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Monday, June 15, 2015

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part I

Image 1: US carrier group crossing the Atlantic. Image Credit: US Navy.

The past few years have made it glaringly apparent that the United States does not have the luxury to focus its military exclusively against non-state actors and low intensity conflicts which ultimately bear little economic and geopolitical consequence for the United States. The rise of China and Russia's increasingly belligerent behavior constitute a substantial threat to the post-World War II liberal international order. The United States military is desperately seeking to reassert many of its capabilities which were systematically neglected during the 1990s and the War on Terror including: anti-submarine warfare, fleet air defense, all domain access, counter intelligence, offensive electronic warfare, and nuclear deterrence. As the DoD moves forward to confront new great power threats, the political leadership of the United States must recognize the distinct capabilities and intentions of Russia and China. Most importantly, Congress and the Obama Administration must not superficially judge Russian revanchism and saber rattling as indicators of Russia's strength. Rather, Russia's belligerent behavior is a consequence of Russia's status as a declining power attempting to reassert its traditional sphere of influence. While China's incremental and steady effort to challenge the United States rarely makes news headlines, it ultimately constitutes a far more serious long-term threat to global US primacy when compared to Russian revanchism. The distinct challenges from both Russia and China will be discussed in terms of objectives, capabilities, and the efficacy of the US' current response. A series of recommendations will subsequently be provided within the context of America's historical grand strategy towards great powers.

Russian Military Capabilities & Intentions

Image 2: T-14 Armata tanks preforming in the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade

Since the seizure of Crimea last year, many geopolitical commentators have heralded a new Cold War between the West and Russia. President Putin has resumed many of the hallmarks of Soviet brinkmanship including: a 50% increase in Russian submarine patrols, bomber patrols off the coast of California, Alaska, Guam, and the Gulf of Mexico, a surge in Russian espionage and intelligence collection activities against the West, etc. Washington has clearly taken notice and former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers announced last year that monitoring Russian revanchism is the greatest priority for the intelligence community behind monitoring the Civil War in Syria and Al Qaeda and its affiliates (note Vicker's remarks were made prior to the fall of Mosul to ISIL). In contrast, China appeared as the seventh and last priority discussed by Vickers (Clark, 2014). Russian objectives and methods will be assessed prior to determining an appropriate US foreign policy response.

A strong consensus exists among Russian foreign policy experts that President Putin seeks to maintain Russia's influence in Ukraine in the wake of the ousting of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych (Gates, 2014). Ukraine is the most important state in the near abroad, a region encompassing former Soviet states where the Russian Federation is attempting to assert a new sphere of influence through economic and military coercion. Asserting regional hegemony is among the three greatest enduring Russian strategic priorities since the collapse of the Soviet Union:
"Much in Russian foreign policy today is based on a consensus that crystallized in the early 1990s. Emerging from the rubble of the Soviet collapse, this consensus ranges across the political spectrum — from pro-Western liberals to leftists and nationalists. It rests on three geostrategic imperatives: that Russia must remain a nuclear superpower, a great power in all facets of international activity, and the hegemon — the political, military, and economic leader — of its region. This consensus marks a line in the sand, beyond which Russia cannot retreat without losing its sense of pride or even national identity. It has proven remarkably resilient, surviving post-revolutionary turbulence and the change of political regimes from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin". - Leon Aron, 2013  [emphasis mine]
In order to maintain Russia's status as a nuclear power and attain regional hegemony, Vladimir Putin pledged in 2010 to spend $650 billion on a massive modernization program that would aim to replace 70% of the Russian military's old Soviet hardware through 2020 (Gady, 2015). However, it was apparent that Russia's defense industry would be unable to meet Putin's demands even during times of relative economic prosperity. Incompetent and corrupt state institutions, a weak commodity dependent economy, and the scale of obsolescence among much of Russia's equipment - e.g. the Russian Navy will nearly have to be rebuilt from the ground up - will force future Russian military to reassess its modernization effort.

