Friday News Roundup — September 17, 2021
Happy Constitution Day! — Beyond the Milley Controversy; Russia’s Latest Zapad Exercises; Innovating with Drones for Logistics
Greetings from Washington, where the fences have once again gone up around the Capitol, as a rally is planned in support of those facing charges for their actions during the January 6th insurrection. With plenty of Washington tell-alls hitting the shelves (plus tablets and e-readers), new details about those challenging days are again in the headlines — prompting more partisan furor and reminding us of the shock to our institutions. It is fitting, today, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, that we reflect on Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked what form of government we would have: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Meanwhile, inside the Capitol itself, deadlines loom for keeping the government open, addressing the debt limit, and moving ahead with a range of legislative packages including the bipartisan infrastructure package, the larger Democratic package, and, still, the range of bipartisan measures for competition with China. Partisan tensions and narrow majorities cloud the paths ahead.
On the global stage, the announcement of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States defense technology deal is a welcome step forward in cooperation with allies and strengthening the ties of the defense-industrial bases of like-minded partners. With the upcoming Quad Leaders Summit ahead, the shape of 21st century geopolitical architectures may be coming into clearer focus.
In the media this week, Joshua reviewed three works: first Elbridge Colby’s latest work “The Strategy of Denial,” then Rebekah Koffler’s “Putin’s Playbook,” and finally Gregg Easterbrook’s work on the role of the U.S. Navy for global stability. In the final installment of a five-part series, Ethan Brown discusses how the forever wars of recent decades have eroded culture in the SOF domain, the impact which increasing demands had on the enterprise, and a way ahead from the policy perspective.
In this week’s roundup, Dan looks at deeper issues raised by the more sensational stories about Gen. Milley and the events surrounding January 6th. Joshua breaks down the details of the latest Russian Zapad military exercises, and Ethan covers successful testing of remote-piloted refueling aircraft. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
The Deeper Concerns Raised by the Milley Controversy
Among Washington media, the “Woodward tell-all” has taken on a mythical status when writing the first, or second, drafts of political history. Throughout the Trump administration, these tomes have continued, along with the similar compilations of reporting, administration memoirs, et cetera. Their mixture of journalism, gossip, and dramatization — sometimes with a heavy emphasis on the latter two — sometimes provides new details or nuances about pivotal points in an administration. All of this often ends up creating a partisan Rashomon, and much is the same with the retellings of the final months of the Trump administration, with particular focus on the tawdry details of increasingly unhinged election conspiracies and the events leading up to and through the January 6th insurrection.
In Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s latest work, Peril, it has been reported that during the days surrounding January 6th, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, had spoken to the strategic chain of command about any nuclear orders coming from President Trump, while also reaching out to his counterpart in Beijing to dispel concerns from China’s intelligence apparatus that the Trump administration might launch a surprise attack. Further reporting has suggested that this was part of further measures between the Pentagon to lower tensions with the Chinese military undertaken by Secretary of Defense Esper, a back-channel dialogue about which the White House may or may not have known.
Most of the immediate reaction to this story, as it often is, was highly partisan, with some Republicans calling for Milley’s resignation, with others going so far as to accuse the general of treason. On the left, this is seen as yet another reminder of how institutions were tested by an unhinged president. Looking past the partisan back-and-forth, there are deeper issues we should consider that are raised in this reporting.
First, the details about Milley speaking with the strategic chain of command about any nuclear orders coming from President Trump immediately harkens back to the measures taken by Secretary of Defense Schlesinger as concerns grew about President Nixon’s mental stability during Watergate. Of course, Schlesinger was a civilian official, while Milley is a military officer. In terms of civil-military relations, this falls into a strange grey area, as a military officer must balance their duty to obey lawful orders with that to disobey lawful orders. If partisanship increasingly means that impeachment, the 25th amendment, or Congressional oversight no longer serve as a check on the executive, will future Secretaries of Defense, other Pentagon officials, or military officers feel the need to emulate Schlesinger or Milley?
In terms of the U.S. nuclear arsenal — where the president enjoys nearly unchecked control of 6,185 nuclear warheads — what is a lawful order when the president has that sole authority? While a rapid response is a key part of a nuclear deterrent, what are the checks, differentiating from first use versus responding to an inbound attack, that should exist on this immense power? Even long before January 6th, in 2017, Republican Senator Bob Corker, then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a hearing on presidential nuclear launch authority. Prompted by that, scholars suggested reforms that could at least include the Secretary of Defense and Attorney General to confirm that nuclear first-use was of military necessity and legally ordered.
