The Race for US/Asia-Pacific Alliances

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On November 23, 2013, the People’s Republic of China declared its East China Sea Air Defense and Identification Zone, which asserted expanded territorial boundaries. The new zone includes international waters as well as areas claimed by both Japan and Taiwan as sovereign territories.

 

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone Image by Voice of America, public domain

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone
Image by Voice of America, public domain

 

The Senkaku Islands southwest of Okinawa are a part of this new territorial grab. The Senkakus are uninhabited, but they are astride international navigation routes used daily by Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the US, and other nations. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea refused to recognize China’s claim to them.

As part of the new Defense Zone, the People’s Republic of China wants all aircraft to report to Chinese controllers and obtain their permission to fly through. Since China declared this, the USA and Japan have responded by increasing military flights through the zone without complying with China’s request. This is their way of asserting their continued right to access international waters and airspace without having to submit to illegitimate Chinese authority.

It might seem counterproductive for China to encourage resistance and distrust from its important trading partners in and across the Pacific.

None of China’s Pacific neighbors, except its “allies” in North Korea, pose China with a national security threat. However, by declaring the new Defense Zone, other Pacific nations have been energized to increase their defense spending and to seek closer alliances with each other and with the US.

So why set up an annoying “Defense Zone” only to have it ignored by other Pacific nations? Did China miscalculate?

In my opinion, the People’s Republic of China anticipated the international reactions and accepted those costs in order to begin enacting a broader long-term strategy. China is not playing at politics for this week or this year, but rather it is focused on slowly achieving important goals during the next few decades. In that context, their feeble Defense Zone takes on a different meaning.

The Defense Zone does not keep the US and Japanese military planes away, and, in fact, it attracts more of them. But in the minds of communist government rulers, it has a value in the realm of psychological warfare.

For one thing, those rulers can ignore the outcome of their declaration and proclaim it a victory to their imprisoned citizens. In Japan or the US, that sort of thing would not play well, and it would most likely inspire criticism from citizens. However, we should never forget that for despotic regimes like China, the greatest psychological warfare battles must be fought at home.

Since extending its imaginary sovereignty over the Senkakus, China has increased its ongoing imperial claims by occupying some of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The Spratly Islands range in size from “too small for people to comfortably inhabit” to “small wet tidal sand bars.” Both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty and exclusive rights over the entire South China Sea, including the Spratlys. These claims are absurd in the extreme, but communist China never shies away from absurdity in politics. (See US-Philippine Relations Hit Critical Threshold.)

The Spratlys are all closer to Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines than they are to China. In fact, in the Philippines, the sea area around the eastern Spratlys is referred to as the West Philippine Sea. When viewing a map of the Spratlys and their neighboring countries, it is easy enough to see how territorial claims for the Spratlys might be in dispute, but China is not in that neighborhood, so their claims are by far the least legitimate.

Because it expanded and militarized a few of the Spratly Islands, China claims that it now has exclusive territorial rights over the Spratlys. The United Nations rules – rules that China agreed to as a UN member nation – make it clear that occupation of artificially expanded reefs gives no right of territorial claims in the surrounding waters. However, the People’s Republic of China only recognizes rules and agreements when it suits its purpose. The Chinese rule has always has been, “We do whatever we can get away with.”

The impacts of the Chinese imperial ambitions in the Spratly Islands have been fairly predictable.

Important trade routes that include oil shipments to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the US run through the waters around the Spratly Islands. Before reaching the Spratly Islands, a tanker journeying from the Indian Ocean to Japan, China, Philippines, etc., would have to navigate the narrow Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

Freedom of passage through the Straits of Malacca is important to all Pacific nations, but they are China’s most critical vulnerability. If oil tankers did not traverse the Straits to China on a regular schedule, the Chinese economy would soon be paralyzed.

Since the impacts of the China’s South China Sea campaign were obvious to me, then I have to assume that they were also obvious to the Chinese, but again, they are playing for the long game. The short-term diplomatic and political repercussions are acceptable costs to the communist Chinese regime.

The most obvious impacts of the newly declared Defense Zone have been the shift toward cooperation with the US by nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei, and a refocus on US relations in the Philippines and Taiwan.

From a US perspective, China’s expansionist strategy seems to require a clear and manageable response. The US government believes that the nations bordering the South China Sea should take reasonable steps to improve their military capabilities and their regional cooperation.