Image 3: SU-24 equipped with civilian GPS unit fixed in place with a rubber band. More information available courtesy of Tyler Rogoway's Foxtrot Alpha article "Check Out The Walmart-Grade GPS Systems In These Russian Attack Jets"

There are already indications that Russia is scaling back its most modern equipment and is choosing to re-manufacture incremental improvements of Soviet era systems instead. For example, Russia cut the number of fifth generation T-50s it planned to produce by 2020 from 50 to just 12. Russia will continue to produce upgraded fourth generation aircraft such as the Su-35S, Su-30SM, and MIG-29 SMT. While these aircraft compare favorably to many Western fourth generation designs such as the F-16C and F-15C, they will be outclassed by the F-22 and F-35. Similarly, the new stealth PAK DA bomber will almost certainly be delayed if the T-50 program is any indication. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently announced their intent to re-manufacture 34 Tu-160 Blackjack bombers for a total fleet size of 50. Despite being Russia's most modern strategic bombers in service, the current 16 aircraft fleet has been plagued by maintenance and engine reliability issues (Johnson, 2013). This is not to say Russia's conventional military little threat to the United States, but the notion that Russia is producing vastly superior military equipment to the United States and NATO is detached from reality. The conventional Russian military is more than capable enough to threaten states in the near abroad, particularly those without NATO membership such as Ukraine and Georgia. Given the constraints of Russia's domestic arms industry and economic factors, Russia is producing equipment - when used under Russia's current force doctrines, has the highest "bank per buck" relative to the quality of their conventional military personnel, which suffers from significant systemic shortcomings.

The Russian Military fields 308,100 conscripts which each serve a minimum 12 month term (Global Security, 2015). Given the diverse security concerns across Russia's immense geographic borders, even with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, units are typically understaffed and only brought up to full strength during times of war:
"...the conventional Russian military continues to be influenced by the old Soviet structure of numerous under-manned units, pre-positioned with equipment to be brought up to full staffing levels during times of conflict. The drawbacks of this design were laid bare during the 2008 war with Georgia, where airborne units (VDV) were able to deploy faster from interior Russia than those units stationed in the Caucasus...Complementing plans to increase units to permanent readiness status have been efforts to increase the level of professional troops, kontrakniki. These efforts have fallen considerably short (the retention rate for kontrakniki remains unacceptably low, and recruitment targets are struggling to keep up with the attrition rate). Slightly increased housing, pay and status have remained unconvincing to most of Russian society. Efforts to recruit kontrakniki were also designed to create an NCO corps that the Russian military never had (not to mention never having a professional recruiting corps that has also limited the recruitment of professional soldiers). NCO roles in western armies are filled in the Russian military by lower level officers, contributing to a bloated officer corps."- Andrew S. Bowen, 2015 
In summary, the cost to modernize its conventional military force near Western standard as originally proposed would be disproportionately more expensive than nuclear modernization in concert with developing Russia's asymmetric capabilities; the bottom line is Russia's economy cannot sustain Putin's grandiose military aims. Russia will be able to much more easily meet its objective of asserting regional hegemony and its nuclear status through acquiring asymmetric capabilities and continuing its nuclear modernization program. The use of special forces, intelligence services, cyber attacks, and paramilitary units enables Russia to coerce nearby states below the Article 5 threshold - the point at which the US military would be obligated to respond. Both the efficacy of Russia's asymmetric capabilities and its willingness to employ them represent a far greater practical threat to US interests in Europe than Russian's conventional  military.

Image 4: "Green Men" from the seizure of Crimea, most likely members of the GRU 45th Spetsnaz Regiment.