Furthermore, the stories all suggest that the concern of the Pentagon about the growing tensions with China was driven by our intelligence showing that Chinese intelligence was suspecting a surprise attack from the United States — especially as the rhetoric between the nations has grown more heated. That the Chinese see the United States as possibly launching such a surprise attack greatly raises the risk of misperception and miscalculation as political, military, and economic tensions rise. This builds on existing concerns about how fragile U.S.-China deconfliction mechanisms are — i.e.”hotlines” — as well as how fear and paranoia in Beijing may increasingly drive their perceptions of the United States. Beyond deconfliction, how do Beijing and Moscow — and many other countries for that matter — see the United States, its stability, and the strength of its institutions after these incidents? They do not mind the propaganda windfall. As Putin and Xi seek to show the world that democracy is broken, they point to Washington.
Finally, the broader questions about the civil-military relationship and the growing politicization of our military must be considered. Now, this is hardly the first time in American history that the relationship(s) between a President and his military commander(s) has become a political controversy. Lincoln and McClellan, Truman and MacArthur, and Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis Joint Chiefs are good examples of just how those relationships can deteriorate, while the stories of Lincoln, Grant, and other key U.S. Army commanders, as well as the relationship of Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall, serve as the best lessons to heed. While the civil-military relationship continues to evolve, the rhetoric increasingly politicizing the military and its leaders — similar to the rhetoric politicizing nearly everything in American life — dangerously erodes the norms of an apolitical military.
While these are some of the deeper concerns raised by this latest reporting and recently released books, a final lesson should be a deeper understanding of the immense powers we give an individual when we, the American people, choose them to be our president.
Overseeing the U.S. military, the U.S. president controls a global force for stability and the protection of our interests and values, while also having the horrific power to end our species as we know it. If we reduce this to the back and forth of politics rather than thinking about the character, morals, and principles of the president, civilian officials, and military officers overseeing this great and terrible enterprise, then our defense will falter.
Russia Holds Large Scale Wargames with Belarus
Joshua C. Huminski
This week brought a close to the seven-day Zapad (West) 2021 exercise held jointly by Russia and Belarus. The exercise is one of four which takes place on a rotating basis across Russia’s regional military districts. Given that it takes place nearest European territory, Zapad is a closely watched and monitored wargame. For Russia, the wargame is a mixture of actual training and capabilities demonstration, integration with Belarus, and, of course, political signaling to the West.
Not unlike western military exercises, these large-scale maneuvers allow Russia’s military leadership to test concepts, doctrine, integration, and test both equipment and units. These are the bread and butter (or bread and bortsch) of military operations and work-ups, albeit more closely watched than rotations to the U.S. National Training Center given the proximity to Russia’s adversaries in Europe. For this exercise, the opponent is modeled after a “Western” coalition (involving the fictional countries of Nyaris, Pomoria, and the Polar Republic), NATO, which operates along what Moscow believes NATO’s doctrine to be.
Michael Kofman of CNA believes that “This is an interesting development. While Nyaris appears to represent Lithuania and Pomoria is probably a stand-in for Poland, the Polar Republic is likely intended to represent Norway or another Scandinavian state, heralding a significant role in Zapad-2021 for Russia’s Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command.” In the first three days of the exercise, the joint forces will defend against the aggressor’s maneuvers and then spend four days countering the NATO forces to secure lost territory and seeking to “stabilize” the situation.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that the exercise involved some 200,000 troops, 80 jets and helicopters, and nearly 800 other pieces of military equipment. Small numbers of troops from India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Armenia also participated. The real number of troops is likely closer to a half of that claimed by Moscow (unless the Kremlin is counting everyone who tangentially is involved in the work-up), but it is nonetheless a large exercise worthy of note and observation.
As part of the testing and evaluation part of the exercise (as well as the signaling component) Moscow deployed a series of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in Zapad 2021. Two in particular, the Uran-9 and the Nerekhta, were used. The former, armed with a 30mm cannon and anti-tank missiles allegedly engaged targets three miles away, while the latter engaged targets with a machine gun and grenade launcher, supporting deployed troops in a more tactical level. While not fielded in a widespread manner, it is interesting to note that Russia is integrating and training with these vehicles as a prelude to broader deployment. It is also reflective of Russia’s continued military modernization and investment.
The geopolitical backdrop of the exercise made it more dynamic and interesting. Zapad 2021 comes closely on the heels of Russia’s mass mobilization of forces along Ukraine’s border and in Crimea in March and April 2021 of this year. At the time, some experts and officials worried that the snap exercise may have been a prelude to a full-scale attack on Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. The forces later withdrew at the beginning of May but left behind armored vehicles and other equipment.
In 2017, during the last Zapad exercise, Eastern European countries were particularly on edge as there were fears that the maneuvers could serve as cover for an operational move. This time around the fears do not seem to be as significant. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “I don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally, but Zapad fits into a broader pattern: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its military capabilities and its military presence near our borders.”