It’s all clear and simple when viewed from the Washington, D.C. universe. The situation is more complex when viewed from the shores of the SW Pacific nations.

Each of the Pacific nations has responded in its own unique way with its own unique goals and obstacles. Each of them wants to reshape its relationship with the US, and it is best that each be considered as a separate case. In our next installment, we will examine the evolving US-Philippine relationship.

The Shot Heard ‘Round the Bedroom

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

For history buffs, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” refers to one of two significant dates.

For American History buffs and American English majors, the distinction refers to a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.” When Emerson was writing the Concord Hymn in 1837, he lived in an old family house thirty yards away from North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, where American patriots are reputed to have first fired their rifles at British soldiers in organized resistance on April 19, 1775.

 

The Battle of Lexington, 1775 Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Public domain, wikimedia commons

The Battle of Lexington, 1775
Emmet Collection of Manuscripts
Public domain, wikimedia commons

 

On the other hand, those in Lexington, Massachusetts will point out that before the American Minutemen defeated that British force at Concord, shots had already been fired at Lexington. Concord proponents claim that the Lexington skirmish was not an organized battle conducted by militia, but rather an impromptu act of resistance that led to the slaughter of the Americans. Emerson might not have been thorough enough in his research for the tastes of the folks in Lexington but his point was valid. It’s fair to say that all the shots fired in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 were indeed noticed around the world.

For most Europeans, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” refers to the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

That assassination is generally accepted as the spark that ignited the hellish tragedy known as “The First World War.” If that particular Archduke had never been born, the war would have occurred any way. The Austro-Hungarian establishment was hungry for an excuse to embark on what they were certain was to be a quick and easy land grab from Serbia. It generally takes at least a few chapters to summarize the causes of that war, but quotes of sixty thousand or more words are never popular, so Europeans prefer to remember the assassination of an otherwise unloved Duke as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

For fans of the New York Giants baseball team, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” refers to a Home Run hit by New York Giants third baseman/outfielder Bobby Thomson on October 3, 1951.

In early August of that year, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a commanding 13 ½ game lead over the Giants, and the pennant race appeared to be no race at all. Then the Giants surged, and the Dodgers faltered. They ended the season tied for the National League Pennant.

 

New York Giants Bobby Thomson Image by Bowman Gum, 1948

New York Giants Bobby Thomson
Image by Bowman Gum, 1948

 

The Dodgers and the Giants then played a three game series to decide break the tie. They each won one of the first two games. In the bottom of the ninth inning of the third game, the Dodgers held a 4-1 lead. The Giants scored a run, and Thomson came to bat with two men on base. He hit a line drive home run into the left field seats. Overjoyed Giants fans christened Thomson’s home run “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Which of the three aforementioned events deserves to be remembered as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” is a matter of personal perspective. Perhaps it’s fair to say that two shots were heard ‘round the world, and one was heard ‘round the baseball world.

On February 28, 1844 another important shot was fired. While it was not “Heard ‘Round the World,” it was heard by several hundred notable American politicians and dignitaries, and it led to a marriage bed.

The USS Princeton had been launched on September 5, 1843. Like every expensive Naval vessel both then and now, it was presented as a “state-of-the-art” warship. The USS Princeton created quite a stir in the USA because it was the first ship to use a screw propeller propulsion system, and it was considered to be the best-armed ship in the US Navy. Along with a variety of smaller guns, the Princeton carried two long-barreled cannons named the “Oregon” and the “Peacemaker.” The Peacemaker’s twelve-inch bore made it the largest naval gun yet created.

The USS Princeton sailed to Alexandria, Virginia in 1844 for a publicity visit. Its visit was the social event of the year for politicians and the American social set.

On February 28, US President John Tyler was the guest of honor at a party onboard, along with US Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and US Secretary of State Abel Upshur. One of President Tyler’s guests was his close friend David Gardiner and Gardiner’s two daughters. The fifty-four year old President was a widower and had set his eye on twenty-four year old daughter Julia. Julia had thus far declined President Tyler’s advances. Based on Tyler’s portraits, even on his best days, he was as ugly as a mud fence. Against that, he had power, wealth, and prestige going for him. Julia Gardiner remained unimpressed.

In the excitement of the moment, US Navy Secretary Thomas asked the Princeton’s Captain Robert Stockton to fire salutes from the massive Peacemaker.

Stockton agreed and had two shots fired. The roar of the Peacemaker appropriately awed the crowd, and most of them returned below decks for more free food and booze.