Former NSA counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler describes the process of Russian forces coercing nearby states without overt conflict as "special war":
"'special war,' an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims...It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting." -  John R. Schindler, 2013
Despite Putin's initial failure to keep Yanukovych in power and cement economic ties with Ukraine, the GRU  skilfully carried the seizure of Crimea. Russian intelligence agencies continue to supply, equip, train, and advise separatists in eastern Ukraine. Eastern European NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, are concerned Russia may use special war tactics within their own countries (Grady, 2015).

Part II will examine the efficacy of the current US response towards Russia and list a series of recommendations.

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part II

  1. China and Russia vs. America: Great-Power Revisionism Is Back, Thomas Wright, 2015.
  2. The United States must resist a return to spheres of interest in the international system, Robert Kagan, 2015.
  3. Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Confronts Great Power Challengers, Robert Farley, 2015.
  4. Bill Seeks Info on Russian Missile Sales, John T. Bennett, 2015.
  5. Russian Navy Chief: Submarine Patrols Up 50 Percent Over Last Year, Sam LaGrone, 2015.
  6. Stop calling Russia weak, Sergey Aleksashenko, 2015.
  8. US Army Eyes Ukraine Conflict for Intel on Russian Military Technology, Brendan McGarry, 2015.
  9. USDI Vickers’ Top Threats: Terrorists, Syria, Russian ‘Revanchism’, Colin Clark, 2015.
  10. Further delays for modernisation of Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers, Reuben F Johnson, 2015.
  11. Overblown: Russia's empty nuclear sabre-rattling, Steven Pifer, 2015.
  12. Russia's Deceptively Weak Military, Andrew S. Bowen, 2015. 
  13. Russian Military Personnel, Global Security, 2015.
  14. A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia, Andrew Monaghan, 2015. 
  15. Russian and Chinese Assertiveness Poses New Foreign Policy Challenges, Robert Gates & Council on Foreign Relations, 2014. 
  16. An Assessment of Russian Defense Capabilities and Security Strategy, Paul N. Schwartz, Clark A Murdock, Andrew C. Kuchins, and Jeffrey A. Mankoff, 2014.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Consequences of India's Limited Rafale Fleet & the Delayed T-50

Image 1: Rafale test of MBDA Meteor beyond visual range missile

In April of 2015, France and India announced a $4.3 billion government to government contract to provide the Indian Air Force (IAF) with 36 Rafales in fly away condition in addition to support equipment and maintenance assistance. The government to government contract was praised by many aviation publications as a pragmatic solution to quickly develop the IAF opposed to the defunct $20 billion dollar Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition in which Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would produce 108 Rafales under domestic license and Dassault would provide 18 fly-way condition aircraft. The IAF desperately needs additional fighter aircraft to meet its operational requirement of 42 fighter squadrons, the minimum number required to fight a two front war with both Pakistan and China, from the current 25 IAF squadrons. Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar recently announced the IAF has no intention to acquire more than 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft.

Most commentators, including myself, believed the IAF would acquire more than 36 aircraft given the benefits of a larger fleet in terms of logistics and sustainment costs. IAF modernization have been stalled further due to developmental and funding issues with respect to the fifth generation T-50/FGFA. The decision to acquire a limited Rafale fleet in conjunction with the delay of the FGFA has three major affects on the IAF: (1) at least some of the funds saved by foregoing the MMRCA program will be utilized to fund the indigenous HAL Tejas fighter, (2) the acquisition of the Rafale represented an opportunity to pursue closer ties with the West and the decision to forego a major Rafale commitment will ensure Russia remains the principle foreign supplier in the IAF, and (3) the Su-30 MKI will remain the only air dominance fighter available in large numbers within the IAF over the next decade which can compete with high-end PLAAF aircraft.