President Vladimir Putin observed a highly choreographed portion of the exercise at a firing range near Nizhny Novgorod in which a 45-minute display of helicopter, artillery, and tank strikes were launched. The timing for Putin is also convenient as the exercises closed just as Russians were due to head to the polls to vote in the Duma parliamentary elections. While certainly not timed to coincide with the elections, the benefits of showing a strong Russian military under Putin’s leadership cannot hurt — unlike Michael Dukakis, Putin did not ride in a tank (this time), but did appear to be a strong leader in command of a modern military, which surely will go down well with some voters.
For Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko, the situation is equally complicated. Lukashenko has been subject to widespread anti-regime protests and relies to a degree on President Vladimir Putin’s backing for support and legitimacy. While Putin referred to Belarus and Russia as a “Union State”, and deepened the ties associated with the 1999 agreement of the same name, Moscow is likely less keen to formalize and absorb Belarus into Russia proper. The economic disparities between the two would be akin to the reunion of East and West Germany, and Moscow is likely more interested in keeping Belarus — its only European ally — in its sphere of influence, but without the obligations of directly economically supporting (beyond existing loan guarantees) or managing Minsk.
Lukashenko, for his part, needs Putin’s backing but wants to maintain his own power base and, therefore, is unlikely to want a formal union as well. As Michael Kofman noted in his War on the Rocks piece it is, nonetheless “in Minsk’s interest to invite a much larger Russian footprint as a show of support for the regime,” but there is a limit to which Belarus will allow in terms of Russian military presence in the country. Belarus needs Russian support and Moscow wants closer military cooperation, but Lukashenko and Minsk want to, ultimately, retain their independence.
Here, Robert Lee, a noted Russia watcher, said:
We know that Russia has wanted to expand its military footprint in Belarus, and this exercise may give us an indication of what Belarus would allow. It could also involve greater integration of Russian and Belarusian military and security services to put down a Color Revolution-type scenario in Belarus.
For military watchers, the exercises are informative. How does the Russian military mobilize and sustain itself in the field? What operational concepts are they testing and how does it translate into tactical maneuvers? How does the military see and plan on integrating unmanned systems such as the aforementioned UGVs? While not nearly as exciting as the display which Putin observed, they are informative for NATOs future planning and preparedness. Equally as interesting is what comes next. Will Russia leave behind equipment as part of an expanded presence in Belarus? If so, what does this mean for Eastern European security and stability?
The Strategic Value of Throw Away Technology
The appeal of automation for defense purposes captures the imagination like few other domains of military innovation. Much of my coverage here in the roundup over the course of my CSPC tenure has been examining the role of defense tech innovation on the Strategic Competition paradigm, and with the end of the Afghanistan-centric war on terror, these innovative and revolutionary programs will take on a new and critical significance in the defense departments readiness going forward.
While less enjoyable to draft platitudes on than command and control systems, weapons technology, or fire and maneuver components, one aspect of strategic competition where we face a profound challenge by adversary forces lies in the sustainment of forces abroad, or more simply — logistics. Colloquially dubbed “beans and bullets”, the ability to out-shoot and out-maneuver an adversary is moot, if those forward staged forces are unable to continue the fight for lack of simple things like fuel, munitions, water and the like. This makes logistic hubs a high-payoff target in western doctrine, particularly when those supply depots and sustainment apparatus are in fixed locations, subject to their own sustainment requirements, or hosted on antiquated platforms.
Having said all that, aerial refueling is a colossal vulnerability whose interdiction is a juicy opportunity that adversaries abroad certainly would hope to exploit as American forces have shifted to a more strategic posture. The flying gas stations are huge, slow, clunky operations that the whole air superiority gambit depends on — a military is only as good as its top cover after all. That is what makes the recent successful exercise that paired a remote-piloted refueling asset with a 5th-generation fighter jet such a big deal. In this exercise, a U.S. Navy MQ-25C flew out of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport and successfully refueled a Navy F-35C, achieved at similar flight parameters as previously achieved with a KC-10 Tanker (225kts at 10,000 feet MSL).
While the MQ-25C is still a remote-piloted aircraft (RPA) — I hesitate to ever use the word “drone” which infers a total detachment from human and machine decision-making — it hearkens to a future where machines perform these critical tasks that free up human minds and bodies to press forward with the fight. The Air Force is already moving forward with its AI-driven wingman Valkyrie, a semi-autonomous aircraft designed to populate a full sortie of aircraft for a full-capability mission, including delivery of lethal effects through connectivity with 5th-gen fighters and human flight leads. The Army has been testing semi-autonomous overland and aerial resupply systems with an eye toward contested geography and augmenting soldier logistics capabilities, which is really just a modernized version of trench-runners from World War I ratlines. But the loss of one of these systems in the future could likely be sneered at as mere war chattel, especially as the cost of production will go down if more of these systems become the inventory preponderance over manned alternatives.