As the toasts continued below, Navy Secretary Gilmer grew prouder and more emotional about the marvelous Princeton and her massive Peacemaker gun. Gilmer asked Captain Stockton to please fire another salute. Captain Stockton thought that it was unwise to risk more shots with a crowd of civilians on board since the Peacemaker had not yet undergone proper testing. Why Stockton was reluctant to fire a third shot is a bit of a mystery.

However, with President Tyler’s coaxing and Secretary Gilmer’s insistence Captain Stockton finally ordered that another salute should be fired.

 

Explosion aboard US Steam Frigate Princeton Image by N. Currier, public domain

Explosion aboard US Steam Frigate Princeton
Image by N. Currier, public domain

 

Toasting guests delayed President Tyler below decks. When he began climbing the ladder* to the main deck, the Peacemaker fired a third time. The cannon exploded.

Six people on the main deck, including the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of State, and the President’s friend David Gardiner, were killed. When Julia arrived on the main deck with the President’s entourage, she saw her dead father and fainted. President Tyler whisked her away in his carriage. The incident apparently affected Julia to such a degree that she then saw President Tyler in a new light. She agreed to marry him. Hence, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the Bedroom.” Fortunately for all concerned, any details about their honeymoon remain mercifully mysterious.

Tyler lived happily with Julia until his death, eighteen years later. Julia survived him and died in 1889 at the age of 69. They remain forever together at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

*Your house has “stairs;” our ships have “ladders.”

Taiwan’s Election is a Communist Rejection

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On January 16, 2016, Taiwan held national elections. The results were clear. Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (“DPP”) chairperson and presidential candidate, won a landslide victory with 56.1% of the votes. Eric Chu of the Kuomintang Party (“KMT”) garnered 30.1% percent of the votes.

 

President-Elect Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen Image by MiNe(sfmine79), wikimedia commons.

President-Elect Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen
Image by MiNe(sfmine79), wikimedia commons.

 

In the same elections, the DPP achieved a clear majority in the legislature, winning 68 of 110 seats. That is enough for the DPP to legally overcome any opposition in the legislature. Whenever a national election results in a landslide, usually at least one of two things is true – either the elections are the single candidate, North Korean style farce, or the voters are unhappy with the status quo. In the case of Taiwan, it is the latter, but there is more to it than that.

Prior to the elections, the Taiwanese public had made it clear that they were tired of the corruption and economic mismanagement that their government had inflicted on them. On January 16, they were largely voting for change.

At the same time, a significant portion of previously steadfast KMT loyalists had lost faith in their party because the KMT had shifted toward overt cooperation with the communist regime in Beijing. The KMT had bet heavily on the benefits of economic cooperation with Communist China. That bet did not pay off.

It is a mystery why the Kuomintang Party ignored the pathetic examples many Western nations have set by trusting Communist China in business and diplomatic dealings. A glance at the last thirty years of US history would have let them know what to expect. They either never took that glance, or they were serving interests other than those of the people of Taiwan.

Communist China’s reactionary response to the DPP’s victory was swift and predictable. The regime in Beijing publicly warned Taiwan that any attempt at declaring independence will result in an immediate, crushing military defeat by the Red Army.

To Westerners, this response might sound a bit severe and childishly undiplomatic, but nobody in Taiwan was surprised. The communists have been demanding the “return” of Taiwan to Communist China since the Chinese Nationalist Army retreated to that island in 1949. Since then, “obey our rule or die” has been Beijing’s standard mantra toward Taiwan.

 

Taiwan, Chinese coast, and that pesky 110 miles of water. Image by CIA, public domain.

Taiwan, Chinese coast, and that
pesky 110 miles of water.
Image by CIA, public domain.

 

One might wonder why, since the Maoist regime in Beijing was so easily able to invade and occupy Tibet, wouldn’t they do the same with Taiwan?

The answer is water – about 110 miles of it. That’s the distance from the mainland shores to the beaches in Taiwan. The Red Army did not require a navy to invade and occupy Tibet. Invading Taiwan, on the other hand, would require a strong enough navy, and China does not quite have that yet. They are working on it. For decades, Communist China has consistently declared its intent to “reunite” Taiwan “by force, if necessary.” So far, the threats have not caused the Taiwanese to surrender their freedom to Beijing. When the KMT decided to move closer to the communist regime the Taiwanese voters threw them out.