The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk I is a fourth generation delta wing fighter design produced to replace the IAF's aging fleet of 150 "Bison" configuration Mig-21 aircraft (Chandra, 2015). Both the Mig-27 and Mig-21 squadrons will have to be retired in the early 2020s due to the age of the airframes and poor maintenance meaning a further reduction to the IAF by at least 7 squadrons. HAL is scheduled to produce 230 MK I and MK II Tejas aircraft for the IAF and possibly a naval variant for India's future aircraft carriers. However, the Tejas program is plagued with a series of design and manufacturing shortcomings. India's Comptroller and Auditor General recently declared that the Tejas failed to meet IAF standards:

Image 2: HAL Tejas MK I
"India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) declared on 8 May that the locally designed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk I was 'operationally deficient' and its pilots vulnerable even to 7.62 mm rounds fired at the fighter's front end. In the 63-page report tabled in parliament, Shashi Kant Sharma revealed that the long-delayed LCA Mk I, which obtained its second initial operational clearance (IOC-2) in December 2013, had failed to meet the Indian Air Force's (IAF's) air staff requirements on numerous counts...The persistent shortcomings, some of which were still under design, development, and testing, include excessive weight, engine thrust, reduced internal fuel capacity, non-compliance of all-weather operations, non-achievement of single-point defueling fuel system protection, and pilot protection. They restrict the "operational efficiency and survivability of the aircraft, thereby limiting its employability when inducted into IAF squadrons" - Rahul Bedi, 2015
The more capable MK II variant, which incorporates fixes for many of the deficiencies above, will not enter service for at least another five years. HAL's inability to produce a reliable low-end fourth generation fighter is indicative of the systemic shortcomings of India's domestic arms industry which has had difficulty in producing even basic assault rifles. State owned industries such as HAL are isolated from private sector competition and simply do not have the incentives to improve production - consistent with discussions of India's troubled heavy Import Substitution Industrialization development strategy.  The inefficient production processes of HAL was demonstrated in the domestic production of Su-30 MKI aircraft:
"Of the SU-30MKI’s roughly 43,000 components, there are 5,800 large metal plates, castings and forgings that must come from Russia...Those plates, castings, and forgings are a source of considerable waste: 'For example, a 486 kg titanium bar supplied by Russia is whittled down to a 15.9 kg tail component. The titanium shaved off is wasted. Similarly a wing bracket that weighs just 3.1 kg has to be fashioned from a titanium forging that weighs 27 kg…. manufacturing sophisticated raw materials like titanium extrusions in India is not economically viable for the tiny quantities needed for Su-30MKI fighters.'An assembly line that wasn’t state-owned wouldn’t be wasting all that left-over titanium.” - Defense Industry Daily, 2014 [emphasis mine]
The decision to limit the IAF to just 36 Rafales and prioritize domestically produced aircraft ensures the IAF will field a greater number of fighter aircraft over the next decade at the cost of greater high-end air-to-air capabilities. While the MK II has the potential to compete with both the Pakistani JF-17 and F-16 as well as the Chinese J-10A, it will be outclassed by more advanced flanker derivatives flown by the PLAAF such as the J-11B & J-16. Without the Rafale, the high-end air-to-air capability of the IAF will be dependent upon the Su-30 MKI which comprises nearly one third of operational IAF squadrons.

Image 3: Su-30 MKI

The IAF will purchase a total of 272 Su-30 MKI multi-role fighter aircraft with 90 ordered directly from Sukhoi and 182 produced under license by HAL, a total of 205 aircraft have been delivered. (Defense Industry Daily & IHS Janes, 2015). The Su-30 MKI is the most capable fighter aircraft in the IAF inventory and compares favorably against most high-end fighter aircraft within the PLAAF with the exception of the J-16 and J-20. The proposed "Super 30" variant would add new capabilities such as integration of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, upgraded electronic warfare suite, updated on board computers, and an AESA radar such as the Phazotron Zhuk-AE (Defense Industry Daily, 2014). Given the significant performance of the Su-30 MKI at the cost of roughly $75 million per aircraft, compared to the $220 million price of the Rafale under the deal announced in April (note: the $220 figure includes maintenance and support unlike the Su-30 MKI figure), many within the Ministry of Defense have urged the acquisition of additional Su-30 MKI aircraft at the cost of the MMRCA. Russia has been eager to enact retribution over the cancellation of the Mistral warship deal with France and has aggressively marketed for additional Su-30 MKI aircraft within the MOD. Despite the fact that no additional orders for Su-30 MKI aircraft have been made, it is likely the IAF will compensate for the lack of high-end Rafales with additional upgraded Su-30 MKI aircraft over the next decade. While the decision is largely pragmatic in terms of additional capabilities and cost, the IAF must remediate the poor availability of its Su-30 MKI fleet due to maintenance and sustainment concerns.

