war” in a nighttime SAS operation designed to kill or capture people responsible for attacks on NZDF patrols in Bamiyan that resulted in several NZDF deaths, I bet that the majority of the NZ public would have accepted that war sucks and bad things inadvertently happen. Then, when Jon Stephenson’s first story on Operation Burnham came out it would not have caused such a stir because there would not have been a glaring gap between his account and that of the NZDF (Nicky Hagar got involved later and took primary credit for the book “Hit and Run” although most of it was researched and written by Stephenson–-Hagar never set foot in Afghanistan).

Although the Royal Commission (RC) sugar-coated it, the report is absolutely damning of the SAS and Army leaders of the time (and not the troops on the ground that night, although issues regarding the TAC (Tactical Air Controller) and SAS mission commander’s understanding of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) were not addressed in the public version of the report). The testimony of several officers taken under oath was labeled as not credible by the Commissioners. The RC Report states that no institutional cover-up was at play, but that is laughable in light of what it says about the testimony of most of the senior officials involved. In other words, this was an institutional cover-up by another name, and the name given to the process instead of coverup or whitewash was shoddy records-keeping and miscommunication on top of bad memories. This pushes the onus of responsibility onto individuals rather than the military as an institution. And for those individuals, I guess “incompetent” is a better mark on one’s service record than “liar.”

How those records were lost or mislaid, and whether those bad memories were a product of in-group cohesion or contempt for the process is a matter of conjecture. What is not is that civilians were killed and at least one suspect handed over to Afghan forces to be tortured, both breaches that under international law must be investigated. What is now known is that the possibility of casualties and the transfer of a Taliban suspect to ADF units known for torture was known immediately by the NZDF chain of command and NZ intelligence services attached to them, yet until late in the Inquiry, the NZDF admitted to neither. There is much more by way of deceitful and devious NZDF behaviour, but let’s just come out and say that uniformed officers lied to their civilian superiors for years after the operation and then some lied under oath at the Inquiry. The National government at the time Operation Burnham took place and in the years immediately afterwards may not have wanted to hear the truth in any event and so accepted what they were (not) told by the NZDF brass at face value, but the RC was keen to hear the unvarnished details.

It took them several years and $NZ 7 million of taxpayer money to find out. It remains to be seen what the Labour government will do with the RC Report’s findings and recommendations, but one thing is certain: it going to wait until well after the election to do anything. And there is one other irony in all of this. At the same time that the NZDF was engaged in its campaign of obfuscation and deflection regarding the events of 2010, Transparency International gave it very hight marks for command integrity, transparency and accountability. These marks were the average of scores provided by a select group of specifically chosen “experts” on defense and security. I know because I was one of them and I pointedly gave low marks when it came to exactly these three criteria, so can only assume that my scores were discounted when calculating the overall average. But who gave them such high across-the-board scores if it mine were not included, and what were they thinking?

In any event I urge readers to read Chapters 2 and 12 of the Report, which address issues of civilian control of the military and ministerial accountability to Parliament in a Westminster-style democracy. The RC found that the actions of the NZDF leadership (specifically, misleading, stonewalling, whitewashing and misrepresenting what happened to the civilian political leadership and ministers of the day) wilfully undermined both fundamental democratic principles.

Everything else is gloss.

I do not expect that much will change given the delicacy of the report’s language and the fact that all of those responsible for the worst offences are retired (one only resigned three months ago when the draft report came out and his statements were found to be particularly unbelievable to the point of possible perjury). But it is now on official record that the NZDF has a culture of playing loose with the truth and disrespect for the constitutional principles underpinning its role in society. If implemented, perhaps the recommendation to create an independent Inspector General of Defense may help refocus NZDF attention on those principles. We shall see.

No matter what one may think of Hagar and Stephenson, in the end, minor errors and some hyperbole aside, they were vindicated. That is evident in the Report, which states that the book “Hit and Run” performed a valuable public service by exposing some ugly truths about how the NZDF operates, not so much in the field (although there were some issues identified there as well), but in its interaction with the political class and the larger society which it ostensibly serves.

That is the bottom line.

While we were locked down…

datePosted on 12:25, May 29th, 2020 by Pablo

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

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