So what do the election results mean for Taiwan’s Western Pacific neighbors?

For South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Viet Nam and Brunei, it’s good news. All of them have grown weary of Communist China’s increasingly aggressive policy. Taiwan’s increasing acquiescence to Beijing had been a worrying development for them.

What does it mean for the United States of America?

For the moment, the reaction in the US has been quiet relief. In diplomatic terms, here is the official US response:

“We share with the Taiwan people a profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability. We look forward to working with Dr. Tsai and Taiwan’s leaders of all parties to advance our many common interests and further strengthen the unofficial relationship between the United States and the people of Taiwan.”

Leave it to the folks at Foggy Bottom to simultaneously use the terms “profound” and “unofficial” when taking a “stand.” Or would that be a “non-stand?”

Diplomatic ambiguity aside, US leaders, albeit at the pace of a disabled snail, have come to realize that China has, in fact, been telling the truth for the last sixty-six years concerning its aggressive intentions, and that even the government in Beijing occasionally speaks the truth.

Hard core Beijing-lovers in Washington have fallen on hard times. Their cash is still welcome, but they are as out-of-fashion as integrity inside the Washington Beltway. In practical terms, the US government will continue to pretend to believe that fair and friendly cooperation with Communist China is possible. In the meantime, the US will allow a dribble of military aid to flow to Taiwan and the Philippines. Relations with Viet Nam will improve, and the US will send that country token military aid. The cost of the PR photo shoots in Viet Nam heralding in the new cooperation will be greater than the value of the equipment we send them.

In my view, the election results in Taiwan are good news. Let us hope that for the sake of the people of Taiwan, and for the sake of everyone in the Western Pacific, the DPP will use its power to truly represent the democratic will of the people of Taiwan.

 

Venezuelan Political Opera — Calling for a Coup

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Opera is best enjoyed in an opera hall. Sadly, a majority of the world’s population has only experienced “opera” in the form of national and local governments. The performances are always expensive, the performers are usually shrill, and the opera is rarely satisfying. Government as government, as opposed to government as opera, would be nice, but overall, we humans are not quite there yet. In Venezuela, the government opera just became more contentious.

 

 

The current opera in Venezuela, Nicolas the Great Saves the People, is actually a sequel to the previous opera, which starred part-time clown and full-time dictator Hugo Chavez in his classic, When I Grow Up I Want To Be Like Fidel Castro. Chavez’s inability to sing a convincing tune and his skill at generating poverty combined to create low international ratings for his production.

Chavez, a.k.a. eso hijo de puta, came to power in Venezuela on April 14, 2003, campaigning on the tried and true “defeat poverty with socialism” platform. As promised, he instituted a socialist system in Venezuela similar to Cuba’s, and like Cuba, the socialist reforms led to a steep increase in poverty.

A glance at history explains how a poorly performing clown like Chavez ever took power. The colorful succession of incompetent and corrupt clowns that ruled before him never used Venezuela’s oil wealth to help the people of Venezuela. That made it easy for Chavez to sell the nearly universally discredited socialist revolutionary scam. The fact that he was able to peddle his scam was an indication of how disgusted the voters of Venezuela were with his predecessors.

In true comic opera fashion, Chavez managed to increase poverty while his oil rich nation enjoyed very high oil prices. His disastrous handling of Venezuela’s economy was high drama, breathtaking in concept and scale.

 

 

Finally, in early 2013, Chavez managed one award-worthy scene in his long and disastrous opera. He died.

Officially, he died on March 5, 2013. Unofficially, he died a month or so earlier than the announced date. His death was apparently concealed to allow his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, time to consolidate his position as the new dictator.

Maduro’s qualifications are twofold.

He did a stint as vice president during which, like most vice presidents, he did nothing. He also served as foreign minister for Venezuela. In that role, he managed to leave his distinctive mark. In keeping with dictator Chavez’s basic agenda, Maduro further destroyed relations with most of the New World’s nations while trying to forge closer relationships with Cuba and Libya.

The Cuba-Venezuela relationship can best be defined as, “Thanks for the free oil. You kind of suck, but we won’t tell anybody.” That might not sound like much in the way of international communist fraternal love, but it’s safe to consider the Cuba-Venezuela relationship to be the bright spot in modern Venezuelan foreign policy.

So, how have Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia “La Generalissima” Flores done with their vast power over Venezuela?