On May 27th 2015, the MOD announced it would conduct a review over the safety of its Su-30 MKI fleet after the loss of an aircraft earlier in the month. The crash is the latest in a series of SU-30 MKI fleet sustainment shortfalls for the IAF. The jet maintains a 55% mission availability rate meaning that with a fleet of 200 aircraft, only 110 would be operable at any time. For reference, the USAF F-22 has a mission capable rate of 72.7% and the F-15C had a mission capable rate of 73.2% (Everstine, 2014). The primary cause for the low operational readiness of India's Su-30 fleet is a result of its Saturn AL-31FP engines:
"There have been no fewer than 69 investigations involving engine failures since 2012, according to Parrikar. Between January 2013 and December 2014 alone, the Indian Air Force recorded 35 technical problems with the turbofans...Parrikar attributed the failures to faulty bearings that contaminated the plane’s oil supply. It seems that metal fatigue led to tiny pieces of metal shearing off the friction-reducing bearings, which then entered the oil system. This accounted for 33 of 69 engine failures. Another 11 failures were the result of engine vibrations, while eight more arose from a lack of pressure in that same lubricating oil. New Delhi has not revealed the cause for the remaining 17 incidents." - Thomas Newdick, 2015 
Prior to the latest crash, Defense Minister Parrikar insisted that alterations to the AL-31 would increase mission availability rates to 70% by the end of 2015 (Bendi, 2015). With more capable fighter aircraft such as the Super 30 and higher mission availability rates from improved maintenance,  the IAF may seek to reconsider the merits of obtaining 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft given the substantial opportunity costs. Furthermore, the IAF should consider additional C4ISR, tanker, and electronic attack aircraft which would increase the effectiveness of existing fighter aircraft. The IAF largely lacks substantial dedicated electronic attack aircraft which would be vital in in defeating either the Pakistani or Chinese integrated air defense system given that the IAF will largely field fourth generation aircraft for the next two decades (IADS). Despite its substantial air-to-air capabilities, the FGFA will be ill suited to defeating IADS due to its intentional lack of rear stealth as per Russian requirements. Part II will detail the aforementioned additional recommendations to the IAF.


  1. Rafale Proposal Could Speed Deliveries to India, Pierre Tran and Vivek Raghuvanshi, 2015. 
  2. The Chinese Threat: An Indian Perspective, Vijai K. Nair, 2003. 
  3. A Turnaround For India’s First Indigenous Fighter, Jay Menon, 2015. 
  4. India Ordered, Modernized, Perhaps Regrets SU-30MKIs, Defense industry Daily, 2015.
  5. Why the Air Force Has to Wait Another 5 Years for Indigenously-Built Tejas Fighter, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, 2015. 
  6. India to review safety of Su-30MKI fighter fleet, Gareth Jennings, 2015.
  7. Rafale deal an unmitigated disaster – Bharat Karnad of CPR, 2015.
  8. HAL hands back first overhauled Su-30MKI to Indian Air Force, Rahul Bedi, 2015.
  9. Race against time: More people, money needed to keep aging fleets flying, Brian Everstine, 2014. 
  10. IN FOCUS: India advances air force modernisation, Greg Waldron, 2012. 
  11. India's auditor general brands Tejas 'operationally deficient', Rahul Bedi, 2015.