The public focus, naturally, will be on an unmanned system performing a flying role in tandem with a manned platform, but the tenor of my analysis here aims to put the potential for these unmanned systems in a slightly different light — that is, their inherent value in being a strategic asset yet wholly attritable — military lingo for “throw away”. In short, this tech can be sacrificed without much fuss as it doesn’t involve our most important resource: human life.
It wasn’t much more than two decades ago when the first “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV), a General Atomics RQ-1, took aim with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile north of Las Vegas on the Indian Springs missile range and gave rise to the flying machines of war. Of course, at the time, and through the early phase gates of the war on terror, these assets were kept by highly classified and compartmentalized factions within the defense and intelligence communities, considering them a true national asset and worthy of exorbitant protection. Today, or at least up until the waning months of the Afghanistan war, no offensive mission was conducted without an RPA somewhere in the stack. The point here is that, while today, the concept of a remote-piloted drone refueling an advanced fighter jet seems fantastical and newsworthy, but in the same two decade lifetime of the Predator drone, what will these machine-learning and AI-enabled battlebots be capable of?
This proof of concept clarifies the baseline capabilities of the unmanned refueler — it can in fact do what a manned KC-Y will need to do. But losing one of these systems is not the same strategic vulnerability as an actual manned fuels flight being shot down, loss of human life being the most impactful, the onboard manned operating navigation and cryptologic systems being another. Unmanned systems offer a unique alternative that is now demonstrably comparable in minimum requirements. Drone swarms are already the flavor du jour of future conflict, so why not expand the concept to the non-combat/sustainment side of the coin? The idea is that massing assets, even those charged with a strategically critical mission like refueling, makes it much more difficult for an adversary to track, sort, and then prioritize targets on their data-gathering systems. Not too dissimilar from the disaggregate and decentralized Littoral Combat Ship by the Navy or the Air Forces Valkyrie, these autonomous and remote systems change the engagement calculus for adversaries, further exacerbated by the wide expanse of the regions where our futures interests lie, i.e. the Pacific and polar regions.
We also need to consider the resource value if it means creating a breach on a strategic battlefield; back in the heyday for ground combat, the idea was to ‘turn the flank’ of your adversary by striking at the unprotected side. In modern combat, where defensive systems and engagement capabilities portray a 360° perimeter, one must create a flank to be pressed, ergo — create a breach.
That is where the fantastical potential of these RPA and future semi-autonomous systems resides — given the proven modularity of these platforms, a given number of such MQ-25’s could be arraigned for first-phase aerial refuel, extending the operating ranges of 5th-gen aircraft, and then be turned into the maw of a denied battlespace…something like Beijing’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zones along its coastlines. As Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Air Force Times last month:
We’re the dominant military power until you get within 1,000 miles of China, and then it starts to change. China has been very careful and strategic about fielding capabilities designed to keep us out of their part of the world.
Those capabilities are crafted to make entry and excursion too costly for the United States or allies to consider breaching, the cost of human life being the most effective method of Clausewitz’s principle on breaking an adversaries will to fight.
Of course, if one can throw a fleet of multi-purpose remote systems at a strategic problem like contested environments, with minimal reservation about their loss in the conflict, that just rendered an adversaries denial advantage moot. We remain a long way from transformers-like systems modularizing themselves to each individual task at needed, but a ‘drone’ that can haul jet fuel to the frontlines is a good place to start on that path and helps reset the capability gap between the U.S. and competitors.
News You May Have Missed
Under pressure from the Kremlin, the U.S. tech giants have removed an app created by the movement led by imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexi Nalvany that would coordinate voting tactically to deny Putin’s United Russia party its desired supermajority. While some have decried this as political censorship, Putin’s spokespeople praised the companies for complying with laws and regulations against foreign election meddling. Reports indicate that the Kremlin had contacted the chief executives of these U.S. companies prior to their removal of the app.
Prosecutors are investigating six individuals managing an Italian unmanned aircraft company after financial investigators found that the company had been purchased through a web of shell companies and structures, including a Hong Kong entity, that in fact disguised the purchase of the firm by two Chinese state-owned companies. The six reported to prosecutors are three Italian and three Chinese citizens, who are also being investigated for structuring the transaction in a way to skirt Italian laws restricting investment in strategic industries and, ultimately, to strip the firm of technology and assets to be transferred to China. While the six deny this, police leveled their charges as the firm was in the process of moving its manufacturing to the Chinese tech town of Wuxi, west of Shanghai.
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.