As promised, they continued their beloved dead leader’s policies. The results have continued to be disastrous for the people of Venezuela . . . It’s so easy to forget the people when critiquing political opera. In all operas, it’s about the people on the stage. The audience is expected to shut up and like it.

 

Cilia "La Generalissima" Maduro Flores Image by Cancilleria del Ecuador, wikimedia commons.

Cilia “La Generalissima” Maduro Flores
Image by Cancilleria del Ecuador, wikimedia commons.

 

When Chavez did Venezuela a favor by dying, Maduro ignored the constitution of Venezuela by sidestepping the President of the National Assembly and declaring himself President. The Chavez-stacked federal courts backed him.

On April 14, 2013, Maduro won a presidential election. By that time, the Hugo Chavez political opera was wearing thin with the increasingly hungry Venezuelan people. Maduro beat the opposition candidate by approximately 1.5%. There were widespread allegations of vote rigging and voter intimidation that would make polling locations in Philadelphia look friendly by comparison. However, once again, the courts backed Maduro.

Thus far, Maduro has demonstrated that he is not really just a cheap Chavez copy in two ways.

First, he created a “Ministry of Supreme Happiness.” Perhaps he just doesn’t like his North Korean fraternal brother Kim 3.0 always winning the Biggest Jackass award.

Second, Maduro turned up the volume on the anti-USA rhetoric. If anyone was wondering, Venezuela is an economic hellhole, rapidly approaching North Korean standards, because the US government is evil. I halfway agree with the “government is evil” theory, but few Venezuelans think that the US government is running Venezuela.

How few? Last week, elections for the National Assembly resulted in Maduro’s Opera Troupe being knocked out of the majority.

In fact, the opposition now enjoys a supermajority in the National Assembly, which it holds by a single vote. This loss of majority does not bode well for the Maduro Opera. For one thing, the supermajority can rewrite laws and easily override any veto by the president with as little as 60% agreement of the assembly. They can also fire federal judges.

Maduro has responded to this threat to the socialist agenda by testing the waters for a political coup.

On Saturday, December 13, he publicly instructed the military of Venezuela to prepare for a struggle to defend the socialist government. The Opera is getting louder in Caracas, but the tenor sings poorly. In my view the Venezuelan military will not cooperate with Maduro if he attempts to suppress the National Assembly. In fact, if he calls the military to arms, it might well respond by putting a bullet in his head and in the head of his wife Cilia.

What does all this mean for Venezuela?

My best guess is that Maduro’s opera is nearly over. The National Assembly will have to contend with every imaginable roadblock by the Maduro gang, but Maduro’s lousy performance has created a substantial well of determination in the Venezuelan people.

Unfortunately for the people of Venezuela, neither the new National Assembly nor Maduro’s eventual replacement will perform any more efficiently than the US Congress or the US President. But they will do a better job than the Chavez-Maduro regime has done. Venezuela will not get much worse.

Venezuelans have seen their darkest hour. Their future will not be a bed of roses, but it will be better, and that matters – to Venezuela and to anyone who cares about its people.

Let the new Opera begin.

Crooked Line in the Sand — Russia and Turkey

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, two Turkish Airforce F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24. How will that incident impact Russia-Turkey relations, Russia-West relations, NATO response, and the fight against ISIS?

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

Russian Sukhoi SU-24
Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and Turkey disagree on what occurred leading up to Turkey shooting down the SU-24.

Russia claims that its aircraft flew along the Turkish border, making sharp turns along the crooked and sharp-angled Northwestern Syrian border to avoid flying into Turkish air space. According to Russia, its pilot received no warnings prior to being shot down. The Russians claim they were hitting ISIS targets in the area.

Turkey claims that the Russian plane flew a two mile route across a small section of Turkey that borders Syria to the east and west. Turkey claims that it radioed ten warnings to the Russian pilot before shooting down the SU-24. According to Turkey, there are no ISIS terrorists in the area that the Russians were bombing – that ethnic Turks that do not support ISIS, but do oppose Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, inhabit the targeted area.

Russia’s claim that the downed SU-24 never flew across Turkish airspace is highly improbable.

The SU-24 lacks the maneuverability required to fly the route that the Russians are claiming that it flew. Also, the Russian claim that they were attacking ISIS targets in the area is most likely at least partially false. ISIS members would be scarce in that area. The Turks seem to be telling the truth about those elements of the shoot down.

However, the Turks could not have radioed ten warnings in the few seconds that would have elapsed while the SU-24 was crossing over Turkish airspace. It’s possible that they could have been broadcasting warnings as the SU-24 flew the long leg of its route that paralleled Turkish airspace. In any case, Turkey had previously warned Russia to keep their warplanes out of Turkish airspace in response to earlier incursions by Russian planes. (For one example, see Russia Upskirts Turkey.)

So why did Russia allow their pilot to fly over Turkish air space?

Given the highly regimented air combat control structure employed by the Russians, it’s not likely that the pilot acted on his own initiative. Russian avionics equipment is not cutting edge, but it is certainly adequate to prevent an accidental flyover on the particular route taken by the SU-24. My guess is that Russia had decided that their pilots should limit their incursions into Turkish air space, but that they approved the flight path that led to their plane being shot down. It seems that Russia miscalculated Turkey’s resolve concerning its incursions.

So how will this incident affect the famed “international coalition to combat ISIS”?

Since the famed coalition is more a product of rhetoric and wishful thinking than of substance, it’s not likely to matter much. Russia is in Syria to prop up the hapless Bashar Assad. Russia’s opposition to ISIS is secondary to that goal. The West opposes both ISIS and Assad. Non-ISIS rebels are receiving Western aid, and both Turkey and its Western allies are opposed to Russian airstrikes targeting non-ISIS rebels. None of this will be greatly impacted by Turkey’s shoot down of the Russian SU-24.

On the diplomatic front, Putin claimed that Turkey “backstabbed” them by shooting down the plane.

Given that no real cooperation between Turkey and Russia has occurred in Syria, and given that the Syrian regime previously shot down a Turkish F-4 on the Syrian Turkish border, it’s more accurate to describe Turkey’s actions as a “counter slash.”

Russia canceled some official meetings between Russian and Turkish ministers and has asked Russians to halt any tourist travel in Turkey. Russia is also claiming that it is scaling back plans for gas exports through a new Russian gas line across Turkey. This seems unlikely since the alternative is for Russia to continue to rely on gas lines crossing Ukraine to reach European markets. With the current low prices of crude, Russia cannot afford to scale back on energy exports. Their fragile economy needs the revenue generated by oil and gas exports.

In military terms, Russia has reacted by deploying better air defense missiles in Syria.

This, when combined with the uncertainty that Putin relies upon so heavily in his foreign policy tactics, may present a new threat to Western and Jordanian aircraft flying in Syrian airspace hunting ISIS targets.

Putin likely does not want to further escalate the situation in Syria by attacking Western or Jordanian aircraft, but he might feel justified in shooting down Turkish aircraft that fly into Syrian air space. The possibility that Russia might mistake a French or American aircraft for a Turkish aircraft cannot be ignored. In recognition of that, the West might, without much fanfare, inform Russian commanders in Syria of Western flight plans when attacking ISIS targets.

As for Russian relations with Western nations, the impact will be minimal.

The US views Erdogan as unreliable on his best day. If Erdogan has “backstabbed” anyone, it has been his NATO partners. Nobody in the US military community will forget that on the eve of the 2003 US-coalition invasion of Iraq, Erdogan withdrew his permission for US troops to invade Iraq via Turkey. More recently, Turkey has been inconsistent in dealing with the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. Erdogan claims to want to fight ISIS, but he has spent far more effort fighting Kurds both in Turkey and in Syria.

Turkey is a NATO partner, but thanks to Erdogan, it is the least trusted and least liked member. NATO will not ignore direct military aggression by Russia against Turkey, but given Erdogan’s long, ugly record of ignoring the interests of his “allies,” NATO partners are not going to allow Erdogan to control their agenda in Syria.

As for the war on ISIS and statements by US cabinet members and DOD spokesmen that “this further complicates our efforts against ISIS” – that’s more PR effort than reality.

The Obama administration’s opponents have been critical of Obama’s minimalist approach to combating ISIS. The White House now has one more excuse for not escalating efforts against the Islamic extremists.

Given the economic trouble at home and the expensive conflict in Ukraine, Putin does not want to escalate a conflict with Turkey. Given the growing discontent and political violence in Turkey, along with troubled relations with his NATO allies, Erdogan does not want to escalate a conflict with Russia. NATO does not want Turkey or Russia to escalate a conflict. Neither Erdogan nor Putin have demonstrated skill in foreign policy or diplomacy, but both have strong reasons to avoid a serious engagement with each other.

Most likely, the status quo will continue in Syria. The fight against ISIS will remain in low gear, and since Russia has few friends, economic convenience will prevent a long term freeze of Turkey-Russia relations.

Defense Industry UFOs on the Home Front!

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

With so many deadly conflicts brewing around the globe, it’s easy to lose sight of less spectacular defense news at home. Changes in the defense industry and their impacts on taxpayers are not likely to generate front page headlines with so many air strikes, battles and terrorist strikes filling the daily news reports. But sometimes, the bomb-free battles inside the Beltway can impact our national security more than anything that will ever happen in Syria or Ukraine.

 

Actual photo of Lockheed and Sikorsky in an intimate embrace.

Actual photo of Lockheed and Sikorsky in an intimate embrace.

 

One particular event in the defense industry might generate more impacts then were intended by the defense contractors involved. Lockheed Martin’s pending purchase of Sikorsky Aircraft for nine billion dollars has set off a ripple effect in the US defense community.

Last week, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall stated that in the future, he would seek to deter consolidation of top tier defense contractors. Kendall explained that, “Mergers such as this, combined with significant financial resources of the largest defense companies, strategically position the acquiring companies to dominate large parts of the defense industry.”

I can understand Kendall’s concerns. With the current number of large defense contractors, we are paying high prices for our high-tech military gear. In some cases, we are paying high prices for very low-tech gear, as well. Having fewer contractors might lead to less innovation and higher prices.

Kendall’s comments only surprised me because he was open and frank. In the Pentagon, that can be more dangerous than vacationing in Syria.

I am guessing that Kendall must have reason to believe that the White House shares his concerns. Not surprisingly, his comments generated what we might refer to as Unsourced Flying Opinions. To save space, let’s just call them UFOs.

A variety of “defense analysts” have been responding loudly to anyone who will listen that Kendall is creating “uncertainty” in the defense industry. According to some analysts, since large defense contractors will be uncertain about the viability of future mergers, they will be impaired in doing business.

Perhaps they will, and perhaps that’s a good thing. There has been all too much “certainty” in the defense contracting market. Certainly the manufacturing of complex high-tech defense items such as the F-35 fighter or the Gerald Ford supercarrier require a high degree of certainty once production starts, but the selection process should be an open field where the best ideas and greatest efficiencies can compete for contracts.

As Kendall pointed out, “With size comes power, and the department’s experience with large defense contractors is that they are not hesitant to use this power for corporate advantage. The trend toward fewer and larger prime contractors has the potential to affect innovation, limit the supply base, pose entry barriers to small, medium, and large businesses, and ultimately reduce competition, resulting in higher prices to be paid by the American taxpayer in order to support our war fighters.”

With so much money at stake, taxpayers should expect an increase in UFOs concerning defense spending and any further restrictions on defense contractor mergers. When reading the opinions of defense or national security “think tanks,” it’s a good idea to find out who funds them. You can bet that think tanks that are funded by large defense contractors are not going to think highly of Frank Kendall. As a taxpayer, I am starting to grow fond of him.

So far, the Department of Justice is wisely staying out of the debate on future defense acquisitions. Kendall has indicated that the Pentagon will work with Congress to set new policies governing defense contractors. As much as I agree with Frank Kendall’s intent, I disagree with his optimism for possible congressional action. I can easily imagine the sound of industrial strength shredders in the basement of the Capital building as underpaid staffers work overtime handling all those proposed defense contractor rules. But that doesn’t mean that Kendall’s concerns won’t have a real impact.

Kendall and his cohorts in the Pentagon have one very large ace up their sleeve.

If you want to do business in the defense market, you need happy customers, and the biggest customer of all is the Pentagon. In theory, it is only one customer, but in practice, the Pentagon can block anything involving publicly funded research and technology from sale to foreign customers. That leaves large defense contractors with a very small list of customers.

So what does this quiet and largely unnoticed battle in the Beltway mean?

My best guess is that the Pentagon, with the approval of the White House, is simply saying that it will not allow the US defense market to be too heavily influenced by any single competitor. Getting action for something this complex and this political from Congress is unlikely. Getting a defense contract from an unhappy Pentagon is even less likely. Let’s give kudos to Frank Kendall for standing up for the taxpayers and for national security.

Russia Advances In Syria — What Does It Mean?

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~ Jay Holmes

Stories and concerns are circulating about an escalated Russian military presence in Syria.

Many of the stories focus on the fact that Russia has sent four Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter jets and eight military helicopters to Syria. We know that Russia has also sent antiaircraft batteries. Less noticed, but possibly more important, is the fact that Russia has ramped up construction at an air base near Latakia, Syria. The construction upsurge appears to indicate facilities for a significantly larger military presence than Russia currently has in Syria.

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter. Image by Aktug Ates, wikimedia commons.

Russian Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter.
Image by Aktug Ates, wikimedia commons.

 

So what does this Russian buildup in Syria mean? The US just posed that same question to Russia.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu on Friday, September 18. This was the first official conversation between their two institutions since February 2014, when the US broke off military discussions with Russia due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The purpose of this recent conversation was to discuss “de-escalating” any possible meetings between Russian and US forces in Syria.

While Russia’s presence in Syria might seem sudden and new, Russia has, in fact, been in Syria for over half a century.

Since the 18th century reign of Catherine the Great, Russia has sought military alliances in the Mediterranean. After over two centuries of effort, Russia’s presence in Syria is the only real, lasting diplomatic success that Russia has ever achieved in the Mediterranean. Small though Syria is, the Assad regime has always been a “Russia project.”

Current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s dictator father, Hafez al-Assad, became president of Syria in 1971. The Soviets trained Hafez al-Assad both as a pilot and as a president. The Assad One-Party-Many-Secret-Police style of government is a copy of the Soviet model. It is the same model that Putin is doing his best to reinstate in Russia today.

 

Dictator Bashar and wife Asmaa al-Assad in Moscow, March 26, 2008. Image by Ammar Abd Rabbo, wikimedia commons.

Dictator Bashar and wife Asmaa al-Assad
in Moscow, March 26, 2008.
Image by Ammar Abd Rabbo, wikimedia commons.

 

The US and Europe are backing Assad’s enemies in Syria while they struggle to oust the Assad regime.

Russia does not want Assad ousted. The real impacts of Russia’s buildup in Syria will depend on how far Putin is willing to go in backing Assad. However, the recent Russian upgrade still leaves Assad and Russia at a tremendous tactical disadvantage against US and European forces in the area.

Because of this disadvantage, it is unlikely that the Russians will attempt to directly engage with any US or European aircraft that are flying missions in Syria.

The Russians are explaining their buildup in Syria as their attempt to help their ally Assad fight off ISIS.

Since ISIS is also the enemy of the West, then in theory, the West has nothing to worry about from Russian forces in Syria. The equation becomes much more complicated if and when Russian forces engage with Western-backed rebels, which are rebels who oppose both Assad and ISIS. Russia has offered no explanation as to how their forces will differentiate between Syrian rebels and ISIS fighters. They obviously won’t.

From my perspective, the only surprise about the Russian buildup in Syria is that Russia waited so long to go this far.

Russia has a lot to lose in Syria, and it needs Assad or an Assad-clone to remain in power for two major reasons. The first and most obvious reason is for Russia to keep its one Mediterranean naval base. The second and more subtle reason is that a critical part of Putin’s empire rebuilding strategy revolves around maintaining and creating allies. The ally-creation part of Putin’s grand strategy has failed miserably.

Most of Russia’s old Cold War European allies have either joined NATO or are trying to. Even the stubbornly neutral Swedes are considering joining NATO. Beyond Europe, most of Russia’s old allies have come to expect less aid from Russia in the post-Cold War environment. Russia’s popularity has, in most cases, plummeted amongst undeveloped nations around the world.

In the narrow and mostly closed mind of Vladimir Putin, keeping Assad in power has become a critical need for maintaining a facade of Russian relevancy in the 21st century.

This, of course, is more bad news for both the Syrian people and the Russian people. Putin is once again missing an opportunity to move past his Cold War childhood and embrace modern opportunities.

So how will the West respond to Russia in Syria?

The same way we have for the last half-century. The US and Europe will continue to support enemies of the Assad regime without directly confronting Russian troops in Syria. If Russian forces “mistakenly” fire on US or Western aircraft in Syria, the West will then likely upgrade the weaponry of Syrian rebels in order to make life more miserable, and more dangerous, for the Russians in Syria.

It appears that Putin is willing to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. As long as Czar Putin is able to maintain his stranglehold over Russia, I would not expect a Russian retreat from Syria in the near future.

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Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE, to be re-released in September, 2015.

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